2019… A round-up of gratitude!

Like most writers I know, I usually begin a new year with a round-up of the previous, but I actively reduced my time on social media in 2019 to try and recoup some writing time, and so I’m so far behind, I think I’ll just skip to some gratitude.

As 2020 starts with a whisper – swans at the pier and fishermen bringing in their catch, gentle weather, new books to read, unexpected blooms on wintry walks, live music and dog snuggles – I know I have a lot to be thankful for.

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First up: people.

No (wo)man is an island

We don’t always acknowledge how much we need and value the input of others, but I think for writers in particular, social interaction is vitally important and something we need to remember to nurture.

I’m on the road a lot for events (I was away from home for more than 5 months in 2019, but this made up a sizeable portion of my income) and I spend far too much time alone. This past year was particularly hard in that respect, so the people around me have meant more than ever.

So, to my incredible husband, friends near and far, my patient agent Sallyanne Sweeney, writerly friends I turn to for an ear/advice (special shout out to Claire Hennessy, Caroline Busher & Kieran Fanning), my readers, penpals, and everyone else who has inspired me and made my journey/time pass smoothly – thank you. Your input has been invaluable and appreciated.

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Timeleaps, Words Allowed, and a Storytime Express

Many exciting event opportunities came my way in 2019, from the grand finale quiz of Battle of the Book, to a storytelling event on a vintage train (thanks to CBI and An Post), hundreds of events in schools and libraries around Ireland, specialist training for inclusive arts events, READON teen conference panels and writing workshops, plus a week-long tour in Germany for Marburger Lesefest. It was a non-stop whirlwind.

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I love events and there’s nothing better than getting in front of your audience for reminding yourself why you write and untangling yourself from the sometimes-stressful business side of things. So, thank you to everyone who invited me, worked with me (especially co-tutors Alan Early and Dave Lordan), and supported me in bringing my/our events to young audiences.

Pen and Ink and Bum Glue

In terms of writing, I didn’t have any books published this year, and being out of contract has felt fine – I was expecting it to be much harder. But thanks to the reduction in social media, I was pleasantly productive, with two new novels both completed as far as draft 4, plus I had several essays and short stories published in some fantastic magazines and journals including; Banshee, Popshots, Terrain, and Tiny Essays. I also got to co-write a fairy tale with Caroline Busher (currently seeking a home).

These seemingly small victories are actually huge – receiving positive reactions from publications you admire is a boost that helps to;

  • stay on the writing path with integrity and joy
  • counteract the many, many rejections received

Because let’s face it, if the writing isn’t joyful, why bother? Thankfully, this year’s writing has brought me a lot of joy.

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A Room of One’s Own

Other highlights in 2019 included residencies in Costa Rica (1 month) and Portugal (3 weeks). Both provided plenty of physical space and headspace to go deep into my novels, as well as progress some shorter pieces. The rest of the donkey work was completed throughout 2019 on trains or planes and in hotel rooms between events/freelancing deadlines (and at often ridiculous hours), but the residencies were key to planning, structuring, and intense productivity, that enabled the rest to happen organically. So, huge thanks to Mauser Eco House and Foundation Obras Art Residency for their generosity of space and time.

An Interlude

Before I talk about what’s next, I want to pause to say this…

In case the above seems all too sparkly or glamourous or ‘lucky’, at times in 2019, I felt far too lonely. I also felt overworked and underwhelmed and for the first time ever, my health suffered a little. My energy levels a little more. But I had a fantastic year overall and there was nothing I couldn’t deal with and nothing I can’t learn from and change to improve the year ahead.

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My outlook is this: We all create our own opportunities and work ethic, we all use our time in the way we choose, and we all have to make decisions based on our personal lives. Sometimes those decisions are hard, and sometimes it can feel like an uphill struggle or hectic or failure. But perspective is key.

My year was hectic, but it doesn’t mean that if you’re doing more/less/things completely different, you’re more/less/doing things wrongly. There are no rules – especially in creative professions –  only lives to live and lessons to learn and choices to be made.

My advice is this: compare only to yourself and your own parameters. Your own perspective is what matters.

What Next?

In truth, who knows? I’m trying to be a little more open and a little less planned this year. Writing wise, I aim to finish both of my WIP novels, as well as an essay collection, ready for submission. There will definitely be more events with young readers. Plus, a week at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre (courtesy of CBI) and a return to Portugal in June.

But above all – more people and gratitude.

What do you want more of in 2020?

 

A new year is here and it’s all about heart…

I hope you’re all rested and you had a lovely festive season. 2019 seems to have raced here, and I’m fully embracing it after some delicious downtime. Time off over Christmas was a first for me, but something I’ll definitely repeat in future – if I’m not on a book deadline, that is… Which brings me straight to my focus for the year ahead: writing.

img_7820Last year, a lot of the business side took over and although I wrote frequently, I didn’t always feel completely present. There was a bit too much trying to squish writing in around everything else and not enough breathing space. Which is fine – we sometimes need years like that – but 2019 has to be different. This year, writing takes priority and all the other stuff will happen, but in second place.

That doesn’t mean the other (money earning, profile building, book selling) stuff will be substandard – personally, I struggle to do anything that doesn’t get my all – but it does mean that I will write before I complete my freelance work, answer emails, create events, mark assignments etc. It means my writing will get the freshest part of my day (as much as possible – flexibility is always a must!) and I’ve already started the year as I mean to go on… how about you?

In case you’re already feeling like a failure due to a broken resolution… forget resolutions and accentuate the positive, that’s my motto! Don’t give something up or make deletions; add in something (or things!) for 2019, that will help improve upon your life.

Whether it be morning pages, reading more poetry, taking walks, additional family time, or monthly skype calls with a friend, starting the year with good intentions that actually make a positive difference to your life is a much more motivating way to embrace the new year. My own additions include more music, more colour, drinking more water, and some actual days off.

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A good friend of mine sums up her year ahead with a single word: an intention. And so, I have decided to try this also. The word I have chosen is HEART…

Getting to the heart of the story, doing everything wholeheartedly, looking after the heart, taking on heart-felt projects, laughing heartily. Every variation of living life with heart; that’s what I want from the year ahead. If something has HEART, then it’s right for me.

And when I falter or when I find decisions difficult – which will inevitably happen at some point and on multiple occasions – I will have a reference point that can help steer me towards the better choice. And sometimes that choice can mean turning something down or choosing the more challenging option – I’m looking forward to seeing where this word, this intention of HEART, will lead.

What about you? What is your word for the year? What can you add into your life that will increase positivity and get you fired up?

Can you use social media wisely?

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Switch off & go for a walk – you’ll feel better and the answer might be waiting for you when you return.

My short answer is yes – if you choose – and this is an example of how…

I’m currently working on edits for the first book of my Nine Lives Trilogy – and I managed to get myself in a bit of a pickle. What seemed to be working perfectly was suddenly floored, and this wonderful fantasy world I created threatened to come toppling down (no panic – it’s only the structure for the whole book) unless I came up with some answers – and fast.

So I stared at the conundrum and made some alterations – and then I quickly unaltered them because I’d made things worse. I walked the dog. I scribbled notes. I cleaned out the cupboards. I scribbled more notes. Some stuff fell into place and could be crossed off the list. There are bigger fish still to fry – but small, bitty details wouldn’t stop niggling.

After a while, I sat in a bewildered mess, thinking – how am I going to separate all this stuff so I can figure things out?

Here’s how: I put a question out on twitter, made it clear it was research (so please RT) and turned twitter off. Then I posed a different question to a Facebook group, and turned Facebook off.

As I worked on other elements, my lovely facebook and twitter friends (huge thanks to you all) were sending a flurry of answers my way. Some of the answers helped, some cemented an idea – others ruled out possibilities. But the point is – every answer was helpful.

Social media doesn’t need to be a distraction, it can be a very useful tool. You just have to remember to ask the right questions – and to turn it off at the right times.

Are you Custer or Crazy Horse?

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What’s his secret?

I’ve recently been watching a series of documentaries on the Wild West. I don’t have TV but I’ll watch pretty much any documentary on DVD. This particular series is one that my husband taped on video – I’m showing my age here but, remember those days? Trying to pause the recording before the adverts came on, and then start it up again without missing anything? How you couldn’t switch channels as otherwise the recording would switch too? Ha! Alien concepts in this day and age. Anyway, I digress…

These documentaries are brilliantly done. Well researched and lots of original footage, from photos to letter to diary entries to film – and the reportage is really balanced. Apart from the on-screen wobbles, you wouldn’t think my husband recorded these 14 years ago and we’ve only just had them converted to modern technology!

Why am I telling you all this? Basically, because of a point that was highlighted in Episode 3 that set me thinking. An historian pointed out that the main difference between Crazy Horse and general Custer was that Crazy Horse already thought he had the perfect life; he was in a state of being and wanted to be allowed to continue. On the other hand, Custer was in a perpetual state of trying to improve – he lived in a permanent state of becoming.

I think this Custer reference is a great description for artists and writers. As far as I’m aware, the creative mind constantly demands improvement and change, so there’s always movement. This movement is as unpredictable and unruly as the rolling seas, but it creates the driving force behind old ideas in fresh voices, adds the necessary passion and magic that takes something good and makes it incredible.

But is there another way to be? A less frantic and unsettling approach? My husband is definitely a Crazy Horse – he approaches life in a calm and steady manner, and has more energy and staying power than anyone I’ve ever met. He’s an incredibly creative and talented singer/songwriter, but isn’t driven to the peaks and troughs of emotion that charge in unannounced to my days. Instead, he meanders his way and eventually gets there.

We’ve discussed this and he seems to think it’s the length of the work involved and the fact that when you perform, you get an instant response from the crowd – hopefully a positive one. Although singer/songwriters suffer from nerves and stage fright, the catharsis comes much quicker. Writers, on the other hand, spend long periods of time in solitude and the work requires more input, a different approach. And there’s no guarantee anyone will actually read what you write.

So is this the key to being Custer, or does it just come down to personality? What do you think?

As writers, can we ever mirror Crazy Horse and just be? 

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.

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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?

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 krank.ie.

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)

Is your routine good enough?

Early to bed and early to rise,
Is the way to stay healthy, wealthy and wise… (Ben Franklin)

Unfortunately, the above saying doesn’t quite fit everybody’s lives, otherwise things might be a bit simpler. People change more frequently than the seasons, and so it’s important that we evaluate the things that matter to us on a regular basis. We need to take stock of our goals, our priorities and – perhaps even more importantly- take a look at whether our daily routine can make the magic happen.

How do you approach your day? Does it give you the best results? Does it leave you feeling satisfied?

Are you aiming for the sky?

Recently, I’ve found that my usual writing routine is no longer working. Using time like a sliding tile puzzle, I’ve been slotting set chunks of writing time around other daily demands. Writing is my main ‘job’ and my top priority, but increasingly, the day-to-day stuff has taken over.

This summer, for instance, around the usual requirements for writing novels, tending an acre of vegetables, helping on the farm and running my social media business, we’ve encountered runaway calves, freak weather, crop disasters, summer floods and especially crafty foxes.

Although I’m achieving my goals, I’m frustrated. I still write every day but it doesn’t feel as productive or high quality. In short, I’ve grown tired and irritable – and this is proving counterproductive.

Does any of this sound familiar?

It took a while to notice that my routine wasn’t serving its purpose any more. Work smarter, not harder has always been my motto, but somehow it’s slipped. I need a change and it has to be more rigid. This might seem obvious, but to be honest, I balk at the idea of doing anything rigidly. I usually find that I produce better quality work when I’m allowed to mix it up to fit with my mood that day. Until recently, that is.

So, what better way to get on the right track than by throwing my conundrum out on twitter?

Oh dear tweeps, I’ve realised something that makes me shudder: I need a routine. There, I said it. ROUTINE *quakes under pillow*… Would anyone like to share their routine to help me get back on track?

As you would expect, the replies varied, but each offered its own bit of wisdom:

@HazelGaynor Up at 6am. Make cuppa. Write. Feed & entertain kids (repeat ad nauseam). Hopefully eat. Put kids to bed. Pour wine. Write. Sleep.

This is a serious writer with a super-busy schedule who is using the best of her free time to make sure that writing still has priority. This is how I used to work when I had a demanding office job – and it’s what I’ve still been trying to maintain. But I don’t have kids, my day is my own and I’m free to write whenever. However, the rigid approach is key.

@angelreadman I go to desk every weekday morning with 1st cup of tea, every weekday (I don’t usually do weekends), if I don’t day takes over… it’s crucial. I go away for lunch, do other things, come back later for short bursts when I’ve recharged- weekends sun, allotment!

Wait – days off? No-one said that was allowed as writer! Angela is a genius!

In seriousness, I’ve maintained writing for hours every day and guess what – it may work for some but it doesn’t work for me. I’ve been burning out and then forcing more words which aren’t that great and need a lot of work. Hence the feeling of unrest – I’m not rested!

@mariam_kobras I get up around ten (yes, I know, late; but bear with me!), make coffee, read mails, check twitter and facebook, and write…
about 500 words until lunch. Then in the afternoon I write another 500 to 1500, and in the evening I work with the publisher…
who is in NY and hence in a different time zone, which is why I rarely go to sleep until after midnight…

Hang on a minute – we don’t have to be up with the larks? This makes complete sense. In the summertime, I’m often out working in the vegetable field until 10.30pm, but then I continue writing and go to bed around 2 or 3, still insisting on getting up at 7. One word comes to mind: pointless. Mariam continues with even more great advice:

The trick is to see writing as a job, in my case a full-time job. I have to finish this book by January, so I better get cracking… I’ve found that two hrs in the morning and two in the afternoon work just fine for me.

Another amazing insight: sometimes less is more. You cannot sustain good quality, gripping writing for as long as you think, so you’re better off writing for shorter, more focused sessions (see also a great post by Alison Wells on distance and immersion). Full time does not have to mean 9-5 every day for everyone. Like Mariam says, sectioning off hours without any interruptions is a productive approach.

@kenmooney I’m quite the opposite, I have to do it when it comes, even if it’s just putting on a text to myself on bus… Think that suits me though as I write at lunch in work, that kinda thing.

Although I approach my day more like Mariam and Hazel, Ken speaks sense. When I was commuting to work, I’d spend the journey jotting stuff down – title ideas, opening lines, observations. If you’re writing full time, scheduling your own working hours, you shouldn’t forget to grab those unexpected glimpses when they come.

@ProofreaderGill I found NaNoWriMo was good at forcing me into a routine, not sure I could do it for longer than a month though!…. Since writing, like housework and gardening, doesn’t pay me any money I pick and choose according to the weather.

…or lost in the fog?

I love Gill’s approach. Every time I write a new book, I write the ‘draft zero’ in one month. Then I spend another month redrafting it into what I consider the first draft. I find it more thrilling to work on a book when I have a chunk written. But Gill also highlights an important point: you have to live and if your writing is not bringing in any money, it may have to take second priority sometimes.

So how do you write full time, using a schedule to suit you, and still have enough time to make money/socialise/rest/withdraw/sleep etc?

I think Mariam got the answer spot on with this bit of advice:

‘Set yourself fixed times for writing, when you do nothing else. Schedule the rest of your life around those, not the other way.’

The fact is, I’d been letting other things filter in too often and they were frequently stealing my best working hours – the times when I’m most relaxed, creative, energetic and alert. Thankfully, I have a host of amazingly generous writerly friends who are willing to share their own approaches and help me out.

So, with all this in mind, I’ve established a new routine. Here goes:

07.00-08.00:   Automatic writing in notebook & tea
08.00-09.30:   Exercise and breakfast
09.30-12.30:    Writing
12.30-14.00:    Exercise, lunch, emails/twitter/facebook
14:00-16.00:    Writing
16:00-18.00:    Blogs, business

Today is day 1 – wish me luck!

If anything here sounded familiar, why not take a look at your current routine? Is it still working or is time for an overhaul?

I’d love to hear how you get on!