Steph Matuku

 Steph profile picJanuary: Journal Seven

Back in July when I already had the first half of my story done, I thought I had all the time in the world to finish it. But six months in manuscript time is hardly anything. I’ve spent a gabillion hours on this one project, and it’s still not as finished as I’d like it to be. I’ve cried over it, sworn at it, pleaded with it, bargained with it, and I’m sick of it. Sick up to my bleeding eyeballs with it. I’m at the point now where I’m second-guessing every line I wrote, where I’ve rewritten a page so often that I’ve written the life out of it and the words just look wooden and contrived. I’m too close to it now, you see. I can’t wait to get away from it. I don’t think I’ve spent so much time on one single writing project ever in my life before. How do those prolific novelists do it? How do they put a book or even two out a year? I’ve read that some need to churn out four books a year in order to make a living! And I feel so drained by this one book that I’m sure I’ll never write again.

Although I do have an idea for another one, lol.

This has been such an interesting experience. I’m so grateful to Huia Publishers, Te Papa Tupu and my mentor, Whiti Hereaka, for giving me the chance to be creative and guide me and encourage me when normally I would have given up. I’ve learnt so much about the technical side of writing (adverbs are the devil, don’t make your characters walk anywhere if they don’t have to, never ‘begin’ to do something – you’re either doing it or you’re not) – all invaluable stuff because I’ve never done any of those flash varsity writing courses or anything. I don’t know all the little tricks that turn all right writing into awesome writing. But now I know a good deal more than I did before, and one thing I definitely know for sure.

Writing is bloody hard work.

December: Journal Six

This month has been tough. I was tootling along with my editing (I print off the pages, head to a cafe and go nuts with a black Artline 200 while Snapchatting pictures of my flat white; who said writing was hard?), and then I got an email from my mentor advising me to restructure the entire manuscript, kill all the adverbs and work out my character arcs.

I mean, I get it. My story did need rejigging and rejoggling. And maybe I do overly use adverbs constantly. And perhaps one of my characters is rather … static (he doesn’t really have a journey, he barely even makes the train).

I didn’t like this advice at all. In fact, I HATED it. I only have a few weeks til the end of the programme. This was going to be HARD! I also admit to crying a little, plop plop plop, bitter tears ruining the perfect love heart of foam that darling Derek the barista puts on my coffee.

But I put on my best brave face (thank god for Revlon), bought a pack of index filing cards and a selection of multicoloured Post-it strips and spent the next few days writing up every chapter heading with a brief summary and decorating it with a Post-it for each featured character.

By the time I had finished, I had a stack of index cards fringed with sticky coloured strips and no idea what to do next. I shuffled them a bit and then wrote up more index cards for extra chapters that would help the flow.

I missed Derek greatly.

And then I found an inconsistency in the timeline. An inconsistency that required more joggling to make it come right. And in that joggling, I saw where my static character could grow and change. And I crossed out a couple of adverbs (okay, one, but it’s a start) and then I printed everything off, headed to my cafe and let Derek ply me with foamy hearts while I got busy with my Artline 200.

All was well.

November: Journal Five

As we draw near to the end of this amazing process, I find I have learned one thing.

Writing a book is HARD.

You wouldn’t think so. Walk into any library and you’re surrounded by thousands of books. Amazon lists a gazillion books. My Twitter feed is jam-packed with authors marketing their latest ten-book series. And what about all the literary classics laboriously written by olden-day people who only had fountain pens and quills and possibly rock chisels? How much patience must they have had? I have fits if my computer freezes for one second.

All those books make writing a book look easy because if those writers can do it, anyone can, right? But at the same time, all those books make writing a book the most intimidating thing in the world. Because what can you possibly say that hasn’t already been said before – only heaps better and by someone smugly wielding a feather pen?

I have friends who are published authors, and, surprisingly, they’re not all grey, withered husks with skeletal fingers worn down to the nub moaning, ‘Kill me; kill me.’ Some of them look quite normal. I don’t know how they’ve managed it. Writing this book has put YEARS on me. I feel heaps older than my real age of twenty-one. Twenty-five. Thirty. Anyway, age is just a number; whatever.

Writing a book is hard enough. Writing a good book is a giant step above that.

To be honest, I’ll be happy if I just finish it before our January deadline.

Back to it!

October: Journal Four

The first draft was done, and, naively, I thought it would be all downhill from here.

It’s not.

The process of editing is like peeling back layers of an onion, digging down further into the centre to get at the heart and all the while cursing because your eyes are bleeding and your house stinks of onion.

As I work through the book, chapter by painful chapter, I get notes from my mentor – extremely helpful notes but also notes that make me see how much work is yet to be done.

I await these weekly notes with anticipation and foreboding and put them in a bulging file labelled DRAFT 3, PROLOGUE, BACKSTORY, CHARACTER DESCRIPTIONS and EPILOGUE – all of which are yet to be tackled.

I’ve killed off one character and morphed her into another (very satisfying) and cut so many words out they could make a book in themselves. A rubbish book, but still. I’m about to change a character’s hair colour (totally crucial to the story, doncha know), but in my head, he’s been blonde. He’ll be like a whole new person when he’s gone ginger. I don’t know how I’ll cope with that, frankly.

I’ve also had to do a lot of fact checking – what happens in a flash flood? Are eels that easy to catch barehanded? What happens when a body has been underwater for three days? The things I skimmed through in the first draft thinking, she’ll be right, sort that out later, and now I have to sort it out, and she isn’t right at all. She’s hard.

I’ve been advised to try Scrivener, a writing app for authors, but unless it’s a little magic elf doing all the work whilst wiping my brow and making me cups of tea (wine), I will pass for now. I’ve only just learned how to do Snapchat.

Never mind. Surely it will be downhill soon.

September: Journal Three

This last month was ghastly. My novel was floundering. There were too many storylines and scenes occurring at the same time. I didn’t know how to arrange them. I didn’t know why my characters were doing what they were doing. It was like they were all turning their backs on me, muttering, ‘This story stinks! Write us out; we’re not having a bar of it! You should be ashamed of yourself!.’

It was a nightmare.

The nightmare manifested itself in mouth ulcers and skin breakouts. I was tired all the time. I hated my desk. I hated my font. I hated everything. I wrote a sobbing email to my mentor, Whiti Hereaka, which read, ‘I am having a crisis. I think my story is rubbish. It’s boring and derivative and contrived and lame. No one will like it and I hate it and my characters suck and everything about it is just stupid and babyish and dumb.’

I was in a bad place.

Whiti managed to talk me down from the ledge. She said everyone feels that way at some stage. She said she feels that way too. She said that she liked my story. And she also said this (which took me a couple of goes to unravel): ‘ … the only way I’d become a good-enough writer to write the novel I want was to write it’.

I liked this very much. Because in the end, it’s not THE END that matters; it’s the process. And I wanted to enjoy the journey, not erupt in disfiguring facial sores every time the going got a little rough.

So I took a couple of days off. Did some gardening. Meditated. Went for long walks.

And guess what? When I went back to it, I found I could write again. I wrote and wrote and wrote. And two days later, I found I was typing THE END at the end of my first draft, and all the characters I hadn’t killed off were leaping around clapping and chanting ‘Yippee!’

And all my zits magically disappeared.

August: Journal Two

I am so lucky. I tell myself this every day. Usually I’m writing stuff for other people: marketing guff and advertising material that is about as exciting as a Griffin’s wine biscuit. But now, my first priority is my own writing. My own thoughts. My own opinion. It feels very indulgent.

It was hard at first, getting back into my story. For the first few days, I was writing 500 words, slowly and painfully, over hours. But the more I do it, the faster I’m getting and the more fluid my story is becoming, tripping my fingers up and making lots of red wavy lines for the spell check to sort out.

My mentor is Whiti Hereaka. She is flash as. She’s got all these writing credits and awards and stuff. She knows. I submit work to her every Friday, and that’s my day off. She sends back comments to me: things I haven’t thought of, analyses of characters and their relationships with each other, which bits I could expand on, stuff like that. But best of all, she encourages me. She writes ‘LOL!!’ in the margin if I write a funny bit. (Sometimes she writes ‘LOL!!’ when it wasn’t supposed to be funny at all, but hei aha.) Writing is so much better when you have an audience that isn’t just you.

My story is turning dark. It always was a bit bleak, but now there’s blood and guts and things. I’ve had to Google a lot of macabre stuff that would make interesting reading if there was a police investigation. I also emailed the New Zealand Fire Service to ask how people would die if they were trapped in a cave with a fire at the only entrance. Smoke? Suffocation? Burns? It took them a few days to reply. I have no doubt they were checking up on me.

I can see the light at the end of the first-draft tunnel. It feels good.

July: Journal One

When they said I was accepted on Te Papa Tupu, I was like, ‘What? ARE YOU SURE?’ I was convinced they had the wrong person. It just didn’t seem conceivable that my story about a bunch of psychotic teenagers, a spaceship and a zombie had enough literary merit to deserve being selected. I hadn’t even finished it. I’d written myself into a corner and had thrown the thing into a drawer in disgust, thinking that no one would ever want to read that pack of bollocks. It sat there for three years. And when Te Papa Tupu opportunity came up, it was the only thing I had that fitted the submission criteria. I never thought they’d pick it. And now they bloody have. And all that’s going through my mind is, ‘Holy crap, what am I going to dooooo?!?!?!’

I don’t usually feel inadequate about my ability to get things done. I’m a single mum with two small children, holding down freelance work as a business copywriter and studying through Te Wānanga o Aotearoa. I’m pretty busy, but it’s all do-able.

Only now, I’m also going to be finishing a book about psychotic teenagers, a spaceship and a zombie. Twenty hours of writing a week. Lucky that sleep is for losers, eh?

The first workshop was held in this massive, fluorescent-lit conference room. There were the mentees, who all looked as terrified as me. And then there was everyone else – all these flash Māori with awesome reo and university degrees and published books and big long words that fitted perfectly into every sentence they uttered. And all of them had this disconcerting way of gazing at me with knowing eyes as though they could already see the book I hadn’t written yet, just waiting inside me.

I wish I could see it. I don’t want to let them down. Because when do you ever get the chance to be professionally mentored and financially supported to write a book about psychotic teenagers, a spaceship and a zombie? Never, that’s when. They have so much faith in me they’re willing to put money on it. No pressure there then.

Usually when I write, it’s like a funnel in my head opens up, and all these visions pour in, like a waterfall of movie clips, and I just write what I see. It doesn’t feel like it’s coming from in me. It’s something external. I know that sounds lame, but that’s how it is for me.

Only now, because of the time spent apart from the words I wrote so enthusiastically so long ago, that funnel has thickened and collapsed like a bad artery. I have to coax it open again, force the movie to start, take charge of my creativity instead of letting it taking charge of me.

The first step is re-plotting from where I got stuck last time. I can do it. I can. I can.

I bloody well better.

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