Mindfulness: Harvesting Stories and Descriptions from the Everyday

My teachers nicknamed me Cathy Daydream, because if I wasn’t looking around me, taking everything in, I was imagining what I was going to write or draw that day. I certainly wasn’t listening to the teacher, because I was excited about the world around me. I couldn’t wait to get all I had learned down on paper. I was like that for a long time, until I started working full-time and pretty much stopped writing.

I found that before I started writing again, my curiosity about the world around me had waned almost completely. I was walking around in a fog of indifference. If I was alone in a public place drinking a cup of coffee or waiting for someone, I was glued to my phone. My little barrier to human contact, safely ensconced in my bubble. I mean, if I were to look around what was there to see, only other people looking at their phones, in their own little phone-bubbles.

I had tunnel vision.

Something magical started to happen when I began my writing practice. My sense of curiosity reawakened within me, and I began to have more and more ‘lucid’ moments. I wasn’t mindful of being mindful when it first happened to me. The fuzziness of apathy simply dissipated and the clarity just came to me.

I found that there were two major benefits to mindfulness in  terms of my writing:

  1. Mindfulness for Inspiration

One day, I was at Victoria Street Station, after getting the Gatwick Express. I’d just left my job to write my novel and I was spending the weekend with my sister in London. I was hungry and trying to kill time, so I had lunch in Wetherspoons. As I tucked into my avocado salad (*to be read as hamburger and chips), I noticed this old West Indian man standing by the door. He was dressed in a fedora and an immaculately pressed grey suit. He stood with a large box in his hand, wrapped in bright pink paper. He stood there for a good ten minutes, and kept glancing at his watch. Shifting on his feet. I began to imagine the person he was waiting for and why, and I found that my mind was flooded with stories.

One was that he was widowed and lonely for a number of years and his granddaughter had shown great patience in showing him how to use the internet.  Unbeknownst to him, she created a profile for him on a dating website, and found him ‘the perfect date’. This was to be his first romantic encounter since his wife’s death. Would she arrive and bring him happiness, or would she stand him up and if so, what would the impact of that be? This man who was tentatively dipping his toe back in the waters of romance again? Was his story a happy one, or a sad one?

He will make his way into a short-story in time, I’m sure of it. But he and his story came from nowhere. A simple moment. A nothing moment.  It was only because I opened my eyes a little more, and looked closer. It was like my mind had been a faulty camera lens, and finally I was able to focus and zoom-in again.

2. Mindfulness for Writing Emotion and Creating Texture

As babies we look around and notice and appreciate the novelty of everything and everyone around us. We are curious, we seek out sensation, we immerse ourselves in our surroundings. We want to listen to, feel, taste, sniff and examine everything, whether it be a live plug socket, or the pretty looking tabs for the washing machine, babies want to get to know it. Get to understand it. Of course, this obsession with examining stuff has to subside, or we’d never get anything done, and I’d be busy gumming my Mac to see how it tastes, instead of writing on it.

By the time we reach adulthood, we know everything, don’t we? Why should we pay any heed to the ordinary, the everyday?

I’ve smelled freshly-cut grass a thousand times. So have you.

I’ve seen thousands of sunrises. So have you.

I’ve felt an insect crawl along my forearm. So have you.

I’ve heard birdsong. So have you.

I’ve tasted lemonade. So have you.

We don’t even notice how these things make us feel any more.

Speaking of feelings, they are banal too, aren’t they? I know what it feels like to be afraid, to cry, to feel elation. To see others experience those things.

So do you.

There’s no unchartered territory to be found. Nothing new to feel.

But there is. And especially with books. Because feeling, or seeing through reading has the potential to be new and fresh every time. In reading a novel, a reader is interpreting letters on a page and converting them into images, into feelings, experiences. Just by virtue of that process, even the ordinary is rendered extraordinary.

So the writer must become curious again. A writer can inject magic into anything just by virtue of the words they choose. That’s why it is important that we avoid cliched or ways of describing the everyday, because that blunts the impact of the reading experience in the same way that everyday life blunts our real-world experiences.

A writer must learn to see past the banality of the everyday, and find the magic in it. And to do that, they have to learn to care again. Mindfulness helps me to do this. I find that by focusing on what I’m experiencing, it not only feels new to me, I also uncover fresh descriptions that I can use in my work.

When I first started writing my novel I decided to go to the beach, because a number of scenes in my book take place near the sea. Like most people, I’ve been to the beach so often that I didn’t think I’d get anything out of my trip. But I saw it differently that day. I walked its length and breadth in a mindful way. Scanning the sand, the water, the rocks. I closed my eyes, so that I could focus on the sound of the gulls, or inhale the sea smell. I plunged my fingers into the damp sand, and searched for the words to describe it. The words trickled into my brain, because I cared enough to look properly.

Conclusion:

Maintaining mindfulness can be difficult. Life is full of distractions, but I’m grateful that it comes at all. I’m grateful that I’m aware of know how powerful it is in terms of improving my writing.

I’ve downloaded the Headspace app, which is an app which trains the brain in how to meditate and live more mindfully. I’m persevering with it and hoping that with practice I can make these moments of clarity last longer, and become more frequent. Already, I am seeing benefits.

I hope that in being ‘in the moment’ more often, I can harvest even more stories from the simple moments that would otherwise pass me by. I now know that if I just remember to look, there is magic everywhere, just waiting to be captured.

Over to you: Do you find yourself lacking in curiosity about the world around you? What simple moments inspire you? Do you practice mindfulness or do you meditate, and do you have any tips for a newbie? 

The Final Draft: Breaking the Writing Rules

Having worked in the legal profession for a number of years I understand and appreciate the need for rules and principles, law and order. As with most lawyers, a good part of my job involved interpreting legislation/case law. Sometimes the law is rigid and inflexible. Occasionally, however, the wording is ambiguous, and therefore the way the rule is applied is open to question. I’ve learned that sometimes the most exciting and best things happen when you get a chance to test the limits of the rules. I’m currently editing the final draft of my novel, and I’m hoping to have it finished by the end of this month. As I go through my book with highlighters, and red pens I’m painfully conscious of the rules, both of good writing and of novel structure. I am trying my very best not to break the writing rules.

My novel breaks some fundamental rules around the protagonist/antagonist dichotomy, and I’m not sure how readers will receive it. This being my debut novel, should I play it safe, or is this the best time to break the writing rules? Will readers excited by it, or will it leave them cold? Does a positive experience for the reader completely hinge on following the rules to the letter? I don’t believe it does.

I’ve read so many good novels that break either structural rules or the oft repeated rules of good writing. I’m reading Child 44 right now, the debut novel by Tom Rob Smith. The novel is written in the third person, primarily from the perspective of the protagonist, and yet occasionally, we’ll drift into the minds of other characters and back again to the protagonist. The author commits one of the gravest sins of novel-writing: head-hopping. Yet this isn’t fatal. In fact, I’m finding that it adds texture to the story. The novel is considered by critics and readers alike to be an example of a great thriller.

The popularity of Jane Austen’s novels has endured despite massive shifts in what is stylistically acceptable over the past hundred odd years. Academics pull her work apart, word by word, in an attempt to unlock the secret of the world’s continuing love-affair with her writing. There are even infographics and plain, old fashioned graphs that show how many times a particular word or category of word is used. (I know. GRAPHS FFS!) When Jane Austen wrote her novels adverbs were totally acceptable ways of adding description to sentences. As a result her novels are peppered through with them. Nowadays, writers that use them regularly are considered ‘lazy’. Lazy? A bit harsh. I think Jane Austen would agree.

Trainspotting (another debut novel) is one of my favourite novels. I first read it when I was fifteen, and it was like nothing I’d ever read before. It was a controversial novel in many ways, but stylistically, its use of dialect was particularly risky. It broke one of the cardinal rules of good fiction writing: don’t write dialect. And it didn’t just break the rule once. The entire novel is written in the first person in the Edinburghian dialect. It took me a day of perseverance before I could begin to be able to read it fluently, but in the end the use of dialect made my experience as a reader so much more vivid and immersive. As I read I ‘heard’ the words in a way I’d never done before.

Writers are repeatedly told not to write sentences that are too long, but recently, Mike McCormack’s debut novel, Solar Bones, won The Goldsmith’s Prize. It was written in one sentence!

It would be beyond arrogant for me, a person that hasn’t even finished a novel, to challenge the wisdom of the academics and authors that have studied the tenets of good writing and novel-structure and written them down for the benefit of me and other aspiring authors. I wouldn’t dare. We humans love to find patterns in things.

It’s a natural instinct. It’s reassuring to the aspiring author to know that rules exist. That by doing x,y or z, your writing can be better. But at this stage in the process, the danger of over-editing is a real worry to me. Every single person has their own ‘way with words’ , and as individual writers we naturally and instinctively use words in our own unique way. I worry that in attempting to beat ‘bad habits’ out of my writing, I risk losing something of the essence of myself- and that if that happens, what will the consequences be for my novel? Will it become a write-by-numbers book? Stilted, pedantic, inauthentic, dull. Will it lose its soul?

I’m not writing this novel to prove a point about rule-breaking. I’m not here to lead the charge in a rebellion against writing rules. Far from it, I think my writing has improved because I am starting to internalise those rules. I think if I’m going to break the writing rules, the safest thing is to do so consciously, and to have weighed up the potential consequences. Those consequences are that readers will potentially hate what I’ve done, but I need to be true to myself as a writer and to my story. I must trust that my readers will appreciate that and understand why I’ve had to write my novel the way it is written.

My book has to be what it is.

Sometimes, the longest sentence is the truest.

Sometimes, the sentence with the adverb is the most sincere.

Sometimes, breaking the rules is the only honest thing you can do.

Over to you: What writing rules do you like to break? What is the most fundamental rule of writing a good novel in your opinion? What is the best resource for writing rules in your opinion?

Literary Events: The Dalkey Book Festival

The Dalkey Book Festival takes place from the 15th to the 18th June, and it is one of the best literary festivals that Ireland has to offer. Salman Rushdie called it ‘the best little festival in the world’. Ten years ago, I would have asked Salman if he’d  ever heard of Electric Picnic, but now, I’m a sensible person, trying to write a novel, so I’d be more inclined to agree with him.

It’s a joy to attend the festival, not only for the events, but also because the village of Dalkey itself is absolutely gorgeous. It seems to have cloistered itself from the insanity that is Dublin and its suburbs since the economy decided to resurrect itself. Even with the additional hubbub of the festival, it never feels crowded, just buzzy and exciting.

The festival itself had an incredibly eclectic line-up of speakers and panels this year, and topics ranged from the political, to the satirical. I had hoped to make a few of the events but this year, because there were so many good speakers, but I only had the time for one. Given that my own novel is a psychological thriller, I decided to attend Dalkey Noir. We have always enjoyed a wealth of incredible writing talent in Ireland, but at the moment there is a kind of a Golden Age of crime/thriller writing taking place here, particularly amongst female writers.  The panel for this event was made up of female thriller writers and they discussed  the current boom in crime/thriller writing and in particular the female authors that dominate the best-sellers lists.

The panel consisted of Liz Nugent, who interviewed Sinead Crowley and Jane Casey.

I was so excited that Liz Nugent was the interviewer, as I’ve just finished reading Unravelling Oliver, her excellent debut. I hoped to hear a bit about her own journey as a writer, but as good interviewers do, she was single-minded in her focus on her guests, Sinead Crowley (who writes thrillers set in a fictionalised Dalkey) and Jane Casey (of the successful Maeve Kerrigan series).

It was fascinating to hear about the backgrounds of these two writers, before they went on to become authors, how they ended up writing crime, the resources that they use to research their novels and where they find the inspiration for their writing.

They shared their views on why women write crime so well. Jane Casey believes that it has its roots in the fact that women are, from a young age, taught to see danger everywhere, and I agree with her on that.

They also discussed how technology has impacted the way that thrillers are written. Sinead Crowley observed that the thriller has had to transform itself significantly with the advent of the smartphone. Most thriller writers either totally embrace the new technology in their novels or set their novels in the past. Interestingly, I decided to set mine in the 1970’s and I didn’t really know why I was drawn to that era initially. Looking at it now I realise that at least one of the reasons why, is that if smartphones existed during the time my novel was set, it would be a completely different book.

It was a very enjoyable talk, and I learned a lot from three very accomplished women. I hope to follow in their bloody footprints one day.

Competitions: The NYC Midnight, Screenwriting Challenge Round 2

I got came second in my heat in this challenge and progressed to the second round. The feedback from the judges was really positive and encouraging, and I’m looking forward to writing another screenplay.

My assignment was:

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Character: A Hitman

Subject: A negotiation

I actually came up with a really good idea for a comic script but the romance part had me flummoxed. I had to write the entire story in eight pages, and eight pages in a screenplay is very little as there is so much white space in a screenplay due to the formatting rules. I found that my two characters weren’t playing ball. I just couldn’t force ‘love’ in such a small space. On top of that, the deadline was a problem. I hadn’t noticed when I applied for the competition that the three days landed on one of the busiest weekends I have this year. I ended up sitting this one out, but I’ll definitely enter again next year.

The story I came up with was that of a dastardly husband trying to off his wife for an insurance payout. He attempts to hire a hitman to do the job, but mistakenly hires a novice gigolo, who completely misinterprets the meaning of his client’s shady assignment.

Here is a small excerpt from the script I started, and will finish later, but didn’t submit:

SHOT THROUGH THE HEART

Giorgio the Gigolo       

Did you get any business from that online ad?

Frank

Nope. Not sure why.

Giorgio the Gigolo         

Well, it ain’t easy to get hot, rich women to hand you over their cash for something they can get for free any night of the week in any dive bar in town. You gotta be offering them something real special, like I do.

Show me the ad you put in.

Frank hands Giorgio his phone. Giorgio squints at the screen.

Well, this explains everything.

‘Hot guy, good value, specialises in women’. 

What the fuck is this? Where’s the finesse? Where’s the class? Good value? You’re not a fried chicken ball at an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet! You’re supposed to be offering your clients the tastiest, highest quality man meat. Are you a deep-fried chicken ball or a medium to rare, Kobe fillet steak, Frank?

Frank

I’m a fillet steak.

Giorgio the Gigolo

Then behave like one.

Frank

Frank shoots Giorgio a confused look.

I would have put more words in the ad, but the company charges by the word… I only had five dollars…

Georgio the Gigolo

First lesson in business: ‘don’t expect clients to invest in you, if you won’t invest in yourself’, now invest some money in your business, you fucken tightwad. You managed to find the money for weed last week as I recall.

Giorgio squints at the phone again.

Oh, (squints at phone) and the ad says ‘hit guy’. It says ‘hit guy’ not ‘hot guy’. Now, not only do these women think you’re cheap, they think you’re an idiot too.

Bra-fucken-vo.

Competitions: NYC Midnight, Short Story Competition, Round 3

Catherine Day Sunrise

I managed to get through to round three and into the top 3% of the entrants in the competition, but alas my journey is over. A very worthy winner was selected, and I’m chomping at the bit to have another go! I thoroughly enjoyed the competition, and I now have three stories that I’d never have written otherwise, and plenty of useful feedback from the judges that I can use to improve them. I’d highly recommend entering this competition to a anyone who is stuck in a bit of a  rut with their short stories. Our final assignment was:

Genre: Open

Character: An undertaker

Subject: A sunrise

Of the three stories I put together, this one (despite having been written in 24 hours) was my favourite, and not having an assigned genre was better for me, because I generally don’t write genre fiction. I’ll be submitting this one to other competitions. The biggest challenge with this story was writing it in 1,500 words. I ended up writing far too many words and then I had to edit heavily, and I think I might have edited the heart and soul out of it. If I end up submitting it anywhere else, I’ll submit the unabridged version.

The story is about unhappy memories, and a man’s attempts to protect his elderly wife from them. This is an excerpt from the beginning:

THE DAWNING

We used to go ‘sunrise hunting’ whenever we went travelling. We’d plot out the route on our map the night before, estimate when sunrise would take place, set an alarm, and sleep in our clothes. When the alarm went off we’d rise groggily from our bed, one of us always needing to be coaxed by the other. We’d pour strong, black coffee into our chipped thermos flask and jump into the hire car to drive fast in the pitch-blackness; Gloria’s face obscured by a giant map as she barked out directions, yawns filling my mouth as I drove. We’d follow the line of the horizon, find a good spot and park up.

Gloria would spread out our old woollen rug. A rug we had picked up in India, that had lain on the soil of many different countries since, and pour herself a cup of coffee, huddling into her jacket. She’d smile a faint smile and watch the sky rapidly transform before us, whilst I ran around snapping photographs. Trying to capture every moment of the show, as the sky worked through whatever palette it had selected from its range that day- red, orange and yellow or pink and purple. Maybe shades of all of them. Better than a sunset any day. A sunset was an ending, a sunrise a new beginning.

Scary Times and Beta Readers

Waiting for feedback from my beta readers was one of the most nerve-racking experiences I’ve ever had. It was like I had a precious little kitten I’d nurtured from birth. Perhaps the little kitten had star potential, or maybe I was completely delusional (like many cat-parents are) about how entraining my kitten really is. It was like taking that vulnerable creature and handing it to a pack of wolves who would either be enamoured by it and nurture it, or tire of it and tear it to bloody shreds.

Many writing blogs/books recommend that you select only a few beta readers, and that you only select people who write. I pretty much ignored both pieces of advice. I’ve been unlucky with strangers reading my work in exchange for me reading theirs. Often my feedback would be more detailed, thoughtful and constructive than what I receive back. I’ve actually received feedback of ‘very good, really enjoyed it’ on short stories that I’ve written. This would be after spending forty-five minutes reading and typing up a critique on the work of the other person. I’ve just been unlucky, I know, but still, it made me think that taking a different path would suit me better.

I asked ten people I knew to beta read for me. In terms of their knowledge of writing and novels. I managed rope people in with a massive variety of perspectives to offer. Proofreaders, fans of the thriller genre, people with English degrees, people who write as a hobby, people who write for a living, to a psychologist, who offered a unique perspective on my characterisation. I agreed with many of their observations, and I’m making a number of changes to my final draft as a result.

My precious kitten came back a bit roughed-up, but mainly in one piece.

I knew that the risk of asking friends and family read it was that they wouldn’t be honest. They are more likely to ‘blow smoke up your hole’ as my uncle Finbar might say.

As I gathered the feedback from each individual reader, it became clear that the risk had paid off. The criticism I received was constructive, though occasionally brutal. Ironically, it was the harshest criticism that made me feel the greatest sense of confidence in my writing. It meant that I could trust my readers when they told me that they enjoyed the novel. I could believe them when they told me they couldn’t put it down. I don’t regret selecting people I know to beta read. It was clear to me that my readers took their job very seriously, and that they were invested in my success. I am grateful to each and every one of them.

I have a lot of work to do before the novel will be right, and I’m pretty nervous about launching into the final draft.

Over to you: What is your experience with beta readers? How did you find THE ONE(S)? What kinds of people did you use? Did you use friends/family or strangers? What interesting perspectives have they brought to your work?