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Sunday, 27 November 2011

Writing Feedback-Cruel To Be Kind

As a mother of two teenage sons, I’m no stranger to tough love. I like to think that I know what’s best for them even if they rarely agree. Do I rise to their moaning that “everybody is allowed to…” blah blah blah? No chance!  I tell them to suck it up. It’s part of my job description as their mum to be cruel to be kind. I have to tell them things that they don’t want to hear.

But being on the receiving end of a home truth isn’t easy. My second experience of a writing workshop wasn’t any less painful. Hearing your work being criticised and not being allowed to interrupt is not for the faint hearted. 

Luckily I had just read the latest post on Nicola Morgan’s excellent blog, ‘Help! I Need a Publisher’.

This week’s post, ‘Beware of Praise’ really helped me accept the blows when I later read the written comments (although a lovely Cabernet Sauvignon Rose wine helped even more).
Nicola’s analogy is that praise is very like chocolate.It tastes great at the time. Too much of it is (regrettably) bad for you.” Oh how true!!

Would it have been nice to walk out of uni with praise ringing in my ears? Hell yes! But would it have made me a better writer? Duh! Of course not, so I have to suck it up like I tell my boys.

Nicola warns wannabe writers to accept praise with extreme caution. And not to listen to your family and friends if they gush over your writing.  Step away from praise. It can be your enemy unless it comes from someone qualified in the publishing industry or whom you trust and value.

It’s sound advice. At the beginning of the year, I experienced a line by line edit by my literary agent on my previous novel.  She made comments like,
“This section should hit me like a punch in the stomach. It doesn't. You can do better.”

So you would think that by now I’d have skin as thick as a rhino’s. Alas, it’s not that simple. I value the opinions of my fellow students and my lecturer and if I didn’t care about my writing it wouldn’t hurt. As Jane Fonda would say, “No pain, no gain!”

Next semester will mean a fresh bout at the workshop. I will grit my teeth and stock up on rose wine! Bring it on!!

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Writing and Giving Yourself the Freedom to Fail

It was a big deal for me to sign up for the MLitt course and I was full of self-doubt before I arrived at my first class. The fear quickly faded by being amongst a group of supportive fellow students and enjoying every week of a well-structured meaningful course. I’d made the right decision BUT…

What if my work isn’t good enough? What if my submission is ripped apart in the workshop? What if I don’t do well in my assignments? What if my family and friends think my writing is rubbish? What if I can’t make it as a writer? What if? What if?

There’s no end to the list of insecurities! I don’t think a writer is ever free of self-doubt. It seems to come as part of the job.

But if ever I needed a boost, the visit to uni this week from the award winning writer DBC Pierre was inspirational. In 2003, Pierre won the Man Booker Prize for his debut novel, Vernon God Little. Wow! But how did he manage to win the world's most important literary award?

A contemporary The Catcher in the Rye

Anyone who’s ever heard of him will know that his juicy life story is as interesting as any of his novels. But for Pierre, the positive side to hitting rock bottom meant that no one had high expectations of him and he was free to fail.

No one likes to fail and it’s hard not to be your own harshest critic. My internal editor is always sitting on my shoulder and instead of just getting the words down on paper, I constantly go over my work getting hung up on every sentence. And then there’s the expectation of others.

When I told my mum I’d finished my first attempt at a novel. She told her friend. And a week later her pal phoned my mum to ask why she couldn’t find it in Waterstone's!!

No pressure then…

Pierre’s key message was to give yourself the freedom to fail. He wrote the first draft of Vernon God Little in a stream of consciousness in five frenzied weeks. But it took several drafts and many months of sifting through the original material and reconstructing the writing to create a phenomenal novel.  Everyone needs TIME to experience failure before they can achieve success.  No artist uses watercolours for the first time and has the painting hung in the National Gallery.  It takes years of hard slog to achieve such glory- just ask Jack Vettriano! I know now that I need to give myself permission to produce crap and then keep writing in order to get better.

At the book signing, Pierre wrote on my copy of Vernon God Little,
“Be free to fail- only by staring into that abyss can we write!"

No excuses left now…

Friday, 11 November 2011

Writing-Be Yourself; Everyone Else is Already Taken

This week in class we were given an exercise to write about a journey set in a variety of locations. We also had to describe our home town in 3 words. The results were dramatically different. I really enjoyed hearing the range of descriptions and it proved the point that we have all developed our own distinctive writing voice.

Who else in the group would describe his hometown as “infested”? It was such a loaded word (apologises to anyone from Alloa) that it could only belong to one guy and his characteristic way of describing his world view.

This week, we submitted our first assignments and these will be identified by our student number only as per the uni’s guidelines. This is of course only right and fair but pointless really. After spending weeks together, I’d be confident enough to bet my left arm that our lecturer could match up the writing to the person without any names attached to the work. No problemo.

But how do you find your writing voice?

This quest has taken me time and effort. And it’s like my novel- a work in progress!
When I first started writing seriously I didn’t really understand what was meant by finding a voice that worked for me. So I tried to think of it in musical terms and then it became clearer. You couldn’t expect camp as Christmas Johnny from the X Factor to be able to sing Barry White’s, ‘Can’t Get Enough of Your Love Babe’ in his high pitched voice could you?  Although anyone who’s ever watched the X Factor knows that Louis Walsh’s crap song choices are legendary. Who could forget Wagner bashing bongo drums and trying to sing Ricky Martin’s ‘She Bangs’ last year? My ears are still bleeding! And I wonder if Pat Butcher ever did get her earrings back from him? 

                                    "You made that song your own"- and ruined it for 13 million viewers!

But I digress. So I had to experiment and find a voice that felt right for me. One that suited the story.

Eventually I realised that I was never EVER going to be able to write like Jane Austen or Virginia Woolf however much I tried. I could only write like ME. And here’s another revelation that I finally worked out the hard way… using big words didn’t make my fiction writing read any better. I was trying too hard. And it’s not big or clever to regurgitate the Oxford Dictionary and exhaust a Thesaurus. Using fancy purple prose in fiction is just not my natural style.

Of course a writer needs to be able to create a variety of different voices just as I wouldn’t use the same tone and tempo of voice in a letter of complaint to my bank manager as I would on a holiday postcard to my best pal. But I still need to make sure that I sound sincere and authentic when communicating my message whether it’s, “I wholly object to the exorbitant bank charge” or “the voddy cocktails are amazzzzzing!!!”

Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” I like to think of myself as very much a ‘what you see is what you get’ type of person but it took me a while to be true to myself in my writing. I’m no longer attempting to fake it to make it on paper. I’m just working hard to be me – a better writer with my own unique voice.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Writing and the Joys of Working from Home

This week I’ave mostly been eating Haribo. 

And working on my assignments for uni. But a more accurate version would be that I’ve been TRYING to work on my assignments!

When I studied for my first degree over twenty years ago, I had the same assignment deadlines but in very different circumstances. Back in the day, it was a straight forward case of taking myself off to the library and only emerging when I needed food and drink. Simple. Hassle free.

Second time around there is a whole new set of problems…

Don’t even get me started on how easy it is to lose hours on the internet. And there is no chance of completely opting out of daily domestic life whenever I feel like it. Not when my other name is “mum”. My two sons might well be teenagers now but they’re still as needy as ever. And then there’s the new pup and older dog at my feet.

How do I get the peace and quiet to get my uni work done AND write a bestseller?
An ex-colleague often set her email notification as ‘out of office’ even when she was sitting right beside us. It was her way of telling us that we might be able to see her but she wasn’t there. It seemed mad at the time but now I can see her logic.

Is there a way of being ‘out of office’ at home? I can’t lock myself away in a home office or a study because my house doesn’t have one. So I’ve set up ‘office’ in my bedroom and use my wicker dressing table as a desk. It’s not ideal working in amongst my pots of anti-ageing creams and looking out at my view of the petrol station across the road. But my dream keeps me going…

It all started last May when I went with my best pal to the Ideal Homes Show at the SECC in Glasgow. I saw it from a distance. I swooned. I pushed through the crowds and ran towards it. I could hear Vangelis play Chariots of Fire. I was soon close enough to breathe deeply and inhale the smell of the fresh new wood. I stroked the texture of the cladding, I felt my knees go weak at the clever design AND there was a lock on the door. I was in love…

This is the object of my desire.  

The Armadilla. 

A lot better looking than Roald Dahl's old shed! Although The Armadilla is not worth as much. Even though his estate must amount to millions of pounds, his granddaughter recently launched a public appeal for £500.000 to save it. Bit of a Roald Dahl and the Giant Cheek if you ask me! My youngest son loved his books and I admire his brilliance but how about getting B & Q to sponsor it?  Don't ask me to fund it. I'm saving up for The Armadilla!

Do you want to share my fantasy of the perfect writer's sanctiary?
I challenge any aspiring writers not to drool!

Maybe one day I will lock the door behind me and gaze out to lambs gambolling in lush green fields ….

But in the meantime, back in the real world, my youngest son needs help with homework, the eldest wants to know what's for dinner,  the pup has peed again on the bedroom rug and the older dog has chewed a hole in my hubby's slipper…