With A Little Help From My Friends

Ha, how cliche is this title?

I’ve been thinking a lot about cliches over the last couple of weeks. Now that I’m (finally) trying to work out an overall plot for my new project, the phrase, “THAT’S SO BLOODY CLICHE” has been reverberating around my head more than any other (except possibly “I’m hungry”).

I’ve got no idea how many times I’ve embarked on the plotting of a new story, and I think every single time has been different. Sometimes it all comes out in a frantic fever-dream of creativity (or so I’ve heard), sometimes it’s a sudden coming-together of this idea and that concept, sometimes it’s a series of evenings sitting down with a whiteboard and trying to connect a few sparky dots in your head.

This time,  I’ve mostly nicked stuff from my friends.

In the past, I’ve usually played my story cards very close to my chest until I have a draft I’m happy to share. However, in the past when I’ve shared it at this written stage – when it is, to my mind, maybe 80% complete – some careful, honest, supportive friend has gently said, “But you know this decision she makes at the end of chapter one, which triggers everything that happens after? Don’t you think she’d do this instead?” and you look into their gentle, trying-to-help eyes, smile knowingly, pat them on the head and say, “…shit.”

ah shit

So I’ve learned, guys. This time, I cornered my partner (also a writer), stole his whiteboard, explained all my disconnected ideas and thoughts to him, and then wrote down everything he said and passed it off as my own original thinking. This done, I bat-signalled (read: facebook messaged) two writer friends from my Creative Writing Masters, explained the outline I alone (ahem) had come up with and again wrote down everything they said and am now passing it off as my own original thinking. And you know what? Turns out my own original thinking is good.

And this is hardly a groundbreaking approach. Pixar, the Masters of Storytelling (if you don’t agree with me I will fight you), have been doing this for years, and, you know, they’ve done alright out of it.

To nobody’s surprise, this has been enormously helpful. Not only does it help to give me some perspective on how worthwhile my own ideas are, it pushes me to think in directions I wouldn’t have considered on my own. Plus, you know, plagiarism.

So that’s where I’m at this month. Feeling more positive, more original, and more like I’m onto something…with a little help from my friends.

sunglasses

 

 

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Finding What Works For You

I’ve been struggling, so far in 2018, to properly settle to a writing routine. If you read some of my earlier blogs from last year, you’ll (correctly) get the sense that routine, schedules and templates are pretty important to both who I am as a person and how I like to work. This is not romantic. Jack Kerouac would have no time for this shit.

But what I realised several years ago now, when obsessively studying successful writers methods and habits to try and burn them into my own and thus achieve greatness, is that most of them don’t work. At least, not for me.

I do not do a whole bunch of things that writers are ‘supposed’ to do. I don’t get up at 6am to write for two hours before work. I don’t always carry a notebook. I don’t write something every day.

I have good(ish) reasons for all of these things. I don’t get up early to write because I cannot deal with mornings as they are, and anything I wrote in them would probably not be passable English, let alone competent storytelling. Also, I’m lazy. I don’t tend to write ideas down the instant they occur to me, because I like to let them rise for a while, like bread dough, developing and improving before they go in the oven – sometimes if I write an idea down too early I realise its flaws too fast and don’t give it a chance to become something tasty. Also, I’m lazy. I don’t write something every day because whenever I’ve tried to, the pressure of knowing that THIS IS THE ONLY FIVE MINUTE INTERVAL IN WHICH I CAN WRITE ANYTHING TODAY paralyses my ability to write anything at all. Also, I’m lazy.

and that works for me

But there are plenty of ‘common writing tips’ that I follow to the letter. I try to stick to a set routine. I read widely both in and outside of the genre I’m writing. I write stories I love, not ones I think will sell (as is now teeth-grittingly apparent). I hammer out a first draft without pausing to over-analyse what needs editing.

I discovered the various things that work for me through trial and error, and I’m still always learning new things that help and new things that absolutely do not. Here are a few of my personal discoveries:

  • Routine = good. Trial and error led to the realisation that I hit my writing stride an hour or so after I’ve technically ‘started’ (but there’s an awful lot of checking Twitter, getting cups of tea and staring slack-jawed out of the window in that hour), and once I stop for a break I rarely get my mojo back. For me, this means the best hours for writing are between 10am (I know, I know, it’s disgusting) and 1pm, and afternoons are only successful once you’ve ploughed through two hours of feeling like a talentless piece of human crap.
  • Being realistic = good. Whatever I do to try and help myself, there are days when I sit down, look at a flashing cursor and bleed slowly and painfully into a word doc, only to delete all 61 words two hours later when I realise it’s pointless exposition. Accepting that these days will happen, rather than feeling like a failure and stroppily refusing to start in the first place, is healthy (which is not to say that’s how I always react…).

tantrum

  • Reading = good. Specifically, reading a chapter of a good book before I start writing. I find the most inspirational and least plagiarise-y (important) stuff is books that have a loose genre in common with your writing (i.e. ‘adventure’), but not the specifics (Amazonian survival story vs. fantasy witch escapades). It’s the tone that helps; what I’m after is a nugget of that feeling you get when you – for instance – come out of the Wonder Woman screening and have a physical urge to punch your way through the cinema’s fourth-floor windows and jump with simultaneous grace and power into the street. (You get that…er, right?)
  • Rejection = bad. Which brings us back to this blog. As it has transpired, spending a year being systematically told I am not quite good enough to be a writer has not done much for my ability to write. I am struggling at the minute. I seek out all the flaws in an idea before it’s even formed properly, I lose faith after 100 bad words, I look for everything that’s wrong with a chapter rather than what’s right, I tell myself I have to make it perfect rather than just seeing where my own enjoyment takes me. It’s pretty exhausting.

But if all of these trials and errors have taught me anything, it’s that there will be a balance. Rejection did not work for me, but perseverance does. And having all my personal working tools in place is making it so much easier to stagger on through this current boggy patch.

As hit-and-miss as writing advice is, the most quoted and most common is still, I believe, the best:

Write.

But do it in a way that works for you.

2018 Goals

Hello! Here I am! Posting on the 29th day of January to prove that I really did mean it when I said I’d post once a month! *cough*

And even though it seems a bit late to be posting goals for 2018 now that we’re a month in, it’s still January so whatever, I’m doing it.

i got nothing

Having received a thorough pounding to my hopes, dreams and ego in 2017, I’ve gone for slightly more…restrained 2018 goals. Here goes…

  1. Don’t. Give. Up.
  2. Try to do something that contributes towards my writing ambition every day, even if it’s tiny. Or, at least, most days. Or maybe weekdays…
  3. Submit to the Northern Writers Awards by 1st February (this one is ALREADY almost complete, given that I – thankfully – made no specifications as to quality or finesse of said submission).
  4. Submit to The Bath Children’s Novel Award and the Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition later in the year.
  5. Keep an eye out for other opportunities to apply for.
  6. Make time for writing.
  7. Try to be less angry / jealous / frustrated / saddened by the current absence of success.
  8. Don’t rush so much – the publishing industry isn’t going anywhere, they’ll still be rejecting people in a year or two’s time.
  9. Read more.
  10. Finish at least the first draft of a new story. (ALREADY 6000 WORDS IN BOYS.)

nailed it

So let’s see.

Priority Balancing

Here’s a Relatable Thing. As a writer who also has to do ‘other stuff’ (earn money, buy food, do the washing up, book dentist appointments, have friends etc.), I generally find that any writing or publication-hunting I want to get done finds itself languishing in the dregs of the Priority List, somewhere between ‘change that lightbulb in the kitchen’ and ‘tidy files on desktop’.  Unlike the lightbulb, I actually really want to do it, but the fact is that if I don’t put a load in the washing machine, I don’t have any socks for tomorrow; if I don’t make lunch, I’ll be hungry this afternoon; if I don’t earn money, I can’t pay for stuff…ever. Whereas if I don’t send off that submission…well, pretty much nothing happens.

Because of this, it’s genuinely difficult to force myself to make time for it. And half the time, I’ll set a whole day aside for writing / submissions, then find myself at 4.30pm in an unusually tidy lounge with a bunch of things checked off my to-do list and about 8 words written. But this is a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ blog, so regardless, here are my top two tips for finding the time:

  1. Set aside time in advance. This always starts off being a whole day, then an afternoon, then a couple of hours, and usually at around 4pm I fling myself down on a chair and assert (to no-one in particular), ‘RIGHT. I am going to write for ONE FULL HOUR.’ (Then I spend twenty minutes fiddling with the formatting and despair at myself.)
  2. Scrounge any time you can from literally anywhere else. I have sent submissions off at work. I’ve sent them off in the middle of the night. I’ve sent them off whilst sat at bus stations. Depending on my motivational and rejection-blues levels, I’ve been pretty crazy about it. (Not that I recommend the craziness.)

And on that ALMOST totally pointless note, I will leave you.

Things That Keep Me Motivated

  • The only slightly nonsensical belief that, if my fate was to acquire X number of rejections before achieving success, I must have put a good old dent in it by now.
  • Drinks with fellow writers, in which you lament the universe’s (/publishing industry’s) heinous treatment of you, air your fears and then slurrily insist that the other is SO TALENTED (they really are) and you’re SO SURE they’ll make it (you really are). It helps to know you’re not the only one.
  • Sitting in a cafe and writing by hand, which still always makes me feel like a ‘real writer’.
  • Sheer spite.
  • The thought that each rejection is a step closer to the agent who will (finally) take a chance (/pity) on me.
  • Other people telling me they really do believe I’ll make it (and these people are only sometimes drunk).
  • Reading wonderful books that make me realise that agents aren’t just sadistic twats.
  • Reading terrible books that make me realise I can’t be all that far off.
  • Not thinking about it for a while.
  • Tea (the drink, not the meal. Though actually, that too).
  • Having a bit of a cry, and emerging like an angry motherfucking phoenix from the ashes.

come at me bro

POSITIVE THOUGHTS

Hello all, another quick one today. The post that feels most relevant is pretty depressing (SHOCKER), so I’m going to save that for the future (read: next week). Instead, I’m going to leave you with a list of happy things I force myself to think when the rejections and general barren wasteland of unsuccessfulness are getting me down:

  • Even if this book never gets published, the full manuscript was requested three times, and as far as I’m aware nobody can go back in time and take that away from me.
  • I have, like, a LOT more story ideas to turn into books to turn into rejections before I’m done.
  • JK Rowling was, like, thirty-something before she was successful – as are most other authors (though this one usually leads to ‘I CANNOT TAKE ANOTHER TEN YEARS OF THIS’ so use with caution).
  • What’s for dinner?
  • Patrick Ness says that the best writers don’t just ‘write’, they ‘write anyway’, and hell if that’s not exactly what I’m doing. (My boyfriend would like me to point out that he actually suggested this point, not Patrick Ness. But he didn’t use the interesting phrasing, so here we are.)
  • In about three hours, I can go to bed.
  • What happens if I type ‘puppy’ and ‘trampoline’ into Google?
  • When my book is one day published and I become HIDEOUSLY SUCCESSFUL, I can spend a fabulous afternoon calling all the agents who rejected / ignored me and point out to them that they are not my agent.
  • If the publishing industry thinks it’s more stubborn than I am then it can THINK AGAIN.

never give up

The Venn diagram of people who get published and people who listen to editorial advice is a circle.

As I mentioned last week, I’m currently spending a day a week working as the editor for Cuckoo Review – a publication comprising of arts reviews written by young people in the north of England. It’s easily the most I’ve ever enjoyed work I was actually being paid for, and it’s given me quite a lot to think about (not to mention blog post fodder!). My job is, very simply, to edit the reviews, give some feedback to their writer, and publish them online. I’m not talking the J. Jonah Jameson style of editing, where you crumple up reviews and chuck them out of windows, shout a lot and smoke cigars – the purpose of Cuckoo Review is for the young writers to gain experience of professional writing, to encourage them and help them develop.

But that part – the ‘gain experience of professional writing’ part – has got me thinking. Because it’s one thing to sit in your bedroom and tap away at the keyboard – whether journalistic or fictional – and it’s quite another to hand it over to someone whose sole job is to rip it apart and put it back together again, to make it fit for publication.

(Massive tangent incoming…bear with it.)

There’s a bit in Joss Whedon’s Firefly when a fairly psychopathic bounty hunter explains to a doctor that if he’s going to work on gunshot wounds, he ought to be shot – so he knows what it feels like.

you oughta be shot.gif

Now, not to align myself with fictional psychopaths, but I have – on occasion – found myself thinking similar thoughts. As someone who’s in and out of hospital more than I’d like, I have often found myself wondering whether this nurse or doctor actually knows what it’s like to take this medication, or go through that procedure that they have no hesitation in suggesting to their patients. (Slight disclaimer here: I have thought this in an idle, passing way – not in the shooty Firefly way.) But (the relevance is coming…wait for it…) I also think there’s some definite crossover here with editing.

One of the things that I think makes me particularly suited to being an editor is that, boy oh boy, have I been on the receiving end of that crap. I’ve been reduced to tears by feedback received on my MA. My own mum once nonchalantly mentioned to me that she thought the main character of – what was at the time – my 300,000+ word fictional world was ‘a horrible person’. When I sent the book I’m currently submitting to my old dissertation supervisor, she managed to tell me that it basically needed re-writing from scratch in a way that made me feel positive and motivated as I left the meeting – though to be fair:

thats witchcraft

I am no stranger to harsh editing. So I bust a gut with every review sent to me, trying to respond in a way that is constructive but kind. In spite of which, I’ve had one or two responses from the young people that have made it clear they’ve felt defensive over my edits, and this gives me pause. Because on the one hand I’m mortified that I’ve displeased them – my whole purpose with Cuckoo Review is to help them, not annoy them. But on the other, perhaps a touch harsh, hand, a part of me thinks…well, that’s life. Similar to what I was saying in my ‘how good do you have to be’ post , self-editing is an essential part of making your work good enough; and the editing of others is, if anything, moreso.

As a teenager I once swapped my recently completed first novel with a friend’s, to read and critique each other’s work. My friend gave me plenty to think about for my own story (which was, in my poor friend’s defence, pretty abysmal), but when I went through the novel I had been given in return, I found every one of my suggestions countered; every question dismissed. At the time if frustrated me, frankly because I was a bit of an arrogant sod when it came to writing, but also because I remember thinking to myself, ‘Well then why did you ask me to read it?’

Because if a piece of writing is published, you are asking people to read it. And at least some of them are going to have questions, problems and critiques. So even before reaching the realm of submissions (which I realise I have made look devastatingly tempting to you all), I think it’s wise to listen to every edit given to you. I’ve always tried to listen. Some feedback I’ve dismissed quite rightly, some I really should have listened to – but most of it, even when I haven’t liked it, I’ve taken on board. Because that’s life.

And with that, we can file this away under ‘Becky’s Egotistical Reason #542 on why the publishing industry should stop ignoring her’, and move on with our days.

Next Post: Networking. Yep. You knew it was coming. We all knew it was coming. Try as you might, there is no escaping that terrible word and it’s horrifically awkward results. Now excuse me while I hyperventilate into a paper bag just at the thought of writing about it.

Submissions Last Week:

Well the best I’ve managed in a while – a WHOPPING 3!

Current Rejection Tally: 24