Fiction Writer’s Guide: How much Research is too much?

Photo by Brenda Clarke

Photo by Brenda Clarke

I’ve been working recently on a novel that has grown from a short story I wrote last year. It’s a literary romance based in Mumbai about a drifter called Akash. He continued to fill my head after I wrote the last line of the short story and I realised his story was unfinished. It has become a novel about second chances that unravels amongst the dust and grime of the Mumbai’s streets and behind the gates of opulent houses.

Not for the first time during this novel, I have found it easy to be swallowed up in research. Although my heritage is Indian, I was born in the UK. I have visited India twice, once as a child and once in my early twenties. My recollections are broad brush strokes: the smell of street food, the sticky heat, the palaces in Jaipur, the imploring faces of child beggars pressed against cool taxi windows.

For the details for my novel, I turned to travel guides and photo books. Cousins of mine, who live in Mumbai have provided eye witness accounts. I’ve been watching Bollywood movies to get in the mood. The internet has saved me lots of time researching, or so I first thought, compared to the hours spent in dark libraries by previous generations. This, of course, it rubbish. Instead, it opens up as if it is a wormhole, an unfiltered surplus of information, causing hours to disappear with the click of my trackpad.

Photo by Daniel Lobo

Photo by Daniel Lobo

How easy it is to get sidetracked. Yesterday, I needed to know the dates Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister, and within moments I was drawn into the tragic glamour of the Gandhi family, history I once knew, but which had all but escaped through the sieve of my memory: Indira’s rise to power, the loss of her politically-minded younger son in a plane crash, convincing her elder son to run for parliament and setting him on the path to his assassination ten years later, her own murder, and how the wives of her dead sons are on opposing sides of the political spectrum in today’s India.

Later, I checked the meaning of a main character’s name: Soraya, taken from the Persian to mean ‘princess’. I found myself reading about Soraya, the Colombian-American singer songwriter, who died in 2006 at 37 years old from breast cancer. And Soraya, Princess of Iran, who married the King, the last Shah of Iran, at eighteen years old, and found she could not conceive. She refused to share her husband with another woman (the King could have had two wives), and they parted after seven years of marriage, both unwillingly, because he needed an heir. The King went on to remarry and have children. Princess Soraya moved to France after their parting and briefly became an actress. She met a new partner but succumbed to depression after he died. She was found dead in her Paris apartment in 2001 at the age of sixty-nine. Her younger brother commented at the time “after her, I don’t have anyone to talk to.” He died a week later.

Photo by Joel Bedford

Photo by Joel Bedford

Princess Soraya’s story reminded me that there are stories all around us, but she is not the Soraya of my novel, and I began thinking about how best to conduct research for fiction without getting distracted or doing too much. With so many avenues at our disposal to gather what we need to write credible stories – books, letters, internet, in person interviews, phone calls, movies, documentaries, museums, online forums, YouTube – how much research is the right amount?

Here are my tips:

Choose projects wisely. While you don’t always need to write what you know, if you are starting from scratch researching an intricate issue, know you’re on the back foot. Readers, agents, publishers are waiting for your next book. Don’t let a world’s worth of research be the reason you are keeping them waiting or your pockets empty

▪ Carry out background research to get you in the frame of mind for your characters, themes and settings is a good idea. Start with a small set of essential questions to keep you focused

Make a note of finer details to weave into your writing. Peppering your fiction with the odd detail will give your writing authenticity

Avoid hoovering up research and dumping it onto the page at all costs. You are writing fiction, not a history textbook

Don’t get sucked into the wormhole. If your words are flowing, mark missing information with an X and return to it later

Search for beta-readers within your subject realm to pick up on inconsistencies and breaks with reality

▪ Save in person jaunts to research your novel for times when your creative juices are running low. A timely visit to a museum or setting can get you out of a rut

▪ Sound the alarm bells when you notice you’re overindulging in research as an excuse to procrastinate

Employ the Iceberg Theory à la Ernest Hemingway, also known as the theory of omission. In other words, do your research, but prune your story so that you tell only what is essential. Trust the reader to understand what is implicit in your story

Develop a BS detector. This advice also comes from Hemingway, so it must be good. Get a feel for your topic, your characters, and assess your words for their measure of truth. Trust your gut

▪ Learning is admirable but there comes a time when you just need to sit your delicious bottom down and write

▪ You’re a fiction writer. Don’t forget it is your magic power to fake what you don’t know

How do you approach researching your fiction? Do you immerse yourself in the background to your story, or are you a fly by the pants type? Let me know in the comments. I love hearing from you. Happy writing, folks.

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On my Blip with Twitter and Access to your Contacts

Photo by Liquidnight

Photo by Liquidnight

A few weeks ago I asked my husband if he would take a picture of me. I wanted to update my website. The old avatar was tired, a headshot cropped from a family photo. J was happy to help, and I posed awkwardly. It has always seemed a bit narcissistic to me, individual pictures, apart from if you are memorialising special moments like graduation or a pregnant belly. Later I uploaded the photos onto the website and my social media accounts.

Then something strange happened. I noticed that my new avatar had followed me on Twitter. Strange, I thought. Had there been a glitch? Had I somehow managed to open another account? I checked the timeline of the new follower. I found that not only had my avi had been used by a stranger, but that s/he was offering sexual favours. Compared to what others have had to deal with on Twitter, take for example Turkish journalist Amberin Zaman or feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez, this was small fry. It still wasn’t nice.

First step: block that moron
Second step: report account for impersonation
Third step: shake off feelings of disgust

I was asked by Twitter to send them a scan of my passport or driving licence so they could verify the image was me. Then I pushed the incident to the back of my head and forgot about it. That was until yesterday, when I got an update saying that the account had been suspended.

My bad, here. I replied thanking Twitter. Then I checked said account and saw that it was still active. I wrote to Twitter again asking whether there was a delay before the suspension took effect. No response. Then I realised MY account had in fact been suspended. Both my follower and following lists were showing a big fat zero. Cue many tears, an appeal to Twitter and a pleading email begging them to reinstate my account. This, on the day that an internal memo was leaked, in which the Twitter CEO took personal responsibility for the company’s failings on tackling abuse and vowed to make it his top priority.

I reached out to a few Twitter friends on email and told them what had happened. I was after a virtual hug. What I got was more. I was blown away by the support online friends showed, tweeting their censure to @twitter, discussing how this was another example of a #twitterfail in which the community policies fail to protect users. Their support buoyed me.

Photo by Martin Gysler

Photo by Martin Gysler

My love for Twitter friends has snuck up on me. For me, my Facebook personal account is a place for real life family and friends. Twitter began as more of a business transaction, a place to increase my profile as a writer. It took me a while to learn the rules and rhythm of that platform. Now, it feels more authentic. A place for learning, sharing and meeting like-minded people. In comparison it seems to me now that Facebook weakens real life connections. It is an endless stream of Instagramed photos and pithy status updates. Like we are marketing our best selves. And well, for me, marketing belongs in business, not in our personal realm. Besides, with news from organisations filling our streams, and improving mechanisms for community interaction, personal updates on Facebook have begun to drop away.

My tears at the suspension of the Twitter account were an overreaction. It had been a tough week for other reasons. But I was also sad to lose my right to interact in a community I have grown comfortable with. Twitter is the base of many writing contacts, not all of whom I had other contact details for. I was not sure if a reinstated account was wiped clean. I feared losing contact with lovely people whose voices I would miss. Agents and publishers take into account the size of writer platforms when weighing up whether to offer you a deal. I had built up my account organically over a few years, and that work cannot be replicated overnight. Most of all, I felt a keen sense of unfairness that I had acted within the rules set by the community and had been punished. I questioned whether I should have reported the other account holder in the first place.

Less than a day later my account was fully reinstated. There was no apology. I was relieved to reclaim my relationships though my trust for the platform has diminished somewhat. But then, I have some issues with how much information Facebook and Google collect from me, and that doesn’t stop me from using their products. In fact, I love Google. It’s all about value. And the noise of hashtag overuse aside, Twitter brings a lot of value. Still, Twitter has a responsibility to protect its users better. Women, in particular, seem to be victims of trolling on this platform and there is no shirking Twitter’s duty to act more effectively.

If your writing success is even partially dependent on your contacts, you cannot rely on third party applications to protect your contacts. Why would you put all your eggs in one basket when the rules of social media are constantly changing, when you might fall foul of them without even realising it, or through no fault of your own? Nurture the contacts you value. Networking accounts for a lot, and you don’t want to lose access to your network.

As for me, I’ve been to-ing and fro-ing for a while about whether to upgrade to a self-hosted WordPress.org account from my WordPress.com one. I am happy with the current set up, particularly because of the automatic site back-ups WordPress.com carry out and eligibility to be considered for Freshly Pressed, which is a great signal boost. I’d also rather pay my yearly domain fee than a monthly hosting one. But with WordPress.org websites there comes more individuality, the possibility of having an online shop, and most importantly for me, better opportunities to grow your mailing list with plug-ins or email marketing solutions such as A Weber and Mailchimp. This latest experience has confirmed to me how important it is to have your own data.

I’d love to know what solutions you have considered for your websites.

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.

Can Micro-Fiction Ever have the Impact and Appeal of the Novel?

Ever since @amicgood founded #FridayPhrases last year, many of us have been spending a large part of our Fridays crafting and reading micro fiction. For those of you new to the phrase, micro fiction is a very short story, usually prose.Although Twitter has helped it gain in popularity, micro fiction has in fact been used imaginatively and effectively for close to a century. It is said, for example, that Ernest Hemingway wrote ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn.’ Why is it then, that very short fiction still has a whiff of being a gimmick? Is it capable of rivalling traditionally recognised forms such the novel?

An evolving form

Sales of micro and flash fiction collections currently amount to a tiny fraction of book sales but who’s to say that they won’t become a firm fixture in our reading lives in the future? We operate in a fast-paced world, in which our attention spans appear to be shortening. Meandering thought is often seen as irritating rather than desirable. Smartphones have become the norm in the West, increasing the demand for information that is succinct and easily digestible. In developing countries, smartphones are accelerating access to news and literature, improving education and opportunities. In this climate, it makes sense that micro fiction should flourish alongside longer works.

The author Julian Gough wrote, ‘My generation, and those younger, receive information not in long, coherent, self-contained units (a film, an album, a novel), but in short bursts, with wildly different tones. (Channel-hopping, surfing the Internet, while doing the iPod shuffle.) That changes the way we read fiction, and therefore must change the way we write it. This is not a catastrophe; it is an opportunity. We are free to do new things, which could not have been understood before now. The traditional story (retold ten thousand times) suffers from repetitive strain injury. Television and the Internet have responded to this crisis without losing their audience. Literary fiction has not.’

Abandoning a false dichotomy

But let’s not set up a false dichotomy. I don’t know about you but my reading tastes are varied. My bookshelves are home to poetry, history books, atlases, short story collections, critical essays, children’s books, travel literature, craft books, biographies, joggers manuals (that never did work out), art books, genre fiction, literary fiction and books that I simply liked the look and feel of. Cinema and theatre exist side by side; likewise, television and radio. There is room for different art forms alongside each other.

Still, if we are going to ensure that reading continues to have mass appeal a recalibration of the hierarchies of literature is important. To instil a love of reading in the young, both creators and sellers of fiction need to be open to change and innovation. In recent years there seems to have been a resurgence in the popularity of short fiction. In 2013, for example, short story writer Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and ebooks have allowed short fiction to flourish when previously it may not have been a financially viable option. It would be foolish to write off a very short fiction as a gimmick prematurely. If we are to encourage love of the written word in younger generations, who communicate in new ways, we will need to dispense with our condescension of non-traditional forms.

A genre with unusual merits

Fiction now competes with multiple forms of entertainment, and while I will always be an advocate of the long form, we cannot deny that the world is changing. More interactive forms of entertainment are popular with the young, such as computer games and social media. It could be that micro fiction’s greatest strength is that it is interactive, and above all, accessible. Compared to other forms, there is less investment in crafting micro fiction, which is perhaps why those precious about the sanctity of art are sometimes disdainful of it. For me, micro fiction is a door into creativity. A pupil in a school library will pick up War and Peace and wonder whether she has the stamina or intelligence to read it. The same pupil will read a few lines of micro fiction without a second’s thought and be inspired to write some of her own.

This innate accessibility has other advantages too. Novels – forgive me, as a reader and writer they remain my form of choice – are too clunking to react quickly to other creative works. Their very length prevents immediacy. It takes years for the links between novels to transpire, usually because the author is still in a writing cave in the depths of Minnesota transcribing his soul. In contrast, using social media as a platform, micro fiction suddenly has the opportunity to interact in real time. Take the #FridayPhrases community, for example, where there is cross pollination between authors and you can almost feel the creative synapses sparking across the ether. Or when a world event occurs, such as the death of a public figure or the Olympics and suddenly timelines are filled with micro fiction honouring those events.

The art of reading and writing micro fiction

You may wonder whether it’s worth writing a couple of lines of very short fiction, but micro fiction is by its very nature memorable. The writer Grace Paley noted that very short stories ‘should be read like a poem, that is, slowly.’ Some of the #FridayPhrases community have noted how the structure of micro fiction can be very much like a joke with a punchline. Certainly, the genre has a resonance that is disproportionate to its footprint, and readers are likely to reread micro fiction. According to the Russell Banks ‘it’s intrinsically different from the short story and more like the sonnet or ghazal—two quick moves in opposite directions, dialectical moves, perhaps, and then a leap to a radical resolution that leaves the reader anxious in a particularly satisfying way. The source, the need, for the form seems to me to be the same need that created Norse kennings, Zen koans, Sufi tales, where language and metaphysics grapple for holds like Greek wrestlers, and not the need that created the novel or the short story, even, where language and the social sciences sleep peacefully inside one another like bourgeois spoons.’

Can micro fiction ever be literary fiction?

So is micro fiction capable of rivalling traditionally recognised forms such the novel? Many of us still equate literary fiction with the novel, but what precisely is literary fiction? It tends to be identified by a character-driven narrative and a subtle plot. While a literary novel may entertain, it is predominantly concerned with revealing truths about the world we live in. A few weeks ago as part of its genre debate, The Guardian ran an article by Elizabeth Edmondson, who asked whether the term literary fiction is it merely a marketing ploy to elevate certain novels and cast doubt on whether Jane Austen novels works would have been labelled as such if she were writing today.

Certainly, for me genre has become irrelevant. I view it as more about discoverability rather than a guarantee of enjoyable writing. It is secondary to clarity of ideas, originality and skilful expression. The very nature of micro fiction compels the author to exercise these skills, in addition to uncovering the truth and focusing on character. Just like a novel, it can have a lasting resonance, and is all the more memorable for its fleeting beauty. Even if it fails to attract the attention of a wide readership and the literary establishment, writers will continue to pen micro fiction illicitly behind closed doors. Writing is a compulsion, not a market calculation.

Losing and Finding Stories

There is a frail old lady in our neighbourhood, who wanders the streets in the afternoon dressed in a sari. The saris are always tatty and loosely worn. The old lady passes fellow pedestrians without acknowledging their presence. It is as if she does not see them at all. If you say hello, she barely wakes from her reverie. She responds almost unwillingly in a voice which reverberates with melancholy and then continues her slow progress up and down the street. Sometimes she sits on a garden wall to rest. The corners of her mouth are downturned and her stare, straight ahead, is always blank.

I think of this lady sometimes. Perhaps it is because she is Indian. She could be my grandmother. Mostly it is because I’d like to know what her story is. I’d like to understand the lines on her face, the reason for her sorrow and what would make her smile. I would like to know whether she chooses to wear her sari like that or whether her fingers are no longer dextrous enough to manipulate the material while she is dressing. I’m curious about what she chose to do with her life and whether she has any regrets. I’d ask her if she feels at home in this largely white suburban part of London. I’d ask her what home is to her. I would listen to her story, as a voyeur, a psychologist and as a daughter. I’d record her story. Then I’d distil my version of her truth by peppering it with fiction.

How do we decide which stories are worth recording? I see love, hopelessness, joy and betrayal in every face I encounter. We collect our impressions of one another as if they are collages: snapshots of each other’s souls taken from a fleeting conversation, a misunderstood expression, the way we dress or how easily we smile. The knowledge we acquire as we age is often untransferable, lost in translation and given up to the universe when we depart. We love and are surrounded by those who love us in return, yet still we are strangely alone. Even the best communicators cannot impart the web of their thoughts from their own mind to another’s. However connected and accepted we feel, however honest we are, our understanding of another person’s story is filtered through our own perceptions and experiences. There is no plug in and download function. Thankfully.

What this means is that each individual story, in its truest essence, gets lost. This happens all the more if we are too self-centred or busy to ask how other people are really doing, and to listen. I know time is a factor. We can’t listen to everyone or record every story. We can, however, choose to give a few minutes of real attention to those we love. One of my biggest regrets is not speaking enough to my granddad about his experiences of leaving Uganda in the 1972 exodus after Idi Amin kicked out the East-African Asians. Nana was the head of one of many families, which became political refugees overnight and had to build a life from scratch elsewhere. I was in my early twenties when we realised nana did not have much time left, but by then, on his death bed, he was no longer interested in telling his story. He was a wonderful man.

There are stories all around us. We drove across the country to visit friends in the village of Friesthorpe last week. There was a small church, which would have seated perhaps eighty people. Inside the church there was a small pulpit and electric heaters hanging from the ceiling. The pews held oblong tapestry cushions that showed images of special occasions or had been donated in memory of lost loved ones. At the front of the church were an enormous Bible and hand annotated prayer book dating from the 1800s. I leafed through the ageing pages guiltily, surprised the books weren’t behind glass. Afterwards, we took our time wandering through the graveyard outside, reading the worn headstones. One gravestone marked the place where a former church Reverend and his thirteenth daughter, a poet, had been laid to rest. A plaque inside the church revealed that the same family had lost five sons in the Great War. To me it is comforting to walk through a cemetery, reading the names of dead strangers and working out how old they were when they died. The individuality of headstones reflects how different we are in life. The engravings tell a story.

If only inanimate objects could talk. Can you imagine what the paintings on your walls have seen, what the tree at your window could tell you about the lives of the people who previously lived in your house? All the joyful and sordid details of our lives, played out in plain sight but hidden from all once we are gone. So writer, write. Choose your stories wisely. Write the truth of your life and those around you. Don’t hurry. Do your stories justice. But don’t ignore the sense of urgency you feel in your belly either. Every moment you wait to pick up your pen, there are stories fragmenting, spinning out of your reach into the depths of the universe, never to be heard of again.

The Forgotten Joys of Longhand Writing

The Penman's Blood by arnoKath

The Penman’s Blood by arnoKath

I have a confession to make. The content of my email inbox, with the exception of pictures of my nephews and the blogs I subscribe to, is uninspiring. My virtual letterbox tends to be filled with bills, receipts and reminders. Emails save time and money, yet still I long for days past. I’d like to cut down on the amount of missives I receive, and replace them with more satisfying ones. I’d choose fewer but longer emails over the perfunctory electronic communication of today in a heartbeat. What a joy it is to pour over rare long emails, the ones filled with delicious titbits of news and sensual descriptions of new experiences, reminiscent of the letters of old. Snail mail is even better. How wonderful to sink into a sofa, tuck your legs up under you and tear open a letter from afar, to see the ink smudges and individual characteristics of the lettering and for time to stop as you ingest the words on the page. I save handwritten letters. To me, they show love and thoughtfulness. Emails, in contrast, are a nuisance, another item on the to do list, an emblem of our throw away society. My finger is already hovering above the delete button before I’ve even finished reading them.

Up until the end of my degree writing longhand came naturally. Yet ten years on my handwriting is an eyesore. When writing greeting cards I have to take great care to ensure my scrawl is legible to others. I seldom sign my own name anymore, and when I do, lack of practice means my signatures bear only a passing resemblance to each other. My fingers have become lazy, as if they have lost the fine motor skills needed to write neatly. Despite the regression in my handwriting, my stationery collection grows by the day. My writing space is filled with beautiful notebooks and pens. A calligraphy set and wax seal kit adorn my desk. I have begun to wonder whether the growing mountain of stationery reveals a subconscious desire to return to old school drafting.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not a technophobe. I spend most of my day a finger’s breadth away from either a laptop or phablet. I wonder though whether it is wise to carelessly toss handwriting skills onto the rubbish pile. With the introduction of tablets into some schools, I don’t want handwriting to be treated like Latin is sometimes (I enjoyed Latin at school and find the grammar of other languages relatively easy because of my basis in it): a relic from the past. Will there ever come a day when it is an advantage on CVs not to boast of typing prowess but to proclaim the beauty of our handwriting? In generations to come will lovers send each other captioned selfies rather than handwritten love letters? Will there come a time when our great-grandchildren will be compelled to resurrect an ancient skill because in a world of power shortages it is no longer viable to have so many gadgets?

We don’t have to propel ourselves into the future to uncover reasons for us to maintain longhand writing skills. Scientists have long since made the link between writing by hand and faster absorption of information. Studies have shown it to combat age-related mental decline. But what are the advantages of longhand for writers? Research has shown that writing by hand taps into the right side of the brain, linked to intuition and creativity. Scribbling on post-it notes, a sketch pad or in a notebook is not linear writing and may be a better fit for the way we think. Craft books often extol the virtues of undertaking monotonous activity such as walking, driving and gardening to aid creativity. When writing Haruki Murakami runs and/or swims each day. It seems that when we are carrying out an activity that does not need much mental thought, ideas can come to us unbidden. Perhaps writing by hand has the same effect.

It’s all trial and error of course. One writer’s process is not going to be your magic formula. Your choice of writing instruments may change dependent on your mood and location, and the needs of your particular project. Writing by hand, even if only for a few hours (oh the ache after exams at school and university), takes its toll. I’ve never minded transcribing handwritten short stories but with writing time at a premium, typing a longer work seems like an unnecessary extra step, although I would imagine that dictation software might help and in any case it would be like taking a leap in the editing process.

It’s folly to assume, as I have done in the past, that writing on a computer is the most efficient way. Take my love of Scrivener, for example. It’s a fantastic organisational tool and satisfies my need for a clean work space. I prefer to start work in a tidy environment: our house, my desk, my laptop have to be well-ordered. Once I’m in the flow of writing, my neuroses about my work environment disappear and I am a happy mess of reference books, tea mugs and notebooks. But I have begun to wonder whether the very advantages of typing a first draft are in fact disadvantages for me. I tend to edit as I write, which means that my first draft is often quite close to my final draft. This means that story progress is slow, which in turn feeds my doubt. Often, my most productive days have been on holiday, when the glare of the sun on my laptop screen make it impossible to write and I am forced to turn to pen and paper.

Then there’s the pursuit of clarity of thought and precision of expression. Writing by hand forces us to slow down and consider our words carefully. We come to the point more quickly. For a wordy writer, this can only be a good thing. My ego sometimes swells as my fingers fly across the keyboard, only for me to realise moments later why the delete button is my friend. When we write by hand, we make an investment, we cut back on elaboration for its own sake. And there’s nothing like sitting on a park bench in your lunch break with a notebook on your lap, as you let the world fade into the background and disappear into your story world. With computers, even in distraction free mode, there are days when the insistent blink of the cursor, the buzz of electronics, the knowledge of the messages waiting in my inbox and the churn of social media are difficult to ignore. It’s on those days that it might be an idea to just pick up a sheaf of paper and a pencil. Writing is a solitary activity, and walking away from the computer is to abandon the notion we are constantly available to everyone.

Finally, selfishly, as a reader and someone who is honing her craft, I would love for authors to continue working partly by hand, and for those materials to be available in centuries to come, like J.K. Rowling’s plotting spreadsheet for Harry Potter and the manuscripts for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise. How charming and inspiring it is to see the scribbled notes and revisions of authors. Those notes are neither like a sanitised computer manuscript nor the printed texts. They are proof that writing is, first and foremost, a labour of love.

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

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

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

Close the door.

Dream. Even during the day.

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

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

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

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

Be influenced by better writers.

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

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

Don’t succumb to laziness (too often).

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

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

Have a room of your own.

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

Don’t quit. You’re a writer? Write.

Reading makes you a better writer. Inhale words.

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

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

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

Choose the active over the passive voice.

Wordiness is the enemy of clarity.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Commitment is everything

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

Find a support network

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

Literature and Latte’s Scrivener 

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

Don’t fret if the words don’t flow

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

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

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.

Why Flash Fiction is Both Tough and Rewarding

Diversity Inspires Creativity by Purple Sherbet Photography

Diversity Inspires Creativity by Purple Sherbet Photography

Last week was my first time in the judge’s seat for Flash! Friday. I had a blast (read my comments on the winners here). It never fails to amaze me how one prompt can generate so many different stories, and it was again a lesson to me about how individual we are and how that translates into our craft.

On the days when familiar fears push their way through my armour to tell me I’m not good enough, I will remind myself that our thought processes, experiences and modes of expression are unique to each of us. If our words don’t make the page, they will be lost. So, writer friends, dig deep and write your beautiful, strange, sad, funny, horrific stories. I’m waiting to read them.

It’s no secret to you by now that I enjoy writing flash fiction, but this week my muse was flighty. It doesn’t matter of course. It’s the showing up that counts. This week though, I found the word limit difficult. Last year’s word counts for Flash! Friday were more generous, hovering at around 300 words. So far this year the word count has been 150. For a girl who prefers meandering to the point, exploring the little avenues of an idea before coming to the core, the new limit is a challenge.

I usually write to a skeletal plan, even for flash, but this week I was tired and pantsed it. What I ended up with was a story I liked but which I had to cut 60 words from. Those 60 words, once gone, meant that my language was so pared down, it had lost its beauty. Some of the ideas I wanted to explore had to exit the story and have become seeds instead for other works.

Flash is tough. It’s a skill that I’m still learning: how to choose ideas that give you just enough meat for the required word count; how to write with emotion but without verbosity; how to leave the reader with a taste of your world, with hardly any words at all.

Here’s that entry I was talking about. Next time it’ll be better.

There’s No Place Like Home (Photo prompt. Include time travel)

‘Andy, come back here!’

We’d spent an idyllic few days in the Croatan National Forest where we had a summer house. Until mom discovered my stash of beer. How else is a fifteen year old supposed to stomach a family holiday?

‘In for a penny, in for a…’ I thought, determined to escape mother’s wrath.

There it was – hidden in the bark of an enormous tree – father’s pride and joy.

‘Time for a spin, old girl. Been waiting a long time for this.’

Mother’s shouts floated on the still air as I climbed into the gleaming chassis. I pulled the lever, watching clouds spin past as the time-machine sped through the vortex to another time and place.

‘Where are we going?’

I turned with a start. George, my six year old brother grinned at me mischievously from the back seat.

‘How on earth?!’

Over the years we took in many sights, but we never made it back to mother.

Friday Phrases

150 words is difficult. Have you tried 140 characters? For those of you new to #FridayPhrases, which was initiated by author @amicgood, the idea is to tweet and retweet stories or poems in 140 characters with the hashtag #FP. Here are some of mine over the past few weeks. I’ve not written poetry since I was a teenager but tried my hand at verse this week.

27.12.13

She undressed on her way to the bath, leaving a trail of clothes for him to find. He’d had a hard day but she knew how to make it better #FP

He lived for Christmas. He was the queen of the panto. Out on that stage in his frilly dress he felt their adoration and it lifted him #FP

03.01.14

First her neck twisted then her back snapped & her arms grew leaden. She fled into the woods, only grunts escaping her once beautiful mouth #FP

He sat in silent repose as the winter sun warmed him. Outside the balding Christmas tree lay discarded on the street. New year, new start #FP

10.01.14

Her strait-jacket expelled

Freedom beckoned like a lost lover

Trailing its gentle touch down her arm

Her critics suddenly disarmed #FP

Love at 60

After a lifetime

Of waiting

Was not easy

The walls wore thin

Eventually

Now they sit

Feet entwined

Loneliness exiled #FP

Lessons of a Newbie Blogger and Twitter User

cloud-71366_640This Christmas was unexpected. For me, the perfect Christmas is sitting in front of a roaring fire with mulled wine, tea and chocolate oranges, the turkey cooking slowly and a notebook next to me for those moments of inspiration. We decorated the house with fairy lights and candles in preparation for my in laws coming to stay. I was secretly hoping for writing-related presents – book vouchers and beautiful stationery – and some kids-free time to get stuck into my novel. Unfortunately, our plans were hijacked by storms which left us with power outages for four days. Cue extended trips to my parents’ with my in laws, adventures by torch-light, a hastily cobbled together Christmas dinner and bonding with the neighbours in the same situation. Thankfully we’re now back on the grid – hooray! – and I’m ready to reclaim the lost relaxation and writing time.

For my last blog post for this year I wanted to share a few thoughts on Twitter and blogging.

Twitter

When I initially started using Twitter in 2010 I didn’t hang around for long. I just didn’t get it.

My first tweet was: Gardening.

My second tweet was: Turns out might take a while to get used to Twitter. Wanted to search for something, and ended up posting it. Thankfully it wasn’t porn.

Twitter seemed to me to be merely a way to stalk celebrities or to duplicate the function of facebook but without the space to write what you really want to. I was listening but not interacting.

It was in 2013 after I started blogging when I posted an article that @raishimi commented on and retweeted that I really started to understand the beauty of Twitter. It has allowed me to discover so many voices that would have previously remained silent to me. Some of these voices have become so special to me that I miss them if I or they tune out for a couple of days. I am always thrilled to download books to my Kindle that have been written by people who I admire or have piqued my curiosity on Twitter. It amazes me how generous fellow writers on Twitter are with their support and encouragement and I am grateful for it.

Then there’s the flip side. There are only so many hours in the day and while I try to interact with interesting new voices and read their works, there are only a certain amount of relationships that can be sustained at a meaningful level. That’s a shame for the connections you miss out on deepening. If I’m honest, while Twitter is by its very nature egalitarian, it still sometimes feels like we’re in a school playground, picking people to play on our teams. Once you have more than a few hundred followers, #FollowFriday and #WriterWednesday feel like favouritism, which is one of the reasons I like #FridayPhrases so much.

@drewchial and @szwrites have both blogged about the industry wisdom that champions the need to market ourselves as writers ideally before our first books even hit the shelves. Social media can be a black hole, sucking away time from our real passion – crafting stories. Yes, I enjoy social media but it has become too easy for me to substitute interacting on Twitter, writing a blog post or piece of flash fiction with working on my novel. For me, 2014 is the year of the novel and everything else comes second.

Blogging

I’ve missed blogging during this lull over the past few weeks. It helps me collect my thoughts. Isaac Asimov once said, ‘writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers.’ I used to spill everything onto scraps of paper or journals. If I am worried about something now or confused, my default has become blogging. I blogged when my daughter choked earlier this year. I blogged when I felt family and friends were intruding on my space. I blogged to tell my husband publicly that his belief in me is the difference sometimes between me picking up a pen and hiding in a corner.

One of the reasons I decided to start blogging was to become more accustomed to sharing my work. Over this past year, I have grown more comfortable with the sharing. The question for 2014 is whether I can share more fiction with you, if I can share my writing with friends as well as strangers, and if I can be as comfortable with criticism.

When I initially started to blog I discovered that bloggers are advised to write short pieces which include lists and photos, essentially ensuring that posts are easily scannable and can be consumed in a few minutes.  But it seems to me that we are making assumptions about readers here, or worse still, influencing reader tastes in a negative way, feeding them a poor diet and creating generations of superficial readers and headline grabbers. Difference in voices, differences in form are what makes writing – and reading – so special, and I’d like to think that even on blogs readers want to go to the effort to really dive into our fictional and non-fictional worlds because it is in that space, when you are fully, not superficially in someone’s head, that you really get to experience the fullness of someone else’s life.

Wishing you a wonderful end to the year. See you in 2014.

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

Flash Fiction: One Old Challenge and One New

Following my post on how writing challenges can help you make the most of your writing time, I decided to put my money where my mouth is and share some of my flash fiction with you.

FLASH! FRIDAY

Here’s my entry (and the photo prompt) for yesterday’s Flash! Friday competition hosted by @postupak:

Freedom

By Alexis/El Caminante

By Alexis/El Caminante

They didn’t want to let me go.  All those grasping hands – mum’s boney ones, daddy’s strong ones and grandpa’s frail ones – they reached as high as they could but I have been preparing for this moment ever since I was a babe in arms.

They were always trying to tell me what to do, you see.  Mum wanted me to wear my hair with a slick centre parting so all the other mothers would coo at me.  Daddy wanted me to pretend I like fishing as much as he does, but the first time I saw a hook in that trout’s mouth with its dead eyes…well, I just knew it wasn’t for me.  And as for grandpa, if I have to sit quietly and listen to any more of his stories, I’ll turn to stone on the spot, I just know it.  So I’ve been learning to fly.

This life.  It’s mine.

#FRIDAY PHRASES

@amicgood initiated #FridayPhrases/#FP on 27 September 2013.  Here is a link to her reasoning. #FridayPhrases are a story or poem within 140 characters max and the idea is to follow the hashtag and retweet the ones you like.

You can find my #FridayPhrases for yesterday below:

Their souls were paired for eternity, he said, dragging her through the forest. That was fine while the going was good, she thought. #FP

The night was hot & humid, the sheets sweaty.  She was relieved to feel cool air on her bare thigh until she turned & saw what it was. #FP

His breathing was shallow. He’d decided not to look but at the last minute he did. The cliff face distorted into past loves as he fell. #FP

I’m looking forward to submitting my entries next Friday too and commenting on/retweeting my favourite pieces.  I hope to see your entries there too.

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

How Good a Listener Are You?

Last week, someone I love confided how in me about how low she was feeling.  We spent nearly an hour talking about her feelings, what she felt had gone wrong and how she could get to where she wants to be.  I walked away from the conversation hurting for her but when I replayed the conversation in my head, it wasn’t her voice that I heard, but my own.  The whole episode got me thinking that good listening skills are not only invaluable in every conceivable relationship we have, but also a key part of a writer’s toolkit.

Do you carry a notebook with you to jot down thoughts during the day or snippets of conversations you have heard?  What if you are missing out on little gems of writerly wisdom because you are not really hearing what is going on around you?  Could you be a better friend, parent or writer if you listened better?  According to research, most people only remember 25-50% of any given conversation.  That means that up to 75% of what we say is wasted effort.  So I’d like to ask:

  • how good a listener are you?
  • do you interrupt other people when they are talking?
  • do you know the answer before you have the full picture?
  • do you listen with an open mind?

For me, the answer to all those questions is sometimes.

External barriers to listening well

The world is getting louder and there are competing demands for our attention: the roar of road traffic, the constant buzz of the radio and the omnipresent glow of televisions in our living rooms.  Business, media and advertising continue to look for ways to hold our attention for a brief few seconds but we have become desensitised to all the tricks of the trade.  I’m as reliant as the next person on my mobile phone, but let’s face it, they are technically a pocket-sized on call and distraction device.  According to statistics published by the United Nations in March, substantially more (6 billion vs 4.5 billion) of the world’s population have access to mobile phones than working toilets.  Ironically, as the world has become more connected, we have learned to listen less.  How often is your mind on something else when you are listening?

Internal blockers to listening well

Let’s not just blame it on the big, bad world though.  I’m not going to pull any punches here.  Are there certain people who cause you to mentally fill your ears with cotton wool before they have even started?  The truth is that there are blocks to listening well from the very start. The words we hear are distorted as they are reflected through the prism of our own beliefs, knowledge and experiences.  Language itself is a subjective medium; words are not a precise instrument and may not be interpreted as we envisage. We have become huge consumers and producers of information, but our lives are busy and we tend to want sound bites.  The question is, what wealth of information and which subtle nuances are we missing out on?

violinThe art of listening better

I’m no expert, but for what it’s worth, here are my tips for listening better:

  • Take a second to distance yourself from what has been going on so you can give the speaker your undivided attention
  • Show that you are listening with your body language
  • Make a note of your internal motives for listening
  • Try not to interrupt and prepare for what you want to learn, not just what you want to say
  • Understand that you don’t need to fix everything

Listening as part of the writer’s toolkit

I don’t know any writer who would be happy with their characters being endless variations of themselves.  The truth is, to write well, we have to observe others and seek to understand their deepest motives and dreams.  So, listening well to others becomes an endless resource for our work.  Next time I’m listening to a friend or eavesdropping on a conversation out of curiosity or writerly ambition, I’ll be leaving my ego aside, stepping into a place of neutrality and open-mindedness.  Will you?

‘The great advantage of being a writer is that you can spy on people. You’re there, listening to every word, but part of you is observing. Everything is useful to a writer, you see – every scrap, even the longest and most boring of luncheon parties.’  Graham Greene

‘Somewhere we know that without silence words lose their meaning, that without listening speaking no longer heals, that without distance closeness cannot cure.’  Henri Nouwen 

The Ability to be Alone

daisyThis week, I got the chance to be in a quiet room by myself to focus on my writing.  Our son is eight months old, and the urge to write has been getting stronger now that he is sleeping better and I have more energy.  Some friends and I decided that each week two mums will look after three babies, giving the third mum the chance to have some time to herself. The thought of a few hours protected writing time is blissful but it turns out that making the most of it is harder than I thought.

The hamster wheel of everyday life

There I was with a few hours of writing time in front of me for the first time in months and I was unable to de-clutter my mind.  If you are anything like me, the moments of quiet in your life are few and far between.  The waking hours at our house are filled with playdates, chatter, song, giggles and whining.  If the kids are asleep, I am tempted to nap too or I switch on the radio and use the time to catch up on chores, touch base with friends or family or slump on the sofa with a book or my laptop.  I feel the constant pull of twitter, facebook and online news.  Do you, like me, reach for your mobile phone as soon as you wake and throughout the day to check messages?  Even my parents, who until a few years ago owned old Nokias, are now hooked on their smartphones and ipads.  It’s an addiction.  Life today is a whirr of constant interaction; it has become all-consuming.

Finding ways to centre yourself

Okay, this sounds a bit new age but I think we are losing the ability to clear the decks of everyday concerns and just be.  We fill every waking moment with gadgets and noise and somewhere in the midst of all the chaos we have begun to lose ourselves.  Or at least, I have.  Spending time with family and friends is one way of regaining our equilibrium.  Writing and listening to music centre me.  But it is equally important to spend some of our waking time tuning into our thoughts without any distractions.   The problem with sharing yourself with the world the whole time is that we are always in a state of giving or receiving.  We risk losing ourselves somewhere along the way.

The confidence to be happy in solitude

It takes courage to say no to family and friends.  It takes strength to resist the pull of media.  I have even begun to feel anxious when I am out of the loop.  Is this mode of always being busy – of which we are often so proud – fool’s gold?  Too much interaction is as much of a chain as too little.  Maybe we subject our minds to constant chatter because we are afraid of what thoughts will form when we are alone.  Are those who are able to sit in quiet repose the ones who really own their true selves?

Stilling your mind

You might say that you have no time to practice stillness.  I’m going to take it step by step.  Next time I shower, I’m not going to plan out what I have to do next.  Instead, I’m going to take five minutes to clear my head of everything that is going on around me.  Next time I go for a walk, I am going to leave my phone at home.  I’m not sure how successful I’ll be but every now and then, I might even try and get through my daily commute without a book or my ipod.

Wherever we are, time alone has the power to restore us.  I wonder how much stronger I would feel if I could do this regularly.  I wonder how much more clarity of thought I would have as a writer if I was more adept at clearing my mind of the hustle and bustle of everyday life.  If you had more time for yourself, would you have a keener sense of who you are, what makes you happy and how you need to get there?

Finding the balance

There is no doubt, my family and friends bring me joy and ground me; books, radio, television, smart phones and the internet enrich my life.  The sense of belonging that goes with being part of a community is an empowering feeling.  We feel loved and protected; it is good for both the ego and our sense of security; we grow.  But the truth and self-contemplation that emerge from periods of being completely alone are equally important.  Finding the balance that works for you between these two states is important for us all.

For writers in particular, to create something relevant and original, we need to be a part of the world but also be able to retreat to the periphery.  I will be practising the art of sitting in a room and being comfortable by myself there.  Will you?

‘We need society, and we need solitude also, as we need summer and winter, day and night, exercise and rest.’ Philip Gilbert Hamerton 

‘Being solitary is being alone well: being alone luxuriously immersed in doings of your own choice, aware of the fullness of your won presence rather than of the absence of others. Because solitude is an achievement.’ Alice Koller 

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

 

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