Feedback Frenzy

image credit unsplash.comI recently went to my regular writing workshop. A couple of us meet every 2-3 months, to critique each others stories.

My initial reaction to my feedback was positive. Okay, so I had a plot problem. But at least now I knew, I thought to my myself. This will be great. Knowledge is power.

But then something strange happened. It was as though all those grey tubey-looking parts of my brain starting twisting around themselves, and I realised that fixing this problem was a mammoth task. How would I fix it? And if I did fix this one piece of plot, how would it affect the rest of the book? I had smugly thought the book was finished, ready for submission. But now here I was with a significant problem smirking at me, like a steamy eyed skull.

Hello feedback frenzy.

One little plot problem. A tiny bit of the story that didn’t quite work. If I’m honest, I knew it didn’t work. Every time I thought about it, I had a niggling feeling in my bones, that this was lazy writing, that it wasn’t age appropriate, that it needed to be fixed. The problem was, I didn’t know how to fix it. So I ignored the tug of the alarm bell-string in my chest, and kept on writing.

But when a room full of people (who know things) said that this needed to change, I had to listen. I had to stop seeing the problem part of the plot as a weak area, and start seeing it as anti-plot. But how?

When faced with calamity, I always go back to the basics. First, I thought about how I would fix a problem with something small, like a sentence.

For example, if I wrote this:

“The moon sparkles in the sky.”

I would quickly realise that I have a problem. I’ve written a cliché. If I try to fix it by altering what I already have, all I can think of are similar words;

“The moon shines/ twinkles/ glimmers in the sky”

The cliché remains, and so does the problem. So instead, I delete the whole sentence and start from scratch.

“Moon-rays frame the sky like bleached rainbows.”

It is much easier this time to come up with something original, because my brain isn’t trapped into the old phrase. Make sense?

Unfortunately, it’s much easier to fix a cliché, than a plot problem. I deleted the anti-plot from my text, and spent three days with no idea how my story could progress. Eventually  I stopped trying, and that’s when the Bing! moment arrived. On a long car journey, with a Roald Dahl audio-book sparking my imagination, I worked out how to progress my plot.

However, by starting from scratch and inventing a whole new reason that A led to B in my story, I caused untold havoc to the rest of the book. I didn’t just unleash a can of worms, I also chopped those worms in half, and had to watch as their tails wiggled off in the opposite direction to their heads. One tiny plot change, affected every chapter in the book. It led to two chapters being deleted, and one new chapter being written. It led to the entire sequence of the story being shuffled around.

Hours of work.

Hence the frenzy.

But now it’s nearly finished. I’ve spent a week editing and can honestly say that the book is ten times better now than it was. Feedback may send an earth-quake through your text, but at least you know that all the good bits get left behind. And what you build after the earthquake is a stronger, firmer story.

So bring on the frenzy.

Make Every Word Count

When I began writing, I used to plough through drafts like a bulldozer, more obsessed with the word count than the quality of writing. Draft after draft, I’d rush to meet 1000 words a day, whether the words were good, bad or ugly. Now that I’ve calmed down about getting the novel finished, submitted and published (because what is the ACTUAL rush?), I’ve changed the way I write. This came from hearing many writers say “Make every word count”. It took me at least 2 years of writing to finally start listening to this advice, and here’s how I’m doing it:

Stick To The Story

One of the biggest writing sins I was guilty of, was going off in a tangent that had no relevance to the story. No matter how beautiful or funny your writing is, if you forget about the story, you will lose readers. I didn’t notice this problem in my own work at first; someone else had to point it out to me. But now that I know it, I stick to a story plan. If a chapter has no relevance and is not necessary to the rest of the story, then it has to go. No matter how beautifully it’s written.

Play With Poetry:

I started to write and read poems. This got me thinking about words in a new way. I started listening to their sounds, and experimenting with sentences. I let myself loose to play with words, and to trust my ability to get across my message without being blunt and over-obvious. This helped me bring out the beauty in a sentence, or the humour in a twisted phrase. Poems by the their nature are short, which meant I had to cut out waffle and too much description, and taught me how to get to the point in a neater, nicer fashion.

Study Other People’s Sentences:

I slowed down my reading. This helped me step back from the story, and allowed me to concentrate on what I liked in other people’s writing, and what I didn’t like. As I read, I ask myself, what makes a sentence bounce off the page and into my memory, and what makes it sink into the slush of ugly or over-used phrases?

Recognise Repetition

Becoming aware of words I used repeatedly, helped me think outside the box. This wasn’t easy, and I occassionally have to ask other people to read my work to spot my repetitive words. I also started looking out for words that other writers use repeatedly. Some obvious words and phrases I spotted again and again in other people’s work were ‘suddenly’, ‘my heart thumped’ , and ‘Oh my God’. The less obvious ones were ‘ochre’, ‘sepia’, and variations of the moon like a ‘torch in the sky’. If you don’t recognise repetition, you can’t avoid using it.

Originality

When you keep reading the same old metaphors and similes, you start to skim over them, and they might as well not be there. There is nothing as smile-inducing as reading a book and finding original metaphors. Discovering a new way to express a feeling or a vision is one of my favourite parts of writing, and if I achieve only 10 words in a day, but I know they’re absolutely original, then that’s a happy day for me.

First-draft Freedom

If I tried to make every word count from the beginning of my first draft, I’d never ever finish it. You have to pick your time to polish. I recently read an article by Ciara O’Connor, who concluded that when you stop trying to make your writing perfect, that’s when you find your flow. And I totally agree. I need to get my initial story down in a stream of consciousness, and then I can shape it. Just like a sculptor can’t start their work without a sizeable lump of clay. This might be two or three drafts in, once I know the story outline and the characters, and where I’m going with it. Only then can I start filtering the sentences until all the words left need to be there.

The longer I write, the better I get at making every word count. I don’t think I’ll ever get to a stage where everything I write is perfect. Does anyone? Have I ever read anything 100% perfect? Probably not. Art doesn’t have to be perfect to be lovely. Once I’ve got a piece of writing to the best I can get it, I recall my mantra “Art is never finished, only abandoned” (Da Vinci) and then I move on with the hope that even more words will count in my next piece.

Writing as a full-time parent

(This article was first published on writing.ie)

This time last year I gave up my job to mind my kids full time. I had a pensionable permanent (and rather manic) nursing job; a job for life. People frowned at me, groaned at me, quivered as they experienced the spine shivers that I didn’t. People that knew me and my kids properly, patted me on the back and told me I was making the right decision. A large and very excited part of me thought, naïvely, that I’d have more time and freedom to write. And while I do have more time in the vicinity of my laptop, that doesn’t mean that I write more. Finding the time to write is now more challenging than ever.

I used to write in the evening, when the kids went to bed. But minding young kids all day leaves me mentally exhausted (let’s face it, conversations aren’t always stimulating with a three year old). By evening, all I want to do is curl up on the sofa with a book or the T.V, with no demands on me. When I worked 13 hour shifts, I often came home physically exhausted, but mentally fuelled with stories and interaction. I wrote every night, no matter how tired. Now I get up early to write, which is often impossible if the kids have been unwell or awake in the night, and my eyes hang from my head like someone snapped their strings.

I also try and snatch moments; ten minutes here, ten minutes there. I don’t allow myself get into episodes of extreme flow around my children, because it’s not fair on myself or the child that receives the blunt edge of my frustration when they interrupt me. Why would I create a situation that I know will lead me to fail, and get angry at myself and the kids? Young children have endless and constant needs, and they are my priority, no matter what.

But that doesn’t mean I must neglect my love affair with words and stories. In the stolen ten minute bursts, I have endless options. I can write a character sheet. A thought process. I draw graphs and charts, blasting out ideas of what might happen. I figure out plot problems in the shower. I string words together in the woods behind the house, while I walk the dog. I read articles, research my topic. I think, what would my character do in this situation? Would she like this dinner that I’m cooking? Keeping my writing at the forefront of my mind, makes my day run smoother. It also means that I know where to pick up the next time I get a solid chunk of un-interrupted writing time.

An unexpected issue that cropped up when I stopped working, was the lack of ideas. I didn’t realise how many ideas I got from working. Ideas and stories come from real life. From getting out there and interacting; from listening, seeing and feeling. Not from doing dishes, school runs and arguing over homework. I found that the routine of mundane tasks stifled my thoughts, and dampened my ideas. Particularly in winter, where I tend to spend weeks on end stuck indoors with asthmatic children. So 5 months after quitting work, I took on another small job; one or two shifts a month in a local nursing home. It gave me the small break I needed from the house. It’s often when I stop trying to think of ideas, that I get ideas. And there are few places better than a room full of people with a whole life behind them, to find stories.

I stopped waiting for inspiration to come to me, and started looking for it myself. I gave up the notion that a writer’s mind should brim with constant stories and perfect sentences. I refused to let myself feel like a failure because I didn’t always know what to write next, and instead I thought methodically about how to create ideas. Between reading, nature, film, the internet, people, art, I started finding creative beauty hiding all around me. I just had to learn how to find it, and trust that the days I don’t find it do pass.

The biggest challenge for me, as a writer and parent, is editing. While I have learnt to write surrounded by people and bustle, I still need silence to edit. I need to allow myself get completely absorbed to see the flaws. So I plan when to edit. I ask for help. I tell people how important it is to me, and I lock the door. I am strict with myself, and I am disciplined. But having children means that even if I do plan time to edit, I can’t always carry out that plan. One gets sick. One gets frightened. One hurts themselves. One needs me.

So I try, and try again, not to chastise myself if life gets in the way, and the story takes longer than I wanted. You need endless patience to be a writer; most of all with yourself.

Right now, I write this final paragraph with my daughter serving me a tea party. I drink from imaginary cups and type words in between sips. And look, I’ve got to the end of the article despite the lack of real tea. In a minute I’ll shut my laptop, so I can be fully present with my child, my priority. Tonight, when they sleep, or tomorrow morning if I’m too tired tonight, I’ll edit it in silence.

Paddlefoot (A story for the little ones)

Paddlefoot was feeling glum. He was tired of being the biggest dragon in the world. His enormous feet broke boulders every time he walked. When he sneezed, he blew trees right out of the soil. Worst of all, his wings were so big and heavy, that he couldn’t lift them off the ground. Which meant he couldn’t fly. Whoever heard of a dragon that couldn’t fly? It was a terrible shame.

A tiny magician heard of Paddlefoot. He came to Paddlefoot’s cave, with his wand held high.

“I am Fionn the magician,” he said, “I have heard tales of your troubles, and I wish to help you.”

How can a tiny magician like you, help a huge dragon like me?” Paddlefoot asked, puffing steam out of his nostrils like factory chimneys.

“I will cast a spell, and swap you my size. If I was the biggest magician in the world, everyone would respect me. In return you will become as small as I am. You will enjoy the world without the fear of knocking it apart.”

“I really am tired of being so big,” Paddlefoot said, “Let’s do it.”

The magician waved his magic wand and whispered a spell beneath his breath. He didn’t want anyone to hear his words, in case they stole them. After all, words are very precious; especially magic ones.

A great flash of light made Paddlefoot close his eyes tight. He felt himself shaking and bubbling and shrinking. When the shaking stopped, he heard a loud swishing noise. He opened his eyes again, and realised the swishing was just the wind, now so much louder in his tiny ears. He coughed and coughed, until he got the hang of taking tiny breaths, now that he needed much less air.

He looked down at his body. His wings were as small as daisy petals. His tail was like a blade of grass, and his legs as thin as strands of hair. He laughed and yelped, for he was now the smallest dragon in the world. No matter how hard he walked, he would no longer cause any hurt to the world.

As he was dancing on his little legs, the ground began to shake, and he was thrown from his feet. He couldn’t see what was causing it to shake, so he spread his leaf sized wings and flew into sky. At last, he was a dragon that could fly. He twirled and whirled in the wind. He had never felt so free.

But then he heard thunder. Loud and roaring, it smashed through the air. He looked around, and saw Fionn the magician in front of him; a huge giant tumbling about. His footsteps were the cause of the ground shaking, and the thunder was his laughter. Fionn blew out a great puff of air, and a gust of wind threw Paddlefoot into a cluster of trees, that were almost ripped from their roots. Fionn knelt down to a river and slurped it all up, leaving the fish jumping on the dry land.

“Stop!” cried Paddlefoot, “You’re ruining the world!”

Fionn laughed louder, and the mountains crumbled to the ground. He inhaled deeply, and swallowed all the clouds.

I said STOP!” Paddlefoot shouted.

“I’m the most powerful being in the world,” roared Fionn, and Paddlefoot had to hold onto a branch to stop himself being blown away, “You can’t tell me what to do.”

Paddlefoot knew he had made a mistake. He loved being small more than anything. But he knew that if he stayed small and Fionn stayed big, then the world would be in terrible danger. When Paddlefoot was big, he had moved gently. He had learnt to be careful as he grew, to protect the world around him.

“Where is my wand?” Fionn asked, “I must have dropped it when I was growing.”

Paddlefoot scanned the ground until he saw the wand, gleaming from the grass. Fionn bent down and tried to pick it up, but his fingers were too big and he couldn’t grasp it.

“Who needs magic when you’re as big as me anyway?” Fionn said, walking away and knocking over a hundred trees.

Paddlefoot flew down and picked up the wand. He hid it behind his back and flew up to Fionn’s ear.

Your magic is so clever,” Paddlefoot said, “Please tell me the words of the spell so I can admire your greatness.”

Fionn smiled and puffed up his chest with pride, causing such a wind, that a passing seagull was knocked into space.

“I can’t tell you the spell,” Fionn said, “You might cast it on us and reverse everything!”

“Oh no, I want to stay this small and free forever. Besides, there can be no magic without a wand. And a little dragon shall never have a wand.”

You’re right,” said Fionn, “In that case, the words were:

Tricks Trocks Hicks Hocks,

Put me into that man’s socks.

With the words fresh in the air, Paddlefoot waved the magic wand with all his little might.

Back came the flash of light, the shaking and bubbling. This time Paddlefoot felt himself stretching and growing. Very quickly, he was back to his old enormous self. Fionn the magician had shrunk, and was shrieking and shaking his fist at Paddlefoot.

“You tricked me!” he cried, his face as red as lava.

Paddlefoot laughed, very carefully, the way he knew how to, so that he wouldn’t knock any birds out of the sky.

Power is safest with those who don’t crave it,” Paddlefoot said, throwing the wand on the ground.

He lifted his huge foot and stomped down on the wand, cracking it in two. A little earthquake cracked the ground just beneath Fionn and he ran away, moaning and sobbing. Fionn the magician was never again seen in that part of the world. And Paddlefoot never again wished to be smaller.

Why I go to Writing Workshops

I used to think I didn’t need to do a writing workshop. Sure, didn’t I know how to write? Hadn’t I been taught in school, and always done well in English? I was the girl whose English stories were always read out in class, with my face turning puce. When I started writing children’s novels, I didn’t have to stop and think how to write, I felt like I already knew how-that it came naturally to me. I was always a big reader, so I understood books. So what did I need a writing class for?

Fast forward two years and a bundle of rejections later, and I decided that I would try a writing class, see if I was missing an ingredient. I learned that I wasn’t missing any ingredients, but I didn’t know how to season my work. Bland stories don’t jump out of the publisher’s slush pile.

These are some things I’ve learned from writing classes:

Nobody knows everything, because everyone writes differently

I was probably a bit overconfident (okay, maybe smug, but confidence sounds better, and is absolutely necessary to make it as a writer) at first. I started my first class thinking I wasn’t going to get much out of it. Which is exactly the wrong attitude to have. I was thrown off my high horse fairly lively, and I came home after that class with my mind opened to new ways of writing.

It wasn’t mind blowing, it wasn’t like someone had just turned on a light switch. It was more like someone had exchanged the old low voltage bulb with a high power one, and I could now see the cobwebs. Sometimes it’s the littlest changes you make to a text that make it stand out. And how you make that little change is different for everyone, but the more ways you learn, the more likely it is that’ll you’ll find a way that suits you.

An honest critique

Workshops are all different, but every workshop I’ve attended has provided some new way of critiquing my own writing. Sometimes it’s from just the facilitator, sometimes it’s from both the facilitator and participants. One of my favourite writing workshops is a “Children’s Fiction Workshop” in the Big Smoke in Dublin. This workshop is a critiquing workshop, and we all read each others work beforehand, and make detailed notes about what works, and what needs more work. The workshop facilitator, Claire Hennessy, runs a smooth ship, making sure there’s a good balance of praise (we need our confidence, remember?) and constructive criticism/feedback. I admit that my stomach squirms the whole way up on the train to Dublin when I’m going to this workshop. But it’s never squirming on the way home. The whole point is to improve your work and build your confidence; not to throw it onto the train tracks.

There is a lingo to learn

I am not good at grammar knowledge. I keep having to refresh my understanding of grammar; what is a pronoun, what is an adverb, etc? I don’t know why this is, but it’s just an annoying part of me that I have to accept, and to keep retraining.

But-grammar isn’t the only lingo that helps you in the writing industry. There’s a whole lingo attached to being a writer; voice, YA, arc, hook. It goes on. I didn’t know this until I started attending events, but sometimes this is an awkward place to learn the lingo, as you’re almost expected to know it. The lingo is thrown around like confetti, and you don’t want to be the one person in the room pretending that a piece of that confetti got stuck in your eye so you don’t have to answer a question that you don’t understand.

Writing workshops are a place where you’re very free to ask questions. You don’t feel the social pressure of knowing it all, and you realise the other participants also don’t know everything. You’d be amazed how quickly you learn the lingo, even for a grammar-dummy like me.

Reading is subjective

I once attended a workshop that squashed my confidence. My work was over-criticised and I took the teacher’s word as Gospel. But when I shared the story with someone else in the business, they were able to see where I coming from, and point out the merits and flaws. I realised that the first teacher hadn’t understood my angle, and hadn’t bothered to tread gently on my words (and words really are dreams when you’re an aspiring writer). Now, I admit there were flaws in that piece of writing. Reading it now, I can see where I went wrong. But it would have been helpful if that had been explained to me, rather than the teacher acting like the whole piece should end up in a rubbish heap.

So, just because the teacher is the professional, you still need to remember that reading is subjective. And just because the teacher doesn’t like it, doesn’t mean that no-one will. So go in with a thick skin, and take the critiques with a pinch of salt. You should never leave a workshop feeling worse about your writing. And if you do, take it from me, you just need to find a different class.

Techniques

Just because you know how to write, doesn’t mean that you know the best way to write. This month I did a workshop with Sheena Wilkinson through SCBWI. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I really loved Sheena’s latest book, “Name Upon Name”, so I decided to go along. Also, there’s not a huge amount of workshops for children’s writing in Cork, so I wanted to show my support when there was one (Thanks Colleen!).

I didn’t know I needed to be taught techniques until this workshop. Sheena was very clear that what she teaches is what works for her, but I quickly saw that it was also going to work for me. Simple tips, exercises, graphs that made editing easier, to help you see if your text has the right balance of dialogue, action etc. Sometimes you just need to be shown. And even if you don’t find the techniques of one teacher/facilitator work for you, at least you’ll learn what doesn’t work. Since that workshop, I edit in a whole new way. I see chapters differently, always looking for balance, which has saved me time and improved my confidence.

I could go on and on about the merits of workshops. There’s the socialising (I’ve met a great bunch of emerging writers like myself), the kick up the arse you need, the ability to now see where you’re going wrong in a piece of text etc etc. But to really find out all the benefits of going to workshops, you’ll just have to go to one yourself.

Published writers have gone through all the sweat and tea that aspiring authors are going through now. So if they are willing to share their tips, short-cuts and techniques they learnt along the way, get going and soak that up. Learn how to season your text, and help it to leave a taste on the reader’s tongue.

Outside Opinions: On Writing

This month I had a writing revelation. I was at the Children’s Books Ireland (CBI) conference, and the theme was “Better Together”. Everyone was talking about collaboration, and how projects can come to their full potential when people work together. There was talk of illustrators working with writers, writers working with editors and agents, etc. There was also talk about how authors pull and play with ideas during the writing process, getting ideas, joining ideas, smashing ideas, but most importantly to me, asking for an outside opinion.

Now, I’ve always known that writing at a professional level means getting outside opinions. I’ve read plenty of editor-feedback horror stories, with writers pulling their hair out (sometimes even teeth), because the editor wants a different ending or middle or entire story. If you have an agent, or pay for a Reader’s Report, that will also bring a whole pile of opinions and changes. And I’m fine with that. In fact, I embrace it. But I always felt like they’re allowed to change it, because they’re professional, they know what they’re doing. And your book is already at a fairly advanced and organised stage if you are handing it to an editor. Your idea is well formed. But the thought of getting an outside opinion on a young and fragile idea hadn’t really occurred to me.

At the conference, there was a very amusing and awe-inspiring panel titled “An Abundance of Katherines”, where Cat Doyle asked Katherine Woodfine, Katherine Rundell and Katherena Vermette, at what point do they share their story? Katherine Woodfine answered that she discusses as she goes, working out the plot and history, often with her husband’s ear (marrying a writer should come with an “I’ll use and abuse your ear warning”). While Katherine Rundell and Katherena Vermette hold their ideas close, for fear that telling someone will take the magic out of it, and they only show their story when it’s all worked out. But they both then share it, and take on board suggestions and make changes, even if it means huge plot changes (including alternative endings).

You sometimes hear of writers who don’t need to think about what they’re writing, that the story gets channelled through them. I’ll admit this happened me once, for a kid’s early reader. The idea just popped into my head and the short book flowed out of me in about 4 days. I thought “This is it. I’m a writer now. What’s the next story?” Alas, it was a one time lucky sort of thing. And so, I regularly get stuck on plot. But for some reason, I didn’t know I was allowed ask for outside help on a first draft. Now that I think about it, I realise how ridiculous that was of me. I mean, it’s not like there’s one rulebook for writers, and everyone has to follow it. More like there are loads of rulebooks and you pick which style suits you. A little bit from this, a little bit from that. Similar to becoming a parent and realising that all the parenting books give you conflicting advice, and the only way to get through it is to follow your gut and that’s the end of it.

I’m the kind of person that sorts out my thoughts by talking to people about them. My husband gets the brunt of this thinking jumble. But when it comes to my writing, I’ve always held back a bit. I’ll throw the main points at him, explain what I’m writing about and why, and occasionally bounce around the kitchen in excitement when some whacky idea arrives that I know will fix a big plot hole. But I don’t normally toy out my plot with him, because my diaphragm gives a little twist if he suggests a big change that I know will make my story better. In fact, I usually pretend I didn’t hear him when he does that. I want to play with my ideas, get an opinion on whether it will or won’t work, but I ultimately want the solution to be mine (my precious, baby!). More of a “Should I do storyline A or storyline B?” I absolutely did not want my husband (or anyone really) to have a brain-storm moment about my book. Because is that allowed? Can I call it mine, if someone else had an input? If he suggests an alternative ending, can I even use it, or is that a big juicy lie? Would I have to write on my submission letter, “This is my novel, but my husband came up with the ending.”?

They say it takes a village to raise a child. I remember the first time I handed over my first daughter to be minded by someone else. The panic, the what-ifs, the “no-one can be as good as her mother” notion that swam around my under-slept brain. But as my daughters grew, I realised that they thrived from outside input, that it brought out new sides to them, and took the pressure off me to be superwoman. Being too closed off, up on a high pedestal with your writing, can give your book cramp. This “Better Together” conference taught me that you don’t have to be the one and only creator of your book, that the end story is the most important thing. And if that means calling in the village, then so be it.

Ignore Imposter Syndrome and Get Going.

Starting is the easy part. How many times have we all started something new with a heart full of giddiness? The thought that we can do it bouncing around our head, the imagined success and the wonder of the completed project a sparkling goal that seems within reach. And how long into a new project do we start to doubt ourselves? Or conveniently schedule other activities during the time we’d set out for this project. You just have to look at the spike in gym attendance every January to know what I’m talking about. A sky scraper of motivation knocked down when life gets in the way. But does life really get in our way, or do we get in our own way?

The two biggest reasons I have for quitting projects are laziness, and self-doubt. Laziness stops me exercising enough, going out in the evening to stimulate my tired brain, painting the shed (two-toned is in…right?). I think, there’s always tomorrow. Tomorrow I’ll have more energy, the weather will be better, I’ll make time. Procrastination defines my relationship with writing short stories. I go from writing novel to novel so I don’t have to face the challenge of short stories. I was always better at long-term relationships than flings. I find novels easier, less pressure to get each word right from the start. I can be lazy in my writing, because I’ll do a huge editing haul at the end and the main thing now is achieving my daily word count. It’s also a relief knowing what I’ll be writing for the next few months, because I’m writing a novel. Short stories end too quickly, they need a lot of thought and a big punch. And as soon as it’s written, I’d have to think of something else to write, and what if I can’t think of anything? What if I run out of ideas? What if I forget how to write? Imposter syndrome, anyone?

I don’t just have imposter syndrome with short stories. I always start my novel with more gusto than a Tornado, but by the time I reach the mid-way point, I think it’s utter cow-dung. I suddenly don’t know how I’ve spent so many hours working on this smelly manuscript, and what is there to show other than some mouldy coffee stains? The first time this happened me I was devastated, sitting there watching flies hover around the manuscript, wondering how I ever thought I could pull this whole ‘writer’ thing off. I wanted to just go to bed, without even washing my teeth, so deep was my despair. Instead I printed the thing out, read through the hard copy, and was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t half as stinky as I thought it was (2 years later, I now know that it was actually dreadful, but that’s beside the point).

I’ve become used to this half-way doubt. And I’ve learnt that even if it is a total stink-bomb of a novel, the sense of achievement at finishing it is always better than quitting. I’ve finished writing projects and never looked at them again, knowing they didn’t work, but still been dead proud of myself for getting through a beginning, middle, and end. And that feeling of pride at the end is what propels me forward to the next project. As a general rule, I keep writing until it’s finished, because I never know until well after the ending whether it’s any good. My inner critic would have me abandon everything I write, because at some point I’ve thought everything was awful.

Laziness, I find, is the easier evil to beat. I just need to be willing, and thankfully I have some serious willpower when it comes to my dream of being a writer (it’s easier to find will-power for a passion, rather than say, jogging, which brings me little more than sweaty armpits). For me, it’s all about making a routine. A commitment, setting an alarm, telling people the resolution so I am held to it.

Getting to the end of your novel is one thing, believing in it is another. It’s hard to believe in your writing when you get rejection after rejection. Each polite ‘this doesn’t fit our list’ another piece of coal for the inner critic burning inside. So once you get to the end of a novel, and edit it, you now need to gather all your willpower. Forget about taking the lazy option and take your head out from under the pillow. Realise that the real imposter here isn’t you, it’s your inner critic. So tell it to go take a hike.

Finding Ideas

Cloud Idea Bubble - CC0 - pixabay-Alexas_Fotos-686414Ideas come to some authors as easily as sweat comes to armpits in the gym. I’ve heard of authors who have drawers full of ideas, note-books overflowing with anecdotes and stories just waiting to be used at a later date. There are authors who carry special fly swats to rid the air around them of new ideas, so that they can focus on their current book. Alas, I am not one of those authors. On the contrary, I have more next-novel-idea angst than a teenager in an existential crisis. Saying that, I’ve never completely run out of ideas. I’ve always found something to write, but I never know if the idea is good enough until I put pen to paper. I find it very hard to believe in a story before I’ve started it.

It takes me quite a while to finish a YA (young adult) novel, which means I don’t actually need a new novel idea until at least a year after I decided on the last idea. I’m a fast enough writer, though my first drafts are taking longer the more experienced I become at writing. I used to just vomit out the first draft, knowing there’d be time to clean it up later. But then I realised that I don’t really like cleaning up vomit, despite the day job rotating between being a nurse and a mum. Every nurse knows that it’s much easier to prevent the vomit in the first place. So I now take my time, write more slowly, carefully. This also helps to put off the next idea choice. In between editing drafts, I write small Chapter books for kids (ideas come easier when the word count is under 10,000), poems, I attempt to write short stories. I never commit to a new full-size novel until I’m finished with the last.

I’ve started many novels based on an idea. And I’ve given up on many novels, thousands of words in, because I knew the idea wasn’t working. Sometimes I don’t even have an idea, just a character, and it can be a real struggle to figure out who this person in my head is, and what is their story. I often start a story and have no clue where it’s going. I’ve tried to write about certain topics, only to realise that the words that flow are dry and boring. I can start a story for the sake of practising writing, and not have a clue what the plan is, and discover I’ve created a character I love and want to keep. My stories are not always predictable to me, but that makes it much more exciting to write.

I find that ideas for short stories and poems are easier to find than ideas for novels. I often flick through magazines, scroll down my twitter feed, eavesdrop on conversations, looking for shreds of inspiration. Sometimes I get an idea for a short story or Chapter book from another story or book. A line, an image, a piece of information that wakes up my imagination like an alarm clock.

Sometimes ideas come in round about ways. This year I did a creative writing class for short stories. I was the only person writing or reading YA, so I decided to try and write for adults. I enjoyed it so much that I even started a novel, based on a woman. This was new to me, as my protagonists have always been under eighteen. However, it didn’t last. You see, it turned out the woman had a teenage daughter, and after writing 10,000 words of the mother’s story, I suddenly found myself writing the daughter’s side of the story. And it was much more fun to write. And that is the where the idea for the novel I am now working on came from.

So perhaps I am not a writer who catches my ideas with a butterfly net. Instead I am a writer who just keeps on writing, whether or not I have anything to write about. And in that mine of words, I occasionally catch a sparkle out of the corner of my eye, and that next novel angst disappears. For another year anyway.

Squashing the Guilt

Last month was the first month in 2 years, that I didn’t manage to get a blog piece out. As soon as May passed, guilt covered me like prickly sunburn, that I hadn’t succeeded in this monthly self-set goal. But then I started thinking, why do I let myself suffer guilt over my writing? I know I’m not the only writer who struggles with this. It’s so easy to feel like you’re not doing enough. That you should be able to write not only your novel, but also enter short story competitions, and write poetry and weekly blogs. Twitter doesn’t help. Watching other people post their successes, competition winnings, reach word counts in the thousands, while you struggle to find time for a few hundred, or even ten. Life happens, obstacles land in our way, and it’s not always our choice. I have dead-lines, but I set them myself. I’ve no agent, no publisher. Not yet. I am at the freest part of my writing career (yes, I do believe it will be a career, with my smug self-belief) with no one to answer to other than myself. So why do I hold myself to such high standards?

I am someone who has always suffered from guilt. I can feel guilty a number of times a day, sometimes almost to crippling degrees. The rational part of me knows that there’s not always a need for this guilt, that it’s usually a wasted emotion because I’m not actually a bad person. I feel guilty that I don’t do enough for my young children, when in fact I gave up my permanent nursing job to love and care for them full-time. I feel guilty that I don’t do enough for my marriage, when the time I spend with my husband always involves a lot of laughter. When I work the odd shift in a nursing home, I’m guilty that I’m not at home minding my family. When I’m at home all the time, I’m guilty that I’m not setting my daughters a feminist example of a mother who also works. And in the last 2 years, writing has jumped onto my list of things to be guilty about.

But why should it? I started writing as a way to stop thinking about my real life worries. A big bay window into escapism. I never expected to fall so in love with it, that it moved the goal posts of my life to a whole new field (more like a meadow with a lot of uncut grass and brambles in the way). Like any goal, it brings a whole list of worries and new things to be guilty about. If I over-sleep the odd morning, I wake with niggling self-disapproval that I missed today’s hour of writing time. If I go on a rare night away, my stomach balls itself up until I find the time to write on my romantic getaway.

I’ve been to many writing festivals and panels, and I’ve heard all about how important a writing routine is. I agree. I made my writing routine, and I love it. I love that time alone in the morning before the world is up, and the weather is merely hinting at the day ahead. I love the sense of achievement I get when I finish a Chapter, or come up with a new metaphor after days mulling it over. Outside my routine, I love snatching ten minutes in an unexpectedly calm part of the day, to scribble a few lines. Or the immense satisfaction that comes with three solid hours of work on the train to Dublin for events.

Last month I failed to write a blog post, but I achieved a serious and time-consuming editing over-haul of my novel. My children needed my time more than usual, for reasons I’m not going to go into, but suffice to say, my role as a mother will always come first. I barely had time to read, but I grabbed minutes here and there, because a week without reading to a writer, is like having a shower and realising you’ve plenty of Conditioner, but no Shampoo. I didn’t achieve every writing task I planned to, but I achieved more in other areas of my life that needed it. Sometimes you have to balance the rest of your life, and close your ears to the guilt trying to sink you.

So I’m going to stop beating myself up on the days I fail to write. I’m going to enjoy my days off when there’s a good enough reason to take a day off, like a holiday, or the promise of breakfast in bed, or a migraine (it’s true, I have tried to force myself to write with a migraine, thinking that one little sentence is better than none). If I need time off, that’s okay. If life gets in the way, I’ll be patient and start building my ladder. Hell no, I’ll build a climbing frame; it’s more fun. Nothing kills a passion faster than turning it into a chore. Writing should be a beloved pendant over your heart, and not a chain around your ankles.

Writing through Rejection

During a panel of agents at the Cork World Book Festival, Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin asked Polly Nolan (Greenhouse Literary Agency) and Simon Trewin (WME) what was the biggest reason for manuscripts to be rejected. The answer was writers sending out their work too early. They recommended putting your manuscript away for a month, three months, six months. Long enough that your eyes no longer skim over the words, and you can see the mistakes and areas that need work.

Putting a novel away and trying to be patient is one of the hardest parts of writing. I would love to get a novel published so I could feel justified as a writer, and to feel less like an outsider looking in on a community that I strive to join. But very few writers make it on their first book. It took me a while to realise that a ‘Debut’ novel doesn’t mean the first novel the author has ever written. It’s the first novel they got published. Many writers have one or two or ten novels hiding away at the back of their laptop or under their bed. They’re probably awful, hence the not published part. But they were a learning curve; their apprenticeship. Some of those novels were submitted and rejected. It can take years until a) your ability to write is good enough, and b) your story is good enough.

A stack of books and notes, probably full of scribbled revisions

Submitting before your book is ready will lead to rejection. Every writer has been rejected, for hundreds of different reasons, and it helps to build that thick skin you’ll need to grow, before your writing goes out into the world. Simon Trewin changed my thinking when he expressed his dislike of the word ‘rejection’. To him, it’s less a matter of being rejected and more a matter of not being the right fit. If you go into a book shop and pick one book out of one hundred, it means that one appealed to you above all the others. You’re not, as such, rejecting the others. Reading is subjective, there’s no size that fits all.

I’m always surprised to hear how people react to rejection. Every time I receive a rejection from a journal or a competition or an agent, I feel two things. One, happiness that I’m a real writer doing real grown up writerly things like making submissions. Two, a little bit of heart break. It is harrowing, working on a piece for weeks on end (or years when it comes to novels), pulling up the courage and emailing it out, only to get a polite ‘No thanks’. I certainly don’t send back angry emails, but some people do. Threatening and abusing whoever had the audacity to reject them. But this is business, and whoever rejected you is not a robot; they are a person. They have a right to refuse, and a right to be respected. Rudeness has no place. And from another angle entirely, you can never re-submit to that agent with your next book, if you’ve made such a fool of yourself.

If you’ve tried your very best, and you just can’t get your book published, it may be time to let it go. Move onto the next book. This is not easy, but you’ll bring what you’ve learnt from the first book to your next. And in a year or 2 down the line, you may take out the first book and have fresh eyes to see what the book was lacking. Sometimes it’s not the right time for a book. You might be submitting a dystopian book, just as the trend for dystopian fiction is nearing it’s end. Maybe the time will come in a few years. Maybe that book will never be the one to launch your career. So let it go, for now, or forever, and try again.

Being flexible and trying a new style, or genre, can be what makes the difference in getting published. I often read prose that I wished I’d written myself. But when I try to write similarly, it comes out as jargon. It’s not my true voice. You need to allow yourself test different styles to find your voice, and be open to suggestion. Exercise your writing muscle in different ways, and you may surprise yourself. If you keep getting rejected for the same reasons, then maybe you need to listen to what the agents or editors are saying. But don’t sell you soul either. You have the power to say no, and the power to say yes. Stand over your book, but don’t let it cripple you. Every parent needs to give their babies room to change and breathe, all by themselves.

So, how do you survive rejection? When I receive a rejection letter, I analyse it. Do the suggestions ring true to me? Can I see where they’re coming from? Is the letter hopeful, ‘maybe next time’, or down-right a bad fit? Do they even give me a suggestion, or is it just a bog standard rejection letter? But then I stop analysing it. I go for a walk, take a break, forget all about it for a few days until I can see the wood from the trees and decide whether to take on board any suggestions. Sometimes I feel like never writing again, and then I take a break for a day. But by the second day I miss writing and feel all wrong, and when I sit down at a new or different project I remember the reason I started writing in the first place. Not to be published, but because writing cheers my soul. That’s how I live through rejections; by remembering I write for the love of it. Writing stills my busy mind, it inspires and over-powers me. It can turn my bad mood into a good one, and gives me a place to express myself and work out my thoughts. Simply, it brings me joy. So don’t let rejections make you reject writing.