As I write my first draft of my new novel, my characters are forever doing things like putting their hands into their bags to find their car keys, moving forward to take people into their arms, or crossing the room to look out of the window at the rain.
Sometimes it seems as if they are never still.
I see them doing these things in my imagination, so I describe them doing it all. But it doesn't always make for fascinating reading, and this is something I have to be aware of when I come to rewrite and to edit.
Of course, what a character has in their hand bag, and whether their bag is tidy or not, can tell us a lot about character.
So can the way they hunt for their car keys. Do they up-end their bag? Throw it across the room when it doesn't come up with the goods? Search calmly and methodically? Talk to themselves while they're looking? Shout at the dog? Kick the cat? Scream at the kids?
All these reactions are clues to character, or an insight into the mood of a scene, adding tension or making us laugh.
But sometimes, in fiction, as in life, we just need to get our characters out to the flipping car without all the phaffing around. If they urgently need to head off in pursuit of a villain, then just get them out there. Unless their tendency to lose their keys is going to play a key (apologies for the pun) part in the action .... Hmm, good idea.
Sometimes my writing flows smoothly, like a stream along well-worn channels, curving around obstacles, intent on its course.
At other times, my ideas are like ants in a disturbed ants' nest, scattering in a hundred different directions.
Sometimes my images come out almost as a list on the page:
a glint of a gold tooth
the rhythmic rocking of the boat
red and gold fabrics, gleaming in the midday sunshine
I take what I get, and use it any way I can, pushing aside thoughts of
the right way
the wrong way
There is only what there is, and it helps me to remember that:
Streams flow to the sea.
Every ant has a designated role in the colony.
Lists help you to remember.
This past week has been a disrupted one for me. It can be difficult enough to deal with self-inflicted disruptions to our writing - a tendency to get distracted by social media, or to put our own dreams and priorities last.
But sometimes Life just happens. A two-day headache that divorces you from your imagination. A phone call from the school asking you to collect your poorly son.
That's why I've learnt to take writing - especially the writing I do for a first draft - as it comes, whether it's in the form of streams, scattered ants or lists. However it comes, it accumulates and gets stuffed together. After a while it coagulates and becomes part of something bigger.
I hope you've had a great week. Last time, I told you I was going to be plunging into my new novel this week. Well, I put my diving gear on, and I jumped over the side of the boat. I can hear voices inside my head as my characters speak to each other. I am in the writing zone.
But I'm just emerging for a while to share my thoughts about first drafts with you. Hint - they're the gloop in this message title!
When I first started to write, I didn't know about first drafts. I thought you just sat down to write - and write - until you typed those magical words THE END, and then that was that. You sent your book off to a publisher and you then you waited with baited breath to hear from them.
After receiving the inevitable rejection, I learnt that typically, writers write several drafts of their novel before they submit in anywhere. I was dismayed. What? Do that, all over again? Surely not!
But gradually, I came to realise the freedom of working in this way. Once you accept that your first draft is your raw material - your modelling clay, if you like - it takes the pressure off writing. If your first draft is your raw material that you will lovingly model and carve into something, it doesn't have to be perfect straight away. It just has to be out there.
I'm writing quickly at the moment, because I want to get my ideas out there as they come to me. I have a loose plan, but past experience tells me that when I read back over what I've written, my characters are likely to be speaking to each other in a kind of a vacuum, and the reader won't be able to fully imagine where things are happening, or what characters are doing. But that's fine, because I can go back and add action, description and details that show character and set the mood of my scenes. I can engage my readers' emotions more fully. I can restructure my book, chop it about, add clues and create suspense. What's more, I will enjoy doing these things.
So, if you're writing a first draft at the moment, take the pressure off yourself. Decide not to worry about it being perfect, and enjoy the process of writing and the sheer pleasure of getting your story out there.
Go for it!
Until the next time, and wishing you joy in your creativity,
Hello, everyone! I'm getting very excited, because I'm about to spend a concentrated period of time writing my new novel! It's a sort of sequel to my novel The Goddess Workshop. I say "sort of sequel", because it has a big twist to it, but it's a sequel in that I'll be continuing to write about the fortunes of some of my favourite characters from the book, and I can't wait! I left them with the world at their feet, but things have changed, and they're about to change still futher - more than any of them can possibly imagine...
The Goddess Workshop started life as a stage play which was performed for three incredible nights at the Cambridge Drama Centre. Later, I attempted a screenplay of it, and finally, I wrote it as a novel, which allowed me to do so much more with it. With so many versions of the story, I lived with the characters for a long time - laughing with them, caring about them, and experiencing their challenges, heartaches and triumphs. I loved that group of friends. I heard their conversations inside my head as I walked the dog, and I missed them so much after I'd finished the book. So I'm thrilled to be about to plunge into their worlds again, and to spend time with old friends.
I wonder if any of you are about to plunge into some writing? To travel to that place where you're so submerged that magic happens frequently inside your head - plot points clicking together, story strands joining up satisfyingly, characters acting in ways you'd never even thought of, but which are so very right for your story.
This is the writing zone, where there is no procrastination, no trouble using every available piece of time to write, no worry about what others will think about your words. A place where your inner critic can be ignored. A glowing place of creativity and self-fulfilment. It's where I hope to be for the rest of the year, and it's where I hope you will be too, if you want to write.
But if you're finding it difficult to imagine yourself there, or you're trying to reach that place but it isn't working for you,why not enrol for my course FEEL THE FEAR AND WRITE ANYWAY, which I designed to help you to overcome blocks to your writing, to boost your writerly self-confidence and to help you really move forward with your writing goals. You can find out more and enrol HERE.
Happy writing! I'm off to a Sacred Crocodile pool in The Gambia.
Today I want to talk to you about how Joan of Arc destroyed my self-confidence. Actually, that’s not right - my apologies to Joan. It’s not fair to blame her. It was all entirely my fault.
Or maybe the teacher’s for putting me under so much stress.
But whoever was to blame, those few unhappy seconds in a French lesson when I was eleven years old had a dramatic effect on my self-confidence – an effect that lasted for almost twenty years.
Let me set the scene for you. I was newly transferred to the class, and painfully shy, so it was unfortunate that one of the first things I had to do was to give a talk in a French lesson. My allotted subject was Joan of Arc (for those of you who don’t know, Joan – otherwise known as Jeanne d’Arc – is a Fifteenth Century French saint). I duly did my preparation and went to stand nervously at the front of the class when it was my turn to speak.
Then I opened my mouth, and, with all eyes upon me, I said: “Joan of Arc was brought up as a pheasant.”
I had, of course meant to say peasant – a country dwelling agricultural worker, not a large, colourful game bird – but nerves got the better of me, and I’m sure you can imagine the reaction that followed my slip up. There was general hilarity in the class, pretty much drowning out the rest of my faltering words.
I expect my classmates soon forgot about it, entertaining as it was, but I certainly did not forget about it, and the incident affected me drastically. I clammed up almost completely after that – never saying anything at all in class unless I was forced to, and unfortunately this silence and terror extended to my life post-school. My extreme phobia about public speaking limited the courses I could take, and the jobs I could apply for.
Until finally, with my thirtieth birthday looming, I decided enough was enough. It was time to do something about this fear.
So, I did. Very gradually, until I proved to myself that I’d made a complete recovery by performing stand-up comedy to a crowd of two hundred people in a London comedy club. (I put my experiences into a novel!).
So, how did I do it?By taking baby steps, and celebrating each and every one.
First of all, I joined an adult education class – I don’t even remember what it was about now – and then I challenged myself to make one statement, or to ask one question at every session. Then two statements or questions. Then three. (You can’t imagine how my heart pounded and my hands sweated as I willed myself to speak).
I did it just a little bit at a time, until I was ready (yikes!) to join a public speaking course. There, I made people laugh. Deliberately, this time. It felt fantastic. After that, I felt ready to take a teaching qualification. And I discovered that I loved the performance side of teaching. Everything about teaching, in fact. Then, eventually, came that three-minute stand-up routine at the Up The Creek Comedy Club in Greenwich, which was one of the greatest moments of my life so far, and the pinnacle of getting over my public speaking phobia, I’m sure you’ll agree. Every time I feel my self-confidence ebb a little bit, I just watch myself on YouTube and remember that I did it. I actually did it. The sense of achievement that night was incredible. On a par with holding my first published book in my hand…
So, if you want to write, but something’s holding you back, find out what that something is. Be kind to yourself. Take baby steps to deal with it, and celebrate each and every one. Think in terms of asking a question in an adult education class, rather that a full-blown stand-up comedy performance straight away.Get support on your crusade. (Although maybe not from Joan!). Your efforts will be worth it, because all those little steps can add up to something bigger.
Like a novel!
Want to learn more about how fear can affect writers and what to do about it? Join my Feel The Fear Webinar on 20th October. If you can’t make it live, a recording will be available to those who register.
When my son was younger, I used to read picture books from the That’s Not My… series to him.
If you’re not familiar with them, there are hundreds of books in the series – That’s Not My Truck, That’s Not My Robot, That’s Not My Monster, even That’s Not My Cow! The format is always the same – they start off with several pages of, That’s not my… for example, That’s not my monster, it’s eyebrows are too hairy. Then they finish on a triumphant That’s my… That’s my monster, his spines are so prickly. (Or whatever it is).
With my new course Feel The Fear and Write Anyway coming out soon, I’ve been thinking about author fears a lot lately, and in particular, about how people might not always think they have any fears about writing.
But if you’re:
procrastinating, and rarely getting any writing done,
constantly putting other people’s demands before your desire to write, or
you never finish anything, and you’ve got a drawer full of unfinished stories,
Then fear is probably at work somewhere, whether it’s a fear about what people will think of what you write, or an insecurity about everything you feel you don’t know about writing, or, quite simply, the strongest fear of all, a fear of failure.
Sometimes, recognising our monster – in this case, what lies behind our self-limiting fear – can help us to deal with it and move on.
After all, nobody wants to keep a monster for a pet, do they? Even if it does have a very fetching pair of horns!
We came to the marshes on Thursday last week, and it rained.
We watched, pensioner-like, from the car, the hot air blower on full to clear the mist, feeling disappointed. It wasn't just a light rain, it was a full-on pelting. Stair rods. People were returning from the distant horizon with boats and dogs, slipping in the churned-up mud slurries. Comical, yet enviable at the same time, because they'd been where I wanted so badly to go.
I got out of the car with my umbrella, reluctant to be cheated from my own fix, and immediately saw the vibrancy of the purple-mauve sea lavender undiluted by the glass of the windscreen - breath-taking, awe-inspiring, painted out against the dark drama of the rain clouds. So utterly beautiful.
But the rain persisted, and the dog barked relentlessly at the windscreen wipers, fraying three tempers, so we gave up.
Those marshes filled my mind though, returning again and again in the next few days, compelling me to try once more. We returned on Monday, my son, the dog and I. No rain this time, just four mischevious boys from the campsite who asked if they could have our car when we got out to put on our boots. (I didn't get the joke either).
Leaving them - and the car! - behind, we stepped out onto the long-awaited marshes. Funny, without the drama of the dark sky, the impact of the sea lavender was lessened, though still very present. The purple was mauve that Monday; subtle and sweeping instead of breath-taking, but still beautiful. The meandering path wasn't trying to make us slip or slide either - the mud was tamed, or almost so. We could leap over gullies in the safe low tide. Eat our sandwiches on a hummock of turf.
A baby was tapping into the primitive though, crawling and splashing, naked in the marsh mud. Blackened and comfortably content, his mother speaking to me of hosing down at the campsite, ignoring thoughts of cries and protests, or at least putting them aside for the present, in exchange for her son's life-fulfilling experience and wonder.
Any adult would have been envious of that unrestrained mud frolicking, wouldn't they? I know I was. And yet I smiled and made some comment I've forgotten now and moved on in the wake of my son and the dog.
They are so similar, my son and my dog. Without inhibitions, both of them speaking to new people without reserve, both taking the less straight-forward route through the marshes to catch a glimpse of magical, darting fishes in a pool left behind by the tide.
Acknowledging their contentment, I looked back the way we had come, towards the line of woodland crouched beyond the coastal path, marking the border of the campsite. As an oyster catcher hurried past with its urgent cry, ornagey-red bill pointing its way to who knows where, I imagined my characters as I will write them in my novel, making their way from the village hall. Two evacuees - an inappropriately-dressed mother and her young son, escorted by Lilias, the land-owning woman who has just claimed them, making their way back to Marsh House, their temporary home.
"There's nothing here, is there?" says the mother, as her heel turns yet again in the soft turf. "Nothing at all."
Lilias stands to observe the woman's unsteady progress and thinks of the sea lavender, the secret gullies and the oyster catchers. She grew up beside these marshes and loves them with her whole heart, but she says only, "We shall have to get you some boots."
I'm excited about writing my book; the ideas are growing and mushrooming in my mind, but right now I don't know if I can truly walk into it, or whether it will prove to be like last Thursday's marsh - kept just out of reach by life and circumstances for a while.
"I'm going to walk along the pipeline, Mum," my son calls to me, and I turn away from Lilias and her evacuees to make sure he's safe.
On Saturday, I took my son to London for the day, and after a hectic trip to the Natural History Museum to see dinosaur skeletons and to experience earth tremors, I parked him on a bench inside the Tate Modern.
While he happily played Jetpack Challenge on his phone, I toured the exhibition galleries with a good friend and absorbed myself in the paintings of the American artist Georgia O'Keefe.
Georgia (1897 -1986) painted sensuous mountains and flowers, using glowing colours and languid rhythms to show their essence and spirituality. She was passionate about her subjects, but also revealed the core of herself as she painted them.
At times, Georgia seems super-human, living as she did until the age of ninety-eight, dedicating herself to producing pioneering art, her career spanning seven decades. And yet, this straight-talking woman of strong opinions and an even stronger work ethic, longed to have a child with her lover then husband Alfred Stieglitz.
Twenty-four years older than Georgia, Stieglitz's favourite sister had died in childbirth. He also felt too old to become a father again. (Stieglitz had a daughter, Kitty, from a previous marriage). But chiefly, he felt that Georgia's fierce focus on her art would be diluted if she had someone else to think about.
I believe he was right here - although this doesn't necessarily mean he had the right to deny his wife one of the most fulfilling experiences there is in life. Georgia, who craved solitude, and who was at her happiest battling the elements in the deserts of New Mexico in order to paint its mountains, would certainly have had to employ someone to look after any children while she was thus engaged.
But, as any mother will know, whether they were taken care of or not, it's highly likely there would always have been a part of Georgia's brain reserved for her children. Having experienced that overpowering need to have a child myself (happily resulting in my son, Alfie, now eleven-years-old) I can understand how the urge to become a mother takes you over and controls every aspect of your life. Georgia O'Keefe's paintings are filled with emotion, and I've no doubt that her childlessness is built into their fabric, as must be the affair Steiglitz had with another younger woman for many years, and his ultimate death in 1946.
Georgia never had to fit in her passionate work between the equivalents of visits to the park, requests to use the pc to record YouTube videos or trips to Accident and Emergency after stunt scooter accidents, and she has an impressive body of work to show for it.
And yet, if we are mothers and we also want to write, paint, or to create in any way, then it's possible - and necessary both to ourselves and those around us - to find a piece of the creative world Georgia had in order for us to be fully ourselves.
So, I'm spending the summer compartmentalising my life, making bargains and compromises with my son. Unashamedly using YouTube and X-Box as baby sitters to give myself time for Gorgia O'Keefe focus. As my son is extremely passionate about watching YouTube and playing on his X-Box, I'm certain I could get away with leaving him to do this all day, allowing me to work without restraint to tackle my own personal New Mexico mountains.
But I wouldn't do it.
There are crabs to be caught. Waves to be surfed. Trees to be climbed. Adopted Shetland ponies to be adored.
In a few short years, my son won't need me nearly so much, and then I'll no doubt have more Georgia O'Keefe space and spirituality than I can handle.
So for now, I'll willingly juggle my life to embrace them both.
When I travelled to Cuba in 2001, it was with revenge in mind. Don’t worry, I didn’t smuggle any weaponry into the country in my luggage. I simply chose Cuba as a destination because I’d been learning Spanish with my ex-partner, and I knew that Cuba would be a country he’d love to visit. But he wasn’t here. I was. And after I’d got beyond the unbelievable chaos of the arrivals lounge, it was to be a fortnight of amazing experiences and fun.
It was around six months since my relationship had suddenly ended, and I was still feeling very raw. Fortunately, I palled up quickly with Sharon, a fun-loving Londoner I’m still friendly with today. Together we wondered at the near-empty supermarket shelves, gazed in awe at the crumbling buildings and were chauffeured in classic cars.
We visited cigar factories, learned about black magic and the Revolution, and spent a crazy hour making – and wearing – fake Castro beards out of catkin seeds stuck onto double-sided sellotape. We played and we laughed, and we fell in love with Cuba with the ever-present images of Che Guevara looking down on our shenanigans. It was absolutely the best gift I could have given my broken heart.
When I returned to the UK, I was to use Cuba as a setting for scenes in two books. First came Murder Maker, a novella for the TEFL market aimed at people learning to speak English. It’s about woman who becomes a serial killer as a result of being cruelly dumped by her partner. Yes, I admit it, it was my therapy book.
Later, I wrote For Hannah With Love. In For Hannah, With Love, I wanted to move two of my female characters out of their usual environment to throw a spotlight on the nature of their friendship.
Havana proved to be perfect for this. The rambling, decaying streets of Havana play on your imagination and feel full of mystery and the potential for adventure. Even danger. Just right for the dynamics of a friendship to be exposed. Jen, one of my main characters in For Hannah, With Love, is a bit adrift as a person; carried on the tide of other peoples’ wishes and desires. Her time in Cuba acts as one stepping stone to her taking back control of her life, Just as, I suppose, my time in Cuba did for me.
A friend of mine recently spent four days in Havana and was just as enthralled with it as I was all those years ago. From what she says, it’s hardly changed at all, right down to the near-empty supermarket shelves. Which obviously I realise, can hardly be a good experience for its people. They are extremely resourceful people though; you’d have to be to be able to keep all those amazing classic cars on the road year after year.
So, I want to finish off by thanking them and their country for what they gave me for those two weeks I visited. I arrived feeling completely vulnerable and depleted, and left with a thousand experiences and memories to bring my characters and stories to vibrant life.
It was a magical time, and I shall never forget it.
Sometimes in life, you just fall onto a path without even really thinking about it.
There are no crossroads, no signpost; barely even any discussion on the subject. Your parents, your school, even YOU think, "You are this way, you are good at this subject, therefore you should do this." And that's it. Decision made, future path in life determined, without any maps or charts ever having been taken out of a drawer, let alone consulted.
And obviously, this way of things can work. There are plenty of people out there who were good at maths at school and who are now happily working as accountants. Sporty types who went into sporting careers. Kids who loved science who work in laboratories or in the Health Service.
But sometimes it's a different story. Sometimes the path you fall into isn't the right one for you, and then it takes a little longer, and a lot of blundering along rutted tracks in the dark before you find your true way.
For me, my dark, rutted track was Art College. My school had a strong art department, a charismatic Head of Art, and I had some talent for painting. So that was that; decision made. I would go to Art College in Brighton, and I would become an artist.
Readers, I was bewildered for almost my entire four years of training. Not about how to paint, because for the most part, I could do that, and it came relatively easily to me. No, the thing I couldn't work out, even by the end of my degree, was what the purpose of it all was.
We were given barely any formal training - my parents would have been shocked if they'd ever found out what their money was paying for. Just a space in a shared studio, cut-priced art materials, and periodic visits from a tutor to discuss our work when he could drag himself out of the pub next door.
I loved colour, and my bright interpretations of flowers in the vases I collected from Brighton second-hand shops showed nothing of my intense loneliness and lack of purpose. I felt lost and overlooked, not least by myself. It was only when I finished my degree and started to write a novel with the highly dubious goal of financing my career as an artist, that everything clicked into place and I finally found myself.
"Ah," I thought. "This is who I am."
Even though I had some talent for art, stringing words together to create a book, with the potential to transport people to a whole new world, resonated with me far more than laying oil paints down on canvas ever had. I'd found my map, my natural habitat, and my path through it. I was a writer.
But now it was the turn of those around me to feel bewildered - my friends, my boyfriend, none of them could take my writing seriously, even when I began to get published. They viewed me as an artist who also wrote, when I wanted them to think of me as a writer who sometimes painted.
I don't know why it bothered me so much, although I suppose in those pre-Internet days, I just longed to be part of a tribe of like-minded people, and I couldn't find them. So, I moved away, to make a new start. A different city. A clean sheet.
"Hello, I'm Margaret. I'm a writer. Oh, and I also paint sometimes."
There have been many different maps since then, but even though the terrain has been varied, the maps have all belonged to the same series; a series made for writers.
And my artist friends? I still see them every few years, and inevitably, at some point, they will ask me, "Have you done any painting recently?"
It's a fair enough question. I did meet them at Art College! I really shouldn't let those old feelings of being judged slip over my shoulders like an itchy cloak. And I have been creative occasionally, although these days I'm drawn more to collage rather than to paint.
I suppose it's similar to when your family is gathered together, and you find yourselves slipping into your old patterns of behaviour. But if you can avoid slamming your way upstairs to your bedroom in a parody of a teenage strop, you get yourself back again pretty quickly as you drive home.
I have this long-held dream of painting the red rock formations in New Mexico like Georgia O'Keefe did in the 1930s and 1940s.
One day, I'll definitely go there. Whether I'll reach for my palette or my notebook when I do, remains to be seen.