Welcome to episode 22 of my 2020 Staycation Podcast in which I explore how our attitudes change when faced with the possibility of a finite existence.
Taking care of our mental health by sticking to a routine
Welcome to day nine of my Staycation Podcasts where I talk about the importance of routines in maintaining our mental health. Hope you enjoy!
How to stay sane in the middle of Coronavirus
While I’m stuck at home because of COVID-19 I thought I’d start a podcast series for everyone else affected by coronavirus. Hope you enjoy, and I’d love to hear from you! We are not alone, together we can!
Three little words…
One interesting thing that has started to happen as I journal throughout the day while simultaneously blogging and working on my novel is that I am starting to dream more. I don’t remember what my dreams are when I’m awake, at least I can’t grab the pen quickly enough to jot them down before they evaporate from my conscious mind, but I am aware it’s happening. I suspect that I’m unlocking something. The more I write, the more my brain wants to show me things.
Today’s blog post is subtitled, “three little words,” because I have realised something important in the last few days. No, I’m not about to say, “I love you,” but rather, quite simply, “I need help.” Writing is such a solitary past time that it’s extremely difficult for us to do it on our own. The Bronte sisters would walk around their dining table reading their work to each other, Jane Austen would write letters to her sister, Steven King is all over Twitter. There is something magical that happens when creative people come together to share their work, to brainstorm ideas, and to dream dreams.
That’s what I need. It’s what makes me feel most alive. My dream is to write a story about a girl who is a workaholic, over-achieving perfectionist. Tragedy strikes her family, she crashes and burns, and finds herself in a magical place that people only find when they need it the most. That is what Finding Freodholm is all about. That’s what I’m doing when I sit down and write every day. What about you?
What are your hopes, your dreams, your struggles, your fears? What ideas do you have that need fleshing out with an interested ear? How can we help each other? I need your help. Do you need mine?
If it’s good enough for Mark Zuckerberg, it’s good enough for me
I’ve recently been suffering from a bad case of procrastination. I normally love to write, in fact I live and breathe to write. Lately, however, I have been finding almost anything to do before actually sitting down with the manuscript and getting some words on the page. Tomorrow, tomorrow I will start and become a hard-working, serious, accomplished, brilliant, and of course, perfect writer.
And the cursor remains flashing on the blank page.
I’ve tried many things. Some have worked for a while – changing location, setting a timer for ten minutes, writing by hand rather than on the computer, dictation, yet after a while the inevitable kicks in, the malaise ensues, and I’m left feeling like I’m under-achieving with the elusive bubble of getting this book out just beyond my reach.
Today I decided I needed to give myself a good talking to. I picked up one of my many partially-used journals and began writing. I decided that this journal would be my writing buddy, my genie in a bottle, my higher power, my cheerleader and my friend who would help me to be the writer I was destined to be. I set myself small goals. I told my journal what they were and checked back when I’d done them. I congratulated myself on my accomplishments and chivied myself along when I got stuck. It’s been fantastic, and there are now words to accompany the flashing cursor.
Here’s an except from today:
Dear diary, I need you. I cannot do this without you. I dream of a brighter future but it won’t come unless I’m prepared to work towards it today. Please give me the kick up the backside I need to get myself in gear and just do the next thing…
I’m reminded of the scene in The Social Network where Mark Zuckerberg is blogging at the same time as he is giving birth to Facebook. If it worked for him, why can’t it work for the rest of us? How about I check in every day and say how it’s going? Even if one person reads it and says hello I’ll be happy. Maybe you’ll decide to give it a go too and we can share with each other? Are you willing to go on this journey with me and to see where it collectively takes us? Pen’s poised? Then let us begin…
Why getting an editor was the best thing I ever did
I’m terrified of releasing my work on the world. There, I’ve said it. I’ve had an idea for a novel which has been percolating in my head for the past eleven years and yet it is still not published. I’ve written countless drafts, some of which I’m ashamed to say I’ve deleted in moments of pure insanity. I’ve renamed, restructured, reversed and rebelled. So what’s stopping me from giving it a go? One word. FEAR!
I’ve nothing to compare it to. I’m an avid reader so surely I’m a reasonable judge of what is good and bad literature? For me, it’s quite simple. I want to get lost in a story, be transported to another world. I want to connect with the characters, to care what happens to them, to experience the highs and lows of their journeys and to really miss them when I close the back page. That’s what I want from a story and that’s what I want to give to the world.
Yet when I read my manuscripts I get some glimpses of light coming through the cracks of my own incompetencies, but the awkwardness of the prose and unnaturalness of the dialogue rips me apart and I can’t see the light anymore. Is it good enough? Will it pass muster? I doubt it.
I long since decided to self-publish. I love social media and marketing and figured if my work is meant to be read it will find its way into the hands of the right readers. What I haven’t had until now is an editor, that is until I approached Ros. Ros is a friend who has an ability with language akin to a music maestro’s ear or a mathematician’s brain. She just knows when it’s grammatically correct. It sounds right. She agreed to take me on.
We’re working together one chapter at a time. I send it to her and she edits it, not with red pen, but the completed edited manuscript. I trust her to retain the integrity of my writing as she goes. Now here’s the catch. She won’t return it to me until I send her the next chapter. I’m chomping at the bit to know what she thinks each time, and desperate to see the finished result, but I hear absolutely nothing from her until I send her the next one. It makes me keep going and forces me to at least release my work to one person.
When I do, it’s always a joyful occasion. She tells me I’m a great storyteller and she can’t wait to hear what happens next. She encourages me to keep going. The chapters that are returned still sound like me, but I know they are cleaner and easier to read. Ros is a miracle-worker in my life and I know, because of her, that I will reach my goal of releasing my work on the world this year. Getting an editor was the best thing I ever did. What about you?
Why writers need to behave like athletes
A couple of months ago I went searching for a new writing app, and stumbled across Novlr. One of the things I like about Novlr is the dark background which is easier on my eyes. I’ve been using it for my work ever since. It also has a fantastic free writing course, the Couch to 80k Boot Camp by novelist and poet, Tim Clare.
In my experience it’s all too easy to forget how important it is to warm up with our writing every day. I’ve wasted countless hours staring at a blank page or screen, groaning under the strain of trying to force my writing muscle into action when it very clearly wants to sleep. Yet since discovering this course, with just ten minutes of writing a day, I’ve found that when I do now sit down for the main event I’m so much more limber and agile and I have a new-found confidence in what I’m doing that I never had before.
It really is a brilliant course. I can’t say enough about it. The clever way in which it slowly builds on itself and navigates so many areas of the creative writing process without you even realising how much you are growing is simply thrilling. Clare is a master when it comes to teaching, and listening to him prattle on a bit only makes it more disarming and accessible.
The fantastic news is that there’s more even after the course has ended. Clare is a prolific podcaster and his Death of 1000 Cuts podcast is available online and via iTunes. This is such a gift to us as writers and I’m extremely grateful to him for providing us with so much inspiration and for helping me warm up my writing muscles.
There’s more inspiration to be found all over the Internet and in many book shops, if you know where to look. For example, the San Francisco Writers Grotto have produced a book called “642 Tiny Things to Write About.” Whilst a bit more random, and not as sequential, as Clare’s warm ups, they can certainly breath new life into a tired mind.
Above all else, warm up! It’s not wasted time, quite the contrary. It helps you save time later by giving you the life and energy you will need for the big race. It has helped me learn how to play, have fun, and think outside the box. It has helped me grow in confidence, and not to strain my brain in trying to force it to run before it can walk. What I find it prefers to do now is dance. I hope you find it works for you too.
My sister recently won a ballot place for the London Marathon. Being more of a country stroller and book shop browser I was interested to learn more about the psychology of running such a long way. Sara Kurth has written a fascinating article on the Eight Stages of Running a Marathon. I had these stages in mind when I embarked on the gruelling journey that is NaNoWriMo this year.
1. Days One – Three – Starting Nerves
The build up to NaNoWriMo is quite similar to training for a marathon. We plan, we dream, we order in food and drink, we clear our schedules as much as we can. Now day one has arrived and we are full of excitement. There is the temptation to go too fast off the blocks in the first three days and set a pace we cannot sustain throughout the month. I was really nervous, but at the same time excited, when I began, but I didn’t let myself go over the 1,667 words per day during these days in order to set a realistic pace.
It felt weird to be writing every day like this, especially when my writing has often been haphazard and spontaneous before. I also felt overwhelmed and intimidated to read the enormous word counts coming in from others, and felt pressure to go faster. However, I didn’t, and stuck to the basic word goal.
2. Days Four – Nine – I’ve Got This
By now, I’d settled into a routine of writing as soon as I woke up every day. I didn’t even let myself get a cup of coffee, but instead made do with the water that was by my bed. Once I’d reached my word goal, I could get on with other things with a clear conscience. It also meant the inner critic, who is much slower to wake than me, could be bypassed and I could just get the words on the page. I actually felt confident during this time period.
3. Days ten to fifteen – Settling In
The routine continued into days ten to fifteen. However, on one day I got distracted by a phone call when someone woke me up early, and ended up getting a coffee before sitting down to write. The words didn’t flow as freely that day. The next day, I didn’t feel like writing at all and started to feel the burn so to speak as I realised I wasn’t even half way. To combat this I just pushed through, recreating the routine over the next few days, making sure I didn’t skip meals or not get enough sleep, and kept on writing. It wasn’t a very pleasant part of the writing journey but I persevered.
4. Days sixteen to eighteen – The Wasteland
I actually started to get bored at this stage. The inner critic didn’t seem to sleep and was constantly whispering in my ear how utterly droll my story was and how no one would be interested in reading it. I ceased to be interested in reading it. It felt like every word I put on the page was a blur of nothingness and tedium. But having been warned that this might happen, I kept going, just putting one word in front of the other and reminding myself that it could always be improved in the edit.
5. Days nineteen to twenty-one – The Dark Night of the Soul
Talk about mental anguish. This was when I almost gave up. The only blessing that helped to keep me going during this time was the fact that I went away on a Writing for Wellbeing course which inspired me to get excited about my writing all over again. This is definitely a good time to go away or join a write-in if you can.
6. Days twenty-two to twenty-four – Wow! I’ve Come a Long Way!
I seemed to get over a mental hump at this stage, probably spurned on by the retreat. I spent a few moments reflecting on what I had achieved so far and I kept looking at my daily word count and thinking, “Wow, I’ve come a long way.” I allowed myself to get excited at the prospect of completing the challenge, but this made me think more about the finishing line than the next words I needed to write. As a result it started to become difficult again for me to get the words on the page. Instead, I reminded myself to keep it in the day and to only do my 1,667 words. This seemed to help me to keep going. I also created a new playlist of birdsong and bubbling brooks, and ordered some Bergamot which seems to ignite my creativity.
7. Days twenty-five to twenty-nine – I’m Never Doing This Again!
These were the days when I cursed ever having signed up to do NaNoWriMo. Every day was excruciating. I felt like I couldn’t breath, much less write. But when I look back on my word count I see I actually started going over the daily target at this point and reached my goal early. However, I didn’t want to stop there as my other goals were to finish the thirty days and to eventually finish the first draft of my novel.
8. Day thirty – Collapsing in a Heap
Okay, so maybe not literally, but definitely metaphorically. I only wrote ten words on the last day but it didn’t matter because I’d achieved my goal and had become an NaNoWriMo Winner! I’m proud of what I’ve achieved but I know I still have a long way to go. I have about ten thousand words left to write on this first draft and then the hard work of editing and re-writing will begin. I’m looking forward to it though, but have planned a trip away for a few days before I sit down with my big red pen.
This has been an amazing journey and I’ve got to share it with some wonderful people for which I am thankful. I have taken from it the need to write every day, although I don’t think I can sustain 1,667 indefinitely. I’m probably more of a 600 word girl myself. That being said, this blog is already over 1k so I’d better draw it to a close and ask, what are your reflections from your NaNoWriMo experience this year? Do you think you’ll do it again? I, for one, am all in and can’t wait.
The very first time I had to give a presentation in a class at university my professor said something to me which has stuck with my ever since. He said, “you’re trying to give a lifetime of talks in one talk. You have a lifetime to give them so how about you tackle them one at a time and keep it simple?”
Keeping things simple, whether it be giving talks or writing novels, is easier said than done. We’re never just faced with a simple crossroads, but rather arrive head-on at a superhighway of different directions we could take our characters in. with that comes a crippling fear that we are going the wrong way, the imperfect way, the dead end way. What if we go a different way and it leads to the pot of gold at the end of the literary rainbow?
As I was preparing this blog post my mind started racing and ideas began streaming in. How about I write about the top five reasons why people never complete the novels they begin? Maybe one of those reasons is they overcomplicate things, but there are others, such as fear of failure, lack of time, no discipline, their heart just isn’t in it etc. But I have forced myself to stick to the point, and keep it simple.
In terms of writing, how many plots and sub-plots should there be? How many characters should I have? How many scenes should I visit? I’m always mindful of the book outline I saw by J.K. Rowling at the British Museum in which she listed one main plot and two sub-plots throughout the whole novel. Then there is A.A. Milne with his nine characters and Enid Blyton with just five. Every book we read has a different opinion so it’s little wonder we get caught up in mental knots and find it hard to move forwards. I don’t think there’s a magic number of sub-plots and characters. I just think readers know when we have too many. If in doubt, cut them out.
I always keep a separate note book beside me while I’m working called my “Ideas Book.” In it I scribble down all the extra thoughts and inspiration that comes my way so that I can get it out of my head and onto the page without muddying the waters of my W.I.P. A number of these ideas are ones I’ve come back to at a later date. There are enough others to last a lifetime, and as my professor said, I have a lifetime to write them.
Writing the blurb for the back of your book near the beginning is no bad thing. It can help you stay on track. If you can’t tell someone in thirty seconds what your book is about while stuck in a lift then you need to simplify it. If you don’t get it, no one else will.
So how do I simplify? I quite simply cut down, cut back and cut out. I cut down on the number of sub-plots so that I’m left with one or two. I cut back on any waffle, unnecessary trivialities, dull descriptions, and droning conversations, and I cut out any character who isn’t essential to the movement of my story. It’s brutal. But it’s worth it.
What are some of the things you do to keep your writing simple?