I’m in a weird place.

fullsizerenderI’m sort of in a weird place right now. I’ve been here before. Several times. I’m in the middle of a writing project that I’m hoping will become a book.

Starting a book is pretty easy in my experience. I become taken with an idea, a concept or character, and I go hell for leather. I indulge in weeks and months of pleasurable writing. Exploratory writing. Toying with experimental scenes and styles.

And then, predictably, I start to feel a bit iffy and uncomfortable.

Here’s how it goes downhill.

My biggest mistakes have been a) Writing myself into a huge knot. The plot is so complicated, I can’t even begin to tease it out and find a way to resolve the conflict, or to bring the story to fruition. And b) I’ve had so much fun creating characters but neglected the narrative. I don’t quite know where to put these people or what happens to them.

Instead of working through these issues, I leave the writing aside for a little while. Oh no.

The tone, voice and architecture of the story I’ve lived with for so long begins to dissolve. Oh God.

The fictional world I’ve inhabited becomes like a dream I can only vaguely recall. This is bad.

I reread my work some weeks later, hoping to pick up where I’ve left off, but the writing seems inauthentic and strange. So, so bad.

Subsequent writing doesn’t knit with what’s gone before. All hope is lost.

I’m in a different mode. It wasn’t any good anyway. I suck.

I can’t let his happen again.

Writers encounter all manner of difficulties, particularly when working on something of a considerable length. These difficulties must be worked through. We mustn’t turn back.

Here’s what I’m doing to help me to get to a first draft.

I’ve set up a Snag List. It’s for tracking niggles as I write. When you’re writing a book, you will have hundreds of niggles. Potentially even thousands of niggles. All niggles are surmountable. Catch the niggles early, before they turn into…biggles. You can quote me on that.

I’m reminding myself that I have the power. I get to scrub the scene that doesn’t work. I get to ditch the character dragging the storyline. I keep a sort of ‘cutting room floor’ document where I paste descriptions and dialogue excerpts, just on the off chance that they slot in better elsewhere. It means that the somewhat extraneous work I’ve done isn’t necessarily wasted.

I’m reminding myself that writing a book is a project. It’s comparable to any other important project. And projects have setbacks: lack of resources (time, energy, cash), unrealistic expectations, and timelines. These are all hurdles that must be overcome and can be overcome.

To help me to feel like I’m approaching the finish line (although I know that there is so much work ahead), I’ve already written my final scene. It gives me a sense of reassurance that it’s there. It’s a psychological trick, but it makes me feel better.

I’ve learned from my mistakes. The discarded drafts of the half-written books of the past have taught me plenty. I figure out the plot before launching headlong into crisis and crescendo. I’ve quit generating unwieldy subplots (my weakness). And I try not to excessively edit while still in the draft stage.

Finishing a book requires a particular mindset.You respect the work you’ve already created. You fix what isn’t working. You don’t leave things undone. 

Every day I’m getting closer to the end. It may not be today. It may not be tomorrow. But some day, I will finish the dang book.

PLUS: Why not read my terrifying novella, The Diary of Natalya Zlota, now available on Amazon!

People are saying, “The author captures you by letting you find things to identify with, and she unfolds details in perfect time…Smooth and disciplined, a pleasure to read! Perfect for a journey. I would love to read more.Buy it now!

Why I paid $1.80 for three photographs of total strangers

strangersLook at these old photographs. They’re the kinds of photographs you can imagine adorning a mantelpiece or bedside locker. They’re the kind of photographs that people keep in memory boxes, or tucked into wallets.

A stern looking couple by a lakeside, I’m guessing 1930’s or earlier.

An adoring daddy with his cute chubby-cheeked son, I’m guessing late 1940’s or 1950’s.

An attentive mother with her daughter, playing in the grass in summertime, I’m guessing late 1950’s or early 1960’s.

These people are all strangers to me. I don’t know their names, or where they lived, or what they did. I found these photographs in a bin in an antiques store in Brooklyn, and bought them for about 60c apiece. The bin was crammed with thousands and thousands of photographs just like these. Photographs taken at Christmas, in nightclubs, around the dinner table, and on the first day of school.

Admittedly, it’s weird to pay money for the photographs of total strangers. But I felt a connection to these photographs, compelled to take them with me. They serve as a reminder of the transience of our lives, lives that are made up of thousands of moments just like these. Moments that mattered in the lives of these people.

One day, we will all move on. And one day, your photographs might find their way into a bin in an antiques store. Shiver.

PLUS: Why not read my terrifying novella, The Diary of Natalya Zlota, now available on Amazon!

People are saying, “The author captures you by letting you find things to identify with, and she unfolds details in perfect time…Smooth and disciplined, a pleasure to read! Perfect for a journey. I would love to read more.Buy it now!

Review: ‘Sleep No More’, experiential theatre in New York City

img_4275I’ve been fortunate enough to have visited New York several times, and have ticked off many popular tourist experiences on my travel itinerary. In planning a recent trip, I decided to shake it up and pursue a trip that was more alternative than any I’ve had in the past. I’m a person who gets a kick out of being ever-so-slightly frightened, and is interested in unusual, strange experiences (I love to be purposely vague), and so I booked tickets for me and my friend Kam to visit the McKittrick Hotel in Chelsea for Sleep No More, an immersive theatre show produced by Punchdrunk Theatre.

It was sensational.

Sleep No More is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, set in the 1930’s, and without dialogue. It’s a style of theatre known as ‘promenade theatre’ that allows the attendees to wander about at their own pace. I don’t want to give too much away, because I very much urge all of you to go and see it for yourselves, but here’s a little about what I experienced.

Upon checking in to the vintage “hotel”, attendees were required to don white beaked masks, instructed that we were not to speak to one another, and were shuffled into an old elevator. The elevator stopped at the first floor, and my friend Kam was pushed out, whereupon the elevator doors closed and everyone else, myself included, was taken to another floor! I thought Ah shit, assuming that it wouldn’t be as much fun without my friend. Much as Kam is awesome, it was a more immersive and stimulating experience spent alone. Upon exiting the elevator, the masked audience members scatter away, each embarking on their own individual psychological trip. The surreality of the set-pieces, combined with the eeriest, most unsettling music and sounds that reverberated throughout the building (much of it Hitchock-ian), generated a delicious anxiety and foreboding! I found myself walking through a graveyard at night, a lunatic asylum, an old-fashioned detective’s agency, a sinister undertaker’s, in addition to other nightmarish rooms and freakish landscapes. Audience members may choose to follow specific actors if they so wish – each actor has a compelling role to play across several locations – or you may choose to wander the floors of the McKittrick Hotel by yourself (if this is your preference, you will still encounter many ghastly and compelling people and places). Suddenly – a bar room brawl. Suddenly – a man in a white vest storms into a room with blood smeared up to his elbows. Suddenly – an elegant, delicate ballroom performance. Everywhere you turn there are curious incidents, dalliances, and passionate (silent) performances. A woman in a glamorous red dress snarls and sweeps out of the room, the masked audience runs after her to see what she’s going to do next.

It’s an entrancing, dream-like experience. You feel that you are an invisible presence in the lives of real people. Your fellow audience members become shadow-like. It’s the feeling akin to I just woke up from the weirdest dream, and it felt so real (and that’s a cool feeling – or is it just me?)

I honestly lost all sense of time. I thought I’d spent an hour and half in the McKittrick Hotel, but in reality I had spent two and a half hours inside, just exploring and watching. My friend Kam and I found one another three hours after our separation, whereupon I was half-hysterical and drinking absinthe in the Manderley Bar. And that’s sort of out of character. I was buzzing and exhilarated and it was worth every cent.

Tips:

  1. This is not for the faint of heart. If you can’t make it through the opening credits of a horror movie, this experience is not for you.
  2. Don’t drink too much of any kind of liquid before you enter into the hotel. You don’t want to have to try and find a restroom in the middle of the experience.
  3. You will not be talking to your friends once the experience commences, and will likely exit the show by yourself, so make plans to reassemble in the bar or somewhere close to the McKittrick Hotel.
  4. Your face will sweat underneath the mask, so don’t wear too much makeup.
  5. Wear comfortable shoes. You’ll be walking up and down lots of stairwells, wandering on some uneven surfaces, and it’s pretty dark, so leave your high heels at home. You can also check in any coats or bags at the entrance.

You can purchase tickets for Sleep No More at SleepNoMore.com

PLUS: Why not read my terrifying novella, The Diary of Natalya Zlota, now available on Amazon!

People are saying, “The author captures you by letting you find things to identify with, and she unfolds details in perfect time…Smooth and disciplined, a pleasure to read! Perfect for a journey. I would love to read more.Buy it now!

 

Reading List: Books about Female Friendship (and some books about women in groups)

This year, I’m looking at female friendships under oppression as an aspect of a literary criticism assignment for my Masters in Creative Writing at Oxford University. There aren’t very many literary books with positive female friendships forming a primary narrative. Female friendship, whether positive or negative, is an altogether unlikely subject matter in literature. I had to scour the internet to piece together a reading list, and once I’d gathered all of the books, I really had mixed feelings about those books I’d sourced and went on to read. Depictions of female friendships and female peer relationships penned by women authors are very often a landscape of jealousy, competitiveness, and betrayal. Hey, I get it. Readers want intrigue, drama, crisis. But it seems as though the conflict in novels dealing with female friendship always arises from within the friendship. Comparatively, male friendships fare rather well in literature, and the conflict comes from forces outside the friendship. Consider Frodo and Sam, Theo and Boris, Harry and Ron (okay so that’s not literature so much), Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, amongst many others. Hm.

I’m not sure that the female friendship has ever been honoured very effectively in the fiction novel. The closest I’ve come to a good and satisfying portrayal of female friendship is in the book My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. And I did not love that novel.

Vera Brittain wrote, “From the days of Homer the friendships of men have enjoyed glory and acclamation, but the friendships of women, in spite of Ruth and Naomi, have usually been not merely unsung, but mocked, belittled and falsely interpreted. I hope that Winifred’s story may do something to destroy these tarnished reputations and show its readers that loyalty and affection between women is a noble relationship which far from impoverishing, actually enhances the love of a girl for her lover, of a wife for her husband, of a mother for her children.” (Hence, Testament of Friendship, all about a great and long-lasting friendship with the writer Winifred Holtby. More details in the Reading List below.)

Introductory Reading List of Books about Women’s Friendships

TLDR? Here’s the Goodreads List I’ve compiled featuring all the books (and please add your own.)

(Note: I don’t really do Classics)

First up is a non-fiction book that’s rather archaic, yet exceedingly poignant. Testament of Friendship: The Story of Winifred Holtby by Vera Brittain. The book was first published in 1940. Winifred passed away of Bright’s Disease when she was just thirty seven, and Vera had admired her friend so very much that she composed this book in her memory. Brittain lost her fiancé and her brother in the First World War, and her friendship with Winifred helped her to cope with the overwhelming loss. Brittain writes so eloquently on the subject of her friendship with Winifred. [Sidenote: Do we ever reflect on our friendships until they are gone from us? It is often in its absence that we come to recognise the glory of a friendship and see it as being significant, life-changing, a high point of one’s life.] Their friendship becomes romanticised in the novel, but not in a saccharine way. [And why shouldn’t friendship be romanticised, as an acknowledgement of its beauty and importance?] Here’s a lovely rendering of Winifred’s personality as depicted by Brittain:

Winifred had an infallible consciousness of the other person’s standpoint; usually she put her friends’ wishes first and her own second. When she wrote letters she invariably began by referring to her correspondents’ interests and problems. If she answered the telephone she always replied, however disastrously the call had interrupted her, as though the speaker at the other end were the one person whom she wanted to hear. In conversation she seldom discussed her own troubles; she encouraged other people to talk about theirs. She was never offended; she seemed to be quite without the apparatus of sensitive pride and vulnerable dignity used by the person who lacks confidence to defend his ego against a world of which he is deeply suspicious…She never committed the deadly sin of undermining another person’s self confidence, for she knew that self-confidence takes half a lifetime to build up but can be destroyed in half an hour…The result was a gracious magnanimity, a never-failing charity, which evoked love by the warmth and generosity of the love that it gave.

What’s particularly special about the book is that much of the friendship is catalogued through letters to-and-fro, a practise we’ve abandoned in the modern age. It was a time when people were careful about their communications with friends, noting the intricacies of their lives with consideration, and relaying complex feelings to one another in letters. It happens that both of the women were important writers themselves, heightening the readability of the book. I wonder how many women would relate to the following sentiment, as composed by Winifred to Brittain:

‘Babies are a nuisance, of course,’ she wrote me at the end of 1926 when I was making up my mind to embark on a family. ‘But  so does everything seem to be that is worth while – husbands and books and committees and being loved and everything. We have to choose between barren ease and rich unrest – or rather, one does not choose. If I were you, I would be rich. Even if it ultimately kills you, you’ll have been alive and we all have to die, even those who have never lived.’

Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood. A formative friendship helps us to understand ourselves and to forge a sense of identity. It is through the feedback of these formative friendships that we come to understand ourselves. Our sense of identity may evolve and shift, and so the friend relationship may fulfil its need, and so dissolves. In Cat’s Eye, Elaine is haunted by a painful formative friendship she had with a girl called Cordelia, a friendship that became idolatrous, sycophantic.

As children, friendships help us to feel belonging and acceptance:

I want some friends, friends who will be girls. Girl friends. I know that these exist, having read about them in books, but I’ve never had any girl friends because I’ve never been in one place long enough. 

These early friendships can also bring to light any of our apparent defects, as in this excerpt from a scene where Carol, another friend, comes to visit:

Carol comes to my house and takes it all in—the unpainted walls, the wires dangling from the ceilings, the unfinished floors, the army cots—with incredulous glee. “This is where you sleep? ” she says. “This is where you eat? These are your clothes? ” Most of my clothes, which are not many in number, are pants and jersey tops. I have two dresses, one for summer and one for winter, and a tunic and a wool skirt, for school. I begin to suspect that more may be required.

The book is an unsettling series of painful recollections that could well resonate with women who’ve experienced cruelty in their early friendships. It’s not the easiest of reads, but is painted with an unfortunate accuracy.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. This book has been a literary sensation for its profound portrayal of the friendship of two young girls living in Naples in the 1950’s. It is a place where women are belittled and sidelined as the norm – their husbands, fathers and brothers wielding a great deal of influence over their destinies. Even mothers have little faith in their daughters, occasionally jealous of their achievements. Status is conferred through right marriage, church attendance, conformity, and behaving ‘as a woman should’. Elena and Lila struggle to improve their circumstances, facing a battle to be acknowledged for their precocity, and to satisfy their ambitions. These struggles introduce competition into the friendship, adding to the usual stressors of a girl’s adolescence. [I think Ferrante did a really good job with this one and she got a lot of things right. However, the writing style really irked me, and it seemed jagged and unfocused in parts. This could be down to the translation – the work was originally composed in Italian.] The book is one of a foursome known as the Neapolitan Quartet.

Sula by Toni Morrison. In Sula, Sula Peace is the charismatic friend, and Nel Wright is the observer/admirer. Sula is an escapist, more worldly and daring, whereas Nel has conformist tendencies. The friendship is magnetic and transcendent in childhood and adolescence, but becomes toxic in adulthood. As children, Sula and Nel were virtually interchangeable, save for Sula’s birthmark. The birthmark may have triggered in Sula a sense of differentiation, a feeling that she did not fit in, that shaped her personality. This is a very strange and powerful book about female friendship under oppression (racial prejudice, poverty). The novel demonstrates that the social constraints and unjust expectations placed upon females force them to deny their own personhood, and that of their friends, leading to friendship crises.

Here are some more books dealing with female friendships, groups of women, and collaboration between women:

The Girls by Emma Cline. 2016’s hit novel inspired by the The Family, the name given to Charles Manson’s followers, made up of a high percentage of impressionable female teenagers and young women. The book is a first person narrative from the perspective of a young girl, Evie, who becomes involved in a similar type of set-up, after becoming entranced by one of the older girls in the group, named Suzanne. (Suzanne has echoes of Cordelia in Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood).

Who Will Run The Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore.The book is a lot of fun, but is relatively superficial in addressing the theme of friendship, the author preferring to entertain than illuminate. [I ♥ Lorrie Moore’s short story collection Birds of America! She’s fantastic.]

The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark. The book reminds me more of a theatre script, as ‘ol Sparkie doesn’t delve very deeply into character. It does, however, feature a dramatic climax that is quite shocking.

On My To Read Shelf

I’ll update this post once I’ve completed them:

Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman

NW by Zadie Smith, and Swing Time by Zadie Smith

How Should A Person Be? by Sheila Heti

The Group by Mary McCarthy

The Power by Naomi Alderman

The Girls from Corona del Mar by Rufi Thorpe

Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett

Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey

The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien

[Comment below if you’ve come across a proper friendship literary novel featuring women, that isn’t Sex and the City. It would be really useful for my thesis! Thanks.]

PLUS: Why not read my terrifying novella, The Diary of Natalya Zlota, now available on Amazon!

People are saying, “The author captures you by letting you find things to identify with, and she unfolds details in perfect time…Smooth and disciplined, a pleasure to read! Perfect for a journey. I would love to read more.Buy it now!

 

Choosing Audiobooks: Some Things To Consider

They say the best stories are the ones you see on the radio. That is to say, when we hear a story, our imagination does the world building for us. I’ve been signed up to Audible for about a year now, and I’ve had a grand old time listening to a wide range of stories that have really captured my imagination, and enhanced my life overall (may as well be honest). The major advantage of audiobooks, IMO, is that you can listen when you’re on the move. They make long car journeys, or any sort of commute, tolerable, even enjoyable. If you’ve got physical work to do around the house, like organizing shelves or attacking a stack of laundry, listening to an audiobook makes the dreary task infinitely more pleasurable. [So pleasurable, in fact, that I listened to over 10,000 audiobook minutes in 2016. I got an email from Audible to let me know that I was one of their biggest listeners. Bit miffed I didn’t get a prize though.] And there’s really no excuse to be a TV loving couch potato anymore, now that audiobooks are available to us. You can saunter out for a two hour walk with Chelsea Handler, or Amy Schumer, or whoever your favourite comedian is (they’re all doing audiobooks now) in your ears. It’s like an auditory paradise, and it’s yours for the taking. If you’re tired of traffic updates, political debates that never seem to come to any conclusion, and radio jingles that make you want to chew your own face off, switch off that dial because there’s an audiobook out there waiting for you (entirely free from advertisements too! Sigh.)

If you’re new to audiobooks, or sort of ‘Oh, I don’t really know if that’s for me’ about the whole thing, here are some pointers for choosing the right audiobook for you:

  1. Choose something that is well paced, with a strong narrative thread. (These are often the books that are recommended through word of mouth, or described as ‘page turners’.) It’s primarily the plot that will keep you listening. Turgid tales with excessive, complex detail don’t translate well to audiobooks, because it’s simply too easy to lose your concentration. You’re likely to be carrying out other tasks while you’re listening, and if the story becomes heavy and morose, you’ll just tune out. (And you can’t just flick back a couple of pages to find your place, because this is not a book. Sure, you can re-start the chapter, or rewind a couple of minutes, but it’s not so easy to pick up where you left off.) My guilty pleasure is the true crime genre. I always want to know if they caught the killer, and how they went about it, and so I listen right to the end. You could try something by Ann Rule, America’s best known crime writer. You could consider audiobooks that are strung together by various anecdotes that work well on their own, such as those found in ‘The Best Advice I Ever Got’ by Katie Couric, ‘The Examined Life’ by Stephen Grosz, the personal essays of David Sedaris, such as ‘When You Are Engulfed In Flames’, and ‘If I Could Tell You Just One Thing’ by Richard Reed. It allows you to dip in and out of the audiobook, and not feel like you’re completely out of sync with a story.
  1. The narrator’s voice will make a big difference to your enjoyment of the audiobook, so make sure to listen to the audio sample provided before you make your purchase. My pet hate is a slow speaker. Oh God. I just wish they’d get on with it. (You can actually increase the speed of the narrator’s voice within the Audible app, but sometimes this sounds really awful.) There are plenty of well-known actors and public figures who’ve narrated audiobooks, and if you’re a fan of any of these individuals, you’re far more likely to commit to the story. People like Stephen Fry, Neil Patrick Harris, Joan Rivers, Leah Rimini, Jane Fonda, Lena Dunham, Mindy Kaling have all narrated their own autobiographies and/or novels written by other authors.
  1. The audiobook you choose is going to be your background noise for quite some time, so choose wisely. A story that gets into your head will have an impact on your mood and thoughts. img_4073If you’re having a rough time, you should think carefully about the kind of story that’s best for you right now. I listened to ‘Unbroken’ by Laura Hillenbrand, about the story of Louis Zamperini, a man who went to hell and back, and lived to tell the tale. This is an astonishing story of resilience, and the triumph of the human spirit. You’ll experience the anguish and the terror, and you’ll come out the other end of it feeling transformed. The right story can revitalize us. Non-fiction self development audiobooks have their value too. If you’re preparing for an interview or a situation that’s going to test you, ‘Presence’ by Amy Cuddy could be the perfect choice: it’s about rising to any occasion with confidence, and doing yourself justice in stressful situations.

I firmly recommend audiobooks. Audible does a 30 day free trial and you can cancel any time.

PLUS: Why not read my terrifying novella, The Diary of Natalya Zlota, now available on Amazon!

People are saying, “The author captures you by letting you find things to identify with, and she unfolds details in perfect time…Smooth and disciplined, a pleasure to read! Perfect for a journey. I would love to read more.” Buy it now!

 

 

 

You say you have nothing to write about? We’ll see about that.

“I just wouldn’t know where to start. I wouldn’t know what to write about.”

WHAT.

I’ve heard this so many times from people who profess to being really interested in writing something: a short story, a play, a novel. I try to hide my incredulity but… You. Have. Got. To. Be. Kidding. Everyone’s got a hundred stories in them – at least! Of course, stories do not always arrive to us in their full-form, ready to flow from our fair hand…more often than not, they begin with a central idea. The most obvious place to find an idea to write about is the great repository that is your memory bank. Think back over your life and write down your 10 Life Changing Incidents. Any one of those incidents could make for a scenario to write about. Consider the emotions you felt at that time, the twists and turns that took place, the Before and the After of the incident. [I’m sure things didn’t go as you expected them to. See how you can adapt the incident somewhat, change a few things around. Change the location, the circumstances of the person at the centre of it, raise the stakes. Ramp it up by choosing an alternate ending.]

thumb_img_2413_1024You can also make the most of any existing knowledge or experience you have had in environments that many people have never been exposed to. If you have worked in the medical field, as a member of the emergency services, in politics, in technology development, then your ability to depict certain types of people, places and scenarios will be advantageous.

You can also explore a pre-existing interest in archaeology, astronomy, criminal profiling, your country’s history etc. by reading up on these subjects and having them feature in your story. Doesn’t that sound like fun? (Research is so fun.)

An off-the-wall technique that’s worked well for me in the past is using word combinations as a first step; an example would be the novel I’m developing, called The Shadow Sister, where I took the words ‘shadow’ and ‘sister’ and contemplated what kind of concept might match with the word combination. In the end, I selected a concept related to human cloning. If you were to combine an adjective with a noun, or an adverb with a noun, what kinds of combinations might you come up with? This exercise is not intended as a method for coming up a title, just a starting point. Try to come up with a list of 10 Word Combinations, and choose the one that appeals to you the most.

You can also set aside some time to actively think up ideas. The generation of ideas can become habitual, if you want it to be. Shower time, time spent driving or housekeeping (seriously) are opportunities to set your mind to work. I’ve heard of a practice called ‘worry time’, where people set an alarm and carefully consider any worries they have in the minutes or hours before the alarm goes off, at which point they return to everyday mode. The same approach works with creativity. Make room for your creativity to flood in and you will be rewarded.

Finally, you must commit to writing down anything with potential: a snatch of conversation, a news story that captured your imagination, an odd dream. These are the weird little gems that come along every once in a while and they’re powerful and fleeting (oh so fleeting so you HAVE TO WRITE THEM DOWN). I normally tap these into the Notes on my iPhone because I tend to get my best ideas just as I’m about to fall asleep. (Sometimes I reread these little scraps the next day and they make absolutely no sense, but more often than not they’re incredibly useful.)

Once you’ve chosen an ‘idea’ – big or small – it’s fermentation time. Churn the idea over in your mind. Consider it from different angles. Who will be the participants? What happens to them? What’s the aesthetic, what’s the tone, what’s the tense, what’s the setting? Who is best placed to tell this story? Will you choose a first person narrative voice, third person or ‘omniscient’ narrator?

Also worth trying:

Reddit Writing Prompts

Write a List of 100

In the current age, we spend much of our time entertaining ourselves through watching, hearing or reading the creations of other people. Wouldn’t it be fun to have other people enjoy your ideas for a change? When it comes down to it, all you need to do is write one line. Follow it with another. And another. And keep going. Until you’re done. The sense of satisfaction you’ll feel once you’re finished is absolutely priceless.

I wish you luck.

PLUS: Why not read my terrifying novella, The Diary of Natalya Zlota, now available on Amazon!

People are saying, “The author captures you by letting you find things to identify with, and she unfolds details in perfect time…Smooth and disciplined, a pleasure to read! Perfect for a journey. I would love to read more.” Buy it now!

My Creative Hit List of 2016

I’m getting in early to carry out a Creative Round Up 2016 Hit List ClickBaity Endeavour. It goes without saying that 2016 had plenty of flaws. There’s no denying it. Too many horrifying, sad things happened that I won’t get into. I immersed myself in a lot of reading material and music during the year, because art helps me to escape and find solace. It is elevating and pure. *Leaky eye*. I find it’s helpful to end a year by listing what was positive about it, and that’s why I feel it’s important to reminisce about the art I’ve enjoyed. So I’ve gone and done it.

Books:

Disclaimer: Most of these weren’t published in 2016.
We Learn Nothing: Essays by Tim Kreider. Awesome, powerful and funny essays about human relationships.
The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale. A riveting tale that’s a proper page turner.
The Circle by Dave Eggers. The coolest premise, and ridiculously entertaining.
– A second attempt to finish The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (it’s much better the second time around actually) has failed, but I will get there, I swear.
The Bad Seed by William March. It’s about a psychotic child on the rampage and was written in 1954. Compelling, written simply and impactfully. A super read. I read it on my Kindle at night in bed and it was worth the migraines.
The Year of Living Danishly: My Twelve Months Unearthing the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country by Helen Russell. Insights into Denmark and why the people are so happy. It’s a lot about hygge, it’s a lot about open-mindedness and being progressive. Unsurprisingly.
Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey. Because there’s no right or wrong way to set about creating, just as long as it gets done.
The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman. A refreshing perspective on the forced positivity that’s infecting every discourse nowadays.
– I listened to some audiobooks too, ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ made for easy listening, but best of all was Stephen Grosz’s ‘The Examined Life’. It was a fantastic listen (can I say that, is that a thing that people say?) I use the Audible app which is money well spent for people who cannot tolerate silence (me). I tried to listen to The Secret History by Donna Tartt but it was just too long, and I already know the story inside out. What was I thinking? I also listened to lots of stuff from Ann Rule, America’s original true crime author.

[Most of my reading this year – unlisted here – was related to my Masters in Creative Writing, so I haven’t been reading purely for pleasure. RACKING SOBS. My summer thesis was about John McGahern’s management of female dialogue in his short stories, I’ll post about it some other time. In 2017, I’m looking at the nuances of female friendship in literature, a pretty wide subject with a great deal of reading.]

Music:

This album was divisive, but I loved it. Junk by M83. (It even became the writing soundtrack to a novel I’ve been working on, and I normally don’t listen to music as I write). Other musicians I’ve really appreciated this year are Andy Shauf and Thundercat, and Lady Gaga’s album Joanne really took me by surprise, I haven’t much cared for her avant-garde ways up to now, but songs like ‘Sinner’s Prayer’ really hit the mark for me. I also loved ‘Wolves’ from Kanye West, ‘Peace’ from Kenton Slash Demon, and ‘Catapult’ from Jack Savoretti. I took a deep dive into some old time crooners like Frank Sinatra (!) following on from a Netflix documentary I watched about his life, and ‘Angel Eyes’ and ‘In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning’ found their way onto my Spotify playlist. I don’t know if that’s cool or not but I don’t really care. They’re like lullabies for grown-ups, and grown-ups need lullabies too. Oh, and I had huge fun listening to Tame Impala ‘Let It Happen’ and ‘The Less I Know The Better’. I find their lyrics most amusing:

Someone said they left together
I ran out the door to get her
She was holding hands with Trevor
Not the greatest feeling ever
She said, “Pull yourself together
You should try your luck with Heather”
Then I heard they slept together
Oh, the less I know the better

Whatever happens in the year to come, here’s hoping that it brings us lots of great books and music to help keep us sane. This is the kind of stuff that helps make life worth living. Creators, you’ve got a very worthy job to do. Do carry on with it.

Good reasons to study Creative Writing

Good art often takes patience and determination. It can even be gruelling, maddening, and heartbreaking. When we neglect skill, we can toil for a lifetime and remain mediocre. People often quip that writing is one of those skills that is inherent. “You’ve either got it or you don’t.” Hmm. It’s true that people have inclinations and abilities in specific areas, but everyone has the potential to be better.

Successful and invested creators are in it for the long haul. They have a vision for how good their art can be, and they find ways to improve and evolve. Right now, I’m midway through a Masters in Creative Writing at Oxford University. Here are some of the benefits I’ve experienced in studying creative writing at postgraduate level.

1. I’ve explored my passion with like-minded people, enriching my writing – and my life – considerably.
2. I’ve found out what I am capable of when I rise to a challenge. Literary criticism? Sure! I guess i can do that now…!
3. I’ve surprised myself by writing poetry and dark comedy, turning my hand to genres I’ve never considered in the past. It’s exciting to explore new creative territory.
4. I’ve been inspired and moved by the writers I’ve met. We struggle and we celebrate together. Writing can be hard work and mutual support is invaluable.
5. I’ve gained discipline in my writerly practice in order to meet the demands of the programme. I know that this will stand to me.
6. I’ve identified my strengths and weaknesses and I’m more sharply tuned as to how to improve my work.
7. I’ve received valuable, high level feedback on my writing from esteemed tutors and well read fellow students.
8. I’ve been exposed to inspiring, experimental literature that I just wouldn’t have encountered otherwise.

A structured and mentored creative writing programme, such as the one I am involved in, can be a powerful and life-affirming experience.

Writing is precious to me. It drives me. With one life to live, we should throw ourselves in at the deep end as often as we can; the more we give to our passion, the higher the return.

PLUS: Why not read my terrifying novella, The Diary of Natalya Zlota, now available on Amazon!

People are saying, “The author captures you by letting you find things to identify with, and she unfolds details in perfect time…Smooth and disciplined, a pleasure to read! Perfect for a journey. I would love to read more.” Buy it now!

How I Gave Up Coffee Without Meaning To

Note: The word coffee will be referenced many times in this post. 

For one third of my adult life (ten years), I have relied on coffee as a pick-me-up, a concentration-enhancer, and mood booster. I had this idea that coffee ‘pulled me together’, assembling the working parts of my brain into a super slick mechanical instrument that would efficiently enable me to power through all the tasks I was required to perform on a given day. Every morning, I feverishly anticipated holding that hot little cup in my hand and breathing in the rich aroma of a fresh brew. I drank a coffee in the morning, and a coffee in the afternoon, but these were not your standard coffees. I heaped many tablespoons (teaspoons are for wimps) of the stuff into my cup, and the resulting coffee was very, very, strong indeed. So much so, that I could only take small sips at a time, because the taste was so bitter. But I kept heaping that stuff into the cup. If I didn’t have time to step away from my desk and make a fresh one, I would happily drink it cold. I won’t deny that coffee was helpful in increasing my ability to concentrate. When I had work to do, coffee assisted me in pouncing on top of the task at hand. And having a coffee is very much intertwined with the working world; we drink coffee to look busy, we drink coffee as we bond with our colleagues, we drink coffee as a welcome relief from a task that is mentally strenuous. Those are all good things. And coffee meant even more than that to me. Coffee time was a ritual escape from the flurry of daily activity that is so much a part of modern life. Plus, I’m not much of a drinker, so my idea of good old-fashioned bonding time with a friend was to meet for a coffee.

So, why have I stopped drinking it?

On a handful of occasions, I’ve made myself quite ill as a result of drinking too much coffee. Recently, it happened again. I organised a hen party for my best friend, well-known Galway milliner Mary White, and we went for a delicious Afternoon Tea. I’d just arrived after a lengthy journey in a hot car, and was feeling pretty groggy, so I ordered a large cappuccino with an extra shot. It revved me right up, and I promptly ordered the same again. That, combined with platefuls of sugar-doused treats, ushered me into a semi-transcendent state during which I felt like I was having an out of body experience. I also had trouble feeling my own arms. (This was after I’d polished off two scones, several macarons, and multiple slivers of tasty sandwiches). Later that night, as I lay in my bed, I experienced a heightened anxiety, the likes of which I have never experienced before. I was wired and miserable, my heart was thumping erratically in my chest, and the horridness lasted for about forty-five minutes.

I like to pride myself on taking reasonably good care of my health, but this was unjustifiable. I told myself that it was really unhealthy and unnatural to feel this way. After that night, I felt a physical reaction every time I passed a coffee shop, or smelled coffee, or saw someone enjoying a coffee. My body said nope, nope, nope. My stomach seized up, and said nope, nope, nope. Even when my mind said, “Oh, wouldn’t it be nice to go and take a break now and have a coffee?” my entire system said nope, nope, nope. The days passed, and then the weeks passed, and now there’s a powerful bodily aversion to the bean that is just not letting go. When people told me they’d given up coffee, I was semi-envious, as I assumed I would be unable to do the same thing. Sometimes you have to have a really bad experience with your substance of choice before you are ready to walk away from it, and before your body intervenes and says nope, nope, nope.

What’s different now? I definitely feel different. This sounds very alternative, but I believe my energy is different now. Instead of experiencing peaks and lulls of energy, my energy level is more stable throughout the day. I feel that life is moving more slowly, though of course that’s not the case. Instead of the pointed ability to concentrate that you gain with coffee, I feel a more ‘rounded consideration’ of matters at hand, if that makes sense. And my day is not punctuated with the urgency of needing to run for coffee. I’m chilled out. Surprisingly, I had no physical symptoms of caffeine withdrawal. I hope this is a permanent change, and I feel that it is. At the very least, I have experienced an extended phase without coffee, something that hasn’t happened since I was a teenager. If I’m honest, however, I’d still be heaping that tablespoon if I hadn’t overdosed on caffeine that day in May.

PLUS: Why not read my terrifying novella, The Diary of Natalya Zlota, now available on Amazon!

People are saying, “The author captures you by letting you find things to identify with, and she unfolds details in perfect time…Smooth and disciplined, a pleasure to read! Perfect for a journey. I would love to read more.” Buy it now!

Poem: A Letter from Timothy by Frances Macken

Dear Maggie,

I hope this letter finds you well, but sense t’won’t be for long.
You won’t believe what’s happened here. You might as well sit down.
And have a glass of something strong and read no more until,
You’re sitting in a firm armchair, the one beside the ‘sill.
The crossing took six weeks for me, it felt like sixty-two.
This city full of dirt and smog is like a stinking stew.
I took a digs to stay a while, no better than a sty;
My body flattened out beneath the choking blackened sky.
I work all day to feed myself, stay on the straight and narrow,
But something bad has happened here and scares me to my marrow.
I had to write to let you know and ask you please to pray,
For this poor soul has seen the devil in the light of day.
See, something bad’s been followin’ me since I came off the boat,
I saw him coming on the plank, he didn’t walk but float.
A portent in a cloak of black, a tophat on his head,
You’d know just by the look of him that he was very dead.
I daren’t say the name aloud, although I know I’ve read it,
The ghost of he who goes to sea, the man that they call Pettit.
A lonely spook whose fate is naught but crossing o’er and back,
He’s doomed to spend his time on boats and scare the living slack.
They say he rarely steps ashore and if he ever will,
He’s found a fellow traveller for whom he won’t be still.
They say that Pettit comes to those who’re sick with thoughts of home,
Who dream of mist and mossy bog and meadows made to roam.
I think he means to follow me until my end of days,
And I would sooner be at home than in this concrete maze.
The only cure, from what I’ve read, is turn upon your heel,
Go back to where you came from quick, before your fate is seal’d.
Oh sister, I am asking now if you would sell the farm,
And send me all the money made before I come to harm.
My body aches, I cannot sleep, the stranger’s in the room,
I daren’t blow the candle out and lie here in the gloom.
I need a ticket home at once, we really can’t delay.
I have a palsy, and a rash, my hair is turning grey.
It’s no exaggeration Mags, I’d do the same for you.
We’ll start again – we’ll have a shop – or something well-to-do.
I saw you last in days of spring and now ‘tis only May
You shed your tears, you bid goodbye, and then you turned away.
Your kindness has no boundary, your face that of a saint,
Don’t think too long on quandary, don’t think of a complaint.
I hope you find it in your heart to send me on the cheque,
And pray to God that Pettit waits behind upon the deck.

Your loving brother,
Timothy.