The Top Five Writing Decisions I’ve Made So Far

Photo by Angie Garrett

Photo by Angie Garrett

Like many of you, I’ve been a keen reader since childhood. Reading was an escape when my loving, boisterous family overwhelmed me, when the world was quiet and friends slept, and the television pixels seemed to zap energy rather than give it. I started with Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton and Judy Blume and was hooked from there. I harboured a dream to write, but it took many years before I began to pen my own stories, and the birth of my children to crystallise my goal of being a writer. Our eldest is now five years old. In those years of learning to be a mum, though writing speeches, briefings and proposals were part of my day job, I took the first real steps to making fiction writing my career.

Daydreams are fun, but in reality a writing career does not emerge overnight. Lady Luck does not suddenly propel you to the top of the New York Times Best Seller List or award you the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction overnight. It’s all about work. The hours at a desk, the battles with doubt, pouring over craft books, the notes scribbled at school pick up because you’ve found a detail that is just perfect for your story, nurturing relationships, attending conferences, and trusting strangers with your work. So much of this is pleasurable. And so much of this is hard. It’s a marathon, not the 100m. These repeated acts, month after month, year after year, they are what makes a writer.

I’m still on that path. There are certain things that have taught me a huge amount and made me braver. They are:

1. Setting writing goals and meeting them

After years of daydreaming it was key for me to prioritise writing. I made sure my loved ones knew how important it was to me, partly so they could hold me to account, but also to claim writing as part of my identity. I set both short and long-term writing goals, one of which is to write every day. I try to not let more than a day pass without putting pen to paper, even if it is just writing in my journal. This mindset was the biggest shift I made, and I find if I don’t write regularly my contentment nosedives.

2. Reading craft books and blogs

Photo by Celes

Photo by Celes

In the early days, when I was still building my confidence, it helped to read craft books such as Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Stephen King’s On Writing. I also like Renni Browne’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. I find it helpful to read blogs by fellow writers both for motivation and tips. Blogs by Emma Darwin, Kristen Lamb, Chuck Wendig, K. M. Weiland and Ksenia Anske are amongst my favourites.

3. Starting a blog of my own

I have about 1000 blog readers currently and have been blogging for nearly two years. I post once a week and my website draws about thirty views a day and spikes with #MondayBlogs and #WWWBlogs traffic. I could be better at self-promotion and SEO, but even as it is, blogging has taught me valuable lessons about courage, meeting deadlines, staying the course and what resonates with readers. And I have made wonderful friends since the start of this journey.

4. Social media and online communities

Platform-building is important, yes, but it’s the relationships that are the most enriching here. I use Twitter and my Facebook author page most of all, and have G+, Instagram, Pinterest and Goodreads accounts, which I use to varying degrees.

There are wonderful communities that can be found through hashtags such as #MondayBlogs, #WWWBlogs, #ArchiveDay and writing challenges such as #FridayPhrases, #FlashFriday and NaNoWriMo, as well as Facebook groups. My favourites there are Ally Atherton’s Writer’s Soapbox, Anna Meade’s Dark Fairy Queen and Her Brilliant Minions and Jennifer Blanchard’s The Emerging Author Incubator.

You might be sitting in a turret all day writing your novel, or at the kitchen table when everyone else is in bed, but these groups help keep the loneliness at bay and can lead to lasting friendships and great collaborations. Just beware that the flip side of social media is that it takes time and can be addictive. You’ll know to scale back if your writing output suffers.

5. Finding a critique group

Photo by Pauline Mak

Photo by Pauline Mak

My husband is my first reader. He has a keen eye for the rhythm of a sentence and character motivation, and he’s not afraid to tell me when something is not working. Even so, there are drawbacks with getting feedback from loved ones. Will they tell you the truth? Do they know enough about the genre and the craft to know what works and what does not? Feedback from family and friends paints a picture, but there comes a point when external review is critical to getting your work polished enough for publication.

First, I began using beta readers and critique partners. Then six months ago I wrote a post about using critique groups to accelerate your learning as a writer. I discussed how critique groups are a valuable tool, but can also damage your confidence if you are not quite ready to expose your work to scrutiny, or the group is not the right fit for you. At the time, I was thinking about finding my own critique group and the article reflected my thought process, though I was still wary about entrusting my work – and my ego – to a group of strangers. I didn’t want my confidence to be crushed. In fact, for a time I considered carrying on in my little bubble.

But that’s just it, isn’t it? It’s part of the philosophy about improving ourselves. Do the work. It’s far better to be aware of your flaws and to hone your craft, than forfeit your chance to be better. When the opportunity came to apply for Write Draft Critique: The Virtual Writer Workshop, founded by M.J. Kelley, I took a deep breath and decided to go for it.

It’s the single best decision I’ve made this past year.

The workshop took place over a seven-week period. It happens online, in a way that allows those with job pressures and families to fit the work around their schedules. It is a remarkable set-up, with the founder, group moderators, new and established writers all submitting their work for review and writing critiques. This sets up an egalitarian review system despite the difference in experience levels.

Some people submit work which has already been prepared; others write as they go along. Critiques are given both on the manuscripts and in long form. The magic of the Write Draft Critique set-up is, I think, in the people who run it, and the clear guidelines they have established. It is an intense experience. I was fearful, and steeled myself each time I read a critique of my work, but the trust and rapport built up within the group incredibly quickly.

I now have a better understanding of what to watch out for in my work and what I do well. I learnt that I can operate at a higher speed without compromising quality, but I need more training to keep up that level for any length of time. I have a better sense, thanks to my critique group, about where I need to ‘kill my darlings’ in my novel, and where my vision needs more work.

I learnt as much from submitting work as from critiquing others, and discovered a liking for genres I have not yet read much of. I looked forward to reading the new instalments of my peer’s stories each week, and I can’t wait to read those finished stories. I met writers who know the rules of grammar better than me (I’m so used to having that all down, having learnt German and Latin, and taught English as a foreign language). I found heaps of things to admire and aspire to in other writers and made, I hope, sound friendships.

You can read more about Write Draft Critique on Wolf Dietrich’s blog and on the workshop website. As for me, I’m sad that the experience is over, but I hope to take part in Write Draft Critique regularly in the future. And I am excited about a short story I submitted to the workshop that I will be sending to readers as a thank you for signing up to my email list, which you can do here.

So there you have it, the five decisions that have had the most impact on my writing so far. I’d love to hear in the comments about whether there is anything not on this list that has helped you progress with your writing. What are your favourite craft books? Which blogs do you recommend? Have you had any experience with critique groups?

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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.

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

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

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

How Writing Challenges can Help you Make the Most of your Writing Time

This week I’ve been thinking about how the year has passed so quickly.  Do you remember that feeling when you were at school and the weeks seemed to drag? Or how it seemed that you were fifteen forever?  Every birthday took an age to come round and you really, really, wanted to be older, worldly, making your own decisions. How does the way we experience time change so fast?  As I sit here in bed with my husband snoring gently beside me underneath our still summer duvet, listening to the wind rattling the ageing windows of our Edwardian semi and picturing the autumn leaves turning red and gold, I know that another year is nearing its end.  And what a year it has been.  I have spent it mostly with our son, accompanying him on his journey from red, squealing newborn to the determined, toothy, almost-walking man-child he is now.

Fleeting time and conflicting priorities

Does time run away with you too?  For me, my dream of sitting by the sea, with the wind blowing in my hair and a notebook on my lap as the world melts away, just isn’t feasible right now.  My family needs me (thankfully not all the time!) and as I’ve said in my post on Parenthood, Creativity and Time, I wouldn’t have it any other way.  Many of you have family commitments, day jobs, friendships and more, which dwindle your writing time.  If you’re anything like me, however happy you are doing things other than writing, there is always a part of you that is longing to get back to the page, impatiently waiting it out before you can close the door and get back to your train of thought, immerse yourself in the world you have created. The older I get, the more conscious I am of the finite amount of time available to us.  So how do we as writers maximise the time we spend on our craft when time is at a premium? From my experience, and as friends such as @West1Jess have found (find her excellent blog here), writing challenges are one way to crank up that word count.

What’s in a challenge? 

ChallengeWriters procrastinate.  Sometimes procrastination feeds our craft, allowing ideas to gain traction, to cross-fertilise each other and ripen until they spill onto the page.  At other times procrastination leads to uselessly whiling away hour upon hour, when your fingers could have been flying across your keyboard.  Hats off to the writers who have mastered the art of having their morning coffee and making it to their work station without going via facebook, the remote control, the fridge, Ikea, the fridge again (you get the gist). The thing is, I’m not one of them.  Not always.  Sometimes, when I am tired or my head is full of my real life, I need little tricks to get me in the right mindset to write.  And that’s when a writing challenge is just the ticket into my fictional world.

What are the benefits of taking part in writing challenges?

  • Honing your skills in unusual, unexpected ways
  • Increased self-confidence at trying new things
  • Taking part in the writing communities that often build around these challenges
  • Just like agents, editors, writing circles and competitions, writing challenges can help to keep you and your writing goals on track.  Not everyone has the self-discipline to write regularly without the input (or arse-whipping) of their peers and colleagues.
  • Do you remember doing dares as a child? Or that *uck it moment just before you step off the precipice and do something out of your comfort zone?  Some of the best challenges are just like that.  Act fast enough and your fears and doubts won’t have time to keep up.

My top 5 writing challenges 

  • Flash! Friday hosted by @postupak – there’s nothing quite like flash fiction to get your creative juices flowing when time is short.  This challenge consists of a weekly prompt, after which you have a day to submit your entry.  There are generous rewards for winners including an ebutton for your blog or facebook page, your own winner’s page at Flash! Friday and a feature article on you.
  • National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo) takes place every November.  Whether you’re a pantser or a planner, the idea is to write a novel from start to finish of at least 50,000 words or more. The team behind Nanowrimo provide fun pep talks and there is a handy stats section so you can track your progress.  No Nanowrimo month is complete without hanging out in the online support forums, checking out the online shop (I have some gorgeous Nano prints adorning my walls) and going to a write-in where you can write your novel in the company of fellow Wrimos. 
  • David Morley’s Writing Challenges – Morley heads up the Warwick University Writing Programme.  I’m a little biased here as I went to Warwick for my BA (in English and German Literature) but seriously, these podcasts are a special find.  Morley has a voice which works well in this format, and he fills the podcasts with writing tips, challenges and food for thought.
  • #ThursThreads hosted by @SiobhanMuir – this is another flash fiction challenge.  The prompt is a line from the previous week’s winning tale.  Entries should be between 100 and 250 words long and there is a twelve hour submission window.  Winners receive a bright shiny badge for their websites.

This is by no means an all-encompassing list.  If there are writing challenges that you are aware of and have enjoyed, please let me know about them in the comments section.  As for my next challenge, I’ve decided to take part in Nanowrimo again this year.  I’ve not reached the 50,000 word mark required to ‘win’ in previous years, but upping my word count by 20,000 fairly decent words in four weeks both times was a huge confidence booster and I’m looking forward to burning the midnight oil again this year.  Will any of you be joining me?

‘Procrastination is like a credit card: it’s a lot of fun until you get the bill.’ Christopher Parker 

‘The greatest danger for most is not that aim is too high and we miss it, but rather our aim is too low and we reach it.’  Michaelangelo

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 

Leaving Fear Behind

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

The courage to risk failure

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

Trust: seeing strangers as friends

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

The whole truth

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

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

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