Category Archives: A Writer’s Life

Guest Post: On not finishing things by Hilary Jenkins

Photo from H Jenkins

On New Year’s Day I wrote in my diary that I was thinking about endings, and in particular how to finish my novel. It’s something I’ve put on my list of resolutions for at least ten years now. To begin with I blamed lack of will power, time, a quiet place to work, a view, the right frame of mind . . . but I found that even when I did have all these things, I still didn’t finish it. What happened was that I would re-read, re-write, change my mind, add sections, delete sections, and as a consequence, the ending grew ever more elusive.

Over the years I’ve discovered I have a problem with finishing things. I used to blame my lack of persistence but now I think that it’s because finishing things is hard. Finishing means loss, and loss means grieving. Society urges us to move on, come to terms, learn from our mistakes, seek closure, but the process is never finished  – until we are. As we grow older the whole idea of finishing becomes more real, and therefore, perhaps, more terrifying.

But then there’s this idea of what we leave behind. Who wants to leave an unfinished novel? No one would read it. Of course they probably wouldn’t read a finished one either, but surely you’d feel better on your death bed, knowing the loose ends were all tied up, and the proof reading done?

When I started writing this particular novel, finishing it seemed straightforward. In those days I had not lost a marriage, a career, a partner, a parent. I didn’t know what grief was, or failure. I thought the problem was the beginning. I remember asking my MA tutor how and where to start. She gave me some excellent advice: decide where you think the story starts, and have the confidence to stick with your plan and get to the end.  Why didn’t I listen to her? I set off not knowing where I was going. I’d heard all those stories about writers who don’t want to know where their characters are going, that sounded more fun. And I forgot about my reader, and readers really like staying up all night to find out what happens in the end, don’t they?

The idea of the reader. Perhaps this is the crux of the problem. After all, if you finish your novel there will be readers (if you’re lucky) and you will be judged. However much you tell yourself it’s not you, it’s the book, you will feel it is you. The longer you’ve spent writing it, the more invested you will be, because the chances are you’ve poured in more and more of your life, and if you’re told it’s rubbish, that would mean you’re rubbish, and that’s hard. Why put yourself in this situation? Far easier to keep on tweaking. Forever.

There are of course, other reasons – like ignorance. I’ve had to learn about how to write a novel. Just because you can read one doesn’t mean you can write one, unless you are very lucky indeed. I even  made it more difficult for myself, by including three story lines, tight plotting, complex time schemes, multiple voices, all the things I warn students about.

On the other hand it has become part of me, like those barnacles that grow on whales. I’ve poured into it my difficult times, my Jungian shadows, and zombie childhood issues. It’s helped me survive. My inner therapist says you can give up on it, but I ignore her, because I am also afraid of failing, of change, and of having to start something new. Sometimes it is easier to cling on to what you know even if it is driving you mad.

Last night I dreamed I was swimming across a green weedy pool, unsure if I’d be able to reach the other side. I wasn’t in a panic this time, I accepted that I might not get there, but I knew I’d carry on swimming. In the dream there was the memory of that Vermont pond I swam across the day after my son’s wedding, and an echo of a Japanese Zen garden I’d seen on tv, covered in moss. So I’m going to finish this blog (yes!) not by saying  I will finish the novel, but with that image of swimming on a summer’s day not worrying about getting to the other side. It is the swimming I enjoy, the journey not the destination. I’m going to try to enjoy this experience of not quite getting to the end, and see what happens next.

Hilary Jenkins is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at Teesside University. Her particular areas of interest include writing and wellbeing, creative writing and distance learning, and why people write novels. She also writes poetry which she finds easier to finish. She lives in the middle of the North York Moors where she likes to walk and think about the next novel.

Why Write? – by Sue Spencer

In June 2015 I found myself unexpectedly un-busy – after 36 years of uninterrupted employment I found myself sent on gardening leave. Instead of being responsible for the running of a clinical facility I was asked to resign and not come back – it was horrible. It wasn’t an unexpected event (I had verbally resigned the week before) but the abruptness of the termination of working for the organisation was traumatic. I was sent packing – accompanied from the premises and told to come back at the end of the week when they had packed up my office. At the time I knew it was the best thing for me and would preserve my mental health but it has also been one of the most significant events in my life.

So why am I telling you this? Well it is because the day after this happened I was talking to a wise friend on the phone and she asked me about my life raft. What was going to keep me afloat over the next few months whilst I made sense of what had happened. Well I didn’t hesitate in my reply – I said it was poetry. Poetry had been a constant in my life for 10 years and it felt like it would keep me going during this unexpected and somewhat perplexing time. There is no doubt that I have found this to be true – poetry has proven to be the foundation I needed to rebuild my career and find myself a space that feels more authentic and stable.

Cultivating regular writing habits have been part of my recovery and also reading and writing poetry. Through regular writing practice I have become more attentive to the difference between sources of energy and activities that deplete my energy. Meditation has also helped me cultivate more attention to the present and calms my riotous brain and the overthinking that is my default setting. But it is the poetry and writing that has helped me more than anything else  – writing first thing in the morning and last thing at night, it is now an activity I can’t live without.

Looking back
Take certainty down a peg or two,
listen for veiled heartbeats.

Tangible traces – illusive.

Take nothing for granted
instead caress tree bark, lichen, moss.
Measuring progress – a fool’s errand

This language thing is tricky,

we miss many moments rushing on.
Sudden insights – falter.
False visions – erased memories.

 

This poem is about being burnt out and how by reading about signs and symptoms of burn out I realised that my career change in 2014 was destined to be difficult – I had never worked out why I was disillusioned with my “successful” career in Academia – going back to clinical practice was a mistake and only one I have begun to understand as I excavate my experience as a student nurse. Hints of the activities that have helped me are indicated here – walking in nature and developing a more secure sense of self through values rather than status.

The poems shared here are from workshops and post-counselling sessions where I have found myself excavating the experiences I have had in the last four years and have begun to shed light on why things happened and also increase my self-awareness. I have been getting things wrong for quite a while and the mistakes I have made are better understood when I am kind and contain them in poetry.

I have been thinking about this approach to sharing my story over the last couple of years and then I was listening to radio 4 and heard a programme where the narrator shared his story weaving his poems into the narrative. It was a light bulb moment and I felt that I had heard something significant.

Ward Report
First there are

rules.

Instead of asking you
seek kindred spirits.

Isolated
not gaining kith or kin

You wander through the colleges on Sunday
Downing, Trinity, St Johns,
Magdalene, Christs
Pembroke, Peterhouse.

Back in your room – nothing fits.

 

I trained as a nurse in Cambridge – I hated nursing and being a student nurse but I loved the city. By the end of my first year (1980) ALL my friends were undergraduates NOT nurses. I didn’t realise this until I was in a writing workshop with William Fiennes. The exercise was about drawing a map of a significant place from our life. My map of the nurses home and hospital in Cambridge was uninhabited – I had labelled places and spaces BUT had not peopled the place. William’s sensitive questioning of this has stayed with me for the last 3 years and found itself in the poem. Reading this poem to a kind and attentive audience has enabled me to be more forgiving and kind to the lonely 19 year old who didn’t leave nursing and spent many years feeling unfulfilled and frustrated.

I went on a writing retreat with the magnificent Kate Fox at the beginning of December. As part of the weekend we were invited to perform some of our writing and share it with the other writers on the retreat. Well I decided this was my chance to try out the interweaving of my poems and story about my career hiccup and the theory I have begun to understand that provides some explanation to the things that have happened. I have been fascinated with the “why” word for a while and staying kind and curious about my recent job-related challenges has helped me learn so much about myself and how others perceive me. It hasn’t been easy, but the writing has helped hugely – morning pages have helped me start the day, writing during tricky times has helped me keep things in perspective and also it has given me confidence in a process that can really help contribute to understanding self and others.

Writing poems that crystallise an experience and help sense making is one thing but sharing them with others in a supportive and energising environment has also been healing. Having people listen to my story and honour my subjective experience has made all the difference.

My reflection on all of this is about how the process of writing that works towards making sense of ourselves and the world around us can make all the difference in relation to how we develop knowledge and I have learnt so much. The books that have inspired me about writing and healing over the years are now beginning to be part of what I do – rather than talking the talk I am also walking the walk. Regular habits of writing have significantly contributed to my sense of wellbeing and I am also more confident in encouraging others to do the same – encouraging regular practice and increasing well-being by doing so.

I believe that I am more confident in calling myself a writer and less hesitant in explain myself to colleagues at the University. Writing this blog and trusting the process of telling my story has really helped as well.

Further reading
Julia Cameron – The Artist’s Way https://www.amazon.co.uk/Artists-Way-Discovering-Recovering-Creative/dp/0330343580
Lousie De Salvo- The Art of Slow Writing https://www.amazon.co.uk/Art-Slow-Writing-LOUISE-DESALVO/dp/1250051037
Jo Bell and Jane Commane – How to be a poet http://ninearchespress.com/publications/poetry-collections/how%20to%20be%20a%20poet.html
Sage Cohen – Writing the life poetic https://sagecohen.com/books/writing-the-life-poetic/

 

Sue Spencer is a former senior nurse and nursing academic. She has an interest in creative approaches to facilitation and working with person-centred learning and linking this to reflection and increased self-awareness.

She currently works at Newcastle University within the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences developing creative pedagogies and activities for undergraduates studying the Combined Honours programme. The focus of her work is to encourage early help seeking behaviour in relation to self-care and well-being.

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?