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.

Writing (and not writing) in a time of Corvid-19

Image CDC PHIL royalty free.

Thanks to quarantine, many of us have been given the gift of more ‘free’ time than we have ever known.

When the lockdown was first announced, social media was awash with calls to see this ‘extra’ time as a bounty or opportunity.  It was time to learn the ukulele or Japanese, develop those washboard abs, or write that book every single person in the world has within them – prevented only by the absence of time. 

Lots of sites offering tutoring, support, ideas, editing and guidance to writers started generously offering loads of services for free. The world is in trouble and people wanted to help in the ways they could.

Indeed, initially, Twitter started glowing with word count achieved, five hundred words today, a thousand, five thousand this week.  Over just a couple of weeks though, those Tweets celebrating word count achievement seemed to diminish in number.  The voices of others started to appear much more frequently – people struggling to write, struggling to continue with WIP’s, to research or create new works.  Writers on Twitter (in particular @WritingCommunity and @AcademicChatter) wrote of the absence of will, or ideas and the presence of fatigue, anxiety, fear and grief.

I have a writing plan for this year. I wrote about it on my first post this year’s blog.  I intend to submit to a writing competition every month, and, post a writing process piece here on my blog.  I have enjoyed it so far and been energised by some of the personal challenges I set myself (sonnet writing, for example) and the deadlines required by competition guidelines.  It has been fun.

Competitions for April included one poetry competition which I submitted to very early in the month. I started two short stories – each with competition given themes, one with a target of 1500 words, the other of 3,000.

I love writing. As other writers know, it can feel like a delicious drug. I fall into the words I write about; I can see my characters, hear their words, smell their scent, know their flaws. I once saw it described as a writers playground, and this fits my own experience of creative writing.

One of my short story WIP’s (the 3k one) started strongly. I had to describe a tin box dug up in a garden and I could almost smell the soil and taste the leaf mould on my tongue.  If I closed my eyes, I could feel the curved edges of the box under my fingers. 

My second story had an unusual and bold first sentence. I had no idea where it was going – I had no plan, just the good opening line – so I was amused to see how it would pan out.  I tend to plot a rough arc, but for this story, I would travel where it took me. It promised a bit of an adventure.

Only twenty days further into the month and with deadlines for both looming, neither story has gone anywhere. All efforts to write have ended up in contrived, tortured rubbish. I am not sure I will have anything to submit to the competition and I feel all kinds of awful about this.

I feel lazy, sloppy, inadequate, frustrated, confused. All this time, when so many people are in much, much worse circumstances than I am, I am wasting this valuable ‘free’ time and proving that old ‘imposter syndrome’ is true – I am not a proper writer. Tweets evidence that I am certainly not alone. Some people are rocking their word count. I am full of respect and admiration for them, but there are many more (writers in particular – both academic and creative – I am not sure if this has resonance with other creative endeavours) who report feeling lost, with low energy, no motivation and significantly diminished creativity.

A few days ago, I saw a tweet from Thrive Manchester (@ThriveMcr – April 17 2020). Thrive Manchester is a charity established to facilitate positive mental and physical health in the people of Manchester.

“This is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Wherever we were on it a few months ago, everyone is now at the bottom – fundamental needs; physiological survival & emotional & physical safety. So we’re having difficulty with higher needs, feeling connected, motivated, fulfilled, positive”.

This was such a useful and helpful tweet.  It reminded me that as a society, we are actually operating in survival mode (the two bottom-most levels).

News stories over the past few days have discussed ‘survival’.  There was the terrible, heart breaking story of Rajesh Jaysaseelan who died after trying to hide his illness for fear of eviction.  He literally had no access to, or means to get, shelter, food and healthcare support.  It is clear he did his best to survive but for reasons of poverty and inequality, forcing him to exist at the bottom-most level of Maslow’s Hierarchy he had no access to resources to help him beat Corvid-19.

In other stories, the press has delighted in scoffing at celebrities and royals who live in mansions with pools, expansive gardens and the luxuries wealth affords. Walks around one’s estate or a live-in nanny quarantining with the family is hardly ‘survival’, they sneer.

I had not thought of myself as ‘surviving’. I am safe, I have food and shelter but what the tweet from @ThriveMcr made me think of is that whatever our situation we share the commonality of being concerned about survival – of society, of the people we love, of ourselves. Will we die? We are all in an actual existential threat of a greatness most of us could never conceive. We are experiencing multiple anxieties about the impact of Corvid-19 on the society we know. In the context of a global plague the familiar is becoming ever more unfamiliar. Uncertainty and fear may be soothed by physiological and safety needs being met, but they are not eradicated, and these feelings bubble and fizz just under the surface for all of us to some extent or other.

In that context it is not surprising that learning a new skill, writing our opus, becoming ripped or the many other ways we try to be a better version of ourselves seems somehow less important than maybe it once was.

Similarly, status and esteem as goals or life achievements – often hidden-but-there parts of writing for publication – seem now to have little currency or merit.

Of course, most of us would wish to have ‘self actualisation’ as our ultimate aim. Who would not want to become the best version of ourselves we can be? For writers, this usually (always?) involves actual writing – and more than that perhaps, having readers.

Amid Covid-19, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a reminder that in the context of such a huge individual and societal survival threat. it is not surprising that many of us are feeling wobbly! The Hierarchy has an inbuilt series of solutions towards the peak of the pyramid – including the need for friendship, intimacy, family and connection. Those arenas give the comfort I can take from and offer, and from which my word count will one day re-emerge. I hope it is soon, but it may not be, and that is fine too.

Many thanks to Thrive Manchester for the thought-provoking tweet.

February Competition Entry: Learning from the process of writing a short story

My February competition entry was a short story to the Writers and Artists competition Which this year is being judged by award-winning writer Kerry Hudson (@ThatKerryHudson).  There were few requirements other than it needed to be up to 2000 words.  In some ways, I cheated a bit for this submission.  It was, as required, previously unpublished but it was not a new work.  My submission was a story written a few months ago after an unusual idea came to me ‘out of the blue’.  It is a story I enjoyed writing, and I think it has some merit, but it is quirky enough not to have a ready home.  Despite coming in quite a way under the maximum word count, it felt to me that it might be a good fit with this competition.  As I discuss in my first post in this blog series, I will post the story whatever the outcome once the judging has concluded.

As also planned, I began this post with the intention that it be a ‘writers process’ post about how one goes about writing a short story. I am never short of ideas for stories. I am never short of characters – almost all of my story ideas begin with characters I ‘see’ in my head. I ‘hear’ how they speak and the phrases they use long before I have any idea how their dialogue will fit into a story. I quite often have ideas for beginnings and journeys from the beginnings, but I am less confident about creating a satisfying story arc ending/conclusion. It won’t surprise any writer that I have countless unfinished, first drafts which have dissolved into nothingness in my ‘bits and pieces’ folder. They are not so much WIP’s as ‘works which deserve better’!

#writingchat on Twitter – check it out!

Like many other writers I read voraciously and through this have hopefully understood a little of what makes short stories work and why some do not grab interest.  I am also well-read about writing theory.  I planned today to write about the process of applying theory to create a good quality short story.  However, yesterday (12 Feb 2020) on twitter, there was a lovely #writingchat hosted by Carol Bevitt (@Carol Bevitt) with lots of really useful contributions from so many writers and aspiring writers.  One very well-published writer, Patsy Collins (@PatsyCollins) suggested in particular that writers interested in publishing for women’s magazines take a look at her blog at womanwriter.blogspot.com which features writing guidelines for magazines across the globe.  A useful resource.  Another writer Stephen Allsop (@StephenAllsop1) posted a link to an article on BookRiot  ‘How Long is a Short Story’ by Annika Barranti Klein (@noirbettie) which I certainly found helpful. There are so many useful and accessible tips about writing short stories – and how not to – the twitter thread #writingchat is well worth a read.  It nips down dry theory into actionable pointers, generously given. 

Although I sadly missed being able to participate in the #writingchat a review of the thread today shows that it touched upon almost all of the points I try to address when I edit and restructure a short story. Specifically:-

  • Size matters! Is the story up to 5k words? Flash? Or micro fiction?
  • Short stories must be well told.
  • They must have a structure which keeps readers wanting to know what is going to happen. The structure should have highs, lows, hiccups along the way and resolution. Enable your reader to invest themselves in the story – to care about what happens (whatever genre).
  • Do not waffle and/or explain, or set up the story – just tell it. And then edit until it is crisp and all superfluous words, threads or exposition have been removed (yes, even your darlings – if clever turns of phrases, characters, place names etc. do not add to the story arc, remove them).

I should note here that none of these helpful points are in my head when I write my first draft and I wish I could be more disciplined about this. I get carried away by the story ideas and getting them down on paper.

I have committed to submitting one writing competition entry a month for the year, and I am guessing this will not be my last short story submission.  I am committed to creating an entirely new story for my next entry and so must wait until I find the right free-to-enter comp (if anyone knows of any, please do let me know).  I am aiming to choose something outside my writing experience – horror, fantasy, YA or romance, for example.  Writing outside my (usual) genre(s) is a little bit scary but also quite exciting.  I do get such a buzz from writing something completely new.  Wish me luck!