Why Writers Need Antagonists in their Own Personal Narratives

Motivation is something that we all find hard to muster at times. There are loads of ways to reinject it into your life, but I’ve discovered one way that not everyone knows about: identify your nemesis. Lots of writers advise you to ‘write for your ideal reader’ but I think ‘write to destroy your enemy’ might work better for those of us that like their goals with a little more spice.

I have a friend, let’s call him ‘Randy’. We have an inside joke about the number of ‘enemies’ that he has and that it seems to get longer by the week. Many of these people aren’t even aware that they are on his mile-long blacklist. They might have committed some small slight against him in the distant past, and Randy is still holding onto that grudge like a baby clings to its teething ring. It’s something that we laugh about together a lot.  It’s all a big joke of course, except that on some level, it isn’t. Many of the people Randy has selected for his blacklist are in the same line of work as him. What he is doing is selecting competitors to measure himself against. He picks people that he secretly admires, and guess what? He works hard to better himself and surpass them, all the while motivated by pure hatred. And he succeeds every time.

I’m not the most competitive person. I’ve mentioned this before. I’m really good at telling myself that ‘I can’t’. Completing my first novel taught me that this is a terrible attitude to go through life with. But if someone else tells me I can’t? Lord help them! I shall absolutely prove them wrong!

So I’ve decided to fabricate a feud (in my head) with a fantastic author for the craic, and see how it goes. I won’t reveal the name of the author, because the odds of me ever surpassing her are slim to none. But in my head she’s an awful bitch– she propositioned my husband, laughs at my fashion sense and most importantly, she mocks my writing daily on her Twitter feed. She is totally innocent of these charges and completely unaware of my existence, but I will vanquish her (not literally, but yes, literally) one day.

And so this brings me to the blank screen not lightly. Not lightly at all. Today I sit with grim determination on my features and burning vengeance lighting a fire under my fingers.

And I will write angrily. And I will write well. But most importantly, I will write ’til I am done.

Why Starting Novel #2 Will Make You Question Everything

I started my second novel at full pelt and full of enthusiasm.


A shiny new project to work on!

I felt more confident going into this novel than the first for three reasons:

  1. This one had been simmering away in the back of my head for a couple of years so the outline was clearer in my head.
  2. I knew I could write a novel.
  3. I had studied and put into practice the rules.

So this time around, it should have been easier. But it wasn’t. And I couldn’t understand why.

I pondered this question… ate a bar of chocolate…pondered a lil bit more….drank some wine…then took a nap, woke up and pondered further. I think the nap did it. Like a scatterbrained Sherlock Holmes I had worked it all out. I reached several conclusions:

1. I know how to write a novel

When I started writing the first draft of novel #1 I was in awe of the fact that  I was actually writing the novel. After so many false starts over the years, I was finally doing it. I was dreamy-eyed. In love with my progress. Book #2 is so different and I wasn’t expecting that. The first draft process feels completely different. I think that the reason why is that this time around I know that I can write a novel and I realise that the first draft is an achievement, but I’m acutely aware of the fact that it is only one step in a process. I’m conscious this time around that there’s a long way to go yet. So I’m not feeling that sense of achievement that I did with the first. The excitement is still there but the road ahead is more daunting than before.

My advice: The first draft of your second novel will feel different because you know that it’s only one small step in a long, arduous but ultimately rewarding process.

2. I have greater expectations of my writing

I should be a much better writer now, shouldn’t I? I should know what I’m doing, right? The process should be easier and should yield better quality writing faster, correct? Correct, correct and correct.

But, why doesn’t it feel that way?

With draft #1 of my first novel I didn’t care about the fact that I didn’t know what the novel was ‘about’ yet. I didn’t really care about the fact that there were enormous plotholes or that the grammar was bad or that the dialogue didn’t flow immediately. I didn’t see any of this as I wrote because I was just being carried along by the momentum of my writing. I didn’t have time to stand still and take in the minutiae. And this is the best way to write first drafts, but it isn’t how I’ve been writing this one. Now that I’ve learned how to self-edit, I can see everything that’s wrong with my prose. I can see the problems as they emerge and it is making me stop and want to fix them now rather than later. This is sucking the momentum from my work and giving me time to dwell on the things that need fixing rather than being content in the knowledge that I’m getting shit done.

I had forgotten that the rule, so beautifully articulated by Ernest Hemingway:

‘The first draft of anything is shit’

STILL APPLIES TO ME! This rule applies to all writers and all first drafts. It does not discriminate.

My advice: Your writing is better, it just doesn’t feel that way yet. The first draft of EVERYTHING is SUPPOSED to be shit so cut yourself some slack.

3. I started writing my second novel too close to the end of my last

I took a very short break between finishing my first novel, of which I am very proud, and launching into the utter shitshow that is the first draft of my second novel. This closeness in terms of proximity means that I’m subconsciously comparing the two in terms of quality. It makes me feel as though my writing has deteriorated. I need to constantly remind myself that I’m comparing my new novel to something that had undergone four drafts before I deemed it to be a finished product.

My advice: Be aware of the fact that you may judge your first draft of your second novel against the final draft of your first. You aren’t comparing like with like.

How to Journal for Writing Success

When I left my office job I thought I would have loads of free time to just, you know, contemplate stuff (read that as: ‘watch Netflix’), but that hasn’t happened. In fact, I’m busier than ever. There are so many tasks required of me as I work towards becoming a published novelist. I categorise them under the following headings:

  1. Learning: reading, research, study
  2. Platform-building: social media, connecting, networking, reviewing, attending to my blog, building my list of subscribers, research, entering competitions
  3. Writing: blog, writing daily word-count, tweeting etc.
  4. Business: querying agents, research– this will evolve into something more when the book is eventually published
  5. Writing-related self-care: walking, meditation, mindfulness practice

I am not a naturally organised person, so I sometimes feel overwhelmed by all the stuff I have to do and all of the hats that I’m required to wear in a day on top of trying to just live life. It is that sense of being overwhelmed that causes me to stand still, frozen with panic and get nothing done. But I know as a writer that without building habits and sticking to them I’ll get nowhere.

Building habits is key to success in anything, but if you don’t track your progress you (a) you may not realise how much you have achieved in a given day and that may lead you feeling demoralised (b) you may feel overwhelmed by all that you still have to do, rather than seeing where you have come from and learning from it (c) you may lose focus on where you’re trying to get to.

I believe the answer to moving forward is bullet journaling. I became aware of bulleting about a year ago but I was put off by the videos. There were all these young girls with gorgeous nails, creating journals so intricate and ornate that the Book of Kells look would look boring beside them. The usefulness of the bulleting method was overshadowed by the work that went into making the thing look fabulous. But I returned to the idea after having a bit of a meltdown one day after feeling overwhelmed by the myriad of things on my to-do list and feeling like I was getting nowhere. I stripped away all the frills, and what I found that underneath was a really simple method of keeping track of my progress and keeping my goals in sight at all times. I started bulleting and I absolutely fell in love with it. I found it to be a really effective and satisfying way to track the small steps taken each day towards my writing and publishing goals. It gives me an instant visual on whether I’ve had a good or a bad week/month.

So here are my top tips:

1. Handwrite it:

I don’t handwrite very much these days, but I do handwrite my bullet journal. It means that every week I’m forced to carefully assess what I want to achieve as I prepare my task-list and tracking grid. If I make a mistake it isn’t as easy as deleting a column or line from a grid in Word or Excel on my laptop. Preparing your task list for the week is effort and if you mess it up you’ll have to start from scratch. So it focuses the mind.

2. Leave the journal where it can be seen:

A physical journal sitting beside your keyboard is impossible to ignore. This is another benefit to having a physical journal over a virtual one. Virtual journals are easily forgotten, and once you fall out of the practice of completing your journal it is just one more habit that has fallen by the wayside, which is another knock to your confidence and morale.

3. Keep the design simple:

Most videos for bullet-journals involve unicorn stickers, rose-gold card, buckets of multicoloured pens, a steady hand and the artistic talents of Picasso. I mean, you’re free to beautify your journal any way you want, but the whole point of the journal is to achieve your writing goals so YOU SHOULD BE WRITING instead of designing your own fonts. The fancy-pants videos for these journals are what distracted me from the usefulness of the bullet journal initially, so don’t be distracted by the faff and glitter. To start your journal, all you need are the following:

  1. A notebook/diary with lined pages
  2. A ruler
  3. Two pens of different colours. You can be as boring as blue and red if you wish.

4. Don’t put too much detail into the weekly tracking grid:

The bullet journals you see in most YouTube videos contain all kinds of information. They track eating habits, fitness goals, spiritual goals etc. All of this stuff is important for life outside of writing but when it comes to your writing goals it is best to keep the content simple. It is important that the tracking system is easy to replicate each week and takes very little time to fill out each day. If the system is too complicated it just becomes another mammoth task to add to the mountain of things on your to-do list. A simple task-list with a space for entering a tick or a cross for each day of the week works really well. The task list works as a prompt and the grid is for tracking frequency of completion/non-completion. You can create a grid to enter a tick or a cross beside the daily task, or to keep it even simpler you can use a series of dots to strike through beside your tasks.

5. Prepare separate grids for weeks, months and years:

It is useful to start your bullet journal by preparing a grid containing your annual/ long-term goals, then a grid which breaks those longer-term goals down into monthly goals, and then figure out how you get there through completing daily/weekly tasks. Your weekly grid is the key to achieving all of your goals, and so it is the most important of all, but it is useless without having thoroughly examined what it is that you want. All successful businesses set and track their progress regularly in terms of meeting their goals weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual basis, and as you are trying to make money with your writing, you must treat it as a business. Keep regular tabs on where you are and where you’re going, set deadlines, and reassess your priorities and progress regularly.

6. Ensure the goals are achievable:

Don’t work against yourself. When assigning weekly time/frequency to each task, think realistically about how much you can afford to give and how much of a priority that task is. Setting unrealistic goals is the fastest route to losing motivation and feeling utterly shite about yourself. My blog is important but my novel must always come first. So reaching my word-count for my novel is a daily task, and working on the blog would be a twice-weekly task to complete one post per week, and so I write ‘Blog x 2’ into the task box. So I expect to see two ticks in that row come Saturday.

7. Bullet first thing and last thing:

Make reviewing your journal the first thing you do every day when you sit at your desk to write. Review what you have to do for the day, plan, and make ticking off your task grid the last thing you do before you get up from your desk, so that you can give yourself that well-deserved pat on the back.




My Favourite Podcasts on the Business of Writing

I had this image of what a ‘writer’ was before I decided to become one. He (yes, always a ‘he’– annoying when that shit is internalized, but I digress) is dignified, solitary and mysterious. He is white-haired, smokes woodbines and has badly-fitting reading glasses that slide down his nose so that he has to push them back up just before they fall off his face altogether. He has an ironic smile and when he’s not writing, he likes to gaze into the distance as ideas ignite and flicker in his head.

This writer-man doesn’t have to sell a thing. Selling isn’t his job. His job is writing novels. His books sell in the hundreds of thousands. People know his books are worth reading because the publisher tells them so and the publisher has someone that does that work, an expert. A charming, confident, gregarious marketing-mogul. Someone very different to the writer–man.

I wanted to become a version of this man. I mean, obviously, I couldn’t be him anatomically, and I wasn’t going to take up smoking woodbines, it took long enough to get off the smokes. But I thought I could manage the dignified, solitary, mysterious, does-nothing-but-writing bit. But I know that isn’t how it works anymore.

Whether we like it in the current publishing environment ALL writers are expected to build an audience. Most writers consider these things a distraction from their work, but we have to accept that this is now part and parcel of our work. Here are the most popular podcasts that deal with the business of writing, and here are my favourite episodes from each:

1. The Creative Penn- Joanna Penn

Yes. Her name is Penn and she is a writer. Coincidence? I think not! Purely on the basis of this evidence, I’m changing my name to Catherine E Bestseller by deed poll.

As well as having a great name, it just so happens that Joanne gives really great advice on the craft and business-side of writing.

Listen to this: Social Media Tips For Writers with Frances Caballo. In this episode, Penn talks social media with Social Media expert Frances Caballo. This is a fascinating discussion around what kinds of social media you should use depending on what you write. Social media is a necessary evil when it comes to growing your audience, but it’s clear from this podcast episode some platforms are better than others.

2. Create If Writing- Kirsten Oliphant

When I heard that I had to ‘sell’ my book I had nightmarish visions of myself going door-to-door with copies of my novel in a battered briefcase, my hair inexplicably slicked back with engine oil trying various nefarious tricks to flog my novel. Thank goodness for Kirsten Oliphant! Her podcast is absolutely bursting with information and advice on:

‘how to build an online platform without being smarmy’.

In her tagline, she hits on the biggest fear that writers have when they try and build their audience.  That we will be seen primarily as desperate, dishonest and smarmy salespeople. Kirsten is acutely aware that building an audience in today’s publishing climate is absolutely essential to ALL writers. Her podcasts are really practical and she has done her homework in terms of how to use the tools of social media, data and software to get your book out there.

Listen to this: I found it really hard to pick one episode, Episode 51: How to Turn Readers into Raving Fans.

3. The Self-Publishing Podcast

These guys are fun, and they like to swear. I like to swear too, so I felt like I was sitting in my office with my brethren as I listened. They offer great advice on progressing the business side of your writing career.

Listen to this: I didn’t really get the importance of data until Cambridge Analytics happened. I thought it was all about finding out whether I preferred chocolate over crisps (it’s crisps, if you’re wondering). But I never thought about using the data that I gather on my website or social media profiles to benefit myself. I was happy to just hand it all over to massive data-sucking tech companies. Writers can use their data in a number of ways and in this episode Chris Fox explains how  Sell More Books by Using Better Data with Chris Fox.

4. The Portfolio Life- Jeff Goins

Let’s forget about the romantic image of the starving artist. The fact is, that unless you make money from writing, you won’t be able to sustain yourself on it. You won’t be able to write. Jeff Goins is the king of real talk around the business of writing. He knows what it takes to make a living at writing, because he’s doing it. His advice is practical and sensible, and his attitude is that if you want to keep doing what you love, you have to make a living income from doing it. So if you want to be a writer, you have to find a market for what you do and you have to sell books. I recommend his podcasts, but he also does great webinars too, so tune in.

Listen to this: On Becoming a Perennial Seller as an Artist: Interview with Ryan Holiday


My Top 4 Motivational Writing Podcasts

I’ve begun the difficult and demoralising journey that is seeking representation for my first novel ‘The Darkest Harbour’. Up to this point I had total, unwavering confidence in my novel. This confidence is being sorely tested by the querying process (I will write a blog on that separately). For those of you, like me, that don’t have lots of writerly friends to turn to for reassurance, I recommend finding a friend in a writerly podcast. There are loads of them aimed at writers that are mostly motivational in terms of their content.

Here are my favourite go-to podcasts for those days when you’re feeling a bit deflated and you need a nudge. You’ll come away from these thinking ‘how lucky I am to love this magical thing they call ‘writing’.

1. Magic Lessons- Elizabeth Gilbert

Elizabeth Gilbert is the author of the blockbuster novel ‘Eat Pray Love’. She has also written a book to help those of us that need to boost our creativity entitled ‘Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear’. I’m sure you can guess from the title that she is all about helping others to live their creative dreams. Some of her older episodes feature Gilbert giving general advice on progressing in a chosen pursuit. In more recent episodes Gilbert and an expert guest advise a struggling creative on how to overcome the obstacles to achieving their goals. Though this podcast isn’t all about writers (not everything is about US, you know?). Gilbert sees all creativity as coming from the same well of magic, so you will encounter dancers, comedians and poets on your journey through her episodes. Their stories have you laughing and crying in turns as you relate and learn. Gilbert is a funny and charming host and her chats are engaging and entertaining, whilst also being gently encouraging. Also, I think she may have the sweetest and soothing voice in the world. No exaggeration. She should do audio novels. I could listen to her for days.

Listen to this: Every guest’s story is different, but I guarantee that you’ll find your episode. The one that resonates with you on a personal level. This is mine: Episode 207: ‘Living the Dream and Facing the Nightmare’. The guest on this episode is a published author who is struggling with her second novel. This is an absolutely fantastic episode that I can’t recommend enough wherever you are in the process. (PS. I’m an otter.)

2. Beautiful Writers Podcasts- Linda Silvertsen

This monthly podcast attracts guests that are big-hitters in the world of writing such as Dean Koontz and Mary Karr. It covers topics such as how to harness creativity, the reasons why we write and how to build up the courage to go and live your dream.

Listen to this: Creativity Saving Habits with guest Gretchen Rubin. Rubin is the author of, among other books, Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives. This is a very enlightening episode that will help you work with your own natural inclinations in terms of habit building.

3. Ann Kroeker-Writing Coach

Ann Kroeker’s podcasts are proof that the best things come in small packages. There are only a handful of episodes over the ten-minute mark. There’s a mix of really useful content for writers here: from advice on how to effectively use social media to managing your perfectionist tendencies. This podcast is great for inspiring you to write and spurring you on– Kroeker is a coach after all!

Listen to this: I love practical tips, and this episode offers great ones on how to move past those difficult days when you question yourself and get writing #58: How to Affirm Your Own Writing Life.

4. Write Now- Sarah Werner

Werner covers a variety of different topics in her podcast but there is a lot of content focused on creativity and the less tangible aspects of writing. She draws on her personal experiences to connect with her audience and is engaging and candid.

Listen to this: Episode: 30- Letting Go. Perfectionism can lead to creative inertia, and this episode explores the importance of just ‘letting go’.


The Best 9 Short and Snappy Podcasts for Fiction Writers


I love the conversational style of many podcasts. They allow the listener to get to know a podcast’s host(s) and their guests in a very real way, and that’s nice. But it has a downside. Sometimes the tips, tricks and advice you came for can get lost in the chatting and banter and in-jokes. Sometimes, the digressions are just too frequent. Sometimes, just sometimes, you wanna get what you need and sneak out the backdoor without a by-your-leave!

Short podcasts are like the one-night-stands of the podcast world. They’re for writers that wanna get straight down to the nitty-gritty. They are for writers that don’t want to get to know their podcast hosts. Writers that are a teensy bit commitment-phobic. And sometimes, I’m one of those writers. They are also for the time poor writers who have to cram their writing-related learning into time snatched here and there.

So I went on a journey of discovery, to find the shortest and sweetest podcasts around, and here they are:

1. Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing

When it comes to the main focus of this podcast, the clue is in the name: this girl digs grammar. Grammar isn’t exciting, let’s face it, but she deals with her subject-matter with such enthusiasm that she manages to transfer some of her excitement to the listener.

In terms of the rest of her content, I’d describe it as eclectic. She explores interesting linguistic conundrums and the origins of certain words. These things might have no practical use for the majority of writers, but they’re interesting all the same.

Listen to this: I’m known to commit a wide variety of criminal acts with commas, so here is a good episode on the comma splice.

2. Writing Excuses

WARNING! I originally believed that this podcast would provide me with fresh excuses for not writing. Some new excuses would come in reeeeaally handy. I was very disappointed when I realised that this channel provides you with ZERO writing excuses. Zilch. None. Nada. Instead, this crowd of ‘bait and switchers’ have the gall to offer advice on how to get writing again. Disgraceful! So if writing is what you want to do, this podcast is really very good. If you’re looking for ways to explain your lack of writing activity, you’re going to have to look elsewhere.

Writing Excuses is a very popular podcast that has been around for twelve years. They have a massive back-catalogue of brilliant podcasts featuring a stable of excellent hosts and a huge variety of different guest writers, so the voices and perspectives are well mixed and kept lively, fresh and interesting from week to week.

The USP of Writing Excuses a writer’s podcast is that its episodes are short, and they rarely stray over the twenty-minute mark. Perfect. There is no room for idle chit-chat or digressing here. Each episode contains craft-focused advice. Each season (of which there are now twelve) focuses on a different aspect of the job of writing a novel. Also, they have transcripts for all of you committed ‘readers’ out there as well as writing exercises to practice what you have learned.

Listen to this: I found it hard to pick one podcast because there are so many good ones. I settled on this one: ‘Blocking’.

3. Helping Writers Become Authors- KM Weiland

This podcast is hosted by writer K.M. Weiland, and she has put together over four-hundred episodes, very few of them straying over the fifteen-minute mark. It doesn’t feature guests or other hosts, it is just her lovely voice offering lovely writing advice. The content varies from book reviews to opinion pieces on how to write a novel. At the beginning of each episode, she manages to squeeze in a short update what is going on in her world, followed by snappy, on-point bursts of advice, so you feel like you get to know her as a person whilst also getting the benefit of a nice, short podcast.

Listen to this: Check out the 12 February 2018 episode – ‘Cohesion and Resonance! Cohesion and Resonance! Cohesion and Resonance!’

4. Writing Coach- Ann Kroeker

Ann Kroeker’s podcasts are proof that the best things come in small packages. There are only a handful of episodes over the ten-minute mark. There’s a mix of really useful content for writers here: from advice on how to effectively use social media to managing your perfectionist tendencies. This podcast is great for inspiring you to write and spurring you on– Kroeker is a coach after all!

Listen to this: I find editing to be the most confusing and overwhelming part of the writing process, here’s a great podcast episode on High-Level Edits.

5. 10 Minute Writer’s Workshop

This podcast, hosted by Virginia Prescott, is really brilliant in terms of the quality of the content, but it also stands out for the quality and clarity in terms of its production and the calibre of their guests. Though there are many author interview podcasts, this one is specifically aimed at writers. These are interviews with writers for writers. And they interview all kinds of people that write for a living, including the less obvious. You will hear about writing from the perspective of cartoonists, writers that co-author, songwriters and even an associate Supreme Court Justice. You will also get to listen to successful and esteemed fiction writers such as Tana French, Colson Whitehead and Emma Donoghue. Sadly, the podcast is no longer producing new episodes, but there are sixty existing ones to get through, so enjoy!

Listen to this: I found it really hard to pick a favourite, but Workshop 30: Jodi Picoult is really good. I really connected with as she is attracted to the really dark stuff and I think we are alike in that way.

6. Story Works Round Table

This is a fairly new podcast with really fantastic conversations around craft.

Listen to this: Balancing the elements of your narrative is one of the greatest challenges of writing a good novel. This is a great episode ‘Balancing Action and Non-Action’.

7. The Guardian Books Podcast

The podcast episodes are described as ‘small and mighty’ and they certainly are. This is a podcast aimed primarily at readers, so it features a lot of author interviews and readings from big names such as Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan. But the real gold for writers, in my opinion, is to be found in the discussions around thematic trends. The hosts and guests discuss things like memory, and Greek mythology, and black history. There is so much here to inspire and inform a writer as we listen to people, experts in their chosen topic, dive deep and share their knowledge with the audience.

Listen to this: The theme of memory and its connection with identity is a common one in novels. In ‘Do Our Memories Make Us Who We Are?’  the hosts discuss this question with Wendy Mitchell (author of the memoir, ‘Somebody I Used to Know’) and neurologist, Jules Montague.

8. The Open University Creative Writing Podcast

This is an old, and sadly defunct podcast from 2008, but the beauty of writing tips is that very few of them go out of date. There are only thirty-four gorgeous episodes, author-interview based, and they are absolutely TINY in terms of length, rarely do they exceed the ten-minute mark. They are like the Snickers of the podcast world, a small snack but satisfyingly dense in terms of content.

Listen to this: Tanika Gupta on ‘Voice

9. The Portfolio Life- Jeff Goins

You have probably heard of Jeff Goins by now. This goes to show how good he is at putting himself out there. He is proof positive of what effective self-promotion can do. He now makes a living from writing, something so many of us aspire to.

The episodes in this podcast aren’t all short, but many of them are around the thirty-minute mark, so I’m including this podcast on my list. There are some craft episodes in there, but the vast bulk of his content falls into two categories: practical business advice and more abstract advice on inspiration and the magic of writing.

Goins is well aware that modern writers are expected to be many things. Gone are the good old days that writers could shut out the world, get drunk and get on with the business of writing. Most writers hate the idea that they will have to get involved in the murky business-end of books, but unfortunately, all writers now have to make efforts to sell themselves, regardless of whether they are self-published or not. It’s not enough to just write a great novel, you have to tell the world how great it is– often enough to get it into people’s psyches, not so much that you seem like a braggart or the literary equivalent of Del Boy trying to flog your wares out of the back of a dusty old van. It’s hard to imagine being a salesperson as an author and maintaining your dignity, but Jeff can help you out here, because he’s a good writer, but he also happens to be a skilled salesman and platform-builder. Things that all writers should aspire to be.

Listen to this: This is a good episode about establishing your platform personality 3 Steps you can Take Today to Start Making a Living Writing

Add Sarah Werner and 10 Minute Writer’s Workshop



Why Writers Should Learn to Listen — to Podcasts

For a long time, I didn’t understand the allure of the podcast for aspiring writers. I didn’t understand the point in listening to advice on writing as opposed to reading it. It felt a bit like cheating on the written word to me, but I’ve since learned that I’ve been seriously missing out on some great entertainment with a side-order of excellent fiction-writing advice.

As with most things, with the exception of learning how to base jump from the roof of a very tall skyscraper, writing is learned best by just throwing yourself into it. Doing it, doing it badly and then redoing it. Because, unlike a misjudgment made whilst freefalling from a tall building, the mess can be fixed with a discerning eye and a delete button. But there are nuggets of advice-gold to be found in them thar podcasts, but something else too. Something just as precious. Writers are a sharey bunch, and they are sharing their experiences of writing with you. Their ups, their downs, their highs, their lows. Many of them will resonate, and it makes you feel a little less alone in your writing bubble. And all of these people came out the other side with a finished story. That’s reassuring. Not as reassuring as a safety net might be for that reckless base-jumper, but reassuring nonetheless.

Here are my top reasons to listen to writer’s podcasts:

1. You learn free of charge

I am yet to find a podcast that charges, but podcasts do cost people time and therefore money to produce. Most podcasts raise the money to produce episodes through advertising, and they get advertising based on listenership, so please, at a minimum, subscribe to a podcast if you like it. Other podcasters have a Patron site or similar, where you can make donations, or they are writers themselves, so buy their books. Podcasts are incredible resources, so keeping them going is in all of our interests.

2. You get access to some great minds

Podcast creators are often great minds in and of themselves and have so much to offer, but many podcasters invite really incredible guests on to discuss writing. The only way you will get to hear these people speak in many cases, is by hoping that they’ll attend a writing event near you, or wait, pen and notepad at the ready, for them to do a radio or television interview. Podcasts give you access to some incredible literary minds, and the best thing is you can rewind and replay a podcast over and over.

3. You can learn while you do other things

You can listen to a podcast while doing anything– except writing. I can’t listen and write at the same time. But you can clean, walk, watch the kids, commute etc. while listening away.

4. You feel like you’re listening to a friend

Writing is a lonely profession. Listening to a podcast makes you realise that other people are going through the same trials and tribulations that you are, and it makes you feel like you are part of a community.

So I’m going to recommend some podcasts…

Due to my newly discovered love of the podcast I’ve decided to write a few posts, concentrating on the various categories of podcast aimed at writers, and though many of them overlap to some extent in their content, I’m going to categorise them based on what the majority of their podcast episodes deal with, and I’m also going to write a post on short podcasts for those of you that can’t dedicate an hour or so of your day to listening attentively:

1. Writing Advice podcasts:

These podcasts might deal with the craft of storytelling, or they might deal with the nuts and bolts of grammar or punctuation. It is often solid, tried and tested advice mixed with the experiences of the host/guests in terms of what works for them.

2. Motivational and Inspirational podcasts:

These deal with the creative side of writing.

3. Business podcasts:

These involve discussion around the business of writing, such as marketing and platform-building. These are very important, as all writers must know how to build their audience, regardless of whether they are published or self-published. I include ‘techy’ podcasts in relation to marketing in this category.

4. Author Interview podcasts:

Authors will often read from their book and talk about how their novel came to fruition. Though these aren’t specifically ‘advice’ podcasts, it is always interesting to hear about the processes of other writers. You might learn something.

5. Book review podcasts:

Though these podcasts aren’t specifically aimed at writers, there are two reasons that a writer might want to listen to a podcast like this. Firstly, it is really important that a writer learns how to dissect a novel and analyse its composition. What works, what doesn’t. Listening to a book reviewer will help you to develop those critical thinkings skills. It also reminds you that you have an audience to cater to, and what kinds of things might they say about your novel if they were reviewing it.

6. Short podcasts:

There are a number of podcasts out there that pride themselves on being brief and to the point and come in under thirty minutes per episode. They fit into the various categories above but deserve an entire post of their own as I love trying to fit a few episodes into a day as I snatch time here and there.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be putting together posts on specific categories of podcasts, and picking the best from each bunch. Let me know in the comments if you have any favourites you want me to take a look at.


Starting The Second Novel- Feelings


I usually like to eat negative feelings into oblivion one cheesy corn-snack at a time, or drown them thoroughly with a nice glass (bottle) or two of red wine. Mostly, I like to bury them in the deep, deep sands of denial. But apparently, writing your feelings down is supposed to be cathartic and therapeutic. Thankfully, I like to write, so there’s some hope of getting through this period of emotional turmoil without ending up with diabetes or cirrhosis of the liver.

I am supposed to be starting my second novel today, and as you can see, instead of doing that I’m writing this blog post. So why amn’t I writing my novel? I have everything I need to begin: a good idea, experience and I know the process. The prospect of starting that magical first draft process anew should fill me with anticipation, excitement and happy tingles.

And yet? And yet.

I am terrified.

For all of you embarking on your first novel, I’d love to tell you that having finished it you’ll be brimming with confidence. That you’ll strut to your desk with a popped collar, crack your knuckles to get to work on book #2– you probably won’t. You’ll likely be full of apprehension and procrastinate for a long time. Like me. And here are five reasons why:

1. The second novel is notoriously difficult

The myth of the difficult second novel will have drilled its way into your psyche by now. If it hasn’t, I just popped it in there. Sorry about that. Obviously, if you keep hearing that something is going to be difficult, it fills you with dread. If professional, successful, published authors feel that fear, then it is normal for you and me to feel it too.

I remember draft #1 of my first novel so well. Before I started I read Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’. King advised me that magic was involved. That magic is what carries you from day to day. You don’t know where the words and ideas are springing from, but they come. It was surprisingly easy to write 2000 words or more every day. I had the ‘writing fever’ as JK Rowling likes to call it.

What if you can’t conjure that magic again the second time around? I suppose we need to just try and remember the feelings we had before starting the first book, and how well it all turned out in the end– in other words, we need to have faith in the process.

2. This novel won’t be as good as the first

This is a danger. I mean, this is a real danger. I’m not a published author, yet. So I don’t have an audience to please. There are no expectations weighing me down. But the way I’ve decided to look at this is: reactions to the stories themselves are totally subjective. Whether a story is more interesting or engaging than another, is entirely down to the reader. If you would read it, then write it. You’re as good a judge as anyone else. When it comes to the objective stuff, such as the quality of the writing, you should be able to craft a better novel the second time around. Or at least, you should find it easier to craft a good novel the second time around. We know the wrong turns we took the first time around, and we know how to avoid them.

3. My Second Novel is too Similar/Different to the First

Published authors embarking on their second novel are terrified of trying something new but equally terrified of writing something too similar to the last novel and becoming formulaic in their approach. That is the fear that writers have. However, some readers enjoy the familiarity. They feel that reading their favourite author should be like putting on a pair of comfy, well-worn slippers at the end of the day. This mostly applies to genre fiction or serial fiction. And I love a bit of genre fiction now and again. How comforting it is to put on those comfy slippers and relax.

Other readers like to see the range of what one writer can do. I’m also this kind of reader. I don’t mean that I want the writer to jump from one genre to another, but if the writer is ‘genreless’, I like to be surprised. I crave a completely new experience from that same writer. If I discover a really good author, I trust them to write something good and to write something compelling. Something that I can’t possibly predict.

Margaret Atwood is one of my favourite authors because she manages to do both. She writes a lot of dystopian/speculative fiction, but she doesn’t limit herself to that, so I don’t count her as a genre writer. Each of her novels differs in voice and content, and whilst some, like Oryx and Crake, are as funny as they are dark, some are very serious in their tone such as The Handmaid’s Tale. When it comes to placing those two books side by side, you’d think they were written by two different authors. I think that’s an amazing feat to pull off without compromising on the quality of the writing itself. When I pick up a Margaret Atwood novel, I’m guaranteed three things:

(a) A gripping plot

(b) A well-written story

(c) It will be different to her last.

I trust her to deliver, whatever the content of the book. I hope that if I can have her confidence and attitude, my novel, despite being very different, will be as good as my first. I hope that when they are published, my readers will trust me to produce something good every time, and not worry that one book differs too much from the last.

Of course, Margaret Atwood can get away with this stuff because she’s Margaret Atwood. Margaret Atwood is in a position to do whatever the hell she likes at this stage, but who’s to say that one day you won’t be nipping at her ankles, as you rise through the ranks. Who’s to say you can’t make diversity work for you.

4. I won’t love this book the way I loved the first

At times, when I was writing my first novel, I felt an incandescent rage towards it. When the characters weren’t behaving or the plot just wouldn’t knit together and I couldn’t think of solutions or because it felt like the editing would never end. But mostly, I loved my book. I adored the characters, the island, the plot– all of the things that I had created. They made me happy. They made me feel proud. I had written a book that I wanted to read. I know that my novel is, like most novels, far from perfect, but even with its flaws I still love it.

I’m the oldest child in my family. I remember when my mother confided in me that she was scared, when pregnant the second time, that she couldn’t love my sister as much as she loved me. I was totally adorable, so I understood her concerns. She thought it was impossible for her to love another person to the same extent– that there wasn’t enough love to go around and I’d always have the lion’s share. Then she gave birth to my sister, Lois, and she found that the capacity in her heart grew, and yes, she could love us both equally without diluting her love for me or giving my sister less. Though I suspect that I am secretly her favourite child, she assures me that love doesn’t have to be divided up, it can simply grow.

I hope that applies to novel #2. That I can just love them both equally, and with no favouritism.

Or else, I’m hoping that my first novel will be something like my first love– a defining period in my life but something I ultimately learn from and move on. And that my second novel might even (inconceivable right now, but possibly) be better.

5. Writing it is going to be daaaaamn hard

Having already had a spin on the mind-fuck merry-go-round that is writing a novel we are only too aware of the difficulties that face us. I think it’s natural to be hesitant about throwing yourself back into that particular emotional meat-grinder a second time around. It isn’t an easy thing to do, and we know that now.

We need to keep remembering how important it is that we transfer as much of ourselves onto the page before we leave this place, and how worthwhile it is. Look back on your first novel and think:

‘I did it. I really did it.’

And give yourself a pat on the back, before taking a deep breath, girding your loins and starting all over again.

New Year, New Novel?

It is now 5pm on the 1st January 2018, and the ‘new me’ still hasn’t shown up. I’m patiently awaiting my total transformation, but I’m not sure it’s coming. In fact, I seem to have disimproved since 2017. I swear to God I’ve gotten fatter, grumpier and stupider. And I have a throbbing headache, after drinking ONE solitary drink to ring in the new year. ONE DRINK because I thought ‘I’m going to be a good girl and ring in the New Year the right way…start as I mean to go on’.

One drink and I’m crippled with a headache! What brand new fuckery is this, 2018???

Am I to be punished for my virtue? If so, I see no point being virtuous (* hastily retrieves all the ‘bad food’ out of the bin).

To add insult to injury, 2018 has cursed me with a pigeon, who has craftily camouflaged himself in a nearby tree. This pigeon insists on tormenting me with his incessant hooting. I didn’t know that pigeons could hoot, but I’m no happier for having acquired this new information.


Anyway, though I may await change, I know damn well nothing will happen without me making it happen. Before I made the decision to write my first book I’d approach every January 1st with a list of resolutions as long as my arm. One by one, I’d abandon each of them. In the end, conclude that New Years’ resolutions are a load of shite, an annual exercise in mass-insanity.

But this year I’ve had a change of heart. I’ve decided to join the party. The beginning of a brand spanking new year is a good time to take stock of where you are, where you came from and where you’re going. This year, I’ve decided to make some resolutions. I’m doing this because I finally know how to go about achieving them. 2017 was the year I finished my first novel. The thing I had planned and failed to do every year before that. What I’ve realised is the same principles apply to all goals:

(a) I have to really, really want to achieve them and commit 100%

(b) I have to be SMART

(c) I will achieve them by making slow, steady, incremental progress

I have three big goals for this year. One of which is to write my second novel. I’m afraid that I won’t achieve it. I was afraid before I started writing novel #1 but the fear was different then. It was a fear of the unknown. A fear that my resolution would fall by the wayside, as it had done so many times before. The fear is different this time. It stems purely from the knowledge that writing novel #2 is going to be a hard, rocky, lonely road. But at least I know what is possible when I commit to it.

But before I start, I gotta do something about that fucking pigeon.

(*Googles gun laws in Ireland).


The Dublin Literary Pub Crawl

I try and stay away from patriotism for two reasons. Firstly,  because she has an ugly sister called ‘nationalism’ and I want to give her a swift kick in the gee. Secondly, I think it’s a bit silly to be proud of the successes of other people that have feck all to do with you.

But despite all of this, I can’t help being very proud of the literary history of Ireland.

In fact, I’m verging on smug that so many great writers hail from this small island. It feels good to be able to walk the same streets they walked, to visit the places where they studied and honed their craft, and, most importantly, drink in the same pubs they drank in.

So, in a fit of patriotism, I decided to book two last-minute tickets for Dublin’s Literary Pub Crawl. What better way to indulge a totally undeserved sense of personal pride in the literary achievements of total strangers than a pub crawl? This tour has been on my ‘bucket list’ for the past few years and being a typical local, I kept putting it off. But I began to regret my decision to buy the tickets before securing a second person to accompany me.

Derek and Colm enacting a scene from Strumpet City

My mother is the biggest bookworm I know. She devours books at a phenomenal speed. In fact, she reads so much she’s like my book beefeater, she’ll read a book, give me a review and if she gives it the thumbs up I’ll read it. So, I thought the combination of literature and lushing would be enough to get her on board. When I mentioned that there would be a little bit of walking outdoors involved in she didn’t look impressed. Turns out she loves heat and shelter more than she loves books and booze. I feared that she was backing out, so I offered to buy her dinner. This was the clincher. Like mother, like daughter. Feed us and we’ll do anything. Even venture out on a cold Thursday in November.

We got a taxi to The Duke. No driving as we both planned on getting fully involved in the spirit(s) of the tour. We went upstairs and within minutes of having arrived, our tourguides, Derek and Colm, launched into a rousing old tune about drunken candle-makers, before popping on a pair of bowler hats and enacting a section of Waiting for Godot. I knew at that point, that it was going to be a good night.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that our guides are both actors and former history teachers. Not only that, but Colm is also a writer. He managed to fill an entire book with stories about Dublin’s writers and its pubs. An entire book! So, we couldn’t possibly drink in all the watering holes that the greats frequented or we’d be dead by pub number eight. Our guides had to choose the best of them and so we were limited to four.

Each pub we visited was patronised by at least one famous writer, and/or featured in their writings. Many of the greatest scenes in Irish literature are set in pubs. It’s not surprising to me that pubs are the source of much inspiration. They are fantastic places for people-watching, as after a few people tend to let their guard down. If you really want inspiration for characters in your book, I recommend visiting a few.

Between pubs the tour made various stops at places such as St. Andrew’s Church and Trinity College. Our guides shared trivia, quotes and anecdotes about famours writers, and enacted scenes from novels and plays. They covered most of the greats: Joyce, Beckett, Swift, Boland, Heaney, Behan etc. I absolutly adore Oscar Wilde. He led a very interesting life, so there were a few stories about him. The best was the one about him drinking a bunch of hardened American miners under the table after giving them a talk on art and aesthetics.

As well as sharing the literary history of the city, our guides also spoke about the social, economic and political history of Dublin. They told us about the birth of the city with the arrival of the Vikings up to the more recent history of the civil war.

There was a quiz at the end of the night which brought out a scary competitive side in my mother. Something I had never encountered before. I was grateful that she came second and won a little prize for herself. I don’t want to think about how she might have reacted to coming away empty-handed.

Mum after coming second in the trivia quiz, doesn’t she look happy?

The guides fit an incredible amount into a two-and-a-half hour tour. The great reviews are well-deserved. At €14 per person, it is very good value for something so entertaining.

Overall, it was a great night. I hope that in retracing the footsteps of some of the greats, some of their magic might just rub off on me.