Not for the Faint-Hearted: Using Critique Groups to Accelerate your Learning

Photo by Kean Kelly

Photo by Kean Kelly

In case you missed it, it’s Nanowrimo (I’m hearing trumpets, triangles and all sorts in my head right now). I’ve been writing my socks off and so far I’m on track. Tough spots are lurking for me around the corner though as I tend to get saggy middle of the month syndrome. Still, for now I am celebrating the fact that I am writing. My head and heart are fully immersed in my story world, my fingers are flying over the keyboard, I am untangling plot knots and getting excited. I even made my own rather rubbish first book cover (apparently, writers are statistically more likely to finish the month as a 50k winner if they upload a cover). What we all know though is that rewriting follows writing, especially fast writing. While I am embracing this seat of your pants ride, there will be plenty to fix come December. I mean, let’s face it, I am throwing words onto a page right now, and I’m lucky they are not throwing themselves right back.

Sitting at our desks, or in bed, or in that field of long grass, with your notebook or laptop, formulating thoughts, writing down those words…is what makes us writers. That is, first and foremost, how we learn what works and what doesn’t in story-telling. But how can we accelerate our learning? Craft-books, reading widely, online and in-person courses, writer blogs, book clubs, first readers, beta-readers (which I blogged about here), mentors, editors, fans all play a part. But what about critique groups? It is hard to judge our own work. Are critique groups – where writers submit their work to their peers for comments – a tool for increased self-awareness as a writer? Have you been brave enough to try one?

If you’ve been hiding your words away in a drawer or on your hard-drive and they are just for you and our loved ones, fair enough. If, however, you have plans for world domination, or say, domination of the publishing/reading world as a starter, it’s probably not the best idea to upload your lifetime’s work to the black hole of the internet without putting it through some robust scrutiny. If you do, you are likely to either end up sinking into the nether regions of the web without a trace, or your potential fans will not so much read your work with hallelujah choirs at their backs so much as devour it in a bloody frenzy, leaving a trail of one star reviews in their trail…(of course, you may be a ready-made writing superstar. There are always exceptions to the rule).

So, are you ready to go into battle Sir Knight and Lady Winalot?

Photo by Jon Jordan

Photo by Jon Jordan

The advantages of critique groups

  • The best critique groups will give you an honest appraisal of your writing. We are all a bit too close to our own work
  • Writing can be a whimsical adventure, but we sometimes need support to stop us stalling before the finish line. For those of you, who like me, enjoy Nano because of the sense of community, critique groups can give you both support and deadlines to keep you moving forward
  • They allow you to use the critique to polish your manuscript before you query
  • If you are open to listening – which is easier said than done when you are laying out your project, your baby, for criticism – critique groups are a great way to benefit from other people’s experiences, saving you time in the long run
  • Any hey, who’s to say your group even has to spoon feed you solutions? The best groups give rise to discussions about your writing, which help stir your imagination and unknot your own problems
  • It’s not just about you. But really it is. You will learn huge amounts by listening to the work of others and by hearing the criticisms they receive

The disadvantages of critique groups

  • They can lay your vulnerabilities bare and be hard for the ego. In fact, I would question whether they are useful if you come away each week with your ego intact
  • The biggest risk for me is damaging your confidence. Don’t risk attending a critique group if you are not ready to hear the criticism and it will affect your mojo. The last thing we want is to scare you away from getting the words down in the first place
  • You know those tried and trusted writing wisdoms?: ‘The road to hell is paved with adverbs’, avoid prologues, extensive descriptions, exclamation marks, regional dialect, the list goes on. There is a danger that we all consume the same wisdom and risk losing our originality. Let’s not turn into one giant symbiotic organism. Dare to break the rule, once you know them
  • The critique group only sees part of your work in progress. They cannot see inside your head and embrace your vision nor would you want them to (shhhh, else the magic will escape). For this reason their criticism of your novel is not based on the whole picture. Trust your instinct above theirs
Photo by Daniel Parks

Photo by Daniel Parks

Making the most of a critique group

  • Avoid disheartening misfires by choosing the right group to start with. Find writers with diverse backgrounds, careers and interests but with knowledge of the genre you are writing for
  • Don’t slack. If you have committed to bring work to the group regularly, shelve the excuses and deliver
  • Be generous in critiquing the work of others, but avoid providing solutions unless explicitly asked. You are not a co-author. You are there to light the way.
  • Avoid false praise and give constructive criticism without being personal
  • Make your own mind up on which points you will take on board for your edits. You don’t have to accept all the criticism (but don’t defend yourself at the group as your sessions will never end). If you find you are going home with no changes at all, you will probably find you are not being entirely honest with yourself. Write down the comments you receive so you can digest them in your own time.
  • Agree in advance how much time each member of the group will have to avoid Mr I Am Everything dominating the evening, you getting frustrated and/or feelings being hurt when you have to cut him down. Death by committee is no fun.
  • If you don’t click with a group or the advice is not delivered constructively, don’t hang around. Find a new one or set up your own (Nanowrimo forums are great for building friendships. What are you waiting for?)
  • The last thing you need is for your critique group to be a time suck. If it is not working, leave the group as politely as possible or use Skype as a way to connect without the commute

Setting up a group

Finding a local critique group was fairly easy back on my old haunting ground in London. But what if you are unable to find an existing critique group where you are and you fancy setting up your own? Here is what you need to think about:

  • Setting membership rules: who is the group open to?; who decides who is allowed to join?; how will you handle a member who is disruptive, dominant or overly critical?; how big is the group allowed to be (given you have limited time)?
  • Practicalities of a critique group: how often and where will you meet?; will the stories be read in advance or on the night in question (as a rule of thumb you are more likely to get better feedback if you read the stories in advance)?; how will the manuscripts be delivered and how long can they be?; appoint a time-keeper.
  • Critique guidelines: Line-editing is probably not a good use of a critique group’s time; clarifications of critiques allowed, but defending your story from a critique in an active session can lead to an emotional clash that takes up valuable time
  • Create a crib sheet of what is useful feedback. The writer in question may ask the group to focus on certain areas when circulating the story. For example, if s/he is after a big picture analysis, you might be asked if the characters behaved consistently and believably, if the story works for the target readership, whether the pacing kept you interested. If s/he is after a detailed analysis, you might be asked if the title is arresting or if you stumbled over any phrasing or imagery.

So what do you think? Would you try a critique group? There is a reason why admissions panels to many acclaimed writing programmes subject candidates’ writing to strong criticism before deciding whether to accept them onto the course. They are testing reactions to their challenges, whether you can defend your ideas and are open to learning. The question is, have you got the stomach for it?

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Let a Grassroots Writing Movement Give you Some Rocket Fuel

20141101_103827October has drawn to a close, signalled by the advent of All Hallows’ Eve with its ghosts, ghouls, black hounds and masked children asking for sweets at the doors of strangers. Next up November (where did this year go?), and you know what that means. It’s National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo), when writers of varying abilities take their dreams of being a novelist firmly in their hands and attempt to write a novel from start to finish of 50,000 words or more. Technically, today is day three of Nanowrimo, but don’t let that stop you joining in the fray. This is the month that word wizards can do anything!

I’ll be honest with you, I’ve never reached the finish line with Nanowrimo, but plenty of people have. Last year over 300,000 people from across the globe took part. They dipped into the lively forms, tracked their stats in fun graphs, received free pep talks and they wrote. And wrote. This year Veronica Roth and Chuck Wendig are mentors. For me, it means writing fast and not overthinking. Because perfectionism can be the very thing that stands between you and finishing your novel. Participating in Nanowrimo means a word count boost and it means that for the month of November, there are people out there who are toiling towards the same dream. The lonely writer in the attic becomes instead a group of writers on an island.

It is magnificent. And never more so when magic happens, like the fact that Hugh Howey’s Wool began as a Nanowrimo novel. Or that Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus did too. Especially Morgenstern’s Night Circus. I fell head over heels for the vivid colours of Le Cirque des Rêves, descriptions that appealed to all the senses, the layers of melancholy and hope in a fantastical setting, the whimsy and eccentricities of the world she created. Summit Entertainment and David Heyman, producers of Harry Potter series, have bought the rights to adapt the novel for the big screen. A quick search of Etsy reveals how many products it has inspired, from purses to prints and Kindle sleeves. A new voice, a sprawling fan base and a whole industry sprouting from a seed planted in an internet-based writing event. That is what words can do.

Most of us can only dream of Hugh or Erin’s success, and I remember reading that Erin reworked her novel significantly after Nanowrimo. But here’s the thing. I’m not promising that you can write a masterpiece in the next thirty days. What you can do is get those words on paper. Pull them out of your head and deposit them there. Give birth to your first draft. It’s ready. And so are you.

Hello New Life

It’s been almost two weeks since the children and I arrived in Geneva. J had been living with a tiny amount of rented furniture in what was to become our new family home. It felt odd at the time he said, imagining what the house would feel and sound like when it was filled with our things and the sound of the children. It turns out that family life is quite noisy, especially if you happen to buy a second-hand washing machine which sounds like it is taking off during the spin cycle. I digress.

The truth is, I’m not sure Geneva will ever feel like home, or at least, not soon. I miss the old walls of our Edwardian semi in London. I miss our family and friends. We met our new Swiss neighbours last week. They were perfectly wonderful, and invited us into their garden for a glass of wine. They had seen a succession of rental cars that J had been using and had wondered if the house was being used as a CIA safe house. They were relieved to meet us. They told us about the different nationalities of people who live in the neighbourhood and that almost everyone has cats. The cats have territory wars and almost all of them wear little bells around their necks to help the birds escape. There are lots of birds it seems, especially singing outside our bedroom window first thing in the morning. In an irritable half-awake state I considered doing something drastic but think I may opt for ear buds instead.

We let the cats out today. They were free to come and go as they pleased at home, but needed time to get used to their new environment here. We didn’t want to risk them making for South London. Our female cat was cautious when we opened the doors. Her brother, a voracious hunter, quickly got over himself and set off, and now they’ll be British moggies mixing with the ginger toms and Birmans I’ve seen wandering around. It’s like our own situation in a microcosm. I wonder how aware they will be of the change in their surroundings. They will have realised the change in domestic setting, of course, but will they instinctively know that we are far from home?

The soil was rich when I was digging in the garden yesterday. The sun is strong and the air is crystalline, free of London’s smog. Just beyond our house we can see Lake Geneva. Everywhere you go, the Alps and the Jura can be seen. The views are breathtaking, so all-encompassing that after a while I imagine you don’t even perceive them anymore. To appreciate the magnificent, don’t we need the mundane in contrast? The vistas, certainly where we live, twenty minutes from the centre of Geneva, are unfettered by high-rises. As a result it seems there is a huge expanse of sky above us, with candy-floss clouds hanging low, ready to be plucked and consumed.

There is no aggrieved eye contact or menacing body language between drivers here. Congestion seems to be rare and therefore London’s on road aggression has been bested by a calm, measured pace. I can almost hear the Swiss drivers whistling an eerily jolly tune as they wait patiently at junctions. Come 6pm and Sundays, with the exception of late night shopping on Thursdays, retailers are shut. It is then that I miss cities that never sleep. Sundays are strictly family/no work days here. I’ve been told a woman was admonished by the police for ironing on her balcony on a Sunday.

It seems as if our courtship with Geneva will be a slow one, and perhaps that’s no bad thing. I was beginning to wane in London. Cities demand ceaseless energy from us, to power themselves, reminiscent of the heaving metropolis in Fritz Lang’s 1927 film. They are wondrous in the opportunities they present but they are also relentless beasts. I’m tired of wrestling the beast for now. Instead, I’ll embrace this slower pace and allow my mind time to clear. It’s in the quiet moments that stories take hold and refuse to let go. For a moment, I’d forgotten how to be quiet.

Farewell London: A New Story Awaits

The clock has just struck noon and I can hear the spin cycle of the washing machine downstairs. Its rhythm and the summer heat are lulling me into a state of relaxation. It’s humid here in my parents’ living room. Their house pulses with heat even when the radiators are off: a blessing in winter, stifling in the summer months. I’ve not blogged for a few weeks as the whirlwind of moving preparations has taken hold. The logistical arrangements of car selling, renting the house, closing down utilities, packing and goodbyes reached a peak a week ago when the movers came in. It seemed to me that they were like anteaters: sucking up the remnants of our London lives with supreme efficiency.

Since then I’ve been with the children at my parents’ house. J is in Geneva already. We’ll be leaving for the airport in an hour. The cats, whose baskets have been liberally sprayed with pheromones recommended by the vet, will be travelling with us in the flight cabin. I feel like a cross between superwoman, a sad clown and the mad hatter: capable, emotional and increasingly unpredictable. It’s a relief to return to the blank page at long last, to draw calm from it. Already it feels that the strain is pouring from my fingers onto the page as I type. The blank page: a mirror, a sea of acceptance, a promise of renewal.

Tiredness is heightening my emotions at the moment. Geneva is just over an hour’s flight from our family and friends in the UK and we have no doubts about choosing this move. It will be a wonderful adventure for our family while the children are young. Still, however open we are to it, change is unsettling. It stretches us uncomfortably. Depending on the nature of the change, we are forced to adjust to new patterns, support networks, cultures and expectations. Was there ever an easy goodbye?

London will always be my home. I miss its vibrancy, architecture and spirit already. This city feels determined and resilient. It is both alien and a friend. I can walk the streets and disappear into its melting pot of cultures. The grey skies and murky river are home. The chimney stacks of the skylines near our house are as familiar to me as the lines on my palm. My story is etched in corners of this city, in its parks and art galleries, its restaurants and theatres, in the homes of our family and friends.

I will always return to you gladly, London, but for now, farewell. There is a new story waiting to be written in Geneva.

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.

In Praise of Slowness

I’ve been neglecting my writing practice of late. We’ve had a whirlwind few weeks with visitors and getting our ducks in a row ahead of our move to Switzerland this summer. My husband has been offered a job there and we are looking forward to the adventure. Right now, I’m sprawled across our bed, watching the yellow light flicker on the leaves of the oak tree at our window. It feels great to have a moment’s pause to put pen to paper. Already the cloud of thoughts in my head is refining as it prepares to filter through my fingers onto the page.

We spent a few days in Geneva last week to visit schools, nurseries and houses. It was my first visit. What struck me most, beyond the beauty of the environment with its vineyards, gleaming lake and snow-tipped mountains, was the pace of life. We arrived on Sunday and spent the day driving through sleepy villages around Lake Geneva, trying to get a feel for where we would like to live. Most villages had little more than a church, a post office, a butcher and a bakery. The roads were empty. The few cars we did see were driven leisurely, with none of the haste intrinsic to life in the Big Smoke. On the Monday we had a packed schedule of appointments before our flight home. The very air in Geneva seemed still and heavy, as if it was nudging us to take our time and savour the strangeness of this new culture.

That evening we returned to London in the pelting rain. Exhausted, I ran late getting our daughter ready for school the next morning. I rushed the children to compensate. It would have taken too long to let my son walk. He grumbled as I hoisted him onto my hip and strode along the familiar route to school with my daughter scooting along beside us. His smile reappeared only on the way home when he was free to amble along at this own pace. At one point he stopped and pointed in wonder to a flock of birds passing overhead. I hadn’t even noticed.

Too often we rush through life as if we are ticking off a to do list. Our daily responsibilities are undertaken in clockwork fashion. Each night we lay our weary heads on our pillows and wake to a new dawn when we do the same all over again. We get pushed along by life’s currents, living as if we are running a track race, hurdling over obstacles and looking to the future like blinkered robots. We forget that it’s the quiet moments that steady us. They allow us to recoup, connect and contemplate what we have to be grateful for. Often it’s the quiet moments that bring us our eureka ideas.

Why is it then that we live our lives at an increasingly fast pace? We are so proud of how well we multi-task. How clever of me to change my son’s nappy while holding the phone under one ear and keeping an eye on the telly in the background. I text, read and email while I walk. Sometimes I am too focused on getting chores done that I zone out the children’s chatter. At times, food becomes more about refuelling than enjoyment. I wolf it down and am packing the dishwasher before I have finished the final mouthful. There is no time for smell and texture in this speeded up ritual.

It’s not just me. I notice this furious scrambling in almost everyone around me. If science would allow, it is not a big leap to imagine that many would resort to food pills à la The Jetsons. ‘I haven’t had time to brush my teeth this morning,’ says my mum. Hidden beneath her complaint is pride at how much she has achieved. It is often past lunchtime before she has time to eat a single morsel. Her body, tricked into thinking it is either feast or famine, is at risk of diabetes.

When was the last time you had a shower and concentrated on the feeling of the water pounding your body rather than planning your tasks for the day? When did you last go for a purposeless walk and take in the faces of the homes and the shape of the landscape around you? How often have you bruised yourself and not even been aware how it happened? How many times have you read a paragraph but can’t recall what it says, locked the door but forgotten that you did or driven a route and not remembered the journey? In our pursuit of happiness and success we perceive everything but ourselves.

I’m afraid that we convince ourselves as we grow older that we understand the meaning of life, but perhaps children understand it better than us. For our children, life is about simple pleasures: a walk in the rain in their wellies; a trip to the park; a jam sandwich and jelly; a bedtime story. When is it that we forget our sense of wonder? Is it possible to rediscover our joy in simple pleasures, to prune back our lives and give priority to a few things rather than a superficial attention to many things? Have you seen Banksy’s Mobile Lovers artwork? We have forgotten how to be present. We document our lives in pictures, videos and social media anecdotes, removed from living our experiences first-hand by the lens through which we view ourselves and the alternate realities we create.

Our minds are filled with a myriad of thought pathways competing for attention. The problem is that unless we focus on what we are doing, our attention is splintered and the rewards are fewer. Our happiness and success depend on how clearly we perceive and how skilfully we negotiate the world around us. Why is it then that as the information available to us reaches saturation point, we are more blind to the world and each other than before? How can we feel so deeply about crime or losses on both domestic and international stages only for them to be wiped from our memories a moment later?

I used to worry that my memory has worsened. In fact, there is so much information available today that the mind sends that which it deems unnecessary to its deepest caverns. It’s also likely that I don’t listen as well as I used to. Take song lyrics for example. As a pre-teen I could listen to a song a few times and would know the lyrics off by heart. Nowadays I rarely focus on a song long enough for that to be possible. My mind has become so used to endless stimuli that it is as if there is an anchor missing. We have retrained ourselves to leap consistently onto the next most interesting thing at the expense of taking value from anything.

I don’t buy that we have to live our lives at a rate of knots to be successful. That seems to be fool’s gold. Life sweeps us along until we make a stand. But I have a newsflash: Life. Can. Be. Slower.

Slowing down can be more meaningful.

Slowing down can be more pleasurable.

What could you achieve if you set your own pace and direction?

How Relevant are Book Awards and Writing Competitions?

The Booker, Arthur C. Clarke Award, Nobel Prize for Literature, Franz Kafka Prize, Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, Iowa Short Fiction Award, Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Award, Goethe Prize, Wole Soyinka Prize, Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis, Nebula Award, Guardian First Book Award, Costa Book Awards… How much attention do those outside literary circles pay to book awards? When you are browsing the shelves of your favourite book shop or want to buy a e-book, does the sticker marking out a novel as a prize winner make you more likely to part with your money? Or do you rely on word of mouth, random browsing or print/ online reviews to help you make your reading choices?

When shortlists for awards are announced, I write up novels in a memo which have a premise that interest me, particularly if they are by female writers, but I wonder how many other readers do the same. It’s only been about six months since I’ve had a e-reader (I’m a reformed paper snob) and already instead of looking at my list of award nominees to decide my next read, I tend to download e-books by authors I have interacted with on Twitter (latest great reads @akmakansi’s The Sowing, @CollettMeg’s End of Days series and @RachelintheOC’s Broken Pieces. Next up @petersamet’s Zero Echo Shadow Prime).

What are then the advantages of major book awards in a world where everyday readers have the technology to post their own reviews and access hundreds of others in a matter of minutes? Literary awards still open us up to authors we may never have discovered and books we might never have read, much like a book club. They are also a form of patronage, giving authors additional exposure and a boost to their future earnings in a profession where it can be difficult to earn a living wage. When nominees and winners of major literary awards are announced, fiction gets more attention in the media, it comes up more in everyday conversation, resulting in more people buying, borrowing and reading books. That can only be a good thing.

So how about the negatives then? How we receive art is a matter of taste, and for most awards, we rely on judging panels to tell us which books are worthy of acclaim. The judges on the panels work within set criteria and are supremely qualified to pick star novels from amongst a year’s publications, for example, and their tastes have been refined through exposure and experience. Even so, choosing an ultimate winner from a diverse range of books is to a large extent like comparing apples with oranges, an arbitrary decision. Some awards can also give the impression that they are for a certain kind of ‘well-read’ reader, which is unfortunate when fiction can bring such joy but is passed over in favour of other forms of entertainment such as television, cinema and computer games, because can appear inaccessible. I wonder if the opposite is true in literary circles, and whether there is a pressure to keep up with reading nominated books. How tedious. I did a dual literature degree at university and while I enjoyed much of it, extensive reading lists near drained me of my love of reading. I’m a firm believer in reading what you want when you fancy it, whether it’s a comic, a quick and dirty Mills & Boon or a Steinbeck.

In the end, for me, individual reader reviews and word of mouth recommendations are the most reliable form of judging the quality of a book. Even then, there is no guarantee that a particular work will resonate with you. How we respond to the art we experience is entirely personal. Sometimes an author’s vision touches a particular chord within us due to his/her choice of themes, episodes, character traits, form of expression, and there is no magic quite like it. When you find books like that, they remain dear to you. I bet there are a few award winners which have had that impact on you, but there also some on a publisher’s slush pile somewhere, waiting to be discovered.

Let’s move away from literary awards for a moment and talk about the small fish comparison: writing competitions. Just as a major literary award can substantially increase the profile and future earnings of an author, winning a respected competition can win you the attention of agents and publishers and put you on the road to traditional publication. Do you submit to writing competitions? I’ve not been inclined to submit my fiction to either competitions or magazines until a friend recently encouraged me to. I reworked my piece to ensure it met the competition criteria and reluctantly parted with my entry money, feeling a tiny glimmer of hope that my work might be good enough to make the short list (it wasn’t).

I’ve had a bit more time now to think about whether I would submit my work again to competitions and while I am not sure I would regularly want to pay an entry fee, learning to meet criteria such as deadlines, themes and specific word counts is good training for our craft. Just like blogging, competitions are a way of interacting with the external world. Your stories live when they are read, not when they languish in your drawer. By submitting your work, you are stepping into the void. It doesn’t matter if someone is there to catch you or if you fall. What matters is that with every story you grow. If your entry is short-listed or you win, what a weapon you’ll have to chase away those writerly doubts the next time you’re in a self-flagellating mood. And you never know, it may be the first step on the way to you featuring on the Granta List or winning the Booker.

Owning Your Choices in Story-Telling and in Life

I am finding it really hard to pick a novel to commit to at the moment. My hard drive is littered with the promising beginnings of half a dozen novels, each of which is clamouring for me to devote my time to them alone. Last week, I announced on my Facebook author page that I would be writing a dystopic science fiction story about a girl whose father has gone missing. I love this story. It has started to take shape in my head. I have plotted the story arc and sub-plots, one character in particular has started to take shape on the page. But I find myself retreating into other story folders, desperately bouncing between them like a woman with many lovers, unable to decide which one is her one true love.

I recognise my old enemy. Fear is creeping its way into my garden of dreams, feeding on my doubts and blocking out the sunlight. It is natural that every now and then, we come across decisions that we agonise over. We overthink our options and worry about making the wrong choice. We wonder if there was a better path that we ignored. Our hang-ups act like perpetual boomerangs and sabotage our success. We are paralysed by doubt and indecision and make excuses about our reasons for stalling.

‘I didn’t write today. There just wasn’t enough time.’

Now what I really meant to say when my husband asked me how my day went, was that I did the filing and the washing to avoid writing, because I can’t decide which project to commit to. Why is it that we get so defensive when we are called out? Is it really easier to stay within the comfort of our own boundaries than to strive for what we want? How liberating it would be if we could be honest with ourselves and each other.

If your fears have become bogeymen lurking at the edge of your consciousness, whispering doubt into your ear, call them out. Join me in writing them down, together with your goals, in stark black ink on a pristine page and maybe they won’t seem as scary in the cold light of day. Hell, let’s draw some ridiculous doodles next to them to bring them down a peg or two. A bug-eyed monster with a goofy smile perhaps, or a frenemy with her knickers round her ankles. Whatever floats our boat.

What is it that is holding me back right now, you ask? Well I think bubbling underneath the surface is indecision about whether to commit to literary or science fiction. That’s all. My head is saying: what is the clever choice? I’ve read the genre advice, and it’s better for branding to choose one direction, right? One thing is clear, finishing novels across multiple genres is definitely going to find you more readers than never finishing one.

Nobody cares as much about our choices as we do. Twenty years from now it won’t matter whether we take a small step towards success today or a large one; all that matters is that we keep moving forward. And the way to do that is to own our choices. Dressing up our decisions for the sake of external perceptions and expectations is to erode our self-determination and to fall into the trap of believing our own pretty white lies. It hinders our happiness and success.

I’m not going to stress over which novel I decide to commit to. I’m working on a short story collection at the moment, and if I find that the stubborn, plucky girl from my science fiction novel keeps intruding on my thoughts I’ll know that is the one. I forget that to be a writer is to learn infinite patience. It means to chip away at a project bit by bit until its form starts to take shape underneath our inky fingers. With writing, as with other choices, the trick is to commit to investing time and effort until the finish line. Sooner or later, my girl will have a story. And even if the novel doesn’t work as well as I want it to, I’ll have more skills and learning in my armoury to help with the next story.

Wishing you luck on your writing journey.

 

On Passion and Integrity

My head has been a whirr this week, as my final day at City Hall came and went, amidst leaving cards and speeches and the sense that a significant phase of my life has come to an end. I was a school girl when I first became interested in politics. I’d gone along to a talk that Tony Benn, diarist, campaigner and Labour party politician, was giving on the sanctions against Iraq. I can remember flashes from that evening: a small, humid room, the shuffling of papers, the anticipation of the audience. Most of all I remember how moved I was by Benn’s eloquence and his ability to really connect with the audience. He had a clarity of expression that helped even the very young grasp complex issues.

On Friday, Tony Benn passed away at the age of 88. I am hugely saddened by his death and it was remarkable to me that the man who first inspired my interest in politics died on the day I stepped away from it. The death of a public figure gives rise to a wave of commentary about their person and deeds, and I have watched with interest how those across the political spectrum reacted to Benn’s death. Remembering someone’s life well in the immediate aftermath of their death is a difficult task. Sometimes nostalgia colours perceptions and characters are subsequently whitewashed; at other times poorly timed criticism verges on the distasteful. When we remember those who have passed away, we should strive to reveal them in vibrant technicolour, in all their complexity. Our behaviour and decisions as individuals are borne of circumstances that twist and turn, and no man is without his flaws.

How limited our control is over the memories of us which remain with our children, the imprint we leave on strangers and how history remembers us. For my part, when I remember Benn, I’ll think of the stories I’ve heard of party conferences where he could be found sitting cross-legged on the floor, his pipe in hand, surrounded by young people who hung onto his every word. I’ll think of the plaque that he put up to the suffragette Emily Wilding Davison in a broom cupboard in parliament, where she’d once illegally hidden. I’ll remember that he fought for the right to give up his peerage and how when he quit as a member of parliament in 2001, after serving as an MP for fifty years, he said he was quitting to spend more time on politics. And I’ll remember how he proposed to his wife after knowing her for little more than a week, and decades later tracked down the bench on which he proposed to her so that it could sit at their graveside after they died.

But what I will remember most about Benn isn’t his ideas or even his deeds, but rather his values. I did not agree with him on key issues – his opposition to Europe, for example – but I believed that he would fight tooth and nail to defend his principles, even if they were unpopular, and that he was wholly invested in making society a better place. There has been criticisms of Benn since his passing that he wasn’t very successful as a practical politician. Indeed, Benn’s latterly role outside the central political arena – he last served as a cabinet minister in the 1970s – allowed him to act and speak more freely than others who are constrained by the practicalities of senior positions. I found it joyful that his idealism wasn’t clouded by age. Our world of compromises and secret boardroom deals needs men like Benn, men of conviction and passion, who aren’t governed by fear or self-interest, and who dare to challenge the establishment, even when they are part of it themselves.

Regardless of what history may make of Benn’s politics, I’d like to think he had many qualities we should uphold. It seems that today’s society promotes a cardboard cutout version of success, that we applaud self-interest. In a world of technological prowess we spend too little time talking and listening to one another. I think we can all learn from the humanity and thoughtfulness that Benn showed until the end. We can go a long way with passion, integrity and commitment.

Fear of Change and the Promise of New Beginnings

Excitement is fizzing and popping underneath my calm exterior at the moment. Change is afoot, with its candy-scented promise of success. It’s not the type of change that happens out of the blue, when you are unprepared and unsuspecting; it is the sort I initiated myself.

You see, for a long time my career choices have been shaped by the fact we have young children. I valued a secure salary and flexible working options so I went back to my job at City Hall after the children were born. The problem is, I’m no longer the same person I was when I started working there seven years ago. The tussle of politics has lost its sheen and I crave more creativity. I’d been carving out small pockets of time around my job in London and childcare for both my own writing and building up my writing business, but there just wasn’t enough time in the day. More than that, I got more fulfilment from writing a small article for a client, than from delivering a big budget project in London.

My husband and I toyed with the idea of whether I should leave the day job. We did our sums and worked out that we can afford it and that now is a good time to concentrate on my fiction and expanding the writing business. Writing fits in beautifully around when one of us has to be there for the children. It also means I will be closer to home for school performances and those inevitable phone-calls telling me my child has projectile vomited across the room and needs to be picked up immediately. The thought of having more time to write is exhilarating but inexplicably, I found myself saying: ‘Security is so important. I should stay in the job a bit longer.’

Change is unsettling: it breeds fear. It is much easier to focus on what we lose through change than what we may gain. Why would you risk certainties for uncertainties? Isn’t it much better to cling to safety than to risk losing face? For me, it was about about realising that the status quo didn’t measure up any more. Uncalculated risks are foolhardy but so is continuing on a path that you know doesn’t allow you to live up to your potential.

Leaving City Hall was hypothetical until the first day back at work in the new year, the day on which I’m told most resignations and applications for divorce are submitted. I rolled out of bed that morning in the dark to gusts of wind and sheets of rain, and had no idea that I was going to resign. I sat down as my desk with a coffee, started up my computer and began catching up on the emails I had missed over the holiday period. It hit me that I was in the wrong place and had been for some time. I called my husband.

‘Can I resign? It feels right.’

‘Wow…Well, we’ve done the math. Sure, do it.’

‘Am I being stupid?’

‘We can make this work.’

After that phone call, I went upstairs and typed out a resignation letter. It still feels right to have acted as I did, but the fear remains. It’s daunting to be leaving a secure income behind. There is a lot to wrap up at work before I leave, so for the moment writing has taken a back seat. I can see the shadows of looming monsters at the edge of my consciousness begging me for attention, asking me to succumb to anxiety, uncertainty and regret before I have even started on my new path.

The truth is, uncertainty is part of life. Yes, I am taking a risk, but we have made sure this is viable financially. Although change is intimidating, I am buoyed by what I now know. Taking risks is liberating. Surrounding yourself with supportive and inspiring family and friends helps keep fear at bay. Success is not assured, but we learn though our endeavours, not by hiding. Resilience and courage can take you a long way.

I’ve dipped a tentative foot in the unknown. We’ll see what strange, beautiful creatures come swimming my way.

‘I wanted to change the world. But I have found that the only thing one can be sure of changing is oneself.’ Aldous Huxley, Point Counter Point

‘Change, like sunshine, can be a friend or a foe, a blessing or a curse, a dawn or a dusk.’ William Arthur Ward

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

Beta Readers: the Magic Elves of the Publishing World

Why have a beta reader?

A beta reader gives you feedback on your writing before you set it loose on the world.  You’ve worked on your manuscript for months, maybe years, and it is likely that you are so invested in your story that you can no longer see it through a reader’s eyes. A beta reader will be able to tell you if your writing is convincing, what is missing and what is holding up the story. Most beta readers will focus on commenting on the whole picture, although some may kindly make note of minor inaccuracies too. All this before you publish, upping your chances of impressing industry professionals and your readers.

I’m probably more comfortable with using beta readers than a critique group. A group setting can be intimidating, whereas a beta reader allows for a personal response to your writing. Often, writers find their beta readers amongst their peers. It can be difficult to find the right one though so here’s some factors to consider so the process goes as smoothly as possible for both parties.

What’s in it for a beta reader?

If someone has volunteered to beta read for you, it’s probably because they enjoy reading and getting to know new voices.  Beta reading teaches you to read with a critical eye; you learn to isolate what works and what doesn’t work in manuscripts, which helps your own writing. Then there’s the reciprocity of writer relationships. You might read for someone to grow your bank of contacts who may help with your own work in the future.

The ideal beta reader

  • Is a voracious reader
  • Understands what makes a story work: are the hooks strong enough for it to be a page turner; is the plot believable and clearly explained; does the structure work; are the characters convincing; does the location come alive; how is the pacing; is the language appropriate to the genre and target audience; is the point of view and tone the best vehicle for the narrative; is the dialogue realistic; does the story use of foreshadowing, imagery and symbolism well; is there a satisfying resolution
  • Knows your chosen genre well
  • Is knowledgeable about the publishing world and has good instincts about what it takes to get noticed
  • Won’t be nit-picky about grammar or typos at this stage. S/he knows that the beta read is more about the bigger picture
  • Is not a relative or a close friend, who may not come to the manuscript with an open mind or want to risk hurting your feelings
  • Is tactful and is able to critique your story without mortally wounding your ego

How to be a good beta reader

  • Make sure you can afford to give the manuscript the time and attention it deserves
  • Point out what you admire and why but don’t give false praise
  • Keep in mind the key elements of story-writing and make notes accordingly
  • Note the parts of the story you found gripping and the parts where your attention lapsed
  • Ask questions if something doesn’t feel right
  • Remember this is not your story. Only make suggestions for improvements if you are asked
  • Provide a written report and if possible include reactions written on the text as you read it
  • Most importantly, be honest in your feedback, but express yourself sensitively. Your job is to help make the story better, not crush the author

How to handle the process 

  • Choose a small group of readers, ideally 3-4
  • Respect a beta-reader’s time by sending as polished a manuscript as possible
  • Make your expectations clear up front, for example, the deadline (I suggest four weeks), any area they should focus on, line edit or overall commentary
  • Don’t chase. Be patient while you wait for the comments to be returned to you
  • You may wish to discuss the comments with the beta-reader once you have read them if this is acceptable with them, but try not to be defensive
  • Offer to return the favour should your beta reader need it
  • Show your thanks by mentioning your beta reader in your book’s acknowledgements, thanking them on social media, or sending them a copy of the final version. Extra brownie points for handwritten notes to say thank you

Surviving the feedback

  • Be in no doubt, this is a scary process
  • Try not to read the comments until they are all returned to you. That way you can read them as a whole. If more than one beta reader picks up on an issue, you can pay that element particular attention
  • It’s your writing and your vision. Take forward the issues that resonate – it is likely the comments will validate a gut feeling you already had – and disregard the rest
  • You are in the business of writing the best book you possibly can. Be prepared to make some changes if the comments ring true
  • If you find yourself ignoring all the constructive criticism, it could be that you are avoiding additional work. I get that. It’s hard when you think you are almost at the finish line, but you owe it to yourself to give your manuscript the best possible chance of success
  • Finally, don’t let the less favourable comments affect your confidence

Works of art are not made in a vacuum. They are, in every way, a collaboration. A beta reader can be one of the sharpest tools in your box. Don’t be afraid to use them.

Divinity and Self-Expression

When I was pregnant with my daughter a little over four years ago, I remember my mum bringing up religion with my husband, who is an atheist. ‘The moment you see the baby born, you’ll hear hallelujahs, I’m sure of it,’ she said, only half teasing. ‘You can’t witness something so magical without believing in God.’ After Hana was born, mum brought it up again. ‘So, do you feel any differently about religion now?’ she asked. ‘Errr, it was really special, of course, but no, not really!’ he said.

Which religion (or not) we grow up believing in is more often than not a matter of coincidence: my husband grew up in East Germany under communism where there was no room for religion. I am Muslim, but neither my brother nor I go to the mosque as often as my parents would like. There is no pressure to attend from them, although I know it would mean a lot to them if we were to show more interest. Growing up, I found their über-involvement in the community a little difficult to deal with and craved freedom to act away from it. I much prefer religion to be a personal form of expression than a communal one, but that’s just an individual choice.

I guess many Muslims would say that the way I practice my faith is lackadaisical. From time to time, I remember loved ones we have lost and I say prayers for them. I pray more since having the children as a way to say thank you for the joy they bring us and because I feel it protects them and keeps them safe. I recognise that for me as for most people, faith is not based on logic but reflects my upbringing instead. If I dissect my behaviour, I must admit that I act selfishly because although I believe in God, practicing my faith is tied to what’s in it for me.

I have begun to wonder though if there is a purer form of divinity open to everyone, one that does not discriminate between believers and non-believers. The sort that makes you catch your breath when you see the sun glinting on the ocean or when you feel a real connection with another person that serves to remind you just how special this world is. And there are the whisperings. I can’t be the only one that feels them. The tiny flashes of knowledge that pass through your mind when you are otherwise occupied, telling you to write that story, spend more time with that person, do that course of study, jack in that job, because something better awaits if only you open yourself to it and apply yourself.

If you dare to blink, these thoughts disappear as quickly as they appear, and  you are left with a remnant of brilliance that has escaped, leaving you to continue your usual trajectory. You can call these moments intuition, the whisperings of muses or even divine wisdom. Whichever camp you fall into, it seems to me that we should be listening out for those internal voices and giving them the credence they deserve. Too much of the way we live our lives today is about keeping up with the Joneses, of making sure we haven’t missed the latest trend to rock Twitter. We are buffeted this way and that, and in keeping ourselves so exhaustingly busy, we miss the signs that really count.

I’d like to make a tentative stand for keeping our eyes and ears peeled for the doors the universe opens for us, for the quiet hum of our muses and for the truthful voices we silence in ourselves. You see, there is something divine about the potential we all have. There is something holy about being true to ourselves. It is far too easy to ignore our talents and conform to the standard social templates around us. There is a time for logic and there is a time for reckless abandonment to our dreams, and who knows, maybe your dreams aren’t as crazy as you thought. Maybe, just maybe, they are exactly who you are supposed to be.

‘Every man is a divinity in disguise, a god playing the fool.’ Ralph Waldo Emerson

NaNoWriMo Update and some Dark and not so Dark #FridayPhrases

November is NaNoWriMo, when hundreds of thousands of writers across the world try to pen 50,000 words in a month. Crazy, much? This is my third time doing NaNo and while I’ve never quite made the 50k, I have loved taking part each time. In fact, I love all things NaNo: the forums; the extra motivation that comes with having a deadline; the pep talks that land in your inbox from NaNo friends; gorgeous NaNo prints; even the word count tracker which generates a little graph of your daily progress.

NaNo mind-mapping

NaNo mind-mapping

It’s the end of week one and it has been an intense ride so far. I planned my NaNo novel this year, hoping it would give me an extra push to get to 50k.  I have filled half a dozen A3 sheets with mind maps. This year I’m writing a dystopian science fiction story based 300 years from now in an over-populated world torn apart by scarce resources. My protagonist is 15 year old Londoner Suki (always helps to know your setting inside out for NaNo). In her world, the Thames splits London in two. North of the river is solely for rich Londoners, who can afford to pay for what they need to survive in this wreaked world. South of the river is where Suki lives with her mum, but she misses her dad, who for some reason has crossed to the other side of the river. Suki intends to find out why.

At 7k so far, I’m already behind target, but not too far behind to catch up. Twitter games such as #NaNoWordSprints have been brilliant at making me feel less alone when I’m writing until the early hours. Even so, it’s hard to keep motivated day in day out, especially after work or if the kids are around. I won’t give up though. And there’s always time for #FridayPhrases.

Most of you Twitter fiends will have clocked #FP already, which  @amicgood initiated. Here is a link to her proposal. In a nutshell, the idea is to tweet a story or poem in 140 characters. Use the hashtag #FP to read and retweet other people’s work.  You’ll find some of my most recent #FPs below, some of which were written for Halloween. Others are less dark.

25.10.13

Monsters live in the toilet bowl. He knew it. Toilet training as a baby took forever. Not flushing cost him his wife. But the monsters never got him #FP

‘Punpkins make great weapons,’ she said. He was tied to a beam in the barn, orange goo everywhere. A cut-out smile was the last thing he saw #FP

Playtime at vampire school. Speed demons in darkened hall. Hopscotch bloodied slabs. Humans pinned to the vaulted ceiling. Snacktime soon #FP

1.11.13

I feared the day I would love you. The solution was simple. You lie perfectly in a glass case. Now you will always be mine #FP

I long to swim in the sea again. I relive those days in my dreams. Sweet relief to forget the thrashing gilled monsters there now #FP

8.11.13

1st time he saw an escalator he was scared. Then he took off his sandals & watched them travel up the stairs. His name was Taufiq Two Brains #FP

Forty minuted of queuing. The stench of fried onions hung in the air. She snapped, swinging her handbag in circles. She needed that burger #FP

Bubbles and foam everywhere. She took off her clothes and slipped into the bath, smelling notes of lavender and bergamot. Alone at last #FP

Good luck to all you Wrimos out there. I’ll look out for your #FPs too.

The Benefits of Publishing Anonymously or Taking a Pen Name

Have you ever been tempted to publish your work anonymously or take a pseudonym? If yes, you’d be following in the footsteps of some of the literary greats, such as the Brontë sisters (Ellis, Acton, and Currer Bell), Cecil Day-Lewis (Nicholas Blake), Jane Austen (A Lady) and Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), who all decided for one reason or another to mask their true identity. Voltaire is thought to have used at least 178 pen names during his lifetime. But what is the difference between writing anonymously and taking a nom de plume, you might ask? Using a consistent pseudonym allows readers to group together your body of work. Publishing your work anonymously means that the reader has no context at all about the author, other than what is within the pages of that particular text.

So why do authors, often a vain breed (is it not presumptuous to believe that our ideas are worth reading?!), decide to take a pen name or remain anonymous?

  • If you have a name that is too similar to another writer’s, or if your birth name is Angelina Jolie, for example, you may wish to use a pseudonym to ensure there are no mix-ups and to create your own unique brand. Sometimes authors choose a name that is easier to pronounce or spell, or just sounds better than their own. American romance novelist Julie Woodcock (Angela Knight) writes under her nom de plume because her actual name is suggestive within the context of her genre.
  • Writers living under an oppressive regime may feel they have no choice but to hide their true identity if they intend to be critical. For example, Chinese writer, human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, who has been imprisoned for dissident activities and whose writing is banned and considered subversive by the Chinese Communist Party, published many of his works abroad, and chose to take the pseudonym Lao Xiao when publishing in mainland China. Another example is the pen name Ibn Warraq, which has been adopted by various dissident writers critical of Islam.
  • History has been littered with examples of female authors taking male pseudonyms such as Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot), Nelle Harper Lee (Harper Lee) and Louisa May Alcott (A. M. Barnard), who opted for male pen names to ensure their work would be taken seriously.

anonymouse

  • Some authors want to branch out into other genres without jeopardising their reputations. Take J.K. Rowling (Robert Galbraith), for example, who decided to use a a pen name for her 2013 work ’The Cuckoo’s Calling’, when she was branching into the crime genre. On her website, she writes that she wanted to ‘go back to the beginning of a writing career in this new genre, to work without hype or expectation.’ In fact, Rowling chose to use her initials rather than full name for her Harry Potter novels because her publisher insisted that they would be more appealing to young boys if it was not evident that she was a female writer. Last year it was revealed that Russian crime author, Grigory Chkhartishvili (Boris Akunin), had taken additional pseudonyms, including the female one Anna Borisova, as he did not want to be confined to the crime genre. He even photoshopped an author photo of his female pen name by mixing his own picture with that of his wife’s.
  • If you have been tempted to write about workplace scenarios you may fall foul of your colleagues or employment contract if you divulge secrets. Remaining anonymous can be a better route but does not necessarily protect you from legal proceedings. Take David John Moore Cornwell (John Le Carré), for example, who began his work as a spy novelist while he himself was an MI6 agent. Or The London Paper’s City Boy column, which ran under a cloak of mystery for two years from 2006 until the author was unmasked as Geraint Anderson.
  • Series fiction, such as the Nancy Drew series, is sometimes published under one pen name although a collective of writers have ghost-written the books.
  • Sometimes, like for Stephen King (Richard Bachman), using a pseudonym is a way for writers to find out whether their work is successful on its own merit or because of their fame.
  • Some Indian authors used to publish works using a pseudonym or under the name of a deity because they believed it to be egotistical to publish under their own name. To this day, many early works by Indian writers are untraceable because of this practice.
  • And then there’s authors who choose anonymity or a pen name because it gives them the freedom they need to write without worrying about what friends, family or the world will think of their work. Perhaps they want to be free to recycle family history or let their characters be violent, deviants, or whoever they need to be for the story, without any raised eyebrows or backlash.

I used to wonder about taking a pen name. Mostly because it took me a while to take my dreams of writing fiction seriously, and it seemed too soon to share them with anyone but my closest friends and family. I wanted to hug that part of me close, like a secret, because it is fragile and special, and I’m not sure how it would stand up against the weight of their expectations. I wondered whether anyone reading my stories would assume that they are grounded in reality, that a part of the author must be in every character. I was afraid that anticipating their opinions would make me less free as a writer. It is sometimes easier to be yourself with strangers than with friends. The risk of personal judgement is higher with those who are in your daily life. But I am not willing to censor myself. So a pseudonym sounded like a brilliant idea. It sounded like freedom.

I’ve changed my mind though. My journey so far as a writer has taught me that I am stronger than I expected. Not everyone will like my work. And as long as I am true to myself, that’s okay. And actually, it’s quite freeing to finally be able to peel back the layers and let the real me breathe. The air was getting thin while I was wearing all that armour. I feel so much lighter now. And my name is just fine, thank you. Have you ever considered taking a pen name?

‘We live in an age where anonymity is growing in magnitude like a bomb going off.’ Jock Sturges

Protecting our Space as Writers

It’s happened time and again over the years, others intruding on my boundaries. It happens repeatedly, determinedly, in a steady drip-drip that eventually causes me to let down my defences. A slow, stealthy creeping into my personal space, a disruption of carefully planned routines. It is the neighbour who comes by for a friendly cuppa too often, a box of Jaffa Cakes in tow. It is my mum or gran, making an over-abundance of steaming, hot curry, bringing us a portion and gently wrapping those threads of family life even tighter around me. It is the friend who asks haltingly, if I can possibly make time for her. It is the kindly man from the mosque or the distant uncle who says, you are missed, where have you been? Leave me be, I think, nothing is for free.  My ungratefulness seeps out of every pore, like a putrid gas, waiting to poison us all.

But oh, my stories, they yearn to get out, and they require solitude.  Solitude.  How I love that word.  My stories, you see, long not to be rushed and crave the time to simply be, to blossom into a wondrous narrative or wilt on their own terms.  And this life of mine, with its great swarms of loving people just waiting on the sidelines to be entertained, supported and loved in return, isn’t accommodating of this writing dream.

‘Are you coming tomorrow?’

‘No, I can’t.  I’m writing.’

‘You should really try and come.’

‘I have a project I’m working on and I’d really like to finish’.

‘How about you just pop in for an hour or so?’

The fault is also mine, of course.  Why am I unable to articulate my needs so that they are acknowledged? When I manage to create some space, how do I end up back at square one with a diary full of commitments I would rather not have, feeling loved but suffocated?  Perhaps it is my failing that friends and family can’t accept a ‘no’ graciously. Should I be clearer or more forceful? Can I enforce my boundaries without causing hurt to those I love? Can I love them selfishly on my terms or will my part-time love be ridiculed, like a half-baked meringue that refuses to live up to its promise?

Maybe this writer dream is too implausible for my family and friends to buy into.  Who makes money with writing nowadays (money being the only measure of success, of course)… and why would I flitter away my time without the certainty of a return on my investment?  Or perhaps they think I am not the writer type.  Maybe I need to shout my dream from the rooftops with Bollywood backing dancers behind me for them to take me seriously.  Or should I aspire to be more writerly, say, hang out at chic writer parties or in coffee-shops, or try to look more like a brooding, angst-filled loner? Do I need wilder hair or to be more emotional?

stick figureNow that would be ridiculous, wouldn’t it?  So this here, is my battle-cry.  RRRRROAAAARRRRRRR!! And this stick figure here, with the door closed, is the new me. I won’t feel guilty about it.  I will let you in when I can, but sometimes I won’t be able to because I don’t want to risk losing the magic in this wonderful scene I am writing.  Please don’t take it personally.  I love you very much, I really do, but this part of me has to be private.  It needs time to breathe.  My writing is a priority, you see, and no, it isn’t a hobby.  It’s much more than that.  I might tell you about how it feels one day.  I will support you to achieve your dreams in any way I can, so please, if you love me, just take a little step back and respect what it takes to achieve mine.

‘I don’t think people should have boundaries put on them, by themselves or society or another gender, because it’s our birthright to experience life in whatever way we feel best suits us.’ Hilary Swank

‘Once you label me you negate me.’ Soren Kierkegaard

What I See Project: What I See When I Look in the Mirror

This post was written for the What I See Project, which is asking women globally what they see when they look in the mirror.  It’d be interesting to hear male answers to the question too, but for now it’s women only.  You can find out more about the project and contribute your own video blog by going to http://www.whatiseeproject.com.  

mermaid

I see a body which is imperfect, but which tells a story: honest eyes and English teeth; my great-grandmother’s prominent nose; fingers that could have been a piano player’s – but aren’t; breasts that have nursed my children; knees that show I prefer sitting on the floor to the sofa; age starting to wreak havoc.

I see a hoarder of books, a greedy consumer of news, a woman who is socially engaged but tired of the lies and compromises of politics, who is warm, honest and generous, but exacting in her standards of herself and others, and capable of darkness.

I see a mother who tends her children lovingly and mourns every bittersweet passing moment, but whose dreams are waiting on the sidelines. A writer who waited too long to take her craft seriously, held back by fear and doubt. A woman who has moderate success and wants more, but is not always prepared to make life sacrifices.

I see the imprint of my loved ones past and present, a woman who wants to be many things, and just one. I see dishonesty cloaked in honesty, someone who is lost sometimes, but trusts and dares, who is unable to look at her reflection in all its truth, but who one day may be able to.

I see someone who is blessed to have been born into this family, with these opportunities.  Basking in this love.

The Danger of Pleasing Others

Do you ever feel that your life is not your own? Sometimes life throws a curve ball, which disrupts our plans and we have no choice but to deal with the fallout.  However, just as outside forces can limit our freedom, our own attitudes and behaviours can keep us imprisoned.  There is one trait that I recognise time and again in those around me: the desire to please others.  It sounds harmless enough, doesn’t it?  A good characteristic, even.  One that you would like to have in your friend, child, spouse or parent? Think again.

Compromising yourself

Making other people happy is admirable, but if you extend your generosity repeatedly to all and sundry, you risk burn out and compromising your own dreams.  By always agreeing to meet the demands of others, you risk becoming a shadow of yourself, a vessel for their projected desires.  Ultimately, your health is at risk, your uniqueness is diluted and with it your potential.

A female, Indian perspective

BarrenLooking at this through the prism of my own experience, as a woman of Indian origin, I am aware of the differing cultural expectations for men and women.  Even within our small Indian diaspora, we are subject to unspoken expectations and behaviours learned during childhood centring around honour and duty, which continue to be held up as virtues.  It is more acceptable for Indian men to display self-serving behaviour than Indian women. It is almost impossible for some Indian women I know to exercise freedom of choice without guilt. Strip away the people pleasing and little else remains but frustration and emptiness.  But what should that matter?  Duty. Responsibility. Good girl. Respect for others can be taken to the extreme and it should not mean disrespecting yourself.

Teaching our children to please others

Like in many other cultures, the Indian ideal of motherhood is based on sacrifice and servitude. Daughters in particular emulate this mode of being.  It seems to me, however, that in teaching our children to follow this example, to be obedient and please others, we are actually doing them a disservice.  It is important to teach them the difference between right and wrong.  All too often, however, we teach children not to question the established status quo and to do as they are told.  We school them to suppress their own desires, ultimately leading to less fulfilled people.

People pleasing as a writer

I like to be liked.  One of my hardest lessons as a writer, one which I am still learning, is being able to say no.  We have two young children, who are wonderful, and while it is sometimes hard work, we really enjoy our young family.  There are other relationships too, which are very important to me.  But I have learnt that we cannot be everywhere or do everything we are expected to do.  Time is too scarce and the little time I do have to write is precious.  In this way, people pleasing as a writer is impossible.  Sometimes, you have to shut the door and it has to stay shut.

Then there is the other writer problem. Readers, particularly those known to us, seek to make connections between our written work and our lives.  That novel, that short story, that poem, cannot possibly be a work of fiction… What material have we used from the real world? What topics have we addressed that should have been off-limits? As a writer, we cannot hope to please all our readers and it is even less likely we will please our immediate circle. While writers should make every effort to deal with their subject matter sensitively, they must tell the truth and examine human nature fearlessly, without being shackled by concern for the reactions of those closest to them, lest a far inferior work ensues.                                                                                                                                     

Putting your happiness first

So, why do some people find it difficult to assert themselves?  It may be because they worry about how they are viewed or fear being disliked.  Perhaps they are frightened of disappointing others or being alone. But always saying yes to your friends, family and colleagues isn’t the surest way to form lasting, mutually satisfying relationships. The more you commit yourself, the more you risk being taken for granted and the more pressure you will feel to maintain expectations.

If you struggle to set the boundaries needed for your own personal growth and happiness:

  • Set priorities.  Decide who exists within your inner circle and be firmer with everyone outside of this.
  • Practice being more comfortable with being disliked.  You cannot please everyone all the time.
  • Experiment with asserting your authority.
  • Realise that saying no to unreasonable demands of you is the first step towards greater success and happiness.
  • Choose to be with people who are supportive of you.

‘Women often have a great need to portray themselves as sympathetic and pleasing, but we’re also dark people with dark thoughts.’ Zadie Smith 

‘The art of pleasing is the art of deception.’ Luc de Clapiers 

This blog post also featured in the September 2013 First Friday Link Party for Writers on Carol Tice’s website Making A Living Writing

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 

Should Writers Ever Self-Censor?

Salman Rushdie and The Satanic Verses

In 1989 my seven year old ears pricked up at the repeated mention of a name in our house.  My extended family are big film and music lovers and it would have been more in keeping for them to be discussing Bollywood star Salman Khan.  But it was Salman Rushdie who was the talking point.

“How dare he talk about the Prophet and his wives that way!”

“Why did he do it?  What is wrong with him?”

“He should have known better.”

Not one person in our immediate circle had actually picked up a copy of The Satanic Verses, yet there was an immediate ferocity of emotion against the author.  My family is Muslim and faith plays an important role for us.  Our particular strand of Islam has a modernist approach, which sometimes does not sit well with the rest of the Ummah.  Yet in that moment the entire Muslim world, the majority of whom did not support the Fatwa, still turned against Rushdie and said: you were wrong to choose that subject matter – some things are sacred.

It was years before I began to actually understand the huge attack on freedom the reaction to The Satanic Verses entailed.  It gained notoriety amongst non-readers in Muslim circles with breathtaking speed.  That book.  That blasphemer.  Fiction had intruded on reality and challenged the status quo, and there was no going back.

WomanWhy do writers self-censor?

I am no Salman Rushdie, but as I mine the caverns of my knowledge and experience for my writing life, I have begun to wonder whether some topics are off-limits.  What possible reasons might a writer have to self-censor?  History is littered with examples of artists being persecuted or punished by the state for their work in the interests of ‘security and castration’ (Jonathan Green, Encyclopaedia of Censorship).  The state has the power to contribute to the upward trajectory of artists, such as the patronage of Michelangelo or the support for Leni Riefenstahl in Nazi Germany.  But it can also seek to silence artistic voices.  Take Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, for example, whose writing, considered subversive by the Chinese Communist Party, is banned.  In England, Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover were both subject to obscenity trials.  Fear at such treatment might be one reason why writers curtail their creative vision.

Then there is not wishing to offend family and friends.  As a writer, you borrow, steal and explore the experiences of those around you.  Or you fear your loved ones will see connections to your own life or theirs where there is none.  How many of you have censored your language or the darker side of your imagination for fear of the reception a free artistic reign might receive amongst your loved ones?  Did Patrick Süskind think twice before writing Das Parfum or did Nabokov’s courage fail him as the publication date for Lolita grew closer?  With social media closing the distance between authors and their readers, do writers need to develop an even thicker skin to criticism?  Today, with the need for writers to engage directly with their readership, they leave themselves open to fans as well as trolls, and fear of criticism could well bring about a less brave editorial decision. As Salman Rushdie says, if a writer ‘is afraid of the consequences of his choice of subject or of his manner of treatment of it, then his choices will not be determined by his talent, but by fear’(On Censorship).

Self-censorship as self-protection

I also ask myself whether the exploration of certain thoughts is dangerous.  Have you ever stood at the edge of a cliff or a train platform and wondered for a fleeting moment what it would be like to jump?  Or stayed under the bath water for a few seconds too long, thinking what would it feel like to let the water obliterate you, wash it all away?  You then get up and carry on happily with your life, forgetting that you were momentarily drawn to the abyss. But art demands that you stay in dark moments, explore them, rinse them of their possibilities.  You cut yourself until you bleed onto the page.  You exploit the painful experiences you have long since buried for the sake of your writing.  Is that the sacrifice we must make to make lasting and memorable art? What if that isn’t good for you?  What if that turns you into a version of yourself that isn’t healthy?  Take Heath Ledger in Batman, Daniel Day-Lewis in The Gangs of New York, or Anthony Burgess’ and Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange, for example. Does imagining the lives of psychopaths and the most heinous criminals make artists vulnerable, leaving an inescapable impact on their psyche?  

Are artists also partially responsible for vile acts committed by audience members who emulate the depraved scenes we imagine, like the killers of Jamie Bulger, who are said to have been imitating scenes from Child’s Play?  Many films, including Scream and even Robocop 2 have been blamed for inspiring murder.  Excessive violence or sexual content in films can have varying impact on audiences – including desensitisation and imitation – or no influence at all. To blame the writer or encourage him to self-censor for the greater good seems to me to be a step too far when there are so many contributory factors, which determine how people act.  It’s questionable that any one creative work is a significant influencer of how people behave.

Should writers ever self-censor?

In his brilliant essay A Severity of Conscience: Writers and Self-Censorship, Thomas Larson talks about how ‘government and other self-selecting demi-gods […] dictate what is consumable in hopes of ethically uplifting or expunging our thoughts.’   In a free society, if content is deemed to be undesirable, however graphic or offensive it is, then its impact should be negated through informed discussion about the work in question, rather than blanket bans or the persecution of its creator.  In specific circumstances, there may be exceptions to the rule, and as Larson discusses in his essay, the poet Nissim Ezekiel came out in favour of India’s ban on The Satanic Verses, stating that its publication ‘was an incendiary act in the Indian context, for it could lead to rioting and murder, and no book was worth that’ (A Severity of Conscience: Writers and Self-Censorship).

Art is freedom, and so it follows that censorship of any kind is anathema to it.  To my mind enlightenment comes from exploration, discussion and looking at different versions of the truth.  The more we censor ourselves as writers, the less our readers can relate to us, the more our voice falls silent to those who need it.  There are consequences to telling the truth, just as there are consequences to covering it up.  Every writer must decide for herself what she wishes to commit to the page.  The decisions she makes come down to her courage, environment and the risks she wishes to take.  Over time, the markers about what is acceptable change.  The lifetime of art exceeds that of its makers and ultimately, now and in the future, we don’t have any control over how readers interpret our work.  Just as it is the writer’s prerogative to create fiction without his vision being suppressed, it is for readers to decide what they wish to read.  As Salman Rushdie says, ‘original art is never created in the safe middle ground, but always at the edge’ (On Censorship).  He should know.