Monday, 19 February 2018

Staying sane in the world of writing

I have the magazine Mslexia to thank for what I am about to write. Firstly, for their article in Issue 76 entitled What's the Point and secondly for mentioning a workshop in their email little ms which, when I clicked on it, I knew was just what I needed. I signed up for the workshop, the title of which is the heading to this post!

Since the New Year I have been rather at sea in my direction as a writer and the article What's the Point spouted all the things I'd been spouting recently. It made me feel better to know I'm not the only one (even though I already knew that). This article was a move in the right direction for me and offered some good tips. Even though I am not writing anything new and have felt a little half-hearted about things I have started editing some of the stories I wrote in November during NaNoWriMo.

I have been looking forward to the upcoming workshop (even rather excited!) over the last few weeks and on Saturday I set off to City Lit in London hoping to leave rather saner! I did.

There is much written about how to write, how to look for opportunities, draw up your perfect pitch. Follow the rules of the trade and when you get rejected just keep going. I know how difficult it is and I know everyone suffers in the aftermath of rejection but little is said about how to deal with that rejection, how to cope with those feelings that eat away at you until you feel worthless as a writers. Of course there are those who bounce back time and time again and carry on once a short period of anger and reflection pass. I thought I'd become that person. I thought I'd learned to deal with it and then last year I hit rock bottom. I know I've talked about this before and I think it is important because sometimes (as I learned) these feelings are deeper than we may realise and come from way back in our life.

Our tutor for the day was Helen Cox, a writer traditionally published as well as self publishing her books. She's been through this stuff herself and she had lots of good advice to offer. We were a small group - just five - so lots of things specific to each of us was covered. We began with a short exercise working in pairs (I worked in a three). Each group was given a small piece of sea washed glass and we had to discuss what it might have been originally and where it might have come from. Then we were given two sheets with ideas and background to the North Sea and the River Thames and a poem by E.E. Cummings. With a set of questions to work through we began to write together the journey of the piece of glass. We could use our own location (rather than from the sheets) which my group did. Afterwards we fed back what we had written. Helen then asked us what we got out of the exercise of working together and wrote on the white board what she had heard come out of it like collaboration, ideas, planning, using our experience etc. She advised us to always start with something comfortable to us and then branch out - do research, break the rules. Writing, she said was a joint effort between yourself and the universe (or world). She also said that it was best not to return to new writing before two weeks, then edit. To always write playfully and not to keep reading back and editing as we went as that holds up the writing process and imagination.

We talked about validation of our writing. Why was important to be published? Everyone agreed that it was an approval of our writing ability. We had long discussions about this! It seemed all five of us had similar feelings with not being good enough, that what we wrote might be rubbish and the only way we would think otherwise was to be published. I know it sounds silly and I know this is wrong but deep inside us those negatives feed and that little voice in your head tells you this time and time again when you work get rejected.

Helen took us through a few writing ideas to help us with some recommendations and then asked us to write a sort of autobiography of our writing life after which we either shared the whole piece or a part of it with the group. I have to say it was revealing and quite emotional. Helen also read hers and admitted that what came out was quite different to what she thought she would write. In a small group we bared our souls. We were given three headings - fears, villains and commitments. We had a few minutes to write things under those headings. These were not for sharing. Helen recommended reading author's biographies and particularly Sylvia Plath's Journals.

Tips for writing were similar to those I'd come across before but her advice on backstory I found really useful as one of my novels desperately needs the backstory sorting out, or as Helen says, drip fed into the story through dialogue and/or internal thought.

Getting out of the negative feedback hole was next. This was so helpful as Helen gave us specific ways to deal with this through something she calls Mind Talk which includes acknowledgement, questioning, walking away for a few minutes and talking it through with a trusted friend. One of the great pieces of advice was to write a timeline of all the things you have done to get you where you are today and even to chronicle that rejection in a story using those feelings and experience in a positive way.

We were close to the end of the day as the last long writing session was given. We had twenty-five  minutes to write a letter to ourselves answering the specific questions Helen had written up. The letter was not be opened for six months! In our pairs we talked about the friendly advice to ourselves (the last question on the list). Earlier we had each made a commitment to our writing (during the writing time using the three headings) and we now told the class what that was.

There was a final summing up with ideas of places to find public readings, social media etc. and a short film from YouTube featuring a talk by the author Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat Pray Love) which was both amusing, insightful and positive.

There were two other texts we looked at - one Helen had written herself. It's tongue-in-cheek, very amusing about the world of rejection. The other was an extract from Confessions of a Story-teller by Paul Gallico. Asked afterwards what we thought of what he said we all agreed that it was comforting to know that even a famous author still had all the same fears we had. So, if he had them it was something that never went away however successful you are.

This was a wonderful workshop and indeed it lived up to everything I hoped for. It was soul searching, emotional but having strategies to fight against the negatives is a great tool to possess. I think it should be taught in every creative writing course! I am very grateful to Helen for helping me get back my sanity in the writing world.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Review of 2017

Over for another year!
Today I was determined! I got those pesky Christmas decorations down and packed away the tree. Just waiting for hubby to shunt the boxes into the loft. I also went out for the first time since Boxing Day morning. It wasn't a pleasant experience but it had to be done or I could linger on the sofa getting more down, more lazy.

So, while I'm a a roll I decided to look through my submissions for 2017 and see what the year was like. It was a mixed bag. Here is a run down.

  • January -  Three poems submitted (two published); one flash piece (published); one short story; novel submission
  • February - One poem submitted and published; four flash (one published); seven short stories (one longlisted)
  • March -     Three poems submitted (one published); one flash (published); two short stories; two novel submissions
  • April  -      Four flash pieces submitted (two published); one short story (published)
  • May -        One poem submitted and published; two flash pieces (one published); four short stories - one of which was longlisted
  • June -        One poem submitted and published; one flash piece submitted and shortlisted; one short story
  • July -         Two flash pieces submitted and published; two short stories submitted; poetry pamphlet submission
  • August -    Three flash pieces (all published); four short stories
  • September -Five poems submitted (one published); one flash piece (published); two short stories
  • October   -  One poem (published); three short stories submitted
  • November- Two flash pieces (one published)
  • December - One flash piece submitted (published); one short story
When I look at these results it looks pretty impressive. When I further break things down I know I submitted to Visual Verse every month in response to their photo prompt, so that's twelve times, either a poem or flash, and I was published each time. Paragraph Planet also published several of my flash pieces  and I also found 121 Words who published about three pieces and 50 Word Stories one. The only luck I had with short stories was a flash story set in a prison and was published by Gold Dust magazine. I received one critique with a short story entry and that was really useful. Another short story was revised and submitted somewhere else and was then longlisted. I am still waiting on three entries from last year and also I didn't count the short story finally published in the Retreat West Anthology in September. I think I counted it in last years total!

I attended a writer's weekend in Brighton back in April where I met an agent. That was such an awful experience I said I would never approach an agent ever again, I wasn't ready, I was too nervous and I lost all confidence in my writing ability. It hit me really hard; I was mentally at rock bottom and I didn't write for about two months, though I did continue to submit. I stuck with safe options. I know this might sound silly but I haven't really recovered from that agent meeting. It has made me re-think what I actually want from my writing and I'm still doing that.

I just about managed to pick myself up in time for the Swanwick Summer School in August and I had a frenzied spell of writing in November for NaNoWriMo when I wrote around twenty-six short stories. 

Next on the agenda will be to review the stories I wrote in November and see if any are worth submitting (lots of editing required) and hopefully eventually putting some from the collection together in book form. I have to admit that right now the desire to write isn't great. That maybe to do with the fact that I'm still recovering from this flu thing. I reckon it will be several more days before I'm back to normal activities. Having said that I loved the new picture prompt from Visual Verse this month and I've submitted a poem!

One thing I have decided is not to attend writer's conferences this year. What I need most is feedback on my work. I'm still not sure how to go about this. I may consider a short story writing course with Writing Magazine. I'll look into it.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Struck down by the dreaded virus


Crawled out of my sick bed to get this sunset after a long
dull day. One thing that made me smile!
Normally I'd write a review of my writing year around this time. However, I've been ill since Boxing Day with a rather nasty virus and progress is slow in the recovery department. I go from bed to sofa and back again. I have stopped the painkillers but I still feel light headed at times.

This morning I decided effort was needed - the housework is at pits end and no one thinks washing the dishes needs to done more than every two days. So, after a week of PJ's I immersed myself into the bath and then cast aside the PJ's for day clothes. Boy, I never realised how dressing could be so exhausting.

My other achievements - washing up, clearing the table (nearly dropping the jigsaw puzzle board) and putting on one wash load - all took it out of me. I had to take a nap!

If only I could eat properly but all the food I normally enjoy doesn't do a thing for me. I can't taste or smell anything. I sent my hubby out for a box of Ritz Crackers as a latest crave. They work on a small scale and fill in the gaps when I get hungry but can't figure out what to eat. The only hot drink I can manage is Horlicks so it's water, orange juice and Lucozade.

While I was stuck in bed I wrote two stories in my head. I went over them time and time again (high temperatures have that sort of repeating loop on things, don't you find?). I even edited in my head! At some point I might actually write them.

I'm writing this on the sofa with two blankets draped over me. All my work is stuffed on the sideboard where it went to clear the table for Christmas dinner. All my notes and stuff to write a review are there. I will write a review at some point but I thought I'd just write a few lines now so you don't think I've disappeared off the planet. Someone said they'd had this virus a few weeks before Christmas and now they had it second time. I really hope this isn't one of those 'returners'. I've not felt as ill in about five years. I'm so tired all the time and can't be bothered to do anything for long. Even reading.

Can't wait to get the decorations down! I'm so pleased it's January! Don't mind me I'm just a bit fed up.

Monday, 4 December 2017

A gift and learning to take time out

Even though NaNoWriMo is over I am still writing. I thought I'd be written off, so to speak, but I am writing a (hopefully) witty and heartwarming story set around Christmas.

Anyway, on Friday I went along to the last local NaNoWriMo meeting and was presented with a gift for turning up to every meeting. I am very pleased with my gift. I've really enjoyed the meetings and will miss them a lot. The ladies who ran it (library staff) are putting together a reading challenge for next year. I have seen the categories and shall look forward to taking part. We had great discussions on Friday about all sorts of things not NaNoWriMo related over nibbles and a big tub of Celebrations, including graphic books for adults, something I haven't really explored, though my son has read Manga books.

In the latest edition of Breathe magazine there is an article on writing a novel. It comes with a little notebook! I've not read it yet as I'm still working my way through other articles. I love this magazine. It is my time out session and this issue touches on a lot of what interests me - music (as therapy), singing (so good for you), dealing with anxiety, spontaneity as well as  an article on the environmental damage being caused by plastic waste in the sea, and lots more besides.

There are a few of these mindfulness/well-being magazines on the market at present and they are just what I need for that other side of me I know I need to nurture. I'm an 'on the go' sort of person. Two days in the house and I'm climbing the walls, but I know sometimes I run myself ragged, even though I enjoy it. Stopping to do a little colouring (I even have a dot to dot book!) or just unwinding with music and not doing anything at the same time (I'm a dreadful multitasker) is good for me. I should do more of it. Maybe we all should.

Monday, 27 November 2017

NaNoWriMo - The finish line

I'm a winner! Well, of NaNoWriMo at least. I completed my 50,000 words last week and decided I don't need to write anymore for a while!

Of course I did start writing about a week before the start of NaNoWriMo but only four stories were actually written before that time - ones I felt belonged with the theme for this short story collection. So, including the four pre-written ones I have a collection of twenty-eight stories. However, there is one story I haven't included because I still feel that there is much to work on. It's an older story. It has been heavily edited and I think I'm now getting closer to what I want with it.

Some stories need details filling out, explanations or bits need to be re-jigged, and I suppose when I look seriously at them some stories might not be strong enough. During NaNoWriMo it's more a case of getting the word count done - quantity rather than quality. Hopefully quality will come with the edits.

Having completed my 50,000 words and all but packed up, I had an idea for another story. It fitted the theme so I wrote it. Well, you can't dismiss an idea. Ideas have to be written whatever!

I do have a few favourite stories in this collection and the more I wrote the more ideas came. I'm sure I am not finished with stories of the unusual kind. The really long story I wrote set on an island is not included in the word count. It ran to around 15/16,000 words. Not quite sure where that one will end up. I do have another novella so maybe I should publish them together one day.

A friend asked me if I would put any of my published stories in the collection. At first I thought I might, yet I have enough without doing that.

Apart from a piece I wrote for Visual Verse (it was published on their website earlier this month). I have not sent out any other stories or poems. However, the other day I did look to see who had their submission windows open and I might be able to send out one or two stories by the end of the year.

One website quoted a waiting time of six months for a reply. Am I just being impatient....six months? I appreciate these magazines run on a voluntary basis and that they have hundreds of submissions but I'm not prepared to wait that long for one story or poem. If it was a novel, maybe. At least with competitions you have a date when results are published. I'm waiting on a couple of things now. One said 'two months' and it's coming up to four with no answer. Does that mean no? I hate the thought of chasing. I've never yet done that. Maybe I'll given them until the end of the year and try somewhere else. It's a dilemma as work gets caught up in the system.

The local NaNoWriMo meet ups have been great. They are a supportive bunch and we have lots of laughs. The group has dwindled somewhat but we have the final meeting on Friday and I think there might be wine involved. Yes, it's party time! I'm looking forward to it.

Now it's all about editing. I can see my months will be filled with nothing but editing. Wish me luck!

Sunday, 12 November 2017

NaNoWriMo update

Twelve days into NaNoWriMo and I briefly hit writing fatigue. Last time I posted I mentioned about writing some longer stories for the collection. There was one story I was hopeful might get to around 10,000 words. Indeed it did and still it kept going. The story is set on an island did actually begin to wear me down. It is rather dark and was affecting my mood. I wanted it finished so I could move on. It finally came out at just over 15,000 words - so more an novella than a short story. I'm now thinking it's too long for the collection. Oh well, at least it bumps up the word count, though I've not added it yet. I have instead been adding other stories including previously written ones that fit the theme (about four or five) and those I wrote leading up to the start of NaNoWriMo.

As well as these I have been crashing away at the keys like a mad women and thankfully even though I have panicked that I'm running out of ideas something appears at the last moment. Last Sunday I had the most vivid and funny dream. It fitted the theme and when I woke up I almost kicked my husband out of bed to get downstairs and on the laptop to write it. It was just what I needed. I can't go long without humour so there will be a few slipped into this collection as light relief.

I have attended two workshops at the local library where we have discussed the highs and lows of this exercise as well as looking at finding characters and plots. We also had a post-it note session writing out scenes we would either like to write or were coming up in our stories. We were then asked to move the scenes around and see how that worked. How did it change things? I concentrated on one story idea that is in my notebook but as I wrote the scenes it was starting to develop into an Agatha Christie yet it felt flat. I had no enthusiasm for it. Maybe this is one story that will end up not being written. While I don't generally use post-it notes I do write scenes down (when I'm writing a novel) and then I pick the order, so similar thing really.

Way back in the spring I saw a call for Christmas spooky tales and I thought, yeah maybe I could write one of those. So I started it but stopped after three paragraphs and forgot about it. Yesterday I opened that file and threw myself into it. I may have missed the deadline for the competition but at least I'd completed it. I actually frightened myself a bit! It is based on something that happened to me and I told a friend. She said 'I bet you'll find a story in that.'  Finally, I have. Of course writing is a licence to exaggerate and change things a little and I've done all that.

When I began this venture I had a tentative title for the collection. That's changed now and I'm re-writing the blurb. Some of my stories are spooky but they are not only ghost stories. I have widened the criteria to include dark tales which cover the supernatural, myths and crime. I have pushed my writing further, gone down routes I have never explored before and that has also influenced what I'm choosing to read now (or maybe it began with the reading).

I have even chosen a cover for the collection. It's temporary and involved me looking through pages of free art online. It just helps to have an idea of where I am going, makes it feel real.

I've done my word count for today so I can take a break and head back to some reading.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Day Four - 10,000 words (NaNoWriMo)

I'm so excited. I reached the 10,000 word mark today and got my next writing badge. Having a free day today has helped. Once I dealt with the ironing, which has been haunting me all this week, I got to it. The weather today has been pretty awful and that helped because when the weather is good I want to be outside doing something else.

Half of those 10,000 words was written today. One complete short story (yes, I'm still going with that collection idea) was written. I'm into another long story and others have titles and basic notes made. I'm feeling quite hopeful that this will work.

Meanwhile, I broke off from NaNoWriMo yesterday (or was it the day before - it's all becoming a blur) to write a 500 piece for Visual Verse.

I'm finding my stories are taking over my life. I'm planning them (or mulling them over) when I go to bed, while I'm walking down the road. I have a special music mix for one story I'm writing. It sets the atmosphere. I also find that the stories affect my mood and sometimes I need a break. This is a rather unsettling collection after all. I think I'll need to put a couple of humorous stories in there to lighten things. At the end of the month (after I've had a chance to collapse and revive) - maybe after Christmas - I should be able to choose the strongest. I'm hoping there will be enough to choose from, and of course they will need editing.

Unlike when I wrote my novel for NaNoWriMo a few years back I have been editing a little as I go. It's easier with short stories. Editing a novel seems so much more daunting than a story.

I said to my husband just now that (and maths not being my strong point) I've completed one fifth of my total word count. Yes, he said (I was so glad he agreed with my calculation), that's 20%. Is it, I asked. That's sounds even better!