Monthly Archives: January 2015

Chasing Nicola Brooks: Self-Doubt, Running & Writing

Dorothy Parker famously said: ‘I hate writing, I love having written’. I don’t feel like that about writing, I love the whole messy business of it (well, apart from the fact that the glee of ‘having written’ quickly subsides to the reality of editing – I’m not so keen on that part), but I definitely feel like that about running. And during a recent huff and puff around the park, which I was pretty close to hating, I reflected on some similarities between the two pursuits.

 

  • The more you do it, the easier it becomes and the better you get.
  • Having an end goal really helps.
  • You should do it even (in fact, especially) when you don’t feel like it.
  • It doesn’t always have to be brilliant; the runs that you cut short because it’s just too painful today, the story that doesn’t go anywhere despite your best efforts – they’re all still credits in the bank and you’ll have learned something that will help you later.
  • Even a little bit is better than none at all.

 

Sometimes it’s beneficial to embrace the ‘little bits’. Often when I’m ‘supposed’ to be working on a bigger piece (like at the moment, when I’m trying to write Novel 2), I find myself compelled to write short stories. I used to get annoyed with myself about this, but now I welcome it. Short stories are, for me, good exercise. They’re my training for the big event (the novel is my marathon). I find short stories (like training, sometimes) harder. One story I wrote last year (Circling – you can read it here on this blog, folks!) loitered in my head for SIX YEARS before I committed it to paper, and even then, it took me four months to write (well, most of it came in two feverish bursts, four months apart). But none of it was wasted time; it all helped to build the writing muscle.

 

I’ve found that running helps me be creative. Whether it’s the change of scenery, the break, the fresh air, I don’t know, but ideas come to me quite often while pounding the pavements. This is annoying as it’s not practical to carry a notebook.

 

This time two years ago I was training for the Moonwalk (a 26-mile walk around London in aid of Breast Cancer charities), which meant regular 17- and 18-mile walks, often in remote places: the North York moors, Dartmoor. Farnham. I started carrying a Dictaphone to capture ideas. Unfortunately this won’t really work with running, since after 2 or 3 miles I can usually barely speak, let alone record a coherent sentence.

 

Unlike writing, I came to running late; I’ve only done it with any regularity in the last 18 months or so. The recent ‘This Girl Can’ Sport England campaign is aimed at people like me, of course (although I do wish they’d used ‘woman’ rather than ‘girl’). Wobbly bum? Check. Red, sweaty face? Check.

 

What held me back for so long from any kind of sport? Fear. Fear of being what I was told I was as a child (clumsy, uncoordinated, awkward, NOT GOOD AT SPORT. PE was the only subject in school I ever got a ‘C’ in; I was mortified. Memories of the humiliation of netball team selection still have the power to bring me out in a cold shiver). Fear of being less than brilliant.

 

Twenty years ago I was dating a guy whose ex-girlfriend, Nicola Brooks (I have no idea why everyone always referred to her by her full name), became the object of spectacular envy from me. She had broken his heart. She was gorgeous (I was not). She was, like him, A Runner. I was totally intimidated by her flat stomach, tanned runner’s legs, fresh face (oh yes, he kept photographs). I didn’t even own a pair of trainers.

 

‘Sporty women’ have plagued me ever since – including events too recent and too painful to write about without them stinging (check back in another twenty years) – bringing out my sense of inferiority, that little voice that says, ‘why bother? You’ll never be as good as that’. ‘Those’ women will always beat me, so I may as well get out of the race.

 

18 months on from starting to run, I’ve done a half marathon, plus various other races ranging from 5k to 10 miles, but still don’t feel I can call myself A Runner. Similarly, I’m having a novel (two novels, in fact) published, but still cringe when I call myself A Writer. Does everyone feel like this? Is it just women who are so self-critical that they can’t give themselves credit for their achievements? Or is it just me?

 

I’ve decided to try really hard to give myself a break. If you run, even to the end of the block, you’re a runner. If you write – be it a piece of flash fiction or a three-volume opus – well, you’re a writer.

 

Reading certain authors makes me at once joyful and despondent (I’m looking at you, Donna Tartt) because I know I will never write even a sentence as beautiful as some of their creations. I will most probably never be an ultra runner, either. But so what? I’m doing my best, and I’ll get better, and I’ll never, ever give up. Because chasing your own best is the real measure of success, and as with so much in life: it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

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Rejection and the Power of the Writing Group

Last week, I gave a proof copy of Precocious to one of my fellow Hog’s Back Writers. Having heard most of the manuscript at our twice-monthly meetings, she’s delighted that it’s going to be published and commented:

 

“You know, this would’ve happened without us.”

 

I thought about this. It’s true that by the time I brought Precocious to the HBW table, it was already reasonably polished. I’d started writing it a whole 3 years previously (or 14 YEARS, if you count the short story that was its inception. What can I say – I’m a very slow writer) and it had been through 2 drafts and many tweaks before my fellow Hogs heard it.

 

However, I knew instinctively that my friend was wrong, that I absolutely would not be where I am now without my writing group, and I can think of at least five reasons why. Here they are:

 

  • Being around people who know what it’s like. Writing can be a lonely and isolating business. I went to see an accountant on Friday, and he said to me, full of curiosity, ‘What made you want to write books, than?’ I didn’t know what to say. I’ve written stories since I was 6 years old, so I can’t really remember why I started.

I write because I have to write. Even if no-one were to ever read a single word of it, I would still write.

It’s lovely to be around people who understand this, people who also ‘hear the voices’, people who get the irresistible urge to pick up a pen in the dead of night, because in the company of people who don’t (some accountants, for example), it can just make you look weird.

 

  • The power of a deadline, albeit not necessarily a formal or rigid one. But I’m a habitual procrastinator and I can’t tell you how many short stories I’ve finished and chapters I’ve refined so that I would have something to read on a Monday night.

 

  • Reciprocal Feedback. I can’t stress the importance of this enough for the budding (or any) writer. Giving feedback helps hone your attention to detail and critical skills, which you can then apply to your own writing, but (less selfishly!) might just help someone else improve. Which makes us all feel good, right?

Receiving feedback is a bit more complicated – some people really don’t like it. Even the positive feedback can be, at best, a bit embarrassing (why is that?). I know, I know, if someone says something negative about your work it’s a bit like hearing “I don’t like your kid, I think he/she’s ugly”. But whereas the blind protectiveness of the parent would probably make you respond with “sod you, my kid is the most beautiful in the world”, the essential insecurity of the author is more likely to send you scuttling back into your lonely writer’s shell, unwilling to re-emerge for some time.

The thing is, you can choose to accept the feedback and do something with it, or not. You don’t have to make every change your peers recommend, but some of them might be bloody useful. So (unlike if someone says your child’s ugly), it’s wise to say “thank you” and go home and really think about it.

What’s more, unless you plan to exist as an author in a vacuum (in which case, what are you doing at a writers’ group?), and never hope or plan to be published, people are going to read your work and comment on it. Surely it’s best to experience this for the first time in a cosy village hall and the supportive environment of friends than in the often brutal review sphere of Amazon or Goodreads.

 

  • Support & encouragement and a word on rejection. Of course, often the feedback you get is positive. It’s reassuring to know that others can hear / read your work and understand what you’re trying to say, enjoy the story, admire the writing. The support of your group can give you the confidence to submit your work to agents, publishers and competitions, which I duly did…

…and received many, many rejections. Now, whatever anyone tells you about rejection (it’s character-building, etc.), the bottom line is, it sucks. Most of the time, because agents and publishers are extremely busy people, you don’t even get a proper reason for it. Those compliment slips (oh, the irony) or generic emails are the literary equivalent of being dumped with the line “it’s not you, it’s me”.

A good writing group will figuratively (sometimes literally) pour the wine, open the ice-cream, pat you on the arm and coax you into putting yourself ‘back out there’.

If not for the Hog’s Back Writers, I almost certainly would not have entered the Bath Novel Award (which turned out to be probably the best 20 quid I have ever spent).

 

  • Other people’s writing. This has been really important for me. I’m a voracious reader but admit that I tend to stick to a particular style of novel: modern, contemporary, literary (whatever that means). I don’t particularly read: historical fiction (although I do enjoy the classics – Jane Austen et al – go figure); science fiction / fantasy; thrillers; young adult.

At Hog’s Back Writers, I’ve listened to and read all these genres (and more) and you know what? I’ve enjoyed them, and learned absolutely heaps of techniques that have enriched my own writing.

(Sci-fi / fantasy writers, I’m in awe of you, by the way – you create whole worlds! Just out of your heads! This is amazing to me – I just write about the world we’re in, pretty easy, really).

 

 

So if you’re trying to write and you haven’t already, I would really recommend finding a local group to join. There are just too many advantages not to.

And to my fellow Hog’s Back Writers, thank you. I really wouldn’t be here without you.

 

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Circadian Rhythms and Life Admin: Trying to Write

As part of the hangover from corporate life, and possibly as a response to the widespread New Year-induced compulsion to self-improve, I’ve set myself a few goals for 2015.

 

Write a second novel, of course – that’s the main one – and read at least 50 books. It’s kind of like having SMART objectives, but for fun stuff.

 

I’ve also decided to write something on this blog at least once a week. In the year that I’m increasingly thinking of as my ‘sabbatical’ (since one of the few things about writing on which most people seem to agree it’s that it’s virtually impossible to make a proper living from it), this blog can serve as a diary for me to look back on. It probably (hopefully!) won’t resemble the teenage diaries that I’ve kept for twenty-odd years and plundered for ‘Precocious’ – wow, it was scary re-visiting my fourteen-year-old self – but it will be a good record of making changes in my life, of being published for the first time, and of trying to write.

 

(I heard a saying somewhere: ‘never tell anyone you’re going on a diet, giving up smoking, or writing a novel. They’ll encourage you to death’. This is part of my thinking here, as well – writing about writing means putting it out there, saying it aloud – and I’ve said it, so now I have to do it. It’s a bit like dry January, although I notice Facebook has gone a bit quiet on this topic now we’re almost mid-month – funny, that).

 

Who knows, it might even be interesting to others, too.

 

So, what have I learned in the first week of my ‘new life’? Well, firstly, boy the school day is short. One of the advantages of not having a conventional full-time job any more is that I can be a more present mum – dropping off and picking up from school rather than relying on breakfast and after-school clubs and grandparents. These extra hours with my son have already made a massive difference to my happiness, and I hope to his.

 

But I find that 9am to 3pm is not a lot of time to write and to fit in all the Stuff That Needs Doing. You know, housework, paying bills, grocery shopping – the stuff I like to call Life Admin. It’s boring but it has to be done to keep everything ticking over. How did I manage it before? The answer, of course, is in a rush – the chronic state of hurry of the working mum. Now my pace has slowed a bit; it seems that, just as if you buy a bigger house your possessions somehow expand to fit it, if you find yourself with more time, everyday tasks expand to fit the time.

 

If you let them. Admittedly I also spent a good portion of my first week being distracted by the homeworker’s nemesis – the internet. I can’t kid myself I’m doing valuable research on Facebook and Twitter. (I also spent about 7 hours last week drinking tea and coffee with friends, but I class this as essential nourishment – food for the soul).

 

The bigger problem is re-training myself to write in the daytime. For years and years, writing has been something I’ve of necessity done late at night. It’s been weird to sit myself at the desk (figuratively speaking, of course – usually it’s a notebook on the lap, on the sofa) and tell myself “OK, time to be creative. Go!” Typically, after four days of attempting this and not getting very far, late on Thursday night as I was just about to fall asleep – an idea came. The fumbling for the lamp ensued, the mad scramble for the notebook, the scribbles to make sense of the next morning. (It was an idea for a short story, not the novel, but it’s something, and brought relief that the elusive muse hadn’t decided to take January off and go ski-ing).

 

I find daytime just too distracting: too much else to do (see Life Admin, above); too much noise and light and movement around. Maybe in time, I’ll learn to use these ‘distractions’ as material – maybe they’ll even shape my writing and it’ll improve as a result. Maybe the greater the distance that falls between me and my former corporate life, the easier it will be to associate daylight with being imaginative rather than wading through Excel spreadsheets and teleconferences.

 

Or maybe it’s a case of knowing your own rhythms and just working with them. Body-clock wise, I know I’m both an owl and a lark: buzzy-brained at night and into the early hours, focused and productive in the mornings. Afternoons? I can happily manage a 2-hour nap, thank you very much (and this should be permissible now – working in an office, it’s kind of frowned upon – as long as I set the alarm and make the school run).

 

Unfortunately, I’ve missed my own self-imposed deadline even on this piece (I had intended to publish it on Sunday) – I was just too absorbed with my son this weekend. Someone once said ‘trying to clean the house with a young child around is like trying to brush your teeth while eating a Kit Kat’ (how true!) – well, trying to write with a young child around is, for me anyway, like…like…nope, I’m out of similes. That’s what happens when the cultural highlight of your weekend is Penguins of Madagascar.

 

That said, it’s Monday now, writing is a job, and as with any other job, rule one is you have to show up.

 

I’ll let myself off a slow start last week as ‘easing back in after Christmas’. This week? I’ll be showing up, big time.

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