writing

The over-analysed writer

I don’t mean over-analysed in the English Literature sense, where sixteen pages of hidden meaning can apparently be wrung from one paragraph of a novel. I mean, loosely, in the sense of data analysis. I read an interesting article in the Guardian this week (and believe me, I don’t say that very often these days) which looked at graphs of writing progress for one author on his way to a finished novel, courtesy of an app he’d used to log these things. Cheering to most of us, I expect, was the up and down nature of the thing, the long pauses where life intervened and writing was something that happened to other people, or the stumbling recovery made up of several days of adding a sentence, a paragraph, nowhere near target.

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My NaNoWriMo progress during November 2016

Now, if you’ve been around here a while you will have guessed that I’ve been measuring things like wordcount totals on spreadsheets for years. It was probably during one of my attempts at NaNoWriMo that I realised the motivational power of a graph with a line showing where the wordcount should be, and columns representing my actual total. Certainly it was through use of a daily wordcount tally that I realised how quickly a couple of hundred words in the library in my lunchbreak became a short story, a novella, a few chapters of a novel. There is a flip-side, of course.

I imagine that even for those writers working to a publisher’s deadline, life will intervene sometimes. A family emergency, illness, even the temptation of a sunny day after a fortnight of rain. Wordcount targets will not be met. It’s clear, therefore, that for everyone writing alongside a day job and family (I don’t just mean children, you do need to spend time with your spouse or your sister occasionally if you don’t want them to forget who you are) this will happen a lot. If you’re writing with hope but no fixed publication deadline, anything you’ve written that wasn’t there last month is a bonus. Look at that sharp red target line floating way above your little blue column, though, and it’s easy to get discouraged. What was I thinking? I can’t write a novel, it’ll take years. I’ve missed my target twelve days in a row. It may be your targets are over-ambitious, but that’s another matter.

In the semi-rural fantasy novel I’m writing at the moment (I don’t think that’s a real genre, I started calling it that as a nod to urban fantasy but a lot of it is set in northern villages and moors) I’ve had days when I’ve written nearly 3,000 words and wondered how I managed it, I’ve had whole weeks where I’ve written nothing. I will have written something else because I don’t have a regular day-job now, but not the novel. I’m a great fan of conditional formatting, so on a day when I’ve written at least 500 words of the novel the cell goes green when I type my wordcount in and I smile a contented smile. Simple pleasures. Crucially, I don’t have any targets. I don’t count non-green-cell days as failures. I try not to have too many consecutive blank days, but how many is too many?

Try an app, try a spreadsheet, try writing your target and actual wordcounts on the calendar in the kitchen for a month. One or more of these may give you a boost and keep you going. But if you find yourself being frozen by fear of failure, or beating yourself up over missed targets, ditch them and focus on the writing.

Week 20: In armchair if wet

The wind and rain of the last few days have been best enjoyed from a snug reading corner. It seems somehow appropriate that I’m reading a book about climate change and major sea-level rise, New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson. I’ll be reviewing it for the Bookbag once I’m done (it is long! Brilliant so far, but long) but in the meantime I recommend this interview with the author in Scientific American.

This week has also been a time of radio preparation, fine-tuning the timings and rehearsing the readings and all that. I’m on Chapel FM at 6.15pm (BST) on Saturday 1st April, with Andrea and Roz from Ilkley Writers. There is so much good stuff going on for the whole weekend though, and if you miss it live it’ll be up for listen again. I’ll just leave this here: Writing on Air schedule pdf

The Uses of Literacy, by Richard Hoggart

60 years this month since The Uses of Literacy came out. Time to re-post this.

The tip-tap of monkey keyboards

In the early 1950s, 30-year-old university lecturer Richard Hoggart (father of Simon, brilliant political sketch-writer from The Guardian) started writing a book rooted in his ‘northern urban working-class’ childhood (in Leeds), that he thought about calling The Abuses of Literacy. He changed it to The Uses of Literacy so as to sound less confrontational, and had to change parts of the contents so as to avoid possible libel charges. However, the result was published in 1957 and 54 years later I read it, appreciated it, and marvelled at how much is still relevant.

I was wary of mentioning it on my blog because part of me doesn’t want anyone to read it – then I figured I don’t have much influence and few people would find it an interesting topic for their leisure hours so I needn’t worry about a stampede. The reason for my mixed feelings is that…

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Week 19: Women and words

This was the week of International Women’s Day so unsurprisingly most of my writing activity has been focused around that. Bradford Libraries had asked for poems on the theme of being bold, and though I don’t often write poetry these days I was inspired (not least by the idea of having a poem on display in Bradford library) and you can read the resulting poem on Bradford Libraries Facebook page.

I had an invite to Edinburgh for International Women’s Day, to celebrate a year of the Dangerous Women Project, which if you recall I had an essay in last August. Sadly I couldn’t go, but that’s because I was in a pub in York with my storytelling-partner Alice Courvoisier and friends, regaling a packed room with tales true and mythical about women through the ages. You can read about what a fabulous time we all had, in a post I put up a few days ago. In the meantime, amuse yourself with this photo from the event:

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As if all that wasn’t enough, it’s the final pre-festival meeting at Chapel FM tonight, for last-minute preparations for the Writing on Air Festival which Andrea, Roz and I will be doing in a couple of weeks. Among the music I’ve chosen this year is The Electric Prunes – I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night). You can read the schedule for what looks like a well-stocked festival here: Writing on Air schedule pdf

York. Women. Stories. Songs.

What a brilliant night we all had at the Black Swan in York yesterday. In a wood-panelled room with a massive fireplace and uneven floor I joined Alice Courvoisier, Cath Heinemeyer and friends to tell stories new and old, interspersed with a capella songs from the Barbarellas. It was properly packed, barely a spare seat, so I’d like to thank all those brave strangers who laid out their four quid with no real idea what they’d be getting. I hope we gave you an entertaining couple of hours (with a bit of sneaky education in the middle).

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Could I look more pompous?

OneMonkey, official documenter of these things, took a few photos but it was dimly lit and the lampshades made the light a weird orange-pink so they work better in black and white – I could just have said he was being artistic, I guess. One thing the dim lighting taught me is that I need to print my stories in a bigger font. Nobody needed that bit at the beginning where I shuffled around under the light fitting till I could see my page properly, apologising for being middle-aged.

Alice of course circumvents these problems by memorising her myths and folktales (likewise Cath) so she can pace and pause and gesture, and generally create a suitable atmosphere.

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Alice kicking the whole thing off with a myth

We had folk songs, pop songs, tales from Russia, Japan, Egypt and West Yorkshire, and I even slipped in a bit of non-fiction, with a slightly (only slightly) more audience-friendly version of my Dangerous Women essay.

The black and white photos don’t allow you to appreciate the book of stories I resurrected from a couple of years ago (new stories, blu-tacked over the old ones which I’d glued to the boards. Little glimpse behind the curtain for you there), so I’ll leave you with a picture of that and the marvellous flyers Alice had printed, artwork courtesy of Jess Wallace.

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Week 18: in which I’m not allowed to get big-headed

Where to start this week? I’ve got Twitter fiction in Mslexia, I’ve had a bestselling author send my blog traffic through the roof, and my mum told me off for not making the link to my guest post on the Women Writers School obvious enough.

We’ll start there first in case you, like my mum, were desperate to read that guest post and just couldn’t get to it. It’s called Northerners! Know Your Place, and is at http://womenwritersschool.com/northerners-know-your-place/ (and like most of my other stuff, is accessible via my About page). As you may expect, it’s an article about why I set so much of my writing in the north of England. I may come across as slightly deranged and/or obsessive, but it doesn’t seem to have done me too much harm so far. Honestly, it hasn’t. Ahem.

Many of Kit de Waal‘s Twitter followers visited over the weekend to read a blog post I wrote a few months ago, about class/wealth being a barrier to writing (beyond the hobby level), so if you haven’t already read that you might find it interesting, and if you have already read it you might have missed the follow-up post I wrote this week.

Staying with Twitter, after winning a Twitter fiction competition recently I’ve now got another mini-story in Mslexia magazine, which is quite exciting (and a bit of a surprise – I’d tweeted it to them as part of a challenge, but I don’t actually subscribe so the first I heard was when a friend had spotted it in print). Here’s the story – writers, don’t take it too much to heart:

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When winning might cost more than losing

I wrote a post a few months ago about cost being a barrier to pursuing writing beyond a hobby, and since Kit de Waal* tweeted a link to it (let’s just pause for a moment together to let that sink in) there’s been a surge of interest in it this weekend. It seemed like a superb moment to talk about two writing competitions I nearly didn’t enter this week because of the cost of the prize.

Train waiting to take us back to Ravenglass

Any excuse for a photo of a steam train and/or Cumbria

When I say the cost of the prize, I really mean the cost of train travel and accommodation. I’m not naming names because I don’t want to make them feel bad, it is after all my decision to enter and for everyone who lives closer to the area in question it isn’t a problem. However, both the competitions had definite kudos value, it would be quite a thing even to be longlisted, but both had some or all of the main prizes involving going somewhere to do a thing (course fees paid, or free festival tickets).

One was free to enter but shortlisted entrants are expected to ‘make every effort to attend’ the award ceremony, and while the first prize includes cash, second and third are writing courses/retreats which it would cost nearly as much to travel to as to pay for a similar course nearer to home. You will note that I haven’t just gone on a similar course nearer to home, because they cost a lot of money.

The other cost £2 to enter, not a high enough fee to discourage me in itself, but none of the prizes involve cash, first and second prizes are tickets to a festival which it would be great to go to, but train fare would cost a packet and then there’s the B&B as well. You do get plenty of warning though so at least you get a chance to book the cheapest train tickets. Shortlisted authors for this one are invited to a do, but it doesn’t sound like there’s any pressure to attend.

I ended up entering both, hoping for a place on the longlist (to point to with pride) but equally hoping that I didn’t win (or not the non-cash prizes, anyway), which seems ridiculous. It’s worth pointing out that I’m voluntarily in this position (having quit my job at the end of October after squirrelling away enough money in the preceding months to let us manage for a while on that and OneMonkey’s income) and not remotely what I’d call poor, but if I’m thinking twice about entering, how many talented writers are being put off altogether because they can’t afford to be shortlisted?

*Kit de Waal has spent time and money raising awareness and helping writers from disadvantaged backgrounds get a leg up. I had heard about the Birkbeck scholarship, but hadn’t read until yesterday this New Statesman article from last April. She also wrote for the Bridport Prize blog this week about the importance of entering writing competitions, acknowledging that it can get pretty expensive.