Tag Archives: writing as work

Finding the Muse

Maybe you haven’t noticed, but I haven’t written about writing here for quite a while, now. There’s a reason for that.

I’ve been having an extended period of drought. It’s like my brain is spread too thinly, or perhaps it’s as a result of having a lot of things, some of them unexpected, to think about and deal with. Then there’s the fear – you know the one I mean. The fear that everything I write is nonsense anyway, so why bother creating more of it.

Maybe I should just invest in a bigger one of these... Photo Credit: quinn.anya via Compfight cc

Maybe I should just invest in a bigger one of these…
Photo Credit: quinn.anya via Compfight cc

I have half-created so many drafts over the past four months, novels which began reasonably, and which I felt had arcs and characters and a story to tell, but which still sputtered out. This happens to everyone at some point or other; I know that, of course. But when it happens over and over again, in succession, it’s bound to have a bit of a dampening effect, both on confidence and productivity levels.

It’s not that I’m not having ideas, as such. I get them, fleetingly, every once in a while. My Notes function on my phone is full of half-cooked flashes that might, one day, become stories, and I’m hopeful that’s a sign my brain hasn’t given up the fight just yet. In fact, one of these ideas has, over the past few weeks, taken on a life of its own inside my imagination – I can see a finished book, full of beautiful line-drawings, and the layout of the text on the pages, and I have a character with a heart-shiveringly lovely name, and I have an Enemy with a complex motive, and I have high hopes for this story.

But I haven’t written it, or even really pushed myself to think about it or plan it out. If the images float into my mind of their own accord, I let them come, but I don’t force them.

I also have another idea which is, at the moment, not ready for committing to paper, but I have managed to complete one important aspect of it, and that is this: a cracking first line. I also have a character name, which seems to be something I really need to get a story to hang together. Then, there’s another story which exists in scraps inside my mind. I also have a cool character name for this one, but I’m not sure yet who it belongs to. Maybe when I decide that, I can move forward with this idea. Maybe.

And maybe nothing will ever come of any of them. That’s something which haunts my thoughts.

So, for the past few weeks, I’ve taken a step back and I’ve started going through some of my other manuscripts, and my older ideas. I had entirely rewritten one book, based on the bones of a previous draft, and it’s far from perfect – but I’d forgotten that it’s actually okay, and there’s usable material here, and I did a lot of work on it before putting it aside which makes me less inclined to want to waste it. However, there’s loads more work still to do. About three-quarters of the way through, there’s a giant ugly weld-mark where the story changes pitch and direction completely, for instance, but I’m currently trying to smooth that out. The end is all wrong. But there are bits in the middle which are actually rather good. Now, of course, nobody has seen this book but me, and it might stay that way, but even if I do whip up a new draft from these old bones and it goes precisely nowhere, I’ll still have proved to myself that I can write another book.

I can write another book. There is hope.

I haven’t felt like much of a writer lately, despite everything. But until that feeling comes back, I’ll just have to fake it. Turn up on my writing days, face the desk, don’t shy away from the work, get the job done. Plough through.

Show up, and the muse will too. It might take her a while, but she’ll come.

The Art, and the Craft

It’s no secret that writing is hard. It’s lonely, it’s isolating, it’s like trying to swim at night in unfamiliar waters, it’s tough to get a handle on, and there’s no ‘rule book.’ If you want to do it, you’ve just got to go for it and trust that you’ll get to where you’re aiming for, eventually. You’ve got to be able to keep yourself going, and you’ve got to be able to put aside a lot in favour of writing. It takes sacrifice. It takes work. More than anything, it takes practice.

Photo Credit: aurelio.asiain via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: aurelio.asiain via Compfight cc

Sometimes it amazes me that the idea of writing as a ‘perfect’ career, or as being somehow ‘easy’, still persists. Perhaps because people are used to reading books which are polished, perfect, and seemingly effortless, they begin to think that the words formed on the page that way without authorial or editorial intervention. They have no idea of the anguish, the endless drafts, the pained emails to editors at all hours of the morning, and the self-doubt which all had to be dealt with, worked through and overcome to make it look the way they expect. None of that effort is in evidence once a book is done and ready, and that’s exactly as it should be.

I dream of writing. I have always dreamed of it. It’s what I want to do with my life, and nothing else I’ve ever done has given me half as much enjoyment. (Nothing else has been even a fraction as challenging, either, but that’s to be expected!) Many hundreds of thousands of others are just the same, and that’s a brilliant thing. I would never discourage anyone from wanting to write, but I would also be the first to say this: it’s not a cop-out, or an easy option. It’s a profession, the same as any other, and it deserves the same passion, commitment, investment and respect. If you want to write for more than the simple pleasure it brings, then pursue that goal by all means, but be prepared to work hard, often for a very long time, and often for little or no feedback or reward. This is the reality.

Recently, in discussion with someone who knows more about books and publishing than I ever will, I learned how so many people are working against themselves from day one by not approaching their writing career the same way they’d approach their non-writing career. They make slapdash, half-thought-out approaches to editors, publishers and agents; they do not work and slave and sweat over their writing until it is the absolute best they can produce; they persist in querying industry professionals with half-finished or incomplete submissions; they consider their first drafts good enough to represent them.

These mistakes are all catastrophic. They are also all completely avoidable.

What makes me sad is this: if a person really, truly wants to write, and it burns within them, and they try to take their first steps into the industry in a misguided way, they will (in all probability) receive a rejection. Perhaps more than one. This may lead the person – who may have a true talent burning within them, a pure passion, an important story – to give up, and that would be a tragedy. It takes a strong person to continue if all you’re receiving is knockback after knockback. I know. But to succeed as a writer you not only need your talent, and your interest, and your passion, and your desire to improve, and your love for words, but you also need a sensible head on your shoulders and a professional approach to life. You need to be respectful of the time, effort and expertise of agents, publishers, editors, and every other publishing industry professional you meet. You need, in short, to be able to listen to good advice when you get it, and to incorporate it into your efforts to find a home for your writing.

During this same discussion, I also learned that the publishing professional in question considers my blog to be a good source of advice and information, and they have recommended that other people read some of my articles if they are looking for help, which was a hugely encouraging and flattering thing to hear. This post in particular might be helpful if you’re new-ish around here, and are on the lookout for writerly advice, but if I could sum up what I have learned about writing over the past two years, it would be this:

TAKE YOUR TIME.

Take the time you need to write your book. Put it aside. Take the time you need to re-read it, and edit it, and perhaps have someone else look over it, and then leave it aside again. Leave it there. No! I said, leave it there. Forget it even exists. Then, pick it up again, and repeat the process. Do this as often as you can bear, but at least three times, before you even consider sending it anywhere or submitting it to anyone. Do your research into agents, publishers and editors. Check that they accept the sort of work you’re writing. When you do approach them, do it respectfully and professionally. Follow their guidelines. Do not be arrogant. Do not assume that you know better than they do. Then, be patient as you wait for their reply.

If you’re self-publishing, a lot of the same rules apply. Take your time over your work, primarily. Write the best book you can, and then do a lot of research into the best platform, the best formatting style, the best pricing structure, the best editorial and design work, before you put your writing anywhere near the eyes of other people. If not, barring a miracle, you’ll wish you had when you see your sales figures.

There is no rush. Writers are not in a race with one another. You owe it to yourself to put your best work forward, and let it speak for you. The craft of writing is one thing – the ability to make sentences which sing, and images which linger in the mind, and characters who leap off the page – and it’s an important first step. But the art of being a writer – including but not limited to the ability to be professional, patient, organised, respectful, willing to learn and utterly committed to producing the best work you’re capable of – is just as important. People tend to forget that, and expect their talent to carry them through. For some lucky individuals, perhaps this works. For the rest of us? My advice is: learn how to work as a writer the same way you’d work at anything else, and you’ll be on the right track.

It’s the Most Busy Time of the Year…

Ding, dong, ding, dong!

So, yes. November. How are you? It only feels like a week or so since you were last here but apparently it’s been an entire year. (Did anyone see who made off with the last twelve months?)

November, my favourite month in many ways, and my least favourite in so many others. Loads of family events on (no fewer than seven birthdays among my friends and family, and that’s just the beginning of it), plenty of travelling all over the country going from the in-laws to the outlaws and back again, an important work event for my beloved, and an important work event for me (luckily on different weekends!) – and before we know it, December will have rolled around.

Time really does go quicker the older you get, I think. As I approach a painful age (one I’d really rather not face up to) I realise that the days are galloping past with gleeful disdain, hurrying my steps. When I was a teenager my mother used to say to me – pained expression turned up to max, of course – that she felt like a sixteen-year-old inside and that it was only like ‘yesterday’ since she was young and sprightly and that I was wasting my one and only youth and would I ever get out of that chair and put that book down and go out and meet people?! I used to think she’d lost her reason. Nobody I knew was more interesting than the people I met in books, and anyway I thought (as we all do when we’re teenagers) that I would feel young and capable forever.

Well, huh. It just goes to show your mama always knows best.

I have aches and pains in places I didn’t know I owned until they started to hurt. I’ve started making ‘old lady noises’ getting into and out of chairs. I have a dodgy knee. I don’t have any grey hair yet, but that’s possibly because my eyesight is failing. I am feeling every second of my age, and November reminds me that I’m getting older, for one of the birthdays I’ll be ‘celebrating’ during this month is my own.

*Sigh* Yeah. I feel your pain, young lady. Photo Credit: jDevaun.Photography via Compfight cc

*Sigh* Yeah. I feel your pain, young lady.
Photo Credit: jDevaun.Photography via Compfight cc

Luckily (I guess?), I’ve relieved myself of one mental burden this month, and that is ‘Emmeline’. I have returned the edits to my agent and I now have everything crossed that she doesn’t hand the book back to me pinched between thumb and forefinger, nose wrinkled, going ‘what on earth is this, then?’ The aim is to get the book good enough – good enough to catch the eye of a publisher, good enough to get a team of acquisitions people excited and enthusiastic, good enough to fall beneath the scalpel of yet another editor – and I can get on board with that. If we were trying to make it perfect, I think my brain would have clocked out a long time ago. I can’t deal with perfect; I can deal with good enough.

And so that means today is the start of a new-old project. I’m going back to basics and revisiting the first book I ever queried Polly with, one which she enjoyed and which she told me was good enough to engage child readers and make them look for other stories by the same author (which is catnip to anyone who writes, let me tell you); it wasn’t good enough for her to sign me, not at that point, but my aim is to bring it up to the same standard as ‘Emmeline.’ I like a challenge.

Essentially, I’m trying to make my agent fall in love with my work all over again. It’s a bit like a marriage, this agent-author relationship. It takes work and enthusiasm and openness and trust on both sides, and it can be dang scary – and one thing you should never do is take it for granted. So, I’m going to take everything I’ve learned from the editing process I’ve already been through, and bring it to bear on Eldritch, and hope to find a story I can polish.

No time like the present. Let’s begin!

 

Self-Definition

At the weekend, I had the pleasure of meeting a woman whom I had met before, years ago, but whose path hadn’t crossed with mine since. She, her husband and their lovely son were attending an event along with my husband and me, and it was great to see her again.

Eventually, however, the question I (nonsensically) dread came up in conversation.

So. What do you do for a living?

Photo Credit: Shandi-lee via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Shandi-lee via Compfight cc

My husband, of course, was able to describe himself, and his role in life, very capably and with great passion and expertise; I was sort of hoping the questioner’s interest in him and his job would take over the discussion and allow me to dodge the bullet. But it was not to be.

When the spotlight turned in my direction, I was like a comedian with a broken funny bone. In my head, I saw myself dropping the mic and fleeing off into the wings, but in real life I had to stutter out an answer, so I said – truthfully – that I was a proofreader and copy-editor.

‘And?’ said my husband, gently. ‘What else?’

‘Um,’ I muttered. ‘And a writer.’

Of course, this caused great interest, mainly because the lady’s husband began to describe how his cousin is one of Ireland’s best-selling women’s fiction writers. Not to be outdone, the lady herself told me she went to school with another of Ireland’s best-selling women’s fiction writers (in Ireland, writers are as common as mushrooms), and so I began to relax a bit. When I told them I wrote children’s books, they waxed lyrical about the picture books their son had loved as a younger child – The Tiger Who Came to Tea, The Hungry Caterpillar, The Gruffalo, all the classics – and then we graduated to discussing David Walliams’ oeuvre, including my (and the young man’s) personal favourite, Gangsta Granny.

They didn’t ask if I’d had any books published or whether I was ‘doing well’; they didn’t ask whether they could pick my work up at their local bookshop. They didn’t turn up their noses when I explained that I hadn’t been published yet, besides a few short stories, but that I was working on it, and they looked suitably impressed when I told them I had an agent.

And that was that.

The conversation moved on to e-books and internet retailing (I soapboxed a bit, unfortunately), and working, and commutes, and schools, and marriage, and families, and all the other wonderful things people discuss when they’re in good company and the chat is flowing. We had a thoroughly enjoyable day.

But when we got home my husband asked me: ‘Why didn’t you tell those people you were a writer, straight up?’ I squirmed a bit as I thought about how to answer him.

How do I get this answer to fit together, then? Photo Credit: CarbonNYC via Compfight cc

How do I get this answer to fit together, then?
Photo Credit: CarbonNYC via Compfight cc

I hated to admit it, but I think the reason was because I was embarrassed.

I have the impression that, to most people, telling them you’re an unpublished writer is a bit like saying ‘I’m a layabout who lolls about in the garden all day long, laughing at the sky,’ or ‘I’m a daytime TV addict, but shh it’s all good because it’s research, yeah?’ Of course, most people don’t actually think this (or, at the very least, they’ll be good enough not to say, or even give the vaguest hint, of it), and they’re usually quite impressed, or at least interested. So, I’m not quite sure where this sense of uncomfortable awkwardness comes from, deep in the heart of me. Is it because I haven’t been successful yet (in a worldly sense)? Is it because people can’t yet walk into their local bookshop and pick up my work?

I think it’s because I’m afraid of being judged, or being considered lazy, or not a ‘proper’ member of society – which is weird.

I firmly believe art and literature are just as important to the proper running of civilisation as science and industry, and that you can’t have technological strides forward without a hand-in-hand development in the arts; having one without the other makes for a dangerously lopsided people. In general terms, I would defend art and literature to the last breath. It’s only when it comes to me, in personal terms, as I try to make my own tiny contribution to the bigger picture, that I begin to feel strange. I have a dread of being judged as a person who does not add anything to the whole, and in some deep core of myself I wonder whether I am a person with anything to offer, an ‘artist’ or just someone who is pretending to be one. The voice in my head going ‘who do you think you are?’ hasn’t quietened yet; perhaps it never will.

My husband told me that I should be proud to tell people what I do, and that I shouldn’t be ashamed to say that I am a writer – and he’s right. I am a complicated little maelstrom of self-doubt, guilt, work ethic and anxiety; it’s amazing I manage to get so much as a sentence on a page, but somehow I get through it, and I keep going. My heart is made of words. Having said that, of course, not everything I’m going to write is going to be good, and most of what’s good may never see the light of day, and even though I’ve made great strides towards achieving my goals I may yet never be published – but I am still a writer.

And if you write – even if it’s only a sentence a week – then you are, too, and I hope you’re able to proclaim it with a great big smile upon your face.

Welcome to a new week, fellow writers!

Creaking into Monday

Boy, oh boy. It has been a slow old morning this morning.

It seems almost too cruel to be under the weather on a Monday – as if the day wasn’t hard enough, you have to carry the extra burden of ill-health, too? – but one cannot choose these things, of course. I’m exhausted, and shaky, and my head is doing that weird swooshy thing that makes you feel like you’re on a roller-coaster*, and I’d love to be able to press ctrl+alt+del and begin again, but it ain’t happenin’.

So, what are you gonna do? Keep on keepin’ on, of course.

I was away from my desk this weekend, off doing happy things with my family, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have words on my mind. (Perish the thought!) I made contingency plans and arranged my work around my life – which, were I to be engaged in anything besides writing a book, would be a dreadfully bad idea, of course.

I'm not normally an advocate of bringing your work with you, but...

I’m not normally an advocate of bringing your work with you, but…

On Friday, before I embarked upon my weekend road-trip, I printed out my WiP, equipped myself with an array of writing implements and got myself ready to carry out an edit. I knew I’d have a few empty hours which I needed to fill, and I couldn’t think of a better way to occupy myself than ripping the guts out of my own work. I felt the book (even though it’s only partially completed) was substantial enough to stand a touch of dissection, and luckily I was right.

On this point, though, it’s useful to print out your WiP for several reasons; one of them, of course, is that you can bring your red pen out and slash it to ribbons (tough love, and all that), but another is that printing your book-in-progress allows you to see how much work you’ve actually done. It does a lot for your self-belief when you feel a little like you’ve run out of steam. My WiP – ‘Web’ – is only a little over halfway written, but I had been wondering whether what I’d managed to do had any value, or held together as a story. Printing and reading it as a whole allowed me to see it as one ‘thing’ instead of a random string of disconnected chapters (which is how a book appears when you’re creating it); it’s far from perfect or ready, of course, and most of it will probably end up either being junked or changed beyond all recognition before I’d consider it ready to submit to anyone, but at least now I know it does have a reasonable flow and it’s pretty much functioning as it should.

Which is more than can be said for my brain, today.

Another benefit of reading your work as a whole is that it can help you to sort out, even in outline, where you want the rest of the story to go. I was having a slight problem with ‘Web’ insofar as I knew, broadly, where I wanted the story to end up but the practicalities of getting things from A to Z weren’t entirely clear. Having an opportunity to read it through without interruption gave me a chance to map out a loose plan for the rest of the story; it reminded me of the small details and hints I’d planted in the tale’s foundations – little sparkling shards of story designed to flower into larger things as the book went on – which I’d forgotten about or had lost track of. So, in teeny-tiny handwriting, I now have a Plan for the rest of the story which I will begin as soon as I can. (Handy tip: perhaps make sure to use a different coloured ink for your planning notes in order to distinguish them from your editing notes. I know that in the heat of the moment, inspiration-wise, you don’t always pause to check your tools are present and correct, but it really is a good idea).

So, it’s shaping up to be a busy week; nothing for it but to creak on and get stuck in, I guess. Good luck with whatever’s on your plate today – I hope it goes smoothly, successfully and well.

Image: curiousweekends.blogspot.com

Image: curiousweekends.blogspot.com

*speaking of which, did you check out my story ‘Tiger and Turtle‘ which was published on Saturday as part of Flash Flood 2014? Feel free to share it around and/or leave a comment, if the mood strikes you…

Wordhunter

As we made our way home yesterday, my husband turned to me and said: you look good.

This isn’t an unusual thing, I’m happy to say. I’m a lucky girl. I married well. My husband’s full of compliments, most of the time ones I don’t really deserve. But anyway.

‘Oh, yeah?’ I said. ‘Why’s that?’

‘You look relaxed,’ he said. ‘Happy.’

That, friends, is probably because I decided to take yesterday off. I pushed myself away from my desk. I went into Dublin city for a few hours. I took a long, long walk. I saw some friends. I – *gasp* – bought a book.

Darlings, how I have missed thee... Image: commons.wikimedia.org

Darlings, how I have missed thee…
Image: commons.wikimedia.org

It was great.

I’ve made a few significant submissions in the last few weeks. I’ve been working hard. I plan to make some more submissions next week – short stories to magazines, entries to competitions, some more research into agents who (I hope) might like my work – and I’m glad I decided to take a day to myself yesterday, because this is the thing about writing, or indeed about anything at which you want to succeed.

It takes hard work, and not just for a day or a week or a year. For always. Relentlessly.

But that’s also the beauty of it. Working hard at something you love is the best feeling in the world. Having said that, though, sometimes you do need a break, and it’s okay to take one.

Image: abeforum.com

Image: abeforum.com

However, today it was back to the grindstone. It’s Friday, and for the first week in a few weeks I am able to take part in Flash! Friday’s weekly challenge. This week, the fiendish gamesetters decided that the compulsory element – which has to be included in your story somewhere – was ‘A Detective.’ The image prompt (I can’t find a usably small version of it anywhere) was the interior of a bus carriage – which I interpreted as a train carriage, but let’s not worry too much about that! – showing a pair of feet clad in admirably shiny black shoes leaning up against a pole.

You’ll just have to scoot on over to Flash! Friday to see it for yourselves, I guess.

In any case, I managed to find a story which I could fit, just about, into the wordcount, and which met all the requirements, and with which I was reasonably happy, and here it is:

**

In Her Footsteps

Day 214. Da and me get up early. Since we sold the car, we’ve been takin’ the train to school, and that sucks.

‘Got your spyglass, buddy?’ he says as we leave the house. I run back to get it, and my notebook. Can’t believe I nearly forgot ‘em! Gotta be on duty, all the time, if you want to be a real detective.

I flip through my notebook once we’ve found our seats. “Day 87: No siteings. Day 176: No siteings, no trale.” I’m better at spellin’, now, but there’s still no sightings, still no trail.

Then, I hear somethin’. Clack-clack-clack, real fast. I flip my glass to my eye. My mouth tastes funny as I look low down, at people’s feet.

There! Black, shiny, creased across the toe, just like Ma’s favourite shoes. The only thing she took with her when she disappeared.

I’m up before Da can stop me, but the lady’s not Ma. She never is.

**

So, there you have it. Far from perfect, but that’s not the point. The point is, you get back up on the horse/into the saddle/lace up your boots and start again. You keep on heading for that goal, and you keep on finding words and putting them down, and you never stop searching for your personal best.

Happy hunting! Oh – and, have a wonderful weekend.

I'm off to catch me some words... Image: teachwhatcounts.com

I’m off to catch me some words…
Image: teachwhatcounts.com

 

 

 

The Coldness of the Mind

Last night, I had a dream in which the whole world was iced over. I looked out my front door and a creeping, crackling pattern, like grasping pale fingers, was coming right for me. It had spread its way across the green, where there were no children playing, and made me feel like an ant crawling across the face of an iceberg. I slammed the front door shut, but I knew it was only a matter of time before the grey-blue ice, hard as steel, wormed its way in around the hinges and through any gap it could find.

It wasn’t a pleasant dream.

I’ve been thinking about ice a lot lately (due, of course, to the setting of ‘Emmeline’), and that’s probably why my mind went to a cold, dark place when I was lost in dreams. It’s an unfortunate coincidence that ice – at least, the sort of ice we get here, the dark insidious kind, the kind which no footwear can outsmart – is one of my biggest fears. This winter, however, my little island has been battered by Atlantic storms instead of Arctic vortexes, which is equally dreadful; most of the south of Ireland is underwater at the moment.

Flooding on Wandesford Quay in Cork City. Photo by Darragh McSweeney. Image sourced: rte.ie

Flooding on Wandesford Quay in Cork City. Photo by Darragh McSweeney.
Image sourced: rte.ie

So many people have lost everything – businesses, homes, property – and so many of them can’t purchase insurance, due to where they live being prone to flooding. Sometimes I don’t understand the world. Surely people who live in places like that need more help, rather than less?

Am I the crazy one? Wait – don’t answer that.

I have been out of sorts this week. My head is distracted, my thoughts are ragged, my energy levels are through the floor. ‘Emmeline’ is sitting beside me, not-so-neatly printed and annotated, from last week’s editing sessions; I have three or four small changes to make before I’ll be ready to leave it to percolate for a while. Then, once I’ve checked it again post-percolation, it will be ready to send out into the world. I hope to get to those final edits today, and then it’ll be on to the next thing.

Oh, and I may not have mentioned this before, but – last week on Twitter I noticed an author excitedly promoting their newly published book which not only had the same title as one I had been planning, but took as its central plot motif something which I had come up with in the middle of last year, and which I was quite excited about. This, surely, has to be something nobody’s ever thought of before, I told myself at the time. This is interesting and unusual and could turn out to be something great! Little did I know that the other author was probably doing their final edits on their book at that stage. So, that was another of those bittersweet moments where you realise you’re having good ideas, but just not quickly enough. Of course I’ll be interested to read this other book when it’s published, and I wish its author well. However, I really hope this ‘idea duplication’ thing stops happening to me, one of these years.

Anyway. My mind feels gripped with a cold hand this week. I hope it relaxes its hold soon, because I have a lot of work to get to. I have another idea I want to flesh out, and I want to revisit ‘Eldritch’ and try to do a rewrite, and I need to start picking up with my submissions to competitions and magazines, because I’ve completely let that slide over the past few months.

I think I need a calendar, and an action plan, and someone to tell me to pace myself… Or maybe just a holiday.

Dragon boat racing in Hong Kong - rowing to the beat of a drum sounds like just the ticket! Image: dailymail.co.uk

Dragon boat racing in Hong Kong – rowing to the beat of a drum sounds like just the ticket!
Image: dailymail.co.uk

Have a good Thursday, one and all.