Tag Archives: Writing

Notes on writing

Non-break break

I’ve been saying for a few weeks that I’ve been on a break from writing. It was only when I was explaining what this meant to a non-writing friend the other night that I realised that my idea of a break is probably not most people’s idea of a break.

The past month I’ve been spending a LOT of time thinking about stories. I’ve been trying them on for size, working out which one fires me up the most to spend a lot of time with it. The other thing I’ve been doing is reviewing a lot of old writing. I’ve been checking out where I got up to on old stories, reading plans for stories, updating all my excel spreadsheets so I get a good picture of all my non-finished stories. Basically getting an overview of everything outstanding.

Interestingly, I’ve also been writing. While not working on a new project just yet, I have been prepping stuff for send-out, giving work to beta-readers and writing this blog each week. I haven’t counted any of this as writing.

My new definition of ‘writing’ is when I am totally immersed in one project. When I come home from work and get onto the computer instead of the TV. I think about it when I’m on the bus, walking to the shop, or even (scarily) when driving familiar roads. Writing for me now is when I have made a commitment to a story to get it finished.

That’s what I’ve not done over the last month, and that’s why I say I’ve been on a ‘break’. But I think it is time to take the plunge. By this time next week, I plan to be in a committed relationship… with my next novel.

Top 10 Writer things to do – Tell people you are a writer

This one took me a long time to do. I’ve been writing stories for my own pleasure since primary school, but it wasn’t until I turned 30 and had the first of my (what turned out to be annual) mid-life crises that I decided to tell people I was a writer.

It was a really big deal for me when I first did it, and I was nervous. I hate that question ‘what do you do’ when you first meet someone, but now I had something more honest to say than whatever career I was lolling about in at the time. So I put on a confident face (totally faked) and said ‘I’m a writer’.

I was nervous because I expected to be ridiculed or pitied, but that didn’t happen. Sure, you get the occasional eyebrow-raise, but for the most part people are supportive and interested. And more than a few of them confess to aspirations of writing as well.

After we establish that I write sci fi/horror/fantasy they usually look at me a little differently (I haven’t dressed as a goth since Uni, so look a little beige these days). Many will even ask if they can read something. I love this request, I see it as a really supportive thing to say, but I also never hand anything over. My rule of thumb is wait until a person asks three times, because that means that they really want to read something.

To be honest, since I’ve been saying I’m a writer I’ve only found one downside… People who don’t write sometimes have ‘this great idea for a story’ – which invariably is not great, not original, or only makes sense to that person. My standard come-back is that they should write the story, and to be honest, they should. They have the vision and they know the story, so they should write it. Then there can be another person out there who can proudly proclaim themselves to be a writer.

Motivation

Writing a novel takes a lot of time. Editing a novel (for me) takes even longer. There are a lot of hours in a novel, or even in a long ‘short’ story. My experience has been that exuberant enthusiasm has never held on for long enough to get me to the end.

Motivation to write generally falls into two different categories; carrot and stick. The carrot is things like imagining typing the words ‘the end’, visualising your novel in a book shop, or the burning desire to get your characters through this testing time and see them out of the terrible situation you put them in.

Then there is the stick, which is where pretty much all of my motivation comes from. The stick is things like not wanting to stay in your day job, knowing how disappointed you’ll be in yourself if you get to the end of the week without having written any new words, and the old chestnut of all-pervasive writer’s guilt – which sucks the joy out of all non-writing moments, rendering even the most delicious Haigh’s chocolate unpalatable.

Recently I have tried to find a different carrot method by looking at other successful people and asking myself ‘what would they do if they wanted to be a writer?’ These people don’t have to be writers, they just need to be people who have pulled their finger out and succeeded at something through hard work and determination. They also need to be people you genuinely admire.

How it works is this; you find yourself spread out on the lounge with the cat curled up beside you and some terrible reality TV on the screen. You’ve had a tough day in the office and you are considering finishing off that bottle of wine you opened on the weekend. Then you ask yourself ‘What would <insert person-you-admire’s name here> do right now?’ If you’ve picked the right person it will hopefully get you off the lounge and into your novel.

I’ve been using this for over a year now, and it has helped me get to the computer time and time again. By the time I write my first sentence it all becomes about me again, and wanting to finish the story, but when it comes to getting the computer fired up and the TV turned off I really need to give credit these other people.

Of course the previous two weeks where I didn’t write a word show that this doesn’t work all the time, but it has worked often enough that I’ll continue to use it. And to be honest in the last week I have written nearly 5,000 words and the question I’ve been asking myself is ‘what would *I* do if I was serious about being a writer’ and that feels a whole lot more positive. It also means I can appreciate my Haigh’s chocolate again.

Wake up call?

In the past two weeks I have done no fiction writing. I don’t feel bad about it (like I usually do) but neither do I feel particularly good. If I’m honest it has left me a little empty. I have also been struck by how much free time I actually have. Now I understand why my friends with kids and families to organise question what I do with my days. I had no idea how much time I filled with writing until I stopped.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve not spent all that time on the lounge in front of the TV (but a big chunk has gone that way). I’ve been gardening, exercising, cooking proper meals and giving my friends and family the attention they deserve. I’ve enjoyed this time away, but I can feel the hole inside me opening wider every day. I chose to ignore it, until now.

Yesterday I started coming down with my first cold in many months. Maybe even years. I can’t actually remember the last time I had a cold. I can’t help but wonder if my dropping the ball on my writing might have contributed. My body is telling me that I’ve got the balance out of whack.

I know people will think it is a long stretch to draw this conclusion, but I am a big believer in mind over matter, and I know that right now things feel wrong by not writing. I wrote more in the past 24 months than I had in the previous 6 years and I have been pretty healthy in the past 24 months. I truly believe my life was nicely balanced then. Now it is not.

My muse is not with me, and I have no ideas for stories, but today I’m going to write. Just putting those words down has sparked a flicker of excitement in my belly. Let’s see if I knock this cold on the head before it really takes hold. If it does, then I think I have to accept my fate and commit to writing for the rest of my days. I really like that idea.

Top 10 Writer things to do – get an online presence

I did think about not putting this one in. I have to be honest, I’m struggling with the whole online presence thing at the moment and am starting to question how much value there is in it. But if you do get published, it makes sense to make it as easy as possible for people to find more of your writing if they go looking for it. That means being online.

After seven years of blogging, I wouldn’t sing the praises of doing that, besides which, I’ve heard that blogging is so ‘naughties anyway. I know that kind of begs the question about why I am here now, well… I’m very pig-headed and when I start something I struggle to let it go. I also find the weekly blog is good for my discipline.

Nearly all writers have at least two social media accounts; twitter/Facebook/Instagram/stuff I’m too old to know about, but I also think that going the whole hog and setting up a website is worth the effort. Even if you don’t get many hits for the first few months (years/decades) it is the place that someone who finds a short story of yours will invariably end up if they like your writing. This gives you an opportunity to let readers know a little bit about you, provide links to more of your writing, and even give you a place to publish stories.

As for using social media, I would encourage you to set up a writing-specific account/page. Look into the rules for the app in question, because some do not allow for multiple accounts for one person and if you do it they can shut you down. In those cases, set up a sub-page or something that is just for writing info. You need somewhere that you share just with your friends for when you want to do your Trump rants after a few too many red wines, that somewhere is NOT your writing account.

Finally, set guidelines for how much time you are going to spend on this side of your writing career. Particularly when you are not making money from your writing it is easy to burn hours chasing a few more followers which really won’t translate into much value compared to if you spent that time creating your next story. There is no point having writer presence online if it means you stop writing!

Find me at:

Twitter: @nataliejepotts (yeah, I know, I should have gone for something much shorter)
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/nataliejepotts/
Website:  www.nataliejepotts.com

P.S. I’m no online expert, so please don’t look at my content as an example of what you should do. Think of it more as encouragement to just to do something!

What would I know?

Okay, so I thought I had the answers about how to get stuff written. I was wrong. This new, dark novel is killing me. It’s like wading through a cold tar pit in the dark with a blindfold on. I have no idea where I’m going, my progress is slow and it is terribly uncomfortable. I’ve decided that I can’t spend this much time is such a bleak space. It is making me depressed, and this isn’t what I want from writing.

I get the feeling I would need to be in a super-happy place in my life to have the resilience required to write this novel, and something tells me that if I was fortunate enough to find myself in that place I wouldn’t want to write the novel. I really can see that there is a reason why I have only written dark short stories before. If you can’t close the door on the story with a ‘the end’ before you walk away from the computer, it follows you around.

So for the first time in two years I’m going to have to concede defeat; I’m quitting the novel. I have decided it is best for my mental health, and it is much better to make this decision two weeks into the project rather than two months (or more). It also leaves me quarter of the year to finish something else. And after the two weeks I’ve just had, I think it is going to be something fun.

It will be interesting to see how my outlook on the rest of my life changes (if at all) when I start spending my imaginary life in a better place. I think there might be a much bigger crossover between my two worlds than I realised. I’m still not sure what is crossing over which way though. I hope changing the fiction will change the fact. I can’t keep eating this much chocolate.

Project promiscuity

Okay, I know I’m inviting a bunch of really bad spam from that title, but it was the most accurate way I could think of to describe my old approach to writing. I’ve been writing all of my adult life, and until the last few years I was a big believer in writing what I felt like writing. Our moods change a lot, and when you are happy you don’t really want to get bogged down in a depressing or dark piece of fiction. So I always used to have a number of projects on the go at once.

I ended up with a lot of novels that only got to chapter 5. I also had a lot of partially written short stories. What I had very few of was finished pieces. I also did almost no editing because the lure of new words always won.

About three years ago I decided I needed to finish stuff, so I tried to focus on just one project at a time. It didn’t work, as soon as I got to a difficult bit in my story I’d set it aside and start thinking about another story. Thinking turned into writing, and next thing I knew I had another novel that only made it to chapter 5.

Not many people know this, but a few years ago I spent a week believing I had a brain tumor. My doctor prepped me for it with too much conviction, and due to a whole manner of mishaps it took a week between the doctor’s diagnosis, my CT scan and getting the results that the doctor was wrong. I had a bunch of really bad symptoms that gave incredible verisimilitude to my incorrect diagnosis, so needless to say I did a LOT of thinking about the future, and more specifically, how short that future might be.

Above everything else I wanted to finish my novel. Despite my symptoms and stress, every night after work I came home and wrote like a machine. I’d hit a tough bit and I would slog through it to get to the next part where I felt more comfortable about what was happening. I didn’t let any other projects distract me.

By the time I discovered my brain was clear (and disappointingly showed no signs of secret microchips implanted by alien abductors), I had realised that I could force myself to focus. That novel was EveryWere, my pantser novel, and I finished writing it in just over 3 months.

That was a game changer for me. Since then I have picked just the one project at a time and regardless of mood, inspiration, or haunting writing daemons, I work on only that project. I have finished another novel, two novellas and five short stories since then. Probably more completed words than in my entire writing career before that time.

A lot of people enjoy project promiscuity, and they can make it work for them. But if you are like I was, and you aren’t finishing anything, then don’t wait for a terminal diagnosis to get yourself focussed. Try being faithful to just one project. You might go through some tough times together, but you may also find yourself in a deeper, more meaningful relationship with your writing than you have ever had before.

Happy writing.

The lows of writing

Every story, no matter how good or bad, has a lot of work in it. Even if you are a total slacker and you send out your first draft, not even bothering to re-read it, you’ve still put a reasonable effort in to get it finished. For me, I edit and re-edit my stories seemingly endlessly. I cannot read them without wanting to change something. A flash fiction story of 500 words can easily take six hours to get to the standard where I think it is ready to send out. That’s a big investment.

After so much work it is hard to forget about it once it is out in the big wide world. You are so eager to see if it is going to get a chance to be read by the public. I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit that when I have a story out, every time I check my emails the first thing I do is skim the subject headers to see if there is a response. 99% of the time there is nothing. It is not unusual to be waiting over six months to hear back from a publisher, even for a short story, and that’s if they respond at all.

This part of the process is the one that most undermines my desire to get published. I don’t mind rejection, even form letter rejections (a generic response sent to all rejected stories), but hearing nothing, that’s disheartening. You can’t help but speculate that the story got lost, or wonder if anyone read it at all. What’s even worse is when it was ahead of the pack months ago when you sent it, but now everyone is subbing stories on that topic. That’s the main reason why I try not to write topical stories anymore.

A particular low for me was when an editor announced on social media that they hadn’t received any stories of a certain category that were up to standard for their anthology, so they wanted more of that category. My story fell squarely in that category and I had subbed it a month earlier. So I knew it was rejected, but the editor didn’t send me a formal rejection for another two weeks.

I know editors get inundated with subs, and they often have day jobs, not to mention their own stories that they are trying to write. But I wish they wouldn’t give indicative response times on their sites if they don’t meet those. I also really hope the public rejection before personal rejection doesn’t become the norm.

The whole thing has inspired me to write a story specifically for self-publication. This way I control the timelines and if nothing happens for a while, it’s because I’ve dropped the ball. I’m pretty excited about it too. It’s wonderful knowing that I will be able to count on it being out in the world by a certain date, instead of waiting, potentially for years, for others to reject or accept it.

Top 10 writer things to do – learn to touch type

I have a lot of friends who write by hand and I know, for some people, that is how they connect with their ‘muse’. There is something enticing about going out to buy a new notebook and knowing that you will fill it with your next story. If that is your thing and you need or enjoy it, that’s fine.

For many others of us, handwriting means cramp in our hand after two pages, never being able to find the right angle to write comfortably, and finding our hand cannot keep up with our brain. If that’s not bad enough we can go back to edit what we clearly remember as being spectacular writing, and we can’t make sense of our messy scribble.

I clearly fall into this latter camp.

I learned to touch type when I was 21. I remember the experience distinctly because my flatmates were paying to do a course that I was too tight to join them in. So from the moment they walked out the door to when they came home, I jumped on the computer and played a touch-typing game. Those few weeks took me from having no idea to a typing speed of about 70 wpm (or 90 if I don’t mind making a few typos).

I can type at a far greater speed than I can manually write. When typing, I never find myself having to slow down my thoughts to get it all down. Even better, I don’t need to look at the keys, or even the screen, so I can blur my eyes and actually watch everything happening in my imagination. And when it comes to editing, nothing compares to having a file you can cut and paste, compared to several notebooks of illegible writing (as is the case if I try handwriting).

In the previous two years I have written two novels within a three-month period. I would never have been able to do that if I couldn’t touch type. Also it is one of the most transferrable skills I’ve got. I’ve been able to use typing through all my many and varied careers. I use it every day and often think how grateful I am to my two more cashed-up flatmates for doing the course all those years ago.

I don’t know why everyone doesn’t learn to touch type, but especially authors. Even if you write by hand, eventually you have to transfer it to a digital format. Yes, you may be able to get quite a good speed up with your three-finger method, but if you are that quick with three fingers, I can almost guarantee you will be even faster if you use all your fingers (and don’t need to watch where they go).

Most basic communication

Anyone who follows my Twitter account will know that I’m nearly a crazy cat lady. I spend a lot of time talking to my cat. In the past 12 months she has started talking back to me a lot (in meows, not words – this isn’t one of my stories). We have had many very satisfying, nonsensical conversations.

This has really got me thinking about the non-words side of communication. We all know how important body language and facial expressions are when it comes to talking to people, but when it comes to animals that all stops having meaning.

My cat is a rescue cat, and for some reason I can’t explain, it seems morally wrong to me to change her name. The problem is I don’t really like her name. As a result I can call her one of up to about twenty different names; Puss, Pussums, Baby-Doll, Snookums, Honey-Cakes, Baby-Cakes, Babe, Bubalicious etc. (apologies to any ex’s who recognise their own Monika’s in there, I didn’t steal them from you, they were bestowed upon my high-school cat long before they made it to partner level). The funny thing is, she always seems to respond as if I am saying her name.

I can only conclude that it all comes down to my tone when I speak. Interestingly, tone of voice is one of the few things I don’t comment on when writing dialogue. It can be hard to write tone into text without sounding like author intrusion, but when done well it can lend your story more depth and emotion. I’m going to make a more concerted effort to add it in future.

Just an aside; I often trip over the cat because she likes to smooch around my feet. Shocked, I can’t help by yelp ‘Sorry!’ each time I do it. Only recently have I realised that because of the loud and urgent nature of my apology there is every chance the tone sounds more like ‘Got ya!’ to my poor cat. Now I give her and apologetic pat instead.

My cat looking wistfully at the birds outside.
My cat looking wistfully at the birds outside.