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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.

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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.