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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!