findingtimetowrite

Thinking, writing, thinking about writing…

Archive for the category “The writing process”

Novel No. 2 is waiting for you, Madam…

luxuryandstyle.co.uk, who assure us that 'engaging an English butler to run a large house can suddenly make life a whole lot easier'. Maybe that's what I need to find time to write?

luxuryandstyle.co.uk, who assure us that ‘engaging an English butler to run a large house can suddenly make life a whole lot easier’. Maybe that’s what I need to find time to write?

Typical! It’s been a never-ending saga to put the finishing touches to Novel No. 1, for reasons too numerous and humiliating to mention, including but not limited to: lost keys, lost cheque books, parents’ evenings, family meltdown, holidays, work, homework, worrying about work, worrying about taxes…

I’ve been working (or should that be NOT working) on it for so long that I am now bored with it. And don’t all writers at conferences tell you that the first novel is best hidden in your bottom drawer, that it’s an exercise rather than a real publishing possibility?

So, for the past few days I’ve been toying with the idea for another novel. Still murder and mayhem, of course, still noirish in feel, just a completely different story, setting, characters. I’m at the mulling stage, but this much I know: it will be set among the expat community in a place like Geneva and will involve adultery, danger and of course a death or two. Perhaps a mild case of satire, too. I have to put to good use all those wonderfully surreal conversations I sometimes overhear outside schools or in cafés, don’t I?

After all, if I get this one really presentable, I can always go back to the previous one and slash my way through that jungle. What do you think of abandoning one project to move onto something new? My Puritanical workaholic ethic is telling me that is wrong, but at what point do I decide I am flogging a dead horse?

Lessons Learnt from Submissions

I’ve been pushing myself to submit more this year, particularly poetry (since I write so much of it anyway). I’ve submitted to ten literary journals or competitions this half year (which is a big improvement to the 5 I did for all of 2013).

round-yes-no-buttonsAnd here’s what’s happened with these ten:

6 rejections

1 rejection with a very encouraging message

1 poem longlisted for the Fish Poetry Prize

1 acceptance (two out of the three poems I sent) – I am sure I will crow about it once they are published!

1 still waiting to hear

One good thing about this process is that I am starting to take rejections much more stoically. The first one back in March or so was like salt and pepper being rubbed into an open wound and knocked me out for 2 days (going on two weeks). The latest one arrived tonight and I just shrugged it off and said blithely to my husband: ‘Oh, look, darling, another rejection!’

Another discovery is that there is no such thing as a good or bad poem (well, other than the obviously dire ones, which I hope mine aren’t). It’s all a matter of personal taste, timing, fit with the journal’s philosophy etc. The poem that was rejected by one journal was the one that was longlisted by judge Ruth Padel. One of the poems that has now been accepted had been rejected elsewhere.

So the moral of the story is that the obvious sayings are still the best: ‘If at first you don’t succeed, tweak and try again!’

 

Happenstance Is the Result of Hard Work and Talent

We’re starting to get a little bit infected with Football World Cup fever here in our household (although normally we are not huge football fans). On the radio, we hear more and more music from previous World Cups. One of my favourite football-related pieces of music is the Nike advert for the 2002 World Cup in Korea/Japan. Shot in studios in Rome, the advert was directed by Terry Gilliam and featured some of the best footballers in the world (at the time). You may remember it for its gritty backdrop (a cargo ship with cages) a ruthless ‘first goal wins’ rule overseen by Eric Cantona, something of a prison atmosphere and yet an explosive, exuberant joy, and, above all, the glorious remix of the Elvis song ‘A Little Less Conversation’.

It’s one of those rare examples when everything about the advertising campaign works: it’s catchy, memorable, uplifting. Happenstance? Or careful years of planning by Nike and the Wieden & Kennedy agency (Amsterdam)? Spontaneous burst of genius or a patient accumulation of talent and experience? Or perhaps both?

So what I’m trying to say is that when things seem to come together effortlessly, in a practically perfect product (or book or film or stage production), there is usually a huge amount of work and talent peeking out a barely visible head just above the horizon.

I think I know this. And still I wait at times for inspiration to strike. But I’ve learnt to treat my blog posts and book reviews as additional writing practice, my poetry as a legitimate form of expression instead of just procrastination and my reading… well, I read like a writer. Or so I tell myself.

Geneva Book Fair and Linwood Barclay

P1020280The Geneva Book and Press Fair took place from 30th April to 4th of May at the Palexpo… and to my great delight it was nearly as crowded as the Geneva Motor Show, which also takes place there every year. There was something for everyone at this very family friendly event: from comic books, to a focus on Japan (including learning to draw manga and a demonstration of the tea ceremony), to travel, education, Arab and African literature, to name just a few of the exhibition areas. Needless to say, the ‘stage’ I was most interested in was the Crime Scene, which featured an early morning relaxed Q&A session with bestselling author Linwood Barclay. Here are some words of insight from this hardworking and humorous journalist turned thriller writer:

My recipe for success? It’s when hard work meets luck. There are lots of fabulous authors who go unnoticed, so luck has to play a part as well.

Linwood Barclay

Linwood Barclay

When you write thrillers, both the publishers and the readers have an expectation of one book per year. Luckily, I find it easy to write at this pace. I start a book in January, get the first draft down by end of March, then I spend another 2-3 months to fix it. But there’s also the challenge that you always want your next book to be your best one, and there is more pressure, more scrutiny, so I spend far more time rewriting now than I used to.

I started off writing comic thrillers about a rather anxious and reluctant investigator, Zac Walker, who is really not equipped to deal with bad people. They got nice reviews, but were never big sellers. Comic crime fiction has a small but devoted following. So if I wanted to reach a wider audience, I had to make my stories darker.

P1020266Lots of writers say they don’t want their editors or agents to suggest any changes, that they want to write what they want to write. But I’m not like that. Editors have always made my work better – just like my 2nd or 3rd draft is always better than my first one –  it’s a mistake not to listen to them. Perhaps it’s because I also worked as a newspaper editor and so I understand that, even if the author does a great job, there is a bigger picture, more of an overview which an editor can have.

I’d love to say that I don’t care about negative reviews, but of course I do. I may get 20 fabulous reviews but the one negative one will be the one I focus on and the one that will spoil my day. At some point, I had the idea of writing a novel about an author who goes round the country killing all those reviewers who give him 1 star on Amazon.

 

For much more balanced reviews of Linwood Barclay’s novels, see here and here on the CFL website. I look forward to cracking open my signed copy of Trust Your Eyes now, a story of brotherly love, schizophrenic obsessions and witnessing a murder via Google Earth.

Chi by Konami Kanata

Chi by Konami Kanata

On a complete tangent, at the Japanese stand I discovered the adorable series Chi’s Sweet Home by Konami Kanata, about a curious little tabby kitten. Since our household is currently rather cat-obsessed, I couldn’t resist this manga, nor the assorted cat figurines or key rings.

 

 

 

 

 

The Japan Stand

The Japan Stand

 

My Life Isn’t Open to Revision

This essay was written a while back for an online journal written by and for mothers. I think it was probably not quite upbeat enough about combining motherhood and creativity. Suffice it to say, it was not published, so I thought I might as well make it available here. Although, in the meantime, as I am reading Andrew Solomon’s ‘Far from the Tree’ about families who have faced real challenges in raising their (deaf, autistic, schizophrenic, transgender etc.) children, I feel terrible guilt about being a whiney spoilt brat who has never encountered real hardship. And that’s why I’m not really made to write creative non-fiction or memoirs. Fiction is much more fun (and less painful).

A few years ago, through no effort of my own, I became a ‘lady of leisure’. I’d resigned my job to follow my husband abroad and when we returned to Britain 18 months later in the summer of 2008, the job market was unrecognizable. I became a ravenous hunter, with 50+ versions of my CV to fit all occasions. In-between the rejections and the fortnightly humiliation of signing on at the Job Centre, I strove to become the best possible mother to my two sons. I may not previously have had time for toddler-aided bake-offs or 100 creative uses for wrapping paper, but now was the time to build all those cherished memories. For which I lacked talent, but made up through sheer force of will. In my remaining leisure time, I would also pick up and dust down that long-neglected passion of mine: writing.

Our minds play tricks on us: allowing us to pile so much upon ourselves, yet fiddling with the knobs on our measuring capacities. So we say: ‘More, more! It is too light still, not enough!’ even as we sink into the morass of multiple roles, none of which we fully own, none of which we play to perfection.

motorwaySo full-time and full-on was my life, that I used to do the weekly shop late at night at the 24 hour supermarket, once the children were tucked in bed. I would toss things into the trolley on autopilot, load the car and speed off home. One night, instead of turning right at the motorway junction, I paused.  On the left, a sign beckoned.

‘London’, it said.

‘Freedom’, I read through tear-soaked eyes. ‘Creativity. Endless possibility.’

The urge to turn left and never look back was so great, it frightened me.  Who can resist the siren call of simplifying your life, of escaping the chaos, of devoting yourself to a single pursuit far greater than yourself?

How had my life got so messy and overwhelming? You see, at my back I always hear Time’s winged chariot… In my case, this manifests itself as the deep-throated relentless chime of a grandfather clock in the darkened hall of my conscience. One lifespan is not enough for all the beings I am, for all that I could be. I want to accumulate blindly, wildly: experiences, skins, memories, loved ones. Never possessions.

www.cyprusscene.com

Discarded snakeskin, http://www.cyprusscene.com

The problem is not the trying everything, it’s the hoarding thereafter. I can never let go. Imperfection hurts me like a blunt saw. One of my skins dropped by the wayside is a tragedy. I not only want to be, I also want to be good at it.  It overwhelms me at times, the cacophony of demands. It threatens all that is good, kind or creative in me.  So you can understand why I sat mesmerized at that junction.

I turned right. And I’ve never, ever allowed myself to question that decision.

I am far from that place now.  Physically and mentally. Yet it frightens me still. How there is always a disconnect between the life we feel we were meant to live and the one we actually have. How easy it is to err on the side of discontent. How the sinuous murmurs of temptation can slither its way into our hearts and convince us that single-minded perfection is attainable and that its costs are bearable, ‘if only’ and ‘when this is over’.

Happy Birthday, Dear Bloggy!

Rainbow Cake from www.migros.ch

Rainbow Cake from http://www.migros.ch

Today my blog turns two – so toddler tantrums are probably on the cards now. So far, it’s been an utter joy and delight, if somewhat demanding of love and attention. Above all, it’s been malleable, unformed one might say. A little bit of everything I happened to fancy or think or want to post.

I started it for purely utilitarian purposes: it would act as an accountability instrument. Force me to gather my thoughts, force me to write (not necessarily post) daily, force me to share with others instead of hiding. In 2 years I’ve posted 310 blog posts, which is on average one new one every 2 1/2 days.

And it’s been successful as an accountability tool. Modest internautic success, but more than enough for me, an unknown name (pseudonym) with no novel yet to my name and just rekindling my passion for poetry after a hiatus of a couple of decades. I didn’t expect many people to find me, read me, let alone comment or follow. Yet around 350 people do – thank you so much! I get an average of 30-35 views per day, although that wonderful dVerse Poets community does bump up my numbers every time I link one of my poems to their site. My most successful month ever was August 2013, when I was writing solidly (at my novel, at my poetry and at my blog, triple whammy) for at least 8 hours a day. So quantity and practice does make a difference. Building tribes and platforms? Pah! I leave that to those writers who have actual published books to sell. At the moment, I’m just too excited exploring.

I love the international reach of the blog. The vast majority of views do come from the US (more than 9000 – so much for claims that Americans do not read!), with the UK limping in second place with only 5000, followed by France, Greece and Canada. I do wonder what the lone person from Mauritius and Syria thought when they came across my blog… I wish them well, in their very different, probably much more difficult worlds.

The most popular topics on my blog are roughly what I expected: poems, poetry and book reviews, but I am very much amused by the search terms most used for finding me. David Foster Wallace, Tawara Machi and Poetry Workshop are all rather surprising entrants into the Top 5, but the one in the top spot will have all those who know me snorting with laughter. Are you ready for it? It’s Country gardens. Now, although I love beautiful houses and gardens, I am a very inexperienced and clumsy gardener. In fact, I have the opposite of green thumbs and manage to cheerfully kill off any plant that I buy or receive as a present. So it’s rather ironic! I hope those who are diverted to my website via this term are not too horrified by what they find here instead!

Why Dance Makes Me Envious…

Last night I had the pleasure of watching ballet for the first time in a long, long while. It was the impressive Béjart Ballet Lausanne, founded by that great moderniser, dancer and choreographer, the late Maurice Béjart. They performed Le Spectre de la Rose (not in the Nijinsky version, but with a modern and witty spin, a girl dreaming of several suitors, none of them quite up to scratch) and Le Sacre du Printemps, which nearly caused a riot when it was first performed by Diaghilev’s company in Paris in 1913. This too was not in that original version, but in Béjart’s sensual, dramatic choreography. You can catch a small flavour of it below.

They also performed a piece which had its premiere earlier this year, called Anima Bluesinspired by the films of Audrey Hepburn. And this last, more experimental work had me green with envy.

Why? Because you can convey so much more through dance than through writing. You have music and sounds (including clips of dialogue, so you also have words). You have images, lights, the beauty of human bodies in all their various forms and level of flexibility – and it’s not just static shapes, but also movement. You have several things happening simultaneously on-stage – forefront, background, left, right, out of the corner of your eye. You have emotions welling up in the audience, you are conveying meaning at both the concrete and the abstract level. There is simply so much richness there… so much ambiguity and layered meaning, so much left unsaid and yet everything is hinted at. Plus, each performance is different.

Even poetry seems a little lacklustre today, in comparison. But it’s the only instrument I have in my attempt to capture the unsayable.

It’s All About the Voice

UntetheredYesterday I read my first official YA novel – because I am of that generation that didn’t have literature aimed specifically at my age-group, or paternalistic age-banding on books.  By the time YA literature made its official appearance, I had grown up and preferred to go back to my childhood favourites when I was in a nostalgic mood (Swallows and Amazons, Treasure Island, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase or Ballet Shoes). I had no desire to relive my late teens, when back in high school all I wanted to do was be as pretentiously grown-up as possible.

But for a friend and fellow member of the Geneva Writers’ Group (who moreover shares my love of popcorn!), the one-woman dynamo that is Katie Hayoz, I decided to forsake my stupid genre scepticism.  I find genre such a meaningless category anyway. Her book ‘Untethered’ is labelled YA fiction, as the protagonist is a teenage girl. (But then, The Lovely Bones, Catcher in the Rye and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter should all be categorised as teen fiction.) It’s also labelled a paranormal novel, which is more than a little misleading, although it does deal with astral projection.

However, this is not a post about genre fiction, fascinating though that subject may be. Instead, it is about the importance of narrative voice. The narrator of ‘Untethered’ has a remarkably clear voice of her own: self-absorbed and whiny at times, self-justifying and pretentious at others, but also sharply observant, funny and poignant. Unique and yet representative of teenagers everywhere. Or the teenager we think we remember we were.

This is the one thing that literary agents say over and over again about submissions: what makes them instantly prick up their ears and read on is this strong individual voice.  Yet it is far rarer than you might think.  I read so many books this year (140 at last count) and only a handful or two of those have that truly unique voice. Confidence, an above-average plot and a polished style: yes, there are dozens like that and I rank many of my favourite authors amongst these. But a voice that grabs you (even when you don’t much like it) and takes you into their world (however unfamiliar)… it is an exhilarating experience when that happens.  I’ve felt that this year with Katie Hayoz’s Sylvie, Denise Mina’s Garnethill, John Burdett’s Bangkok Eight, Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseille trilogy. All very different voices, but all whispering (sometimes shouting) potently in my ear.

Janis Joplin

Janis Joplin

Then I realised that it’s not just in literature, but also in music that I am bowled over by unique, strong, perhaps even unfashionable or unlikable voices. What I call ‘lived-in’ voices – people who have experienced much, suffered and not always overcome. Voices of experience, voices on the edge. Voices that you wouldn’t want to hear on your children, but in which you perhaps recognise just a little bit of yourself. Yes, I admire the perfect pitch, poise and modulations of great singers, but it’s these ‘broken’ voices, simultaneously world-weary and world-hungry, that make my heart do a double turn.

Good morning heartache, good morning Billie Holiday, Jim Morrison,

David Bowie, Janis Joplin, Maria Callas…

last.fm

Neither Fish Nor Fowl

Books

Books (Photo credit: henry…)

 

I am being naughty. I am sitting on the sofa, snacking on almonds, drinking my nth coffee of the day.  Which would be all fine and good, if I were doing it to fuel my work. My day job: because I have a squeaky-new, hot-off-the-press course to prepare and learn so that I can deliver it on Monday. Instead, I mooch around, resenting the work I have to do, leaving it once again until it is far too late, so that panic, sleepless nights and last-minute palpitations have to set in. Not exactly setting myself up for roaring professional success!

 

What I would like to do is finish my novel, finesse some poems, try out some new ideas I’ve been getting on and off (mostly off).  However, turning my back on what I ought to be doing for the sake of what I would enjoy induces too much guilt. So I end up doing neither. Instead, I read about how others are working on their books, going through the final edits, combining their day job with creative genius.  I vacillate between inspiration and desperation. End up feeling even more guilty, of course, and with nothing to show for my efforts at the end of the day.

 

I read somewhere that having a day job nourishes and enhances your writing. Or, at the very least, it makes you appreciate each little window of time opening up to you. So what is wrong with me that I find it harder and harder to appreciate the interplay between the two?

 

I remind myself how much T. S. Eliot despised his banking job and how his Bloomsbury friends (‘poor Tom’ crops up repeatedly in Virginia Woolf’s diaries) tried to drum up some money for him so he could dedicate himself to his writing. In the end, he found his work-life balance at Faber, but I do wonder if he might have been more prolific if circumstances had been kinder.

 

Creating ‘in spite of’ rather than ‘inspired by’. Hmmm, I wonder… Do adverse circumstances help to distill your work and bring out the truly essential? Or do they just lock you down mid-flow and mid-sentence?

 

A plaque at SOAS's Faber Building, 24 Russell ...

A plaque at SOAS’s Faber Building, 24 Russell Square, London. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Managing Time and Swallowing Frogs

Overplanning Activities

Overplanning Activities

There are days when I fall prey to my own consultancy speak. There are days when I believe that change is a finite process which can be managed, that time is a resource which can be planned down to the last details, that all that is required to make me a writer is more discipline.

So I scrabble and scramble, over-schedule, try to fit it all in and end up feeling very foolish and guilty, no matter how much I accomplish.

On Monday I had ten items on my To Do list. I only managed to complete 3 of them. I was very downhearted, of course, on Monday evening and resolved to do better. On Tuesday I had crossed off 9 out of the 10 items (plus a few minor ones that had cropped up in the meantime). Did I feel triumphant? Did I celebrate? No, I just started worrying about the next batch of ‘Must Dos’, about all the unformed unpronounceables threatening me with their ghostly presence.

One thing that is becoming obvious to me is that there are two categories of ‘difficult’, even though the fear of them may start out in a very similar fashion. Darkness in the morning, reluctance to get up, odd little procrastinating rituals to get started (reading your blogs with a cup of coffee in my hand is the main highlight of my day!). But then…

DSCN6616Category 1 Difficult (as in Writing is hard…)

Once the muscles are flexed, once the first half hour has passed, the love of words and ideas takes over. I pace about, mutter, write some more, get a bit distracted with research, get into the flow… and I am the happiest person on earth when I go to bed, no matter how much I have written. Such a privilege to spend the whole day thinking about writing!

Category 2 Difficult (as in I’d rather be writing…)

To use a bit more consultancy speak – it really is like swallowing frogs. I keep on dreading it, putting it off, doing it sloppily or half-heartedly until the deadlines are looming. And after a day of work? I am just tired and dissatisfied. What is worse, I don’t know what would make me feel I’d accomplished something in this field.

So, have you ever felt like that: Dissatisfaction, no matter how many results and rewards you get… and complete bliss when doing something else, without having very much to show for it?

 

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