Category Archives: The Creative Process

Do One Thing at a Time

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Focus.

In a world of multi-tasking, it something most of us have forgotten.

Stand in any street and you will see a mother pushing a pushchair, laden with shopping as well as her baby, perhaps another child or two trailing behind, with a mobile phone clamped to her ear.  This woman is doing at least three tasks at once, and is probably not able to concentrate on any of them properly.  The same is true of the man driving along the motorway, his mind on his business meeting to come, a bag of crisps in his lap to keep hunger at bay, talking to a colleague on his hands-free (I hope) phone.  I’m not saying mobile technology is the evil of our times.  What I am saying is that its so easy to get distracted that we rarely do one thing, and one thing alone.

You only have to look at my bedside table to see that I am the worst victim of this curse.  A glance at the picture above will show you that I have 32 books currently on the go!  (That’s not counting the magazines under the second pile in – there are actually four piles there.  Its also not counting the ones on my desk in the study.)  Another one arrived in the post this morning.  And the heap includes 6 library books, which of course can go back to be exchanged for more goodies.

I know, I know.

I have a serious problem…

On a side note, it is interesting to me that, as someone who claims to be a fiction writer, there are very, very few novels on this heap.  But more of that anon.

I really, really need to focus.  Finally becoming overwhelmed by my book pile yesterday, I made the decision.  This has to stop.  I am going to focus on ONE BOOK and read it till it is finished.  And then move on to the next.  And read that till it is finished.  And so on.

And I’m not allowed to buy any more books until this pile is finished.

Or go the library.  (Which may actually be more difficult, because hey, free books!)

You may remember that I made the decision earlier in the year, as part of my commitment to my writing, to start reading a lot more, and I’m really doing well at that.  The problem is that at the moment, most of what I am reading is non-fiction for research, fun and self-development, which isn’t going to feed my prose practice in the same way that quality novels would.  I’ve got shelves of novels that I want to read, but never get around to.  Research always seems more tempting.  I wonder what this says about what I really need to be writing?

Anyway, I decided that today I will make a list of all the novels I have outstanding on the shelves all over the house. And then I will work my way through the list one at a time.

I’ve even been toying with the idea of having a total-immersion week, where I commit to doing nothing else but reading (other than my diary), in the hope that this will establish in me a voracious desire for fiction that only regular reading will sate.

The weird thing is that I never have this problem with fanfiction.  I think its because its short.  I spent nearly five years writing solely in the Sherlock fandom, and that was where I did pretty much all my fiction reading.  It was a continuous obsession, which fuelled what I think is some of my best work.  I need to get that focus back, so I can write original fiction to the same pitch.

I’ll keep you posted as to how I get on!

Happy Creating,

EF

Focus Shift

Desk May 2017

Something struck me today.  Normally on a Sunday evening (the time when I’m writing this) I have a little cascade of messages from AO3 and fanfiction.net telling me who has been liking and bookmarking my work, who has been commenting, and so on.  They come most days, but you always get a lot more at the weekend because more people have time to read at weekends.  It is like having a little round of applause at the end of the week, to spur you on into Monday, and as every fanfic writer knows, those responses to your work can become your addiction!

As I opened up the latest collation of ‘kudos’ from my works on AO3, I realised that these missives have become a lot more incidental to my world than they used to be.  I used to hang on every single one, checking my email obsessively to see what had arrived.  Fanfiction has definitely changed in its importance for me.  Now, I’m obviously delighted that people like my work, but my self-esteem no longer rests so strongly on it.  It’s a really nice little pat on the back, but its importance to me has lessened, and for one really crucial reason.

My focus has changed.

My main writing focus is now on my novel, on my original work.  Yes, I am still writing fanfics, still composing them in my head at night when I go to bed, but my main efforts at my desk are to do with developing original fiction.  My novel.  Or whatever this thing is going to be that I am working on.

This swap is a huge change for me, and realising it is so exciting.  It means that all the effort I have been putting in to developing a writing habit is actually working.  This is the payback.  I’m now on the yellow brick road that I want to be on.  I’m not saying the other yellow-brick road with all the gorgeous men having rampant sex isn’t nice.  It’s just it wasn’t the one I was planning to follow, that’s all.

Writing fanfic has become something of a ‘warm-up’ exercise for me, the way ballet dancers practice at the barre before they get down to the nitty-gritty of doing the Dying Swan!  I love writing it.  It exercises the muscles, gets the lumps out of the prose, provides a field for juicy little metaphors to pop up that I can use later in something original.

Now the original work is where I am headed, I feel excited, free.  It is slowly evolving, this thing that I am writing.  I work on it most days, and it gives me clues, spits out little gems, turns its head and gives me a flirtatious wink or a little giggle every now and again.  It is starting to come into better focus.

I’m so excited.  And relieved.

I feel like I’ve got my voice back.

I shall never stop being grateful to fanfiction for all it has taught me.  I shall always love it, and read it, and no doubt continue to write it in some form or another.  But I’ve managed to step off the Sherlock and Lewis version of the M25, going endlessly around in circles and getting stuck in traffic queues.  Now I’m on the Great North Road, heading to Novel Land, and I can’t wait to see what I find there!

Happy Creating,

EF

Getting my Ducks in a Row – One Day at a Time

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Well, this is all fun, isn’t it?

If you don’t live in the UK, you may not know what I’m talking about, but for the those of us who do: WTF just happened please?

You did not get your usual Friday Review last week, and I will be utterly honest about why:  I couldn’t take my eyes off the telly.  One minute we were all voting in a General Election, and the next minute, the news just got a little more bizarre every time I blinked.  To summarise, our Prime Minister called an election to increase her mandate, sat back and smugly expected to walk it with hardly any campaigning at all, and then found she lost her majority and now must make a pact with the devil to get any legislation through parliament.  And this only a week before Brexit negotiations with the EU start.  Of course, by the time I’ve pressed the ‘publish’ button on this post, there could have been a whole new paradigm shift, and we’ll be having another general election in another 6 weeks etc etc.

Take nothing as read, people.  We are through the Looking Glass.

In the face of all this, I’ve decided (to purloin a suspicious Tory slogan)  ‘to go back to basics’.  Take one day at a time.  One job at a time.

I’ve found lately that making even a week’s worth of plans in this maelstrom can be self-defeating. Not when my body and my brain are caught up in the uncertainty swirling around at the moment (politically, and in my own life).  So my plan is this:

(Nothing fancy.)

  1. Take one day at a time.
  2. Write every day.
  3.  Do the things that need doing.

Sure foundations, as every little pig knows, are what keep us going in the uncertain times.  So every day, I look at what needs doing – the washing, the cleaning, the doctors appointment – and do those things.  Get them out of the way.  See to Life.  Get the ducks in a row.

And then I write.

Every day.

Sometimes its just a bit.  Sometimes its a lot.  Sometimes its something new.  Sometimes its finishing something old thats been hanging about, annoying me for ages.  Sometimes it is writing practice.  Sometimes it is a personal essay.  Sometimes its just all the pages in my journal that I need to cover to get the s**t out my head so I’m not a complete basket case.

Every day.  Just a little bit. And only for that day.

One day.

I can do this, if I just do today.

If I didn’t write yesterday, there’s nothing I can do about that now.  And tomorrow will take care of itself.  So I’m just getting my ducks lined up for today, thank you.

(And maybe if I can line enough ducks up, for enough days, I’ll have a novel at the end of it.  But I’m not thinking about that now.)

If you are in the same boat, you might find this podcast on prioritising your writing from Sarah Werner useful.

Happy Creating,

EF

The Friday Review No 8: Exploring the Shadows

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I don’t want to write today.

I feel angry, resentful, depressed, bitter.  I want to sit with my back to the world like a toddler, arms crossed, refusing to cooperate.

But I’m not a toddler, I’m an adult, and I can’t bury my head in the sand.

Neither can I stop being me.

So I sit down at the desk, because that’s where I feel safest, and I pour the toddler’s complaints onto the page.  Whining, sulking, complaining. Resentful, spiteful, selfish.  I let the toddler have her say.

And when I sit back and look at what I’ve done, I find I have page after page of scribble, malformed letters sliding together in a hurry to get away from their meaning.  Angry, it says.  Voiceless, it says.  Unheard, it says.  But today I have listened.

I’m a great believer in writing as healing. 

To me it is a refuge, even when I don’t want a refuge, even when I don’t want healing.  When I want to wallow.  It allows me to wallow, and then move on.  Sometimes we all need to hold a pity party for ourselves.

In the last month, I’ve had something of a ‘slap upside the head with the Frying Pan of Enlightenment’, as they say.  It’s been about acceptance.  Accepting my shadows.  The things I don’t like about myself.  The things I hide, even from myself.  The anger, spite, pride, pettiness.  All the things that were dirty words in the house where I grew up, the worse qualities you could display – lazy, selfish, greedy.  As a child, I would have done anything to avoid being labelled with those words.  As an adult, I’m pathologically terrified that people might think those things of me.

But honestly, we’re all lazy, selfish, greedy, sometimes.  It is part of being human.  It doesn’t stop us from being transcendently kind, loving, self-sacrificing, compassionate, gentle, patient, all of which we can also be.  Sometimes.

Accepting that human beings can all display every human characteristic, good and bad, is one thing a writer needs to be able to do in order to paint vivid characters.

Accepting that, as individuals, we can all be those things is something we all need to do.

And as a writer, I can use my experiences of feeling those things, of wanting those emotions, those behaviours, of indulging them, as insights into my characters.  I can use them as rocket fuel for my writing.

But only if I can accept that I have them.

(It’s a bloody hard job, this self-knowledge stuff, but I’m having a go.)

So here I am, sitting in the shadows, gnashing my toddler teeth, sulking fit to burst, and at the same time, observing myself, knowing that all this is going to make a great scene in my novel.

And you know what?  I feel so much better now.  I might even crawl off my naughty step and go and find myself something nice to eat as a reward for exploring my shadows.

Happy Creating,

EF

The Friday Review No. 6: Listen. Wait. Have faith.

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“… just as a pregnancy must not be over-stressed and artificially hurried for fear of damaging or aborting the child, so, too, a piece of work asks that we not try to force it into unnatural directions.”

Julia Cameron, The Right to Write p164

 

I’ve been running around being Busy.  Hence the lack of Friday reviews lately.  And you know what happens when someone with ME/CFS gets a dose of the Busies.  Eventually, there is a price to pay.  So today I am lying on my bed, nursing a nasty bout of IBS, with every major muscle in my body in a state of semi-collapse.

However.

And yes, there is good news:  Despite the Busies, progress has been made.

Yesterday, I wrote 1058 words I wasn’t planning to write, and as a result, finished a Lewis story that I’ve been working on, off and on, since last July.  Which felt like a double result.

I’ve migrated my Sherlock story, ‘Under The Downs’ onto AO3, with positive results.  Now I’ve got to do the same with its sequel, ‘The Bee House’, but I haven’t quite got there yet.

I’ve had my monthly coaching session with my writing coach, Heidi Williamson, and it was, as usual, hugely stimulating and supportive.

I’ve been reading and writing every day.  Morning pages and journaling.  Writing practice.  Jotting down notes and research questions.  Recording those funny moments, observations of life that provide the richness to a piece of writing.

Asking myself questions:

What do I want to say?

What Truth do I need to speak?

What interests me?

What don’t I like to read?

Who am I?

What makes a character?  What is the difference between character and identity?

And so on.

And I’ve been listening.

This major work that is coming, that I am birthing.  I know a little bit about it, but I don’t want to push its birth.  I don’t want to warp it by forcing it to come too fast.  So I just put my pen onto the paper and listen to it.  Allow it to tell me where it wants to go.  It takes time.  But I’m lucky that I am one of those writers who loves the process of writing, not just having written, to paraphrase Dorothy Parker.

Sitting at my desk makes me happy.  I am surrounded by my books, with my vision board for the novel in front of me.  It is my safe place.  My sacred place.  This is where my idea will blossom and grow into something more extraordinary than I have ever achieved before.

I have faith.  Faith enough to wait.

Happy Creating,

EF

Gimme Dat Ole Circadian Rhythm…

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Sunset over Cambridge

Mornings.

I’m not a Morning Person.

Trust me, me and Mornings put together are BAD news.  A Bit Not Good, as they say in the Sherlock fandom.  This seems to be an ineradicable facet of my character.  I’ve tried, Gods know, I’ve tried.  But the other day, something I read got me thinking about this ‘trying’ to get up business a little more critically:

Terry Pratchett, in his essay on his friend, Neil Gaiman, in ‘A Slip of the Keyboard‘, states:

“He takes the view that mornings happen to other people.  I think I once saw him at breakfast, though possibly it was just someone who looked a bit like him who was lying with their head in a plate of baked beans.”

You see, Society has this idea about ‘larks’ and ‘owls’.  A dichotomy, if you like.  You know, like ‘black/white’ and ‘male/female’ and ‘good/bad’.  (Spoiler:  Its usually pretty safe to assume there’ll be trouble when there are only two alternatives.)

There is this idea what there are people who can get up in the morning, who are at their best in the morning, who get their best work done while the rest of the world is still in bed.  They make the most of the day, packing more into every hour than most other human beings.  They are virtuous people, the kind of people who set their alarms for 4am so they can get an hour of meditation in on top of their hour at the gym.  These are successful people.  Healthy, industrious, productive, wholesome, and probably outdoorsy people.  They hike at weekends, and get up to enjoy the sunrise.  They are the kind of people who have time planners on their smart phones.  And use them.

I have a friend who shouts ‘Good Afternoon!’ at me when I come down to breakfast at 10am.  This person is very proud of the fact that he is a Morning Person, and thinks that he is wonderful because of it, and it is the only way to be.  You know.  Self righteous.

Morning People are ‘good’ people.

Then there are the ‘owls’, the Night People.

Night People are at best pale, unhealthy, and very probably lazy because they won’t get out of bed at a respectable hour.  They wear black, which is always a sign of being a bad lot, and suggestive of not being, well, quite clean, if you know what I mean.  They are un-productive good-for-nothings who waste the best of the day, the kind of people who leech off others more productive than themselves.  They are more likely to fall into drink and drugs, or even prostitution, because lets face it, those are the kinds of things that go on in the dark, aren’t they.  They are likely to be unreliable, promiscuous, even downright criminal.

(Can you hear the Calvinist shouting in the cultural background to this post?)

By now you will have realised what fascist, socially-controlling bollocks this all is. Neil Gaiman, for instance, is clearly not a Morning Person, yet has produced a vast body of work, including journalism, award-winning novels, screenplays and childrens books.  He has single-handedly revolutionised the comic/graphic novel artform with his Sandman books.

And he wrote ‘Good Omens‘ with Pratchett, which for my money is one of the best works of literature the human race has ever produced.  And I’m not kidding.  If you haven’t read it, do. Otherwise we can never be friends.

What he is not is a lazy, good-for-nothing parasite in a black leather jacket because he doesn’t get up before lunch.

I don’t do mornings either.  But I’ve written 7 novels and 107 published short stories and novellas.  And I don’t wear much black.

Almost every book about writing that I’ve ever read says you have to get up in the morning and write before you do anything else.  This is supposedly because you can access your immediately post-dream consciousness, which is where your imagination supposedly lives.  Supposedly.

I think its just because the Puritans said you had to get up early and work hard so you could go to Heaven when you die.

As I said, I can’t do Mornings, though I admit this is partly to do with my ME/CFS symptoms which are at their worst first thing.  It takes a couple of hours for the pain to wear out so I can crawl out of bed and get washed and dressed for the day.  It certainly is not the time when I am most connected to my imagination.

Since I was a kid, I’ve lain in bed at night, in the dark, and told myself stories.  To begin with it was about fear of the dark.  And I had nightmares, which didn’t help.  My mother got me a radio to play softly by my bed at night.  My stories acquired a soundtrack based on BBC Radio Two’s evening schedule: country music, folk, big band and musicals. By the age of five I had quite an education in jazz.  I also had the capacity to lie in the dark and tell myself ornate bedtime stories.

This is where the heart of my writing now lives.

I lie in the dark and listen to my husband fall asleep beside me.  And then I begin.  Great landscapes unroll before me.  Lewis is seduced by Hathaway.  Sherlock and John fight and make up.  Vikings battle for control of freezing fjords.  Medieval kings entice foreign princesses into loveless marriages made for political ends.  A policeman encounters a vampire on his nightly beat.  An angel pursues a demon in a car chase.  A woman stands on a cliff, looking out to sea, watching a flight of Wellington bombers fly overhead, on their way to bomb the Nazis into submission.

If I hit a good scene, I tell it to myself over and over again, sometimes night after night, until I am word perfect.  And then I write it down.

And that is where my ideas come from.  This is my writing rhythm. And I can’t deny it any longer.  I don’t fit into the cultural dichotomy of owls/larks.  For a long time I have fought to be something other than I am.  What I thought I SHOULD be.

These days I don’t care what Stephen King says about writing in the mornings.  It obviously works for him.  It just makes me ill.

Our creative life is embedded in our physical wellbeing.  Find out how your body works best, and go with that.  Slide writing into place within that routine.  And yes, if getting up at 6am to write before the kids wake, as Toni Morrison had to in order to write ‘Beloved’, works for you, then fine.  If you are a Morning Person, then fine.  Go with that.  Rejoice in it.  Write your fifteen chapters per day to the sound of the morning chorus.

Meanwhile, there are those of us whose Muse comes out to play at twilight.  Whose imagination only really kicks in when the darkness veils reality and allows us to overlay it with a new tapestry of being. Whose creativity slides into dreams, not out of them.  And thats okay.

I am proud to be one such.  Finally.

Happy Creating,

EF

 

The Friday Review No. 5: Practicing My Writing Practice

I’m writing this week’s review a day early, as we are about to take off on the annual canter around the country to visit relatives, which we seem to do every Easter and Christmas.  I’m usually feeling like screaming ‘Stop the world!  I want to get off!’ at this point, but perhaps I’ve finally accepted that RESISTANCE IS FUTILE, and its got to be done.

In response to the impending rupture in proceedings, I decided I was going to make the most of my last remaining free days for a while to get a bit more out of my writing practice.  I agreed with my writing coach, Heidi, that I would do it twice a week, Mondays and Thursdays, because they were the days that I had most time and energy – because of my ME/CFS, I have to plan my activities to preserve my energy, and energy intensive activities like going to weekly health appointments have to take precedence over everything.  So I’ve been doing, or trying to do, two a week.

The thing is that when I do it, I find it so productive and enjoyable.  So I thought, why not take it seriously?  Why not try and do it every day?  Or rather, why not have yet more fun? (It’s a no-brainer when you put it like that, isn’t it?)

I’ve managed four consecutive days so far.  This is, I think, because I’m not putting pressure on myself.  I’m doing it to see what comes out.  And I’m discovering a lot.  For instance, the vicar in my novel has a sentimental attachment to a mangy old stuffed parrot which is kept on the table by the door in the Rectory.  The vicar’s wife, who I thought would be adversarial at most, and certainly peripheral, has turned into my heroine’s useful ally, and definitely cherishes a grief of her own.  And I’ve realised that I am deliberately avoiding getting into the mind of the heroine’s employer…. Now why would that be?

It’s all an intriguing puzzle, and I want to know more.  Like reading a detective story, and wanting to know the ending, I feel like this novel is hidden under my skin, entire, and all I have to do is uncover it.  And then the exciting denouement will be clear.

In another effort to entice my Muse out to play, I dragged out the writing notebook I’d started months ago.  It’s a nice notebook, lovely paper, but the cover is boring as hell, so it doesn’t seduce me into using it.  So I recovered it with some wrapping paper I had.  I think the transformation works quite well, don’t you?

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Before…

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…and after

So now I’m heading off into the wilds of No-easily-available-wifi-land, with my trusty notebook in hand, and a few half hours sketched into my schedule to do a bit of writing practice. Knowing Oxford, where I’m going, I shall snap a few pictures of sublime architecture and blossom-heavy trees along the way, so check out my Instagram account if such things amuse you.

Enjoy your Easter weekend, dear Reader, and may all your creating be fun,

EF