Looking for writing advice? (Part 1)


Over the last month I’ve received over forty emails/tweets/messages asking for advice on writing. This is a pretty high number – and more than I’ve received before in such a short space of time – so I’m guessing there’s something in the air that’s making people feel extra frustrated/blank/exhausted/lost.

mayaangelou

Although I’m hardly an oracle, I love that people feel they can come to me and that I can help in some way. It’s a real honour and a pleasure every time. But I suspect that for every writer that manages to ask another for support, there are several others struggling with aspects of their writing career suffering in silence.

I know that I’ve relied on other writers to vent frustrations, ask advice, get a second opinion. But I also know that I’ve worried/stressed/suffered in silence from time to time. I can’t say why exactly – I don’t know why but sometimes, that’s just the way it is. I’m guessing fear is probably the culprit. Fear of failure, of success, of *insert worry here*.

So, in an attempt to help anyone that’s feeling a bit lost but doesn’t know where to turn, I’ve compiled a list of my most popular posts – the ones that seem to be helping people most with the questions/difficulties they’re facing – below. I hope they help.

  • For the love of writing, keep going! – a look at overcoming the feeling of failure by enjoying what we do.
  • The Wolf We Feed – a post about taking responsibility for our writing and writing career.
  • Is your routine good enough? – drawing on other writers’ experiences, this post considers how we write, whether it gives the results we’re looking for and what we can do to make positive changes.  (PS My routine has changed completely – maybe it’s time for an updated version of this post?)
  • Writing without payment – should we or shouldn’t we?
  • Thick-skinned – can rejection ever be positive?

Feel free to post links to some of your own useful posts below. Next time, I’ll be posting a list of recommended blog posts from other writers that offer further advice, inspiration and encouragement.

Pressing pause

west cork scenery

Days like this have to be taken advantage of

This is a kind of ‘hello everyone, I am still here’ post and an apology at the same time. May has proved to be a very busy month so far and I’m only just getting round to adding a post. I know, I know… but sometimes the blog just has to wait. The balance has tipped. I had to press pause.

I often speak to writers about trying to balance their writing with work and every day life. As we all know, modern life is busy. If we do manage to get a gap in our schedule, we fill it so it’s… well, busier still. And if you write, you can always improve something/start another project/tie up some loose ends, so you’ll always need more time. But that (I’ve learned) doesn’t mean you have to be writing constantly.

There’s a difference between dedication and obsession – just like there’s a difference between working at an optimum level and battling through just because you feel you should. Sometimes a challenge is good and you have to battle; I’m currently rewriting my YA book from third to first person which I find very challenging. It’s necessary for the book but not my natural way to write. But sometimes you have to learn to press pause.

This year, I’m trying really hard to fight the urge to constantly write or work. I’m awarding myself one day off a week from everything that involves the written word. No social media. no articles, no writing. The computer stays firmly shut.

This is an attempt at maintaining sanity. To allow my brain to unwind. To be rested enough to write at an optimum level the other six days of the week. I failed the first few weeks and did some sneaky (about four hours each day) editing on the day off, but guess what? By Wednesday night, I was starting to run on adrenaline alone. By Saturday, I was shattered.

How can you resist? A bit of this means more smiles all round.

How can you resist? A bit of this means more smiles all round.

I think it’s a legacy of my childhood, this need to always be achieving, to always be moving forward. I believed that enough fight and enough hard work would open up doors. That they’d provide me with opportunities I was told would never be possible. I was right. The hard work paid off. Only I never quite managed to figure out how to put on the brakes.

Strangely enough, writing has taught me a lot about the need for pause and reflection. Not in a navel-gazing kind of way, or a waiting for inspiration to hit kind of way. As far as I’m concerned, that’s complete nonsense. But writing has shown me that – very frustratingly – there some things are, and always will be, out of your control. That hard work will get you so far, but you need your health and wellbeing too. That you’re far better off working shorter bursts at an optimum level than always fighting.

When I first left my job to focus on my writing, I was arrogant and impatient and pushy. All the time pushing; to beat deadlines in record time, to write for longer and faster than the day before, to produce as many finished pieces as I could. I turned down social engagements, days out, nights out (especially these – I mean, I had to be up at six to write the next five thousand words). I missed out on some interesting opportunities because my writing had to come first. I ended up feeling lonely, isolated and somewhat bug-eyed by it all.

west cork writer

Tools of the trade – should have some great fresh eats by the end of it all

And so slowly I have learned – I need time off.

This month, Sundays have been my only spare days for blog writing and so – apologies, but I chose to press pause.

Instead, I’ve been getting the garden in order, planting and nurturing potatoes, tomatoes, beans, sweet pea, chillies (I didn’t nurture them very well – they died), pak choi, lettuce etc.

I’ve helped fix up and paint the boat and get it back in the water. We used it to go watch a basking shark last week and last Thursday, I ate my first fresh-caught mackerel of 2014 for breakfast.

I’ve been taking walks and visiting the local Sunday market and reading lots of great books or watching great documentaries. And I’ve been going to sleep early, without my characters yapping on at me or images of the computer screen floating in my head.

west cork writer

Gotta love the sea dog (not so much the barking at seagulls or fish we’ve caught, but hey, can’t have everything!)

Has my writing suffered? No. I’m still on schedule. I’ve completed one big project. I’m almost finished another, And I’ve a few dalliances in-between that may, or may not, come to something fruitful. We shall see.

So if you’re feeling stung out or stressed out or even slightly overwhelmed, here’s my suggestion: have a look at how much you’re doing, compare it with what you think you should be doing and then figure out how much you realistically can manage, without tearing your hair out or losing it over the slightest irritation.

Find a spot to press pause. And do. It might not be easy at first, but I think you’ll feel the benefits over time. I’d love to know how you get on – and what wonderful things you get up to. You never know, there could be a story lurking there…

Cape Clear Diaries (6): A Fond Farewell

south harbour, cape clear, leavng on the ferry

Leaving South Harbour, homeward bound

I’ve been home for a few days now; enough time has passed to reflect on the two weeks that I spent there. So what is the overriding feeling that I’m left with? What has my time on Cape Clear taught me?

I guess the overriding feeling is of joy and calm. My trip to Cape enabled me to reset the clock, revaluate my goals and rejig my workload to create a more harmonious work/life. In short, I recharged. But Cape also left me with a few important reminders…

1) A sense of place is important

The beauty of the island, the change of pace, the proud nature of the inhabitants, their determination to preserve island life through a mix of tradition and innovation, all fed into a vivid image of what encapsulates ‘Cape Clear’. As I heard said on the island… “You may leave Cape Clear, but Cape Clear won’t leave you.”

In your fiction, you need to make sure that the sense of place is as deeply rooted in the characters as it is in your descriptions. It’s not enough to describe a place to make it believable; you have to convince your reader, seduce them by making the character inextricable from the landscape (unless of course you’re trying to show them as an outsider. Then the reverse is required).

Consider the wild moorlands of Wuthering Heights, the harsh, unwelcoming sidewalks of Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane, or the unyielding, barren landscape of Eowyn Ivey’s Snow Childwhen it comes to your setting, not just your characters, it’s a serious case of ‘show, don’t tell’.

2) It’s OK to give up

Despite the strong winds and lashing rain at the start of the week, I got it into my head to take the cliff walk. The exposed route involves some incredibly steep hills and boggy terrain, but even with the weather against me, I was determined. Why? Because I’d planned it before even arriving. And I’m stubborn.

However, after hiking for over half an hour without even being able to see the cliff edge or the path ahead, staggering against the wind and sinking my foot ankle deep into a delicious mix of cow pat and bog, I decided to pause. I had another ten days to go. Was it really worth it? For once, I concluded that the sensible decision was to turn back.

Likewise, with writing, it’s important to realise that sometimes an idea just isn’t working. Like a film or book you find dull, the world will not end if you abandon it. The guilt (if you’re prone to such a thing) may linger for a day or two, but if you distract yourself with a completely different project – something fresh, something exciting – you’ll get over it. Trust me. You’re much better putting your energies into something worthwhile.

Now, I don’t mean give up at the first hurdle – you have to give something a good run first. But as writers, we need to be able to see what works and what doesn’t. A story can be perfectly crafted but lack the ‘oomph’ to maintain its reader’s attention. An idea can be brilliant – but not suited to your voice. You have to learn to spot the difference between a great idea and a great piece of writing.

puppy leaving cape clear on ferry

Franklyn the seadog, running low on oomph

Which brings me to my next point…

3)  But sometimes it’s even better to try again

Not to be beaten, I returned to the same cliff walk a few days later, in glorious sunshine, and was rewarded with spectacular views. The waves crashed against the cliff, I had a wonderfully clear view of the Fastnet Rock lighthouse, the gorse glowed against the blue sky and I was surrounded with birdsong. The bog was less boggy and with better visibility, I managed to avoid the cow pat.

If I hadn’t returned to the cliffs, I would have been left wondering – what if? Make sure you give your writing a solid chance before abandoning it completely. Try rewriting in a different tense or person, or starting at a different point in the story. Tell the tale through the eyes of a different character or experiment with alternating viewpoints. You never know, this is when the magic ‘oomph’ could happen.

4)  Take time out

I think one of the main things that Cape Clear reminded me was the importance of shutting off for a while and just seeing what happens. We’re used to being flexible in terms of shifting deadlines and juggling projects – but what about being flexible about relaxation? It’s OK to set rigid times to write and set regular goals, but if you don’t have any issues when it comes to being disciplined, then sometimes it’s a good idea to let things just take their course.

Consider, for instance, when you’re writing a first draft of a novel; my advice is to forget editing altogether. Continue with the word count and let the ideas and characters take over without any revision. Some writers like a carefully planned outline before they start to formulate a draft, but I find it liberating, and certainly more enjoyable, to just keep going and let the ideas and characters run amuck.

clear atlantic, cape to baltimore ferry

A fine day for sailing (not like the journey there – must be a karma thing)

The main character’s name may change from Mary to Tania to Ermentrude as you stumble through this initial draft, but you can easily sort that out later once you have a big body of work. The way I see it, you only get to play at the outset – after that, it’s down to editing. Separate the two to get the most out of your writing time.

And remember, it’s often during the non-writing activities that our best ideas hit. Taking a walk, having a shower, cooking dinner, train rides, chatting with friends – these are the times when your relaxed brain

As I think back to Cape Clear, I’m thankful for many things;

  • time spent enjoying the island
  • people I met there
  • important reminders relevant to both my life and my writing…

But most of all, I have the island to thank for another ten thousand words of a first draft and an absolutely cracking new novel idea – the novel I’ve always wanted to write but didn’t know how that I can’t wait to explore.

Thank you Cape Clear!

Recharge!

I just spent a week away in Bergamo, Italy, and I have to say, it was wonderful. Daily doses of sunshine (always desirable if you live in Ireland), great food and gorgeous scenery (think clear blue lakes surrounded by snow capped peaks and winding cobbled streets surrounded by ancient walls), as well as plenty of time to spend with my husband without worrying or thinking about anything other than just being.

Beautiful city of bergamo, Italy

View of the old town, Bergamo

Why am I telling you this? Not to make you green with envy, but to encourage you to take some time out.

Whether you’re a writer, a jeweller, a gardener or a teacher… Whatever your career/vocation, this is a call to arms.

Take some time to relax and recuperate. Right away, if possible.

Running the risk of sounding like a reformed smoker, hell bent on conforming everyone around me,  I think it’s so important to let the batteries recharge. And that means properly…

Try closing the laptop, shutting down Twitter (as well as Facebook, Pinterest and LinkedIn), and engage in the world immediately around you. Just be for a while. Be spontaneous. Even just for half an hour. See if it makes any difference to your energy, enthusiasm or mindset. It may not, but it’s worth a try.

In my experience, this relaxing malarkey isn’t something people are particularly skilled at these days. We seemed programmed to multi task and achieve, hell bent on keeping going against all odds and never giving up.

Dedication and determination are fantastic qualities – to a degree. Yet like anything, too much can be a bad thing.

As writers, we need to have a clear mind to create. Yes, the jumbled thoughts do contribute to creating characters, plot, dialogue etc – but only if we’re not worrying about other external factors such as money, chores, emails, the number of Twitter followers and the latest funny YouTube videos of ninja bunnies.

One way to achieve this is to shut down, away from it all, and just engage.

Holidays aren’t always a possibility, but you can take a walk, play with the dog, plant a few rose bushes, sketch your surroundings or try something new – take some time for yourself to let your brain recharge.

How do you relax and recharge? Any tips for others?

You’re not alone

You’ll find that writers are a very supportive bunch on the whole. They understand the pros and cons, highs and lows (admit it, there are lows) that writing involves and they are always willing to help – whether it’s reading through a piece you’re ready to submit, cheering you on when you’ve achieved something you’re proud of, giving tips on writing technique, or giving you a nod at the right times when you’re having doubts.

This can be in person, via email, twitter or Facebook, a text message or a phone call. You might find a revelation in an article, book, blog post, TV documentary or piece of journalism. The source isn’t really important. The point is, you are not alone. Help and support is out there. 

Usually, writers offer their support without question or judgement – just ask and see! – but sometimes, useful advice is given at just the right moment, by mistake. Such an incident inspires this week’s blog post, thanks to Susan Lanigan.

Shrimp pot in the Atlantic

Don’t let fear or doubt pull you in the wrong direction

Last week, Susan posted On Luck and Writing. She opened the post with – “Yesterday, I had a moment of uncertainty about my writing. The usual questioning and fear and stuff. To distract myself I picked up a book that did not belong to me and which I would never normally read…”

This resonated in two ways. Firstly, my mindset at the end of last week matched Susan’s exactly. Secondly, I too needed distraction, and On Luck and Writing proved the perfect tonic.

Usually, I’m all about staying focused but the more I write, the more I value those snippets of free time that you can salvage for research, reading about other writers and winding down. I’m still not great at it, but I’m improving.

Last week, my mindset was simply a product of over work and then stressing about not working enough which in turn generated negative feelings towards my output. Rather than remembering to enjoy the process, without too much inner reflection and criticism, I got caught up in over-analysing results and steaming towards unnecessarily ambitious, self-imposed deadlines.

I know, foolish. But what can I say? I’m only human. I think we can all fall into that trap on occasion. The important thing is that we realise it and rein ourselves in.

Like Susan’s post highlighted, we have a tendency to over-think things and allows ourselves to contemplate failure before we’ve even given things a fair try, flitting from one thing to another trying to find ‘the right answer’ instead of trusting our instincts and continuing on, unshackled.

Personally, I enjoy working on different projects – e.g. poetry, haiku, themed submissions, different word counts for stories – to hone my skills and keep things interesting. But when it comes to my novels, I have to trust my instinct and write what I want to write, what I can write well. It’s usually pretty easy, but sometimes, I need a post like Susan’s to remind me that that’s exactly what I’m doing and it’s the right choice to make.

Many people ask editors and publishers – ‘what are you looking for?’ – as though there is a magic ingredient that will ensure your book/s will be published. The truth is, even though publishers have gaps to fill, there is no such magic ingredient. What they want is a damn good story.

Sometimes your book will be rejected because it’s got a way to go, and it’s an almost damn good story with potential. In this case, listen to the advice you’re given, treasure it and use it to feed into your next draft. Sometimes, your book will be well written but the story isn’t quite damn good enough. Again, listen and act accordingly.

On other occasions, you’ve got a damn good story and it’s really well written, but it doesn’t fit a publisher’s list right now. Or any publisher’s list. That doesn’t mean that it never will, but neither does it mean – ‘quick, write a crime novel because they’re selling well’, or ‘switch to Young Adult, there’s a great market for it’.

Stay calm and carry on writing what you write in the way that you write it. All the while, you will be honing your writing skills, stimulating your imagination and writing more books. If you really want to be a writer, write. No matter what your inner critic says. You cannot let the inner critic hold you back or send you in the wrong direction.

In the words of Susan, “Hunt for what you want. Don’t be a prey animal. Be a predator.”

Great advice.

Squawking seagulls on the Atlantic

Silence the inner critic!

As you go into a new week, put any silent doubts, fears, anxieties or uncertainty about your writing behind you. You are a writer. So write. It’s that simple. Who cares if you have to wait longer for that elusive publishing deal or literary journal to accept your work? Stay on track, be dedicated to your craft and it will come.

I’d like to end with a huge thanks to Susan for being there at the right time, giving much-needed advice, without even realising.

Who has inspired/helped you over the last week? Share it with us – you never know who might need to be listening.

Make the most of your writing time

funny sleepy puppy

Franklyn has mastered the art of maximising his time

I was going to call this post ‘make your writing time last longer’ but I reconsidered, deciding that it was probably an outlandish claim seeing as most people juggle jobs, families, and generally hectic lives, as well as their writing.

Not everyone can stretch their time to incorporate more focused writing, but we can all make the most of the time we have available to generate ideas, edit current work and generally further our projects. (This applies to non writers too – as you read on, replace the writing references with whatever hobby/work tasks are relevant to you.)

Here are a few tactics that I rely on to get the most out of my day and maximise its potential.

Exercise first thing. I find this stimulates the body and mind and unclutters your brain. How long does it honestly take you to get going in a morning? Why not use that time to get the oxygen flowing round your body and benefit from the feel-good factor of having a great start to the day?

Many people choose to exercise with a friend because they find it motivating, but I recommend going alone if you can. You’l find your mind fresh and alert, rather than bogged down with gossip/problems – and it’s much easier to get started right away on your projects when you’re done exercising.

Choose wisely. Some writers leave their work with a sentence unfinished, so they’re itching to get started the next day. Personally, I like tasks to be ‘completed’ (read – finished to the best of my ability in that session) before stopping. If you know you only have fifteen minutes to write, and that that’s how long it takes you to get into your character’s mind to work on your current chapter, for instance, don’t set yourself up for failure. You’ll only feel irritated and short-changed when you have to stop. Choose something else that will move you forward.

For instance, is there a character’s name that doesn’t sit right? Research alternatives and mindmap ideas. Is your title not quite working? Play with that. How about redrafting a paragraph of a short story that’s been niggling at you? Maybe there’s a themed submission you’ve got your eye on but haven’t come up with anything yet? It’s time to play with ideas! As writers, the task we choose is vital to our sense of achievement.

sleep kittens cuddling up

As you can see, my cats also follow my advice.

Switch tasks. If you swap between tasks, you can honestly write for longer. It’s a great way of maximising your time. I find that by the time I’ve edited two chapters, my mind is straying from the task in hand and any subsequent chapter editing isn’t as focused. In other words, I need to walk away until the next day. However, I don’t need to walk away fro writing completely.

If I switch to a short story, or a piece of flash fiction, or even my next blog post, I work completely refreshed. I find, however, that trying to plan too rigidly can get stressful because you feel like you can never do enough. Write a list of the writing goals you want to achieve that week, with your main WIP prioritised. Once you’ve achieved your main goal, work through the secondary list one by one. You’ll be amazed how much you can accomplish.

Notebooks & other devices. All writers talk about the ingenious notebook – that magical place where we can jot down overheard snippets of conversation, plot ideas, observations and interesting facts that may be useful later. But they’re not that ingenious if they’re sat on the desk at home, unopened. Get used to carrying your notebooks around – make it a habit, like picking up your keys or driving glasses.

If you prefer technology, or a multi-sensory approach, use an app on your phone like Evernote to record ideas and inspiration. I love Evernote because you can take snaps, record your thoughts via audio and make notes – all in the same spot. And if you sync them online, you can access them at any time from any computer. Genius, hey? There are various diary and note taking apps available – try some free downloads until you find one that you enjoy using. Then you have yet another handy tool for collecting ideas.

Create time. Ask anyone about their day, and they’re busy. Almost too busy to tell you about their day. You don’t get many people saying – well, I read a paper, walked the dog, then sat staring out of the window, enjoying the view for a few hours. We’re all busy all of the time, but look at how you’re spending your day and ask yourself – am I spending my time wisely?

People with incredible lives make them incredible. They make choices that give themselves more time to do the things they want to do. Are there things you could do smarter? For instance, could you combine tasks, such as walking the dog to buy your groceries? Do you really need to sit chatting during your lunch break, or could you fit in an extra half hour of writing? Even twice a week? Is it really necessary to spend that much time on Twitter? Which leads us perfectly to…

Internet off. Not forever, but while you’re writing. When you’re writing, that should be your sole focus. Otherwise, you’re in your world, not your character’s – and how is that going to be believable to your reader?

Then there’s the distraction of checking emails, chatting about your writing on twitter (otherwise known as procrastinating), sticking up some inspirational pictures on Pinterest – ooh, and then I wonder how THAT writer’s getting on over on Facebook. We’ve all done it. But there’s nothing that can’t wait until you’ve achieved that day’s goals. So while we’re at it…

franklyn puppy with toy collection

Internet, phones, TV off. No distraction here! I’m 100% focused.

Phones off. Voicemail is the answer. We’re used to being completely contactable 100% of the time, but is it necessary? When police are patrolling the streets, they can’t use their mobiles – and their nearest and dearest wouldn’t even consider trying to call them while on duty. Likewise for librarians, schoolteachers, shop assistants and anyone else when they’re working. And so be it for writers. Only you have to make it clear – and stick by it.

No TV. I know this isn’t ideal for everyone but if you don’t switch the TV on, you’re not distracted. If you don’t have a TV, there’s no ‘switching it on for background noise’ then ‘accidentally watching’. When people go on holiday, they’re amazed at how much they fit in. Often, it’s because they’re not sat watching TV for a section of their day.

That’s not to say TV is a bad thing, but if you want to maximise your time it’s a no go area – at least while you’re writing. A less drastic alternative (and a nicer compromise) is to set a writing task that you have to finish before you switch the TV on. There, that wasn’t so bad, was it?

Wait. This is the one that many find hardest of all – especially in the early stages of a writing career – but waiting is actually beneficial. Letting your writing sit for a while before redrafting works wonders. Flaws are easier to spot, tongue-tied sentences stick out and if the idea hadn’t quite blossomed enough, the gaps are easier to identify. In short, the quality of work you produce is often much higher than if you tried to redraft it day after day for a week. If you don’t already wait, try it and see.

Now I don’t claim to be an expert on these matters, but these things work for me and I hope they work for you too. If you have any other tips on making writing time more effective, please let me know! I’m always looking for ways to keep the day productive, stress-free and enjoyable – while making the most of my writing time – so all suggestions are welcome!

How will you make the most of your writing time today?

Gone, but not forgotten…

collie pup rescue dog

Our new addition – Franklyn

I’m referring to you. Yes you.

January is a jam-packed month as I complete the final edits for my next book – a YA tale about the effects of alcoholism. As a result, I’m taking a short sabbatical from writing posts for the Green Fingered Writer blog.

It’s not because of New Year’s resolutions – we all know they get broken as quickly as they’re made. Like a car or electrical appliance, their value disintegrates the moment they’re bought.

The reason behind my retreat is that I need to free up as much time as possible. To edit the book, gather final bits of research and to get some space from my manuscript.

I need to breathe.

I’ve realized that one of my many failings is that I don’t let myself wind down enough. I live in a beautiful place and lead a very fulfilling life – but my time is so rigid, I sometimes forget to have fun along the way.

Only sometimes.

It’s that whole ‘get contacts before you’ve finished the book properly’ multi-tasking syndrome otherwise known as ambition. Does anyone else out there fall prey to this?

It’s when life becomes all about achieving when, in fact, the process is what’s important. I know that – I’m possibly the idea’s biggest ambassador – so why does my daily routine regularly forget?

Over the next few weeks, I’ll post some photos of the beautiful land and seascapes that surround me. Hopefully, they’ll delight or inspire you. Other than that, I’ll be in absentia until the end of January.

Sorry for the disappearing act and I hope you understand.

But know this – even though you’re out of sight, you won’t be out of mind and I look forward to catching up with you all before the month is up.

Wish me luck?