Step Away From the Biscuits!

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The Joy of Writing

Ah, the blank slate.

The freedom. The possibilities.

The abject blinding terror…

Sitting with a blank sheaf of paper (or virginal Word document) before you, you have the boundless liberty to let your mind and words run free. You have the opportunity to conjure up undreamt-of landscapes populated with captivating characters, enthralling events and plots so twisty and turny that Machiavelli himself would weep to read them.

 

At this stage, the temptation to throw it all in and hide under the duvet with a packet of chocolate digestives is virtually overwhelming.

What should I write? Who should I write about? What’s going to happen? Will anyone read it? Why am I doing this? Why did I ever want to be a writer in the first place, oh Lord help me! Time for a biscuit…

The pressure of a blank slate needing to be filled is one that all of us writers encounter at one time or another. But we impose it upon ourselves. And you know what? It’s completely invented. Writer’s block doesn’t exist.

That’s right, you heard me correctly; writer’s block doesn’t exist.

Harking back to my previous post on taming writer’s block, I’d like to re-state the wonderful advice from Maya Angelou:

What I try to do is write… And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.’

Unless someone’s taped your fingers together with duct tape overnight, you can still write. Your imagination may have booked a package tour of Merthyr Tydfil for a few days, but that shouldn’t stop you from writing. So abandon all thoughts of cowering under the duvet and just write.

Write anything.

Slay the dragon of the blank slate with the sword of words (if you’ll excuse a mangled metaphor).

Write about what you had for breakfast, write about the colour of your socks, write about the wall you’re staring at with inspiration-free perspiration dripping from your forehead, or just write the word ‘badger’ 73 times. Then it’s no longer a blank piece of paper. That’s Step One. Huzzah!

Now carry on writing, don’t stop, don’t ever stop. It doesn’t matter if what you’re committing to paper is gibberish, you’ll find the groove as long as you carry on. It doesn’t have to be the next chapter of the novel, the next stanza of the poem, it doesn’t have to be the same characters or genre or even, Heaven forbid, of any great quality.

Start turning your account of breakfast into an account of the final breakfast recalled by an aristocrat huddled in a tumbril, awaiting his turn at the guillotine.

Morph the colour of your socks into the colour of the moon over Ganymede piercing the green-black gloom of night whilst below the surface, hideous beings toil in the depths of labyrinthine drone-mines.

Or the blank wall instantaneously transformed from a cracked and peeling canvas of magnolia by the livid crimson slash as the assassin’s bullet hits home, piercing the diplomat’s temple, taking with it fragments of skull and brain matter…

The instant you start putting words down, there’s no more blank slate and no such thing as writer’s block. The slight tremor of panic I felt 400-odd words ago at the blank slate which has become this post has morphed into a burning desire to carry on adding words to all those story openings. And I don’t even LIKE historical fiction. Or Sci-Fi. OK, so none of those lines are great quality or jaw-droppingly inventive, but they’ve kick-started a process and got me warmed up. Time now to head back to Dark Energies and apply that creativity to wherever it was that Dan and Kate were stranded when I last left off.

The only thing stopping you writing is you. Get over it. Stop worrying if it’s going to be good enough. It never will be if you don’t write it. Sure, you’ll throw a lot of it away, you’ll change a lot of it and only some will make the final cut.

But at least you’ll be doing what you’ve told yourself all along you wanted to do more than anything else in the world.

So just write.

Maybe get yourself a biscuit while you’re at it.

After all, what’s stopping you?

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Summoning the Muse when all hope seems lost

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Just a quickie from me today as I beaver away behind the scenes to put together a series of posts on how you can best use digital marketing to publicise your writing.

In the meantime, I came across this splendid infographic which shows that the many-headed beast known as writer’s block attacks the great and good every bit as ferociously as those of us tackling the foothills of ambition. (Sorry for the tortured metaphor, it’s been a busy week!) It also has some great tips on how to conquer the monster.

Advice for writers from writers - keep writing!

Click the image for the full version.

I’m sure everyone has their own techniques. Personally, I love Maya Angelou’s:

What I try to do is write… And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.’

So my friends, how do you summon your muse and convince her that you mean business?

It’s About Time…

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So. I was hoping to post the revised version of the Prologue today after working on it over the weekend. Then Life got in the way and sucked up all my time.

Which makes a very neat segue into a post I’d been planning to write anyway. As an aspiring/struggling writer, how in the name of kittens does one ever find the time to write?

Also interesting in that time is very much one of the central themes of the novel – *random book plug alert!*

I’ve read many, many books, articles and blog posts in which the same question is answered with either “develop a routine” or “if you love it, you’ll find time”. Ooooooo-kay… Whilst I understand the concept, putting this into practice can be far harder in reality.

I have a job. I need one to pay the bills which save me from living in a cardboard box. Unreasonably perhaps, my employers expect me to be doing work during the day, rather than writing novels. I also have an Other Half (and a very lovely one at that) who, although incredibly supportive of my writing, does like to see me from time to time. Therefore, spending all evening every evening locked away in a minuscule spare room perfecting the novel isn’t an option. In fairness, I do get the odd hour here or there, but that still has to fit in around:

  1. Eating – essential to be able to continue writing… or anything else for that matter…;
  2. An occasional night out;
  3. Maintaining a relationship;
  4. Re-assuring my family that I still exist;
  5. My share of the housework – otherwise point 3 would rapidly become redundant;
  6. Juggling Twitter, Facebook and this blog, so that someone someday outside of my immediate family may actually know I’ve written a novel;
  7. Sleeping (far less than I would like)

I could simply ignore all the above, but becoming a penniless, hermetic sociopath has never really appealed.

Now, I’ve read pieces that state heroically, “I get up an hour earlier to write every day”. Seriously? That would mean stumbling blearily out of bed at 5am. You’ve clearly never seen me in the mornings. And you most definitely wouldn’t want to read the diatribe of furious cynicism that would result from such an ascetic pursuit.

At this point, I should re-affirm that I DO love writing; it’s immensely important in my life. Sounds all a bit New Age, but you know what I mean. It’s just that there are a whole host of other things that are essential for survival, which trumps immensely important.

It’s also a case of balancing priorities. This very blog post, for example, is being written in a spare meeting room with a bowl of (very oily) pasta salad before I have to get back to the day job. That decision in itself was a toss-up between editing the novel and ensuring that you, dear readers (all 2 of you), are kept up-to-date with these thrilling adventures.

That, in effect, means I only really get to write for 20 minutes on the train to work and 20 minutes on the train back. It’s admittedly a great release from normal life, but not always the most conducive of environments for creativity. And for an impatient little puppy like me, it means a novel takes frustratingly longer to produce than I would like. 3-and-a-half years and counting so far.

So what’s my point boys and girls? This new Golden Age of Self-Publishing opens up immense freedoms to aspiring writers and avid readers alike. Books undoubtedly get published and read which otherwise wouldn’t have seen the light of day due to the whims of the mighty publishing machine. Yet, there was a different sort of freedom in the days when a publisher would liberally bestow advances decent enough to allow a wannabe to give up work for at least a few months, on the off-chance of hitting a winner. Those days are now long gone and, while we writers have the freedom and the technology to build our own audiences, it necessarily takes time away from doing what we set out to do.

For my part, I suspect it’s going to have to remain a very complex juggling act, with plates spinning in every direction and requiring a great deal of dedication to keep focus on writing, marketing, publicity, life and everything.

What are your thoughts my fellow scribes? How do you manage this life/art balance? Any handy hints that may safeguard my sanity?

A Lesson From Narnia

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Thanks everyone, there was some great feedback on the first look at Dark Energies. And by “great”, I don’t mean everyone told me how amazing it is and what a genius I am. Although to those of you who did say just that, I love you more than cake. And boy, do I love cake.

No, by “great” I mean comments that have genuinely, within the space of 24 hours, helped shape the way the next edit of the first draft is going to go. As I’m right at the start of that process, the timing couldn’t have been better; it’s saved me a massive amount of re-work later.

Two key points were made a number of times and they bring me to the real point of today’s post. Make sure you can always see the wood for the trees.

As an “indie” author (yes, it’s National Quote Mark Day) there’s no input from an agent, editor or publisher to tell you where you’re going wrong. You write away day in, day out and it can be all too easy to get on a roll and stick with it. Sometimes that works, other times it leads you off on a dangerous tangent. One thing I’m learning is to always maintain a level of objectivity. To step back and see your work through the eyes of your readers.

Of course when you’re actually putting words down on paper (I write longhand most of the time and type it up later) you need the subjective immersion in what you’re writing. You have to be there, right in the scene, hearing it, smelling it, tasting it. Living it. Otherwise it won’t live for your readers.

But.

When you hit the editing stage, pull yourself away from the world and imagine you’ve just spent money on a book. A prime example from yesterday is the over-use of adjectives. Clearly, when I wrote the prologue, I was in a descriptive frame of mind. Very likely influenced by whatever I’d most recently been reading. I obviously thought “Wow, I don’t use enough description. Better throw some more adjectives at it!” Either that or I was just in a wordy frame of mind, which isn’t uncommon for me.

Hence, everything got described in minute detail, which had the knock-on effect of slowing down the pace of what should be a driving scene. It took peer reviews to point that out. Even re-reading my own work, I was pulled back to the place, time, situation, emotion, whatever, of when I wrote it. Objectivity took a back seat and the writing suffered as a result.

Which, I guess, is a long way of saying, immerse yourself in writing but make sure you’re towelled off, changed out of your trunks and sipping a hot cappuccino before you start editing.

All of which was encapsulated far more succinctly by C.S. Lewis in this letter: C. S. Lewis on Writing

Sneak peek…

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OK, enough introductory rumination on inspiration for now; time to get to the sharp end of things. Here, without further ado but with much trepidation, is the exclusive first look at my new novel Dark Energies. It’s part first chapter, part prologue.

It’s quite terrifying putting work on public display for the first time and I’d be delighted to get any feedback from you lovely people out there. If you’d care to leave any views, thoughts, opinions in the comments box waaaay down there at the bottom of the post, that would be utterly splendid! Thank you.

******

                Edward Stretton somehow knew that neither he, nor anyone else, would ever see his wife again.

                Replacing the bottle-green handset slowly in its cradle, he ran his hand once again over the empty space on the sideboard. A hazy rectangle of dark walnut stood out feather-edged against the paler sun-lightened surface surrounding it, the only remaining indication of what no longer stood there. A light residue of polish coated his fingertips as they stroked rhythmically back and forth across the absence, as if he were stroking the hair of a child recently woken from a nightmare. He paused and inspected the powdery white coating for a second, his mind a thousand miles away, before wiping his fingers on the sleeve of his suit jacket and picking up the receiver once more.

                He placed a slender forefinger in the clear plastic dial and turned it until it stopped against the curved metal fingerpiece, before removing it and hearing the clicking of the dial as it ratcheted back to its starting position. Repeating the exercise, he dialled a further two digits, then abruptly changed his mind and placed the receiver back down in the cradle once more. For a full minute he stood motionless, save for the renewed to-and-fro sweep of his hand across the dark patch on the gleaming surface.

                The first call had come shortly after three-thirty that afternoon. A single square of white light had illuminated in the two thin rows of buttons adorning the black plastic console in front of him on the desk. Settling back into the padded leather of the chair, his back to the windows facing out over the rumble and bustle of Piccadilly Circus, he had answered in his customary jocular manner, prepared to field what would undoubtedly reveal itself be yet another pitch from yet another ambitious young advertising executive starting out on the path to his future. The same overly-familiar tone of address, the same routine patter honed over innumerable previous pitches, the same keenness to succeed that they all shared; despite the frequency with which Edward received such calls, he couldn’t help but admire these youngsters. They reminded him, inevitably, of a younger version of himself. Lifting the receiver, he smiled a smile which coalesced gradually into a thin hard line as he listened to the sombre inflections of the clipped voice at the other end of the crackling line. The russet touch of a fortnight recently spent constructing sandcastles on the South Coast leached from his face as the voice delivered its unexpected and unwelcome message. At the conclusion of the call barely five minutes later, he snatched his coat and hat from the coat-stand nestled behind the door and walked briskly from the office and out through the vestibule without a word. Emerging onto a street light by the low golden light of a late autumn afternoon, the air heavy with exhaust fumes from the snarling traffic, his composure finally gave and he broke into a run toward the nearest tube station.

                Now, two hours later, beside another telephone, still without answers and no closer to any form of explanation, he gradually let his fingers come to rest in the space where, for the past eleven years, a wedding photograph had stood. With the sombre inevitability of a condemned man approaching the gallows, he turned from the aborted phone call to face the living room. From the far corner, an over-sized rectangular television in a matching walnut cabinet flickered mute images, the volume knob turned down to zero. On the screen, a small brown bear in a blue duffel-coat clambered with difficulty into the back of a taxi with his newly-found cardboard cut-out family, en-route to a life of benignly catastrophic adventures. He watched in silence for several seconds, his glazed eyes registering little beyond the jerky movements as the bear manhandled a battered brown suitcase into the back seat.

                Some unanticipated neural connection snapped him from his stupor and, with a renewed sense of purpose, he strode across the living room and yanked open the door to the hallway. Kettle drum footfalls resounded up the stairs two at a time, reverberating through the wafer-thin walls and filling the house with distant thunder. In seven strides he reached the landing, his heart pounding with exertion and foreboding. He crossed the bedroom at a jog and threw back the veneered plywood sliding door to the wardrobe. Plastic casters rattled in their warped metal runners and the door hit the end-board with enough force to dislodge it from its fixings.

                The empty hangers retained the ghosts of the clothes so recently removed from them. His face fell as hope dissipated, a numb fear seeping in to fill the vacuum it left in its wake. More absences which served to make the former presence all the more apparent. He rushed to the dresser, pulling open drawer after drawer with trembling hands, revealing only further emptiness. Even the books were gone, dark spaces in-between his own books still standing on the shelves showing where their colourful spines had been. Futility drained the sudden injection of energy from Edward’s body and he sank down heavily on the bed. He surveyed the forlorn scene once more, then hauled himself with unbearable weariness to his feet and trudged from the bedroom. Crossing the threshold, one hand absently brushed the space on the back of the door where a dressing gown should have hung.

                The television was still silent as he passed through the living room, head bowed, eyes fixed to the pattern of amber and green swirls on the carpet. Black and white linoleum tiles took the place of shag pile. A discordant clatter echoed in the silence as he retrieved a still-damp tumbler from amongst the crockery stacked in a haphazard pile on the draining board beside the sink. In a cupboard beside the gas cooker he found a bottle of cheap brandy; cooking quality but it would do. He half-filled the tumbler, pulled one of four ladder-backed chairs from around the family-sized kitchen table and lowered himself down onto it. Draining half the tumbler in one draught, he laid his head on his arms and, for the first time in many years, wept. His shoulders convulsed spastically as sobs sputtered out of him; hot salty tears made tracks through the dark hair of his forearms and pooled on the scratched tabletop.

                From the cushioned depths of a burgundy velour armchair opposite the television an eight-year-old girl clutched a stuffed rabbit to her face, pale green eyes peering from between the comfort of its ears as she watched her father through the open doorway. The rabbit’s head grew damp as her own tears soaked into its synthetic fur in time with her father’s laments.

Soooo… there you have it. Thoughts? Good? Bad? Indifferent? Feedback from potential readers is the most important validation for any writer in my opinion, particularly in the Golden Age of Self-Publishing, so I’d be genuinely keen to hear what you think.

Until next time…