My 2014 Blogging Year in Review

Photo by Chris Chabot

Photo by Chris Chabot

It’s 18 months since I first started blogging. I started this blog as an antidote to a fiction-hating friend. I was unable to convince him of the merits of fiction, and a few weeks later I wrote my first words here. It was my penance for being such a weak defender of something that has been a crutch for me my whole life. It was my homage to words, both fictional and non-fictional, which help me understand the world.

Then something strange happened. This blog began to grow, and slowly, it was not about my friend, it was about me claiming some space for my thoughts, sharing my work and meeting wonderful writers, poets and artists, many of whom have become friends. So for that, Twitter, WordPress, Facebook, Friday Phrases, Monday Blogs and Flash Friday, I thank you.

WordPress sent me a report yesterday of my blog activity this past year. One day I would love to go to Australia. When the kids are a bit older the 24 hour flight will be a breeze: a reading/movie marathon. WordPress tells me that the concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. Apparently this blog was viewed about 9,900 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about four sold-out performances for that many people to see it. That is huge, even if half of those viewings were me and my mum!

The busiest day of the 2014 for this blog was May 5 with 793 views, the day my article ‘The Forgotten Joys of Longhand Writing’ was Freshly Pressed. On average though, I tend to get about 20 views a day and that increases marginally if I post more than once a week. The next most read pieces were my short story ‘The Voyeur’ (which I have now taken down as it seems Akash isn’t finished with me yet and his story has begun to grow into a novel), ‘In Praise of Slowness’, ‘Fear of Change and The Promise of New Beginnings’ and ‘What I Wish I’d Known at the Start of my Writing Journey.’

The WordPress stats report tells me that my top referring sites this year were Freshly Pressed, Twitter, Facebook, Make A Living Writing (where I did a guest post a while back) and the WordPress Reader. So no surprises there. What did surprise me was that readers came from 124 countries. The US was the frontrunner, with the UK and India not far behind. I’m a Londoner of Indian heritage living in Geneva, so that was pretty cool. I currently have just under 1000 blog followers. Jo Blaikie, Graham Milne, Amira K. Makansi and Sarrah J. Woods were my top commenters. Thank you all. If you haven’t checked out their blogs yet, then make a note. You’re in for a treat.

As for me, my favourite posts this year were ‘Losing and Finding Stories’, ‘Loving You’ and ‘The Pact’. ‘Losing and Finding Stories’ was written on a day that the poignancy of life seemed to stare me in the face. Everywhere I looked there were stories that were sad, and beautiful and funny and it struck me that there can never be enough writers. Now that is not something you hear everyday. ‘Loving You’ was a first for me. I don’t often share poetry. It is a form I am not confident about. It takes a particular type of writer to distil the essence of a thought into a line of poetry and the poems I write are usually confined to the pages of my journal. Writers such as B.G. Bowers, Jane Lightbourne, Rachel Thompson, Rachael Charmley and the #FridayPhrases community approach poetry with such ease and skill that they have made me more willing to give it a go. ‘The Pact’ was a project that was unplanned, an idea that bloomed overnight and showed me how generous writers are with their time, how clever, courageous and funny even within strict word and time limits.

The best and the hardest part of blogging is the moment of indecision just before I press publish. I wonder if I’ll come across an idiot, if readers will be irritated and bored, or if my words will resonate. Sometimes silence greets the posts but then later, a friend will mention a line I wrote. That’s a gift. Committing to this blog makes me grow. I’ve also had moments of real synchronicity and peace this year, when I have found clarity and hardly noticed my fingers moving over the keyboard and for that I am grateful.

Next year, I hope to diversify the blog. I’d like to incorporate more of my own photos, post more poems and short excerpts alongside the articles, maybe experiment with audio and video files. This will remain my canvas to empty my thoughts onto. Sometimes I’ll bring yearning, at other times it’ll be questions, fear, love or anger. At the end of 2014, I know that whichever piece of me I bring here, I’m safe. Thank you for that.

Happy New Year my loves.

Advertisements

Are you a Dreamer or a Tigress?: Setting Goals to Get Ahead

I’m going to be 33 years old in a few weeks. Hardly any age at all perhaps, although the white hair springing up around my temples would tell you otherwise. I remember how at 14 years old those in their thirties seemed to me to be dinosaurs. As a child I was sure that by my mid-twenties the confusion of youth would have dissipated. I would arrive at my successes by design rather than by accident. The truth is that many of us feel our way through life from the starting line to the finish.

I look with envy sometimes on those who discovered their passions in childhood. Do you, like me, mourn lost time? Oh the hours I whiled away as a teenager. Back then, all I wanted to do was to fall into novels and let them swallow me whole. That time devouring books was wonderful. I wish though that I had picked up my pen sooner. Imagine little Johnny Robinson, barely four foot tall, practicing drop shots on the neighbourhood courts as the light dims. Or Leila Coombes, her fingers perpetually blackened by lead from the pencils she has been sketching with. Or Samir Khan, who can play the sax, piano and violin to grade eight standard by the time is 12 years old. Those kids start clocking up their Gladwell hours from childhood. They jump-started their careers.

For many of us it takes a while to realise where our talents lie. As we get older we are less prone to outside influences. We stop robotically doing what is asked of us and begin questioning our reality. We find our courage and our drive. This extra time isn’t a bad thing. It always seems strange to me that in the UK we ask our children to take crucial decisions about their path in life at the tender age of 16. With life expectancy on the rise, what’s the rush? In the UK in 2014, a woman can expect to live 82.5 years, up from 58 years in the 1930s; UK men are at 79.5 years and 62 years respectively. We have time. The world is more fluid, we can exploit international opportunities and many of us will work in more than one professional field.

Besides as a writer, each new life experience strengthens our creative muscles. Age matures our story-telling abilities. That niggling feeling you get as a writer, that feels like you haven’t done your homework, the one that feels like a heavy weight in your gut? Let’s just ignore that. The muse will appear eventually, shining in her sheer robes and looking at us benevolently, right? The thing is that you and I both know that when we switch into neutral gear, we are doing ourselves a disservice. It may be that we work into our nineties, hunched over our desks as we squint into the distance envisaging the fate of our protagonist. Even so, it would be foolish to ignore the sense of urgency we feel. Writing is, after all, a time-consuming occupation. We only have a finite amount of time in which to breathe life into our stories.

I am happiest when I am productive, aren’t you? The demons of idleness sing their mournful lullabies and we succumb, sacrificing endless hours at their altar. In the cold light of day we know it is the work that nourishes us. We leave our laptops languishing in the corner of our rooms because we are running away from ourselves. I know. It’s been two months since I resigned from my job at City Hall ahead of our move to Geneva this summer and I have yet to establish a regular writing routine. We are governed by fear. We live half lives in love and our careers because we don’t want to be vulnerable. We let our dreams escape through our fingers like ghosts because to fail at something we want badly would be painful.

Newsflash: ambition is not a dirty word. It is up to you to pull your dreams into the blazing sunlight. Don’t let yourself be consumed by the hazy twilight, that half-way house where you know what you want but are too fearful to go after it. We are bound by our conflicted natures. Shrug off that dusty mantle of doubt. The path to success is paved not only with talent, but with perseverance, commitment and labour.

I recently read an article in Forbes by Ashley Feinstein who advocates writing down your goals. In her article Feinstein mentions a survey of Harvard MBA graduates (class of 1979): ’Only 3% had written goals and plans, 13% had goals but they weren’t in writing and 84% had no goals at all. Ten years later, the same group was interviewed again […] The 13% of the class who had goals, but did not write them down was earning twice the amount of the 84% who had no goals. The 3% who had written goals were earning, on average, ten times as much as the other 97% of the class combined.’ The Harvard research only takes earnings into account as a measure of success, but it still shows how powerful it can be to write goals down.

Whether you are a pantser, planner or fall somewhere in between, here is a list to help you get started if you wish to have a go at some written goals:

  • Summarise your overarching vision including both personal and career goals e.g. I will write a novel, I will learn the guitar etc.
  • Set yourself up for success by creating achievable goals e.g. I will focus on improving my dialogue writing in the next three months, I will find a critique partner within six months.
  • Break down your goals into short, medium and long-term e.g. I will practice my guitar chords for ten minutes a day over the three months, I will have learned how to play three songs within six months, in a year I will perform for my family.
  • Each goal should be include a time-frame and should be measurable e.g. I will query my book once a week until there is a reason not to.
  • Turn larger goals into smaller steps e.g. I will write five pages a day.
  • Don’t forget to celebrate your successes. I promised in a previous post to upload a video of me dancing in the style of Hugh Howey and Ksenia Anske once the first draft of my novel is complete.

As for me, I prioritise my life according to my passions and the needs of my loved ones. I have never been the type to go obsessively after goals. I get distracted, pulled into family life. I dream. But there is a seed of urgency in my belly that is growing, and I am no longer happy to relinquish my ambitions. Often the needs of my loved ones come out on top but to be whole I need to give my writing ambitions a real shot. Tomorrow seems more fragile than ever before. To that end, I have been working on a list of written goals to clear my mind of clutter and focus me. There is something to be said for planning your course (my husband is German, after all) while factoring in some flexibility (that’s the Indian in me talking). The list will provide me with armour against the guilt I feel when I say no to loved ones because I want to concentrate on my writing. Now I am working from home, it will also allow me to see and celebrate my progress. I’m not going to view my list as concrete cladding, rather a loose framework that can be amended. Perhaps I’ll show you it when we know each other better.

In the meantime, let me end with a story about Jim Carrey you may have heard. In 1987 he was 25 years old and a struggling comic. He drove to a spot overlooking LA and wrote himself a check for $10m. The check was dated 1995. Carrey wrote on the stub that it was ‘for acting services rendered’. In actual fact, in 1995 his price for a movie was $20m. All that matters is that we continue chipping away at our dreams, that we have belief and drive. Happy writing, folks.

I’m No Saint Either: an A-Z of Tips for the Sinning Writer

Seek criticism. We can all improve. Art is not made in a vacuum.

Blogging is a source of support and good training for writing regularly.

Close the door.

Dream. Even during the day.

Eat well…it’s far too tempting to shovel anything in to win more writing time.

Finish your stories. Make them be the best they can be. Invest in every part of the process, from your initial concept, to editing and your cover art.

Don’t be greedy. Share your tips. Share the love.

Don’t be afraid to experiment. Hit the ball out of the park every once in a while.

Be influenced by better writers.

Jealousy is a waste of time. Concentrate on your own trajectory.

Increase your knowledge. Read well in your genre. Learn about the publishing industry. The world of books is competitive and changing. Hone your craft and your business skills.

Don’t succumb to laziness (too often).

Marketing is important, but writing comes first. And if you didn’t know already, spamming is a turn-off.

Sometimes you need to recharge. Naps energise, but when you’re tempted to hit snooze, don’t.

Have a room of your own.

Mine your past (but don’t break the trust of those you love).

Don’t quit. You’re a writer? Write.

Reading makes you a better writer. Inhale words.

Self-help books can be addictive. Don’t let them lure you away from actually writing.

Find like-minded people on Twitter. 140 characters can catch you when you fall. They can also sign the way to the stars.

Always look for opportunities to understand those around you. Listen closely. Watch unapologetically. A wooden character never convinced anyone.

Choose the active over the passive voice.

Wordiness is the enemy of clarity.

Neither the telly nor the xbox are your friend, unless you have a core of inner steel and can walk away.

It doesn’t matter how young or old you are. It is never too late to write your stories down.

Find your zen. Writing can be a tough path. Believe in yourself. Commit. You’ll be surprised what a difference it makes.

This blog post was featured in the April 2014 First Friday Link Party for Writers on Carol Tice’s website Making A Living Writing

 

What I Wish I’d Known at the Start of my Writing Journey

I’ve been a reader for as long as I can remember. As a child, I used to sneak away from family gatherings to devour another few chapters of a novel. I hid stories and a pen torch underneath my bedcovers for use after lights out. As an adult, I sometimes take my book with me to the toilets at work for just a few more minutes in my imaginary world.

Writing was a different matter. How old were you when you first started to put ink on paper? Have you always been compelled to write or is it a talent that has to compete for attention? I have dozens of half-written stories strewn across my hard drive, but it took having children to crystalise my dream: I wanted to write fiction professionally. According to Malcolm Gladwell, it takes 10,000 hours of practice at any given discipline to be successful at it. How I thank my lucky stars that it wasn’t my dream to be a professional footballer, or a ballet dancer. It’s never too late to start writing. There is no reason why you can’t write until you run out of stories.

Writing is time intensive. There are no short-cuts to learning the craft, but there are false starts. I decided to put a list together of tips I would share with writers at the start of their journey. Here they are:

Commitment is everything

Take yourself seriously as a writer. Establish a writing routine, commit to an idea and live your characters. Make sure you finish your stories, even if they don’t turn out the way you expected. Find someone to beta-read your work and polish it as much as you can. Don’t bury your stories in a drawer. Hand them to a reader and let them live. You want to be a writer? Act like one.

Find a support network

If it’s hard to share your dream with those close to you, find another support network. Join a local writers’ group, sign-up for National Novel Writing Month or find like-minded people on Twitter. I’m still shy about my writing dream but once I got the hang of Twitter there was no going back. I have learnt so much and received so much support from my Twitter family. There are voices there that I miss if I don’t hear them for a day or two, but I never feel the pressure to engage if I don’t want to. Surrounding myself with writers inspires me and motivates me to retain focus on my own writing. If you haven’t already checked out the writing communities around @FridayPhrases, @MondayBlogs and @FlashFridayFic, you’re missing out.

Literature and Latte’s Scrivener 

Scrivener is a revelation for long-form writing. At just under £30 at the time of writing this piece, it represents fantastic value for money for the job that it does and the amount of use I get out of it. It allows you to have one tidy document for each project. For me, tidy is really important. I need my head, my desk and my computer to be clear if I’m going to work well. Scrivener takes away the temptation to format your document as you go along. It allows you to create and manipulate text within one document. You can drag and drop files and urls into the research folder. It provides you with templates for different types of documents including character crib sheets and has a no fuss composition mode. You can mark up the document, create synopses on index cards and use split views to compare different versions of your text. There’s a tool for following  individual plot strands and to view project statistics. On completion you can create various versions of the document including text files, eBooks and webpages. Scrivener also automatically saves your work and has its own trash can, so it’s pretty much impossible for you to lose your work unless you are trying to. You can trial it for free for 30 days here.

Don’t fret if the words don’t flow

If the words aren’t flowing, shake up your routine. Don’t think too hard about the plot problem you are trying to unfurl or the phrasing you just can’t get right. Change your scenery by going for a walk. Make a playlist of songs to match the mood of your scene. Do something monotonous or repetitive like washing the dishes or doing the gardening. If the glowing screen in front of you is taunting you with your lack of productivity, grab a notebook and scrawl away in illegible writing, desecrate a pristine A3 pad with rubbish drawings. Give your story the room to come alive however it wants to.

What would you tell a writer at the start of their journey?

On the Courage to be Yourself

I remember reading interviews with famous women when I was younger where they talked about how comfortable they began to feel with themselves when they hit their thirties. At fourteen years old, thirty seemed a long way off.  I was an awkward teenager, full of doubt and eager to please others. The years have, of course, raced by, and at thirty-two now, I have finally learned what is most important to me. I am more myself now than ever before. While I still struggle with the weight of other people’s expectations of my behaviour and actions, I am more likely to do what makes me happy despite the push and pull from others.

The doubting years 

At school there were children who, even then, were brimming with confidence and able to express themselves freely. Looking back, I was filled with wonder at their seeming lack of inhibitions and at some level, their prowess reinforced my sense of inadequacy. Who knows, why some of us find it harder to find our place in the world? My best guess is that it is a combination of personality, culture, upbringing and opportunity. Finding happiness is after all a personal journey; the courage to be ourselves is often not something that friends and family can help us with. We can be surrounded by the most loving people, yet feel both lonely and suffocated. And there is no guarantee that we’ll hit our stride once the teenage years are behind us.

Taking responsibility for our own happiness 

I know someone who for many years has been deeply unhappy.  From time to time, she opens the gates to her soul and the unhappiness comes flooding out like a thick tar, sticking to anyone who will listen.  She has everything she physically needs: health, youth, food, clothes and a warm home.  She has a loving family, which supports and nurtures her.  The problem is that unhappiness, a natural part of life for everyone, has become such an integral part of who she is that she no longer knows how to be happy.

Her dreams, once so bright, have faded and escape like ghosts through her fingers.  She sees those around her moving on with their lives and instead of wishing them well, she is overcome with bitterness.  Her equilibrium is so fragile that a rain shower or a broken nail ruin her day.  Her weary family walks on eggshells, buffeted by her many rages. She has love to give and talent, but she is lost and it is everybody else’s fault accept her own. I see the toll she has on those closest to her.  I look at her elderly mother with her bent back and roughened hands from years of caring for her family, and I wonder if she will ever see her daughter find peace.  There is nothing this mother would not give to be able to wipe her daughter’s pain and bitterness away.  When does too much love become a liability, a paralytic agent that smothers self-determination? Is it ever right to walk away from someone so that they can find their own wings?

Moving forward

I’d like to think that soon enough this person will turn a corner.  She’ll be in a job she loves and on the road to building healthy mutually supportive relationships with those around her.  She’ll start to chase those long-buried dreams. It won’t be easy for her to regain her perspective or her confidence. It could be that she needs professional help to get there. When she is ready to listen I will tell her that there is something wonderful about turning a new page. A fresh page, smooth to the touch, before a first mark is made, is full of promise.  I will also tell her what little I know about happiness. Happiness is impossible without being comfortable with who you are. Setbacks are part of life. Just as we have talents, we all have limits and there will always be things we can’t control. And, learning to appreciate the blessings we already have is the most important lesson of all.

‘Happiness is a direction, not a place.’ Sydney J. Harris

‘Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.’ Mahatma Gandhi

Feeling Like a Writing Fraud

It’s no secret to followers of this blog or my twitter account (@nzstelter) that I write.  I write daily.  I write reports, briefings, proposals and correspondence for my day job.  In my own time, I continue writing.  I journal, write stories or blog posts.  I invent stories for my daughter.  Writing allows me to crystallise my thoughts.  It’s always a thrill to feel the words come, to find the right expression, to capture the essence of fragile, fleeting emotion.  But here’s the thing.  I feel like a fraud.

You see, what I like to write most of all are stories.   I have been getting more down on paper since being more honest with myself and others about my fiction writing goals as described in my post on writerly arrogance. But I have something to tell you.  I have yet to finish a story.  There, I said it.  My writing folder is full of unfinished manuscripts.   I thought it would make me feel better admitting that out loud: ‘Hi.  My name is Nillu and I am addicted to unfinished manuscripts.’  No.  Not better at all.

Self-sabotage

It’s that persistent foe, fear, of course.  If I finish a manuscript, it would mean that it was ready for judging, not by my husband, but by an uninvested beta reader in the first instance, someone able to give real criticism.  And then, after drafts 2, 3, 4, 5, it would be crunch time.  Would the manuscript be sellable or will I end up with a drawer full of dreams?  So, I guess what I have (sub)consciously been doing for a long while now is not finishing stories.  Coward.  Yes, you.  You in the mirror.

Being the best version of yourself

A wise friend said to me recently that she believes we can actively create who we want to be.  We can let go of the parts of us we don’t want anymore, and take on new characteristics, new skills.  You say that this is compromising our authentic selves?  I think it is determining who we want to be, keeping or adding elements until we are the best possible version of ourselves.  The key is to keep moving forward.

parachutingEmbracing risky behaviour (within reason!)

Staying in a safe place is not always in our best interests.  Sometimes we are chaining our potential and living half lives.  So how do we embrace risks and move past fear?  This is what I have found:

  • Naming your fears and writing them down is the first step to beating them.
  • Take small steps forward into the future you want to live and you will get there sooner than you thought.  Try not to lose momentum.
  • Accept that you can’t control everything and that failure teaches us how to be better.
  • Don’t overthink.  Trust that you will find the right tools, skills and support to face whatever comes your way.
  • It is unhelpful to compare yourself to other people’s journeys.
  • You are never too old/silly/fat/thin/gray to try something new.  Push past your comfort zone.

For me, there’s only one thing for it, and that is to bite the bullet.   I will be a braver fiction writer by the end of next week. Next week’s post, I have decided, will be the completed first draft of a short story I have been working on.  No going back now.  Have you ever felt like a fraud?  What small improvements can you make to get closer to your goals?

‘When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.’ Maya Angelou

‘Anxiety is the hand maiden of creativity.’ T. S. Eliot 

Leaving Fear Behind

sunsetAfter I published my first proper blog post yesterday I tweeted about it and sent the link to half a dozen family and friends.  The chosen few, as it were: those who have been supportive of my writing dream or at least know about it.   Not everyone does.  I didn’t share the post on Facebook.  My Facebook account is full of people, who have known me my entire life and that was a risk too far.

The courage to risk failure

This morning one of my trusted circle asked me why I had decided to blog.  She hadn’t seen my website or the piece yet.  The answer I gave surprised me because it differed from the reasons I give on my About Me pages.  The truth is, it takes bravery to reveal your true self and to admit to your dreams.  You risk criticism, or worse, indifference. You risk public failure.

Trust: seeing strangers as friends

The reasons I gave for starting this blog are still valid: said friend who shall remain nameless was a pivotal point, I would like to champion fiction and share my own.  But I wasn’t being wholly honest.  I hadn’t taken a quiet moment to look inside myself and really search for the true answer.  A better technique on my first attempt would have been to write down my reasoning thinking of you, my readers, as friends.  Instead, I saw a sea of strangers and that scared me.  I’ll tell you now what I told Lindsay.

The whole truth

I decided to blog because one day I want to be a novelist, but at the end of that process I don’t want to find myself too fearful to share my manuscript with you.  This blog is an exercise in risk-taking and vulnerability, a way to share my ideas and writing in baby-steps, to find commonality with readers and writers.  It is an exercise in understanding myself better and finding my way beyond your superficial layers too.  We all have them.  Post by post, this is my way of overcoming fear and building trust.  So I say again:  Welcome.  Nice to meet you.  Be honest.  Be yourself.

‘Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.’ Thomas A. Edison

‘A man can fail many times, but he isn’t a failure until he begins to blame somebody else.’ John Burroughs