Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Featured on Thresholds

I entered a feature competition run by Thresholds short story blog last year, not expecting anything to happen. It was an exercise to see if I could write an engaging piece about a writer's work. I knew I wouldn't win and, indeed, I didn't make the longlist. But I got an email from the editor saying that she would like to publish my feature on Thresholds. It appeared today: Subtle Brilliance.

It discusses The Lottery by Shirley Jackson and how it has influenced my own writing. Not only is it one of my favourite short stories, but it lingers in my mind in a way that no other story does. I used to think it lingered merely because of its content and Jackson's writing skill, but I came to realise it also had a lot of writing lessons to impart to me.

The main lesson, which I touch upon in the Thresholds piece, is that I tend to psychoanalyse my characters and explain my story. I need to learn to trust the reader to make the connections. As I was reminded in Writing Short Stories , which I discussed in the post I wrote last week, short story readers are intelligent and insightful. They don't need to have their hand held. By not trusting my readers, I'm not trusting my writing.

Friday, 2 January 2015

New Year, Fresh Inspiration

The less said about the end of last year, the better; suffice to say that I'm glad 2014 is over. I started 2015 on a positive note, partly thanks to a fabulous new book, Writing Short Stories by Courttia Newland and Tania Hershman. It has helped me to rekindle my passion for short stories - both reading and writing them.

I was excited when I first learnt that Tania Hershman was working on a book about short stories, because her first collection, The White Road, opened my eyes to new possibilities. It included short-short stories or flash fiction, which I had never read before, and the stories were all inspired by New Scientist articles. I became a fan straight away and was similarly impressed by Tania's next collection, My Mother Was an Upright Piano. I had high expectations, despite not being familiar with Courttia Newland's work, and Writing Short Stories surpassed them.

The best thing about the book is its focus on individualism. Some 'how to write' books are very prescriptive and try to persuade writers to follow certain formulae or guidelines. This may be helpful if your goal is to get a grounding in writing commercial fiction, but I'm interested in stories that simply aren't found in women's magazines. I don't mean this as a criticism to those stories - on the contrary, I wish I could write them well since the financial reward is greater than that received for being published in literary journals - they just aren't for me. Writing Short Stories encourages writers to experiment and push boundaries. It teaches us to tread our own path.

It also teaches us how to do this effectively: experimentation for the sake of being obscure or seeming 'high brow' is not something to aim for. Instead, it's essential to know when clarity is needed, how ambiguity can be useful and what effect any aspect of the story has on its whole. The authors of Writing Short Stories tackle every angle of, um, writing short stories. They use illuminating examples and explain everything clearly, illustrating their points with examples from their own experiences.

Writing Short Stories is a Writers' and Artists' Companion, so it follows their format of containing a generous midsection (much like myself!) stuffed full of advice from other short story writers. The advice encompasses a range of topics, from setting to paranoia and absence to epiphany. It adds richness to what was already an invaluable book.

I was writing a little more than I had been before I  read the book, but it has lifted me out of my dry spell.  I am inspired again and I hope the year ahead will be full of short story successes - both completing and publishing.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Easing The Struggle

I've been having a difficult time over the past few months. An episode of worse depression than usual coincided with some external difficulties, which means I haven't been coping well and my writing (including blogging) has been neglected. I'm feeling a little better today and am trying to help myself, but it's very hard when depression leaves me feeling unmotivated, useless and hopeless for much of the time.

One thing I've learnt over the years is that sometimes you just have to ride with depression and do what you can. So I changed one situation that was making things more difficult than usual: the family desktop not connecting to the internet and being generally awkward to use. This is partly because my dog, Murray, tends to misbehave when I'm on the desktop and picks up/chews stuff to get my attention. When I'm the only person home, which I am on weekdays, it's difficult to work for longer than an hour on the desktop. this is not conducive to writing.

What was the solution? I bought a laptop. It's not very expensive and I don't have to pay for it for a year, so I'm hoping the advantages of having it will outweigh the disadvantages of adding to my debt. I consider it an investment in myself and my writing career. Now I just have to write more and try to earn the cost of the laptop...

Another aspect of doing what I'm able to do is to write what I can when I can, even if it's just a line or two at a time. I wish I could write for hours at a time, but it's not happening at the moment. I'm also reading a lot, which helps to inspire me and reminds me that I'm better than I have been in the past, when depression stole even the pleasure I gained from reading.

This post feels a bit pointless and self-obsessed, so I hope it might help anyone else suffering from depression in some small way. I know that it helps sometimes just to be reminded that you're not alone.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

I Have a Published Story!

I have mentioned that I sold my first story this summer, but I was rather coy about it because my superstitious streak told me not to jinx it. So now it's in print, I can shout it from the rooftops! The story is called Fighting On Home Turf and it's in the second issue of Confingo magazine, which you can buy here.

I am, of course, thrilled to be published. Although I started submitting stories regularly earlier this year, I have been writing and honing my craft for years, so being published is encouraging and a reward for my hard work. I hope it's the first of many pieces of my writing to be published, but for now I'm proud of this small achievement.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Take the Pressure Off of your To-Do List

Goals should be specific and measurable, right? You've probably come across the acronym SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Tangible. Making SMART goals can be incredibly useful. It forces you to pinpoint what you want to accomplish and when you want to complete your goals. It makes sense, right? Especially if you tend to have abstract goals and no concrete plans. 

But sometimes SMART can be too restrictive. Even if you break down your goals into mini-goals that are relatively easy to achieve, your to-do list might be too rigid for your current situation. When you fail to achieve your SMART goals, you feel like a failure.

SMART goals are supposed to avoid failure by being Specific, Measurable, etc. — which is why failing to meet them makes you feel worse. SMART goals have their place and can be a useful tool, but they aren't suited to everybody in any situation. I think this is particularly the case with writing; doubly so if you're a writer who struggles with long term illness.

Sometimes it is more helpful to make goals with CARE: Compassion, Abstraction, Realism and Engagement.

Compassion — don't be hard on yourself. We would all love to be a superhero, but as humans we need to take it easy from time to time. Don't expect too much of yourself.

Abstraction — forget deadlines and don't think you have to define your goal. How does that work? My current to-do list has a few items that simply say 'work on X project.' That's it! No word count to aim for or specific task to complete. All I have to do is something — anything.

Realism — this is where the CARE approach overlaps with SMART goals, demonstrating that they are not polar opposites. Make sure your goals are ones that you have control over and can achieve. Example: getting an agent isn't 100% within your control, but sending queries to agents is 100% down to you.

Engagement — your goals should interest you; you should want to achieve them. It sounds obvious, but so many people make goals based on what they think they should do or what other people are doing. Your goals should excite you and give you pleasure, at least in the long term, otherwise there's no point.

There you have it: a revolutionary approach to creating to-do lists! Setting goals with CARE won't be appropriate for every situation, but is useful for activities that aren't predictable and lives that are often erratic due to uncontrollable circumstances. CARE is more forgiving than SMART and because there are no deadlines, there is no failure to make you feel bad. Making goals with CARE also fits into the kaizen approach to writing: making small, continuous changes. They ensure you do something, even an extremely small task, rather than nothing.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

A Sorry Excuse for a Post

Shelley at My Resolution Challenge very kindly nominated me for the One Lovely Blog Award and I said I'd accept, but am forced into semi-acceptance because the internet on the family desktop computer isn't working and my iPad won't copy the pic and makes linking challenging. In lieu of a proper acceptance post, I offer you...half! 

I've linked back to Shelley as required (and it's one of the most inspiring blogs I follow, so check it out!), but won't nominate anyone because I'll mess it up and end up deleting the whole post. I can't display the pic, but I will offer you 7 facts about myself:

1/. I have my nose pierced. I wanted it done since I was about 10 and finally got it when I was 16. It's been nearly 14 years and I have never regretted having it done — even if my nose does bleed whenever someone hits the left side!

2/. I love screwball comedies. They are so much more intelligent and less sexist than most modern romantic comedies, though most were made in the 30s and 40s. And if they star Cary Grant, all the better...

3/. I'm a little obsessed with tennis. I will stay up very late (I think 6am was the latest) to watch matches, but don't ask me to reel off statistics because I can never remember figures.

4/. I blame my love of spaniels on Dogtanian. It's the floppy ears, I think. I was in love with him as a kid and listening to the theme tune on Youtube makes me all misty eyed...

5/. My favourite song is Across the Universe by The Beatles. It reminds me to rise above all the crap life throws at me.

6/. I like vintage style. Especially 1950s stuff, though I also expand into the 40s and 60s. It's something I've chosen to embrace recently, so I don't have many vintage-inspired clothes yet, but would love to buy more! Katherine Hepburn, Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe are my style icons.

7/. I have Borderline Personality Disorder. It's not a secret and there's no shame in it, so I declare it whenever I can! It's my way of chipping away at the stigma surrounding mental illness in general and BPD in particular.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Fresh Starts

I know everyone mentions the back-to-school feeling in the air, but it still affects me despite the fact that I'm not going back to school. It's been 3 years since I last faced a new academic year in full time education, which sounds preposterous because it doesn't feel that long ago, but every September brings a sense of excitement and apprehension. It's a time for fresh starts, so my attention turns to my goals — my New Year's Resolutions and other goals I've picked up along the way.

Fresh starts also involve tying up loose ends. A couple of loose ends have tied themselves over the past week or two: Murray's abscess has healed and the vet declared his scrotum normal, so he can go off the lead again! I'm more thrilled about this than he is, since I've had to put up with his excess energy. The other loose end was my Intro to Bookkeeping and Accounting course, which I somehow managed to pass with 91%. I suppose it shows that hard work can overcome most problems, even those concerning numbers!

My mentorship with Emylia Hall has started this week, which means that my major fresh start concerns my writing. After a summer of stagnancy, it's much needed. Some stories have fallen by the wayside, but there are a couple which I will (hopefully) be working on with renewed vigour. I've also got some ideas which could be turned into half decent stories...

One of my sticking points, however, is the novel I've been working on. Something doesn't feel right about it and I'm beginning to think that the best thing to do is to put it aside for a while. Part of me thinks I'm just being lazy for thinking this way, but it hasn't progressed much for months, despite me starting to rewrite it in a different way. I think it still has potential, but suspect it's not the right novel for me to write at the moment.

After all, fresh starts mean casting things aside so that new things can take their place. It might be saying goodbye to long, leisurely summer days in favour of studying an interesting subject or following a passion. It could mean cutting back on one hobby to pursue another wholeheartedly. For me, it's putting one novel away so that I can work on one that's right for me to write at this point in my life and career. It feels like a loss or a failure, but I hope I'm merely making space for something amazing.