Tuesday, 30 December 2014

How do you find time to write?

It's true that I use my busy life as an excuse sometimes. After all, I have four kids, a part-time job that seeps into the unpaid days and also those other responsibilities I accidentally collected along the way. Finding time to write isn't always prioritised, even though I'd like it to be...and underneath, perhaps it's because I'm afraid that if I found more time, I'd also find out that I'm wasting my time, and will never be as good as I want to be.

I had a kick up the backside last night. I'd bought myself Jane Shemilt's debut novel, Daughter, which is very good so far. Before I settled to read it, though, I read about the author. And it turns out she is a GP with five kids. Despite that, she's made time to chase her dream and corner it. That's commitment and perseverance, and it's so true that this is often the difference between published and unpublished writers.

I have to confess that on reading that, I took a deep breath and paused before I was able to sink into the book itself. It was a reminder not to let excuses stand between me and the things I want in life. If you can't find time, you have to make it... bring it on!

Thursday, 18 December 2014

The Reading Writer - or The Writing Reader

Once you get past a certain point in the journey to becoming a writer, reading loses it's simple pleasure. It becomes a multi-layered experience.

I can still lose myself in a book if it is good - if it isn't, I don't stand a chance. In a good book, I tend to find myself looking for the strings and trying to peek behind the curtain, though, which does spoil the fun of being a reader. Even the best books are unlikely to surprise me lately, and I miss that uncomplicated relationship with story, where you're along for the ride.

But I love trying to work out how my favourite authors have achieved a sleight of story, or created the emotion or flavour that I've enjoyed. Being able to combine two of my favourite activities - reading and writing - in pursuit of a single goal is pretty wonderful. How often does that happen in life? And reading consciously means you really appreciate a book, and all that the author has done...although, perhaps you're no longer enjoying the book as the author intended.

I may not have time and money for a creative writing course at the moment, but I have masters of the craft at my fingertips, and through some self-initiated study, I can learn a lot. So when I ask Santa for a pile of books for Christmas, it's all in the name of self-improvement and work, and nothing at all to do with escapism, widening experience or the joy of a good story......honestly. Maybe you should ask Santa for some new reading material too, and spend the holiday with your nose to a page...?

Happy Christmas!

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Crazy Christmastime

It has been over a week since I last found time for writing. It hasn't stopped me keeping my ears open - I had a particularly good idea for a short story while having my hair cut on Wednesday, while listening in to the conversation next to me...eavesdropping sometimes does pay off!

But it's a busy time for everyone right now, and extra busy for school teachers, and extra busy for mothers so I'm going to be kind to myself and not get the guilts about not writing....but I'm also going to be kind to myself by making time tomorrow.

In the past week, I've had two ill children, an extra day and a half in work (the extra money will be appreciated in January, but both days happened to be Thursdays, my morning when Chick Pea is usually at pre-school and I have time to write), swimming lessons to squeeze in between nativity performances, carol services, and all that writing of cards and wrapping of gifts (especially the children's which I'm trying to do while they're out at school. I'm not a big fan of Christmas Eve wrapping - I want to be stress free and enjoying the evening with the kids on the day).

So I'm going to let circumstances dictate tomorrow. The five year old is ill - currently trying to breathe through a blocked nose while sucking his fingers, with a temp of 39.9 (which is fairly impressive, but I've seen worse) next to me on the sofa. There is no way he will be in school tomorrow, nor will I be able to do the shopping I needed to do, nor run the errands I've been desperate to fit in this week. So I'll be housebound with him and the little one, but they will occupy each other a bit; or sit and watch TV, which I allow more of when they're poorly. Which means I'll be free to write....sometimes the spanners in the works are in your favour after all!

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Point of View and Subplot

Do you think each significant character in your plot needs a subplot? 

I haven't really thought about it like this before, but I have been overdosing lately on a favourite author, and realised that one of the ways in which she creates a multi-layered plot, and also makes all her main characters three-dimensional, is by creating subplots that eventually collide with the main one.

Now, I have subplots. But they're not usually specifically targeted at a character like that. In my last novel (which is not ready for the light of day) the subplot belonged to the police officer investigating my main character's crime. Then there was a very lightweight little plot which doesn't deserve to be called a subplot, which just fleshed out Mr Love Interest a bit. But perhaps Mr Love Interest needed a bit more going on.

In my current work, there is a triangle of characters, who I will name (somewhat misleadingly, but tough, I'm not going for a synopsis here) Mrs Main, Love Interest 1 and Love Interest 2. The conflict is between Mrs Main and Love Interest 1, so he doesn't really have a subplot. There are side issues arising, which Mrs Main doesn't know about immediately, but they're still part of the main plot. Love Interest 2 is crucial to the main plot in every way, but doesn't have his own subplot. 

He has a backstory - career, family, failed engagement, hobbies - the lot. The relevant parts will be in the story. He is a point of view character - I have written scenes through his eyes.

But does he need a subplot of his own? Would it make him more believable? Or would it complicate the story too much? 

I feel as though the lack of one may be undermining an important convention in the kind of books I read (and want to write). 

There is another character who is also vital to the whole, and the threads of her story weave into the main, underpin it and provides a different voice, told in a different tense and person. She is also important, and brings texture to the whole....but I'm not sure her story can really be called a subplot, either. 

So is this story too slim? I'm a long way through to be having doubts, and I think I may have to plough on and just see...it has felt good so far, and it already needs serious pruning to make it a sensible length, so it isn't  as if it's flimsy in terms of length. But perhaps it lacks depth...

What do you think? Should all the main characters have a serious problem of their own going on 'on the side'?

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Kindle and Paper

I love my Kindle. I love the way I can buy books at the click of a button at any time of day or night and be enjoying them in seconds. I love the fact I can take a huge pile of books on holiday without filling a suitcase. I love being a book consumer on a grand scale without running out of bookshelf room.

But I'm never going to be able to live without real books. An ebook can't replace a real one. When I read an ebook, there is a dimension less to the experience. It makes the experience shallower, and more forgettable. Frequently now, I don't know if I've read a book, even after reading the blurb. I recently got to the last paragraph of a book that I'd bought at the supermarket before realising I'd already got it on my Kindle!

I miss being able to handle a physical object - feel the weight of it, the thickness of the pages. I miss navigating through it - especially if I lose my place, or want to flick back to something - such a simple place-finding exercise is time-consuming and irritating on the Kindle. I don't get to read and savour a blurb before I open an ebook; I miss the aesthetic pleasure of the front and end pages - that delicious anticipation as you approach page 1. (Perhaps I am a bit of a book geek..?) I miss seeing the cover and title each time I reach for a book - that subtle reiteration of what I am reading, which is crucial, apparently, if I want to remember what I've read.

Are these things insignificant? Not for me. I find it incredible to cruise Amazon and realise that I don't know the name of a book, or what it looks like - that the plot is floating, fragmented and untethered, in my mind. It unsettles me. And rereading a book without realising it -  I'm sure this isn't just my age; I'm sure it's linked to this Kindle syndrome of reading text out of context - out of the context of real pages, a cover, illustration, blurb...

I've embraced the ebook revolution; I do love my Kindle. I've been excited about the power that authors now have to publish their own books with such ease. But now I'm wondering if there is a downside. If an unknown author publishes with KDP, and is lucky enough to have their book in great demand, it is disappointing to think that the memory of that book is likely to slide greasily out of the readers' memory within a week or two of reading. It doesn't bode well for that author, trying to build a fanbase when the very form of their book discourages memorability.

What do you think? Do you find it harder to retain digital text?

Friday, 31 October 2014

Fascinating first lines

We all know that our first lines have to be gripping. I wonder what your favourite first line of a novel is? Do you like the first line of your favourite novel?

Here are a few of my favourite books and how they start:

"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." Rebecca, Daphne Du Maurier.

"The van der Lindens' house was distinguished from the others on the street by the creeper that covered half the front, running up to the children's rooms beneath the eaves, where at night the glow from the sidewalk lamp gave to Number 1064 the depth and shadow of a country settlement, somewhere far away from this tidy urban street." On Green Dolphin Street, Sebastian Faulks.

"The Boulevard Du Cange was a broad, quiet street that marked the eastern flank of the city of Amiens." Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks.

"Hush...Can you hear him?" The Distant Hours, Kate Morton.

"They said I was a drug addict." Rachel's Holiday, Marian Keyes.

"When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow." To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee.

"Her body moved with the frankness that comes from solitary habits." Prodigal Summer, Barbara Kingsolver.

"Mabel had known there would be silence." The Snow Child, Eowyn Ivey.

"My father's family name being Pirrip, and my christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip." Great Expectations, Charles Dickens.

And if I keep playing this game, I'll never be done; opening the doors to my bookshelves has sent me on a delightful half hour of revisiting old friends, and reminding me how long it has been since I've read some of these. Just one more, that most notorious of first lines:

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen.

Whew, what a range, what power, what trends to consider in all these. Look how long Faulks can be; how gentle Dickens. I got a tingle up my spine opening The Distant Hours - that first scene was so gripping that reading the first line made me instantly tense. So much to aspire to! Now onto what prompted this little excursion.

My nine year old daughter, who is an obsessive reader (at parent's evening, her teacher said, "I've never known a child read so compulsively" as though it were a sin. I thought I'd better not admit to the same disorder) has never shown interest in writing. I thought she never would, and then, two weeks ago, I saw the light in her eyes. She's been scribbling, on and off, ever since, then nagging me to help her to type it onto the laptop. Today we started typing and I was struck by her first line.

"Once, some Time-Travellers made a bed, and because they were poor they had to sell it, which was a shame as it was a most pulchritudinous bed."

How's that for originality? I expect it will fall down at line two, because she is only nine, but I'm fascinated to know why there are Time-Travellers in her story, and if they have capitalisation for a reason, and if the story is really about the bed or if it will wander off down other avenues. As always, I wish I had a pinch of the originality of a child. What a gift...it's always good to be inspired by others whether they are literary greats, skilled writers of today or nine year old girls. Hope something inspires you today!

Thursday, 9 October 2014

WoMentoring Application

It's taken me a long time, and agonising rewrites, but I think I've just about finished my 500 word statement ready to apply for a mentor through the fabulous WoMentoring project.

Is it best to be earnest, dedicated and committed? Or fun and light-hearted? How do you get yourself over in 500 words - and without it being a boring list of things you've achieved and dreams of being a writer (which is hardly going to set you apart from the crowd)?

The thing is, I could procrastinate over this for months longer, miss the deadline and miss out. This year I was meant to be focused on Opportunity, and I can't let this one slide by, so I'm settling on what I've written, and I'll allow myself one more proofread, and then I'm going to apply. And cross my fingers so tightly they won't be fit to type with.

Monday, 29 September 2014

He who smelt it, dealt it

Remember this puerile little saying? I'd like to pretend I've not heard it recently, but my seven year-old is firmly in the scatological phase and shows no signs of emerging. In fact, this is one of the more polite comments he's likely to make at inappropriate moments.

The thing that fascinates me is the way we write the past tense of words like dream, smell, feel and build. On the periphery of awareness, I've noticed that sometimes, jarringly, I'll read things like "The room smelled like cabbage" and wondered if I was trailing behind in the evolution of language, until I discovered an intriguing online discussion.

What I discovered is that the distinction is one of those national things. In England, it's not only acceptable to use smelt over smelled, but usually preferred. In other countries, the opposite may be true; especially in the USA, people recalled being pulled up on using the 't' ending over 'ed', and believe it to be ignorant.

What do you think? Have you noticed this difference when you have read books by authors from other countries? Do you think it matters?

And would it be wrong to teach my other children, "He who says the rhyme, did the crime"...?

Friday, 26 September 2014

Grammar or pleasure?

How important is grammar?

With my teacher hat on, I was on a training course for the new curriculum. The information was skewed heavily to literacy - I have a feeling that the lady was in her element with reading and writing. 

I agreed with a lot of what she had to say, until we came to grammar. I'm sure we can all agree that it is important to write grammatically correct sentences, and then to employ proofreaders to try and catch all the mistakes that got away. But does a good writer - or a child, to be a good writer - need to know the correct terms for grammatical features? 

The lady swung right into action, throwing around terms like 'upfront adverbials' and asking us to determine if a sentence was compound, complex or simple (I'll give you a clue; compound isn't related to having the conjunction 'and' in it). 

Within five minutes we teachers were bored - a Mexican yawn passed around the room. I felt a pang of horror to think that we might tantalisingly offer our young minds something marvellous, like the Hobbit, to read, then strip it of all excitement by studying exactly what kind of sentences are in there. What's more, the trainer said this was crucial to be a good writer - but is it? Isn't it possible to write, to some extent, by instinct? To know how to use grammar without being able to name things correctly?
I was curious about my strong antagonism to what the trainer was saying. Was it just because I didn't know what she was talking about half the time? Was it because we all felt she was showing off and deliberately trying to make us feel underskilled? 

I love words. You have to, as a writer. As a reader, too, that rush of warmth down your spine when you come across the perfect pairing of words, and know what craft went into choosing them - it's priceless. I never talked down to my babies, with bunny or gee-gee. I figured, if they were going to use a word, they might as well learn the right one straight away. I offered tyre alongside wheel and explained the difference. I pull them up, still (though gently) if they use a word wrongly, or mispronounce something. So why don't I believe that children need to know what an upfront adverbial is? Why doesn't it bother me that, for years, schools have called conjunctions 'connectives', which, said our trainer, there is no such thing as? 

I think it's because, to me, the naming of these things doesn't add anything to what they are. Flower is generic; teach a child rose or daffodil and they have more power in their choice of vocabulary. They are enabled to communicate more effectively. Teach them Rosoideae and they are actually less able to communicate effectively except in exclusive circles. What you are really teaching them is how to make others feel excluded; it's jargon, and unnecessary. What it might do instead is turn hundreds of children off literacy - make it stale and dry. What a crime. If they don't need to know it, don't teach it to them. I don't believe for a second that it will make them a better writer. And if, as adults, they want to write for a living, and discover that knowing more grammatical terms will enable them to communicate better in online forums with other writers, or on courses to improve their writing - then it won't take long to learn. 

Let's try to leave some pleasure in reading for the digital generations. 

Friday, 19 September 2014

Fighting fear

Does fear of failure stop you from writing? I've been struggling to get back into my novel after the summer break, because I knew there was a lot of structural work to do. I was so overwhelmed, I've been avoiding it; I even cleaned behind the fridge.

But today I took my 2 year old and my notebooks to a play centre. I told myself a half hour would do, then I could stop, wherever I was up to. And, to my surprise, once I began it was painless. I didn't want to stop after half an hour, but then when I had finished my untangling, I realised it had only taken an extra ten minutes. All that procrastinating, and it was done in forty minutes!

As I unpicked and wove, I added in ideas that I've been jotting down all summer, and they began to take shape together and move the story in a better direction. It felt good; new ideas sparked and brought the whole to life.

When I put it down, I was fizzing with excitement. Today, my plot feels sweet; it is all singing in harmony. I'm still a little nervous about spoiling it when I try to capture it on paper but most of all, I can't wait to get back to it tomorrow.

So the cure for self-doubt is to push through it - must remember that next time! I wonder what the cure is for the guilt of putting writing time ahead of housework? And the guilt of letting my attention wander to made up people when it should be on my two year old?

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

In praise of the adverb

I was reading The Welsh Girl (Peter Ho Davies) last night, and in the early pages I was struck by the description of someone as 'violently lonely'. There was something so wholly right about it, in context, that it made my skin prickle with delight.

What is it that makes a phrase like that so expressive? I'd argue that it's the addition of that beautifully chosen adverb 'violently'  - the perfect one, as it crunches too much to be a cliche, and yet has harmony, too. I set myself the task of trying to find a similar perfect pairing, and ended up reflecting instead on how delicate a balance it is.

For instance, look at the use of 'violent' and all it's aggressive connotations. Somehow, the addition of loneliness strips it of any threat in a way that many other pairings wouldn't. I tried to think about someone being violently sad, and my mental image was of ugly sulking and throwing toys out of prams.

I wonder if part of the beauty is in pairing words that have so little obvious connection..? I tried to think about being painfully lonely, but decided that that was too near a cliche, perhaps because it is so close to 'painfully shy'. That then discounted, for me, a whole raft of similar sensory adverbs, such as excruciatingly.

I toyed briefly with 'embarrassingly lonely', but the meaning changes so quickly then that the words risk whiplash. That would introduce a whole subtext (who is embarrassed by the loneliness?) and also, to me, it has a slightly comic flavour.

Which brings me to another thing - my perception of all these words is acutely subjective. Perhaps you don't 'see' the same thing as me at all in these juxtapositions - perhaps you like and dislike completely different ones. But it was interesting, exercising my brain to strive for alternatives that might be pleasing, and it challenged my vocabulary, too.

Have you ever found a particularly pleasing phrase in a book you've read? Can you find an adverb that can adjust 'lonely' in an even more interesting direction?

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Holiday Reading

I'm still ploughing my way through Robert McKee's "Story", and re-plotting my work in progress as I read. However, I can't live without fiction, and as a nervous flyer I had to have a couple of gripping novels to hand to get me through a recent flight (well, any excuse will do).

One of the books I read was Liane Moriarty's Little Lies. I was deeply moved by another of her novels, "What Alice Forgot", which resonated deeply with my life at the time I read it. "Little Lies" didn't disappoint. It was a fascinating, pacy, humourful read - despite the fact it was about a murder. It takes an artist to handle the serious issues that Liane Moriarty raised, while still leaving the reader feeling amused and safe...She has a dry delivery that reminds me a little of Austen. There was an honesty that led to a few beautiful moments of, Yes! That is what life is like! too. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

McKee says, on the subject of info-dump and backstory, that you don't keep an audience interested by telling them things, but by withholding information...until the right moment. Having just seen Liane Moriarty pull off exactly that, with aplomb, I really understand. Whether I can do the same is another matter...

Monday, 11 August 2014


Victor Hugo was exiled to Guernsey, and while there produced some wonderful writing. Tomorrow we fly there for a ten day visit with my sister and her husband; let's hope the break and the peace are inspiring and that I can get some decent day-dreaming done while the children build sand-castles....

Mustn't miss life while I'm dreaming, either, though. Happy holidays!

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Studying Story

During a recent workshop with the YA author Emma Pass she recommended that wannabe writers try Story by Robert McKee.
She did warn that she'd read it with a notebook to hand - and it does require some serious concentration. But she also said that it had revolutionised the way she wrote - changed her life, in fact. So I bought it, and am making slow but steady progress through it. It is primarily written for scriptwriters, but there is lots of useful information for all writers.
Anyway, in the summer holidays, which are frequently a bit of an involuntary sabbatical in my house, I have to find other ways to work. One of the things I'm doing is studying this book. Already some of the insights have affected the way I'm thinking about my work in progress, to the degree that, when I get five minutes, I'm not rushing to write, but hurrying to read the next part of this book.
There is, of course, always a danger that you spend so long reading about writing that you never write; but I'm also afraid of then discovering huge problems with my plot and having to go back and unpick things that could easily be put right now.
So, here are two thoughts from McKee's book.
 He talks about the 'craft' of writing, and its loss. "If your dream were to compose music, would you say to yourself: "I've heard a lot of symphonies....I can also play the piano...I think I'll knock one out this weekend"? No....you'd head for music school to study both theory and practice...Too many struggling writers never suspect that the creation of a fine screenplay is as difficult as the creation of a symphony." I find it very encouraging, to know I'm not the finished article yet, never mind my work! And I also need the encouragement to push myself harder in order to be the best I can. It's easy to shrug and say, "That's the best I can do, so it'll have to do" when what I really need to do is say, "It's the best I can do at the moment, so I must get better"...
The other thing I've found fascinating is what he has to say about cliche (especially cliched ideas, rather than hackneyed phrases). This is something I worry about in my own work, and McKee suggests that the antidote is to know your characters and world inside out, and to explore those through memory, imagination and research. He says that those who don't know their world well enough, when they try to write about it,  'come up empty' and so they fill the void with experiences from TV, stories and movies, therefore coming up with familiar, cliched ideas. Some of his tips to combat that are really interesting, too, and I need to apply this to my work in progress and see what magic I can work, and if I can strengthen this weak area of mine.
I'm glad for this chance to improve myself, even though I'm not managing much writing time.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Surviving Summer

I'm sitting on my Aunt's patio on her weathered bench, balancing a cup of tea on the curved arm, and writing on a see-sawing notebook. The children are wreaking havoc in the garden. (The washing line has already fallen victim to the 7 year old experimenting with a pair of shears.)
Of course, I'll type my post up later, but a notebook is so much more portable than a laptop. (It's bad enough trying to carry three scooters and a skateboard.)
I'm not sure how well the technique - of writing long-hand, then typing up - will work for me, especially when writing sections of my novel, but the time has come to rethink my routines and writing habits. It is summer; traditionally a time of great stress and little work in my home. It is equal parts glorying in relaxing, precious family time and constant squabbling under my feet.
Writing long-hand in the garden is working well so far; all four are currently exploring a woodlouse at sticks' length, and I've had ten minutes peace. In fact, except for the two year old, the children are markedly more independent and trustworthy this year. I can physically take a small step away, and withdraw my attention a little, too, when they are all content like this.
On the downside, they're awake longer these days. In the stifling heat of the past few days, the 5 year old has been awake until 9 o'clock, or nearly 10. Even on the cooler nights, his big sister is always now still up until 9 o'clock, and my treasured evenings are shrinking. By the time 9 o'clock arrives, I'm past my creative best. (Past my best in every respect, to be fair.)
So I'm going to need to think more inventively if I'm going to get any work done in the next six weeks...and beyond. And if that involves writing at the park, then I'd better get used to it.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Feeding your writing

It's been a funny couple of weeks, with my sister visiting  for a few days and various other commitments tripping me at every turn. I've written thousands of words in reports as part of my teaching job, and still squeezed in the very occasional and disjointed session on my work in progress. Blogging has had to take a back seat.

I'm very aware, however, that little gets done in the summer holidays. I feel anxious about that, but can only make plans to try to write.

Today I had a little boost; an article I wrote (for no fee) for a tiny, local paper has been published and a copy of the magazine was posted through my door. I felt quite proud of what I'd written, and I've been asked to write more for the next issue - I might even ask for payment now I've provided two articles to the magazine on goodwill.

However, I also have a mountain of reading to do, from the pleasure of The Girl Who Saved The King of Sweden to a recommended book on plotting, which I will blog about in due course, and a stack of writing magazines that have been piling up by the door. A few hours spent on these will help feed my writing, too, I hope, and might be something I can still do with ease, even while we are away on holiday.

Finally, I've also just finished watching Breaking Bad, which was a lesson in suspense and pace, and hooks and tight plotting...or that's my excuse for watching it, anyway!

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Writing Workshops

Yesterday I had the privilege of going to a writer's workshop. It's rare for the stars to align so that I can attend things like that - finding a babysitter for a whole day for four young children is hard enough in itself, plus it has to be local and affordable. This day was organised in a local library by Derbyshire's literature Development Officer, who sends out monthly newsletters by email to writers in Derbyshire, letting them know about opportunities like this one. If you want to receive her newsletter, her address is alison.betteridge@derbyshire.gov.uk. I'd recommend it - she also has details of writing groups, competitions and so on.

The writing exercises we took on were similar to ones I've done before at workshops, but that doesn't take away from how useful it is to focus your mind for a whole day on your ambitions, nor how fascinating it is to discuss what you've produced with others. For one exercise we wrote about a small selection of objects; the breadth of ideas was surprising - it's wonderful how differently minds work (and what a good job, too).

So here are the three biggest things I've brought away from it.

Firstly, the author who led the workshop, Emma Pass (who writes YA novels) talked about the structure of our plot and making sure that the obstacles our characters meet escalate in size. I was struck by this, as I think I may have failed at this in my current work in progress, so I'm going to be heading back to the post-its on that.

Secondly, when Emma talked about her journey to publication, I was astounded at the extent of rewriting required by agents and publishers, even after a manuscript has been accepted for publication. I knew that writers have to be prepared to rewrite and rework right up to the wire, but I didn't know that sometimes this involves major structural changes, such as changing endings or middles or getting rid of whole sub-plots. I'm chewing on this one. I'm not sure if it reassures me, that when I've done my absolute best, gone through rigorous rewrites and edits, had outside feedback, and finally have done all I can, that others will still help batter it into even better shape (which essentially I'd then have credit for!) or if the thought of all that rewriting, and the implication that you've not got it right even when you've done well is quite soul-destroying.

I'm going to take it as positive, actually. Anything that makes your writing better has got to be worth it, however painful and personally discouraging.

Thirdly, I brought away renewed commitment to those dreams of mine. It was a reminder to persevere, to make time for what I want; to keep on keeping on.

Oh, there was one other thing I brought away. I brought away copies of Emma Pass's intriguing novels. I'm looking forward to reading them - maybe you should buy one too!

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Commitment to Writing

I just listened to this very interesting interview about writing with author AL Kennedy.

During the interview she talks about the need to commit one hundred per cent to the process, putting aside the fear of a broken heart when your work is rejected or 'not that good'.

It's an interesting insight into the mind of a successful and dedicated writer, and challenging, too. Do you really put sweat and effort into all your writing sessions, however short?

I remember writing one of my short stories for last year's challenge, and being gutted when it wasn't shortlisted because of the hours of polishing and the work put into crafting. Can I honestly say I'm working so hard on my current project, or am I dabbling in my comfort zone? Lots to think about!

Monday, 2 June 2014

Recipe for Trouble

I've read a lot lately about the use of photographs to inspire settings or characters. While writing my last story, I used to occasionally whip out my camera and take a few photos of places that seemed like they belonged in my story. So I was intending to do the same thing this time, aided and abetted by a fancy phone (much more subtle than the camera).

As with so many good ideas, it hadn't happened, and then we were in the park this week, and I saw a lady who struck me as being similar to a character of mine in looks. I wondered whether to snap a photo of her, and use aspects of her dress, especially, as inspiration. Luckily for me, with kids in tow, it was relatively simple to take a snap of her in the background of the 5 year old hanging upside down from the monkey bars.

I haven't decided yet whether to edit him out...!

The thing is, I did feel guilty doing it. It felt wrong because she didn't know (even though I will delete the photo when I've finished with it). I feel faintly guilty too that I'm not 'just' using my imagination...even though far more accomplished writers than I am have admitted using real people, in part, as inspiration.

I had visions of the woman in question (who did cast me one suspicious glance) storming over and accusing me of photographing her; wouldn't look good in court, would it? Though I'm pretty sure no laws were broken...!

I wonder if anyone else has used visual aids to plotting/writing? And what you think of snapping photographs of inspiring-looking strangers? Is that any more morally dubious than noting down their conversation in a notebook?

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Planning for success

I started Slimming World a couple of weeks ago, having decided I really can't blame the extra stones on baby weight anymore.

 One of the things I'm really appreciating is the consultant's positivity and the way she tries to help everyone to plan for the week ahead. So far, I'm in the honeymoon period where nothing is going to impede my efforts, not even Cadbury's, but every week I've heard her saying to other people - "And how's your week looking? Is it going to be an easy one?" If someone says, "No, I've got my in-laws coming round and I always drink heavily to get through the day when they're here/No, I'm doing a sponsored chocolate scoff" or whatever, the lovely consultant says, "So what can you do to plan so that you have a successful week?" Others offer solutions or ideas too, and you can see people squaring their shoulders and heading out to face their week with a plan under their belts.

This week has been a bumpy one for me. The five year old vomited very publicly and dramatically during an open-air memorial service for my lovely headteacher (trying to scoop half-digested spaghetti hoops off the grass before any other child skipped in them is not a memory I want to treasure, but probably won't forget anyway). Then began days of sickness, diarrhoea and hissy fits if I tried to turn CBeebies off. ("This grown up programme makes me feel so ill, Mummy...")

If you have a small child, you'll know that you become fairly tethered to where your sick child is, especially if, like me, you have new carpet and you really need to catch every drop of escaping fluid. On Sunday night, when his vomiting was truly terrible, he and I didn't drop off until 6.30am, and then we only had an hour's nap, at which point we woke (more puking) and I realised the other kids were all now late for school.

Cue a few days of feeling insanely tired and trapped indoors.

I couldn't plan for that, not until I get my crystal ball, but I have managed to write a few thousand words anyway, tapping away at the laptop on one sofa while he lay on the other demanding drinks and snuggles at regular intervals. Now he's recovering and I'm at work, so we're both feeling brighter (though my Mum looked a bit wild-eyed when I got home).

But next week isn't shaping up much better. Most of my back-up people are on holiday, so it's going to be intensely hands on during the half-term holiday, trying to take the kids out, have friends round, and hopefully enjoying the sun if it comes back, without any support/adult company. On top of that it's report writing time of year, and I'll be pouring my creativity into thousands of words for that in the next two or three weeks.

So far, a list of excuses.

Now is the time to plan for success. What can I do to make sure I write anyway?

These are my ideas:
Get up earlier.
Split my writing time when the kids are sleeping half/half - spend 50% of the time on reports and 50% on my own writing.
Take my notebook to the park, and do some people watching and plot-cooking.
Treat myself to one afternoon at a playcentre and try to fit in some writing there.
Accept some refreshment time for me, and precious time with my kids. After all, they won't be little for much longer, and then I'll have more time, and will miss these days.
Aim to write for ten minutes every day, and accept that if that's all I can do this week, it will be seventy minutes I wouldn't have had otherwise.

Any other suggestions gratefully received!

How can you plan for success for next week?

Monday, 12 May 2014

My Writing Process Blog Tour

I'm so excited to be taking part in the My Writing Process blog tour this week! Many writers and authors have been taking part, week after week, explaining their work and inspiration - last week was fellow parent/writer Dana at Celiac Kiddo, who blogs about family, writing and gluten-free living  - read her post here.

What am I working on?

Right now I'm trying very hard to focus all my attention on a novel that I began earlier this year. It's difficult as I'm a bit of a writing grasshopper - I know I prefer writing long fiction, but am dabbling in other things too. I just submitted an article to a non-paying market, which has boosted my confidence and added to my portfolio, but now that is done I'm back 'on task'. 

The novel I'm working on is contemporary women's fiction, and I'm rolling in Chapter Four of the first draft, happy as a pig in muck. I've not set myself a real deadline, but I hope the first draft will be complete before school's summer holiday. I find a lot of my writing habits revolve by necessity around the school year and how hard it is to write while refereeing four children...

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

 I haven't set out to write something unique; I've just written about things that inspire and fascinate me. My work-in-progress (working title: The Web - I'm not great with titles) is about an ordinary life that derails, and focuses on family relationships and how they crumble or strengthen under pressure.

I have completed two previous novels which will probably never see the light of day, but there are certain recurring ideas in the three stories. I have used my local area - the edge of the Peak Park in all its beauty, diversity and wildness - as a setting, and children, family and motherhood feature prominently.

However, the story I'm brewing ready for next time is likely to take me exploring the world and is as child-free as an 18-30 holiday, so perhaps it's too soon to generalise. 

Why do I write what I do?

If an idea has grabbed my attention, and tugged at the corners of my mind for long enough, I can't ignore it anymore and the only way to shut it up is to write it down.

I think underneath the cynical varnish I must be a romantic. I like to believe that true love exists, that there is beauty in family and that there is always hope. So my novels explore a variety of issues, but I want to enjoy writing, and I like the escapism of being lost in another world (where, even if things look bleak, I can believe in a happy ending) and I hope readers will enjoy the escapism too.

How does my writing process work?

After (disastrously) flying by the seat of my pants twice now, which created unnecessary amounts of redrafting, I've planned meticulously this time. I'm also using Scrivener for the first time. Although Scrivener means that I have to stop sometimes to find out how to do what I want to do, on the whole the planning and the program are making it much easier to dip in and out in the slivers of time that I whittle off my day. 

After an idea has festered for a reasonable amount of time, and can no longer be ignored, I begin to think about the characters, and spend a long time trying to make them memorable.

Sometimes I get a very clear visual - almost cinematic - scene that comes to me whole. I was once walking home late at night from a boring committee meeting when I 'saw' another woman doing the same. The main difference is, the woman in my mind was being followed, and I knew immediately who by and what they wanted - although it was a couple of years later before I knew what motivated the mugger. Even then my main character was very different to me. I would probably scream and run if someone attacked me, but she is a bit of a wild-cat.

I write from start to finish, a little at a time, and this time I'm trying to do a little gentle editing as I go along, to minimise the daunting mountain of editing at the end. I might do a swift initial proof-read straight away, but this is more self-congratulatory re-reading of the manuscript than useful, and then comes rewriting, cutting, editing...and then proof-reading again. I usually sit and type on the sofa with the laptop warming my legs.

There's usually a lot of cutting to be done, as I battle verbosity non-stop...I hope I haven't been too wordy for you today. Now you know the way,pop in again soon - I always appreciate moral support! 

Next week the blog tour is stopping at the blogs of these lovely writers:

Karla is a freelance writer who writes content for websites whilst eating far too many biscuits. She lives in the Suffolk countryside & works from home, although she has her desk facing away from the window otherwise she'd spend all day looking at cows. Karla is a master procrastinator & spends too much time on Pinterest and Bloglovin' when she really should be writing. Check out her website too - I'm intrigued by the meaning of 'koalascribble'!

Ana Salote is a children's writer and dramatist. Her latest fantasy novel, Oy Yew, was longlisted for the Times/Chicken House Award. She is working with indie press, Mother's Milk, on the rest of the trilogy. She lives near Avalon and is inspired by 'all things counter, original, spare, strange'. 

C.C. Riley is a writer daylighting as an English teacher. Married to the man of her dreams with two obnoxious dogs, she spends most of her time reading, writing, and remodeling her home. 

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Dream State

It was one of those mornings. My alarm clock went off earlier than I remembered setting it, and I had the very rare feeling of being fully rested. Not one child had slid in beside me in the night and kicked me black and blue, or honked my nose, or huffed and puffed into the spare pillow. I felt awake and ready to face the day...and then I'm not sure what happened, except it involved a vivid dream and waking up to find we were now running seriously late.

Anyway, I've had chance to write the dream down now. It's not something that's figured highly in my creative process before, and I may never use what I scribbled down at lunchtime, but I had a definite sense throughout the dream that I was actually within a story. That sense is so strong that I will have to check that what I dreamed isn't some residual childhood memory of a book I once read.

The dream was only one scene, which posed many questions and could go in several directions, but the strangest thing for me was that the main character in it was a teenage girl. The story that would rise from it would have to be YA, not a genre I've ever written, nor been interested in.

So, who knows? Perhaps I'll one day revisit that page of my notebook and wonder why a dream struck me so forcefully. Or perhaps when my next couple of works are sorted, I'll find that I want to try my hand at that one...I'll let you know!

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Getting to know a character

Last time I tried to work on my novel (how pretentious does that sound when you're unpublished?!) I hit quicksand and got bogged down.

I've been trying to understand why, and find a way through, and I think I might have. 

I started by deciding to spend some time with the secondary character who needed to join my heroine for a few paragraphs. I was going to write some scenes that were unnecessary to my story, and would never make it into my manuscript, but which I hoped would flesh out this woman. 

I'd not been writing for long when I decided I didn't like this two-dimensional being. I was so determined to have a mixture of characters in my book, and avoid too much autobiographical inspiration that this woman had nothing in common with me. I think I could have worked with that if she was an antagonist, but she wasn't. She was meant to have a fairly close relationship with my main character. 

Is it a bad thing that she was almost my polar opposite?

Of course not. It's realistic to have characters of different personality types in life.

Am I talented enough to pull it off? 

Maybe not - yet. I just couldn't warm to her. It was like when you walk into a room and instantly have a gut reaction against someone. And I knew she and I were never going to get on.

So I wrote anyway. I let her soften on the page, just a fraction. Then she began to move around a little herself. I discovered something I didn't know about her before. (Oh my! The pretentiousness is multiplying!) I imagined something about her that was completely at odds with something I had already planned for her, and somehow the juxtaposition of the two clicked. It works. It makes her intriguing in her own right. It increases the bond between this woman and my main character, and explains further this woman's interference at the end of the novel, which is, ultimately, why she'd made the cut in the first place.

Best of all, I felt that fizz returning; the itchy fingertips that can't wait to dance across the keyboard. 

Saturday, 19 April 2014

An amazing opportunity

On an online forum today I heard about an incredible opportunity for aspiring writers. An amazing and generous group of women with experience in publishing (agents, writers, editors etc.) have set up a scheme (the WoMentoring Project) to offer free mentoring for other women who are just starting out. (If you're a man, I'm afraid you'll have to wait for an amazing and generous group of men to set up a similar scheme.)

They say it is their way of paying it forward. I say it's one of those heart-warming initiatives that makes you believe there is a point after all. 'Hope' has been on short rations lately, and one of the things that has kept me sane (no, really, I am!) is my writing.

It absorbs me, excites and enchants me, but my frustration is in how to improve, and this is exactly the kind of support I need. I will be applying, and I think you should, too! I'm sure there will be a huge response. Applications are open now until April 2015. But just hearing about it gave me a shot of that rare thing: hope. It gave me something to look forward to, and it also reminded me of how much the kindness of strangers has meant to me in the last twelve months. That this incredible group of talented women are offering their time, energy and interest to strangers for no greater reward than warm, fuzzy feelings  - well, it uplifts me. I'm in awe of them. (I would be anyway. They're real writers and everything! Yet they're not sitting in some ivory tower hoarding their resources and hard-won skills - instead they're sharing with lesser mortals.)

The website reminds me a little of an online dating site. There are profiles to read; each individual's offer of support is tailored to what they can give, so that there are lots of things to consider when choosing who to apply to. Applications can only be submitted to one mentor at at time, and so you browse, looking for someone who might have something in common with you - do they have to juggle writing and kids, too? Do they specialise in your chosen genre? And all the time there's a little flutter of nerves in your stomach - what if they don't choose you? What if none of them do?

Well, I'm getting used to the pang of rejection, so there's not much to lose. I'm going to be launching myself at this opportunity - and if you've got the right chromosomes, you should, too!

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Year of Opportunity

My new year resolution this year was much woollier than last years' "Enter a comp every month" idea. So it's been much easier to ignore. Clever, that, for a procrastinator.

I promised myself that this year I would take opportunities that came up, and that I'd make opportunities for myself.

I suppose the fact that I'm working (regularly) on my novel deserves a reserved pat on the back. (It's a long way to The End...)

But I'm afraid to say that an email whooshing into my inbox suggesting that I enter a local short-story competition that I was unsuccessful in last year didn't get a response from me. Oh dear. I think I'll have to chalk that one up as a missed opportunity. My PR gremlin might say it was good that I was fully focused on the task in hand, and didn't like to get distracted...

Anyway, yesterday I received a message from a magazine editor who published a short article of mine last year. It was unpaid work, for a very small, very local parenting magazine, which disappeared from view immediately afterwards without so much as a poof. They are intending to publish another magazine and the editor asked me to write another article, on single-parenting issues. It is another instance of experience rather than cash incentives, and I'm happy to do that right now, as it is such a small magazine.

But the simple act of someone asking me for something has ignited a flame of enthusiasm (must not lose focus from my novel....) and I've been jotting down ideas for articles all day and intending to make a list of possible markets for my ideas sometime soon when the kids finally go to bed.

Might not be such a bad resolution after all.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

An inspirational lady

It's much easier to write a comical or serious post than a personal one. But I'm going to have to take that risk today, because I've got to one of those points in life when priorities become startlingly obvious, and very little matters.

I've lost a lot of people, in one way or another, in the last eight months, and I hoped that rock bottom had passed. But on Thursday night a friend and colleague, who I knew for far too brief a time, lost a gutsy battle against leukaemia. She was around my age, and has had to leave behind three very small daughters.

And it turns out there's no limit to how much grief and loss you might have to handle in a period of time. Nothing makes you immune, even if you think you've already plumbed the depths.

It was devastatingly difficult to teach for an afternoon after hearing the news that none of us had believed we would hear and I still don't truly understand how such a vibrant person can be gone.

It is now the Easter holiday; a fortnight when sandwich-making and rushed mornings and work can be forgotten. It's a fortnight when 'me-time' is scarce. I'm going to take some time out to grieve, but mostly I want to appreciate life.

 I want to hold my children till they give me funny looks, and take them to places that make their faces glow. I want to be grateful for my good health every day - and take better care of it, too. I want to do the things that make me feel happiest and most alive  - like writing, even when there's a knotty scene to untangle.

May you make the most of every moment this week, too.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Plotting roadblock

No, I'm not talking about roadblocks you've planned yourself. I'm talking about when your plotting hits a roadblock.

So in my first novel, I didn't plan ahead much - I tried, but was spectacularly ineffective. I remember hitting a midway point when it all seemed to be going nowhere, and even now, after several drafts, there are multiple threads to unpick, and many, many things I wish I'd done differently from the start. In fact, that's why it's holidaying in a cupboard - because it has potential, but  I'm not clever enough yet to tackle the major rewrite it needs.

This time, older and wiser (well, older at least) I plotted carefully and I've been writing fast, editing a little as I've gone, and been blissful. Until today.

Today I arrived at a scene that I wasn't at all sure about. It involves my significant woman sharing a meal with her in-laws. Exactly - it doesn't sound riveting, does it? So with that in mind, I sat down before I began and tried to work out what this scene was for. Could I cut it completely? Would it work with other characters? I spent a precious half hour of my writing time thinking about what I needed to achieve in this scene, and why. It turns out that the crucial thing is that the mother in law is instrumental in the last chapter. So I can't just introduce her at the end. I don't think any other character could do the job, either.

On top of that, the in-laws have less important but significant influence  in a more general way. So this is definitely the right moment to introduce them. Reassured that I needed to write this scene, and focused on why, I set off. But it didn't flow. I spent my hour writing the start of the scene three times, and then ran out of time. Now, the shine has rubbed off my enthusiasm. This is something I need to fix, or it could be a real brake on my creativity.

I'm going to mull it over. Perhaps the characters aren't real enough yet. Perhaps the setting for this scene is too domestic. Perhaps my writing is the problem. Perhaps I'm rushing it all, because it doesn't interest me - but if it's not interesting me, something deeper is still wrong with this. I'm hitting a block because my subconscious knows something is Wrong . So I'm giving myself a day's grace (not that I have much choice as I'm at work tomorrow) and I'm going to see if I can figure it out.

And if that doesn't work, perhaps my plotting will allow me to skip over it and come back.

What do you do when things go wrong?

Saturday, 5 April 2014


I've watched a few films with the kids in the last few weeks. It's interesting to see what captivates them and what I enjoy most...and why.

Sometimes it's a case of taste - I'm not inclined to like things that are too fantastical, whereas the children don't mind so much. Sometimes it's how well written and paced they are, however, and how likable the characters are. There's a lot to learn for a wannabe writer about how to hook people and how to drag them along in the slip-stream of a story.

Our latest film night - tonight -was snuggled in front of Frozen, which was a lesson in how to crank up the pressure in the last third of a story. I wouldn't like over-analysing to spoil my time with the children, nor my enjoyment of films and novels, but who needs how-to books when there are lessons round every corner?

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Quick update, quick writing sessions...

My plan to write today was blown to smithereens by the baby who refused to sleep while her siblings and I were doing an hour's writing (the problem with having a teacher-mother is that strike days aren't non-stop fun. The five year-old had to go to school and we agreed we'd work for the morning, too, so he didn't feel so bad). In the end, I cobbled together about twenty minutes, and wrote 198 words, most of which will be rubbish when I look at them tomorrow.

I won't feel bad about it.

At least I wrote! At least I'm writing nearly every day. I'm loving having plotted a bit more this time, as I find it easier to dip in and out. It's much easier to write a scene when you know exactly where you're going. However, I'm reserving judgment on whether this level of plotting is better than winging it until I finish the first draft and see if the overall effect is a bit patchwork.

Chapter 2 is under my belt, though, and I'm so excited each time I sit down to write. This is what writing is all about. Success is secondary when you love something as much as this....but I still want to get better at it.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Handling Jealousy

My sister has never been interested in being a writer. She's a very creative person - she likes to make her own cards, which are beautiful, and has begun to make felt accessories since she's moved to the Channel Islands for a few years, and given up teaching.

She's one of the cleverest people I know. Her mind is like a computer. If you need to remember an event from childhood, or figure out how to piece together where a certain relative fits into the family, or are trying to work out why a name you just heard is familiar, you phone my sister. And she'll know.

A couple of weeks ago she told me she was entering a writing competition to win some airline tickets. The competition means she has to write a children's story, so she's been sending them to me to try out on my children (who love to be guinea-pigs, and don't pull their punches when it comes to critiquing, either). I was able to pass on lots of advice, and was quite amazed myself at how much I know now, and how much of that I've learnt in the last three years. I've been able to help with editing.

But I was really blown away by one of her ideas, which was original and intriguing and made an interactive leap that could be used by the competition organisers if they wished to promote their organisation in that way. I had a moment of shock when she mentioned it, because it was so innovative that I just know I couldn't have come up with it. And that was when I thought to myself, "What if she wins? Will I be glad, or will I feel like she's swooped in and stolen, with ease, something that is mine? I'm the One in the family who wants to write, not her!"

It surprised me that I could think in such a childish and selfish way. Since then she's sent me three stories to look at, and I've realised that I have no idea if they have been well enough executed to stand a chance. As with all competitions, you're never one hundred per cent sure what judges will like or look for. But I'm facing the fact that she's entering (fearless sister of mine!) and so there's a chance she will win. And that I have to be ready to handle that, and not take it personally if she becomes successful so easily.

And I must be more mature than I think, because I really don't want her to feel rejected. And I really, really want her to win those tickets and come to visit me...but for now I need to follow in her footsteps and keep being brave about trying, and keep taking the time to write.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Disappointing reads

I imagine it won't be a surprise if I confess that I'm a compulsive reader. After all, isn't it a prerequisite for the writer?

In the last year, I've joined a book club, which is great fun, although I do have a guilty secret - I really do go for the books, not the wine and company. They're the cherry on the cake -but it's the books I'm addicted to. There's something wickedly indulgent about 'having' to read a book for this pseudo-intellectual pastime called 'book club'. My mother is surprisingly supportive about babysitting while I go out - I think she's under the impression that book club is very worthy and must be improving my mind. I haven't mentioned the wine to her - Old Methodism runs in her veins.

Anyway, this month's book is The Behaviour of Moths, and I had a stack of hand-me-down books from my sister-in-law that I thought I might tackle first. And then something awful happened. It skewed my whole perspective; there was cosmic misalignment. Let me tell you about it.

I read the first book(not something I would have picked up in a shop, but it had won an award, for goodness' sake!) and it was an all right story with a quirky voice, which ran on a bit too long and left me feeling a bit 'meh'. (I know. I'm meant to love words, and I just described something as 'meh'. But I quite like the word 'meh'. I'm leaving it there, anyway!)

I tackled the next book with enthusiasm, ready for a change. It was a real chick-lit book, the kind I expected to be enjoyable, at least. It wasn't. The protaganist was a shallow, selfish drama-queen. I didn't understand  her motivations, and, worse, I didn't like her. But I held on (I hate to leave a book unfinished - I really am compulsive) hoping there'd be an ending that would make it all worthwhile. To my disgust, it ended with a whimper - an inconclusive conclusion that left me feeling conned. The only reason I'd held on was to see how things ended, and the author finished in the laziest way. I felt cheated, and picked up the next in the pile.

This one was women's fiction, but the cover looked more serious, and the blurb sounded OK. Again, I wouldn't have chosen it in a shop, but who looks a gift book between the covers? Well, I did, of course. I read the whole blinkin' thing from page 1 to page I-don't-care-anymore. It was the dullest, most uninspiring book I've ever read, filled with characters I'd have liked to drown. If you asked me, "So, what happened in this book?" I don't know. Perhaps that it was about two women, facing decisions and thinking about them. Sounds boring? It was. Again, one of them didn't even come to a conclusion, and the other one did, but it was so morally questionable I took a real dislike to her.

You might be thinking how judgmental I am, but honestly, it wasn't me, it was the books! I've never read such a run of duds. And that's the scary thing. Half way through that last one, I realised that I was dreading picking it up. I realised that the last few weeks of reading felt like I'd wasted hours of my life. I saw for the first time how easy it would be to hate reading, or to not see the point. If I hadn't had nearly 40 years of love to succour me, I might've given up on reading after this experience. How awful is that?

Being the person I am, I put my writer hat on and tried to think about why these books didn't work for me, so that I could learn from them. It made me feel better, that the time wasn't entirely wasted.

Then, with my faith in books battered but not destroyed, I turned to The Behaviour of Moths. After all, I had to read it, and before Wednesday. If it turned out to be hard labour like the last one, I'd better start sooner rather than later.

And my faith has been restored. It's a triumph of a story, utterly believable, haunting, dark and yet somehow not too heavy. I was captivated and devoured it in a couple of days. Thank goodness for book club. It just goes to show the power that writers wield - not just to offer pleasure and enjoyment to fans, but to put people off reading with a bodged effort (and the books I've mentioned above were all traditionally published). We owe it to our readers to put in our best work, to create likeable, memorable characters, gripping, believable plots that are well paced, and writing that zings on the page. When I've cracked it, I'll let you know...

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Short story fail

Wow, the last few weeks have been intense. Family stuff has taken over - I'm definitely missing having deadlines like last year. We've had two funerals and five birthdays in the last six weeks...despite which I have managed to do some work on my new novel.

But I've been feeling seriously discouraged. My latest competition offering, which I was very proud of, didn't even make the short list. I could taste the disappointment; I haven't been able to read the winning entry yet.  How childish is that? I need to take rejection on the chin, but I've felt more like abandoning my dreams than ever before...yet I know I'm tired, spread thin, and such a lot has been going on in my life that this feeling of pointlessness isn't to be trusted. I know I'll bounce back sometime, and there's no point bouncing back in a year's time, having wasted twelve months. I need to keep working, keep writing, and remembering to suck the joy from the creation, regardless of outcome.

And today I received a cheque in the mail for a letter that's been accepted in a magazine...it's not the same, but it was a small encouragement, and it's nice to have some pocket money, too. (I'm just trying to ignore that little voice that whispers, Know your limits!)

Friday, 14 February 2014


Serves me right for being smug. I might have been able to write through grief, but it turns out it's much harder while providing hospitality for family who've come to stay for a week, and when there are funerals to finalise arrangements for, and to attend. It's not been the most productive week.

There was one night I stayed up, trying to hit my first mini-target of getting my storyline plotted out. It was one am when I made it to bed, with work the next day. At three am the baby woke with a temperature and refused to go back to sleep, screaming her way merrily towards six am, when the alarms went off and the other children got up, grumbling about the baby.

(My eight year old wants to know if the baby could live next door, instead.)

Some days it's hard to scrape together the energy, motivation and brains to write - especially simultaneously. I'm not sure anything could have made this week any more productive. But tomorrow is another day.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Writing against the odds

Last year's personal disasters seemed to bleed my creativity. It was a slog to finish projects when I felt weighed down with sadness. Setting deadlines, keeping promises to myself, staying determined - these were the things that kept me 'on task', as we'd say at school.

I was hoping that 2014 would be a better year, but so far it's not living up to much. There have been minor hassles keeping me from my laptop. I decorated a wall in a hideous shade that makes me flinch every time I pass it, so that's top of my fix-it list for tomorrow. My car has had a run of playing up, and an expensive stay at the garage hasn't cured it. Tonight, the handbrake cable snapped, too. The mechanics are going to be wondering if I've got a crush on one of them, I'm there so often. I'm struggling to transfer our tv, broadband and phone package into my name, and phoning up about it eats into my time and -more importantly, perhaps - into my calm, so that I'm not fit to write afterwards. Unless you count sharp complaint letters to anonymous recipients.  I've had plumbing debacles that you really don't want to hear about - raw sewage isn't really the best topic to dwell on. Last week my 92 year old grandma passed away. I was privileged to be holding her hand and treated myself to the luxury of a day of pure escapism afterwards, lost in chick-lit, which helped. Five days later, my husband's 91 year old Nan died. She might not be biologically mine, but she's been in my life for 16 years and I'm sad, too.

It's all a bit much. No time for writing at all...except there has been. I made myself stick post-its of scenes all over the dining table one afternoon, and knocked them into a reasonable plot. There were a few holes, which I have then been cogitating on. It's proved to be a good distraction when my mind has been going overtime on less pleasant things. It's occupied my brain in the shower, and on the walk to school and back. There are still a few unanswered questions, but I'm getting there, and I've got a slow burn of excitement going on.

Making time has made me feel better in the midst of a bad week. Like therapy, but more fun!

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Change of perspective

A friend sent me photos of his art work last week. He is, like me, in his mid-thirties. (OK, past the exact middle, but who's counting?) His art work was good. There was a sketch of a woman that I especially liked, although it was instantly clear that something was wrong with her arms. He hadn't quite got them right.

I had two thoughts about that. The first was, wow, with a bit of support, and someone to show him what's wrong and how to fix it, he could really be good at this. The second was, what a shame he didn't know he wanted to do this, and work on it when he was fresh from school. If he'd perfected his technique back then, and spent the next twenty years improving and practising, just think how polished he'd be by now.

Then in a rush, I realised how that applies to me. I thought of all the time wasted because someone knocked my confidence when I was seventeen. I thought of the modules I took alongside my BEd - Journalism and Short Story - which I passed, but didn't appreciate and exploit the way I ought to have, if I'd taken them seriously. I must've been sleep-walking through life not to spot the opportunity I had there, but I'm a late developer. I simply didn't realise that these could really be options for me.

But the good thing is, I'm only in my mid-thirties (or thereabouts), as is my friend. It's not too late to learn, and we still both stand a chance of having another twenty years to polish our arts...and then a few spare years to rest on our laurels...?!

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Year of opportunities

So here are my goals for 2014.

I've been inspired by the encouraging feature in Writers' Forum, (issue #147) where Janie and Cass Jackson suggested embracing the key word 'opportunity' this January. In fact, I love the nascent possibility in it so much, that I'm adopting that as my first goal. It's hopelessly woolly, of course - you can't measure if you've achieved it; it's not specific. But perhaps that's why it suits me - that, and the fact that I can apply it across my whole life, not just to my writing. So this year, I'm going to be grasping opportunities - trying to say yes to anything I can, being brave about putting my work out there, meeting new people - and making new opportunities for myself, too.

I'd only just decided that when an email pinged into my inbox, suggesting I might like to enter a local short story competition (Belper Short Story competition if you would like to enter). I tried not to suck air over my teeth at the entry cost, which seems steep for the size of the prize, and reminded myself that it's an opportunity.

My second goal is about control. I've felt out of control last year - at the mercy of Fate or 'whatever means the good' - but just like our characters, it's time I stopped reacting to things happening to me, and got on with making thing happen. (This links beautifully with my first goal, doesn't it? Almost like I planned it to...!) This will involve things like getting myself to bed early, so I stand a chance of getting enough sleep. It involves eating healthily, and trying to tackle house maintenance/decor issues as they arise, rather than getting snowed under by them.  (I'm not the sort of person who thinks well amid chaos. My thinking has definitely suffered since I became a mother.)

From a writing point of view, I'm going to set bite-sized goals to give myself control of my writing life. I think setting deadlines will be key for me, but as a first step, I'm going to work to a weekly word count to start rattling out the first draft of my next novel. I probably only write for three days a week (could I squeeze more in..?) but if I think I can write 1000 words a day, a target of 3000 words a week isn't very impressive. But if I made it 5000, would that be too aspirational? I'm going to set a target of 3000 for next week, then alter it if it isn't right. They're my goals, after all, and the purpose is not to handcuff myself in a legally binding contract, but to help to focus myself and increase my productivity and the quality of my work. They need to work for me, not me work for them...

I have high hopes for this year!

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Done it!

My final story of the year has been submitted. I am metaphorically dancing round the room! (Am too tired to really dance.) The only thing that could make this any better would be to actually win...

I'm proud of this latest submission. After a shaky start with it, and feeling uninspired, I became quite excited, and it felt good when I re-read it. I asked a critical friend for feedback. I respect his opinions and while he's tactful, he's honest. He apologised for picking it to pieces, when actually the things he'd mentioned were mostly things I'd had qualms about. It's always invaluable to have a reader who will point out when your meaning is unclear, too, so I appreciated his input. But the thing I liked best about his feedback was that when he got to the slight twist I'd slipped in, he had commented in the margin, "I got a tingle down my spine when I read this and saw that things weren't as they seemed." I love that. I love knowing that something I wrote created that response, even if it was only in one reader. That spark of encouragement is worth a lot to me.
Mmmm.....Abigail's finest...

I'm ready now to re-evaluate and make my goals for 2014. One thing I want to do is plan to have writing time, and use it wisely. This week I made the mistake of trying to multi-task by making dinner while writing one afternoon. I think you can see dinner wasn't an outright success, but I think the words baked better...

Sunday, 5 January 2014

A good hard look in the mirror

I had a minute to myself the other day, and skim read a couple of my failed stories, one of which I'd been quite proud of, and had sent for a critique.

I hated the way it read. Without the glowing halo of creation to gild it, it was clunky and stilted. I sounded pretentious and insincere.

I need to read through them all, and be hard and honest with myself - but not until the final one is submitted. I'm not sure that feeling discouraged would be the best way to psyche myself up to finishing that.

There will be a lot to learn.

What strikes me first and most obviously is that my voice sounds unnatural and self-conscious. It makes it hard to sink into the stories. Perhaps this is why I like writing novel length stories rather than shorts - because it gives me chance to lose myself.

The whole point of my challenge was to learn, though. So I'm going to have to study my work critically, and apply what I learn to improve myself. Wouldn't it be great if you could improve without ever having to face up to flaws? I'll have to make an effort to evaluate my stories as I would with a child at school, and make sure to notice a few positives to balance things out!

Thursday, 2 January 2014


We all need focus in our lives, and I do more than most. It's not good when you start changing a nappy, divert to putting away Christmas decorations, finish up the nappy, phone the garage while emptying the dishwasher and then write a cheque for the council tax while you're cleaning your teeth - so much potential for catastrophe. There's certainly never going to be writing time.

My writing goal last year was my year of stories, which is not quite complete. The closing date for my final story is the 15th January, and so far that story is still in first draft state, and I doubt I'll get to it now until the children are back at school on the 6th (although that's also the day the decorator comes in to tackle my front room which hasn't been decorated yet - and we bought this house eight years ago).

However, I think I'm on track to hit my goal, and I do believe I've learnt a lot. But I'm really looking forward to tackling a novel again, and I have one half planned in my head, and some of the characters sketched out - nearly ready to start fabricating, in fact.

So perhaps I should aim to finish a first draft of that this year. Or perhaps I should give myself a broader scope - to make it to a writing group three or four times this year? Or to attend a festival or two? Or perhaps to write three times a week....which would allow me to explore other writing avenues that emerge during the year...?

I don't feel as if I'm being very ambitious here, but 2013 has taken a lot out of me on a personal level, and I think it has made me wary of planning too much - but nor do I want to lose that focus, in case I fail to achieve anything. So I'm going to cheat, and plan a goal after the 15th, when last year's goal is complete. Who says we can only start things on the 1st of January?

If anyone has any fabulous writing goals I could borrow, please share them!