Which Publishing Route Should I Take?

Weighing up the pros and cons of self-publishing v the traditional route.

As an aspiring novelist I find the debate over whether or not to self-publish my work slightly overwhelming. The chatter on this subject on Twitter is deafening. It is hard to know which way to turn. So I decided to approach two wonderful authors who have chosen different routes to getting their work out to their readers and see what they think.

New York Times best-selling author, Susan Elia MacNeal, went down the traditional route. Mumsnet Best author, Liza Hoeksma, made the decision to self-publish. Here is what they both had to say:

Morning ladies, what inspired you both to start writing, and what prompted you to do so?

Susan – Hmmm, well, I’ve always loved reading—I learned how to read at age three. And I’ve always loved writing, even school papers. So I ended up working in publishing (the “accidental profession” as some call it), and finally made the transition from editor to writer. It sounds easy, but it was actually rather torturous. In a nutshell, I turned losing my (beloved) editor job at Dance Magazine (the magazine moved from New York to San Francisco and I wanted to stay in New York) into an opportunity to go freelance. After more than ten years of struggle, I became an “overnight success.” (Yes, those are ironic quotation marks.)

Liza – I always had in the back of my mind that I’d love to write a book but it was when some friends encouraged to me stop talking about it and start doing it that I actually sat down and got in with it! That was about 12 years ago, and not long after I had the opportunity to take voluntary redundancy from my PR role and give the writing a proper shot.

Susan, how did you get your idea for your first novel, the Barry Award-winning MR. CHURCHILL’S SECRETARY?

Susan – Ha! I was in London with my husband and we went to a pub with English friends. And one of them hands me a Time Out London magazine and says, “You know, you might want to check out the Churchill War Rooms. Despite what you Yanks may think, World War II didn’t start with Pearl Harbor.” I took it as a challenge and went the next day — and the visit changed my life. Visiting the Churchill War Rooms, walking the same halls as the Prime Minister and his staff, was the catalyst to writing the Maggie Hope series.

What about you Liza, where did you get your inspiration for MORE THAN ENOUGH?

Liza – I started thinking about friendships that turn into affairs when I heard of some unlikely people straying from their marriages. As I got chatting to people I realised many had stories to tell of how something that started off in innocence, could easily have led to something more and it got me thinking about that line between friendship and an emotional affair.

When did you decide to self-publish / traditionally publish?

Susan – I’d worked in traditional publishing my entire professional life (intern at Random House, assistant editor at Viking Penguin, editor and staff writer at Dance Magazine) and so wanted my work to be published by a professional publishing house.

Liza – I tried to get an agent for a while and kept getting lovely responses about the work itself but was repeatedly told the market was too hard to break into for new authors. That’s obviously discouraging to hear when you’ve poured your heart and soul into a book but then a woman I used to work with told me how she’d successfully self-published and that she thought agents were less likely to take a punt on you if you couldn’t prove there was an audience for your work. It gave me the push I need it to get on and self-publish.

What are some of the positives for having chosen to publish in this way?

Susan – Some of the positives are working with an agent, working with an editor, having a team of people working for your book/series — editorial, copyediting, production, sales, marketing, publicity, design, foreign sales, film rights, etc. It’s a team effort. And the payoff has been awards, making the New York Times-bestseller list multiple times, and multiple book contracts.

Liza – It was hugely empowering to be able to get my novel out for people to read at long last and I don’t think there’s a better feeling in the world than when someone tells you they loved reading it! Especially when they say they couldn’t put it down and the characters became like real friends to them.

What are some of the negatives?

Susan – I don’t see any negatives, really! I’m very happy with my agent and publisher.

Liza – On the negative side I hate self-promotion but you can’t get people to read your book without telling them about it. I come from a PR and marketing background so had lots of ideas of how to promote the book but had to carry on with other writing projects to pay the bills so it’s tricky trying to be your own PR team with very little time to do it! I’m really glad that I’ve done it – not least of all to know that people who’ve never met me have enjoyed what I’ve written and that in itself encourages me to keep going.

Would you make the same decision if you had the chance to start again?

Susan – Yes, definitely.

What advice would you give to aspiring authors about publishing?

Susan – My advice to writers mirrors Winston Churchill’s — “Never, never, never give up!”

Liza – For anyone thinking about self-publishing I’d say that finding an agent would potentially be an easier way of launching yourself, especially if you don’t have much time for marketing your work, but if you go for it my top tip would be to pay to have your book edited before you publish. That made all the difference in the world to me; I wanted the very best version of my work to be what people read and I think that if you want people to pay you for your work you need to give them a polished and professional book. To me it was worth every penny and gave me a book that I am very proud of.

Thanks so much for your time ladies, and for your candid answers. They give us a lot to think about!

Readers: I highly recommend you check out Susan Elia MacNeal’s latest in the Maggie Hope series, MRS ROOSEVELT’S CONFIDANT. Utterly gripping page turner that saw me through an otherwise very boring trans-Atlantic flight. Do also have a read of Liza Hoeksma’s brilliant debut novel MORE THAN ENOUGH. As another reader said, the characters feel like your friends by the end.

Until next time… keep writing!

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Character Viewpoints

When I began research on my debut novel, the second thing to come to me were the characters. After having drawn a map of my virtual world, characters started to pop up in my mind’s eye to fill that world. At first they were only shadows, vague sketches and impressions. Then they slowly started to take form and shape, until finally they were fully born. At this point they began to have a mind of their own, willpower, and the capacity to do the unpredicted.

I have since gone back and spent a great deal of time doing character outlines for each of them. I found a fantastic downloadable form online at epiguide.com. This is an incredibly detailed questionnaire about your character. I made the decision early on to use it for all my characters, no matter how important, as it would be helpful in understanding the smallest facial expression, and the mildest comment or appearance. Plus I intend for my book to be the first in a series, so this would be an invaluable reference for me later on.

Having created these outlines, as I write my novel, if my character does anything significant or reveals anything more about themselves, I add it to their outline. This helps me to stay consistent, and hopefully means my characters appear more authentic.

But creating the character outlines was only the beginning of my character work. The next thing I needed to do was figure out how important each character was. A friend of mine once gave a brilliant talk on the phenomenon of Facebook, and how we spread ourselves too thin by trying to have too many friends at too deep a level. He suggested that it was healthy to have no more than three close friends, twelve more casual friends, and 150 acquaintances at any one time.  I decided to adapt this slightly for my novel, and have no more than three main characters, twelve supporting characters, and no more than 60 extras (everything from a taxi driver to a lady walking her dog down the street).

This may sound like a lot, but I have picked up a few tips of what to do with those characters along the way that helps the reader follow the story:

  • Only reveal the thoughts of your main characters
  • Only follow a main character out of a room, never a support or extra
  • Don’t have more than three characters speaking at one time
  • Don’t tell the life story of every character you introduce
  • Back story is back story – it doesn’t always have to become THE story

These tips and tricks have really helped me keep my writing clean and easy to follow. I have found it easier to keep up with the plot as I write, and it’s helped me stay on course. Besides, I need to save some juicy bits for future books! Hope this inspires your characters to come to life, and helps you sort out the leading lady from the humble extra. Happy writing!

Overcoming Writers Block

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As an aspiring novelist, I am no stranger to the demon that is commonly referred to as ‘writer’s block’. Over the years, numerous experts have written books on how to overcome this problem.  Whilst no expert, I have discovered a few insights of my own to share with you today.

How much planning has gone into your work? You may be the kind of writer who has an idea, and simply wants to put pen to paper, and get it down as fast as possible.  This is fantastic, and I wish you well in your endeavours.  However, if you at some point along the way encounter writer’s block, it may be because you have not planned.  Planning doesn’t have to be a long and drawn out process, unless you enjoy this aspect of writing, but it is a good idea to have a vague notion of where your book is going as it does help you keep on track.  It’s a bit like carrying a map with you on a long walk, in unfamiliar territory.

Has your writing reached a dead end? This can come about through a lack of planning, or may simply be because you have gone off on a tangent, and deviated from your original path.  If you find that your characters have no place to go, and that they are boxed in, it can leave you feeling frustrated, irritated and wanting to jack it all in and give up.  This is a sure-fire way to succumb to writer’s block.  To rectify this, figure out where you went off course, and go on from there.

Are you working on a boring transition? This is one of the major causes of writer’s block for me.  When I first planned out my novel, “Finding Freodholm”, I used a number of Post-it notes to describe each scene.  This was really useful, as it meant I could move things around, add and delete scenes, until I had found the right order and number.  However, a number of them were what I call transition scenes.  This is a scene or a chapter in which I need to show the passing of time, and the gradual changes in a character or scene that go with that.  Probably the best visual example of that is in the movie Notting Hill, where Hugh Grant’s character is seen walking through the market as the seasons change, and the characters change with it.  There is even one lady who is pregnant and then later is pushing her baby in a pushchair.  Visually this is stunning, and the music helps too.  So how can we get this down on the page without boring ourselves and our readers in the process?

I try to add spice.  This doesn’t necessarily mean mass drama.  In the case of Notting Hill, the things I remember are the changing seasons, beautifully depicted, and the lady with her baby.  What are the points of interest in your transition chapters, and how can you spice them up a little? Get yourself interested in these parts of your work, and your readers will stay interested also.

Are you writing about a particularly challenging event? So many writers will tell you that they live the emotions of their characters as they write them.  If you are working on a particularly challenging or traumatic event for your character, then it is highly likely that you will be affected by the emotions they are feeling, and may shy away from them.  In order to reach any kind of redemption or hope at the end of a book, it is sometimes necessary to walk across some very hot coals.  Be gentle with yourself during these times.  Do things outside of your writing which nurture and care for you as a person.  But write all the same.  It may feel as painful as giving birth at times, but it is worth it in the end.

Do you have other claims on your time? Be realistic about how much time you have for your writing, and don’t beat yourself up when you get busy in the real world.  If you are trying to write when having a full time job, family commitments, or other distractions, don’t turn your writing into yet another chore by expecting too much of yourself.  Enjoy the time you have to write, and express yourself in any way you fancy.

Is the world hitting you where it hurts? I don’t know about you, but I am something of an emotional sponge when it comes to events that are going on around me.  For example, I was in Atlanta when September 11 happened, and in North Carolina when the 7/7 bombings happened in London.  I wasn’t there, and yet I felt deeply the loss, pain, and sorrow of others who had been affected by those terrible events.  The same goes for Paris.  In the aftermath of world events, and also personal sorrow, I find it almost impossible to write.  During those times, I put aside my novel, and write poetry to try and express my feelings that way.  Perhaps you could try and do the same?

Do you find yourself rushing to the destination? When I was studying for my Masters degree, a professor told me that I needed to learn to enjoy the journey, as well as the destination.  At the time, I found his advice frustrating.  Since then, I have started to understand what he means.  In the world of writing, we all want to be a published author.  We all want to ‘have’ written a novel.  But how many of us actually enjoy the journey that is writing one.

I often have occasion to fly back and forth to the States to see family.  When I do, I break down the flight into 45 minute segments.  This seems to be my average concentration span.  I eat, sleep, colour, write, read, play games, listen to music, and watch TV/films, all in 45 minute segments.  Because of this rotation, I never get bored, as I am always moving on to the next thing.

Writing a novel is a very long journey.  How can you break it up into bite-sized chunks, so that you will never get bored or lose stamina?  Perhaps you could write for half an hour, then read for half an hour, then plan for half an hour, then rinse and repeat? Figure out the rhythm that works best for you, and go with it.

There are plenty more insights into why people suffer from writer’s block. I’d love to hear your’s so maybe we can make this list more comprehensive. Feel free to leave comments below.  Happy writing!

Do We Like, Love, or Loath Our Characters?

Do you need to like the characters you create, no matter how reprehensible they may be?

This is a question I’ve asked myself many times.  Agatha Christie, for example, openly acknowledged that her little Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot “restricted her style”.  In a Radio Times interview with her grandson, Mr Prichard, he says of his grandmother that she wanted to “exorcise herself of him”.  Hercule Poirot was Agatha Christie’s most popular character, and yet he was also the one she most wanted to kill off.  This being said however, it didn’t stop her being able to write a prolific number of books about him.  She didn’t need to like her character to write good mystery fiction.

Liza HoeksmaMumsnet Best author of “More Than Enough” said, “I think it’s nicer if you like them because you spend so much time with them”.  Hoeksma is definitely hitting on something important here.  As a writer, we do spend an inordinate amount of time with our characters, sometimes more time than we do with our friends and family.  We choose how much time we spend with others based on how they make us feel, how much we have in common, how much we love them, out of a sense of loyalty etc.  Why would we spend so much time with a character we cannot abide?  For Agatha Christie it was simple, Hercule Poirot earned her the most amount of money.  Sometimes we have to work with people we do not like just to put food on the table!

Hoeksma went on to say, “all characters can’t be likeable, in which case I’d say I need to know why they are like they are, so I can at least understand their motivations.” This hits on an important point.  Regardless of how we feel about a character, no matter how reprehensible their actions might be, we do need to understand what makes them tick in order for them to be well-rounded, fleshed-out, and believable creations.  They may get under our skin sometimes, but unless we can also get under their’s then they will remain somewhat shallow and two dimensional.

Susan Elia MacNeal, author of of the brilliant “Maggie Hope” series of mysteries set during World War II, said this: “I try to find the humanity in all of them. but I wouldn’t want to sit down to dinner with some of them.”  This makes a lot of sense.  I wouldn’t want to sit down to dinner with Clara Hess for example.  Yet Hess is a character of immense depth and complexity, with a great deal of humanity about her.

It would seem that the important thing is to have some kind of emotional engagement with the characters we create.  Without that engagement, we cannot possibly expect our readers to do the same.  Whether we want them to succeed or fail, flourish or die, the important thing is that we, and hopefully our readers, become invested in the outcome.  As best-selling author Ken Follett says, “like them or hate them. But indifference is no good.”

As Agatha Christie has proven, we don’t have to like our characters in order to be successful writers.  But, as Liza Hoeksma reminds us, it does help if we do like them, as we spend so much time with them.  The important thing however seems to be for us to understand what makes them tick, or as Susan Elia MacNeal says, “find their humanity”.  Above all else we need to be invested in the characters we create.  As Ken Follett says, we are not left with the option to be be indifferent, and nor should our readers.

#amwriting

Sheila Sturgeon
by Sheila Sturgeon

I wonder if any of my good friend Susanna’s readers remember the Jackanory writing competitions? Actually, I wonder if my good friend remembers them? These annual events may even have been before her time!

Jackanory was wonderful. A different story read over five days by a different celebrity – before there was really such a thing as celebrity – each week. And each year, we were all invited to send in our own masterpieces, in the form of stories and poems, judged across various age groups.

I was around 12 when I entered a poem, called ‘The Golden Ball’, written to describe a wondrous sunset spotted as my Mum, my brother, and I walked home from visiting family one evening. At the time, I wrote poetry a lot; my Mum still has a book that I did for her full of poems I had written from about the age of seven – beautifully handwritten incidentally!   I loved to write, a love that I lost for many, many years after I rebelled against school, exams, authority, and everything associated with such things at the age of around 15; meaning that I left school with virtually no qualifications at the age of 16.

I partially rediscovered my lost love – and, if I am honest, my talent – as a mature undergraduate. I returned to study at the ripe old age of 29, with a three year old in tow, as a result of losing (actually giving up willingly, if I’m honest!) my marriage, my home, and my job. What else do you do in such circumstances but go to university!! I discovered that I love to study, and especially love to research and write, about almost anything!

My love of writing has continued into my professional life; I joined the voluntary sector and then the public sector, and carried on writing –bids for funding, project plans, reports, press releases – you name it, I write it!

Recently, and following a bout of depressive illness, I began to write down my thoughts and it became a form of therapy.  I submitted an article to henpicked.net – and to my surprise and delight, they published it! Depression: fighting back is understandably biographical, yet it seems to have spoken to many people. I have had so much positive feedback from women all across the UK who have read it and found it useful.

This lead to three more articles Are you a people pleaser?, Go on… make someone’s day, and Seeing past the stereotype; all equally biographical and all getting more fabulous feedback. But more importantly, each article helped me to reacquaint myself with the joy of writing, just because I can, rather than because I must.

On something of a whim, I went to a creative writing workshop at our local museum and wrote my first poem for almost 40 years. And I loved it; what’s more, so did the other people at the workshop – and I believe that it is now on display in the museum next to the artifact it is written about.

The feedback and the enjoyment in writing has been good for my – dare I say it – soul! Certainly, it has been good for my somewhat delicate self-esteem and even for my relationship with my partner of almost a quarter of a century – because I’m enjoying something just for the sake of it once again.

So I decided to do something I’ve thought about nearly all my adult life and done absolutely nothing about. I have embarked upon the journey of writing my first novel. And how exciting to discover that my lovely nearly lifelong friend Susanna has the same ambition.

We are taking this journey separately, but knowing that the other is alongside, ready to hold our hand when needed with an encouraging word and the ever-so-essential hug (virtually sometimes, but a hug nevertheless!). All just as we did as students, many years ago. We are‘#amwriting’ together.

Oh, by the way, ‘The Golden Ball’ was one of 150,000 poems entered into the Jackanory story and poem competition that year. It reached the final 150 entries, and fell at the last hurdle; the final 100 got prizes! 12-year-old me tried to be excited by the letter I received, but actually, I was mostly disappointed not to get a prize! Now, of course, I can appreciate that I was ranked in the top 1% of entries– and this gives me more encouragement and inspiration.

In fact, I almost feel ready to say “I am a writer”. Watch this space!


Sheila Sturgeon

50+ and living in the midlands with her fabulous partner of more than 23 years, Sheila is a local authority officer working in the policy areas of children and families, having previously led local voluntary sector organisations for many years.   Sheila has two sons (one hers, one his!) who have flown the nest and set up home with very lovely young ladies, all of whom she is very proud! Her partner is CEO of a local charity. She is currently writing her first YA novel.

Twitter logo   @sheilasturgeon

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21 Ways to Become a Better Writer

As I’ve floated down the river of penmanship, I’ve encountered weirs that have sent me off on tangents, damns that have blocked my way, and dangerous waterfalls that threatened to completely destroy the integrity of my work.  I’ve put what I’ve learned down in this list, that I hope will inspire you to become a better writer. Feel free to add more of your own in the comments.

1. Slow down

It’s sometimes hard to be counter-cultural in a world that thinks we are designed for perpetual motion.  Whether it be the pressures of work, or the demands of the social life of our children, life is definitely busier and faster than it has even been before.  If you want to become a better writer you might just have to take a look at your life and see where you can create more time and space to write.  For example, as children, my brother and I could only be involved in one extra-curricular activity a term.  As an adult, working in Public Relations, I had to make the decision to leave on time, and possibly forgo promotions and pay rises, just so that I could come home and write.

2. Create the right environment

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It is really important to find a space in your house to write where you won’t be interrupted.  I’ve made a sign for the door of my little nook which reads “Warning: Creation in Progress!” to let my family know I need a little alone time.  It’s also important that you are comfortable.  If the chair your are sitting in constantly squeaks you might find this a bit of a distraction. Consider investing in a new one, or fixing the squeak!  When I set up my own creative environment I used all the senses for inspiration. See Create Your Space for details. The most important thing is that it be a place that you want to return to time and again, and is not somewhere filled with other distractions.

3. Find the right tools

There’s no right or wrong when it comes to selecting which tools to use for writing.  The important thing is to find what works for you.  Some people find it easiest to write everything in long hand, from quill and ink through to pencil. Others find it easier to express themselves on whatever electronic device they may have, from computer to tablet to phone.  I tend to do a little of everything.  Even in my early 40s I still get excited at the prospect of getting a new pencil case every September, and yet I am also something of a slave to Apple. Maybe one day I’ll also invest in an ancient Remington typewriter…

4. Fall in love with words

IMG_2864I wrote Falling in Love With Words because as a writer, words are the single most important tool of my trade.  If I don’t love words; how they sound, what they mean, what they can conjure up in the mind’s eye, then I shouldn’t be a crafter of them. I feel the same way about words as I do about a new yarn I discover for knitting. They broaden my horizon and expand the possibilities for my work.  What are some of your favourite words and why?  Take time to savour them as they spill out upon the page.

5. Read what others have written

Maggie HopeIt is my firm belief that you can’t be a good writer unless you are also an avid reader.  One thing I have to constantly remind myself as I get into my writing is that I still need to have a book to read on the go at the same time.  I don’t always read the same genre as my own.  For example, I love the speeches of Winston Churchill, yet doubt I will ever write a speech for a British Prime Minister, let alone one with Churchill’s use of masterful rhetoric.  But Churchill loved words too, and his love of them inspires mine.  Equally, I do not currently plan to write a mystery novel, yet devour every from the classic Agatha Christie to my current favourite, the Maggie Hope series by Susan Elias MacNeal.  Whatever you love to read, while you write, keep reading!

6. Learn from others

As I mentioned in Community Drives Creativity, there are a number of excellent online communities and resources to help you along in your writing journey.  There are some excellent Facebook groups for writers of all genres and demographics. Equally, Twitter has a number of hashtags you keep tabs on, and lists & people you can follow.  My advice is to just read, and follow the people who feed you the most.  Don’t feel overwhelmed by the number of voices that are out there. Even within the great pool that is Twitter there are smaller communities of which to become a part.  Don’t be afraid to ask questions either.  There are a lot of friendly writers, editors and publishers out there who would be only too happy to help you.

7. Set realistic goals

When I first sat down to write my novel I had all sorts of grand schemes and plans about how quickly I would get it done.  Little did I know that the finished work is but the tip of the iceberg of what it takes to complete a full length novel.  Unless you are Barbara Cartland, who would recline on her chaise-long, dictating book after book to her assistant, I strongly suggest that you pace yourself.  Don’t set yourself up to fail.  Figure out a word count that works for you, and include backstory and planning in your hours of work.  I try and write an average of 500 words a day.  This may not seem like a lot, but over time it can soon add up.

8. Just write

One of the first lessons I learned was that I am an overachieving perfectionist. If I was ever to get the novel I was writing out of my head and on to the page I would need to overcome this.  I think I have written the first chapter of about ten novels, hundreds of times over, throughout the years.  If you get an idea for a story, don’t interrupt the creative flow by trying to get it right first time round.  Just write! Get it down on the page and then think about polishing it.  The freedom I have found in doing this has been exhilarating!

9. Think outside the box

Even if you are working on a long piece like a novel, don’t assume that is the only way to write and get your word count up.  The important thing is to flex your alphabetical muscles every day.  I like to write letters to family members in America, send note cards, write short articles for magazines, blog posts like this one, and even a daily entry in my journal.  All of this is writing, so try thinking outside the box when you write.

10. Spend time thinking

Rodins ThinkerOne of my favourite sculptures of all time is Rodin’s “Thinker” which I finally got to see at the Rodin museum on a trip to Philadelphia one time.  I recently did a personality test called “Strengths Finder” in which I discovered that 4/5 of my top personality traits involved some kind of critical thinking.  And yet I also found that I don’t give myself enough time to think. Thinking is an essential part of the writing process in that it gives our minds a chance to wonder, and our imaginations the opportunity to come up with new ideas and story lines.

11. Write what you love
(not just what you know)

I have seen a number of people suggest that you should only write about thing that you know.  Whilst I wouldn’t recommend setting your story in China if you have never been there, nor never met someone from there, I do think it is limiting for us as writers to only write what we know.  If we write about subjects that we love we will find ourselves studying them, emerging ourselves in those worlds, so that by the end of writing we will come to know about that which we write.  What are you most passionate about?  What gets you excited?  What is the kind of person, place or thing that you look forward to returning to time and again? That is what you should be writing about.

12. Know your audience,
but write for yourself

I think one of the hardest things J K Rowling must have found when completing the Harry Potter series after it had achieved worldwide success was continuing to write for herself.  Of course when figuring out the genre of your book it is important to know who your audience are so that there is clarity to your work, but I personally believe that the best writing comes through knowing yourself, and finding your own voice.  Don’t write to people other people because you cannot please everyone. Instead, write what comes from the heart and invite people into the conversation. Trust me, what you have to say, and how you would say it, is extremely valuable and interesting to the outside world. You just need to have the courage of your convictions.

13. Find out what inspires you

Despite being a lover of words, I am also quite a visual and audio person.  I love listening to inspirational music when I write.  In fact my favourite play list on Spotify is a collection of female jazz singers from throughout the decades.  What playlist would help you to get create and write?

Equally, I love beautiful scenery and pictures.  I often take photographs around the village where I live, and of random buildings and places that I might want to use in my work.  I also have a very full Pinterest account with hidden boards for my writing.  I use images I have pinned on these boards as a launchpad for descriptive writing for my book.  Some might call these things muses. What a-muse-s you when you work?

14. Doodle

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A map of the village where the bulk of my debut novel is set.

You don’t have to be a fine artist to draw.  Trust me, I know.  But sometimes just doodling can lead to the development of ideas.  For my debut novel I spent many hours sketching out the kind of world I wanted my book to be set in.  In The Only Limits are the Limits of Your Imagination I talk about the process I went through in creating this fictional world. I tried a number of different mediums, including a fancy map making program on the computer, and finally settled for good old fashioned pencil, which I coloured in when it was finished.  Remember most of the time these doodles will never be seen by your readers, but they are a great way to sketch characters, places, things.  Even doing floor plans of buildings can help you be consistent as you write.  Give it a go.  I’d love to see what you come up with!

15. Overcome procrastination and writer’s block

Pretty much all writers have suffered from the curse of writer’s block at some point in their career.  Procrastination is also a nasty virus that can eek its way into the soul of our creativity.  When I find myself struggling with rather malady I sit myself down with a black sheet of paper and write the following: “I am procrastinating because…” or “I have writer’s block because…” I put no pressure on myself other than to write one of either of these sentences on that day.  The results can sometimes be quite illuminating.  I might discover than I have taken myself off on an impossible tangent to a dead end in my writing and that is why I feel stuck.  I may find that I am working on something that I really don’t love that I am writing for all the wrong reasons, and can’t sustain it.  I may simply find that I am tired and need some time to recuperate and think.  Whatever may be bothering you, don’t give up on yourself but ask your inner voice to tell you what is going on, and write about it!

16. Find a balance between writing and storytelling

Not all writers are good storytellers, and not all storytellers are good writers.  I am better at telling stories than I am at writing. My mother is a technical genius when it comes to understanding spelling and grammar but still has no clue where I get my story lines and ideas from.  In order to be a better writer it is important to have balance.  I am the first person to admit that I need to work on my grammar, and that without spellchecker I would be lost.  What do you need to work on?  What type of writing does your style suit best?

17. Remember outlines,
plans & timelines

As the storyline of my debut novel started to take shape in my mind, I spent a considerable amount of time working on the outline. Various scenes would jump into my mind, and not always in a chronological order! Thankfully post-it notes came to the rescue as I was able to jot things down and move them around as needed. I keep these post-it notes in my pencil case so I can refer to them wherever I am.  Once I had the basic outline of the story I was able to consider timescales and put each scene into a timeline.  The speed with which you move the reader through the development of the plot is vital in creating the mood of the piece. Sometimes transitions are as, if not more, important than the main event.  All these work, plus backstories on my characters, and descriptive pieces of places and things, have been the bulk of my work.  Enjoy the time you spend on this. Don’t rush through it. It will help you a great deal later on.

18. Let your characters speak to you

I have heard many writers talk about how their characters wouldn’t let them do something, or their characters showed them which direction to go in.  It wasn’t until I created my own characters that I started to understand what they meant.  Integrity of character is as important with the fictional people you create as it is in real life.  Of course there are times when people act ‘out of character’ but that is still an authentic part of who a person is, even if it is a disturbed flaw.  The people, places and things in your world will show you the way if you let them.

19. Decide when others should
read your work

If you are a sensitive soul, and a lot of writers are, think very carefully about who you show your work to and when.  Whilst it is nice to have cheerleaders encouraging you along the way, my advice is not to show your work to people until the first draft is complete, and you are well into the editing stage.  It doesn’t take much for people to derail you with their comments, both bad and good.  Plus you don’t want to give away the entire plot so that those close to you feel like they don’t need to read it later.  Keep them guessing, and maintain an air of mystery about it.

20. Seize the day! (and the night)

You never know when a thought, idea or character will pop into your head so always be prepared.  I carry around a notebook and pen in my bag wherever I go and am constantly jotting down random thoughts that come into my head.  I also have a notebook beside my bed for the same reason.  My subconscious works overtime when I am dreaming, and sometimes I am able to glean these nuggets in the early hours and get them down on paper.  Try writing down your dreams and your daydreams and see where they take you.

21. Do something else

Finally, you can’t write about life unless you are living it, so don’t stay boxed up in your writing corner all hours of the day.  Get out there and live a little!  The introverts amongst us may prefer to people watch in a coffee shop, or go for a country walk.  The extroverts will need to be around people.  Invite them round, or get out there and find them!  Enjoy life, and enjoy putting life and soul into your work.  Happy writing!

Community Drives Creativity

Every morning, before I sit down to write, I make myself a piping hot mug of caramel hot chocolate, and sift through tweets and FB posts.  More and more I have made a bee-line for one particular group on Twitter who gather around the hashtag 12399438_10153297370191961_1530400782_n#amwriting.  Started by Johanna Harness back in 2009, this is an incredible group of individuals who all count writing as their profession. All over the world they get up each morning and begin their day of words counts, drafts, timelines, character sketches, letters to editors etc, and they tweet about it as they go.

Writing can be an incredibly solitary occupation; a fact which is something of an oxymoron when you consider the fact that writers are often fantastic observers of people.  They are frequently able to put themselves in the shoes of another, and paint pictures with words of what life can be like through another’s eyes.  But it can be hard to attempt to do this entirely alone.  As John Donn famously said, “no man is an island unto himself.”

It has been a wonderful experience for me to discover that I am part of a community much bigger than myself; to hear from published authors and novices like myself, of their daily struggle to put pen to paper and tease out of their overactive imaginations new frontiers previously hidden worlds, and, at times, colourful characters.  I have already learned a great deal about the writing process itself from my fellow tweeters, and have started to engage in a small amount of conversation myself.

Even when I am struggling to get a sentence out, or am wrestling with which direction to take a plot line, I can pop on to Twitter and find words of encouragement, wisdom and support.  I think I can honestly say that since finding this community, and others like it, my productivity and creativity has increased exponentially. I am a-muse-d by it all, and can’t wait to see where it will lead.

So whether you are a struggling writer in a loft in New York City, a dreaming poet in the Australian Outback, an established author in a villa in Spain, or like me, a newbie, from a cosy corner of England, come join the party that is #amwriting and see where your creativity leads you from there.  Community drives creativity.  If you are a writer this is one community you will not want to miss.

A Rose by Any Other Name…

Dark Red RoseOscar Wilde once said, “it is a sad truth, but we have lost the faculty of giving lovely names to things.”

In the story of Adam and Eve, in the book of Genesis, God parades all the creatures he has made in front of them and gets them to name them. You get a sense that there is a tremendous amount of joy to be found in being able to find the right name for the right creature. The naming of things is an intrinsic part of creation and creativity. In us, is a natural desire to call something by name.

The first thing I ever remember naming was ‘pink rabbit’. Perhaps not the most original of names, none-the-less, it gave me great joy to be able to choose it. 40+ years on, I still have ‘pink rabbit’ and love her as much as I did when I was a small child, learning to speak.

Since then, I have named countless cars, my first being ‘Slurp’, partly due to the numberplate, and partly its penchant for guzzling gas. My latest is ‘Percy’ a.k.a ‘His Grace’. It’s a family joke, but Percy is also a Polo and a little bit of alliteration never did anyone any harm.

We name pets, vehicles, cuddly toys, houses, towns. We name everything on the periodic table of the elements, and even every star in the sky. We even name ourselves. There are a multitude of baby naming websites to consult if you are expecting a child. I should imagine that at times the choice can be overwhelming. To name a human being is, I believe, the most precious of all names.

And then there is the world of creative literature. I find it fascinating studying how others have chosen names for the characters in their books. J.K. Rowling is particularly talented at this. No name is casual, and no one comes by their name by accident. For example, imagine my excitement when I discovered that Sirius Black and his family are all named after stars. He is, of course, the ‘Dog Star’, which is why he turns into a black dog as an animagus. But I was once looking through a list of named stars in our universe, and even Belletrix is one of them.

So how do we name things in our writing? Where do we begin? It is my belief, that the name chooses the person, place, or thing, and not the other way round. For example, when naming a character in my novel I ask myself the following:

  • Is the person conventional, and do they have a conventional name?
  • What were their parents like?
  • What are their dominant personality traits?
  • Does their name have a hidden meaning?

When I have a shortlist, I speak the names out loud to test them. If they conjure up and image of the person I want to create then I sit with that name for a few days. Instinct tells me when I have hit on the right name, as I feel a tremendous sense of peace about it.

Whether it be the colours of the rainbow or a sailing boat in the harbour there are no shortage of things to name. What’s in a name? You decide!

The Only Limits are the Limits of Your Imagination

When starting to think about about my novel it wasn’t a person, an event, or a particular storyline that came to mind, but rather a place. Bono, the lead singer of the band U2 once said, “the only limits are the limits of your imagination, dream up the kind of world you want to live in, dream out loud, at high volume.” Whilst I’m not sure that the world I have created in my novel is exactly at “high volume”, it most definitely is the kind of world that I would like to live in. As I come back to it, day after day, to sketch out characters and places, and to tell my story, I do so with excitement and joy, and an overarching feeling that I am coming home.

Where did I start? With what I love! As you have probably realised, I have a passion for crafts, and in particular knitting. It is therefore absolutely essential that there be a wool shop at the heart of my fictional world. Drawing from images on Pinterest, memories from various wool shops I have visited over the years, and things I would long to see but have yet to experience, I was able to sketch out “Butterworth’s Wool Shop”. When I gave it to my friend to read, she replied, ‘I want to go there!’ This reaction was just what I was looking for, because, quite frankly, so do I!

Using this method, I have bit by bit been able to sketch together a picture of an idyllic, but not utopian, village in England, that is a symbiosis between everything I like about the past and present, coupled with what I imagine would be great to see in the future. Why not? It’s my world! It’s a place I long for, and love to return to, and one day, when I finish it, I hope you will too!IMG_3004

Being the extremely visual person that I am, I have also found it useful to draw a map of the village. It is A2 in size, and is tacked to my wall so I can constantly refer to it as I write. I went through a number of drafts to get there, and tried a combination of software and freehand, and finally opted for this hand-drawn, and coloured-in image. It was amazing how it just started to take shape and now I couldn’t imagine the village looking any different.

What kind of world would you want to live in?

What kind of place would it bring you the most amount of joy / excitement / interest to see in your virtual world?

If you could live in one of the following places where would it be:

– A magical kingdom?
– A desert island?
– A busy city?
– On a mountain?

Does your character start in this place, end up there, or pass through there on the way somewhere else?

These are some of the questions I have been asking myself as I have worked. My world is not the kind of place that dishes out an endless stream of harsh realities, dotted with toxic characters, and never-ending doom. It is a place of hope, a place of healing, a place in which to kick back in your slippers, sup on a glass of wine, and enjoy life for once. Not realistic enough? It’s not meant to be! It is a place that we can but aspire to go in the limitless expanse of our imagination, to take refuge from what life flings at us. The only limits are the limits of our imagination. Where does your’s take you?

Falling in Love With Words

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As I slowly dip my toe into the world of blogging, novel writing etc, I am finding myself getting excited whenever I come across a new word I can use. I think I have always been a lover of words, and have especially enjoyed naming everything, from my pets, to cars, and even other people’s businesses, but the more I write, the more I love the incredible ways in which we can paint pictures with words.

It’s not enough to be a wordsmith and great crafter of words. It’s not enough to be a walking dictionary and a paid up member of the grammar police. As a writer, you need to be a lover of words, as excited to discover new ways of communicating as a painter is to discover a new brush stroke or colour.

Here are some words that I have recently discovered or rediscovered. Some may be new to you, some may be familiar. I think they are rather beautiful.

Petrichor: The pleasant, earthy, smell that frequently accompanies rain after a long period of warm, dry weather. My current favourite word in the English language, particularly as it is also one of my favourite smells.

Myriad: Countless or extremely great number of people or things. This is a word I know, but not one I frequently use. It gives me one more alternative to ‘lots of’ which is always a good thing!

Topsy-turvy: Upside-down. How can you not like this word?

Proprietors: The owners of a business or land. I realised when I read this somewhere that I nearly always say ‘owners’ and so have challenged myself to use a bit of variety moving forward.

Habeus Corpus: A legal writ through which someone can report illegal detention or imprisonment. Yes I know it’s Latin, and literally means ‘have his body’, but the English language is made up of a lot of other languages. Loving words does not necessarily mean restricting yourself to the language you speak.

What can we do to grow in our love of words?

  1. Dictionary.com’s app with word of the day. I have this app on my phone and just live with the word of the day. Sometimes they don’t really speak to me and that’s ok. Sometimes I am familiar with them but don’t use them very often and get excited thinking of the different ways in which they can be incorporated into my writing. Sometimes they are totally new, and it’s like finding a new friend.
  2. Play Scrabble with open dictionaries. I regularly get together with friends to play Scrabble. It is a very relaxed affair, with everyone having laminated sheets with two and three letter words, and Scrabble dictionaries open. Not only do I learn a lot from the other players, I also learn a lot by perusing the materials available to me. However I have yet to use the word ‘qi’ in my writing. Wait, I just did!
  3. Read more. I don’t just read novels. I read everything. Here are some ideas:
    1. Literature of all kinds, both fiction and non-fiction.
    2. Speeches by famous people (for example I love reading Winston Churchill’s speeches).
    3. Newspapers and magazines. (Even ones your don’t agree with as they can help you create characters you don’t like.)
    4. Product packaging. Sounds bizarre but it can be useful in giving ideas about anyone trying to sell something in your writing, and for descriptions of things.
  4. Listen to people when they speak, paying attention to the words and phrases they use. This is great for learning to write good dialogue.

Above all else, we need to keep writing. I have to keep reminding myself not to write to produce, whether it be a novel, biography, article or speech. Instead I need to write to create; to paint pictures with words. The more I do, the more I will grow, and the more I will fall in love with words.