Just write

 

One thing I’ve found since admitting to people that I have this dumb dream is that so many of you do too. It’s a cliché to say everybody has a novel in them but… well, heck, I think everyone might just have a novel in them.
The problem is that so few of us, if any, are natural finishers, and writing your novel is a massive, time-consuming undertaking that, more often than not, no-one is on you to complete. Mark my words, your original burst of creativity and excitement over that shiny new thing of yours will not carry you through the hard work. And when it wears off, you have to decide how badly the world needs your magnum opus.
If you decide that the answer is really badly, then I’ve compiled some tips for you. They’re the things I’ve learned elsewhere that have proven to be most true and most helpful. You’re welcome.
Disclaimer: I am super proud that I wrote a novel, and I am not above bragging about that sometimes. But the thing I’m proud of isn’t that I’m super talented and special (because quick reminder nobody wanted to read it lol), it’s that I worked hard. I can’t tell you that your first stab will be a masterpiece, but if you don’t even write the thing, it definitely won’t be. So, the big take away here is that if you really want to do it, you can. I’m going to shortcut this pep talk and just link straight to Shia LaBeouf.
#1 Read
Oh my god, read. This is not optional. I would go as far as to say it’s a large chunk of the task. Because there is a big difference between being able to string a sentence together and telling a story, and no writing class in the world can teach you the latter without a few examples. And by a few, I mean as many as you can jam in. You don’t need to read critically; you don’t need to seek out the most venerated examples of literary fiction; and you don’t need to slog through what you don’t enjoy. Just know that you’re sucking that stuff up like osmosis. You’re learning how to be a better writer with every character you feel come to life, every line of dialogue that rings true, and every turn of phrase you need to read more than once because it’s just so damn neat. Read. Take in all that literary goodness and make of it something new.
And if you don’t like to read, you have some rethinking to do.
#2 Just write
Bear with me, because once you’ve established with #1 that this is actually a field you have an interest in, then this is my best and most important piece of advice.
Abandon your pride, stop trying to craft perfect prose as you go and just get words on the page. Write in bullet points. Write the scenes you feel like writing instead of the one that comes next. Write just the dialogue. Use the wrong there/they’re/their. Substitute that exquisite description for the word ‘nice’. You can deal with this all in your second draft.
This approach accomplishes so many things. It will stop you berating yourself for being bad, and we all know it’s hard to do anything when you’re convincing yourself you suck at it. It will also help you work hard, and enjoy that work. Productivity breeds productivity, and feeling good because you hammered out 1,000 words in a morning might just be the key to another 1,000 in the afternoon. And it will keep you limber. You will be able to get your write on so much easier if it hasn’t been two weeks since you last curated the perfect 150 words.
You may think you’re not capable of working this way, as I did for more than enough years. I can’t describe to you exactly how to unlock this easiness with words, but trust me, with the right frame of mind, you can. Because the best and most important thing about this JUST WRITE tip? The product will probably be a lot better than you think.
#3 Work in small stints
I tend to do this when I’m trying to kick-start my brain and the words just aren’t coming. I set a timer for just ten or twenty minutes, and write. Because everything that seems difficult or unappealing is easier and more palatable if you know it will soon be over. By the time those few minutes are up, I’m usually on a roll. And if I’m not, I make a cup of tea, stretch, and do it again.
#4.1 Change your mind
Having a plan is important. You can’t JUST WRITE if you don’t know what the scene’s about. But if your story and your characters start taking on a life of their own, don’t panic. I think this is probably a good sign. Go with it. Riling against what feels natural or inevitable for your plot or your protagonist will lead to something that reads as unrealistic and inauthentic. A couple of months ago, I started writing a novel about a portal to another world under Westminster Abbey, and now it’s a detective story. Why? Because it had to be.
#4.2 Start with character
I’m getting deeper into tips about quality than I was planning to go with this one, but it’s an important addition to #4.1 (please bear in mind that I have stolen these tips from people more qualified than me; I don’t expect you to trust in my non-existent credentials).
If you don’t know where your story needs to go, start with character. The biggest mistake you can make is to have Kevin propose to his girlfriend at the top of the Eiffel Tower if he’s scared of heights. Or have him pour his heart out to someone if he has been guarded and uncommunicative for 80 pages (without showing us that he’s changed/this person is special/Kevin is drunk). If you’re writing multi-dimensional, believable characters, you will no doubt find that they take on unexpected and unintentional qualities. If these qualities are a problem, go back and find where you introduced them (was it a line of dialogue? Something in a snippet of their backstory?) and change them. Don’t just ignore them.
#5 Don’t show it to anyone too soon
Feedback is important, and learning to fully hear, accept and process constructive criticism is a tool you can’t do without. But, LATER.
Believe me, I know how badly you want your loved one to approve of your work, or just be let in on something so important to you. But your brainchild is young and fragile and needs your protection. You don’t need the type of interference that comes with half a dozen other opinions on where Kevin should propose. Besides, however proud you are of your fantastic idea, nobody is going to share in that enthusiasm when you present them a chapter that’s still half in bullet-point form, and that will hurt your feelings. As a rule of thumb, get your novel – and your mentality – to a stage when the thought of having a stranger with no vested interest in your pride or your feelings read it doesn’t make you sweat so hard you might just evaporate.
Here’s a quote I love from E.L. Doctorow. No reason.
“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
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Don’t try, can’t fail

failure-dont-try-cant-fail

Thirteen minutes ago, I got the news that somebody had looked at my hard-won, beloved brainchild and said no. Again.
I’m talking about my first novel, completed seventeen months ago after five near-impossible years, and then reluctantly self-published as an ebook this year to predictably poor success. Last month, I decided in a last-ditch effort to not let it die that I would enter it for an award for unpublished/self-published children’s novels. An extremely competitive award; one I barely stood a chance of winning. I knew this. I knew it the way I know the chances that Liam Hemsworth will knock on my front door today and tell me fate brought him here.
And I just found out I didn’t make the longlist, which is something I thought I was prepared for. Oh, how silly of me. If you’ve ever bought a lottery ticket and then mentally spent all of your winnings before finding out that you have inevitably been suckered, then you’ll know how this type of thing happens. Only – replace ‘buying a lottery ticket’ with pouring your heart and soul into something, and baring everything you have for it to potentially be tossed aside with the consideration of all but a moment; even to be loathed, pitied, ridiculed by people who know better than you. And replace ‘mentally spending your winnings’ with grappling to hold down your crippled, floundering self-belief. Because, when you stop lying to yourself, you know that you don’t buy the ticket unless a small part of you thinks you might win.
It’s so, so painful. It feels like the kind of humiliation you think only happens in a bad dream, when you get to school and discover you’re naked. It feels like being six inches tall. Because it’s not just one rejection, it’s the most recent of dozens, and each one represents a plethora of compelling reasons why I should just give up, and a set of questions I’m screaming in my head: At what point does perseverance become wishful thinking? At what point does an effort to be resilient make you blind? Am I, maybe, just plain not good enough?
And the most difficult to get my head around: if someone told me, categorically and without a shred of doubt, convinced me that my work was bad, would I even feel any differently about it? The slow decay of my hopes for my first novel has been like a drawn-out breakup, or even a kind of mourning. I know I need to let it go and move on, and to degrees I have. But my pride in that novel doesn’t come from knowing it’s good, it comes only from knowing that I wrote the absolute best story that I could at the time. Watching it die is a real heartbreak, but one I’ll recover from eventually. But days like today make me question how much more I can take. What will happen if my next novel suffers the same fate? How much worse will the blows be in ten years? Twenty years? When do I quit?
Under the swelling and bruises is this odd little masochist of a woman. She’s stubborn. She’s grown a thick skin because she knew what she was getting herself into and she is, in fact, oddly joyful. This is the stuff success is made of, after all. Every time it gets harder, I get to prove to myself that I’m up to the challenge – and even if I spend the rest of my life getting knocked back like this, knowing I’m that kind of person is truly success enough. Today I realised that self-belief isn’t effected by rejection, it’s effected by what you do next, and mine’s been battered by thirteen minutes (turned two hours) of wallowing, which is quite enough. Now to nurse it back to health.
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Writing depression

kermit-writing-depression

The protagonist and narrator of the novel I’m writing suffers from depression. It’s about the only thing I have in common with her, and yet somehow one of the hardest parts to write. And I don’t mean emotionally. There may be some scenes to come that hit close to home or leave me feeling a little exposed, but this would almost be a blessing given the situation I’m currently in, which is this: I don’t know how to write her as recognisably depressed without her depression becoming a parody.
Because whatever I intend her to be, meaning happens at the reader’s end and not mine. Most of the time we’re told that we can’t know what another person is or isn’t going through, and never to make assumptions just because a person’s behaviour doesn’t read in your mind as depressed. But I can’t ask my reader to suspend any scepticism and just try to understand; it’s my job to make them. I’m inviting people into her mind, all of it, and if they don’t believe in her depression, I’ve failed.
I have several options here. I could semi-autobiography this thing and write all the quirks of her mental health like it’s my own, but this isn’t as easy or convenient as it sounds. As I said, we have nothing else in common. Her depression doesn’t come from the same place as mine. The things that test her limits aren’t the ones that test mine. It would take a serious and undesirable rewrite to make this work.
Or, I could ham it up with a lot of in depth description of her state of mind. This doesn’t appeal either, as this is how I risk her sounding like a stereotype – or even a caricature –  of a depressed person (not to mention the fact that this isn’t what the novel’s about; my character’s mental illness is a fact of her life, not the driving force of her story). But writing someone else’s mental illness kind of feels like just that.
I’d like to think I’ve written some suitably rounded and believable characters in the past, but there’s so much more responsibility this time. Depression is so misunderstood by so many people, and it’s not like I’m trying to write a manual for your insensitive second cousin, but his understanding of this one person and her singular struggle is kind of essential. But when I can’t even understand someone else’s mental illness when it reads on the bottle as the same as mine, how is he supposed to?
Because, in reality, depression is just a messy and bizarre smorgasbord of unknowns. Boxing it up neatly with a diagnosis lets us assign treatment based on a set of visible and measurable symptoms. It’s not just helpful to call something depression or anxiety or bipolar disorder, it’s necessary if those suffering with mental illness are to have any sort of outside intervention. But the fact is, we can never really know what goes on inside another person’s mind. How do you compare one person’s depression to another?
My mum says this thing about autism: that if you know one person with autism, you know just one person with autism, and it’s the same deal with depression. The diagnosis doesn’t account for everything else the individual’s mind is made of; like the things that comfort and antagonise them; the memories and habits informing how they experience the now; and the connections and assumptions they don’t even realise they’re making. Depression or no depression, we all have these things in common, and at the same time, all we really have in common is that each of us has a completely unique and personal perspective.
This is what makes creating characters so fun, but they all have to come from something inside the writer, so my challenge is to write her in a way that’s respectful of the fact depression is all kinds of things, and most of them I can’t even imagine.
I guess I won’t know if I’ve succeeded until somebody reads it. The proof is in the pudding, as they say, and it ain’t gonna be cooked any time soon if all I do is whine about it, so BYE x
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In search of inspiration

In search of inspiration

I had some incredible news a couple of weeks ago: a short story I wrote has been selected to appear in an anthology. I’m getting published. There’s a pay check and everything. Are you freaking out? Because I’m freaking out.
To make the most of this, I decided it would be a good idea if people who read it and like it can then Google me and find more of my work. The only difficulty is, there is no more. Short stories are not my forte. My ideas are all too big and ungainly. I barely know how to contain a complete work within a few thousand words, but if I did it once, I can do it again. I just need to come up with something. I need inspiration.
Inspiration. What an exciting, promising word. It conjures thoughts of Pinterest boards and long walks in the countryside; of the beginnings of innovative, wondrous things; of art and creativity soaking into you and oozing out as if by osmosis.
Yeah, I should be so bloody lucky. I hate this part. It’s the ‘inspiration’ stage of writing that always has me questioning everything. Because a real writer’s head would be exploding with stories, right? A real writer wouldn’t be staring at the nonsense in her notebook – in the margin of one page I’ve just written ‘dessert’; was I hungry? Inspired? Who’s to say? – waiting for the story to jump out at her in 3D like that scene from Tangled. A real writer would be inspired by everything, and right now, I’m not inspired by anything.
And you can’t force inspiration – as anyone who’s tried to knows all too well. It’s like trying to remember a dream that starts to evaporate the moment you wake up; the harder you concentrate, the faster it fades to nothing, and the more desperate you are, the more inspiration plays hard to get. But what if you’re chronically drawing a blank? This is your career after all, you can’t afford to just sit and wait. Maybe you have a deadline. Maybe you really need to make a buck. So you have to dig deeper, squeeze tighter, maybe just *kind of* force it but seriously though don’t force it. Inspiration is the fucking worst.
In fact, inspiration as I described it above is nothing but a myth. Sure, maybe once in a blue moon a story will feel like it’s writing itself and you’ll figure you must be some kind of genius. But most of the time, inspiration will be a single line, or a turn of phrase, or a punchy first paragraph with nothing attached. Maybe you can picture a scene or an interesting conflict. But to capitalise on that little freebie, you have to do the legwork. You have to build around it, and keep building, even if the first and second and third attempts fall flat. Writing, like anything worth doing, takes hard work and persistence. That lump of clay and your own two hands are the only tools you’ll need – and the only tools you’ll get – and the rest is just you wrestling it into shape.
I guess the moral of this story is that if something matters to you, see it through. You’re not going to love doing what you love doing all the time, and you’re definitely not always going to feel good at it. But that’s okay, because being a natural at something – if such a thing even exists – is overrated. Your proudest achievements will be the ones you’ve worked for.
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On keeping a journal

On keeping a journal

I’ve been keeping a journal for close to a decade now. Why? Because it’s therapy I can do without getting out of bed, and I can recommend it to anyone that appeals to i.e. all of you.
I started when I was seventeen. I had always tried to put the things in my head on paper – either through writing or drawing – and had even tried to keep a journal several times before. But in the middle of sixth form, things started to go south for me, and depression set in. My subject matter went from I had a really great sandwich today to why is this happening to me, and for the first time journaling became a vital outlet for a hella lot of confusion and angst.
I try not to look back on those entries. I don’t think I ever will. When I started writing it was as a record, because I thought that’s what a journal was for, but if I wasn’t such a hoarder I might even throw the old ones away. They’ve served their purpose.
It’s almost like a mental cleansing ritual. I’ve never been much of a sharer, and even though I spill my guts to my friends and my mum way more than I used to, it’s still not always comfortable. Being vulnerable is hard, and sharing yourself with the outside world is scary. From the way you dress to your opinion on that movie you loved that everyone else hated, self-expression comes with the risk of judgement and consequence, and that can make us feel like we have to censor ourselves.
But in a journal you don’t have to. It’s an outlet for all your most brutally honest thoughts and feelings, whether they’re too dark, or too mean, or just incomprehensible to anyone else. There are things in my journal I’ve never said out loud; the only place they exist outside my head is on pages nobody else has seen. I don’t know why it helps to ‘get it out’, but it does, the same way it would to share it with someone, minus the complications that brings.
But more than just sifting through my emotional life, it helps me make sense of it. Something about the act of assigning words to intangible thoughts and feelings brings clarity. I don’t know how it works in your head, but if it’s anything like my noggin, your thoughts don’t come to you in the complete sentences you use to recount them to the next person. They probably don’t involve many words at all. For some, the drawback to keeping a journal might be the difficulty of getting the words out; of actually translating what you’re thinking into English. But that’s just the benefit. It forces you to think more clearly and slowly about what’s burdening you.
I don’t write every day, just when I need to, and I’ve filled more pages in the last year than I did in the previous three combined. In fact, I’ve been relying so heavily on writing down how I’m feeling that I started this blog as an extension of my journal, edited to include only the thoughts I think will most resonate with and help others. Maybe when my journal is filling up more slowly again, I’ll know I’ve turned a corner, but I’ll be sure to keeping blogging.
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Snapshot

stormy weather

Writing this post feels a little more intimate than any other so far. It’s easy enough to talk abstractly about how I sometimes feel, or give you a retrospective account of the ugly bits. Writing it down – instead of saying it out loud – feels like one big safe step removed from total honesty, and doing so after the fact feels like two. But I didn’t start this blog just to cop out when the subject matter – my life, the light and dark – gets uncomfortable to talk about. I wanted to say things that were difficult to say, so, today, WE’RE LIVE from my parents’ dining room, where I’m feeling like a kite in a storm.
The thing is, I haven’t written a word of my novel in nearly two weeks. I haven’t told anybody that.
If you read my inaugural post last month, you may remember these are circumstances I am very not cool with. In fact, I don’t think I can exaggerate how much failing to write fucks with my head. I’m a pragmatic person and when I’m feeling like me, my self-esteem is pretty healthy. But at times like this, all that I am disintegrates, until my self-worth comes downs to one thing – one thing I’m failing at.
I try to tell myself kind things, whether or not I listen. But as days pass and word counts stay fixed, a sort of amnesia sets in. I know the positives are there, I’m sure there was something I was meant to be clinging to, something other than my novel, but it’s lost in the fog. The only thoughts I can still see clearly are mean and shitty.
So now I’m up nights, ridden with anxiety. I won’t go into the wild, paradoxical clusterfuck that is depression and anxiety being such tight buddies, at least not today. Suffice to say they are the most unlikely of friends, and I am not wholly convinced they even like each other. They would be much better off parting ways, and finding friends with whom they have more in common, like, for example, lethargy and mania respectively. But I digress.
My anxious thoughts start with ‘why can’t I write?’ and quickly progress through my joblessness, my lack of exercise, my fibre intake, the laundry I haven’t done, right down to the email I didn’t send and the call to the doctors I didn’t make. I can’t quite remember how this patch of dry skin on my face became so fucking important; all I know is I can’t stop thinking about it. Most of these things probably sound like problems I could solve to you. Yep. They sound that way to me too.
Now I haven’t even opened the word document in days. I’m afraid to. Afraid of freezing again when I reach for the keys. Afraid of such a disconnect with my own work that I don’t feel like the next sentence is mine to write. Afraid of realising I don’t know what the fuck I was thinking, and that I’m not actually a writer at all.
This is my depression. It’s tangled up in a sort of ‘achievement’ compulsion I don’t know how to control. Other peoples’ may be tangled in something far denser, more unknowable, and perhaps so widespread, so pandemic, that it touches every part of their life and every thought in their mind. I used to feel like that – like I was swallowed up – but I don’t anymore, which is why I believe this too will pass; that I’ll be okay.
This is only a snapshot. It’s not the whole picture, which is far too complex for me to unravel in a blog post. Besides, I can’t see it all myself. I can recognise my patterns and my triggers, the negative thoughts that help put me where I am now, and I can try and make sense of it. But the truth is, I don’t know why I have depression when other people don’t, and that fact is painful in ways I can’t describe.
It just so happens it is Depression Awareness Week, so consider this post my contribution to the cause. If there’s one thing I hope you take away from it, it’s this: depression doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t care how good or bad things are. It doesn’t care that you’ve written half of your novel and you should be so frickin’ proud of yourself. It’s the product of a broken mind, one which can receive all the correct data – a perfect Sunday, a feel-good film, your words of encouragement – but will process it through whichever faulty channel it chooses that day. You cannot reason somebody out of their depression, but you can try to understand, and that will make all the difference.
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Treat your dream like your job, even though no one’s paying you

Shia says: 'Make your dreams come true!'

Imagine it’s Monday morning. You slept horribly, your room’s cold, and it’s raining and miserable outside. You have a lot to do at work today, again, because that’s the way it’s been for weeks now, and you’ve had enough. So you think ‘fuck it’, and you turn your alarm off and roll over. You’ll catch up on all that work tomorrow.
But around 9.30, your boss calls. She’s wondering where you’ve got to. You’re straight with her: you’re noping out today and that’s that. Obviously, she’s a little taken aback because, I mean, it’s your job. She’s paying you for it. There are people relying on you. She says you’ve got an hour to get to the office or they’ll be repercussions. But there’s an easy fix: you turn your phone off for the rest of the day, and her four more calls go straight to voicemail.
When you check your phone on Tuesday morning, there are also a couple of messages from your friend Jeff. He wants you to go see a movie with him. You tell him you can’t, you have to go to work because you’re in deep shit as it is. But Jeff says you work too hard, that it’s okay to be easier on yourself sometimes, and you think ‘Jeff knows’, so you blow off work again and go to the movie. Maybe you get some dinner too. By the time you get home that evening, your boss is losing her shit. There’s a formal email in your inbox, summoning you to a disciplinary hearing the next day. If you fail to attend, the email states, you will be automatically suspended without pay for two weeks. Well, fine. Sounds cushty.
You have a swell two weeks. All your work friends – the ones picking up your slack – are on you round the clock, trying to find out what the fuck’s going on with you, but no matter. Your boss eventually schedules another meeting with you at the end of your suspension to talk about the next steps. You, like, really need to go to this meeting. The buck has well and truly stopped, and your career hangs in the balance.
But you don’t. So they fire you.
Now, imagine it again, except at around 9.30 on Monday, when your boss calls you up, she doesn’t. When you and Jeff go to the cinema on Tuesday, she’s cool with it. You check your inbox when you get home, and there’s some spam from thetrainline.com and ASOS, and that’s it. You decide to take two weeks off anyway, because why not? Jeff’s right, you do work yourself too hard. Your boss signs off on this too. You don’t get fired, you don’t piss anybody off, and the slowly building mountain of work – the stuff you need to do to get where you’re trying to go – will wait for you.
If scenario B sounds familiar, you’re probably writing a novel.
It’s not easy to get shit done when no one’s paying you, no one’s counting on you, and no one’s riding you to put the hours in other than you. Unlike me, the chances are you’re working a real, paying job too, or raising a family, or juggling some other first priority that makes it that much harder to listen to your boss (that’s you in this metaphor) when she tells you to show up, or there’ll be consequences. If you’ve ever wondered why so few people ever write the novel we supposedly all have in us, then this is why.
Self-motivation is an elusive thing at the best of times – but this is my second novel. The first was whittled at slowly over five years, in between shifts and studying and other priorities. I started it for the love of writing, but somewhere along the way I got giddy over the idea of seeing it in print, of having strangers read it and even – dare I dream? – enjoy it. It hasn’t worked out that way (yet; I hope to release it as an eBook sometime this year). Somewhere in the region of twenty agents turned it down. So, I started again. I had another idea for a story, and I’m about halfway through a first draft.
You tell yourself a lot of clichés when you’re grappling to succeed. One that I love and hate equally is this: ‘believe you can and you’re halfway there’. I love it because it’s true: halfway might sound like a long way for something as simple as your state of mind to carry you, and it is. No one’s trying to tell you the second half of the journey isn’t a frickin long way, but that second half starts way up in the mountains. Think the Fellowship digging through snow on the Redhorn Pass. You’ve got to elevate your mind.
And I hate it, also because it’s true: however soul-destroying it is to have to question whether you can even string a sentence together; however many agents turn you down; and however insurmountable the task of starting right back at the beginning may seem, if you don’t believe in yourself (yack. I should probably mention I’m sponsored by Disney) then there’s no point ever picking up a pen. It’s the catch-22 of this whole ‘ambition’ debacle: you have to set yourself up for the fall.
It could be worse. I could be surrounded with people who don’t take me seriously. Because there is no way in heck I’d have written that first line if my family and friends scoffed and laughed and told me to do something worthwhile and profitable instead. But, for the most part, they’re the closest thing I have to colleagues. They ask about my progress; they listen to me moan about my work day; and they offer [often hilarious] narrative solutions when I start into the nitty-gritty of whatever problem I can’t solve. Sure, every once in a while I have to put my foot down and tell them ‘no, actually, I can’t come to the pub because I’m working’, or ‘I know you mean well, but I’m not calling it a day just because it’s taking so long’. If you’re reading this and you’re one of those people, then believe me when I say that, when it’s done, this novel will have your infinite support to thank for its existence.
So I have two nuggets of advice. The first is to surround yourself with people who get it. You need colleagues. They’re no substitute for a real taskmaster, but even the most self-confidant of us can get a vital boost from a loved one telling us to soldier on.
And the second is this: toe the line. Listen to your boss. You’re her favourite, after all, and she wants to see you go far. Those deadlines she sets, the whip-cracking and the missed movie trips – they’re for your own good. Because when you took the job, you told her you wanted to hold your published novel in your hands. You told her you needed that giant dose of the feeling you only get when somebody’s reading something born in your imagination. And you never know, work hard enough and she might give you a raise*.
*lol, she won’t
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