Writing – hobby, passion or work?

My novel – ‘Everyday Wendy’ is to be published in 2022 (more details to follow).  To a required deadline, I’ve spent most of the past year editing my story into a publishable work.  I’ve learned more from the process than I could ever have imagined.

I have notebooks full of ideas for stories.  I have shelves of books on writing craft which I’ve studied and drawn upon in an effort to improve my writing. I read a broad range of genres. For a number of years, I’ve written every day and enjoyed creating playgrounds and characters. I’ve been lucky with having a few things published too – even won a couple of prizes for my writing.

The past year has taught me the difference between being a hobby writer and a career writer.

Turning my novel into a publishable draft has been work. Several hours a day, most weekdays, concentrated graft. Don’t get me wrong – it’s been an adventure and fun and through the process, I believe I have learned how better to write my next novel. I will write another novel (I have two more in the planning stage) but I’ve needed to ponder on whether I want to be ‘a writer’ and if I do, why (Photo by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash).

I love creating worlds. Even more than this though are the many surprises I find in those worlds.  Remembering those moments sat at my desk, tapping away on a keyboard when I’m taken to ‘oh, OK then – didn’t see that coming’, makes me smile. I love that. I love finding the essence of the thing – chewing over the right word to use, how best to show emotion or find the right hook to make a reader want to turn the page.  When a story works, when it does what I had hoped it would do with the richest of words and the most crafted of forms, I am happy.  Writing makes me happy. If, sometimes, my writing makes other people happy too, even better.

Writing for me is more than a hobby – I need to write

I don’t know who I am without it and a few days away from a keyboard has me twitchy.  Even on beach sunbeds, I’m making notes on dialogue heard and possible settings.

Do I want it to be work though? I’m not looking for another career – I’ve had one of those and very fine it was too but life now takes a different pace. Indeed, it is a pace and with space that allows me the joy of writing. Making writing my job would suck the joy out of it I think. (Photo by Nick Morrison on Unsplash

Hopefully, the novel will be successful, sold all over the world, goes into paperback, options taken, book tours. Yada yada (living the novelists dream for a moment there…. But if, as is more likely, this is not what happens I guess I will carry on joyfully writing anyway.

There’s writing… and there’s writing….

How can it be that I haven’t posted since February? No blog posts about writing but I have been writing – more than ever before. 

I have finished the first draft of my current novel (120k words) and am now at ‘structural edit’ phase.  I must admit this phase of novel construction has stymied me in earlier writing.  When I wrote my doctoral thesis I presented what I confidently told my supervisors was my final, final draft.  They had different ideas. I nearly exploded when they said it needed a ‘re-jig’ into more chapters.  It was the hardest writing task ever – until I tried to do it for my last novel. 

My last novel is a story I am proud of and am sure it has merit worthy of a second draft but I didn’t know how to do it.  I tried but it was like wrangling cats and I gave up.  It is sitting in a file waiting for attention.

Fortunately, I have learned a lot since then.  The structural edit on my current work is difficult but exciting and I am confident I will be sending my next draft out to my beta readers at the end of July.  Wish me luck.

I don’t usually have more than one WIP on the go at a time but I do try to write short pieces – stories, articles and blog posts – to help to take my mind to a different place.  It helps broaden focus and give a breathing space for ideas.

In June I was astounded to win a prize for a short story.

The story had to be under 1k words, be based on a historical event and include content factually accurate.  My story ‘Into the Depths’ is a fictionalised account of one of the rescuers of survivors of the Titanic.

The competition was run by The Scarborough Writing Circle who awarded me a marvellous plaque. Many thanks to the SWC for their generous feedback and the award. I am chuffed to bits to have won.

All writers should of course be readers too and I have been doing a lot of that.  I have to take the opportunity to spread the word about poet Dean Wilson (@Poetdeanwilson6). I am not a huge fan of Twitter but I first became aware of his work through tweets of the films made by Director/Producer/Filmmaker Dave Lee (@davelee1968) of Dean reading his poetry.  The poetry and films are glorious.  Funny, poignant, clever and powerful.

Dean also has something of a twitter following for his ‘pebble of the day’ posts which, in partnership with Dr Karen Turner (@k_j_turner) a textile artist who has turned Dean’s pebble photo’s into a wonderfully crafted, detailed, hand stitched quilt, have become a most remarkable art exhibition of talent you could hardly imagine unless seen with your own eyes. The exhibition is currently on display at Withernsea Light House until October 2021 and is well worth a visit.  

While I was there, I had the good fortune to be able to buy Dean’s latest book of poetry ‘Take Me Up the Lighthouse’

The poems in this small collection have a quality and integrity which puts them up there, with, in my opinion Roger McGough and Adrian Henri. The poems speak to contemporary experience in all its richness, lend to being read or spoken, are accessible and enjoyable, funny and warm, cheeky and poignant. His work takes poetry in a fresh and beguiling direction. 

Dean’s books are published by Wrecking Ball Press (Hull) and I strongly recommend you check them out.

Now… back to writing….

Rejection: A writers lament

In the past week, the winner and runners up of the Harpers Bazaar short story competition 2020 were announced. Huma Qureshi (@huma_quareshi_uk) tweeted about her win with her short story ‘The Jam Maker’ and posted a copy of the page which also gives the names of the runners up. Unfortunately, I was unable to zoom on and read the posted pages in full and cannot find it online so am unable to comment on the story or name the runners up. However,@BernardineEvari who judged the competition described the story as “fresh, lively & gorgeous” and given the popularity and profile of this annual competition, there is every reason in the world to look forward with great relish to reading Huma’s story. With a warm heart, I congratulate her for her success.

I am disappointed for myself though. I submitted to this competition and was not shortlisted.

Thanks to Steve Johnson @ Unsplash for the image

Rejection is a common theme for all writers and something we must expect, get used to and learn from.

I set myself a task this year of writing for competition every month of 2020 and apart from a wee flurry of success back in January, haven’t won anything since so I am an old hand at rejection now. As my writing journey this year is a bit of a lark with the actual aim of improving my writing skills (rather than winning per se), and as I am thoroughly enjoying it and believe I am improving my skills, not winning comps has not stung at all so far – until this particular competition.

The story I submitted is, I think, the best thing I have ever written. It is not autobiographical but does draw upon family history. It is well researched. I am satisfied with the voice, the story arc and the literary quality of the piece. I am proud of it.

Without feedback from the competition judges, it is impossible to know why it was not successful. All I can do is learn and remember that rejection of this piece does not mean it is bad – it just means it wasn’t right for Harpers this year. I do, however, need to carefully think about whether it is in fact good enough. I will be sending it to more readers for feedback and appraisal. I may even pay an editor to critique it.

Rejection is a positive opportunity

Thanks to Hello I’M Nik @Unsplash for the image.

So, I am trying to focus on this being a positive opportunity. Edison, when creating the light bulb, famously said: “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”. So, time for me to take a deep breath, and get on with writing.

Microfiction

Thanks to Vlad Tchompalov Via Unsplash for this lovely image

An unexpected comp opportunity came up this week.  Alyson Hilborne (@ABBK1) via Patsy Collins (@PatsyCollins) alerted me to the Scottish Book Trust’s call for stories – only the stories had to be on the theme of ‘fog’ and no more than 50 words!

A couple of my flash fiction stories are published. Both were 300 words.  It was great fun writing each, but I also learned a lot about determined and ferocious editing, economy and preciseness of word choice and the importance of a tight narrative arc. 

I wrote another short non-fiction piece for a collection of first-person accounts of Brighton’s queer history*. The work was edited by poet Maria Jastrzebska (@mariajastrz) who pressed over and over for me to edit the piece when I thought it was already perfectly fine as it was. Of course, she was absolutely right, and the final published version told a story and told it well. I learned a great deal from Maria through this process which I have taken into my future work. (I take this opportunity to say a heartfelt thanks for Maria’s guidance and fabulous editing).

Twitter hosts stacks of micro-fiction writers and I have seen some awesomely creative stories as good as, and better than, the famous ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn’ story attributed to Hemingway. It seems to me that writing micro-shorts takes a focused and concise way of thinking and while I am fairly good at editing content out these days, I wasn’t sure I could write to that exacting 50 word max count.

In the end, I wrote a long list of words to describe my experience of fog, then eliminated 90% of them. The words left on my edited list evoked feelings and a context in which such feelings might be experienced. So, I ended up with a story and, it has now been submitted. 

A quick google shows a range of suggestions about fiction lengths.

Editor Jodie Renner (@JodieRennerEd) has written a great blog post listing typical lengths for each type of fictional work.  It can be found here

*Queer In Brighton. Edited by Maria Jaztrzebska and Anthony Luvera. New Writing South. 2014

For Oh, it is not always May! (but June – hell yeah!)

Longfellow’s poem ‘It Is Not Always May’ was meant as an encouragement to grasp the fleeting moments of life with a reminder that delights quickly pass. To be completely honest, with all the best intentions I struggled throughout the month to write or engage with anything other than novel reading (I read a lot of novels). Partly that was because my partner was on a fortnights leave and, in the context of lockdown, holidaying at home in what turned out the be the most glorious spring weather, had an easy appeal over sitting at my keyboard. That is not the full story though. Despite all good intentions discussed in my last post, I was still in a trough of being unable to write very much at all, and inspiration was thin.

Thanks to Chase Clark for Unsplash image

I did submit to one competition in May – the ‘Best’ magazine short crime story comp (up to 2.5k words and a prize, to be judged by Val McDermid). I enjoyed writing this story – it was fun. There are a great many excellent and arguably under-appreciated writers of short fiction for what are traditionally thought of as women’s mags. I would love to be one of them but it is more challenging than I imagined to get the narrative voice right and avoid the cliché’s such mags reject. Still… I got a submission in.

BE A WRITER. COMMIT. OWN IT.

I got to the end of May feeling a little bit lost with my writing but fortunately, a pair of hero’s were waiting in the wings with a rescue! The fabulous women Sarah and Jo, who run Writers HQ emailed with an invitation to sign up for a free couch to 5k words writing challenge (C25K) course. I have attended a few of their writers retreats back in the days when we could discuss word count face to face and pass each other encouraging cake.

Like many businesses, theirs has been impacted by the damn virus but fortunately they have managed to navigate a safety rope (a very small funding grant) and are able now to offer this particular course for free. They encourage members of the writing community they set up to BE A WRITER. COMMIT. OWN IT. So that is exactly what I will be doing this June. I have signed on the dotted line and setting targets. I have a planner, I have a story, I have a goal, and I am going to get up unreasonably early every weekday morning to write because that is when I write best.

It is still not too late to join the C25K Words challenge – see the Writers HQ website.

I will mostly be working on my latest novel (currently at 36k words) but intend to enter at least one competition too this month.

It is great to feel engaged with writing again.

Thanks to Tim Mossholder for the Unsplash image

Being creative with creativity: the joy of lists

In my last blog post ‘Writing (and not writing) in a time of Corvid-19’ I wrote about how despite the abundance of time given by lockdown I was still struggling to write. The deadline for a competition I had planned to enter for April was fast approaching, but my brain was sluggish, uninspired, floppy and dulled. Unless I could kick myself into gear somehow, I would miss the deadline.

Deadlines matter – right?

As it was only a self-imposed deadline, and there were no consequences to missing it – what did it matter? There are more important issues facing the world at the moment. Only as the deadline loomed ever closer I experienced anxiety about letting myself down. I chose my annual challenge mainly to be an actual challenge. Failing before just half of the year had gone was, even in the awareness-raising context of Maslow’s hierarchy, demoralising

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

I recently read the book ‘Choose Yourself’ by James Altucher* (Lioncrest Publishing, 2013 – 99p on kindle). One of Altchuer’s central themes is that there are ways to become ‘an idea machine’. He proposes a method for generating ideas which involves concisely making a list of 10 ways to, for example, improve an item such as a frying pan. I don’t need writing ideas because I always have lots of them, but I did need a ‘kick start’ so I wrote a list of ten potential titles.

You can’t go far wrong with a list

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

According to research, ideas are constructed by our brains mixing and melding the symbols and images that collectively make up our human/social existence. I have no idea of the parts which created my list of titles, but there are certainly some which piqued my interest. I chose one with no real idea where it was going but the title – ‘The Garden Letters’ gave me a location and place to start.

Where it went – much to my surprise – was a Victorian LGBT love story. This is so far outside my usual writing arena it ended up being great fun to write. I had lovely little forays into the Victorian era – Christmas cards, important events of a particular year, the trial of Oscar Wilde for example. The most enjoyable part of the research was into the language used in love letters of the day – the ‘rose-leaf lips’, ‘the madness of kisses’. Re-creating accurate, believable letter-dialogue which also fit the story arc was fun and engaging.

I met the deadline for the competition (by just a few hours). I do not recommend working to a deadline to this extent. I could have used the dialogue to move the story arc along more tightly and engagingly but I ran out of time.

My competition challenge is about improving my writing craft. Professional writers tell us time and again that ‘turning up and putting words down’ is the most important part of writing. That is not a new story to me or anyone but in this case, when the Corvid crisis might have allowed me some slack, list creating gave me a way to achieve a word count and story I am happy with. Hopefully, I am back on track. I have another competition entry due in ten days. Wish me luck.

*There is a very good summary of this book at Nathan Lozeron’s excellent You tube channel.