Write. Work. Tweet. Cook. Blog. Clean. Post.

Or What did I do with my time before?

I remember when I used to watch the television. I could join in at work with the chat about the latest drama or laughter at the contestants on the newest reality show. I would kick back on the settee with a cup of tea or glass or wine and maybe I would read a book or pick through my growing pile of weekend supplements.

At least I think that’s what I did. It’s difficult to remember those times now. Hours watching mindless stuff on the TV or dipping into a magazine feels like a guilty pleasure these days. Because I have been sucked into the shadowy and demanding world of writing.

When I finished writing my first novel I thought my work was done. I pressed save with a sigh of relief and the lightness of a job well done. I had cracked it. Finished the book finally. Now all I needed to do was some research into the right agents to send it to and keep fingers and toes firmly crossed.

I laugh now to remember. How naive I was. Having invested in taking time off work to finish the book I decided I also wanted to invest in an independent view of my work and through The Literary Consultancy sent it to Angela Clarke an editor who wrote similar kinds of books to mine and was also an ex-journalist, like me. Her report was really positive but carried words of caution in the final paragraph that it was unlikely to ever getting published in this market which is not good for debut authors. However she had some advice to maximise my chances: develop a social media profile. She suggested Twitter, follow and be followed, and begin a blog. Anything to demonstrate that I can write, can write consistently and am engaged with a ready made potential customer base. I think that was the last day I watched the tele.

I work as a Head of Communications and am responsible for the social media feeds for the company so I am not a novice, but what surprised me was the depth and breadth of people out there, professionals and people like me, just chatting away about writing and books. Advice on all the minutia of pulling a book together from how to write authentic interactions with police, to how to choose the right character name, to writing the best covering letter for agents. I leapt in with glee, with the excitement of the new girl at school who has found some friends not fully understanding that I had uncorked the bottle and the genie was out and from now on would not leave me alone.

I need to generate followers for my Twitter account. In order to do that I need to be participating, commenting, following, retweeting, sharing. The more I do the more interactions I have. Lovely. But the more I do the more I want to do. There are so many interesting blogs out there I want to read, so many people I would like to chat to within 140 characters. But I need to be at work at nine. My Twitter feed is like a famished baby starling constantly calling for more grubs.

And then there’s the blog. Once you start a blog there is no going back, a bit like joining a cult. I have to blog every week. I have to sum up the blog in 140 characters for my Twitter feed. Then I have to think up at least another three or four ways of describing it in 140 characters so I can Tweet often and at different times of the day.

Write guest blog posts someone said, probably on a blog. That’s another good way of putting yourself about a bit. So I responded to a couple of requests and was invited to post. But what’s the etiquette here? Do I send one I have already done or do I have to write a new one? I couldn’t find a blog out there to tell me so maybe that’s a future subject for me.

So my every waking minute when I am not at work or cooking dinner or washing seems to be devoted to social media. Writing my blog, reading other people’s, scrolling through Twitter, responding and retweeting. My eyesight is deteriorating as I spend all day looking at a screen and all evening on my ipad. One blog I read advised prospective authors to not even go out there with their first novel until their second is ready. When on earth am I going to find time to write that one?

But despite my spare time being sucked into this vortex, I love all this writing in its various forms. The challenges of retweeting, identifying a subject for a blog post and cracking on with it. Feeling a little spark of excitement at the retweets and favourites of my posts. I write every day now, I am thinking creatively and I am getting words down. But the biggest difference it has made to me is that now I feel like a writer who is working rather than someone with a job who would like to write.

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Any Time is Better Than No Time

Or why my blog is called The Odd Half Hour

For far longer than I care to confess to, my writing career existed mainly in my imagination.  It was full of stories and characters and plot lines and amazing situations that could lead to a fabulous drama.  In my head library there were at least a dozen best sellers on the shelves, perfectly bound with my name on the cover.  In my mind bookshop these amazing creations were stacked up on tables with excited fans buzzing round deciding which to buy next, tempted by glossy covers and wonderful reviews, one liners picked out from national newspaper reviews and emblazoned in bold on the back.

I was confident that it was only a matter of time before these books left my head and manifested themselves in the real world and I would be working to a schedule of talks and signings.  All I needed was time to write.  Time to sit down at my desk and focus.  A good chunk of time to really get under the skin of the novel in progress.

And that is why those books have remained in my head library and my mind bookshop and haven’t as yet wriggled out into reality. Because when you are working full time, who has the time to write a book too?  Sat in meetings at work I would look forward to getting home, putting my daughters to bed and having a good two or three hours to write.  But by the time I had kissed them goodnight and wandered downstairs I was weary and the last thing I wanted to do was switch on my laptop and stare at another screen.  I would work at the weekend I promised myself.  I would move things around and set aside a whole day to focus.  What a treat.  How lucky I was to be able to make that time.  But when the weekend came, it was a lovely day and I needed to be outside with my children, such a shame to waste it, I still had chores to finish which couldn’t be left and writing ambitions or not, children still need feeding.  I just didn’t feel like it.  And there was no point trying to force it out.

But this is where I discovered I was wrong.  Forcing it out is precisely what I needed to do.  It is the only way to get anything completed when you are not writing full time.  And I have found that astonishing things happen when I don’t feel like writing but make myself anyway.  Pick up a pencil, switch on the PC and start writing words.  I have come up with the perfect last paragraph for my next book, realised that a plot point I was determined to include just didn’t work, fleshed out a host of secondary characters, most of whom I wasn’t expecting and moved the whole book along in surprising ways.

I do a lot of this on the train on my way to work, so each day I give myself a task, something specific to work on. For instance, my plotline depended on my heroine having little cash, but her parents had passed away and I knew that they would have left her a modest inheritance so something here was not going to add up.  Scribbling away for half an hour on my train journey, writing down all the possibilities revealed  that there was no credible way out of it and I would have to rethink her wealth.   All the drama which centred around her struggling with no money was going to have to be re-thought.  A nuisance but at least it would make the plot more believeable.

Getting on the train at 7.45 each morning I always feel tired, not looking foward to the day and never in the mood to write.  But I bring out my notebook and pencil anyway and force myself to put words on the paper and without fail something magic happens.  Even if it is only one meagre line of dialogue, I have never yet shut my notebook as the train pulls into Waterloo with nothing. And keeping that momentum going, working constantly on the book, makes it feel much more alive and believeable to me, that completing it might be achieveable.  It is vibrant and evolving, not skulking on my PC at home waiting for some attention.

And half an hour there and half an hour home adds up to an hour a day which results in five hours of writing a week, which was five more than I was doing before.

Being Given the Freedom to Write

Or how amongst the worst news can emerge something unexpected

I received the call about six in the morning from the hospital to tell me that my mother was not going to recover from the pneumonia that had seen her stricken in a hospital bed for the past two weeks.

“Anyone who wants to say goodbye should come this morning,” said the voice. He was very clear that we should not leave it until the afternoon. After calling my brother I waited for it to be very definitely morning, this being a Sunday after all, and telephoned my uncle and aunt, my mother’s brother and sister. Whilst we had all been prepared for the news, when the news finally came it transpired that we weren’t.

The hours that immediately followed that call were surprisingly joyful and uplifting. We gathered round my mum’s bed, my brother and I with my aunties, uncle, cousins to say goodbye to my mother who was peaceful but not with us. The hospital room was packed with family coming and going and when you get that many people together in a confined space you can’t help but say things that are funny, remember half forgotten stories which will prompt someone else around the bed to lob in the other half. My aunty, quiet unabashedly, asked me if I was going to use my mum’s money to buy a house now and my brother and I snorted with laughter about this in the cafe shortly after – our poor mum wasn’t even dead, yet family members were speculating what we were going to do with our riches. The sadness came once everyone had gone, after we had watched them say a barely audible goodbye to their sister and left.

It was whilst I was bobbing about in a clear and calm sea about six weeks later that I finally let my thoughts drift and my being recalibrate. I had taken my daughters on a last minute all inclusive sunshine holiday, I felt I needed it. It was at that moment, silent and alone, floating in the sea, I first realised I was in many ways free. My father had passed away five years previously.  I am not sure you can be called an orphan when you are a grown up but whatever you called me I was now without the expectations and conventions of being a daughter. Whilst my parents were not wealthy, they owned a house so I had a small amount of cash in the bank which meant that feeding my daughters might not now soley rely on my leaving work on Friday and getting back there on Monday. I had some choices. Unexpected and unwanted but nevertheless my parents had gone and I was left with choices.

I went to see a talk by Adele Parks about a year after my mum had died. I am always interested to hear what successful authors have to say and she spoke of an event in her early 20s which prompted her to write. Chatting to her afterwards I told her that I had lost both my parents, my mother fairly recently. After expressing her condolences she used the word liberating and that was precisely the word that described how I felt.

Bobbing about silently in the Cretian sea I had let my thoughts examine what I could do with some of the money I now had: open a shop, maybe a little cafe somewhere, perhaps invest in a business, invest in someone else’s business. When I was eventually hit by the realisation of what I could do, I had to thrust my feet straight down on to the soft sandy seabed to stop me dunking under the waves.

I could invest in me. I could take some time out and invest in me. Actually write my book. Get it done. Back in my hotel room I gave myself a strong hard look in the mirror and asked myself if I truly believed.  I began to mull it over, this revelation. I considered it as I would have done a business proposition. How much of my money would I be willing to invest? How much time off would that pay for? Would that be sufficient time to give writing my book a proper go? Did I feel the idea was commercial enough to sell? Would it be worth the investment? Did I think I could write a book that had a chance of being published? If the idea was good enough was I?

I was delighted to find that the answers were yes. I did believe in myself. I knew I was a good writer. I had confidence that the premise for the book was an interesting one. I could see it in Waterstones.

Both my parents had died in their early 60s so their deaths were unexpected and shocking.  Like them my focus and drive had always been on earning money, working hard, providing for my retirement.  But longevity is evidently not in my genes so was doing what I should do and not what I wanted to do, going to be worth it in the end?

My visit to the Adele Parks event happened a couple of weeks after I had finally handed in my notice. I was full of the excitement and champing at the bit to get going. The word liberation that she had used was an apt one for me. The financial aspect of course provided my safety net and made all the difference. But also the loss of my parents was liberating. My mother was a very anxious lady.  She worried and fretted enormously, especially over me, her only daughter, now I was a single mother with two children.  The smallest thing would grow to outrageous proportions in her head. The idea that I would call her and tell her I was giving up a good, secure and well paid job to go and write a book was laughable. And she loved my writing. She had instilled in me my love of stories. She would have desperately loved me to have been a published author, but strangely enough I couldn’t have made the big move that took me closer to achieving it while she was alive.

Take yourself seriously was another nugget of advice that Adele Parks gave. And here I am six months later. I have a completed manuscript, an independent editor has given it a very positive appraisal, I now have a writing blog and a website and a modest but growing Twitter account. I have gone back to work (we all have mortgages to pay) but I found another great, secure, well paid job quickly. I feel like I have made some bold decisions, invested in myself and given me the best chance I can of getting my book published. But most importantly, I feel like a writer now.

Peeping Over the Shoulder

Or Why Do I Panic When Someone Reads My Work?

I write my blog posts on the train as some of you who have read my previous posts will know.  My blog is all about trying to write whilst holding down a full time job, hence the name The Odd Half Hour which is how most of my writing gets done.  And a good proportion of that is done on the train.  Right now I am squashed on the end of a three seater with people standing up beside me.  The train, like all commuter trains, is packed. And this is where the panic sets in.  Any one of these people could look over my shoulder, glance down at what I am doing and read what I have written.  Any one of these people.  The man sat next to me.  The woman standing alongside my seat. Any one of them could read this.  I am squashing down the terror as I write.

What will they think?  What if they think it is rubbish?  What if they wonder what on earth I am doing?  What if they are laughing at me behind their copies of Metro for being so deluded to think that someone might be interested in what I am writing?  I can feel myself hunching over my ipad right this minute trying to shield as much of the screen from prying eyes.

But why?  I am writing this to post.  To publish on my blog.  I will Tweet about it and scour my retweets and favourites to see how many of my followers have encouraged their followers to read it.  I will pore over my blog stats to see if anyone has visited that page on my site. So why on earth am I so nervous about people reading it on the train?

For me I am sure it is still not knowing if I am any good at this fiction writing thing. A fear that this might genuinely be awful.  A blog post is almost anonymous, I don’t have to look into anyone’s eyes but on the train, these people can see me. I am not a ‘proper’ writer so who do I think I am?

I decided to invest in an independent editorial report (see earlier blog post) and sent the completed manuscript for Thicker Than Water to The Literary Consultancy.  I remember the sick feeling when they tweeted me to say that I could expect the report later that day.  What if I had put my heart and soul into this, taken four months off work and the report comes back with just a comment saying:  ‘Really??!!’  Of course it didn’t.

I have written for a living all my life in some way or other.  I started my career as a journalist in local papers, moved onto the natonals, did a side step into PR and have worked in media and communications ever since.  My work has always involved writing: press releases, marketing materials, advertorial copy, reports, presentations.  I am very used to having my work read and judged so I should have the confidence that I can string a sentence together.  But writing as an author means more to me and that is why I am scared.

But how do these commuters pressed against me know that I am not a best selling author already?  I may have thousands of blog subscribers and a legion of Twitter followers all waiting patiently for my next post. Also the man squeezed beside me might be a top literary agent or a successful publisher.  He may be amazed at the quality of my writing knocked up on a packed train and be determined to approach me once we get off and offer me a multi book deal.  You never know.  So I must learn to stop hunching.  Be bold and brave and let people read. Courage.

PS  He wasn’t