Tag Archives: creative

Where do ideas come from?

The idea of this blog was to bring you on the journey with me as I wrote a book. And after about 20 posts about writer’s block and procrastination, I finally got writing but stopped blogging. So I feel I owe you a couple of retrospective posts.

Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start . When you read you begin with ABC, when you sing you begin with … Excuse me, no idea why I was suddenly chanelling Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. Actually, I do know. It started with the words: ‘Let’s start at the very beginning’ and the tune came into my head. It started with the WORDS…

So many ideas come as you write. It’s the magic, the very essence of creativity. So don’t sit there waiting for a great idea. Write and the ideas will follow and then you can shape them.

One idea I had stemmed from an image in Vogue magazine of a model on the Mongolian steppes with an eagle. Woman and bird were in profile, gazing into the distance. It was beautiful, striking. I decided to do an exercise with her as a character. I’d been playing around with a parallel world idea but as I started to write, the photo gave me a new beginning, actually a a whole new incarnation of the book, starting in the parallel world and having the character from our world fall into it.

The book I’m currently working on started because of news articles and TV programmes about the pressures on girls to be skinny, pretty and sexy. I was horrified that girls as  young as seven were worrying about their body image! In one programme girls were shown photos of themselves along with images photoshopped so they looked skinnier and fatter. In almost every case, the girls picked the skinniest version of themselves as being the best. I’d also read about teenagers aspiring to be models or wives of footballers, or just to be on the latest reality TV programme.

Then I heard the crime author PD James talking on Radio 4. She’s in her nineties and that got me thinking about what she must have seen and experienced in her lifetime and how it couldn’t have been easy for a female crime writer early in her career, then, BAM, suffragettes popped into my head. What would the suffragettes make of the world today? What if a modern day teenager met one? That was the genesis of my book.

So the media seems to be a big source of inspiration for me. Looking at the obituaries might seem morbid but they feature interesting lives and that gets you thinking. Or a crime report might give you a plot idea. Overheard snippets of conversation on a bus can spark an idea or a character’s voice, people-watching in cafes is endlessly fascinating, making up lives for them. Putting down your phone so that you’re not picking up emails and posting on twitter but actually observing the world helps a lot. Just asking the question: What if…? Your dreams could give you an idea. Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight came from a dream. According to wikipedia, it led to Meyer writing a draft of what became chapter 13 of the book.

Travelling is good. Anything that makes you an outsider, that gets you looking at the world differently can trigger creativity. I recently went to an amazing hot spring in Malaysia with a big pool of geothermic water  surrounded by towering verdant limestone karsts with caves beneath. I felt humbled and inspired by those great architects, nature and time. It could have been another world. It could have been Eden.

The magnificent cavern with stalagtites and stalagmites that had been turned into a wine bar, was quite spectacular. A brilliant setting for a book. Something gothic, perhaps. If Stephanie Meyer had been to this place, Edward Cullen would have taken Bella on a date there.

Your own lives and experiences will give you ideas  – you may not write about them directly but they will certainly inform your writing. And once you’re writing, you start to think like a writer and notice things that you didn’t before. I will hear someone’s name and I’ll think, that’s a great name for a character and off I go. In short, ideas are all around you and you shouldn’t worry about the idea, just the sitting on your bum to write.

Whether it’s a commercial idea is another matter. What publishers are looking for is a good concept that will sell. This often comes from two ideas coming together. Vampirates, for example. Suzanne Collins is reported to have got the idea for the Hunger Games  while channel surfing. On one station was a reality TV show and on another was the invasion of Iraq and the two began to blur in her mind and she ended up with the idea of a dysptopian world where there’s an annual, televised, gladiatorial fight to the death.

I find thinking too much about commerciality blocks my writing, so I’m not going to put too much emphasis on this. The most important thing is to have something that you are compelled to write. If you have something special you can bring to it, you are an immigrant writing about the immigrant experience for example, all the better. You become commercial. The publisher can market you and you will sell your book. My friend Liz Trenow wrote The Last Telegram, which is set in the second world war – always popular– but she had a unique selling point. She comes from a family of silk weavers and she set her novel in a silk factory making parachutes for the RAF with her heroine running the factory.  As well as going to book fairs she goes to textile fairs to give readings. She knows her stuff and the sensuality the silk weaves through her story made it something that no one else could have written.

Write for yourself first but have your reader in mind. Be aware of trends but don’t try to follow them or predict them. You can help a publisher if you can give them a way to market it, something to peg it on. But underneath all that, they need a strong voice, a brilliantly evoked world, great characters and a cracking story.

How to chip away at the block

I know, it’s been ages. My apologies. You see, I’ve actually started writing. Yay! hang out the bunting, do a happy dance and eat cake (not necessarily in that order). The thing is, my writer’s block had taken such a hold that even when I started writing, I thought it may be another false start. I didn’t want to blog about it for fear of jinxing it.

The problem was I had two ideas and kept swinging from one to the other. I’d have a crisis of confidence about whether one was a good, marketable idea and then,  like a sailing boat adrift, bang! An ill wind would catch the mainsail and go swinging across my boat, often knocking me overboard in the process, before I got going on the other idea.

Somewhere in all this, I figured out that both were good ideas, it was more a matter of which to write first? I plumped for the one with the more developed plot. It was also more time sensitive because I could peg it on the anniversary of the death of suffragette Emily Wilding Davison who threw herself under the king’s horse at the 1913 Derby.

However, with all my prevaricating, I have missed that deadline by a mile. I should have been submitting it to agents last year. But on a positive note, the suffragette movement carried on well after that so I reckon it’s still marketable. Plus, I think the book will appeal to teenage girls because it’s about all kinds of issues affecting them. The pressures that they come under to be academic, pretty, sexy, skinny and, above all, to fit in, when hormones are raging and your mind is on boys and the whole world should be opening up for you but actually, the expectations are overwhelming and in some cases crippling.

My  ‘lift pitch’ – in case I meet an agent in a lift and I have 10 seconds to pitch it – is: Modern-day girl meets a suffragette. A contemporary story with an historical twist.

Wordism: It’s important you can summarise your book in a couple of sentences. It means it has a strong concept and publishers are looking for ‘high concept’ books.

Anyway, while I’m hoping that I can sell my book, the most important thing is I’m back writing and seven chapters in.

So, advice on how to break writer’s block? Actually, there wasn’t a big breakthrough moment, the muse didn’t show up one day and suddenly I could write. No, I just kept chipping away at it. I got to the point of nearly giving up, which I found frightening. Writing is such a big part of my identity that it felt like giving up on myself. And then what became important was just writing. Not selling it, not the vagaries of the market, just the act of writing. A little bit here, a little bit there until you’re writing everyday, which develops into a compulsion to write rather than procrastinate, at which point, you start living your characters, inhabiting their world, thinking about it all the time.

Wordism: Don’t give up, keep going. Just a few words is better than nothing. Write a journal if the book isn’t coming. Don’t judge what you write. Just write. Observations, what you’re feeling… Write in a stream of consciousness. Read The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron – it’s a bit spiritual, which isn’t for everyone, but it’s also practical.

I explored my main character by letting her vent what was on her mind without worrying about story or plot. Her character developed around her voice, a plot emerged from her character. And also from thinking about the suffragette and what part she would play. I have to be careful that Emily plays at least an equal part to the romance in the novel. Feminists may not approve of what I do with the romance but then they’re not my audience. Teenage girls are my readers. And if I can get one teenage girl to google ‘suffragette’ or ‘Emily Wilding Davison’, I’ll be happy with that.

Something to try: If you have a character in mind, allow them to vent on the page. Write whatever’s on their mind in the first person. If you’re not working on a project right now but want to get the creative juices flowing, find a picture of a person in a magazine, a newspaper or in a work of art (as Tracy Chevalier did in Girl with a Pearl Earring) and imagine what they are thinking. What is their world like? Then give them a voice. Who knows where it will lead.

Kipling’s If… For Writers

So the green nail varnish has chipped and the birthday optimism is dissipating. Of course I want to be a great writer but first I have to summon the energy to write a sentence. And another and keep going. I’ve written three books. None are published. But I get better each time. My failures are improving, I am getting closer to publication with every book I write. So rationally I know that I have to keep going and I will get there. But emotionally, it ain’t so easy. I have to suppress doubts and fend off the feeling of futility. I get moments of flow and flashes of joy and I hope that can keep me going. And so, with the help of Mr Kipling, (the poet rather than cakes, although cake is darn good idea) I’m giving myself and any other struggling writer a little pep talk.

If you can keep your head when Fifty Shades of Grey

Gets published and your story does not,

If you believe in your writing, come what may,

When no one else cares a jot;

If you can be rejected by publishers and not tire of rejection,

But instead scour the Writers’ and Artists’ Year Book

And laugh despite dejection,

And in good spirits begin another book;

If you can ignore market trends and write from the heart,

And bare your soul to the page every day

Not knowing if you’ll win through, yet commit to your art

Your characters and your plot for no pay;

If you can dream of being published – and not make publication your master,

If you can kick those imposters fame and fortune up the arse

And write for the joy of it, despite the disaster

Of the doormat thump of a manuscript come home, and laugh at the farce;

If you can beat the neuroticism, procrastination and despair

And know, beyond all doubt, the word is mightier;

Then what the world thinks, you’ll not care

And what’s more, my friend, you’ll be a writer.

Apologies to Rudyard Kipling for riding roughshod over his great and inspirational poem. Apologies also to E.L. James for the cheap shot at Fifty Shades. No one can deny the supreme success of her books.

Green nail polish, new horizons.

Today I am 43. It’s the beginning of the rest of my life. It starts with green nail polish. Then I’m going to become the greatest writer of my time.

In small steps, of course. A word at a time, a book at a time. But the new reinvented 43-year-old me is thinking big. Somebody’s going to be remembered as a great 21st century writer. Why the heck shouldn’t it be me?

The green nail polish is a celebration of my quirkiness; it’s saying it’s ok to buck trends, to wade against the flow, to take risks. I am letting out my inner fabulousness.

Here’s how this surge of energy and statement of ambition came about:

Yesterday, I went to a creative part of town. I know Singapore is not the most creative place in the world, but there are pockets of creativity and new ideas. Tiong Bharu is one of them. I was in a cafe with my laptop, slowly and painfully writing. Starting a book is the most difficult bit. I have not yet hit ‘flow’, that magical point when the characters come alive and start doing unexpected things and you’re living the story with them. Anyway, in the scene I was writing I referred to Alice in Wonderland.

After I was done, I went to my favourite indie bookstore Books Actually. In the window was a copy of Alice in Wonderland, with artwork by the brilliantly bonkers Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. I bought it as a birthday treat to myself.

At the cash till, I flicked through a little book It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want to Be by the advertising guru Paul Arden (click for inspirational quotes). I read it first thing this morning and it was the perfect hit of positivity. It’s about thinking big, having vision and laughing in the face of failure along the way. It’s about thinking differently, turning things on their head, taking risks, thinking beyond what’s fashionable or acceptable and making things happen. It’s about putting a new spin on things.

So I will no longer worry about the market or concern myself with whether it’s what agents or publishers are interested in. I will be the best writer I can in aiming to be the greatest. Past failures are my path to success.

As Winston Churchill said: ‘Success is going from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.’

Although, I admit, I did have a wobble on the enthusiasm front. To the extent that I gave up, threw my toys out of the pram and decided to do a course to teach English as a Foreign Language. (Turned out to be the creative equivalent of joining the Foreign Legion.) This was a good thing because it so clearly wasn’t me, it reaffirmed my belief in myself as a writer.

When I write, I am most myself. So I’m not so much reinventing myself, as my ambitions. Paul Arden says: ‘You need to aim beyond what you are capable of.’ At first, that seems like a contradiction. But, giving it more thought, it makes perfect sense. How else do we grow?

Then you have to make the vision of yourself reality. You learn to do this through experience and mistakes. Excellent. I’m on the right track then. Talent helps, of course, but it’s the desire to be the best that counts, he says. ‘Everybody wants to be good, but not many are prepared to make the sacrifices it takes to be great.’ (See YouTube link of Yayoi Kusama showing what it takes.)

He also talks about promoting yourself, putting yourself out there. This is more difficult for me. We, girls especially and English girls possibly more so, are taught not to show-off, gloat, crow, or otherwise talk ourselves up. We can quietly know we’re great, but it is not demure, lady like, or appropriate to sing about it. This attitude gets you absolutely nowhere. It may get you liked but it does not bring you success or wealth. So I need to cultivate this along with my writing. Ego. It’s not a bad thing.

Sparkly green nails

Green nails look great flashing across my keyboard.

So I’m here, me with the sparkly green nail polish that is part Wicked Witch of the East, part Absinthe fairy and a lot Cabaret. Me, failing extravagantly and learning from mistakes on the path to success. No more Mrs Nice Girl. This time I am, to coin Justine Musk’s  phrase, bad-ass. And I’m on my way to becoming the greatest writer of my time. (How am I doing on the ego front?)

Going for gold.

What a change to have role models like Jessica Ennis for the next generation of young women. What a change to see triumph born of hard work, grit and determination rather than talentless celebrity born of reality TV shows. What a change to see that beauty is  strength of spirit and a radiant smile rather than an inch of make-up and a pair of fake boobs. Perhaps now girls will aspire to be sportswomen rather than WAGs?

The likes of Jess Ennis and the female rowing team have certainly been an inspiration to me. They have rolled with life’s knocks and gone on to win gold. Jess Ennis suffered a setback in 2008 because of stress fractures to her right foot and missed the Beijing Olympics as a result. This meant switching her take-off leg in the long jump from her right to her left, retraining the neurological pathways until her weaker, less favoured leg was of Olympic gold standard. That takes guts.

Rower Katherine Grainger is an inspiration for keeping her eye on the prize and pursuing gold at the age of 36. Having won silver three times, and at an age when many would have considered it less likely she could do it, she won through.

And Helen Glover, whom with Captain Heather Stanning, won Team GB’s first gold medal in the women’s pairs, having started rowing only four years ago. Glover said: ‘If I can do it so can you. Take the chance to do something, do anything. Work hard and do your best and you can achieve anything.’

My something is writing. And I will work hard to write a brilliant novel and get it published. The world owes me nothing. It’s no use licking my wounds and sulking. I can do better than my last book. And I will. I am taking on this Olympic spirit.

I’ve highlighted three women at the Games but all the athletes put in time and effort day after day with relentless focus. Many medal winners talked of picturing or planning their race in their heads, of not thinking about others in the race because it would divert them from their goal. It was about the vision, deciding that the gold medal would be theirs.

I am focusing on writing, I am envisioning my idea coming together, of achieving flow and working day after day to finish my novel. I will write word after word, paragraph after paragraph, scene after scene and keep going until my book is finished. Then I will get the best agent to help me get it published, I will do whatever redrafts are necessary to make it perfect, I will roll with the knocks and I will not give up. I am not in control of the reviews or the sales. All I can do is write the best book I can, although I’m also envisioning rave reviews and high sales, and dammit, why not go the whole hog and envision the film too. I am going for gold.

How about you?

Getting to the top of the slush pile

Yesterday evening I was out celebrating with some writing buddies from my old creative writing MA class because one of our number has got a book deal with HarperCollins in the US. A big cheer for David John. Well done, mate and well deserved.

It gives me hope because it’s tough out there for new writers. David hasn’t got a UK deal yet, which is bizarre as his book is a thriller set around the 1936 Berlin Olympics and, with London hosting the 2012 Olympics, you’d think UK publishers would be snapping it up. I expect a UK deal will follow soon but publishers do seem to be risk averse at the moment. And new writers are a risk. It’s understandable, I guess, in the current economic climate, but not helpful to those of us trying to get our first publishing deal.

So how do you get to the top of the slush pile? How do you differentiate yourself?

1. First off, it helps to have a high concept idea or a unique selling point. By high concept I mean like Vampirates. (This is particularly the case with children’s or YA novels.) You need a strong, marketable idea with a plot you can sum up in a sentence or two. Another writer friend Liz Trenow comes from a silk-weaving family and her book, currently being pitched, is set in a factory manufacturing parachute silk during the second world war. It’s a quirky take on the genre and her knowledge of silk is a great USP. It makes her, the author, marketable as well as the book.

2. You need a brilliantly written, well structured novel. That means sympathetic characters, page-turning plot and a strong voice. Get feedback from other writers before you send it out to an agent. This could be through an online community like Writewords, people you’ve met on a writing course or a professional literary consultancy like Cornerstones. Criticism, when it’s constructive, can be enormously helpful. There will be some criticism that you just don’t agree with but often people will pick up on something that you’ve felt unsure about yourself. Listen to that. Sometimes you’ll know there’s a problem in your work but you can’t quite pinpoint it. That’s when you need a fresh pair of eyes to look at it. Your book needs to be the best it can be before you send it out.

3. When approaching an agent, presentation is important. (Read the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook for guidance.) Check for spelling mistakes and make sure it’s in the format that a particular agent or publisher prefers – usually three chapters, a synopsis and a covering letter.

4. But for an agent to get to the book, you need to stand out in that covering letter. Showing professionalism, that you take your craft seriously, will get them to sit up and take notice. Having done creative writing courses / retreats / an MA will help. If you’ve won or been short-listed for a writing competition, mention that. (Writing magazines often run such competitions.)

5. Belonging to a writing organisation will also help distinguish yourself from the crowd. For instance, I belong to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Such organisations are great for networking with other writers. But often they’ll get agents / publishers/ published authors to give talks. And if you’re approaching an agent or editor, having met them or having heard them speak somewhere is going to get their attention. It means you can say: ‘At the SCBWI conference this year, you said you’d be interested in seeing a good ghost story…’ That kind of personal connection is invaluable.

Good luck!

Pop, pop, crackle, ping, pop

Well this isn’t working out quite as I expected, I have yet to move seamlessly from blog to creative wizardry. But then, that was probably inevitable. A blog is a short burst of whatever’s on my mind creatively. I can do that. But I have too much going on to settle to my novel. I can’t get the necessary stillness of mind. Thoughts jump around like popcorn in a pan. Pop, pop, crackle, ping, pop.

There’s Christmas and the question of how I’m going to get presents to everyone with the snow causing travel mayhem. I need to get to two lots of nephews over the next couple of days, one trip already having been cancelled at the weekend because the M40 was snowbound. Then we need to get to my mother-in-law in Devon who is doing the honours this year but she’s snowed in. She can’t get out to the shops and the Sainsbury’s van can’t get to her. So we’re doing the Christmas grocery shop in London and bringing it with us. We just have to hope the Devon lanes will be cleared by Thursday. Otherwise Christmas could turn out to be a snow picnic somewhere just off  the M5. Pop, pop, crackle, ping, pop.

Perhaps after Christmas I can settle down to my book. New year, new book.

I read once that an author – Jeanette Winterson, I think – had to move house every time she started a new book. At the time, this struck me as odd but I was impressed at what I assumed was a dedication to her art.  This occurred to me again in the autumn when I was madly clearing my desk, cleaning cupboards and getting the house decorated (in the wrong order). I was like a dog, circling on the spot but not being able to nest down and so pulling at my bed. Which led me to wonder: do I need to move house every time I start a new book?

I have pretty much written each of my three books in a different house. The last two were written in my present home but between books, we gutted and refurbed the place so, in effect, I wrote in two different spaces. And lo and behold, we’re moving again.  (Pop, pop, crackle, ping, pop.) None of this was by my design. It was just the way it happened. My husband had a brainstorm one evening about moving back to south east London and I thought, yeah, that feels like the right thing to do.

Maybe there is something in the old saying ‘out with the old, in with the new’. Something about clearing out the clutter, changing circumstances to alter your frame of mind, moving on physically to move on creatively.

I’m sure redecorating would have been enough. At least I’m hoping so, otherwise a writing career could prove to be expensive.

At least I’m not as bad as my friend who has a habit of getting pregnant every time she starts a new book. It’s like creativity is bursting out of her on all fronts. It’s lovely but she could end up with a very large family.

Does anyone else have similar experiences?

Launching into the blogosphere

…three, two, one, we have lift off.

So the plan is to write my blog every day. It will get me going, get me in a creative frame of mind and I will be able to segue from blog to novel seamlessly. Apart from this, my first post, because it’s Saturday night and the Strictly Come Dancing final is on in half an hour. See, now that’s the problem. Discipline. I have got out of the habit.

My Word top tip: To get published you have to write the best book you can. To write the best book you can, you have to write something every day. What you write doesn’t have to be perfect (perfection can wait till the re-writes). The important thing is to write, EVERY DAY. Even if it’s just a paragraph or two. Eventually all those paragraphs will come together and you’ll have a novel.

Hmmm… I thought I was writing a blog, in part, to get me in a creative mode. Now, I’m worried it’s all a ploy of my subconscious to engage in elaborate procrastination on a humongous scale. Ah well, all part of the creative process. I have procrastinated quite successfully for the best part of a year since my last novel was rejected by no less than ten London publishers. More on that another day. Blogging, at least, is constructive procrastination. A chance to reach out to the world, make some new friends on the way. It will get me to sit at my desk every day and write something.

I have picked myself up, dusted myself off and am starting a new blog and a new novel. Not scary at all. Yikes!