Sunday, 31 May 2009

Keep it Simple

So how was your week? Half term here so little writing but a lot of research and preparation. The decks are clear, the house is in a vague state of order for once and I'm raring to go on the new book, characters waiting in the wings to tell their story. I've been thinking a lot about ways to simplify things this week. Maybe you're the same - I've had a sneaking suspicion for a while things should be easier than this, particularly in relation to writing. Perhaps it's not a question of working harder but working smarter.

Where we walk the hound, the fields are filled with buttercups at the moment - clear blue skies, shifting sea of yellow below. Some dear college friends came down from London for the day yesterday - as we talked and walked catching up with each other and how different our lives are now, my friend paused looking out across the watermeadows sparkling in the sun, said how incredible this place is. Sometimes it's good to see where you are through fresh eyes.

', tout n’est quordre et beauté,Luxe, calme et volupté'. (There, all is order and beauty only, Splendor, peace, and pleasure) is one of the few quotes I remember easily from college. It's a famous passage from Baudelaire's 'Invitation to the Voyage'. Would you want a life that was only order and beauty? As I tidied up the house last night after a day with two wet dogs, three children and all the debris from a lunch party I wondered whether I'd swap this for my 'old' life in London - exhibitions, travel, ease and luxury (and sleep - don't forget lie-ins). With the exception of more sleep I wouldn't. Maybe the ideal for a writer is a mix of the city (stimulating, full of life) and the peace of the country. Writers need solitude to work but they need stimulus to 'fill the well' as Julia Cameron put it.

There is so much I love about this life - the things I find hard to deal with are the inability to think in a straight line and the constant chaos (does this sound familiar - tidy one room and while your back's turned the next door room is devastated?). Too much 'stuff' bothers me, but I've had to learn to live with it because that's family life. To me, simple is beautiful - think of blue jeans, Shaker style, perfect pop (like Lenka's 'The Story' in today's clip), Rodin's drawings or a classic pair of white sneakers. Small things can make you feel contented and happy (today, the smell of stargazer lilies in a sunlit kitchen, the taste of a cool melon at breakfast). What do you think are the magic ingredients that make some things appeal to a huge audience? Every other new built house in the UK is 'Neo Georgian' because the 'simple' dolls house proportions appeal to a lot of people. When you look at the hash a lot of developers make of this it makes you appreciate the grace and proportions of authentic Georgian even more.

Authenticity, grace - maybe the best things in life are deceptively simple. My benchmark in writing is Anne Tyler - Pulitzer prize winning but incredibly popular. Because she is so popular some critics are pretty sniffy about her work but Nick Hornby and Roddy Doyle nominated her 'the greatest living novelist writing in English'. She once said 'It seems to me that since I've had children, I've grown richer and deeper. They may have slowed down my writing for a while, but when I did write, I had more of a self to speak from'. She's also talked about celebrating the 'mystery of ordinary life' in her novels. That sums it up for me - life is ordinary right now with sleepovers and waterslides, teatimes and tantrums but it's just as mysterious and challenging as the years I was flying round the world selling beautiful art. Tyler's right - there is something about the simple routines and daily challenges of family life that bring strength, richness and stability. She also talks a lot about the importance of writing without thinking about publication - not until the final draft should you think about the effect it might have on the reader. That's what I'm hoping to do with this book - write something simple and true that I love (like blue jeans). Right now I'm going to forget about the things I can't do anything about and concentrate on what I can do. As they say 'success is getting what you want; happiness is wanting what you get'.

TODAY'S PROMPT: What do you think makes one writer 'popular' while another equally good writer slides into obscurity? Is it enough for a book to simply be good enough for publication anymore? The clip of Debbie Macomber (150 novels, 6m sales), doing the rounds on Twitter's book threads this week brought some interesting reactions from writers. Her books come with knitting patterns. What do you make of that? It got me thinking. Debbie's readers obviously do a lot of knitting. She has a very loyal readership comprised of (I imagine mainly), women who identify with her. If you were going to have a 'giveaway' with your book what would it be? The knitting patterns are I guess a bit like the adult version of the plastic toys taped to every kids comic. Have a little fun - it makes you think about your work in a very physical way when you try and identify what 'personifies' it. Why not grab a pen and paper and draw yourself a mindmap with your book at the centre, and quickly mark out all the options? One of these might just be your usp like those knitting patterns ...
Hope everyone on the six week challenge has had a good week - let's check in on everyone's progress in the comments.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Lady Luck

What are you waiting for - your luck to change, your 'man' to come as in today's clip (when you think of your Muse is it a he or a she)? Maybe you're working through one of those spells we all hit occasionally when writing your blog or book seems impossible. 'The whole process of writing is an endless process of doubt' Hanif Kureishi said in an interview a couple of years ago. Do you know how he feels? I do - when you write you put yourself on the line time and time again. Can I finish this book? Can I get an agent? Will anyone want to publish this? If it's published will anyone want to read it? Then if you are successful there is the ever present 'Can I do it all again'?

Maybe all writers are gamblers. We take a chance when all the people who 'have a book in them' but never pick up a pen don't. We risk our time, hard work, creativity, income (and if you're unlucky health and sanity). Why? Blogging over the last year has given me a chance to reflect on this and the only answer I came up with was 'because I love it and I have to'. The proof copies of WKDN are on their way from Blurb - editing down a few of the most popular prompts and posts into a book has been challenging. Moving from multimedia stream of consciousness to plain text makes you aware of every word. No bells and whistles, no images. It felt like each word mattered more - yes, the book is for charity, and yes if it only sells a few copies that will be pretty good for POD, but I wanted it to be the best it could be - it's a workbook format so unlike the blog you can scribble away to your heart's content and I hope a few of you will have fun with it once it's launched.

Compare this to publishing WKDN on Kindle this week. A few clicks setting up the RSS and it was done. For $1.99 (70% of which goes to Amazon ...) any Kindle fans can now get the blog that way. Just as well the blog is written for love not money :) but anything to make it more accessible to people who have adopted e-books. Unlike me. One of the things I am enjoying most about being at the start of writing a new book is the excuse to read. Hours spent legitimately with my nose buried in a book. Famously someone once said that all financial rewards with writing are backpay ('the advance is really a retrospective') but I've remembered this week why I took a chance and started writing. The real reward is the writing itself, reading, researching - when it's going well it is like a run of luck, every word is gold.

TODAY'S PROMPT: What's your attitude to luck? Is it pure chance or is it sheer hard work and keeping an eye out for an opportunity? Do you think you make your own luck as a writer or is there too much beyond your control? Are you a gambler in life? Lottery tickets, casinos, tossing a coin - all are great creative devices for kicking a story off in an unexpected direction. Wasn't there even a book called 'The Dice Man' where the character's life depended on the throw of a dice?

When the words are flowing well it really does feel like a lucky streak but there's the flip side, the times when you are down on your luck, the words disappear, plots shrivel and you wind up wondering how to dig yourself out. I've used a couple of techniques to get through bad patches you might want to try if you're stuck at the moment - you could try just writing on, work through it towards a point in the story you know it will take off again. When you edit the draft perhaps that section won't be as bad as you thought. Alternatively if you are really stuck and can't write another word, a brutal but effective solution is to work back in the story to a point you were happy with and delete everything that came after it. Start again from that place. Sometimes we all take a wrong turn (in life and literature), and we need to take a chance on starting over again.

Hope everyone taking part in the six week challenge has had a good few days - let's check in in the comments.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Changing Tracks

Paeony 2008

We arrived in Spain with a battered silver trunk and two dreams - one of us wanted to fly, the other one wanted to write. The pilot's road was obvious - over the next couple of years he'd be taught to fly bigger and more complicated planes. Mine was less clear. I had the first draft of the first book. According to the first agent it was 'almost there'. I was at a loss about which bit 'wasn't there'. In retrospect it may have had something to do with it being over 200,000 words long. If you had told me six months previously that I would end up in an isolated villa in the middle of orange groves teaching myself to write with only howling dogs and a hoopoe for company I wouldn't have believed you.

Over the next couple of years we made a home and a life there. The pilot was happy up in the sky, my writing improved and people started publishing it. The book went through several drafts. Our first baby arrived and for the first time in my life I knew exactly who I was and that I was where I was supposed to be - looking back that contented cocoon of time is very precious. It's not often in life anything feels that certain. The pure unadulterated love you feel for your child is like nothing else - it blew me away, maybe you're the same? It was the year Norah Jones' first album swept up every award going, and whenever I hear her music it brings back this time when everything seemed possible. When writers and artists are told at the moment that people aren't taking risks on newcomers, it's good to remember the success stories like Jones and Mayer in today's clip. A few years ago no one had heard of them. Creative industries thrive on creativity - they need new blood. Times like these people rely on classics, sure things - but eventually fresh shoots, fresh voices push through. It's life - change, transformation, movement.

Back in Spain we had no idea of the uphill struggle ahead of us - post 9/11 no one was recruiting pilots so as mine gained his hours I was the one to go back to work. Writing went on the back burner. It's still a struggle but I'm not giving up - I'm taking stock and moving forward. Ten years in to writing 'seriously' I have one book edited and being submitted ('All the Lovely Ruined Things'), a second book complete (no idea if it's any good), and a third book at first draft stage. I know ALRT so well it's almost like an alternate reality - after working so hard on it for so long it has to be published, and I'll do whatever it takes to make it the best it can be. I love the characters and their story as it is, but always figured it would be edited and rewritten again, so we'll see. In the meantime I'm very excited about the new fourth book - even the pilot said he'd want to read the new story so I must be on to something ...

As several of us have taken up the six week challenge, I was thinking this week about all the things that stop us achieving our goals, the negative traits in ourselves and the excuses we make. Then there are the big external things beyond your control - like recessions, publishing trends, the way life blindsides you. You can't fight these things. All you can do is take care of the things within you and within your control, and be ready when your chance comes. Hopefully that's what we are all doing with our six week countdown to summer.

As much as deciding what you can do, it's about deciding how to react to the things you can't do anything about. I heard an interview with John O'Sullivan recently about the Bali bombings. He's a poet, artist and also happens to run a few of the most luxurious hotels on the island. He said the islanders' response to terrorism was not blame but to search for understanding. The Balinese believe their island is heaven (you can see why), and they wanted to know why someone had attacked paradise. In the same week I read about the brilliant and beautiful actress Natasha McElhone who was celebrating the birth of her third child. Tragically her young husband died early in her pregnancy - her tribute to him is one of the most moving things I have read.

How do you make sense of things like this? Life is beautiful, and painful, joyful, messy and sad. Perhaps you can't make sense of it sometimes, there are things beyond your control, but as writers and artists we have a tremendous arsenal at our disposal to fight back. Only we can decide how events are going to affect us. It's our vocation to process life and create something new from it. Hopefully, it will be something fresh and something that speaks at a universal level. Our reactions are our own. As another John (O'Donohue) said: 'We always have the freedom to choose differently'.

TODAY'S PROMPT: I hope everyone's had a good week - for those of us working towards our six week goals why don't we check in on our progress in the comments? Choosing to change tracks - to work towards any new goal takes guts and determination. Just the decision to do something new or try something you've always wanted to has an amazing knock on effect in your life - maybe you've noticed that this week? Checking in with yourself - taking stock of your values, priorities and goals is a valuable exercise to do on a regular basis. I've been so focused on getting published, getting settled here (things beyond my control that frankly haven't worked out - yet), that until recently I lost track of myself. One of the most valuable exercises I came across was Este's idea of Descansos, and maybe you'd find it useful to try this too. All over Spain you'd see little roadside markers - 'descansos', tributes to someone's loss. She recommended you take a big sheet of paper and draw a timeline of your life along a line. Mark with 'descansos' along the years all the little losses, and the large deaths, the great events of your life. What have you forgotten? What have you forgiven? Which roads did you take and which didn't you travel on? In remembering and blessing your losses you can lay them to rest once and for all - forgive, forget and move on. To this I'd suggest you also mark your successes - the great moments of your life when you got it right. Celebrate your victories alongside your losses - there are lessons to learn from both, and as a writer these 'big' moments are the powerhouses of your work. The things that mark us make us unique. But what's done is done. What matters is where you are now and that empty timeline stretching ahead of you full of possibility and hope. Why not draw a line and give yourself a big blank page - a fresh start? Which choices are you going to make today?

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Six Weeks to Summer

Any excuse for another clip of Robert Downey Jr dancing, but today's the first day of our six week countdown to summer, and it sounds like a lot of us will be working on getting our groove back just as he did :) When the six weeks runs until is up to you - those of us with kids have UK half term 25th May - 31st so I'm allowing an extra week as nothing will get done then, and plan to have achieved my three goals by 28th June. As the old saying goes 'you will never change your life until you change something you do daily'. This is a chance to think about what you want to do more and less of. Each Sunday will be a chance to check in on each other's progress, share tips, advice, celebrate, commiserate and decide on our mini-goals for the coming week.

Hopefully it's going to be fun. I don't know about you but I have just had it with feeling things are beyond my control, so instead of throwing a Violet Elizabeth 'it's not fair!' tantrum I'm going to work on what I can do right now. I'm tired, and tired of waiting for change. Working in a group is a proven recipe for success, so together I reckon we can do a lot. If you don't want to share your goals in today's comments, you don't have to but it might make you even more determined. For the record here are mine:

1) EASY apply for my MA Creative writing. Well - applying is easy, being accepted is another thing. I've wanted to do this for over ten years. It's going to take three years part time evening study but it's the only way I can do it while caring for a young family, and I reckon it might keep me out of trouble and my hand on the page while I'm waiting for publishers to regain their interest in debut authors :) There's still so much I want to learn about writing, and as Carol Ann Duffy the new, (and first ever female) Poet Laureate is the creative director I reckon Manchester is the most interesting place in the country to study right now.

2) MID how many fitness DVDs have you got at home? If, like me, you believe you will obtain abs of steel by some magical osmosis simply because you have bought the latest pilates disk, you are in good company. My goal is to get back to exercising everyday (pilates, yoga, long hikes with the hound :) Writer's ass is an occupational hazard for all of us who spend hours slumped in front of the desk. I gave the pilot Haruki Murakami's new book about running yesterday - he wrote 'pain is inevitable, suffering optional'. Mm - maybe leave off the marathons for the first week eh?

3) HARD I'm going to start writing my first entirely new book in years. Each of the previous three had their roots in ideas going back ten years or so. This is something new, and I'm really excited by it. I'm aiming for 2000 words a day, and by the end of the six weeks want a partial ready to submit. Who cares if publishers aren't taking risks right now - they will eventually, and I want to be ready. I believe in my work, and know I'll work my backside off to make a success of it when I get that break. In the meantime I'm going to have some fun writing the best book I can right now.

So - over to you. What have you all got planned? I'm definitely more of a carrot than a stick type person so today as you're planning your goals and mini-goals, why don't you focus on the resources you have to hand that can help you (the people, books, videos, art materials, whatever), and the rewards you are going to give yourself as you achieve each goal. One of my favourite quotes is 'effort only fully releases its reward after a person refuses to quit'. Six weeks. What is there to lose? Nothing - and if we keep going one word, one step at a time there is everything to gain.

TODAY'S PROMPT: As you plot out your three major goals for the next six weeks, you could take Susie's great advice and choose easy, medium and hard goals. I'd recommend pencilling off part of your journal or diary to focus on your goals - somehow just putting your plans down in black and white makes your resolve stronger. Try and make your goals positive: 'I want to be fit and slim for summer' rather than 'I don't want to be hiding behind a windbreak on the beach'. Write yourself some affirmations - visualise, use that writerly imagination for your own good for a change. Write yourself a mission statement: 'I, x, am ...' Put everything you want in the present tense. See, and imagine how good you will feel at the end of six weeks if you hit your targets. And if you are planning to lose weight, keeping a food journal of what you eat (as boring as it is), and to plan your meals is one of the best ways to do it. Whatever you want to achieve, each Sunday plan out a couple of mini-goals for the week that will take you closer to your big goal. We're talking baby steps - one choice, one action at a time. The idea of 'progress not perfection' is relevant when you're aiming at any big goal. Estes talked about how it is not the single act but a continuation of those small acts that achieves the goal: as she said, 'Water drips through stone'. Have a great week, and I can't wait to hear about your goals.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Have I Told You ..?

Happy Birthday to the pilot :)

The pilot has a big '0' birthday tomorrow. Sadly he'll be in an Alan Partridge style motel somewhere near Luton between flights (the glamour), but we'll celebrate later. The photo is an old favourite taken when we met at university (if it's disappeared by the time you read this, you'll know the pilot has read the blog for a change and told me to take it down :). I don't know about you, but half the time I still 'feel' nineteen, twenty and it isn't until you meet someone that age and see how young they are that you realise quite how old you are ... The pilot was smart, fun, sexy, well travelled - he still is and twenty years on today's clip is for him - (Van was singing when he proposed). So, Happy Birthday Mr Pilot.

There's something about the '0' birthdays that make you reassess everything isn't there? Picasso once said the key to contentment was figuring out what you are capable of doing - and then only to do half of it. You wonder if he followed his own advice when you look at how prolific he was. I don't know about you but I've always been hopeless at this - I have always tried to do everything myself (run home, business, write, take care of the kids ...). I've finally figured out Picasso was right, it doesn't add up and I'm making some changes.

There's a six week window of opportunity (not including half term), before the big summer break. It's a last chance to really focus before the kids are home full time until September. I've taken the decision to put aside book three for now - there's over 100,000 words complete of my Spanish Civil War love story, it's almost done. But there's this new book I've been wanting to write for a while - the idea excites me, the story, the characters are all there and this feels like the time to write it.

Book one is still 'out there' - the word is publishers are unwilling to take a chance on debut authors right now. The contracts are going to established authors. I said today to a friend that hoping to get published is like unrequited love. When you want something so much for so long, eventually you reach a point where you think either 'to hell with writing, I can do better than you! Painting was good to me - that'll show you! I'll go back to Art!' or you raise your game and concentrate on being the best you can be. My lovely friend encouraged me to stick with it. She said getting published is just like falling in love - it will happen when you least expect it. What do you think?

TODAY'S PROMPT: Psychologists reckon it takes six weeks to change your behaviour patterns and break old habits. Six weeks is a good length of time to achieve anything from writing a big part of a book (a minimum of 2000 words a day would give you upwards of 84000 words), to losing a stone (2lbs a week). So who's with me? Let's see what we can achieve in six weeks before the kids break up for the summer. What do you want to give up? What do you want to do more of? Do you want to start on that writing project you've been thinking about, or get exercising so you look more Allegra Hicks than Demis Roussos in a kaftan this summer on the beach? Whatever it is you have been wanting to do, let's do it. Why not focus on two or three goals you want to achieve, and give yourself six weeks to do it? Let's check in each Sunday - everyone can update how they're getting on in the comments, and I'll plan out some posts about different ways to achieve your goals. No need to spell out what it is you're trying to achieve if you don't want to, but in my experience having a group of friends cheering you on or commiserating with you is the best way to keep you moving step by step towards your goal. What do you think - anybody in?

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Hello Tyger

Audrey Niffenegger is a writer’s writer. Unlike the general griping from jobbing authors over Cheryl Cole’s massive £5m deal, the news that Niffenegger secured close to $5m for the US rights to the follow up to ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’ has been met with a sense of joy rather than jealousy among the writers I’ve spoken to. Her first book was that rare thing – a brilliant literary novel from a small publisher that became a bestseller. It appealed to a wide audience – everyone from sci-fi to romance fans raved about it. No wonder that her second book – ‘Her Fearful Symmetry’ – seems like a safe bet and resulted in a big auction.

Good news for a genuinely creative writer and artist feels like good news for us all. Niffenegger wrote ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’ during evenings and weekends, squeezing her writing time in around the day job as so many of us do when we start out. She is still teaching at Columbia College Chicago, Center for Book and Paper Arts, and unusually she took the time to complete the new novel before the sale, rather than pitching an outline. When I asked her why, Audrey explained: “I don't like working on commissions or making anything that is not completely under my control. So I thought if I completed the manuscript first, I would have the chance to write what I wanted to write. Then editors could know exactly what the book was before they bought it; it seemed better for both writer and editor, with maximum clarity on all sides”. Nan Graham at Scribner said Niffenegger has ‘written a spectacular second novel which is one of the hardest things to do in this universe’. It’s an interesting approach to ‘the difficult second book’ syndrome.

$5m is a brilliant deal, and after the runaway success of her first book, Niffenegger deserves every cent – but when you compare it to other creative industries, it’s a drop in the ocean. Midlist movie stars command $5m for a single film. If a CD made that amount for a pop star, sales would be average but not newsworthy. Why is it that even stellar writers still don’t command commensurate sums to the other creatives?

When an author gets this kind of figure, there’s a lot of speculation about whether the book will live up to the hype. The New York Times quotes Joe Regal, Niffenegger’s agent as saying ‘There are going to be people coming to the book with claws out. That’s just reality’. Inevitably some are hoping to tear ‘Her Fearful Symmetry’ to pieces because of the deal. It’s a recession-defying gesture. You do think how many other books $5m could have funded – but right now publishers want a sure thing, and writers are celebrating Niffenegger’s good news.

TODAY'S PROMPT: 'The Time Traveller's Wife' was dazzling - maybe you felt the same hunger to get back to reading the story after a long day? It had a cinematic quality that appeals to me as a visual artist (vivid imagery, the 'soundtrack' of Iggy Pop, the Pixies). We talked in the last post about the hidden, intimate details of a character's life. Martha made an interesting comment - it's not only what your characters have but what they do with it. Today, why not get your characters to take a good look around them. What do they notice? What can they see, hear, taste, smell, touch? Or paint a word picture of where you are right now, just take a few moments with your journal. When you are developing a character it's as easy to become 'stuck' in their mind as it is in your own, but it is our senses that connect our human experience and let us enjoy and share the simple pleasure of being. Let them smell the flowers once in a while:

'The rose is without why
She blooms because she blooms.
She does not care for herself
Asks not if she is seen'
(Angelus Silesius)
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