The P.O.W.E.R. Process: One Way To Climb the Novel-Writing Mountain

As writers we spend an inordinate amount of time figuring out the best way to write our novels. Over the years I have probably spent more time on process than I have on actually writing. I’ve learned the hard way what doesn’t work, and have picked up a few gems along the way. I’ve combined what I’ve learned into what I call my P.O.W.E.R. Process for getting a novel written.

Ponder

brainP is for ponder. For the few of us who have an amazing idea pop into our heads all at once that we can flesh out into a seven book, eight film and multi-million dollar franchise this might seem easy, but for the rest of us it can be quite a challenge. This is the time given over to ideas, brainstorming, and giving free rein to our imagination.

The difficulty we face as adults however is that we are taught to question our dreams and put a dampener on our hopes and aspirations. For many of us our inspirations have been quoshed with a healthy dose of realism.

Let’s do an experiment. Take a sheet of paper and fold it into eight. In the top left-hand corner draw a house, then top right do another house. Again in box three and again in each box until you’ve drawn a house in each box.

Don’t read on until you have done this.

I said no cheating!

What do your houses look like? Are they pretty much all the same? Children who are asked to do this exercise will often get really creative with it. They may draw a tree house, a boat house, an igloo or a teepee. The average adult will draw a series of box houses rather like those seen across the newer housing estates in Britain. (Thanks to Chrissie Hall for sharing this with me).

As you sit down to ponder what you would like to write, don’t be afraid think outside the box. At this stage no one else is going to see it anyway so you can be as fantastical as you like! Indulge in this stage, have fun with it; it is as important as all the rest.

Outline

story plottingI used to look at this word and say ugh. I never liked the idea of planning my novel out in great detail before I began to write. I felt it robbed me of my spontaneity and creativity. I now know two things: I can get creative about planning, and if I’ve put this work in I can write with more freedom because I’m not worrying about blind alleys or pot holes along the way.

I’m not going to tell you how to plan. There are a plethora of books, blogs and podcasts that can do that. My only advice to you is to find your own unique way of doing so. Take what you find useful from others and leave the rest behind. Whether you plan in a linear fashion or through a series of mind maps it doesn’t matter so long as it works for you when you refer back to it as you write.

One thing I will share is that it can be multimedia. I’ve found video clips of accents on YouTube that match the tone of a character’s voice, images that reflect their appearance, templates for characters, scenes, plotting etc that I now use regularly. I interview my characters as I find it easier to hear their voice when I do and they sometimes reveal little nuggets I never knew about. Get creative about planning and find a way that works for you.

Write

WriteDun dun dun! If you’ve got this far then you’re in a very strong position. You have a destination, and you have a map. Now you can begin your journey. This is the point where you can get really creative (remember the house exercise?)

The wonderful thing about having a destination and a map is that there’s more than one way to get there. You can include blind alleys, pot holes and cliff hangers because you ultimately know where your character is going. She won’t get lost. You can take your time to enjoy the scenery or you can rush her to that finish line at breakneck speed. You could even have her journey in a yellow submarine if the mood takes you.

If you have given over enough time to ponder and outline then the only thing which will get in your way are your own demons, or what Melissa J Hayes calls her ghosts. If your ghosts are haunting you as you stare at the blank page or screen I highly recommend you watch her TED Talk. She’s on your side and she has a fantastic way to inspire you to exorcise those pesky blighters.

There is no right or wrong way to get the first draft written, no magical daily word count, location, amount of time or brand of coffee that will get those words on the page. You just have to do it. What I will say is that the more you do it, the easier it gets to keep going. Our writing muscle is like any other, it needs exercise to build strength and stamina.

Edit

Elements of StyleI actually love this stage. I love it so much that I want to do it in every other stage preceding it, especially during the writing process. DON’T DO IT! Have an edit box in the same way some families have a swear box. If you catch yourself editing when you shouldn’t be, put a quarter / 50p or some other coin in the box. You’ll soon learn to stop it! You could give the money to charity. I don’t recommend you spend it on yourself. That would make me want to edit more!

Editing by its very nature is methodical and left brain. But I get excited about it because it gives me the chance to learn new words when I’m repeating myself, swot up on grammar books (I have a long way to go in that department), and hopefully polish my script until it, ‘shines like the top of the Chrysler Building,’ (brownie points to whoever knows that quote!).

I do recommend a very useful tool for this stage. If you don’t already have a copy grab yourself “The Elements of Style,” by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. It’s brilliant and makes me wish I paid more attention to dear old Miss Case at school.

Release

palms with a grain of wheatOnly when you have gone through each stage above are you in a position of power to release your work to others. If you do not yet have an agent or publisher this is when a couple of beta readers come in handy to give you honest feedback. I’d normally say don’t pick family as they tend to be biased cheerleaders but my own mum loves grammar is is meticulous about detail so is a fantastic beta reader. I have another friend who is a voracious reader and whose opinion on what makes a good story I value. She is my other beta reader.

After I get my feedback from my beta readers I do more edits. Then I step away from the manuscript and put the pen down. I can do no more. It’s time to sent it out to people I don’t know. Whether you choose to go to traditional or self-publishing route I wish you much success as you release your words to the world. My only advice to you is persevere, don’t give up, start pondering the next book while you release the first. Your stories are important. Stay true to yourself. You can do it. All power to you. Have fun.

Liv

Hidden Figures

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Last night I finally got to see Hidden Figures, the true story of three African-American female mathematicians who played a vital role in the development of America’s early space program. It was brilliant. Here are three reasons why I recommend Hidden Figures to you:

It tells a good story

Any film which successfully weaves the epic and the intimate is a classic in my book. Hidden Figures is just such a film. The backdrop of the early days of NASA juxtaposed against the intimate tale of the female ‘computers’ is enchanting, gripping and provocative. Sure we know the outcomes of the space missions themselves, but this film is character-driven with fantastic performances from a stellar cast. It’s impossible not to root for Katherine (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Octavia Spencer, and Mary Janelle Monáe as they trail-blazed their way into the history books. I’d also like to give a shout out to Kirsten Dunst as Vivian Mitchell. She made me squirm and that can’t have been easy.

It makes a statement

Set in the midst of a segregated America where one lady had to run back and forth to a bathroom on the other side of the campus in all kinds of weather just because of the colour of her skin it reminds us all that it wasn’t that long ago that bigoted prejudices were the dominant way of thinking.

With tensions today rising globally between those that look like us and those who are different it is a poignant and timely reminder that what unites us is far greater than what divides us. The haunting legacy of that era is still with us today bubbling away under the surface and sometimes out in the open. We need to figure out a way to move beyond this concept of ‘other.’ We need to realise that to empower each other to excel and thrive is to empower humanity as a whole, for surely when we do so it can take us to the moon and back.

It made me laugh

The film’s disarming humour added a lightness and class to the performances that left me inspired, hopeful and happy. Need I say more? What more could you want from a day out at the movies? Why don’t you find out for yourselves…

We Are a Muse

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Robert Graves

All my life I’ve enjoyed being around creative people. Regardless of how they express themselves, something inside me comes alive when I’m in the company of writers, artists, musicians, dancers, actors and the like. They make me want to burst and express myself in a new way. They make me feel most alive.

My mum was at Oxford with Lucia Graves. A writer and creative in her own right, she is also the daughter of World War I poet Robert Graves, who is best known for writing I Claudius. During a number of summers we would go out to Deià, Majorca, and stay with the family. Robert was a magnate for creative people. Across the road from the houses, amongst the terraced olive groves and the sheep and goats with the clanging bells, he built a small amphitheatre. It was here that he would perform his poems. It was also the venue for plays put on by members of the Royal Shakespeare Company who happened to be spending the summer there. I will always remember the night I did the thunder sheet for the Tempest.

Then there were the dinners on the terrace, the chatter, the laughter, the candles flickering in the evening light. After clearing the table one night a dancer from the Royal Ballet taught us how to jump and spin our way across the flagstones.

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The Royal Ballet

Towards the end of his life Robert was sadly struck with Alzheimer’s, a particularly cruel illness for such a great mind. As I sat next to him one evening as the adults were in the kitchen washing up he gently lifted his hand and put it in the pocket of my big baggy dress. It was as if he had taken my hand and we sat there, an old, drooling man in a wheelchair, a young girl of nine full of hope for the future. This was communication on a level way beyond words.

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Terrace at Sunset

His wife came out to wipe down the table. She stopped and smiled and said, “if he’d been able, he would have written a poem about you.” Then she stopped some more and considered. “Wait, what I see before me right now is poetry.” That moment changed my life. It made me look at the world in a completely new way, and in that second I decided I wanted to be a writer.

I still surround myself with creative people. I go to concerts and hear incredible music, attend plays, visit galleries, read great books. All of these things and all of these people, along with fantastic sunsets, laughing children, and the moments like that on the terrace in Deià touch my soul, pump my heart, and revitalise my mind. These are my muses, what are your’s?

A Writer On Twitter

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When I first started my Twitter account in August of last year I didn’t really understand what it was all about. Being somewhat verbose I found it difficult to express myself within the 140 character limit that Twitter allows, and I felt rather as if I was shouting into an empty cave with only the echoes of my own voice to keep me company.

Then I discovered the hashtag #amwriting and realised that there was a vast writing community on Twitter who actually speak to one another. When you get beyond the incessant self-promotion and pleas to follow, follow, follow and buy, buy, buy, what you actually find are people just like you, sitting at their computer, sipping on their tenth cup of coffee, trying to create something out of nothing.

I started to interact with a few of these people, and began making some online friends. I created a list for them so that I could keep an eye on their tweets. I made a decision to start following other #amwriting writers and to do my best to get more people talking to one another. Slowly but surely people started following me back. I started to get excited about what was happening.

I don’t remember making a decision about how I would use Twitter as a writer. My posts are very much an extension of myself. They mainly contain wisdom, thoughts, ideas and prompts that help me in the writing process just as much as anyone else. I suppose I’m a community builder and writing enthusiast who likes nothing better than to see that spark of creative energy in others.

When I reached the one thousand follower mark I decided to plan my posts to go out throughout the day. I use Post Planner for this and it has really helped me think about what I am posting, when, and how often. This then gives me time to get down to the epic novel I’m attempting, and to write the occasional blog post.

I made a decision from the get-go that I would follow back pretty much anyone. My only exceptions are girls touting for business and highly offensive accounts that I simply don’t want to look at. I’ve also left my PMs open for now for anyone I am following. If things ever got out of hand that would have change, but right now I’m enjoying the dialogue with other writers and the sense of community that is building there. I don’t however follow on Facebook, Instagram and or any other social media platform, nor do I buy from someone, agree to review their books etc, on first message. I equate that to introducing someone to my parents on a first date. It feels all wrong, so please don’t do it! Get to know me first…

This week, my wonderful tutor from my recent writing retreat, Chrissie Hall, became my 10,000th follower. It’s lovely that this ended up being someone I have actually met, but it would have been just as exciting if it was a new online writing buddy. I now have four lists I manage, and have created a new prompt “Attention all Writers” to get people sharing about their writing experiences. From their replies I have been able to utilise the new Twitter tool called “Moments,” and am really enjoying the responses.

A number of us have also recently rallied around the hashtag #WriteOn as we are challenging one another to finish one piece of work by the end of the year. All fellow procrastinators and starters of multiple unfinished pieces are welcome to join in.

I have absolutely no idea where things will go from here but I am certainly enjoying the journey. If you are a writer on Twitter and use the #amwriting hashtag, feel free to give me a shout out. If you are new to Twitter and have no clue where to start, feel free to drop me a line and I’d be glad to show you the ropes.

Write On!

Liv

 

Denman Writing Retreat

 

I recently went on my first ever writer’s retreat at Denman College in Oxfordshire, England. Denman is owned by the Women’s Institute and offers a plethora of course for members and non-members throughout the year, including a number of different writing courses. The retreat appealed to me because I thought it would give me some quality time to write, away from the usual distractions of home. I wasn’t disappointed. The course tutor, Chrissie Hall, herself a published writer, was disarmingly brilliant at helping us strip away our fears, anxieties and confusion about what we wanted to do with our writing. She inspired us to unleash our creative energy and to share with and support each other. In just four days we had become family, forever invested in each other’s successes.

It’s amazing what can happen when a group of people with a common interest and passion get together. Couple that with an organisation with its roots in the Suffragette movement and you have an environment that is a hotbed for getting things done. That was definitely the case for me. My current WIP, a pre-teen novel about a girl called Mollie Price, was in the planning stages when I went to Denman. During my time there I was able to really flesh out my core characters, do a detailed plot analysis of the book, and finish a very strong first draft of chapter one. I’ve already begun chapter two, and shall continue work on that today.

We had lots of time and space in which to write, opportunities for one-on-one’s with Chrissie, and just the right amount of time to come together and share with one another. All this in beautiful surroundings, with a comfortable study/bedroom to retreat to if we chose to, and delicious food served by friendly staff.

I initially chose to write in my bedroom but quickly decided instead to work in the big teaching room with everyone else. I had my headphones on to help me focus, but the sheer energy of everyone working in the room together was an utter joy and definitely helped me to produce some of my best work.

I’m now sitting here, back at home with my headphones on, playing the same music I played on retreat, and it’s definitely reminding me of those feelings and helping the words  flow as I type. I’m planning on booking myself into the same retreat next year and may go to another in October on preparing your manuscript for publication if my current WIP has reached that stage.

The upshot of all this is that I would recommend writing retreats to anyone who can get to them. There is nothing like it and it will definitely help you progress with your work.

Write on!

Liv

Everybody Needs Good Neighbours

 

neighborhood

In my childhood I lived in a wonderful road where everyone knew each other. Children used to gather after school to hang out, build camps, run races and generally have fun. The older kids looked after the younger ones and so long as we we didn’t leave the street and were back by tea time our parents weren’t the least bit concerned.

It wasn’t just the children I befriended. Across the road from me lived a fascinating lady who had been a missionary overseas. Even as a teenager I would look forward to my visits with her over cups of tea and slightly stale biscuits as she recounted her adventures from around the globe.

Next door the Finnegans always had a plaster for us if we grazed our knees, and Mr O’Leary at number nine let us climb in his trees and build tree houses. No one needed a CRB check to speak to us. We were neighbours, the next best thing to family, a community that did life together, that laughed, cried and grew together.

Nowadays being a neighbour, and part of a community, is much more challenging. People build higher and higher fences and walls around their homes, any adult befriending a child that is not their own is automatically looked on with suspicion, and you’d probably be hesitant to hand out plasters or serve cake in case of allergic reactions and court cases.

But all is not lost. It is still possible to be a good neighbour today and a community of strangers can become a community of friends. Here are some of the things I have seen happening in my street recently:

  1. Christmas cards

    There is no better way to find out who lives in your street than to send them Christmas cards. “To all at number 10, wishing you a very Merry Christmas from Olivia McCabe at number 28” lets them know you are there, thinking of them, and gives them the opportunity to send a card back introducing themselves to you in turn.

  2. Neighbourhood Watch

    If there is a Neighbourhood Watch group in your road then think about joining it, if not then why not start one? You will get updates from your local police about what to watch out for in your area, and you will have the chance to get to know more of your neighbours. This is also a perfect opportunity for neighbours to keep an eye on each other’s houses whilst people are away on holiday.

  3. Parking

    If parking is limited in your area be as courteous as you can be about where you park. Our neighbours let us know when they are going to be away and offer their driveways as extra parking when people need it. People aren’t in the least bit territorial about their patch of tarmac and as a result it all feels very relaxed and friendly.

  4. Bins!

    Also know as garbage or trash cans. In England we have wheelie bins. In my part of Hertfordshire we are big on recycling and have four different colour bins. After a recent Christmas party where over sixty guests descended on our house (including a lot of our neighbours) we were left with a lot of recycling. One couple who had been away over Christmas and New Year and not used their bins offered us extra space. Now how’s that for good neighbours?

  5. The Sick and Bereaved

    One of the things I absolutely loved about my time living in the southern States of America is how communities rally together when people are sick or bereaved. You only have to sneeze and cartons of home-made chicken soup land on your doorstep. If you are bereaved then you don’t need to shop for food for months. A steady stream of people come to your door to offer their condolences and always bring mountains of food with them.

    This is a habit I have brought with me back to England and it is slowly catching on. One neighbour recently had her appendix out and she was inundated with some delicious soups and breads on her return. When my other neighbour’s wife died suddenly the whole street set up a rota to cook for the bereaved husband for a month. He is now the first person to take food round to people who are struggling, usually in the form of his excellent chocolate pie.

  6. The Lonely

    We all know that there is a huge difference between people living in solitude and people who are lonely. Young mums may be surrounded by a big family and still be lonely, where as an elderly woman living on her own may be perfectly content. That being said it’s always good to find out which of your neighbours are living alone and check up on them once in a while.

    The key thing in all of this is relationship building. No two people are the same and you can’t have a one size fits all approach to building community with your neighbours. You just need to get creative in getting to know them as individuals. When you have done that you can invite them to barbecues in your back garden, call on them for a lift to the airport in the dead of night, and be there for them when they lose someone precious to them. After all, aren’t we designed to be part of something bigger than ourselves?

    Are you a good neighbour? What have others done to be a good neighbour to you?

    Have a good one,

    Liv x

Seasonally Affected

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A Way Out of the Winter Blues

At the beginning of February during my first year at university I met with my personal advisor and told him I was thinking of dropping out. After chatting for a considerable amount of time I agreed to give it until Easter before deciding for sure. I ended up staying. The following February I went back to the same advisor and once again told him I was thinking about dropping out. I had totally forgotten we had already had this conversation the year before. Thankfully he had not. He reminded me of it and asked me if I thought I might be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder. I had no idea what Seasonal Affective Disorder was. I had never even heard of it.I decided to find out.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.) is a recognised mental health condition and is a form of depression. It mainly affects sufferers during the winter months when there is less natural sunlight and the days are shorter. It can leave you feeling listless, apathetic, tired, hungry, irritable and insecure. As I sat with my professor I realised that it had been a particularly cloudy start to the year and I hadn’t seen full sunlight on over a month! No wonder I wanted to drop out. What my body was craving was hibernation!

Statistics suggest that as many as one in fifteen Brits suffer from S.A.D. each year, and many more have a lesser form of it in terms of the “Winter Blues.” But what can be done about it? Not all of us can afford the time or money to jet off to sunnier climbs, although that is a fantastic solution if you are able. Here is some of my own experience, strength and hope for you fellow suffers out there. I’d love to hear your suggestions too.

  1. S.A.D. Lamps and Light Therapy Boxes

    There has been a lot of debate over the effectiveness of S.A.D. Lamps and Light Therapy Boxes. To date there is no conclusive scientific evidence to suggest that they do help with S.A.D. However there are numerous individuals who believe that it has helped improve their condition. Do be careful though. There are numerous cheap, and not so cheap, knock-offs out there that will be of no help at all. If you do try to go down this route make sure you buy a medically certified SAD Light Therapy Box. Check the www.sad.org.uk website for details.

    I tried a natural sunlight alarm clock. It didn’t personally help me but that’s not to say it wouldn’t be a help to you. Have any of you had success with light boxes?

  2. Daylight hours

    Spend as much time as you can during daylight hours outside. If you have an indoor job this can be particularly tricky, but every time you head to the coffee machine nip outside for a minute or two. Consider it the S.A.D. equivalent of taking a cigarette break. Even if it is cloudy and raining it’s worth standing in a porch and looking outside. Sunlight is reduced by clouds but not completely blocked or else it would remain like nighttime. Grab what you can! It all adds up.

  3. Omega-3

    For the last few years I have started taking Omega-3 fish oil tablets. Research suggests that Omega’3s increase the amount of dopamine and serotonin in the brain which in turn raises our moods. I have definitely found this to be the case. Since taking these tablets my S.A.D. has been almost unnoticeable compared to how bad it used to be.

  4. Vitamin B6 and Magnesium

    I take extra vitamin B6 and magnesium during the winter months (Dec-Feb). These help me maintain healthy sleep cycles and energy levels during the darker nights. I’d definitely recommend this as a seasonal measure against S.A.D., if not all year.

  5. St John’s Wort

    Another natural remedy that has been proven to reduce all kinds of depression. I now take St John’s Wort all year round and have been very pleased with the results.

  6. Support Groups

    No one should suffer from S.A.D. alone, and in this day and age you don’t need to. There are plenty of support groups you can join online to talk about the challenges you face, identify with other sufferers and get support. I’m a member of a great group on Facebook who have been a lifeline to myself and others during our darkest days.

  7. Anti-depressants

    Here in Britain there still exists a huge stigma around taking drugs for mental health. As someone who is half-American and having spent time living abroad I see no different between taking anti-depressants for depression and taking a paracetamol for a headache. If it works and improves your quality of life then why not? Having tried a number over the years I finally found Agomelatine. It has the least side effects of any I have taken to date. Regardless of what you do take, it’s important to work closely with your doctor to find the right one for you and not to change the dose or stop taking it without medical supervision.

    snowdrops

  8. Plant bulbs

    I know you may not feel like doing anything other than hide under your duvet with a large bag of crisps but it does help to make plans. Anything that can remind you that there is life beyond your current situation is helpful. One thing I do is plant bulbs. I have a small green outside my house which overlooks fields and hedgerows. When I’m feeling low I plant a bulb under the trees on the green. When the snowdrops, bluebells, daffodils and tulips come up in the spring I take a photograph of them which I keep on my wall by my bed. When things get bad I remind myself of new life, new beginnings, new growth that is already beginning under the surface even though I can’t see it. This is just one more thing which helps me get through the day.

What other ways do you cope with S.A.D.? I’d love to hear from you.

Liv