Hoo-ray! (Who cares!)

Crikey! I’ve just “won” NaNoWriMo!

What’s that?

For the uninitiated, NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month. The mission, if you choose to accept it, is to get 50,000 words written between 1st and 30th November. It might be a new story idea, or part of a longer work in progress. The main thing is to get words on the page and leave the editing for later.

A few days into the challenge, I saw a post on Twitter: What’s the crack with NaNoWriMo? If you want to write a book, just get on and write one!

Well yes. I agree. You don’t have to wait for November, and you don’t have to write a novel in a month, but there is a sort of “wind beneath my wings” vibe about the whole NaNoWriMo thing that is rather irresistible.

Everyone who takes part is going to have their own personal goal, which might not be 50,000 words, and that’s fine. Two years ago, I joined the NaNoWriMo train to help me through writing the partial for my second Mills and Boon romance, Italian Summer with the Single Dad. So my goal was 15,000 words which I achieved. I didn’t get a winner’s badge, but I was more than satisfied.  

This time around, I had a partial written (but it needed a lot of work) so effectively I was starting from scratch. I spent the first week editing and augmenting my partial, turning three chapters into five. After that, I was breaking new ground, slashing my way through deepest, darkest NaNoWriMo territory.  

My overall goal was to write differently to the way I usually write. I’m normally a one step forward, two steps back kind of writer, which translates into “slow”. I write a section, then the next day I read it over, editing and polishing before I’m ready to move on. The benefit of editing as you write is that when you write “The End”, you really have finished (discounting the revisions your editor comes back with of course). The disadvantage is that if you hit a bump with the story at some point, then you’re in the sorry position of having to discard possibly large chunks of “perfect writing”.

So, for me, taking part in NaNo this year was about experimentation. How did it go?  On the whole, it went well, but at the 40,000 word mark I fell into a plot hole. It became clear that important elements of my story hadn’t been developed fully enough to sustain the forward momentum. I spent a day telling myself that it was all over, that I’d have to fix the middle of my story before I could move on. But then I remembered the spirit of NaNoWriMo…the whole “you can’t edit a blank page” thing, so I clambered back onto the horse and looked to the horizon. Yes, the middle of my story was going to need major surgery but there were still critical plot points that I could write, things that had to happen. I focused on those and carried on. I wrote some nice scenes (and some scenes that might end up in the bin) but the main thing was, I kept writing, and the more I got down, the more I learned about my characters. The last three hundred words are probably definitely going in the bin, but hey, I crossed the finish line, so yaay!

It’s too soon for me to say if I will go back to my old writing method or not, but what I can say is that writing a story to get the story down, and not worrying about style or word choice (too much!) has given me a good overview of my story and the things I need to fix (many, many things!) When I go back in, maybe that overview will make the editing easier. Fingers crossed.  

So…to NaNo or not to NaNo?

Who knows!

Blogging Blues

lip balm beside computer keyboard

I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m rubbish at blogging.

Whichever business you’re in, there’s that moment isn’t there, when you think: “Yeah, I could write a blog and it’ll be amaaaazzzinnggg.” Usually you have this epiphany just after you’ve read a great blog post, like say one of Lucy Mitchell’s engaging posts on Blondewritemore Lucy makes it look as easy as pie, but in my experience blogging is hard. You need something to say … something you want to get off your chest, otherwise you just waffle on, watching words fill the screen …

I started a blog for my photography business once. At the time, a well-known blog site provider was taking the photography world by storm because of the scrolling format. Photographers were writing about the weddings they were shooting, showcasing beautiful photographs, full screen! It was like actually being at the wedding. Gorgeous couples, divine locations, fripperies, and finishing touches to die for, everything perfect and lovely. So I thought: “I’ll do that!” But, having just paid a web designer to refresh my website (not using the scrolling format) I hunted down a budget blog that could be linked to my site. My designer was skeptical. I couldn’t actually see him because we were talking about it over the phone, but I could sense his eyebrows inching slowly upwards. “If you start a blog, you’ll need to keep it up,” he said, sighing heavily. “It’s a commitment.” I was like, “Yada, yada, yada. Whatever, dude! Of course I’ll keep it up. Writing is my thing.” So, sobbing into his espresso (I imagine) he linked his beautiful creation—my shiny new website—to my bolt-on-budget-blog and left me to it.

Immediately, I ran into a technical problem. My images wouldn’t upload in the correct order, which is obviously important if you’re telling the story of someone’s wedding day, and the cheap-as-chips blog site I was using didn’t offer much in the way of technical support. But even after I had worked out the Feng shui of image placement, I found it totally impossible to write regular pithy, witty but respectful, anecdotes about the weddings I was shooting because by the time I’d got home from the wedding, downloaded the files, backed them up onto five separate hard drives (additionally sending a bulk ftp transfer to a cloud storage facility on Mars) the last thing I wanted to do was to write about my day. What I wanted was a very large glass of wine!

No surprise that my photography blog withered on the vine, and when the time came to refresh my website again, I quietly asked my designer to sever the link.

In 2018 I studied for a master’s degree in Writing Practice and Study at Dundee University (highly recommended by the way). The “publishing writing” module incorporated a blogging element with helpful guidelines, like: “Posts shouldn’t be more than 650 words long”; “Writing style should be friendly and engaging” and, “Pictures are great but forget metadata at your peril”. We were tasked with writing regular posts for the department’s blog, and on that first day we were given fifteen minutes to write an “About Me” piece and post it online. A tsunami of panic ripped through the room. Tubes of lip balm were whipped out to soothe shredded lips (I still keep a tube on my desk at all times) and when the final post was uploaded, we trouped silently to the Union bar, dazed and disorientated. Needless to say that my “regular” contribution to the department’s blog amounted to a paltry four posts.

So you see, I suck at blogging, and I truly admire all those perky bloggers who plan their posts weeks in advance and remember to reply to any comments. All I can promise is that I will try to do better in future. In the meantime, I’m working on my fourth romance title for Mills and Boon. My third book, Unlocking the Tycoon’s Heart will be released on Kindle on the 25thJune. My second, Italian Summer with the Single Dad came out at the end of January. Click the link if you want to find out if I’m better at writing romance than I am at blogging!

In the Still of the Night …

illegible writing in a notebook

It’s 3 a.m. and I’m awake.

I realise that I’ve been awake for a long time, running a dialogue in my head. It goes something like this:

“You might as well get up …”

“Nah … it’s warm and cosy under the duvet.”

“But you’re awake, thinking about your plot/characters/structure … You might as well get up and write it down.”

Tugging duvet tighter. “But it’ll be cold downstairs. And won’t it be weird, getting up to write at this unholy hour?”

“Err … no! This is exactly when you should be writing; when the ideas are coming. And you know how you always say you’ll remember it all in the morning but never do—”

“But I will remember this time.”

“You won’t.”





Sound familiar?

It’s not that I never sleep, but I’ve come to the conclusion that writing and sleeping are fundamentally incompatible. The thing about writing is that it fires up the synapses, gets the brain cogs turning, and once that engine’s running, it’s very difficult—I’d go so far as to say it’s impossible—to switch it off again. Yes, you can dampen things down for a while with worthy distractions like a great movie or any kind of cake, but the minute you switch off the light and snuggle down, that engine starts to rattle and hum. And I’m not even talking about eureka moments, the nocturnal epiphanies and ingenious plot twists that no writer minds being woken up for. It can be the darnedest little details that prod you awake, nag you until you find yourself having that familiar, merry-go-round conversation with yourself.

Sensible writers keep a notebook and pen on the bedside table. I’ve tried that because I’m all for sensible solutions, but deciphering my handwriting is tricky at the best of times so trying to make sense of my nocturnal scribblings come breakfast time is generally a fruitless exercise … I mean, do the words “chin breaking, fave, mns blloomnsinds” make any sense to you? You can see my problem!

At three a.m. this morning, I might have been scribbling this note to myself: “You’ve got her leaving from the wrong place you idiot!! She wasn’t living in the flat then; she was staying with her Mum and Dad!”

Needless to say, I didn’t reach for my notebook and pen. For once I gave in to my know-it-all alter ego. I got up, put on my dressing gown and creaked down the stairs. In the kitchen I filled a tall glass with warm water and a squeeze of lemon then tiptoed into my office and fired up my computer. I added an edit note to my manuscript, and then bizarrely, I had the notion to write a blog post about sleep and writing because I’m up anyway, and it’s kind of peaceful in the still of the night.

“Reading Stress” is a Thing!

I suppose we all have a picture of what “being a writer” looks like. Your visions might include a cute little writing nook. Instagram is great for feeding this fantasy … you imagine yourself in an isolated cottage somewhere, tapping away at your typewriter, warming your toes on the stove and feeding your inspiration with huge pots of tea and warm scones dripping with butter and bramble jam. Or, perhaps your writerly daydreams tend to the exotic … a tropical island! You see yourself on a cool balcony overlooking the sparkling sea, laptop whirring softly …

As we all know, the reality is rather different. Most of us fight for a bit of laptop space among the toast crumbs and utility bills on the kitchen table, or we might head off to the nearest café where we’ll settle ourselves at a too-small table with a coffee large and strong enough to bring on a migraine.

I’m lucky enough to have an office but it’s not very Jane Austen. As I write, I’m surrounded by cameras, hard drives, chargers, printers—all the black, chunky, ugly accoutrements of my day job. When I find myself wishing for a more “conducive” writing space, I force myself to remember what Annie Dillard wrote in her writer’s companion, The Writing Life. ‘One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark.’ Addendum: years after publishing The Writing Life, Dillard disowned the book, so maybe she was seduced by a pretty view in the end.

Ideal writing spaces aside there are other aspects of the writer’s life that have come as a shock. Other writers, feel free to put your hand up when you see where I’m going with this …

I’ve always been an avid reader. Each month I get through whichever book my book group has selected, as well as any number of other books, short stories, poems and essays. I buy books all the time. Recently, Bottled Goods by Sophie Van Llewyn because it’s a novella in flash (I’m working on my own novella in flash so I thought it would be useful to read someone else’s) and, Cold Water by Gwendoline Riley because Riley was recommended to me by Sara Baume (Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither and A Line Made by Walking). Riley’s novel features a twenty-year-old protagonist, as does my own work in progress, so I thought it would be interesting to see how Riley handles her subject.

Of course, I don’t only read books to inform my own writing. Like all writers, I simply love to read. Long, tall, short, epic. Fiction and non-fiction. I have shelves of books I’ve yet to read, stories I can’t wait to devour, but what no one told me about being a writer is that establishing wonderful friendships with other writers effectively doubles your “to read” pile.

Suddenly you find yourself battling a condition I’ve come to think of as “reading stress”!

It’s not just that I want to read the books my writer friends have written. I also want to read their blogs … and blogs contribute to even greater “reading stress” because blog posts often cite articles, other blogs, other writers and other books which I absolutely have to check out as well.

If you are a writer friend, it’s likely that I already have your book on my e-reader. I might even have a signed copy if I’ve attended your book launch! I will read your book, and yes, I will leave a rating and a review on Amazon and Good Reads … I just can’t say exactly when that will be because you see, I’ve come across this rather interesting link to …

Writing or Drowning?

I have spent the last six weeks completing the first draft of my second romance novel for Mills and Boon. I had a tight deadline which I was determined to keep, so I had to write even when I didn’t feel like it; even when writing felt like drowning.

Prior to this experience, I would have said that I’m a writer who likes to be immersed in a single project. Now I’m not so sure. The problem with working on one thing exclusively – and to a deadline – is that if things are not progressing well or fast enough, your heart rate climbs, your palms get sweaty. You panic.

When I spoke to a writer friend about how I was feeling, she advised me to keep working on other projects alongside the romance. Even an hour a day working on something else would be refreshing, she said, and would make me feel like I was making progress in other areas.

Initially I was sceptical, not because it didn’t make sense―it did. It was just that the thought of peeling myself off a project with a pressing deadline in order to spend time on a speculative novel filled me with anxiety. Nevertheless, I decided to give it a try.

I picked up my “big” work-in-progress, read a little of the manuscript and suddenly had some ideas about how to flesh out one of my secondary characters. I made some notes, and in turn, those notes suggested a couple of other ideas. After an hour, I had material which I know is going to help me take that project forward.

When I went back to the romance story, I felt calmer. I wrote 1500 words in an afternoon!

A few days later I remembered something I had read a few years ago―Jess Walter talking about his novel, Beautiful Ruins.

He said that Beautiful Ruins had been “written and rewritten and rewritten over parts of fifteen years; it was something of a puzzle to put together.” He went on: “I write until I’m stuck, then I move on to something else, and when I go back to it, I start at the very beginning to make it feel like a smooth, seamless surface.”[1]

It’s clear that Walter was not writing Beautiful Ruins to a deadline, but the methodology mirrors what my friend had suggested. We all write until we’re stuck, but it’s what you do when you’re stuck that matters. You might go for a coffee, or a run and find that it’s enough to get you past your sticking point, but there is another option— work on something else.

As I make my journey as a writer, I am learning that there is no correct way to write. Even if you think you know what works for you, there’s value in trying a different approach. Going forward, I intend to devote some time each day to working on side projects, projects which might otherwise fall by the wayside. “Working” may simply amount to thinking about my characters or ironing out a wrinkle in the plot. Who knows? Perhaps I will find that allowing my thoughts to run freely between two or even three projects at the same time is a more natural way for me to work.

[1] Interview with Weston Cutter. (Kenyon Review, July 2012)