It’s a strange one that. Why do people want to tell stories? Why do others want to paint pictures or chase a football around a field? All I know is that I started when I was a child and was completely hooked from that point. I can still remember the first story I ever wrote, age seven, and how fascinated I was that I had just made something that didn’t exist before with nothing but paper and pencil. A story! Another little world! I’ve never really stopped trying to write stories from that point on. Every time I start a new story I think I am looking for that feeling again. I think I’m going to make something here and it’s going to be beautiful. I can never see it completely, it’s mysterious, it takes lots of searching and puzzling, but it’s in the making… it’s the making that does it for me.
How did you come to writing?
As above. As a kid, about seven, lying on the laundry floor. I wrote a story on butcher’s paper and later transcribed it into a little orange school exercise book with a koala on the front. Vintage 1970s. I still have it and show it to school kids. It is such a BAD story, but at the time I can remember thinking: this is it! This is what I want to do. I felt completely magical creating that story.
What were your greatest obstacles starting out? How did you overcome them?
I didn’t try to become a professional writer until my early thirties. My greatest obstacles starting out were that I couldn’t actually ever finish anything and that I was extremely self-critical. Also I was absolutely terrified of the creative process. That doesn’t really go with the above statements about loving writing from an early age but it’s the truth. The older I got, the more often I couldn’t finish anything. I’d write the same opening paragraph one hundred times and then give up because I thought it was rubbish. I had stories inside me, little seeds of stories burning away, but I didn’t know how to grow them. I think the change came when I started enrolling in writing courses (some at QWC). I also went back to university where I learnt so much about the practical side of writing. The basics of turning up to your page. I can remember in the first creative writing subject I did at university – I actually finished a short story. I actually finished it! First ever completed writing project since I was about fourteen years old! That story later became part of my first novel The Anatomy of Wings.
How do you keep yourself motivated and disciplined?
I think the majority of motivation comes from the love of creating. I mean it’s nice to have food and a roof over my head and the more you get to stay at home and write the more you don’t want to go back to your day job, which for me is nursing, BUT the majority of the time it’s the story that motivates. Often when a story starts to work I just really want it to come together. I just want all its pieces to fit. It’s something I have to solve. I can’t settle until then.
I’m fairly disciplined. I write intensively for short periods (usually three-month blocks). I set myself deadlines. I write in the mornings religiously, and then for part of the day. I have to write almost every day to get a rhythm going, and for the story to start growing. I always make sure I’ve got something to look forward to at the end of those months, a little holiday usually or just a couple weeks cleaning my house. A few weeks off really helps a story. You come back with fresh eyes. In the last couple of years I’ve had trouble with concentration (after the death of my mother) so I really set myself small writing goals during the day. I bargain with myself continually; write 250 words and you can get up. Write 500 words and you can clean the kitchen. Write 1000 words and you get to go to the shops. It sounds ridiculous but it’s what I do.
How do you manage your writing time with everything else you do? How has that changed from when you were starting out?
I think every novel or project is different and you manage time differently for each one. The first novel I wrote around shift work as a nurse. The second I wrote in the early hours of the morning with a baby. The third I wrote secretly in grabs while I couldn’t work out how to finish what became the second novel. The fourth I wrote at times beside my mother in her hospital bed, and after she died, very early in the morning, trying to find a routine. I manage my writing time by knowing only one thing: I’ve just got to turn up and write. EACH DAY. Mostly it’s crap writing. Every so often there are little glimmers of hope. Once in a while magnificent things happen. I apply that rule to every single project: just bloody get up and write. No excuses. I think one thing that has changed from start is the amount of writing business type stuff I now deal with. There are emails and invoices and guest blogs and finance stuff and every now and again, travel. I’m not particularly good at all the extra stuff but I’m improving.
Where do you write? How do you arrange your working space?
I write in bed in the morning. Then I write on the sofa during the day. I dream of a house with an office. I use a laptop. I keep a notebook. Pretty basic. I try to leave my phone in the kitchen so I can’t use the internet or social media.
What are your essential writing tools?
Laptop. Notebook. Pen. Coffee. Glasses. I also love the research side of writing. I go to the library to look in books for things I need to know. I keep Pinterest boards about the stuff I’m looking at.
What’s the one thing you wish you’d known when you were starting out as a writer?
When I was starting out I always doubted myself. I always said, gee, a real writer would know how to write this story. A real writer wouldn’t take three years to write a novel. A real writer wouldn’t keep getting lost and confused in this huge ridiculous story. I never knew that most writers are doing that. They are just trying to find their way into and out of a story. They are just doing it their own way. I guess that’s what I wish I’d known. I still doubt myself a lot but nowhere near as much as starting out. The more I write the more I come to trust “my way”. It’s messy and hellish at first (actually, nearly the whole way through) but it all works out in the end. All my piecing together and unravelling and restitching of stories, all my not knowing what’s going on… it all works out in the end.
What do you read and how do you read as a writer?
I’m so embarrassed about how slowly I read. Seriously, I feel like people are reading a book a day on Good Reads and I’m still on the same one a month later. I love to read. I read at night. I read everything from children’s fiction (a new delight I’ve come to recently), to true crime, to thrillers, to literary fiction, short stories, some fantasy, trashy magazines, ghost stuff. I really love useless facts or strange true stories. It’s great to find a book that absolutely captivates, that makes me forget I’m a writer. But it is also perfectly normal to be thinking continually on another level as I read: what is the author doing here, oh, I love how they’ve done that, they are amazing, I want to be that author.
How do you overcome ‘writer’s block’?
I just keep writing. I just sit down and write anything. I think – what might happen next in this story? What are some options? It feels terrible. The writing is crap, and often what I write is something that is later discarded, but it is like turning on a rusty tap. Eventually the water will run clear. You just have to keep writing.
What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Don’t worry about whether or not you are going to be a writer. Worry about your story. Love your stories. Love them to life. Spend time with them.Care for them. Don’t let anything else distract you from that. All the rest is nonsense.
Karen Foxlee spent most of her adult life working as a registered nurse while pursuing her secret dream of becoming a writer. Her young adult novels The Anatomy of Wings and The Midnight Dress have been published internationally to much acclaim. Her fantasy books for younger readers include Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy and A Most Magical Girl. She lives and writes in Queensland, Australia.