Finding Space for Creativity in a Busy Life

Like many other writers, my dream is to be a Writer with a capital ‘W’ – to make a healthy and satisfying income purely from writing and writing-adjacent endeavours. Also like many other writers, this is not yet my reality, and reality currently involves a real job, piles of responsibilities and a good helping of commitments I can never bring myself to shed. I am determined to get that capital ‘W’, though, so finding the space for my creative outputs and ensuring productivity is a must, because ultimately, if I don’t, who is going to write that book I so badly want to finish?

Now, there are lots of ways people approach this problem, and mine is just what works for me. Others handle this through regimented routines, writing retreats or support groups, and that’s what gels with their work style, their family’s needs, their sleep schedule and their personality. You do you, obviously. Me, I’m a hyper-productive, overly-ambitious introvert with no children, multiple demanding but flexible jobs that wax and wane according to the cycles of the school year, and a blog post to write, so I’m going to talk to you about how I create the space for creative productivity (let’s call it writing) in my life.

You must be so organised!

In the past ten years, I’ve finished two degrees, commenced a third one, written a thesis, written and released four novels, edited and published numerous works for other writers, all while either teaching classroom full-time or, in the last two years, lecturing part-time. I also write hundreds of thousands of words of fanfiction between books, manage this blog, mark a lot of assignments and consult for an independent school as a board member. I am often asked how I get through everything. “How do you find the time?!” is frequently expressed, as is “I wish I had the time to write a book!” and “You must be so organised to have all that going on!” And honestly, the first thing I feel when someone suggests that, is I feel like a fraud, because if you’ve ever seen my desk, you’d know organised is not a word I connect with. If you saw the inside of my mind, you’d cringe – wonky mismatched filing cabinets spilling old printouts, discoloured folders, polaroid photos, streamers and glitter all over the floor, with handmade cards and scribbled to-do lists sticky-taped to the sides of every cabinet. I know very few creatives who consider themselves organised.

What I am, in fact, is determined.

I rarely feel organised. But organisation looks different in every instance, and it’s still a useful word to describe the approach I’ve taken toward my creative life to get where I am so far on my journey. My creativity is important to me, and finding space for it in my schedule is a priority. But often, as busy people will attest, the time isn’t there in the schedule. What are we supposed to do with that?

Two options, the way I see it: accept it, or make it.

Reasonable flexibility

157195302Accepting that the time simply isn’t in the schedule sounds like giving up, but I don’t see it that way unless you forget to put the compulsory ‘yet’ at the end. At this time of year, setting up a classroom every morning, teaching every day and laminating late into every night, the time to write simply isn’t in my schedule, and even if it was, I don’t really have the inspired brainpower left at the end of each long day to produce anything more substantial than this blog post. My priority is setting strong expectations in my classroom and transitioning the children warmly into their new school year, and given that this early, more-exhausting-than-usual phase of this job is temporary, I consider these days without writing as an acceptable loss. I know that freer weekends and even freer holidays are on the horizon and on those days, I will make up the lost time and word counts. Later in the year, I’ll have weekends packed full of birthday parties, or a fortnight of solid marking, or a big study deadline, and to me, it’s reasonable to let writing take a backseat for a short period, because those are priorities at those times. I’m determined to attain that capital ‘W’, so I know I will shift my priorities back as soon as I can. In that way, I suppose, I am constantly organising and reorganising myself.

An appointment with the muse

The alternative, when the time isn’t there to be found, is to make the time. This is the part with the hard calls and the tough self-talk. “You say you really want to write that book, do you, Shayla? Okay – what do you want it more than? Another episode of Stargate? An evening playing the Sims?” I’m not going to lie, sometimes I do choose Stargate or the Sims, but making time means becoming aware of these subconscious choices. We all have the same twenty-four hours available to us each day that we can distribute between our priorities. We all make reasonable allowances for major commitments – children, sleeping, work, and these differ for everyone – but how we spend the rest of our time is up to us. Twenty minutes browsing Facebook is time not spent writing. A two-hour film is two hours not spent writing. Which would you rather? Because it is a choice. Either choice is fine, but only one gets more words on your page.

Making the time to write in my schedule means treating it like it matters. Is it more important than Instagram? Yes, so in this moment, I’ll choose writing over Instagram. Is it important enough to commit to, like an appointment, or does it get pushed aside whenever something else pops up? I have turned down social invitations in order to spend a day writing where I have set the day aside for that purpose, and I have wonderful friends who understand how much I look forward to my writing appointments the way they look forward to yoga sessions or watching sport. My friends are cool – they’ll still be there tomorrow or next week, and I’ll be able to tell them how much I got written down on my writing day. I create the space in my schedule by prioritising my writing, as appropriate to my personal rules and standards, and by treating my time flexibly.

So not organised…

images2While I still don’t view myself as an organised person, I do manage myself, my time and my thinking a lot, which could be interpreted as organisation, in order to live a productive and creative life amidst my busy chaos. The determination to succeed at my many endeavours, and especially my capital ‘W’ dream, is best supported by a series of systems (lists, diaries, word count goals, study and writing appointments) and an awareness of my own choices regarding my approach to time. I definitely mismanage my time a lot, and I am far from a perfect role model when it comes to balancing creative career with reality. But this self-aware approach has worked for me – the awareness that I’m in charge of my time and my writing, and that I can make the judgement call as to whether to accept that the time isn’t free yet or to dig in my heels and carve out the time I need. It’s an approach that respects my many other responsibilities and the cyclic nature of my busy working and study life, but does nothing to dampen my determination.

I hope that for some other busy, exhausted, determined writers seeking that capital ‘W’, this post can serve as a friendly reminder that ‘too busy’ does not preclude ‘successful’ and ‘getting that book finished’.

~Shayla Morgansen

Shayla Morgansen is a writer, editor and educator from Brisbane. You can find her YA fantasy series, ‘The Elm Stone Saga’, on our webstore, and you can find her on Facebook, Instagram and her website.

May the Fourth be with You…

A long time ago, in a galaxy so big we can see an arm of it across our night sky but which is in fact not that far away at all since we’re inside it, cinema was introduced to an orphan farm boy from a desert planet whose elderly neighbour coerces him into a questionable space mission to rescue a princess from their estranged villain of a father. Along the way, our plucky orphan befriends a cheeky criminal, sees his dad murder his neighbour, joins an ancient cult, discovers superpowers, kisses his sister, loses a limb and saves the galaxy a few times. Who doesn’t have problems, right?

received_355394421757931No wonder it seems to be the most relatable story told in recent western culture. At the very least, it’s one of the most viewed and loved. Somewhere between a little genre film some forty years ago that by all rights should never have gotten off the ground, two trilogy revivals, successful transitions to books and games, a multi-billion-dollar buyout and countless Lego sets, we find, arguably, the largest media thing our world has ever seen.

It’s hard to calculate the total cultural impact of a media franchise giant like Star Wars. We can count up the dollars, but even that takes a while, with $7 billion made at box office alone, with the video and DVD releases, merchandise sales and book royalties not counted in that. We can count the views, and find that according to a survey taken of US residents following the release of Rogue One, 40% of Americans have seen the original Star Wars film, with similar numbers for the rest of the franchise, but this doesn’t represent anyone else in the world where Star Wars has a similar foothold in mainstream media culture. We can look to the internet to count the number of works of fanfiction to have been archived under the Star Wars banner, but while the 50.8k count on FanFiction.Net is the largest number under their ‘Movies’ category (beating even Avengers) this doesn’t come close to encompassing the untold hundreds of thousands of drabbles, vids, meta discussions and multimedia works of fan art and fiction floating around other platforms like Tumblr or old forums. We’ll never count the impact, at least not without a really amazing algorithm that hasn’t been theorised yet.

59525141_3012177608799954_6703421575040860160_nInstead we’re better off looking at more qualitative research methods, observation being key among them. Note the consistency of Slave Leias, Darth Vaders and Jedi robes in Comic Con cosplay parades each year, never affected by the rise and fall of other major fandoms. Note the permanence of Star Wars classic lines of dialogue in the western vernacular. Luke, I am your father. Do or do not, there is no try. May the Force be with you. Note the familiarity of young children with characters from films they haven’t yet seen, toting Han Solo lunchboxes and Finn backpacks to school after having absorbed their parents’ and older family’s love for the franchise.

And of course, there’s the little aspect of the dedicated day. The Americanism of pronouncing dates in the order of month-day makes today May Fourth, which is too hard to ignore as a close-enough match to the famous phrase. Thus, May the Fourth be with you. The phrase, playing on the then-recently released space opera film, is first recorded on 4 May 1979, published in The London Evening News congratulating Margaret Thatcher on her election as Prime Minister. It took until the age of the internet for the day to really, properly take off among science fiction media fans, with early Facebook groups celebrating ‘Luke Skywalker Day’. Though this was short-lived, it provided the foundations for a fan-run Star Wars Day in 2011 in Canada, and by 2013 it had grown enough that proud new owners Disney observed the day with celebrations in their theme parks. By now, it’s known the world over. Eateries create specialty menus for the day (Brisbanites – see Netherworld’s Hoth Dogs!) and media-oriented businesses use May the Fourth Star Wars buzz in their advertising. Fans hold themed games nights and movie marathons (I imagine these are reaching a point of needing to start very early in the morning or pre-selecting a handful of films for said marathon). California even made Star Wars Day an official holiday this year. All this for a little movie that everyone thought would fail, made in the wrong time, unrelatable…

59276198_840690239637359_8072619177199796224_nPossibly the most significant indicator of the cultural impact of Star Wars is its complete lack of visible impact. Like an asteroid so big it flattens an entire landscape, the impact of a media giant isn’t in dents and craters observable to the naked eye. There’s no pocket of nerds whispering about Star Wars behind artfully constructed walls of upside-down textbooks. There are no petitions being pushed around the internet by desperate fans trying to save their fandom from cancellation. And there’s no word for being a Star Wars fan. While Trekkies reading this are already mad with me for referring to Star Wars as the world’s biggest media franchise when theirs obviously started even earlier, the fact remains that their fandom has remained securely in nerd hands throughout the decades. This has its own field of benefits, and I could write an essay about Star Trek possibly being more of a science fiction fandom while Star Wars is definitely a media one, but I have enough essays to write that I’m ignoring in favour of this blog post. Contrary to Trek, George Lucas’s more fantasy-styled sci-fi has, somewhere along the way, transitioned from nerd territory to mainstream. When someone says they’ve never seen *insert science fiction film title here* you usually cut them some slack on the account that not everyone is a genre fan. When that title is Star Wars, you usually assume they’ve been living under a rock. Like, you have to have been actively avoiding it to have missed it for long, right?

The influence of Star Wars on culture as a whole is impossible to quantify, but its influence on the one is relatively easy to get a handle on. Just ask. Most people (except those rock people, who may have other interesting stories to tell about all the near-misses of their Star Wars­-less lives) will have a specific memory of the franchise to share that brings them joy or excitement. Seeing the movie for the first time. Playing lightsabers with their cousins in the backyard. Building a Millennium Falcon Lego set with their dad. Hearing John Williams’ score and feeling your heart soaring. Wanting to write a story as epic as that one, with unlikely heroes and villains that seem insurmountable and incredible intergalactic worlds to explore and all the hope and wonder of a billion billion billion stars out the windscreen of your trusty hunk of junk spaceship, accompanied by the best and weirdest friends you could ask for. Something about Luke Skywalker’s struggles and his pure-hearted tenacity speaks to us as an audience, and brings people together, and back to themselves, in some really beautiful ways. This May the Fourth, ask someone about their favourite Star Wars memory, and exploit its massive potential for sparking human connection.

How has Star Wars influenced you?

Not All Who Wander Are Lost

I’ve just gotten back from a magical three weeks in Europe on the cusp of winter, and as soon as I finish this blog post and all my photos finish downloading off my phone, I’m switching off all other applications and opening my book draft. Sorry in advance for the short post.

I want to talk a little about the ways, both positive and negative, that travelling affects and influences my writing practices. While there are uncountable ways in which seeing the world opens my eyes to new experiences, other ways of doing things, exotic places and unexpected points of view for me to explore in my stories, it is also a simple fact that three weeks wandering the world is three weeks not working directly on the book. Some writers can write anywhere. They use beautiful notebooks, curl up in cafes and parks in stunning cities and let their pens flow. As much as I romanticise this idea and collect notebooks for this exact purpose, it doesn’t happen, because in flow-state I write too long, too fast and too intensively for my hand to keep up with my mind. I need a PC. I need a desk and my own space. I need my music and my drafting documents, which are on my PC, which is on my desk, in my own space.

47688195_2047288622031528_5060002057767878656_nSo a holiday from my life is also a holiday from my hobby. I think in a couple of ways this is a good thing. In one respect, I can’t feel guilty about wasting time not working on my book, because I physically can’t work on it. It’s out of my hands. All I can do is be in the moment of where I am, enjoying my holiday all the more, and spend my dull times – in transit or in lines, so many lines… – with my stories in my imagination, where I can’t write through my ideas but have to let them ruminate and reshape. This gives me more time to consider alternatives and how this could impact the storyline and my characters before I get home to write it down.

As mentioned above, a big way in which travelling affects my writing is indirectly through me. Travel changes a person. You see other ways of living, you see poverty, you see extravagant wealth, you see beauty in art and horror in battle-scarred churches. You fall in love with languages you’d not heard before and feel desperately vulnerable in cities where you thought you’d feel safe. You learn about historic poor choices and how these have echoed through time and been commemorated in monuments and rituals. You wonder how the world could ever have let these things happen and realise they’re not so different from what goes on today. Travel shows you patterns of human experience, similarities and difference all at once, and as a result you grow. It comes through in your writing as you mature and increasingly desire to explore these complicated elements of humanity. In my Elm Stone Saga, readers will have noticed the shift of focus from schoolgirl concerns in the first book to more political and ethical matters as the series progresses. This isn’t something I set out to do; just the natural process of a maturing author using my story world as a medium to explore the issues I’m exposed to in my own experience.

Travel also provides new settings. I fell hard for Prague the first time I visited the Czech Republic three years ago, and it found its way into the final scene of Unbidden. Years earlier, the first city I visited outside of Australia and New Zealand was Paris, and though I was sick and jetlagged and sixteen, I was enamoured of the tall narrow apartment we stayed in, with its tiny retrofitted one-person elevator and antique iron staircase railing and the uneven flooring and the narrow, cobbled street it was on. When I started writing Chosen just a couple of months later, it was this picture that came to mind when writing Emmanuelle’s Parisian home. Her scenes were later cut out or trimmed to make way for Aristea and Renatus’s storyline, but it was the place that provided the authentic details to that flash of inspiration.

The human brain is incredible but flawed, and it can’t keep all the data it processes in its repositories. It has to cull, and specifics of place and experience are lost. How the buildings don’t quite line up, all built at different times with no standardisation, and the bicycle chained up out front has a twisted front wheel from being run over and still isn’t claimed after three days. How the rain drips through the hop on/hop off bus’s canvas roof for so long that a wave pool is generated at your feet by the movement of the vehicle and the headphone jack sparks a little so you opt to go without audio guide this time. How the wintry sun reflects off distant snow-capped hills or how the first view of Rome from the Palatine Hill took your breath away.

Because I can’t not write at all, and because I have all those notebooks I can’t write my stories in, I keep a travel journal for all those little details of place and experience. What I saw, heard, smelt, felt; my impressions, my associations, what I expected and what I learned. I keep the habit of diary-writing while I’m away to help organise my thoughts but also to give myself something to read later that isn’t Wikipedia or TripAdvisor. It’s hard to flesh out a place you’ve never visited – a challenge I accidentally gave myself when I first cast all my original Elm Stone settings. In future I want the descriptions to come from my own experience, to mirror what I saw and knew there, and I have several times pulled my journal off the shelf (it lives next to my home copy of Unbidden) to revisit my words from Prague. You can’t get that personal research from staying at home and working on the book, unfortunately, so while three weeks wandering the world is three weeks not working directly on the book, it is certainly not three weeks lost.

~ Shayla

Shayla is the author of the Elm Stone Saga

Visit Shayla’s bio here

Finding Your Editor

On a sunny summer morning at the very end of 2013, I met my editor. We met at a local café and I ordered wedges. I mean, I don’t specifically remember the wedges, but I know that’s all I eat at that place, so it must have been what I ate. We ate and talked about my book, because in those days, Chosen and Scarred were one single gigantic Word document and Unbidden was an unnamed pet project, and Sabrina – that’s her name, my editor – had the unenviable task of suggesting to her newest client – me, Shayla – that I make changes to my book. *gasp*

Fast forward five years and I not only have my first three books in print thanks to Sabrina, but a whole new career she inspired me to follow without even meaning to, and I find myself compelled to tell the story of how important my author-editor relationship has been to both my writing and my life. In an age of instant communication, increasingly accessible self-publishing options and changing understandings of literacies, I can see how easy it would be to discount the value of an editor, but I can guarantee I wouldn’t be sitting here typing this, living the life I’m living now, without the ups, downs, challenges and windows of opportunity granted to me through the professional and personal relationship cultivated between me and my editor.

In keeping with a narrative theme, Sabrina is honestly a fairy godmother. What does that make me? I don’t know – princess? It’s definitely been said before, meant in an entirely flattering way I’m sure. Sabrina runs her own indie press, a small publishing imprint called Ouroborus Books, and with her near-magical skills of editing, formatting, graphic design and tech-wizardry, she turns people’s unreasonable 200k-word manuscripts into two beautiful, coherent, saleable books. Well. Your book mightn’t be 200k words and in need of a tidy split, but mine certainly was. Not that I necessarily wanted to hear that, because, you know, I’m a writer, and writers don’t need editors telling them what to do, because they already know their work is perfect. Ahem. So, there was me, a relatively newbie teacher with an oversized manuscript and a publishing dream, thoroughly impressed by Sabrina’s CV of skills. I wish I could smugly say I knew what all of those were, but as we talked I became aware of just how much I didn’t know about this process I wanted to take my book on and how valuable someone like Sabrina would be to have onside. She could help me make my dream real. Thus began my professional relationship with my editor.

It also started something else – a newfound fascination with the publishing industry. But it came about through some less-than-fairytale moments. It’s a well-kept secret that I am, in fact, a control freak, well-accustomed to running a classroom of wild magical children and getting to decide everything from what colour poster paper you get to how far we can stretch free writing time out to. So, like for most writers, it’s quite terrifying to hand over your precious creation to a relative stranger – or, in fact, anyone – and allow them to judge to your work, but for me there was this other layer of twitchiness, this silent fretting of “What’s she doing to the book that I can’t do?” It became an obsession, constantly wanting to know, every step of the way, and wanting to do anything that remained in my power to do. And wanting all the power. Wanting to view every single change to the cover. Wanting it explained why a cover feature had shifted due to spine thickness, which in turn was due to word count. Wanting double quotation marks because that’s how I was taught, and silently seething when I was told that it was non-standard practice and would make my book look unprofessional. Sabrina, accustomed to handling this whole process on her own, got an opportunity to practise tactfully managing an overbearing author, an opportunity I’m sure she much appreciated. I got an opportunity to practise compromise. It’s not very fun. I recommend either tennis or calligraphy instead.

Regardless, the first book was born, and when I unpacked the first box in Sabrina’s driveway and held Chosen in my hands for the first time, I realised quite suddenly what this professional relationship and all this practise at compromising had brought me. Not just a book. Not just a whole box of books. A better book. And a new understanding of how it got there. With her skills, talents and no shortage of patience, Sabrina had guided me to this moment and made it real.

Here’s the link to the video of that moment, so you can see the enlightened joy in my eyes for yourself, along with how nice my hair looked that day: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-UB1UCcN44

When we started work on the second book, I knew a bit better what to expect – what I would be able to help with, what kind of quotation marks I would have to live with – and Sabrina knew a bit better what to bring me in on. Things fell into place, things got moving, and then suddenly there was a second book to join the first. Physical proof that Sabrina’s initial careful suggestion to split my manuscript was a very sound idea, since holding Chosen and Scarred in the one hand and pretending like anyone would buy a debut book that size is just silly. Very glad she persevered in pushing that agenda with me way back when, and glad I wasn’t too stubborn to agree.

Two other things changed around this point, too. The first was that my fascination with the process Sabrina has guided me through, and my emerging awareness of how undoubtedly irritating I’d been in my ignorant determination to be involved, led me to the door of the path of a Graduate Certificate in Editing and Publishing. I was really just eager to learn and be more involved and helpful to Sabrina and my books, but a Grad Cert led to a Masters, which led to both a thesis and a group project to start our own publishing collective to publish other people’s books, which led to freelance editing work. The thesis led to a Doctorate, which is where I find myself now. I’m still not entirely sure how I got here. Pumpkin carriage?

The other thing that happened was that along the way of testing one another’s patience and tolerance, challenging each other to justify and explain our every decision on Chosen and then Scarred, toiling together to make them the best they could be and to bring them to the world, Sabrina became my friend. I learned to read between the lines of her editorial comments and know when she was being firm and when she was being funny. I learned how best to ask for advice as a new editor, because I know now that she’s straightforward and grounded and knowledgeable. We can agree and disagree very comfortably now. When we took Unbidden through the same processes as we had the first two books, it was all smooth sailing, and when Sabrina asked me to edit her debut novel, Blank, the open professional and personal relationship we had developed over so many years ensured the sort of honest, positive conversation that kept the success of the book at the forefront of our minds. I knew when a protagonist’s mentor betrayed her that it was a plot decision Sabrina wasn’t happy with – I knew her well enough to be able to tell from her prose, and I could suggest ways of rewriting that motivation to iron out the plotting that had forced her into that scene. Our boundaries were already established, so it felt perfectly natural to intersperse editorial comments with personal reactions (like, Lol, ‘as’ has one ‘s’, or KILL THIS CHICK I HATE HER!!!) the way Sabrina does with mine. And I knew, from my time spent on the other side of the fence, how terrifying this process was to a writer having handed over the reins to her editor, and how much trust and faith was involved. We had learned that trust and faith from each other. Together, we made Blank a better book. Go buy it. It’s cool.

A few weekends ago, on a fine wintery day otherwise reminiscent of that first meeting, Sabrina and I met a Masters student at a Brisbane café to discuss our relationship as editors and authors for her thesis project. That frank and open conversation reminded me both of how far we’ve come in five years but also of how valuable this relationship has been to me and my growth. Working with my editor and cultivating our two-way editor-author/author-editor relationship has not only made my books better; it’s taught me to look at writing in a more objective and professional way, it’s sent me on a whole new career trajectory, and, very importantly, it’s given me a fabulous package deal: a professional contact and a friend in one. Thanks, Sabrina.

~ Shayla

Shayla is the author of the Elm Stone Saga

Visit Shayla’s bio here