Sunday, 14 May 2017

Dear Sinead...

I can see that ominous 3-0 looming in front of me... I can feel it in the creak of my right knee that wasn't there 10 years ago. Neither was this pesky line in my forehead or these silver, straggly hairs that keep emerging from my brown mop. In fact, there are a lot of changes that have occurred within me over the last decade, not just aesthetically. So I'm writing a letter to you, 19 year old Sinead, as you freak out over turning 20 (for god's sake, you were just a baby!) but I do have some advice for you...

Don't be afraid to let go!

Next time you're sitting at lunch in The Buttery and one of the girls suggests a night out in Tramco, don't start start debating with yourself whether you should go. Just go! Don't obsess over the fact that you can be shit company (you're usually not) or the fact that you don't want to get shit faced (so what? You love a dance!). Don't start lying about that assignment that needs to be started as an excuse (when everyone knows you'll be up typing 5,000 words with numb fingers four hours before it's due in).

You're 20 years old, living in an apartment with 3 lovely girls in Dublin city centre, it's your first taste of freedom away from the stability and monotony of Newbridge. You have a tight knit group of friends. You have the thrill of student life at your feet! 21s, Tramco, Q Bar, The Palace, Barcode... Taste it!

Yes, you are in a new routine, a new stage of life with different expectations. It's okay not to know how to behave but don't miss out on making some great memories because of uncertainty. The only person standing in your way is YOU so give yourself permission to loosen up, let go and enjoy life. Trust me, this acceptance will come but you only have a window of opportunity to maximise living in Dublin with an optional alarm in the morning. You will make amazing, hilarious, wonderful and some questionable memories but go ahead and make some more! Embrace the uncertainty of this stage of your life, don't run away from it!

You WILL be a good social worker!

So what if you chose social work because you weren't sure what else to put down on the CAO? So what if you don't have the social care/residential/youth work hours that other people have? So what if you haven't had ever worked with or even met a social worker before? Stop the endless comparisons! You chose the profession. You got the points. So let me be clear: you are just as valid and deserving as every other person sitting in that classroom with you. 

The confidence will come with experience. Your voice will come with practice. So will the language and the knowledge. You're a student, you're not supposed to know everything! And don't worry about those who pretend they do, they're wracked with anxiety every bit as much as you are (maybe even more so). The language of any social work course will often be dominated by a discourse of human rights, personal autonomy and social justice. You'll pick it up, don't sweat. Let yourself be judged by your examiners and placement supervisors, not your inner, critical voice. You know she only ever says one thing!

It's hard to believe now but you'll be in your supervisors' shoes one day, providing guidance, mentoring and advice to new students. You'll speak the language of the profession with a passion that you've developed over the years. You'll find comfort and challenges in the role. But most importantly you will realise that you are a good social worker, without the need for external validation.

Remember this the next time you cast your mind back to that blank CAO form and agonise over why you didn't choose primary school teaching as your first option. Social work is the profession for you. Don't obsess. Just accept and trust your ability.

For God's Sake, take an interest in your appearance sooner...

I'll keep it brief because I truly could be here all day but trust me on the main learning points:

1. Get long layers through your hair and stop tying it in a pony tail.
2. When the hairdresser offers that copper tint in your hair scream no.
3. Discover skinny jeans before 2009.
4. Experiment with make up more; lipstick suits you, you'll always need under-eye concealer, primer is your miracle potion and don't give up on eyeliner so quickly!
5. Discover eyebrow threading before 2014.
6. Wear more sunscreen (but just a bit, you know, you still want a tan).

Write the book!

I'm saying this from a place of love and fondness but sweet Jesus, it's been in your head for over a decade. Stop arsing around. Turn off Friends/Sex and the City/ER/The Shield/Suits (repeat to fade). Stop redecorating your office. Don't buy so many cheesy wall hangings. Just bloody write it. So many hours have melted away watching mind numbing television when you could have been mastering the one talent you have that could potentially change your life. So what if you have a Friends quote for every scenario and you've nailed every obsure trivia Buzzfeed quiz; that means nothing. Write the book. You know it's a good story, otherwise it wouldn't still be in your head.

Let them go

Don't force relationships with people who aren't meant to be in your life. The important people in your life will stay there, as long as you put your share of effort in. The others will fade away, and guess what? That's okay! Not everyone likes you and you don't like everyone so stop forcing it and stop beating yourself up. You have absolutely no control over how others perceive you so why invest so much energy and worry into it? Let them go. You'll grow to realise just how important your values are in your life and you'll understand that it's important for you to share a value system with the people you want in your life. If people don't share your values, that's okay, don't judge but it's okay to let them go. You're going to spend a significant amount of time during this decade beating yourself up and making yourself feel bad over trivial things. You don't need someone else doing it to you too. If they leave a bad taste in your mouth, let them go. It doesn't make you a bad person. You'll survive (and they will too).

They're only thoughts

Here's the deal: you're going to get thoughts that pop into your head randomly. Sometimes they will scare you and sometimes you'll feel compelled to carry out actions to cancel out the thoughts. They will be overwhelming, they will feel endless and they will leave you feeling empty, frightened and hopeless. But remember, they are just thoughts. It is not an underlying sign that you are losing your mind or that you are going to die. It is just your mind giving you a bit of a hard time, but sure look, you just love doing that to yourself anyway, as we've discovered! Don't obsess.

When the thoughts come, just treat them like an unwanted visitor. Let them occupy your spare room but don't pay them any attention. Don't offer them breakfast and leave the heating off. Keep neutral. Don't let them see how much they bother you. Grit your teeth, keep your head up and let them stay as long as they like. Believe it or not, they will eventually get the message and head off but at that stage you won't even notice their absence because you've stopped focusing on them. Yes, it's really this easy!

Don't take Andrew for granted

Just don't!

Stop the comparisons

My one message overall to take into the next decade? Stop living your life from other peoples' perspectives. Don't compare yourself to everyone else. If something makes you unhappy then change it. But just be happy with the cards you've been given. You have your health, good family, friends, a job that you love and a hobby that excites and inspires you. Anything else is a bonus.
You will have a period in your 20s when you come to terms with your existence and the isolating nature of being alive. But don't let this frighten you. Embrace it. You are you and you will only ever be you so stop trying to change that. Live your life.

Signing off now until I see the big 4-0 in front of me...

Sinead

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Not Letting Go

Here's an interesting scenario: I spent the first 7 years of writing my novel wishing that I could finish it and endlessly dreaming about how much easier life would be with 90,000 words behind me. However as soon as I finished writing it earlier this year (and hit the elusive 90,000), I stopped writing it. Is that ironic? Or just plain idiotic?

Firstly to clarify, it hasn't been an entirely voluntary choice. I decided that this stage of my life (28, settled in my job, married, husband working away a lot, no babies yet) was the ideal time to begin a 2 year part time masters alongside my full-time job. Notice how I didn't factor my novel into this equation. I've quickly realised that, just like my wardrobe, in order to make room for new things in my life, I have had to remove other, less pressing issues. And just like my faded Zara skinny jeans, my novel has had to take a back step.

And I miss it so much. 

Absence makes the heart grow fonder. You don't know what you have until it's gone. You never miss the water until the well grows dry. Stephen Fry was irritatingly accurate in saying that "it's a cliche that most cliches are true".

Cliches aside, I do miss writing about David; I miss finding out more about him as a character, I miss travelling with him on the journey that he takes and (thankfully he's not real so I can say this guilt free) I miss thinking and writing about the heartbreak, pain and loss that he experiences within those 90,000 words hidden in the Word documents on my hard drive. I miss getting to know Alice and Lottie, two characters that have only recently come on this journey but they've wasted no time in setting up their respective stalls in my mind.

But David has been with me since day one. Let's not forget, I was still in college when he strolled into my mind, so I've known him a lot longer than many people in my life. 

I miss his voice in my head. Sure, we've had our ups and downs and the obligatory moments of doubt, frustration and irritation that characterises any long term relationship, but overall he's been a pretty consistent feature in my life over the last 8 years. Our relationship has been strengthened hugely in the last 4 years to the point that it's hard for me to go longer than a few hours without thinking about him.

The reality is that there is no off switch for my novel. It's always there, whether I like it or not and I usually do like it, but being unable to write due to time constraints or guilt that I really should be reading up about HR effectiveness and internal auditing within the HSE leads to huge frustration. And there's the fact that my main source of inspiration for ideas about everything novel related is inescapable.

Music is, and always has been, my main inspiration. Don't ask me why or how but my brain seems to respond particularly well to music, to the point that if I hear a song or a piece of music that strikes a chord (seriously no pun intended there) with me in some way, my mind will automatically begin to generate ideas for my novel using this piece of music as a backdrop. 

Some songs or pieces of music evoke something in me; don't try and explain or rationalise it, I've been trying to for 28 years and I still can't figure it out. It seems to be that as the music builds, so does my imagination and by the time it surges into the first chorus I've already daydreamed a scenario into my head which could involve anything ranging from a death to a dramatic confrontation or a tender moment between two characters that I could never have possibly imagined while sitting at my desk watching the flicking cursor. 

I can't count the number of times that I've been driving somewhere and a song will come on the radio (usually one that I know but haven't heard in years) and by the time the first verse is moving into the bridge I've become completely transfixed in the scene that's building and playing out in my head. As soon as the DJ annoyingly talks over the end of the song, I've already pulled in, whipped out my phone and begun downloading the song so I can repeatedly listen to it while the inspiration is still raw, thereby fine tuning the scene in my head and by the time I get home, my novel is already taking a new, more exciting shape (FYI there are 42 songs in my "Writing Playlist" in my iTunes that have been downloaded in this manner. Hmmm, maybe I actually can count the number of times that's happened so...). 

I'm not sure what I'd classify this ability as; I call it my writing tool because it's not special enough to be called a "gift" and it feels too innate to be called a "skill", but the point is that it never leaves me. Ever.  Every time I hear a particularly stirring or relevant piece of music, I will start to compulsively daydream and plot out scenes in my head, without much control or conscious input. I absolutely love that my mind lets me do this, no matter how low my mood or how stressed out I am. But what frustrates me is that at this point in my life, my mind is doing this more than ever but I simply don't have the time to get back to my desk and write. These ideas and scenes are merely filed away in the writing folder in my brain, tagged under the category "to be written down as soon as I finish the Masters and have some form of free time left". Right now that's looking like 2018...

I miss writing my novel so much. Even now, writing this blog is causing tremendous amounts of guilt because deep down I'm painfully aware that I should be writing that Economics assignment around externalities and property rights (lads, don't all volunteer to read it at once okay??). But even if I can't allocate time to writing my novel right now, the burn for it is still there. In fact it's stronger than ever. I think the fact that I miss David, Alice and Lottie so much is nothing but positive. And the fact that I still daydream to music spontaneously is something to cherish and hold, even if those scenes are parked for the moment. Combine this with the fact that my "treat" from a particularly rewarding study session (after I watch 4 episodes of Suits and eat half a packet of biscuits) is that I allow myself to listen to one of the 42 songs from the writing playlist and daydream about my book for a few minutes. 

For me, this is the biggest sign that this book is still one of the biggest aspects of my life right now. We're just taking things slowly. But it won't be like that forever. At the end of the day, if you love something, let it go. If it comes back to you, it's yours forever.

Ugh, sorry, those damn cliches!

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Losing the Spark


My novel and I did a sort of "Ross and Rachel" earlier this year and went on a break. In fact it wasn't just my novel, I took a break from writing in general. No new chapters, very little brainstorming, no new blog posts and occasional tweets (most of which were linked to GAA). It wasn't a deliberate decision by any means, in fact I had planned 2015 to be my year to finally commit to the book especially after I finished the first draft back in February (a feat I thought I would never achieve). But fast forward 7 months later and the word count remained starkly unchanged while my motivation had dipped to levels below zero.

I'll hold my hands up and admit that I'm hugely disappointed with myself. I had promised myself that I would commit to the book this year, especially given that I knew I would have a lot more free time due to circumstances in my personal life. I suddenly had all this time in the evenings to myself that I could devote to working on my second (maybe even third) drafts while constantly developing the timelines of books two and three of the trilogy. I could easily slot in two three hours each night following through on my writing and I worked out that in eight weeks, if I stuck to my plan, I could have edited the entire first draft and added in the five chapters that have been floating around my head for months. So basically, I had a great plan. And then life happened and it all fell apart.

I really hate sounding dramatic (being mundane, vanilla, fading into the background is much more my style) but the last few months have been extremely challenging and difficult. Throughout my life, even when I look as far back to my childhood, writing has always featured in some way (whether it was writing Babysitters Club-esque stories in primary school, scribbling funny poems to entertain my classmates in secondary school, plotting a Lord of the Rings style fantasy novel when I was supposed to be studying for my Junior Certificate and planing my current novel when I should be paying more attention in work) and it has always been my crutch during periods of difficulty. But it was the first thing to leave me this year when things went south.

Writing a novel, an achievement that had seemed so tantalisingly close in February suddenly seemed so far away. And it wasn't just writers block or a lack of inspiration. I just had no interest in writing anymore. I didn't want to write. That magnetic spark that had ignited within me when I first dreamt up the idea for my book and when I finished my first draft had vanished. And I didn't have any interest or energy in finding it again. And so my first draft was locked inside my brand new, sparkling laptop and my brainstorming book lay closed on my desk in my office, occasionally noticed by me as I walked across the landing each night heading to bed. But I never crossed the threshold. It sat there, forgotten about, a story wanting to be told but there was no forum for that to happen because I had given up.

But it turns out that those awful, inspirational, cliched quotes that people share on Facebook and Twitter have some grain of truth in them.

Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Time heals almost anything.

I finally found my spark again.

It came back in several ways but most prominent of all was the increase in my creativity. The closed notebook on my desk began to become gradually more appealing. The manic scrawls from the past few years seemed exciting again. My special Paperchase writing pen was back between my fingers. The blank pages initially appeared intimidating and frightening but one idea became a sentence. And the sentence turned into a paragraph which then became a page. Before I knew it I had several pages of brainstorming in front of me including an ending to my novel which I've sought for 7 years now and a new character who is crucial to the development of the story. I can't imagine my story without her now. Okay, it means I have to change my first draft and rewrite the majority of it, but that's good! That's what being a writer is about. And finally, finally, I feel like I am a writer again.

I do find it interesting that one central theme of my book revolves around second chances and rebirth (the main image is that of a Phoenix) so there is definitely some irony now that I have been given a second chance to discover my love of writing again and my flair for it. Hmmm, "been given" seems like too much a passive phrase; I certainly didn't sit around waiting to feel better. Let's just say that I have taken my second chance and grabbed it with both hands.

I've learned a lot about myself over the past few months. It's a relief to know that the creative spark is still alive inside me and I know not to fear if it goes away temporarily. I think I had somehow convinced myself that the writer within me was a fraud, a delusion of grandeur and that the last few months have been my peak. But I know that's not true. I am a writer. I had a blip. I'll probably have one again. But my novel has more potential than ever, my passion for writing is back and my motivation levels are back to normal levels (I still love a bitta procrastination).

Oh and I learned that those god awful cliched quotes have an occasional grain of truth to them but don't expect me to start sharing them on my Facebook and Twitter pages. The day I start to do that is the day that you can all start worrying about me!

Sunday, 22 February 2015

The Incredible Journey

Three weeks ago I did something that I believed I would never have the ability to do. Something that I fantasized about, daydreamed obsessively over but ultimately told myself I would never achieve. It was an unrealistic dream, one that the little voice in my head told me I would fail at. But three weeks ago I proved the voice wrong as I wrote those two magical little words at the end of my first draft: "The End".

I'm keen not to sound overly melodramatic but I can honestly say that that moment in my life provoked the most incredible sense of euphoria, one that I will never forget. There I sat in my poky little office on a gloomy Sunday night in a mundane little town while my husband watched the Superbowl downstairs. There was a lukewarm cup of team beside me and a half eaten chocolate bar. I was wearing tracksuit bottom and a hoodie with a blanket flanked around my shoulders. It appeared to be just another average Sunday night, yet such an ordinary setting ended up being the backdrop to the most extraordinary feeling that I have ever experienced.

Without meaning to sound too self-indulgent, I know that I've been fortunate enough to taste success in my life: I achieved the results I had hoped for in my Leaving Cert and was able to study my first choice course in Trinity. After four long years (and several existential crises wondering if I had made a disastrous choice in career) I graduated with an honours degree. I got a permanent job less than a year after graduating and 5 years later I still enjoy it. I found love very early in my life and we've already spent almost a decade together, a year of that married.

Overall, I know that my life so far hasn't been a failure and I've achieved a lot of things. And I was happy enough with that. But that incandescent feeling of invincibility that hit me as I typed those two words three weeks ago has been, and maybe will forever remain, one of the standout moments in my life.

It reminded me a bit of when I first came up with the idea for my novel. I say came up with, I didn't really. It just hit me (without meaning to sound too cliched, like a lightening bolt) from nowhere while I was in the shower and it popped into my head without warning. Queue frantic hair washing while I planned out the rest of the idea. I still vividly remember straightening my hair that night with shaking hands as my mind tried to keep track of the ideas that bounced around my skull.

Now I can look back with poignancy at that night as I look back at how excited I was. And I can smile at my naivety. The journey that I have taken with my novel from that night 6 years ago until the night three weeks ago has been long and multifaceted. But as Arthur Ashe said "success is a journey, not a destination".  There have been periods of the journey that have been immensely enjoyable but more often than not it has been painstakingly difficult. I have occasionally gone months without looking at it, almost forgetting its existence. Almost.

The plot itself has undergone many changes. It was originally intended to be a stand alone book but I swiftly discovered that the story could not be told within one book. Now it is a trilogy (or at least, I hope it will be).  The original plot had a very different story in mind for David but hindsight and reflection are two wonderful traits that I possess and I gradually realised that the story held more potential if I gave David a different role. And it took wings from there on.

The characters that strolled into my head six years ago have grown and developed so much and I wish I could give them some credit for that. They have kept me entertained for several writing sessions (and many daydreaming sessions between).

David himself has grown from a cliched, good looking, kind, thoughtful 27 year old (which let's face it, doesn't exist) into a complicated, tortured, courageous but slightly arrogant man with a huge battle to face. I also learned that David, while important on his own, is useless without his supporting cast. The major and minor characters in the story have each gone through their own journeys. I'm happy that my characters, for the most part, are believable and each has their own backstory, their own personal motivations and their own strengths and flaws. Particularly the antagonist to David's protagonist. S/he hadn't even entered my consciousness 6 years ago but now I couldn't imagine the story without them!

And finally, the other thing that has changed over the 6 years and throughout the journey has been, well, me. I think it's hard to devote 6 years of one's life to writing 90,000 + words and remain unchanged. Priorities have had to shift in my life, particularly my enjoyment of sitting down and relaxing after a long day at work. It's a luxury that I no longer afford myself (at least not every night). My discipline has improved and so has my motivation. I no longer (solely) depend on external motivation, I have had to rely on my own internal drive especially when I'm sitting at my desk feeling like the loneliest writer on the planet.

Identifying as an aspiring writer has been a key turning point. 6 years ago I would have been mortified to advise people that I was writing a book. Sure they'll all laugh at me. But now I don't mind telling people. I have to, particularly if I'm attending writing workshops or courses. And guess what, people don't laugh. Who'd have thought it?

My writing, as difficult as I find to accept it, has improved too. I've dropped the adverbs, honed my dialogue, avoided as many cliches as possible and learned how to write even when my head is empty. That's not to say my first draft is good - it's not! It needs a huge amount of work and I don't know if I'll ever be 100% happy with it. But I've done the impossible and actually finished it. Okay it's taken 6 years and will most likely require countless rewrites but I have finished it. I can proudly say the words I never thought I would say: "I've written a book."

Friday, 9 January 2015

Into the Darkness

I always thought that when I reached the 70,000 word mark on my book that I would know what to do, that the words would fly straight from my brain through my fingers and onto the keys. I assumed that the comfort and reassurance of having that much work behind me would only act as a positive - a reinforcement that I can do this. That I can write and, more importantly, finish a novel. But, as regularly happens when it comes to writing, I was proved wrong.

I reached this approximate wordcount of 70K over the Christmas break and instead of feeling relieved, encouraged and excited, I felt anxious, overwhelmed and uncertain. As I sat there at my desk, with a cup of tea to my left and a scented candle to my right, I stared at the MS word cursor as it blinked menacingly at me.

"Go on Sinead, I dare ya, I dare ya to write another word. Just one. No? Not even one? Oh, that's right, you can't, can you?"

The wordcount had increased gradually, but how was I to take reassurance from the fact that my manuscript was all over the place? And even worse, the realisation that only person who could possible correct it is me. As I realised just how lost I was amidst a sea of clunky words, chapters that were the wrong way around and irrelevant dialogue, I could feel the panic rising within me. So I did what I do best. I walked away.

The truth is, I was scared. Scared of many things. I was scared that my novel was too big a challenge, the storyline too implausible and the characters too flat. I was scared that much of my large wordcount needed to be edited and, worst of all, deleted. And I think I was scared at the enormity of this task. I am regularly reminded of how hard it is to write a novel, but sometimes it just hits me with the strength to knock the breath out of me. 

I'm afraid of many things: deep water, spiders hiding in my bedsheets, long-haul fligths and open toed shoes to name a few. But the experience of staring at my manuscript, feeling my control over it increasingly ebb further away was a different kind of panic than the type that I have experienced when I almost drowned in the sea off Crete or when our flight to Poland suddenly dropped in mid-air for several seconds. It was a more reflective, dare I say, existential sense of fear: Am I going to have to stop writing this? Have I made a terrible mistake? Have the last two years been a waste?

I may have stopped writing but my mind hadn't stopped working. If there's one thing I do well, it's thinking. Analysing. Reflecting. So I began to think about the art of writing and the power of imagination. And the act of creating.

At the opening night of Listowel Writers Week last year, Colm ToibĂ­n spoke about the art of creating something from nothing. That's what writing is - an idea, no matter what shape or form it takes, ultimately emerges from a place where it hadn't been before. Julia Cameron said that creativity - like human life itself - begins in darkness. 

The reality is that creation has to come from a place of nothing before it can become something. 

What adds weight to that is the fact that very little of what is around us is new: the Bible says that "there is nothing new under the sun".  So creation has to come from an unfamiliar place. From the darkness. 

Every writer, indeed every artist, poet, sculptor has to create something from nothing. They fill a space that was empty before. They persevere through the darkness when it is usually easier to give up, accept defeat and turn back towards the light.

I think I expected my path to grow brighter as I progressed along my journey. I didn't expect to need a torch when I got to the halfway point. I visualised a large road with street lamps on either side, burning brightly as I reached the finish line. But in reality, there was nothing. Just a dark road with no end in sight and no light behind to guide me either.

But that's the challenge. Sometimes you have to trust your footing, feel around and embrace the blackness. And we all know that if you sit it out long enough (without turning the lights on), our eyes eventually adjust to the darkness. And I think that can be enough to take the next step forward. It helped me get to 71K so that's enough evidence for me.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

50,000 mark!

I have for you one of life's great ponderous questions. Somewhat rhetorical, somewhat thought-provoking, somewhat unanswerable. It's a real head-scratcher. Ready to hear it?

Do you want the good news or the bad news first?

You don't actually get a choice because I'm going to tell you the good news first, I've just heard that opening with a question is a good way to hook readers in. Hopefully you're still reading...

Well the good news is that I completed NaNoWriMo (and succeeded in writing 50,000 words in the month of November). This was a feat that I really didn't think I could achieve so I was pleasantly surprised that I was able to make it, even if writing the last 5,000 words was more painful than when I jammed a paper clip underneath my fingernail last week in work... The point is, I did it! I got my word count to a point above 50,000, something that I believed I could never, ever, ever do.

But unfortunately the laws of physics relate to writing too (surprisingly enough) and we all know that what goes up must come down, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction... Essentially, I discovered that making huge progress with my wordcount doesn't automatically equate to simultaneous progress with my plot line and character development.

What I mean is that I thought that by the time I reached 50,000 words I would have been a lot further along with my storyline. I always estimated (very naively, I now understand) that my novel would be approximately 80-90,000 words when I finished it. Therefore it makes sense that by the time I reached 50K words, I assumed that I would have been over the halfway point. But I'm not. I'm not even close to halfway. In fact, there are large parts of my novel that I left out in my haste to reach 50K. This means that I will have to go back and rewrite what I already have written, add in more chapters thus bumping up my wordcount even further and pushing me even further away from my ending!

Do I sound like I'm catastrophising? Sorry I tend do that, which in turn doesn't help with my writing. When I get stressed, confused or worried I tend to put my head in the sand and this is particularly true when it comes to writing. Why do you think it took me almost six years to sit down and finally make a decent attempt at writing my book?

So while I finished NaNo, made it to 50K and felt suitably smug for about a weekend, I then did what I do best: I panicked at the realisation that writing the book is turning out to be a lot harder than I thought (who'd have thought it?) and I avoided my novel. In fact, I've pretty much avoided it ever since. 

But I've pulled my head out of the sand this weekend, even if it did take a few weeks, and I've managed to start writing again. Knowing that I have written 50,000 words means that I can do it again and make it to 100,000. And who knows, maybe I'll have to write another 50,000 after that before I get to write those two incredible words "The End", but I can do it. My book could be 300,000 words long when I finish the first draft (although I hope it won't be) but that's what first drafts are for. They're there to edit, revise and hone down until the finest part of the story is left. 

So I may not have finished my book during NaNo but I'm so much further than I ever thought I would be!

Saturday, 15 November 2014

NaNoWriMo

Write your novel in a month!
The world needs your novel!
50,000 words is only 1,667 words per day!

These are the taglines and phrases that the NaNoWriMo twitter page shouted at me for the month of October. In fact they have shouted them at me for the last three Octobers but this was the first time I actually listened (for future reference, if you ask me to do something, fourth time is clearly a charm with me).

I know that I'm an advertiser's/marketer's dream. I buy things because the media tells me that I need them. If I see two chocolate bars for a euro beside the cash register, you know I'm gonna be all over that. And as for the half price carpet cleaner (which I have yet to take the plastic off) - it's a given that it goes in the trolley. I have accumulated several items over the years that I have not and will never use (the steam mop, the deep fat fryer, the beanbag chair, the gorgeous silver quill sitting on my desk now judging me...) and so it goes without saying that NaNoWriMo, like most campaigns, was eventually going to pull me in.

So I signed up for an account, planned out the 50,000 words that I would write and began on the 1st of November. I'm just at the halfway point of NaNo as I type and the results have been... surprising to say the least. Writing a minimum of 1,667 words every day can be tricky (I know, who'd have thought it??) and it's taken me a while to view every word written as an achievement. I've learned a lot in the last 15 days, both about myself and about writing and I thought it might be a good time to share them.

Don't write in your pyjamas:

Forgive me for generalising but when one wakes up at 5am (or is woken up by your annoyingly-too-early-to-function alarm clock) it's tempting to stay in your PJ's until it's absolutely necessary to get dressed. It's totally understandable - you're cold and tired and annoyed. Likewise, at nighttime after a hot shower, you're going to get into your warm fuzzy Penney's PJs and snuggle up for the night. You can still write though, right? Wrong!

If you're doing NaNoWriMo - don't be seduced by your PJ's, not matter how appealing they look! I've quickly learned if you're dressed to laze around and sleep, you're going to laze around and sleep. Or at least you're going to want to. It's hard to be productive in PJ's, unless your goal is to sit around and do nothing. So put on some proper clothes (even if they're just your manky 15 year old tracksuit bottoms - a particular writing favourite of mine) and be productive.

5am starts never get any easier...

Again, this may be surprising but they don't. I commute a reasonably long distance to work with about 40,000 other road users every morning so I'm used to early starts at 6am. Sure what difference does an hour make, I hear you say? As it turns out, a lot. Sweet Jesus, the sound of my alarm going off at 5am is enough to make me fling my laptop out the window and scream obscenities at it for daring me to do this. But I don't. Because I'm far too nice. Instead I debate for a moment about whether to rise or not (and snoozing the alarm in the process, causing considerable annoyance to hubby beside me resulting in kicks and shoves beneath the covers) and eventually I do. It is not easy, in fact it is HORRIBLE! But it's only for four weeks and I remind myself (while stumbling down the stairs, trying to find a lightswitch) that I can have all the lie-ons I want in December. Well, until 6am anyway. I'll still have to go to work.

Coffee is horrible... But it works:

This is coming from a perpetual tea drinker. I've always been an advocate of tea - it's gotten me through difficult days, long nights (usually cramming college assignments) and early starts on my commute. It's refreshing, it's comforting and it's perfect with a bar of chocolate (or two). But it doesn't really have that get-out-of-bed-and-open-your-eyes-and-write-1,667-words-at-5am kind of kick. And sometimes the slump in the afternoon is the worst.

What do you mean I still have three hours of work left and I have to function at a reasonable level? Don't you know what time I've been up since? 

Sniping at colleagues doesn't get me far but coffee does. I have drank three cups of coffee in the last fortnight, which is three cups more than I've drank in my life before this. I hate it - it tastes rank, it leaves an awful aftertaste, it makes my chocolate taste funny but dammit, it perks me up. Noticeably so. The energy I have is actually astounding but what goes up must come down right? Just don't come near me at 9pm each night. Caffeine and chocolate can only keep my mood up for so many hours.

First drafts are terrible... but that's okay:

The whole goal of NaNoWriMo is to get the words written, never mind how bad they are. You can always go back and edit when you're done. Again, it might sound easy, but my god it's so difficult. I can now easily tap out 1,000 words in half an hour using the NaNo sprints on twitter (they're amazing for motivation!) but out of those 1,000 words I would estimate that 90% of it is rubbish. No joke. It's hard to write quality language when you're working against the clock. And for me, the perfectionist, it's extremely difficult to control my fingers and not begin working backwards, editing the sentences I have just written. But I'm getting better at it. And if the temptation to write is particularly strong during any given writing session, I just remind myself: 1,000 awful words are better than 0 words.

I could have worse hobbies:

It's not much comfort, but I do take solace in the fact that writing is flexible. If it's raining outside it doesn't hinder my writing (in fact it usually helps it). I can write in my office at home, my office at work, in bed, at the kitchen table, on the couch. I can even write in coffee shops (not with my laptop - I feel far too pretentious) by bringing my notebook and brainstorming and plot-developing for an hour.  I can have a cup of tea and chocolate as I write - an option I often treat myself to.

I see the local young guys leaving their football training in the evenings absolutely dripping wet. I notice people out training for races, running against gale force winds and horizontal rain. Or I hear of people getting up at the crack of down to drive to a swimming pool a good distance away to train for hours before school or work. I don't have those difficulties. Writing, although painstakingly difficult at times, does have some home comforts.

I'm allowed to treat myself:

I remember in sixth year history, we learned about Stalin's use of the carrot and stick method during the Cold War. Now, I don't habitually compare myself to dictators (often) but I do find myself leaning into this method during NaNo. I reward myself if I achieve my word count goal and I punish myself if I don't.

Rewards so far include extra chocolate (obviously), takeaways, lighting the fire, a hot bath, getting my hair done, Sex and the City episodes. I'm going to London at the end of the month and this is the big carrot for me: if I get my 50K done by this trip I'm going to bring extra money with me than I currently have planned and treat myself to some goodies on Oxford Street.

Punishments include no chocolate with my tea (that was a particularly cruel one), not buying a lovely grey dress that I saw last weekend because I hadn't reached my word-count (and I didn't really need it, but that's beside the point). Sometimes I can't control my punishments - last week I went to bed having only written 500 words that day and I barely slept three hours out of guilt. Although come to think of it, that may have been the coffee I had had earlier...

As can be seen, my rewards outweigh my punishments so far which can only mean one thing...

I'm achieving it!

Yes, that's right - I am officially succeeding at NaNoWriMo! It's currently day 15 which means I should have 25,005 words written right now. At the time of writing this blog, I have... (drum roll please) 31,584 words written! No, your eyes do not deceive you, I have actually written 6,579 words more than required. Me! The girl who has been putting off writing the book for the last six years. What on earth was I so scared of? Actually, never mind, we'll save that for the next blog...

Anyway folks, just wanted to share my tidbits of information and advice from this years NaNoWriMo. I'm hopeful that I can keep the momentum going (of course it dips from day to day) but my aim is to have the 50K completed within the next two weeks!

Monday, 27 October 2014

A Novel in 30 Days

I have set myself a challenge. For the month of November, I am going to take part in "NaNoWriMo", a writing competition that challenges its participants to write a novel in 30 days.

Can I do it? Well, earlier this month, I would have said no.  I believed that that there was no way I would ever have the motivation, time management, skill and energy to do something like that. But following events that happened this week, I now think, feel, believe, know that I can do it.

This week has undoubtedly been one of the most difficult weeks of my life. Without wanting to get too much into it (because I'm only ever a millisecond from bursting into tears at the thought of it), we had to make the painful decision to have our family dog put to sleep, after 16 years of love and loyalty from him (he is the cutie in my blogger profile picture). The horribleness of that evening began with a long drive home from work without dinner, two hours in the vets, the tearful goodbyes, watching his eyes close for the last time, the long drive home and finally the silent trudge up the garden to his final resting place.

What aggravated that night even further was that I had decided to enter my first 10,000 words into a novel writing competition and the deadline was the next day. And I still had to finish my manuscript.

Yes, I know I shouldn't have left it to the last minute, but if my tutors in college couldn't get that message through to me, it's not going to happen now. I accept that I am an eternal crammer, forever procrastinating until my deadline gradually slinks closer. At which point, I dust off the laptop and let my fingers fly faster than Liberace's.

So as I got home from the vets at 10pm, my face red and puffy from crying and my stomach crying out for more than half a bag of chips, I put on the kettle and wrote until until 2am. I didn't want to. In fact, it was torture. All I wanted to do was roll up in a ball while looking through old photo albums, crying to the Marley and Me soundtrack. But I persevered. I persevered until my eyes stung, my head began to flop and my wordcount was completed.

I then grabbed four hours of restless sleep before being awoken by my alarm at 6am and wrote my synopsis (which I had foolishly left until the last minute). There was a brief moment that morning when I genuinely considered forgetting about the competition. I knew I was going to get stuck in bad traffic and I wasn't happy with my synopsis. And to top it all off, I was having a bad hair day.

It was a truly horrible moment because I can be so negative when I get into that frame of mind (particularly with little or no sleep) but something in me told me to keep going. I don't know what it was - if I did, I would bottle it and keep it for future deadlines, football games, bad days in the office etc...

In the end, I finished it. I printed it off, sealed it up and dropped it off to the competition headquarters (almost bursting into tears when the lovely man that I handed into smiled at me and said "Well done!").

I really didn't think I could do it, but I did. And I surprised myself by doing so. It was a brave thing to enter into the competition (I think it was anyway) and it would have been easy to succumb to the challenges of the week and make excuses about why I didn't do it. But life is what happens to us when we make other plans, and I'm sick of making excuses about writing.

It's almost six years to the date that I first came up with the idea of my novel (a realisation that hit me during a conversation with a colleague last week) and I'm so annoyed with myself that it's taken this long to write. I know that all novels, indeed all first novels, take years to write. But the length of time it has taken me to write my novel is primarily down to me and my eternally-procrastinating ways.

I do need a kick up the arse (forgive the language but it's apt) and I'm hoping NaNoWriMo will help spur me on. I believe it will and I think that's the key attitude. There's no point in doing the competition if I don't believe I can complete it. And although this past week has been horrible and one that I would never want to repeat in my life, I learned something from it. I learned that if I put my mind to it, I can accomplish what I want to. I learned that I can ignore the inner voice in my head, telling me stop, telling me that I am going to fail, telling me not to bother. It's not often that he loses the battle, but he did this week.

So, I've signed up for NaNoWriMo and I'm going to write 50,000 words of my novel (that's 1,667 words per day) before the 30th of November. If you don't hear/see much of me over the next month, take it as a good sign!

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Feeling Exposed

I exposed myself this month.

No, I didn't flash anyone in a local park or take my clothes off while driving home (I'm guessing that would just add to the slowdown of traffic on my daily commute, and frankly, I just don't have the time for that). Instead, I exposed myself in the most literary way possible: I gave my first draft to a select few people to peruse, review and critique.

I should begin by saying that this was one the hardest things I've ever done in my life (and I'm including a half marathon with a stress fracture in that). I mean, it's one thing to tell people that you're writing a book and to then receive the admiring looks and gushing praise ("fair play to you", "I could never do that", "I'm so impressed by that"). I'd be lying if I said that I didn't feel a swell of pride or a boost in my confidence when I hear the awe and respect conveyed in some peoples' responses. It genuinely does spur me on to write the book, but that admiration will only take me so far.  It's a whole different experience to actually let someone climb into my head and read the words that I have put on paper.

As the phrase goes "Paper won't refuse ink" and we all know that anyone on earth can say that they are writing a book. Yes, I am painfully aware that I have been saying this for the last 6 years. But the gap between telling someone that I'm writing the book and actually letting them read it is so much bigger than I had anticipated.

After I emailed/posted/hand delivered the first 10,000 words of my manuscript to the small group of potential readers, I tried to forget about their reactions and was pleasantly surprised with my success at this. Sadly it lasted for about five seconds. And then the sense of exposure washed over me, along with the familiar feelings of embarrassment, fear and anxiety.

I remember thinking at one point "Oh my god, what if one of my readers is reading my words right now, at this very moment?" The feeling of discomfort at that thought was unbearable.

It's an interesting dilemma, because on the one hand I want, more than anything, for people to read David's story, follow his journey and feel satisfied at the end of it. I can't imagine myself feeling satisfied until I have written it. But on the other hand, the idea of other people reading my words and scrutinising my ideas is almost intolerable. I do wonder if this is essentially a rite of passage that every aspiring (and possibly published) writer has to go through, particularly for the first few drafts. I hope so.

The concept of criticism and not-altogether-positive feedback (I can't bring myself to write "negative" because I believe all criticism is positive in some way) is a tricky subject and one that I can relate to as a writer and a student. "That essay on Emily Dickinson was not up to your usual standard, Sinead", "You need to put a huge amount of work into your maths theorems, Sinead", "You have to be more assertive in work, Sinead". Etc etc etc.

The easier option (for me) has been to run away from criticism. But as Aristotle said: "To avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, be nothing," And I'll be honest, that quote scared me more than the idea of receiving criticism.

So I received the criticism from my lovely reviewers (who I must thank for taking time in their personal lives to read my novel and give me feedback on it) and took it all on board. Did I enjoy it? No. Did I feel brilliant afterwards? No. Did it help? Yes. And that's the most important part of receiving any criticism. It's not personal, and if it is, I think that would be a sign that I'm too close to my novel.

They say that the hardest part of writing is the editing and giving oneself permission to "kill your babies." So since my feedback so far (it's still ongoing), I have killed some of my babies (changed some of the plot, altered a lot of sentences and reviewed my characters) and although it hasn't been easy, I know my novel has improved with the feedback and will continue to do so.

And I'm hoping that it gets a little easier to take criticism with each draft, although that may be wishful thinking!

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Taking It Seriously

I've read and attended a lot of interviews with published writers and you can probably imagine the variety of questions they get asked: "How often do you write?", "Where do you get your ideas from?", "How much of an advance did you get?" and (the most cringeworthy of all) "I have an idea for a book, what do you think of..."  (Cue awkward silences)

I'm not too bothered about writers' inspirational ideas; I mean no disrespect but the answers are often cliched (it's often beside a beautiful lake or watching someone donate money to a homeless person or people gazing at an airport arrivals hall - bleh!) or their writing schedules (hang on, you're telling me I have to write every day? Who knew?). And I genuinely have no interest in writing advances because I know that all writers, apart from the exceptionally talented, or the exceptionally well-connected, make pittance in their books, particularly their first ones.

No, the question that I would love to ask is different. I often scan through writing magazine interviews or occasionally drop in on book launches to see if it is asked and answered. I often visualise myself asking this question and not feeling afraid/embarrassed/silly (take your pick) for having the courage to do so. Ready? Okay, deep breath.

"When did you start taking your book seriously?"

That's it, that's my question.

That's the one that always grabs my attention instantly, because I genuinely want to know the answer. Because I can relate to it. Because I waited a long time for it to happen to me, in fact I always wondered if it would actually happen for me. But it did, thankfully.

I can recall the exact moment I began to take my book seriously. I remember it vividly, although that may only be because it happened only a few weeks ago.

I was driving home from work and it was a sunny evening. I was stuck in gridlocked, commuter evening traffic (as I regularly am) and I was thinking about my novel (as I regularly do). Okay, this next part may sound a little bit weird but bear with me before judging me (too much). As I straddled between 1st and 2nd gear, while occasionally stretching my left leg so as not to get "clutch foot" (it's a term I've coined to describe the dreaded foot cramp that afflicts many rush hour drivers - I'm working on copyrighting it), I was thinking about one particular twist in my book and I was wondering where to go with it.

I remember staring up at the traffic lights, stuck on red for what seemed like forever. I glanced over at the car to my left, inside which was a man who (I'm guessing) was as equally tired and frustrated as me, just trying to get home from the working day as quickly as possible. I really don't mean to sound like a stalker here but I looked at him for a few minutes and as I did so I started to wonder what he would think of my book if he read it. I wondered what this man, middle aged, driving a silver car, maybe married - I couldn't see a ring (okay now I definitely sound like a stalker!) would like to see happen in my book. Would he be interested in the story? Would he care about David? What would he like to see happen at the end of book one?

And then I had what I can only describe as an epiphany: I realised that he will never get a chance to read it unless I write it.

I know that that sentence sounds so simple that it might be hard to understand how I had never grasped it before. But I hadn't. And at that moment, in the traffic jam on a warm summer evening, a wave of panic washed over me. I remember sitting in the car, amidst my fellow commuters, suddenly aware of the responsibility that I had laid out for myself.

If I don't write it, no one will ever know it.

As I opened the window to let some air in for relief, that thought bounced around my head and continued to do so until the lights turned green. I'm not sure if it was the fact that I was engaged in the task of driving, or because I always feel less stressed when the traffic starts moving, but once I got past the traffic lights, I didn't feel quite as overwhelmed.

But it didn't leave my mind. The whole way home I thought about it and as I sat in my sitting room forty minutes later I still thought about it. It was like seeing my novel and my writing process through a whole new light. Something had shifted in that moment, and now it felt so much more real. Scary, overwhelming, immense - there are dozens of negative connotations that spring to mind but I tried instead to focus on the positive ones: challenging, possibilities, pride. And I wrote. And then I wrote some more. And I continued to do that.

That attitude has stuck with me since then. I know it's only been a few weeks but I've taken it so much more seriously. Even my other half comments on how when he gets home from football he knows he'll find me in the office writing, as opposed to sitting on the couch, watching Friends with a guilty face. Now I know that, not only do I want to, but I have to write this book. And now that that decision has been made, the work and the effort doesn't seem half as difficult.

So when the day comes that I get asked in an interview where I was when I started to take my book seriously, I'll know exactly what to say.

Sinead

"You cannot plough a field by turning it over in your mind."
Gordon B Hinckley