The Day Job…

Great post by Sue Healy…

suehealy

The day job…

A wise writer once said to me that it’s not so much the pram in the hall that’s the impediment to a writing career, but the bills on the door-mat. Money worries are the bane of creativity. And unless independently wealthy, the emerging writer will have to make a living while waiting for that book/film deal (and probably for a while after that fact too). Writers need to work; the question is what kind of jobs are out there?

Many will consider other (more lucrative) forms of writing to bring home the bucks. Journalism is an obvious  choice and is still, probably, the most common second career for many creative writers. Moreover, a journalistic background provides marvelous training re editing and brevity of approach. Copy-writing, particularly website copy, is also a popular income booster for writer but both copy-writing and journalism are less satisfying forms of writing for…

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10 Fantastic Christmas Presents for Writers

Great post from Jenny Alexander.
I agree that Writing Down The Bones is one of the best books for getting into the soulful place that writing requires. There are some others here that I’m going to explore too, and hope I get some notebooks for Christmas!!!

Writing in the House of Dreams: Creative Dreaming, Creative Writing

It’s that time again, and the great thing about buying things for writers is that you can give them something that will provide weeks or months of writing pleasure and inspiration without breaking the bank.

Here are some suggestions for things your writing friends might like – or if you’re a writer, why not treat yourself?

Gorgeous Notebooks.

The name says it all, and they really are gorgeous. I’ve been using them for my writing journals for several years now, as readers of my newsletter will know. Great quality paper, beautiful binding, a useful ribbon to mark your place and a handy pocket at the back for bits and pieces.

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Disposable fountain pens.

They write just like a fountain pen but the ink doesn’t smudge, and they come in every colour. If you aren’t keen on sharpies for book-signing, these are a good alternative, as well as being…

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The Physicality of Writing

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The physicality of writing is a twofold thing. The first I’ve spoken about before, and it’s more to do with what you do when you’re not writing. For me that’s either when I’m planning, or thinking, or get an internal snatch of something a character might say or do. It’s often when I’m out walking in the countryside, and is a sort of breathing, meditative space for ideas to come and go, to roll around in my head and see if they fit. Sometimes, I just need a break from anything to do with writing. Usually when I’ve had a great morning’s work and although I know what I want to write next, nothing will come because I need to rest my brain before carrying on. Because writing involves a lot of sitting on the backside, I need to be physical – clean the bathroom with Mildred Bailey, stick a film on and iron, prepare dinner with some Sidney Bechet and have a dance, practice yoga. Whatever it is, it will get me grounded back into my body so my brain can have time out.

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Then there’s the physicality of the writing of my scenes (I think in scenes rather than chapters as I’m so visual). I’m guessing that this isn’t just one of my weird peculiarities? If my character is angry, then as I write their words my jaw is clenched. If he’s depressed then I find myself closing my eyes frequently (handy to prevent dry eyes from too much screen time). If she’s happy, you can bet I’m smiling and maybe bouncing on the chair. If he’s frustrated, I’m unable to sit still – fidget, fidget, fidget. If she’s trying to explain herself, I’m probably pacing the floor, with the laptop balanced on the side. Writing a gripping scene can be quite physically exhausting. Writing a sad scene, or ending a character’s life is draining.  I can’t write very well in the evening. On the odd occasion when I have, I find I don’t sleep for ages, and I think that’s to do with my heightened mood state, and my body and mind being in a state of action like the character. I also read out loud each completed chapter before moving on. I used to do this just with dialogue, to check it sounded natural, but now I just read all of it. It’s a good way to make sure the story flows and is somehow more affirming than just acknowledging a word count for the day.

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Going Wild

14145382_1316741965017371_1869804197_n                          Into the Wild Summer Festival this year was on the Bentley Estate near Lewes in East Sussex. I went to celebrate this incredible hot summer and recharge my physical, mental and emotional batteries, and it surely delivered. I’m not here to write a review of the whole thing but rather a snap shot of my experiences and how doing this kind of thing is awesome fuel for writing.

When I arrived (I don’t mean the process of ticket checking, parking, wrist bands and pitching tents, I mean that moment when you take a big deep breath and say yes I’m actually here), which for me was after a powerful Thai yoga massage from Lenka Lorien (so good I booked another one and also went to a workshop to learn something of the technique – poor Lenka was exhausted by the end and I’m not surprised). I attended a great poetry workshop about freeing the mind of fear and putting down words straight from the heart. Having learned and practised Native American Shamanism for many years it was a treat to learn more about Norse Shamanism (Seiðr) too with Linda Sever. To experience journeying on the power of the drum to one of the nine worlds in the cosmology around in the late Scandinavian ice age.

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The food on offer was outstanding, my particular favourites being The Bhangra Bus for Channa Marsala and Aloo Matar, and Red Moon Roots Vegan cafe – a ton of fresh veggies, curries, courgetti, salads, stir fries – something different for your three daily feasts. The Beloved Arms cafe was my chosen spot for lemon polenta cake, gooey chocolate cake, spiced jaggery-sweet chai, and chilli hot chocolate. Such lovely people that worked so hard, always with a welcoming smile. Sitting in their teepee on skins and brightly patterned mats, with the central fire taking the damp off the morning, smoke lightly drifting upwards, warm breeze from the field and the soothing sounds outside was quite heavenly. It’s a difficult noise to explain because in words it’s hard to believe why it should be attractive to the ear. Murmuring voices, wind in the surrounding trees, babies crying, a steady drum beat punctuated with laughter. It’s an ancient community sound that is very deep in our bones and brings a sense of belonging even in these modern times of hermetically sealed houses, and solitary pursuits. I read in that cafe, and wrote, chatted to people who came and went, sometimes all squeezed in together sheltering from a shower of rain. Two girls who practised aerial yoga, a woman who explained why her head got attached to the catches on people’s bags (a magnetic cochlear implant to aid her hearing loss after suffering meningitis as a child), an Indian woman whose husband had gone to collect their two-year-old from the lost children area – again, a couple explaining the meaning behind their tattoos, a man relieved that his shoulder pain had finally gone. The list is endless – at festivals people change, they don’t mind literally rubbing shoulders with strangers, sharing a mouthful of cake, sitting back to back – inhibitions are left in our empty cars. This was my first festival without children so I actually enjoyed watching them tumbling in the grass, hurling straw from broken bale seats over each other’s heads, let loose to romp with blackened feet, grubby hands and luminous smiles.

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A couple of sessions of strong Kundalini yoga (taught, not by the scheduled teacher who didn’t arrive, but by an amazing woman who just stood up and took over so as not to disappoint 100-odd people spilling out of the yoga retreat onto the grass), and a few types of ecstatic dance had me feeling beautifully fluid and agile. Even learned some new hula hooping skills beneath the fluttering prayer flags. But for me the highlight of the festival was The John Langan Band. A Glaswegian trio with guitar, violin, double bass, and powerful voices, a little Jethro Tull-esque in their erratic, beautifully deranged playing. An eclectic mix of folk sounds – Celtic, Gypsy, Balkan, flamenco. A strange and delicious feverishness to their performance. I danced like a demon until I thought I might fall over out of pure exhausted bliss (far more ecstatic than the ecstatic dance lol, but maybe that’s just because it’s exactly the kind of music that echoes through my own personal being).

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So if you need to feed your body with delicious, nutrient-rich food, awaken your heart with manic dance, stretch and then rest until your bones become liquid, push your mental boundaries, reconnect with nature and community and have experiences that make you want to go home and create – then my friends, go to an Into the Wild festival.

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What Next?

9689_MARJON-LOGO-CMYKIt’s been four years since I finished my degree which had the desired outcome of improving and focusing my writing. Since then I’ve self-published a book on Amazon Kindle, moved house twice, relocating to the county I was born in, and furthered my complimentary therapy qualifications. But I’m still not in the position I’d like to be in, I’m still a struggling, penniless writer. Ha ha ha, yes you could say it’s my choice, but what I chose was to to be a stay-at-home mum for many years, and now I’m having to find a way through this difficult financial climate to do something that is as rewarding for the second half of my life. I’ve tried putting the writing down over the years but I can’t – it’s the biggest part that makes up my me-ness. It chooses me.

So what next? After some considerable months of feeling depressed and finding it hard to adapt to my new location, I do at last have a plan. I’m going to do my Masters in Creative Writing. I know the education path is not for everyone, and you certainly don’t need a qualification to be a good, or published author. But it’s a path that helps me – my personality likes the structure, the modules, the deadlines, the peer pressure. As soon as I had my acceptance letter and finance in place everything changed, the sadness and indecision lifted and I’ve been writing well ever since, eager to begin next month. 33932cathedral2

I’m also excited that my new place of study is so much bigger than the last. Their alumni includes wonderful writers: Kazuo Ishiguro, David Mitchell, Sarah Waters, Alan Davies, and my favourite ethnobotanist James Wong. And one of my lecturers will be Scarlett Thomas who wrote: The end of Mr Y. The huge campus is close to the beautiful historic city of Canterbury with it’s stunning medieval cathedral.

We have to find a way to stick to our dreams even if that sometimes seems the hardest thing on earth. I’m hoping that pursing my studies at a higher level will lead to better writing and publication, but who knows, I’m constantly surprised by what appears from round the corners in life, never what’s expected. I just feel privileged to be able to do this. So bring on the next chapter of my writing life…

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The Short Story

short story

I had to write short stories at school and University. Whenever I’ve got a little stuck with a novel I’ve begrudgingly written a short story in-between to fill the gap and keep my hand in, or specifically to enter a competition. But more recently I’ve been writing them because I actually want to, because I finally understand the value they have on their own.  I think it’s because I discovered a theme – to write scenes depicting old ways of life, women and men living close to the land, connected to spirit and mystery. I’ve discovered a new joy for writing that leaves behind the complexity of a novel and focuses purely on imagery. This has got me wondering if maybe the by-passing of short stories meant I didn’t build my longevity muscles. I didn’t use the required building blocks to get to the stage of novel writing. I thought short stories weren’t worthy. It has to be said here that my reticence is in part due to it being incredibly difficult as an unknown writer to have a book of short stories published.

It also takes an initial effort to get into a book, but once you know the characters and you understand the basics of the ride you’re about to take, then off you go. But with a short story there’s a feeling that you do the work of getting into it, then it stops…

And that’s where imagery comes in, to create a vibrant scene or character so quickly that the reader is instantly transported and need not work at all (not that I’m suggesting it isn’t possible to get straight into a novel, but it isn’t often the case).

I only have one book of short stories on my shelves – Close Range by the great Annie Proulx. The only reason for this was I wanted to understand how director Ang Lee managed to get Brokeback Mountain,  a 134 minute film out of 35 pages. It’s all about Proulx’s descriptive imagery and her ability to describe the basic requirements of plot with dexterous brevity.

“Proulx considers her short stories to be a greater accomplishment than her novels, particularly her three volumes of Wyoming stories—Close Range (1999), Bad Dirt (2004), and Fine Just the Way It Is (2008)—which cover broad swaths of Wyoming history, from the earliest trappers and settlers to the ranchers and game wardens and oil men who populate the state today.” (http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5901/the-art-of-fiction-no-199-annie-proulx)

On that note, better get writing…

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Feed the Writer

 

A trip out can feed the imagination. And for me, a writer who is interested in the food industry and good health, Borough Market, Southwark (www.boroughmarket.org.uk) is a good place for inspiration.

It’s an overwhelming feast for the senses. Stalls of huge, pungent, thick-rinded  cheeses, jostle against tables weighed down with crusty loaves of fragrant, artisan bread. Long icy displays of gleaming, bright-eyed fish and crustaceans alongside dried and cured meats, haunches of venison, wild boar, and rabbit. Shelves of sauces, jams, chutneys, wines, and liqueurs from a multitude of ingredients.

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There is hot and cold food from all over the world to sample if you can get through the crowds. Try an Ethiopian curry, Chinese coconut pancakes, Pieminster’s range of delicious pies with mash and peas, Caribbean Mutton stew, a hog roast, the list is endless. An abundance of variety, noise and human life. I bought several bags of my favourite dairy free, bitter chocolate to take home, and some luscious tomatoes.

For me the vegetable displays are the most exciting (but then I get excited about my organic veg box delivery every week). Everywhere you turn there are baskets of earthy potatoes, orange-skinned onions, trays of jewel-like berries, a real diversity of roots, greens, herbs, fruits and legumes.

Bright colours, scents and sounds, from the calls of the sellers, to the rumbling trains on the Victorian viaduct above. Southwark Cathedral looms close by, and there is a replica of the Golden Hind ship in the nearby docks. London Bridge station is only a five minute walk away, and Neal’s Yard Remedies can also be found. Happy Days!

 

 

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Keeping track of a novel

12751218_1150740414966964_2116030883_nThe more I write, the more I realise that visual guides help me avoid those days where I’m stuck with how on earth to move forward. Writing a novel can be daunting, especially the further into it you get. The way I cope is to create three things:

  • A mood board of inspiration for character and place. Any pictures or words and phrases that help you get deeply into the feel of the story – just pin them on a large board.
  • A strip of wallpaper lining paper charting loosely (in a few sentences), each chapter’s basic plot, sub plots, timeline, and sense of place. This allows you to ensure that you know where everything comes in the novel, that it’s all essential content that is working for you, and that you have a good sense of the narrative arc. I also have a list of major and minor characters on here, with a rough page number of where they first enter the story, and a list of landmarks.
  • A notebook for keeping ideas, for writing scenes in when I’m not with my laptop, for doodling maps that assist with sense of place. In here I also put detailed descriptions of characters with an outline of where they are at the beginning and where I want them to get to by the end.

I’ve tried mapping out all the chapters in detail, but it just never works for me. I have to let the writing flow organically, and it often takes me away from precisely structured plans. I don’t create these tools all at the beginning, and then start work. They all erupt together – I usually crack into the writing at speed when the buzzing world in my head is fresh and exciting, then I get to doodling maps to ensure I know where people are going (I love movement in novels). The notebook is the most important tool at the beginning, to create characters with depth. I start to fill in the chart as I go, doing this more frequently as sub plots come in and it gets complicated. About half way in I create a mood board because that keeps the momentum going, and re-inspires me. When I get closer to the finish, the chart becomes invaluable because I can quickly locate bits that need changing, and it keeps all the links together in my mind.

These tools work for me, probably because I’m an extremely visual writer, but also because I can’t sit still at a desk. I have to fidget, and pace, and write in different places.

I expect everyone has different ways of keeping a novel together while it’s written, and I’d love to hear more ideas…

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Sea Life

seaSo far, this year is going well. I suppose I can’t get excited yet as it’s only nine days into my new 2016 writing practice, but…

I’ve entered a writing competition, and decided on the next 5 I’m going to also submit work to, with deadlines for getting them done. I’ve re-edited, and sent out to readers my next novel. With inspiration from friends I’ve been experimenting with poetic forms (only written Free Form before). I’ve tried the Haiku, Villanelle, and Triolet so far. This is interesting for me. I chose to do poetry in an independent study module at Uni a few years back, but had no assistance from the tutor in specific form (yes OK I know it was independent study). I guess I’ve just always thought there was little point going mad with it because prose is what I love. Now it dawns on me (bit slow sometimes) that being experienced in poetry can really help prose sound beautiful – I’ve gone mad for it.

I’m keeping track of all my efforts in a shiny new book (thank-you for lovely Christmas stationary presents). Next week I’m going on a snowy winter holiday which I’m soooo excited about, and which I hope will fill me up with new stories and poems.

So why a picture of the sea near my home? Because I’ve been walking there regularly through these winter months, letting the power of the wind and water snatch my breath (and negative thoughts) away. It’s refreshing, inspiring, and I often feel like I’m those waves, crashing about in my life, trying this, trying that, failing, getting up, carrying on, getting disheartened, finding new inspiration, keeping at it, getting dragged back over stones, surging forward…

How are your New Year plans going?

 

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A Gentle Practice

meditationI started yoga practice in 1999, and have finally got to grips with a reasonable meditation practice too. Yoga particularly, can be likened to writing. The best way to gain flexibility and grow long, strong muscles is to exercise slowly and methodically. In each posture I extend my body to it’s maximum for that moment, then I rest in the position, breathe deeply, and allow the muscles to realise that’s there’s no need to panic, that they can relax too. Once this is achieved, I can move further into the posture until I reach the next point of resistance. Again, I pause, breathe and allow the body to adapt. I continue this until I am aware that no further stretch can happen that day. In this way I am able to focus completely on the present because of the concentration on breath and lightness required, so it is a meditative process.

Writing benefits from the same gentle, opening approach. I need to understand how creative I feel on any particular day. I start small, with reading my journal about my writing life, adding any new insights, perhaps watch an inspiring video on YouTube from a favourite author, or read some words of wisdom that speak to me. I might write a blog next, or a poem, or just play with sentences, explore some new words and add them to my notebook. Then I’ll re-read the last chapter I wrote to get into the zone, then write well into the next part before stopping. At this point I know whether it’s going to be a long day of flowing writing, or if I have to breathe and go for a walk. Sometimes the best thing for that day is just to walk and ponder characters. I might write a list of questions that my characters could answer so I can help understand their flaws, or objectives in the story. I might decide that place needs more definition and draw a map of what is in my head, or visit the area it’s set in either physically, or on the internet – write some more notes. Often, this gentle approach means I can go back to the writing and find a flow that previously wasn’t happening, because I’ve given my writing and imagination muscles time to relax and extend.

Trying to force the body or mind to function usually results in contraction and resistance. This gentle way of working tends more to opening, exploration, and productivity.

As the saying goes: ‘Strength in Softness’.

 

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