Archive for the ‘working approach’ Category

“Do you fancy a pint?”


“What are you doing tonight?”

“Not much, how come?”

The two exchanges above are typical for me. Particularly the “what are you doing tonight?” question. Frequently, I try to set aside time for writing. And equally frequently, when someone asks me what my plans are, my answer is “not much” or “nothing”, despite the fact that I set aside time for writing, or reading, or just sitting quietly on my own and watching a film.

Strangely, it often seems to me that saying “I’m busy” feels like a lie if my plans just revolve around me. If my plans revolve around another individual, I am a lot more likely to stick to them then if it’s just me who is getting railroaded if things change. It feels almost rude to say “Actually, I am busy. I was planning on staying in.” I worry that people hear “I’d rather do nothing than hang out with you,” or “I’m washing my hair.”

But equally, I have observed a common trait in a lot of successful writers: steel. I can’t find another way to put it. It’s in the eyes, just look at AL Kennedy:


There’s a determination there, right?

A lot of writers seem to be able to lock themselves away, work hard, and, most importantly (for the purposes of this post), they’re probably quite able to say ‘no’. It’s not a harsh trait, and it’s certainly not a negative one, but it’s an ability to see your own needs and goals as just as important as those of someone else. It’s an awareness that you can say  no, and that ‘I’m busy’ is not a lie, even if ‘busy’ = pyjamas and ice cream straight out of the tub with a spoon (some of us have to do this as part of the creative process. Honest.)

There is also often a ferocious defence of space, alongside time: an awareness that he or she needs certain conditions in which to write best, and a dedication to maintaining that.

Being away in Belfast for a couple of months certainly taught me that staying in can be very very restorative and actually a lot of fun, and that you’re not necessarily ‘missing out’ if you don’t attend absolutely every possible social engagement.

Perhaps this steely determination doesn’t come naturally to me. It might be hard work. But also, maybe sometimes now I’ll feel like it’s OK to say no once in a while, and that being ‘busy’ can mean anything; it’s not a lie.

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NB: I’ll be reading an extract from the story I’m talking about in this blog post at The Midsummer Murder Mystery, this Sunday July 3rd at Cabaret Voltaire’s Speakeasy in Edinburgh. It begins at 8pm and is free entry. More information on the Facebook event page.


I spent the last three weeks behaving like a writer, more so than I ever have before.

After the kick up the bum that I needed from my tutor, I knuckled down and worked, worked, worked in the most functional way I’ve ever witnessed myself work.

At first, I had a character and a setting nestled at the back of my mind. Then I spent about four or five days researching around the subjects I thought were important to my germ of an idea, reading books and taking notes until ideas began to form. Slowly, I developed a list of five to ten scene ideas, pushing the story onwards.

I started to write, aiming for around 1000 words a day.

When I finished the first draft of each scene, I went back to the original scene summary idea and asked myself a few questions:

– How does this scene push the story forward?

– What does the reader discover through this scene?

– What questions are raised for the reader in this scene?

– Has this draft fulfilled the original aims from the summary?

Goodness, isn’t that functional?

As I continued writing, more scene ideas for further on in the piece emerged and I hurriedly wrote them down, until I had the bones of a  plot and a first draft which eventually reached the colossal heights of 14000 words. Goodness knows what that is: it’s not a short story and it’s certainly not a novella, but never mind.

Because I didn’t plan its structure meticulously before I started writing (and I’ve never written a piece of this length before), there are a few loose ends which need tying up, and one or two of the characters need to be given a firmer functionality in the plot as a whole to merit their inclusion in the story at all. But these issues are to be expected and I think (hope) those issues are nothing which can’t be solved by adding some new scenes here and there.

All in all, I’ve learnt a lot from this, and I’m really pleased with what I’ve done. It’s the longest piece I’ve ever written, and even if it doesn’t work out I know that I could do it again in the future.

I’m meeting with my supervisor tomorrow to discuss the piece. I really, really hope that I feel as positive after the meeting as I do now. Fingers crossed.

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I’ve spent the last few weeks feeling like I didn’t have any ideas which were good enough to turn into a short story. But then my wonderful writer friend Louise wrote this excellent blog post about writing what you want to write about, and not worrying about what readers (or, more specifically in our case, what our tutors and markers) will think. In Louise’s comments, I began to write something like: ‘You’re right, and in that case, I should be writing a story about a serial killer and a derelict mental hosp –’

I stopped typing. Why wasn’t I writing this?

Over the past twelve hours, I have been questioning why I haven’t been exploring the things which most interest me, why I’ve decided that I need to ignore my morbid and strange side in an effort to write something conventional. You know, about real people and real life issues that could happen to anyone.

The answer I’ve come up with is that I subconsciously thought that writing about what interested me was too easy, and therefore not good enough. Because surely, your best work needs to be difficult to produce, otherwise it seems monotonous, repetitive or samey? Erm… this is quite possibly bollocks.

No wonder I have been having trouble (for a ridiculous amount of time: months) writing things I feel proud of. I am now entering into a new experiment: writing about what interests me.

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I haven’t written anything for ages – a couple of weeks – which I’m quite ashamed about. I spent the weekend getting back into the swing of things, and eradicating that slightly niggling feeling of shame.

But once I get back into a writing routine, harking back to my post of other day, I think it might be a good idea for me to have a couple of stories on the go at the same time. It might keep me more interested and spur me to finish something, particularly if these stories are at different stages of the writing process.

What does everyone else think? Do you work on one thing at a time, or a number of projects simultaneously?

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I’ve mentioned before that I sometimes have trouble concentrating on one thing for a long period of time. Or occasionally, as a product of the internet generation, not much longer than 30 seconds. A couple of weeks ago, I did genuinely wonder whether I had Adult ADHD.

While I’m on the internet (generally at work… oops), I often have 10 or more tabs open on my internet browser. Often, each of these tabs is writing-related article. I’ll read one paragraph, and then click on the next tab and read one paragraph of something else. Then I’ll check my emails, Facebook, Twitter, and move onto a new article. Then I go back to original and sometimes pick up where I left off, and other times have to start at the beginning again because I’ve forgotten what I read. (In fact, as soon as I finished typing this paragraph, I clicked on Twitter).

The problem isn’t as huge with writing or reading: I can read a book for hours without getting distracted, and I can spend 2-4 hours working on a piece of writing once I get into my stride.

But with writing on computer, the problem comes as soon as I get stuck. To write completely without distractions, I have to turn off the internet router, and even then I occasionally find my mouse trailing down the screen to open a browser window, before I realise what I’m doing.

Aside from a great need to implement some form of self-control, possibly reduce the amount of time I spend on the internet, thin out my GoogleReader feed, and get a grip, another method of tempering this insanity came from a friend of mine last night.

“I’m working on five or six different creative pieces at the moment,” he said. “I often have all of them – each document – open on the computer at once. That way, when I get stuck, I can just click on the next one and work on that for  a bit. Writing six things simultaneously!”

“Well, that sounds great!” I said, enthusiasm buoyed by many gin and tonics. “Because when I get a little bit stuck, I always end up clicking on something else. For that something else to be something productive would be great. I’ll definitely try that.”

And try it I will. But what does everyone else think? Is this a sensible idea? Obviously not necessary all the time, as when you’re immersed in something then distraction is not an issue. But as a technique when you’re at a tricky stage, having one or two stories open and in progress at once might not be a bad idea for someone who is as attention-deficient as a forgetful moth at a candle. Opinions?

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With every story I write, there is an inevitable period of utter misery involved.

I hammer out the first draft, cheerfully accepting that it’s going to be terrible, but trying to retain the essence of my original idea in the word jumble which I’m projectile-vomiting onto the computer screen. Ideally, after that, I leave the story alone for a couple of days or longer so I can step back from it.

Then the trouble starts.

Maybe I re-read the first draft, maybe I don’t quite get there. Either way, somewhere at this point, something switches in my brain.

I procrastinate endlessly, wasting entire evenings on the internet. Then I get angry with myself for wasting my time.

“How can I ever be a proper writer if I can’t sit down and actually write? I’m dooooommmmeeeeddd,” I wail, stamping around the house and slumping onto furniture with my head in my hands. Occasionally I slide to the floor and lie on my back, staring at the ceiling in the vain hope that this will give me a fresh perspective and the motivation to start again.

“I hate myself. I’m useless,” I howl. “I might as well just give up now.”

Those nights are lost causes.

I ride them through, teeth gritted against the misery. Then, suddenly, I break through the pain barrier.

I tentatively begin to restructure and edit the draft, word by word, line by line. I spend three hours on one paragraph, questioning every word and bending the spine of my thesaurus as I pore over the incomprehensible sections, desperately trying to find a better way of saying “all at once”. (NB. Still haven’t. Any suggestions before I post my final assignment tomorrow?)

I try to suspend an entire sentence in my mind, switching the word order over and over, mumbling it out loud to see which sounds best. I comment all over the draft and highlight awkward phrases. Then I go back to the beginning and address the comments one by one, deleting them when I think I’ve dealt with their issues.

I slowly forget how miserable I was a couple of days before, and I realise how much I love writing. I forget that I questioned myself, and forget that I considered giving up writing forever (due to being doomed, remember?).

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My aims in doing A215 were to find out whether I could be an adequate writer, discover whether I can apply myself to writing (this is still in question), to improve my writing and ultimately take a step towards applying for a Masters in Creative Writing (if I still wanted to).

I’m moderately pleased with what I can achieve when I set my mind to it: I’m pleased with my marks and I am beginning to have a vague understanding of the very basic rules of writing. I work well to a deadline (but not at all without one, damn me), and I can write quickly.

I’ve come to terms with the fact that my first drafts (like most people’s), are absolutely awful but redeemable, generally.

And I have applied for places on three MA courses, starting in September 2010.

But very little of what I have learnt in the past few months is due directly to A215. True, the main things I have been writing are the assignments, and it is motivating me, but I’m learning more from self-editing, friends, and reading writing blogs than I am from the (occasionally vague and waffy) BRB chapters.

Admittedly, some are useful, and I am looking forward to the Editing section, but it seems that a prior knowledge or backup research is always necessary to get the most out of the BRB, and actually that the chapter content is better approached as a structural guide for further reading than an actual reference book.

I would love the interactive nature of the course if it worked. I’m sure that many people get a lot out of the forums and their tutor groups, but that’s not the case for me. My tutor group is silent (I’m as responsible for this as anyone, after my initial flounders), and the course forum is too huge.

My conclusions about this course are that I am glad I did it: it has fulfilled the role for which I wanted it. But I couldn’t recommend it to another prospective student, particularly not one working full-time.

Is this fair? What does anyone else think?

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Keeping Up

Every week, Saturday rolls around and I realise that it’s a new Chapter on the OU Course and I still haven’t finished the activities from the previous week.

So I rush through them at the weekend and make a start on the current activities. Then, during the weekdays, life gets in the way again and the weekend rolls around and the same thing happens all over again.

I know this is probably because I’ve had a busy time recently, but I hope to get on top of this soon, as I’m obviously not getting the most out of the course if I’m constantly rushing through the main body of the work. I think the main solution for me is to do more writing after work in the evenings.

Is anyone else having a similar experience?

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This is an A215 blog, right?

And A215 has now started.

So where are the posts? Where are your A215 ramblings?

I wish I knew! I must apologise for my absence over the past couple of weeks. I could say “I have no excuse”, and I will: I have no excuse.

Now I am going to inundate you with excuses.

Last weekend was the Birmingham Half Marathon, which greatly hindered my A215 work for a surprisingly large amount of time. With that over, work stepped deftly into my path, with two nights away for a huge meeting. I also strongly suspect that a little bit of my social life may have got in the way. Oops. Then this weekend I had the Day School (more on that later), and had to immediately hop onto a train up north for my sister’s birthday weekend.

I’m finally back home with all the best intentions of catching up with A215 work and getting my head around things properly. I’m behind with it already, but I fully intend on catching up properly, so I know it’ll be OK.

Here’s my list of things to do for the course:

  • Finish Week Two’s Activities
  • Read through Week Three and begin activities
  • Participate in Online Tutorial within my Tutor Group Forum
  • Start eTMA01 so I can set it aside for enough time before redrafting.
  • Continue Morning Pages and the occasional half-hearted haiku.

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Isabella Black has just encompassed everything I meant to say in my post about procrastination worries a couple of days ago. I’m glad I’m not the only one worrying about this.

If any of you have any tips on concentration and staying focused, please let us know!

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