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?

Coping with the Tide of Life

Photo by Richard Smith

Photo by Richard Smith

Today I feel lost and broken and sad. I’m sitting in the conservatory of the house we rent in Geneva. The doors are open and a light breeze is playing with the hem of my dress. The sky is a blue blanket dotted with wisps of cotton. I want to fly into it and disappear. I’d prefer dark clouds and cleansing rains. Black kites soar above me, casting shadows on our lawn, noisy and ominous as they search for prey. Just ahead, past the swing set, stands a tall lavender bush surrounded by splashes of colourful tulips. The beauty does not lift my mood. All I am conscious of is uncertainty and my own inadequacies.

I’m not sure what brought me to this place. A sense of having lost an anchor, perhaps. A mixed bag of niggling worries. Worrying, according to Buddhism, is a useless emotion, a waste of energy. Usually, I can identify the reason for feeling low. I find a solution or apply a plaster: a hug, tea and biscuits, sleep, write lists to keep from feeling overwhelmed, listen to music, dance in the kitchen with the kids. All of these usually help. But emotions are complex and cannot always be controlled, soothed or even recognised. Sometimes, they are just a murky mist of shapeless ghosts. A fog that eventually lifts.

I am grateful for the silent expression of writing, the soothing rhythm of my fingers as they move over the keyboard, that I don’t have to articulate my thoughts out loud. There is magic in surrendering to a blank page, of savouring the words which appear, a reflection of self. There is wisdom that comes with not rushing to analyse, of not having a conversation partner trying to fix you. Because sometimes a black tide of sadness comes in, and we have neither to make sense of it nor ignore it. What helps is just to be with it, to accept that the sadness will recede and we will find our footing again.

As a child, I was honest about my feelings, clear when I didn’t agree, unwilling to be artful. My parents sent me to a small primary school with a home away from home philosophy. They felt I wore my heart on my sleeve and needed to be protected. As an adult, I understand that there is both strength and fragility in baring ourselves to the world. Life is messy. It is nothing like the polished images we present of ourselves on social media. It twists and turns, and that is part of its beauty, the bright dawn against the night sky.

All we can do is cope in our own way, ask for help when we need it, do the work, make progress inch by inch, and remember what we are grateful for.

The Romance of Youth and Romanticising Writing

There is something enchanting about the innocence of youth. Have you ever noticed how the old take comfort from the young? As if an encounter with youth is a tonic for their own regrets, cleansing, a guard against mortality even. The promise of youth is a wonderful thing. Yet however exhilarating this passionate freefall, disappointments inevitably beckon.

Life experience teaches us to be wary and wise. Loss and failure take their toll on blind faith. We no longer approach our passions with the same zealousness as our younger selves. Often idealists are tinged by realism, hopeless romantics end up in hopeless situations (I’m thinking Die Leiden des jungen Werthers here) and those on the political left drift over further to the right.

For a time I mourned the dying parts of my personality. I recognised the setbacks and disenchantments that had changed me, and sought to understand how I had ended up there in the first place. We can’t control everything, my older self knows that. Back then doubt grew in the place of fearlessness.

Still, to romantise youth and spurn old age is folly. We can learn from the young to go after our dreams bravely, to dance in the rain, to view things simply. Age too brings wisdom and clarity. Too often we dismiss that we need both sides of the equation. That’s why our journey is so necessary and clever.

Eventually I recognised that growth doesn’t quash the integral elements of our personality, it simply adds complexity. I have found that my idealist streak ebbs and flows dependent on my encounters. Being with the kids reminds me to see things through their eyes. Exposure to politics allows threads of cynicism to take root. Writing feeds my romanticism. Moving countries unravelled some assumptions and reinforced others.

It is this diversity of experience that feeds our life and our writing. Conforming to one world view is always dangerous. The characters we write may be initially chosen to embody one angle, but like us they need to be exposed to the unexpected and the irrational and become multi-dimensional if they are to be anything other than cardboard cut-outs. I want to see the whole spectrum in the books I read: blue skies and thunder, imagined futures and burning reality, wizards and psychopaths. A psychopathic wizard even. Oh wait, Sauramon and Voldemort have that covered.

In real life, we don’t do ourselves any favours if we remain rigid. Some professions encourage realism. Others nurture idealism. I realised recently that I had fallen into the trap of romanticising writing. But tempting though it may be, this may be the very thing that is holding you back. To build up this profession so that is almost feels holy puts too much pressure on us. We do not magically download our words. If you wait for the muse you may not ever get your novel on paper. My kids believe in the tooth fairy but I am sure as hell going to get rid of the teeth underneath their pillow when she doesn’t show.

It is not a magical being who writes your book. You do. You develop the concept, research, sit at your desk day after day, chipping away at the story until you finds its core, rebuild it from there. Once the last chapter has been written you and your team edit and polish the manuscript and begin the work of formatting, cover design, marketing and sales.

It is work not a divine intervention. Choose when to be a realist and when to be an idealist. The heavens have gifted you your talent not the finished product. Indeed this cultural block, the underestimation of the labour that goes into a book, may be a contributing factor as to why writers are poorly compensated unless they reach the upper echelons of fame. Yes, writing is often much more than a job. But don’t knock having a job. Recognise that your emotional attachment to writing is both a source of power and an impediment.

Let’s demystify the writing process for our own sanity. Certainly for me, the huge industry around writerly doubt and fears is starting to grate. We don’t have to subscribe to the image of the tortured artist. Passions, fear, loss and disappointment are part of the human condition. At the end of the day, as in any field, success comes down to any number of factors but determination is one of the most important ones. If you really want something, just sit down and do the work.

Why I Write

I’m it! Thank you Graham Milne for asking me to take part in the ‘Why I Write’ blog hop and for providing a balm for me on what had been a tough day with your honeyed words.

For those of you new to Graham’s writing, check him out on Twitter, at his blog or Huff Post. Sometimes in the blogging world, you find posts that don’t really touch the sides. Not so here. Graham’s posts tend to be long form. They are thoughtful, honest and he’s not afraid to address topical issues. He’s a feminist in the vein of the UN #heforshe campaign, and one of the original group of people who made me feel welcome on Twitter.

I’m it then. Did you play tag when you were younger, or stuck in the mud, kiss chase, cat and mouse, all those variations on chasing games that were so exhilarating as a child? I usually laughed as I ran, my lips pulled wide apart by the wind and my mirth, my bottom tucked in awkwardly lest someone be near enough to tag me. There’s not much that brings that sense of abandonment. Being tickled as a child, perhaps. Or being thrown up in the air by your dad, the strands of your hair lingering in the sky as you make your decent into his embrace. Or riding a rollercoaster and laughing despite the pain and fear.

Life grounds us. The longer our feet stay on the earth, the more roots come twisting out of it to bind us. Responsibility beckons with each passing day of our childhood. We become distanced from simple pleasures, like the crunch of an apple, the feel of springy grass between our toes or the fizz of a lolly on our lips. Writing reconnects me. It allows me to forget the bills, the illness and yes, the wars, and cocoons me in a world where anything is possible. Is that what writers are? Anarchists, egotists, foolish God impersonators?

Let’s stick with the it analogy. I’m trying to remember when I decided that physical exercise wasn’t for me. It was in my pre-teen years, I think, when I felt clumsy and ungainly. Now, I look at athletes and dancers, honed gym bunnies and yogis with a sense of awe, not so much for their physique but for the strength, radiance and litheness their bodies retain.

Power. We all seek it in different ways, don’t we? Over our bodies, in the workplace, the petty wars at the water cooler or with our neighbours, the respect and submission we seek in our relationships, the beliefs we impose on others, the money we seek to fill our wallets with, the bombs we rain down on foreign soil. Me, I seek it with the pen. With a pen in hand or my fingers flying over the keyboard I feel like The Bride in Kill Bill: poised, vulnerable, uncompromising, in charge of my destiny. That’s why I write.

Spoken words I sometimes find tiring; written words are for me a source of energy and understanding. I can take the time to weave intricate sentences or get the nuance just right without worrying that it is already someone else’s turn to speak or that I have bored my listener. I can examine a thought carefully, tangibly, without it slipping through the fog of my brain like a wandering child at a funfair.

I write because in this world of constant change and fleeting lives, it comforts me to leave a record of my thoughts. The physical act of writing, the tap of the keyboard, the soreness of my fingers after a long day’s work, the crease of the page and the glare of the screen that blurs my vision are satisfying. They mean I have done an honest day’s work. Fiction may be a lie, but writing is truth. It helps to write in a world that often feels destructive. It helps to create, imagine and make sense of the confusing. It’s a tool for self-insight and healing. It’s the closest I’ve come to magic.

There you have it. That’s why I write. I’ve seen lots of fantastic posts for this blog hop. If you’re still nursing your cuppa take a look at Joanne Blaikie’s, Mark T. Conard’s and Siofra Alexander’s responses. For now, I’d like to invite B.G. Bowers and Natasha Ahmed to tell us why they write. B.G. Bowers has just completed the first draft of her novel and is a blogger and poet. I was blown away by this recent piece of hers. Natasha is a blogger and novelist. Her novella Butterfly Season is on my to read list. Read about the origins of it here. Blog hops and awards can be time-consuming as Paula Reed Nancarrow discussed in her excellent post this week, so ladies don’t feel pressured to pick up the baton if you can’t manage it. Look forward to your next words whatever form they take.

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.

On Being Freshly Pressed and Why We Write

This is my first post since being Freshly Pressed and I’m still feeling giddy at all the attention. When I initially received an email from Cheri at WordPress, I had to Google what the term ‘Freshly Pressed’ means. For those of you unfamiliar with it, WordPress essentially picks a handful of posts each day to feature on their website. It’s a great way to reach new audiences. As there are only a few editors tasked with picking posts to be Freshly Pressed, and millions of blogs, it in no way shows your work is superior to anyone else’s but it is a fun ride. Now I’m on the other side of it, I have what can only be described as stage fright. Can this post measure up to my last one? What if my new readers followed me by accident? What if they don’t stick around to read the end of this sentence? I’ve now sat on those little demons of doubt so I can get on with telling you about the experience.

In terms of the number of readers it reached, my post on The Joys of Longhand Writing has been my most successful piece of writing yet. I’m very lucky that WordPress Editor and Story Wrangler Cheri (awesome job title, and almost as brilliant as a friend’s who is a forensic scientist specialising in explosives…imagine that on your business card) discovered it. It helped that she is currently using handwriting to help get unblocked. The writing we are drawn to often reflects our own thoughts and that helped me to be found.

The most exciting part has been the interactions in the comments on the article. It’s been a thrill talking to new readers. I loved reading the descriptions of how people feel when they are writing longhand. It seems many more people miss handwriting than I’d previously thought. I was also very excited to be placed next to my friend @akmakansi on the Freshly Pressed page. What are the chances of that?

There has also been a remarkable, likely short term, effect on my website stats. I’ve been blogging nearly a year. In that time, my average daily views have been about 25 (with the exception of a guest post which generated about 100 views) and my posts have been getting a maximum of a dozen likes and a few comments. I had 149 followers. In the two days since being Freshly Pressed I’ve had an additional 1700 views, nearly 400 likes on that particular post and about 150 comments. Notifications are still coming in. My follower numbers have more than doubled to 421. That is huge for me, so thank you. There are lots of words in the world, so thank you for sticking around to read mine.

The experience has in many ways made me think about social media etiquette. Is it polite to follow back those who follow you? Auto follow back probably makes good business and marketing sense, but I’m not sure that’s what I want. I’d rather rummage through other blogs slowly, taking in the new ideas and quirks of expression at my leisure. That way, reading each other is a joy and not a chore. Forgive me if it takes me a while to stop by your online homes, or if I don’t at all. I don’t want you to be another item on my to do list, governed by the rule of reciprocity. Let our relationship be free of pressure. That way, next time we meet and have a virtual cup of tea together and discuss books, ideas or our thoughts, we’ll know that each of us is exactly where we want to be.

I’ve also been thinking more widely about why we write. Perhaps it is just the stage I am at personally with regard to my writing ambitions and the increased opportunities that come with self-publishing and the reach of social media, but I think recently I have lost track of why I write. I mentioned in a past post that without readers, words aren’t alive. That is both true and besides the point in some ways. It is wonderful to have readers. We want to feel valued. But we write, because we have to. Even in a void, on a desert island, on a distant planet without the slightest chance of being read, we would write.

I write because I feel rushed when I speak, a pressure to get to the end of the sentence and let someone else have a turn. Writing allows me to explore my ideas in my own time, to pick precisely the right word to express my innermost thoughts. It gives me balance. I am sure I would be a frustrated wreck without it. So write, write for the joy of it, for the clarity it brings you, for that sense of immersion and wonder, even if there is noone around to read it.

Owning Your Choices in Story-Telling and in Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wishing you luck on your writing journey.

 

My Love Affair with Flash Fiction: From Courting to Going Steady

Judging Sun by Matt Martin

Judging Sun by Matt Martin

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a fan of flash fiction. (You can find out why here, in addition to links to my favourite flash competitions). Over the past few months I have been in the judging seat for @postupak’s Flash! Friday competition. Handing in my final winners list today made me think about how much this journey has taught me. 

Life is busy. While the novel will always be my favourite form of fiction, flash has become a firm favourite, particularly when experienced through one of the thriving online flash communities. Each time I stepped up to the judge’s bench with my quill, I learnt a terrific amount from the writers laying their work bare. Their stories were sizzling feats of imagination, lessons in precision and emotional depth. What other form of fiction would allow me to experience so many different voices in such a small space of time?

Yet despite the joy with which I approached judging Flash! Friday, I felt a sense of responsibility. I was once told that attention = love. It was sometimes difficult to clear the day that I needed to read, rank and critique the stories submitted. I owed the writers 100 per cent focus to mirror the care with which they crafted their stories.

And there was the familiar doubt at the back of my mind. Reading is a subjective exercise. I worried that despite judging blind and using marking criteria there may have been writers amongst the Flash! Friday community whose work, week after week, resonated with me more than others.

I was wrong. As a judge, I have never picked the same winners. In each story submitted, I found something to relate to. I learnt to appreciate genres that I have neglected in the past. In the best stories, I found that the writer’s vision fused with my imagination as a reader, making the story pulse with energy long after I finished reading it, and firing my synapses to build a world around the one which had been committed to paper. That is a magnificent achievement for 150 words.

It’ll be someone else’s turn to judge next week, and I’ll be back in the writer camp. Won’t you join me?

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?

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 Ebb and Flow of Words: Interruptions, Muses and Emotional Well-Being

This post was inspired by @JEdwardPaul, who wrote a brilliant piece recently that touched me about writing frustrations.

I’m not feeling my usual self at the moment. That’s probably why I’ve been a little quieter on social media than usual. My sense of equilibrium is off kilter, and the standard quick fixes to make myself feel better haven’t been working. I’ve turned to the page, hoping that spilling my thoughts out will purge me of this emotional low. You might ask why I have decided to blog about this rather than confide in the pages of my journal. Right now I have a small following. I feel safe sharing my words with you and less alone.

You see, life has been taking over recently and as a result I’ve had less writing time than I have become used to, and that has an impact on my emotional well-being. I feel ten feet tall when I am writing. I am more resilient to life’s downs if I am writing. I am happier.  With young kids, it has been important for me to learn to take advantage of every small window of writing time. I’ve learnt to focus quickly and knuckle down when writing non-fiction. But to be able to write good fiction I need to take myself out of the fray. I need the time for my breathing to slow, for reality to fade and my make-believe world to begin unfolding around me.

CloudsI’ve seen this cycle before. If I let the pen slip out of my hand for a few weeks, it becomes hard to pick it up again. It’s as if that internal writer’s voice that we coax out of ourselves begins to evaporate. My characters turn their back on me. In my mind’s eye, I see them curt and growling at me because I have abandoned them. There are no short-cuts in this business. The solution is simply to start writing again even if I feel rusty. The ink won’t flow as readily as I would perhaps like but eventually I’ll get back to the place where the writing feels true. So, step 1 of my road to recovery is fighting off those creeping commitments and picking up my regular writing schedule again.

This time though the disruption to my writing schedule has been compounded by National Novel Writing Month. I’ve blogged before about how I love NaNo. I started the month with a spring in my step; the first week of NaNo went wonderfully. Then life took over, and I resented it. All those NaNo pep talks which landed in my inbox served as a reminder that my word count was slipping behind, and it made me feel like a loser. Incidentally, @ChuckWendig wrote this week about how NaNoWriMo’s language of ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ is unhelpful. I’m feeling a little deflated that I didn’t see the month through, so step 2 on the road to recovery is to commit to finishing my NaNo novel at my own pace.  I will also, in the wonderfully crazy manner of @kseniaanske, post a video of me doing a victory dance when my first draft is done. Are you with me?

I’ve been wondering for a few days about why I’m in a particularly difficult downwards slump this time, and I think the fog has cleared. To be at our best as writers, we need to quiet our fears, dig deep and let intuition lead the way. Taking my foot of the gas allows my writing demons to return. And you know what really helps with those demons? It’s knowing that even if my self-belief is running a little low, there is someone who believes that I can do this. For me, that someone is my husband. I blogged last week about J not being a big reader, but what I didn’t mention is the impact he has on my writing. On good days, I can soar across fictional worlds without him; on bad days, without him, I lose my fragile faith in my writing ability. He’s back from a business trip this Saturday and I can’t wait.

My Writing Environment

pencilIt’s the weekend. Those two blissful days each week when we are not bound by routine. When we can do the things we want to do in the working week but never have the time for: lie ins, long baths, writing, spending time with loved ones, and nothing. Oh, the bliss of doing nothing.  Like millions of others at this exact moment, I have chosen to sit on our sofa in our living room. It’s a fabric sofa on dark angular feet with cream and taupe stripes.  You wouldn’t know about the stripes though because the sofa is covered with a blanket borrowed from an airline, back in the days when we were students and it seemed a good idea to take a worn blanket with a dubious history rather than pay five quid for a new one. It’s covered because of our children: a four year old who, like her mum, is inherently clumsy and a naughty one year old, inclined to launch his milk bottle across the room like a grenade. I’m wearing weekend clothes, unstructured and comfortable, and a pair of old pink socks. My feet are stretched out in front of me, pressing against my husband, stealing his body warmth. The walls are hung with an occasional painting and family photographs, and the mantelpiece is littered with postcards and children’s drawings.  We inherited silk curtains the colour of moss from the previous owners of our house.  She had a textiles business and he was a motorcycle-driving enigma, who didn’t get involved with the sale of the house. They were separating.  We still have their children’s height markings on the doorframe of our bathroom.  I digress.  I was describing our living room to you.  There is a gas fire, which only my husband seems to be able to light, and rug that I sometimes think about replacing, but never do because the ones I like are too expensive.  The two plants in here we inherited from good friends when they moved out of London.  I am relieved that they still look healthy. The children are in bed and it’s the time of night when we used to have the lights dimmed but for some reason we’ve kept them bright for weeks, possibly a physical rejection of the approaching winter.  Outside, the wind is gathering speed, as we wait for the worst storm in years to hit British shores, just in time for the morning rush hour.

leave-188445_640I get some of my best writing ideas in our living room. Right here on this sofa. Progress is slow, as the children distract me often here, but as long as I jot down my thoughts before they disappear, all is okay with the world. For really focused writing, the best place to write is in bed in those quiet hours just before bedtime, when time slows and reality fades into the background. Our bedroom walls are clay in colour with accents in blue and green. On the floor are two of my favourite prints, bought from the NaNoWriMo shop, framed but waiting to be hung.  My bedside table spills over with half-read books and favourite novels until I can bear to part with them. With the curtains drawn, the duvet wrapped close with just my night-light on, the world-building can begin and my characters start speaking.

There is an outbuilding nestled toward the back of our garden beside the rail track, an eco-structure the last owners built, with power but no heat, made out of wood and huge expanses of glass.  It was supposed to be our office, but in fact, I’ve made it into my dream writing studio.  It’s filled with inherited furniture: my father’s heavy oak desk with its crumbling varnished surface, worn burnt leather sofas my parents still love but decided to replace, an out of tune piano friends no longer wanted.  In the corner there is a barely-used treadmill I bought my husband for his last birthday.  My daughter’s paintings are blue-tacked to the walls and I have hung up some of my favourite photographs on canvas there.  There’s one of Zadie Smith holding a copy of On Beauty, and another of Vivienne Westwood.  Strong, creative women to surround myself with.  I dream of writing in that environment when the kids are older, more independent. I picture them running around in the garden together happily, playing on the swing or chasing the cats, while I hurtle through the next draft of the novel I am working on.

Right now, the kids need me close, and those snatches of time on the sofa are as good as it is likely to get in their waking hours.  And you know what?  In some ways, being a mum has made me more disciplined. I take advantage of every moment I have to write.  I have realised that there are optimal conditions to write, but no perfect ones.  As long as I get some writing done, I don’t mind which tool I use, or what my environment is like. How about you? What is your writing environment like?

**************************

 This post was inspired Jessica Schmeidler’s October blog challenge on The Write Shadow.  Bloggers were asked to follow prompts for daily posts throughout October and schedule them to go live in November, increasing writing stamina and freeing up writing time before NaNoWriMo.  I didn’t feel able to commit to blogging daily but was tempted to try one her prompts. The prompt for today’s post was: describe where you’re at (atmosphere challenge).

Next week NaNoWriMo will be underway.  I’ll be here with a short blog post using another one of Jessica’s other prompts –  ‘chickens’.  Yes, you read correctly.  NaNoWriMo mayhem means I may be tired, I may be incoherent. But hopefully you’ll come back anyway.  Because there’ll be chickens.

Short Story: The Gilded Mirror

#FridayPhrases

As an appetiser before the main course, here are my #FridayPhrases from this week ;). For those of you who are new to this, check out @amicgood’s blog for the background and feel free to join in next week by using the #FP hashtag and re/tweeting a story or poem in 140 characters.

The small child wailed in his cot. Beside him sat his mother, rocking gently, her face a picture of eerie calm while her insides raged #FP

The magic carpet sped past, a trail of silver dust in its wake. She leapt from its threads into the lake, thrill seeker till the end #FP

I once loved your wicked ways

Barbed remarks & power games

Honeyed words in cafés

Flatterer, thief, scared little boy

You will never know joy #FP

The Gilded Mirror

The short story below was written for WEbook’s Halloween challenge. The deadline is the end of this month.  If you’d like to enter, check out their website and writing community while you’re at it.  For this month’s challenge, writers have the choice of three opening lines to follow on from: one from Hamlet (eek!), one from Harry Potter, and the one below from Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim.

There is something haunting in the light of the moon; it has all the dispassionateness of a disembodied soul, and something of its inconceivable mystery.  The air around me feels heavy with expectation as I trample leaves underfoot on my way to the gleaming white house in the middle of the woodland.  I try unsuccessfully to still my imagination as my mind conjures up ghouls and unrepentant hellsmen that lurk in the shadows, just at the periphery of my vision. Every six years on All Hallows’ Eve, one of our family is chosen to walk this path towards the great gilded mirror in the upstairs bedroom of our ancestral home. Tonight, it is my turn.

I hold my breath as I catch sight of a silver-tinged owl watching me, her dull eyes tracing every movement of my march into the mouth of hell. The recent rain has muddied the ground, leaving splatters on my gown. My newly washed hair is fanned across my shoulders, its scent overpowered by the fertile moonlit landscape underfoot.  There are no humans for miles around, yet the woods feel alive. As I approach the dilapidated building with its half-formed turrets, I can make out moss-covered gargoyles peering at me with knowing eyes. My heart pummels my rib cage as I squeeze past monstrous gates into a courtyard.  I know the way as if by instinct.  This journey is in my blood, an ancient ritual borne of a centuries old feud.  Yet hope has not deserted me. It has been foretold that one day a girl-child will return from the depths of the woods. Perhaps that girl is me.

The house creaks its welcome as I enter.  Fanged bats swarm past me and escape into the darkness. I hold my offering close to me with fingers that are blue with cold and begin my ascent up the circular staircase, my footsteps muffled by carpet thick with dust. With each step I draw on my memory bank to say goodbye to my loved ones: my father chasing me through the corn-fields; my mother the year before she was taken, playing the harmonica with butter smeared in her hair; my siblings pleading with me to tell them a story. Those who may live because I die.

Almost there. It is as if the connection between my brain and my feet is severed.  They are no longer doing my bidding, and hurry towards a door at the top of the stairs. It swings open and I enter, my breath coming in rasps as I take in the heavy velvets adorning a bed, and in the corner, the gilded mirror standing tall, its smooth surface marred by a single, long crack.  And then I am face to face with my mirror image except the eyes aren’t mine and there is not a mark on the gown.

‘So you come at last, Evangeline,’ my reflection says to me. ‘I have been waiting a lifetime to meet you.’

I am transfixed by what I see.  Bile rises in my throat and I force my fingers to loosen their grip on the prize. I must keep my wits. ‘This vial is for you. It contains the last of the essence of Christ.  It is yours.’

My image raises a sleek eyebrow.  ‘What need do I have of forgiveness?’ it says, showing a tongue that slithers forth like a serpent’s. ‘My only wish is the eternal damnation of your line.  Tell me, how many of you now?’

‘Three,’ I stutter. ‘My father, my sister Emmeline. And me.’

‘Queer. I can smell your fear, but something else too – hope?’

‘One of us shall escape and it will be the end of your reign. Perhaps it is me.’ I close my eyes. ‘Will you not accept the prize?’

‘You are the prize,’ my reflection says to me, pushing a hand through the glass that emerges as greening bone and shrivelled flesh.

It pulls me into the mirror and the vial shatters on the floor. As I fall into the void, joy bubbles up inside me, even as I long for the things I can now never have. My blood has bought my remaining siblings more time. Not one, but three strong girl-children, one of whom will break the curse. My mother’s spirit wraps itself around me as I tumble and twist, already unrecognisable from my worldly form, and then there is quiet. And I am nothing.

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

Friday Flash Fiction

#FridayPhrases

Where were you for this week’s #FP? #FridayPhrases were initiated by @amicgood a few weeks ago.  The idea is to tweet a story or poem within 140 characters, follow the hashtag and retweet the ones you like.  It doesn’t take much time, and it’s addictive. Here are mine:

SunsetShe sliced through the water silently, her muscles working hard, her skin gleaming. Up in the rafters, he watched her, smiling & unnoticed. #FP

She was fed up of the constant drone of the TV. One day, when the kids were out, she shoved it violently off its perch & blamed it on the dog. #FP

He’d liked her for wks. He’d even brought her the best conkers. It was all over when his mum kissed him full on the lips in the playground. #FP

‘All day I preen & purr & rub up against you. You barely look at me. Well, fine!’ she thought, jumping over the fence into the neighbour’s arms. #FP

‘Well, how about that? Little Miss Perfect has a run in her tights,’ he thought, before slamming into the glass wall. She turned & cackled. #FP

She longed for the ocean’s gentle lapping waves & cleansing salt. Only seagulls saw her walk into its depth, leaving her sandals in the bay. #FP

FLASH! FRIDAY

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

Master and Me (Photo prompt/11.10.13)

Photo by Dan Fador

Photo by Dan Fador

My master is down there.  He slipped from the cliff top during our morning walk.  It was just past dawn and the emerging sun cast a hazy light across the landscape.  He fell without a whimper.  I guess his eyes aren’t what they used to be.  I haven’t looked over the cliff top yet.  I want to take a moment to feel the breeze in my coat, to take in this marvellous vista without being hurried along, to taste the freedom of not being tied to a leash, of being alone.

I did love him once, the silly old fool.  When I was a pup we used to roll around together in the daisy field and afterwards he’d chase me home.  Then his interest waned.  I hadn’t pictured my future to be one of lacklustre coexistence. I wanted the real deal.

I can hear a scrabbling at the rock face and it almost pulls at my heartstrings.  We were supposed to be man and beast.  Oh, it could have been so beautiful between us.  But as I look down at my matted fur, I make my decision.  I want to be my own man now.  It’s probably too late to help now anyway.  This view, it really is to die for.

– ENDS –

This week @postupak also posted about an opportunity to be one of the judges in an upcoming Flash! Friday contest.  If you are interested in applying, find out more here.

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

This Week’s #FridayPhrases

As mentioned last week, @amicgood initiated #FridayPhrases/#FP on Twitter. Here is a link to her proposal.

Girl and Lamp postHere are my #FridayPhrases from this week:

I passed the homeless girl’s doorway today. I used to avoid her eyes. Now she’s not there I miss her. #FP

Autumn leaves were falling.  She couldn’t give up the comfort of her ballet pumps despite her cold ankles. CRUNCH. SQUELCH. ‘Bloody snails!’ #FP

She was ready for battle: Hair ironed sleek, lips painted a deep cranberry, warrior posture. Bk at home her strength deserted her & she crumbled. #FP

‘Mummy, mummy!’ she said excitedly, her plump fingers pointing at the furry balls of orange.  Behind them, the vixen approached. #FP

It was fun coming up with these on Friday and reading everyone else’s.  Hope to see yours next week too.

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

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

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

mermaid

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

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

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

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

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