A Tale of Two Halves – Ugly First Drafts

As a writer I find my confidence in my writing flows in and out like a tide. After a good writing session, I am buoyed up and ready to take on the world. On the flip side, sometimes a bad review can leave you wondering whether you are deluding yourself but often writers do not even need any input from the outside world to doubt themselves. We are quite capable of questioning our own self worth all by ourselves.

The blessing of a creative mind can lead to occasions of overthinking and self angst that if nothing else remind us that writing is a vocation that chooses us rather than the other way round. For who would choose to live in such torment, swinging between two extremes and hoping to catch the odd break in the middle?

Self esteem
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I was recently lucky enough to be commissioned to write a three part serial for a magazine. I came up with an idea and a setting and plunged into telling the story. I wrote it with the three parts very much in mind. The first part came together swiftly and I polished it up before I moved on to the middle section. Again, this came together fairly quickly and I gave it a polish.

When it came to writing the denouement, however, life got in the way. I managed to crank out the required word count and hit all the beats of the story but it had been written when I was tired and feeling frazzled and it showed.

I shared it with three friends, one a friend who doesn’t write and two who do. My non writer friend enjoyed the story. My two writing friends seized on the last part of the story, one remarking it was like it was written by a different writer.

And she was right. It was.

The last part was me getting the story down in draft with minimum polishing. The first two thirds had had care and attention lavished on them, the last part had been birthed and left.

Unfinished road
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As all writers know, first drafts are ugly. All the hard work is done in the editing, re-writing and polishing that follows. But without that ugly first draft, the writer would have nothing to work on. The last part of my story has now been edited and polished and stands proudly alongside the other parts of the story as the fitting ending it was designed to be.

What is important to remember, however, is that as writers we should never to be so confident as to think that the ugly first draft is the finished product nor so lacking in confidence as to think that ugly first draft can never be transformed into something more beautiful.

Believe in yourself and your abilities and trust that everything will come good in the end. That’s the art of being a writer.

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Confident Beginnings

Confidence is a tricky thing, isn’t it? Like Goldilocks people can have too little or too much. Either ends of the scale are limiting and not particularly attractive but getting it just right? That’s the hard bit.

Milk
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I recently watched a documentary where psychologists were monitoring young children in a play and school environment. Two children stood out and seemed to strike up what, on the face of it, was an unlikely friendship. One was overconfident, a thrill seeker who sought out danger and constantly pushed boundaries. The other was a boy who excelled at maths but who was generally frightened by life and shied away from anything he perceived as dangerous. These two boys, despite their obvious differences in personality, seemed to gel.

Friendship
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When the psychologists put up ‘Danger – Keep Out’ signs and taped off one of the children’s favourite pieces of play apparatus – a play house reached by a ladder – the thrill seeker immediately wanted to investigate and go into the play house to see what the danger was. The nervous child hung back. So upset at the prospect of his friend doing something that was forbidden, the nervous boy told him that two adults were coming his way, even though no adults were in the area. The thrill seeker reluctantly left the equipment alone and the nervous boy had, in his eyes, protected his friend from danger. One had regulated the other’s actions.

Yin and yang
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Later, these same boys were confronted with a tarantula spider in a case. When the handler asked if the children would like to hold the spider, the thrill seeker was one of the first to put up his hand. The nervous boy, seated next to him, had already professed a fear of spiders. He hung back and moved away but was still fascinated enough to watch his friend handle the spider and allow her to walk over the back of his hand.

A few minutes later after another couple of children had handled the spider, the nervous boy asked if he too could have a go. At first, he was still too scared to hold his hands flat on the table to allow the spider to crawl over them and was seeking assurance from the handler that the spider would not bite or claw him. Once that assurance had been given, he had a go. Wonderfully, his thrill seeker buddy put his hand flat on the table first and the nervous boy put his on top of his friend’s and the spider then walked over both of their hands.

The nervous boy was delighted that he had faced and conquered a fear and the thrill seeker was pleased that he had coaxed his friend to try something new.

Though very different I could imagine this unlikely pair growing up to be firm friends for life. Operating at either extreme of the confidence scale, you could see how they could help to pull each other further into the middle ground of ‘just right’ thus enriching each other’s lives immensely.

friendship2
Friendship by Alex Isse Neutron courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by Public Domain 1.0 https://flic.kr/p/CwP7Zz https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/

For those of us who do not have a friend at the other end of the confidence scale to help push, guide or protect us, we have to learn the hard way by life’s experiences. That’s why older people are a lot less bothered what others think of them than their younger counterparts. They have learned that in the grand scheme of things it really doesn’t matter all that much.

Confident beginnings are wonderful but for the rest of us it’s not where you start but where you finish that’s important.

Why we all need a flexible plan

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.

Plans
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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.

Boat
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White Lies by Ellie Holmes http://Author.to/EllieHolmes

The Beauty of Forgiveness

We have all been in situations were people have treated us harshly. Sometimes we deserved it. Sometimes we didn’t. It is only natural that we are going to react defensively when we perceive someone is attacking us, even if it is only with words. Our heart rate increases, our blood pressure goes up and anger kicks in.

But this is not a state of mind or body we should hang on to. Holding on to old hurts, nursing those grievances for weeks, months or even years, is always going to hurt us more than it will ever hurt the perpetrators of the original hurt.

Forgiveness
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We cannot all exhibit saintliness and constantly react well to bad situations but the art of moving on quickly is the key to our own health and happiness. Nurturing anger, jealousy or hate will only reverberate negatively within us. Make peace with your anger and let it go. Try to understand that the person or people who have done you wrong were probably hurting themselves, lashing out at whatever was in front of them, weighed down by their own troubles. Few people in the world are truly evil. Most have simply had the odds stacked against them since birth and are overburdened by the memories of traumas we could not imagine unless we walked in their shoes.

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Forgiveness is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of strength.

The End – And a feeling of relief

end
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I finished my novel last weekend. High fives and glasses of wine all round. It’s gone off to my editor. Before I know it, it will be back with a myriad amendments to be made but for now, I have planted the words ‘The End’ like a flag on a mountain top.

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Whenever I reach the end of a novel I always feel a huge sense of relief. Relief that I went to the well and there were words there to find. Relief that I had an idea and a half decent novel emerged from it. Relief that those characters that I thought about and worked so hard to create have taken on lives beyond those I imagined for them. I gave them wings and away they flew. Relief that I can still do it. I can still pull it off. I can still spin a plot and weave the magic. The muse hasn’t abandoned me. Yet.

happy-feb
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Am I alone in my feelings of relief? I often wonder about that. Do other writers experience joy, happiness and pride when they reach the end of their novels? I am always so drained by the end of the writing journey that those feelings occur further down the road to publication. At the instant I finish and for the immediate days after, relief is all I feel.

It is not relief that the writing is over, you understand because I am always writing. There are always a dozen ideas waiting to be developed and explored. It is relief that I can still do my job. I am still a writer.

The relief comes hot on the tail of the fear that stalks me: that one day the words will not come, that the plot will not gel, nor the characters take flight. One day I will have an idea and not do it justice. One day I will not be able to capture lightning in a bottle. One day I will fail.

But that day is not today. Today I am a writer.

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Permission to Fly

So, New Year, New Start, New You!?

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Everywhere you look there are people telling you to be thinner, fitter, happier and healthier. They are promising you quick fixes to difficult problems. All you have to do is buy into their message and all will be well. For them, maybe. Financially. Call me a cynic but I don’t think we need any of these so called experts to show us the way. Most of what they peddle is common sense dressed up in fancy new clothes. If we stopped to think we’d probably know a lot of this stuff already and we could certainly use our intelligence to fill in any gaps.

We have all succumbed to the marketing skills of the New Year salesmen and women at one time or another. None of us is immune. They tap into the need within all of us to mark the start of a new year in a positive way. We are all keen to begin again. Whatever mistakes we made last year, the new year is a clean slate. We haven’t made any bad calls yet. We haven’t exercised any questionable judgement. We will, you know. It’s just a question of when but for the moment our slate is still shiny and untarnished.

empty-pages
Empty Pages 2 by Arden courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0

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So if we have the ability within ourselves to tackle our own problems why do we, year after year, invest in the merry go round of New Year promises the gurus make on our behalves?   I think it comes down to belief. We have the knowledge, we have the ability. What we want is to put our faith in someone other than ourselves because we know ourselves only too well, right? We want to believe in the New Year Salesperson’s spiel because if we follow what they say to the letter we won’t fail this time. We won’t be the person we were before, the one who tripped and fell, the vulnerable one, the one who started with the best of intentions but faltered when things got hard. This time we’ll be a better version of ourselves, a new version.

If you want to be thinner, fitter, happier and healthier in 2017 I wish you all the best. They are worthy goals. But I think the best gift you can yourselves for the New Year is to promise yourself you will try to be fearless. I don’t mean reckless. I mean fearless.

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Youngsters are fearless by Tony Alter courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0

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Don’t let your self doubt or your inhibitions hold you back.

There’s a whole world out there. Be fearless and give yourself permission to fly.

take-off
Take off by Daria courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0

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Don’t be afraid to walk away

As some of you will know who follow my blog I am in the midst of rewriting a novel I wrote some years ago. It needed bringing up to date – smartphones have rather taken over our lives and I needed to address some inherent problems with the plot. I blogged about it here in Easy Option – https://goo.gl/qPP5SO

Now I am deep in the heart of the rewrites and my confidence is sometimes high but mostly low as I grapple with the mess that was once a cohesive novel albeit a troubled one. I am sure you are all familiar with the saying ‘You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs’. Well my desk is covered in broken eggs right now and it is hard to keep the faith.

breaking-eggs
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One part of the story was giving me more trouble than any other and I spent a couple of days beating myself up at the keyboard wondering why I just couldn’t make it work. Sometimes you can just be too close to a piece of work and all it takes is a little distance to see where you were going wrong.

Exhausted by the process of getting nowhere, my brain aching from turning the same problems over in my mind and not reaching any satisfactory conclusions, I decided to take a complete break from writing for a couple of days.

resting
Resting by Γιάννης Σκουλής courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0

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It was a brave thing to do (some might say foolhardy) given I had a self imposed tight deadline but that in itself was adding to my stress levels. When you can no longer see the wood for the trees your writer’s spidey senses are hardly going to be at their best. So I decided to pull the plug for a while.

I stopped being Ellie Holmes the writer and just enjoyed being me. It took a few hours for the white noise of a busy writer’s brain to calm itself. A dose of reality TV and comfort food helped. And once peace reigned, I lived for a few days like normal people live. You should try it some time. I highly recommend it.

As you can tell from this blog, it didn’t last long. A brief holiday from my writer’s self was all I needed to recharge the batteries and rev up the creative engine. But as with a traditional mini break I came back refreshed, reinvigorated and ready for the challenge.

 

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