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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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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 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.