My Writing Day

Her name is Winter. She’s a Scottish Deerhound. Yes, she’s very tall. Saves bending over to give her pats – she’s already at just the right height.

One day a week. That’s all I have for my own writing. And when I say ‘day’ I don’t mean a whole day, I mean a school day, between about 9:30 and 3:00pm.

Also minus the school holidays. And minus time spent hanging out the washing, catching up on my day job, making cups of tea and procrastinating by playing Tetris. I’m now very good at Tetris.

My routine, on my writing day, is to take the dog for a walk after I’ve dropped the kids at school. Apart from the many therapeutic benefits of the forest, I use the time to decide exactly what it is that I plan to work on that day. I’ve learnt the hard way that if I don’t decide before I sit down at my desk, then I invariably fritter my time away hanging out the washing, catching up on my day job, making cups of tea and procrastinating by playing Tetris. Did I mention that I’m very good at Tetris?

You’d think it would be easy to decide, each day, what to work on next. Maybe it is, if you have the privilege of working on the same thing for multiple days in a row. But when it’s been a week, or more, since I last looked at the manuscript, I find it valuable to be very clear about the task at hand. It’s not at all simply a matter of writing about ‘what happened next’. If only!

Maybe, for example, I want to write about the Macarthurs’ sheep, and the family’s wool-growing enterprise. Perhaps today I’ll describe how the sheep were washed in the river before they were shorn. So as I walk in the forest I’ll think about which texts I need to look at.

Charles Massy’s The Australian Merino is a brilliant history of the breed. Miss D & Miss N: an extraordinary partnership contains diary excerpts from a woman farmer in Victoria, called Anne Drysdale. She farmed about thirty years after Elizabeth but her diary contains vivid descriptions of washing the sheep. In 1870 John Ryrie Graham wrote A Treatise on the Australian Merino – he might have some interesting comments too. I’ll have a think about which of Elizabeth Macarthur’s many letters might contain relevant references. Or which of her nephew Hannibal’s. Or which of John Macarthur’s letters contain complaints about how dirty the wool is when it arrives in London. And what Elizabeth, working in his absence to keep the family farming enterprises afloat, might have made of those complaints (sadly, almost none of her letters to her husband now exist.) And, crucially, I’ll think about how I might integrate the resultant chunk of information about sheep into the existing prose, so it all flows logically and perhaps even interestingly.

By the time I’ve worked all that out, the dog and I have completed our forest circuit and we drive home. Well, usually I drive and the dog positions herself by the open car window in such a way as to look all windswept and interesting. Like the women in shampoo ads. Upon reaching home she greets the cat with a lick and retires in happy exhaustion to her mat, while I hang out the washing, make a cup of tea and get started.

The view from my desk

My desk is an old Edwardian dining table (only barely large enough to seat four, I reckon) and is mostly covered in papers, books and mess. It is located at one end of our open plan living/dining/rumpus area (also covered in papers, books and mess). The wood-burning fireplace which heats the house is nearby although not in sight, but I can hear the metal firebox ticking away, and the logs gently crumbling. I write on a desktop PC and my ergonomic chair is bright yellow. The desk faces a windowless wall but to my immediate right I have a large window with views across our front paddock to next door’s dam, with glorious mature trees around and behind it. When our ponies are in that front paddock, they often lie down for a nap just where I can see them from my desk.*

I was about a third of the way through the manuscript before I discovered that some writers set themselves word limits. They push themselves to write at least 500 or 1000 or 1500 words per day. At that point I was lucky if I made it to 500. All that reference checking and footnoting slows me down. But I never really found that sort of deadline useful – each writing day I simply write as much as I can write that day. And if that’s less than 500 words, then so be it.  I did find, however, that I sped up towards the end of the manuscript, sometimes even hitting the 1000 word jackpot.

I rework and revise as I go, and at the end of each chapter I revise again, looking to create a fluid and compelling prose flow. I should note, though, that even determining where the end of each chapter falls is no simple task. I make the decision based on a combination of things: the events of Elizabeth’s life (especially where ‘what happens next’ is somewhat up in the air, encouraging a sort of cliff-hanger effect); any sort of natural pause in the prose; and, more prosaically, how many pages long that particular chapter already is.

I’m never so immersed in my writing as to miss lunch but school pick-up time often rolls around all too quickly. Now that my kids are older I can sometimes manage to write while they are at home, especially if they are both glued to their beloved screens, but usually that’s it for me until next week. Even as I write this, it doesn’t seem like enough time and yet, somehow, I’ve managed to (slowly) write a book. It’s a very good feeling.

*Fun Fact: if you’re travelling through the countryside at about morning tea time, you’ll often see horses lying down for a nap. Particularly on sunny days following cold nights. Sleeping, not dead. You’re welcome.

16 Comments

  1. wadholloway May 26, 2017 at 7:59 pm - Reply

    That’s a relief, I no longer have to stop the truck and poke the horses. Apart from that, Microsoft now owe me about $3 mil Solitaire dollars. Writing posts I like to turn the topic over in my head for a day (unlike you I don’t have to think while I work) and then once I get started the writing flows, though often in unexpected directions.

    • Michelle Scott Tucker May 26, 2017 at 8:14 pm - Reply

      Many years ago I worked on a horse property. People used to ring to ask us to check on the ‘dead’ horse. Seen similar stories online, too. Re writing – the unexpected directions are the best part.

  2. Winter May 26, 2017 at 10:12 pm - Reply

    That dog looks so lovely you are very lucky to have her.

    • Michelle Scott Tucker May 27, 2017 at 1:42 pm - Reply

      Winter! Bad dog. Put the laptop down. Drop it. Drop it.
      Now, outside with you…

  3. Lisa Hill May 27, 2017 at 11:16 am - Reply

    I look back on my days as a mother-fulltimeteacher-parttimestudent-houserenovator-writer (and daily dogwalker) and I wonder how I did it…
    Thing is, we do. Because it matters, I suppose. All of it.

    • Michelle Scott Tucker May 27, 2017 at 1:44 pm - Reply

      Lisa, I’m not convinced you’re any less busy now! But yes, we just do it.

      • Lisa Hill May 27, 2017 at 2:12 pm - Reply

        *chuckle* Just think how bored we would be if we didn’t!

  4. Ms Frugal Ears May 27, 2017 at 11:18 pm - Reply

    Thanks for sharing your ritual. Saturday mornings is now often my writing time. I try not to think about all of the housework that needs to be done. I do of course do some of it first. Hard not to. Because I blog and also write for an online newspaper, it is really, really easy to get distracted away from my own writing passions.

    Can’t wait to read your book.

    • Michelle Scott Tucker May 28, 2017 at 5:17 pm - Reply

      Oh I hear you re housework procrastination! The closer I get to a deadline, the cleaner my house gets.

  5. learnearnandreturn May 28, 2017 at 5:56 am - Reply

    Sudoku here

    • Michelle Scott Tucker May 28, 2017 at 5:19 pm - Reply

      Yes – another excellent way to procrastinate. I miss the samurai five-way sudoku that used to be the the Fairfax Good Weekend magazine.

  6. Gail Rehbein June 5, 2017 at 10:02 am - Reply

    A very enjoyable post Michelle. Thank you.
    I haven’t found word count targets helpful either. 🙂

  7. Therese October 18, 2017 at 1:33 pm - Reply

    My daughter and I call it ‘procrastacleaning’ ; )

    Are there any fictional treatments of Elizabeth Macarthur’s life?

    • Michelle Scott Tucker October 18, 2017 at 4:22 pm - Reply

      Procrastacleaning – love it! I think it’s a word I’ll be using a lot…
      No fictional treatments of EM that I know of – by which I guess I mean adult fiction, because I think there are one or two books for small children and somewhere I remember coming across her fictional online diary.

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