Writing goals, not holes

writing goals 2014It’s that time of year again when people start making resolutions and worry about sticking to them, but as far as I’m concerned, this is not healthy. Yes, it’s great to set yourself up for the year ahead with some ambitious dreaming – after all, without goals and deadlines it would be difficult to maintain regular, quality output – but not when said goals are to the detriment of your sanity or your confidence.

New Year’s resolutions are usually broken in a very short space of time because they are typically unrealistic and add too much pressure. They’re also usually fuelled by negativity – don’t do this or stop that or reduce something or other. They encourage you to look for flaws and pick holes in the baby steps you’re making towards progress.

Whether it be your waistline, the amount of time spent in front of the TV or your writing time that’s in focus, resolutions tend to add a negative feel to whatever it is you’re trying to achieve. And who can work well under those conditions? I certainly can’t.

But that doesn’t mean we should float into 2014 with a devil-may-care attitude because that won’t get us anywhere. It’s our life, dreams, ambitions, careers – we have to care. But what we don’t need to do is set ourselves up for immediate failure. Instead, I suggest we first take a look at what we’ve achieved over the past year, identify where improvements need to be made and also pinpoint areas that are going well that need to be stretched/challenged even further.

beautiful writingMy blog has been quiet for the last few weeks and that’s because I’ve been doing just that; assessing, evaluating and planning. I’ve eased myself into the new year and taken a step back to see exactly what I did well in 2013 and what I would like to improve upon. As a result, I’m raring to go and even though I was working and writing throughout the festive season, I feel refreshed and invigorated.

So what are my writing goals this year?

Securing a publishing deal is a given. I will continue to write novels and try to get them published until it eventually happens. And then I shall continue to write novels and try to secure a deal for them. And repeat. So the following 2014 writing goals are a sideline/addition to the novel writing and submission process.

  1. To expand the reach of my short stories with publication outside of UK & Ireland (I have researched a list of eligible journals and competitions, and recorded the deadlines & start dates in my diary)
  2. To build up a short story collection (the above goal will have an immediate, positive influence)
  3. To overcome the fear of performance (we all hate the sound of our own voice & reading my work in public makes me want to gibber in a corner. So I’m working on performance to music with my singer/songwriter husband – now we just need to get it out there!)

Three achievable and measurable goals that can run alongside the novel writing without detriment. Easy to monitor with opportunity for expansion; no room for picking holes, thank you very much.

What about you? What are your writing goals for 2014? 

apostrophe-man

Autumn dreams

autumn in ireland

This burgundy hue is one of my favourite colours and signifies autumn. Still trying to find out what the plant is called – any ideas?

Autumn is a beautiful time of year and like spring, it feels so full of possibilities. The shorter days tell our subconscious and our conscience that it’s OK for us to come in out of the cold and read a bit more book, spend extra time cooking wholesome meals, or meet and chat with friends.

Animals prepare to hibernate at this time of year and without even realising, we do the same. Especially rurally, as you’re more affected by natural light and the weather (there are no streetlights between my home and the village just over two miles away – so drinks out or visits to friends means visi-vests, torches, wellies and waterproof clothing. In other words, careful planning!).

I see autumn as a gift. It’s a time when we adjust our routines, attitudes and outlooks – and usually this means we remember to dream big. Every autumn, I write the first draft on a new novel, not knowing much about it but full of the excitement of where it may lead.

What will you be dreaming of this autumn as you let yourself wind down? And how will the season help make it happen?

Writers write, don’t they?

seagulls and fishing

I took this action shot out fishing a couple of weeks ago. I get a real kick out of watching them feed as we gut the day’s catch and share our feed with some feathered friends

To be a writer you have to write, that is true, but I believe that you also have to live life to the fullest to be able to write well. That means looking after your health and mental health, stimulating your curiosity and experiencing new things. You also have to make sure you have enough time out to let the ideas, characters and stories in your brain settle. Like Helen Moorhouse wrote recently, perhaps you don’t need to be writing to write!

This is a concept that I’ve struggled to come to terms with. When I gave up my city job to pursue a writing career a couple of years ago, I thought I had to sit at my desk for eight hours every day, slogging away no matter what the outcome. True, some writers do work like this, but for me, it’s not productive.

It’s taken some time to figure out and lots of jiggling and reworking of schedules, but I’ve found that after a certain amount of time, my writing suffers and my ideas channel themselves down one dull, lonely path.

Like Niamh Boyce and many others, I’m an intuitive writer, so I write a ‘draft zero’ without any planning and see where the characters and story lead me. I often have a name or a feeling, a sense of what a character is experiencing in my mind, but other than that, it’s a free for all. And sitting there for eight hours in a day does not work if you write this way.

Sometimes I get a powerful writing bug and my bum-glue seems more adhesive than usual – I can certainly edit/redraft for long periods of time –  but when I’m starting a new project, I tend to write in bursts. An hour here, half hour there, two hours later. I split the writing up over the day (especially in winter when the nights are long) and let my brain unwind and tick over in between.

autumn in ireland

Sometimes I’ll be helping with hay bales, sometimes I’ll be taking walks and admiring the newly cut silage or painting big X’s on the wrapper to deter the crows.

I take walks, swim, garden, cook, read, watch films and documentaries, I go fishing or meet up with friends for tea, then start all over again. This means that each time I sit down, my brain is recharged, my body energised and it’s like I’m writing for the first time that day.

I do work as well – part time in a bookshop and part time with my own social media business – and these provide a good distraction, balancing out the hours spent alone at a computer. Work makes me appreciate all the free time I have to write, but I still dream of the day when I can just write.

I attempt to take days off from both writing and work to fully recharge, but I find this extremely difficult to do and if I don’t elope from the village for the day then I’ll find myself doing one or the other (usually both).

So what’s this post all about? I guess it’s two things. Firstly – it’s OK not to be writing sometimes and secondly – we all have to find a way to write that works for us.

I’m always interested in the writing process and how other writers handle their work/life balance, how they keep motivated and get the best possible results. Does any of the above sound familiar to you or do you work completely differently? Are you an eight hours a day person or a short bursts devotee? I’d love to hear all about it.

What are you working on?

Autumn's tastiest fruit

Glistening and juicy, just asking to be turned into jam

It’s a wonderful time of year here; monbretia and fuschia line the roadways, blackberries are ripe for picking and the skies get moodier as the sunny days are tinged with a slight chill in the mornings. Autumn is becoming visible in the auburn-tinged ferns and wilting ivy. But most importantly, the crazy pace of the summer (tourist) season is slowing down so it’s freeing up more time to write.

This autumn/winter, my schedule looks like this so far:

autumn in west cork

The ivy is dying back, offering beautiful colour to hedgerows

I love the quiet mornings in autumn/winter when I can light a scented candle, treat my feet to soft slippers and write solidly for an hour or two before anyone stirs.

It takes a bit of getting used to as the days draw in and cool down – and sometimes it takes a bit of extra effort to haul myself from under the duvet – but I feel very lucky to have the opportunity to switch to a slower pace of life.

And although writing can be a lonely pursuit, I love having a blog because I can connect with other writers and nature lovers, and we can share what’s happening in our lives.

So what I’d really like to know is – what’s your favourite thing about autumn and winter? And if you’re a writer, what are you working on?

Creative jealousy

Two bizarre statements I heard this week from aspiring writers:

1) I never read that author because I’m too jealous of his writing.
2) I don’t read contemporary literature because I don’t want it to spoil my own writing

I can hear the resounding intake of breath from here, so let me deal with each of these separately and then I’ll let you say your piece.

I never read that author because I’m too jealous of his writing.

green eyes

Keep the green-eyed monster away

What sense does that make? Surely you read the authors you enjoy so that you can learn from them? Avoiding your favourite writers won’t make your own writing process any easier, and you lose out on some valuable learning. Keep up to date with the writers that you would like to emulate. It’s not copying, it’s infusing good technique, style and quality prose into your own writing. It’s called self improvement. Try it!

I don’t read contemporary literature because I don’t want it to spoil my own writing.

Rather than spoil your writing, reading your contemporaries should inform your work. How can you learn anything about what people like to read, the publishing industry and good technique if you avoid reading current literature? Reading is an important part of any writer’s life and is one of the best forms of education. Why miss out? Also consider this: if you don’t enjoy reading contemporary literature, why are you trying to write it?

In my mind, both of the above statements are the result of creative jealousy – and like any form of jealousy, this leads to destructive and detrimental situations for the person involved. Without knowledge, learning and the motivation to evolve, any aspiring writer will remain exactly that. In short, unpublished.

My advice to any other aspiring writers who want a successful writing career is to make use of the resources around you, including contemporary literature. Don’t succumb to creative jealousy. Read like a writer, soak up the language and technique and see where it leads your own writing journey.

What are you reading at the moment and how does it influence you as a writer?

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.

The writing marathon

When you tell people that you just ran a marathon, they don’t ask whether you won. So why is it when you tell people you’ve written a book, they ask – where is it published?

The excitement of National Novel Writing Month inspired this post – as well as a trip to Dublin last month which saw me caught up in the crowd of the Dublin Marathon.

On your marks…

Every year, millions of people undertake the challenge to write a book in 30 days. They’re charged up with ideas, advice, pep talks and caffeine, knowing that what’s ahead of them is a big undertaking, with no ‘reward’ other than the satisfaction of having done it. And they’re geared up to help each other along the way.

The Dublin Marathon is the same. I saw people fly over the finish line, like they’d just finished a 5k race. Others hobbled or limped, but got there with smiles. Some gave up.

One of the most amazing things I saw was a pair of runners nearing the finish line who backtracked to support a man – I assume it was a running buddy – who was too exhausted to run any more. They literally carried him over the finish line.

There was also a vibrant crowd cheering the runners on, competitors turning back after finishing to lend extra support, jubilant pace keepers and roadside drummers providing a bit of inspiration. Like Nano, it was an almost tribal atmosphere.

I’ve not yet run a marathon (watch this space) but I first tried NanoWrimo several years ago and succeeded. Since then I’ve taken that model and use it to write every first draft, though not necessarily during the month of November. (Note: I’m being kind to myself there…the result is more like a draft zero, a below-par initial draft, but I find it easier to work with a lump of words.) And that’s how my novels happen.

But even though the Nano model is my standard approach, there’s no denying it’s a challenge.

Like the Dublin Marathon runners, many NanoWrimo entrants succeed, but just as many, if not more, give up. Life gets in the way or lack of motivation interferes. Sometimes the uphill struggle to stay inspired gets too much. Fair play for trying, everyone but…

What’s the difference between those who succeed and those who don’t?

As far as I can tell, it’s pure determination. We keep going when the odds seem against us. We rely on sheer will power at times. We take the knocks and merely stumble, not fall. And we do it together because that tribal atmosphere – whatever your goals – really counts.

Let’s also consider the idea of measuring success. If you’ve run a marathon, it doesn’t mean you would expect to enter the Olympics – and no one else would expect it either. Likewise, just because you’ve written a book, you can’t expect it to get published right away. Writing a draft of a book is just the first step. In fact, writing several drafts of a book is still ‘early stages’ in any writing career. There’s a lot more practice, training and improvement to get through. And if this is the first book you’ve written, it probably won’t be good enough to secure you that elusive book deal.

So enjoy the process for what it is; an achievement in itself. You got there. You wrote 50,000 words in a month. You learned something. Even if you couldn’t complete the NanoWrimo challenge this time around, if you’re serious about writing, the experience will inform your writing in the future in some way.

But most importantly, once the challenge is over, try to keep in mind that sense of togetherness.

When another person asks you about your book or congratulates you on something you’ve written, when you run an extra half mile or finally get up that steep hill, when you get shortlisted or accepted for publication, or when you shave a few seconds off your running time – doesn’t it feel better when you have someone to share it with?

Next time you’re listening to someone talk about their goals – whatever they may be – take interest, ask a question. If you’re amazed or impressed, show it! This could be all that person needs to keep going and not give up.

How will you get a step closer to your goals today? And how will you help someone get closer to theirs?