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…


Tortoises live longer than cheetahs

“Tortoises live longer than cheetahs”

This was the great advice given to me recently by @Nerin_, the lovely (and very energetic) brains behind

One of the major problems any writer trying to establish a writing career suffers from is impatience. I know because I suffer from it in abundance and have to fight on a daily basis to keep it in check. Yes, it may seem great to be sending out multiple submissions every month and to be completing a book or two a year, but only if it’s beneficial. Could all this activity be proving detrimental to your writing career?

I’m not suggesting that you don’t keep writing. That would be insane! Writers need to write, end of story. But take a look at what you’re churning out and answer me this question: Are you giving enough time for your writing to mature?

In the beginning, I certainly wasn’t. A few years ago, desperate to get published and to have my work seen, I was throwing out submissions all over the place. Now, I’d cringe to see some of them out there. It’s a bit like the first novel you write – the one that you should pack into a drawer and attach a chain and padlock to before storing in a vault somewhere. Whatever you write needs time to develop, mature and improve, but lets face it: some of what you write is going to be bad.

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but some of those gems are mediocre. Disconnected. Unworkable. Beyond saving. You will have learned something by going through the process, but not everything you write is publishable. As writers, we need to learn to distinguish between what’s suitable for publication and what is simply a useful writing exercise that’s for personal use only. No matter how well you write, not everything you produce should be shared in the public domain. But this shouldn’t be seen as a negative issue: it’s part of the process that professional writers have to go through on their way to being…well, professional.

So, if you’re worrying about a lack of submissions, even though you’re writing every minute you can, stop being hard on yourself. It’s part of your chosen profession. Put your energies into writing as often as you can, make sure that your work is of a high standard, and enjoy the process. Don’t concern yourself with the result – simply enjoy what you do. Write for you, with high standards in mind. That way, you’ll eventually end up with a store of submittable pieces, without the added stress.

Remember: be a tortoise and don’t rush to submit your work. With a little space, you’re likely to spot a few areas of improvement, so be prepared and start your work early. Mark out competition deadlines early in the year and get a head start before letting your masterpiece sit for a while. Alternatively, if there’s a theme attached, look for one of your incomplete stories or poems to edit nearer the time. But take your time and make sure you’re 100% sure it’s your very best work before sending. You may end up with less submissions circulating, but…

Won’t you feel better if the work you’re showing to editors has had the time and attention it deserves?

(with thanks to @nerin_ for inspiring this post)

Write For You

Mine, all mine! (chocolates, Melbourne)

When you write, when you create your poems, stories or novels, who are you writing for?

As writers, most of us feel compelled to put ink to paper; it’s in our blood and acts as sustenance. It keeps our every day lives sane and bright. But as writers, we’re also slaves to ambition and dreams, and the biggest desire of all is to get published.

When it comes to content, there are two schools of thought; write what you know and write what you don’t know! As contradictory as this may sound, it’s all about sparking an idea that leads to brilliant, engaging, exciting writing.

Whatever you write, it’s generally acknowledged that you have to make sure it’s the best possible piece you can manage. Now, a piece of work might seem polished, but leave it for a while (weeks, months, maybe even years) and you’ll probably find many glaring mistakes and necessary changes.

But does everything you write have to be polished? Does every poem, story or novel have to begin with the aim of being perfect or getting published? What happened to experimentation?

As Rebecca Woodhead advised in the June 2012 edition of Writing Magazine, “stop being a constipated writer…Find your voice, and you will find readers.

At the start of this year, I made a pact with myself to send out more submissions as well as complete a new book. This was a direct reaction to the fact that I’d spent one solid year working solely on a Middle Grade fantasy novel and had written myself into a corner. So, for sanity and creativity’s sake, I marked out a multitude of competition and submission deadlines and plunged in, full steam ahead.

Now, half way through the year, I’m re-evaluating this idea. Yes, I had some shortlisting and publishing success, but I’ve found that while my ambition has been tamed, in some ways, my creativity has suffered. I’ve found myself adopting a severe, business-like approach, which has sometimes made writing seem like work.

It’s not that I’m saying writing should easy; we all know the amount of energy, effort, determination and tears that go into a great piece of writing. But surely we write full time for the love of it? As far as I’m concerned, we should be motivated to write well and efficiently, but still have time to play.

Of course, deadlines will loom and ambition will still snap at our ankles. So what’s the answer?

Instead of aiming for a masterpiece, let yourself go. It’s OK to experiment. No – it’s good to experiment! How can we improve as writers if we don’t try new things?

I’m talking about trying to write something in a different genre, a new voice or writing in second person instead of first. If you always write fiction, try adapting an idea from personal experience or vice versa. Don’t even complete a piece; list great first lines or titles, play with metaphors and sentence structure. Just have fun and you never know, it might turn out brilliant. But don’t let this be your aim; allow yourself to write just for you.

And it seems I’m not the only one considering this route. In an interview on, Irish literary super-agent Marianne Gunn O’Connor advises writers…

“…You have to say to yourself: why am I writing? Am I writing to get a publishing deal or am I writing because I just have to express something? I think if it’s the former, that’s a difficult place to be. But if you’re writing from a pure place, I think eventually someone will connect with your work. I always say, ‘write because you have something to say’. Remember, we all love good stories.”

When was the last time you wrote something without any publication aim in mind? Is it time to take stock and reclaim the enjoyment of writing?

Back to Basics (Part I)

Get it right & you might be surprised!

Moving from a city to a rural Irish village has been at once rewarding, demanding, surprising, tiring, energising and lots of fun. Inspired by a collection of blog posts by @derekF03 on what songs can teach writers (see end of blog post), I thought I’d take a look at what my new environment has been showing me over the last year and a half. 

What has country living shown me that might be of use to others? (This is written in the context of writers, but would be relevant to any vocation.)

Conditions need to be right – Countryside living has demonstrated that if conditions aren’t right, nothing will grow – that’s true for lambs, cattle, vegetables and it’s also true for your work. It’s like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs; if you’re exhausted, hungry, cold, if you don’t have the right equipment or right working space, it will affect your writing. I’m not talking about creating perfection – otherwise you’d never get any writing done! – but about making sure that your environment/writing conditions suit you is the best move you can make. I’ve been experimenting with my timetable since moving here and still haven’t found the perfect balance; but I have figured that I’m better off getting up at 6am to do a few hours of writing before tackling anything else than I am trying to leave it until the end of the day.

Sometimes nature needs a helping hand too.

Timing is crucial – We’re planting vegetables on a much larger scale this year and we’ve carefully worked out how to stagger the produce so that we’ll have a plentiful supply for as long as possible. A similar approach is needed for writing. As writers, we need to be setting ourselves clear deadlines to make sure that we are working at an optimum level; especially if we’re working on multiple projects. This doesn’t mean fitting as much in as possible (though I’m sure that’s something we all do) but we need to manage our time effectively so that we can give our work the dedication, focus and time required.

External factors arise – With my courgettes, it was unexpected gales; but with writing, it may be that a character suddenly doesn’t work and you have to rewrite them from the beginning. Maybe a story you were going to enter into a competition needs to be longer than the specified wordcount? In that instance, you need to decide whether to shorten it, switch to another piece or not submit. External factors could be ill health, exciting news, a sudden move; but guaranteed, something will always arise unexpectedly. But it’s your approach to these factors that will affect your work. Tackle them head on and adjust accordingly – and if it means delays, or a change of direction, don’t worry.

What can your environment teach you?

(Huge thanks to @derekF03 for inspiring these posts. You can read Derek’s blog here.)

Writing Without Payment

Will work for magic beans.

Inspired by a post about musicians being expected to work for free (see acknowledgement at end of this blog post), I got to thinking about how people often expect writing to be donated out of good will. This comes in many guises including blogging, stories, novel excerpts, reviews and articles. There are lots of writers desperate to be discovered – but should this mean that they should be expected to provide content without any monetary return?

Many websites and communities that claim adding your content can improve your profile – but in truth, how many of these sites will actually get you noticed? It’s like a David Attenbrough documentary out there: new writers, wannabe writers, newly discovered writers, published authors – they’re all battling it out to be seen, heard, read.

In many cases, you are submitting your work without any editorial structure: this means anything and everything goes. Will this increase your profile? Or is it potentially damaging? After all; don’t you want only your best work to get noticed? Publishing work too early, stuff that isn’t ready or simply isn’t good enough, places you at the bottom of the pecking order, making you the writerly version of plankton or crill. At worst, you’ll be known for writing badly. At best, your free content will get swallowed up in the tumult while helping the website’s google rankings.

It comes down to personal choice, but the way I see it; there are two types of payment: monetary and reward.

If you’re offering a professional service to a person or company then you should be paid. Writing articles, blog posts, reviews, stories, poems (yes; they’re a professional service if used as content), all take time, effort and skill. The days of blogging for free tickets should, in my opinion, be abolished – after all, how many of those reviews are little more than a quick gush in the hope of another free ticket? I’m not saying that everyone should be paid for every little piece they write; but quality and professionalism should be rewarded. Simple.

So is it ever ok to write for free?

There is always going to be some requirement for unpaid writing; especially when we live in an age where everyone has a voice that can be heard via the internet. For instance, you may read a book that you can’t help reviewing, have a burning issue you want to report on, or believe in a certain charity that you’d like to support further by contributing your skills. But as far as I can see, the free stuff should be what you want to write which will in some way benefit you or someone you think deserves it. Reward could be in terms of satisfaction gained, lessons learned, the joy of sharing something important or exciting, or simply supporting someone/a company that you think is worth supporting.

But what about writing creatively? Some writers will only publish their work if it is paid (fair play), but does this mean that its a waste of time if you don’t have a commission or book deal behind you?

I don’t think so. Every creative writing exercise helps you to learn, improve, adapt. In other words, get closer to your goal of being the best writer than you can possibly be. If you put in the hours, dedication and develop your talent, then hopefully publication will follow; somebody somewhere might read it and be inspired or moved. That’s often payment enough.

Discussing this issue with a friend recently, they raised a valid question: what about writing competitions? After all, they have entry fees attached. Is this even worse than writing for free?

Again, not in my opinion; writing competitions are creative outlets which enable discovery of quality work while championing recognition and reward for both established and new writers. Entering a competition may be a long shot, but they’re judged anonymously; if your work is good enough, you could see impressive results.

I think the best approach is to know what you want to achieve and how; then stay focused. Dedicate time to the assignments/submissions that matter to you. It can often be difficult for us, as humans, to say no. The opportunity to seemingly further our writing profiles can be tempting and it can be awkward to set a price on our talents and capabilities. But, like with your creative writing, you don’t write in every genre. You’re selective, you find your voice. If you don’t know your own worth, how do you expect anyone else to?

Huge thanks to Elisabeth Hobbs for her inspiring post which got me thinking.


Nature knows how to get results

As I settle properly into writing full time (it’s been a year now and yes, I’m finally grasping the fact that I am a full-time writer), I’ve come to realise that writing is all about balance.

The balance between keeping bum on seat long enough to write a decent day’s work and removing said bum from seat frequently enough to prevent a spare tyre from settling around the midriff…

Then there’s the balance between editing and producing new material, between writing because you love it and earning a living…

And finally, the balance between writing for yourself and trying to get published.

This, for many, is the toughest to achieve. After all, as writers, we’re driven by a need to create – but what is the point of creation if no one gets to enjoy it?

It’s a tricky one and I’m not sure there’s an answer; but I do know that my best creations are those I’ve written when I’ve turned off the ‘will it get published?’ part of my brain and concentrate on writing a damn good story.

Of course, competitions and deadlines are a perfect way to inspire new ideas and get a bit of a mental shove. But that hungry, questioning side still has to be switched off for the work to reach it’s potential. Or so I find.

In many ways, the biggest struggle is maintaining a sense of realism. In an ideal world, I could sit at the computer forever, forging ahead with astounding word counts and multiple stories; food, sleep and conversation outside of Twitter would become a thing of the past.

But in reality, we need downtime. We need a balance. And it’s OK to switch off the computer. Take a walk. Make a roast. Phone a friend. Because how else will our brains recuperate? If they can’t recharge, if they can’t let go once in a while – how will they ever produce work that’s good enough to be published?

I create balance by being outdoors, growing food, cooking, painting, making stuff; I surround myself with music, nature and inspiring friends.

What do you do to maintain balance? And are you doing enough of it?


Our dog Shrimppot is a real character

Aristotle concluded that story is superior to character. In the 1800s, many thought that structure was simply a way to convey the fascinating characters that readers desired. But, as fiction continues to evolve, where do we stand today?

Looking at this from a writer’s perspective, I’ve recently realised that all of my novel-length pieces of work begin with character names/personalities; these create the initial spark that gets ideas flowing. The plot, the tension, the outcome – they all start to come alive as soon as a cast of names form in my head and are allowed to interact on the page. But when it comes to writing short stories, I get a sense of the mood that I want to convey first, and the characters come later. In fact, sometimes the characters come so late, I have to put the story aside for a very long time before they enter stage left.

Weird that both genres should be approached so differently – and weirder still that I’ve only just realised that this is how I work. So I decided to do a bit of investigating to try and understand what’s making me/my characters tick. Here’s my thoughts on some of the great advice that I found:

The best characters stay with readers and listeners long after childhood is over. Think about the qualities that make a character stick with a picture book’s audience long after the book is shut.” (Ann Whitford Paul, Writing Picture Books, p54)

  • Absolutely. I love children’s books and am in the process of writing some – they really make you think about the character on a larger-than-life scale because you’re trying to connect with the simplified, overly-honest viewpoint of a child. That character had better be memorable!

True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure – the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature… The finest writing not only reveals true character, but arcs or changes that inner nature, for better or worse, over the course of the telling. (Robert McKee, Story, p 101/4)

  • I find this easier to achieve in a novel when you have more room to develop your characters – which is probably why my characters come first and the plot second (in terms of development, not importance).

The function of structure is to provide progressively building pressures that force characters into more and more difficult risk-taking choices and actions, gradually revealing their true natures, even down to the unconscious self…The function of character is to bring to the story the qualities of characterization necessary to convincingly act out choices. (Robert McKee, Story, p 105/6)

  • Again, although this fits with all genres, I find this easier in a novel-length piece. The format (in my world) lends itself to more exploration and I find the structure/characters fuse more easily

The best modern short stories convey information by suggestion rather than by fact. Try to use suggestiveness and gestures to give a sense of character and story.” (Patricia O’Reilly, Writing for Success, p72)

  • I find this challenging. Perhaps this is why the plot comes first when I’m writing short stories?  Maybe I need to give myself a sense of character before the character becomes real? This can’t be a universal approach, so I’d love to hear how other writers tackle short stories.

As a writer, how do you handle your characters? And does your approach change if you switch genre?

Gustav Dore conveys character beautifully