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!

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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…

 

THE WRITING LIFE – new website, new novel, new ideas…

Hello! This is the first blog post via my brand-new website. I’m pleased to have a ‘proper’ website at last, and I’m enormously indebted to my clever son for building it for me, and for being patient with my dithering over how it should look and work in terms of links, pages etc. I think I’m finally getting to grips with how to update it and add content now, so hopefully it’ll have stuff to interest both readers and writers.

So, the first thing to report is that the e-book version of my debut novel, The Things We Never Said has been picked for the Kindle summer sale promotion, which means that for a few weeks only, it’s just 99p!

 click here to buy

The Things We Never Said will always have a special place in my heart, partly because it was my first novel, but also because it brought me so many lovely emails and loyal readers. And I still totally love that cover!

It’s been a busy time for me recently, because not only have I been working on this website as well as promoting my third novel, What She Lost, I’ve also been finishing my fourth book, as yet untitled. I’m very excited about this new novel, because for the first time, I’ve felt confident about the story, almost from the word go.

I wrote the first draft in four months, and I’ve spent several more months redrafting. I submitted the new version to my agent and editor a few weeks ago, and I’m delighted to report that they loved it. There were a few points that still needed addressing, but these only took a couple of weeks, and now it’s off to the copy editor. There will be more tweaks and twiddles – I’m sure the copy editor will find plenty of typos,  repetitions, inconsistencies, and other problems I haven’t spotted, but after that, it’s done and dusted. Apart from coming up with the right title, of course.

Titles. Oh dear. Is anyone else as rubbish at titles as I am? I’ve come up with a few for this book, as has my agent, but nothing feels quite right yet. Sometimes, something jumps into my head and I think, ‘that’s it!’ and then the next day, I think ‘that’s awful – what was I thinking of?’

But apart from the title, there’s not much more for me to do, so I’m now trying to come up with an idea for my next novel.  I gathered together some of my notebooks from the last couple of years, together with a folder full of random notes scribbled on scraps of paper, and I spent several hours reading through them.

It’s amazing how the same things seem to crop up over and over again – the same themes, same situations. Thing is, a theme and a situation  does not a story make! And not only that, but I need to decide which theme, which situation I’m going to go with, and then I need to develop it. My love of cooking means I’m always using  food analogies, so here’s  one about finding a new idea for a novel: I have a few basic ingredients, but not enough to know what I’m going to cook. I need to decide what dish I want to make, then I need to gather the rest of the ingredients, and most importantly of all, I need to work out a recipe.  I suppose I’m also wondering whether to stick with the sort of dish I usually cook, or whether to make something a little different.

I envy writers who are constantly bubbling with ideas and can’t wait to finish one book in order to get on the next. I have no trouble coming up with situations and characters, but as to what actually happens and how it will all end is a huge struggle. It seems that every promising storyline quickly hits a wall on which the words THAT WON’T WORK  are written in six foot high letters. Any tips or advice gratefully received!

Right, back to the notebooks…

 

THE WRITING LIFE: Endings – happy? hopeful? sad? A dilemma…

Another long gap between posts. My excuse is that my new baby – in other words, my new book – just recently made its way into the world, so I’m still quite busy promoting it. (Click here to buy on Amazon)

To continue with the analogy, my fourth novel, which I’m currently redrafting, is close to full term, so all in all, I’ve been busy. Right, I’ve had enough of that, now, so I’ll start talking normally.

I wrote a first draft of book 4, as yet untitled, relatively quickly – in four months – and I’ve been rewriting it since the beginning of February. A good boost to the process was a six-day writing retreat at the Arvon foundation’s Clockhouse. away from domestic responsibilities and in the company of three other lovely writers, I got loads done.

Communal sitting room
private study lounge

My task was to make the novel little less dark, so there were new scenes and chapters to write, but I also needed to do some restructuring. To my delight, there was an enormous corkboard in the room. I work on Scrivener, but I still like actual physical pieces of paper on an actual physical corkboard. I printed out my chapter summaries and was able to fit the whole novel onto this wonderful corkboard so I could move stuff around.

The rewriting was going so well, I was fairly sure I’d be finished by the end of this month. But now I’m about to embark on writing the final scenes, I find myself suddenly crippled by doubt and indecision. I usually go for ‘hopeful’ rather than ‘happy’ endings, but my original ending for this book – can’t give details, obviously – couldn’t be described as either.

When I wrote it, I thought it was the right ending for this character’s story – the natural progression for her, given previous events. My character was not exactly ‘happy’, but calm and accepting of how things worked out. But my agent and editor didn’t like it. Let’s face it, they’ve been in the business a long time – they know their shit, basically, so I’d be stupid not to listen. The three of us bandied round a few ideas for an alternative ending, and I set out to do the redrafting with one or two possibilities in mind.

However, now I’m at this stage where I’m trying to actually write the alternative ending, I find I’m horribly stuck, because something is telling me that these alternatives are wrong – contrived. I know many other writers will say I should stick to my original idea. But the thing is, there’s no point in doing that if it makes the book into something no-one wants to read.

So what do I do, people? What is more important to the reader, a truthful but sad ending, or a believable, hopeful ending, that may just seem slightly contrived?

A couple of years ago, I read a book that I loved from the first page and almost to the last. It was brilliantly written, with sympathetic, convincing characters and a page-turning plot. The central character was in severe peril, and I was convinced that something would save her at the last minute. It didn’t. I was devastated. The integrity of the author was flawless – in that situation, at that time, what happened in the novel is almost certainly what would have happened in life. But I went from wanting to recommend this book to everyone, to not recommending it to anyone, because the ending had left me feeling so bleak and I didn’t want to pass that on. (If you’re interested, I blogged about this at the time – you can read the post here)

So you see my problem? I don’t think my ending would be as bleak as this one was, but maybe I’m deluding myself. readers and writers, I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this dilemma! The only thing I can think of to do at the moment is to try and force myself to write one or two alternative endings and see how they feel. I’ve already set one of them up through the novel, but even that feels almost impossible to write at the moment. Arghh!

On a more positive note, there have been some lovely reviews for What She Lost this week:

Amazon reader review

Amazon reader review

Amazon reader review

If you’d like to find out more about me and my work, please visit my (soon-to-be revamped) website or follow me on Twitter or Facebook