Tag Archives: competitions

Competition Time!

So – it’s a strange world we’re living in right now. I’m mostly at home these days, as my child’s school has been closed due to the current Coronavirus/Covid-19 outbreak, and I’m privileged (and very glad) to be in the position to take up full-time care. However, life does and must go on; I still have a book deadline to make (I hope I’ll be able to tell you more about my upcoming projects soon), and the world has to keep turning.

All schools in the Republic of Ireland are currently closed, in the hope that it will help to slow the spread of the virus, and it’s possible that schools in the United Kingdom will follow suit in the coming days. As a result of this, authors and artists and performers and other creatives all over the internet have decided to offer free content to help keep children amused, entertained, and (most importantly) creating during the time they’re at home. I have a Resources page – click this link here to pay it a visit – which might help with that, and I also wanted to run a competition…

So. In the interests of fostering creativity, and of celebrating the fact that I was recently shortlisted for a fantastic competition (the KPMG Children’s Books Ireland Award) here’s what I’m proposing.

Prize Picture

I have a couple of hardback US editions of The Eye of the North and some of The Starspun Web knocking about, and I’d very much like to send one copy of each to a pair of good homes. (Winners can choose which book they’d like, of course.) I’ll also throw in some signed bookplates and a poster, which I’ll gleefully make out in the name of the winner’s choice (as in, if you don’t want them for yourself, just tell me who to sign them to and I will). The catch?

Well. The catch, if you choose to see it that way, is you’ve got to get creative. On my Resources page you’ll see fact sheets, a word-search, a colouring page, and some suggestions for activities. Based on these suggested activities, I’d like entrants to take their pick from one of the following small projects, and get their thinking caps on.

The Eye of the North-based activities

1. Based on this Resources page, design your own mythical monster and write a story or a poem about it. I’d love to see you make a model of your monster, perhaps from modelling clay or paper or tinfoil or whatever you have to hand, and I’d really love to see you write your story, or poem, out by hand with your own drawings dotted through the text. And if you’re feeling extra-adventurous, recite your story or poem for your friends and family!

2. Based on this Resources page, draw your own dog-sled team and pick names for all your dogs. You can have as few as two or as many as twelve, and they can be called whatever you like! Have a read of the Resources page for more information about the things you need to think about when naming and positioning your dogs, and for a true story in which sled dogs and their humans saved the day, and then come up with an emergency situation, where you and your dog team are all that can save your people from certain doom… I’d love to see drawings as well as stories told in words. Give it a go!

3. Take a look at the activities on this Resources page. If you’d like to tackle the first one – thinking about ways, big and small, in which we can all help to tackle climate change – that would be fantastic. You can tell me about the climate change activists who inspire you, as well as the kind of things you and your family are doing every day to help things to get better, and the kind of things we can all do (citizens and government alike) to help the planet. Drawings, models, diagrams, charts, words – they’re all good. Show me what you’ve got.

4. You could also tackle the other activities on the Climate Change Resources page and imagine you’re a creature who has always lived in a cold, icy environment. You can choose to be a real creature, or you can create one from your imagination. Then, think about the ways climate change might affect or impact you and your way of life. Draw me pictures of your creature, make a model of it from whatever you’ve got, go wild.

The Starspun Web-based activities

1. Check out my Resources page about the North Strand Bombing, which happened in Dublin in 1941. This real-life tragedy is part of the plot of The Starspun Web. I’d love it if you could imagine yourself into the night of the bombing and write your own story – I’ve given a few ideas for starting points in the Resources, but you can imagine it any way you like. On the Resources page there are some links where you’ll find out more information about the bombing; they might help you to create your story. You don’t have to set it in Dublin; it can be set wherever you like. Don’t worry about getting it ‘right’; it’s your imagination, there’s no right and wrong. And, as always, if you fancy drawing me some pictures to illuminate your tale, I’d be thrilled with that.

2. Or, if you fancy getting stuck into thinking about alternate realities and other worlds, check out this Resources page – it talks about a famous scientist who spent several years in Dublin (and who is mentioned, tangentially, in the opening pages of my book), and his work in the many-worlds theory. For this exercise, I’d like you to open your imagination as wide as it can go, and design your own alternate universe. It can have anything you like – trees made of custard, creatures with woolen teeth, whatever you can dream up – and tell me how you’d get from our world to your alternate reality. Pictures would be great – draw me a graphic novel! – but whatever way you do it, I want to know about the other worlds inside your mind.

3. Next, there’s the Resources page that focuses on the Tunguska Event, which – as you might remember, if you’ve read The Star-spun Web – forms part of the plot to my own book. If you’d like to imagine that you were there on the ground in Tunguska on June 30th 1908, and write me a story (with pictures!) to describe what it was like and what you saw, that would be amazing. If you’d prefer to imagine you’re in your own house when a meteorite comes crashing through your front room, that’s amazing too. Tell me the story, draw me the picture, make a model meteorite. Whatever you like!

4. Last, but by no means least, there’s this fab Resources page all about tarantulas. (Be warned: there’s a photo of a spider on the page.) Have a read through the facts, and then take a look at the activities. If you want to tell me about the animal you’d choose to bring with you on your adventure, that’d be amazing. Tell me what the adventure is, what your animal is, what its name is, and why you chose it, and then write me the story of your adventure – with pictures, if you can. Or, you can design your own tarantula – either an animal, or a tarantula-shaped vehicle, or a tarantula-based character, or whatever you like – and tell me a story about it. Are you going to be the hero, or the villain? Pictures, models, diagrams are all welcome.

So. Some ground rules for the competition:

You don’t have to complete an activity for the book you want to win. So, if you fancy winning The Eye of the North but one of the activities for The Starspun Web strikes your fancy more, or vice-versa, that’s absolutely fine. Go for whatever one you like the best.

Please ask your grown-ups to send photos of your work to sjohart @ sjohart . com (no spaces) or send it via Twitter, tagging me (my handle is @SJOHart), so that I can see it, if they don’t mind it being publicly visible. You can ask them to hashtag it #TheEyeOfTheNorth or #TheStarSpunWeb if they like.

I’d like to be able to share some photos of the entries I receive on my social media profiles. I won’t share anything personal (so, no faces or names), but if you don’t want me to share the stuff you send me, please do let me know when you enter. It’s not a problem at all.

On your entry, let me know which book you’d prefer. I’ll draw one winner for The Eye of the North and one for The Starspun Web.

I’m going to leave this competition open until May 1st, and I’ll draw a winner from the entries after that. Then, assuming no delays with the postal system, I’ll get the prizes sent out as soon as I possibly can.

Does all this sound good? Let me know if you have questions. Share the competition far and wide – it’s open to adults and children alike, or even adults and children working together. I really hope it helps you to spend some time creating something new, using your brilliant brains and stretching your imaginations, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what you come up with.

Ready – Set – Create!

 

Mind-Full Monday

Good moaning.

Image: warrelics.eu

Image: warrelics.eu

It’s Monday again, and my skull is creaking at the seams.

The things on my mind this morning, in no particular order, are:

1. The frustrations of being misunderstood;
2. The difficulty of keeping a load of closing dates for competitions and submissions in mind for long enough to write them down, whereupon you lose the piece of paper you wrote the dates down on and forget them all anyway;
3. The need to come up with stuff to write for these competitions and/or submissions;
4. The sheer absolute awesomeness of this:

5. The horror of constantly checking your email inbox, just in case there’s a message in it which will change the course of your future. Or, you know, not.
6. The fact that I watched ‘The Happening’ at the weekend, despite my brother’s warning years ago that it was utter, irredeemable nonsense. I should have listened to my brother.

But the main thing on my mind today is the fact that what I am going to be doing for the foreseeable future is rewriting one of my own books, in line with Very Knowledgeable Advice – the sort of advice it would be foolish to ignore, in other words. So, I am being very clever indeed by not ignoring it.

The book is ‘Eldritch.’ I don’t blame you for forgetting all about it. I nearly had, too.

So, I had originally imagined ‘Eldritch’ as the first part of a trilogy. In my innocence, I had thought the story needed three whole books to tell it: I had imagined my funny little hero, Jeff Smith (who wishes he had a cooler name so that he could have better luck with girls), and his brave and clever friend Joe Araujo (who would rather be at home eating curry than on an adventure), would enjoy being flung through time and space not once, but three times in order to bring their story to a conclusion. I thought I had crafted good, strong characters, including a compelling baddie (I so hadn’t); I thought, in short, that the story was strong enough to sustain a series.

But – *cue dramatic flourish* – I was wrong.

I was wrong, and I didn’t see it until it was pointed out to me. I didn’t see that my baddie was a mishmash of clichés, and that my story was a reasonably good one, but that it certainly didn’t need three books to tell it. I didn’t see that, while my writing was reasonable and the dialogue between my leads was memorable, so much of what I’d written was so-so and forgettable.

I’m not trying to pretend this wasn’t hard to hear. But if you want to know the truth about it – I took this feedback, and I digested it, and after only a few moments (a few stomach-plunging moments, admittedly) I began to see how much sense it made. Taking this feedback was a lot easier than I’d expected, and a lot less painful than I’d imagined.

Image: 8track.com

Image: 8track.com

Not long after this, I began to re-plot the book in my head. It was tough to disassemble the scaffolding of ‘trilogy’ which had previously existed around these characters and this story; it was hard to even imagine the book as a self-contained unit, instead of a series. It meant a total rethink of the plot, the characters, the motivation, and particularly the ‘baddie’ – he needed to be stronger, scarier, more interesting. In short, he needed to be mine, not a mixture of all the baddies I’d ever read about. I hadn’t realised this was what I’d managed to do, until I re-read him. In short, the bits of the book which didn’t feature him were much stronger than the bits that did.

And that’s not good.

Your baddie is supposed to be your most compelling character. Even more so than your protagonist, your antagonist (to give him his ‘Official Title’) should be unique, and marvellously evil, and logically motivated, and in possession of a Dastardly Plan that makes sense and is workable. He or she should be layered and complex and full of secrets. If not, then you don’t have any proper drama or tension in your story. Your heroes have nothing to fight against or overcome. The danger in your tale is neutralised.

My baddie was a pantomime villain. Looking back, I can’t believe I didn’t spot it myself. But that’s why it’s important to have other eyes read your work, of course.

It also leads me to realise that the most important part of writing is the ability to rewrite, up to and including taking your own work, completely breaking it down, and building it back up again from scratch. A mere edit wouldn’t have saved ‘Eldritch’, but I am only human, and I did investigate whether there were any shortcuts to the process. I wondered if there was a way to salvage most of it, and just change the bits that needed changing. I wondered if there was any chance I could keep some of the features that, I thought, made the book unique – but I’ve learned that only what’s good for the story, not what’s good for the writer, should make it into a final draft.

You have to be willing to do whatever it takes to make the story as good as it can be. If this involves starting again from first principles, then that’s what you have to do.

The only rule is: never give up trying to make your work as excellent as it can be, and always ask for (and heed!) good advice.

All right, so that’s sort of two rules. But you know what I mean.

Image: commitnesstofitness.com

Image: commitnesstofitness.com

I hope a week of wonder awaits you – and that there will be plenty of words in it.

A Sharp Lesson

One of the things about myself which I may have kept under wraps – until now – is the fact that I make brilliant potato wedges. Or, if you prefer, oven chips (this makes them sound a little more appealing, perhaps.) Naturally, the process of making these carbohydrate delights involves me, a large knife and a big scrubbed spud – and rather a fine dollop of audacity.

Last evening, quite late, Husband and I were antsin’ for our dinner. I’d decided I was doing my oven chips as a treat, and so I got stuck in.

Now, *this* guy - he's got style and technique... Image: amazon.com

Now, *this* guy – he’s got style and technique…
Image: amazon.com

Normally, when I make these chips, my husband’s not home; they’re made in advance of his return in the evening as a surprise, for instance. So, I’m not sure he’d ever seen my – frankly – rather reckless way with a blade until yesterday. I was in a hurry, I was hungry, and that added a sprinkling of further foolishness to the situation.

I was chopping, at an angle, through the quartered potato, half paying attention to what I was doing and half to the rest of the dinner, when Husband walks into the kitchen.

‘Oh, mind your fingers!’ he said – being the kind, sensible, intelligent fellow that he is.

Instantly – instantly – the blade went awry, and my left ring finger came a cropper.

Now, the injury’s not bad. I’m fine. Dinner proceeded in the usual way, and it went down well. I’m typing here this morning without any discomfort or inconvenience. But it is amazing that out of the hundreds of times I’ve cut a potato in just the same (stupid) way with just the same knife, and just the same level of distraction, I have never once cut myself. As soon as someone else made me realise how dangerous what I’m doing actually is, suddenly the task became something else.

My husband did just the right thing, of course. If I’d seen him acting like a darn fool with a big knife, I’d have said exactly the same to him. But isn’t it rather strange that we, as humans, sometimes tend to ignore the dangers of something if there’s nobody around to tell us how dangerous it is, and to ask us to please take care?

Sometimes, perhaps, we should know better, instinctively.

Aaargh! I mean, *what*? Image: dailymail.co.uk

Aaargh! I mean, *what*?
Image: dailymail.co.uk

Sometimes the dangers aren’t so obvious. And sometimes we think we can take something on because we have a larger idea of our capability than is, perhaps, the case.

I’ve been working very hard for the past few months on ‘Emmeline’, and now that it’s done I feel a little drained. I started the edits on Friday (because reasons), and I intend to continue with that work today, but over the weekend I fell into a dark slump, a pit of despond, a cavern of desolation – whatever you’d like to call it. I tried my best to drag myself up out of it, particularly because there was a wonderfully happy family event to attend on Saturday, but every single second of the past few days has been a struggle. It has blindsided me completely; I finished my working day on Friday in excellent form, and woke up on Saturday feeling like someone had turned out all the lights inside me.

Perhaps I have overdone it. Perhaps I overestimated my own capability. Or, perhaps, the two events – my finishing the book and falling into a pothole – are unconnected. Whatever the reason, I wish I’d been aware enough of how I was feeling to tell myself to take care and to get more rest and to keep myself well – but if I’d done all that, I wouldn’t have made my own deadlines, or fitted in with the schedule I’ve worked out for myself. My life lately has been about relentless forward movement – always something else to be aimed for, always something else to do, always a new project on the horizon.

That’s all fine, of course, if you remember this: you have limitations. You’re playing with something dangerous, whether that be a sharp knife or your own relentless drive. You’re risking something important, whether that be your fingers or your mental health.

I am lucky to have loved ones to remind me to take care, but I need to remember to remind myself to take it easy, too. Perhaps next time it won’t take a bleeding finger – or a dark cloth thrown over my mind – to make me realise how important it is to go steady, be gentle and always pay attention to the potential danger in every innocuous-seeming situation.

And, of course, the real moral of this story is: now I need a new oven-chip technique, too.

Goshdurnit! Image: cowgirlgoods.typepad.com

Goshdurnit!
Image: cowgirlgoods.typepad.com

Finding Your Voice

Every new Monday is like a new year, for me. I make resolutions to be focused, professional and productive; I make out my targets for the week ahead; I try to hit the ground running. I have great visions for what the next five days will bring, and I hope to make the most out of every single second of writing time that I can squeeze out of it.

That doesn’t mean I actually achieve any of it, of course. But I try.

Image: educationelf.net

Image: educationelf.net

In the midst of all this businesslike focus, though, it can sometimes be tough to remember that the point of writing is to create something, and that it’s not akin to building an engine or entering data into a spreadsheet; it’s important to keep in mind that in writing, you can’t predict how the working week will go, and how you’re going to feel about your work from one second to the next. It’s also important to remember one other thing: your writing voice, and how it can suffer under pressure. Without your writing voice, of course, you’re in big trouble.

But what does it even mean?

Finding a ‘voice’ is one of these things that everyone agrees is vital for a writer. It’s supposed to be your calling card, your ‘fingerprint’, your unique hook, your selling point. But how do you find it? How do you develop and nourish it? How do you know it’s ‘right’?

Well, in my opinion, the short response is that nobody knows the definitive answer to these questions. Everyone agrees that a ‘voice’ is important – nay, vital – but there are so many differing opinions on how to go about finding it that it should give any sensible person pause. I’ve read some advice which states things like ‘if it feels like work when you’re writing it, then you should probably think about changing your voice’; I’m not sure I agree with that. I’ve come across advice which tells me to imagine my ‘ideal’ reader and write to them – again, that’s problematic. Some advice-givers tell us that a writer’s voice is always an artifice – a construction designed to showcase their brilliant word-choices and their flawless plotting. Once again, you might have guessed I have a problem with this definition. I’ve also seen articles which exhort me to believe that if a person can talk, they can also write – as in, a good oral storyteller will be a good storyteller on paper, too – but I’m pretty sure I don’t believe this, either. I write a lot more clearly and a lot more coherently than I speak, as anyone who’s listened to me ramble on for hours on end will, no doubt, attest.

The riveted audience at one of my famous 'How Interesting Were the Middle Ages?!?' lectures. Image: profalbrecht.wordpress.com

The riveted audience at one of my famous ‘How Interesting Were the Middle Ages?!?’ lectures.
Image: profalbrecht.wordpress.com

The only key to finding your voice, at least as far as I can see, is to write honestly. I’m talking here about creative writing, more than writing with another purpose such as journalism or non-fiction writing, purely because I have more experience with it – I’m sure honest writing makes for more solid copy in journalistic terms, too, though. In terms of fiction writing, including creative writing and blogs, the only things you need to find your voice, in my opinion, are time and courage. Time, of course, is obvious enough – practice as often as possible, write as regularly as possible and get as much feedback as possible over the course of the weeks or months or even years that it takes you to feel comfortable with what you’re producing, and don’t try to rush the process. There is no race to be run – it’s not like there’s a limited amount of voices on offer and the slowest writers are left with the dregs.

But what about courage?

I will find the words! Image: he-man.wikia.com

I will find the words!
Image: he-man.wikia.com

Writing, by itself, is not really a scary thing. The fear of the blank page is common enough, and the terror that comes to all of us who write when the words just dry up and refuse to make an appearance is also well known. The creation of a document – be it a book, an article, a poem, whatever – is (or perhaps should be) more about joy, fulfilment and a sense of rewarding hard work than about fear; to me, the brave bit is what comes after you’ve finished the writing. Firstly, you’ve got to be brave enough to let other people see what you’ve written. And, even more importantly, you’ve got to be brave enough to write what you want to write.

I’ve fallen into the trap myself, many times, of trying to write what I think an editor or a judge will want to read. I’ve tried to change my focus, write a story the likes of which I wouldn’t normally dream of writing, tried to develop a style which might be more in keeping with the sort of thing they normally enjoy – and do you want to know the truth of it? It has never worked. Not once. I’m not sure if it’s because the editor/judge in question has spotted that the work is not ‘authentic’, or because I’m just not very good at writing when it’s not coming from a place of honesty, but either way it just hasn’t been worth the effort of changing my voice to suit someone else. Being brave enough to write what you want to write can sometimes mean you still won’t win the competition you’ve entered or that you run the risk of not impressing the person to whom you’ve submitted your work; at least, though, you can rest easy in the knowledge that you wrote a ‘true’ piece, something that was meaningful to you. The work will be stronger for it, even if it’s not to the taste of the judge or editor who has the task of evaluating it. Writing is an extremely subjective business, too – so how are you to build up your own voice if you’re constantly changing it to suit the vagaries of editors and judges?

In my opinion, then, you shouldn’t listen to any advice you get on the internet (including this blog post) about how to find and cultivate your writing voice. My opinion is write what you want to write, polish it as hard as you can and be proud of every word, and submit it with courage until you find someone who responds to the notes of honesty and conviction in what you’ve written. However, of course, take that advice with a pinch of salt. Writing should be fun, but it is also hard work and a craft which needs honing and polishing; finding a voice is like learning how to use grammar and how to construct a sentence. It takes time, but it’s worth the journey. It’s not something which should be rushed, and it’s not worth trying to take shortcuts to achieve it. Just write with your soul in your fingertips, and be brave.

And, of course, patient.

Teeny-Tiny Tuesday

Hello, all.

I’ve not been feeling well for the past couple of days. Yesterday, I struggled with a headache that strangled my brain to the point of affecting my vision, and today I feel rather like a person who has been shoved into a barrel and rolled, willy-nilly, down a rocky mountain path. I managed to get a good night’s sleep last night, which has – to be fair – worked wonders, but I’m still not feeling my best self, shall we say.

I think the recent hot weather has been playing havoc with my person – and before anyone accuses me of complaining about the good weather, I’m not, okay, it’s been great – but, as always happens, by the time I’m used to the heat, no doubt it’ll be gone again and I’ll have to re-acclimatise to our normal weather conditions. I’m always one step behind, weather-wise! While it really has been wonderful to see blue sky and to be able to go outside without a rainjacket in the middle of the summer, some of us (i.e. me) are built like Yetis and can only function properly at low temperatures. Heat is not my friend.

This is my baby picture. No, seriously! Image: scaryforkids.com

This is my baby picture. No, seriously!
Image: scaryforkids.com

Also, I’ve been doing my usual ‘mad panic pressure have-to-do-everything-all-at-once’ nonsense again, and I really feel like I’ve blown a gasket in my brain. Yesterday was a total disaster, writing-wise. My blog post took twice as long as normal to prepare, and as well as that I couldn’t concentrate for longer than five or ten minutes at a time; trying to get any meaningful work done was a frustrating torment. However, instead of leaving the writing behind and going off to do something else, like a sensible person, I tried to truck on through. I never learn, do I? I do have competition deadlines coming up, and I want to put my best work forward for them, so I am going to have to try to remember that sometimes the best thing you can do for your writing is not to write. Work you produce under pressure, or when you’re not feeling well, is never going to make the grade – all it will do is make you feel worse, set you back even further and give you a lot of sub-standard words and sentences to unpick when you’re back on your feet again.

So, I’m going to take it a little easier today. I’m going to write, of course, but I’m going to remember that it’s supposed to be enjoyable and fulfilling, not something which makes me cry over my keyboard. If I can only do it in ten-minute bursts, that’s fine; if I need to have a lie-down (which I never do in the middle of the day, on principle), then I’m going to allow myself to do that. I have to realise that if I don’t look after myself, nobody else is going to. Not to mention that I’m going to need my brain, my body and my mental health to see me through the rest of my (hopefully long and happy) writing career, and that means taking care of what I’ve got, however humble it might be.

But then I keep saying this, and I never actually do it. Today, I promise, I will take my own good advice. And I don’t have any fingers or toes crossed!

This picture made me laugh, so I'm passing it on to you. Happy Tuesday! Image: futurity.com

This picture made me laugh, so I’m passing it on to you. Happy Tuesday!
Image: futurity.com

Have a good day. Hopefully I’ll be back on form by tomorrow, and raring to go for the Wednesday Write-In, as normal. See you then!

Reading vs Writing

And here we are, washed up on the shores of Thursday. How are you all?

I haven’t been doing a lot of writing this week, because life has managed to get in the way a lot over the past few days. It has a nasty habit of doing that just when you feel deadlines approaching and commitments (even if they’re only ones you’ve made to yourself!) piling up all around you. But, hopefully, from today until Saturday at least I’ll have time to get myself back on track and plough through some of the story ideas I’ve been working on; I’ll get them drafted and ready to sit, percolating, for a few days, all going well. I have competition deadlines coming up in June, July and August, and I need to have polished, professional work ready to submit.

Hang on, will you, just a second, while I breathe into this paper bag.

I can do this... I can do this! Image: babyboomeradviserclub.com

I can do this… I can do this!
Image: babyboomeradviserclub.com

Okay. I’m good to go.

This deadline-fear is one of the reasons I go through periodic bouts of panicky palpitations and sleepless nights and sweaty palms – it’s necessary to plan ahead like this in terms of project management and upcoming commitments, but taking the long view on things sure does make life seem frightening, and full, and extremely stressful. Taking things one at a time has been my lifelong mantra, but in this ol’ writing game, you don’t always have that luxury. Multi-tasking has become my middle name.

I should spare a thought at this point, actually, for the hundreds of thousands of kids in Ireland who are sitting their major summer examinations right now. They began yesterday – just, of course, in time for the sun to finally emerge out of its hiding place and start drying out this sodden little country – and I remember all too well that horrible pressure the kids are under. I wouldn’t go through it all again for a king’s ransom. In a way, though, going through an examination process is excellent preparation for life, don’t you think? Kids: I hate to say this, but it doesn’t get any better.

No. That’s a joke, of course. It gets loads better. You still have to cope with pressure, deadlines and stress, but you get to be old, creaky and scatter-brained at the same time, which makes it more fun, particularly for those around you.

Despite the fact that I have excellent deadline-juggling training, there is one aspect of it at which I really am not good; no, not good at all. That thing is: trying to fit my reading deadlines around my writing ones. I have no fewer than three books on the go at the moment – not an unusual thing for me, I have to admit – but there’s also the fact that yesterday, on a browse through my *stealth boast alert* extensive book collection, I realised that my To Be Read pile had grown to heights unheard of since my long-ago and far-away teens. I have so many books I want to read that I’ll have to take a week off just to get started on them. Reading, of course, is a vital part of writing, and so needs to be somehow factored into everything else; each book to be read is another small deadline, another commitment to meet. Luckily, of course, these are probably the only enjoyable deadlines in the world, and so it’s almost a good thing that I have so many of ’em piling up. At least, I tell myself this to make myself feel better about it.

Also, I’m struggling to ignore the fact that Neil Gaiman has a new book out in a few weeks.

Image: transparentwithmyself.wordpress.com

Image: transparentwithmyself.wordpress.com

If I start letting myself think about this for too long, then all my other deadline-awareness flies out the window. Gaiman trumps everything in the great card game of life, of course. I have a feeling that all tools will have to be downed the second ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ comes out, because if I know it exists somewhere in the world, and I haven’t got my hands on it, then I will know no peace until it’s safely read and put on my shelf to admire along with all my other Neil Gaiman books.

Yes. I am an addict. I know.*

My main problem, as you’ll have worked out by now, is that I’m an addict to both reading and writing, and they’ve never come head-to-head before in quite such a way as this. Somehow, though, I’m sure I’ll struggle through. I suppose, really, it’s only right and fair to prioritise the writing deadlines, since they’re imposed by someone else (and are, let’s face it, a little bit more important), but I reckon I’ll pull a few all-nighters and meet most of my reading deadlines, too.

Phew. It’s a hard life.

Happy Thursday to you all. I hope, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, that you’re happy and well and have plenty to read. If you’re stuck for a book, let me know – maybe we can work something out!

*If my husband is reading this, I hope the fact that I’m about to wish him a happy birthday in public will make up for this blatant admission that I’ll be adding another tome to our Neil Gaiman shelf in a little while. Happy Birthday to the best and most understanding and loveliest husband in the world!

In Love with Life

It’s almost the end of May, everybody. In a few short days, this month will be entirely used up and cast aside in favour of June, and I’ll have to make good on my promise to myself that my book – my ‘Eldritch’ – will be ready to start the process of finding an agent.

That’s the problem with making promises to yourself, isn’t it? You’ve got to keep them.

I’m not saying that ‘Eldritch’ isn’t ready. It’s sitting here beside me, in a satisfyingly thick bundle of paper; I’ve read it over and over again. I’ve tweaked it, and fixed it, and pulled sentences apart, and unmixed my metaphors, and checked for continuity errors, and taken out some of the millions of commas that seem to grow, unchecked, in everything I write. But, somehow, it just doesn’t seem good enough, still.

Image: moma.org

Image: moma.org

I just wish I looked as glamorous as this when going through a crisis of confidence. Actually, I look a bit more like Kathy Bates in ‘Misery’. But anyway.

On top of working slowly through The Novel, I’ve also spent the past week writing short stories. I’m trying to work through my list of submission deadlines – lots of competitions are looming, and I want to push myself to enter as many of them as I possibly can. It’s been a while since I made a big submission, and I’ve got to keep this ball rolling as long as I possibly can. However, there is a problem.

None of the short pieces I’ve written have made my personal grade. I’ve worked very hard on them, and I’ve sweated over them, and I’ve chosen words with extreme care, moved paragraphs around, deleted half the story and started again from scratch, changed titles, changed characters, changed everything that can be changed, and… I still don’t like either of the two major pieces of work I’ve completed over the last few days. Hackneyed, cloying, clichéd, boring – this is how they seem, to me. I just know they’ll never be good enough.

The first piece I wrote was a story about a little girl who, confused by something which is happening in her home life, takes out her rage and fear on another girl, a child at school, who innocently involves herself in the first child’s life. The story follows the two girls as they grow older, and shows us how, at one point, the second child has a chance to help the first, but chooses not to because of the pain she still suffers as a result of the first child’s bullying actions when they were younger. I’m not sure why this story didn’t work. It should work. I wanted it to. For a while after I’d written it I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not, which is unusual for me; normally, I’m visceral about these things, and I know straight away how I feel about a written piece. But for this one, I wasn’t sure. I wanted to like it, but it didn’t turn out the way I’d seen it in my head, perhaps.

The second piece was about a shy young man and his forceful, abrasive mother, and their strained relationship. For reasons the boy doesn’t understand at first, his mother’s angry sorrow is focused on a particular place near their home. It’s a place she asks her son not to go to, but it also happens to be a popular meeting point for parties, and so – inevitably – the day comes when the young man betrays his mother’s trust, and attends a party in this strange place, sacred to his mother. When the mother discovers her son has broken his promise to her, she is extremely angry, and in her subsequent breakdown the reason for her dislike of the place becomes clear to the boy at the same time as the reader.

Again, a story I really wanted to like. But it just doesn’t work.

Because of all this, I’ve probably been feeling a bit defeated over the past few days. My energy levels are a bit depleted, maybe, and my brain seems stuck in first gear. I needed some inspiration, some encouragement. I needed a reminder of what I’m doing here, and why I’m doing it.

And, yesterday evening, I found it.

I’m not sure if you’ll have heard of a poet named Dorothy Molloy Carpenter. Sadly, Ms. Molloy Carpenter passed away almost a decade ago, just before her first book of poetry was published (two further volumes were also published posthumously). During her time of illness, when she was facing into treatment for the disease that claimed her life, she wrote a prayer of sorts, called her ‘Credo’. This prayer was printed on a card that was distributed at her memorial service, which happened to be held at the University in which I used to work. Many years ago, someone gave me their copy of this card, and I’ve held on to it ever since; somehow, last night, I happened to read it again just when I needed to. I want to quote a little bit from the beginning of the prayer, if you’ll indulge me:

The one essential thing is for my voice to ring out in the cosmos and to use, to this end, every available second. Everything else must serve this. This is being in love with life.

Every voice is needed for the full harmony.

Well.

There you have it. Use every available second. Sing your song. Make your contribution. Say your piece. Write your story. Be in love with life.

Image: insehee.egloos.com

Image: insehee.egloos.com

Happy Thursday. Use it as well as you can, and remember that the world needs every scrap of positivity, every drop of happiness, and every flicker of love that it can get. We can’t all save the world from terror, but we can all do our best to add to the communal store of joy. Let’s all do what we can.

 

 

Clutching at Socks

So, it’s the first day back to normality after a long Bank Holiday weekend, and I feel like my brain has turned to dust. I guess that’s normal. Isn’t it?

It’s a funny thing. When I’m really busy, and I have a hugely full schedule, and I have so many things to do that I’d actually need to clone myself to get to it all, I start to go into a catatonic state. I’m not sure if it happens to other people, but I know it happens to me. It’s sort of like a computer overloading when you give it too many tasks to perform all at once, I suppose.

Image: windows.fyicenter.com

Image: windows.fyicenter.com

I remember once ‘coming to’, sitting on the side of my bed, one sock on and one sock off, having frozen mid-thought for an unspecified length of time, on the morning of one of the busiest days I’ve ever had. It was in the midst of my PhD studies, and I was also helping to organise a major international conference, and teaching, and writing papers, and planning my own presentation at said conference (in front of several major big-wigs in the field), and I guess it all got too much for me. Putting on two socks in quick succession was the one tiny task that made my brain decide ‘Yep. Enough is enough. I’m going to my happy place now, for a little while.’ It was a very strange moment though, to snap back to reality with a sock in your hand, not quite sure what you were going to do with it.

I feel a little bit like that this morning – overwhelmed with deadlines, things to remember, entries to competitions that I simply cannot forget, planning for the future, and lots of other things. I feel a brain freeze may be imminent, and so I’m trying to distract myself in order to stave it off. I can’t exactly avoid putting socks on, in case that simple action tips my brain over into the abyss again, so I’ll have to be clever about it.

Something that might help me to divert my own attention is the fact that I now have a printer that works once again. Huzzah! I never realised how useful a gadget a printer is until I didn’t have one. I’ve been happily looking forward to printing my current short story project and getting at it with my editor’s pen ever since yesterday evening. Nothing can really compare with printing a piece and seeing how it fits on the page, and whether it flows properly, and how its sections look in black and white. I finished this particular story last week, and it’s definitely one of the weirder pieces I’ve ever written (and I say this in full knowledge of the fact that I’ve published a story about cannibalism – so you can perhaps gauge what I’m talking about.) I like the story, but I’m not sure about it. It’s amazing how printing something out can make or break it; I wonder sometimes if printing a piece fools you into thinking it’s a proper book, and you can slot it into a different critical space in your brain, one that you reserve for formulating thoughts about other people’s work, and not your own. Certainly, seeing something of mine on paper allows me to look at it with a completely new perspective.

I guess this is the only way to avoid the dreaded brain-freeze, then – focus on one small task at a time, break it down into do-able chunks, get it off your schedule, and move on to the next small task. If you look at everything all at once, it’s no wonder your brain decides to vamoose.

Image: casartcoverings.com

Image: casartcoverings.com

So, that’s just what I’ll do. I’ll get this story out of my head, and then move on to the next thing, and after that the next, and after that, the next, and so on for the rest of my life. I’ll never be finished, of course, but I hope I won’t be popping back to consciousness clutching a random sock in my panicky fist ever again, either.

Happy Tuesday! May your day be both panic- and sock-free, and I hope your brain is at full power.

Life/Time Management

Another new week is beginning, and the sun is shining here. It looks (fingers crossed) like it’ll be a lovely day. The weekend was more or less restful – I was attacked by an idea on Saturday lunchtime, which is currently languishing in scribbles on the back of an envelope, and my husband and I had a Serious Discussion about the opening chapters of ‘Eldritch’ yesterday. So, I almost had a break from the words that like to linger in the corners of my mind.

Not, of course, that I’d like them to give me a complete break. That would be like the bereft, cold feeling of having the blankets pulled off you in the middle of the night. It’s just – sometimes – I wish there was more space in my brain. Space into which I could put, for instance, all the other things I have to do. Space to remember everything I need to remember, and arrange my life in the most time-effective and efficient way.

So, not like this guy. Image: smallbizmodo.com

So, not like this guy.
Image: smallbizmodo.com

Now, normally I’m not too bad. I’m usually pretty well organised. I get up early, I attack the day long before most people (I think anyone who does the sort of work I do would do the same), and I generally know what’s on the schedule from one day to the next. But there are times when I slip up, and that’s a real pain. I’ve been entering competitions, as you know, and trying to submit work to as many places as possible in the hope it might be suitable for publication. And I’ve mentioned before that there are lots of places to submit. So, it’s inevitable that, at times, stuff is going to slip through the cracks. I realised on Friday, for instance, that I’d allowed time to slip away from me, and that a competition deadline was approaching – and that, even if I acted fast, chances were I’d miss it.

This was a shame, because it was a competition I really wanted to enter. I’d noticed the call for submissions a few weeks ago, and I’d had an idea. I kept this idea on a particular shelf in my brain, ripening like a fine cheese; every so often I’d turn it, tend it, and check how it was getting on. Unlike a good cheesemaker, though, I allowed too much time to go by – I left it too long on the shelf. By the time I hurried it out into the light, I fear not only did I spoil it, but also left myself too little time to get it out into the world. The competition is in the UK, and the closing date is early this week. I sent my entry, but I have a feeling it will be too late. I also know that I should have spent more time on the story, if I’d had time to spend.

I got very side-tracked with ‘Eldritch’ last week; I really allowed it to take over all the space I had in my head. So, other things (like checking up on a contact I hadn’t heard from, sending a few emails re. an upcoming publication, and – of course – sorting myself out for upcoming competitions) fell by the wayside. I don’t want this to happen again, because it makes me stressed. There are, of course, a few simple steps that can be taken to avoid a recurrence – first among these is ‘not relying on your holey brain to remember everything, and getting a calendar’; second would be ‘not forgetting to take a big red marker and write the stuff you need to remember on the calendar.’ I’ll probably end up writing notes on my hand to remind me to write on my calendar, which will devolve into tying pieces of string onto various extremities and leaving myself Post-It notes all over the house… I can see it turning into a total disaster, but it’s better than nothing. At the moment, I normally put reminders on my phone to help with time management and organisation, but I think the poor device is going to raise the white flag shortly and beg for parlay. Plus, if I lose the phone, my whole life goes with it. That, naturally, would be a disaster.

Whatever way I choose to do it, there’s a job to be done. It’s (besides the physical action of putting words on pages) the most important job I have to do, which is making the most of the time I have, and doing as much as possible in every working day. I have a lot of ground to cover in a reasonably short space of time, and so every second is important. So, today’s agenda looks like this: my (wonderful) husband gave me some interesting and useful feedback on the first 10,000 words of ‘Eldritch’ yesterday, so I’m off to rethink the opening sections. I’m still determined to get the book submitted to agents, but this time I want to make sure I don’t send it until it’s as ripe, tasty and perfect as I can make it. If I’m to keep to my schedule, then, I’m going to need to have the most efficient working week I’ve ever had!

Determination, organisation, motivation… and a lot of perspiration! Hope your week is shaping up to be fun, creative and (happily) busy, too.

Good Things Come…

A few nights ago, The Husband and I watched a TV show that we didn’t really mean to watch. You know what I mean – neither of us was bothered to take control of the remote, and we couldn’t choose a DVD to put on, and we were too tired to think about watching any of the (approximately) ten thousand shows we’ve recorded, so we just kept watching the channel we’d been watching already.

Which is how we managed to take in a documentary hosted by this lady:

Image: guardian.co.uk

Image: guardian.co.uk

about these two fellas here:

Image: blogs.telegraph.co.uk

Image: blogs.telegraph.co.uk

The lady is none other than the comedian and actor (or actress, if you prefer) Miranda Hart; I don’t know if you’ve heard of her, but I find her very amusing. I’ve often enjoyed her particularly awkward, slapstick brand of humour without realising that she believes she owes it all to the gents in the second picture – the unmistakeable Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise, of course. The TV programme Hart hosted was her homage to the famous Morecambe and Wise, whose comedy she had grown up watching, and whose influence on her, apparently, was incalculable. It was a warm, honest and touching hour of TV, and I’m glad that I watched it. Though, I wish it had been a conscious choice instead of one made for me by my own apathy.

In any case, the point I’m trying to come to is this: Morecambe and Wise are, even now, pretty famous. At least, in my part of the world, they are. They’re known for their timeless comedy double act, their lifelong friendship, their many catchphrases and their still hilarious physical comedy routines. They’re comedy gold. Their very names are shorthand for success and achievement.

But until I watched Miranda Hart’s programme about their lives, I had no idea how much work they had to put into getting noticed and getting gigs, and how young they’d both been when they started their careers. Hart was allowed to look through an archive of letters that Morecambe and Wise had sent to producers and theatre owners all over the UK, begging to be given even the smallest opportunity, or even to be allowed to audition. Nobody was interested. Some of the rejections were polite and helpful, but most were dismissive. It was an eye-opener for me. I would’ve thought that people with the level of talent possessed by Morecambe and Wise would have met with immediate success and acceptance, and that the quality of their ability would have been obvious from the start. But it seems not.

Of course, I know all about authors and their struggles to make it. I’m aware how slow and painful a process it can be to get even a toe onto the publishing ladder, let alone make a living out of words. But for some reason, knowing that other creative pursuits have a similarly punishing induction regime was a revelation. As well as that, it was almost comforting, in an odd sort of way. Morecambe and Wise are deservedly famous, and have left a legacy second to none, because they were both extraordinarily talented in their own right but also because they managed to find each other – their unique ‘hook’ or selling point – and they worked so well as a team. And, also, because they worked – from a very early age, they were plying their trade and learning the ropes of showbiz. But if even people of their talent and ability had to struggle to make it, it makes the mountain facing me seem a little easier to climb. I’m not facing this mountain because I’m stupid, or unable to write, or don’t deserve a chance – I’m facing it because it faces everyone, and everyone finds their own way over it.

And, of course, the lesson is: there are no shortcuts. Good things come to those who wait, but also to those who work. This was true in the 1940s, as Morecambe and Wise were trying to sell their comedy routine, and it’s true now, too. It can be hard to remain patient and focused when you’re watching your email inbox like a hawk, or scouring Twitter for any mention of competitions you’ve entered or shortlists you’re hoping to make, but you just have to put all that to one side and remember to keep writing, and keep breathing. To use another aphorism – Slow and Steady Wins the Race.

I’ve always liked that one, actually.

Image: onesocialmedia.com

Image: onesocialmedia.com