Overcoming Obstacles

dscf5788So, it’s only a couple of weeks into the New Year and already your motivation/confidence/belief in your work has begun to flag? You’ve lost sight of the story/why you bothered started writing it in the first place?

Well, take a deep breath and relax – because this happens to every writer at some point. And when it does happen, you have two choices – keep going or give up. Both can be viable options, but most of the time, it’s simply part of the creative process and you need to keep going to get the results you’re looking for.

It might be that the idea or voice of your story really doesn’t work, but in general, it usually means that you need more time, more drafts, and more thinking space. There are obstacles in your way, but you can usually overcome them, with some effort and patience and a dollop of courage.

Here are some approaches that work for me…

Face your demons: this is my first approach. When something is challenging, or scary, or seemingly impossible, I like to tackle it head on. Otherwise it grows into a giant monster that follows you everywhere, taunting you. If you give the most difficult or scary tasks your best shot, at your best time of day, even tiny steps forward will help to relieve the pressure you’re under and move your story along.

Take more short breaks: I can often concentrate for hours at a time, but when I’m caught up in something extra challenging, I take a break every time my concentration naturally beaks. This could be every hour or 45 minutes, but with increased challenge comes increased pressure and so the usual long concentration periods don’t work as well. Lots of short breaks allow your brain to relax a little before the next bout – and allow creative thoughts to keep flowing.

Try something new: If you write organically to find your character and stories, try pausing to map out how far you’ve got and where you want to go. Stepping back to see the bigger picture might help you to spot issues with plot or pacing, renew your enthusiasm, or remind you of your initial aim and show you where things have veered off.

Move! I swear by long walks! I start every day with a long walk (two-hours or more) to get the blood flowing and to encourage my brain to let go of any concerns or worries. Likewise, when I hit a wall, or I feel my concentration or enthusiasm ebbing, I get up and move. It might be a shrug or a dance or a stretch, but I find movement creates a momentary distraction and helps fresh thoughts to come flooding in.

If all else fails: I’m not an advocate of giving up, but if you have truly tried everything else and the words are still not coming, or if you’re endangering the quality of your manuscript, then put your work in progress aside. Don’t stop writing, but work on something else and go back to your tricky manuscript the next day.

Good luck with your work in progress – happy writing! E x

(Note: this was originally written for the Girls Heart Books blog)

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Writing a First Draft

ERMurray8_deskHappy 2018 to you all! At the start of a new year, people often feel energised and raring to go, so I’m starting the year with a few blog posts that will hopefully help to kickstart your writing, wherever you are on your writing journey. On the first day of the year, I’m starting right at the the beginning… because we all have to start somewhere.

A first draft is exciting, but it can also be daunting. You have an idea and characters ready to burst onto the page, but at the same time, you have an intimidating blank screen glaring at you, daring you to fill it. So, how do you dive in and start getting those ideas down? How do you drag that first draft out of your head and heart and onto the page? Every writer is different, but this is what works for me…

It may seem obvious, but my advice is to just write. Write freely and manically and with abandon. Change character names if needed as you go, ignore the spelling mistakes, don’t edit a thing. Just write, write, write, until you have a decent body of words that can be shaped into a real story later along the line. Don’t worry about making mistakes – just go for it. Turn off that inner editor and inner critic, and make words.

I am now on my fifth book (an adult fiction, not contracted, title TBC) and so far, I have set myself the same goal every time I write a first draft. I aim for between 50,000 and 60,000 words in 30 days. That’s a lot of words in a short space of time, but I find that I get into a rhythm that’s both bewildering and fun – and once I have words there, it’s easier to make them behave. I admit that this method produces a draft that’s terrible. So terrible, in fact, that it’s more of a draft zero – but that’s how I find my story.

When I plot or plan, it kills the story for me and I get bored and lose interest. If I use this frenzied method, I get excited about the story and characters and surprising things happen. I try not to worry about mistakes or plots holes or story arcs, and only a small amount of this initial draft will be in my final book. After all, writing is rewriting! But like an artist mixing paints or a sculptor preparing clay, this gives me something concrete that I can shape, sluice, and colour.

BookofRevengecoverThis method won’t work for everyone, but if you’re finding yourself stuck, unable to get the words from your brain onto the intimidating blank page, it might be worth a try. In 2017, I tried documenting one of my first draft journeys on twitter and my own blog; here’s a glimpse into my first week of writing The Book of Revenge – Nine Lives Trilogy 3 (published by Mercier Press, Feb 2018).

#1stdraftdiary Day 1: Some words are stolen from deleted scenes from Book 2 (approx 300). Today was a real slog – it was difficult to switch off from the publication & (double) launch of Caramel Hearts, so it felt like I was connecting back with the characters and little more than that. Probably the hardest day of writing yet – and this is my fourth book so I didn’t expect that! Instead of feeling pleased that I’ve started, the day ended feeling rather glum. Word count: 2012

#1stdraftdiary Day 2: I decamp to a friend’s house for a change of scenery as a pick-me-up. She’s an artist and works with music on somewhere else in the house and I make an important discovery – I can work with music on if it’s not in the same room! This isn’t particularly relevant for me on a day-to-day basis because I live in a mobile home, so everything sounds like it’s in the same room! But it’s a discovery all the same. The change of walls, desk, light works and I manage to get a great word count down. I know that these are all the wrong words and usually I don’t care – but this time, I’m unsettled. As I close my computer down, I realise where I should have started and know I have to start again. I don’t usually do this, but the book is due October 31st & there isn’t much room for mistakes so I delete a whole chapter. Word count: 4521

#1stdraftdiary Day 3: And start again! But the day is warm and muggy and promising sun, and it’s calling to me. I walk the dog six miles instead of the usual three before it gets too hot. An essay I want to write keeps bugging me, so I decide to think about this when I’m walking, and then concentrate on my first draft when I am stationary. It works! The essay begins to form and then I sit at the water’s edge half way through the walk, writing more of my book using notebook and pen, moving now and again to avoid a pair of territorial swans. When I return home, I write up my thoughts on the essay, then type up the book. Because I started again (something I don’t usually do), I’ve gone backwards – this puts me 1500 words behind schedule. Word count: 3500

 #1stdraftdiary Day 4: I finally connect with my old way of working. Thanks to a brief conversation with author, Celine Kiernan, I realise that the start has been slow because I know the characters (this is Book 3 of a trilogy after all!!) so I’m automatically editing and criticising, when usually I let these things go and write freely, without the little nagging voice. And so, I force that voice to switch off and gallop on, feeling much happier with the actual writing part! End of day, I’ve caught up a bit; still 800 words behind schedule but it’s early days and certainly nothing to worry about – plenty of time to catch up. Word count: 7200 

 #1stdraftdiary Day 5: Woke up in a mild panic. The garden had to take priority, meaning a trip to Bantry to buy plants, then weeding the beds and planting before any work can get started. By 4.30pm, I still have 30 minutes of garden watering to do and no writing. Beating myself up severely about this for several hours of the day, but when I finally get to sit down, the words flow quite happily and I realise what a pain I’ve been to myself all day. Feeling rather joyous when I shut the computer down. Word count: 9100

What is your process for writing a first draft? Are you a plotter or do you write organically, like me? I’d love to hear how you work! 

Why Writing Community Support Matters

fullsizerender-77The Book of Shadows – Nine Lives Trilogy 2 is officially out in the world! That’s the third book published in 12 months (my Dublin launch was exactly one year to the day of my debut launch) and as you can imagine, it has been a crazily fun but pressured year. I can hardly believe that I have three books hurtling into readers’ hands, as it’s all been so fast – so thank you all for your support! I always say that the writing community is really special, and once again, it’s been proven.

After launching my book, I stayed on in Dublin to attend the Children’s Books Irelandconference and I have to say – what a wonderful weekend it was. The speakers, general organisation, discussions, and enthusiastic audience – it was exactly the tonic I needed after such a hectic schedule. I have genuinely never been so tired in my life and being able to sit back and be inspired by some of the world’s best children’s authors and illustrators was such a treat.

And once again, I was on the receiving end of such kindness from the writing community. So many people came up to offer their congratulations and wish me well, not minding at all that I was a gibbering wreck. We were all there to celebrate everything children’s books and the atmosphere was fantastic – because this is what the book world is about. From writers, to readers to booksellers to librarians to publishers – we’re all in this together for the same reason: a love of books.

I genuinely believe that support from friends within the writing/publishing/book community is a key ingredient for any writer to keep going. It is wonderful to do something that you love but it is also hard work, and a roller coaster. There are many uncertainties – sometimes, as many downs as there are ups – so a strong network of people that understand what you’re trying to achieve and wish you well is essential.

This is relevant for writers in all stages of their career and this is why I will continue championing all of my writing friends. Trying to get that initial publishing deal is really, really difficult and it takes guts and determination – so when someone tells you they write but don’t have a book deal yet, it’s important to listen respectfully; after all, we’ve all been there and you could be talking to the next JK Rowling.

fullsizerender-76When someone signs a deal, try and celebrate their achievement, even if your own writing isn’t quite going to plan. Editing the manuscript for publication is really, really difficult, so there’s an uphill struggle ahead; then there’s the blog tours and launches, as well as marketing. The pressure is on and it’s all new, which can be quite daunting – at times, support and encouragement will be needed.

Even when books hit the shelves, there are further challenges to meet: coverage, sales, getting stocked, earning enough cash. And even after winning a prize, there are no guarantees. The writing world is always unstable, so if someone tells you they’re tired or struggling, it doesn’t mean that they’ve forgotten their achievements or successes – it just means that they’re human.

Writing is a job that never ends and is also difficult to measure in anything other than sales and prizes and how much you earned as an advance or whether you got a movie deal. As a result, most writers feel anxious a lot of the time, looking sideways to see what achievements they should aim for next and noticing opportunities they have missed. And yet many people don’t talk about this side because they are so appreciative of being published, they don’t want to seem disrespectful or ungrateful.

Yes, these things are important and I thoroughly applaud ambition, but at the very core, writing and being a writer has to be about books. About our stories and characters. About writing the very best book that we can and being proud to hold it up and say – I did this! It’s about staying focused on our writing, our own journey, and writing really good books while (hopefully) inspiring others along the way.

Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the murk and lose sight of why you’re writing, butif we all continue to stick together and support each other, then we’ll always find our way back. And more wonderful books will be written. What could be better?

(Note: originally posted on Writing.ie)

Anyone need a writing prompt?

Australia, Blue Mountains

I remember sun. I think I quite liked it!

I’m back! I’ve reached the finish line and my book is now with my agent – phew! I’ve also managed to squeeze in a few writing competitions along the way.

Luckily, just like the lovely Hazel Gaynor, I’m brimming with new ideas. But I realise that isn’t always the case…Which is partly why I write the Wordspark blog for writing.ie

If you haven’t yet heard of writing.ie, it’s a wonderful site set up by Vanessa O’Loughlin for writers at all stages of their career. Although Ireland-based, it’s suitable for writers anywhere in the world. If you haven’t already, take a peek. There’s so much info on there from some of the world’s top best-selling authors, it’s an invaluable resource.

But back to ideas for your writing…

The idea behind Wordspark is to get creativity flowing. The prompts can be used to fire up the imagination as a pre-writing/editing exercise or to spark off a piece that can be sculpted into a competition or journal submission further down the line.

It’s a little extra help, when needed.

Here are a few of the #wordsparks already posted – take your pick and join in!

Description – ten words describing the sea

Postcard Prompts x3 – Trains, Art and Balloon Sellers

Rhyming Couplet – using a photo as inspiration.

There’ll be plenty more coming. If you find them useful, stay tuned!

The wolf we feed

A beautiful book of Native American wisdom

I’m not sure where my niece got this, but she posted it on Facebook last week and it struck a chord…

An old Cherokee told his grandson: “There is a battle between two wolves inside us all. One is evil – it’s anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, inferiority, lies and ego. The other is good – it’s joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness and truth.” The boy considered his grandpa’s words and asked, “Grandfather which wolf wins?” The old man replied “The one you feed.

I’m not one for moralistic tales usually, but this one resonated because I do believe that as people, we have power over our own futures. In most situations, our own outlook affects the outcome. External factors can place difficult obstacles in our way, but it’s up to us to make the decisions regarding how we react and how our life moves on from there.

You only have to watch or read about other people’s accomplishments and the outstanding things they’ve overcome to understand what I mean. Take the Olympics, Paralympics and Special Olympics. Consider Nobel Peace prize winners such as Tawakkol Karman and Liu Xiaobo. What about Seamus Heaney and Kenzaburo Oe, two personal favourites who have been recognised for their literary efforts with the Nobel Prize for Literature?

All amazing examples of incredible people doing incredible things – and they’re simply human like us. Now, not everyone is going to change the world, but I do think that we have a duty to take responsibility for ourselves and our own achievements. Our happiness and fulfillment is up to us. We need to make our time on earth the best it can possibly be for ourselves and, in turn, for others. As you read this, I bet you can think of a few outstanding friends or relatives straight away who do just that.

This is also true when it comes to writing – or any other vocation for that matter – because talent will only get you so far. You achieve success through dedication, determination and will power. How you maintain this is up to you, but a positive approach certainly helps. If you’re stuck or not getting as far as you’d like, it may mean you’re setting unrealistic goals and expecting too much too soon.

But could it be that your own attitude preventing you from getting any further on your work in progress?

Take the following scenario for instance: You were expecting to write for four hours, but a water pipe broke and you had to spend an hour cleaning up the mess, securing it as best as you could. Then another hour was spent finding and organising someone to come and fix it. The plumber’s on his way and it’s going to take time to sort. You’re left with an hour of that writing time. How do react? Which of the following sounds most like you?

  1. I’ve only got an hour so there’s no point writing now.
  2. I’ve got an hour – it’s not much but at least I can jot some ideas down.
  3. What can I do in an hour? Better ask my twitter friends…
  4. I’m way too cross and distracted to write now.
  5. At least I’ve still got a whole hour for writing.

In short, the same situation can look different, depending on what attitude you adopt. Are you procrastinating and making excuses or are you writing?

Which wolf will you feed today?

Back to Basics (Part II)

Still growing…you can’t rush nature!

This is the second looking at what my local environment has shown me as a writer. (You can read Part I here).

Rushing fails – This year, I had some flourishing courgette plants ready for the garden. At the beginning of this month, I planted them out, pleased with their progress. Within two weeks, they were all dead. I’d ignored the possibility that the shift in conditions may be wrong – and I paid the price. Likewise, there’s no point trying to suddenly bang out a 2000 word short story a week before a competition closes. I know, I’ve done it. The work was inferior and had no chance of getting selected. I might as well have donated the entry fee as a gift.

If you’re not so good at being rigidly organised, keeping a stock of half-finished stories is a good habit to adopt; you can pull out them for final shaping as competitions approach. But if you’re not happy with your work, don’t submit. It’s fine to decide not to enter a competition or submission because your writing isn’t quite ready. I’ve done that twice this year already. It’s better to get a piece of work right and rehouse it elsewhere at a later date than submit something that’s not good enough.

Flexibility rewards – Sorry to keep banging on about my courgette plants but once again, they’re relevant. I’ve been propagating more seeds in the tunnel and shoots are starting to show. Despite my earlier haste, I’ve given myself enough time to grow more. We won’t have as plentiful a supply as we would have had if I’d not rushed, ignoring the conditions and external factors, but at least I’ve come up with a solution that means we’ll have some produce for the table.

The infamous courgette (Round 2)

When writing, you need to stay flexible. After all, every time you share something you’ve written you’re open to criticism, rejection and opinion. Some of the feedback will be constructive, some useful and some not. But be ready to sift through the advice and take the relevant stuff on board, adapting your work accordingly. You also need to be flexible in terms of how you grow as a writer. If the narrative isn’t working in first person, try swapping to third person. If a character is proving tricky, figure out where the gaps are and amend accordingly. If you’re always writing prose, try poetry instead to hone different skills. Even if it’s not to a publishable standard, you’ll gain from the experience.

Learn from your mistakes – If you’re submitting a novel to publishers, for instance, and several editors suggest that the pace is too slow/your novel is too plot driven/a specific character is unbelievable – then guess what? They’re probably right. Several people noticing the same issue probably means that it needs work.

If you’re writing short stories or poetry and have spent months working on a piece but still had to rush at the end, make a note to give yourself more time in the future. If you’ve a story idea that just isn’t working, store it in your reserve file and work on something else. It may be that the timing’s not right or that the idea isn’t as good as you initially thought. You’ll know the answer when you revisit it at a later date. (And yes, you guessed it: my courgettes won’t be going out until June next year.)

What can your environment teach you?

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

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.)