How to harness the awesome power of journalling

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I’m currently writing in journal number 124 in a 24-year-long run of journalling. There were journals before this ‘set’, some lost in a house move, others disappeared in my teens.

I write everything in these journals:

  • random thoughts and observations
  • notes on books I’m reading
  • goals
  • how the day/the week /the month/the year went
  • to do lists
  • deep reflection
  • shallow thought-dumping
  • writing exercises
  • ideas for books, stories, poems, blogs…

The journals are beautiful. Many of them were handmade by daughter or have been gifts. Each one is an artefact. They’re also a problem in that they’re not written for anyone else to read, so what will become of them?

Nonetheless, I persist. I often feel I don’t know what I’m thinking until I write it down. It’s my act of processing. It’s also the fount of my creativity.

Why?

1. To practice

Great musicians practice. They go over scales and arpeggios, études and exercises. When tackling concert pieces, they go over and over particular phrases, gradually building speed and confidence.

Writing about the diaries Virginia Woolf kept over 26 years, she says:

The habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments.

And, after her death, Leonard Woolf described the 26 volumes as:

a method of practicing or trying out the art of writing.

Writing is a muscle. The more we use it, the more flexible and strong it becomes. Whether you are writing morning pages in which you do 2 or three pages of a writing prompt or outlining ideas or setting down emotions, the more you write, the more confident your writing voice will become.

When I teach writing courses and set exercises for the group I’m working with, I do the exercises myself into my journal. It’s an interesting way to see how I respond the same pressure to write in the moment and one I can look back on.

Do you keep morning pages or use a journal for writing exercises?

2. To record

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I hope you will read on here

Becoming a different story

I’m currently working on a book on writing and the creative life. I’m interested in connecting with others who want to explore the power of story. If you’d like my 9-chapter eBook on writing and the writing life, sign up to my email list — or feel free to continue the conversation here and on Medium.

Happy journalling and happy writing.

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Environment is hard to overcome, even in fiction

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Part 2 of Writing a novel trilogy

Character is fascinating. When I’m writing fiction I can get lost in the people I’m writing, even begin to dream their dreams. The mysteriousness and opaqueness of others is intriguing, but so to is their context. Who we are, the stories we tell ourselves or allow others to tell about us, arise from a matrix of particular factors, amongst them time and place.

Where we are is who we are

In This is the End of the Story, Cassie comes of age in 1970s Teesside and her context helps to shape her. The industrial landscape, the decline of employment, the cultural expectations of a class, time and place, are issues that she has to face in forming any sense of identity.

Cassie shares my own background, though fictionalised. But memory is a tricky thing so I still found myself doing lots of research — songs I thought I’d heard; fashions and news items. Despite that, there was a familiarity of place that informed me and gave the writing a significant grounding. When it came to Toledo, though, another major setting in the novel, I was on very different territory.

There was no way to visit eleventh century Toledo so I had to rely on archival material and a novel I’d read as a child, Casilda of the Rising Moon. Books and the Internet were invaluable, but it was only after I travelled to Toledo that I felt confident of this part of the writing.

When I stood in a tiny mosque that Casilda might have stood in 900 years earlier, or visited a tenth century Islamic cave-house, I felt a sense of place that I couldn’t experienced from books.

One of Cinnamon Press’s novelists, Landeg White. who passed away at the end of 2017, was someone who knew a great deal about ‘place’ and the writing of place. He remarked that going to a place to do in situ research was ‘absolutely necessary’. He was re-reading George Eliot’s Romola at the time, and admiring the way she took the trouble to find out things instead of making it all up.

Places are characters …

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Returning to the Novel

A Guest Blog from Paul McDermott

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Photo by Thomas Kelley on Unsplash

I’ve always found the Novel an easier framework than shorter pieces. I tip my (metaphorical) hat to those who can write ‘Flash’ fiction effectively, and even the thought of writing a pithy, graphic Haiku brings me out in a cold sweat of panic. Maybe I’m just an unrepentant windbag …
The 80,000++ word count format of a Novel is more my style. When I write for children, I tend to aim for a maximum word count of about 50,000, as a younger reader is likely to have a shorter attention span: for the Adult market this would likely be classed as “Novella” length.
Every November I enjoy the challenge of National Novel Writing Month, and to date I’ve achieved the target each time. Two of my published novels started life as NaNoWriMo entries, which I expanded to word counts of c. 90,000++ at a later date.
My first Adult Novel was based on research into my own family history. Nobody was more surprised than myself when the publisher, Whimsical Publications [Florida, USA] listed it in their Romance section, as I hadn’t considered it as a Romance while writing it.
However, there was so much interesting historical background in the Clan records. Written records date back to the early 1300s and a further 500 years of ‘Oral Tradition’ predate them. I realised very early on there was too much material to condense into a single volume. The Trilogy was inevitable before I was halfway through writing the first book, decided by the wealth of Celtic myths and legend I found in the written records. The Clan McDermott were one of the seven Royal Families of Ireland. The Ancient Kingdom of Tara covered most of modern day Roscommon and Meath. Oral History claims the honour title of Ard Rhi, High King of the Seven Realms of Ireland, and kinship with Brian Boru.
When you have such extensive historical material to work with, the only real problem is deciding what to include and what to omit (or possibly ‘save’ for later introduction). Reaching the target 80,000 word count isn’t really a problem! For the record: Volume One The Chapel of Her Dreams has sold reasonably well since publication, and I intend to release Volume Two The Island of Her Dreams later this year. And yes, the Chapel and the Lake are real locations, on Lough Key in co. Roscommon!
The often-heard advice, write about the People and Places you know holds good. In one way, this is especially true when writing for children.
My first attempt at writing for younger readers was a humorous yarn about a crew of fairly incompetent Pirates, sailing out of Liverpool in a deliberately ‘vague’ time setting. There’s plenty of room for fantasy, a touch of magic, talking animals and ‘time slip’ scenes which taps into the reader’s imagination. One (published) book of about 47,000 words led to a planned series. Book 2 is complete, currently being prepared for release and I’m working on Book 3. These all use the same central Characters.
Locations are another guide for a series. I’m working on a second series of childrens’ books, each one a ‘stand alone’ book set in one of Liverpool’s parks, using the geography and history of each park which (hopefully!) the reader will recognise as somewhere they have visited and played in.
One of my Adult books is a 13th Century Historical thriller, which leads naturally to a Sequel, another of my Works in Progress. At the moment I’m not sure if this will expand into a Trilogy, I’ll have to let the Plot decide that while I’m writing.
I’ve written another historical fantasy, 11th Century this time, about a troubadour with a magic lute. This will also be published later this year, and a Sequel is under way – but I’m fairly sure there won’t be a third book in this series. Time will tell …
Novel writing is great fun! There are hundreds of opportunities to dig deep into your imagination and combine historical Fact with your own creative skills. Basic research is very rewarding. I’m constantly amazed at what I discover about how we used to live. I really couldn’t imagine writing ‘to order’ with an imposed ‘word limit’ of e.g. 2000 words of ‘Short Story’ for a magazine or Anthology. I’ve had work accepted for these markets as well, but I wouldn’t be comfortable working with these limitations every day.
I’ve tried a number of genres, including poetry and writing scripts. I’ve enjoyed these forms of writing too, although my poems frequently become the lyrics to songs (I dabble in writing music as well). Some of the scripts I’ve cobbled together have also been performed on stage, mostly in the form of pantomimes with a Liverpool “twist” to them.
I always seem to return to the Novel as my preferred format. I don’t suppose I’ll ever ‘invent’ a James Bond or Jack Reacher character who will be the inspiration for an unending series of best-sellers, but two books or a Trilogy is a comfortable target to aim for.

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An extraordinary Cinnamon poet

via Just There: More poems through uncertain times

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How to make the journey your reward

bitsWhat do you want from your writing? I work with authors all the time who want to get published. I’m a publisher, so I don’t want to play down the joy of seeing your work in print, but I’m also aware that publication is often not quite what people imagined and that it still leaves a hunger for something further.

It’s not that publication is irrelevant, but it’s far from the whole story and there are other aspects of writing that are vital and more overlooked.

So what do you want from your writing?

Please read on and clap (if you like what you read) on Medium – thank you!

 

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There’s a remedy for all things, except…

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Part 1 of Writing a novel trilogy

This is the End of the Story is not the end of the story.

It’s the first book in a trilogy — a novel that raises questions about perception and identity, about friendship, love, loyalty. About the stories we tell ourselves or allow others to tell about us. Belief is Cassie’s gift, and for some time she believes others when they tell her who she is. But Cassie reaches her own resolution about who she is and how she wants to live.

What really happened was that I was slow to learn. Belief wasn’t so much my gift as my curse.

Cassie is more resourceful than those who try to tell her who to be realise.

A remedy for all things

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In A Remedy for All Things, my protagonist, Cassie (who now uses her full name — Catherine) has come a long way. This is how the book blurb puts it:

Belief is Catherine’s gift. Or it was once.

After a miscarriage and marital breakdown, her life is on course. Her new relationship with Simon is flourishing and she has a commission to research a novel about the poet, Attila József.

But when Catherine arrives in Budapest in winter 1993, she begins dreaming the life of a young woman, Selene Virág. Imprisoned after the 1956 Uprising, Selene finds she is dreaming Catherine’s life in turn.

Obsessed, Catherine abandons her research to find out who Selene was. Why does Selene believe Attila József was the father of her daughter, Miriam, when Attila died in 1937? And what became of Selene?

Most importantly, how do the lives of Catherine, Selene and Attila fit together?

Disquieting and compelling, A Remedy for All Things challenges our ideas of time and identity, as truth, fiction and political realities collide.

When Catherine meets Simon, she appears to be in a new phase of her life. She’s a confident writer and editor, about to undertake a trip to Budapest to research the life and death of the 1930s poet, Attila József.

But once in Budapest, during one of the coldest winters on record, Catherine finds herself disturbed by dreams. In them she relives the life of a woman imprisoned at the end of the 1950s after the Hungarian uprising, Selene Virág. As Catherine begins to investigate the woman, she becomes more drawn into this other life; one that has a strange a connection to Attila József.

As the month progresses, tracking the last days of József’s life and Selene’s imprisonment, Catherine again begins to question her own identity.

The questions of perception and identity become more intense when Simon, Catherine’s new partner, joins her is Budapest. And as the date of József’s suicide approaches, the tension mounts.

Will this be the end of the story?

I hope you will read on at Medium and also take a look at the book offer on A Remedy for All Things and This is the End of the Story.

Thank you.

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How to progress from idea to completed passion

type.jpegWe’ve all heard it before: writers write. Yes, but how? And what? And…

Writing isn’t easy, but it’s a skill. If you desire it you find the motivation to work at it. The more we hone our craft, the better we become. But it will consume you. If you are passionate about your project: read on.

Writing is a process. You won’t sit down and write a book. You’ll have ideas, make notes, flesh out parts of it. If you’re writing fiction you may have a timeline, character studies, chapter ideas. If your project is nonfiction you might start with articles, heaps of notes… In short, it’s small steps that build into something complex and inspiring. It’s consistency and work.

First start

How obvious is that? Very, but how many people do you know who want to write, but… If you make a start, you’re already ahead of a lot of people.

So sketch out your ideas — make it concrete. Don’t only think about what will be in your book. Commit it to your journal or to a folder in Scrivener or to notes on your phone or a filing card.

Keep going

There are so many calls on our time, so many distractions. Give yourself a chance. Have a regular writing time and deadlines and make it sacrosanct.

Get to the end

You might be a slow writer. You might take a year, or two or longer, but don’t give up. An unfinished book is another thing to beat yourself up about.

Breaking down the start:

Please read on at Medium and please clap 🙂

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Who are you? Writing virtues into the writing life

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‘Virtue’ is a word we don’t hear a great deal. There’s an anachronistic ring to it. It can also sound smug. A problem with over-focussing on self-improvement is that it can make us seem remote, self-satisfied and self-centred. An irony if we’re setting out to be kinder or more patient. We become rather like Fitzgerald’s Gatsby:

Every one suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.

In Cultivating Virtue, philosopher Christine Swanton suggests that instead of cultivating ourselves, we concentrate on doing virtuous actions. The first step toward virtue is to act as if you have that quality. We then hope that through feedback and reflection, growth follows without self-obsessing. Or as Aristotle puts it:

(Wo)men acquire a particular quality by constantly acting a particular way… you become just by performing just actions, temperate by performing temperate actions, brave by performing brave actions.

Who we are is fluid. We don’t come written in stone. Humans are adaptable. The environment we live in makes a huge difference, as do the choices we make. There are things we have little or no influence over in life, but we have the capacity to change, to become the person we want to be.

One of the joys of being a storyteller is that it’s not only about fiction. I can also write myself. But it has to go further than narrativising — my journal is a good place to plan and reflect, but it also has to translate into action. …

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With this in mind, at New Year I invested in a tiny book. And I set about a long journalling exercise around what 13 virtues or qualities I should action this year. Why thirteen?

Because I’d read an article about Benjamin Franklin who chose 13 virtues and focussed on one each week. Choosing 13 meant that each quality would get four weeks of attention over the year. That seemed feasible. And I like the idea of revisiting each quality whilst not obsessing about one or two things constantly.

A ‘year’ of course can start at any point, so if it appeals, you can begin at any time.

Thirteen qualities for the year

These are the 13 virtues or qualities that emerged for me over several journalling sessions:

I hope you’ll read on on Medium and clap the article there if you enjoy it …

 

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How to map your awesome creativity

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Recently, reading Wild Women, Wild Writing by Judy Reeves, I came across a brilliant writing exercise. The aim was to draw a map of your creativity. The instructions were simple — use a bunch of coloured pens to jot down all the ways you remember being creative, from childhood onwards.

Remembering forgotten creativity

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I hope you’ll continue reading on Medium and clap the post there … it’s a wonderful exercise for reminding yourself that you are more creative than you might sometimes realise … Thank you for reading!

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All you have to do is write one true sentence

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One of the things I’m involved in as an editor at an indie press is adjudicating fiction in our competitions. This year we’ve amalgamated the fiction prizes into one so that people can submit across prose genres — short stories, novels and novellas.

Every year there are pieces of fiction that jump out as strong contenders but trip themselves up along the way. What is it that Cinnamon Press is looking for in a story? a young friend recently asked me. What makes a good story?

Don’t tell me…

It’s often easier to start from what doesn’t work.

The stories that tell me what is happening (sometimes several times to make sure I get it) but which don’t ‘show’ me anything so I am never drawn in rarely work. Telling has its place in bridging passages, in some forms of first person narrative, but for the most part I’m with Chekhov on this:

Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.

Other stories fail because they drown in adjectives or (even worse) adverbs. Descriptive passages can sing off the page, sometimes with a rich seasoning of adjectives thrown in, but only if every word has earned its place. And some words never earn a place — really, just, suddenly, somehow… As says Ursula Le Guin in her invaluable guide to prose writing, Sailing the Craft:

Nothing happens somehow

Please read on on Medium – this is a post particularly for writers and if you have a novel or short stories that would be eligible for our fiction prize, take a look at that too – thank you for reading.

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