Please step away from the Keyboard



Yes, I do mean you. And me, of course. I’m writing about giving yourself down time, thinking time, chilling time. Time when you don’t have to meet a deadline, real or self-imposed. Time when you can just be. Time when you can step away. Time to stop busy busy.

Because if we don’t stop for a moment, and take stock- how can we see what is important?

Going for a walk is a good way to start the ‘being’ process. Or a run, or a ride. Method is not important. Taking the strain off the brain- more easily achieved when the body is otherwise occupied- is what allows the creativity to return when the juices have all dried up, and in my case, withered and fallen off.

I’ve blogged before about left-side / right side brain activity, and how the logical, task-driven left side will not stop working until the tasks are done. But the tasks are never done, are they, dammit? And keeping a lid on the creative side of the brain dulls us, dulls our lives, dulls our perceptions, dulls our ability to be inspired or inspiring.

So take a little time off just for you. No excuses. You don’t need to seek permission from yourself to recharge. Go look at a snowdrop and see perseverance against huge odds, watch starlings fly in magical murmurations in an evening sky, stare at the universe of stars and wonder.

Then, an hour, or a day later, come back and see if the words flow more freely.

When I’m refreshed, the ideas wander in like stray cats when a door is left open, uninvited but welcome. They challenge me to re-write, to re-structure, to be brave, to try something new. I need the time away from ‘real’ life to free me to do what I love to do – writing.

Fighting the Demon of Doubt

It’s a funny state of limbo, waiting for an agency to call and say they want to represent me. Waiting for them to say that they really enjoyed Breathe and would love to help me get it published. Perhaps giving me a list of changes that need to be completed, arranging to meet for coffee…

I know that I should be cracking on with book 2. After all, the Police characters are already formed and ready to go, except for the new set of bad guys. I’ve even written a plot outline. So what’s the problem?

It’s just…what if nobody wants it? I’m prepared for nobody in the first round of submissions to want it- I think I’ve made it better since I sent it off a few weeks ago anyway. So I have the next set of five agents ready to go. But, my head keeps saying; what’s the point of starting a second book in a series if no-one wants to read the first one?

Yes, the doubt demon has struck. The ‘I’m so bad at this I may just as well play on-line Scrabble all day. Or knit more scarves (I am really improving my knitting btw). Or bake cakes.’ Or… fill in your own procrastinatory doings. Yes, I’m waiting for external validation. Sad but true.

Now, I’m no spring chicken. I’ve been around long enough to know that doing something simply for the love is the best feeling in the world. I know that the pleasure we should get from doing something beautifully should not need to be shared with anybody in order to make it worthwhile. But I’m new at this, and I want someone to put a tick on my mss. In red.

I think that’s why I haven’t taken the self-publishing route. Just giving it a bit more time. Maybe someone will see a story they could love. Maybe….

So, what if the worst-case scenario comes to pass? I’m having a go at scriptwriting for the TV. (There’s a challenge should anybody need one- bbc Writers’ Room is open for submissions now). A totally different way of writing, but fascinating to get to grips with. And it has to be good for general writing as I really have to cut the excess baggage and get to the point. I’m not moping, honest.

The demon of doubt still looms large in a lip-licking, ‘let me devour you and spit out your bootlaces, puny human’ kind of way, but I think I’ve got him distracted at the moment.

Was that the postman?

The truth, the whole truth and…

I’ve been thinking hard about telling the truth in my writing. I make up stories, so they are fictional, but I know that the essence of a story has to be true, or the readers will know, and back off. Emotions give a story heart. Without heart, I stop reading, because I don’t care what happens to the characters. It’s irrelevant whether or not the character is a ‘goodie’ or a ‘baddie’ as long as their emotional responses ring true.

So then I thought, how do I do that without going totally over the top with the adjectives? How do I peel away the layers separating a character from a reader, and lay him or her bare? How do I make the character give up the truth of their feelings?

I attended a very good on-line Writers’ Workshop course on Self-editing a Novel last year. One of the most powerful weeks was when we got to try ways of getting closer to the feelings of a character, and further away, and examined the differences that style and word choice made to the power and depth of our writing. From a distant, disinterested level 1, suitable for a meeting, to the emotional turmoil of extreme close up at level 5. The tutor that week was Emma Darwin, and you can find a more detailed analysis of ‘psychic’ or narrative distance on her brilliant blog ‘This Itch of Writing’. She drew on the work of John Gardner in his standard text ‘The Art of Fiction’- and condensed it into a readable, immensely helpful post.

How does it work? Well, one of the things we all do is to censor what we write. Even in a personal diary, we are aware of a potential audience, and censor our words- just in case. I think I rarely write the truth of a feeling, especially if it’s a powerful or upsetting one. (Poets, of course, aim to do this all the time). The most helpful way to demonstrate this burrowing into the emotional dark places is to show you a ‘before and after’ extract from my own novel, ‘Breathe’.

Preamble: Jamie is falling apart as he waits to talk to the police about the death of his girlfriend. In the first version, approximately level 3 out of 5, there is a sense of his pain, but I think it really gets there in the second, level 5 version where I attempt to get to the truth about his feelings.

Level 2/3
He’d only been trying to get her to stop talking to Westlake, but when he’d smashed the phone it made her so mad she’d fought back, and before he knew it he’d knocked her onto the bed and was choking her. He only wanted to stop her, not kill her, but she’d made him so angry. You could fight other lads and not kill them. He looked at a scratch on his arm and rubbed it raw, wanting the pain.

Level 5
He could still feel his arm round her throat- squeezing and squeezing. I’m strong now, strong now, Carly. Squeezing and squeezing, kneeling on her back, bending her head back- give in, give in, give in. So angry. Bitch bitch bitch. Until she stopped fighting. Just one slow dragging breath. And she just lay there, still. He hadn’t meant to kill her. A boy wouldn’t have died so easy. He choked back snot, blood and tears and found the scratch. He bit where the scratch burned, sucking at the blood. She was in the scratch, taunting him, and he had to rub, to rub, to scrub at it until she was gone, until she left him alone, until the pain stopped.

Better? You need to be selective with level 5 writing- but it does help you get to the truth.