There’s no deadline so I’ll write what I like

This is sound writing advice: finish.

As an aspiring writer, you hear it a lot. The logic is sound. If you don’t finish a project, you can’t send it anywhere. Taking the logic to its extreme, you should never give up in the middle of something but always soldier on though and make sure you get to the end.

Sod that.

I showed my writer’s group a short story that I’d been working on. I knew it wasn’t entirely coherent and I knew why. It started as a short idea, something that could be covered in 1,500 words, say. But the story grew and veered off in a different, winding direction. I needed advice: should I cut it right back (at the time, it was 7,500 words long) or should I keep going?

Writer’s group said keep going. That was what I wanted to do, so did it was easy advice to follow.

As a result, I’ve left my other projects unfinished. At first, I felt bad about doing that, but then a friend of mine pointed out that no one is waiting for them to be finished. There is no deadline, no agent or publisher anxious to see my work, so I might as well focus on what I am most interested in at the moment. Wise words.

It will be interesting to see if I get sidetracked on to something else before this one’s finished too. I hope not – that would be too much like a pattern and would force me to conclude that I’m rubbish at finishing.

At 19,360 words I’m about 1/3 through the project. I’m still enthusiastic about it and I’m pressing on.

Writing is a lonely business: writing friends help

You write on your own. There are writers who collaborate, but most of us sit on our own at our desks, doing what we do. We write, of course, a lot, but we also think a lot and do a good amount of research. These are not social activities. Hamish, a writer friend of mine, maintains that writing is a selfish activity and that you have to be single-mindedly selfish to find the time to write when you’ve got a full-time job, family and friends. I think he’s right. Writing’s an obsessive occupation and obsessions are all about the self.

Personally, I don’t think I could take myself seriously if it was just me, all alone in a creative sea, swimming in whichever direction I fancy that moment. I need feedback and support, some kind of direction.

Enter writing buddies.

The contributor’s copy of New Writing Scotland 30 arrived in the mail this morning

Look at this, isn’t it pretty?

Front cover of A Little Bit of Cliff in the Evening: New Writing Scotland 30

The table of content is rather attractive too. It’s got Lin Anderson, Alasdair Gray, Andrew Greig and Agnes Owens, as well as two of my writer’s group colleagues, R.A. Martens and Carol Farrelly. The stories I’ve read so far have been great. It’s an interesting mixture of poetry, short stories and even a comic.

The collection is available from Amazon now. (You can even read a bit of my story online: just click Look inside and then my name for a teaser page.)

The official launch is at Blackwells, from 18:00 on August 28th. Come along!

Finishing: therein lies stories.

I read something the other day – a snippet of freely given internet advice – which said something like “don’t start anything until you’ve finished what you’re working on now”.

Good advice.

But a lot more difficult to follow than you might think.

The way I work, I have several projects on at the same time. Some are very short, some are longer and some are novel lenght. (I boast. This year is the first time I’ve got one of those on the go. I have yet to finish one outside of NaNoWriMo.) I have an idea, I take some notes, let it steep and ferment and then I write a draft. Then I leave it for a while – sometimes a very long while – before reading it and performing surgery. Once it’s in some kind of shape, it goes to my first reader for feedback. A brief hiatus follows.

After first reader, I make changes to the piece before sending it to a writers group or friendly editor (second review).  Then it sits. Sometimes for hours, sometimes for months. When I finally pick it up again, it is to do a final edit. The final edit isn’t as final as it sounds. It can take several rounds to get to the  final-final version. And even that isn’t really final.

I send the story out and depending on what comes back, I might make further changes before sending the story out a second time. And so it goes.

What was the advice again?

Don’t start anything before you’ve finished what you’re working on.

When you get going, coming up with ideas is a lot easier than finishing stories. Ideas take seconds; finishing a story takes hours, days and weeks.

For this year, I set myself the task of completing one story a month. I’m two months behind and I have eight stories on the go. One is on the concept stage, meaning, I’ve got notes and ideas but I haven’t written words yet. Three have some words, but not their full complement. One has been read by my first reader and the remaining three have been reviewed by my writers groups. If I sat down and finished editing those three I would catch up on my goal. Easy peasy. There are a host of reasons for why I don’t, not one of them particularly good.

It’s not always possible to work on only one thing at a time. Take my word for it: I freelance. External deadlines are useful to force you to finish things. Unfortunately, some of my works in progress don’t have markets, never mind deadlines. So I make excuses, allow myself to lose insterest and move off to other projects. To some extent, I think that’s OK. Not everything I write is worth finishing. Some of it wasn’t worth starting in the first place. That’s part of what this year is about: learning where to put my efforts. Still, the things that are sitting there, twice reviewed, I clearly like well enough to finish.

So I should finish them. Because drafts can’t be published.

Sharing what you write: terror and joy

When I started writing I told myself, and everyone around me, that it was for my own enjoyment. I lied. I write because I think it is fun, yes, but I edit because I want to be read. If I just wrote for me, I wouldn’t edit. I’d approach my writing as    as a teenager: churn out a story, feel pleased, put it in a folder and move on. But I don’t. I get an idea, plan it, write it, read it, edit it, read it again, ask for feedback and edit some more. The stories that I complete are good enough that I dare send them to publishers for their consideration.

Sending out, sharing my writing, is scary. Clicking the Send button on a submission still gives me a nervous butterflies-in-tummy feeling.

For the last 15 years I’ve worked as a technical writer and copywriter. I’ve received a lot of criticism, ranging from constructive to counterproductive. Dealing with feedback from a wide range of people, from managers and clients, people who can write and people who can’t, has taught me to deal with the fact that not everyone is going to like what I write or how I write it. Of course, when you write instructions, personal taste isn’t that much of an issue but when you write fiction, personal taste is everything. Once the grammar, spelling and punctuation is correct (or at least consistent) and the story follows it’s own internal logic, nothing stands between the reader and the story. They can engage with your characters, environments and plots, unless there’s something in your writing that turns them off.

It is OK if not all readers like my stories. They aren’t aimed at all readers. But I want some readers to like my stories and it’s the fear that they won’t that makes me nervous when I send something out. I’m learning to invest myself in my stories differently. Previously, my writing was me until the moment I handed it over to someone else to read. Then the writing was rubbish. Now, a story is something I wrote and if someone doesn’t like it, I can live with that. If they tell me why they didn’t like it, I’ll even be grateful. It’s taken time, but I now only get nervous when I submit to publishers. Sending things to friends, family or writing groups for fun or feedback no longer makes me want to hide behind the sofa.

It turns out that sharing my writing is a little bit like writing itself: it gets easier with practice.

Come hear me read at Midlothian’s Love Your Library Day

Midlothian are celebrating their libraries with a number of events on their Love Your Library Day, February 4th. As part of the festivities, me and other writers will read stories at Penicuik Library in the afternoon. The event is free and the stories will be fab, naturally. Penicuik Library has quite a busy schedule that day:

10:30 – Family Bookbug session. (Bookbug encourages parents to enjoy and share songs, rhymes and books with their children from birth.)

12:30 – Tea and cake with best selling crime writer Aline Templeton.

14:00 – Music from Matt Norris and the Moon and The Last Battle.

16:00 – A selection of short fiction by Catherine Grosvenor, Helen Jackson, Lynsey May and Caroline von Schmalensee.

Read all about these and the many other activities going on at libraries all over Midlothian that day.

This seems like a good opportunity to mention that I list upcoming (and past) performances on the Events and Performances page.

NaNoWriMo week one – we have words

NaNoWriMo 2011 participant badge
Before starting NaNoWriMo this year I did a little planning. Well, a little plotting, at least. I also wrote a very rough synopsis of the action and my main character’s motivations. Some of my characters got fleshed further out in my notebook, caricatures and all but most didn’t. There’s still a lot of making it up as you go along with this short novel.

Week one has come to a close. How did it go? Over all, it went well.

Saying that it went well is not the same as saying that I’m on the way of  writing a really great novel. It means I’ve got the words in, and more, and that I’m not stuck. Yet. Apparently, week two offers despair and writers bloc. That’s this week.

I remember last year being fun but hard work. I had to work harder than this year to meet my word count. Maybe that’s because I had a weekend in London and was ill for three days so that I lost several writing days. So far this month, all is ease and relaxation. The words come and I’m keeping a decent writing speed. But then, I prepared more of the story so I know where I’m going.

I’ve cancelled as many social activities as possible to keep the month focused on writing. I still have two writer’s groups and that took some planning but I have submitted and can breathe easily. (Next month will be a challenge, though.)  This month, two other things help with my focus and my time management:

  • Firstly, C is travelling. For much of the month I’ll have no one but me to think of.
  • Secondly, I have a writing buddy! I’m not doing it entirely alone this year.

So what’s the tally? At the close of Monday, 18,756 words. I’m ahead by several days. It feels good to have a buffer. Bring on week two!

Attending a writer’s club

The Edinburgh Creative Writer’s Club meets every Monday at Spoon Cafe on Nicholson’s Street. It’s a loose association of people organised through Meetup. Attendees have different ages, genres, interests. Each week, some five or six people read something to the grop and get feedback on the piece.

I went yesterday.

I read the piece I’m reading at Illicit Ink, got some interesting feedback, listened to other people read, gave some bland feedback, and went home.

It will take me a while to break in or get comfortable with this group, but comfort will come. My plan is to go every second week (except when it clashes with Book Quiz) and bring something to read most times. But not every time. That appears to be bad form.

It was interesting – and useful – to get feedback from people who do not read or write in your genre: they have a very different perspective and are sometimes unaware of genre conventions. The group is very kind so a level of self-criticism is needed to get to the root of the criticism. Still, I got two great compliments. One chap found a sentence scary, another said the story reminded him of Shirley Jackson. There are all kinds of way I could take that, but I’m going to take it straight-up.

Want to write? Find a support group

You can’t just write – you need an audience and you need feedback. To get these things, I started a writer’s group. It’s not a big group (we’re exactly 50/50 male/female and I’m the only woman) but we’re not looking to grow immediately. We’ll want to at some point, but we need to work out what we’re doing first.

Edinburgh has a good number of writers already and there are several writers groups in town. I had a look at the City of Literature website – they have a list – but didn’t find the perfect match. (I know people in Writer’s Bloc and don’t want to trespass. Is that weird? I’m not desperate for my own sandpit to play in though it might seem that way.) Edinburgh Creative Writing Club Meetup group also looks interesting and I’ve joined it to investigate.

The great thing about starting your own writer’s group is that you get to do it the way you want. The bad thing is that you have to make it all up. Also, you don’t have any cachet. We don’t get to read previews of successful author’s book because we don’t have any successful authors. We can’t ask that someone with a couple of books in the bag write something nice about us because we haven’t got books in the bag yet. But that will come.

You also don’t have many members. In our case, if one of us has a bad month, neither of us has a group to go to. If we were ten, that wouldn’t be the case.

Once you’re part of a writer’s group (or pair) you’re working with people who want you to succeed and who want to succeed themselves. That’s what it’s all about. Support, exchange of ideas and constructive criticism, spurring each other on. That’s what you need to keep motivated. Deadlines help too.