2020 writing goals

Why is it that, ever year, I find it embarrassing to admit that I’ve made new year resolutions? Is yearly optimism really so deeply uncool?

Maybe it’s because I worry there’s something naïve about them: thinking the transition of one year to the next is the dawn of a new era in my life, thinking I will stick to them, thinking other people care enough to hear about them. Is anybody really interested to hear about anyone else’s Dry January?

For the past couple of years, though, the turn of the year has represented a new period in my life. Last year, I was about to start a new job in Cambridge. This year, as you saw in my last post, more change is coming. This means that I have actually found it useful to make resolutions, but this year, I’ve decided to do something different, especially with regards to my writing: make goals, not resolutions.

By goals, I mean specific, concrete things that can be checked off a list when they’re completed, with a proper system to track my progress. A resolution like ‘be more dedicated to my writing’ is impossible to quantify, whereas ‘finish the second draft of my novel by this date’ gives me something to work towards, and a sense of satisfaction when I finally check it off (by 31st December, at the rate I’m currently working…).

Here’s an example. I’ve never won a writing competition, which in my moments of low self-esteem makes me worry I’m not a very good writer. But I’ve hardly entered any competitions, so is it reasonable to sulk about not winning the ones I have sporadically entered? I’ve heard from writer friends that, while talent is obviously required, placing in competitions is also a numbers game. Rather than assume I’m a terrible writer and give up, surely the thing to do is enter more competitions?

So that’s one of my goals: enter 5-10 writing competitions. Note that I gave myself a specific number range, not just ‘enter more competitions.’ Note also that the goal isn’t to win any competitions, simply to enter. Entering is something I can control; winning is not (I can write the best piece I possibly can, but ultimately the decision belongs to the judges). So as long as I enter, I can still feel a sense of achievement whether I win or not.

I also intend to work towards each of my goals in small steps. For the writing competitions, I started not by opening a blank document and commanding myself to write a brilliant short story, but by making a spreadsheet of all the writing competitions open in 2020, when the deadlines are, entry fees, etc. I then highlighted a few I’d like to enter and identified things I’ve already written that could be reworked for the competitions. This made the goal seem far less daunting, and I’ve already entered 3 competitions – well on my way to the minimum of 5 already!

Each time I enter a competition, I add it to my ‘2020 goals’ tracker (yes, I did cringe while typing that), so I can look back throughout the year and see how much progress I’ve made. I may not fully achieve all my goals, but at least I can see the steps I made towards them. Having a system like this may be embarrassingly earnest, but it helps me feel in control and gives me small wins to celebrate, which increases my self-esteem – so does it matter if it’s a bit naff?

I’ve only talked about my writing here, but I have other types of goals (all of them do to with learning, joining or creating new things, none to do with restricting things or punishing myself). For example, I’d like to learn Arabic, which is a big task. I started simply by buying a book, which I wrote down as my first step towards the goal. Every time I learn how to write or pronounce a new letter of the alphabet, I congratulate myself on another tiny step. It’ll be years before I can call myself fluent, but if I stay focused and keep chipping away, I’ll get there eventually.

If you’ve got goals for the new year (or any time of year), I hope you might find my system useful, and that you find your own version that works for you. Good luck!

 

 

Hello again, and goodbye 2019

Hello, strangers.

I’ve not posted in a while. In fact, I was considering stopping this blog entirely and focusing on my novel instead. But since people tell me they like my blog, and it would be a shame to stop after almost a decade, I’ve decided instead to give the blog a fresh look for 2020 and try to write shorter, more manageable posts.

The reason for the unplanned hiatus is that I’ve found the past year difficult. Getting married, uprooting my life to a new city and starting a new job all at once was overwhelming, to say the least. On top of that, I was trying to meet a self-imposed novel deadline, keep my hobbies at the same level they were during my career break, maintain the social life I had in London (which meant getting on the train from Cambridge to London several times a week), and have a full time job. I wanted to be everything to everyone. The result of this was, unsurprisingly, total burnout. So I stripped everything back.

The good news is, 2020 will see me going back to part-time work for a couple of months, and then in March, the end of my work contract and the start of a new, unknown adventure. We’ll be travelling to Scotland for two weeks for a writing retreat, then Japan for a whole month, and then the plan is to move to another new city! After that, who knows what will happen?

I’m excited for all the changes coming up in the new decade. Having secured a job in a new industry after 9 months of travelling and writing, I’m confident I can fall on my feet again, so I’m not too worried about my future employment. In fact, it’s exhilarating not knowing what I’ll do next. Will I go freelance again? Will I work for another university, or in something publishing-related? Or will it be something so different that I can’t even imagine it right now?

Perhaps it’s that excitement, and sense of the unknown, that’s inspired me to update my blog and get back into my writing. And with that, in the spirit of writing shorter blog posts, I’ll sign off for 2019. Happy new year!

 

Writing: intrinsic or extrinsic?

I’m reading Johann Hari’s Lost Connections, which is about looking for the causes of depression in our lives. One of those causes is ‘disconnection from meaningful values’. There are two reasons we’re motivated to get out of bed, intrinsic motives and extrinsic motives. Intrinsic motives are things we do because they bring us joy, while extrinsic motives are things we do because we get something in return, like money or status. Pursuing intrinsic motives is what makes us truly happy, but our economic system is designed to make us believe it’s the extrinsic motives we should be pursuing. This is fairly obvious – we’ve all heard that money can’t buy you happiness – but it did get me thinking about the motives behind my writing. Is writing an intrinsic or extrinsic motive, and is it making me happy?

I’ll be honest: sometimes I’m not even sure I like writing. I hear authors say, “This book was a joy to write!” or, “This book just poured out of me!” and I think, really? I often have to force myself sit down at my laptop. I will then circle around the act of writing to avoid actually starting: reading over previous writing, reading a book to ‘inspire me’, faffing around with fonts. When I finally start, it can be painful. It takes me several hours to warm up, by which time I usually have to stop. I finish my session feeling unsatisfied and frustrated. Other times, sadly less often, it just clicks. I enter that flow state where I’m not thinking about whether I enjoy writing or not because I’m so absorbed in doing it. Do these rare times mean writing is an intrinsic motive? I’m not sure.

What if writing is an extrinsic motive which I pursue because I want something in return? It’s true that I want to get an agent and get published and be successful and critically respected. I want to be able to make money from writing, to sit down at my desk and say, “This is work.” I have these things in mind while writing. But I also know they won’t make me happy, because I see writers complaining of books not selling, of not earning enough to live, of getting bad reviews (or worse not getting any reviews), of missing out on prizes. I hear of hugely successful writers getting upset because they haven’t been nominated for the Booker. It seems ridiculous, but who’s to say I wouldn’t be the same if I became that successful? In that case, why do I even write if it’s the beginning of a slippery slope towards disillusionment?

Perhaps it’s because even though I always have getting published on my mind, this isn’t the only reason I write. Those things are so difficult to achieve I know it would be folly to pin my happiness on them. When I started to write at seven or eight years old, writing was purely an intrinsic motive: I didn’t know what agents were and publication wasn’t a concept to me. I remember sitting in my wardrobe, surrounded by glow-in-the-dark stick-on stars, scribbling stories into a notebook balanced on my knees. I remember loading up our clunky 1990s computer and taking turns with my mum writing the next paragraph of a story about my plastic animal toys. There was no internet to distract me or provide comparisons. I didn’t care if nobody read the stories. I printed them out, drew colourful front covers, placed them lovingly in a shoebox and occasionally took them out to read. I was proud of myself. That was it. Writing was fun, exhilarating, creative, joyful, aimless.

I wish desperately that writing could be that again, because sometimes I feel entering that pure state would make my writing better – more creative, more fun to read, less try-hard. Of course, it’s impossible to go back there, and naive to think writing like nobody will read it produces better writing. I’m sure knowledge of the market and of the rules of the craft has improved my writing – but it’s also made it less fun, more extrinsic. Which is a real shame, because I find writing most enjoyable to read when the author’s obviously had fun writing it.

So, how can I bring the joy back into my writing? I don’t have an easy answer. Perhaps there are ways to make writing more fun while also working towards a goal: practising short, playful writing exercises in-between writing my serious novel; spending less time on Twitter comparing myself to other writers and feeling sad because I’m not as successful or because they got a bad review and one day I might too; writing by hand to evoke the carefree, joyful writing I did as a child. At the same time, accepting that writing isn’t always going to be fun but it’s something I’m always going to do. It gives me a sense of purpose and I can’t not write. Perhaps it’s as simple as that.

Evolving my voice

The phrase ‘finding your voice’ is often bandied around  in the writing world, but what does it mean? It’s not like you find your voice down the back of the sofa and, hurrah, you’ve reached maturity as a writer now. A writer’s voice is constantly evolving with every new thing they write. I’ve been thinking about this in relation to my current novel. 

A problem with my previous novels has been that the protagonist’s voice is my voice. Regardless of the differences between my protagonists, they all sound a lot like me. They think, opine, and make wisecracks just like me. You can’t avoid putting a bit of yourself into your characters, but I’ve been taking ‘write what you know’ too far. I’ve been using writing as therapy, working out who I am by taking characters who are essentially me and throwing them into weird situations: an interesting experience for me, but not necessarily interesting for other people to read. 

This time, I’m consciously creating a protagonist whose voice is different to mine. The humour and irony I can’t escape from are still there, but I’m creating more distance between myself and my protagonist. This means I can be more objective when writing his point of view and, I hope, create a more compelling character. 

Here’s a few ways my protagonist is definitely not me:

He’s a man.

I had conflicting thought processes about writing from a man’s perspective. At first I worried about how I was going to ‘get inside a man’s head’, but then I wondered, why should I? Every person thinks differently from every other person, but it would be absurd if a writer hesitated about using a character’s point of view on the grounds of not actually being that person. Next, I thought: I suppose men and women have been socially conditioned to think differently, and these differences need to be represented to highlight the inequality. For example, women are taught to believe being outspoken at work makes them ‘bossy’ and ‘difficult’, whereas it makes men ‘assertive’ and ‘good leaders’ (my novel is set in an office, so this one’s especially relevant). 

I’m actively engaging with these ideas in my novel. I don’t put my male protagonist in situations and ask, “What would a man do in this situation?” Instead I ask, “What would a person who has been conditioned to think a certain way do in this situation?” Then, I play him off against female characters who don’t meet his expectations of being weak and easy to charm or manipulate. He’s unable to ‘get inside their heads’. He gets rejected, mocked and slapped in the face. But is it that he doesn’t understand women, or that he just doesn’t understand human beings? 

He’s not a very nice person.

The protagonists of my previous novels are all essentially nice people. Sometimes they’re uncomplicated heroes whose only motivation is to save the day (yawn). The protagonist of my previous novel accidentally causes great harm, leading her to question whether she’s good or evil, but the dilemma doesn’t really work because through her overt self-awareness I signal to the reader that she’s an ethically-minded person who they are supposed to side with. None of that rubbish anymore!

This protagonist is arrogant, rude, entitled, manipulative, amoral, petty, and ruthlessly ambitious in areas of life where it doesn’t really matter. In the same breath, he is fragile and insecure, paranoid, obsessive, threatened by everyone, afraid of everything, desperate to be loved by people he hates and convinced he is a miserable failure. I wanted to create a character who admires himself as much as he despises himself. Does the contradiction work? Will readers feel sorry for him, or is he too awful? Will they be able to spend spend 80,000 words in his company?

Let me finish the novel first, then we’ll see.

He’s not all that self-aware.

One critique I often receive is that my characters are too self-aware. They interrupt the story to analyse their own motivations (and are always spot-on). They realise they’re making bad decisions. They reflect on the meaning of their bad decisions. They call out their own flaws (I worry the reader will think I’m endorsing those flaws unless I call them out). My characters know they are characters in a novel and are stage-managing their appearances. This is boring for the reader, who is robbed of doing the analysis and forming opinions themselves.

High self-awareness is a character trait, but even self-aware people have blind spots. In a novel, tension and dramatic irony emerge in the gap between the character’s view of themselves and the reader’s view. My protagonist thinks he knows exactly what he is, reeling off lists of his fears and failures, telling us all the nasty things he’s done. He sees himself as a tragic villain who should be pitied because of the mental prison he’s created for himself. The poor man simply can’t help doing nasty things. The reader, on the other hand, might wonder if he’s just another bored rich white man trying to convince us that it is, in fact, he who is the true outsider (I was inspired here by the hilariously brutal critiques of Bret Eason Ellis’s recently published rant, White).

I don’t know whether any of this will be successful, but it’s an experiment which I’m enjoying. I hope that means the reader will enjoy it too.

Some thoughts on finishing (yet another!) novel

A couple of months ago I finished the first draft of my novel.

35 chapters, 70,000 words.

As my long-time readers will know, this isn’t the first novel I’ve written. In fact, if I count all of my cringe-inducing juvenilia, I’ve written seven. I’ve started and never finished nine others, ranging from a romantic comedy about a 17th-century Royalist poet coming back to life in modern-day Coventry to a religious allegory about a girl who hallucinates living in a magical tree-world (good job I abandoned those).

I’m in two minds about finishing novel number seven. Firstly, I’ve written seven novels and not gotten any of them published. I was on the brink of giving up after novel number six. I’ve read interviews with authors who say, “Writing isn’t easy, kids! Did you know that NUMBER ONE BESTSELLER wasn’t my first novel? No, I wrote THREE others before I secured my agent!” Three?! Not as inspiring as they surely intended. On the other hand, I know of authors who wrote 15 novels before getting their big break.

But secondly, I’ve written seven novels. Seven. How many people can say they’ve written even one? That in itself is something to be celebrated. I’m pretty sure each novel is slightly better than the last, so if I just keep going… Since I’m trying to be kinder to myself, I’m leaning towards this way of thinking.

So, hooray for me!

Finishing this novel did feel different. Since I gave up my job to focus entirely on writing it, I thought finishing would involve more fireworks, trumpet fanfares and angelic beams of light falling from the sky. As it turned out, finishing was far more anticlimactic than it was with my previous novels. I wrote the last sentence, and then THE END, and then I closed my laptop, made a cup of tea and had a nap.

It’s not because seven novels means I’m now bored and desensitised and just groaned, “Oh well, I guess that’s finally done,” as if I’d finished one of those bucket-sized coffees from Starbucks. There’s always that feeling when you write the last few words as if you’ve been through several rounds in a boxing ring with your angry protagonist or been spun around in a human centrifuge. But I’ve found that the more writing experience I have, the less overwhelming this feeling becomes.

It’s not that writing a novel gets easier. If anything, the more novels I read and the more I learn about the craft of writing, the more painfully aware I become of my inadequacies. No, that anticlimactic feeling came from something else I’ve learned about a first draft: it’s really draft zero. It is nowhere near finished. I used to think my first draft only needed a few tweaks; I did four drafts of my previous novel, and thought that was rigorous. Ha! Now I know a rewrite could mean deleting two-thirds of the novel or culling a main character. So the 70,000 words I have now, although they’re an achievement, are just the beginning. I have to drag myself back into the ring and prepare myself for some broken bones (or at least, really sore wrists and an achey lower back). But I’m determined to keep fighting until this novel is as close to perfection as possible.

I don’t know when I’ll be ready to tackle those edits. Last time I was only able to restrain myself for three weeks before diving back in, which was a mistake; this time I might leave it six months. I have a wedding to plan and a new city to move to, so my draft can linger in its drawer for a while. Real life has enough twists and turns to keep me occupied!

Writing in the shadow

A question that’s been preoccupying me recently, as I spend more time reading than writing my own stuff, is this: how does anybody manage to write a word after reading their favourite novels?

One of my favourite novels, for example, is Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. I sometimes tell people it’s my favourite novel (I don’t really have an answer to that question, but it’s something to say that most people have heard of), but really, I love Heller’s lesser-known novel Something Happened even more (I wrote a review of it here). It’s a difficult novel to love, described by Kurt Vonnegut as “one of the unhappiest books ever written”, and yet – drawn as I am to unhappiness and things/people that are hard work (ahem… joking) – love it I do.

I recently re-read Something Happened as research. Like Bob Slocum, the narrator of Heller’s novel, my narrator, Jason, is a fragile and toxic man crippled by self-loathing and assailed by irrational fears and a general sense of doom – that something bad is going to happen to him, and that he deserves it. Having re-read Heller’s novel, though, I felt deflated about my own idea, which seemed like an obvious, derivative, poorly-written pool of word vomit in comparison. I hadn’t only stolen Heller’s themes, but clumsily aped his writing style (he puts lots of asides in parentheses (and sometimes parentheses inside parentheses as well (see what I did there?))). Why do I bother, I wondered? What am I saying or doing in my writing that’s new, different?

Recently at a party I told someone my novel is “a more British American Psycho with less violence and misogyny and definitely no rats” (this is a shining example of the calibre of my small talk). I didn’t even like American Psycho much (due to aforementioned violence, misogyny and rats). There are parts of it I think are genius – I’ve tried to recreate the business card scene with Instagram profiles in my novel – but mostly, I’ve reacted against it. When Jason tries to go all Patrick Bateman on women, they defy his expectations and show him up for the sad little man he’s trying to be (he does have some redeeming features, honestly). Still, when I compare my novel to its anti-inspiration, I get that sinking feeling. What if people think my novel’s a watered down version of American Psycho because I’m afraid to be shocking?

Reading great novels confuses me, because they make me feel I may as well give up, but they also make me desperate to write. I know I’ll never be as good or bold or shocking as the author I’ve just read, but I can’t help but try anyway. The one way I can guarantee never being as good is by giving up, right? There’s a quiet voice in my head that says, “They’re only a human being and they wrote this. You’re also a human being…” And who knows, maybe Heller had the same voice in his head when he read Nabokov. Maybe Nabokov felt like crap and wanted to fling his manuscript in the fire when he read Tolstoy. And so on and so on.

There’s another positive way to look at it. With every novel I read, and with every element of another writer’s style I absorb, my writing becomes more complex. Recently I read two Julian Barnes novels in a row and for a few weeks everything I wrote sounded like a posh old man sadly reflecting on his past regrets. But then I read some other novels, and the voices of those authors were added to the mix. As a result, my novel-in-progress is an ugly, messy, unfocused, Frankenstein’s monster-type creature – but nobody else could write it. And perhaps the voice of Emma Goode, and the voice of every writer, is just that – the voices of a thousand other writers so intermingled they create something new and beautiful, colours coming together to form white light.

So I try not to feel too hopeless. If I keep reading and keep writing, and writing and writing, pushing through the feelings of inadequacy that ambush me every time I pick up a brilliant book, weaving in the elements I love, whittling away those I don’t, my writing will become more honed, confident and self-assured. Who knows, maybe one day somebody might even read one of my novels and love it so much they hurl their laptop out of the window in despair. I can only hope.

Highs and lows

It’s been three months since I began my break, and some people have been asking me how I’m finding it. Great, I tell them. Fantastic. The best time of my life. And that’s partly true, but it’s not the full truth, so I thought I’d write a very honest appraisal of the highs and lows of my time out so far.

Yes, there are lows. Some people imagine I’m rolling out of bed at 10am every day, padding around in a silk dressing gown, sitting in the summer house by the lake with my typewriter, languidly producing a word-perfect chapter before hopping on a plane to Thailand. But although I do wear my dressing gown a lot, and do have a shed and a pond that could pass for a summer house and lake if you squint, this isn’t the case. Even if it was, anxiety brain wouldn’t let me enjoy it. (“Can you really afford that silk dressing gown?” it would whisper. “That’s a bit extravagant. You’re quite spoiled, aren’t you? Who are you going to Thailand with, anyway? All your friends are working like proper human beings. Oh yes, and enjoy reading that ‘word perfect’ chapter back tomorrow. Heh!”)

There are some days where I stare at a blank word document, then stare at my bank account, then have a mini panic attack, then have a nap, then feel ashamed of myself for wasting time. But there are also days when I write thousands of words and go to the gym and bake a cake and basically feel like a superhero. I’ve learnt to ride these waves of success and failure, confidence and self-doubt, accepting that nobody goes through life without the occasional embarrassing belly-flop.

High: So this is what not being tired feels like…

I just finished Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep, which really opened my eyes to how important sleep is. I realised how unhealthy my former routine of waking up at 6am to write before work was. Sleep-deprivation stifles creativity, and when I was stressed and busy I was a terrible insomniac. Now I’m getting more sleep, I’ve learnt what it feels like to not be tired, and boy is it a weird feeling. Initially it’s like being on some kind of stimulant. Everything is so clear and sharp! Your brain is working at 200%! But then it dawns on you that this is what normal is supposed to be. I still have the occasional sleepless night worrying about wedding admin or the latest episode of Love Island (not ashamed), but now it’s not every night, my head is so much clearer when I sit down to write.

Low: I can’t treat writing like a 9 to 5 job.

Occasionally I read an interview with a writer who churns out seven novels per year who will say sternly, “I wake up at five AM EVERY DAY. Then I write for SEVEN HOURS. Then I have lunch. Then I run a marathon. Then I write for SIX MORE HOURS. Then I sleep. EVERY DAY. If I break this routine I give myself twenty lashes. You won’t make it unless you’re COMMITTED to your craft!”

When I was on my writing retreat in Scotland I wrote like that, but that was a special, magical world. Back at home I simply can’t focus on my novel for more than a couple of hours at a time. There is washing to do, and food to make, and a cat demanding attention. Sometimes I get angry at myself because I’m not writing as much as I could if I chained myself to my desk – 3,000 words a day would wrap my first draft up in a month – but then I remind myself that the purpose of this break isn’t to be a slave to writing. The purpose is to relax, have fun and learn to love writing again.

High: The steady onward march of the word count.

Despite the above, I’ve almost written 50,000 words of my novel. Sometimes I’m only able to write a couple of hundred words; on better days, the most words I can write before my brain evaporates is about 2,000. This has always been the case, but now I’m able to write almost every single day and the word count is creeping slowly and steadily up. It’s likely those 50,000 words mostly suck, since I’m refusing to read back anything I’ve written until I write the final sentence, but those sucky words are Second Draft Emma’s problem. Sorry, Second Draft Emma. You probably don’t even have sunshine and Love Island to console you.

Low: Please be my friend. Anyone.

This sleepy Surrey village ain’t London. If I want to go for a drink with someone, we have to argue over who will drive, or beg my parents to drop me off like I’m fifteen, or take a bus. (The other day I got on a local bus, tried to tap in with my Oyster card and said loudly, “Oh, sorry, this isn’t London!” Nobody on that bus hated me more than I hated myself.) In London I’d see friends every day; now I can go a full week without speaking to anyone except my parents, my cat (who doesn’t have much chat), and the receptionist in the gym, who I’ll probably end up begging to be my best friend and give me lifts to the pub. The upside is more time to write; the downside is that I’m not sure slowly losing it to the point where I shout at flies is good for my writing…

High: A time to think, a time to read.

When it comes to writing I’m a ‘throw myself headfirst in’ person. One thing I’ve been learning from my writer friends is that thinking time – gazing out of the window whilst contemplating difficult characters, thorny plot issues or how to create conflict – is equally as important as words on the page. For me thinking time isn’t just literal time, but also mental space; I couldn’t focus on my novel when my mind was caught up with an unhappy author at work or a lightbulb that needed fixing in my flat. Reading time is important too. Since I no longer have to perform the balancing act of not falling into a stranger’s lap while holding a book on the tube, or fight against someone’s sweaty back to hold my book more than a centimetre from my face, I’m reading much more and finding inspiration for my writing.

Low: WHAT HAVE I DONE???

I’ve always insisted that it doesn’t matter if this novel doesn’t work out, because I’m doing this for myself. I stand by that, but it doesn’t mean I don’t have doubts. What if my idea just isn’t very good? What if I’m wasting this once in a lifetime opportunity? Should I be writing something different, something better? I say I’m not expecting to get published, but how will I feel if I don’t? Are people expecting great things of me because I gave up my job? What do I tell people when they ask what I do? Why do I mumble about being a freelancer or joke about watching Bargain Hunt instead of saying I’m a writer? I’ve learnt to place these self-doubting questions in the back of my mind, where they buzz pointlessly like wasps trapped inside jars, faintly audible but unable to harm me.

Retreating

Late year I was daydreaming at work. The idea had entered my mind that I might leave my job, but I wasn’t decided. I thought that if I did quit, I’d love to go on a writing retreat. On a whim I googled writing retreats Scotland and came across Moniack Mhor, a writing centre in the Scottish Highlands. There were ‘limited places available’ on the May retreat. I booked there and then.

Usually I’d book off holiday from work at the same time, but this time I didn’t. In my head, this was the first stepping stone to making my idea of quitting a reality. I can be stubborn and irrational: now I had something booked, I had to see the idea through.

About six months later I was on my way to Scotland, officially unemployed, remembering that moment at my desk. I’d actually done the thing! I left behind an oppressively hot and grimy London with a pounding headache, but when I stepped off the plane at Inverness the air was damp and bright and refreshing. It felt symbolic of my new beginning in life.

I lingered outside Inverness rail station, waiting for the shared taxi that would take me to Moniack. I shyly observed every artsy-looking person around me: could it be them? I was unsure of the kind of people who went on these retreats. Would they be mega-serious professional writers who would make me feel like a child splashing about in a paddling pool in comparison? Would they be achingly cool, or exhaustingly eccentric? The taxi driver appeared and led me over to a group of people who looked… normal. People like me. I immediately felt comfortable in the presence of other writers.

We arrived at Moniack and were shown to our rooms, which were simple, cosy and most importantly, lacking in distractions. Mine had a beautiful view of the surrounding landscape, where horses and cows outnumbered houses fifty to one. I lay on my bed for a while, my senses amplified: I could hear floorboards creaking, wind gently rattling the window, Highland cows lowing. It was the most peaceful I’d felt in a while, as if somebody were sweeping out the cluttered contents of my head and filling it with air and light.

In the dining room there was there was wine, tagine and chocolate brownies, and good conversation. We were a mix of novelists, poets, short story writers and playwrights, all there for different reasons – editing, finishing first drafts or starting something new – but we were united by our love of writing, which was so strong we wanted to do nothing else for a week. When I said I’d recently quit my job to write, there were no baffled looks; on the contrary, everybody applauded. I knew I was in the right place.

On the first day the light woke me up at 6.45am, and weirdly I didn’t want to collapse back into my pillow and sleep for another hour. Not being tired was strange: I was light-headed, dizzy. I went out to the straw bale studio in the garden for some morning yoga. Yoga takes on a new dimension when you do it in front of a panoramic view of the Highlands amid silence sprinkled with birdsong. In Surrey I’ve adapted to the constant roar of the nearby motorway, and so true silence was unnerving; the only roar I could hear was the wind through the trees. By the time I was lying on my back watching gauzy clouds drift past the porthole in the ceiling, I was used to it. I could have laid there all day – but there was writing to be done.

And done it was. From 8.30 to 5.30 every day I wrote almost constantly, pausing only to read, eat or walk, and after four days I had over 12,000 words. I’ll admit I was a little dubious about retreats before I came: why not just hire out a cottage for a weekend and make your own? Actually, Omar and I did this once, and we did do some writing, but we also spent a lot of time watching films. There’s something different about a formal retreat – something in the combination of the scenery, the lack of distractions, and the inspiration provided by fellow writers – which creates the perfect space for productivity.

I’d begun the week worried about what the other writers would be like; I ended it convinced that my fellow writers were the best thing about the retreat. My group were the perfect balance of hardworking and sociable. Whenever I was lagging, someone would motivate me. On the last night we ate haggis and drank whiskey, listened to bagpipes, and even contemplated an impromptu ceilidh (although after the whiskey, it’s probably good that didn’t happen), which was great fun. It was wonderful to meet writers working on such different projects, and to grow my writing circle a little larger.

I’m so pleased I made that spur-of-the-moment decision to book onto a retreat, not only because it inspired me to make an important life change, but because it was invigorating, relaxing and extremely productive. It also gave me confidence: I now know the novel idea I spent months brewing in my head while wrapping things up at work might just have some mileage.

In the month since the retreat, I haven’t quite managed to replicate my 3,000 words a day, unfortunately. I know that’s only natural, but still, I’m wondering… when can I go on my next retreat?

A new beginning

Last Friday, I walked out of the office for the last time; walking away from a job my twenty-one-year-old self would have considered her dream (had she been able to see into the future, she would have rugby tackled me to the ground screaming). It felt strange, as if I were simply going on a longer than usual holiday, and I half-expected someone to email me on Monday morning asking me to filter a spreadsheet by my name and fill in column D. At no point, however – not even now, when I’ve spent the day reorganising the food storage container drawer – have I been in any doubt that leaving was the right thing to do.

It’s not that I hated my job; not at all. But it took me a while to realise that hating your job or getting a better one aren’t the only two reasons you’re allowed to leave.

Last year, as was well-documented by this blog, I wrote a novel after completing Faber Academy’s Writing a Novel course. The course was a turning point for me, as it made me think about myself as a ‘proper’ writer for the first time, but afterwards I became obsessed with finishing my novel as quickly as possible. I saw it as my get-out clause from the mundanity of a nine-to-five office job, and gave it my all: waking up at 6am to write before work, staying up late, turning down social invites. After three drafts, I was so utterly exhausted that I decided my novel was as good as it was ever going to be, and sent it off to agents. I got closer than I ever have to securing an agent, but nonetheless, my inbox filled with (polite, encouraging) rejections.

I still believe the novel was good, but it wasn’t good enough. That might be because it just wasn’t the right novel for that time, or because my exhaustion led me to be too hasty. Either way, I was pretty broken after those rejections. I’d worked so hard. I’d built up my hopes. I’d led myself to believe that this could be it, this might be the one, despite knowing that most writers face hundreds of rejections before they get that ‘yes’. It’s good to be optimistic, but I’d pinned everything on this novel getting published. Of course it was unlikely to end well.

I crashed and burned. I said I couldn’t do it anymore, that I was giving up writing. I became bitterly cynical about the literary world, avoiding Facebook and Twitter because I didn’t want to see people posting about their brilliant agents and their amazing cover designs and their awesome book launches. You don’t want this, I told myself. Doesn’t the struggle continue after you get an agent, after you get published? Do you really want to play that game? I confused the healthy belief that there’s more to life with completely turning away from my passion, and having been so focused on my writing for so long, I felt purposeless. There were days I couldn’t get out of bed because I didn’t see the point. Some of the symptoms of the severe anxiety I suffered at university began to resurface, and when I noticed this I knew something had to change.

So, I took a break. I didn’t write a word for six months. I filled my days with other things I enjoy – reading, singing, playing my piano, yoga, running, spending time with the friends I’d neglected – and started seeing a therapist, learning mindfulness to help with my anxiety. Eventually I felt the urge to write again, and began to chip away at a short story. I started to see my experience with my latest novel in a different way: I’d learnt so much on the course, made some wonderful new friends, and had got to the point where several agents wanted to read my whole novel. All of those things were achievements to be celebrated. If I wrote something else in future, applying everything I’d learnt on the course and with the advice and encouragement of my new friends, what else could I achieve?

I even came up with an idea for a new novel, though I restrained myself from rushing to start writing. Patience has never been one of my virtues.

The culmination of all of this was the realisation that I had to leave my job. For a long time I’d been waiting either for success with my writing, or for some amazing new career to fall into my lap. Neither of these things happened, and so I’d been waiting, waiting. But why not just take a leap of faith? I had enough savings to dedicate some time purely to writing, but had always been afraid: it seemed reckless, stupid, privileged. For once in my life, though, why not do something unexpected, something not involving a detailed plan? There was also the fact I’d gotten engaged and planned on moving to Cambridge, and therefore away from my job, anyway. Wasn’t the year before getting married the perfect time to be a little bit irresponsible?

The more I thought about this plan, the less crazy it seemed, and the more like the most sensical thing I could possibly do. Even my parents agreed, because they wanted to see me happy.  All that remained was to hand in my notice (I’d told enough people of my plan that it would have been embarrassing not to!). That part was scary, but everyone at work was not only completely understanding, but excited for me; they thought it was a great decision.

As I write this now – loving the fact I actually have time to write a blog post and am not cramming it resentfully into my one free evening – I’m inclined to agree.

It’s my second day of unemployment and so far I’ve spent my time (when not reorganising plastic tubs and putting things in boxes) making a plan for the coming months: I have several holidays booked, plus some freelance copywriting and editing work, and then of course there’s my plan to write a new novel. My first trip is a writing retreat in the Scottish Highlands, where I plan to throw myself headfirst into this new idea (after careful plotting, of course). This time, there’s no expectation to get published or be a success: I’m doing this for me.

I’m excited for what the coming months have in store; plenty of surprises, I hope. I’m also excited to restart this blog so I can keep my friends updated on my adventures and share my thoughts on my new writing journey. Initially I wanted to set up a new blog – a blank slate – but actually, I decided it’s best to keep on updating this one. I want people to see the journey that’s led to where I am now as well as my journey going forwards.

I hope that in the future, someone might read this and be inspired to take a leap of faith too.

Writing update: owning it, and second draft torture

I get embarrassed talking about writing. When people ask me how my novel’s going, I assume they’re just being polite, blush and mumble and change the subject, or I downplay things: ‘Yeah, it’s coming along OK, but it might not go anywhere so I’m trying to just enjoy writing for its own sake…’ I’m afraid people will think I’m arrogant and pretentious, or just a bore (‘Oh, you’re writing a novel? You haven’t mentioned that before!’). Most of all, I’m afraid of setting myself up for an embarrassing failure. I’ve been talking about writing for years. If I don’t get published people will think I must be really bad and, even worse, pitiably deluded about my ability to string a sentence together.

Recently, a friend pointed out that I’m constantly putting myself down in conversation. It’s not just the writing; I’m afraid of admitting that I might be half-decent at anything. Rather than charming people with my modesty, this constant self-denigration is actually more irritating than just owning what I do. What’s more, it can come across as insincere – because I do believe I’m a good writer, regardless of whether I get published or not. Most of my writer friends aren’t published yet, and I don’t consider them ‘not real writers’ because of that: it’s their self-belief and their dedication to the craft that make them writers, not a six-figure book deal. In fact, one could argue that dedicating oneself to something when there’s no immediate payoff – just early mornings, lonely evenings, sleepless nights wrangling with your plot, but above all the sense of fulfillment that comes with expressing your creativity – is the purest, noblest form of writing.

Payoff would be nice too, of course. 

It’s Lent, and this year I’ve decided I’ll try to banish the feelings of embarrassment, shame, self-doubt and fear of failure that constantly attempt to ambush my life (a nebulous resolution, I know). In that spirit, I’m going to tell you about my writing, proudly. So, here’s my latest novel update.

I’m almost at the end of my second draft, although that little almost feels like the last stage of a triathlon I forgot to train for. It feels like I’ll be writing this bloody novel until my teeth start falling out, and have been writing it since the day I learnt my first word (it’s been just over a year, but oh, how I’ve aged…). I write more frequently than ever, and yet it’s still never finished. I’ve never, ever found the writing process this torturous – and I suspect it’s precisely because I’m finding it so torturous now that this novel is the best I’ve ever written. This is the way it’s supposed to be. This is the way it will be again and again and again if I continue to write. It will never get easier; the journey will just be different each time.

Now I know why the previous novels I wrote weren’t good enough. This was my writing process:

  1. Have a vague idea. Think myself very clever.
  2. Plunge headfirst into writing and churn out a few chapters in a frenzy. Read them back and think myself even more clever.
  3. Realise I need a plot and half-heartedly concoct something that I think sounds vaguely plausible.
  4. Write more chapters. Edit each one immediately after finishing until I eventually reach the end. Piece the chapters together and, ta-da, it’s a novel!
  5. Read through novel as a whole. I’ve already edited it, so think the writing is awesome. Tinker with it a bit. There, it’s perfect now!
  6. Put the novel in a drawer. Read it back a year later. Cringe at the disjointed chapters, the inconsistent characters, the lack of a coherent vision or overall narrative structure. Think I’m not very clever at all and will never be a real writer.
  7. Mope for a bit, and then pick myself up and move on.

Picking myself up and moving on was the most important part. For each of those crappy novels, I’m sure I learnt something, even if it was what not to do. For my current novel, largely informed by what I learnt on the Faber course, my process has been very different:

  • Have an idea. Start writing. When I feel it’s actually going to work, take a breather.
  • Write out a detailed plot, divided into a rough number of chapters, with a clear narrative arc, as well as brief profiles of the main characters. (This is not to say I stuck rigidly to this plot; it changed dramatically as I wrote, and had epiphanies while in the shower, so I was constantly editing and updating my plot document.)
  • Write my first draft. Write write write. Keep going. Never look back, however tempting. Churn out reams of crappy prose until I reach the ending.
  • Put it in a drawer. Don’t do any writing; live my life, see friends, cook proper meals, go to the gym… or mostly just end up sleeping. (I left my draft about a month, although some people leave it six months; I can see the value in giving yourself a proper psychological distance, but I’m too impatient!)
  • Self-publish a single copy, so I can read it as if it’s a published novel. (I found this stage painful; I was on a high when I finished the draft, a feeling that was crushed upon reading the crappy words that had seemed ‘raw’ at the time. The draft was pretty terrible, but I could see its potential.)
  • Write out the plot, chapter-by-chapter, in a grid. (In this grid I included the major characters in each scene and the time of year, to make sure characters received equal attention and the seasons changed appropriate… there was an awful lot of ‘pathetic fallacy’ rainfall in my first draft.) Overhaul the grid, making it more coherent and logical.
  • Go through the manuscript and cut, paste and delete to match the new grid. (In this process I cut out about 20,000 words.)
  • This is the stage I’m on now: rewrite. It’s taken months longer than expected, because this isn’t just tinkering: characters have had personality transplants (by which I mean, they now have personalities), new scenes have been written, darlings have been killed. I keep coming across the words INSERT SCENE HERE or MAKE THIS BETTER just when I think I’ve nearly finished another chapter. This can be disheartening when I feel like Sisyphus forever pushing his stone up a hill, but what keeps me going is that it will end – even if it takes three, four or five drafts.

A year and a half into this novel, I’ve come to accept that writing isn’t always a passionate, cathartic rush of images and ideas flowing effortlessly from my soul and my fingertips. Most of the time it’s a long, hard endurance test, and I’m determined to keep on running until I pass out. On top of my completed novel, I hope.