THE WRITING LIFE – NaNoWriMo V #100daysofwriting

I thought I’d give NaNoWriMo ( National Novel Writing Month. ) If you’ve not heard of this, it’s where you write 50,000 words during November – 1667 a day, which is quite a challenge. You can sign up to the website, track your progress, get little prompts and pep talks, and join the NaNo community for moral support. It’s a great thing to do, and I highly recommend it. But sometimes life gets in the way, big time. I started enthusiastically on 1st November, aiming to generate 50,000 words of material towards my new novel. I hoped that by simply pushing on to get the words down, I’d start to understand more about my characters and their story, and hopefully, some scenes would suggest themselves – material I could work on later.

Early days of NaNo, and it was going well…

But then my  daughter got a date for the operation she’s been waiting for. She’ll be out of action for a few weeks, So I’m on extended granny duties, plus extra cooking and driving. Oh well, I thought, it’ll be tough, but possibly still doable. Then some other family stuff happened,  and suffice it to say I found myself feeling too physically and emotionally drained to be able to produce that challenging number of words every day for a month.

I’d kept up  for the first eight days  but as I sat at my desk on the ninth, I could feel the pressure mounting, and as I thought about everything I had to do that day, I started to feel sick with dread. Then, scrolling through my Twitter feed, I stumbled on a tweet from author Clare King @ckingwriter  about writing challenges. Claire suggested that if NaNoWriMo  proved too much, a gentler option might be #100daysofwriting   The hashtag was started by  Jenn Ashworth who’d become mired in a horrible period of writers block following a bereavement. The commitment to #100daysofwriting was her way of gently easing herself back into her novel, and ‘falling in love’ with it again.  I worked out that if I made that day ‘day one’, then ‘day 100’ would be three days before The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood is published. I took that as a sign!

By the way, Cornelia Blackwood is now coming out in hardback in February – paperback will be out towards the end of the year. Check out this gorgeous hardback jacket!

Out on 21 February 2019 in hardback

The only commitment you make to #100daysofwriting Is to ‘turn up’ to the novel every day. Whether you write a thousand words or 50 words, whether you edit a chapter or tinker with a paragraph, or whether it’s just doing some planning or making a note. What counts is that it’s contributing to the novel. I’m now on day 27 and I’ve turned up every day, writing at home, in the library, in coffee shops, even on the train. It’s mostly rubbish, but maybe it’ll slowly lead me to the Good Stuff. I’m doing what I’d hoped to do through NaNoWriMo – I’m generating material. And if all I do one day is tinker, I’m not beating myself up over it.

I love writing in coffee shops with friends

One revelation has been that I have started writing by hand again. Initially, this was because I had to make a train journey and couldn’t carry my laptop, but I’ve discovered that I can write faster by hand, because it actually looks like crap (my handwriting is appalling and there are loads of crossings out) so I don’t agonise over It and get tempted to edit along the way. I just allow myself to write crap because it looks like crap, whereas I sort of expect nice, neatly typed stuff to be better.

Writing by hand on a train – a notebook is so much lighter than a laptop!

So, I’m definitely recommending #100daysofwriting as a way of generating material, and/or keeping your characters, setting, and story in your head from day-to-day. It means you don’t have that long break and have to spend the first half of the next writing session reminding yourself where you are. Give it a go!

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REMEMBERING HENRY – A DOG’S LIFE

Instead of THE WRITING LIFE, this is a long-ish one-off post about my dog, Henry, so if you’re not a dog person, it might not be your cup of tea. At just nine years old, Henry went to that great doggy kennel in the sky late on Monday night. He became ill suddenly on Friday morning and deteriorated rapidly. We’re devastated. Losing a pet is not the same as losing a human family member – of course it isn’t  – but if you’re one of those “it was only a dog” people, I’d suggest you move along.

Henry 2009-2018

I’m writing this partly because I can’t concentrate on anything else, but partly as a sort of obituary. We’ve loved every dog we’ve had, but this one was something else, and the absence of him in this house is almost palpable. I thought it would be nice to record some memories and share some photos, and perhaps work out why Henry – sometimes ‘Henners’, occasionally ‘The Henster’ – was so very special.

He’d been through so much in his short life. He came to us aged ten months as a private rehome and when my husband, who doesn’t drive, went to collect him on the train (I was at work) he was taken aback by how big Henry was – he looked ‘medium’ in the photos, and we’d agreed we wanted a medium-sized dog because our house was very small. My husband was a bit worried I’d think he was too big, but he was so well-behaved that when they took the three-hour train journey back home to Sheffield together, the other passengers couldn’t believe that they hadn’t been dog-and-owner for years

The moment I set eyes on Henry, I knew I loved him.  It’s true he was a big lad. He was half Lab, half Springer, but people often asked if there was ‘some Great Dane in there somewhere’, and maybe there was – his paws were huge! What I saw was an overgrown puppy with the shiniest coat I’d ever seen and the silkiest ears I’d ever stroked.

He settled in quickly and everyone who met him loved him for his gentle nature, his constant smile, and his ecstatic tail wagging (more on this in a moment). He was a beautiful animal to look at, too, and people would often stop us in the street to admire him. He was big, strong, and well-muscled, and by ‘eck if he trod on your toe, you’d know about it. He weighed 36kg – just over five and a half stones (more on this in a moment, too.)

He was virtually fully grown when he came to us, but he was very puppy-like. He liked soft toys, and I loved how excited he’d be when I came back with a carrier bag from a charity shop. He’d ram his nose into the bag , then sit and wait like a Good Boy for me to hand him the teddy bear, then he’d carry it carefully to his bed and disembowel it with relish, tail going like the clappers. He wasn’t a chewer as such, though, and he never destroyed anything other than his own toys. We were enchanted once to find he had put both my husband’s trainers in his bed – not chewed, just there for comfort. Not sure cuddling the other half’s trainers would do it for me, but still!

He loved his teddies, even after chewing their faces off…

So, back to that tail. We’d had him about three weeks when we noticed drops of blood spattered up the walls. At first, we couldn’t work out where it was coming from, then one day I stroked him to the end of his very long tail and found it was bleeding at the tip. The vet warned us that dogs with Happy Tail Syndrome – yes, it’s a Thing – often had to have their tails amputated because healing was so difficult. We were horrified and wanted to try healing it first.  He was fitted with one of those plastic cones so that he couldn’t chew at the dressing, but that didn’t stop him from wagging it off.  Every time the dressing was replaced, it would be off again in no time, and his tail would start bleeding again. One day, we noticed the dressing had gone but we couldn’t find it – it was three inches of plastic tube, covered in cotton wool and wrapped in stretchy blue bandage.

Wet dog

We searched high and low but no joy. On the walk  to the vet’s for re-dressing, Henry stopped for a poo. Yep, there it was, three inches long and an inch wide, and it had (thank God) passed right through his digestive system without doing any damage.  It soon became clear that the only real option was amputation. It was horrible, and we felt like monsters. He’d come to live with us and trusted us, and we’d let them chop his tail off.  I still shudder to think of it. But he recovered quickly, the little five -inch tail he was left with healed and all was well.

Very wet dog

 

 

We enjoyed life with Henry so much. He loved water and would go crashing into it whenever he could. He loved food, too, and would snaffle up bread meant for the ducks, bits of discarded burger and anything else that took his fancy, and he wasn’t fussy about whether it was actual food – he would eat any old shit. And I mean that quite literally. He was fond of sheep and rabbit poo, and on one holiday in the Yorkshire Dales, he gobbled up so much of the stuff that his teeth were green with it and his breath stank of it. The first time he had a bout of vomiting and diarrhoea, we assumed he’d just eaten something nasty. He was quite ill and had to be hospitalised for a couple of days. He lost a little weight, but we assumed he’d regain it when he was better.

We started to notice he was prone to diarrhoea, so we were careful with his diet, but very slowly, so that it was barely noticeable at first, he began to lose weight steadily and relentlessly. It wasn’t that he had no appetite – he would eat an entire bowl of dry food in less than 30 seconds (we timed it). And although he always strived to be a Good Boy, sometimes he couldn’t help himself, and if I left him and unattended food in the same room, well, I think he felt it would be worth the telling off. One day, I’d made some Haloumi burgers as part of a meal to serve to friends later. I think I’d made ten, but by the time I came back from the loo, there were four.

Trouble was, he was so tall, he could easily reach the kitchen counter. The best one was when I was preparing the food for my daughter’s wedding. I’d spent all morning making two biggish dishes of brandied chicken liver pate. I’d decorated them with bayleaves and cranberries and poured clarified butter over the top and everything – they looked really good. Henners was asleep in his bed and was actually snoring when I popped up to the loo. When I came back, he was standing on his hind legs, licking the bejesus out of the pate. He’d had about half of one dish and had licked it into the most perfect curve. I shouted at him and saw the whites of his eyes as he glanced at me, but then he speeded up the licking, clearly having calculated that there was time to get a bit more down his neck  before I could get across the room.

On holiday in the Yorkshire Dales, probably contemplating a meal of sheep dung…

Most dog owners will be familiar with the situation where you’re telling the dog off and laughing at the same time. Once I’d told him off, part of me just wanted to let him have the rest of the pate, because there was bugger all else I could do with it, but maybe that would have sent the wrong message…

We started to notice he was getting thinner – his collar was loose and he didn’t look as chunky. We took him to the vet and weighed him. He’s lost 6kg – a significant loss. There then followed a long period of examinations and blood tests and x-rays, but nothing showed up. Treatment, which consisted mainly of steroids, didn’t seem to be doing very much. We tried different diets – he still had a hearty appetite – but the vet said it looked like his body wasn’t absorbing proteins. The weight continued to fall off him. When he hit 25 kg, we were at our wits’ end. The vet was completely stumped. We tried all the different prescription diets but by this time, he looked like a Greyhound and we had to reduce his exercise so that he didn’t burn too many calories. The vet feared that his organs would start failing.

At the 11th hour, Royal Canin brought out a new hypoallergenic food that worked. It cost us £100 a month to feed him (we were lucky that we’d recently received a small inheritance, because I don’t know how we’d have managed otherwise) More worrying was one occasion when there was a problem with production and we couldn’t get any more food for two weeks. Fortunately, we managed to eke out what we had, but given it was the only thing keeping him alive, what if that happened again? It wasn’t as simple as using the right ingredients, it was that it had been processed in such a way that he was able to absorb the nutrients.

It was a struggle financially, but he regained most of the weight. We did this for a couple of years before moving to raw feeding, which was a revelation – less than half the cost, and he never looked back. He maintained a healthy weight and a gleaming coat from then on. It’s a tribute to our veterinary surgery that in spite of all the unpleasant treatments and investigations, he still loved going there. He’d charge in, run straight up to reception, stand on his hind legs and plonk his paws on the counter, ready for a treat.

Enjoying the view in the Yorkshire Dales

In the last few years, he’s given us so much joy. He was with one or other of us most of the time, often sleeping next to my desk while I worked, or stretched out in the living room with us in the evenings. We had some wonderful holidays with him – he seemed to know when we were going on holiday and wagged his little stump like mad every time we walked into a holiday cottage. His daily walks, while we sometimes thought of them as a bit of a chore, were always a pleasure the moment we were out walking rather than just anticipating the walk.

Before we had Henry, we had a lovely little border collie called Jasper, and during that time, I thought of us as a couple with a dog. Very soon after Henry came to us, I realised I was thinking of us as a family of three. If you’ve read this far down the post, you’re probably a dog person, so you’ll probably understand. It seems most dog owners have one ‘special’ dog in their lives, and Henry was definitely ours. I’m not sure I’ve still fully taken in that he’s gone for good, and I know the next days and weeks are going to be difficult. As I said before, it’s not like losing a beloved family member, but it is a bereavement. I have lost a dear friend and companion.

I miss the comforting weight of his head on my knee and his great big dry paw in my hand; I miss lying on the floor with him and cuddling his warm, solid body; I miss the strange basmati-rice smell of him first thing in the morning; I miss the funny noises he’d make when he was excited, the exaggerated sighs when he thought it was time I took him out, the sound of him snoring. I even miss the sound of him eating. I vacuumed the house yesterday, and it occurred to me that it would probably stay looking clean and newly-vacuumed for quite a while. But right now I’d give anything to have the place covered in dog hair and muddy pawprints.

Grief, as they say, is the price we pay for love. We’ll get another dog, for sure, but we need to fully grieve for Henry first. It’s been nice writing this post and reliving some of the memories. My eyes keep leaking, and they will do for a bit, I should think. If you’re still reading, you’re probably a pet-person so you’ll have been through this and will know this sadness. I hope you’ve enjoyed some of my memories and photos. I’ll wrap this up with one of my favourite pictures.  It was another Dales holiday, and in this one, the way the sun catches his shiny coat makes it look like he’s wearing a blond wig. But the best thing about it is, you can tell by his eyes that he’s smiling.  And I’ll never forget that smile.

Henry 10.7.09 – 27.8.18

I’ll be back in a week or two with writing-related stuff, but in the meantime, you can catch up with me on Twitter or Facebook See you soon!

 

THE WRITING LIFE – why do writers find it so hard to take a break?

A five-minute walk to the beach

I love writing, and I feel privileged to be a full-time author, but it’s still a job. This year, for the first time in 12 years, I went on holiday and didn’t take my laptop! And do you know what? The sky didn’t fall in!

holiday selfie

Odd, isn’t it, that we complain about writers not being taken seriously, about people thinking it’s easy, it’s self-indulgent, it’s not ‘real work’, and then we find ourselves not treating it as real work, not taking a break from our working lives like any normal person would.  This may of course be different for writers who also have a day job, but I now have a working life that is entirely focused on writing, whether it’s my own work, or whether it’s through teaching or mentoring.

And I love it, and I know I’m lucky to be doing a job that I love. But it’s only just dawning on me that I still need to occasionally take a complete break. I think I’ve been so immersed in writing for so long, that I am forgetting to look around at the world and see the things I want to write about.

blue sea, blue skies

So myself and himself went to Aberystwyth for a week (our holidays are always fairly modest – being a full-time writer means cutting back on stuff like holidays, new clothes, meals out etc). We usually go out of season, but this time, we went at the end of June, which happened to be the hottest week of the year! And oh my, but it was gorgeous – blue skies, blue sea, and a quiet, unspoiled beach.  We could see the sea from our apartment, and the sunsets each evening were stunning.

I spent a good part of the week either just watching the sun go down, or staring at the sea. Apart from that, it was just eating nice food, drinking nice wine (or prosecco) and reading. Every now and again, I kept getting a little twitch of guilt  – I should be writing! But then I reminded myself that I’m in the midst of attempting to fill the creative well again. if you follow this blog, you’ll know that I’ve just come through a rather horrible period of writers’ block, so in a way, I’ve had an enforced break, but it’s really made me think about my own creativity and how it works.  As writers of fiction, we should be observing the world around us and the people in it, but it’s also important to relax sometimes, and observe in perhaps a more passive way, so that we’re watching the setting of the sun and the changing of the tides without necessarily thinking about the words we’d use to describe these things.

…and another one

Anyway, we had a fabulous week, and at the end of it, I really did feel relaxed and refreshed – I can’t remember the last time that happened! We both felt genuinely sad to be coming home.

last night of the holiday

So now we’re back, and I’ve got over my sulking that we’re not still on holiday. I won’t say the creative well is bubbling to the brim with ideas, but I do feel in more of a relaxed state about the whole thing, and at least I’m now thinking about new ideas without getting my knickers in a twist. I’m not saying I’ll never take my laptop on holiday with me again, but I am definitely going to make sure I occasionally take a complete break from writing, even if it’s just for a couple of days.

Enjoy this gorgeous weather while it lasts!  If you’d like to be notified when I post in this blog, click the subscribe button to the right of the screen, and if you’d like to sign up for occasional updates on my books, events, and workshops, you can do that via the contact page. In the meantime, I hope you’ll catch up with me on Twitter or Facebook 

THE WRITING LIFE – when writers can’t write, part five

Thank you for bearing with me over these five posts! I can’t believe that I set out to write a quick little blog post about writers’ block and it ended up at over 4000 words. The irony is not lost on me!

 

So picking up from from yesterday,  I’d got to a point where I felt mentally and physically paralysed, and even the mention of writing would have me fighting tears. I concluded that I had writers’ block. I wasn’t stuck on an idea or a plot point, it was that I couldn’t write anything more challenging than a shopping list.

What did I do about it?
The time had come for me to fess up to my agent. I was worried she was going to call me and say, ‘How’s the book going?’, only for me to burst into tears and say, ‘It isn’t!’  So I emailed her to explain the situation, and received a lovely, sympathetic and understanding email in return. She suggested I that I take some time off,  a month, maybe – some time away from even thinking about writing.

At first, I struggled with that idea – I’ve never been very good at taking time off. But eventually I saw sense. Given that I teach writing and had workshops to deliver, I couldn’t avoid thinking about writing altogether, but I did give myself a break, spending most of my time reading, or  (and this may not have been the best idea) looking up solutions for writers’ block.

Advice from the Guru Google
Much of the advice I found – ‘go for walk’, ‘use a writing prompt’ or ‘try 15 minutes of freewriting’ – is good advice for someone who’s stuck, but it doesn’t really help a block. There is some good advice out there, but you have to trawl through a lot of confusion between being stuck and being blocked.

Some advice was useful though, especially when it focused on healing, or on appreciating creativity or nature rather than on forcing the writing. Things like: visit art galleries, listen to music, walk in the countryside, meditate, do yoga, spend all day reading, go dancing etc. Activities which in the past I’ve probably regarded as skiving. I’m sure I’m not the only writer who feels guilty for taking time off. It’s crazy really, because even when we’re not actually writing (or doing research, or marketing, or social media) we’re still thinking about our characters and their stories.

So I relaxed. A little. I could probably have relaxed a bit more, but it was a start. I was anxious to start some kind of writing, so I decided to go back to the good old ‘morning pages’ idea, as recommended by Julia Cameron in The Artists Way and Dorothea Brande in Becoming a Writer.

The latter is one of two books I recommend to every beginner writer, as well as to writers who are struggling to write (the other is Stephen King’s On Writing: a memoir of the craft). Becoming a Writer talks about the psychology of being a writer, about how the unconscious mind has a profound effect on the ability to write. Brande talks in particular about the voice of the inner critic, which, while it’s an essential part of the editing process, can be a confidence-destroying little fecker when we’re actually creating fiction. (Or in my case, even while we’re still at the thinking stage.)

One way of doing this is to train yourself to write to order and with no quality control. Brande suggests at least half an hour first thing in the morning, then another 15 minutes later in the day at a time you’ve chosen. It’s strict – if you say you’re going to write at 3pm, write at 3pm you must  – not 2.55 or 3.05.  You write anything as long as it’s not nonsense. It doesn’t have to be fiction, it doesn’t have to be good, it doesn’t even have to be grammatically correct. You just write, and you don’t look back at what you’ve written for at least a few weeks (if ever).

I did this for three weeks, filling a reasonably thick A5 notebook. It was a challenge, especially as the RSI in my hands and arms had flared up again. (It’s worse when typing so I use dictation software but sometimes the pain is severe in spite of this – I’m sure it’s another contributory factor to the block.) But it got me physically writing again, and that in itself has made me feel more positive.

I’m still a long way from starting a new novel, but I’ve jotted down a few notes – only brief thoughts, images, random situations. And writing this post has been an important step, because I don’t think I’d have been able to write it even a few weeks ago. Next, I’m starting work on a feature I’m planning to pitch ahead of the publication of Cornelia Blackwood in February. I want to have a draft in place now, because by the time the book is published, I fully intend to be working on a new novel. Then I have a week’s holiday in Wales, and for the first time in 12 years, I’m not taking my laptop! When I come back, I’m going to start thinking through ideas again.

So, that’s the story – much longer than I’d anticipated – of my writers’ block how I’m slowly coming through it. I hope you’ve found this interesting and useful, and if you’re going through something similar, my heart goes out to you. One thing that helped me enormously was hearing other writers talk about their own experiences of writers block, and that’s another reason I wanted to write this post. My thanks to them – I hope they know who they are – and to you for sticking with this week-long post!

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THE WRITING LIFE – when writers can’t write, part three

In the previous two posts, (scroll down the page to read them) I talked about getting stuck with each of my first three books and how I managed to get myself out of it. I started a fourth, but ended up putting it aside – my agent has since named that one ‘book three and half’. I’ll come back to it at some point, but I need to think it through a bit more, so it was the right decision. That decided, I started thinking of ideas for a new book four.

Making a plan
I’ve never planned a novel in such detail before. As I said in the previous posts, I’ve always known where I was going, but my usual method is to plan a little, write a little, plan a little write a little and so on. But my agent, who’s always been an advocate of planning, had seen the horrible time I’d had with books three and three and a half and wanted to spare me the same pain again, so she advised me (very strongly!) to plan this one in detail before I started writing.

I’d been wrangling with a new idea that had a fairly dramatic storyline, but I wasn’t clear about my protagonist’s motivation. And what was I trying to say? Each day I sat down and forced the outline a little further forward, a paragraph at a time, and I managed to develop a reasonable outline for the present day story. But I needed to explain why my character reacted that way, why she felt like that. Then one day, I remembered a short story I’d written years ago about a woman called Cornelia Blackwood and the crows she kept seeing and dreaming about. Quite suddenly, I knew that this was who I was writing about now; it was Cornelia’s story.

So although a great deal changed in the actual wriiting of the novel  – there were still plenty of surprises – I knew my protagonist’s backstory. So, not only did I know where I was going (the ending of the novel would be based on the end of the short story) but I also knew the big thing that had happened in the past, and it explained a lot about who my character was now.

Six weeks to write the plan
I’m not saying it was easy. The 3000 word story formed the basis for half a novel, so clearly there was a lot more work to do,  but knowing Cornelia’s history was key. Writing a detailed outline is like writing a novel in microcosm –  you have to let some areas breathe and develop on their own before you know what’s going to happen next. It took a while – six weeks – but  I ended up with a five-page the outline which I used as a guide.

A joyful experience
Writing the first draft took four months, and it was an absolute joy.  I had never found writing a first draft joyful before, but this time was different because I didn’t get stuck – yay! This must mean that finally, after four and a half books, I’d cracked it; I knew how to write a novel!

As it turns out, I hadn’t cracked it after all, but we’ll come back to that.

The flight of Cornelia Blackwood

The flight of Cornelia Blackwood

The editing and redrafting process took several more months, but I delivered the final version in the summer of 2017 to an incredibly positive reception. I was on a high – I’d written a book in a year from start to finish, my agent and editor loved it, and I was very happy with it myself – it was the book I’d always wanted to write, and it said what I wanted to say. But it’s a hugely emotional story, and when the euphoria of finishing it wore off, I was feeling quite drained.

I gave myself a couple of weeks off, but then I started trying to plan out a new idea. if I could repeat the experience I’d had with this book, I’d have a first draft of a new one by Christmas.

I’ll let you know how that went in part 4 tomorrow.

THE WRITING LIFE – a room of one’s own

Virginia Wolfe famously told us, ‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.’ Well, the money bit is tricky – most of us have other jobs or at least rely on teaching and critiquing to keep the lights on. And I know that for many writers, men as well as women, having a room that’s exclusively for writing is a luxury they can only dream of. I know that I’m extremely lucky to have a lovely study-cum- office at the top of the house.

I have an ergonomically designed desk and chair, two monitors, a comfy sofa, a coffee table, lots of books around me – it should be the perfect environment for writing a novel. But what do I do at that desk? I do admin, then I faff around on Facebook. Then perhaps a bit more admin, before taking to Twitter. Next I’ll probably check my Amazon sales ratings and see if there are any new reviews. Then I’ll check my email again and if there’s nothing that needs answering, perhaps it’s time for a quick look on eBay. I probably need more ink, or a lightbulb, or something.  Then I’ll just have one more look on Twitter before I make a start. Chances are I’ll find a link to some fascinating  blog post and that’ll be another 15 minutes gone. You know how it goes.

A designated place for fiction
One of the articles I read recently was one of those ‘top tips for writing your book’ pieces. Now, I know as well as any other writer that the top tip for writing your book is just sit down and bloody well write it. But one of the tips was, don’t write your novel in the same place as you do your admin and social media – have a space that’s exclusively for writing. This made  sense. I can see how having a special  ‘writing place‘ and going to that place regularly to write helps to automatically switch your brain into writing mode. It’s probably one of the reasons so many of us like writing in coffee shops, as well as the fact that we can’t be distracted by domestic chores and we’re less likely to be distracted by admin and social media.

I love writing in coffee shops – I wrote most of The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood in the coffee shop across the road – and as long as they ‘re not busy, many places don’t mind you sitting there with one drink all morning. But even one coffee a day has become unaffordable for me at the moment, though I still try to  go once a week. So I needed an alternative. After spending last Saturday doing a tour of the secondhand furniture shops, I found this little fold-away table for a fiver.

I’ve tried writing at the kitchen table, or in the sitting room, but there’s always something The House wants me to do. Fortunately my ‘room at the top’ is divided into two with a plasterboard wall so that guests can stay overnight without feeling as though they’re sleeping in an office. It’s a small space, not big enough for a proper desk, but perfect for this little fold-up.

Trick your brain into focusing on fiction
So I can still be tucked away at the top of the house, but I can close the door to my study (when the dog isn’t demanding it be left open so he can be near the radiator and see me at the same time!) and I can focus entirely on the novel instead of being constantly tempted to check Facebook or Twitter.  It was also a conscious decision to work facing a blank wall – an attempt to trick my brain into thinking the most interesting things are happening on the screen.

As for whether that’s true, I can’t say at the moment because I’m in the very early stages of a new novel. That point where the confidence I had about it at first has disappeared, and The Fear has arrived. A quote from Iris Murdoch springs to mind – “Every book is the wreck of a perfect idea.” Ain’t that the truth!

Ah well, for me this is a normal state of affairs. I just need to put myself in that chair every day, switch on my laptop and step into my fictional world. It may work, it may not, but one thing’s for sure, nothing’s going to happen if I don’t try, and I’m pretty sure that reducing the distractions will help.

What do you think? Should we write fiction at the same desk where we pay the bills?

TTFN!

If you’d like to keep up with my writing life or just have a chat, pop over and ‘like’ my Facebook page or follow me on Twitter or Instagram

THE WRITING LIFE – end of year reflections

If I’m honest, I’m writing this post as a displacement activity – I’ve already spent so long on Twitter that my eyes are stinging.  I’ve filled the last couple of weeks with preparations for Christmas – shopping, cooking, decorating the house,  and fannying about making and decorating a vintage-style Christmas cake. (Made the Santa last year)

I’ve also been running some giveaways on my Facebook page, which involved some lovely interaction with readers. If you don’t already follow my Facebook page, you can do so here. It’s all been incredibly enjoyable – a perfect excuse to not think about my next novel.  It’s not that I don’t want to think about the new novel, but I’m struggling to pin down a workable plot, so I’m giving myself until 2nd January off, then I really need to sort it out. I will of course be blogging about how hard it all is…

In the meantime, it’s cold and snowy outside, so I’m allowing myself to snuggle up in front of the fire, watch some telly and read some books.

I’ve just started on Uncle Paul, by Celia Fremlin. It’s the fourth novel I’ve read by this author and I can highly recommend it if you like something a little dark but rooted in the domestic. Celia Fremlin was writing mainly in the 50s and 60s, although there are later novels, too. She’s often referred to as ‘the British Patricia Highsmith’ so that gives you an idea. I’m only a few pages into Uncle Paul,  but I can definitely recommend The Hours Before Dawn, The Long Shadow, and The Jealous One. So pleased to have discovered this author.

I’m sorry to report that I’ve yet again failed to reach my modest reading target of 50 novels, but I managed 41, not including those I’ve abandoned – maybe four or five? If a book hasn’t grabbed me by page 50, I move on. So many books, so little time!

Anyway, a few crackers worth mentioning: The Power, by Naomi Alderman, The Dry, by Jane Harper, Birdcage Walk, by the late and truly wonderful Helen Dunmore, and – my absolute top read of 2018 – Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett.  I was transfixed by this book, which spans five decades in the life of a sprawling extended family. Sharply observed and utterly compelling.

I know I’m going to have to get back to working on my own novel soon, but I’m giving myself the rest of Christmas off (I’m stretching ‘Christmas’ right up until 2nd January). I’m also wasting time on Twitter and Facebook,  eating too much leftover Christmas food, and washing it down with Christmas booze.  Ah well.

There we are then, I’ve done something mildly useful in writing this post, because I suppose any writing is better than none. Oh,  and one last thing – my first novel, The Things We Never Said, is on a special 99p Kindle deal at the moment. I’ve no idea how long this promotion will last, so grab it while you can! Click here to go to the deal.

I’ll be publishing more posts about my  writing process and progress (or lack of) over the coming weeks and months, but in the meantime, enjoy whatever you’re doing, reading,, or writing over the final days of 2017. Let’s hope 2018 will be happy, peaceful, creative and productive for us all. Happy new year!  Susan x

 

 

 

 

THE WRITING LIFE – a busy October

It’s been a busy couple of weeks in terms of the writing life (even though I’ve done very little actual writing – more of which in a bit).

Party time
On the 16th, it was the Simon & Schuster 30th birthday bash.  What fun!  The occasional publishing party is one of the few things about being an author that is genuinely glamorous. For once, we get the chance to put on a posh frock and slap on some make-up instead of spending the whole day slobbing about in our PJs.

It’s also lovely to have the chance to catch up with other authors, and socialize with the publishing team. We were plied with  prosecco, wine, and cocktails, and entertained by this wonderful string quartet. And, as the party took place at the National Gallery in London, we were also surrounded by beautiful paintings. It was all very elegant.

A first look at If I Should Fall
Not long after I arrived back in Sheffield, the page proofs for my next novel, If I Should Fall arrived. This is my last chance to make corrections to the manuscript before it goes to print. It’s also hugely exciting, because it’s the very first glimpse of what the book will actually look like.

I started working on them more or less straightaway and oh my goodness – what on earth possessed me to use all those semicolons?  I do like the odd semicolon – I think sometimes it’s the only appropriate punctuation – but I really shouldn’t have used so many. Most of my corrections so far are ‘change semi-colon to full stop’.

So, proofs are genuinely thrilling, but not quite as thrilling as the cover, and my editor says we should have a draft of the design by mid-November. I’m so excited about the cover for this one and I can’t wait to see what the fabulous designers have come up with!

Weekend retreat/redrafting course
Then last weekend, I put on my teaching hat from Saturday morning until Sunday evening. My fellow author and bessie mate Russ Thomas and I have been planning this redrafting  and retreat weekend for months, and it was fantastic to finally deliver the course. We had 12 lovely writers join us for the weekend in the pretty little  Peak District village of Edale.  Everyone worked incredibly hard, fuelled by coffee and biscuits during the day, and something a little stronger on the Saturday evening.

Saturday’s hard work was followed by a readings session in the evening with wine and nibbles. It was fantastic to hear extracts from all these wonderful novels, and we were incredibly impressed with the standard of work.

On Sunday afternoon, having re-thought, re-arranged, and re-drafted like mad, our writers said fond farewells to new friends and went their separate ways, obviously tired, but happy and inspired to really get those novels into shape.

I even managed to do a little writing myself while I was there. If you saw my last blog post, you’ll know that I’m in the process of trying to settle on an idea for my next novel. I don’t want to say too much yet because it’s very early days, but I think I might be onto something. Lots more thinking and planning to do before I start writing properly, but I’m enjoying writing little character sketches and exploring viewpoints etc.

Facebook giveaway!
And finally… if you follow my Facebook page you may have already seen this, but if not, and if you fancy winning a signed copy of The Things We Never Said, there are two more days to get in with a chance.

 

Hop over to Facebook now, ‘like’ my page and leave me a comment, and your name will go into the hat ( or carrier bag) for the draw, which will be on Saturday 28th at 12 noon – I’ll announce the winners at 4pm on Facebook.  https://www.facebook.com/susanelliotwrightwriter/

And if you fancy a copy of The Secrets We Left Behind, keep an eye on my Facebook page and on Twitter for an announcement of the next giveaway, which will run through November. And watch out for an extra special giveaway in December!

That’s all for now – see you again soon!

Susan x

THE WRITING LIFE – searching for inspiration

As many of you will know, my third novel, What She Lost ,was published in March, and I finished editing the fourth, If I Should Fall, over the summer. It was a great feeling to finish the copy-edits for If I Should Fall just before we went away for a week’s holiday in the Peak District. It was a low-key holiday, partly because I was plagued by sciatica, but I did lots of reading, and although the weather wasn’t great, it was warm enough to sit outside with my pre-lunch glass of wine (lunchtime drinking is The Law when you’re on holiday.)

A lovely holiday cottage

But as soon as we got home, my thoughts turned to novel number five. I’d had a few vague ideas sloshing around in the back of my mind, so I started to think them through in the hope of getting together a rough outline. But alas, not one of those ideas looks like it’ll work, either because  there’s not enough substance or because the idea is so complex that the plot has more holes than a fisherman’s net.

So I did some more thinking, looked through my old notebooks, and came up with a couple more ideas, only to discover that these were dead-ends, too. So then the panic sets in: I’m not writing! I can’t write – I’ll never write another novel! I’ll never have another decent idea…’

Thing is, I am (more or less) a full-time writer. I do a little teaching here and there, but I don’t have a proper, regular salary, and so I rely on the small income from teaching and writing to pay the bills. Also, I’m not a book-a year- author. I wish I was! Some authors write two or even three books a year, and I am in complete awe of them. But it takes me a year to write a decent draft, so we’re looking at between 18 months and two years before the thing is finished. See why I’m getting a bit twitchy?

My agent advised me to chill out a bit. Read the papers, she said, go to the library, watch TV. I did that for a while, but still nothing was happening.  Then I began to suspect that the very act of ‘trying’ to find inspiration was preventing me from doing so. The panic that I hadn’t started anything new was taking me over, and whole days were passing without me achieving anything at all. I needed something to break the pattern that had developed: look at notebooks, think through the ideas, see that they won’t work, panic, start again…

I decided on a one-night-only trip to the seaside.

Now, me and Himself love the sea. We start to crave the sight, sound, and smell of it when we’ve not seen it for a while (we live in Sheffield, which is a long way from the coast.). We got the train to Scarborough, had a lovely read on the train, then went straight for lunch – fish & chips, of course – and then to our room in  a B&B, overlooking the sea, from where we could both see and hear the crashing of the waves on the shore.

 

Then we wandered down to the beach to watch the tide coming in. The sound was incredible – a constant roar as huge waves hit the seawall and then crashed down onto the promenade with a splat.

There was some pretty hard-core ‘wave action’ going on, and it was glorious!

I stood there for ages, just watching the waves, taking great lungfuls of briney air, listening to that incredible roar, and marveling at the sheer force and power of the sea.

After a while, we went back across the road to the B&B, then sat in the bay window, still watching the waves, until it grew dark and was time to go in search of dinner.

The following morning, we took an hour-long walk along the coastline before heading back home. For most of the time that we were in Scarborough, my mind was quiet, my brain focused almost entirely on taking in my surroundings.

The odd thing is that an idea has now started to hum in the back of my head. It isn’t really even a proper ‘idea’ yet, more of a feeling. But I have a sense of the characters and of the underlying tension between them, and of an overall atmosphere.  For the first time since I started trying to come up with a new idea, I find myself feeling quite powerfully drawn to this one. Maybe it’ll be a go-er, or maybe it’ll fizzle out and die like the others have, but I’m hopeful.  And I’m fairly sure that it was taking some time out and directing my brain towards something completely different – the power and beauty of the sea – that allowed this idea to begin to grow.  So basically, that’s my top tip for those writers among you who are struggling to come up with a new idea: Take a day off and go to the seaside!

That’s about it for this time, but do keep an eye on my Facebook page because in the run up to Christmas, I’ll be giving away signed copies of all three of my novels! Facebook post to follow in the next day or two.

See you soon! x

 

THE WRITING LIFE – productive procrastination for writers

Does anyone else suffer from ‘between-books paralysis’? When you know you should be planning your next novel, but every time you try and think an idea through, you either hit a brick wall very quickly, or you’re daunted by the sheer size of the mountain you’re about to climb.

I’m in that situation right now. Book 4 (STILL untitled) is all but finished apart from the copy edits, but book 5 remains elusive. I have four or five bits of ideas bubbling around in my head, some overlapping, but none clear and solid enough yet. I keep reminding myself that I have to commit to an idea, and then I have to make it clear and solid – it’s not going to magically happen on its own.

But in the meantime I am procrastinating, as authors are wont to do at times like this. It makes me feel guilty – I hate these horribly non-productive periods. A few years ago, I blogged about ways writers can actually justify procrastination – if you’re a committed procrastinator, you can justify anything – and I thought I’d return to that theme now, with a few new tips thrown in. So, in no particular order, here are some ideas:

Watching TV
Choose programmes that can feed your storytelling skills or give you ideas for characters. Films and TV dramas can be great for this, especially as they can demonstrate how to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’ – note how characters’ actions, dialogue, and facial expressions show what the characters are thinking and feeling.

Looking on Rightmove
Houses can be a great source of ideas, and the way a house looks, both inside and out, can tell you a lot about the people who live there. I love looking around other people’s houses, but I draw the line at posing as a potential buyer so estate agents will show me round someone’s gaff. Rightmove is the next best thing. You can look at any type of home, in any city, in the countryside, on the coast.

I go for the ones with lots of photographs, and I prefer houses that are not empty. That way, you can get ideas from the way the rooms look while people are actually living there. This can be a starting point for a story, or you can use it to develop characters in something you’ve already started. If you’re learning about who your character is by discovering more about where they live,  you’re not just dreaming about what it would be like to live in that gorgeous house should you ever have a spare million knocking around – you’re doing legitimate research.

Looking around the shops
Like looking at houses, this is also justifiable research. What  sort of clothes, shoes, food, furniture, artwork, bedding, etc  does your character choose? From which shops? Does she buy her clothes from Top Shop? Harvey Nichols? M&S?  Or does she prefer charity shops? And is that because she’s hard up, or because she has an alternative way of dressing? Mooching around the charity shops can be good for ideas, too – handling a worn pair of shoes, a well-thumbed cookery book, or a still-perfumed scarf can suggest things about a character that you may not have thought of otherwise.

Going for a walk
Walking outdoors, preferably somewhere green and beautiful, is not only healthy and pleasant, but it’s often a brilliant way of solving problems in your work. There’s something about the action of putting one foot in front of the other that seems to stimulate ideas – right now, I’m hoping it’ll help me formulate an idea for my next novel.

And to be honest, even if it doesn’t help you move forward with your current project, it’s got to be better to be out in the fresh air, preferably somewhere green, than rotting in front of your computer while you stew on your own laziness, lack of imagination, and the certainty that you will never write anything decent again… or is that just me?

Cooking meals for the freezer
If you hate cooking, skip this one, but personally, I find cooking hugely therapeutic, and if I’m not producing any writing, at least I can stash away some ready-cooked meals so that when I do finally get started on my next novel, I’ll have a supply of quick meals in the freezer for those days when I find myself writing well into the evening.

Getting your accounts up to date
In the same vein as cooking while you have time, why not use the time you have now to reduce stress at the end of the tax year? I loathe doing my accounts, and if I’m deep in writing my novel at the time I have to submit my tax return, dragging myself away from something creative and fascinating in order to do something bewildering and boring is virtually impossible. I spent yesterday working on my accounts from the beginning of the financial year. So even if I don’t keep to my plan to record everything as I go along (I always plan to do this but…) at least the first three months are done.

Phoning a (writer) friend
Talking to other writers is never time wasted. whether you’re talking about your process or your progress (or lack of it),  just talking about writing will make you want to get on with it, and bouncing ideas off another writer is always useful, even if it’s just to hear your own thoughts spoken aloud. Sometimes, acting as a sounding board for someone else can help to stimulate your own ideas, too.

Thinking about and promoting your published work
If you’ve already got something out there, why not give it a little boost to remind people it’s there? Has it just had a lovely review you can tweet about? Is it on a special promotion somewhere? While we’re on the subject, my first novel The Things We Never Said is in the Kindle summer sale for less than a quid! (My other books have great reviews, too, and I’m crossing my fingers that What She Lost will be chosen for a price promotion soon.)

Look at the book or books you’ve already written to remind yourself that you can do it, that the random collection of thoughts, character sketches and half-formed ideas knocking around in your brain will eventually morph into a new novel, just as they have done before. Or if you’re stuck on your current project, remind yourself that you’ve had problems in the past, and you’ve overcome them. Remember that time when you thought your last novel was a pile of crap and you would never finish it? Now go read your five-star reviews….

And finally: Reading
We so often see reading as something to be done only during leisure time, but you’re a writer so it’s different. Every book you read is a training session – you’re learning more about technique and craft and storytelling with every novel you pick up. With some books, the main thing you’ll take away is how not to do it, but that’s okay, too. If you have a current work-in-progress, or are thinking about the next project, you can probably include some fiction in your research reading – there’s nothing wrong with benefiting from research done by other authors!

So, I am now going to attempt to follow my own advice. I’ve already done a few of the things on this list, but they’ve mainly been the catching-up-with-other-stuff  ones rather than the imagination and idea-stimulating ones, so I guess I’d better get on with that.

Oh, and there’s one other thing you can do towards productive procrastination – write new blog post…