The Harder I Work, The Luckier I Get…

magcover63I’m a subscriber to the excellent Mslexia magazine and look forward to it dropping through the letter box every quarter. I always find something of interest but sometimes a particular article really stands out and it’s easy to kid myself on that it was written purely for my benefit.

The feature that spoke to me directly was ‘First, Stalk Your Agent…’ written by Sarah Hilary, a writer I follow on Twitter. In the piece, Sarah describes her relentless pursuit of securing representation by her ideal literary agent – Jane Gregory. The gist of it is that Sarah worked hard, really hard, to respond to feedback from Jane, to raise her profile on social media, to put herself and her work out there and she continued to write and rewrite until her efforts resulted in representation and having her debut novel, Someone Else’s Skin published in the UK, later this year in the US and the rights sold to six other countries.

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Jammy! An understandable reaction to a success story like Sarah’s except it wasn’t down to luck. Sarah feels that it was stamina that bagged her an agent and a book deal, “If we believe too much in luck, we might neglect the hard work that’s far more vital to success”.

The reason Sarah’s words appeared so personal to me was that her outlook mirrored my recent application to the Scottish Book Trust’s New Writers Award. I hate having to ‘sell’ myself in applications and although I take my writing seriously, I try not to take myself too seriously so in the opening lines of my personal statement, I’ve also considered the role of luck.

If I said that I hoped it would be a case of ‘third time lucky’ in my attempt to receive a New Writers Award, it would imply that I’m superstitious.

For the record, I do not: own a rabbit’s foot, search for four-leafed clovers, have a horseshoe nailed above my door, avoid walking under a ladder… you get the picture, ask anyone who knows me, I’m too cynical to believe in all that hocus pocus guff.

Another issue that needs clarification is that by referring to my application as ‘third time lucky’ I commit the crime of using a cliché in my writing, which would suggest that I am lazy and show a lack of originality in thinking.

Once again, it’s easy for me to refute these characteristics. Years of commitment prove, beyond doubt, that I could never be described as lazy as I’ve written three novels and if my writing is worthy of publication in Gutter literary magazine then it must be original.

So I’m unrepentant in my use of the ‘third time lucky’ phrase (here’s another cliché – ‘rules are made to be broken’) but I would never rely on luck, whether I believe in it or not, as the reason for a successful application. A recipient of a SBT award needs to be justified through hard facts.

10615523_717819518287446_5539425465759396936_nI can demonstrate that if lazy isn’t an appropriate word to describe me, tenacious is accurate. How else could you describe someone who has relentlessly pursued their writing ambitions for almost ten years?

My application rambles on with a list of reasons why I might be considered worthy but the common denominator is determination. Since applying, like Sarah, I’ve literally put myself and my words out there and read aloud at Woo’er With Words organised by Untitled for the second time. I actually felt more nervous than my debut at the local spoken word event, mainly because the subject matter of my story was a Catholic POV on sectarianism and it contained a few ‘bad’ words which I wasn’t sure would go down well with the audience.  I lived to tell the tale and the most stressful part was knowing that Eddie, the photographer, was sitting in front of me pointing a camera upwards and would be able to capture several chins on camera.

When I read the Mslexia article, the tone of my application and attitude to achieving my dream sounded so familiar, it could’ve have been written by Sarah. It’s not easy trying to follow Sarah’s example to keep going but I live in hope that one day I’ll also be able to celebrate and share how perseverance won in the end.

How do you keep yourself motivated? Do you believe in luck making the difference between success and failure?

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Friends with Benefits (of the literary kind only!)

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Max and Jess lapping up the spring sunshine

Yesterday I walked my two dogs in the fields behind my house on a beautiful sunny spring day. And I felt lucky. This isn’t going to be a ‘count my blessings’ cheesy post but I do try to appreciate simple pleasures and I don’t take anything for granted, especially having a loving family and great friends in my life.

 

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Having a support network is really important to me (I’ve certainly tested those close to me over the years!) and it means a lot when folk are genuinely interested in my writing journey. When I finished my MLitt in 2012, I was cut loose from the demands of the course and could easily have let my writing ambitions drift without assignment and dissertation deadlines. After being part of a tight-knit group for a year, it would also be easy to feel isolated and worry that I’d need to take the next steps on my writing journey on my tod.

That’s why I feel lucky when I meet up with friends from my uni class to go to literary events and to catch up for a good blether. Last week, the gathering was at my house (my hostess skills were challenged with hubby aka the Kitchen King absent). We’ve made an effort to stay in touch after graduation and this was a chance to share our news, talk about books, writers we admire, how our own writing was progressing (or not!) and put the world to rights including a lively discussion on the media coverage of the Referendum (I finally got round to reading And the Land Lay Still by James Robertson – a must read before the independence vote. It’s an epic tale of Scotland’s political history over the last 50 years and is very cleverly structured). Over a few glasses of fizz and between me stressing over the lasagne not cooking fast enough and forgetting to feed the stove, we also talked about senses and how smell is so important when remembering someone close to you – lentil soup and Imperial Leather soap reminded one of our group of his granny. These wee chats might seem insignificant but for me they stimulate all sorts of ideas for my writing.

download (2)But the benefit of our get-togethers is the feeling of being part of a supportive like-minded group of creative people.  This is an issue which was highlighted in the latest edition of Mslexia magazine. The article, ‘What Katie Did Next’ by Katie M Anderson acknowledged that after finishing a degree many students return to full-time jobs making it harder to maintain momentum. She suggests meeting fellow students, attending literary events, writing workshops, and submitting to competitions (smug tick in all the boxes for me!).

Seven months after finishing the first draft of my novel and STILL editing, I also related to “the problem of heightened expectation…an MA is not a ‘golden ticket’ – most of us don’t appear on the other side with a finished publishable work to show for it.”

download (3)The article was particularly relevant following the stushie in the media over Hanif Kureishi comments in The Telegraph that creative writing courses are a waste of time (the subject of a previous blog post). The Buddha of Suburbia author attacked expensive University courses and their ‘talentless’ students, despite the fact he teaches creative writing at Kingston University and claimed it would be “madness” to pay thousands to enrol in an MA.

In the Mslexia article, a small survey of graduates stated that after graduation, 55% finished the book they were writing, 30% were taken on by a literary agent and 27% were published.  So was it worth it for this group of graduates? Only the individual can decide what ‘success’ means to them. At the very least, whilst my novel is still a WIP and unpublished, I have been successful in gaining a group of friends I admire and respect, and that’s something I value highly and can’t put a price on.

Was your creative writing course worthwhile? Do you feel the need for support from a writing group? How do your family and friends support your writing ambitions?

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Freefall Writing

imagesAlthough I think of myself as a creative person, I’m also a self-confessed control freak who likes order, routine and structure. That’s why it felt good this week when I hit my first milestone in my current WIP. Getting to 20k words is quarter way through an average 80k word novel so I already feel that I’ve bitten off a decent chunk of the story.

Even when I was writing full-time during my MLitt course, I’ve never written as much in a matter of weeks.  I believe that the main reason why I’ve been so productive is that for the first time ever, I’m following a writing technique known as ‘Freefall Writing’.

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I didn’t realise that there was a label for my new approach until I read a blog post by Sandra Jensen on the Mslexia website and it described the way I’ve been writing recently. Sandra writes about her experience of Freefall which was originated by W.O. Mitchell and developed further by Barbara Turner-Vesselago.

Freefall writing is defined as, “a method some writers discover spontaneously, but many have to (re)earn : the technique of writing from the larger Self beyond reach of the ego and its censors” and is likened to writing without a parachute.

This is a very different style from my usual method of revising as I go along but it often means that I get so caught up in fine tuning every sentence, that the momentum of the storytelling dies. When I decided to start a new novel, I was apprehensive that the plot wouldn’t be strong enough, the characters would be too dull, the themes would be too weak…, you get the picture.

images (3)And then I stopped beating myself up and decided to write without worrying about getting it right on every level. It’s a FIRST draft so I have to lighten up and write freely, without the fear of failing.

I’m convinced that’s why the words are flowing. I know eventually I’ll resort to my default perfectionist setting when I get to the end and accept that the WIP needs edited. But right now I’m learning to let go. The polishing process can come later…

Have you tried Freefall writing? Would this approach work for you or do you constantly edit as you write?

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Writing Competitions-In It To Win It!

My name is Helen and I’m addicted to quality stationery.There you go, I’ve admitted it publicly. And one of my annual highlights is always starting a fresh diary (I know it’s sad). This year’s object of my affection is a lovely Writer’s Diary (thankfully my eldest son responded to repeated hints (I don’t do subtle) for a Xmas present I would actually use. The diary is produced by Mslexia and is packed full of ideas and info for women writers.  On one of the first pages it has a Submissions section for you to record when and where you’ve sent your precious masterpieces.There’s nothing quite like pages of blank columns to make me feel under pressure.  And as the publisher, Bloomsbury has dubbed 2012 as the year of the short story, I felt that I should get cracking and enter a short story competition.

I’ve not got a lot of experience of writing short stories and I know it’s not easy. With strict word limits you can’t afford to waste a single word.  I’m in awe of writers who can pull off a powerful story succinctly. The ultimate in flash fiction, a short form of storytelling, has got to be Ernest Hemingway’s work of genius, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Wow! How can six words be so evocative? Maybe stunning examples like that are why I’ve avoided the genre, but it was time to face my fear.

I needed a theme and a deadline to motivate me. And I found it on a trip to visit the newly refurbished Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh.  Hubby and I went as part of a festive trip to Auld Reekie.  The gallery is a fantastic neo-gothic red sandstone building and has something to suit everyone’s taste whether you like traditional paintings of Scottish lairds or photographs of Glaswegian slums.  It’s well worth a visit and it’s free entry! On the way out, I picked up a leaflet for a competition called, ‘Inspired? Get Writing!’  There’s still time to enter! 
http://www.nationalgalleries.org/education/competitions I chose to write about a striking (and a bit scary) portrait of the acclaimed writer, committed feminist and social activist, Naomi Mitchison, painted by Percy Wyndham Lewis. She sounded like my kind of woman!  

A very clever lady but what a dour faced looking besom!

sent off my submission this week and felt quite smug at being able to make my first entry under the Submissions section of my new diary. Entering the competition has fired me up to enter as many as I can in the hope of being published. Read a lot, write a lot is my new mantra and the competitions will give me a goal and the chance to practise, practise, and practise my writing skills. The chances of winning are slim but as they say, if you’re not in it, you can’t win it. Watch this space…

Wolves at the Writing Workshop


Can you imagine the terror I suffered when a fellow student posted this comment on Facebook days before my work would be critiqued in class?

 “The rewrite, the self-edit, the horror of it being fed to hungry wolves; some starting off kind of sympathetic, but eventually succumbing to the pack mentality, each taking turns to rip my literary efforts to shreds using their razor-sharp criticisms, but only when the pack leader allows, and she will allow!”

That night I woke up in a cold sweat and I was sure I could hear the sound of wolves howling in the distance. I checked my jammies were still in one piece and hadn’t been shredded to pieces. And yet I was sure that I could feel the hot breath of the hungry pack at the back of my neck. Or was that just my hubby snoring at my side? And then I noticed the scratch on my shin. Could it just be that my hubby’s toenails needed a good trim with a Black and Decker?  Maybe that explained the scratch. It was going to be a long night….

A friend claims that the best thing for insomnia is to get up and read.  Good idea. And that’s when I felt the panic set in again.

Never mind the wolves, an article by Cila Warncke in the latest edition of Mslexia (Issue 51-Oct, Nov, Dec 2011) about what’s wrong with the teaching of creative writing also had me worried. The title of the piece is, ‘Are You Wasting Your Money?’ This is not something you want to dwell on the week your P45 slips through the letter box and your bank statement shows the course fees have indeed been deducted!

Warncke completed a Masters in Creative Writing at Glasgow University and is highly critical of the workshop model. As she says, “great literature is not written by committee” and argues that fellow students often feel under pressure to pass judgement which is largely based on their individual taste. I can see that this is a potential problem as we have a very mixed group who are all writing in different genres. However, our lecturer was quick to point out that within any group, you have to decide whose opinion that you rate as not everyone is your target reader. I think this issue has also been overcome in our group by focusing on more specific issues such as POV, characterisation etc and avoiding petty comments on personal taste.



Until last Wednesday, I’d only participated in critiquing the work from two of my fellow students. They emerged from the wolf hunt workshop claiming that the feedback on techniques and common errors was valuable and the workshop model was an ideal opportunity to gain an insight as to how your writing is working for a variety of readers. They also felt that the whole vibe of the workshop was supportive rather than critical. But it didn’t stop the nightmares.

So did I survive the wolf pack feasting on my fiction?

Well, I definitely walked away with a few nasty cuts. Of course it hurts to sit silently and watch your work chewed up and spat out. But once the wolves have left you to lick your wounds, you realise that the comments were vital in shaping your work and making sure it delivers. With a little TCP and a lot of rewriting the wounds are healing nicely. When my turn comes round again next semester, I will hopefully face the pack as a better writer without suffering a wolf themed nightmare and have a hubby with manicured toenails.