This Will Be a Great Year of Writing… in a Week

2017 will be a great year for writing, I can feel it in my bones. I don’t just mean the rise of writing as political protest more generally, around the world, but for me personally. (Yes, forgive me, I am shallow and self-centred this time round.)

And this week has been a little microcosm of that.

wp_20161121_12_10_59_pro
It’s a long road ahead, but Voltaire is there to guide me… even at a distance.

First of all, as the title of my blog indicates, the greatest challenge I face as a writer is simply finding the bladidah time to write! So I joined the 5 day writing challenge on Prolifiko, a productivity coaching website aimed specifically at procrastinating writers such as myself. The idea being that by sticking to your resolutions for five days, and being held to account over them, you will develop new habits and will want to continue. My resolution has been a very simple one: to write for one hour a day 6 days a week (7 if I can manage it).

It may seem ridiculous that I cannot commit to writing more at this moment in time, when I am not working and while the children are in school from 8:30 to 15:30 every day. But I am also job hunting, doing some freelance work, reviewing, doing tax returns for two countries, doing housework, sorting out tricky financials and having discussions with solicitors etc. etc. By ‘writing’, I do not mean blogging or book reviews or HR articles or cover letters for job applications, but actual creative writing. Poetry, novel, short story.

So far, so good. I set my alarm for 12 noon and then scribble away blissfully for an hour. I find it works best if I have a combination of older work to edit and then allow myself to play around with ideas and words to bring out some fresh stuff. It certainly never feels like a chore, which confirms my impression that I would be the world’s happiest little writer, if only I didn’t have to do all the other boring bits in life.

Secondly, I’ve tried to apply for jobs I might actually enjoy (typically, those that have to do with books) rather than jobs that will merely pay the bills. Hopefully, I will eventually find one which meets both criteria, but in the meantime it has made the application process a little more fun. Organising a Meet the Agents/Publishers event for Geneva Writers Group in February is also highly energising and much more exciting than running workshops on workforce planning or business strategy.

Thirdly, I submitted a translation sample for a competition (German to English) and have also been in touch about translating crime fiction from Romanian into English. Fingers crossed! The next best thing after writing yourself is to be able to present other writers’ work to a new audience.

Fourth, I have three poems featured today on the literary site Clear Poetry (one I have always enjoyed reading and to which I had previously submitted unsuccessfully). The sound of my own voice makes me cringe a little, but there is audio of me reading the poems too, if you can bear to listen. The moral of the tale: if at first you get rejected, do submit again!

Fifth, I attended a fun-packed book launch  and talked to other writers about their writing process and publication journey, and it helped reset my energy and optimism buttons.

Sixth, I have decided to launch the #EU27Project for reading literature from all of the remaining countries of the EU. The response has been fantastic, and I would invite anyone to join in, whether you can read just one or two or all 27. It’s a project very dear to my heart. Call me a sentimental old idealist, but I was really hoping the European dream would come true. Now I see it in danger of going down in flames, it saddens me. I’ve never belonged to any country in particular, but I do belong to one continent: Europe.

To end on a hopeful note...
To end on a hopeful note…

 

 

What I Learnt from My Home Writing Retreat

Well, maybe this chalet in the woods might help...
Well, maybe this chalet in the woods might help…

For the past ten days I’ve been on my own at home, with my family enjoying their holiday in Greece. I was supposed to be travelling to Zurich for work, but the course got postponed. So I decided to reward myself with a home-based ‘writing retreat’ instead. After all, I’ve got beautiful landscapes all around me, a comfortable (and now blessedly quiet) home, and a self-imposed deadline: what more do you need to write?

And do you know what I discovered?

No, this is not going to be one of those posts lamenting how the saboteur of my writing efforts is no one other than myself. How I spend far too much time online or procrastinate mercilessly. How I fear failure and talk more about writing instead of doing it.

No.

P1030270I discovered I love it very much. It gushes out of me like a river that has been contained by a dam for far too long. I am perfectly content to write all day. I bury myself in my house, live like a hermit, don’t feel lonely at all (having an understanding cat helps), and my dull little routine is utter bliss.

I wake up at 7:30 or 8 (no early mornings to get children ready for school with last-minute surprises). I do my Twitter, blogging and reading of other people’s blogs with a coffee cup (or two) in hand. And then, usually at 9:30 or 10 at the latest, I start writing.

Images from a walk last week.
Images from a walk last week.

I spend the morning typing up (and editing as I go along) the chapter I wrote the previous afternoon. I have lunch when I feel like it, usually something simple like a salad or yoghurt or bread and cheese. Then I might have another quick check on the internet or read a couple of chapters and go for a walk. This past week we’ve been fortunate enough not to have a heatwave anymore, although another one is heading our way.

Then at about 3 p.m. I change my position, go upstairs or on the sofa and start handwriting the next chapter. I stop to watch the quiz show Pointless on the BBC (I like complaining that no one seems to know the answers to the literary questions – yes, I’m a priggish snob like that!). Then I write some more. And in the evening I read.

Claudia Cruttwell describes it perfectly in a recent blog post describing her escape to an isolated cottage in the Cairngorms:

I soon discovered how expansive time becomes when there is nothing – nothing – to interrupt your day. And it’s not just the not being interrupted: it’s the not anticipating any interruption. It made me realise how much this anticipation lurks in the back of my mind at home all the time. I’m always half expecting something to break into my concentration, be it the children, the telephone, the dishwasher cycle, some outside disturbance, or whatever. I realised how distracting this sense of anticipation is.

But when you don’t have to try and keep all of those diverse strands of unproductive worries in your head, when you can neglect everything but your characters and your story, the results may cause euphoria.

The more you write, the more you want to write. The fewer people to interrupt you, the simpler your life gets. The simpler your life is, the easier it is to have that wonderful ‘laser-focus’ all those self-help gurus talk about. Open yourself up to ‘blue-sky thinking’. Be in the ‘flow’. And all of those other expressions I use for my bread-and-butter but hopefully not in my creative writing.

The path ahead?
The path ahead?

It’s been a great boost to my confidence to discover that the true cause for the lack of writing does not lie within myself, but in external circumstances.

Now, how I can keep the momentum going when the ‘external circumstances’ return – that is a far more delicate matter…

For lovers of numbers, I am about a third of the way in: 10 chapters out of an estimated 30 (some much longer than others), 35 000 words committed to paper out of an estimated 90 000. I was hoping to be about halfway through at this point, but this is still quite good going, considering that I had only about 8000 words until 10 days ago.

No One but Myself to Blame…

This is the start of my two weeks of peace. The children are on holiday with their grandparents, I have finished most of the admin work relating to taxes and property letting, so I finally have the space and time to write.

If I don’t write 2000 words a day or so over the next couple of weeks (that is entirely feasible and realistic), I have no one to blame but myself.

Of course there are minor quibbles that are remarkably good at barging in, demanding attention and turning themselves into distracting obstacles: heatwave, headaches, a never-ending list of urgent admin tasks (because not everyone is on holiday in summer), book reviews to be written… Not to mention those underlying doubts about plot, characters, style, has it all been done before.

I will put those quibbles in their place, though, be ruthless and focus on my writing. Or else I risk proving to myself that I am all mouth, all excuses and no depth at all. I don’t want to start despising myself.

After all, if I wanted to lead a life of ‘dolce far niente’, I would come back as a cat!

Zoeresting

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.

Everything But the Run

Running ShoesI used to be a runner. I started running 6 years ago and was soon training 3-4 times a week. I even took part in marathons (once!), half-marathons and 10k races. I collected medals, and lost weight and moodiness in one fell swoop.

Of course, there were many days when I didn’t feel like going out for a run. Anyone who knows what England is like in November can confirm that there are many November days throughout the year.  But I survived the rain, the snow, the few days of summer heat, a wasp sting, getting lost in a field full of rampant bulls.

Then I sprained my ankle quite badly, and was laid up for a few weeks.  When I recovered, I injured my toe.  A few months later, something else happened. And so injury followed bed rest followed pain… until I was completely out of shape.  The longer I stayed away from running, the harder it got to get back into it.

Here in France the weather is not November all year round, but did that rid me of excuses? No, on the contrary, it provided me with more of them.

‘Today is too hot’ or ‘I can’t run in the snow’ alternated with ‘I’m too busy travelling’ or ‘I’ve got to prepare for this important business thing.’  And of course, the children – handy, trusty old excuses – they always figured in there somehow, in my list of excuses.   My ever-expanding list, to match my ever-expanding waistline.

This month all my prevarications and procrastinations were laid bare.  My children were shipped off to the grandparents.  There was no work to be done over the summer.  All I had to do was get into shape, with my running and my writing.

That’s when the similarities hit me!  I was putting off running, pretending to limber up through all sorts of other exercises (Pilates DVDs, swimming, cycling).  Then I try a few abortive little run-walks, which remind me just how out of shape I am. So then I avoided running even more.  But I know that the only way to get my form back is to break through that pain barrier, to stick with it for long enough.

EditsSame with my novel.  I’ve been putting off editing it by writing blog posts, poems, the odd little bit of prose here and there, book reviews – anything but the novel, in short!  So meanwhile, my mental form is corroding.  Yes, sure, any kind of writing is better than no writing at all, just like any kind of exercise is better than none at all.  But this dilution of effort and focus does not bring me a single step closer to what I want to achieve.

You only become a runner by running.  You only become a novelist by writing a novel.

Have I learnt my lesson? Well, for the past two days I’ve started editing. And you know what?  It’s not as bad as I thought.  It’s hard work, it’s rewriting more than editing, but it’s fun.  In a masochistic kind of way.

I think I may even go for a run soon!

I’ve Fallen in Love…

… with a pen.

Just look at you – you are  the stuff that dreams are made of! Svelte, classy, not easily intimidated…

MontBlancPen

 

You are photogenic from all angles.  I’ve examined you in close-up and hereby pronounce you irresistible.

MontBlancNib

 

So what if I barely use fountain pens anymore? I do prefer their smoothness, but usually end up with inky fingers.  I’m sure that you’ll  never let me down like that.  Once I am in your thrall, I might even consider abandoning my laptop for you.

Just imagine the masterpieces we could write together.  The royalties and contracts we could sign, covered in smiles.  The Nobel Prize acceptance speech we could produce five minutes before we have to give it.  You would be my secret weapon, my talisman, my precious.

And maybe you could also be a reminder that if I don’t start behaving like a writer, I do not deserve to have friends like you in my life.

MontBlanc3

No, my sweet, our time has not yet come!  But I promise you, when I publish my first book, whether it does well or not, whether anyone likes it or not, I shall find you and buy you and we shall live together in eternal bliss.

N.B. No pens, real or fictional, were harmed in the writing of this post.  Nor have I been paid by a certain luxury producer of writing instruments to advertise their products. This love is genuine, incorruptible… and, much like my novel, forever postponed.

Everything Has to Be Just So to Write?

There is an article in ‘The New Yorker’ that fills me with guilt: it is an essay by Roxana Robinson, novelist, essayist, short-story writer on how she starts writing first thing in the morning.  She sacrifices conversation with her husband, glancing at the news, a good breakfast and even (horror of horrors!) a decent cup of coffee in her desire to sit down and listen to her deepest thoughts and dreams.

BookshelvesI am full of admiration, but I also have to admit my own experience is so far removed from that, we might as well be living in different galaxies or parallel universes.  Not only do I have a family who conspires to destroy my gossamer of dream-thoughts even if I wake up at 6 in the morning to sneak to the guestroom to get some writing done.  But I am also a bit of an obsessive-compulsive (which means I need to have a clear desk), a coffee snob (which means taking the time to choose the right coffee), a perfectionist (I need to feel I have a clear mind, all the admin paperwork out of the way, my emails checked for any urgent messages) and… OK, I’ll admit it, a procrastinator (so I like to work up to things gradually, which means easing my way in via far too much Twitter or reading blogs or other stories etc. etc.).  It’s a wonder I ever get anything written at all! (But perhaps not so much of a wonder that I have yet to publish a novel).

So this blog post below is perhaps a fairer description of what happens in my house (I was unable to reblog this, so I am cutting and pasting it from the website of Abigail Kloss-Aycardi, which is well worth a visit):

I was listening to a lecture on creativity by John Cleese that is posted on Twitter this morning. I found it very inspiring and I agreed with all of his points.

I felt quite ready to get to writing some poetry….but I ran into some basic problems. This is not a poem, just the conversation I had with myself and the conclusion that I reached.

I can’t write with the door shut,
It’s too hot; I’ll suffocate.
“Then put on some shorts,”
I can’t write in shorts.
I just can’t.

I can’t write on my iPad,
I don’t want to “hunt and peck”.
“So use your laptop,”
It’s too heavy and it gets too hot.
I just can’t.

I can’t write in the bedroom,My husband’s in there.
“So what?”
I don’t write with anyone else in the room.
I just can’t.

“So what do you want?”I want an air conditioner in this room.

I want a thin, light-weight, cool-running laptop

And I want to shut the door.

“So what are you going to do?”

Go make some hummus,

The chick peas are almost ready.

I am sure I could write better in this library...
I am sure I could write better in this library…

This is the end, my only friend…

12 years in gestation, 2 years in the writing, 98,000 words in the making… and yesterday, finally, finished.  I never had as much satisfaction writing ‘The End’ as I did on the first draft of my novel.

So why does it not feel like more of an achievement? Why is the relentless thrumming and mournful wail (perhaps even the shouty anger) of the song ‘The End’ by The Doors a more accurate reflection of my feelings?

Perhaps because I have had this novel hanging over me like a bad conscience for so long that I have fallen out of love with it.  Or because I already know that the first draft is inconsistent, the voice and tone shifting as I have grown more confident with practice (or with age). I already know there are gaping holes and inaccuracies, wonky timelines, characters that need some space to grow beyond the stereotype.  But the plan is to let this badly written (but written, yes, nevertheless written) first draft lie in its marinade for the rest of the month and then do a rapid rewrite during July.  This rewrite will give it a unified voice (hopefully), plug the gaps, be a rapid brushwork like in a fresco once the damp plaster has been put in place.

Just to give you a sense of  how much I’ve been procrastinating: the germ of the idea for the story came to me in about 1997/98.  I let it stew in my head for about 10 years, then plotted out the storyline and added some characters in 2008.  But its existence was still limited to the confines of my head and nowhere else.  At that point I was focusing on writing and submitting short stories (for which I have no talent) on all sorts of topics (most of which completely unappealing ) for competitions that terrified me, simply because I was convinced that only by winning a competition would I find a publisher for my (as yet unwritten) novel.

Enough with the parentheses!

Then in May 2010 I attended the Faber Academy course on getting published. I was a bit cheeky attending it really, since I had not written a single word of my novel yet. One of the requirements for attending was that we bring along the opening chapter or the first three pages of the novel.  So, the night before the workshop, I hammered out 3-4 pages and read them out.  The noises were encouraging.  Much better than I deserved. The editor who ran the course, the cooly realistic yet very inspiring Hannah Griffiths, gave me the best advice I’d ever had up to that point: ‘If you want to write a novel, why are you writing short stories?  Write the novel! Don’t waste your time on competitions if you don’t want to be doing that: in the end, none of these awards count as much as the quality of the work you are submitting to an agent or a publisher.’

It sounds obvious, but it took a while for the penny to drop.  I still dithered, I still hid behind my a million other professional and family obligations.  But I did unofficially join NaNoWriMo in November 2010. Unofficially, because, well, I did tell you I don’t like publicly committing to challenges, didn’t I?  Somehow, don’t ask me how, I successfully wrote 50,000 words of my novel that month.  I continued some sporadic writing over the next couple of months, but then in February 2011 or so it ground to a halt again.  Another Faber Academy course in May 2011 reignited my fire, despite the huge personal changes I was going through at the time.  And no, honestly, I am not paid to advertise for Faber, but I can wholeheartedly recommend the fantastic Gillian Slovo and Sarah Dunant as tutors: they really make a good team, with their contrasting styles but equal passion for words and stories.  However, NaNoWriMo in 2011 was a bit of a failure, with me only managing to churn out about 20,000 words and the novel still nowhere near completion.

February 2012, however, was a turning point.  Yes, I know I keep saying that, and I know that I shouldn’t depend on external events so much to motivate myself.  A true writer always finds the courage and inspiration within his or her own self to keep going.  But at the time I needed a push, a small dose of encouragement liberally sprinkled with reality.  And I found that at the Geneva Writers’ Group conference, particularly in the words of Bret Lott, Naomi Shihab Nye, Susan Tiberghien and Dinah Lee Küng.  Since then I have left fear and procrastination, busy-ness and conflicting priorities behind.  I have written every day, set up this blog, started sharing my work with others, learnt to accept critique.  But still, still, still, no progress with my novel, even though I was so close to the finishing line.

End sign

And now, in a slow, steady trickle over days and weeks, this past weekend my world (of anxiety, procrastination and invention) and my novel ended.  Not with bang, but a whimper.  Or a long-drawn out breathy wail from Jim Morrison.

Take your pick!