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Posted on 02 April 2018 14:59

As someone who has to fit writing around working four days a week, a busy social life, and lots of trips away, I tend to feel as if I’m shirking if I don’t make use of every minute that’s available to me.

 

Last month, I went on a glorious, six-day writing retreat, where I had no excuses and all the opportunity in the world to get things done. When I went to the same retreat in February 2017 (admittedly only for three days), I squandered the time and I was determined not to make the same mistake again.

 

But six days is a long time to maintain focus and keep to a gruelling schedule of working on projects. So, I did find myself taking lots of breaks, going for walks, knitting, listening to podcasts, reading, chatting to the other writers, etc, etc. To begin with, I felt like I was failing again, and I was really annoyed with myself for wasting such precious time.

 

I found my stride on day three, set myself a challenging task list, and managed to complete everything on it. I felt great, as if I’d really accomplished something, and expressed how pleased I was with myself at dinner that night. I wrote another, similarly intensive list for the next day, and did pretty well, though I did allow myself to knock off quite early and go back to reading.

 

But, on the last two days of the retreat, I woke up early, with my head full of ideas and enthusiasm. Answers to problems presented themselves, and I found myself eager to get to work. And it was then that I realised I had been making use of all the downtime, after all.

 

If I had set to work on day one with a plan to work office hours on my writing every day of the retreat week, I probably would have burnt out by day three and spent the rest of the week being really miserable. What actually happened was that I gave myself the time and space to find a rhythm, and allowed my brain the chance to work on things subconsciously, without me constantly looking over its shoulder (as it were).

 

I got more done overall in that week than I planned, or even thought was possible. And I also had a great time interacting with other writers, and giving myself permission to relax and enjoy other pastimes as well. And the result was far more productivity, progress and inspiration than would have occurred if I’d driven myself into the ground, trying to do too much.

 

Creativity needs space. The imagination works best if you give it room to breathe. Yes, a schedule is important, and deadlines are helpful, but finding a balance between productivity and self-compassion is vital to success, in my view. It’s not an easy line to tread, particularly in this world of constant distractions and obligations. But your brain will thank you for allowing it some rest, and will most likely pay you back in better and more frequent ideas.

 

XXXXX

 

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Posted on 11 March 2018 10:09

The post I wrote for GYWO this month was all about how to approach the dreaded revision:

I hate revision.

With my short stories and fanfiction, I always have good intentions of scheduling additional time to let them sit for a while and then go back to them to revise. But most often, I dash off a first draft, scan over it, declare it done, and hit submit.

However, I know from experience that the stories I’ve spent more time on and revised in more detail are better and have been more successful. And, if I ever want to get my novel published, I know it’s going to require a lot of revision work.

So, I have developed certain strategies and found certain tools and resources to motivate me to revise and help me organise my revision once I get started.

For me, external feedback is absolutely key to revision. I find it almost impossible to reread my own work and identify where it needs work. So, I always try and get someone else to look at it and give me feedback. This also gives me a complete break from thinking about the story, so I can come back to it with fresh eyes later.

I’m lucky because I have helpful friends and family members who are willing to do this, and they have definitely helped with the novel. I try not to overburden them with too many requests, though, so I also use Scribophile for short fiction. This is a website where you can post your stories and get feedback from other members and I’ve found it extremely helpful over the last few years. There are lots of feedback sites out there, with varying levels of commitment (you have to give a lot of critiques to receive critiques on Scribophile), and I would recommend trying some.

Most recently on the novel, I paid for a developmental edit, which proved to be excellent, but obviously this requires some financial investment, and it’s important to check the editor’s credentials before you shell out.

Once I’ve got some feedback, the next stage, of course, is to actually do the work!

Luckily, while I hate revision, I love organising information. So, to ease myself in gently and hopefully get me excited about the project again, I go through all the feedback I’ve received and make a big list of all the changes I think I need to make. It’s important to note that I don’t automatically accept every suggestion that is made - I often don’t agree with feedback comments, though I think long and hard about them if multiple people have said the same thing.

Once I have a bullet point list, I get a whole load of coloured pens (yay!) and categorise each point. My categories are generally: background info, character development, plot points and narrative style. I also rate them as to whether they are quick wins, longer points that I can get to work on, or in need of further thought and development. Then I number all the points in the order I intend to work on them (always quick wins first, to motivate me to get started), and I’m ready to go.

It’s very easy for me to get lost in the list-making and joy of coloured pens, so it’s important to have a clear deadline for getting to work. As my husband says, at some point you have to “do the do” rather than just “talking the stuff”.

This all makes the revision process a lot easier and more fun for me - and helps to make sure it actually happens!

XXXXX

Subsequent to writing this, I've actually launched into my bullet list of revision points for the novel, and it turns out not to be as painful as I thought it would be - though I'm still on the easiest bits. I've also discovered a missing scene and a huge disservice to one of the minor characters, who lost her point of view in the last draft and currently disappears for half the book. I'm in the process of putting all her stuff back in, which I think will make the story stronger - but I may then have to do a whole new raft of revisions to tighten the whole thing up again. It's true what they say - a novel is never done! At some point, you just have to admit defeat. But I'm definitely not there yet...

XXXXX

 

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Posted on 12 February 2018 11:28

This month's GYWO discussion post topic was debunking writing myths, and I thought I would post my article here as well.

Last year, I finally got around to reading On Writing by Stephen King, and he has a lot to answer for in terms of writing myths. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of good stuff in that book, and not all the myths listed below derive from it, but people have taken some of his advice and turned it into very rigid ‘rules’ for writing that can prove both restrictive and discouraging.

 

So, here’s my take on some of the most popular writing ‘rules’ out there, and why they don’t always apply.

 

1. Write Every Day

 

This one comes up *a lot*, with the suggestion being that the only way to get ahead with your writing is to write every single day. Now, I’m sure this works really well for some people, and it’s definitely a good idea to build a regular writing habit. However, writing every single day just isn’t practical for some people, and fitting your writing into whatever tiny gaps your schedule allows throughout the week doesn’t mean you’re not a ‘proper writer’. Also, I tried writing every day for about ten days last summer and absolutely hated it. It became a horrible chore, and my focus narrowed entirely to how many words I had produced, rather than enjoying the process. Three or four times a week, for a scheduled session of at least 90 minutes, is what works for me, and I’m sticking to it.

 

2. Show, Don’t Tell

 

This is the idea that ‘showing’ what’s going on in your story, through dialogue, character action and direct scenes is always better than ‘telling’ it through bald statements, summary and exposition. And for the most part, showing is better. Demonstrating that your character is unsettled by having a shiver go down their spine (cliche aside) is more effective than stating that they’re scared. However, this rule is often taken to extremes, with people suggesting that ‘telling’ should never be used. And that’s just plain not true. You do want to avoid pages and pages of explanations, and dialogue tags other than ‘said’ are generally a bad idea, but sometimes you just need to cut to the chase and spell something out, or summarise a lengthy period of time when little of significance happens. Be aware of this one, but don’t let yourself be a slave to it.

 

3. Never Use Adverbs

 

As with the example above, this is another ‘rule’ that shouldn’t be taken to extremes. Yes, there are often better ways to describe things than by using an adverb, and they are best avoided when explaining how dialogue is spoken (usually, you should dispense with this altogether - if your dialogue needs explaining, rewrite your dialogue). However, adverbs are not wholly the enemy, and a few sprinkled around where it really is the most expedient and expressive way of conveying something is fine.

 

4. Write What You Know

 

This is a ‘rule’ that’s often misunderstood. If all writers only composed material based on their direct experience, it would all be very self-indulgent and lacking in creativity. As writers, we have active imaginations and we should absolutely use them to make stuff up. You’re not likely to have actually met an alien, but that doesn’t mean you can’t put aliens in your stories. What this ‘rule’ is trying to say is that you should draw on your experience and emotions to inform your writing and make your characters’ reactions more credible. It doesn’t mean you can’t imagine them in a weird and wonderful situation you could never experience in real life.

 

5. You Can Only Write When the Muse is Willing

 

I fell foul of this ‘rule’ for a long time, always waiting for the ‘right frame of mind’ so that my writing would flow with ease and grace. Sometimes, that would happen and it was amazing. But the rest of the time, I just didn’t get anything done. I spent years, wishing I had more time and more energy to dedicate to my writing - but my most prolific writing periods were always when I was busiest with other things. That was when my juices were flowing and I had to cram my writing into tiny spaces. More recently, I’ve discovered that if I just sit down and get on with it (starting with a clear, itemised list, of course) I can always get *something* done, even if it isn’t my best work. But small progress is still progress and it’s important to get into the habit of just cracking on with it, even if you don’t feel that enthused. Otherwise, you’ll waste a lot of time waiting for divine inspiration that probably won’t arrive.

 

6. Writing is a Solitary Passtime

 

Look at where we are. This community itself tells us that this one isn’t true. And some of my best writing has come out of interacting with other people. I love bouncing ideas off friends, getting feedback on my writing, collaborating on projects, or just getting together with other writers to exchange experiences and moan about how difficult our chosen craft is. I always come away from contact with other writers more energised and more enthused. So, don’t lock yourself away in an attic, under the impression that you have to be alone to write your magnum opus. Get involved, make friends, share your writing life - it will only improve the experience.

 

7. Real Writers Find Writing Easy

 

This is just plain ridiculous. I can guarantee that even the most famous and successful writers have days when it’s almost impossible to get any words down and even contemplating writing feels like dragging themselves and all their worldly possessions through sucking mud. And generally, they’re not shy about letting the world know it. I think every interview I’ve ever read with a professional writer has referenced the difficulties they’ve faced with their writing. We’re all in this together, and it’s always going to be tough at least some of the time.

 

8. A Debut Novel is A Writer’s First Novel

 

The automatic thought when a book is advertised as a ‘debut’ is to assume it’s the first thing the author has written. But that’s very unlikely to be the case. It just means it’s the first novel they’ve managed to get published, and invariably there have been failed attempts and many rewrites before that publication happened.

 

9. Writers are Born, Not Made

 

Following on from the above, every single writer has to learn their craft and spend time improving it. If it happens at all, it must be incredibly rare that someone would dash off a first attempt at writing, and have it turn out perfectly first time. Every writer has a folder somewhere with their earliest painful and embarrassing efforts (assuming they haven’t burned them) - and if they claim that isn’t true, they’re just plain lying. Some writers are more talented than others, but techniques can be learned, and everyone has room for improvement (and the ability to work to achieve it).

 

10. Writing Method X is Better Than Writing Method Y

 

If you take away anything from this post, it should be this. Every writer has different techniques, rituals, work ethics, routines. No one method of writing is going to work for everyone. The most important thing to do is experiment, be creative, find out what works for you, and then rock it, no matter what anyone else says. There are no hard and fast rules that are set in stone and unable to be broken. If you find you compose best dictating into your smartphone while water-skiiing, then go for it. Nobody can tell you how you should approach your writing - it’s yours and nobody else’s and you should go about it in whatever way best suits you.

 

XXXXX

 

 

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Posted on 24 January 2018 18:08

I’ve recently been gaining a lot of benefit from the concept of the presupposition of success. I first came across this a couple of years ago, in a session on self-hypnosis at a writing festival.

 

In that context, it was about introducing a statement into your subconscious, assuming an answer to a particular question would come you at a specified time. I have used this often since to make progress on writing projects, by repeating a statement like, “When I sit down to have my lunch on Wednesday, I will get an idea for this week’s fanfiction prompt.” And it really works.

 

I have been developing this technique in other ways, without realising it, and it only came to me when I started writing this post that that was what I’ve been doing.

 

It started with my Self Journal, which is where I’m planning my scheduled writing time for 2018. At the end of each writing session, I confirm the date for my next one, and complete the task list on the next page with what I want to achieve next time. This means I know exactly when I will next be working on my writing projects (allowing me to relax and enjoy my free time in between) and it gives me a framework for that scheduled time, which helps me focus and provides me with a target for success. I certainly haven’t completed everything on my list at every session, but I’ve definitely achieved more than I would have done without a concrete plan.

 

Even better is the way I’m using my Weeknotes as a motivating tool. Instead of writing them at the end of each session, summarising what I’ve done, I’ve started writing each paragraph before embarking on the task I’m writing about. So, I’m actually predicting what I’m about to do, rather than recording what I’ve just done. I only do it one task at a time, so I’m not getting too far ahead of myself and making my presupposition of success unrealistic. But, I find it very motivating, and hugely helpful in keeping focus if I state each task as if I’ve already completed it, and then start.

 

And thus far, I’ve never had to go back and change my Weeknotes entry afterwards because I haven’t achieved what I’ve written.

 

XXXXX

 

 

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Posted on 13 January 2018 15:42

I was reading the latest issue of Mslexia the other day, and came across a quote from Gretchen Rubin, which says: “The reward for a good habit is the good habit, and that’s the reward to give yourself.”

 

This has certainly been the case for me recently with my writing. I’m still submitting to competitions and anthologies, but less often now I’m focusing on my two novels. And I do have plans to try and get those novels published, at least one of them later this year. But, at the moment, the writing itself is the point.

 

I’m also trying to cultivate better habits with my writing, helped along by my 120 habit pledge for Get Your Words Out this year. My plan is to do a significant amount of writing on 3-4 days each week and, so far, it’s not proving difficult. That’s because, given a free day, or an evening opportunity, the thing I most want to do is pack a bag full of writing supplies, repair to a cafe that does good tea, and spend a few hours working on my various writing projects.

 

I’m not forcing myself to write, with a view to getting the reward of publication, or even to reward myself with a treat once I feel I’ve done enough for the day. Meeting up with a good friend, and sharing table space while really getting on with stuff turns out to be a treat in and of itself. And this is very much a good thing, because it means writing doesn’t feel like a chore, and it makes the inevitable rejections that much easier to bear, since publication is just an added bonus on top of an activity that is already an achievement just because I’m doing it.

 

My biggest problem now is remembering to schedule in some relaxation time. Even though I’m enjoying my writing, it still takes effort and energy, and I’ve found it can be very draining if I spend several hours on writing projects on every free day I have outside my day job. So, if I want to keep my good habit up, I need to pace myself and acknowledge that I do need some time off every now and then, as well.

 

XXXXX

 

 

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Posted on 29 December 2017 14:38

 

The end of December is always a time for reflection and for looking forward, so I will stick with tradition and do both, in terms of my writing.

This year, I've learned that scheduling writing time and sticking to it is always the right choice. Even when I'm feeling low and exhausted, I can still get useful stuff done - and spending the whole day at a cafe, making progress on writing projects has become my favourite thing to do.

But I've also learned that I shouldn't restrict myself to working on writing only during scheduled time. I can and should do it in odd moments at home and at work, as well. I’m really glad that GYWO has introduced Habit Pledges for next year, whereby you track the number of days you spend working on writing projects, rather than the number of new words you write, as I’m hoping this will help me to maximise my writing time.

However, most of all, I've learned that writing is something that will always be a part of my life, in one way or another. At a particularly low point this year, I actually decided to pack it all in and stop writing, because life would be so much easier and less stressful that way. That plan lasted about half an hour. This is not something I can give up, no matter how tough it gets. But it’s important that I’m clear about why I’m doing it and what I’m getting out of it.

Yes, my ultimate ambition is to get a novel published, and I’ll be working hard towards that goal next year. But if my planned schedule turns out to be unrealistic, or I find trying to whip my first novel into shape is more of a chore than a pleasure, then I may have to rethink. I’ve had a lot of enjoyment in writing and submitting short pieces over the last couple of years, and I don’t want to lose sight of that.

So, next year is going to be about making detailed plans, maximising the amount of time (and number of days) I spend working on my writing, but also trying to keep a balance between different types of projects, as well as making sure I have time to rest and do other things. Easy, right?

I have a new planning method (Self Journal) to try, I have a tentative plan to get Artisan ready to submit to Winchester Writers Festival, I’ll attempt to get a first draft of Colours done by then too. But my daily writing task lists will also include journalling, GYWO discussion posts, reviews, Hour of Writes and/or Fandom Weekly, revision/creation of short fiction, fanfiction exchange events, and reading reference books about writing. That’s a lot to keep going all at once, and may well prove impossible. But I’m going to give it a try and see how it goes.

And, if it turns out I’m being way too ambitious, I’ll have to re-evaluate, decide on my priorities, and either cut some things out of rotation or extend all the deadlines so I can keep working on everything all at once.

Regardless of how things work out, here’s to many more writing days at Good and Proper, and a productive and joyful writing year in 2018!

 

XXXXX

 

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Posted on 06 December 2017 18:41

The plan was all there. I spent a month brainstorming, outlining and cogitating. I felt excited about the story, and confident that I could make it good. I booked a writing retreat in the middle of nowhere for the first weekend in December, ready to crack on with the first draft of the new novel.

 

And then it hit. That awful, sinking, nauseous feeling that flows over me whenever I contemplate actually starting. I imagined being holed up in the cottage, with all the time in the world over three days, to write and write and write. And I couldn’t see myself doing it.

 

So, I got my trusty tablet out of my bag and made myself start writing on the train. I managed a scene, knew where I was going next with it, and felt more confident about making progress over the course of the weekend. But it was hard and it was painful.

 

The weekend unfolded in much the same vein. I made myself write two scenes at a time, then gave myself a bit of time off to read or watch TV and knit. But even though the scenes followed one after the other, and the writing flowed pretty well - I had to make myself do it. At any given moment during the weekend, I would rather have not had to do it.

 

And, when it comes right down to it, I didn’t have to do it. The only one creating this schedule and forcing myself to get words down on the page is me. So why do I do it to myself?

 

Of course, it’s not always as hard as it was this weekend - though I do generally find it tough to do more than a thousand words of new material in a day, even if I have the whole day free to do it. And I was incredibly pleased with my amassed count of 10,164 words overall for the weekend. And I love the story I’m writing. So maybe that’s why I do it. The product is worth the pain of producing it.

 

I did have about half an hour, a couple of months ago, when I contemplated giving the whole thing up. Just not writing any more. Kaput. Nothing. Ever again.

 

It had a certain appeal. I could do whatever I wanted with my free time, without that voice always nagging at me that I ought to be writing. Maybe I wouldn’t resent my day job so much. I’d probably be more relaxed. I might get more sleep.

 

But it didn’t happen. I don’t think I even took a whole week off. Because the ideas were still there, and they weren’t going to go away. And the excitement was still there, bubbling up through the fatigue and the uncertainty to take hold of my brain.

 

For example, today I had a mental health blip. I went back to my desk after lunch, and it felt like I was hauling myself uphill through hip-deep sludge. I really struggled to achieve anything all afternoon, and had to force myself to do the smallest tasks, in a much more aggressive way than I had with the writing at the weekend. All I wanted to do was crawl home, curl up in front of the TV and eat chocolate.

 

Then, just before I left work, my subconscious crew came through like heroes, right on schedule, with the next two scenes of the new novel. I had been thinking most of the day that I had no idea where I was going next with it, and suddenly the path was clear. I can’t say I exactly skipped out of the office to meet my friend for our writing date in the cafe round the corner. But I went. And I sat down and I wrote my two scenes. And I already know what the next two are.

 

So, it doesn’t look like I’ll be quitting any time soon. But, wow, have I picked a tough hobby!

 

XXXXX

 

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Posted on 22 October 2017 11:34

I’m at an Urban Writers Retreat day today, which is usually an excellent way to get tons of stuff done.  And I have a long list of things I could be doing.  But I’ve already finished the three main ones I wanted to complete (all of which turned out to be quite simple and quick) and I’m not sure what I want to do next.

 

I’ve been bemoaning the fact that I don’t have time to read all the things I want to read about writing, or to collate and type up my notes on the things I’ve already read, or that are stored in one of my completed project notebooks.  But, now that I have the whole afternoon stretching ahead of me, those tasks feel like a waste of valuable time I’ve been presented with, to work on my writing.

 

On the other hand, though, there are two or three bigger writing projects on my list that I would be getting on with, but I don’t want to work on those, either.  They all feel too daunting to launch into, and too much like effort right now.

 

But days like today are designed precisely to provide the time and mental space to get on with the things I don’t normally have time for, or to dive into something new and huge and exciting.

 

So, as I frequently discover in such situations, it’s really not about how much time I have.  It’s about utilising that time effectively.  And, today, I feel tired, spaced out, and underprepared.

 

Charlie, who organises the Urban Writers Retreats, always sends out a goal-setting worksheet during the week beforehand, and I’ve always completed it for the retreat days I’ve attended up until now.  This time, though, I didn’t do it, and I think I’m suffering for it.  The worksheet asks questions about what you want to achieve over the course of the day, then breaks the day into manageable slots for you to plan what you’re going to work on.  I thought just having my list of available projects and tasks would give me access to my options without restricting me as to what I would do.  But it’s just left me floundering and failing to achieve anything (except this blog post, I guess!).

 

I have another full day of writing project time planned for tomorrow - so, I think my best move would be to complete a goal-setting worksheet for this afternoon (in the time I have left before lunch) and then do another one for tomorrow.  And hopefully that will set me off towards amazing productivity!

 

XXXXX

 

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Posted on 09 October 2017 12:14

A few weeks ago, I discovered Seempli.com and have been enjoying engaging with it ever since.  It’s billed as a way to boost creativity, and it certainly seems to be working for me.

 

I’m not the most observant person in the world.  I originally failed my driving test on observation and awareness (kind of important when in charge of a car), and my husband is always pointing out things I haven’t spotted when we go out for walks.  I would like to claim that my mind is too focused on inner storytelling to be bothered with the details of my outer environment, but I think I’m just generally oblivious.

 

So, the idea of observational creativity at Seempli appealed to me a lot.  Basically, it’s a daily prompt, which you fulfil by taking a photograph of something inspired by it, when you’re out and about.  They have a ‘starter pack’ of what they call Seeds, with guidance on how to go about fulfilling them for the first three weeks.  After that, you can just use whichever Seed is posted on the site each day, or pay to upgrade your membership so you can access more comprehensive packages, along with the Prisms, which provide context and restrictions for whichever Seed you’re using.

 

It’s been tremendous fun trying to find monsters and happy shadows in my surroundings, taking photos of things that remind me of Shakespeare plays or other countries.  The last few prompts I’ve done have been combined with writing exercises, motivating me to find inspiration in my pictures to fuel creative writing as well as observation, which is fun and very useful.

 

I haven’t sampled the paid-for aspects of the site yet, so I don’t know whether or not to recommend them, but the introductory selection of prompts is proving by highly enjoyable and thought-provoking.  Also, after several weeks of feeling quite demotivated in my writing, I’ve had a resurgence of ideas and productivity.  I don’t know if this is solely as a result of Seempli, but I’m pretty sure it’s helping.

 

XXXXX

 

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Posted on 04 September 2017 16:22

I got back from NAWG Fest yesterday, after two days of workshops, q&a with agents, and lots of chatting with other writers.

 

I didn’t learn anything new.

 

But it was still a valuable (and highly enjoyable) experience because there was a lot of reinforcement of things I already knew.  As humans, we develop habits over time, and it’s much easier just to keep on with those than it is to implement new lessons learned.  Even if you have a lightbulb moment about something and think your life is going to be changed forever, actually making that change can be incredibly difficult.

 

So, going to a workshop about the five most common mistake writers make was useful to remind me of what those are and re-motivate me to ensure they don’t crop up in my work.  And going to another workshop about showing rather than telling was helpful in reiterating the best ways to go about doing this (especially since it’s the common mistake I make most often).

 

On the Sunday afternoon, I changed my mind about which workshop I wanted to go to, and ended up attending one I’d done last year, all about getting in touch with the subconscious.  I initially hadn’t intended to go, as I thought I knew it all already.  And I did.  But it turned out to be the most useful (and enjoyable) workshop of the weekend, because it reminded me of all those valuable lessons I learned last year, and then forgot to utilise in the intervening time.

 

I’ve definitely been neglecting my subconscious crew, and I suspect my writing has been suffering because of it.  It was lovely to share a guided meditation experience with some of the other attendees in the workshop, and it was great fun to ask myself questions and get unexpected answers I didn’t realise I knew.

 

I’m a Writing Magazine subscriber, mostly for the section at the back with all the submission opportunities, but I do enjoy the articles as well.  They tend to be quite repetitive, since there’s only so much you can say about the process of writing, but I always enjoy reading the magazine regardless.  That’s because I find it so useful to read that advice over and over again, in the hopes that some of it might eventually stick in my brain.

 

So, I will keep going to workshops and I’ll keep buying Writing Magazine, and maybe one day I’ll be able to change more of my ingrained habits for the better, by replacing them through constant reinforcement.

 

XXXXX

 

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Posted on 20 August 2017 14:44

At the moment, I am struggling with finding balance in my life.

 

I work in an office four days a week, and often have several social engagements throughout the week and at the weekend.  So, it can be difficult to find time to write.  It helps a lot that I have several writer friends who are much more dedicated than I am, and who keep me on target by scheduling writing dates and not letting me wimp out at the last minute.

 

But it can be tough.  I recently had a glorious weekend of three whole days with no commitments, and was encouraged that what I wanted to do with my time was work on writing projects.  I knuckled down and put in five or six hours on all three days, getting a huge amount done and feeling very proud of myself by the end of it.  Partway through the Monday afternoon, I found myself thinking, “This is what I want my life to be!”

 

Then I went back to ‘real’ work on the Tuesday and spent the rest of the week dragging myself around the office like a zombie, totally exhausted and utterly unable to concentrate on anything.  It turns out that spending three days focusing really hard on creative projects takes up just as much energy as my day job, if not more.  Who knew?  So it’s really not feasible for me to go to work in the office for four days, and then essentially work full days at writing for the other three days of the week.

 

It’s also starting to feel like I haven’t written anything new in a long time.  This clearly isn’t true, since I wrote two or three new pieces at Felixstowe Book Festival at the start of July, and I’ve taken part in two fanfiction events in the last couple of months, as well.  But so much of my time and energy since March has been taken up with redrafting the novel, I’m feeling the need to get my teeth into a new, big project that’s fresh and exciting.

 

I have at least two in mind, but I also have to remember that the novel isn’t done yet, and the current plan requires quite a bit more work before I can shift gears to focus properly on something new.  And then there’s all the reading I want to do.  There are so many great books about the craft of writing, and I want to read them all.  And that’s the aspect of my writing life that’s being most neglected at the moment.

 

But, the end of the Six Month Novel Programme is in sight (and it’s been an amazing and very productive experience), and there are developments in my day job that may mean I’ll be going down to three days a week in the office before the end of the year.  Maybe I can work out a schedule where I spend three days in the office, two and a half days writing, and still have a day and a half for fun and falling down.

 

So, I guess the answer is just to keep swimming.  I need to ensure I make the most of the time I have available, but also that I take time to relax as well.  Life is long, after all, and as long as I’m enjoying my writing, that’s still the most important thing.

 

XXXXX

 

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Posted on 08 July 2017 07:11

Last weekend, a few friends and I went to Felixstowe Book Festival.  This was my third event of this kind, and probably my favourite so far.  NAWG Fest in September last year was an intensive two days of excellent workshops, with a couple of author talks thrown in.  Tremendous fun, but very tiring.  Chipping Norton Literary Festival, in May, was all author panels, which I found very interesting, but didn’t spark my creative muscles.  So, I was glad to discover that Felixstowe had a range of different sessions on offer, including both panels and workshops.  I signed up for several of both, and thought the combination worked really well.

I had a great weekend in terms of writing.  My first workshop was on OuLiPo, a French movement, which focuses on applying restrictions to the writing form, in order to prompt the writer to think harder about word choices.  We did a couple of exercises - one in which we wrote a few lines using only one vowel (in my case, a) and one where we wrote some more lines missing out a particular letter (in my case, s).  It was fascinating, and really brought home to me that I don’t think that much about the individual words I choose when writing.  Using only the one vowel was much the more difficult task of the two, but even avoiding the letter ‘s’ proved challenging, especially since I chose to write a piece about two people having an argument - and couldn’t use ‘said’.

My second workshop was on short stories, and where to get inspiration.  The exercise we did involved having a selection of photographs to get ideas from, and I wrote a short piece about a woman being held up at gunpoint, with a weird twist of perspective.  I was very pleased with it, got a good reaction from the rest of the group when I read it out, and have subsequently entered it in a flash fiction competition.

The third workshop was about microfiction, and was much more focused on actually getting some writing done than anything else.  The tutor gave us each a piece of paper with a prompt on it, and then we had 25 minutes to produce a piece of writing.  My heart sank when I saw my prompt - Once Upon A Time.  But, I quickly rallied, thought about a more interesting way of using it than the traditional one, and completed a 250-word story within the time limit.  Everyone read out their pieces, and I was impressed by the range of styles and the level of quality.  After the session, one of the other attendees chased me down in the corridor to say how much she had enjoyed my piece, and that she thought I should enter it in a competition - so I have!

Whenever I go on a trip (festival, retreat, course) involving writing, my main objective is to come away with a piece of writing I never would have written if I hadn’t gone.  And I certainly achieved that on this occasion - with three new and interesting pieces to my name.  So, the weekend was definitely a success!

XXXXX

 

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Posted on 05 June 2017 17:09

I didn’t write anything all last week.  Then, I had a tiring, somewhat stressful but ultimately enjoyable weekend away at a gaming event, getting home later last night than planned.  And I’d completely forgotten about my dentist appointment this morning.  All I wanted to do with the rest of today was sit on the sofa and watch TV.  But I had a writing date scheduled with a writer friend this afternoon, so I duly made my way to Brick Lane to meet her.

On my journey, I thought about how fried my brain was, how tired my body was, and how much I didn’t want to spend the afternoon writing.  I was feeling demoralised about the intensive novel drafting programme I’m in the middle of, and the short story with the looming deadline felt like a millstone around my neck.  I was sure I wouldn’t be able to focus, that I’d get nothing done, and all I would get for my trip out would be more despair.

Then, I arrived at the cafe, got myself some tea, chatted for a while with my friend, and settled in to write.

Three hours later, I had edited two chapters of my novel, written an entirely new (and very exciting) scene, completed 1,200 words of the short story (only 2000 to go), and pruned another short story to fit the word limit of an upcoming competition.  I had also found multiple new submission opportunities in the back of Writing Magazine, my go-to place for where to send my completed work.

So, after failing to schedule writing time last week, and feeling as if I would never write another word again because it was just too hard, I had a tremendously productive afternoon and now feel very pleased with myself.  I’m also enthused about getting to the wholly new section of my novel, rather than being terrified of it, and I am confident I can complete the short story in plenty of time before the deadline.

An assigned slot of two to three hours, outside the flat, with another writer to keep me focused and provide companionship *always* produces good results, no matter how I feel on the day.  But this is a lesson I have to keep re-learning, as my brain is so very good at persuading me I have to be in the “right frame of mind” to write, and that today is not it.

At least the lesson was very fresh in my mind when my friend suggested we meet again on Sunday for more of the same.  I said a very enthusiastic yes, and now it’s in my calendar so I’ll have to go!

XXXXX

 

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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 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 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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