For a long while I assumed that if I wanted to achieve a long and complex task I had to throw as much time and effort at it as I could, usually in big chunks of time.
As I rarely had big chunks of time, these projects tended to moulder through lack of attention.
Then thinking about how I write novels – 500 words one day, maybe 1,000 words the next, it dawned on me that the little and often approach might bear more fruit.
I have since applied this idea more widely. Instead of carving out a whole morning to concentrate on one area, I will identify a single task and concentrate on that such as tidying the household paperwork. Once that is done I’ll move on to hoover a couple of rooms of the house, then I’ll write a blog piece. Then I’ll prep dinner before illustrating the blog piece and uploading it. Then I’ll work on the household finances before cleaning the bathroom. You get the idea.
Mash That List
My free time is a mash up of tasks on my to do list.
When I tried out this approach I found not only did I achieve more stuff, none of the tasks tackled felt boring or overwhelming because I wasn’t spending too much time on any one of them.
Imagine sitting down to do your tax return. I know – bear with me. Your heart sinks. You know it’s important but you also know it’s boring. It’s an afternoon of your life you’ll never get back. Now imagine sitting down to do the first part of your tax return and then moving on to something more pleasant like reading a couple of chapters of the book you’re presently enjoying. Taking that approach the tax return will be done within the week without any of the associated pain or boredom that usually accompanies it.
To my analytical and ordered mind, mashing up tasks took a little adjusting to. It still strikes me as a slightly messy compromise but I cannot argue with the results. When I first attempted it I had ticked so many tasks off my list that when I sat down to enjoy a cup of tea and reflect I could hardly believe it. What made the realisation even more satisfying was the fact that I had reached the end of that weekend without feeling tired/grumpy/impatient/bogged down or overwhelmed, all my standard responses when faced with my tsunami of outstanding tasks. Mashing up not only allowed me to achieve stuff it made me feel better and that’s got to be a good thing.
We all have a favourite stable of authors we return to again and again. We either devour their new books or we re-read their old books, embracing their familiarity. It is a comforting and enjoyable way to pass the time.
When searching for something new to read, we either try a writer who is recommended as similar to one of the authors on our favourites list or we pick something from within the genres we are most comfortable with.
We never stray too far away from what we know.
That is not necessarily a good thing however for a reader or an author.
Out of My Comfort Zone
A few years ago I was seriously ill. A friend of mine arranged a delivery of books to my house to see me through my months of treatment. There were five or six books in all. None were the kind of books I would have picked for myself. Some were literary reads, others historicals, outside my go to periods of history, some were futuristic but not sci-fi.
I read them all over the months I was laid low. Firstly, because having read the blurbs of each I was intrigued by then and secondly because they had been a present and I would have felt a little mean if I had not read any of them.
My friend had told me that if any of the books did not appeal to me that I could swap them for others, she wouldn’t mind but I didn’t want to do that. It would somehow have cheapened what was a wonderful and thoughtful gift.
Imagine my surprise when whole new worlds I would never have inhabited opened up before me, sucking me in and holding me in their sway.
Try Something New
There is definitely something to be said from stepping away from the familiar and reading something new. So next time you are searching for something to read try something from a genre you’ve never read before or, better yet, walk into a book shop and pick up the first book your eyes alight upon.
Reboot your reading list and you’ll be rewarded by discovering new worlds and new writers you would never otherwise have met just like I was.
NaNoWriMo is not the easiest word to write or say. I imagine it’s even harder to take part in it and succeed.
For the uninitiated NaNoWriMo stand for National Novel Writing Month and November is it.
I have always dismissed this endeavour as nonsense. Very few people can write a novel in a month and if you do it is most likely not going to be terribly good.
Then it was explained to me, very kindly, by those who take part on a regular basis that I am missing the point. NaNoWriMo is all about committing yourself to write a lot in a very short space of time and hopefully by the end of it you will have the bones, bare though they may be, of a workable novel that you can continue writing.
I still have a slight problem with the concept. If you are a writer you should have a writing timetable that you are committed to already whichever month of the year it happens to be but leaving my prejudices aside it is an interesting concept.
I did have a look at the website. You can check it out here.
I’m not one for signing up and filling in this, that and the other. If I am committing to trying to write most days, going on line to fill in a word count at the end of each session seems like a bit of a faff to me. A lot of extra bells and whistles that takes time away from actually writing.
Nevertheless, I do have a new project I need to get underway. But, but, but….turns out if you are buying into the spirit of the thing you have to pick one project and commit to that.
I, on the other hand, have something I have been commissioned to write which needs to be written, plus two novellas that are part way through. It would be nice to clear those out of the way before starting the new project.
Consequently, I have decided to NaNoMyWay instead.
I will try to write my commissioned work and finish my two novellas and if I succeed with that I will start my new project. I’ll let you know how I get on at the end of the month.
In the meantime, to all of who you are preparing to do the official NaNoWriMo good luck and enjoy.
The mornings are chillier now and the trees are starting to lose their leaves. In the evenings, the darkness that once crept across the garden stealthily now drops in with all the subtlety of a hammer on a nail.
Spring and summer may be my favourite seasons but once I have adjusted to saying goodbye to summer, there’s plenty about autumn I love too.
The Beauty of Pie
There’s the food for a start. No more light lunches and healthy salads. Now is the time to bring out the casserole dish and let a tasty stew simmer in the oven for a couple of hours, the delicious smells permeating the kitchen and whetting my appetite or batch cooking some pies with beautiful flaky pastry.
Taking Willow for a walk is always a favourite past time but at this time of year it’s fun to scrunch our way through fallen leaves, then watch as Willow snuffles her way underneath them as more leaves pirouette down around us borne on the breeze.
For me there is nothing better than a bracing walk in a fresh wind and then home to a brimming mug of hot chocolate or tomato soup to warm me up.
But there’s something even better about the change of seasons. Now that the dark nights are here, I’m always gripped by the desire to snuggle down on a comfy sofa, wrapped in a soft throw and indulge in my love of reading without feeling guilty.
Of course I still read when the sun is shining and the days are blissfully long but when the weather is fine I’m usually out and about or pottering in the garden. Reading takes a back seat to doing in the summer time.
When the autumn comes, it’s time for a change. I give myself permission to slow down. It is a sort of hibernation, I suppose. I look forward to my nights snuggled up cosy with a good book. I welcome the ritual of choosing a group of books to read between now and Christmas. Then studying the covers and the blurbs and deciding which book will be first, which second and then third. With an eclectic taste, I often choose different genres. I usually have a couple of bankers, I know I’ll enjoy with perhaps the odd wildcard thrown in for good measure. New or old, you can’t beat the smell, feel and experience of a real book.
So that’s what I’ll be doing between now and Christmas. How about you?
The festival included all breakfasts and lunches. The breakfast choice was excellent and tasty. It did what it needed to do – set everyone up for a busy day. The lunches were okay. Quiches and salads. Unimaginative but adequate.
And so to the grandly described “opening dinner”.
The previous conference I had been to (not at Winchester), had made every effort to make this event a special occasion, a true welcome to the attendees, round tables had encouraged conversation, there was decent linen and cutlery, there was a seating plan to ensure that every table had new writers, experienced writers, agents or editors and other speakers at the conference, giving everyone the opportunity to swap small talk in a relaxed and convivial atmosphere whilst enjoying tasty food.
The evening meal at Winchester was a disappointment both in terms of the food and the set up. Fish that had been kept hot too long was barely edible with hard and tasteless batter. I had a friend who jokingly would rate professional courses in her day job by the standard of the lunch they would provide. I would give Winchester a B- and that was generous.
The tables were set up in exactly the same way as they had been at breakfast and lunch so you could only really talk to the people sitting next to you or opposite you. There was no seating plan, it was cafeteria style, get served and find a seat. Whilst I occasionally saw the flash of a blue badge – which differentiated the speakers and organisers from the writerly hordes, they appeared to settle themselves in their own separate enclaves. It had a feeling of them and us. Although to be fair there weren’t many of them there. Clearly, they had all gone into town instead. We wished we had too.
Leaving the disappointing food to one side, the conference was a worthwhile investment in my writing life. The chance to be amongst other writers is always a reliable way to refill the well of creativity. I will never be a conference junkie but attending an event every handful of years is a good way to reboot, you realise how far you have come and how far you still have left to go and above all you feel rejuvenated, buoyed up by all the fresh, young writers around you who have yet to experience the hard knocks of this writing life and still burn with the passion you had once and still have on the good days.
Small people with large bags.
Willowy women in floaty dresses.
Hot men in cool shirts.
Ancient buildings with calming gardens.
Burning heat and impromptu fans made of flapping conference notes.
Ferns and Hostas, a cool oasis.
Classy shops with homeless people sleeping in the doorways
Humble houses with large price tags.
Writers of all shapes and sizes
Agents who all looked the same
A keynote speaker that touched hearts as well as minds
Winchester Writers’ Festival: fun, tiring, hot, frustrating and inspiring.
We’ve all done it – set out a plan in our heads of how we would like life to work out. I don’t mean once our lottery numbers come up when our world will consist of azure seas, large, airy houses and fabulous cars or is that just me? I mean the day to day, life plan, of how we get from here to there.
It’s all in the planning
When it comes to life, it’s good to have a plan. It gives you a roadmap for when things get bumpy. It helps keep you on the straight and narrow when circumstances can knock you off course. I’m a fan of planning.
What I’m not a fan of, however, is having a plan so rigid there is no room for manoeuvre. If you think there is only one way to get from A to B you risk closing your mind to the possibilities that might occur if you travelled down a different road.
I am reminded of an old joke.
A man is sitting on a roof after a terrible flood. He watches the waters rise and thinks ‘God will save me.’ An hour or so later, a man comes along in a boat and offers to take him to safety. ‘No need,’ says the man on the roof. ‘God will save me.’
The waters continue to rise. A few hours later a helicopter hovers overhead and a man offers to winch him up and fly him to safety. ‘No need,’ says the man again. ‘God will save me.’
Later that night the waters close over the man’s head. When he meets St. Peter he says ‘What am I doing here? I thought God would save me.’ And St. Peter says, ‘We sent a boat and a helicopter. What more do you want?!’
Don’t Stay on the Roof
The moral of the story is that we have to be ready for the unexpected. When opportunities present themselves we shouldn’t ignore them because they don’t fit within our carefully constructed plan. They could be a valid way to get from A to B that we’ve never thought of before or they could take us in an entirely new direction and deliver us to a whole new destination that we could never have envisaged.
In this fast paced world, we have to be adaptable and less rigid in our thinking. Having a flexible life plan enables you to do that.
So don’t stay on the roof, refusing to budge, because it isn’t part of your plan. Be prepared to jump in the boat if one comes along and see where it takes you.
So here I was – four courses in one day. Polishing your Manuscript; The Language of Crime; Whodunnit – How it’s Done and finally Reaching your Readers but before I talk about them, a word about the previous evening.
The Beauty of Small Presses
My friends and I went to the Meet the Editors Panel. It was an interesting discussion marred only by poor acoustics. It highlighted the incredible work small, independent presses do. There are so many passionate people in this field of endeavour and of the ones represented on the panel most did not draw a wage from their businesses.
They obviously had a skewed view but it chimed with my own experience. At a large publishing house you run the risk of being a product, at a small press, you are a writer. It’s a very important distinction. There are some quality presses out there, some very niche, some with wider appeal. Many started their businesses in the wake of the crash and we are now blessed with a proliferation of companies giving writers more choice than ever. I would urge you not to close your minds to small presses.
While the previous day’s intensive, day-long course was immersive, today the four courses were each an hour long, providing no more than a whistle stop tour through the highlights of the subjects they were covering.
In a last minute change, I decided to swap Polishing your Manuscript for Publicising your Book with author and journalist Maria McCarthy. The key points to take from the talk were (a) ask for a copy of your press release for your files so that you can update it and use it again in the future (b) if you are asked to appear on TV think very carefully about what you are going to wear – stay away from patterns or anything that shows tan lines. Stick to bold, primary colours. Maria then talked us through what makes a great press release including the importance of the 5 Ws – Who, What, When, Where and Why.
Crime Readers are the crack cocaine users of books
Then it was on to the Language of Crime with author Helen Fields. This was an interesting talk with a standout handout – possibly the best one of the whole weekend. Helen talked about the modern crime novel which has snappy dialogue and is short on description. She described readers of crime as the crack cocaine users of books. As writers in the genre, you have to keep giving them their highs or risk them seeking them elsewhere. Readers are there for the thrill of the ride. We forget that at our peril.
Next was Whodunnit and How’s It’s Done with Linda Bennett the Director and Commissioning Editor at Salt Publishing. I must have been flagging at the halfway point on a very hot day as I have very little recollection of the hour I spent in Linda’s company. My fault, I am sure, not hers.
Social Media Know How
Finally, it was on to Reaching your Readers with author M G Leonard. Wow it was hot in that room. It was late afternoon on one of the hottest days of the year and the room was packed. We were all wilting and frantically fanning ourselves just to get some air. For anyone to hold the attention of the people in that room in those conditions is testament to the force of nature that was M G Leonard. What a wonderful bundle of energy she was. Darting to and fro, looking, annoyingly, as cool as a cucumber, whilst flashing up a wonderful bullet point presentation on the screen behind her.
The talk was packed full of useful stuff, funny and engaging. She also rivalled Helen Fields for the best handout of the conference although it came later by email. Her key points were that online is: a crowded marketplace, a shop window, a creative playground, a community hub, WORK, TIME CONSUMING and UNPAID [her capitals]. Her recommendations were: work out what presence you need to generate work or sell your product, figure out your strengths and use corresponding platforms, what are your criteria for success, track analytics where you can, review your presence online regularly. IS THE TIME YOU SPEND ONLINE WORTHWHILE? [my capitals].
It was a busy, tiring and informative day. With so much to take in, the beauty of the handouts came into their own. Nuggets of wise information and advice I will return to again and again as an aide memoire for the future. I would highly recommend attending talks by Helen Fields and M G Leonard, in particular, if you ever get the chance.