Sunday, 14 December 2014

50,000 mark!

I have for you one of life's great ponderous questions. Somewhat rhetorical, somewhat thought-provoking, somewhat unanswerable. It's a real head-scratcher. Ready to hear it?

Do you want the good news or the bad news first?

You don't actually get a choice because I'm going to tell you the good news first, I've just heard that opening with a question is a good way to hook readers in. Hopefully you're still reading...

Well the good news is that I completed NaNoWriMo (and succeeded in writing 50,000 words in the month of November). This was a feat that I really didn't think I could achieve so I was pleasantly surprised that I was able to make it, even if writing the last 5,000 words was more painful than when I jammed a paper clip underneath my fingernail last week in work... The point is, I did it! I got my word count to a point above 50,000, something that I believed I could never, ever, ever do.

But unfortunately the laws of physics relate to writing too (surprisingly enough) and we all know that what goes up must come down, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction... Essentially, I discovered that making huge progress with my wordcount doesn't automatically equate to simultaneous progress with my plot line and character development.

What I mean is that I thought that by the time I reached 50,000 words I would have been a lot further along with my storyline. I always estimated (very naively, I now understand) that my novel would be approximately 80-90,000 words when I finished it. Therefore it makes sense that by the time I reached 50K words, I assumed that I would have been over the halfway point. But I'm not. I'm not even close to halfway. In fact, there are large parts of my novel that I left out in my haste to reach 50K. This means that I will have to go back and rewrite what I already have written, add in more chapters thus bumping up my wordcount even further and pushing me even further away from my ending!

Do I sound like I'm catastrophising? Sorry I tend do that, which in turn doesn't help with my writing. When I get stressed, confused or worried I tend to put my head in the sand and this is particularly true when it comes to writing. Why do you think it took me almost six years to sit down and finally make a decent attempt at writing my book?

So while I finished NaNo, made it to 50K and felt suitably smug for about a weekend, I then did what I do best: I panicked at the realisation that writing the book is turning out to be a lot harder than I thought (who'd have thought it?) and I avoided my novel. In fact, I've pretty much avoided it ever since. 

But I've pulled my head out of the sand this weekend, even if it did take a few weeks, and I've managed to start writing again. Knowing that I have written 50,000 words means that I can do it again and make it to 100,000. And who knows, maybe I'll have to write another 50,000 after that before I get to write those two incredible words "The End", but I can do it. My book could be 300,000 words long when I finish the first draft (although I hope it won't be) but that's what first drafts are for. They're there to edit, revise and hone down until the finest part of the story is left. 

So I may not have finished my book during NaNo but I'm so much further than I ever thought I would be!

Saturday, 15 November 2014

NaNoWriMo

Write your novel in a month!
The world needs your novel!
50,000 words is only 1,667 words per day!

These are the taglines and phrases that the NaNoWriMo twitter page shouted at me for the month of October. In fact they have shouted them at me for the last three Octobers but this was the first time I actually listened (for future reference, if you ask me to do something, fourth time is clearly a charm with me).

I know that I'm an advertiser's/marketer's dream. I buy things because the media tells me that I need them. If I see two chocolate bars for a euro beside the cash register, you know I'm gonna be all over that. And as for the half price carpet cleaner (which I have yet to take the plastic off) - it's a given that it goes in the trolley. I have accumulated several items over the years that I have not and will never use (the steam mop, the deep fat fryer, the beanbag chair, the gorgeous silver quill sitting on my desk now judging me...) and so it goes without saying that NaNoWriMo, like most campaigns, was eventually going to pull me in.

So I signed up for an account, planned out the 50,000 words that I would write and began on the 1st of November. I'm just at the halfway point of NaNo as I type and the results have been... surprising to say the least. Writing a minimum of 1,667 words every day can be tricky (I know, who'd have thought it??) and it's taken me a while to view every word written as an achievement. I've learned a lot in the last 15 days, both about myself and about writing and I thought it might be a good time to share them.

Don't write in your pyjamas:

Forgive me for generalising but when one wakes up at 5am (or is woken up by your annoyingly-too-early-to-function alarm clock) it's tempting to stay in your PJ's until it's absolutely necessary to get dressed. It's totally understandable - you're cold and tired and annoyed. Likewise, at nighttime after a hot shower, you're going to get into your warm fuzzy Penney's PJs and snuggle up for the night. You can still write though, right? Wrong!

If you're doing NaNoWriMo - don't be seduced by your PJ's, not matter how appealing they look! I've quickly learned if you're dressed to laze around and sleep, you're going to laze around and sleep. Or at least you're going to want to. It's hard to be productive in PJ's, unless your goal is to sit around and do nothing. So put on some proper clothes (even if they're just your manky 15 year old tracksuit bottoms - a particular writing favourite of mine) and be productive.

5am starts never get any easier...

Again, this may be surprising but they don't. I commute a reasonably long distance to work with about 40,000 other road users every morning so I'm used to early starts at 6am. Sure what difference does an hour make, I hear you say? As it turns out, a lot. Sweet Jesus, the sound of my alarm going off at 5am is enough to make me fling my laptop out the window and scream obscenities at it for daring me to do this. But I don't. Because I'm far too nice. Instead I debate for a moment about whether to rise or not (and snoozing the alarm in the process, causing considerable annoyance to hubby beside me resulting in kicks and shoves beneath the covers) and eventually I do. It is not easy, in fact it is HORRIBLE! But it's only for four weeks and I remind myself (while stumbling down the stairs, trying to find a lightswitch) that I can have all the lie-ons I want in December. Well, until 6am anyway. I'll still have to go to work.

Coffee is horrible... But it works:

This is coming from a perpetual tea drinker. I've always been an advocate of tea - it's gotten me through difficult days, long nights (usually cramming college assignments) and early starts on my commute. It's refreshing, it's comforting and it's perfect with a bar of chocolate (or two). But it doesn't really have that get-out-of-bed-and-open-your-eyes-and-write-1,667-words-at-5am kind of kick. And sometimes the slump in the afternoon is the worst.

What do you mean I still have three hours of work left and I have to function at a reasonable level? Don't you know what time I've been up since? 

Sniping at colleagues doesn't get me far but coffee does. I have drank three cups of coffee in the last fortnight, which is three cups more than I've drank in my life before this. I hate it - it tastes rank, it leaves an awful aftertaste, it makes my chocolate taste funny but dammit, it perks me up. Noticeably so. The energy I have is actually astounding but what goes up must come down right? Just don't come near me at 9pm each night. Caffeine and chocolate can only keep my mood up for so many hours.

First drafts are terrible... but that's okay:

The whole goal of NaNoWriMo is to get the words written, never mind how bad they are. You can always go back and edit when you're done. Again, it might sound easy, but my god it's so difficult. I can now easily tap out 1,000 words in half an hour using the NaNo sprints on twitter (they're amazing for motivation!) but out of those 1,000 words I would estimate that 90% of it is rubbish. No joke. It's hard to write quality language when you're working against the clock. And for me, the perfectionist, it's extremely difficult to control my fingers and not begin working backwards, editing the sentences I have just written. But I'm getting better at it. And if the temptation to write is particularly strong during any given writing session, I just remind myself: 1,000 awful words are better than 0 words.

I could have worse hobbies:

It's not much comfort, but I do take solace in the fact that writing is flexible. If it's raining outside it doesn't hinder my writing (in fact it usually helps it). I can write in my office at home, my office at work, in bed, at the kitchen table, on the couch. I can even write in coffee shops (not with my laptop - I feel far too pretentious) by bringing my notebook and brainstorming and plot-developing for an hour.  I can have a cup of tea and chocolate as I write - an option I often treat myself to.

I see the local young guys leaving their football training in the evenings absolutely dripping wet. I notice people out training for races, running against gale force winds and horizontal rain. Or I hear of people getting up at the crack of down to drive to a swimming pool a good distance away to train for hours before school or work. I don't have those difficulties. Writing, although painstakingly difficult at times, does have some home comforts.

I'm allowed to treat myself:

I remember in sixth year history, we learned about Stalin's use of the carrot and stick method during the Cold War. Now, I don't habitually compare myself to dictators (often) but I do find myself leaning into this method during NaNo. I reward myself if I achieve my word count goal and I punish myself if I don't.

Rewards so far include extra chocolate (obviously), takeaways, lighting the fire, a hot bath, getting my hair done, Sex and the City episodes. I'm going to London at the end of the month and this is the big carrot for me: if I get my 50K done by this trip I'm going to bring extra money with me than I currently have planned and treat myself to some goodies on Oxford Street.

Punishments include no chocolate with my tea (that was a particularly cruel one), not buying a lovely grey dress that I saw last weekend because I hadn't reached my word-count (and I didn't really need it, but that's beside the point). Sometimes I can't control my punishments - last week I went to bed having only written 500 words that day and I barely slept three hours out of guilt. Although come to think of it, that may have been the coffee I had had earlier...

As can be seen, my rewards outweigh my punishments so far which can only mean one thing...

I'm achieving it!

Yes, that's right - I am officially succeeding at NaNoWriMo! It's currently day 15 which means I should have 25,005 words written right now. At the time of writing this blog, I have... (drum roll please) 31,584 words written! No, your eyes do not deceive you, I have actually written 6,579 words more than required. Me! The girl who has been putting off writing the book for the last six years. What on earth was I so scared of? Actually, never mind, we'll save that for the next blog...

Anyway folks, just wanted to share my tidbits of information and advice from this years NaNoWriMo. I'm hopeful that I can keep the momentum going (of course it dips from day to day) but my aim is to have the 50K completed within the next two weeks!

Monday, 27 October 2014

A Novel in 30 Days

I have set myself a challenge. For the month of November, I am going to take part in "NaNoWriMo", a writing competition that challenges its participants to write a novel in 30 days.

Can I do it? Well, earlier this month, I would have said no.  I believed that that there was no way I would ever have the motivation, time management, skill and energy to do something like that. But following events that happened this week, I now think, feel, believe, know that I can do it.

This week has undoubtedly been one of the most difficult weeks of my life. Without wanting to get too much into it (because I'm only ever a millisecond from bursting into tears at the thought of it), we had to make the painful decision to have our family dog put to sleep, after 16 years of love and loyalty from him (he is the cutie in my blogger profile picture). The horribleness of that evening began with a long drive home from work without dinner, two hours in the vets, the tearful goodbyes, watching his eyes close for the last time, the long drive home and finally the silent trudge up the garden to his final resting place.

What aggravated that night even further was that I had decided to enter my first 10,000 words into a novel writing competition and the deadline was the next day. And I still had to finish my manuscript.

Yes, I know I shouldn't have left it to the last minute, but if my tutors in college couldn't get that message through to me, it's not going to happen now. I accept that I am an eternal crammer, forever procrastinating until my deadline gradually slinks closer. At which point, I dust off the laptop and let my fingers fly faster than Liberace's.

So as I got home from the vets at 10pm, my face red and puffy from crying and my stomach crying out for more than half a bag of chips, I put on the kettle and wrote until until 2am. I didn't want to. In fact, it was torture. All I wanted to do was roll up in a ball while looking through old photo albums, crying to the Marley and Me soundtrack. But I persevered. I persevered until my eyes stung, my head began to flop and my wordcount was completed.

I then grabbed four hours of restless sleep before being awoken by my alarm at 6am and wrote my synopsis (which I had foolishly left until the last minute). There was a brief moment that morning when I genuinely considered forgetting about the competition. I knew I was going to get stuck in bad traffic and I wasn't happy with my synopsis. And to top it all off, I was having a bad hair day.

It was a truly horrible moment because I can be so negative when I get into that frame of mind (particularly with little or no sleep) but something in me told me to keep going. I don't know what it was - if I did, I would bottle it and keep it for future deadlines, football games, bad days in the office etc...

In the end, I finished it. I printed it off, sealed it up and dropped it off to the competition headquarters (almost bursting into tears when the lovely man that I handed into smiled at me and said "Well done!").

I really didn't think I could do it, but I did. And I surprised myself by doing so. It was a brave thing to enter into the competition (I think it was anyway) and it would have been easy to succumb to the challenges of the week and make excuses about why I didn't do it. But life is what happens to us when we make other plans, and I'm sick of making excuses about writing.

It's almost six years to the date that I first came up with the idea of my novel (a realisation that hit me during a conversation with a colleague last week) and I'm so annoyed with myself that it's taken this long to write. I know that all novels, indeed all first novels, take years to write. But the length of time it has taken me to write my novel is primarily down to me and my eternally-procrastinating ways.

I do need a kick up the arse (forgive the language but it's apt) and I'm hoping NaNoWriMo will help spur me on. I believe it will and I think that's the key attitude. There's no point in doing the competition if I don't believe I can complete it. And although this past week has been horrible and one that I would never want to repeat in my life, I learned something from it. I learned that if I put my mind to it, I can accomplish what I want to. I learned that I can ignore the inner voice in my head, telling me stop, telling me that I am going to fail, telling me not to bother. It's not often that he loses the battle, but he did this week.

So, I've signed up for NaNoWriMo and I'm going to write 50,000 words of my novel (that's 1,667 words per day) before the 30th of November. If you don't hear/see much of me over the next month, take it as a good sign!

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Feeling Exposed

I exposed myself this month.

No, I didn't flash anyone in a local park or take my clothes off while driving home (I'm guessing that would just add to the slowdown of traffic on my daily commute, and frankly, I just don't have the time for that). Instead, I exposed myself in the most literary way possible: I gave my first draft to a select few people to peruse, review and critique.

I should begin by saying that this was one the hardest things I've ever done in my life (and I'm including a half marathon with a stress fracture in that). I mean, it's one thing to tell people that you're writing a book and to then receive the admiring looks and gushing praise ("fair play to you", "I could never do that", "I'm so impressed by that"). I'd be lying if I said that I didn't feel a swell of pride or a boost in my confidence when I hear the awe and respect conveyed in some peoples' responses. It genuinely does spur me on to write the book, but that admiration will only take me so far.  It's a whole different experience to actually let someone climb into my head and read the words that I have put on paper.

As the phrase goes "Paper won't refuse ink" and we all know that anyone on earth can say that they are writing a book. Yes, I am painfully aware that I have been saying this for the last 6 years. But the gap between telling someone that I'm writing the book and actually letting them read it is so much bigger than I had anticipated.

After I emailed/posted/hand delivered the first 10,000 words of my manuscript to the small group of potential readers, I tried to forget about their reactions and was pleasantly surprised with my success at this. Sadly it lasted for about five seconds. And then the sense of exposure washed over me, along with the familiar feelings of embarrassment, fear and anxiety.

I remember thinking at one point "Oh my god, what if one of my readers is reading my words right now, at this very moment?" The feeling of discomfort at that thought was unbearable.

It's an interesting dilemma, because on the one hand I want, more than anything, for people to read David's story, follow his journey and feel satisfied at the end of it. I can't imagine myself feeling satisfied until I have written it. But on the other hand, the idea of other people reading my words and scrutinising my ideas is almost intolerable. I do wonder if this is essentially a rite of passage that every aspiring (and possibly published) writer has to go through, particularly for the first few drafts. I hope so.

The concept of criticism and not-altogether-positive feedback (I can't bring myself to write "negative" because I believe all criticism is positive in some way) is a tricky subject and one that I can relate to as a writer and a student. "That essay on Emily Dickinson was not up to your usual standard, Sinead", "You need to put a huge amount of work into your maths theorems, Sinead", "You have to be more assertive in work, Sinead". Etc etc etc.

The easier option (for me) has been to run away from criticism. But as Aristotle said: "To avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, be nothing," And I'll be honest, that quote scared me more than the idea of receiving criticism.

So I received the criticism from my lovely reviewers (who I must thank for taking time in their personal lives to read my novel and give me feedback on it) and took it all on board. Did I enjoy it? No. Did I feel brilliant afterwards? No. Did it help? Yes. And that's the most important part of receiving any criticism. It's not personal, and if it is, I think that would be a sign that I'm too close to my novel.

They say that the hardest part of writing is the editing and giving oneself permission to "kill your babies." So since my feedback so far (it's still ongoing), I have killed some of my babies (changed some of the plot, altered a lot of sentences and reviewed my characters) and although it hasn't been easy, I know my novel has improved with the feedback and will continue to do so.

And I'm hoping that it gets a little easier to take criticism with each draft, although that may be wishful thinking!

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Taking It Seriously

I've read and attended a lot of interviews with published writers and you can probably imagine the variety of questions they get asked: "How often do you write?", "Where do you get your ideas from?", "How much of an advance did you get?" and (the most cringeworthy of all) "I have an idea for a book, what do you think of..."  (Cue awkward silences)

I'm not too bothered about writers' inspirational ideas; I mean no disrespect but the answers are often cliched (it's often beside a beautiful lake or watching someone donate money to a homeless person or people gazing at an airport arrivals hall - bleh!) or their writing schedules (hang on, you're telling me I have to write every day? Who knew?). And I genuinely have no interest in writing advances because I know that all writers, apart from the exceptionally talented, or the exceptionally well-connected, make pittance in their books, particularly their first ones.

No, the question that I would love to ask is different. I often scan through writing magazine interviews or occasionally drop in on book launches to see if it is asked and answered. I often visualise myself asking this question and not feeling afraid/embarrassed/silly (take your pick) for having the courage to do so. Ready? Okay, deep breath.

"When did you start taking your book seriously?"

That's it, that's my question.

That's the one that always grabs my attention instantly, because I genuinely want to know the answer. Because I can relate to it. Because I waited a long time for it to happen to me, in fact I always wondered if it would actually happen for me. But it did, thankfully.

I can recall the exact moment I began to take my book seriously. I remember it vividly, although that may only be because it happened only a few weeks ago.

I was driving home from work and it was a sunny evening. I was stuck in gridlocked, commuter evening traffic (as I regularly am) and I was thinking about my novel (as I regularly do). Okay, this next part may sound a little bit weird but bear with me before judging me (too much). As I straddled between 1st and 2nd gear, while occasionally stretching my left leg so as not to get "clutch foot" (it's a term I've coined to describe the dreaded foot cramp that afflicts many rush hour drivers - I'm working on copyrighting it), I was thinking about one particular twist in my book and I was wondering where to go with it.

I remember staring up at the traffic lights, stuck on red for what seemed like forever. I glanced over at the car to my left, inside which was a man who (I'm guessing) was as equally tired and frustrated as me, just trying to get home from the working day as quickly as possible. I really don't mean to sound like a stalker here but I looked at him for a few minutes and as I did so I started to wonder what he would think of my book if he read it. I wondered what this man, middle aged, driving a silver car, maybe married - I couldn't see a ring (okay now I definitely sound like a stalker!) would like to see happen in my book. Would he be interested in the story? Would he care about David? What would he like to see happen at the end of book one?

And then I had what I can only describe as an epiphany: I realised that he will never get a chance to read it unless I write it.

I know that that sentence sounds so simple that it might be hard to understand how I had never grasped it before. But I hadn't. And at that moment, in the traffic jam on a warm summer evening, a wave of panic washed over me. I remember sitting in the car, amidst my fellow commuters, suddenly aware of the responsibility that I had laid out for myself.

If I don't write it, no one will ever know it.

As I opened the window to let some air in for relief, that thought bounced around my head and continued to do so until the lights turned green. I'm not sure if it was the fact that I was engaged in the task of driving, or because I always feel less stressed when the traffic starts moving, but once I got past the traffic lights, I didn't feel quite as overwhelmed.

But it didn't leave my mind. The whole way home I thought about it and as I sat in my sitting room forty minutes later I still thought about it. It was like seeing my novel and my writing process through a whole new light. Something had shifted in that moment, and now it felt so much more real. Scary, overwhelming, immense - there are dozens of negative connotations that spring to mind but I tried instead to focus on the positive ones: challenging, possibilities, pride. And I wrote. And then I wrote some more. And I continued to do that.

That attitude has stuck with me since then. I know it's only been a few weeks but I've taken it so much more seriously. Even my other half comments on how when he gets home from football he knows he'll find me in the office writing, as opposed to sitting on the couch, watching Friends with a guilty face. Now I know that, not only do I want to, but I have to write this book. And now that that decision has been made, the work and the effort doesn't seem half as difficult.

So when the day comes that I get asked in an interview where I was when I started to take my book seriously, I'll know exactly what to say.

Sinead

"You cannot plough a field by turning it over in your mind."
Gordon B Hinckley

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Starting Over

Something incredible happened to me this weekend. It was an unexpected, monumental moment in my life, one that I have dreamed about for so long but part of me actually doubted if it would ever happen. But it did happen. It definitely did and I have the proof here on my computer.

I started to write my novel again. 

Okay, I may have exaggerated ever so slightly in the opening paragraph but it is a huge achievement for me, I cannot stress that enough. Now before I continue, I'm sure some of you will be shouting at your screens, exclaiming that I've been writing the book for almost six years and blogging about it for over two years! And some of you may think that all along I've fooled you into believing that I've been writing this novel, taking you under my wing, guiding you under false pretence for all this time only to start writing it now. 

The truth is I have been writing and blogging about it for two years, and I would never (intentionally) guide anyone under false pretence about anything, so rest assured, all of my blog posts have been 100% authentic and genuine. 

What I mean is that, if you read my previous blog posts, after I attended my evening writing course and Listowel Writers' Week, I had come to realise how little preparation I had done for my novel. Think of running a marathon without any training or trying to dig a hole in the garden with a tea spoon. In my naivety I assumed that, like all the great writers, I would figure it out as I went along. But thankfully, I saw sense (isn't that what writing workshops are for?) and I imposed a ban on myself on adding to the word count until I had properly planned out my novel(s) and felt confident enough to begin writing again. I gave myself 4 weeks to do that. That was in March and at the time of writing this, it is now August. Hmmm.

I suppose it was like anything in life really, that the more I planned it out, the more research I did, the more character diagrams I drew, the further away I pushed my actual novel. And then it became even scarier than it has before, because it seemed so unfamiliar. It became easier to avoid. 

Don't get me wrong, the time I spent away from the physical manuscript was crucial and there was no doubt that the research needed to be done. I've researched areas that I had actively avoided looking into including statistics on the numbers of deaths in each country on a daily basis, World War II army ranks, traumatic chest injuries and cardiac arrest resuscitation. I've gotten to know my characters (particularly the supporting ones) better than I ever thought I could. And I methodically planned out the plot in each book so carefully that I practically know the outline of book one off by heart, inside out. I was quite proud of myself actually, I wrote each scene down on a cue card and spent a long time moving them around, deciding which order they should go in. It was one of the most practical and beneficial things I have done regarding the book.

It was a bittersweet moment when I logged back on to my laptop and read back through the 30,000 words that I had written before my hiatus. On the one hand, I was surprised at how well much of my prose worked and I found myself smiling at some of the paragraphs, thinking "That was actually alright"". On the other hand, I cringed at the sheer volume of adverbs that dotted the pages and found myself getting bored at long chunks of description. I was also surprised at how much of those 30,000 words have had to be deleted because I hadn't done my research or planned out the novel when I had written them. The plot, and the characters, have developed and shifted during my planning stage, so much so that many of my original chapters and words no longer fit.

I'll be honest, it's not pleasant highlighting a few thousand words and then hitting the delete button (my finger did hover over the button a few seconds longer than I had anticipated), but while I can acknowledge the regret and frustration that it evokes, I also felt excited at the new possibilities ahead and proud of my courage to hit the delete button.

And this weekend, I finally reached the end of my research - for the moment anyway. Accepting that was a huge feat because I could have kept planning, developing, brainstorming for the next five years. There is only so much we can prepare for before we actually have to feel the fear, confront the anxiety and essentially go for it. 

So, yes, I definitely experienced anxiety when I saw the flashing cursor (and smaller word count) and yes, I could feel myself inwardly cringing as I wrote. But for the moment, I'm just writing for me and I can (just about) handle the at-times awkward and clunky prose. But I have my safety net of cue cards to guide me through each paragraph as well as my security blanket of character diagrams to assist me in deciphering what each character will say or do in a given situation. And I still have over 25,000 words written so I'm far from starting from scratch! 

A lot of what's ahead of me is guesswork, intuition, imagination and diving into the unknown but I feel a lot more equipped to handle that challenge now than I did six months ago!

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Overcoming Adversity

The most basic rule of any story is that the main character must face an issue at the beginning that they need to overcome. During the course of the story, said character faces up to this obstacle, usually encounters some adversity but achieves their goal by the end of the story and is richer for the experience. The character's situation, personality, dreams and experiences in the final chapter are usually different than those in chapter one. That's the not-so secret formula to telling any kind of story.

It only dawned on me recently that we all have our own story to tell and my experience of writing a novel and my transition into writing is part of my own story. And like David (my main character) and indeed any main character, I have my obstacle (I think it's fair enough to call my novel an obstacle) and I hope that one day, I'll have overcome this challenge and have gained something from the experience of writing.

Except that there is a problem with the plot in my own story: my book still hasn't been written. Either the challenge I have set myself is too huge, or my main character (me) is too weak to carry it out. Hmmmm....

Spoiler alert:

I think I've established over my blog posts that when it comes to writing, I'm not the most disciplined. In fact, I'm quite the opposite. I'm extremely lazy, I habitually procrastinate and I actively avoid sitting down to write anything in either my notebook or laptop.

Of course, I'm organised enough to pop my notebook into my handbag almost every day along with my keys, phone and purse. I find that actively putting the notebook and pen in my handbag relieves my guilt in some small way, as if that's half the battle in writing a novel. "Sure, I was hoping to write today, I even had my notebook in my handbag as proof! Pity I just didn't get a chance to write anything, sure wasn't I too busy?"

I honestly couldn't fathom how many times I've recited that mantra in my head as I sat down to watch television at 8pm. This is then accompanied by the usual "well I can't start writing now, sure who writes after 8pm?" I have to say, this thought process is an incredibly effective way to rid oneself of any form of guilt about the writing process. It's also an incredibly effective way to destroy one's attempts in writing a novel.

One skill that I've honed over the last few years is my ability to make excuses about why I haven't written anything. It's sunny, I better walk the dog. I think the girls are coming over this weekend, I better clean the bathrooms. When did I last change the bedsheets? Better change them now. The kitchen floor looks a bit grubby, I better mop it. I haven't been on Facebook in 20 minutes, better check it. I wonder what's trending on twitter? Is there anything on in the cinema this weekend? I better check. What were those songs I heard on the radio and wanted to download? I'll just log into iTunes and check the singles chart. What will I wear to work tomorrow? I better check the weather.

Repeat to fade.

It's incredible how easy I find it to put off my writing and prioritise something (usually trivial) over it. In fact it's embarrassing when I compare how much time I engage in the actual act of writing my book in my day to day life versus how much time I devote to thinking and daydreaming about being a published writer. Let's just say the scales are tipped heavily to one side.

So I guess that in order to achieve my goal and overcome this challenge, something has to shift, right? Thankfully, the main character in my own story (that's me if anyone is lagging behind, try to keep up) is becoming slightly more adept at self discipline and motivation. Don't get too excited, I said slightly.

Being the organised and diligent writer that I am, I had my notebook with me in work last week, in case I was struck by some enlightened idea (which never happens) and I might have needed to write it down before the inspiration deserted me. It was only when I got home Friday night that I realised I had left my notebook in my desk drawer. My immediate response was "Oh well, no writing this weekend." But surely a proper writer wouldn't let such a trivial matter impact their schedule? If I leave my work diary or my work phone at home, I don't just leave the office and say "I'll come back and be a social worker when I have all my shit together" so why did I think it was acceptable to think I could do that as a writer?

It's like I've learned at Listowel and all my other writing courses, if I want to be a writer I have to act like one and prioritise my writing, treating it with the same level of importance and respect as any other important areas of my life.

So I improvised and wrote in a different notebook, did some more plot development and I updated my blog. It's not perfect and it would have been better to have access to all my notes but I'll get them tomorrow and update my notebook. The important thing is that I didn't give in to my own pressure to procrastinate and avoid; I challenged myself and didn't give in to the laziness and avoidance that comes so naturally. It may have been a small step in itself but the meaning behind it is a great confidence boost for me.

And if that confidence boost is a sign that I'm one step closer to overcoming the obstacle then I'm not going to complain!

Monday, 7 July 2014

Character Building

"Character is plot, plot is character."

I would imagine that Francis Scott Fitzgerald's words are embedded into the brains of most writers (both budding and fully fledged); they've been ingrained in mine since I went to my first writing seminar several years ago, not that I ever really paid much attention to them.

In my (short) experience as a writer, the big question that dominates most aspiring writer's lips seems to be which is more important, character or plot? It's like the great, unanswerable chicken and egg question for writers. It is a question that has permeated every seminar/class/course/workshop that I've ever attended (which hasn't been as many as I'm making out in that sentence) and has always sparked a significant amount of debate and thought within my peers. Except for me. I always knew my answer. Easy. Plot. Next question please.

Okay, I'm painfully aware that that makes me sound like a pretentious know it all and I'm now eagerly trying to dispel that notion. I'm not a know it all, in fact I'm so inconspicuous in any class I attend that most of the teachers don't notice me until about the 4th week (they might know my name by week 8). I have a tendency to absorb most of my information through observation and reflection, which means I occasionally fade into the background in many writing courses.

Most of the facilitators of any writing course I've ever attended have said that a good character is what drives a novel and that plot is a secondary feature. I would diligently note this advice in my notebook, underlining and bullet pointing it while internally rolling my eyes in disagreement, externally nodding and "hmmm"ing in mock agreement with my peers.

For me, I've always been an advocate of plot over character for the simple reason that I believe writing is story telling. Yes, of course the use of language is vital and character development and transformation are intrinsically linked to plot progress. But I've always viewed the plot as the story, and without a story, one has no novel. Black and white, perhaps, but it's been my naive, simplistic way of working through the novel progress.

It's only now as I actually write my novel (yes, I know!) that I can sheepishly look back to each seminar/class/course/workshop with a pinch of humility and gratitude for my meekness. The proverbial lightbulb has switched on over my head. Of course character development makes a novel! How did it take me so long to realise it? ("Because you weren't writing your book, Sinead" - brain).

One of the most basic steps in developing a character is a character outline, almost an assessment of your character's personality, appearance, attributes, flaws etc. It's a basic tool to help the writer get to know the character. I've done this for David, my main character. In fact, I've done it several times for David to try and get to know a little bit more about him every time he comes into my head. Another exercise that most writing courses carry out is the embodiment of the character: as in, the writer acts out the character, their physical traits, speech pattern, mannerisms, facial expressions etc. I too have done this for David, twice in fact.

I know David better than I know anyone, even myself. I know him inside out, head to toe, backwards and forwards. I know what he looks like, how much he weighs, what annoys him, what scares him. I know that he sits with his legs open, tends to shrug and isn't good at making eye contact. I know what flavour of ice cream he prefers and how he got the scar underneath his eyebrow. I know what haunts him. I know what his biggest regret is and I know what his goals are. I know what his path in life is and I know what he will achieve.

I know what you're thinking, Sinead, your character development is amazing! Yes, yes, thank you (*pause for applause*). I actually thought this myself (well amazing is probably a stretch, I'd probably replace it with "enough") and this is what I deluded myself into thinking over the past two years. Sure, don't I know David well enough? I don't need to develop him any further.

And then I started to write.

And then I started to recognise all the other characters in my book. Each of whom, I hadn't done a shred of development with. When I started to write about them, it honestly felt like a room full of strangers, staring expectantly at me. They don't know me and I sure as hell don't know them.

How can a plot make sense if the character has no agenda? No reason to act this way, feel this way, see things this way? How can it become real? Alive? How can it come off the page? How can it embed within the reader's mind? How can the reader be expected to turn the page and believe in the character's motives, actions, beliefs?

They can't.

Turns out, character development is important, crucial, vital to the storytelling process. I've learned (albeit the hard way) that plot falls flat without good characters and I don't mean good in the classic good vs bad way, I mean well developed, complex individuals with their own back story and personality. There are some (hopefully) good characters in my book who have done some horrific things.

So I've worked hard. I've spent the past few weeks developing my characters. I've made spider diagrams, lists and cue cards filled with personality traits, physical appearances and background stories for my one main character, three major characters and five minor characters. I've synced my character timelines with my plot timeline. It's been a slog and exhausting (repetitive) work but it's helped so much in two ways: firstly it's fleshed out my plot in ways that I could never have imagined; secondly, it's taught me to be more open minded and less stubborn about other viewpoints in writing.

"Character is plot, plot is character".

The lightbulb switches on.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Lifestyle Tweak at Listowel Writers' Week!

Firstly, let me apologise for the cheesy title of this blog, but one of the key things I learned at my inaugural trip to Listowel Writers' Week is the importance of a snappy opening line.

... Clearly I've failed!

But in all seriousness, spending 5 days at Listowel Writers' Week last month was a serious personal challenge for me and one that I had spent a huge amount of time stressing over, as outlined in my previous blog post (if you haven't read my previous posts, I have one question: what have you been doing with your life?). I was torn with the notion of falsely identifying as a writer when I'm actually not a writer. But thankfully, I ignored my inner monologue (which can be hard - she's pretty persistent) and, armed with my wheelie suitcase, laptop bag and a LOT of chocolate, I drove down the N7 on a sunny Wednesday evening and left Sinead the social worker back in Dublin. And it was one of the best decisions I've ever made.

Of course the best made plans of mice and men often go astray (including an unannounced visit from the mental health commission in work, a trip back to the house to leave the garage door zapper for my other half and a pitstop in a rural Kerry petrol station when I remembered my toothbrush was sitting smugly in our en-suite in Kildare), so I ended up almost missing the opening ceremony. Thankfully the lovely Mary Cogan (my sort of in-law and hostess/tour guide/adoptive mammy for the week) kept an eye out for the tired, sweaty, hungry looking writer running down towards the Listowel Arms Hotel with about 2 minutes to spare before the doors closed. What can I say, I do love to make an entrance!

I can say that within 5 minutes of the ceremony opening I had completely forgotten my hunger and (almost) the need for a shower. Hearing Colm Tóibín speak about writers creating art "from a place of silence... from imagination" was literally spine-tinging while Paul Durkan's emphasis on the importance of the audience in writing struck a chord with me that I had never experienced before; without an audience there is no appreciation, no reaction, no existence of a piece of work.

It was a privilege to witness Eimear McBride scoop the coveted Kerry Group Novel of the year and the humility and grace with which she accepted her award was refreshing. Okay, I'm just going to be honest here (because if you can't be honest in your blog, when can you be?), I DID imagine what it would be like if I won that award some day. Yes, okay, I pictured myself  graciously accepting the €19,000 cheque in a flattering evening dress, spouting a humbly inspiring speech while smiling graciously at the flashing camera.

Hey wake up Sinead, how about you write the actual book before you start accepting the awards?

You see, I told you my inner monologue is persistent.

But the point is, the pride and passion in the room was palpable; I was immersed in a completely different world, in a world that I've hidden from for so long - out of fear. Fear of what, I'm not exactly sure; rejection, change, difference, failure. Who knows? But suddenly, the morning that I had spent completing medical card forms on a psychiatric ward earlier that day seemed a million miles away. And so did the fear.

Thankfully, I showered, ate and slept before my first workshop at 9am the next morning so I was ready to mingle with my writing peers and put my writing cap firmly in place. I was nervous but excited as I walked up to the boys secondary school in Listowel on that Thursday morning. It was interesting then that one of the first things our teacher, the brilliant John MacKenna, informed us was "Don't expect to make a living out of being a writer; very few people are that lucky."


Yeah, that was pretty much my reaction.

What am I doing here? I may as well be back in work! Why am I even bothering with this book?

But he had a point. A very valid point and one that no aspiring writer should skim over - you write for you and no one else. Okay, I guess every writer would ideally like to be published, successful and respected but that's not why one writes. I don't write for anyone else, I write purely for me because I love it and I enjoy it and I can't imagine not having it in my life. I write because it helps me debrief and de-stress. But most of all, I write because I have a story that I want to tell, a story that has been in my head for 5 years and it won't go away. It wants to get out on those pages and, guess what, I am the only person who can do it. Only me. No pressure.

I feel that that small shift in my attitude had a huge impact on my presence and progress in the workshop over the following 3 days. It definitely gave me a sense of confidence and ease. My workshop peers were all in a similar position to me, which meant that it was easy for us to bond and chat over our daily tea and biscuits, as spotty faced school boys with bum fluff moustaches and far too much deodorant sniggered at us,
jostling into our huddles as we discussed character timelines and writing schedules. (By the way, you know you're getting old when a secondary school boy refers to you as "Missus"... but that's a WHOLE other blog!)

The workshop was hugely helpful; from the moment where we embodied our characters and had to answer questions  from our peers (I never knew that my David was as cagey and secretive until I acted him out) to my debut reading of the first 2 pages of my novel. *gulp*

The reading was tough. I don't have children so I apologise if I offend anyone with my simplistic comparison, but this novel is my baby. I'm so protective of it because I've put (and continue to put) so much time, energy, effort, EVERYTHING into this book. So as I was reading aloud my prologue, while my peripheral vision picked up my peers' reactions to each sentence, I thought I might actually get sick. I cringed at some of my writing and faltered over sentences that obviously made sense when I typed them but not so much when I read them out loud.

Good God, did I actually write that? Stop now, just stop reading. Stop reading, put the pages in your bag and quietly leave the room. Then drive back to Kildare and burn this manuscript. Why are you here? You can't write.

But I finished reading and I noted the critiques and constructive criticism from my peers. I took out some sneaky adverbs that had somehow crawled into my first draft (I hate how they do that!), I argued the value of a prologue, I took out some detail that may have been irrelevant and I agreed to scrap the idea of a dream sequence. It was hard, it was challenging, it was unnerving and unsettling but it was brilliant. It was exactly what I needed.

I spent the mornings of Writers Week in my workshops and I tried to attend as many writer interviews as possible afterwards. In the afternoons, I did something that I haven't done in a long time - I wrote. I sat in a coffee shop in Listowel, took out my notebook and wrote. I scribbled notes, diagrams, timelines, scenarios, dialogue pieces and ideas. I scribbled so much that my tea went cold and my muffin went a bit cardboardy.

Forgive the sub-standard metaphor but I imagine my brain as a vault or safe, locked up securely with all kinds of treasure and magic safely inside with no access to it. Writers Week gave me the key, the security code and I now have access to a whole host of previously untapped possibilities. And as a writer, that is the most exciting resource that I can possess.

So I left Listowel with a different view on Sunday morning. I found my mind wandering as I drove back North, heading back to reality, back to the day job, back to the mortgage and the bills. But instead of feeling depressed, saddened and lost that the week was over, I found myself feeling inspired and looking forward to incorporating my new found passion and drive into my familiar routine and lifestyle.

Will it happen? Watch this space! :)

Sinead x

Saturday, 10 May 2014

A Change of Identity

An email arrived on my phone yesterday afternoon while I was in work which triggered a cataclysmic (hate adverbs but love that word!) wave of nausea and fear.

No, it wasn't a reminder of my credit card bill (yikes!) or my motor tax renewal (sigh) or a job offer for a social work team leader post (not right now please!). All three of these emails provoke a certain level of anxiety within me, but this other email yielded much higher levels of stress. Cue heart palpitations, palm sweating and flushed cheeks. What was this email then, I hear you ask? Okay then, deep breath.

It was a reminder that I've signed up to attend Listowel Writers Week.

Pause.

*Just waiting for my heart rate to return below 100bpm*

Okay, perhaps you may think I'm ever so slightly overreacting. And yes, some people (mainly family members) have informed me that I have a tendency to be a little dramatic at times (to which my response has always been to burst into tears, slam doors and wail that no one ever understands me). But, I have to be honest, the thought of attending an official Writers Festival as a writer is a really scary thought.

I have to admit something. I don't really consider myself a writer. I don't. Wow, I can't believe I actually typed that. It's taken my 5 minutes to write the last three paragraphs but 20 minutes to write that one line. What does that say about me? Actually, forget I asked that. We could be here all night with that can of worms.

Anyway, I think my reluctance and inability to class myself as a writer per se, augments my absolute fear in identifying as one officially at literary festivals. For example, if I go to a social work conference or training seminar, I don't feel anxiety or stress because I can identify myself as a social worker. I've trained 4 years as a social worker, worked for 5 years professionally, practise it every day and pay €100 per year to be officially registered as a social worker in Ireland. I know that I'm a social worker. It's safe, it's secure, it's me.

On the other hand, what have I done to allow myself to identify as a writer? Nothing. Nada. Have I published anything? No. Have I finished anything? No. Have I written a book? No. I've talked about writing it and I am writing it but I haven't actually written it yet, unlike the thousands (millions?) of other people who have written, finished and published their books.

This is the problem, I don't see myself as a writer. I consider myself an aspiring writer, an amateur writer, a dreamer. If someone asks me what I do, I answer in a heartbeat "I'm a social worker". But it's not what I want to do. I want to be a writer. So how do I get rid of the "aspiring", "amateur" tags? I suppose the answer is one that's been building in me for quite a while; I move into the role of being a writer. I have to embrace it. I have to own it. I have to do so internally by accepting in my mind that I am writer and of course I have to write my book, which I am doing. But I also have to step into the role externally, by  attending literary courses and writers groups, mingling with other writers and identifying myself as a writer. And I'll be honest, that absolutely terrifies me!

You know the phrase "feel the fear and do it anyway"?. I've always hated it because of its blasé nature but I know that it makes sense on some level.

It was good timing that not long after I received said email yesterday, I had a good chat with my line manager about the concepts of change and fear and identity. We spoke about the wonderful Nelson Mandela quote "Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it" and the possibility of finding something incredible from a situation that causes so much fear. And that got me looking at my Listowel Writers Week email in a whole new light.

My line manager also said something else to me that has stayed with me for the last 24 hours. As I spoke of my fear and the fact that I am my greatest enemy when it comes to my writing, he asked me a question.

"Sinead, what if you have an incredible talent?"

When I found myself with my mouth gaping open, unable to answer, he added. "Why not you?"

And that's stayed with me, as I drove home yesterday evening, as I went for dinner with the other half, as I lay in bed last night, as I swept the floor today, called down to see my parents and as I wrote this blog.

Why not me?

So I might not be the next Steinbeck or Rowling or Tolkein, but who's to say that? Who's to say that I'm not just as good as the other writers that I'm so intimidated by at the Writers Week? It's not about ego, or arrogance, it's about belief. And I believe that self belief is so important in writing. I have to believe in myself to finish this book. I have to believe in myself to identify as a writer. I have to (sigh, I'll say it) feel the fear and do it anyway.

So when I go to Listowel Writers Week, my inaugural festival as a writer, I will embrace my new role. I will leave the social worker back at my desk in Dublin. I will be courageous and talk to other writers, ask questions, attend groups and book launches. I will write. I will see myself differently.

And to end on another inspirational Mandela quote: "There is no passion to be found in playing small - settling for a life that is less than the one that you are capable of living".

If that doesn't provoke a sense of fear, I don't know what will.

Roll on the 29th of May in Listowel!

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Crash

Picture the scene.

There I am, driving along an open road on a beautiful sunny day, the roof of the car down. As I push the accelerator closer to the floor, the car gains momentum and gallops forward; the bushes and shrubs that scatter along the side of the road becoming a constant blur. The summer breeze rustles through my loose hair as I adjust the designer sunglasses perched atop the bridge of my nose.

It's amazing; I feel unstoppable, unbreakable, unbeatable. I could do this forever.

I can feel the warmth of the sun on my arms as I guide the steering wheel around another bend, looking forward to the long stretch of road ahead of me.

Wait a minute!

There's a roadblock right in front of me. I barely have time to react as I fumble with the wheel and pull my foot from the accelerator onto the brake. The sun has disappeared behind a cloud and I can feel goosebumps run along my bare arms. In a futile attempt to minimise the imminent impact I push the brake as hard as I can and squeeze my eyes shut. But it's no good; I know I'm going to crash and there's nothing I can do about it.

That is exactly how I felt last weekend when I was writing.

No I wasn't driving (I don't have an open top car, I don't know any open roads in Ireland without the potential for meeting traffic and it is never that warm in an Irish April), instead I was at the safety of my own desk in my house with my manuscript and plot outline in front of me, alongside the obligatory cup of tea.

I had been surfing the crest of the wave for quite a while and I had successfully mapped out the entire plot for my first book (yes the book is increasingly looking like it's going to be a trilogy... Who says I don't set myself challenges?) to the point that I was actually itching to write the entire book. However, I was sticking religiously to the advice that I had been given by my creative writing teacher (see last blog entry) about planning out my book as much as possible before resuming writing so as to avoid the potential for plot holes. And that is when I crashed.

You see, I know the background and context of my novel inside out. It's been in my head for 5 years so of course I know it well. I know that it has a unique selling point and (I mean this in the least conceited/cocky way possible), people express an interest in it when I tell them the outline. I've outlined the plot of the first book in my head so many times that I can practically do it in my sleep. But (and here's the crux of the problem), when it comes to actually finishing out the rest of the brainstorming and answering the questions I've posed at the start of the book my response has always been "Meh, I'll figure that out later". Except that "later" is now "now" and I'm making myself solve the plot holes. And it is so hard!

In work last week, I had lunch with a colleague/good friend who has always expressed an interest in my book and is an avid bookworm like myself. I know he's a trustworthy source and I ended up divulging some of the plot twists and the dilemmas I've faced in writing the plot. He was fantastic in his response and both of us spoke animatedly in hushed tones about the potential twists for life after death and an alternate universe (all the while getting odd looks from our fellow canteen diners). It ended up being one of the most creative sessions I've ever had and I have to say that I owe him big time (cheers Scott!). There I was flying along again and I remember finding it so difficult to concentrate in work that afternoon because all I wanted to do was write.

And then it happened: I was jotting down all the things we'd brainstormed, my hand barely able to keep up with my brain and I suddenly reached a question that I needed to answer. And my first instinct was What would Scott suggest?

No! I crashed again, and I instinctively looked to someone else to solve the problem for me because I didn't have the confidence to fix it myself.

I've mentioned before that writing is a solitary task and even though one can seek assurance and advice from friends/family/fellow writers, at the end of the day, only you can write the story. And, for me, that feeling of isolation and control has always been terrifying rather than liberating. And that's when I crash. I always crash at that point. When I need to make a tough decision, when I feel completely lost, when I don't know which way to bring the story, I crash. And I stop.

But last weekend, something shifted for me. Yes, I crashed. I was flying along and then the roadblock emerged, as it always does, but this time I didn't stop. I picked myself up, got back in the driving seat and started again. I drove a bit slower, I was a bit more cautious and this time I noticed a lot more potential barriers along the road that I probably wouldn't have seen if I had been driving as fast as originally.

I didn't run from the brainstorming. Instead, I embraced it. I drew spider diagrams (something I haven't done since my Leaving Cert English paper), made bullet points and posed serious questions for myself on top of pages in thick black marker. Questions that I made myself answer before I moved on to the next one. Each question posed a new one and the empty pages gradually filled themselves and equally became a little less scary each time.

I felt exhilarated after I answered my first plot-hole question. That question that has bugged me for months, that niggles at the back of my mind whenever I've written anything and that has kept me awake at night, wondering how I'll answer it. And, guess what, I answered it.And then some. Okay, my answers may not be perfect and might be a little bit rough around the edges and I'll always have a whole host of more questions/plot holes/problems that I need to solve but I know now that sometimes you have to crash to slow down and gain some perspective.

And the key thing I've learned is: I love the book I'm writing. I want it to be finished, I want people to read it and enjoy it as much as I enjoy writing it. And I am the only one who can write it. So that answers one question.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Desperately Seeking Assurance...

It's been said that best advice any aspiring writer should take on board is to ignore any advice they receive. Yes, I too appreciate the irony of that sentence but it hits the nail on the head perfectly.

In case you haven't read my previous blog entries (if you haven't, you should they're amazing. Don't believe me? Better read them to find out!) I am a fully fledged assurance seeker when it comes to writing... and a lot of other areas in my life but that's for another blog. Anyway, assurance seeking is one of the many, many personality traits that I've partly tried to challenge and partly tried to accept.

Basically put, I'm a bit needy when it comes to writing. Is this good enough? Who will read this? Will someone laugh at this part? Is that character believable? Is that dialogue too artificial? Will the reader like it?Will the reader like me?

Yes I know, I sound like that awful, whiny, been-single-for-ages, desperate friend that we all know (except if any single friends of mine are reading this - I'm not talking about you). I constantly doubt myself, compare myself negatively to other writers and essentially tell myself I'm not good enough on a regular basis, which as you've probably guessed, doesn't add up to a great writing career.

Because I am such a habitual doubter, I find it difficult to trust my judgement and make concrete decisions about the book. And guess what? I've just discovered that this is not a good strategy for someone writing a complex, alternative world trilogy series.

Oops.

My survival mantra for writing this book has been to say "Ah, sure I'll solve that problem later" or "I'll come up with a solution to that when I'm editing" etc... And there's been two reasons for said mantra: partly because I'm too indecisive to actually knuckle down and decide what happens in my book and partly because all the writing manuals/books/tutorials have told me that I shouldn't plan, I should write. All the great writers have said that they don't plan, they write and the words facilitate the unraveling of the story.

18 months and 30,000 words later, it hasn't worked for me. And this is why I should NOT listen to any advice!

Thankfully, God works in mysterious ways and I decided on a whim (even though I never do anything on a whim!) to sign up for an evening writing course. It was my first proper writing course and the first time I met other aspiring writers who also feel they want more than the dull 9 to 5. (If my boss is reading this, the 9 to 5 is never dull! In fact, all play and no work makes Sinead a dull girl)

On the night that I presented my work (the outline of my novel) to the group I was delighted to receive praise from my peers. Hand on my heart, when some of them said that the book had a great concept and was the type of book they would eagerly choose in a bookshop, I could feel tears pricking in my eyes. Seriously. And yes, I know I am a cryer, but if anyone ever tells me that they think I'm a good social worker I usually just blush, laugh and change the subject. I definitely don't get emotional!

But that wasn't the best part. I will forever be indebted to the facilitator who gave me the best advice (ignore the first line!) I have ever received in my writing life so far.

She basically told me to stop writing. No, actually, she did more than that. She gave me permission to stop writing.

Now before I go any further, it wasn't like a "Jesus Christ, Sinead that is so awful, please put down the pen and don't ever come back here again" kind of thing. It was more like "Sinead, that's a great concept and a very complex idea, so you're going to have to stop your writing right now and specifically decide what it is that's going to happen in this book. You have to answer all your questions before you can ask them"

If you can picture me with a lightbulb going on over my head, that's pretty much what I looked like.

Of course! My book is partly set in a different world, it has two potential sequels and a complex life or death plotline. I obviously need to plan it!

It was amazing how one little sentence has completely changed my view of my writing. Already, I felt a weight lifted from my shoulders because I knew all along that I needed to plan, I just didn't give myself permission to plan. I needed to hear it from someone else.

I know it's not a good way to be, I know I need to challenge myself on it and I have to start accepting my own inner voice. But it's early days and it's getting there. And I think by focusing completely on the plot and forcing myself to answer the questions that I've asked, I'm a lot closer to getting there.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Panic Attack

You know that icy stab of fear that penetrates your chest when you realise you've made a huge mistake?

Like when you leave the house and realise you forgotten to switch off your hair straightener (done it). Or when you hear that the assignment you thought was due next week is actually due tomorrow (done that one too). Or rolled over in bed to check how many more precious minutes you have in bed, only to realise you hit the off button as opposed to the snooze button and you should be halfway up the motorway by now (definitely not a pleasant one to experience).

Well I experienced that familiar sensation yet again tonight, only this time it was much worse, much more prolonged and induced a whole level of panic that I didn't even know existed (which is surprising because at this stage panic is practically my middle name ; at least it suits me better than Catherine anyway).

Are you ready to hear what happened to cause this unexpected surge in my anxiety levels? The incident that caused my heart rate to achieve record levels of speed tonight, which has left a buzzing sensation still lingering in my ears half an hour later.

Ready? Okay. Here goes.

I lost 12,000 words of my novel.

*Dramatic pause for effect*

Still here? It's okay, I am too. Just about.

I actually lied exaggerated as a means of dramatic effect to hook you in. I should have written that I thought I had lost 12,000 words because that's actually what happened.  But to be fair, when you think you lose 12,000 words (aka months of writing for me) it's the exact same feeling as actually losing them.

I did manage to recover the 12,000 words although I do believe I've lost a few years off my life expectancy as a trade off.

It's entirely my own fault and I blame myself fully. But most of all, I blame my rubbish netbook and the battery that inhabits it; it is truly evil personified.

Since our lovely wedding last December, I've really tried to distract myself from lamenting the big day with writing but I haven't been too successful. I've had bursts of creative periods in the last six weeks but the truth is that I'm struggling to prioritise my novel again now that the wedding is no longer top of the list. I haven't been taking it seriously as in I haven't dedicated times of my week to write, I haven't kept note of my word count each week and worst of all, sacrilegious even, (deep breath) I haven't been backing it up.

Before the wedding I was ever so diligent with backing my writing up, to the point of obsessive. I backed it up after each writing session, even if I only managed to write two sentences. I placed such high value on each word as a way of making the story flow and come to life that I couldn't imagine having to go back and recapture the essence and effect of something that I'd already written.

Unfortunately, my diligence began to slip and I soon found myself starting to slip into increasingly lazy patterns. After I reached 18,000 words, I stopped using the trusty USB that had become my writing sidekick and started saving my novel only to my netbook. What my rationale for this change was, I'm not sure, but if I could go back to 18,000 words and give myself a hefty kick up the arse, rest assured I would gladly do so.

12,000 words later, I'd been flying high at 30,000 words for a while. After a few nights of avoidance and general procrastination I decided to grab the bull by the horns and do some actual writing tonight. After several moments of repeatedly jabbing the power button and checking the charger, the stabbing feeling set in. My laptop was not turning on and my novel was trapped inside it.

Cue hair pulling, expletive-laden cries, cushion punching and several thoughts about flinging the netbook out the window. It was undoubtedly the longest 20 minutes of my life (and I'm including watching Kildare being beaten by 17 points against Dublin in that).

Thankfully, in what I can only describe as a "eureka" moment, I decided to take the battery out and charge the netbook the old fashioned desktop way. I genuinely don't think I've ever been as happy to see a blue light and hear the familiar whirring of a computer starting up as I was tonight.

Needless to say, I backed up the novel immediately (after showering the screen with kisses) and decided to document my experience in this blog as a sort of life lesson. Just as soon as my hands stopped shaking and my vision came back into focus.

The morals of this tale?

1. Always back up your work, no matter how short and or how stupid it is.
2. Stick to a writing regime and don't get sloppy or lazy, no matter how unbelievably tempting it is (and it will be).
3. Never solely rely on one piece of technology.
4. Always have an emergency stash of chocolate prepared for emergency purposes when you ignore the above three pieces of advice.

You have been warned!