Category Archives: A Writer’s Life

A Writer’s Toolkit: Getting Started

However much I ignore it, the New Year does bring with it the idea of new possibilities and opportunities. It feels like a time to reassess, perhaps, and try new things. Maybe it is the moment to start or re-invigorate your writing?

This year, I plan to do a series of posts called A Writer’s Toolbox which aims to give anyone the impetus to get on with the writing they want to do. These posts will be interspersed by my usual musings on being a writer, plus some posts by guests. I have some exciting ones already lined up. But if you are a writer and would like to contribute a post, please do get in touch. There’s no money, no glory and it won’t change your life, however, if you would like to give it a whirl, email me on kateevans@tinyonline.co.uk

Igniting or re-igniting the spark
At the risk of sounding un-empathic, it sometimes bemuses me when people tell me they want to write. I wonder why they are not doing it. On the face of it, writing is one of the easiest creative arts to ease into. There’s no need for any special equipment or even much space. If you can put one word in front of another down on paper, then you can write.

So if you want to write, and you are not doing so, then the first question to ask yourself is what is getting in the way of me writing? Perhaps spending ten minutes writing about this should be your first piece of writing. Over years of writing, running writing workshops and being around writers, the general things which get in the way of writing are:

  •     Finding the time within your life. To start with it doesn’t have to be a lot, perhaps as little as ten minutes a week. But, like doing anything, it’s about carving out the space to focus on what you want to do.
  •      Other pressures, such as earning money or looking after children/other family members. This is obviously a tough one, but needs to be negotiated and balances and boundaries found.
  •       Giving yourself permission. Sometimes it is ourselves which get in the way. Negative thoughts such as: ‘I’m not good enough’; ‘what’s the point in this?’ ‘Everyone will laugh at me.’ My advice is, as far as possible, don’t get too hung up on the why or the end product or on what you might imagine other people thinking and saying. Writing is first and foremost a pleasure for ourselves. If it becomes something else – something to share with an audience, for instance – that is a bonus. It is not necessary to start out with the idea of what you are going to write. The first exercise is to put one word down on the paper and then another while setting your critical voice(s) to one side. It can be a struggle. So don’t beat yourself up if at first you don’t succeed.
  •       What is your motivation? If it’s to make money, then these posts are not for you. If it’s to explore your world through writing and develop your creativity, then read on.

My writing journals

Getting Started
Buy a writing journal, this is a pad of paper or notebook which you will only use for writing creatively in and no-one else will use or look at. Personally I prefer something with strong paper, a decent cover and no lines. Make sure you have some pens. Decide on an achievable amount of time that you can put aside for writing and write a positive statement in the front of your journal: ‘I will spend xx minutes writing every xx.’

Take a walk, preferably somewhere green and open. Sit down for ten minutes and write as freely as you can. Do this on a regular basis.

Begin to collect inspirational prompts eg postcards, images of different kinds, snippets from the paper, music, pebbles, buttons, scraps of material, flowers, herbs, small objects…. Take one of these up, examine it, and write for ten minutes as freely as you can.

After each ten minutes, close your writing journal. Do not re-read. Do not critique. Leave what you have written to ferment and marinade.

As far as possible, keep to a schedule of these ten minute ‘sprints’ from prompts (such as a walk or an object or an image or a piece of music) for a month. Then review. Is there anything in what you have written you feel particularly fond of? Then underline it. Was there a particular prompt which worked better than others? Perhaps use this more often.

Continue with a similar schedule for another month and review again. By this time, you may be getting a clearer idea of something you want to develop further. Or perhaps not. If not, continue with the sprints until something emerges.

NB: writing in short uncritiqued sprints from a prompt to get started in writing is a method used by many writer. I first came across it in ‘Writing as a Way of Healing’ by Louise DeSalvo and ‘The Artist’s Way’ by Julia Cameron.

A Writing Life: time to take stock

I don’t do Christmas and New Year. I hope not in a bah-humbug way, I’m just not really interested in the fuss which explodes around this time of year. Gifts; over-indulging in food; the commercial pressures to buy, buy, buy; the societal pressures to be hippy, happy, hoppy, when there’s lots in the world to be sorrowful about – none of it makes much sense to me. Being with friends and giving and receiving meaningful loving and supportive gestures, well that makes sense to me whatever time of year it is. Why just keep it for December 24th to January 2nd?

However, there is something about this time of year which for me encourages reflection. In this hemisphere we are headed towards the longest night. After this the days get imperceptibly (at first) longer, the light begins to return. Hence our impulse to use candles and electric bulbs to remind us of this. Many animals hibernate, perhaps this is another reason I feel inclined to go inwards and take stock of the preceding months.

I have completed a draft of my fifth crime novel No Justice and it has gone to a couple of fellow writers for comment. I am proud of this novel. I feel I have grown in confidence and become more skilled and this has only happened through continuing to write. Yes, it’s important to read to be a writer and to listen to critiques, but the most important thing is to keep writing. Like many things in life, we only get better in the doing.

For the few stalwart fans I have out there (thank you my dears, I am very grateful) you may be wondering what happened to my fourth crime novel Drowning Not Waving. A literary agent is still considering whether she will take it on. I submitted it in April (after a three-month re-write requested by her). I heard from her on the 31st of October, she said she would give me a response within the week. And I continue to wait. Patience is perhaps another requisite for a writer wishing to be traditionally published.

I have also pushed forward with three other writing projects this year. I have collected together short stories I have written (or half written) over the years and they are in differing states of readiness to be critiqued. I have pulled together various strands of my non-fiction writing into a collection which I have entitled The Long Distance Writer. This encompasses what I have learnt about the creative process, the connections I have found between writing and walking and my thoughts around memoir. Again this is all in draft form and needs further work before being released, possibly in sections on this blog.

Finally, in a moment of madness I entered 3000 words of a novella to the Mslexia competition. I recently went back to their website to see what the timescales for the competition are. I discover that if I am short-listed I have to submit the whole novella in January. I still only have the 3000 words I submitted. I think it entirely unlikely that I will be short-listed, however, hope springs eternal in a writer, so I feel I need to be prepared. Part of my festive period, therefore, will be spent furiously working out a plot for this novella and slamming out another 15000 words. It would be desperately ironic if this piece of writing which I have spent the least time and care over should actually get further than those I craft and craft.

As I look towards 2019, the one thing I am certain about is that I will continue to write. Writing is the spine of my life. It keeps me sane. It brings me a great deal of joy as well as the friendships of some wonderful people. I am signing off from this blog until next year, so (though it maybe a bit early for some) I would like to wish everyone the festive season they aspire to and a creative New Year.

 

A writer’s motivation

I am pleased to say my re-write of No Justice, the fifth in my Scarborough Mysteries series, is going well. I am finding some inventive ways to tell the story and I am also pulling apart the time-line, giving the narrative more space to breathe. It all appears a bit messy at the moment, but I like messy and I am confident it will all come together in the end.

Last week I met with a friend of mine and we got into a discussion about the pros and cons of indie publishing against the pros and cons of having a literary agent. For those of you who are regular readers of my posts, you will know that I don’t exactly choose the indie route, it is more thrust upon me. I don’t feel it suits me as I am not good at marketing. I am very grateful for the readers I have, but it is fair to say, I appeal to a niche market. I am not terribly commercial. On the other hand during our discussion, I did come to appreciate the freedom of being an indie. The freedom to try out. The freedom to experiment.

We tend to think that because the publishing industry is as it is today – with large conglomerate publishers and literary agents as gate-keepers (at least for fiction) – thus it has always been. Not so. We only have to go back a hundred years to find a much more mixed picture. Authors who are now household names basically ‘self-publishing’ or publishing by subscription (the original crowd-funding). Sometime between then and now publishers and literary agents ascended to the power they currently have to decide what we shall and shall not read.

New technology should have brought some democracy. However, it seems to me, that the reading public has not embraced the possibilities as much as the listening public has for music. Reviews, TV/radio slots, bookshops, awards, festivals, long & short listing still dominate how readers decide on their next purchase. These are almost entirely closed to indie published novels.

I am as guilty as the next reader. If you want to sample indie, you really have to go looking forward it and do your own research. Having said all that, there are stories all over social media (and figures from Amazon) showing indie published authors who have readers in their millions and who make more money than traditionally published authors, so there are other experiences than mine.

My friend ended our discussion by asking the age-old question: why do we do it? If readers, exposure and money are not guaranteed, why do we keep slogging away? Plus, though the books we write are all-important to us, containing as they do our toil, our imagination, little particles of us, it must be realised that for most readers they are ephemeral. They are in a reader’s hands for only a short while before they land on the pile for the charity shop.

The only answer I could give my friend is that I do it for the love, because I enjoy the process. I find enormous pleasure in the splurge of ideas at the beginning of the writing journey and then in the crafting, crafting until I have something I feel I might want to share. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t do it.

Why do you do it? What motivates you?

 

Experimentation in Writing

I have begun my read through of novel #5, No Justice. I put it away several months ago, so I am coming to it with a relatively clear head, in preparation for re-writing. I had set out to write a straight forward crime novel, but it seems I am incapable of straight forward. I break several ‘cardinal’ rules: there are many characters; there are many narrative voices; there are ‘poetic’ descriptions; we’re several chapters in and there is no crime to investigate.

On the other hand I enjoy writing (and reading) it, and since I may be its sole reader, isn’t that the point?

I admire writers and artists who break the rules and stick to their own creative vision. We would not have most contemporary prose without Virginia Woolf’s ‘stream of consciousness’ approach. Yet she had to self-publish as she could not cope with the rejections she got from commercial publishers. She and her husband Leonard set up the Hogarth Press to publish her novels in 1917 with a hand-press in their dining room. The hand-press cost them £19, the equivalent of £900 today. Hogarth press is now part of Random House publishing. Ironically perhaps, RH is one of the big conglomerates which currently so dominate the market that they can dictate what books we find on shops’ shelves and what reviews we find in the media.

I have written elsewhere about trends in experimenting with the narrative arc (https://bit.ly/2yTSX6Q). I recently read Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor and boy does he knock around with our expectations of story-telling. Each chapter is a year, there is no traditional paragraphing, human tales are given the same value/space as nature’s tales, there are no speech marks (this last, I personally found rather confusing). Not to mention the unresolved resolution. I had some complaints about the ending to my first novel, The Art of the Imperfect (for me the clue was in the title, it’s going to be imperfect). I would suggest these critics would hate McGregor’s finish.

I understand that some readers want an easy ride, they don’t want to be pushed or challenged, but I like it, and I want greater daring to come into my writing. In my last post (https://bit.ly/2xinR5B) I said I was entering a piece into a novella competition. I made the deadline and my submission included fictional prose (which moved between centuries), literary criticism and poetry. Maybe the judges will merely see it as a mish-mash, however, I was pleased to have attempted something different.

Currently I am wondering how to pull apart the timeline in No Justice without losing pace. Or, given I’m already transgressing various ‘cardinal’ rules, maybe it’s OK to lose pace?

How do you experiment in your writing?

 

Beyond the First Draft: the re-write

We all have our own creative process. What I am sharing here is what works for me, it might not work for you. I understand some writers re-write as they go along. For me, this is like trying to go forward in reverse gear. It may be different for you. Experiment for yourself. However, if you are re-writing as you go along, just take a moment to reflect. Are you self-sabotaging by making sure you will never finish anything, by continually going over and over the same section of writing trying to get it perfect? Are you squashing your creativity? Many of my most creative ideas quite frankly look pants when first committed to paper. My first impulse would be to re-write them out. But left to ‘stew’ and then crafted, they become something else.

‘I do a lot of rubbish, you have to work through the rubbish. If you are doing rubbish you can’t go away and say, OK, I’ll come back when I’m cleverer because it doesn’t work like that.’
Author, Judith Kerr (‘Pink Rabbits and Other Animals’
Radio 4, 14th June 2018, producer/presenter Jessica Treen)

So this is my method:

  • Write a first draft, relatively quickly, with no looking back. For me this is joyous, I am only pleasing myself and playing with words and ideas and characters.
  • Leave it for several weeks in a nice folder (always value your writing by keeping it safe and well shod).
  • Re-read. Try to put on a reader’s head at this point. For poetry you might be looking at rhythm, word choice, consistency of images, form on the page, voice. Would a stranger understand it or, at least, take some meaning from it? For prose, perhaps ask yourself about the narrative arc, research, narrative voice, character development, conflict/crisis, pace. Write notes for yourself on the manuscript, on a separate sheet, at 3am in the morning.
  • Re-write using your comments.
  • Leave it for several weeks in a nice folder.
  • Second re-read which might lead to some re-writing, but don’t over do it until you have some feedback. You don’t want to ‘bake’ your ‘cake’ until you’ve got some input on the ‘ingredients’. Many a time I’ve been asked to give feedback on a piece which the writer considers finished and is unlikely to alter. It’s a waste of time and energy for the both of us. Choose your readers carefully. For me, they should be writers or intelligent readers, people whose judgement I trust. Ask your readers specific questions, pointing them at the parts you want to work on and protecting the bits you know (in your heart of hearts) you will never change. Ask for positive feedback as well as a critique. Your readers should not be proofreading (unless your writing is unreadable because of grammatical or spelling errors). Proofreading comes right at the end of the process.
  • Read your feedback, then put it away for several weeks and read it again. Remember to thank your readers and buy them tea and cake (or similar). Make a list of the parts of your work which you are going to work on. Re-write. Re-read.
  • At this point you could well be ready to self-publish or submit. If you are self-publishing, and can afford it, pay for a copy editor and a proof reader. If you have to choose, pay the proof reader, it’s nigh on impossible to proof read your own work. If you are submitting, you can probably do your own proof read, and the copy editing will come once your manuscript is accepted.

Here is some further advice from author Lisa O’Donnell on the Curtis Brown Creative site: https://bit.ly/2OBR4Pw

I believe in my method. However, there are times when needs must. I am submitting a novella to the Mslexia competition and the deadline is the 1st of October. I am re-writing as I go and I can smell the burning of crunching gears.

What’s your advice for re-writing?

Expressing the Inexpressible

‘By finding some way of crafting an experience, constructing a structure to create a door to let other people in so they can walk into your experience and call it theirs and, in the business of doing this, it gives you somewhere to go with it. It’s almost like telling a story back to yourself. Often the more traumatised we are, the more we’ll tell the story or else we’ll be completely silent. Writing is one of the ways of expressing the inexpressible.’
Jackie Kay on Desert Island Discs, 23rd October 2016. She was asked how she got through her difficult encounter with her birth father (as described in Red Dust Road).

The weather has certainly turned in our little seaside town. Summer is dissolving into memories:

Swimming in a waterfall, Northern Italy, July 2018

 

Swiss mountain, July 2018

For the last four years I have come into a phase of my life which the doctors call peri-menopausal. Eighteen years ago I went through a devastating bout of depression. I have found a way of talking and writing about this, I have found a narrative for it which is acceptable to me and (pretty much) acceptable to those around me. I am struggling to find a way to write about what is going on for me now. To express the inexpressible. This is because it involves a lot of blood, an awful lot of blood, coming from my womb and this is considered not a nice thing to talk about. However, for the last four years I have had on-going problems of heavy bleeding which has caused anaemia, I have had headaches which feel like a chisel is being hammered into my right temple and which are immune to painkillers, I have lost control of my body ‘thermostat’ so I overheat leaving me feeling faint and slightly nauseous. I cannot go anywhere now without considering my stock of sanitary products and what access I will have to toilet facilities.

Upset by reading this? Try living it….

On August 1st I had my womb scraped out with a laser during an endometrial ablation. For several weeks after I felt exhausted and very, very low. The bleeding has not stopped. So the narrative I am trying to construct has no neat ending.

I am untidy. I am no longer neat.
A faucet jammed on. I leak.

Angry? You bet. Upset? Sure. And massively de-motivated, especially around my writing. This has not been helped by another brush with the traditional publishing industry which initially was wonderfully encouraging and positive. It looked like, just maybe, my thirty-year ambition of having a novel traditionally published could come to fruition. Of course, not, how could I have been so deluded? Don’t tell me it could still happen, because it won’t. And holding onto a hopeless hope is one of the worst things I can do for my creativity.

As with many other aspects of life, we only hear from the ‘winners’. There are many, many writers and creative souls who do not ‘make it’ in conventional terms (get the publishing deals, get the readers, get the reviews, get the acclaim). If you are going to be a writer you have to decide you will do it for the love, for the pleasure, because it keeps you sane, because it distracts you… For any reason which is about you and not about interfacing with an audience of any kind. I know this. I have known this for thirty years. Sometimes I get enticed into a fantasy where this is not true and it takes an awful lot of energy and effort to drag me out to reality again.

So how to pull myself out of this difficult place. Firstly, I am attempting to be compassionate to myself and kind to my body. Secondly, I am trying out new things, learning new skills, especially in arenas where I do not feel judged. Thirdly, I am slowly, slowly coming back to my writing. Over the last few weeks I have drafted up some of the short stories I discovered lingering in my writing journal (see previous post) and have put a draft structure into a non-fiction project I have around writing, walking and memoir. In the next few weeks I will take up my novel again, re-reading it and intending to find a way to move forward with it.

But I don’t want to leave this blog on a low point – for me or for the reader. So let’s forget for a moment the blood, the pain and the disappointment. Let’s recall an enchanting memory: swimming in the Swiss lake with the mountains all around and the sun sliding up from behind the peaks.

The Writing Journal

Writing in my journal by a Norwegian lake

I have been keeping writing journals for over ten years now and recently I spent many happy hours reviewing them. The result is a list of ideas and kernels of pieces of writing which should keep me going for the next ten years!

I’ve been writing since I was 19, so I’ve had the habit of writing regularly for over thirty years. oftentimes in notebooks and/or in diaries. I didn’t commit to the idea of a writing journal until I returned to the UK after a spell working abroad for an anti-poverty non-profit. In many ways, I can see the commitment to my writing journal as also a commitment to accepting myself as a writer – rather than waiting for some kind of external ratification of me as a writer. I began to say (when asked) ‘I am a writer’. I dedicated time and space to writing and further developing my craft, even though there was little endorsement from the publishing industry.

During the last ten years I have taught creative writing (for the University of Hull) and run numerous workshops. The first thing I always encourage people to do is to start keeping a writing journal. For me, this is a special notebook. It is 15 by 21 cms, so relatively portable. It has no lines to cramp my writing into going in a particular direction or being of a particular size. The paper is relatively thick (the notebooks I use are sold as sketch books) which means I can sketch if I like, use watercolour pencils and oil pastels and stick things in without spoiling the page surfaces for writing. I date every entry. Entries might include: very personal reflections on how I am feeling or what I’ve been doing; musings on being a writer; scrappy thoughts on writing pieces to be developed; beginnings, middles, ends (in no particular order); observations on the world around me; quotes; poetry (written by others and me); images such as postcards; cuttings from newspapers and magazines; bits of information gleaned from the TV, the internet, radio, other people….

I am wedded to a writing journal and hand-writing. It works for me. I do believe there is something exceptional about ‘free writing’ – which I have written about elsewhere eg writing the therapeutic journey – done with a pen. I think it is a way of unearthing what is below the surface of conscious thought and of circumventing the many ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ which a lot of us carry around.

However, I could see for other people a writing journal might be, for example, a folder on the computer; a box file; or a filing cabinet drawer. The main thing is that it should only be used for gathering inspirations for writing, it should be added to regularly and that it should be away from prying/judging eyes.

Over time the writing journal will become a treasure trove to be mined, especially, but not only, when a writer is feeling depleted and de-motivated.

I am currently reading Deborah Levy’s essay Things I don’t Want to Know. I was charmed to find her mentioning her writing journal. She notes how descriptions she had written of the cabin crew on a LOT fight to Poland in the late 1980s ‘morphed into nurses from Odessa’ in a novel she was to write a decade later.

Nothing written in a writing journal is ever lost, it will always pop up somewhere or become a scaffold for some piece of creative work.

Which is why, whenever I am asked by someone about where to start with writing I suggest a journal. If a person can commit to writing in one of those habitually, then there is a chance they will realise their ambition of writing stories or poetry or a novel or a non-fiction book or even a series of blog posts.

What is your experiences of keeping a writing journal?