The weather forecast is talking about the warmest Easter on record, the news is full of people sunning themselves on British beaches, and the smell of charred meat hangs in the air as barbecues are dusted off and lit for the first time in months. And me? I’m playing Christmas jingles and thinking about tinsel, icy pavements and turkey leftovers. Yes, I’m writing a seasonal story.
The time-lag involved in publishing means that a story with a seasonal flavour has to be submitted six months before. My story has a May deadline, hence my writing about Christmas whilst nibbling on an Easter egg.
The story is for a collection of Christmas stories featuring fictional detectives, and I’m writing a story featuring my PI sleuth, Eden Grey. The story must be set at Christmas and have a Christmas theme. For a long time I simply dragged my mind back to Christmas and compiled a list of things that are typically Christmassy: office parties, buying presents, houses smothered with lights, food, drink, family. Eventually I came up with a theme I could work into a detective story, and that allowed Eden to do all the things she’s good at: surveillance, breaking and entering, and getting into a fight.
Once I’d got the plot, I needed to feel more Christmassy, in the hopes that those sensations would translate onto the page. Here’s how I did it:
1. Playing Christmas music
The neighbours thought I was bonkers, but playing Christmas tunes helped me to think about Christmas and to remember how that time of year feels. Sound, like smell, is wired into memory. Certain songs evoke specific places, people, and events. Even decades later, a certain song will remind me of a school trip to Norway. Writing to a background of ‘Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer’ helped me get into the Christmassy swing.
2. Remembrance of Christmas past
Confession time. I don’t like Christmas much. For me it means other people’s stress, overspending, overeating and general tetchiness. Call me Scrooge if you like, but my Christmas is quiet and simple, and that’s how I like it. The good thing about Christmas for storytellers is it’s usually a time of great tension, and as we all know, stories are powered by tension. At Christmas, everyone is expected to have a wonderful time. If you’re ill, lonely or generally fed-up, that feeling of alienation from everyone else intensifies.
3. What’s the weather like?
Although we often think of a white Christmas, it rarely happens in the UK. Christmas is usually dank, misty, dark and rainy. It’s difficult to remember exactly what the weather is like in certain seasons, so I turned to my journal to remember. Notes about gardening in the rain, slipping on frosty pavements, or unexpected warmth reminded me that winter isn’t cold and rainy every single day. These details gave my prose authenticity.
4. Eat, drink, and be Christmassy
Mince pies have long ago disappeared from the supermarket shelves, but there are Brussels sprouts, turkey, and fruit cake. Plus hot chocolate, hot toddies, and Baileys. Certain seasons have distinctive tastes particular to them, and by experiencing that taste I evoked the season associated with it. While everyone else was sipping Pimms and eating barbecue chicken, I was drinking hot chocolate and eating pigs in blankets.
Writing a seasonal story means being out of synch with everyone else. You have to create a bubble in which it's Christmas, and block out everything Easter around you. The benefit of writing this way is that when winter rolls around, and everyone huddles inside counting down the days to summer, I’m already there, writing six months in the future, glorying in the long June days and toasting myself in the sun.
I've been writing for a long time now, and inevitably have made many mistakes along the way. I don't mean stuff like using too many adverbs, or characters changing eye colour half-way through a story, (though I've made plenty of those mistakes, too), I mean mistakes in how I approached my writing and built on success.
So here are the things I've done that I wish I hadn't:
1. Writing a whole novel longhand
I'm an old fashioned type of writer in that I find my thinking flows better when I write longhand. All my notes are written longhand, and every short story starts life as a first draft in handwriting (sometimes fountain pen, sometimes pencil, sometimes purple felt tip, depending on my mood). And every novel is planned out longhand, then I write straight onto my laptop with my notes beside me.
It's a system that works for me, so what was I thinking when I decided to write a complete novel in longhand? Sheer madness. I have huge lined notebooks filled with writing, 100,000 words in total, some of which is illegible because when I write I write; the words fall over each other and come out as a scrawl.
I tried to type out this novel and gave up. It was too dispiriting. I also tried to dictate it using voice recognition software, but I didn't have the patience to train the software and it wasn't expecting the er...gritty nature of my writing. And so the book languishes in an unfinished, unloved, and incomprehensible state.
2. Not following up on success
When I was new to sending work out for publication, I was very bad at following up on success. I'd send a story to a magazine, get an acceptance, and then wait several months before I sent another one. I felt as though I didn't want to bother them again too soon.
I know now that what I should have done is immediately write another story and send it in, reminding the editor they'd just accepted a piece from me. In waiting, I let the relationship go cold, so each time I sent in a story, I was starting from scratch. Having a relationship with an editor doesn't mean that they'll accept everything you send, but it often means they give you some feedback if they reject a story, or let you know what kind of material they're short of. Invaluable industry insider information, in other words.
3. Giving up too soon
I recently counted up how many full-length novels I've written in total. It came to 15. Four have been published, and another is with a publisher, but that still leaves 10 full length novels (including the monster in long-hand) that are hanging around doing nothing. Some of them are definitely apprentice pieces - novels I wrote to learn how to write novels - and should never see the light of day because they're not meant to. You don't show the world the scribbles you do when you're learning to draw.
But some of them are not apprentice pieces and have been sent to agents, publishers or competitions at some point. Where I went wrong was I didn't send them out enough. One novel got great feedback from agents and publishers, though was never published: what I should have done was take heart from this and keep on sending it out until it had been to every single potential publisher or agent. Apparently the book 'The Zen Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' went to 99 agents and publishers, and only went to the final one, which published it, because the author wanted to make it a round 100.
Sometimes writing really is a numbers game.
4. Telling other people what I was writing
I put my head in my hands when I think of the times I've shared my precious, fragile ideas with someone who then reacted in a sarcastic/ non-committal/ hurtful way and the blasted idea popped and was gone. These people don't have to be your worst enemies, either, they're often the very people who you think would support, encourage and nurture your writing ambitions.
Ideas are fresh and full of energy when they're in your head. They're also pretty good once they're on paper and you've rewritten them a few times. But when they come out of your mouth for an audience that doesn't understand, and frankly, has their own issues with your writing, then they fall stone dead.
If people ask me about my writing now, I do a little mysterious smile and say, 'It's fine, thanks', then change the subject. They can read it when it's ready (i.e. published).
5. Not resubmitting
Similarly to the first point, when I started submitting writing I tended to think if a story or article wasn't taken up by the first magazine I sent it to, then it was rubbish so I abandoned it and wrote something new. When I started entering writing competitions, I found to my astonishment that a story that has gone absolutely nowhere in several small competitions is perfectly capable of winning a big competition, and that if a story is rejected several times it doesn't mean it won't find a place somewhere, some time.
I make out an index card for each story I write, including the title, word count, and where I've sent it. This helps me to keep track of where I've sent it. I often also pencil in a number of alternative places to submit it if it gets rejected. This isn't looking on the black side and expecting it to be rejected, but a way of saying to myself that there are plenty of opportunities for each story, and a knock-back doesn't mean the end.
Over to you - what's the most important thing you've learned about your writing? Let me know in the comments below.
How is your relationship with your writing? Is it loving, warm, and based on respect? Or is it turbulent, suspicious, and leaving you unsatisfied? Here’s a quiz to help you find out:
1. It’s your writing time. What do you do?
A. Whatever I feel like that day – a poem, a song, a story. Or I might do some sketching instead. Or go for a walk. Or plant some seeds.
B. I stare at the novel I wrote 3 years ago and wonder if I’d be better off focussing on a short story instead.
C. I quickly read through what I did last time, check my notes, and get cracking on my current writing project.
2. How often do you send work out?
A. Depends. I might dash off a poem and send it to a competition, or I might write a letter to the editor, a recipe, a filler, a tip and send that off, if the mood takes me.
B. Sometimes. I tend to submit several stories in a month, then go 6 months without writing or submitting anything.
C. I have a regular schedule for writing and submitting work, and have a target goal of 10 pieces of work out for consideration at any time.
3. What’s your writing ritual?
A. I don’t have one. If I have an idea I might scribble it down and work it up then send it out. Or I might not.
B. I make sure the house is spotless and that there are no dishes in the sink. I clean my desk, answer emails, and check Twitter until I feel inspired before I start writing.
C. I make a cup of coffee and light a scented candle and then start writing.
4. Where do you go for an artist’s date?
B. Coffee shop
C. Local museum
5. How often do you think about giving up writing?
A. Never – I’m not that bothered about it.
B. Frequently – is it supposed to be this hard?
C. Sometimes – but then, who doesn’t?
Now tot up how many As, Bs and Cs you have.
Mostly As – FLIRTY
Writing – you can take it or leave it. You flit from one thing to another, trying all different genres and types of writing, but not committing to any one in particular. You write if the mood takes you, and if not, you’re happy to paint, swim, dance, or do whatever takes your fancy in that moment. Deep down you secretly yearn to see your name in print, one day.
TIP: If you want to see your work published, pick the style you enjoy the most, read widely within it, and devote time to polishing your best piece before sending it out.
Mostly Bs – STORMY
Writing – you love it and you hate it. It’s wonderful when the words are flowing, but that seems so rare. Usually you’re staring in despair at what you’ve written wondering how the idea that was so magical in your head can be so flat on the page. Secretly you wonder if it’s this hard, are you meant to be a writer at all?
TIP: Build a more stable relationships with your writing by setting aside 10 minutes every day just to play with words and see where it takes you. The more regularly you can do this, the less you’ll despair at writing a rubbish first draft.
Mostly Cs – MONOGAMOUS
You have a solid relationship with your writing, including regular dates and a plan for where you’re heading. You have the occasional blip but quickly get yourself back on track. You’re dedicated to a single genre, and work conscientiously on a single project until it’s completed before starting another.
TIP: If you’re feeling stifled or bored from time to time, experiment with other forms and genres, just for variety. Your writing will benefit from the change and will recharge your enthusiasm.
What’s your writing relationship style? Let me know in the comments below.
Writing always evolves as it progresses: characters change eye and hair colour; names change; subplots develop; you decide the whole thing belongs in a different time period or setting. It’s tempting when you realise something needs to change to go back and correct it from the beginning of your manuscript: that way you can progress knowing that all is in order. However, there are a few problems with this approach:
1. It takes longer to nail down a first draft
A first draft has lots of energy as it’s the draft where you’re discovering the story as you write, and that gives it momentum. If you go back to correct whilst writing the first draft, it’s easy to lose that sense of excitement and the energy in your writing will fade.
2. You get fed up
If you constantly go back and edit things whilst writing the first draft, you can easily start to feel bored. This is because you’re going over the same material time and time again. If you feel bored, it’s very hard to crank out that first draft – writing becomes a chore, not a pleasure.
3. You’ll probably change your mind again
When you write a long piece, such as a novel, there are hundreds of strands you need to keep track of and ultimately tie together into a satisfying story. Change one bit, and you have to change other bits. Then if you decide actually your first idea was better, you have to go back and change it all back again. This all takes time, it’s tedious, and you’re more likely to lose patience with the whole thing and give up.
Here’s a technique that I use in my own writing which ensures I get the first draft written quickly, I keep track of all the changes I need to make, and without spending precious time going back and editing. I use a technique called writing ‘as if’. It works like this. Imagine I’m writing a novel about someone called Dora who lives in 1900. Part way through writing, I think it would be more fun if she was called Edna and lived in 1920. Obviously, I can do a ‘find and replace’ for the name change, but there are huge implications for the story in changing the time setting. Instead of going back and making all the necessary changes, I simply type in capital letters across the page:
FROM THIS POINT ON DORA = EDNA
FROM THIS POINT ON SET IN 1920
To make it stand out all the more, I often make the font larger, and colour the text in red. I then carry on writing AS IF I have gone back and made the changes. In other words, I write the rest of the piece with the character called Edna, and set in 1920, with all the implications associated with that change. I also make a note in a notebook I keep for editing purposes, describing the changes I’ve made and jotting down what I’ll need to attend to when I come to rewrite.
It means that I can keep on writing without having to stop, go back, and make changes, and it means I know where to focus when it comes to the rewrite: tackling all those notes made in my editing notebook. If I then change my mind again later on, I simply write:
FROM THIS POINT ON SET IN FRANCE
make a note in my notebook, and keep on writing, as if I’ve gone back and made the changes.
I’ve found this technique helps me to keep writing without feeling bogged down, and without worrying that I’ll miss something. By jotting all the changes down, I keep my mind clear for writing, instead of trying to hold all the changes in my head. It makes both the first draft and subsequent rewrites much smoother and faster.
Try it, and let me know how you get on!
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,
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.
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.
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.
It’s that time of year when the magazine and newspaper supplements are full of things you should do/ should stop doing in order to have ‘your best year yet’. Top of the list is always some sort of detoxing – foods to avoid, foods to eat in abundance, and good health habits to cultivate.
But what about your writing? The start of the year is a good time to review your writing practice, and identify what’s working for you and what could do with tweaking. So how do you detox your writing? Let’s look at how you write, and what you write.
Detox the Way You Write
Take a few deep breaths to clear your mind, and then go to the place where you do the majority of your writing, whether it’s your study, the sofa, or a cubbyhole under the stairs. If you normally write in a coffee shop or library, then imagine the place.
What’s your immediate reaction? If it’s anything other than ‘Oh goody, let’s get writing’, your writing space could do with a detox. How cluttered is it? How sparse? How warm and inviting? Over the past few years, we’ve heard a lot about decluttering – stripping back everything that you don’t absolutely love and have to have in your life, and now the trend has flipped the other way and I’ve noticed a trend towards re-cluttering. But before you rush out to restock on junk, remember that what is sparse to one person is untidy to another. What’s important is what you need to feel comfortable and creative.
Can you easily put your hand on the right notebook, outline or character sketch? If not, rearrange things, discarding and refiling as necessary until everything you need for your writing is close by. This might well be a tidying up exercise, but not necessarily. If you work best with music playing or with a scented candle burning, you might need to move your i-pod dock and candles into your writing space.
My own desk has a scented oil burner, an array of notebooks in bright colours, a mug full of pens, a box of index cards, a light, a radio and a salt lamp on it. Not so bare I feel inhibited, and not so cluttered (for me) that I can’t find what I need. But that’s me – you will have different requirements for your writing, so gather what you need and set up your space so it works for you. If you normally write in a coffee shop and it’s not quite as inspiring as you’d like, shop around trying different places at different times of the day until you find one with the right level of busyness/ peace for you.
Detox What You Write
We all have bad habits when we write. Metaphors and similes that we’re too fond of; words we don’t quite know the meaning of but use anyway; and words we get muddled up. For example, I’m far too fond of describing shock as ‘her heart turned to stone’. The first time it was probably OK, but now I’ve overused it and need to find a better way to describe what shock feels like. I have a bad habit of using ‘like’ instead of ‘as though’ (‘it was like her heart turned to stone’ vs ‘it was as though her heart turned to stone’) and I’m not all that clear on the difference between might and may. But knowing these weaknesses means I take more care when I use them in my writing, and (hopefully!) get them right.
Look at your own writing and seek out your bad habits. Do you use visible words when writing dialogue? For example, instead of simply using ‘he said’, do you tend to write, ‘he bellowed/ cried/ screamed/ expostulated’?
Not sure about the difference between effect and affect, or between perspicacious or perspicacity? Continual and continuous? Knowing that you have a blind spot when it comes to these words is helpful, because you’ll know to double check every time you use them.
Editors, agents and publishers will point them out, or you can ask a trusted friend to read your work and highlight your writing bad habits.
It can be hard to spot bad habits in your own writing, but here are a few tips:
1. Change the font and font size before re-reading and editing your piece. This shifts the line breaks and makes the writing appear ‘new’ to your eyes, meaning you’re more likely to spot mistakes.
2. Change the size of the viewing pane – if you normally write and edit with the screen at 100%, change it to 150%.
3. Read your piece from the bottom up – this takes away the meaning and flow of the piece and means you can concentrate on the actual words.
With your writing space optimised for happy writing, and an awareness of where you need to adjust what you write, you’ve set yourself up nicely for a year of productive writing.
Happy detoxing and writing!
All the best,
Kim Fleet lives and works in Cheltenham. Her two cats help the creative process by standing on the delete key.