Taking Stock of It All

My manager was asking about my book earlier today (I think I've already mentioned how great she is). So I told her about it being a sci-fi book for teenagers. Then she remembered about a teacher she'd worked with in the past who writes YA who had just been published.

So we googled him (http://www.jamesdawsonbooks.com/) and read the blurb of his book (which is about witches) and I said, "The first book I wrote was about witches but it was really awful." 

And then I stopped. Because I realised what I'd said.

"The first book I wrote..."

I've never said that out loud. And in doing so, I realised something. I've only ever thought of that book in terms of it being "really awful". In fact, I've been so caught up in the awfulness of it, I've completely disregarded it.

But what that awful first book is -- far more than being "awful"  -- is a massive accomplishment.

It was the point where I went from saying "I'd love to write a book one day," to saying "I've written a book". 
It was the point where I learned that I had both the drive and the perseverance to start a project and see it through to the end. 
It was the point where I learned what "awful" meant and what I needed to do to avoid "awful" in the future!

And it wasn't until I was speaking to someone who hadn't written and book and had no desire to write one that I was able to see what I had accomplished. 

I don't want to talk for everyone, but a lot of us seem hard-wired to focus on our short-comings rather than our achievements. I wonder if it's something to do with comparisons. When we surround ourselves with people who are at the top of their game, it's easy to see how far we have to go. "The more you know the more you know you don't know" as they say. I wonder, too, if it's because writing a novel is such a long, massive task. So much work goes into it that the end isn't in sight for a long, long time. And for me, I know that once I get to the end, there's a whole new load of things to learn because I'll have the query letter to write and the agents to research. And before even that I have to get over my fear of betas!

Maybe we could all benefit from taking a step back and taking stock of what we've accomplished. Even if it's just a chapter or a page or even just a plot, it's one step closer to our ultimate goal. If I hadn't had that awful first book, I would never be where I am now.

So let's congratulate ourselves today on what we've achieved, rather than focusing on how far we still have to go.

-CB Soulsby

PS - Since you're wondering, I managed to write 15,000 rage-fuelled words over the weekend!

Using Anger

I’m not an angry person. I do get angry but then I almost immediately get sad. For me, anger involves blame and animosity but (thanks to my Psychology degree) I spend most of my life striving to understand and empathise with people. Add to this my fear of causing anyone to feel anything even remotely unpleasant (no matter how much they deserve it) and instead of getting mad, I end up sad. And sadness, it turns out, is not a great motivator.

Thanks to some coaching from my amazing manager at work, I’m learning to become more assertive. Backing down has been my defence strategy my whole life, and I use it both as a way to avoid the unpleasantness of conflict and to help the other person save face. It’s what she calls a “You’re OK, I’m not OK” pattern of behaviour. In other words, the way I behave in many of my interactions is to make sure the other person is OK before myself, to the detriment of myself, even.

So this time, round about the point I usually admit defeat and dissolve into tears, I've vowed not to get sad but to stay angry for as long as I need to. Anger is a valid emotion and one that I now realise is damaging for me to suppress. And in allowing myself to be angry, an interesting thing has happened.

It feels good. 

It makes me want to write a kick-ass novel.

Anger, it turns out, is a great motivator.

Do you use your emotions to fuel your work? How? Or do they get in the way of your creative process? What strategies do you use to get over those hurdles? Comment away!

What I Do When I Don't Know What To Do

I have a problem with focusing. I'm not going to lie. I jump from project to project and back again. It's just the way I do things.

I have two main projects going on at the moment. I refer to them after their main characters: Pearl, and Ivy. I also have Generation Lawless, which is something I fall back on when I'm stuck with either of the other two. And as of today, I have Syrup.

Which leads me to the title of the post. Syrup came up as something to do because I didn't know what to do. Why? Well, I have a rough draft of Ivy I wrote by hand that needs to be put on my laptop before I move on, and I'm on the second draft of Pearl so I need my laptop with me to work from that. But I did not have my laptop at the time so neither of those were options.

So I did what I do when I don't know what to do. I came up with a new idea.

This doesn't always happen due to being sans laptop. Sometimes it's cos I've gotten stuck with a scene, or I've hit a plot hole and I'm berating myself for my stupid, or maybe I've become disillusioned with a character or a way of writing cos I've been staring at the same chapter for weeks on end. This happens with Pearl, for example, because she speaks in a lot of slang, and I have to make a really conscious effort to keep my writing authentic to her voice.

Sometimes, I just need to do something a little less labour intensive.

So this is how I do it.

I open (or draw, if I'm not near a computer) a "plot grid" template. It's basically just a table with four columns: Chapter, Synopsis, Sub-plot / Things to remember, Word Count, that's split into twenty rows and divided into five parts: Introduction, Act 1, Act 2, Act 3, Denouement. I split it into parts so that I can have a slightly different focus for each part and make sure the plot progresses and shifts rather than just plodding in a linear fashion.

So I get my grid and I think of ways to fill it in.

What's great about doing this is the complete freedom. I have no limitations, no preconceptions, no fear and no commitment. It doesn't matter if I only fill out the introduction box then give up because I'm really only filling my procrastination time.

And what's even more useful, is it helps me turn off my inner tweaker. Every time I read something or watch something, I get inspired. Which makes me make hasty decisions with my projects that I think are going to turn them into brilliant books but which in reality turns them into big piles of steaming confusion. Many a project of mine has ground to a halt this way.

Instead, what I do now, is make one of these plot-grids. Sometimes it's straight after a film, sometimes after the first page of a book. I just can't help reinventing what I consume (thought this mainly involves taking something that isn't set in space and sticking it in space...like turning dragons into robot octopuses or Nazis into aliens). It's fun but it's also important. Because instead of reading something and saying "Oh God my book is awful, why can't it be more like the master piece I'm reading?" I get to go "This is what I would do if I had the chance, but I don't have time to devote to this idea, so I'll just write it down and come back to it later." It takes the emotion out.

Then every once in a while, I hit on something I really like. Pearl was one of those. She was just an exercise in plotting and was where my plot grid came from in the first place. I wrote a first draft for her, put it away then came back six months later and realised I had something I could work with.

Today, I've struck something else that I'm willing to explore. I'm reading Divergent by Veronica Roth and it depicts a load of characters who I think are really far from the types I write. They're violent and selfish and arrogant and they take stupid risks with their lives. I'm such a cautious person that so many of my characters get bits of my own reticence seeping into them. So I started thinking of my own world where such selfish, dare-devil characters could live. Add to this the fact we have an ant infestation in my house at the moment, and a recent documentary that's been lingering in my mind about the Holocaust, and there I am, with a filled out plot grid that's the skeleton of a complete novel. Plus, I have a handful of characters to populate it.

Will I ever write it? Who knows. I've tried a preliminary first chapter which I like today, but may hate tomorrow.

The point is today hasn't been a wasted writing day. I've honed my skills. I've thought creatively. I've worked on character development, dialogue, action, rising tension. I've practised grammar and spelling.

And it's all helped my main projects as well, because I haven't been tempted to mess with them. Granted, it would be easier if I could focus, but in the meantime I think it's a pretty effective use of those dead spaces.

Pick Me Ups

I can’t count the amount of times tea, coffee, chocolate, wine, Pro-Plus or other stimulants are advocated as a way of getting through the writing process. Great if it works. But what if you can’t rely on these?

Due to my ME/CFS, it’s incredibly important that I don’t consume stimulants. This kind of “fake” energy can have disastrous long-term implications (think of it like drinking alcohol; you can stay up for hours on end because it makes you believe you have more energy than you do, but eventually you will run out of steam and you will get a hangover. That’s me. But with tea).

That said, I do use pick me ups. Just really boring, sensible ones.

  1. Water – Staying hydrated is ridiculously important when you have ME/ CFS (well, it is for everyone, but even more so for us!). I always have a big bottle of water to hand because if it’s there, I’ll drink it. Yes, I do spend all day peeing, but atleast inbetween the toilet breaks, I can concentrate enough to produce some good writing!
  2. Co-Enzyme Q-10 – there’s no current guidelines on the amount of this that can be consumed in a day. You can have 3 tablets at a time, and I’ve read about people doing this up to three times a day though I personally feel that’s pretty excessive. I only use it rarely, as and when and it’s pretty good at making me more alert!
  3. Omega 3 –This was a real turning point for me in my recovery process and helps keep the dreaded “brain fog” at bay. At the moment, I take 5 IQ tablets a day. People with ME/CFS generally respond well to taking it in vast quantities (though try to get the stuff that has less DHA as this can build up in the body and cause other problems). VegEPA is DHA free but it’s hella expensive.
  4. Fresh fruit / veg – these guys have loads of nutrients and are very low on the Glycamic Index, which means they give me energy without a nasty sugar crash. Snacking regularly instead of having big meals is considered very helpful for people with ME/CFS as it keeps energy levels stable and means the body doesn’t have to waste energy digesting. I recommend anything you can eat whilst still typing (so definitely no oranges or kiwi fruit) and I usually eat something every hour.
  5. Pacing – can’t beat the power of a pace. For those who aren’t familiar with pacing, it usually requires closing your eyes, lying down (or atleast getting cosy), and trying to shut down your brain for at least twenty minutes. I don’t pace nearly as much as I should (doctors recommend 4 lots of 20 minute sessions a day regardless of how good you’re feeling that day), but it’s always incredibly refreshing. I have to listen to music when I pace because if I leave my brain unoccupied for any period of time, it tends to lead me to a bad, dark, despairing place.

So those are my top tips for staying alert. They’re not full-proof but I definitely produce more and better quality work when I use them.

Good luck, let me know what your pick-me-ups are in the comments!