Tag Archives: Writer

Owning It

Have you been there too?  That cringe-making moment at a social event when you meet someone new and they ask you what you do.

For me it is a doubly difficult dilemma.

Do I give them one version of the truth:  I haven’t been able to do paid work since 2001 because of chronic health difficulties.  Which either makes me look like I am scrounging off the State, or like a whinging hypochondriac.  Either one pretty much means the end of the conversation.

Or do I say, Oh, I’m a writer and artist.  To which I get the next question:  where can I get your books?  So thats a whole ‘nother minefield.  Yes, I have written seven novels.  No, you cannot buy them in the shops. I publish on the internet.

(Oh, well you aren’t a proper writer, then, are you?  You’re just one of those middle class kept wives who plays at being a creative but is actually too mediocre at it to cut it in the real world.)

Admittedly, this last is probably supplied by Nigel, who is only too happy to make me feel like a loser and a waste of space, so that I will never take any risks or put my work out there.

These days, its even worse if I mention that I write fanfiction, because people have finally heard of it, and they always, always want to talk about 50 Shades of Grey.  Don’t mention that book in front of me.  Please.  (You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.)

The other day I was at a social event and met someone new.  She was a fascinating person, and great fun.  I liked her a lot.  She asked me what I did.  I said, ‘I’m a writer and artist.’  Cue discussion about novels not yet published, how I am trying to make a go of this website, and why I am interested in creativity, which happened to be her field of research.

All fine.

I came home and felt like a total fraud.

Why is it so difficult to own our creativity?

I may not have had a novel published in conventional form, but then I’ve never really submitted one to a publisher.  I’ve written and published 42 works of fanfiction on the internet, some of which have novel-sized wordcounts.  I get around 100 readers per day of my fictions, and regularly get daily reader numbers over 500, figures that most conventionally published writers would give their eye-teeth for.  This website has over 300 followers.  What is it about these statistics that makes me not a writer?

What really makes me a writer is that I write.  Every day.  Being published does not make me a writer.  Public recognition does not make me a writer.  Having books on the shelves does not make me a writer, if I am not writing.

Being a writer is not something that other people tell you that you are.

Being a writer is what you do.  Day in. Day out.    I write because I need to write, not for the end result.  I write because it comes to me as naturally, and as necessarily, as breathing.

So why can I not own it?  Why do I not feel entitled to it?  Why am I embarassed to say it in front of someone new because Society says I do not tick the boxes required (ie publications, awards etc etc)?  Will I have to wait until I am as old and lauded as the late Nobel Prize laureate Doris Lessing before I can finally say I am a writer, and feel entitled to it?  (I really hope not.)  Do any writers ever feel entitled to the label?

Do you feel entitled to your creativity?  Do you make excuses that you are only a hobbyist painter or dancer, whether to yourself or others?  Do you feel you must keep your creative projects secret for fear that they will not be understood?  And is it really necessary to have public recognition for our art?

I’m not saying there are anwsers, or even right answers.  I think the answer is different for every one of us.  It is a complex tangle.  I simply think we have to address it in some way as artists in whatever medium, if only to find out what stifles or liberates our own voices.

And maybe this time next year, when I meet someone new at a party, I will feel entitled to say: ‘I am a writer’, and own it.

Happy Creating,

EF

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How to Give Good Criticism, or ‘Do as you would be done by’

This post follows on from my earlier one, about how to take criticism.

Now, before you get defensive, criticism is a good thing.  It can help you develop as an artist in whatever field you choose to pursue.  It can open your mind, make you a bigger, better human being.

BUT

It has to be CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM.

Constructive criticism is given from a place of concern and interest.  It is offered by someone who cares about your work and wants you to be the best you can possibly be.

Most people don’t know how to do this, which means criticism gets a bad rap.  It is seen as something damaging and negative, something that can potentially destroy you as an artist, and believe me, it is, if you do it wrong.

This is a guide on how to do it right.

 THE ONLY RULE IN GIVING CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM IS EMPATHY

Everything comes from this.

Put yourself in the place of the person whose work you are reviewing.  Think about what you want to say about it.  How would you feel if someone said something like that to you about your work?  Would you feel hopeful, buoyed up, enthused, or would you be utterly crushed?

Take the time to think before you type or speak.  This is especially important if you are reviewing someone’s fanfiction or online work.  It’s so easy to plonk a few keys and fire off a comment before you have thought about it, before you have considered the impact on the person receiving it.

Don’t say what you would have done instead.  So many readers think that helpful comments should be about ‘well, I would have written it this way.’  No.  Criticism is about pointing out what doesn’t work for you as a reader.  It is down to the writer/creator to decide what to do about that.  (However, helpful suggestions are often very well received.)  Remember that this work comes from someone’s unique perspective, and that they have made many artistic decisions for specific reasons.  Those are reasons that you may not share, understand or even perceive.    Give the writer/creator your respect.

Gauge the level of criticism the writer/creator may be ready to receive.  This can sometimes be quite hard, especially if there is seems a lot wrong with a piece.  Is the writer in need of help at the most basic level, i.e. the nuts and bolts of language and grammar?  This may, of course, be because the language used is not their native language, so they are learning.  If that is so, they may be very grateful for your help.  Perhaps the comments you need to make are at a higher level, in terms of plot, pace, character, structure or dialogue.  Again, this may be a problem with linguistic mastery.  Try to choose one area to comment on at a time.  Don’t deluge someone with criticism of all major aspects of their work, or they will go to pieces.

Knowing the writer’s other work helps.  This way you can refer back to it, and they feel known and appreciated.  If someone is commenting with knowledge of your back-catalogue, they can comment in context.  They know where you are coming from, and how your work has changed over time. It’s not necessary to read everything a writer has written before you comment, but if you have read one or two of their other works, and you think they are relevant, it can be a great boost, a recognition of the progress they have made and what they do right.

Practise constructive criticism in a writers group.  You can join them online or face to face.  Watch notice boards in your local library or bookshop, or scan the pages of literary and writers magazines like Mslexia to find a good group.  Alternatively, form your own, and workshop your work together.  Make the rule that all comments must be caring and constructive.  Always ask the recipient how they feel about what was said at the end of their workshop session, so that they have a chance to talk about any comments they found difficult to handle – trust is crucial.  (I’ll write more soon about writers groups and how useful they can be.)

Always point out and praise what does work, and be positive.  The writer/creator has put a lot of time and effort into producing something for your consumption and enjoyment, and that in itself is a great achievement.

Don’t EVER get personal.  This is about the work, not the person.

If you react in a strongly negative way to a piece, ask yourself whether this is because the content is touching on your own issues and triggers?  If it is, DO NOT comment.  I suggest you spend some time writing your rant out in your journal, rather than firing it off to some innocent writer who doesn’t know about your ‘stuff’.

Some examples of constructive criticism:

(These are all actual examples of constructive criticism I have received on my work, and are offered as illustrationss of general points.)

“I’m not really sure I understand the character’s motivation at this point.  Maybe I need to see them in a scene that shows them being attacked about this issue so I know why they are reacting so defensively later on, or maybe point to some backstory that suggests this?”

“And then he said it.  The thing he wasn’t supposed to say.  The one thing I never expected from him.”  – (section of text from my story)  This feels like overwriting to me.  If it was the one thing he wasn’t supposed to say, surely it is unnecessary to add that it was unexpected from him.  You are repeating the sense here.  Just take the second sentence out, and its perfect as it is.”

“The word xxxxxx stands out as awkward here for me.  Would they really use that kind of language?  It sounds more like modern slang than a Victorian expression, and it kind of bumped me out of the flow of reading.  Could you substitute something similar but gentler?”

“(Example given)  This sentence is really long.  It has so many commas that I got a bit confused as to what you were trying to say.  It would make much more sense for me if you made shorter sentences, so that I don’t have to consciously keep track of where you are going.”

 A final note:

Remember, it takes a lot of guts to put your creative work out into the public arena.  For many creative people it feels like sticking one’s head into the lion’s mouth.  Respect that fear and the bravery that outweighs it.  Always respect and have empathy for the creator of the work on which you comment, and it will be hard to go wrong.  If we support one another’s work lovingly, we can all learn together.

Incidentally, I would love to know if you have more tips on how to receive or make constructive criticism – if you do, please comment/reply!

Happy creating,

EF

Outflow: What is Your Definition of Success?

I was having a conversation yesterday with my therapist about the definition of success, and Life Purpose.  If you are a bit of an addict for self-help blogs, as I am, you will be familiar of the idea of Life Purpose.  Everybody talks about it.  Why am I here?  The self help industry wants you to define your Life Purpose, because they say it will help with setting goals and achieving success – yes, there is that word again.  The thing we all want to achieve, or are told we do.

I always believed that my Life Purpose was to write and publish books.

Unfortunately that sentence has a big fat bear trap in it.

When I meet someone new at a party, and they ask me (as people invariably do when they are making small talk with strangers) “what do you do?”, I have always replied:  “I am a writer.”  Two questions then follow:

“What sort of books do you write?”

and, “Can I get your books in Waterstones?” (Insert the name of your local bookseller chain as appropriate).

When I explain that I haven’t been published by a conventional publisher yet, I can see the light die in their eyes.  The words are practically written in neon on their faces:

“Oh, well you aren’t really a writer then, are you?  You’re just one of those hobbyists who likes to talk about themselves like they are the next JK Rowling, but what you actually do is write crap that nobody wants to read!

Society’s definition of success is publication by the conventional publishing trade.  You aren’t a writer till you are in print.

The fact is, I have written seven novels.  I have published nearly thirty short stories and novellas which get an average of 100+ readers a day on the internet, an audience size which most conventionally published writers would kill for.  I have taught writing dayschools, mentored other writers and judged short story competitions.  I have written a monthly column for a paper with a circulation of 7000, and have two academic papers to my name.  And I have kept a diary for more than thirty years.  What part of this does not constitute success?

The more I have written, the more I have realised that my definition of Life Purpose is flawed.  My purpose is not to get published, because that is only half the story, and frankly, its really not the important, interesting or exciting half.  I have realised that the part of writing I really love is the writing part, the process.  I love coming up with new stories and characters.  I love visualising scenes and dialogue.  I love the rush I get when I am in full flow, in the middle of writing a scene or chapter, when I am in the action, experiencing what my characters do, feeling their feelings, seeing through their eyes.  And I love the sense of satisfaction when I come out the other end  and look at what I’ve done.

My purpose is to write.  Simply that.

Because the thing is, you are a writer if you write.

Talking about getting your novels published, dreaming of a bestseller, imagining yourself on talk shows explaining how your stories have been adapted for film or TV – none of these things are what a writer is, although it is true that they may occasionally have to do these things.  To be a writer, you have to love the process enough to do it.

The point I think I am trying to make here is this:  what is your definition of success as a writer (or in whatever art form you choose)?  Are you measuring yourself against society’s outdated or material idea of success, or do you really see what you have achieved, regardless of what other people think?

I struggle continuously with the idea that I have failed in life or as a writer because I am still at the bottom of somebody’s slush pile.  I have to fight constantly against that prejudice within myself, as well as in others.  But the truth is, I am a writer because I write.

These days, when someone asks me what I do at a party, I say:

“I write gay erotic fiction for the Internet.”

This solves both the patronising questions at once, gives me a sense of my own achievement, and also tells me a lot about the person I am talking to, through their response.  Either they blanch and change the subject, or they look fascinated or perplexed, and want to find out more.  And then we really have a conversation worth taking part in!

Happy Creating,

EF

There’s No Time to Write!

(or paint or draw or sew or dance or make movies or {insert chosen art or craft here}).

Every book or blog about writing (or any art) will tell you that you have to do it.  Practise.  You can’t be a writer unless you write.  You can’t call yourself a dancer unless you dance, or a musician unless you play.  But in our busy modern world, in the midst of a double-dip recession, who the hell can find time to pursue their arts?

My husband says this to me a lot.

“I need at least three hours,” he’ll say.  “I can’t just write in fifteen minutes a day.”

Toni Morrison wrote her novel, ‘Beloved’, by getting up early in the morning and writing for half and hour or so  at the kitchen table while her family were still asleep.  She made time to write.  JK Rowling wrote in an Edinburgh cafe while her baby was napping in the pushchair.

My husband doesn’t make time to write.  He is a talented screenplay writer.  He is also an enthusiastic potter and actor.  He doesn’t do these things.  He works instead (for which I am very grateful, incidentally.) He works pretty much all the hours God sends, so far as I can see.  I am sorry that the world is missing out on his talent.

You may be the same.  There may be no time spare to carve out in your life.  But let me offer you this story to illustrate my point, which is:

Just because you aren’t writing, it doesn’t mean you aren’t writing.

Two years ago, I went down to Hampshire to visit my mother.  My stepfather was very ill and in hospital, so ostensibly I went down for the weekend to help my mother with the stress, and the nearly two hour round trip to the hospital and back every day.

Whilst I was there, my stepfather died.

My siblings were not able to stop work to support her at this time, so I stayed with her for three weeks, helping her with the paperwork, assisting with organising the funeral, comforting her where I could.

As you can imagine, it was a very busy, stressful and distressing time, but I was extremely glad I was there to share it with her, and to be of help.

A family death is an all-consuming experience.  Grief seeps into your very bones.  You think of nothing else.  But even thought I loved my stepfather very deeply, and mourned him intensely,  I realised that I needed some respite from the pain and the busy-ness.  So in the tiny moments I had alone, in the loo or the shower, at night before sleep, I bathed in the world of my stories.  I wrote.  Maybe I didn’t actiually scribble notes down, but I told the stories I needed to tell myself to keep myself calm and sane.   During those three weeks, I organised, plotted, and even wrote parts of a major story in my mind, a story which became ‘A Case of Resurrection’, which deals with grief (unsurprisingly).  It is a work of which I am still proud, written at one of the most difficult, and probably busiest times in my life.

The purpose of this story is not to pluck your heart-strings, but to say that not only can you write when you are busy, but that when you are, writing can become a life raft, an antidote to stress, a way of expressing your feelings when there may be no other way available.  You might remark that I wasn’t actually writing, but I ask you, in response, to expand your definition.  Writing takes a great deal of planning and long hours of thought, as well as lots of typing.  You write it out on the keyboard eventually,  but first you have to think it.

By all means, put writing time into your busy schedule.  Mark it in your filofax or diary.  Make daily time for it.  No one would advocate that more than I. But consider it in a wider scope.  You can write under any circumstances if you really want and need to.

The Writer’s Notebook

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My spiral bound writers notebook – these pages show planning for a historical novel I am working on.

Every craftsman needs a workbench.  The notebook is to a writer what a workbench is to a carpenter.  Every book about how to write will tell you that.  The trouble is that there are as many ways to keep a writing notebook as there are carpenters’ workbenches.  So I thought I would say a little bit about this most basic of skills.

Your notebook travels with you continually, wherever you are.  It is the hopper into which you throw all the useful scraps you collect on your journey through life.  It is like a memory that you carry with you – one that won’t malfunction, unless you drop it in a pond or set fire to it, of course!  This is where you scribble all your ideas, the clever sentences and metaphors you dream up, the quotes that inspire you, the snippets of conversation you overhear on the bus.  In the old days, this was called a Commonplace Book, something like a scrapbook, but one in which you record more than events.  It is a little like your journal, but more functional.  I always like to think of mine as a record of the development of my mind.

Most teachers suggest you start out with one notebook.  The important thing to know is that this is a skill that evolves, ebbs and flows.  You will find a comfortable way to do it after a while, a way that fits into your lifestyle and way of working. In anycase, to start out, choose yourself a notebook that will stand heavy use, and one that you like (otherwise you won’t be drawn to write in it.)

I use an A4 hardbacked spiral bound lined notebook by Pukka Pad, which I love.  I can fold it over, stick things into it, draw diagrams, and because the cover is plain, I can decorate it however I like.

However, A4 is a BIG size, and its not something I can just stick in my pocket and carry everywhere.  As a result, I’ve evolved a second notebook.  It is a tiny Moleskine, which I carry in my handbag. It is hardback too, so it withstands a great deal of getting knocked about, and chocolate stains.  This is my scribble place, where I note things down on the move.

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My baby moleskine lives in my handbag. Snippets get stuck into these, as well as overheard conversations and quotes.

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Just to prove notebooks don’t have to be neat, or be devoted solely to your writing life – this one also has details of some tights my mum wanted me to buy her!

This is a method of recording that I have developed over time.  It may not work for you.  You may need to keep everything in one place, in a single book, or you may need several different notebooks for different purposes.  It depends on how you work, so it will be different for everyone.  There is no one right way.  But I suggest you start with a single notebook to make life easier.

Here are some things you can do with it:

  • Reflect on where you are with your writing, and what you would like to achieve
  • Scribble down a paragraph that comes to mind
  • Record useful or inspiring quotes
  • Plan your stories
  • Write your characters’ back stories
  • Draw pictures of your characters, or collect photos of actors and actresses who put you in mind of them
  • List books you might like to read
  • Do writing exercises
  • Stick in interesting newspaper stories for future inspiration
  • Stick in inspiring pictures or postcards
  • Review books you have read, movies or TV shows you have seen, art exhibitions you have visited, music gigs you have enjoyed
  • Take notes at meetings of writers groups you attend
  • Note ideas for new stories or characters
  • Mindmap plots
  • Draw diagrams
  • Describe the weather (you wouldn’t believe how useful this can be when you are trying to write action set on a sunny August day but living through a wintry November afternoon!)
  • Doodle
  • List music that inspires you. (A playlist for every novel really helps set the mood for writing)
  • Potential character names – I came across someone called Theodicy Godbolt one day when  I was researching 16th Century British History – you couldn’t make that one up!
  • Whatever else takes your fancy – it’s your notebook!

There is one absolute that every writer’s notebook should have at the back.  A list of words and their meanings that you come across.  Every writer should be expanding their vocabulary all the time.  Come across a new word?  Write it down somewhere you can refer to it, and then you will remember it!

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Sticking in pictures of actors who inspire you can be useful!

These are just a few ideas to get you started.  I’m going to talk a lot more about notebooking in future posts, not least because I am a notebooking fanatic, but you might like to grab yourself a pad and pen and start scribbling right now.  And if this doesn’t inspire you, maybe you might like to read this, or this, which is one of the best books on writing I have ever read.