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Posted on 14 May 2017 11:09

My relationship to aural input whilst writing has changed dramatically over time.

I used to need complete peace and quiet in order to write, and I certainly wouldn’t be able to listen to music at the same time.

Then, I started using instrumental music as a way to focus and block out distracting background noise. I think that was probably when I first discovered the joys of writing on long train journeys, and needed something to drown out my annoying fellow passengers. But I couldn’t listen to music that had words, as I would find it too difficult to concentrate on the words I was trying to produce myself.

More recently, my preference for listening to music while writing has changed again. I can now pretty much focus on my writing anywhere, at any time, and am actually composing this post in a very noisy cafe in central London, without any of my own music in my ears. I can just about make out the Red Hot Chilli Peppers playing overhead, and that’s fine. However, my optimal musical input for writing is now angry rock music - Linkin Park, Seether, Fireflight, Skillet - you get the idea.

But there is one album that is guaranteed to get me in the writing mood, and that’s The Pale Emperor by Marilyn Manson. Now, I’ve never been a Manson fan, and I don’t like any of the other albums of his that I’ve tried. But the first few bars of the first song on that album (Killing Strangers) instantly locks me into creative mode and has me itching to get my fingers on a keyboard.

I first came across this song on the soundtrack of John Wick, a film that came out in 2014. I absolutely loved it, saw it in the cinema twice, and obtained my own copy as soon as it became available. Then, Easter weekend last year, I booked myself a little holiday cottage and went away for three days to write on my own, and hit a road block. I decided to rewatch John Wick just as relaxation and the song, Killing Strangers, really stood out to me. So, I found the album it was from, and put it on to listen to as I got back to writing. I ended up having it on loop for the rest of the weekend, and got tons of great writing done.

So, now, that whole album, and the opening song in particular, are forever associated in my mind with really getting down to some writing work, and I rely on it to help me out whenever I’m stuck or just not really feeling it. And, because of the way in which our brains function, it works wonders!

XXXXX

 

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Posted on 17 April 2017 16:46

After two writing weeks on the Six Month Novel Programme, I am six chapters and over 30,000 words into the new draft, which is way more than I anticipated.

The outline has changed multiple times, I’ve discovered major issues with the order of events, my favourite character has disappeared from the story altogether, and I’ve tied myself up in knots over making sure all the most important plot points are covered early on.

But, overall, I feel pretty good about what I’ve got so far, even though my plan for how to go about it went out the window after the first scene.

My original intention was to do a blank page re-write, without referring to the original draft.  Now, the reason for doing this was because I have a lot of new material to incorporate and I had no idea how to insert this into what I already had, without getting in a mess and potentially screwing it up completely.

However, by putting together a detailed outline over the last month, I can easily see how existing scenes fit into the new structure, where the new information needs to be added, and what of the original can potentially be kept in the new draft.  So, instead of opening a new document and just writing the whole thing again, I’ve actually been cutting and pasting bits of the old draft into what I’m doing now, and then editing them as required.

It sort of feels like cheating, but then why duplicate effort unnecessarily?  I’m not simply shoving them in wholesale, with no thought as to how it all fits together.  I’ve had to do quite a lot of revision to meet the new POV structure, and I’ve been editing as I go, to address some of the stylistic issues that came up from previous feedback.

I was worried that just re-writing everything might be boring, and that it might lead to be skipping over important scenes, or missing out vital moments altogether, so I’m avoiding that, and making more progress more quickly than I thought possible.  However I approach this draft, I’m going to need to go through it all multiple more times in the revision stages, so I don’t think it’s too much of a problem using old material at this point.  I have good writer friends lined up as fresh eyes to give me feedback once I complete this new draft, and that’s when I can really work on the stylistic stuff.

I hope I’m not just finding arguments to justify being lazy.  I don’t think I am.  The purpose of this new draft is to get all the exciting new action into the existing story, and it feels like I’m succeeding with that so far.  Things will inevitably get tougher as I get further through the story, as I’ll need to create more and more new material, so my method in these early days feels like a good way to get back into the novel and comfortable with working to an ambitious schedule.

Regardless, I have over 30,000 words, and they feel like good words.  So, why question it?

XXXXX

 

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Posted on 02 April 2017 14:40

When I wrote the first draft of my novel, it took five years, a lot of teeth-pulling, and a gradual progression from the original 1,500 word story to the eventual 90,000 word novel.  There was a lot of mystery and excitement along the way, coupled with periods of staring into the void, wondering what on earth was going to happen next.

Now, I’ve signed up for the Six Month Novel programme, and I’m in a whole new world of plotting and outlining.

This process is entirely new to me.  Oddly, considering how much I plan and schedule every other part of my life, I’ve never been a planner when it comes to my writing.  But, if you’re intending to complete a whole new draft of a novel in six month, you really need to know where you’re going with it!

So, I’ve created bullet lists, identified four point-of-view characters, categorised the main arc plot and a couple of sub-plots, and done character studies for the most important people who populate the story.  And, today, I completed a proper outline chart, with scene and chapters and outcomes, and everything!

Somehow, along the way, though, my favourite character seems to have disappeared from the story altogether, and I’m really not sure how that happened.  I got halfway through the outline chart, and discovered I hadn’t mentioned him yet, and I proceeded to the end of the plan without needing him to appear at all.  That was quite a shock, I can tell you!

This time around, the novel starts in a slightly different time and place, so the introductory scene for that character has been cut.  Meanwhile, a character of a similar personality and background has come more to the foreground, with his own point of view scenes, and it turns out I don’t need both of them.  The point-of-view character can do everything the now-defunct character previously did, and this will likely make their sub-plot tighter and more impactful.

Apparently, outlining can be brutal!  But, I’m hopeful that the exercise will result in a leaner, more focused, and more interesting novel.  And that can only be a good thing.  I believe it’s called ‘killing your darlings’ and you don’t even have to be intentionally armed with a pruning implement to do it.

Now, it’s on to the actual writing, which starts tomorrow, and will continue apace until I have 100,000 words by the end of July!  I wonder if any more characters will have disappeared by then…

XXXXX

 

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Posted on 13 March 2017 20:04

Whilst on the retreat in Devon last month, I got to talking to my lovely host, Charlie of Urban Writers’ Retreats, and she mentioned she was taking applications for her annual Six Month Novel Programme.

Since I had just reached the conclusion that the next step for my novel was a blank page rewrite, I went upstairs to my room and submitted my application that afternoon.  It was only after I had been accepted onto the programme that I really thought about what it would mean.  And that was an intensive four-week plotting bootcamp, four months of writing 5000-6000 words per week, and a four-week editing bootcamp to round things off.

Considering I’m currently working four days a week in a department that is chronically short-staffed, and I have a very full social calendars of exciting trips and events to look forward to, perhaps committing to writing a novel in six months was not the most sensible thing for me to do…

I started out terrified and very anxious about the whole thing.  However, we just started week two, and the amount of thinking, planning, discussing and brainstorming I have done is phenomenal!  After months of languishing in notebooks and on my PC, my novel is now firmly back in my head and the second draft is rapidly taking shape, and in really interesting ways.

The Six Month Novel community is warm, welcoming and active.  Our fearless leaders, Charlie and Amie have provided a brilliant structure and lots of encouragement and advice, and the whole thing suddenly feels quite doable, and really rather exciting.

I was having lunch with some friends today, and telling them all about it.  One of them pointed out that, by the time we go on holiday together in September, my draft and initial editing will be done, and (considering I haven’t actually started writing it yet) that was a really weird thought.  But a good one.

I’ve already decided who my four POV characters are, drawn a rough flow chart of the main events, planned a brainstorming session with some good friends to hash out some of the world-building and, crucially, decided on the opening scene.

So, here’s to a crazy few months of creativity - and a new version of the novel at the other end.

Check back here for updates, and let’s hope they continue to be as positive as this one!

 

XXXXX

 

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Posted on 22 February 2017 19:18

This is an article I wrote this month for the Get Your Words Out online community:

 

So, you’re fearful of putting your writing out there into the world…

Well, you’re not alone.  Every writer experiences anxiety about letting other people read their work.  Every writer fears rejection and criticism of their work. 

The first thing to do is actually finish something and get it ready to submit.  Now, I’m very familiar with the feeling that your writing is never good enough to reach that point.  That’s your fear talking, and stopping you from getting to the end of your story.  So, focus on the process and not the predicted result.  What do you need to do to finish?  Break it down into small, manageable steps.  Make a list.  Work on each stage one at a time, and enjoy the satisfaction of ticking things off.

No story is ever going to be perfect.  If you think it can be, you’ll never be able to let it go.  So, give up on perfection, but don’t give up on improving.  You can always learn new things about the craft of writing, and apply them to your work.  But, at some point, you have to declare your story done, and accept that it will never be as amazing as the beautiful, shining vision you had in your mind when you first came up with it.

Now you’re ready to send it out into the world to seek its fortune.  But you’re still scared, and that’s okay.  Acknowledge your fear, but don’t let it tell you what to do.  What are you really scared of, after all?  That you’ll send your story to an editor and they’ll reject it?  Well, there’s no getting around the fact that this *will* happen.  But that doesn’t have to be the end of that story’s life, or your continued life as a writer.  

You are not your writing, so don’t take rejection personally.  And, also, just because one editor doesn’t take your story, that doesn’t mean nobody ever will.  It might not be to their taste (fiction is pretty subjective, you know), or they might have already accepted something similar, or they might just not have space for it right now.  The next person you send it to might love it and have just the right place to put it - you won’t know until you try.

At the end of the day, if you submit, your story might get rejected.  But, if you don’t, it’ll never get accepted.

One thing you can do is identify places you can submit your work that offer feedback.  That way, if they reject your writing, you’ll have some idea why.  And, more importantly, you’ll have a way forwards to revise and improve the story so you can send it somewhere else and be more likely to be successful.

These places are few and far between, but they do exist.

Scribble magazine in the UK, for example, prints ten short stories in every issue, and the editor always gives feedback if he rejects something.  If he accepts something and prints it in the magazine, the readers then send in feedback that gets printed in the next edition, so it’s a great place to find out what works and what doesn’t work for some people.

For science fiction and fantasy short stories, there’s a website called Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, and they also always provide feedback on the stories they reject.

One of my first publication successes came out of a rejection.  I submitted a story to a prestigious fantasy anthology and the editor emailed me to say it was a perfectly good story, but not quite what she was looking for, but she said I should certainly submit it elsewhere.  So I did, and the next editor accepted and published it!

If you’ll allow me the indulgence of relating more of my personal experience of submitting writing…

Since January 2016, I have made 110 submissions to competitions, fiction sites, anthologies, and magazines.  Of those, 24 have achieved some measure of success (competition shortlist or acceptance for publication) - and perseverance is the key!

One of my stories was rejected by five different places before the sixth accepted it for publication.  And one magazine rejected three of my stories, before finally accepting the fourth one I sent them.  So, don’t give up!

One thing I can tell you with certainty.  Rejection hurts - but the pain lessens with every rejection you receive.  And acceptance feels amazing - plus, that feeling doesn’t diminish over time.  My 24th success was just as sweet as my first, and every rejection now just prompts the question - where else can I send that?

So, take a deep breath - and go for it!  You’ll never know what you can achieve until you try.

 

XXXXX

 

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Posted on 12 February 2017 15:21

Last week, I took a lovely, four-day trip down to Devon, to attend a residential writing retreat at Stickwick Manor, organised by the ever-awesome Charlie from Urban Writers’ Retreat.

It was great to get really away from London, escape the distractions of daily life, and forget all about the stresses and annoyances of the day job.  There were five other writers there, plus Charlie, and she looked after us so well.  All meals were laid on, and amazing meals they were (sea bass, lime chicken, steak and ale pie) and we didn’t have to worry about any of the washing up or tidying.  I was heavenly.

Everyone else seemed to work really hard, but I have to admit I spent quite a lot of time goofing off and watching TV.  However, given how hard work has been for the last few weeks, I think it was just as important for me to take some time to relax and rest, as it was to focus really hard on my writing.

I got some reviews done, I revised a story I wanted to rework for a specific submission, and I finished the first draft of a short story that’s been languishing since before Christmas.  I also did enough critiquing on Scribophile to allow me to post both stories for feedback, and I read a fair chunk of my current writing reference book, Wonderbook.

So, I did far more writing and writing-related stuff than I would have done at home, and I also enjoyed some much-needed me-time.

Bear also enjoyed himself, and took some lovely pictures.

XXXXX

 

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Posted on 29 January 2017 13:45

Charlie, who runs the Urban Writers’ Retreats I go to, also just finished running an online writing programme for four weeks, starting on 2 January.  It consisted of a daily email, containing a writing prompt, a suggested amount of time to write (starting at five minutes and working upwards), and either a task to help with story-planning or a link to an article or video containing writing advice.

The idea was to kick-start the year with good writing habits, supported by a community of other writers engaging in the same tasks.  The emails were bright and encouraging, the exchanges with the other writers in the Facebook group were interesting and supportive, the linked writing advice was excellent, and the prompts were thought-provoking and a lot of fun to do.  We were also supposed to keep a writing journal, recording three things each day that would inspire us or that we were grateful for.

Now, as a general rule, I don’t write every day.  It’s not a habit I find either easy or useful, and I decided last year that my plan to schedule writing time twice a week or more would suit me better.  However, I did complete the prompts every day from 2 January through to 15 January, and thoroughly enjoyed the exercise.  I sat down to do it every day, having no idea what I was going to write, and always came up with something unexpected, if not always of fantastic quality.  I completed the ‘three things’ diary up to 18 January and then again on 22 January, and did manage to record some interesting stuff that may prove useful at a later date.

From 16 January through to 18 January, the prompts centered around picking one of the previous ones and looking at it from a different angle, or developing the idea further, and I fully engaged in those, resulting in the beginnings of a short story I’m quite excited about.

Then, work got crazy, my brain fell off a cliff, and I’ve barely written a word since.

However, I really enjoyed what I did of the programme, the story I started is now on my projects list, and I’m really looking forward to working on it in my next scheduled writing slot, which is tomorrow afternoon.  I also intend to complete the final task of going back over all the prompts and diary entries to find more ideas that to cultivate, and I know there are at least two or three in there that are worth taking further.

So, despite the fact that I dropped out of the last ten days of the programme, I found it a very valuable exercise, and I hope it will lead to some interesting projects to work on in the near future.

XXXXX

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Posted on 09 January 2017 16:35

I’ve been thinking about my writing goals for the year, in conjunction with my renewed pledge to write 150,000 words for Get Your Words Out in 2017.  And, interestingly, my main goals for this year are actually about writing less, rather than more.

 

1) Put the novel in a drawer and forget about it for at least six months. Then, take it out again and decide if it's worth saving. If it's not, let it go and be happy about it.

This came about because I got a very interesting report from Cornerstones, analysing the strengths and weaknesses of my novel.  I was aware of most of the weaknesses already, but the report suggests there is more work to be done on it than I feel willing or able to do at the moment.

This is not a bad thing.  The purpose of writing the novel was to see if I could.  And, regardless of its actual quality, it exists as a 95,000 word piece of fiction that tells a coherent story.  So, yes, it turns out I can write a novel!  Whether or not I can write a good novel remains to be seen, and is a challenge for the future.  I may come back to work on the one I’ve got, or I may start something new with the lessons I’ve learned.  I don’t know yet, and that’s okay.

 

2) For every short story submitted somewhere, get at least some feedback and do at least some proper revision before submitting it. (This will mean I submit a lot less, but hopefully what I do submit will be better.)

I had some success with publications in 2016, and have already had some more in 2017.  But, I know I have a tendency to dash off a first draft and just submit without taking the time to let it sit for a while, and then revise it.  So, my plan is to attempt fewer submissions, and schedule in more time for revision, which has never been a strong point.

I’d also like to take the stories that have been rejected multiple times and see if I can re-work and improve them before I send them out to more places.  Outside feedback is going to be essential for this task, as I find it difficult to see how to improve my own writing, even when I know it has flaws.

 

3) For every entry submitted to Hour of Writes or Fandom Weekly, leave at least a day after completing a first draft and read it through again before posting.

As above, even for the short and fairly frivolous things I write, I want to spend more time on them, and particularly ensure I have enough time to leave them and come back to re-read them before I post.

 

4) Spend more time on my reviews and make them proper analyses and recordings of my reactions - to offset the reduction in word count I'm anticipating on other stuff, I've decided to count my reviews in my tracking this year (I didn't last year), so I need to make sure they are worthy of being counted.

This feels a bit like cheating, since it’s a large number of words I left out of my tracking last year, which is going to boost this year’s word count significantly.  However, now that I’m advertising my reviews a bit more, I want to put more time and effort into them.  And, if I do that, I think it’s fair for me to include them in the tracking.

 

So, everything this year is going to be focused towards honing my skills, revising on a more regular basis, and hopefully producing a smaller, but higher quality, output as a result.

 

XXXXX

 

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Posted on 29 December 2016 17:49

One of the other writers on the course I attended recently at Moniack Mhor told me about an online critiquing website called Scribophile, so I decided to check it out.

I found signing up and navigating around very easy.  They have a checklist of all the various things you can do on the site, which makes it simple to find what you’re looking for and learn about the various features.  I love a good checklist, so I breezed through all the tasks in no time, gaining immense satisfaction from ticking them off!

The site is very well designed to prompt you to give as much as you get.  In order to post a story for comments, you have to pay a certain number of karma points.  And the best way to build up karma points is to critique the stories of other people.  You get points based on the length of your critique, with bonuses if people like your comments and find them useful.

It’s also in your best interests to critique other stories, as that gets your own work into the public listings faster.  This is because stories remain in what’s called the Main Spotlight until they’ve received three critiques, and there are only so many slots available.  So, from what I can see, the site is extremely well organised so that stories get critiqued pretty quickly.

I’ve posted two stories so far, and the comments I’ve received have been comprehensive, insightful, constructive and encouraging.  The site seems to be populated by people who are very willing to provide in depth and useful feedback, and I hope they feel the same way about me.  It’s also given me the opportunity to read a wide range of other people’s work, which is always interesting.

There are plenty of forums for interacting on a more social level with other writers, so I could see the site taking up rather a lot of my time, if I had more of it to spend there.  As it is, I’m happy providing critiques and posting stories for now.  It certainly fits very well with my plan for next year of obtaining feedback on all my new work before submitting it, so I expect I shall be venturing there frequently in the coming months.  A serendipitous discovery to launch my 2017 writing agenda!

XXXXX

 

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Posted on 11 December 2016 18:16

I spent the whole of last week on a writing course at Moniack Mhor, near Inverness.  It was aimed at science-fiction and fantasy writers, with workshops in the mornings, led by the two tutors, Juliet McKenna and Pippa Goldschmidt, and the afternoons left free for individual writing time.  I always find these kind of events really useful and enjoyable, but this one also provided me with a new focus for my writing as we head into 2017.

I’ve never been very good at revision.  I’ll write a story quite quickly, then leave it a few days and come back to it to revise it before submission.  However, no matter how much time I allow for this stage of the process, and no matter how long I spend rereading the piece, I rarely make very many changes.  I find it very difficult to identify where the problems and areas for improvements might be, and even more difficult to know how to address them.

I have a particular story that I wrote back in January, and that I was quite pleased with at the time.  It didn’t get anywhere in the competition it was written for, and it has since been rejected by four or five other publications throughout the year.  So, I decided it would make a good piece to send in prior to last week’s course, for the tutors to give feedback on.  I discussed it with both of them in depth, and also gave it to one of the other writers on the course to look at.  For a story that was only 750 words long, it generated a huge amount of feedback, which was all very useful.

It gave me a lot to work with and multiple aspects to look at in a different way, and I spent the rest of the week rewriting, expanding and tweaking, as my brain kept seizing upon new turns of phrase and new bits of description I could add.  I can say with some certainty that I’ve never expended so much time and effort on such a short story before, but it was definitely worth it.  I read out the finished result (now 1500 words) on the last evening of the course, and got a very positive response from my audience.  In particular, the three people who had read the original version all said it was much improved, despite some of their feedback being directly contradictory!

So, my plan for writing next year is going to be to attempt less, and spend more time on each individual piece of work.  It has been brought home to me just how valuable an external perspective can be in motivating me to revise and re-work, so I plan to seek feedback much more widely and more consistently.  I’m hoping this will result in a much higher quality in the finished products, and that will then result in more success with my submissions.

The hardest part will be narrowing down my options and not trying to submit to every single competition and anthology going!

XXXXX

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Posted on 30 November 2016 15:31

This blog post marks a major achievement in my writing.

At the beginning of the year, I joined the Get Your Words Out online community of writers.  In order to sign up, you have to pledge to write a certain number of words over the course of the year.  They also have to be certain kinds of words - not just random scribbles in a private journal, but actual progress on works of fiction, or blog posts intended for public consumption.  Now, on looking at the available pledges, I was somewhat dismayed to discover that the lowest number open to me was 150,000 words.  At the time, this seemed pretty much out of the realms of possibility, but I decided to sign up anyway and do my best.  At the very least, it would mean a new tracking spreadsheet to add to my collection.

I’m so glad I did.  The community has been fun, supportive and motivational.  I’ve made friends, taken up challenges, played bingo, hosted discussions, and generally found the structure and target-setting to be hugely beneficial in my productivity.  Tracking my word count on a weekly basis, and logging it with GYWO every month has focused my writing and prompted me to make more and more effort to find and schedule time for it.  Plus, I’ve met people who will encourage me to spend more time writing, as well as providing feedback on the things I produce.  In particular, I now have a regular writing buddy to spend every free Monday afternoon with, drinking tea and putting words on the page.

And, unexpectedly, this very sentence includes the 150,000th word I have written this year!

I really didn’t think I could do it - and it turns out I have, with a whole month to spare!

Of course, just because I’ve written 150,000 words in eleven months doesn’t mean those words are any good.  And focusing too much on quantity is never going to result in good quality.  But, they are 150,000 words that weren’t in existence a year ago, and that feels like quite an achievement in and of itself.  More important are the actual stories those words make up - the individual works of fiction, the building and maintaining of this website, the submissions that have led to actual publication.  I have no idea how much of that I would have achieved without GYWO, but I’m pretty certain it wouldn’t have been nearly as much.

So, now I have December to add to my total - and I’m certainly not going to rest on my laurels, just because I’ve reached my target for 2016.  I’m also very definitely going to sign up for GYWO again next year.  I’ve thought about upping my pledge to the 200,000 target, but I’ve decided against that.  I probably could do it, but I think it would be putting too much pressure on myself and creating too much of a focus on the number itself, rather than the writing.  I’ll hope to do more than my pledged 150,000 words again in 2017, but mostly I’ll look forward to engaging with the wonderful GYWO community again, as it has added so much enjoyment to my writing this year.

XXXXX

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Posted on 21 November 2016 08:22

I’m supposed to be finishing a final polish of the novel, ready to send it to Cornerstones for a professional edit report.  My deadline for doing that, set by my wonderful husband who is paying for report as my birthday present, was 2 November.  But it’s now nearly three weeks later and I’m only halfway through.

This is because I’m constantly being distracted by other projects, that are quicker to finish, have more concrete deadlines, and add more words to my target for the year.  This blog post is one of them…

One of the things I’ve focused on this year, though, is getting more of my work out in the world, and this is starting, slowly and agonisingly, to pay dividends.  I went to a London Writers’ Cafe meetup yesterday - a Q&A session with Sean Preston, editor-in-chief at Open Pen, talking about short story publishing.  What I mostly got from it is that everything I’m already doing is exactly right for aiming to get my stories published.

My submission routine follows a regular monthly process, which starts with the arrival of Writing Magazine in the post.  The first section I always turn to is Writers’ News near the back, where they list many, many upcoming competitions and publication opportunities.  I read through each entry, circling all the ones I may be interested in, and then I add the details of each to my rolling submission spreadsheet.  Here, I keep a record of everything I might be interested in submitting to, with the word count, theme, submission link and deadline included.  I highlight anything that closes within the next month in yellow, and that’s where I go for inspiration when I’m looking for the next project to work on.

This provides me with motivation, focus, and often inspiration for my shorter writing projects.  It also gives me ideas of where to send pieces that have been rejected and are ready to be reworked and sent back out to try their luck elsewhere.

And it’s working!  So far this year, I’ve sent out 82 submissions, and have had at least some level of success 17 of them, and a 20% success rate feels pretty good to me.  At the meetup yesterday, Sean said success in short story publishing is 50% good writing and 50% effective targeting of submissions, and I would totally agree.

However, it’s also important not to lose sight of my larger overall ambitions, so I’d better crack on with polishing the novel.

XXXXX

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Posted on 06 November 2016 19:15

I was recently introduced to an interesting way of thinking about the conscious and subconscious parts of the mind, which I’ve found very helpful in working on my writing.  Think of the mind as a ship, with the captain steering and looking out to the horizon, and the crew working away below decks, out of sight.  From a writing point of view, the crew does a lot of the work without the captain even being aware of it, and it’s very useful to be able to communicate with them in order to tap into what they’re doing.

This fits very nicely into what I call my percolation technique, where I place a project or a particular plot point into the back of my mind and don’t think about it consciously for a few days.  Most of the time, a few days later, an idea or some kind of insight just comes to me and I’m then able to move on with the story.

Utilising the skills I learned at a NAWG Fest workshop in September (run by Steve Bowkett), relating to the ship analogy, I’ve been able to cultivate this technique and create a more predictable structure for it.  Instead of just tucking my story idea away and waiting for my crew to come back to me with an answer whenever they feel like it, I now set them specific questions and deadlines - and, amazingly, it works!

My typical approach to the weekly writing competition I take part in now proceeds as follows.  The prompt appears in my inbox on a Monday, and I set it in the percolation chamber of my mind.  Around Tuesday lunchtime, I say very definitely to myself, often aloud, “When I sit down to lunch tomorrow, I will gain some insight into my competition entry for this week.”  This technique easily can be framed more specifically - eg “I will know how the story I’m working on will end,” or “I will find out why my character is doing a particular thing”.

Sometimes, the answer to the question just turns up in my head at the appointed time, without me even having to think about it.  Other times, it doesn’t.  However, I’ve learned that my crew doesn’t mean to let me down, and sometimes they just need a little support from their captain to get the job done.  On the occasions when the answer doesn’t magically appear, I have found that if I sit down later in the day and present myself with a blank screen and half an hour of dedicated time, the words will just start to flow and everything about the story will resolve itself as I go.  The crew were just holding back until I gave them the outlet to present me with their work.

Historically, I haven’t been a fan of scheduling my writing time.  I’ve always preferred to wait until the mood strikes, thinking I need to be in the right frame of mind for the creativity to flow.  But, more and more as this year has gone on, and I’ve been focusing much more on finishing and submitting things, I’ve learned that I can create that ‘right frame of mind’ for myself.  And giving myself a set time and date and venue for writing (if possible, out of the flat and in the company of other writers) has always resulted in much more productivity than just leaving it to my own whim.

Between now and the end of the year, I have several writing dates set up with friends, several others with different writing groups, and two eight-hour train journeys to look forward to.  Now, my tendency in this situation is to think I’ll be getting so much writing done on those occasions that I don’t need to worry about writing at other times.  But then, in some ways, it’s nice to relieve the daily pressure of finding time to write - and, regardless of what other writing time I find, I know those scheduled slots will give my crew the time and space they need to tell me what’s on their mind.

 

Posted on 24 October 2016 10:46

I am learning the inevitable lesson that life as a writer, and interaction with the publishing industry in particular, is unpredictable and sometimes frustrating.

There were a couple of months over the summer where everything suddenly felt as if it was coming together.  Four of my short stories were accepted for publication, I was offered free theatre tickets in return for reviews for a new monthly magazine, someone approached me about putting together a couple of anthologies of my work, and I was asked to write several articles for a different quarterly magazine.

I may have got rather over-excited about it all, and I’m sure there are at least a few people in my life who got a bit sick of me going on and on - I don’t blame them in the least.

Then, nothing.  Some projects were delayed, some publishers went ominously silent, the magazine didn’t have space for my first review.  Where before there had been weekly acceptance emails, now there was only tumbleweed.  It felt like I’d gone from being top of the world to not really existing at all.

That’s when I remembered that the real reason I write is because I don’t know how to live my life without doing so.  While publication and recognition for my work are obviously among my main goals, the most important thing is to find satisfaction in the writing itself.  My main motivation has to be my own sense of accomplishment at finishing a story or putting together an entertaining article, my own enjoyment of analysing the plays I to go to feed into a review, or my own excitement at sharing the things I create with the friends and family who have always supported me.

Then, this week, I got an email telling me that my first ever payment for a piece of my writing had been deposited into my Paypal account.  Let me tell you, I have never been so ridiculously excited by £5.99 in my life!  It even made me glad for the first time that the pound is so weak against the dollar, since I was being paid by an American publisher and so actually benefitted from the appalling exchange rate.

Not only that, but the day that publication went up on the internet, another of my stories was posted on a different website, and the second edition of the monthly magazine came out, not only including one of my reviews, but also a piece of short fiction I’d written.

And I was back on top of the world.

It’s still important to remember the joy of the act of writing itself - and if that ever goes away, I’ll be retiring my trusty bluetooth keyboard forever.  But it’s also rather fun to get ridiculously over-excited by things I’ve written actually getting published.  I hope that never gets old.

 

Posted on 09 October 2016 08:44

In this month’s Writing Magazine, author James McCreet analysed the first 300 words of my novel, doing a line-by-line commentary and providing a summary overview of his thoughts, as well as a suggested re-write.

When I first heard that this was going to happen (so many months after submitting that I’d forgotten all about it), I was pretty terrified.  McCreet’s analyses don’t pull punches - but I also generally agree with what he says about other people’s writing, so it felt like a great opportunity to get some really good advice about the most important part of the novel.

So, when the magazine finally arrived this week, I checked the competition winners first (no luck for me this month) and the letters page (but they did print my letter about NAWG Fest), before turning to page 48 to see my novel go Under The Microscope.

And it was fine.  Better than fine, in fact - and mostly, I think, because I’ve spent a long time cultivating the ability to take criticism, and I approached the whole thing with the attitude of wanting ideas on how to improve my work, rather than being precious about it.  Admittedly, a lot of what McCreet had to say was quite positive, which made me very happy indeed.  But, it was also telling that the things he picked out for improvement generally had me nodding my head in agreement (whilst also despairing just a little bit inside) because they were all things I already knew about.

I definitely have some work to do, to make the opening paragraphs of my novel more engaging and pacier (pace is something I’ve always struggled with) and I’ve known that for a long time.  But, now I have a step-by-step guide to show me exactly what to work on, and potentially help me improve the rest of the novel as well.  So, I’m really glad to have had this opportunity to receive some constructive criticism from a source completely unconnected with me.

Of course, it’s not as simple as just following all the advice, since I’ve already had wildly conflicting reactions from family members who’ve read the article.  One very much prefers McCreet’s rewritten version, while another says they prefer my version (and has enough points to back this up that I believe they’re not just saying that).  And someone else disagrees with McCreet’s take on cliches, saying that filling the writing with unusual descriptive language will just throw the reader out of the flow and cause a distraction.

I went to a London Writers’ Cafe Meetup recently, which was a Q&A session with a literary agent, and the most important thing she stressed is that fiction is a very subjective thing.  One person will hate what another person will love, and there’s no one formula for creating a bestselling novel.  Now, I’m certainly not expecting wild success with my novel, but I would like to make it as good as it can be, in the hopes of maybe one day getting an agent who could sell it to a publisher.  And this analysis from James McCreet will certainly help me on that road.

But, at the end of the day, it’s my novel, and I’ll ultimately have to make the decisions about what to change and what to keep the same.  Since, it seems clear that one man’s glaring cliche is another man’s comfort zone - and, no matter how much advice I get on my writing, I still want it to sound like me.

Posted on 24 September 2016 07:10

Write every day - that’s what we’re told, isn’t it?  It’s the only way to cultivate good writing discipline, and train your mind to see every day as a writing day, no matter what.

Well, in order to hit a self-imposed target of 100,000 words written in the first half of 2016, I ended up writing 1000 words a day for the last ten days of June - and I absolutely hated it.  I wrote a lot, that goes without saying; but was it worthwhile writing?  I don’t think so.  It turned the whole exercise into a burdensome chore and focused my mind purely on the number of words I was producing, rather on what kind of words they were.

So, I don’t have a standard writing day.  Some days, I write; other days, I don’t.  And that’s okay by me.

I do have a rough schedule for my writing week, though, and the extra space provided by broadening my timeframe out to a week makes all the difference in my enjoyment of the process.  On top of that, I think I produce better work that way.

There’s a weekly writing competition, called Hour of Writes, that I’ve taken part in every single week since it launched in December 2014 (with multiple wins and second places to my name), so my writing week starts with the prompt for that landing in my inbox on a Monday morning.  I invariably find myself looking at the three words for that week and thinking there’s no way I’ll ever come up with something to match them, so I very rarely think seriously about my entry on a Monday.  However, past experience tells me my initial reaction has always been wrong.  So, I set those three tantalising words into the back of my mind, knowing they will somehow be turned into a short story or poem by the end of Friday.  The germ of an idea usually creeps into my thoughts sometime around Wednesday afternoon, and I most often write and submit my entry on a Thursday.

This is what I call the percolation technique.  Whenever I’m having trouble with a story, or I’m just not coming up with anything interesting, I consciously tuck the issue or theme into a particular place in my brain and then pretend to ignore it.  Generally speaking, a few days later - usually at 3am or when I’m in the shower - the answer to the problem, or a new and exciting idea, will randomly pop into my head and I’ll be off.  The subconscious mind is an excellent tool, if you can train it even just a little bit.  Though the 3am wake-up calls demonstrate that ‘training’ is perhaps a little optimistic in my case!

Lunch hours will sometimes produce pockets of concerted writing time throughout the week.  That’s when I generally work on short stories for submission to themed anthologies, or other competitions.

I’m very lucky, in that I only work four days a week.  When I proposed this arrangement to my husband, he was fully supportive, with the proviso that I use my extra day off to work on my novel.  Eighteen months on, I think he must have forgotten this condition, since he hasn’t asked about my progress in quite some time, and I rarely get any writing done at all on a Monday.  However, since I do tend to complete household chores, essential shopping, and tedious life admin on that glorious day away from the office, I think it does contribute to the time I spend on the novel - since it frees up more of Saturday and Sunday for just that purpose.

The weekend will often see me repairing to the local library, or treating myself to a snack in a comfy cafe, with my trusty tablet in tow.  This is because I find it almost impossible to focus on my writing when I’m at home; there are far too many things to distract me.  Taking myself away somewhere to concentrate solely on my writing is the best possible way for me to get the words on the page, even if I can usually only stomach it for 90 minutes at a time.

I do have certain rituals associated with my writing.  I like there to be a pot of aromatic herbal tea at my elbow, and I have certain albums of music that are almost guaranteed to get me in the writing mood.  If I’m at home, my habitual corner of the sofa calls me, and I settle down with all my paraphernalia.  First, the patterned cushion goes on the knees.  Then, the hardback A4 notebook is balanced on top.  That provides a mostly stable platform for my little tablet, which masquerades as a laptop in its faux leather case, alongside its bluetooth keyboard.  My osteopath may not agree, but this layered positioning provides me with my best writing pose.

I don’t like to tie myself to places and objects in order to get my writing done, though.  What if I’m out and about when an idea strikes?  Or what if there’s an unexpected delay in my day, which provides me with a narrow window to get some words down?  I like to think I’m quite good at taking advantage of spontaneous writing opportunities when they arise, and I can churn out 750 words in half an hour when the stars are in alignment.

I often find that short bursts of intense creativity produce my best work, and I admit to resting on my laurels after only a few hundred words on most occasions.  Dedicated to my craft, I am not - I have proven to myself time and again that I can write a whole lot more than I generally do.  But, as I’m not trying to make a living from it (yet), I prefer it to remain an enjoyable hobby than become a dreaded chore, so I usually let myself off the hook and only write when the mood strikes.

What really boosts my word count, though, is the rare occasion when I get to take a really long train journey.  Headphones in, rock music blaring, the enforced isolation from the everyday activities of life is what really gets my muse excited.  I’m really looking forward to a five-day writing retreat I’ve booked near Inverness in December, but I think I’ll get most of my writing done on the eight hour train journey up there.  Perhaps I should move further out of London, so I can lengthen my commute.  That might just be the change I need to start writing every day.

 

Posted on 18 September 2016 16:37

Writing is a tricky business.  It’s the thing I most want to do with my time, and it’s the thing I least want to do with my time.  This seems to be true of all the writers I know.  We desperately want to create amazing things - and in fact can’t imagine life without writing - but we find it so difficult to actually sit down and get on with it.

This is what makes organisations like Urban Writers’ Retreat so valuable.  Why would I pay £45 to spend the whole day writing when I could just easily do that at home for free, you might ask?  Because I know I won’t do it if I’m at home, and I’m prepared to pay good money for the opportunity for some forced focus.

Charlie, from Urban Writers' Retreat, provides a bright, airy, comfortable space for the day, where up to about 12 writers gather to work on whatever projects they want.  Phones must be switched off, there’s no talking allowed - only the gentle tap of fingers on keyboards punctuates the silence.  And it’s glorious.  Charlie sends out a goal-setting worksheet a couple of days beforehand, where you can plan out your writing day in slots of about an hour, but the day itself is largely unstructured.  Lunch is provided, along with a welcome (albeit brief) break from the intensity of concentrating in an unfamiliar way, and then we all go back to work again.

It’s such a simple concept, but every session I’ve been to has been full, so it’s clear other writers benefit from the external motivation just as much as I do.  Having an appointment in my calendar, which prompts me to plan various writing activities, and involves travelling to a specific location in central London, creates a productive mindset that would never be possible otherwise.  It’s also lovely to feel part of a community, while taking part in such a solitary activity, and it’s even better to have a whole day set aside with the sole purpose of getting on with some writing.

Today, I started a read-through of the first section of my novel.  This is with a view to getting it professionally edited later in the year, and it was really fun to go back to the beginning again and remember how much I love the world and the characters I’ve created.  I’m terrified by the prospect of getting feedback from a professional, but I believe I have something of merit, and I want the push and the guidance to get it into publishable shape.

In between times, I wrote a couple of articles for an online magazine and worked on a theatre review for a print magazine.  The combination of quick wins, interspersed with editing sections of the novel, worked really well to keep me motivated and energised all day.

Hurrah for days like this!

 

Posted on 12 September 2016 12:55

Way back in October 2010, I signed up for an Open University creative writing course, with a good friend of mine, who is also a writer.  The very first assignment was to write a 1500 word short story, on any theme.  The idea for my story came from a conversation I had with my husband about magical tech support for wizards in Harry Potter.  The course tutor wasn’t wildly impressed, but my friend’s response was, “You could develop this into a novel.  I’d want to read it - write me a novel, based in this world!”

So I did.  And, oh, how easy those three little words make it sound.  In actual fact, I didn’t finish the first draft until September 2015, during a glorious week on an Arvon novel-writing retreat at Lumb Bank in Hebden Bridge.  Five years of adding a bit more to the original story, gradually developing the world, adding a bit more, working out the overall arc plot, adding a bit more, bringing in new characters and a couple of sub-plots, adding a bit more, and so on.

I can’t say I approached writing my novel in a very systematic way.  I didn’t plot it all out beforehand (I find if I do that, I get bored with the story and don’t want to write it), I didn’t set aside specific times to write (though I have learned since that this is a very good idea), and I didn’t have any idea how long it would be when I’d finished (I’m still not sure about that).  I just forged ahead from that little story, and let it take me where it would.

Along the way, the characters did some very unexpected things (I love it when they take control), the plot expanded out to include some quite serious themes (though the story itself is still pretty light overall), and the possibility of a sequel reared its terrifying head (just don’t ask me how that’s going).

On this blog, I intend to talk about the process of writing my novel - both what I’ve already achieved, and what comes next.  I’ll post news about my other writing projects, and hopefully soon details of some publications that actually contain my writing!

My focus in 2015 was on finishing the first draft of my novel (which I did), and my focus in 2016 is on getting my writing out into the world.  My little corner of the writing universe has recently become quite an exciting place, with lots of little successes that I hope will eventually lead to bigger things.  But getting distracted by the shiny opportunities of short story writing is a dangerous thing, and I don’t want to lose sight of the novel in the process.  I believe in the novel, and I think it deserves more care and attention than I have given it of late, so this regular update of my progress on it is designed to give me the motivation to have something positive to say each time I post!

I invite you to join me on my literary journey - I very much hope it will be fun!