Competitions: NYC Midnight, Short Story Competition, Round 1

I’m over the moon to have been ranked 2nd in my heat with my story She Goes Down and I’m through to round two. The feedback from the judges was great and has definitely boosted my confidence during this difficult time in the novel-writing process.

My assignment was to write a short story, with max. 2,500 words, and it had to be a comedy, and incorporate the following:

Character Assignment: A martial artist

Subject Assignment: Prescription medication

I have to say, this was a tough one, but having a week to do it definitely helped. I couldn’t for the life of me find a way to incorporate the martial artist into the story. I went down many blind alleys with this one, until I realised that the martial artist didn’t have to be the main character in the story, so I made him the love interest, Josh. This freed me to create the young but cynical, acid-tongued Amy, who seeks out happiness in all the wrong places, and manages to alienate everyone she comes in contact with.

My novel is quite dark and certainly isn’t a comedy, so I found it hard to switch into comic mode, and I think this is a bit on the black side as a result, but that’s the way I tend to write comedy anyway. I find comedy really hard, incidentally. Magicking up laughs out of nowhere, I admire anyone that can do it with ease. I really do. It is a real gift.

Here is an excerpt from the first half of my story:

SHE GOES DOWN

Before long I sink into the sweet oblivion of sleep. I wake up twenty-four hours later to the sound of my phone alarm. The noise of it hacks through my dreams like an axe.

Work. I can’t afford to lose another job. My flatmate comes in to check on me.

‘It’s 7am’ she chirps, she’s smiling.

Smiling.

At 7am.

The woman is clearly a lunatic. I am living with a fucking lunatic.

I shoot her a baleful look. She walks away. She can’t afford for me to lose my job either. I’m already behind on rent. I get out of bed and survey the imprint of my face on the pillow and my fake tan on the sheets. Like the Turin shroud only with a lot of sinning. The guy left his number.

Brad.

I go to the bathroom and face myself. My hair is a ball of black curls on my head, and is as fuzzy as my brain. There’s mascara all around my eyes from Saturday, and lipstick smeared across my face. I look like a homicidal clown. Brad must have zero standards to want to hear from me again. Not the kind of man I want in my life. I won’t be calling him.

I scrub myself clean, brush my teeth and go about trying to make myself look presentable. I pop various pills. One for the headache, one for the nausea, one for the fatigue and finally, and most importantly, two for the self-loathing. I get dressed, grab my handbag and grab a coffee before taking the subway. By the time I reach the office the drugs have kicked in and I feel alive. I have my game face on. Operation ‘Get Naked with Josh’ is back on.

Loneliness and Four Benefits of Writing Groups

Given that for five days a week I spend about seven hours day completely on my own, the walls can start to close in on me. I start to feel a bit  like Chuck Noland in Cast Away. Isolated, forgotten and I have to resist the urge to speak to inanimate objects. I’m currently not speaking to my stapler, but that’s mostly cos he’s a conceited arsehole.

The thing I miss most about working in an office environment is the busyness of it. The hustle and bustle. The noise and human interaction. The  gossip and office politics. That’s how I got into going to writing groups. I needed to be among kindred spirits. I don’t go to a writing group every week, or even every month. I go when I need to, and I recommend joining one for the following reasons:

1. You’ll connect with other people who love writing:

Because I came so late to the writing party, I don’t have many friends that like to write. I’ve met some really interesting people through writer’s groups: actors, playwrights, poets. People that I can learn from, and that I’d never have naturally encountered in my own social circle. Spending time with others who are passionate about writing reinforces your feeling that it is something good and worthwhile. Also, in my experience, writer’s groups are incredibly welcoming and inclusive spaces, full of friendly, supportive people. A writing group is a great place to go when you need a boost, but it is also a place where you can make new friends and have a lot of fun.

2. You’ll write something new:

In both writing groups that I go to the chairperson supplies writing prompts. We are then given a set time to produce something inspired by the prompt. The prompt might be a line from a poem/a quote/a line from a piece of literature, other times it’s an object or a picture. I find that the prompts definitely fire up my imagination.  I end up producing something completely new that might need a lot of work, but nonetheless something that I wouldn’t have produced if I’d stayed in my office/cell to have a chat with my hole-punch.

3. You’ll be invited to share your work:

I’ve learned that reading your work aloud is a good practice. It gives you a sense of the cadence and rhythm of your writing, and what will jar with the reader. Reading your work aloud in front of a group of people, though nerve-racking, is good practice. Open mic sessions are a good way of building your audience. If you ever plan on doing an open-mic reading your work in a room of people you know and trust is a good way to build your confidence before taking the plunge.

4. You might find yourself a good beta-reader:

I know lots of writers recommend that you get complete strangers to beta-read for you on the basis that you’ll beta-read for them in exchange. I find that approach to be a real gamble. If you find someone in your writing group who gives good, constructive feedback on the work of other people in the group you’ve struck gold. You’ll have found yourself a potential beta-reader, and most importantly, one worth asking.

Over to you: Are you a member of a writing group, and why? What benefits have I missed? What are the negatives of writing groups in your opinion?

Competitions: NYC Midnight

I’ve decided to enter a couple of short story competitions to keep me writing while I’m letting the novel breathe. I love short stories, but I find that I keep tricking around with the old ones rather than write new stuff. To remedy this, I’ve entered a very interesting competition with NYC Midnight. NYC Midnight host a number of competitions throughout the year, one of which is a Short Story Competition.

The competition organisers divide the entrants into heats, and assign a genre, an object and a character to each heat. There will be three rounds, and after each round they select the top five entrants in each heat to go through to the next round. The challenges are:

  • The word counts and deadlines are reduced as you progress through the rounds. You get a week to write a maximum of 2500 which in round two is reduced to three days to write max. 2000 words and in the final round you have twenty-four hours to write max. 1500 words;
  • The genres, a character and a subject are assigned.

The competition charges an entry fee of $55, but as I’m guaranteed to get individual feedback on each story that I submit, I feel the fee is reasonable, and obviously, the longer I remain in the competition, the better return I’ll get on my money.

I’m in heat 79 with around thirty other people, and I’ve been assigned the following:

Genre: Comedy

Character: A martial artist

Subject: Prescription medication

I’m excited about trying to meet the challenge, but I’m also totally stumped. I can’t see how I could possibly combine these three things into a coherent story. Prescription medication? And comedy? And a martial artist thrown in for good measure? Are they having a laugh? I keep having visions of kung-foo panda on antidepressants, but is that funny? I don’t think so. It just makes me really sad.

Not getting an entry into this competition makes me really, really, really sad too, so I’d better get cracking.

Over to you: Are there any writing competitions you recommend? 

Writer’s Tools: The Delights of Scrivener

Catherine Day, author, writer, novelist, Scrivener benefits

I absolutely hate learning how to operate new computer programs. In fact, I abhor it. I hate it even more than I hate kale, and despite kale propagandist’s attempts to convince me otherwise, I remain convinced that kale is a very, very bad thing. Masquerading as lettuce. Trying to sneak its rubbery ass into my salad. It’s not happening, kale. Keep walking.

(The fact I’m getting so angry about kale tells me that I really need to get out more…).

Anyway, learning how to operate new computer programs is worse than kale. I don’t like to think of myself as as technophobic, as to me, the term technophobe is reserved for people who don’t use or like to use any technology at all. I can definitely see the benefits of technology. I love my phone a little bit too much, the internet is the best, Facebook is an addiction of mine. So I prefer to call myself ‘technostubborn’. I appreciate technology, but I like the comfort of using software that I’m familiar with.

Learning how to use WordPress for this website? That was a struggle. I know it’s intuitive, I know it’s easy, I know it has been specifically built with technostubborn people like myself in mind, but it was still really steep learning curve because I hadn’t learned anything new in terms of computer programs in a very long time.

With the trauma still fresh from learning to use WordPress and setting up my website, I began to write my novel. Occasionally, I’d look at writing resources online to help me along. I noticed frequent references to a thing called Scrivener on blogs and in writing guides. I did a bit of digging, and it turned out that it is a piece of writing software. I couldn’t fathom how a computer program could help me write a book.  I mean, it wasn’t going to write the damn novel for me, was it?  So, in my scepticism I decided to ignore this thing they called ‘Scrivener’.

But the more I tried to ignore Scrivener, the more it began to intrigue me.

I wrote my first draft in Word. Trying to sort out various drafts and pieces of research and trying to locate files saved in the wrong folders and keep tabs on my word count was lots of fun (NOT).

When it came to my second draft I began to think that there must be some easier way. I began to think about all of the writers using Scrivener, and loving it. They couldn’t all be wrong, could they? One day, curiosity got the better of me and I downloaded it. I clicked in to take a peek, and immediately closed out of it.

‘Too many icons on the toolbar. Cannot cope!’.

And I went straight back to good old Word.

I felt a strange guilt at having even contemplated fooling around with Scrivener. Betraying my beloved Word, that had been there for me through thick and thin? I began to snipe at Scrivener a bit for turning my head.

So you have a thesaurus? Big swinging mickey, so has Word. What else ya got?

Ooh!

Well actually…

After watching a few Youtube videos, I tried again, and it was on the second try that I got it. If you haven’t done so already, I advise you to download and use it immediately. Don’t fanny about like I did.

Just do it. To make it even easier for you, the link to the trial period download is here.

If I can learn to use it, believe me, you can too. I’m going to list the benefits of using it here, and link you to the videos that I watched. They’ll explain how to use it better than I ever could. I haven’t yet used all of its features, but I’ve enjoyed the benefits of the following:

1. Ease of access to all of your work on a particular writing project:

You can organise your work so that any part of it can be easily accessed as you write.  You can access every chapter/scene of your novel or your character bios and research all with a click from a tab down the side of the page. You can also move items in these folders around easily, allowing you to rearrange the order of scenes at will.

2. Backing up your work:

I’ve been there, done it, felt the slow sinking feeling in pit of my stomach. Losing work is the stuff of nightmares. I carry a memory stick on my keys, and backup my work every day, but Scrivener helps me to sleep extra soundly at night. It has multiple safeguards built-into it in terms of backing up your work automatically, but it also allows you to setup an extra backup to the likes of Dropbox.

3. Cork Board:

for plotting, storyboarding or brainstorming. I use it in the place of physical index cards, when I’m summarising my scenes and mapping character arcs and plot lines. You can then have a quick visual on where you are with your story. you can mark up your document as you go along with notes which appear on the right-hand side of the screen so that you don’t forget them.

4. Snapshotting:

A snapshot facility for saving previous versions of your work for comparison purposes, and you can split-screen pages to see versions of your work side-by-side.

5. Tracking progress:

You can track your progress as you reach your daily word count and you can pull the total word count of your novel when you want to see how you’re getting on.

5. Collating the novel and E-Publishing:

Putting your novel together is easy- you can change formatting for the entire document in a few clicks, collate it and email it in various formats/ print it easily. You can also convert your work into an ebook.

6. Templates:

There are templates for various kinds of writing projects.

… and everything else. They’ve basically thought of everything. They’ve even made space for you to save  ‘photos’ of your characters.

These are the links I used to get the hang of the basics.

1. Scrivener Instructional Videos:

The people that created Scrivener have a number of instructional videos on their website, and you can click here to access them.  I found the first one invaluable when I was getting the hang of it.

2. Hayden Scott, WIProgress

Hayden has a great YouTube Channel and this is a very popular Scrivener Tutorial .

 

The Craft of Novel Writing- My Top 8 Writing Blogs and Websites

The biggest thing that I have learned on my novel-writing journey so far is that successful storytelling is equal parts craft and creativity.

Yes, a lot of creative writing is intuitive. There is no mathematical equation. No magical incantation. No specific set of rules that will produce a good scene or a good story. The premise is either compelling or it isn’t. But equal to the idea itself, the story needs to be told the right way. A good idea isn’t enough to carry a badly written story.

Time and time again I’ve encountered simple stories, where very little happens, told in the most compelling ways. These stories, to me, are incredible examples of what honing the craft of writing can achieve. That is where I aim to be with my writing. On the flip side, I’ve also read amazing ideas written badly, and they left me cold, and very, very sad.

When I started out on my path as a writer, I didn’t like to think of writing as a craft. The idea that something so magical as a story should be corralled and imprisoned in structure and rules was horrifying to me. The concept that good prose should be constructed: words like dull, grey breeze blocks, placed precisely one on top of the other until the prose is structurally correct. Uniform. Proper. All the spontaneity and life and spark sucked out of it. All the colour and shape of a Bauhaus building.

I’d like to think that was the main reason I hated the idea of writing rules, but actually, I suspect, it’s because I have a terrible lazy streak.

I recognise now that writing is a craft. I think it can only be learned through experience, and, yes, studying hard. Studying the work of authors who have mastered it. And reading the advice given by people who have studied it.  What I’ve read about it, though, has shown me that though writing is like architecture, and though there are basic rules of construction that must be obeyed, we all have the freedom to build something completely unique, and the laws of physics don’t apply.

Most of us won’t complete an MFA. Most of us have come from different careers to end up here. Where can we go for instruction on how to construct a good story? Where can we learn from people who know their stuff? As well as studying a number of books, I consulted numerous writing websites and blogs while writing my novel. There are hundreds of websites out there, but these are the websites I found the most useful, and some of the posts that have been the most useful to me in terms of craft:

1. Novel Writing Help

Harvey Chapman is the creator of this website, and the content on it. It really is an incredible resource for people attempting to tackle the challenge of writing their first novel. I wish I’d discovered it earlier. The articles are listed in an order that makes sense, like chapters of a book, and are formatted in a way that makes them really easy to read. There are too many good articles to link to here, so I’ll just leave one as a taster. 9 Rules For Writing Dialogue was a piece that I found particularly good.

2. The Write Practice

This is a website mostly focused on the art of the short story. A lot of what is here, however, can be applied to novel-writing. The 5 Elements of Storytelling is a great article on the fundamental elements of a story, which is universal no matter what type of story you are writing.

3. The Writer’s Digest

This is a website which is absolutely packed with useful information for all kinds of writing projects. The content will help you along your way at each stage of the writing process. As well as practical advice and webinar links, there are writing prompts and marketing tips. Many of the columns are contributed by guest writers and a number of big writers have written for this website. You will get an insight into how novelists work, and it will make you feel less alone in terms of your experiences. An article I found helpful was  Create Powerful Imagery in Your Writing .

4. Helping Writers Become Authors

K.M. Weiland is all about examining the structure of a good story. She has a load of good stuff on her website. One article I particularly liked was this one: Common Writing Mistakes: Flat Plots . It tells you what mistakes you’re making in your storytelling, and how to inject some serious oomh into your story. K.M. Weiland believes that there’s a formula to weaving a gripping tale, and explains this in her article The Secrets of Story Structure . She makes a compelling case through her analyses of various famous movies and novels in her Story Structure Database .

5. Live, Write, Thrive

This is Suzannne Lakin’s excellent website, which contains thoughtful and well-written articles which will definitely help you along your way. One of the ones I found most useful was 8 Steps to a Perfect Scene. The article includes a worksheet to make sure your scene remains on track.

6. DIY MFA

This is a good- looking website, and I have to admit, I’m a complete sucker for gorgeous photography. This website has both beauty and brains, and it contains a lot of practical advice for novice writers as well as motivational advice and tips on how to get the creative juices flowing. As this post is on craft, here’s an excellent article on point-of-view which includes a cheat-sheet.

7. Write to Done

Again, this is an excellent website. It focuses on getting you across the line with your writing project. Here is a great article entitled How to Write Better: 7 Instant Fixes.

8. The Writer’s Academy: Penguin Randomhouse

If anyone knows a thing or two about a good novel, it’s a big publisher like Penguin Randomhouse. Their website features a number of helpful articles. Here is a good one on settings Constructing Worlds and Setting Scenes: The Online Masterclass.

Over to you:

What online writing resources do you recommend? What is the best article you have read on an online resource (please provide a link)? What areas do you feel you need to work on in your craft? What are the most difficult areas to master in terms of the craft of writing? Leave your responses in the comments below.

Research: Trip to Inishbofin

As I named the parts of my novel after the four seasons, and most of the action in the novel takes place in the course of a year on the fictional island in my book,  I wanted to spend some time on an Irish island in the winter to get a sense of island life when the weather is at its worst. I’ve only ever visited islands in the spring/ summer months so I had no memories to draw upon. I’d never been to Inishbofin before and I’d heard lots of good things. This was an opportunity to visit the place and get a sense of island life in the cold, dark winter months.

When I went looking for accommodation, it turned out that most of the hotels/B&Bs were preparing to close down for the winter. In fact, it was the closing weekend so the accommodation available was very limited. I managed to get a room in the Inishbofin Hotel.

We drove through Connemara to get to Cleggan Pier. As we journeyed along the stunning Connemara roads the rain was pelting down. For the first time in my life, I was happy to see rain. It was exactly how I wanted the weather. Moody, stormy, grey and wet. I’d driven through Connemara in good weather before, but incredibly, it is even more stunning under a dark sky.  We boarded the ferry, and realised that unlike other island ferries I had been on, it was packed with islanders on their way back from the mainland, and not tourists.

When the ferry moored up, we made our way along a badly lit and deserted road towards an area that seemed to have a bit life to it. We went for something quick to eat and coincidentally our hotel was right beside the pub we had our dinner in so went straight to bed.

I woke up the next day to a perfectly blue sky. I couldn’t believe it! The weather was absolutely beautiful and very mild all day, unheard of for October in Ireland! That’s typical Irish weather for ya! Whatever weather you’re hoping for, you’ll probably get the opposite. It’s a sick joke.

But we got over it quickly enough. We hired bikes and cycled most of the island. We hardly encountered another person, that day. That evening, we managed to bump into Alan’s cousin and his fiancée (given that there was barely a tourist on the island the odds of meeting anyone we knew were tiny). We spent the evening with them, attempting to party like the locals. The end of season festivities are something else, and Alan and I weren’t able to keep up with the islanders at all.

I did take a few things from my short trip. I learned that Inishbofin isn’t a Gaeltacht island, which most islands off the West of the Irish coast are, and in that sense it is similar to the fictional island in my novel. It also felt authentic, and is still very much an island that belongs to the islanders, again like my own fictional island. If you want a buzzy place, with plenty of choice in terms of where to eat and drink, and lots of shops selling knit-wear  and sheep fridge magnets and leprechaun hats, this ain’t your place. If you want to escape from the madness of daily life, take in some gorgeous views and see some beautiful and rare flora and fauna, come here, and maybe visit Connemara en route.

It was worth the trip in any case, I definitely came home with clearer picture of the kind of island that my characters live on.

Between Draft One and Two- What to do?

Putting distance between you and your first draft

You’ve finished draft one with the help of Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’. What you need now, is to look at what you’ve written with an objective and discerning eye and spot what needs fixing. Stephen King recommends that you spend at least six weeks away from your first draft once it’s complete. Yes. You must allow your novel to rest.  Like a big, juicy steak. And, like a steak that has been set aside to rest, when you return to your novel, it’ll look like a bloody mess. But don’t worry about that now. Don’t worry your little head about it. Try and strike that image from your mind.

I know you’ve just emerged from the warm, cosy cocoon of the first draft. You’re feeling good about yourself. You’re proud of what you’ve achieved, and you have every right to feel proud. I should allow you to bask in the warm glow of your success a bit longer, but it would be remiss of me not to advise you that (a) your novel is far from finished and (b) you are facing all manner of threats during the time you spend away from it. The worst threat of all is the icy spectre of self-doubt. The only thing that will keep you sane is keeping busy while your woeful prose is coagulating. Keep busy with learning and writing.

Writing?’ you cry ‘but I thought this was a break!’

It is a break. It’s a break from your book. This isn’t a ‘break’ break. This isn’t a Ross-from-Friends-style ‘break’ from writing. You’re not allowed to abandon writing altogether and fool around with origami or something. You’re not allowed to not write. In fact, if you want to be a writer, you’re never allowed to not write, ever again!

I recommend writing a few short stories during the resting period, and enter some competitions. I entered a writing competition with multiple stages and didn’t do too badly. It kept my self-doubt at bay by boosting my confidence and keeping my mind occupied.

Another thing you can be doing is studying the technical stuff, because you’re going to be doing a lot of editing in draft two. Don’t assume you’ve learned all the rules by osmosis. I’ve written three blog posts on books that I advise you to buy and read during this resting period to get you ready for draft # 2.

Moving

Nope. This isn’t a preachy blog post.

I’m not about to tell you that you should go to the gym for an hour a day, and no, I’m not about to make you vomit with photos of my rock-hard abs, because I like to keep those babies under wraps. What I’m going to tell you is that moving makes me a better writer.

You might be surprised to read that for most of my life I was a purely sedentary creature. I believed that my limbs were there for ornamental purposes only. All through school I had a pathological aversion to competitive sports. I used to wonder why anyone bothered trying to win a game of basketball. What purpose did it serve? Why would anyone risk injury over a ball? Couldn’t we all just get along and agree a shared custody arrangement over the bloody ball? It was after failing to realise I was supposed to catch a ball, and having it hit me square in the nose that I decided I’d had enough. I brought in sick notes every week for PE, and used the time to catch up on my reading. Strangely, nobody begged me to come back.

So why am I recommending exercise to you then? Am I a total hypocrite? Are you starting to have grave doubts about my rock hard abs? What the hell is this post all about?

Despite hating all forms of exercise, I force myself to do some exercise most days. I prefer to exercise alone and the exercise I least despise is walking. Occasionally, if I’m feeling particularly frisky I might even manage a bit of running. It’s not too hard to motivate yourself when your office is beside a massive park and sometimes you get to see deer just strolling around (see photo above).

I exercise, mostly because I like food, and if I do a bit of exercise I get to eat a little bit more food. But I’ve also discovered another happy side-effect of solitary exercise: since I started writing my novel, I haven’t found anything that works better for getting me out of a rut. The tremors from physical movement appear to knock ideas from dusty, hard to reach corners of my mind. The vibrations as my feet hit the ground seem to knock creases out of plot lines and shake characters into life. They cause solutions to the biggest problems in whatever piece I’m writing to emerge from the deep recesses of my imagination.

I’ve had at least a hundred eureka moments while out walking/running. When it happens, I stop and quickly jot the idea down on my phone’s notepad. I’ve used almost everything that I’ve noted down while out exercising.

I can’t explain it. It could be that I walk/run outdoors, so I’m getting fresh air, or the increased oxygen supply to the brain from moving my body. It could be that for a short time during the working day, I’m not looking at the four walls of my cell/office. But I think it’s that other than when I’m sleeping, it’s the only time that my brain can just tick over, and I’m not distracted by a thousand other things, like work or my phone or the telly or food or people.

Maybe you’re different to me, and you find that meditation works for you, or maybe you already had this exercise-creativity thing sussed and I’m preaching to the converted, but this is a revelation to me. I didn’t realise how amazing exercise was for my mind until I started writing my novel.

If I can’t convince you, given that I have no proven track record as a novelist, then I’ll leave this here:

Stephen King walks five miles a day. Incredibly, it almost killed him, and yet, he continues to recommend it. How’s that for conviction?

Over to you: Let me know in the comments what works for you when you’re seeking out inspiration. Do you find exercise helps your writing, and if so, how? What exercise do you do?

The First Draft: The First Steps

Once you have your big idea, you need to know that you can execute it, but how? You’ve never written a novel before.

So, back to pathways, it’s time to take your first tentatives steps.

  1. Download Scrivener

    Here’s why. Don’t waste time faffing about with Word like I did, just do it! Give yourself a day to learn about it and trick around with it, after that, you should have the hang of it. Doing that now will save you time and heartache in the future.

  2. Set a deadline for the completion of your first draft and final draft.

    This is important because if you don’t set deadlines things can start to drift a bit.  You absolutely have to keep the momentum going with the first draft. If not, you’re at risk of abandoning the project, and that’s not going to happen this time. If you find your novel stalling, or that you’re avoiding it, it indicates that something’s seriously wrong. It’s possible that the idea isn’t ‘the big one’. Subconsciously you’re not passionate enough about it, or that you’re afraid of it. Drifting a little is quite natural on draft two, or three or the final draft, but it shouldn’t happen with the first draft.

  3.  Keep reading

Never stop reading at any stage in the process.

4. and Definitely Read these two books…

The first draft doesn’t require perfect punctuation,  sensational syntax, or wonderful words. So learning about the technical stuff can wait until the editing stage. What you need to get off the blocks are a bit of motivaton, some momentum and a lot of magic.

So read:

A book on the Japanese philosophy of Kaizen

Firstly, I’ll deal with the least obvious of the two books. Every new year I would make a list of things I was going to change.

  • Give up smoking
  • Find a man
  • Get out of my shitty job
  • Get the body of my dreams.

Yes, the list was always about a foot long, and these changes required massive self-control and dedication, but the prospect of a shiny, sparkly new year meant it all felt possible. New year, new me. Right?

By the 7th January I’m sitting on my sofa, still alone, with a full ashtray in front of me. I feel so grateful for my terrible job that I’ve just accepted a demotion and a pay-cut and the only solution is to sit in my dressing-gown, hair unwashed, and eat the shame away, one stuffed crust pizza at a time.

When I used to fail at things like this, I never asked myself why I hadn’t succeeded, because I knew. I told myself I was just flaky. Every time I planned to make a change or do something new and I abandoned it, my confidence in my ability to change was shaken. This can be really damaging to one’s self-esteem. Believe me, I’ve been there.

Kaizen teaches you not to be so hard on yourself. In the past, you’d set yourself up to fail. You’d set the bar impossibly high to begin with. You swamped yourself, overwhelmed yourself and expected too much too soon. You can’t expect to achieve all of your goals at once, and the ones you do achieve are best achieved slowly but surely. Anything else just isn’t realisic. The Kaizen philosophy is a simple but lifechanging one:

Take small steps every day towards your goal and you will get there.

Stephen King’s, On Writing

There are many good things about Stephen King’s On Writing. Many of them have been said before and will be said over and over in other books on writing: advice on grammar, punctuation, the use of adverbs, the importance of using the active voice. What those other books don’t tackle, however, is the more abstract stuff. King tackles stuff that, coming from anyone else, would sound woolly, or airy fairy, or a bit mad. Stephen King has a knack for capturing the intangible. The best advice that King offers in this book is the stuff about magic, and this is really important when it comes to the first draft.

Firstly, he gives you permission to write badly. That’s pretty liberating. Before I launched into my novel, I thought my first draft would only need a little bit of an edit and a polish. That if I didn’t write something close to perfect first time round, it meant I was a bad writer. King made it clear that getting the story down and keeping the momentum going are the most important things with the first draft. Keeping the momentum going also means you don’t have the space for self-doubt, which is crippling in seasoned writers, let alone debut authors.

The next most important thing that I took from his book was, to set a word count and stick to it. every day. So that is what I’ve been doing, and it’s working. I sit at my desk and don’t leave until I’ve written 2000 words. Sometimes it takes three or four hours, sometimes it takes the day. But I don’t leave until they are done. And now, every day when I leave my desk, I’ve achieved something measurable. Something tangible. And it feels magical.

Why I Told People

To tell or not to tell, that is the question! I told. Given that I’m blogging about it, it’s clear that I decided to tell lots of people that I’m writing my first novel. One of the main reasons I told is that I’m useless at keeping secrets when it comes to myself. Absolutely useless. I’d love to work for MI5, but I’d be the world’s worst spy. The worst! I like to share. I like to talk about what I’m doing, new experiences, things I’m going through. Writing a novel is a really exciting thing really scary thing. I think I’d go insane if I didn’t talk about it.

But there were other reasons I told. One of which is that in telling people, it became real for me. Suddenly, people had an expectation: either that I’d succeed, or that I’d fail. These expectations were a source of motivation for me.

I’ve seen plenty of writers recommend that you don’t tell, and play it safe. Certainly, telling people too early in the process, when you aren’t fully committed and/or you don’t know what shape your story will take, is probably a mistake. I feel that once you’re confident in your story, and you know you’re going to write it, what’s the harm in telling? I can only see benefits.

I’m going to list the reasons why aspiring writers are advised not to tell, and explain why I disagree with them.

1. People won’t believe that you’re serious about                     writing your novel:

I’ve met a few people in my life who tell me they’re writing a book. Most of the time I don’t believe them, and I’m usually right. The reason that I don’t believe them is that though they can tell me what the story is about, they’re usually very vague about how far they’ve progressed in terms of writing it.  People like evidence. They don’t like wishy-washy statements that don’t come with any data on the work you’re doing to progress your novel. So, to ensure that people take you seriously you’ll need (a) a communicable idea and (b) quantifiable proof that you’re actually writing something, word counts, draft numbers, chapter numbers, hours that you spend at your computer writing… those are measurable things that demonstrate your commitment.

2. People will think you’re having some kind of manic episode:

Let’s face it, that’s possible, but if you’ve often hinted at your love of writing they shouldn’t be too surprised. You should mention that you’re writing other bits and pieces before mentioning your novel. Lay the groundwork. That way, they’ll recognise it as an important part of your personal journey and are more likely to give you encouragement and support when you decide to do it. Otherwise, people are liable to think that you’re just doing this on a whim, or having some kind of personal crisis, or that you’re just, quite simply, insane. I’ve always said that I’d love to write a novel one day. My friends know that I like to write. They were aware that this was something I wanted to do. I presume that your friends and family are similar. When you have your big idea and you commit to it, your real friends will believe in you, and this is important.

3. People might think you’re not capable of writing it:

So what? Let them. This will make you determined to write a good book and put the hours into learning the craft. Use the eye-rolls and the doubt of the naysayers to spur you on, to read and learn and practice.

4. You’ll put pressure on yourself:

If you’re totally committed, why wouldn’t you want to put pressure on yourself? If you’re anything like me, pressure is your friend. It’s a motivator. Telling people makes you accountable to yourself, and to others. Every time you face someone, and you know you haven’t touched your book, that encounter will feel awkward. That potential for awkwardness will make you less likely to run and hide from your dream.

5. People will expect it to be completed faster than possible and you don’t want to be hassled about it:

Tell people that it will probably take you a couple of years to finish your first novel, that way they’ll give you breathing space. Consider your own limitations. Your first novel might take a lot longer than you expect as you learn the craft and find what works and doesn’t work for you in terms of structure. Then there are the external factors- family, work-commitments etc. Manage people’s expectations.

6. The book mightn’t do well, so it’s better to hide my plans until                          I see how it goes:

My dream is simple: I want to write a novel that I’m proud of and that I believe to be a good book. Just like you’ve probably read many novels you don’t rate, there are going to be people that hate your book.  I’m writing a book that I’d enjoy reading. That’s the standard I’ve set for myself, and that you should set for yourself. I can’t control how other people react to my novel. If I wrote to please others than the story wouldn’t be mine and it wouldn’t be authentic.

Communicate your dream to other people in those terms. Don’t tell people you plan on winning a Nobel Prize for Literature. Don’t tell people that you’re aiming to sell a million copies. No matter how good your novel is, those things outside of your control. Writing a novel? Now, that is within your control. And  the worst that can happen is that in telling people, you’ll sell a few more copies.