SUFFERING AND WRITER’S BLOCK

When someone you love has an incurable illness, your perspective changes. ‘Not curable but treatable’ becomes a thread of hope. Each day is precious. A myriad of life’s annoyances, things that seemed so important at the time, are now mere trivia.  Mud on the clean kitchen floor is just that. Mud. A leaky shower is water in the wrong place. It can be put right.

Suffering is something else. I have a friend from church who is confined to a chair by day and a bed by night. Another friend has known the downside of cancer for four years. Yet another battles stress and depression. Amazingly, each one of these people shows the world a cheerful face.

For a writer, suffering of any kind can be one of the causes of the dreaded Writer’s Block. Knowing someone you love is in distress or pain can also cause your creativity to dry up. You, too, put on a brave face. Yet inside you feel a giant wave of sadness waiting to push you to the bottom of the ocean.

I told my husband I felt I had nothing to say in my writing any more, nothing that would be of value to anyone, nothing that could possibly entertain another human being. I used to love creating stories, bringing characters to life.

‘Write for yourself,’ he said. ‘Don’t worry about the rest.’

‘I think I’ve got Writer’s Block,’ I said.

He smiled and gave me a hug. ‘That proves you’re a real writer at last,’ he replied. I like a positive man!

 

 

Frog: Halloween! Bonfire Night! No wonder my friends advocate hibernation.

 

LOOKING AHEAD, BUT…

…WITH MANY A BACKWARDS GLANCE

Note to self: Plan to create some exciting stories for 2019 by researching the past.

Inspiration number one: Trees

One hundred years ago, on 1st September 1919, the Forestry Act was passed in the UK. The Forestry Commission was created, recognising the importance of forestry in England Scotland Wales and Ireland. The first Commission trees were planted on 8 December 1919 at Eggesford Forest, in the Taw Valley, Devon. An important first step, because numbers of trees had been declining since the middle ages. During the first world war, stocks reached the all-time low of covering 5% of the land area. The UK was on the brink of complete deforestation.

Thanks to the Forestry Commission’s work and inspiration, numbers of trees have steadily increased, and now stand at 13% of the land area.

Trees offer all sorts of possibilities for stories – Charles II hiding in an oak tree to escape the Roundheads (1651); fake trees used as observation posts in World War One (can this be true?); Johnny Appleseed, the legendary folk hero and pioneer apple farmer in 1800’s America (I definitely want him to be true).

The imagination will fly beyond boundaries. Let’s think…

A cherry tree with pink spring blossom

Self-sown sycamores, and ragged hawthorn trees

Conkers on the ground under leafy horse chestnut boughs

Giant sequoias

Coconut palms.

Second note to self: Create a TREES page in writer’s notebook.

Throughout Autumn add ideas. Let them simmer.

On a cold winter’s day, open notebook, choose a subject and draft a story.

Sounds good to me.

Useful websites for research:

https://www.forestry.gov.uk/aboutus

http://www.confor.org.uk/resources/events/100years/

Frog: (Shakily)

Hasn’t anyone noticed? I am not a tree frog!

Besides, in my experience, ponds can be extremely inspirational.

CHANGE THE NARRATIVE

That was something Amit Dhand’s father used to say to him.

One of the evening speakers at Swanwick was Amit Dhand, described on his author’s page on Amazon as follows:

A.A. Dhand was raised in Bradford and spent his youth observing the city from behind the counter of a small convenience store. After qualifying as a pharmacist, he worked in London and travelled extensively before returning to Bradford to start his own business and begin writing. The history, diversity and darkness of the city have inspired his Harry Virdee novels.

The windows of that corner shop were often broken by a gang of local youths. The police were often called out by Amit’s father. Amit told us that one day, when the windows had been smashed again, Amit’s father said it was time to ‘change the narrative’. The young men were outside, sitting on the pavement, drinking beer. Mr Dhand picked up a can of cider and went outside.He looked at the group, and they looked at him. He said he could either call the police, or they could talk. He sat next to the leader and yes, they talked. There were some tense moments, but they ended up swapping drinks, and Amit’s dad said that as they’d talked and shared drinks, then surely that made them mates now.

The story ended amicably, with the group agreeing not to break the windows any more, and  Mr Dhand taking on some of the group as paper boys.

Amit said it was one of the greatest lessons he learned from his father. To change the narrative. Which he had to do himself many times as he struggled to become a successful novelist.

As writers, we may have to do the same. As many times as it takes.

I’ve just finished writing a new version of The Three Little Pigs. Laugh if you must! It’s for our family service on Sunday. I HAVEN’T CHANGED THE BASIC STORY, BUT I’VE CHANGED THE NARRATIVE.

Maybe our first effort at writing a story, a poem, a novel, or an article, may be like the first little pig’s effort to build a strong house with a barrowful of straw. Maybe our next effort may end up like the house made of wood – better but not there yet! Maybe our third, forth, our twenty seventh, or even our ninety ninth effort will match that of the third little pig.

I think it’s worth a try. Don’t you?

Frog: (Sadly) Pigs! Why pigs, when it could have been The Three Little Frogs!


If you like writing

If you like writing, you’d love what has become known simply as Swanwick.

What is it?

It’s The Swanwick Writers’ Summer School, now celebrating its seventieth year.

Held at The Hayes Conference Centre, Swanwick, Derbyshire, it takes place annually for a week in August, and it’s a holiday where writers from beginners to well-published authors all find plenty to put smiles on their faces every single day.

This year there are specialist courses to suit aspiring crime-writers, novelists, short story writers, life-writers, and poets.  The tutors are experts in their field. You don’t have to choose beforehand. You simply turn up on the day with a pen and notebook or a laptop.

There are short courses on a wide range of subjects – as usual loaded with valuable information about writing and publishing.

There are an amazing number of fun activities too, for all ages, including quizzes, a disco, with a theme for those who like dressing up (this year it’s a forties night),  a couple of open mic evenings, a buskers’ night , and an evening of sketches written by Swanwickers.

There are after dinner speakers on four of the evenings – this year we are looking forward to hearing Sue Moorcroft (Sunday Times and international bestselling author), Amit Dhand (The Harry Virdee novels), Simon Nelson (Development producer with BBC Writersroom for three years)  and Sophie Snell (professional writer and storyteller).

There are peaceful ground too, with a couple of small lakes to wander round. Plenty of space for an early morning run, if you’re so inclined, or to join a session of ‘Morning meditation by the lake’. Then there’s ‘Unwind your mind’ at the end of the day – the perfect pick-me-up to prepare for a fun evening ahead.

I first went to Swanwick in 2012, when I won a place there as the prizewinner in the annual short story for children competition. (There are usually three annual competitions – short story for adults, short story for children, and poetry – each offering the prize of a free place at the summer school.) I’ve been back every year since 2012. I’ve been privileged to run a short course on flash fiction, and this year I’m running one called ‘How to create believable characters using the Enneagram’.

So, what is the Enneagram?

·         The Enneagram is a tool for understanding human nature. It suggests that there are nine basic personality types.

·         It shows us the unconscious motivations behind the ways we react, when we are secure, and when we are stressed.

·         When we study the Enneagram we can understand more about why people think, feel, and act the way they do.

·         One of the best outcomes from studying it, is that we can get to know and understand ourselves better.

Want to know more?

Well, if you’re coming to Swanwick, you might like to come along to my short course. If not, I’ve written a book about it. It’s packed with information, examples and exercises. It’s available from Amazon, where you can take a look inside it. Here it is. How to create believable characters using the Enneagram.

 

 

Frog: (Thinking hard)

Am I a believable character? No, don’t answer that! Don’t say a word!

 

ALL KINDS OF STORIES

Everyone likes a good story.

Recently I was privileged to judge the short story entries in a competition for members of the South Hams’ Writers’ Group.

I thought you might be interested in the things I looked for when I read the stories.

  • The overall impression. Did I feel the plot was original in some way? Was I fascinated by the concept?

  • A beginning which drew me in.

  • A middle which held my attention.

  • A satisfying ending.

  • Did the story have characters who seemed real, people who didn’t suddenly behave in an unexpected manner.

    I like surprises, but not if the really nice man next door turns out to be a chimpanzee in disguise. If that is the case, I need clues early on, so that I can look back and think, ‘Ah, that makes sense now.’

  • Personally, I like stories about human nature, stories which show a character growing and learning from his or her experience. However, this wasn’t one of my criteria. The things that were important to me were good writing, amazing ideas, and an excellent use of words.

  • I did take a few marks off for grammar and spelling mistakes. When you enter competitions, good editing is vital. It’s a bright idea to read your story aloud before you send it off, because that way it’s easier to spot errors you might otherwise miss. There’s a lot of talent out there, and you have to give yourself the best chance you can, by making sure everything is as good as it can possibly be.

This is how I ended my judging remarks:

If you didn’t win a prize this year, don’t give up. Every time you create a new story, you have the chance to learn something new about writing. Huge congratulations to the winners. Don’t rest on your laurels, because all the other entrants are coming fast on your heels.

 

Notes from a failed novelist

I have spent the past three years or so living in a kind of dream world. I’d found an agent. I imagined my debut novel on the shelves of Waterstones. I believed I could do it. I stopped sending off so many short story competition entries. I worked hard when my friends were walking the moors, or enjoying the Cornish coastline. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I felt hopeful. Hard work will pay off, I thought.

I wish I could tell you that it was worth it, that my dream is about to come true.

I can’t.

My agent couldn’t find a publisher for my first book. OK. I wrote another. She loved the second one, she said. She made me feel I was going to make it in the big wide world. I didn’t. She couldn’t find anyone who thought my novel about the sixties worth investing in. People said the writing was good, but… I wrote a third novel, set in the fifties. Not what people wanted to read about. Not going to be what anyone wants. Not the sort of book that will be in Waterstones. Not ever.

Now I have no agent.

I am back at square one. It’s not a lonely place. I know others who have had the same experience. I am not angry, just disappointed. And sad, too, of course.

Stick with me, kids. I’m finishing a non-fiction book very shortly, and I’m going to start writing a novel for children.

Am I going to get there in the end?  I don’t know any more, but I’m going to give it my best shot.

I was cheered recently when I read on Twitter that my flash fiction Kirianna had made the list of finalists in the Storgy competition. It is to be published in a paperback called Exit Earth. I felt a faint glimmer of hope.

The future may well be bright.

Don’t give up, writers. Our time will come!

Frog: Today I am smelling the roses.

SCARLET LILY BEETLES OF THE WRITING WORLD

Scarlet lily beetles are beautiful. They are also a menace. They treat lily leaves like a feast nurtured especially for them. Their larvae have orange bodies and black heads, but you don’t get to see much of these cheeky little fellows, because they hide in a blob of their own excrement, and munch with incredible speed.

Now, if a writer has you gripped in the pages of their book and she mentions lily beetle larvae attacking the roses, you stop. You frown. ‘That’s not right, is it?’ you think. You reread the passage to make sure you haven’t misunderstood. Then you realise. The writer hasn’t checked the facts. You’ve been distracted from the plot, and you may feel disappointed, too.

So, resolution number one:

If we’re not sure of our facts, let’s check them with the experts. For example, let’s go to the RHS website for advice on plants, and the RSPB for facts about birds. Etcetera.

The faithful Wikipedia, whose photograph is reproduced above, says

‘The lily beetle belongs to the order Coleoptera, and the family Chrysomelidae, the leaf beetles. The adult lily beetle is about 6 to 9 mm in length, with relatively long legs and antennae. Its elytra (harder forewings) are bright scarlet and shiny. Its underside, legs, eyes, antennae and head are all black. It has large eyes, a slim thorax, and a wide abdomen. Each antenna is made up of 11 segments. The eyes are notched and there are two grooves on the thorax.’

All totally riveting, but… if my character was a lily beetle, would I need to give so much information at once? I think not. I would expect eyes glazing over at the least, never mind closing my book, and my reader vowing never to read another of my stories.

It’s the same with descriptions. A couple of well-chosen details can make a character totally believable, or a setting completely real. Readers have broad imaginations, and are willing to fill in details for themselves.

So, resolution number two:

Let’s try to remember that less is more.

For those interested, Wikipedia says:

‘This lily beetle may be confused with the cardinal beetle (Pyrochroa serraticornis), which also has red elytra and a black underside. The wing cases of the lily leaf beetle are dimpled and are shinier and more rounded than those of the cardinal beetle, which are relatively dull, and narrower, flatter, and more elongated. The cardinal beetle also has comb-like antennae. The lily leaf beetle is herbivorous, while the cardinal beetle preys on insects.’ 

When we write a story, let’s try not to confuse the reader by introducing characters that are similar, but not the same. I read a children’s novel recently where groups of names were so similar – very short and starting with the same letter – I could scarcely keep up with them. OK, I know children have young, fast-moving thought-processes, but I thought that several young readers at any one time may have ended up feeling their brains had been invaded by identical aliens.

So, resolution number three:

Let’s try to make our characters distinct individuals, with minds, characters, and names that cannot be confused with anyone else in their world.

Unless they happen to be identical twins of course. That’s a different story!

 

FROG: (Scanning for lily beetles) 

I’m sure they must be edible. There’s only one way to find out.

DEADHEADING YOUR DAFFODILS

I’ve been thinking about some of the mistakes I’ve made in the past (and probably will again), so here is my list of gardening tips for writers. Tried and tested you may be sure.

Weeding

Take out words that threaten to overpower a whole sentence. We know dandelions are pretty, but they don’t belong on your lawn. Ask yourself. There may be a place for excessively flowery language, but is it really here?

Pruning

Sometimes necessary for the story’s survival in a harsh world. Edit your work, looking carefully at sentences, phrases, and words. Reread your work several times before sending it off. Out loud at least once.

Planting

Decide carefully where to place your lovely new plants. Give your story the best chance to thrive by considering the best publication or competition for it. Women’s Weekly? Gardener’s World? A literary magazine? A competition?

Cuttings

Stuck for ideas? Go back to your notebook and review ideas and clippings. There will be things in there that you’ve forgotten about. Maybe the very idea you need right now.

Decide how to deal with unwanted pests

Namely, people who say you’re wasting your time. People who want you to change the ending and you think that will wreck the whole piece. People who give you negative criticism without considering your feelings and/or without saying something positive about the piece in question.

Containers

Keep a list of where you send your work, with the date. Note any successes and definitely celebrate these thrice over!

 

 

 

Frog: (through gritted teeth)

It’s very prickly up here, and I feel as if I’m about to be pruned myself.

 

YES, YOU CAN BLOG

I have the March edition of Writing Magazine open on my desk. I’m looking at the Subscriber Spotlight section, where authors tell us about their latest books. I’ve selected the ones with an up-to-date website and posed a couple of questions:

Do they blog? If yes, what do they blog about, and how often?

It’s well worth reading each of the blogs, with your writer’s hat on.

What do you like best about each blog? Could yours be as good as these?

FAMILY HISTORY

The heroine of Wendy Percival’s three books is a ‘genealogy sleuth’. Wendy blogs monthly about her family history and how it influences her writing. This is definitely interesting and inspiring for people who are investigating their own ancestry.

https://familyhistorysecrets.blogspot.co.uk/

ENTLEBUCHER MOUNTAIN DOGS AND NEW YORK ORPHANS

Rosemary J Kind’s latest novel, New York Orphan, is historical fiction. There’s a tremendous enthusiasm in the way she writes her monthly blog, which keeps readers up to date with her life as a writer.

http://rjkind.co.uk/wp/me-and-my-writing/

Rosemary also writes an empathetic, caring, and humorous blog on behalf of her wonderful companions, a tribe of Entlebucher Mountain dogs. She has written daily (missing once, unavoidably) since January 2006, on behalf of Alfie and co. This is described as Alfie’s Diary – dog enough not to be human, human enough to be a pet.

http://alfiedog.me.uk/

The Complete Entlebucher Mountain Dog Book by Rosemary J Kind was launched on 14th January 2018.

 

REVIEWING CRIME NOVELS

Rachel Sargeant introduces us to her latest psychological thriller, The Perfect Neighbours, in WM’s Subscriber Spotlight. In her 31st January blog she posts her Goodreads reviews of the four crime novels she had read during the month. This is interesting for readers of crime, and it offers some publicity to the authors. There was no easy way to access past blogs, which may be a point of consideration if you are thinking of setting up a blog of your own.

http://www.rachelsargeant.co.uk/blog/

A POET WHO GIVES ADVICE

Maria Stephenson’s debut collection of poems is celebrated in Subscriber Spotlight. A creative writing teacher, Marie blogs with advice for writers, and she has also written a six-part series, ‘Why Stay for So Long?’ She blogs several times a month, encouraging others. For example, on 22nd January, her blog was called ‘The Five Stages of Writing, Re-Writing and Editing’, which many fellow-writers would be delighted to read.

https://mariastephenson.com/blog

INSPIRING PHOTOGRAPHS

‘Help! I’m a New Mum!’ is a book of ‘honest shouts and whispers to God about all things baby – from labour to love, from panic to peace, from smells to smiles.’ Pam blogs regularly, four times a month. A positive attitude and Christian theme of trust in God runs through her work. Do visit Pam’s photographer’s gallery, which contains beautiful, uplifting images.

https://pampointer.wordpress.com/

FORMER POLICEMAN

Jonathan Hastings is a former policeman with several novels to his credit. His latest book, Active, is published under the name Dan Hastings. He has a section on his website entitled NEWS/BLOG where you can keep up to date with his books and his achievements.

https://www.jonathannicholas.org.uk/news-blog/

Feeling inspired?

Dear Reader, let me know if you’ve set up a blog recently, and I’ll be glad to pop by and say hello.

After all, it’s the readers who make a blogger’s life worthwhile.

 

Frog: (Timidly)

Excuse me. That Entlebucher isn’t hungry, is he?

 

 

 

DANICA’S BOOK BLOG

Katya: I’ve never ever heard anything so mad. You, write a blog? Don’t make me laugh.

Danica: Don’t mock, Kat. Now I’ve published my book, I have to get my name out there.

Katya: Out where?

Danica: In the world, of course.

Katya: OK, so what’s this here blog going to be about?

Danica: Not sure yet. I’ve looked for ideas online. I found a good site that gives suggestions.

Katya: Really? You mean there’s that kind of stuff out there? How much is it?

Danica: It’s free. Yes really. Take a look.

She taps her phone. Gets up 

https://optinmonster.com/50-blog-post-ideas-that-you-can-write-about-today/   

Katya: That’s something that is. Anything grab you?

Danica: Reads text. ‘What would you say to a younger version of yourself?’ I like that.

Katya:  A younger version of myself? Actually I’d say, ‘Yes please.’ She sighs.

Danica: Stoppit! How about, ‘What helpful books have you read recently?’

Katya: I like that, Dan. You read one about writing romantic fiction, didn’t you? When you were editing your novel.

Danica: Yes, and I wished I’d read it before I started.

Katya: There you are then.

Danica: There’s another page I liked, er, hang on… look, here it is. She taps her phone. Gets up

http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/the-12-dos-and-donts-of-writing-a-blog

Actually, half of me can’t wait to get started and the other half’s scared stiff.

Katya: Seems to me, it’s all very well, Dan, being enthusiastic. But, won’t it be time wasted? Castles in the air, and all that? What if no-one reads it?

Danica: You’ll read it, won’t you?

Katya: If I ‘ave to!

Danica: Cheeky beggar!

Katya: I don’t want to be depressing, but you haven’t sold many books yet, have you? Shouldn’t you wait until…

Danica: What? Until I’m famous? It’ll be too late then, Kat. Besides, I like writing, don’t I? And even if you and my mum are the only ones to read my stuff, well, it’s all good practice, isn’t it?

Katya: What are you going to blog about then? I’m not reading it if it’s boring.

Danica: It’s so refreshing to have such a supportive friend! Actually, it’s always your honesty that I appreciate. I’ll need a theme of some kind.

Katya: You mean like, sand art, or keeping gerbils.

Danica: I’m not exactly an expert in those fields, Kat. In fact, thinking about it, I’m not an expert at anything.

Katya: Oh, sorry, Dan. I didn’t mean to put a damper on it. Look, you can write a blog without being an expert. You take brilliant photos. You can use some of those to make your blog more, I don’t know, more inviting.

Danica: Not convinced. Yeah. I’ve thought about doing one on my favourite books. What do you think?

Katya: Sounds good to me. But before you go ahead, I’ll make us a coffee, you get those websites on-screen again, and we’ll do a bit of blue-sky thinking! You never know, you might even convince me to start a blog of my own.

Frog: (Excitedly) 

Frog Blog. What a title, eh? The little froglets will be hopping over each other in their excitement to read it. It’ll spark a lot of conversation, I know it will. (He glares) What do you mean, ‘Rhubarb, rhubarb!’