My short story ‘Cat Chat’ is published today in the People’s Friend magazine, and in this post I’m going to write about where the idea for the story came from, and how I adapted and shaped my initial thought into the finished piece. Like many writers, I’m quite shameless about pinching stories from my family and friends. Often someone will tell me something and I’ll mentally file it away thinking, ‘I can do something with that.’ The ‘thing’ they’ve said might be a phrase or a comment, or it might be an anecdote. I never use other people’s stories in the same format they told them to me: I strip down the idea to find the bit that captured my imagination, then I play with it until I get a story, so the final story bears no resemblance to the original. This is how I did it with ‘Cat Chat’.
My family is one of pet-talkers: people who act as ventriloquist for the dog or cat. Maybe you’re one yourself, or maybe you’ve come across people like that, people who put on a special voice for the dog and conduct a conversation with it, seemingly oblivious to the fact they’re talking to themselves. Maybe you think it’s cute; maybe you think they’re bonkers. Anyway, in my house we talk for the cat. If you’re not sure what people actually say when they talk for the cat, here’s a typical exchange between me and my cat, Harriet:
Me: Look at that cute dog on the telly.
Harriet: I don’t approve of dogs. They’re not as good as cats.
Me: It’s a clever doggy, doing tricks.
Harriet: See what I mean? You’d never find a cat doing that. Imagine working for a living! Cats are far too clever.
When I met my husband, and he first heard me talking for my cats, he thought I was bonkers. Fast forward a couple of months and not only was he also talking for the cats, he’d adopted his own special voice for doing so. We were talking about his first reaction to hearing me talking for the cats when I realised there was a story in it.
Firstly, I needed a conflict. As it was a story about talking for a cat, there had to be a talker and someone who found it weird. And because I love writing stories for the People’s Friend that involve a grandmother and granddaughter, I went for those characters and had the grandmother as the cat-talker and the granddaughter worried about it. Now for the inciting incident, the thing that kicks off the story. As the granddaughter has known about the cat-talking all her life, why does she suddenly find it weird? Answer: she’s a teenager who’s just got a boyfriend and is worried what he’ll think about it and is scared he’ll dump her. To up the stakes and to add a touch of humour, I made the grandmother very gentle and the cat a bit of a thug:
“How’s my best boy then?” asked Nanna, bending to stroke Bandit.
“Alright, old girl. Where’s me grub?” said Bandit, in a low, gravelly voice and distinct East End gangsterish accent.
“You hungry, my poppet?”
“Starvin’! Me stomach finks me froat’s bin slit,” said Bandit.
The girl is determined that her boyfriend won’t ever meet Nanna, and Nanna is equally determined to meet the new boyfriend to give him the once-over and make sure he’s good enough. So there was the set-up. All of them nice characters but with genuine conflict arising from their personalities. Next I had to increase the conflict.
I like to vary the sources of conflict within stories, so if the inciting action comes from outside the main character (from another character or from a situation), the next conflict comes from within the character herself. In this case, I made her feel terrible guilt at wanting to keep Nanna and the boyfriend apart. She loves her Nanna, yet is embarrassed by her, and feels terrible about it. I twisted the knife a little to increase the conflict and (hopefully) get the reader to ask ‘How is this ever going to be resolved?’ by adding a scene where the girl tries to talk to her mother about her concerns:
That evening, in the car, I said, tentatively, “Mum, do you think it’s odd how Nanna talks for the cat?”
“She’s always done it.”
“I know, but is it weird, do you think?”
“Her mum, my grandma, was just the same,” Mum said, indicating the turning into our road. “I asked her about it once and she said her grandmother was just the same.”
Great, so it’s hereditary.
Mum pulled up outside our house and tugged on the handbrake. She glanced across at me. “Why? It doesn’t bother you, does it?”
“No, it’s just … I wondered what other people might think.” The blood flooded my cheeks as I said it.
“Stuff what other people think,” Mum said. “Come on! Homework, then dinner.”
Next I had to figure out how to resolve this. There are a few rules with story endings: they can’t come about by chance or fate, they must be the result of the character’s own actions, and they must be in character. I normally sketch out as many potential resolutions to the story as I can and then see which one is most natural but least likely to be spotted in advance by the reader. Keep them guessing to the end if possible! In this story I gave the grandmother a sore throat and the granddaughter speaks for the cat on her behalf, resolving both the original conflict (what will the boyfriend think about Nanna speaking for the cat?) and the emotional conflict (the guilt about feeling embarrassed).
If you’d like to read the whole story, it’s available now in the People’s Friend magazine dated 10th February, 2018.
OK, I admit it. My secret vice is watching crap TV. You know the sort of thing – programmes that are evidently low-budget, involve supposedly real people in real situations, on during the day time, and that make the mind boggle that such people exist. The kind of programme you don’t admit to watching even to your best friends. The sort of programme some people pretend they’ve never even heard of. Programmes that leave a warm hug of schadenfreude behind. Addictive, enjoyable, totally veg out crap TV that is surprisingly good for writers. And if you’re still not sure which programmes I’m talking about, I mean Botched, Tattoo Fixers, Secret Eaters, any programmes about doing up or selling houses, Bridezillas, Don’t Tell the Bride, any programmes where angry brides/ dance instructors bitch-slap each other, Wanted Down Under, Escape to the Country, Bargain Hunt, Crap in the Attic (sorry, Cash in the Attic), TOWIE, Real Housewives of Nowhere You’ve Ever Heard of, Posh Pawn, and anything that involves people with no brains and too much money spoiling pets/ children/ cars/ property.
Now before you come over all ‘you’d never catch me watching rubbish like that’, one, I don’t believe you – we’ve all been caught watching Hoarders at some point - and two, crap TV has a lot to offer us writers. Here’s how:
1. It’s all about conflict
When I teach writing workshops and explain that the energy in a story comes from the conflict, often people think that conflict means fighting, and that characters should be squabbling all the way through. Conflict actually just means anything that stands in the character’s way, whether it’s missing the bus, a letter not being delivered, illness, lack of self-belief, or getting soaked in the rain.
Crap TV is full of conflict. Take Secret Eaters (known in my house as Secret Scoffers), one of my favourites. In it, people who are overweight keep a food diary in which they record everything they eat. The diary always shows that they eat nothing but carrot sticks and lettuce leaves. Unbeknownst to the participants, however, a team of private investigators has rigged up their home with CCTV, they follow them every step they go, and log every single mouthful. Low and behold those mouthfuls turn out to be cake, chips, pizza, beer and kebabs. Confronted by their own self-delusion, they instantly mend their ways and drop a stone in two months.
Here’s the conflict: wanting to lose weight but being unable to do so, and unable to see where you might be going wrong. Deluding yourself that you eat a healthy diet and ignoring the fact that biscuits still count even if you eat them in secret. Being confronted with your own bad habits. Being followed by a private detective.
Or how about those ‘My house is a tip but I can’t understand why no one wants to buy it’ shows? The people are desperate to move, have had the house up for sale for years, and no one has put in an offer. Along comes Mr or Ms Expert on Selling Houses, who instantly spots that they have Grandad stuffed and on display in an armchair in the sitting room. “Do you think the fact your dead grandfather is in the house might be putting people off?” the expert asks.
“But this is our house!” they cry. “This is how we like it.”
A painful amount of time later they are finally forced to concede that if they want to sell, their house has to be how other people want it to look, stuffed Grandpa is put into storage and magnolia is slapped on the walls. An offer comes in immediately.
Here’s a conflict that we’re all familiar with: wanting to move home but something’s in the way, whether it’s not being able to agree with our partners on what we want; not being able to afford a deposit; not being able to sell our current home. In a twist on the ‘not being able to sell’ theme, I once wrote a story based on my parents not wanting to sell their house. They'd put it up for sale but changed their minds, and persuaded the neighbours to behave objectionably every time someone came round for a viewing until they could take it off the market and not incur the estate agent’s fees. True. My reworking of this heart-warming tale appeared as ‘The Noisy Neighbours’ in That’s Life Fast Fiction Australia. My mother thinks I ought to give her the money I earned from it.
2. It shows you how other people live
Crap TV gives amazing insights into how other people live. Not just in a Jeremy Kyle ‘do such people really exist’ sort of way, but a ‘how much money have they got and why are they spending it on that’ sort of way. If you don’t know what it’s like to have an unfortunate tattoo, but have a character in your novel who is just that sort of person, watch Tattoo Fixers and you’ll get more than enough inspiration. If you don’t know what it’s like to have a gormless boyfriend, watch Don’t Tell the Bride.
Crap TV also shows you what people aspire to. Take Escape to the Country, possibly the best satire on the middle classes. In it, people with an astonishing amount of ready cash decide they’d like to swap city living for life in the country. They come up with a wish-list for their perfect property, and for every single one it goes like this: detached with character features; at least four large bedrooms; a large country kitchen (a kitchen the size of a football pitch will still not be large enough – how many friends do they have?); huge entertaining space; a cottagey feel; at least eight acres for bees/ chickens/ llamas/ vegetable plot.
And then there’s the glimpse into people’s homes, the stuff they have around them, and the way they live. If you need descriptions of interiors, head to crap TV to see how rooms are arranged, how ornaments are displayed, kitchens are used. Our friends tend to be similar to us, so when we have a character who’s totally different we can be at a loss to understand how they live. None of my friends are mega-rich housewives, but crap TV has plenty of them happy to show off their furniture, clothes, make-up and daily routine if I ever need to describe it in a story.
3. It gives you ideas for stories
Although a lot of crap TV is stage-managed, you can still find inspiration for stories there. I’ve already mentioned my story about selling houses, but I’ve also written and published a story based on Don’t Tell the Bride (it was called ‘Don’t Tell the Bride’ and was published in the People’s Friend magazine). Watching the programme, I wondered what it would be like in real life (as opposed to TV life) if a girl couldn’t plan her own wedding and her fiancé had to do it. My story had the conflict of not knowing what he’d choose for the big day, the disappointment of seeing the dress he’d chosen, and the surprise ending, but steered clear of the money being spent on a lads’ week in Vegas, uncontrollable crying, and threatening to call it all off.
I have also written and published a story inspired by Antiques Road Trip, in which someone accidentally buys a very valuable antique at a car bootsale, and have drawn on the many programmes about people trying to eat healthily in a short story about how food and feeding people means different things to a mother and her daughter, published in Take a Break Fiction Feast as ‘Don’t Make Them Fat, Too’. That wasn’t my title, I hasten to add: the magazine made it up, changing it from my suggestion of ‘The Food of Love’.
The way I approach crap TV if I’m looking for inspiration is to imagine what the conflict/ problem would look like in a normal person i.e. not someone who’s been put into a set-up and had their lines scripted for them. Then I try a few reversals, so If the show is about twenty-somethings, I imagine a seventy year old in that situation. A grandad who gets an unfortunate tattoo? Then I think about telling it from a different perspective. What does the tattoo fixer think about the grandad? What does his granddaughter feel about it all?
Crap TV is a great way to unwind at the end of the day, and let’s face it, we all need some time when we switch off our brains and just wallow in other people’s problems and silliness. But if you get caught binge-watching Botched, you know what to say. “Oh this, it’s research. For my writing, don’t you know.”
Time for you to fess up. Let me know in the comments below which TV shows you’re strangely addicted to, and whether they’ve inspired a story.
Happy writing and watching,
It’s the start of a new year, a time to review the year gone by and to dream about the year ahead. Perhaps you’ve been thinking about writing a book for a while, and are wondering if this year it’s time to make it a reality.
To help you decide, here are 7 ways that writing a book can help your business:
1. Stand out from the crowd
Writing a book gives you instant kudos and authority, and shows you to be an expert in your field. Being able to add ‘author of …’ to your profile or CV differentiates you from other candidates pitching for work or tendering for projects. Imagine meeting a potential new client and being able to hand them a copy of your book along with your business card.
2. Part of your marketing tool kit
Your book not only demonstrates your expertise in a subject, it showcases your attitude and personality. There might be 1000s of people working in the same field as you, but no one will have the same approach, way of explaining things, or sense of humour. Your book speaks to your audience with your voice, helping potential clients to know, like and trust you. If they get what you’re saying and like the way you say it, they’ll check out your website, and maybe book a preliminary phone conversation with you to explore how you can work together. Best of all, your book does all this marketing for you, all over the world, 24 hours a day.
3. Reach more people than you can working 1-1
There are only so many hours in a week, and if you normally work face to face, that means there are a limited number of people whom you can help personally. Writing a book means you can help thousands more people than you can working 1-1, and those people can be anywhere in the world.
4. Help people who can’t afford your fees
However reasonable your fee structure, there will always be someone who wants to work with you but can’t afford your fees. Most of us offer some free places, but again the number of people we can help without getting paid is limited. Being able to direct people to your book, where they can get advice and information along similar lines to your packages, means you can help people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to access your services.
5. Explore a new niche
Every business grows and develops, and sometimes you have an idea for a new service or product but aren’t sure whether there’s a real demand for it. Writing a short e-book is a good way to test the waters. Say you’re a nutritionist, and have been wondering whether there’s any demand for meal plans and dietary advice for young people leaving home for the first time to go to university. Writing a book on the topic can help you judge demand, and feedback on your book can help you to shape your new product or service.
6. Part of your customer care package
Your book doesn’t have to function only as a means to gain new clients and spread the word about your services, it can also be a gift you give to existing clients as part of your customer care package, or simply as a thank you. Your book could reiterate advice and tips you’ve passed on to clients during the course of working with them, so they can refer to them easily in the future.
7. The basis for new products or services
The information you include in your book can be repackaged in new ways – as e-courses, podcasts, workbooks, talks and workshops. Different people learn in different ways: some people love to read, others prefer to watch videos, others like to attend workshops. You don’t have to create the information from scratch each time, just reshape it to suit your different audiences and different means of presenting the information. Finally, the book itself could be a new product for your business, bringing in a passive income stream.
I hope this blog has inspired you to think of all the ways that writing a book can help you to market, boost, develop and expand your business. I’d love to hear how writing a book could help your business. Let me know in the comments below, and tell me the one thing that’s holding you back.
I’ve often mentioned that I record how many words I write each day. This might sound obsessive and nerdy, but when I’m writing a novel, it helps me to work out when it’s likely to be finished, and how well it’s flowing. If I hit a patch when my word totals are low for a few days, it suggests that section of the book is gloopy and needs an exciting subplot, some scenes cutting altogether, or more work on getting to know my characters. Tracking my word scores lets me know quickly when my writing is out of kilter, and that means I can act quickly to correct it.
I also get to see what an average day’s writing looks like for me, so I can set goals and targets based on it. I can tell my agent I’ll have a first draft done by Christmas because I can easily work out what’s achievable based on my normal work rate.
Tracking my words also sets up a nice little bit of competition with myself, and spurs me on to do better. If I can see that I normally write 1200 words in a session, I challenge myself to write 1300 each day. It also encourages me to write every single day as it's difficult to say 'I'll do it tomorrow' if that would mean a gap in an otherwise perfect record. Setting word goals also helps me get momentum going when I start a project, for example in the early days of a new novel when I’m not exactly sure what the story is, and I’m writing my way into it.
Measuring my progress towards a goal helps me to see where other factors are affecting me. If I put a gold star on the calendar for every day I hit my word goal, it's easy to notice if Mondays (or Wednesdays, or Sundays) are the days I miss. Then I can ask what it is about Mondays (or Wednesdays ... you get the idea) that interrupts my writing, and means I can do something about it.
How can you make every word count?
1. Set Clear Goals
Set clear writing goals that are achievable, but which will stretch you a little; something like: I will write 500 words a day, every day, for a month. Or 'I will write and submit two short stories to X and Y competitions before Christmas'. A wishy washy goal like 'I'll try to do a bit of writing' is unsatisfactory because you won't know when you've achieved it. Plus, it's not challenging enough to stretch you.
Write your goal on a post-it note and put it where you will see it every day. Using the Sticky Notes feature on your laptop - which puts a post-it on your Windows desktop screen - is a good, quick way to do this. You can also add sticky notes with quotations to encourage you.
2. Keep it SimpleUse a simple system to record your progress. If your goal is to send out two stories a month, then you could use an excel spreadsheet or index cards to record which story was sent where, when. This will also help you keep track of submissions and resubmissions so you don't accidentally send the same story out simultaneously.
If your goal is to write 500 words a day, you could enter your daily total in your diary or in a spreadsheet. A gold star on the calendar, marking every day you write your journal, for example, is a visible reminder of what you're aiming to achieve and can encourage you even when you're feeling flat.
3. Review your Progress and adjust accordingly
If your target was 500 words a day, and you routinely achieve that, increase your target to 600 words a day. This will stretch you, but it's not as daunting as upping the target to 1000 words a day. Get to the 1000 words a day target incrementally, by making sure you hit 500 words a day, then 600, before increasing it to 700, 800, and so on until you reach your target.
If you often miss your targets, revise them. Perhaps you've set a target to write on 6 days a week but you normally only manage to write 3 times a week - reset your target to writing 3 times a week. It's better to build up your writing stamina slowly and feel pleased with your progress than to beat yourself up each week for missing your target. Review your progress after a month, and increase your target if it's realistic and achievable for you to do so.
4. Celebrate Milestones
Plan what you will do to celebrate when you hit your target and write it on your post-it notes to encourage you. Good celebrations for writers include: listening to music, reading a favourite short story, visiting an art gallery, putting flowers on your desk, or buying a new notebook.
If you’ve read Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way, you’ll be familiar with the idea of Morning Pages. Briefly, she recommends that all artists start the day by writing three full pages of a journal. The writing must be done without stopping to think, without criticising what you’re writing, and if you can’t think what to write, you write ‘I can’t think what to write’ over and over again until your brain jumps the tracks and finds something to say. Many people swear by Morning Pages, particularly if they’re having a tough time, as the writing enables you to let go and release everything that’s worrying you. It clears the pipes ready for the day ahead. Some writers report that they spend months writing drivel about the minutiae of their day until one glorious morning a character steps onto the page and enchants them.
I’ve tried morning pages on various occasions, and tend to return to them if I’m feeling unsettled or uncertain. When I write them, they’re more moaning pages than morning pages. For me, they don’t result in characters tripping blithely onto the page, but they help me to understand and release the stuff that’s holding me back or keeping me stuck. When I have a bee in my bonnet about something, I use the moaning pages to whinge on about it, digging into layer after layer of gripes, hurts, and frustrations until I’m so sick of writing about it I say, “Enough!” and let go. For me, moaning/ morning pages are a way to work out what I want to do, how I want things to be, and how to get there.
Morning pages are great discipline – you must fill three pages a day, every day. The routine preps your brain that it’s writing time and creates a writing routine. It’s not meant to result in publishable prose, though you may come up with an idea that you later rework. In fact, Cameron recommends that you don’t look back at what you’ve written for several months. When you do, you may be surprised. The pages offer a window into your subconscious – they show you your obsessions, your dreams, and what’s holding you back.
When I want to find a new character or a new story, I don’t use morning pages, I use free writing. The techniques are similar – you write for a set period of time, or decide to cover a certain number of pages, you write without stopping, and if you get stuck you repeat the last few words over and over until something new comes to mind. I use free writing most days as a warm up. They’re the equivalent of practising scales or jogging round a running track – giving my creativity a bit of a work out. When I look back over my writing, I see themes appearing, images and ideas that attract and intrigue me. Ideas that I then go on to explore in fiction.
Do you use morning pages, and if so, are they for creativity or for getting the gripes out of your system, or both? I’d love to know what works for you. Tell me about it in the comments below.
Does this ever happen to you? You have a great idea for a story, and spend some time mulling it over, getting excited, maybe jotting down some notes or a structure. Just as you’re ready to start writing, a little voice in your head says, “Who do you think you are to write this?” And suddenly you’re all flat and worried, and can think of a hundred people who would do justice to the story better than you.
Hot on the heels of the little voice comes another. “What will people say if you write this? You’ll make a mess of it. You’ll look an idiot in front of the whole world.” The little voice is something of a catastrophist. Suddenly all your enthusiasm for your idea has gone. Even if you were only thinking about writing the story for your own amusement, now all you can think about is other people wondering who the heck you think you are to even contemplate writing this story. You’re an imposter.
Imposter syndrome is extremely common: that feeling that you’re not qualified enough, skilled enough, experienced enough to do something, and that horrible fear that you’re going to get found out. It’s that squirmy sensation you get when you apply for a job that’s a grade above where you are now: when you get the job, you’ll be well and truly out of your comfort zone. The same thing happens when you write, and the bad news is it never goes away. I recently interviewed a number of high profile, prize-winning, best-selling writers and all of them initially told me they weren’t experienced or good enough to contribute. No matter where you are in your writing career, imposter syndrome will be lurking.
The good news is you can do something about it.
1. Recognise that it happens when you’re about to leave your comfort zone. Yes, this is scary, but it’s necessary if you’re to develop your skills and grow as a writer. Concentrate on why you’re doing this, and know that the feeling of discomfort will be worth it when you achieve your goal.
2. Write a list of all your achievements, not just to do with writing, but everything you’ve achieved in your life. How many times have you felt uncertain, unprepared, not good enough? Remember the uncertainty of starting university, your first job, having your first child. You got through it then, and you’ll get through it now.
3. Remember that this is your story and your idea, not anyone else’s and therefore it’s yours to write. If you were to hand it to another writer, they wouldn’t produce your story only better, they’d produce their story roughly based on your idea.
4. Write out the worst than can happen and go totally overboard: people hate your story, you’re hounded out of your home and forced to live on Mars to escape from their fury, then you contract a terrible Martian illness that makes you turn purple. Make this so outlandish you start to laugh. This helps you to realise that if (note IF), someone doesn’t like what you’ve written, you’ll survive.
Your mind likes certainty. It likes to know that it can deal with situations, and stretching yourself means stepping into the unknown. The mind doesn’t know if you can deal with that new situation, so it tries to dissuade you from what it perceives as a potentially dangerous situation by triggering imposter syndrome. It’s trying to be helpful, but it also keeps you small. Recognise that the appearance of imposter syndrome means that you’re about to take your writing to another level, and welcome it. It’s showing you that you’re on the right track. Then take that step.
A year ago, my writing buddy died. He was my cat, Wimsey. I’d had him for over 14 years. This post isn’t going to be filled with sentimental reminiscences or cute cat stories, though there will be a few of those; more, it’s going to consider what happens to your writing when you experience trauma, loss or serious illness.
But to start, how can a cat be a writing buddy? Like this. If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you’ll know that I write first drafts in the same way that I’ve written since I was a child: sitting up on my bed, writing longhand in a notebook. Wimsey would curl up beside me on the bed, sometimes batting at my pen as it moved, occasionally knocking a hardboiled sweet around the skirting boards for my entertainment. As I often tell my coaching clients, it helps to think of writing as playing, and having the cat charge about after a boiled sweet certainly stopped me taking myself too seriously. Later, when he was an old, old cat, he’d press himself full length against me, his hot paws on my leg, his head positioned so I could feel his breath on the back of my hand and within easy stroking range.
When I transferred my handwritten draft to the computer, he lay on the floor under the desk with his paws on my foot, or positioned himself on the chaise longue in my study, occasionally emitting gurgling noises to remind me he was there. And as for printing out material ready to send off? I often had to reprint the title page because there was a paw print on it. Quality control, cat style.
Writing is an up and down business, and us writers have a tendency to gloominess, so having someone who’s always thrilled to see you is essential. My husband loves me, but he doesn’t fling himself on the ground and writhe around in pleasure that I’m home (maybe I should speak to him about that?). When everyone hated my story, the cat didn’t care. Equally he wasn’t that fussed when everyone was raving about my latest novel. He helped to smooth it all out.
When he died, I was recovering from whooping cough. It was a serious infection and I was physically very weak and rather depressed. I’d just started writing a new novel - ironically about grief and loss - and Wimsey as usual had been there, assisting with the writing and it was flowing nicely. I keep a spreadsheet with my daily word counts on it, and at the point he died, there’s a month’s break in the writing when I didn’t write a single word. How could I? I didn’t know how to write without him there. It felt wrong. And, frankly, I was so grief-stricken that I couldn’t care less about the wretched novel.
When I coach other writers, I emphasise the importance of routine: writing in the same place, at the same time, with the same writing rituals. It prepares your mind for writing. Now my usual rituals and routine were broken, and I didn’t know what to do. How could I create a new writing routine that would get me through to the end of this new book?
I admit, for a while I considered just jacking it in, but then I realised that this was just another writing challenge in a long line of challenges that I’d overcome over the years, and that were waiting for me in the years to come. Life is littered with setbacks, griefs and disappointments, the trick is to learn how to come bouncing back after them. After a month of not writing, it was time to find my way back. This is what I did.
I had elements of my routine that hadn’t changed: writing longhand, on my bed, with a coffee, and with the TV chuntering in the background. Keeping those bits took me half-way to my usual writing conditions. The problem was he’d left a big hole in my life and my mind kept on saying, ‘This feels weird without him’. I needed to quiet my thoughts so I could write. I did this by taking a few minutes at the start of each writing session to simply focus on my breathing. Just breathing, I could do that. After a few minutes, my mind had stilled, and I set a goal for the writing session ahead – to write the dialogue in a scene, to write a description of a character, to feel excited about what I was writing, to discover a new aspect of a character. Then I wrote.
What I wrote wasn’t as important as the fact that I was writing; I knew I could sort it out afterwards. But setting down words, when I didn’t really want to, when it felt wrong – that was the key thing. I kept a note of my word counts, and the first day I managed 300 words. The next day I did 250. Two days later I wrote over 2200 words in a sitting and it took me just over an hour. After that I kept at a steady 1200-1500 words each sitting, written in around an hour.
Yes, it was painful, and it was also fascinating. Grief has a strange energy to it. It’s strong and furious and overwhelming, and it’s not constant. It came in waves that I could feel building. I watched as it crashed over me and bashed me about, then watched it recede. I couldn’t write about it, though. My grief-stricken characters had to wait for the editing process to have their emotions properly attended to.
Is it still difficult to write without my writing buddy? Yes, but then it’s still odd to do my Pilates exercises each morning without him licking my eyebrows, and it’s weird doing the gardening without him filling in the holes the moment I’ve dug them. Life is constantly changing. Us writers, us stuck-in-the-mud, wedded-to-routine scribblers, aren’t immune to it, and the ability to be flexible, to find a new way, is ultimately our strength. Over a lifetime of writing, we’ll all come up against obstacles – ill health, looking after family, changes to jobs and homes, changing what and how we want to write. Raging against it all won’t help; we need to find gentler, more nurturing ways to get back to writing. Sometimes that means tweaking what we already have; sometimes it means being brave enough to create a whole new approach to our writing.
And now over to you. Have you overcome challenges to keep on writing? Tell me what you did and what worked best for you in the comments below.
Book launches – are they all literary conversation and erudite jokes, or a booze-up with books? Based on my own experiences of launching Paternoster and Holy Blood, here’s a tongue in cheek account of what really happens behind the scenes.
1. It’s like a wedding
Like a wedding, you spend the whole event saying, ‘Hello, how are you? Thank you for coming’ to people, before having to dash off to have your photo taken, greet new arrivals, shake hands with the man from the newspaper, and sign books. After the event, you spend a week emailing everyone who came, thanking them for coming, and apologising that you didn’t get to speak to them for very long. Also like a wedding, you spend the whole time being hugged and congratulated by people you’ve never met before and have no idea who they are.
2. Your biggest fan will wax lyrical about your work, but only when your publisher is out of earshot
I love it when people tell me they’ve read my work, and love it even more if they tell me they liked what they read! It’s always a real thrill to have people come up to me at events and say lovely things like, ‘I’ve been waiting for your new book for ages. I’ve been looking forward to this.’ It’s incredibly kind of people and I’m always immensely touched. I just wish they’d say it – loudly – in front of my publishers instead of whispering it to me in the corner.
3. It’s not about you
Have you ever been at a wedding and someone stands up during the reception to announce that they’re pregnant? They hijack the bride and groom’s day and make it all about them. Book launches can have a similar effect on people. It goes like this. I pick up a message from a total stranger, which says, ‘I saw the poster about your book launch and it’s such a funny coincidence because I’ve always thought I could be a writer, too.’ Any other week of the year, I’d write back with encouragement and advice; try to swing off my book launch and make it about you? Nah.
4. It’s all about the catering
When I launched Paternoster, I made the mistake of writing on the invitation ‘Wine and nibbles will be served’. To me, this means ‘A range of beverages and small snacks will be available’ so I was surprised by the deluge of indignant enquiries I received:
‘I can’t drink wine – I’m driving/ breast-feeding/ tee-total – what will I do? By the way, I can’t drink orange juice because my dentist says I’ve got enamel erosion and I can’t have sparkling water because of my IBS and I can’t have anything with sugar in it …’
And then it was ‘What do you mean by ‘nibbles’? Don’t forget I’m gluten free/ dairy intolerant/ only eat organic from named and certified happy vegetables.’
Answering these outraged queries took an inordinate amount of time, so when I launched Holy Blood, I simply put ‘Refreshments will be provided’. This also meant the person who came along, drank five glasses of red wine in quick succession and then left, was discouraged from attending.
5. You will forget your friend’s name
Signing books is a complicated business. First, you have to remember to sign with your special ‘author signing books’ signature and not the one you use on your cheques; and you have to come up with some sort of pithy phrase to make you look open, approachable, witty and intelligent (haven’t found it yet – open to suggestions); and you have to make sure that the ink is dry before you close the book so it doesn’t imprint itself on the opposite page. So it’s hardly surprising, your honour, that after thirty minutes of this I’ve completely forgotten my friend’s name. I look at her, I think ‘I know you. I know I know you, but what the hell are you called?’ So I sign the book with a generic ‘All best wishes’ and pray she won’t ask me to personalise it.
6. You look peculiar in every photo
When I was a teenager, a boy told me I had a dead-pan face. This was very hurtful and I told my mum, who said he was right, I did have a dead-pan face. But looking at the photos from every single talk, workshop or launch I’ve ever given, I think I’ve overcompensated. In every photo, I’m gesticulating wildly and pulling a range of bizarre faces so I look like an understudy for Rowan Atkinson. The only ones where I don’t look demented are, naturally, blurred.
But despite all this, when it’s all over and we’re on the way to the bottle bank with the empties, I think, ‘That was great. Can’t wait for the next one.'
When we think of writer's block, we tend to think of the obvious manifestations of it: all out of ideas; not knowing what to write; feeling the muse has deserted us. It can also present itself as procrastination - anything is more interesting and compelling than writing the next scene, even doing the ironing or putting our socks into alphabetical order. And these other tasks can seem urgent - they must be done now and we can't concentrate on writing until they're complete.
Then there's perfectionism: wanting to write something perfectly first time round, and unable even to start writing as we're convinced that:
1. It won't be perfect first time round (correct - it never is, and actually shouldn't be perfect. The first draft is all about discovering the story you want to tell) and
2. Rewriting and making it perfect is a sign of failure (incorrect - writing is 90% rewriting).
And then there are the blocks that don't look like blocks. Writer's block in disguise. These can be tricky ones to spot, because they seem to have nothing to do with writing at all, but their function is the same - to stop you writing. And, like all writer's block, the reason they need to stop you writing us because deep down you're afraid. Of failure, of success, of writing something that's rubbish or shocking or that reveals who you truly are at heart.
Let's have a look at some of the ways writer's block comes in disguise, and what you can do to address it.
We all live busy lives, and tiredness seems to be a feature of modern life. When tiredness is writer's block in disguise, it shows up at times you've set aside for writing. Up till that point you're bright eyed and bushy tailed, then the moment you think about writing, you slump. This can be the case particularly if you're trying to establish a writing routine. You've decided you want to write for half an hour each day, and have marked out clear spaces in your day to accomplish this, but whenever it's time to write, you feel worn out.
The reason you suddenly feel tired at these times is because humans are naturally wary of change. Setting up a new writing routine, like establishing any new habit, is a change, and subconsciously you rebel. Sometimes the rebellion takes the form of tiredness. Your mind regards change as unwelcome, so sets about finding a way to prevent it.
To overcome this block in disguise, try this technique. Use tiredness to overcome perfectionism. Accept that you feel tired, and decide that you'll write anyway, but because you feel tired, any words at all class as a victory. This means that you're free to write absolute rubbish and that's OK - you're doing the best you can despite feeling tired. It's very likely that once you start writing, your energy levels will rise and the writing will get easier.
2. Being a little bit poorly
I'm not talking about having the flu or a stomach bug here, but that niggly not-very-well feeling when you think you might be about to get a headache, or might be about to come down with a cold, or are just not feeling 100%. Like tiredness, this is also resistance to change. Perfectionism can rear its unhelpful head, too, as being a little bit poorly makes it unlikely that you'll turn out a perfect first draft.
Overcome this by firstly checking that you're really only a 'little bit poorly'. Are you still able to go to work, look after the kids, go for a walk or read a book? If so, this might well be writer's block in disguise. Like tiredness, you might find that once you start writing you experience a miraculous recovery. Actually, writing can help you to feel better if you're ill. I write when I can feel a migraine brewing - it often helps.
But how to start writing when you're feeling poorly? The trick to use is 'just ten words'. Commit to writing just 10 words. They have to form a coherent sentence, you can't just write 'blah blah' ten times. If you haven't spontaneously combusted after 10 words, commit to writing 10 more. Keep going in this way for 5 minutes. If you've hated every single second of those 5 minutes, stop writing. If you're feeling a little more settled, write in the same way, 10 words at a time, for another 5 minutes.
3. Other people
This is a sneaky disguise because it appears that the block is completely outside your control. It manifests in this way: you've set aside some precious time to dedicate to your writing, but then a friend rings you up, having a minor crisis such as needing someone to pick up her kids while she waits in for the boiler repair man, or she's had a bad day at work and can you come over for a chat?
You've got a choice here: to yourself and your writing, or to your friend. Depending on the crisis, you might decide your friend needs you and ditch your writing to go and help her. Sometimes this is unavoidable. In these cases, reschedule your writing date immediately.
But sometimes the 'crisis' isn't urgent. It doesn't have to be dealt with right now, and if you were ill or on holiday your friend would cope. You have the option to say, 'Sorry, I'm not free right now' and get on with the writing session you had planned. The question is, are you a bit relieved by your friend's cry for help, because it gives you a valid excuse for missing your writing session? If so, this is a block in disguise. It's a block, because it's stopping you from writing.
Overcome this by learning to say no. It's a lot easier to say no if you've made an appointment with yourself in your diary and have committed to it. If you find it hard to say no, ask yourself if the appointment was a hot date, would you be so willing to forgo it?
When you've said no, approach your writing session by using the 'just 10 words' technique, as there's a good chance you'll be squirming with guilt for daring to put yourself and your needs first, and that can make concentration difficult.
Writer's block can be sneaky and manifest in ways that seem to bear no relation to your writing. How does your writer's block come in disguise? Tell me about it in the comments below.
Wishing you happy and block-free writing!
Publication day always catches me out. I see my book advertised for sale, saying it’s available for pre-order, and the date when it’s expected to be published; and I get the emails from my publisher with a rough date when they expect the book to be out, but still I’m never prepared. It’s like getting married: you know the date but it always seems to be weeks away, until you wake up on the morning of the wedding and wonder which shoes you’re going to wear.
This time, I was expecting my latest novel Holy Blood to come out at the beginning of April, and had a schedule prepared for blogs and announcements and invitations to the launch. The publication date is always a little hazy to allow for hold ups with the printer and distributor, so when the doorbell went on Friday afternoon, I genuinely thought it must be someone collecting for charity or wanting to read the meter. I didn’t expect a large and hefty box of books to be thrust into my arms. But it was, and there they were, the copies of Holy Blood I’d ordered months ago when it was accepted for publication.
At least this time I got my copies of my book before my mother. When Paternoster was published, I knew it was coming out in June, and for some reason I thought that meant the end of June, so I went away on holiday. I was staying in a seaside cottage, weirdly called ‘Eden Cottage’ (the name of my protagonist) and along from it was an ‘Aidan Cottage’ (the name of the other major character in the books). Just to add to the weirdness, there was a little ornament hanging up in the cottage with ‘Paternoster’ written across it. The signs were all there. The cottage was only a couple of hours from my mother’s house, so I went to see her for the day. She lives 300 miles away from me, and I don’t get to see her that often. A mere two hours to get to see her was nothing.
I was at my mother’s house when a parcel came for her, and in it were six copies of Paternoster that she’d pre-ordered. She got her copies before I even knew it was published. When I got home at the end of my holiday, my author copies still hadn’t arrived. I had to wait another few days. But Mum got hers, and mightily pleased she was to get hers before me, too.
Anyway, this time it was just me and the cat to open the box and take out the books as carefully as if they were new born lambs, and line them up on the table and admire them.
This is my fourth published book, and I still feel the same sense of disbelief as I did when I held the first one, Sacred Site. It’s a mixture of wonder that the book is finally, actually done and finished and a proper book, the text neatly aligned and the cover all shiny and thrilling. And I can’t quite believe that I’m the one who wrote it. Every time I flick through the pages a bit of text catches my eye and I think ‘Did I write that?’ Sometimes I’ve forgotten how I wrote and crossed out and rewrote and got fed up and walked away and came back and tried again. I forget the bits that made me laugh when I wrote them the first time, and still make me laugh when I read them now. Again there’s that sense of amazement for forgetting them. They seem like someone else’s words, not mine. I don’t know whether that’s because it’s a long time from finishing a book to seeing it published (almost a year for Holy Blood) and I’m so deeply into writing a new book that I’ve dismissed the old one from my mind, or whether the writing was simply channelling, after all. Sometimes it jolly well feels like it.
I think that the thing that makes it all wonderful though, is it that when it's a ‘proper’ book it distances itself from me: the book is an entity all on its own. The umbilical cord that tied it to me has been cut: it’s time for it to make its own way in the world. It’s a strange and amazing feeling, and one I never get used to.
Kim Fleet lives and works in Cheltenham. Her two cats help the creative process by standing on the delete key.