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!
Let me introduce you to Emma. She’s fun to be around, enthusiastic about writing and very talented. These days she has established a writing routine that works for her, and she writes regularly, despite having four young children and a tendency to drop everything to go to music festivals.
But it wasn’t always like that. Emma’s enthusiasm and talent for writing were always there, but the writing routine was non-existent, and whenever she thought about writing, she felt fed up and blocked.
This was all because of a bad experience she had at a writing class, where she received very unhelpful feedback on her work. Far from highlighting Emma’s achievements and constructively suggesting areas for further development, the tutor for this (somehow) sought-after course, slated Emma’s work. He pulled it apart so thoroughly that her self-esteem – and virtually her will to live – were in tatters.
I might never have met Emma at all. She might have decided to give up on her writing dreams at that point. But a few years later two of her friends told her about my courses, AND she had a link to the enrolment page pop up on her Facebook timeline. Fortunately for me, Emma decided to view this as fate at work, because Emma came along to one of my courses, and she’s a joy to have in a class. Not only is she talented, but she’s so helpful to other group members.
When Emma first told me about her ordeal, and how it had stopped her from writing for several years, I was furious. How dare that tutor treat Emma’s precious writing dreams like that?
Emma explained to me that she was writing science fiction, which was far removed from the literary fiction the tutor had published, but this was no excuse at all, as far as I was concerned. Published writers – no matter how successful – should never forget how vulnerable people can feel when they first start sharing their words. I know I certainly haven’t.
When I first started writing, I was ridiculously sensitive! I remember the first time I read out a story at a writer’s circle, and I described a woman’s face ‘turning a colour somewhere between green and purple’ (with embarrassment and horror). OK, I realise now that it’s not a sentence from a great work of literature, but at the time I was pleased with it, and was quite taken aback when one of the group members stated quite abruptly that it wasn’t possible to have a colour between green and purple, and that I should use the word puce. Puce. I wasn’t even sure what the colour was, and I had to go home and look it up. And it was such a horrid word, sounding as it did, remarkably like…well, sick. My story was light-hearted and fun, with no pretensions to be anything else. Puce just didn’t fit. I felt discouraged, and never returned to the writer’s circle. (I told you I was sensitive in those days!)
As I’ve gained in experience and had many novels published, my self-confidence has grown to the point where I’m able to sift through feedback and make a judgement about whether it’s relevant and helpful or not. (If it’s from an editor, I’ve also learnt to be tactful if I don’t think so!) I always make a point in my writing classes of helping my students to develop the highly useful skill of giving and receiving constructive feedback. It’s such an important part of a writer’s development, because you can learn so much from it.
When I began teaching my creative writing classes, I encountered that vulnerability and that fear of exposure over and over again, and decided that my classes had to include an element of confidence-building in order to be of use to people.
As for Emma, she very kindly took part in the pilot version of my course Feel The Fear and Write Anyway – Self-Confidence For Authors, which opens for enrolment very soon. I asked Emma and other recent students to try it out and to give me feedback, so that I could make it as useful as possible. The power of feedback, see? I’m happy to say that all their suggestions were really helpful – and constructive!
I’m so excited that by creating an online course designed to boost writers’ self-confidence while they’re developing essential writing skills and habits, I’m going to be able to help people I might not otherwise have been able to reach. People who want to take that first step towards realising their writing dreams. Or, if they’re like Emma, people who want to recover from a set-back to move on towards their goal of completing a novel.
When we want to write, a fear of what other people think about us can really hold us back from:
Writing the way we want to write
Showing our writing to others (and therefore missing out on potentially valuable feedback, or even publication).
Writing at all!
I suppose, as human beings, we usually want to be accepted and approved of, even if it’s only because it’s much easier than feeling out of kilter and unaccepted.
So sometimes we hide who we really are in an attempt to fit in better.
You can watch a video of this blog post, or carry on reading!
For many years, while I was building my career as a writer, there were times when I wished with all my heart that I wasn’t a creative person. Yes, really!
I was working thirty-seven hours a week in a college of further education at the time – I’d started there as a temporary typist, then worked my way up to the heady heights of Central Admissions Officer, dealing with hundreds of applications to the college within an office of Examinations Officers.
I expect you get the picture. I was bored out of my mind. Frustrated that I had to work in a job I disliked so much, when all I wanted to do was to write my novels.
I was a fish-out-of-water, and I didn’t want be a fish-out-of-water.
I longed to belong, the way everyone else seemed to belong. I didn’t want to be viewed as a single, ex-art-college oddity, even if that was exactly what I was.
I wanted to be:
A relaxed receptionist.
An elated examinations officer.
A contented catering assistant.
I was convinced that people who didn’t experience a compelling need to produce art or literature found life amuch simpler. That they didn’t feel constantly torn and dissatisfied the way I did, and that it was much easier for them to feel contended.
I thought they could just be in a way I often couldn’t. (Even at my father’s funeral, there was a part of me – the writer part – that stood at a distance from events, observing everything and everyone. I loathed it, but was powerless to stop it.)
Back then, I thought everyone but me was content to live in the moment, without constantly wanting to submerge themselves in make-believe or to use their experiences to produce something. That they just were.
I also believed they were critical of me because I wasn't like them.
It was complete rubbish, of course.
I imagine the rest of the college staff mostly fitted in better than I did because they made more effort that I did. That at work, their creativity, or their focus, went into doing a good job, and not into getting by grudgingly until five o’clock.
And far from being judgemental or critical about little old self-conscious me and my way of life, I don't suppose they gave me very much thought at all!
I didn’t really stop worrying about what people thought of me until I was older, and had learnt to accept myself.
And getting consistently published was a large part of that, because with several books under my belt, at least I could think to myself, OK, I may be different, but at least I’m getting paid for it. People are buying my books. Enjoying them too, hopefully.
But the point is, if I’d allowed my fear of what other people thought of me - or in my case perhaps what I thought people thought of me - to completely destroy my spirit, then I might never have written my books. Or, even if I had written them, I may never have found the courage to show them to anybody. Or to take the initiative to ask for opportunities, or to pitch ideas, or any of the other things that can lead to success as an author.
When we first set out on our writing journey, the company and encouragement of other writers and would-be writers who understand can be a vital boost to our self-confidence.
As we start to trust other writers, we feel able to take that first frightening step of letting them read our work. And as with anything that’s frightening or challenging, every time you share your writing with other people, it gets easier to do. Your comfort zone expands, almost without you being aware of it doing so.
So, if you're holding back from writing or showing your writing out of a fear of what other people will think of you, try to take some action to break through that barrier, a little at a time.
Write exactly as you want to write.
Do something that could lead to you finding someone to share your writing with, like joining a writing group, class or forum.
And gradually, gradually, start to belive in yourself and your dreams.
As you do so, your horizons will expand almost without you realising it.
As a multi-published author, there are some questions that I get asked over and over again. One of these is:
"Where do you get your ideas from?"
When a would-be writer asks me this question, I'm often pretty certain that what they really want to know is, "Where can I get my ideas from?" Or, "How do I go about getting ideas for my writing?" So, I thought I'd make some videos about the way some of my ideas for my books have come to me, in case it helps other writers.
The first thing to say, is that there's no "one size fits all" way for me to get ideas for my novels and stories - ideas come to me from many different sources and in many different forms. It's bound to be the same for you.
On today's video, I'm talking about the way work and the various work places I've experienced have given me ideas for characters themes, and even whole novels. (Spoiler alert: it includes the world's largest trifle!)
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.