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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.