I haven’t been blogging lately because I’ve been away. I was in Arctic Norway for three weeks in June, then home again and away again for a spot of camping on Bodmin moor, then home again and away again to Oxfordshire for the summer gathering of the Scattered Authors’ Society.
I always find it difficult to leave my work-in-progress, so I work right up to the wire and often take some notes with me, half planning to do a bit of writing while I’m away.
That never happens. It didn’t even happen in Norway, although the combination of wintry weather (in June!), bright daylight round the clock and really rugged walking meant I completely overdid it and got worn out by the end of the first week. (Someone on a travel site suggested the guide books should translate ‘Easy’ in the Norwegian descriptions of walking trails as ‘Hard’ in English, ‘Moderate’ as ‘Difficult’ and ‘Difficult’ as ‘Don’t even go there!’)
I did hang out in cafes for a couple of days at that stage, scribbling in my notebook, but I was just jotting down random thoughts and ideas that had nothing to do with anything I’d been working on at home.
I scribbled some thoughts down in my notebook when I was camping too, but on the Scattered Authors’ retreat, although I took my computer and current work in progress and really thought I was going to crack on with it, I wrote absolutely nothing at all.
I sometimes take work, but I never stress about not doing any, because I know from long experience that going away always means I’ll come home full of new creative energy, enthusiasm and ideas.
I think one of the reasons my trips are fruitful is because I do focus on my work in progress right up until I leave, and hold it in the back of my mind even when my main focus is on the new places I’m seeing and people I’m meeting.
By the time I sit down at my own desk again, I’m coming to my writing completely renewed – a new me, a different me, made up of the old me plus the experience of my adventure. And my work in progress, somewhere out of sight but never entirely out of mind, has been growing and developing too.
I was going to blog about the Scattered Authors’ summer retreat but my friend Sheena Wilkinson has written a great post about it, and I couldn’t do better – you can read it here.
Jung believed the dream goes on all the time, day and night, a constant flow of images and narratives that runs like an underground stream beneath our conscious awareness. He said the only reason we think of dreaming as a night-time phenomenon is because most of us only become aware of it when the conscious mind is completely turned off in sleep.
If you conceptualise dreaming in this way, as a continuous layer of consciousness, you begin to notice how you naturally slip in and out of it all the time, in fantasies and daydreams. What if I go to the beach today? That person I met in the cafe last time might be there, and she might say… and then we might…
What if I hadn’t said what I said? We might have gone ahead with our plan… We might be making lots of money, and then we could…
Lots of us are unaware of our daydreaming mind. It’s like background noise we’re so used to we hardly notice it. But others enjoy their dreams and daydreams so much, they notice and deliberately nurture them.
Many writers report that they daydreamed their way through school – they may have got into trouble for it. But I’d say it was time well spent – they were developing a vital creative ability.
The ‘writer’s trance’ is a kind of daydreaming. In his book on writing, Stephen King describes his writing sessions as like slipping into sleep, because when he’s writing he’s completely unaware of what’s going on in the household around him. When he stops for lunch, he says,it’s like waking up from a dream and gradually becoming aware of his surroundings again.
Most people assume that the craft of writing – how to construct a strong plot, write convincing dialogue, conjure vivid settings so on – can be taught, but that the inspiration side is just luck. It has to come on its own, if it comes at all.
To some extent, that’s true but in writing as in creative dreaming, we can learn techniques for tapping into the unconscious mind at will, directing it and harnessing its power.
Developing dreaming and daydreaming skills doesn’t only make your dreams and writing more exciting – it makes your whole life more exciting too, because the unconscious mind is made of stories. Its nature is movement – a continuous growing and then dying back of possibilities – in which our conscious mind sits with all its certainties and definitions, limited and fixed.
Do you enjoy your dreams and daydreams? Does writing feel like daydreaming to you?
My last post was about the royal garden party, which I mentioned was right outside my comfort zone. When I got my invitation, I didn’t even possess a dress, let alone a hat or fascinator, so the dress code felt quite challenging!
But I like going outside my comfort zone – its expansive. Going outside your comfort zone makes your comfort zone bigger.
Trying new things is also the key to living creatively because creativity is, by definition, making something that didn’t exist before and, when we try new things, we create brand new experiences.
Quite often, we may be reluctant to try new things – a different kind of food, book, activity or TV show – and there is indeed a good chance we won’t like the new one as much as our old favourite. But if that’s the worst that could happen, I reckon it’s worth the risk.
It doesn’t have to be a giant leap into the unknown – shaking up the little things can start a creative wave. When was the last time you parked in a different spot at the supermarket, took a different route to work, sat in a different chair in the evening, went out for a walk at a time of day when you usually stay home?
Living creatively by seeking out new experiences puts energy into all your creative work because you carry those attitudes of openness and adventurousness, and also that buzz of pleasure and excitement, into your writing or painting or gardening, or whatever creative activity floats your boat.
Lots of creative teachers talk about the importance of taking time out from your normal routines and doing new things, to refresh your creative energy. It’s commonly called ‘going down to the well.’
I was way outside my normal routine last week at the Buckingham Palace garden party – frocks and fascinators are not really my thing! In case you’re wondering, my invitation came through the Society of Authors – I’ve been a member for most of my writing career and taught several creative blockbusting workshops for them.
The afternoon progressed like a well-oiled machine. The queues moved very quickly through the gates, despite the huge number of guests.
The National Anthem announced the Queen’s arrival and, while the band played and everyone was upstanding, she came out onto the steps, flanked by Beefeaters.
The Beefeaters accompanied her as she walked among the crowds so, although we couldn’t see her, we knew where she was by the tips of their pikes.
The cakes were divine! After tea my friend and I had a stroll round the gardens, coming back to find staff moving among the guests with trays of lemon barley water and little tubs of ice cream.
It was a brilliant opportunity to enjoy that most favourite of writerly pastimes, people-watching. A clutch of Bishops, a pair of robed academics, a scattering of groups in African dress, a gaggle of jovial mayors.
Even the Ladies’ Lavatories were an experience, set as they were beside the big lake, and attended by a woman who checked each cubicle as it became vacant, presumably to make sure the bowl was clean and there was plenty of toilet paper, before personally ushering the next person in.
Very few people actually got to speak to the Queen yet the surprising thing, for me, was that it felt quite personal. Buckingham Palace didn’t feel like a massive public building, but somebody’s home, and the party was just in their garden.
I realise I may be sounding like a royalist, but I’m not. I’m not a republican either. I think there are good arguments both for and against having a monarchy.
But as a dreamer, it seems to me that kings and queens, princes and princesses do something quite extraordinary. They are like living archetypes, symbolising for us universal qualities, even though they may not, in their own personal lives, be any less complicated, flawed and human than the ordinary person in the street.
I was first struck by this in the outpouring of grief when Princess Diana died. It was so surprising and disproportionate, I felt we were not grieving the person she was but what she symbolised – a quality of caring kindness that seemed to be slipping away in the post-Thatcher era.
It’s the same with the royal wedding last week. We don’t know what Prince Harry and Meghan are like as individuals, whether they row and bicker behind closed doors – but thousands of people enjoyed their wedding because there they stood before a nation as the representing the romantic Hero in all of us, the perfect Princess and the possibility of lifelong romantic love.
Seeing the Queen standing there on the steps of her home, I was really aware of the strangeness of her existence. Through the doors behind her lay her domestic life, where she is just a person like the rest of us, but as soon as she steps outside she is no longer a woman; she becomes absolutely her role, as Queen.
The dreamer in me, like the writer, found the whole experience intriguing.
Tzivia describes how she discovered her mother had been a prolific dreamer, but it was too late to explore their shared interest because, by then, her mother had slipped into ‘her dream of dementia’ and lost the ability to communicate in speech.
It made me wonder whether my mother dreamed – or rather, remembered her dreams. I would think not. But what about my father? My sisters and brother? My grandparents?
It struck me how rarely most of us talk about our dream lives, even with those closest to us. I’m glad I’ve always had that conversation with my children, and these days, also, with my friends.
It’s fun, intriguing and sometimes reassuring to talk about the places we go and the experiences we have in our dreams. For me, it’s like talking about great movies we’ve seen, or wonderful novels, or little pieces of poetry we’ve chanced upon and felt inspired.
I think one of the reasons why it isn’t part of our culture to talk about our dreams is because psychology has hijacked dreaming and shaped our view of it into some kind of secret code that makes us vulnerable to being exposed.
For me, my dreaming is a rainbow of emotions, themes, images, characters and stories that show, not my deep unconscious analysable life, but the moving colours of my psyche.
Next time you remember a dream, try sharing it. If you still have your mother in your life, perhaps you could share it with her or, if she has already left, you might invite her to visit you in dreams, as Tzivia has done.
Do you talk to friends and family about your dreams? If not, what would hold you back? If so, how does it make you feel?
A new author asked me recently whether I thought it would be worth her while to set up a website. ‘I like the thought of having a platform out there, but obviously if nobody is going to look at it then there’s no point…’
I would ask, is there any point in NOT having a website? It doesn’t cost anything and with platforms like this one (wordpress) it isn’t difficult to set one up, even for someone as technically challenged as me.
Your website is like your shop window. You can point people towards it via your social networking profiles, email signatures, business cards and any other promos you can think of, such as bookmarks, and show them what you do.
You can install ‘buy now’ buttons, so they can instantly order your book from you if they like what they see (but be careful not to undercut amazon on price, or they’ll delist it).
The job of writing the text and adding images is entirely pleasurable if you love writing – and I’m guessing you must, as you’ve actually managed to complete a whole novel.
You’re trying to convey a sense of you as the author – your style, as well as the style of your book. You want your website visitors to know, from reading your site, what kind of reading experience they might expect to find in your books.
The content you choose to include will also probably reflect the kind of books you write. For example, I’ve got a fair amount of personal information on my website’s ‘About’ page, because I share my own experiences in my non-fiction, and write in a personal kind of voice.
In the separate area on my site for my children’s books, the content and voice is aimed at younger readers, including a second ‘About’ page with different information on.
Just as with the content and voice of the text, the visual style of your blog should have the same feel as your books. A romantic novelist, for example, needs a style that’s completely different from a lit fic writer.
Setting up your own website makes keeping it updated really easy – you’re not having to send a batch of updates to a web designer every couple of weeks or months – and it evolves like any other kind of creative work.
As well as being a shop window for you and your work, your website can be a hub for all your networks. You can add links to your blog, if you have one, to your social media profiles and also a sign-up button to your mailing list (I use mailchimp for mine – definitely worth checking out).
If you’re new to all this, it can feel daunting setting up a website, but remember no one can see anything until you press ‘publish.’ Even then, you can just publish to a few people if you like, and get their feedback first, rather than going public straight away. So play around and enjoy it!
Rather like when your book is published, when you publish your website it won’t suddenly mean gazillions of people are flocking to read it. For almost everyone, it’s a slow build. But you don’t need gazillions of people to like your work.
If you can get a couple of hundred people who like it enough to tell their friends, with any luck that could set the snowball rolling, and your readership will begin to grow.
So friends, if you liked this post, please tweet, fb or share it. The buttons are all here below, for your convenience!
I get a fair few emails from people who have completed their first novel and want some advice on how to get it published. It’s really time consuming to keep repeating the same things, so I’ve decided to put my thoughts in a blog post – then all I’ll have to do when I reply is send them the link!
The first thing to say is ‘Well done!’ Seriously. I mean it. Writing a novel is a huge undertaking. People who’ve never tried it have no idea how hard it is, and a lot of people who do try find they can’t go the distance.
Having said that, make sure you actually have finished it. Getting the story down is only the start. Once you’ve completed your first draft, you need to redraft and keep redrafting until the book is as good as you can possibly make it.
When you’ve written your novel, crafted it, got it as good as you can get it, then you have three choices:
Decide not to publish
Try to find a traditional publisher
Publish it yourself.
You’ll have discovered, having reached this stage, that publication isn’t the only point in writing a book. The process itself is intensely challenging, and intensely rewarding. That’s another thing that people who have never written a novel may not understand.
So although publication is certainly an option, it isn’t the only reason why you might decide to write and keep writing.
Option 2 is still the route most new authors want to start with, and I think that’s a good idea, unless you’re writing something you know you can find readers for yourself.
There are no short cuts that I’m aware of. Most major publishers will only read agented manuscripts, so you need to check out agents’ websites and look carefully at which books and authors they represent, or check out authors writing the same kind of story as you, and find out who their agent is.
When you’ve got 4-6 agents who seem like a possible fit, contact them, following their guidelines for new submissions. Some prefer email, some letters. Keep it brief, don’t big yourself up – ‘My book’s better than Harry Potter and I’m going to be bigger than JK Rowling!’ (Somebody actually wrote exactly that in their covering letter when I worked for a reading agency).
Also, avoid mentioning that your mum/friends/children love your stories so they must be good. Of course your mum/friends/children love your stories – they love you!
If you want to take a punt at approaching publishers direct, find books similar to yours and check out their publishers’ websites. They may say they accept un-agented manuscripts and, if so, make sure you follow their submissions guidelines.
The wheels move exceeding slow in traditional publishing, so don’t be surprised if you have to wait weeks for a response. It’s also incredibly competitive, so don’t feel too disheartened if you can’t get any takers.
That would once have been the end of the road for your novel but now we’ve got Option 3 – self-publishing. My advice if you’re considering this route is to check out the Alliance of Independent Authors – they have a fantastic blog and, for members, a really useful fb group where you can always find people who know the answers to any questions you may have concerning any aspect of the self-publishing process.
Again, I’ve written about the various routes to publication in Happy Writing, so I won’t go into it at any more length here.
Whichever route you take, you’ll have to learn how to use social media and be willing to get out there and promote yourself and your book. Also, whichever route you take, you’re very unlikely to be able to give up the day job and earn your living from writing.
Most authors have to supplement their income from books by doing some teaching, editing, mentoring or a different kind of work that isn’t related to writing at all.
There’s one other thing people sometimes ask me – do I have any contacts that might be helpful to them? I personally probably don’t but anyway, I obviously wouldn’t want to recommend someone’s book without having first read it, and I simply don’t have time to read manuscripts for people I don’t know.
I used to work for a reading agency, Cornerstones, but I gave it up for precisely that reason – reading manuscripts takes a long time, and writing appraisals even longer. If you’re a new author, please don’t ask authors you’ve never met to do this work for nothing. It’s simply not a reasonable request.
An agency like Cornerstones will do a brilliant job of that for you and, if they spot publishing potential in your manuscript, they can help you try to find an agent. But obviously it will cost you.
So there it is! Well done, good luck, and I hope I’ve been able to be helpful. In my next post, I’ll address another question people often email me about – whether writers need a blog or website and how to set one up.
Have you got any experiences or advice you’d like to share with someone who has just finished writing their book?
It’s the start of a new year, and the perfect time to take out a new writing magazine subscription. Writing magazines, which these days usually have online communities built around them, are an excellent resource for both building your skills and finding a public outlet for them.
Writing Magazine is the biggest one in the UK, with an active online network and blog (you can see one of my articles on having a creative Christmas here). As well as practical advice about the craft of writing you’ll find readers’ contributions and regular writing competitions. I advertise my workshops and courses in their annual guide.
Like Writing Magazine, Writers’ Forum provides a wealth of information and opportunities for writers at every stage of their writing journey, from complete beginners to published authors. Look out for my article in next month’s issue, called What kind of writer are you? Why it helps to understand your author brand.
As the name suggests, the target reader is women writers. Mslexia has a strong community-of-writers feel, with the articles in each edition being chosen by a guest editor, on a theme, rather than the same editorial team.
Mslexia is read by top authors and absolute beginners. A quarterly masterclass in the business and psychology of writing, it’s the essential magazine for women who write.
So there you have my great writing reads – now, what about the fantastic freebie?
All my previous book launches have been nibbles-and-bubbles parties, with a lot of mingling, a spot of reading and somebody lovely raising a toast.
I’ve held them in my garden, my local library, the back room of the village pub, an art gallery, the Sterts open air theatre… Every book is different, and so is every launch.
When I discovered that the Looe Literary Festival coincided with publication week I really wanted to launch my new book there. It’s a festival that truly celebrates local writing and grass-roots creativity as well as big name authors, and that’s very much the spirit of Free-Range Writing.
There are readings from the Looe Writing Group and the Liskeard Poets, whose book launch I attended recently, having been invited to select the poems for their anthology. Alongside talks by famous authors like Lord Owen, Adam Hart-Davis and Dr Susan Blackmore, there are lesser-known writers of fiction and non-fiction. There are panels and discussions on topics as various as fisheries policy and self-publishing. There’s plenty for children as well.
I’ve been in the green room at the Cheltenham litfest, mingling with TV stars who’ve written a book and hawk-eyed photographers trying to get photos of them, and felt curiously detached from the whole business. For me, writing is about all of us, ordinary people; we all have something interesting and beautiful to say.
Thinking only famous writing is good writing is a mistake, as anyone who has any experience of writing workshops will know. It’s also harmful because it can make us feel discouraged and reluctant to explore our own innate abilities. My new book is about freeing up your thinking, venturing into every area of your writer self and being surprised by what you find.
So this book is all about the writing, and I’ll be launching it in a different way, with a free-range writing talk at 12.00 on Sunday 19th November and then a workshop after lunch, at 2 o’clock.
I love doing these community workshops, partly because they’re a chance to work with writers of all ages. They’re not just for children, or for adults, or for families – they’re for everyone age 8+. We all have something interesting to say and we so rarely have the chance to write together. (Participants under 18 must be accompanied by an adult).
The Looe Literary Festival is a great event in a gorgeous location and it’s the perfect place to hear about Free-Range Writing, so please come along and help me celebrate if you can. I will hope to see you there!
I was going on tour with my three books for writers. I opened my well-travelled, old-fashioned suitcase and there they were, just the books, looking bright and colourful against the black satin lining. I felt very proud of them.
I had this deeply pleasurable dream a few weeks ago, when I was emailing publications to see if they would like a review copy of my upcoming book, Free-Range Writing: 75 Forays for the Wild Writer’s Soul, and pitching ideas for articles. (I’m happy to report that Mslexia has accepted a copy for review and I’ve placed an article on free-range writing in the Writers’ News Christmas edition).
Usually, I have to put my shoulder to the wheel and get on with it, when it comes to promoting new books, but promoting this one feels joyful. I want to shout about it, partly because it’s my first brand new book in two years, and partly because it gives me a sense of completion.
These three writing books are a set, although I only notice that now, looking back. They cover the whole writer’s process:
opening to inspiration (Writing in the House of Dreams)
keeping the writing flowing (Happy Writing)
extending yourself as a writer (Free-Range Writing)
They also reflect my own coming-to-writing. First, before I was a writer, I was a dream worker – I learnt to come and go across the borders of my unconscious and work with the stories and images I found in great abundance there. To use Ted Hughes’ analogy, I learnt to fish.
There is the inner life, which is the world of final reality, the world of memory, imagination, emotion, intelligence, and natural common sense, and which goes on all the time, consciously or unconsciously, like the heart beat. There is also the thinking process by which we break into that inner life and capture answers and evidence to support the answers out of it. That process of raid, or persuasion, or ambush, or dogged hunting, or surrender, is the kind of thinking we have to learn and if we do not somehow learn it, then our minds lie in us like the fish in the pond of a man who cannot fish.
Writing in the House of Dreamsit about tapping the mystery of inspiration, the ‘Where did that come from?’ It includes lots of practical writing exercises to help readers open to their own unconscious processes.
Next, at the age of 40, I started my writing career. As well as having to build my writing skills, I also had to develop the psychological toughness this business requires: a thick skin, a willingness to be seen, the ability to set clear goals and the flexibility to adapt them. Authors also have to cope with financial uncertainty, and develop other sources of income – many award-winning authors have to fit their writing in around a day job.
Happy Writingis about the psychology of writing, the ‘How can I keep going?’, whether in a longer piece like a novel, or over the course of a career. It includes lots of practical writing exercises to help readers build their writing skills, such as plotting and redrafting, identify when hidden fears might be holding them back and create writing goals they can pursue whole-heartedly because they come from their core values rather than other people’s assumptions.
In my early 50’s, I began to teach writing workshops, and I always mixed it up, just as I’ve done in my own writing career. I found people were surprised to be asked to write a poem in a plotting workshop, say, or a magazine article in a memoir workshop – they were surprised, also, by how enjoyable and fruitful a more holistic approach can be.
Free-Range Writingis about inhabiting more of your writer self and growing as a writer, the ‘Yes, I can do this! What else can I do?’ It includes 75 practical writing forays into different genres, with tips and advice to help readers feel confident about experimenting, and a chapter on how to use these exercises to set up a new writing group or pep up an existing one.
Every stage of the writer’s journey is different, and so these three books are all very different from each other. Until I had the dream and actually saw them in my dear old suitcase, all together, they had felt a bit random and disparate. I hadn’t realised that they were a series, each one a necessary part of the whole.
I’m not sure I realised, either, that I do feel very proud them, these beloved children of my other lives, in dreams and writing.
If you would like to help them make their way in the world, please share this post to your fb/twitter/personal blog.