Stay away from that café!

I’ve been giggling this week about a tick I noticed in my own writing and other people’s – the tendency to sit down too much!

I don’t mean the authors; I mean their characters. In the half dozen books and manuscripts I’ve read in the past three days the characters spend an awful lot of time sitting about.

It’s not that the books are without action, there is plenty elsewhere, it’s just that between vivid scenes they all tend to sit down and (this being England, my dears) they often have a nice cup of tea!

As soon as you spot something like this, of course, it jumps out at you whichever book you pick up. Plots need pauses and a cafe or pub is a handy place for characters to meet and share vital information. People do chat over coffee and meet in tea shops – it’s perfectly realistic – but my resolution for Nanowrimo and beyond  is to put a stop to all this comfort and get my characters moving.

They can talk plot lines and establish character out in the fresh air. They can reinforce their conflicts or mention that crucial detail  whilst driving, walking, riding, break dancing, roasting an ox, drying their hair, shark wrestling or getting a tattoo, but they will definitely not be doing it sitting in a café.



The Naughty Anarchist Muse

I’m guilty of ignoring the Muse as a concept. I fall into the Get On and Do It school of thinking, generally, where writing is concerned. I’m practical: sit down; write this many words in this many hours; edit it for this long; send result out to this many agents/publishers/magazines etc. I’ve never had much time for the idea that there might be some external force – some fleeting, enigmatic abstract involved. Pah! I thought that Muse stuff was for people who like the idea of writing, but didn’t fancy doing any actual work. “Ah,” they could say, after a convenient half-hour at their tidy desk in their well-appointed study, “sadly, no luck today. The Muse wasn’t with me.”

If you read internet writing advice (especially the sort that comes in curly typography over dreamy pictures of moonlight or lakes) most of that ignores the Muse too. Mostly it talks about “turning up for work” and “getting your bum on the seat” and “putting in the hours” and so on. Basically the meditative photos offer sergeant majorly get up earlier; work harder advice. I’m fine with that. It is hard work.

But. I hate to admit it, but I increasingly believe there is something else. Here is a terrible truth: you can work really hard for a very long time and still produce a poor result; you can also work in a playful way for not very long and produce something fantastic. And the Factor X that makes the difference is what for the sake of convenience we might call the Muse.

I’m only just getting to know this creature. I don’t really trust her. She is female, Greek and mythological, which always means a lot of complications. Here’s what I’ve learnt so far:

  • she is very badly behaved
    • give her the perfect conditions, sit and wait, and she probably won’t be arsed to show up at all, but when you’re doing twenty other things and don’t have anything to write with she’ll be there in your mind’s ear, whispering
  • she is a bit of a thug
    • you will have careful outlines and plans; she will spit on them
  • she is a dangerous influence
    • she doesn’t care if you work hard or not, but her ideas stick in your brain like chewing gum sticks in your hair and will not, will not go away
    • she sneers at all sensible advice about, say, what the market likes, or what agents are looking for
    • many of her ideas are so outrageous they must have come from outside your own head (surely!)
  • she hates being bossed about
    • the second you think you’ve worked her out, she’s off
  • time is different for her
    • your time, your deadlines or schedules are irrelevant; in Muse time things are done when they’re done.

In short, I thought the Muse would be like this: gently kissing inspiration onto the author’s fevered brow. (Paul Cezanne’s Kiss of the Muse)


It turns out she’s more like this:

blousy muse 2.jpg

a frolicsome party animal. Not what I was expecting at all!

(Original Blousy Muse artwork by Grannywritesbooks, as you probably guessed!)

When is your novel finished?

I know that painters suffer a terrible temptation to re-work, change, add to and generally interfere with a painting that is really finished. Watercolourists, in particular, have to beware. Because of the delicate nature of the watercolour wash, they are very limited in the number of changes they can make without destroying the fresh beauty of the medium and wrecking the whole painting. They have to be disciplined; make the right decisions early, then stop.

But what about writers? We can make a million changes and nobody can tell. When should we walk away? How do we know when a book is finished? It’s not as obvious as it sounds.

Stop when:  1. You’ve finished the story.

When’s that? When they all live happily after? After the ball? After the Prince finds another princess with the same size feet and better monarching skills?

When is a story finished?

Maybe when you’ve finished telling the part of the story that interested you (this time – there are sequels, remember).

Stop when: 2. It’s long enough.

No, that won’t work. It’s the piece of string thing. 100,000 might be enough, but so might 50,000 or 75,345 or 23,479. (That’s art for you.)

Stop when: 3. An external factor prevents you from continuing.

There might be an editor or agent waiting. A publisher may be scheduling the cover design and printing. These are excellent reasons to stop writing and send it on the day you said you’d send it. They may not continue to love/pay you otherwise.

If nobody on earth is waiting or cares about anything you write, find someone. It can be a friend or relation. It can be an online writer-friend of some sort. Set a date. Tell them they will have it for their birthday/your birthday/Christmas – whatever. Then send it on time. If you don’t do this your ghost will haunt libraries screaming ‘Here! Here is the shelf where my poor novel should have been!‘ forever.

Stop when: 3. You can’t think of a single extra thing you could do to make it better.

You will think of something the moment you click send. You have spent a huge amount of time and creative energy on this book. It is lodged in your heart and soul and psyche and will probably not move into its next phase without waking you a few times in the night, but the time has come. Every last possibility for improvement has been exhausted and so have you. Send it. Now!

The following are not signs that your novel is finished. You should ignore them and carry on.

1 People keep saying ‘you’re not still working on that are you?’

2 You’ve begun to hate the title (and perhaps the whole book).

3 You’ve begun to despise the whole idea of writing books. Other people go out/have friends/eat in restaurants, for heaven’s sake!

4 A tidy house and clean laundry are a half-forgotten dream, and who, exactly, are those other people living in the house?







10 Quick-draw tips for time-pinched writers

Time-pressed writers – those whose creative work is compressed into short periods, need special techniques. Not for us the lovely luxury of whole days waiting to be filled with words; we’re the ones who through choice, necessity or devotion to something or someone else, have to squeeze our writing around time-gobbling commitments. There are lots of us. And we’re feisty.
My own problem is that when chunks of writing time arrive, it takes frustratingly long to get back inside the story and the characters’ heads. Hours I can’t spare can be wasted tinkering around, re-reading and generally fidgeting before I can settle. It’s unproductive, this re-entry process, so I wondered how to avoid it.
My sister is a life coach who works with writers and other creative people, so I asked her advice (I paid in dinners​) and we came up with a list. I’m experimenting and the ideas seem to work.
Give it a try, hard-pressed author-types and let me know what you think. You might be able to add some tips of your own.
1 Steal tiny gobbets of time.
Don’t accept too easily that you can only work on the book in big several-hour chunks; try using spare bits of downtime time too. Even if you can’t actually write, you can devote, say, part of your commute or unavoidable waiting time to Keeping In Touch with the Novel (an extremely important activity hereinafter referred to as KITNO). The point of KITNO is that when you do actually have time to sit down and write, you can spring to the keys with your fingers dancing, instead of having to make the long mental trek across the barren wastelands of Now Where Was I?P1050207
2 Turn off the noise.
The friendly life coach has successfully recommended to people that they turn off their car radios/put away their iPhones or whatever, on the way to work. Emptying the head of noise is a good first step to KITNO. So is exercise. Walking works, but no earphones.
3 Ask ONE question.
Set yourself a single KITNO challenge to focus on. When you finish a writing stint, don’t pack up until you have singled out a plot knot that needs to be untangled or a character begging to be knocked into shape. Make that particular issue the one you play around with in the little spare moments you have before the next bigger block of writing time. It can help to write the question on a piece of paper and display it. This forces you to whittle it down to a few words. Family members may be puzzled by a post-it saying “Pavel’s connection with Ira Marciano??” on the bathroom mirror, but they’ll get used to it – if you’re lucky, they may even come up with some useful suggestions.
4 Night Work
Some wise life coaches suggest taking a little focused question about your book, like the one above, to bed and reading it immediately before you go to sleep so that you drift off with it on the mental To Do list. The idea is that it then goes into the brain’s night processing schedule and you wake up with an answer waiting. I’ve tried this and it works, but in a hilarious subconscious-mind-having-a-laugh sort of way. Nobody says the answers will be sensible, but they might be…stimulating!
5 Harness the tech.
Gadgets might help with KITNO. One author I know emails her manuscript to her Kindle and carries it at all times. She can read it, but she can’t edit or be diverted by tinkering with details. Others use dictation apps or voice recorders to mull things over out loud. I love a gadget, but it wouldn’t work for me. I use the writing coach’s best ever advice…
6 …Storyboarding
With no time to write, it’s often oddly possible to draw. Not proper drawings, of course, I mean the scribbly kind you could never show, but which sidestep the part of the brain that slams on the creative brakes sometimes. Ten minutes doodling in my tiny storyboard Moleskine always, always helps. It easily fits in a pocket or briefcase and it has the sober look of something that might be Proper Work, so if you need to look busy in your workplace, you might get away with scribbling in it when you should be doing what they’re paying you for (I imagine).P1050210-0
7 ​The 5 minute rule (an extension of #1 above, useful in situations of extreme writing-time poverty)
Even when you can’t find any time at all to write in, you can still give yourself 5 minutes here and there to think about a particular character or plot line. Then, when you go back to your non-writing work, your brain will continue to ponder your writing question and when you least expect it, leaning over the frozen veg in the supermarket, or sitting in a budget control meeting, a solution will pop up. The trick then is to get the bare bones of it down (smart phones are a great way of doing this) but truthfully, the really good stuff needs little recording because it’s so good, you can’t forget it.
8 Work out your minimum writing needs and how to get them
Work out what you need to write well. It will be different for all of us. If you can only write on a clear surface, make sure you either keep your desk tidy, or have a clear surface somewhere else. You don’t want to waste 20 minutes of your precious writing time tidying your desk. (20 minutes? Who am I kidding? A couple of days would be be more like it in my case!) I use alternate surfaces. I have used an ironing board before now – it works!
If you need certain music, have it ready in a playlist; if you need a particular brand of coffee, get some in!
Set the bar low. I’d quite like a daybed overlooking the beach on a Caribbean island too, but I’ll settle for any old corner, as long as I have a working keyboard and can’t see any other paperwork or bills.
9 Don’t forget to feed the outer woman or man
Your minimum writing requirements probably extend to food. So it’s good to plan your writing-time food stocks too. At certain points in the writing process it’s very easy to scoff any food that can’t actually walk away, and the main craving seems to be for sugar and transfats. If you want to live long enough to publish a nice, fat Complete Works in several decades’ time, it’s probably better to stock the freezer with home-cooked healthy dinners and/or beg/bribe someone to cook your meals for you. Eat and drink after the writing, unless you really are Ernest Hemingway.
Once everything’s in place, you know you can just sit and write, write, write!
Oh, and 10 Remember, it’s meant to be enjoyable!
Writing is hard work, but it’s Elective Hard Work and that should be very satisfying indeed, if not actual fun. No-one is holding a gun to your head. If it’s not, in the end, rewarding, do something else!

Ancient Mariner Syndrome, or Pssssst! Wanna see my new book??

So when the book’s finally published and out there and complete strangers are buying it with proper money and reading it and some of them are even writing reviews saying they like it (bless their hearts!), what do you do then?

You write the next one, obviously, but you also have to publicise the dear first book a bit.

You go on the local radio and the local newspaper prints a photo that makes your dog look rather good, but you look very,very bad. You are smiling in a weird way and holding the book at the wrong angle completely. (Note to self: practise holding book at correct photographic angle and smiling so that you look less...challenged.)

Friends and family all very enthusiastic and kind. Family insanely enthusiastic to the point of starring in and directing/editing film trailer. The senior nun is my Mum – we couldn’t get her out of the costume – she loved it.

Then you start thinking you might mention it to people; at work, say.

But how do you do this without developing Ancient Mariner Syndrome? (Is is an Ancient Mariner/And (s)he stoppeth one of three)

All advice gratefully received.

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Fran Smith’s Seven Steps to Writing (or not writing)

A handy excuse ready-reckoner. Delete as appropriate.

Writing this blog is, of course, a really good example of step 3.

1          Denial

Who needs more books/blogs/theses/essays/articles/reports anyway? There are way too many bits of writing out there in the world. Why add to them? Save trees; save time; save everyone the trouble of reading it – don’t bother to write it at all! Writing is a horrible slog and my ideas would be better expressed through another medium; opera, perhaps, or fireating.

2          Blame

I could have finished this ten times over if only I hadn’t had children/a partner/a house/a job/a bank account that empties faster than my sink/ difficult parents/ demanding friends/ a drink/ fashion/ interior design/ stationery/ hair-colouring habit to support/ the wrong role models/ my confidence drained away by work/ school/ college/ siblings’/ colleagues’/ success/ failure/ an extended family that loves/ hates/ is indifferent to me/ an unprecedented level of sensitivity making me uniquely vulnerable.

3          Evasion

The fridge needs defrosting. There is marking/ cooking/ proper, serious reading to be done. Friends need to be met. My hair needs cutting. There is a spider in the bath. I have to do some exercise before I turn into a human waterbomb. There is an update thingy on my computer that says it is urgent. The dog looks hungry. That really interesting video on YouTube might give me a writing idea. Children/ grandchildren/ partner need my special attention; they will evaporate immediately if they don’t get it right now. Psychologists agree that it’s more or less a straight progression from parental/ grandparental/ spousal neglect-through-writing to children/ grandchildren/ spouse taking heroin in the gutter. I’ll just do those few things first.


4          Despair

This is a completely hopeless enterprise. Nobody cares. It will be rubbish when it’s finished anyway. Rubbish I have burst blood vessels to perfect, but rubbish all the same. Nobody will read/ publish/ enjoy/ appreciate/ understand it. Many, many writers (proper writers) have said it all before, and infinitely better. We’re all doomed. Why waste your life piling up words? It all comes to nothing in the end.

5          Bogus planning and unnecessary research

What this piece of writing needs is a really thorough plan. It should be a spreadsheet in different colours with hyperlink cross-referencing/ a bullet point list/ a mindmap with symbols/ post-it notes/ a wallchart/ those worksheets they had in that newspaper supplement/ book I lent someone/ a wonderful, innovative combination of all the above. It should be made in one particular kind of beautiful notebook/ software – only that one particular kind is any good, the rest are absolute rubbish. Once the plan is made, it is essential to google/ go to the library and look up/ ask that person I met at that party/ every single detail I may need to mention. This may take me the rest of my life, but at least I will have the best-researched unwritten piece of writing in the history of the universe.

6          Gritty (and aggressively overstated) determination

I am going to finish this if it takes me the rest of my life. I am going to finish it, if nobody ever reads/ publishes/ buys it and instead the entire population despises/ ignores/ vilifies it. I don’t care. If my family/ friends are taken ill, I will write it by their bedside. If I am taken ill, I will write it until my hands become useless and then I will dictate it until my last breath. It just has to be finished. I will get up at 5.30am/ give up chocolate/ exercise/ TV/ reading/ Sunday breakfast/ earning a reasonable living – whatever it takes, but I will, will, will get it finished. OK?

7          Submission

Right. Better get on with it, then.

How about a couple of sequels?

One of the jobs we used to try to avoid, when I worked on a local newspaper, was covering the Afternoon Women’s Guild. They were nice ladies, their cakes were great, but reporting their gentle, well-run meetings wasn’t the kind of journalism most of us keen young reporters had signed up for. We wanted excitement, crime, revelatory investigations, not cakes (even really nice cakes). There wasn’t, to be honest, all that much excitement, crime etc. to be had most Wednesday afternoons in Chalfont St Giles, so one week I went along. That’s how I first saw a real live novelist.

The speaker, I’ll call her Celia, was a writer of romances, and her set piece was the tale of how she came to write her first novel. She did it purely for the money – nothing very unusual there – but what was unusual was that she needed it to get to The Metropolitan Opera in New York, with her sister, to see Gigli, the opera singer they both worshipped. To two pennyless girls in the 1930s it seemed an impossible dream.

But they were determined; they made a plan. They saved every penny and Celia set about writing a novel. She began in high spirits, but soon found it was far more of a labour than she had imagined. Only the hopes of her sister and their passion for the handsome tenor kept her slogging away. Finally it was complete. Exhausted but hopeful, she presented it to a publisher. Yes, he said, he would publish it. Where was the sequel?

Celia nearly fell over at the idea that she was expected to do the whole thing all over again!

Fast forward a few decades and I suddenly know how she felt. I wrote the novel. It took five years. I breathed a sigh of relief. I found an agent – hurrah! At the first meeting the agent said, “Two more, please. I think it should be a trilogy.”

Two more! At the current rate of production that could be 10 years’ work! “Nah!” Say Supporters (a very opinionated crowd) “You’ve got the hang of it now, you can knock out a couple more in no time. Sleep is for wimps and you’ve never done any housework anyway!”(Part of which is true.)

Of course the lady novelist I saw all those years ago did write her sequel, and many more. Her first novel brought in just enough to get the sisters to New York – by ship, it was before easy air travel – and to buy  tickets to see their hero sing. Without funds for outfits, they made their opera gowns from old curtains, and of course it was the night of their lives.

So all I need is a plan, I guess.

Wish me luck.