Further Thoughts on Quilting and Writing

I’ve been struggling with writing this year (and indeed last year, and the year before), which is largely because I’ve been working in a hospital during a pandemic, so I’ve been constantly tired and stressed. But even when I’ve carved out enough time and energy to sit down and focus on my latest manuscript, getting each chapter finished has been a colossal effort.

Now, writing has never been easy for me (I’ve always given a hollow laugh whenever a reviewer has mentioned my “effortless prose”) but it seems to be getting more difficult. Shouldn’t it be plain sailing now that I’ve had five books published? Shouldn’t experience be useful? I’ve got everything for this novel-in-progress plotted on a spreadsheet. I know a lot about the characters. I have a reasonable vocabulary (and possess a thesaurus) and I understand how to construct a range of sentence types. I know what needs to happen on the page.

But I recently realised that I’ve been expecting each sentence, each paragraph, each chapter, to be close to perfect before I can move on to the next section. This is why I’ve re-written the first chapter seventeen times (in fairness to myself, it is now an excellent opening chapter). But no wonder everything’s progressing so slowly! It’s really not surprising that I dread sitting down at the computer and opening up the document.

I needed a mental re-set, so I put aside my writing and made a quilt. Usually the quilts I make have traditional geometric patterns, because this appeals to my nerdy maths brain:

Milky Way quilt

This latest quilt, though, is a Seaglass Quilt. I took an online course at Exhausted Octopus to learn the technique. It was a clear, useful course, but they don’t provide any pattern. The size, shape and placement of pieces are all improvised. Instead of traditional piecing and hand-quilting, there’s raw edge appliqué with fusible adhesive backing, and Free Motion Quilting, and facing rather than binding. The course even suggests basting WITH SAFETY PINS. This was all totally out of my quilting comfort zone.

But this quilt was so much fun to make! The course suggested making a small quilt first to try the techniques. I ignored this and made a big quilt to hang on my bedroom wall, so it did take about a week to finish, mostly because my very old sewing machine said ‘Nope!’ to Free Motion Quilting, so I used straight stitch around each of the 126 seaglass pieces. Some of the fused pieces fell off the background fabric before I’d gotten around to sewing them, so I pinned them back on, often in a slightly different position to where they were meant to go. At one point I decided I didn’t like the colour of a piece I’d already sewn so I sewed another piece directly on top. I just used whatever thread I had, sometimes to match the seaglass pieces, sometimes contrasting, depending on what I thought looked best at the time. The safety pin basting mostly worked but I did end up with some wrinkles in the middle:

Seaglass quilt closeup 1

But that was okay, because it looks like ripples in the sand around the pieces of seaglass. And the edges of the quilt aren’t perfectly straight, because some of my facing was a bit uneven, but that’s also okay. It’s organic and free-flowing. There are scraps of fabric that remind me fondly of past sewing projects.

Seaglass Quilt closeup 2

It’s colourful and cheerful and it makes me happy when I look at all of it, including the imperfections.

Seaglass quilt

There’s a lesson in there somewhere for perfectionist writers. Go with the flow. It won’t be perfect on the first draft, or the seventeenth draft, but a completed project will bring you satisfaction and possibly even joy.

You might also be interested in reading:

Five Ways In Which Writing a Novel Is Like Making A Quilt

Local Authors at Glebe Summer Streets Festival This Saturday

As part of the Sydney Summer Streets Festival organised by the City of Sydney, Gleebooks will be hosting local authors and their books outside the famous Glebe Point Road bookshop.

Author Ken Saunders explains, “Over twenty titles from twelve different authors give but a glimpse of the wide-ranging interests of your very own neighbourhood writers. We have a fictional Pyrmont GP solving crimes, an absurdist comedy of an alleged ‘autobiography’ written by a computer program, reflections on Secular Buddhism, significant historical and sociological works, Young Adult literature of a family caught in the tensions leading up to World War Two, historical fiction, a beautifully photographed children’s book of Australian birds, local history and art, the biography of the great Glebian Sadie King and the travel adventures of some locals who drove two vintage cars on an epic journey along the old Silk Road.”

Glebe Summer Streets Local Authors 2022

Authors at the Summer Streets stall include Ken Saunders, Emily Booker, Winton Higgins, John McCombe, Michelle Cooper, Janice Challinor, Heather Goodall, Gaiti Rabbani, L M Ardor, Trish Curotta and Anne Wark.

Gleebooks
Local Authors’ Table
Saturday 12 February 10:00am – 2:00pm
49 Glebe Point Road
Glebe

‘The Friend: A Novel’ by Sigrid Nunez

My local library has re-opened after many months of COVID lockdown and the first book I borrowed was Sigrid Nunez’s National Book Award-winning The Friend. This was despite my resolution to avoid books about writers, but in my defence, I thought this was going to be a heart-warming story about a dog. I mean, look at the cover!

'The Friend' by Sigrid Nunez

It’s actually a thoughtful meditation on death, grief, writing and literature, narrated by an unnamed author who inherits her friend’s Great Dane after the friend, who is also an author and a teacher of writing, commits suicide. The narrator is not a dog person and lives in a tiny New York apartment that forbids dogs. The plot, such as it is, concerns whether the grieving dog will come to accept and love his new owner, whether the narrator will get evicted from her rent-controlled apartment due to the illegal dog, and whether “anything bad will happen to the dog”.

Note: Nothing bad happens to the dog. Mostly, this is about loss and literature, with a lot of quotes from Important Literary Figures, including Virginia Woolf, Philip Roth, Flannery O’Connor, Baudelaire, Rilke and a bunch of French writers I’d never heard of. The narrator and her friend have many opinions about writing (that is, the sort of Serious Literary Writing done by people who live in New York, teach at Princeton and get fellowships to write in Berlin, much like Sigrid Nunez). Often this is about how things were much better in the Old Days. For example,

“The rise of self-publishing was a catastrophe, you said. It was the death of literature. Which meant the death of culture. And Garrison Keillor was right, you said: When everyone’s a writer, no one is.
[…]
None of this was as new as it might sound. ‘To write and have something published is less and less something special. Why not me, too? everyone asks.’
Wrote French critic Sainte-Beuve.
In 1839.”

The dead writer friend also had problems with modern readers treating books as objects to be “rated for consumer satisfaction”, required to affirm what the readers already felt and thought, with even his literature students appearing “never to judge a book on how well it fulfilled the author’s intentions but solely on whether it was the kind of book that they liked”. There are musings on the cancel culture promoted by his students:

“how self-righteous they’ve become, how intolerant they are of any weakness or flaw in a writer’s character. And I’m not talking about blatant racism or misogyny. I’m talking about any tiny sign of insensitivity or bias, any proof of psychological trouble, neurosis, narcissism, obsessiveness, bad habits—any eccentricity.
[…]
A novelist, like any good citizen, has to conform, and the idea that a person could write exactly what they wanted regardless of anyone else’s opinion was unthinkable to them. Of course literature can’t do its job in a culture like that.”

“To become a professional writer in our society you have to be privileged to begin with, and the feeling is that privileged people shouldn’t be writing anymore — not unless they can find a way not to write about themselves […] It’s kind of a double-bind, though, isn’t it. The privileged shouldn’t write about themselves, because that furthers the agenda of the imperialist white patriarchy. But they also shouldn’t write about other groups, because that would be cultural appropriation.”

There’s an argument between two writers about the ethics of writing about a friend’s trauma, which I just happened to read during the Bad Art Friend kerfuffle. Another friend stops writing after discovering Buddhism and she explains why:

“You had to have ambition, serious ambition, and if you wanted to do really good work you had to be driven. You had to want to surpass what others had done. You had to believe that what you were doing was incredibly serious and important.[…] And even though writing isn’t supposed to be a competition, I could see that most of the time writers believed that it was.
Also, it seemed like money was in the front of everyone’s mind. I didn’t get that. Who on earth becomes a writer for the money?”

This book will probably most appeal to those who have some interest in the world of writing, but others may find it interesting for its exploration of grief and death. I found this book really engrossing and clever — and often, unexpectedly, amusing. There’s a good interview with the author here.

‘Save the Cat! Writes a Novel’ by Jessica Brody

The best way to procrastinate when you’re supposed to be writing a novel is to read books about how to write novels, so after seeing an online recommendation for Save the Cat!, I decided to buy it. It turns out that Save the Cat! provides a clear, structured approach to novel plotting and pacing, which is one of my writing weak spots, so this was not the waste of time and money that it could have been.
Save The Cat! by Jessica Brody

Jessica Brody, who worked in the US film industry and is now a novelist (although not one I’d ever heard of), has adapted Blake Snyder’s screenwriting plotting method for novel writers. The Save the Cat! method claims that all good stories have three distinct acts and fifteen story ‘beats’. The fifteen story beats are:

1. Opening Image (0-1% of the story pages) – a ‘before’ snapshot of the hero

2. Theme Stated (5%) – a hint at the life lesson the hero will learn

3. Setup (1% – 10%) – more information about the hero’s flaws, reluctance to change, and consequences if they don’t change

4. Catalyst (10%) – a life-changing event that catapults the hero into a new world or a new way of thinking

5. Debate (10% to 20%) – the hero dithers about what to do next

6. Break Into 2 (20%) – the hero decides to act and ventures into a new world

7. B Story (22%) – introduction of a new character who will help the hero learn the life lesson

8. Fun and Games (20% to 50%) – multiple scenes in which the hero either succeeds or flounders in the new world while pursuing their goal

9. Midpoint (50%) – a false victory (if the hero’s been succeeding) or a false defeat (if the hero’s been floundering) that raises the stakes

10. Bad Guys Close In (50% to 75%) – either a downward path (after a false victory) or an upward path (after a false defeat), but the villains and the hero’s internal flaws are closing in

11. All Is Lost (75%) – the lowest point for the hero, typically involving literal or figurative death

12. Dark Night of the Soul (75% to 80%) – the hero contemplates what to do

13. Break Into 3 (80%) – the hero realises what to do to attain their goal and fix their internal flaws

14. The Finale (80% to 99%) – the hero proves they’ve learned the theme, attains their goal, destroys the bad guys, and the world is a better place

15. Final Image (99% to 100%) – an ‘after’ snapshot of the hero, a mirror of the opening image, showing how the hero has changed.

The book goes into helpful detail for each of these story beats, with lots of examples from well-known novels. It also introduces ten story ‘genres’ (for example, ‘Monster in the House’, ‘Rites of Passage’ and ‘Superhero’), all of which have distinct components (for example, ‘Monster in the House’ involves some kind of supernatural monster, brought into an enclosed world by someone who’s done something wrong).

The book also explains how to write an effective ‘logline’ (one or two sentences that outline the story) and provides general plotting hints. I should warn you that there is a lot of jargon, which is mostly explained, although I never worked out what a ‘road apple’ is. The Save the Cat! title comes from a hint for unlikeable protagonists (get them to do something nice like saving a cat, so the reader is more inclined to care about what happens to them).

I was initially a bit sceptical about this approach, thinking it might lead to formulaic writing. It certainly has the potential to produce unoriginal, predictable stories, if used unthinkingly by an unimaginative author. However, I found this method useful for ordering my work-in-progress story events into a more exciting, dramatic sequence. It also forced me to think more about how to link the external story events to the protagonist’s inner journey and how to increase tension by raising the stakes. While the method is clearly aimed at producing bestselling commercial fiction (for example, action thrillers, romantic comedies and crime fiction), I think it would be useful for any writer, even a ‘literary’ one, who writes any form of narrative. (I mean, I don’t think Ali Smith would find it helpful, but I’m sure an analysis of novels by Margaret Atwood or Anne Tyler would show effective use of the fifteen story beats).

I wondered how this story structure would work with a series of novels and this is briefly addressed in the book. A trilogy is meant to cover one story act per book and I was interested to find that my three Montmaray books fitted this perfectly (although the individual books themselves didn’t always follow the Save the Cat! method, which would come as no surprise to readers who complained about the pacing of those books). This blog post by Jessica Brody goes into more detail about how the method applies to multiple-book series.

There is an entire Save the Cat! industry, including books, online courses, computer software, printed story cards and a website with a discussion forum. I’m not sure how necessary any of that is if you’ve read this book, but you might want to check out the website or Jessica Brody’s blog if you want more information.

You may also be interested in:

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

On Writing by Stephen King

My New Author Website

My author website has had a makeover!

It had been a few years since I made any significant changes to my author site, but I’ve now fixed all the broken links, updated the information and reduced some of the clutter. Most importantly, it’s now much easier to look at it on mobile phones and tablets. (Thanks to HTML5 UP for providing the snazzy free template.)

I hope you find the site useful and easy to access. Let me know if you have any suggestions for further changes.

Screenshot of updated michellecooper-writer.com author home page