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.

The First Draft: Post 1- Digging for The Big Idea

Archaeology must be a tough career. I mean, those lads/ladies spend a lot of time digging. They dig, and dig, and dig and I’d imagine that most days the only treasures they find are some raggedy old shopping bags, a used condom, and a broken bottle.

If you think I’m being facetious, I’m not. I’m very grateful because most of what we know about the human race and the history of the earth is thanks to them. That they continued to go to work every day and come home most evenings with nothing more than a sore back and dirty fingernails. Their tenacity, passion and their faith are what drives them to do the work that they do. Where would we be if they hadn’t bothered looking beneath the soil because it was too much hard work? How many pieces of the puzzle of our past would we be missing now?

Every novel starts with an idea, but where to find it? For me, the job of uncovering ideas for stories is similar to the work of an archaeologist. Like an archaeologist, you must be committed and you must have faith and you must keep digging. Oftentimes you end up uncovering the literary equivalent of a well-buried dirty nappy, but sometimes you’ll find a gem: something precious, something rare, something significant. If you just let the earth lie, you’ll never find anything of substance.

Coming up with the big idea for your first novel might come easily to you. For me, it emerged after a number of weeks of committing to a daily writing practice. The idea for my novel started out, like all ideas, as a faint silhouette, something that had no discernible shape or immediate merit, but it was an idea that I couldn’t ignore. I had to write it down.

It began life as a short story, but as I wrote my protagonist, I started to realise that his story couldn’t be told in 3,000 words. There was so much more to him than I’d anticipated. The more I wrote him, the more he revealed to me, and the more compelling his story became. After a few days, I found that I couldn’t think about anything else but the journey of this character. Even when I was carrying out mundane daily tasks, or sleeping, my thoughts were never far from his story, and my brain was whirring away quietly and discreetly in the background, shaping it.

Whether his story will be as compelling to other people as it is to me, I don’t know. Whether I am yet capable of doing the idea justice, I don’t know. All I know is that I believe in Tommy’s story. I know it has the potential to be part of a really great novel. And I would never have found it if I hadn’t carried on digging.

I believe that if you keep writing, you’ll find that big idea for your novel. When it comes to you, you’ll know. You’ll know it’s the one because you won’t be able to stop thinking about it. It’s an incredible feeling, something like falling in love. Being in its company will be effortless. And like a person in love, you’ll look forward to spending time with the idea, allowing it to take you on a journey of numerous magical paths (and dead-ends) as it reveals itself to you.

Over to you: What inspired your big idea? Did you have to dig for it? What advice do you have for an aspiring novelist who can’t get off the blocks?

How I Got Here: Pathways

Catherine Day Pathways

My dream of writing a novel began in childhood. That magical time when we are allowed to believe that we can do or be anything we want, and when we are naïve enough to believe that our dreams can come true just like that! I carried some of my naivety into the first attempts at writing my novel. After numerous false-starts I realised that it wasn’t going to happen without some help.

So I decided to revisit the wise 124 year old Catherine on her deathbed.

‘I’ve decided to do you a favour. I’m going to write that novel, so that you don’t have any regrets when you finally kick the bucket. Please tell me, oh wise one, where do I begin?’ asks the present me.

‘Oh, just get on with it, for fuck’s sake’, replies the tetchy, 124 year old me.

‘But I can’t. I can’t just write a novel! I don’t know how!’

The 124 year old me rolls her eyes at present me:

‘Stop making excuses, you gobshite. You’re a great one for the excuses, you are’.

‘You’re really mean, future me!’ present me replies petulantly ‘and incredibly foul-mouthed’.

‘I’m old, decrepit and dying, I can be as fucking mean and foul-mouthed as I like. You’ve never written a book before, what do people do when they’re trying something for the first time?’

Present me looks at 124 year old me blankly.

‘Use your noggin, you eejit. Learn from those that went before you, like everything else. Now while you’re here, you can empty my colostomy bag’.

Angry, I go over to the life support machine beside her and pull the plug instead. As I walk away my anger subsides and I realise:

By jove, she’s right! I must to learn from those that went before me!

Pathways to success had been pre-lain for everything else I had succeeded at in life. Those pathways were nice and straight. They were clearly marked, if you put in the work, and  had enough determination and grit you were certain to get you to your destination. Want to get good marks? Study. Want to become a lawyer? You get an apprenticeship and pass your law exams.

It’s hard to believe that pathways have been mapped out for writing novels, but they have. I say pathways, plural, as from what I can see, there are multiple ways you can approach writing your novel at the outset. The pathways appear to be meandering and confusing and lonely, and I have a feeling that I’ll reach a number of crossroads, and it won’t be clear which way I need to go, but the most important thing is that pathways exist. I just have to put one foot in front of the other and keep moving.

Over to you: Have you found the map to your own writing pathway, and if so where did you find it? What advice do you have for an aspiring author in terms of their own pathway?

How I Got Here: Turning Fear Around

Catherine Day dreams fear regret

Martin Luther King wasn’t the only one that had a dream. We all have a dream. Every. Single. One of us. His was big. Huge, in fact, and it makes me sad that to this day, his dream still hasn’t been realised. So I play it safe. I dream small in comparison. Like many people, my dream is to write and publish a novel. It is something I’ve wanted to do since I was ten years old, and I haven’t managed to fulfil it, nor have I managed to shake it.

Long before I decided once and for all that I was going to write my novel, I was starting to think about where I was going with my life. I was turning thirty-five, not particularly old, but an age where you’re supposed to be ‘there’. You’re supposed to be ‘sorted’. To anyone looking at me, I was sorted career-wise: I had a good job, I had money, I had security, I had seniority, but I wasn’t happy. Somewhere along the line, whilst forging ahead and ‘getting on with living’, I had left happiness behind.

Despite trying to ignore it, the dream wasn’t going anywhere. It was hanging around, determined to get my attention. Its tactics changed from pestering to bullying on a daily basis. Some days my unfulfilled dream was like a Jack Russell in a YouTube clip. It would jump up and down behind a fence I had constructed in the back of my mind, joyful and enthusiastic. It was telling me I could do it, that I had to do it. On other days, the Jack Russell was replaced by a mean, playground bully. Taunting me. Jibing at me, Sucking at my confidence and self-esteem and telling me that others can do it, but I’m just not good enough.

That I’ll never do it.

In response, I told myself that one day I’d write a novel but that I just couldn’t right now, because it was too big an undertaking and I just didn’t have time. I constantly used work as an excuse not to write my novel, it was a handy one. I could rely on that old chestnut forever if I really wanted to. Work was always going to be there, this huge obstacle/excuse. But why was I hiding from my dream? It took a long time for me to accept the fact that it wasn’t because it was too big, or that I didn’t have time- but that I was afraid of failure.

I was terrified of having had this dream for most of my life, going for it, and failing spectacularly. Fear was making me procrastinate. Fear was making me look for excuses not to write everywhere I could. Fear was stopping me from making a plan. It was all down to fear.

How did I overcome this crippling fear?

I overcame it by turning the fear around. I decided to use fear as a motivator.

The fear of regret.

About a year ago I came across an online article written by a woman named Bronnie Ware entitled Regrets of the Dying’.  This wonderful woman worked for many years in palliative care and had, for the benefit of the living, recorded the five most common regrets that people have on their deathbeds. Ignore this list at your peril!

One of them was ‘I wish I had had the courage to live a life true to myself’ another was ‘I wish I hadn’t worked so hard’. These two in particular resonated with me. After reading the article I visualised myself on my deathbed (morbid I know, but bear with me…). Not that I have any choice in the matter, but I plan on dying a peaceful death when I’m very, very old, despite having lived a life of debauchery and excess. I’ll be lying in a very comfortable bed surrounded by my adoring, and impossibly perfect progeny. One of my many great-great-grandchildren, a gorgeous little cherub, of course, will lean in and say:

‘Nanny, I know you have achieved much in the 124 years you have been on this earth, but surely you must have some regrets. Tell us Nanny, what is your biggest regret?’

A hush will immediately descend over the room. The many and varied fruit of my loins will move forward, straining to hear my words of wisdom. I’ll open my mouth, and in a feeble, faltering voice say:

‘Not writing my novel’, before uttering a dry, dignified cough and dying with a permanent look of regret stamped on my features.

The more likely scenario is that I’ll open my mouth to speak, but instead break wind loudly, and immediately expire, but regardless, I’ll still regret not having written my novel. Regrets are shitty things to have. What a tragedy it would be, to be preoccupied by regret in the final days of your life, when you should be looking back on all you have achieved. I owe it to that flatulent old lady to write my novel. So that is what I will do. I’ll write it. Be it good, or bad, wherever may lead me, it will be written, and today is as good a day as any to start.

Over to you: Were you scared to embark on your novel? How did you overcome your fear? Where did you find the motivation to start writing your novel and pursue your dream?

I’m actually writing that novel

Catherine Day Office

Hi there, I’m Catherine Day. I’m a solicitor who has taken a year-out to follow my dream and write a book. I’ll be blogging about how I went from practising law and writing the occasional short-story, to finally committing and writing that novel.

When it comes to novel-writing, I can’t claim to be an expert in anything but my own experiences. I just hope that in sharing what I’ve learned I can connect with other people on a similar path to me so that we can support and learn from one another.

I’ll be mostly:

  • Posting about how I reached a place in my life where I was ready to take on the challenge;
  • Mapping out the pathway to my novel’s completion and publication;
  • Posting on my insights and observations as I learn the ropes;
  • Writing about the problems that I encounter and how I overcome them; and
  • Providing booklists and links to the online resources that I use to complete my novel and get it out there.

Because I’ll occasionally need to run away screaming from my novel, I’ll also be posting on non-novel related bits and bobs. I’m still writing short stories, so I’ll post about that, I’ll be posting reviews of the work of other writers, literary events and any other book-related things that grab my interest.

I’m not only new to novel-writing, I’m also a novice blogger. This is also my first ever blog post, so please be gentle with me. I didn’t expect that pressing the ‘publish’ button to send my first blog out into the ether would be as terrifying as it is!

I hope you enjoy!