Goals, goals, goals

This time last year I was meditating on writing goals amid the realisation that life had thrown me another curveball. That particular curveball turned out to be, first, worse than I could have imagined, and then better than I feared. At least for now. And for that I’m grateful.

Still, my conclusion was basically, “write, damnit”.

Write while I’m drowning in work. Write while I’m facing a scary set of new students. Write while travelling up and down the country to enjoy time with and take care of loved ones. Write when I have a blessed day off. Write when I have a week filled with catch-ups with friends I don’t see often enough. Write as well as live.

I mostly did that, although it’s not terribly measurable. (I guess you can measure it by the fact that I am now in the habit of writing before I do anything else when I sit down at my desk.)

I also set a couple of more specific goals:

To achieve those things, I set myself a target of entering one writing competition or submitting one piece of work each week. In the end I didn’t get anywhere near that…but I did achieve my goals, and that’s meant an awful lot to me.

It also took much less effort than I expected to get results. By which I mean I was expecting to send out twenty, maybe thirty, fifty or a hundred submissions in order to get one success. Actually (if you count success as any kind of recognition, e.g. longlisting) I got results approximately half the time. This is mindboggling. I’ve had all this writing sitting on my hard drive, when it could have been out there in the world.

That said, the one thing I really wanted this Christmas was to have a novel out on submission to agents. I don’t have that (although I’m much closer to that stage than I was last year)… and coincidentally, I didn’t set a specific goal for this last year, so perhaps it’s no surprise that it hasn’t happened yet.

I don’t regret setting the other goals. Getting my writing recognised was something I needed desperately. It’s all very well (and helpful and much appreciated) to have writer friends praise your work, but at some point you (or at least, I) need to know that someone out there objectively thinks your work is good.

I know I would write even if there was never any hope of being published, because I have that conversation with myself approximately once a month, but still, the confidence that comes from external validation has been invaluable to me this year. It got me back to my YA novel when I was ready to shelve it, and I’m now halfway through an exciting new draft (draft 4 I think. I’m losing count). And it allowed me to be up front with people about my writing, and that meant a lot to me. For example, I felt I could finally tell my mum I wrote things! I don’t know why I never dared tell her this before, but such are the quirks of family relationships.

All the same, this year when I set my goals, I’m going to have an eye on that submission-ready novel that I intend to have by this time next year. 🙂

Did you set goals this year? How are you feeling about them now? Are you planning on tweaking your approach for the coming year? I’d love to hear your writing-related goals, if you have any!

 

*Btw, if you’re of a certain age and have had a weird earworm since reading the title of this post, the song you’re thinking of is probably this one. You’re welcome.

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Books for a better world

Today’s US election result has reminded me of one of my key personal reasons for writing: to promote empathy and compassion. I’m not going to pontificate, but here, mostly for my own benefit, are some books that help inspire me to stand up for the vulnerable and disenfranchised and to fight for social justice.

This is very much a personal list, but if anyone wants to add suggestions in the comments, I welcome that.

Adult fiction:

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

The Guards and Witches books by Terry Pratchett – my favourites, partly because they are both about unlikely heroes standing up against a seemingly unbeatable elite, are Night Watch and Lords and Ladies.

Anything by Ray Bradbury

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien

The Passage and sequels by Justin Cronin

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

The Inspector Gamache books by Louise Penny

Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré

Smiley’s People by John le Carré

The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Round House by Louise Erdrich

Fiction for children and young adults:

The Tiffany Aching series by Terry Pratchett, starting with The Wee Free Men

The Harry Potter books by JK Rowling

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by CS Lewis

More Than This by Patrick Ness

Emily of New Moon and sequels by LM Montgomery. Actually, pretty much anything by LM Montgomery.

The His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Pure and sequels by Juliana Baggott

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Creativity and identity

I’ve been meditating quite a bit recently, and this past week I started using a guided meditation that promised to enhance creativity. It’s perfectly good in itself, but it’s not really working for me, and this morning I realised why: I don’t identify with the word “creativity”.

I’m sure that sounds very odd – I’m a writer, which surely means I’m a creative being! Plus I do kind of adhere to the idea that we are ALL creative: we just have to find our creativity and let it flourish in whichever way works for us.

On the other hand, I am not someone who goes out with guns blazing and CREATES. I don’t come up with innovative solutions – in fact, I like to follow others’ rules until I’ve established that they don’t work for me. If that happens, sure, I’ll break rules, do things differently, but it’s not my natural instinct. I am not one of nature’s entrepreneurs. I don’t like drawing attention to myself. And to be honest, telling myself I am going to be creative is the quickest route to writer’s block, for me.

So if I’m not creative, what am I?

I’m a thinker and a feeler. I like to think hard about things before offering up my ideas. I feel things very strongly – so strongly that I need to put them into words, sometimes over and over again as themes in stories. I write because my heart gets so full, my mind so jumbled, that the only solution I know is to create (oops, there’s that word!) stories, to make sense of things in ways that I hope resonate with readers.

That’s where I’m coming from as a writer. I wonder if others feel differently?

Very short story: Grace

I’m delighted that my very short story, Grace, won the Segora International Vignette Competition! It’s also the first money I’ve ever won, so that’s nice. 🙂

The theme for the competition was “water”, which fitted perfectly with one of my minor obsessions, Grace Darling. Her name may be unfamiliar to anyone who isn’t from the north-east of England, so here’s a little background: She grew up at Longstone Lighthouse in the Farne Islands off Northumberland, and early one morning in 1838, she and her father, in conditions too rough for the mainland lifeboat to set out, rowed out and rescued nine survivors from the shipwrecked SS Forfarshire.

Grace became a celebrity. People flocked to visit her in the village of Seahouses, poets (including Wordsworth) wrote about her, and artists queued up to paint her and depict her in memorabilia of all kinds. She received medals for gallantry and a cheque from Queen Victoria herself.

But fame doesn’t seem to have sat well with Grace. She refused most invitations and appears to have been immune to the various suitors who popped up after the rescue. One thing she wasn’t immune to, though, was TB, and she died in 1842 aged just 26.

I’ve been fascinated for a while by this apparent contradiction in Grace’s story: her stubborn refusal to open up to the world versus Victorian society’s insistence on owning her. So I’m not unaware of the irony of my writing a story about her, but I guess writers are nothing if not appropriators. And I’m very grateful to Gordon and Jocelyn at Segora for their encouragement, not to mention giving me my first writing prize.

You can read the story here if you’re so inclined: click on my name and then on “Download Grace”. It’s only 300 words long, so will take you about a minute.

Writing full-time vs a writing retreat

In my last post I talked about my experience of writing full-time for a week. During that week, I received an email from Charlie at Urban Writers notifying me that bookings were open for her next round of residential writing retreats.

A couple of years ago I enjoyed one of Charlie’s retreats in the beautiful Devon countryside, and I highly recommend this approach if you can eke out the time and money. Not only did I have several days in which to focus on my novel, I also met and bonded with other writers, ate copious amounts of Charlie’s delicious food, wandered up and down hills, nearly got run over by a herd of sheep, wept over Kate Atkinson’s marvellous Life After Life, and slept in a beautiful old house, in a bedroom featuring a full-length mirror so flattering it might have originated in the world of Harry Potter.

In terms of writing, I wrote/rewrote about 20,000 words, which put me a third of the way into a new draft of my YA novel. That is the most significant progress I’ve ever made on any writing project in a short time.

Of course, sometimes you can’t eke out time and money, and that’s the position I was in this summer. I had the time (summer being notoriously quiet in my line of business), but not the money (since I had very little work coming in).

I’m glad I made that time for myself. But, while I did make significant progress with my writing, I didn’t see anything like the progress I made on Charlie’s retreat.

Why? There are several reasons:

Confidence. I still struggle, every day, with that little voice: Why are you doing this? Do you really think you have something worth saying? Do you really think you can write it in a way that’s worth reading? How presumptuous can you get?

On the retreat, that voice still whispered in my ear, but it was much easier to argue with. Yes, I know all of those things, and maybe I am a terrible writer and nobody will ever want to read my stories. But I’ve paid money to be here, and I now have nothing to do except write, so I might as well get on with it. For at least those few days, I wrote with much less fear than usual.

Convenience. This one should be obvious, but I didn’t really consider it until recently. Writing from home, I still had to function in the real world – shopping, cooking, exercising, socialising, doing taxes. I guess that’s an advantage in many ways: it’s how you want and need to operate as a professional writer in the long term, isn’t it? But all of these things take time and energy – energy which, on the retreat, went into my writing.

Money. I am reluctantly realising, in various areas of life, that sometimes throwing money at a problem really does solve it. Not always, obviously. But in the case of a writing retreat, I had paid money – a significant amount of money, which I wasn’t entirely comfortable parting with – to be there and write. I could either write, and justify the expense, or I could lie around and end up hating myself. Writing from home, sure, if I sat around all week I’d still hate myself. But at least there was no money at stake.

Other writers. I’m a massive introvert, but I love talking to other writers. I’ve not made enough of an effort to get out and meet other writers in my new city, and I’m really missing that aspect of my social life. On the retreat, there was always someone available to chat with – about what we were working on, yes, but also what the goats were up to in the field, Charlie’s delicious vegan baking, our lives, our books, our world. And for the massive introverts among us (which in my experience means a large proportion of writers), there were bedrooms to take refuge in once we’d had enough interaction. Perfect!

I’m really glad I gave myself that week to write full-time from home. I learned a lot, and made plenty of progress. But when I next have both time and money, I’m going to try another retreat.

It looks as if Charlie’s autumn retreats have sold out already! But if you want to stay in the loop about future retreats, follow this link and sign up to find out when bookings open for the next sessions.

 

What I learned from a week of writing full-time

I’ve been quiet on here, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing. In fact, a couple of weeks ago I decided to take a week to experiment with writing full-time, in an attempt to compensate slightly for the ridiculous year of paid work I’ve just finished.

It was…interesting. Definitely a good experience, and a good thing to do, but I had a few surprises along the way. Here are a few things I learned:

  1. Big wodges of time = more words. This is a no-brainer, but I was slightly afraid that, having given myself a week off paid work, I’d waste it watching youtube videos or messing about on facebook. Bottom line: I didn’t, although I did develop a few strategies to keep me focused.
  2. Life is better with Leechblock. Or insert the name of your preferred website blocker here. I’ve banned myself from facebook and twitter during working hours (which is also paying off in my paid work), and reinstalled a program called Internet Lock which I bought ages ago and had forgotten about. It blocks the internet for you, so I set that to run for several hours each day. I can override it, but generally the process of overriding the settings slows me down enough that I can talk myself back into at least attempting writing (and leaving the internet block in place).
  3. I spend way too much time getting angry about current affairs. I mean, I think we should all be angry about current affairs, because if you’re not angry you’re not going to do anything about it. But I can be engaged and active without checking facebook every ten minutes and following every news link posted.
  4. Spending an hour at a time on a writing project really does cement it in your brain. I’d find myself working out a plot problem as I drifted off to sleep at night, or wandering up to the shops. And the characters got talkier, which was great fun.
  5. Writing is HARD. Granted, I maybe didn’t choose the best week to try it full-time because of distressing things happening in my personal life, but even so, I found it exhausting.
  6. And emotionally taxing. Again, this probably wasn’t the best time to throw myself into my projects, but I found that I was a little more ground down at the end of each day than I had been on the previous one.
  7. If you’re writing on a topic that upsets you, be gentle with yourself and make sure you have care routines or a support system in place. Or, I don’t know, write something else that is purely for fun on the sly. But find a way to look after yourself if you’re putting yourself through the emotional wringer.
  8. The only way out is through. I think most writers know this, but it’s so easy to hesitate about actually putting words on the page because you’re “working some things out”, or planning, or simply staring at the screen. Planning is great, IMO! But at some point, at least as far as I’m concerned, I have to try writing stuff out in order to figure out if it works. No amount of planning will compensate for words on the page.
  9. It’s much easier to get words on the page if you give it time. I saw tangible progress with both books during the course of the week – progress that might have taken me months at my previous rate.

Has anyone reading this tried something similar? If so I’d love to hear your experiences!

This week I am experimenting with writing first thing in the morning. I’ll update about that in a few days. 🙂

A curveball

I’m going to stop posting my goals, at least for the next couple of weeks. I’ll still check in, but that will be the extent of it.

So: this past week I did pretty well with my goals. I worked on both novels. I entered something in a competition. I worked on my finances, and I took on less paid work. I’m going to carry on in this vein as much as I can over the next couple of weeks.

That’s all for this week.

Goals for the upcoming week

Last week’s goals:

  1. Work on SWMF for 30 minutes on 5/7 days. Done on, um, 2/5 days.
  2. Work on the YA novel for 30 minutes on 5/7 days. Done on 2/5 days.
  3. Start editing the YA novel. Done.
  4. Keep thinking about a writing plan/writing goals for June and July. Done.
  5. Spend 15 minutes a day on admin and finances. Done.
  6. Submit some writing somewhere. Not done.

Mmm, I’ve had a bit of a lazy week – or rather, I took on too much freelance work, which meant I was too concerned with paid deadlines to squeeze in some writing first on most days. I’ve still made a bit of progress, but not as much as I’d like (is it EVER as much as one would like?). I’m disappointed with myself for not submitting anything, especially after the boost of seeing my writing in print for the first time.

This week I think I need to start protecting my writing time better. I’ve done loads of paid work, and have also hopefully sorted out some invoicing issues with one of my clients, so I have less to worry about on that score. I still have too much work to do in the early part of this week, but after that, it’s up to me to only take on work I can manage within reasonable hours.

Onto this week’s goals:

  1. Work on SWMF for at least 30 minutes on 5/7 days.
  2. Work on the YA novel for at least 30 minutes on 5/7 days.
  3. Post a review or some sort of reaction post about the Remember Oluwale anthology while it’s still fresh in my mind.
  4. Restrict my paid work to reasonable hours (I have a number in mind here, but don’t feel like going into it publicly).
  5. Submit something somewhere.
  6. Spend 15 minutes a day on admin and finances.

Sunday, Sunday…

Quick goals update:

  1. Work on SWMF for 30 minutes on 5/7 days. DONE
  2. Work on the YA novel for 30 mins on 5/7 days. DONE (6/7 days)
  3. Start editing the YA novel. I haven’t quite started yet, but I have been using the set of blog posts I mentioned last time to prepare for it.
  4. Figure out a writing plan for June. Haven’t really done this. Possibly I need a writing plan for July instead.
  5. Spend 15 minutes a day working on admin and finances. DONE.
  6. Enter a competition or submit some writing. DONE.

Remembering Oluwale, a book featuring responses to the story of David Oluwale in the form of short stories and poems, was published on Friday. It features my story, Touch, along with lots of other great short stories and poems – I think I’ll have to post a review at some point, because it looks to be filled with interesting and emotive takes on matters of social justice, racism, homelessness, mental ill-health, as relevant today as they were during David Oluwale’s lifetime. I’m really proud to have been a part of this project, and am looking forward to delving into the rest of the contributions.

I also attended the launch party, which was exciting if a little terrifying – there are some photos here. So much fun to meet other writers who’d been involved in the project. I also got some lovely feedback on my story, which was hugely encouraging.

OK, onto goals for this week:

  1. Work on SWMF for 30 minutes on 5/7 days.
  2. Work on the YA novel for 30 minutes on 5/7 days.
  3. Start editing the YA novel.
  4. Keep thinking about a writing plan/writing goals for June and July.
  5. Spend 15 minutes a day on admin and finances.
  6. Submit some writing somewhere.

Goals for the week ahead

Last week’s goals:

  1. Work on SWMF for 30 minutes on 5/7 days. DONE
  2. Finish the current scene and move on to the next one. DONE
  3. Work on the YA novel for 20 minutes on 5/7 days. Hmm. Done on 4 days.
  4. Schedule no. 3, i.e. set a time slot for it. Done, sort of. I didn’t diarise it, or anything, but I have been doing it in the mornings before I sit down at my laptop.
  5. Spend 2 x 30 minutes on submissions. Spent 1 x 30 mins on this.

I’m still a little dazed at having so much time, even after spending more time on writing than I have in ages. The past nine months have been a slog, but this is one advantage – truly appreciating my time – that I wasn’t expecting to gain! Now I get to exercise and do fun stuff and cook delicious, (mostly) healthy food and hang out with lovely people…and spend more time on writing, while also earning money. And tomorrow is a bank holiday, which gives me even more time to do those lovely things.

Writing goals for this week:

  1. Work on SWMF for 30 minutes on 5/7 days.
  2. Work on the YA novel for 30 mins on 5/7 days.
  3. Start editing the YA novel. I’m going to experiment with using this set of blog posts as a guide, so hopefully I won’t feel too lost when it’s time to pitch in, the way I did a few weeks ago.
  4. Figure out a writing plan for June. I would like to take a little time off work (and I think I deserve it). But I need to figure out how and when to do this. Which leads me to…
  5. Spend 15 minutes a day working on admin and finances.
  6. Enter a competition or submit some writing. I’m expecting to hear about a couple of submissions in the next couple of weeks – which means it’s important to throw some other exciting stuff in the mix in order to keep things interesting.

And now I am going for a run to a pub. Happy writing!