Blocking Time

Do you ever feel there isn’t enough time to do the things you want to do outside of your day job? Are you often just so tired at the end of the working day that all you want to do is lie on the sofa and watch crap TV just to relax your mind? But then the guilt sets in, because such activity feels like it actively diminishes your intelligence rather than bolstering it, and if you don’t use your time wisely how will you ever finish that novel/Open University course/improving tome etc.?

If you do feel that way, you’re not alone. I for one experience this cycle of worry and guilt on a daily basis. Even though I know that being a published writer is my goal, somehow it seems that writing at the end of a full day’s work (and, when I can be bothered, a post-work gym session) is always the last thing I want to do.

But then, yesterday, I struck on the most blindingly obvious and simple concept: Instead of telling myself that I had to spend the whole evening writing, with no time to do anything else (the usual mantra due to guilt at not having written enough in the preceding days/weeks), I told myself to spend just one hour working on my screenplay, at the end of which I could spend an hour watching any TV programme I liked. And at the end of that, I would go to bed and spend an hour reading my book (because, in my experience – and somewhat ironically given the benefits – when you’re feeling overtired and too busy the first thing to go is the luxury of reading before bed).

And you know what? It worked. I didn’t do a huge amount of my screenplay, but I did more than I had done in the past few days. And, more than anything, it felt like I had removed a big obstacle that had been standing in my way. I no longer felt scared of the enormity of the task I was facing, because I had broken it down into a manageable task. Moreover, I didn’t feel (as I so often do) that writing meant having to sacrifice all other enjoyment, or that I had to choose between writing and reading (a horrendous choice for a writer because without reading how can you improve your writing? Catch 22).

So often we tell ourselves that we are useless, that it’s impossible to realise our dreams. But what if we’re just framing things incorrectly? What if the problem is not our lack of talent, or even commitment, but rather the very simple and easily corrected issue of time management?

We all know that if we want to do something we must make time for it. But what makes so many people stumble at the first hurdle is the misguided view they must devote every spare moment to the pursuit of that goal. Wrong. Start small, with ten, twenty, thirty minutes a day – whatever feels achievable to you. And make sure that you stick to doing it – simple. It takes time to form a habit, and it isn’t always easy. But if you don’t start, the only person you’ll have to blame for not achieving your potential is yourself.

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New Year Musings

It’s with a surprising degree of trepidation that I return to Brussels today after the Christmas break. With hindsight I think the first eight weeks of our life abroad were made easier by the fact of our imminent return, whereas now I have no such trip back to the UK planned to anchor me here it feels somehow more final. Which is of course so very silly when you consider that it only takes a little over two hours to get from Brussels to London-the same time as a trip to Manchester, no less. I guess it’s especially hard to return anywhere after spending the festive break catching up with friends and family and having such a wonderful time. The past two weeks have been ridiculously busy but enormous fun and I’ve loved every minute. But life can’t be all about the parties and family time. If it was we wouldn’t appreciate it half as much when we do get a chance to enjoy it. So enough of the sentimentality. I know once I’m back in our gorgeous flat I’ll settle back into the routine in no time.

I’m not a fan of new year’s resolutions as I think people all too often set unrealistic goals and in doing so set themselves up for a fall. But having said that I do feel a sense of optimism about 2015. My goals are simple and, I believe, achievable:

1. Make writing a daily practice again, even if only for 15 minutes each day. Discipline is everything where writing is concerned, so this is non-negotiable if I really want to achieve my writing ambitions for 2015 (finish screenplay, get back into short story writing, start new novel).

2. Make meditation a daily practice again, even if only for 5 minutes each day. Mindfulness is such a valuable way to still the mind, reduce anxiety and help focus on the ‘bigger picture’. When I practised meditation daily in India I reaped the benefits, and I want to get back to that calm state of being.

3. Exercise regularly. This one sounds so simple, but as someone who one year ago was training for a marathon and who now can only comfortably run about ten metres for a bus, I’m acutely aware of how easy it is to lose fitness and get stuck in a rut of no exercise and low self-esteem as a result. My own inactivity has in large part been due to the prolapsed disc I unfortunately gave myself through overtraining for the Rome marathon (which I was subsequently forced to pull out of), but it’s been months now and I’m physically quite ready to get back on the horse. The only thing stopping me is my own fear and laziness, so a new year is the perfect time to kick those inhibitors into touch.

4. Make time for reading. As a writer this one seems obvious, but all too often reading is something that gets relegated behind a million and one other things each day, whether it be cooking, washing, ironing, watching TV, writing-the list goes on. The only way I will get better as a writer (which I certainly need to do) is to improve the breadth and scope of the materials I read. Not only that, reading others’ work is refreshing and inspiring, not to mention relaxing (there are few nicer feelings than being swept up in a story you never want to end). So this is my final goal for 2015. I don’t have to read every classic ever written, but I do have to make a concerted effort to read something every day. I know my mind will feel all the better for it.

Having set those goals out en route to  St.Pancras station it seems fitting that I’m now waiting to board the Eurostar and continue the adventure that began some ten weeks ago. Who knows what this year will bring, all I hope is that my loved ones stay well and happy and that I do myself, and them, proud in whatever ways I can.

Happy New Year to you all from this wandering muser. May 2015 bring you one step closer to your dreams. Xx

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For Fellow Aspiring Writers: Advice from the Writers’ & Artists’ Conference

On Saturday I went along to the Writers’ & Artists’ ‘How to Get Published’ conference in Euston. Given my aversion to early rising it was quite a commitment for me to show up at 9.45am on a weekend, but by the end of the day I was so glad I had. I live-tweeted throughout the event but it has since dawned on me that advice drip-fed through Twitter isn’t that easy to come back to afterwards. So for all my fellow aspiring writers I thought I would encapsulate the key learnings in this blog post for reference purposes.

Tom Tivnan from the Bookseller, on self-publishing:

  • 86% of those who have self-published would do so again
  • The print self-publishing market is comprised almost entirely of non-fiction
  • Most self-published e-books retail at around £1
  • 69% of e-books are bought by women and only 11% by men
  • 58% are published by women
  • Crime makes up 50% of the e-book market
  • Amazon controls 75% of the e-book market in the UK
  • The royalty rate of self-published books decreases considerably when the retail price is below £2.49
  • When self-publishing, tweak the price of your book often
  • Remember that people buy e-books for price not content
  • Design matters – it’s all about your brand
  • It’s difficult to get into the print market through self-publishing (Amazon has 20% share)

Stefan Tobler, CEO of And Other Stories, an “unashamedly literary” publishing house:

  • “Think of the publisher as the donkey who will get your riches to the reader”
  • The literary fiction market is in decline

John Mitchinson, founder of Unbound, a ‘new way of bringing authors and readers together’: 

  • The concept of Unbound is “about sharing an idea, sharing the potential of the story and, if there is enough critical mass, it will take off”
  • “Publishing is like agriculture. Retailers want the crops with the highest yield and won’t look at anything else”
  • Authors have a 1 in 5,000 chance of getting in with a big publishing house – but there are other ways to get published
  • It’s been in the news recently that the average author’s salary is as little as £11k per year but, f you take the top 10% of authors out of that, the average author makes less than £3k per year.
  • “We’re fighting to keep people reading”
  • Unbound chooses the projects with the best chance of funding
  • People can then make pledges against a particular project. The average pledge value is £35
  • 92 projects have been launched to date. Of those, only 16 failed to achieve funding
  • Unbound has 48k registered users

Polly Courtney, Author, on self-publishing to a traditional deal – and back again:

  • “Everyone’s got a book inside them, but not everyone should publish it”
  • “Whatever way you’re publishing, be sure to build up your own direct fan base.” e.g. by capturing email addresses through cards slipped into the back of your book at a launch event
  • Re-write extensively
  • Never scrimp on cover design
  • Self-publishing CAN work – but it’s all about collaboration
  • For a lot of people the first book is semi-autobiographical. Once you’ve got that off your chest you’re free to write about something else e.g. a theme you particularly care about
  • “If you do get into a conversation with an agent or publisher, ask what their long-term vision is for you and your book. Make sure you understand one another – it’s not arrogant, it’s sensible. Take control of your destiny”

Alysoun Owen, Editor of the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook, on traditional publishing:

  • “Finding an agent or publisher is like buying a car – you wouldn’t buy one without finding out about it first”
  • “Be yourself and write the book you want to write”
  • Good things CAN happen to first time writers
  • Identify the market and identify your niche
  • If you can’t encapsulate your story in a 200 word pitch, why should anyone else look at it
  • Self-publishing has gone up by 25% but the lion’s share of the (admittedly plateaued) market are traditionally published books
  • Rejection is not an uncommon thing – all the best authors have been rejected (William Golding 21 times!)
  • Things to do to improve your chances:- Read, Read, Read
    – Research / know your competition
    – Join a writer’s group / attend events
    – Practice e.g. by entering competitions
    – Promote yourself e.g. on Twitter, a blog etc.
    – Be patient
    – Be ambitious

Charlie Campbell, Agent:

  • Agents can tell if they’re the first or two hundredth you’ve submitted to, so research carefully before submitting
  • The bar has been raised, so these days agents need to put more editorial work in
  • Having to do too much editorial work limits how much work you can take on
  • When working in a big publishing house out of thousands of submissions each year, only one or two would be taken on
  • “Sending a partial manuscript is almost never the right thing to do”
  • Writers get rejected by agents, agents by publishers, publishers by supermarkets. If Amazon rejects a book, the reader rejects it
  • Successful stories are imitated until they dwindle into nothing. Do what you want but don’t be too out there. It’s the role of the publisher/agent to talk to you about how you can progress

Jo Unwin, Agent:

  • Take care to read submission guidelines and be targeted
  • “You can only be a debut novelist once in your life, so your manuscript needs to be as good as it can be”
  • “I would strongly recommend getting the whole book as perfect as you can before submitting your opening chapters. It’s a different trajectory if you submit a partial manuscript and don’t complete it for another 18 months. The market will be different and the mood of the agent will be different”
  • Whether an agent likes your book or not is a chemical thing. Writing is a craft you have to work on
  • What an agent does in building a writer’s career outside of the UK market is not to be underestimated
  • “In a synopsis I’m looking for storytelling ability, so tell me everything – including the ending”
  • Don’t use the agent as a sounding board – think of them as sales people

Cressida Downing, Editor:

  • Just because you can hit submit doesn’t mean you should, and just because you should doesn’t mean you should now
  • Whether sending to agents or self-publishing make your work the best it can be. People should find your writing frustrating
  • You can’t be a good writer if you’re not a good reader
  • “I read non-stop, all day, every day – and so should you”
  • Self-publishing is ideally suited to people with an entrepreneurial spirit
  • Novels go through 17 edits, on average, before they are successful in being published
  • Good presentation is crucial – get advice but don’t get someone else to re-write it or it will be their work and not yours
  • If you’re interested in money don’t be an author or work in publishing!
  • If you’re self-publishing and can only afford to invest in one thing, make it the cover design
  • When choosing an editor consider their track record, whether you would prefer to be edited by a well-known author or not, whether their style will fit your work, whether they offer a clear explanation of the service they provide, their costs and timings
  • Tips for going it alone: Never publish your first draft, always get someone to have a look, read it out loud and find a peer group
  • Self-publishing is about far more than writing a book and hitting ‘publish’
  • As long as you know what you’re asking and they tell you exactly what they’re providing, paying an editor can be useful
  • If everything in your story is doing it’s job, great. If not, cut it
  • There are four types of edit:

1. Read and Review

“If you pay one industry expert once in your life make it for this.”

Not a line by line edit, help with grammar/spelling or re-write (though they will say if it needs work in those areas).

Does give advice on how to avoid common pitfalls, how well your book is working and what to do to improve it.

2. Deep Structural

Most similar to advice from an agent or editor in a publishing house.

Doesn’t give line by line re-write and won’t correct spelling/grammar.

Does break down and re-build novel – sometimes to extent of changing genre or structure.

3. Copy

Line by line edit looking for continuity and what works to best show off your prose.

Doesn’t look at structural/major changes.

4. Proof

Picks up errors, typos etc. in spelling/grammar.

Doesn’t give advice on writing.

Preena Gadher, Publicist:

  • A publicist’s job is to make your book stand out from the crowd
  • Once you’re published by a house they’re invested in you and can afford a dedicated PR person. That’s the big difference between traditional publishing and self-publishing
  • Promote yourself with a website, on Twitter etc. Always keep sites up to date
  • Read the paper and magazines you want to appear in
  • Work out who your audience is, and what you have to say that would be interesting/relevant to them
  • The relationship with the publicist works both ways
  • It helps to be shortlisted for / win prizes

Laurie Penny, Blogger:

  • Being time-rich and cash-poor is how a lot of creativity comes about
  • Keeping a blog is good training for editing your work

Hope you will find this as useful as I did.

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The Dilemma of the Half-Enjoyed Book

My Kindle is telling me I’m 79% through reading my latest book, May We Be Forgiven, by A.M.Holmes. In truth, it feels like I’ve been reading it for months rather than the couple of weeks it has actually been. Why have I persevered if I’m not devouring in the way I know I would be if I really enjoyed it? For the following five reasons:

1. Guilt – Nobody likes a quitter, least of all me, so how can I abandon a book just because it doesn’t quite so perfectly suit my tastes as the one that came before it (and, er, the one before that)? It’s not fair on the book! Or the writer! Right?
2. Worry – That perhaps this book is more intelligent than my feeble mind is able to cope with (it did, after all, win a women’s fiction prize in 2013, so it must be good, right?). It is, therefore, imperative that I press on and broaden my mind! I cannot be defeated by a piece of literature that will, forever more, mock me from the dark recesses of my mind…
3. Hope – What if this story has so much more to give? If I give up now I might miss out on the best bit! A cunning twist, perhaps? (I do love a cunning twist).
4. Indifference – If I hated this book, as in really hated it for some such reason as I found the subject matter offensive, or a main character unbearable, it would be far easier to give up on it. But whilst I can’t say the story or any of the characters particularly move me, nor do they disgust or appall me. I don’t hate reading this book, I just don’t particularly look forward to it either.
5. Loyalty – I did devour her 2006 book, This Book Will Save Your Life, and so I fairly reasoned I’d enjoy this one too. At what stage do I accept she might just be a one-hit wonder where my reading taste’s concerned?

In short, it’s a dilemma of the first order. May you be forgiven, A.M.Holmes? At this stage I’m afraid the jury’s still out.

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Acts of charity

I’m currently reading Khaled Hosseini (he of Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns fame)’s wonderful new book, And the Mountains Echoed. In it (don’t worry, no spoilers ahead) there’s a character who makes great gestures of kindness, but who only ever does so in a very public way. In other words, it could be said that were he not to get recognition and praise for his actions, he might not feel it worth doing them in the first place.

This morning I rose early to run from my flat in Clapham to the flat my boyfriend’s just moved out of in Camden. I needed to do the run as part of my half marathon training, but had selected the route as I’d been asked by my boyfriend to pick up the last of his things, and latterly also by his flatmate to pick up the sofa cushions from the dry cleaners. None of this was any trouble as far as I was concerned, I was happy to do them a favour and help out.

When I reached the dry cleaners and discovered there was an outstanding charge of £35 on the cushions, however, I’ll admit my spirit of generosity waned somewhat. Fortunately I had brought my cash card and was able to pay, after which I duly traipsed back to the flat to put the aforementioned covers back onto the cushions – which turned out to be far from an easy task given their size and the amount of feathers that flew out with every squeeze. Fifteen minutes and several swear words later I was standing in the living room triumphantly surveying my handiwork in successfully reintroducing the cushions to their covers – the downside being that I was now ankle deep in feathers and the living room looked like an illegal cock fighting ring. Cue an impromptu tidy up mission and more cursing, whilst the part of me that had so happily agreed to do the favour in the first place steadily began to regret the decision.

The main – rather uncharitable -thought that went through my head at that final moment was “they’d better appreciate this,” which is when I drew a parallel with the character in the novel I’m reading, and also when I wondered the following question: Is doing someone a favour any less charitable if it’s not the act of doing the favour that gratifies you but rather being thanked for having done it? Furthermore, do we as human beings have a deeper desire to help one another or to help ourselves? Which is the most prominent driver?

Those who do favours for others gladly and happily without grumbling or expecting thanks are clearly the most admirable. But surely there’s still something to be said for the rest of us mortal beings who do favours for others and do then expect thanks in return? After all, there are plenty of miserly souls out there who would rather stab themselves in the eye than do a favour for someone else in the first place….Right? Or wrong?

Keep the dream of reading alive

Last night was World Book Night. Described on the official website as “a celebration of reading and books which sees tens of thousands of passionate volunteers gift specially chosen and printed books in their communities to share their love of reading,” it also happened to fall on the birth and death day of the Bard himself.

To honour the occasion a host of events were held across the country, among them the Southbank Centre’s annual soiree, hosted by Hardeep Singh Kohli and attended by a wealth of current literary greats including two of my favourite authors, JoJo Moyes and David Nichols, who read passages from this year’s list of books.

But this year’s World Book Night comes at a sad time for literature, at least of the printed variety. Worrying levels of literacy amongst the younger generation can in no small part be attributed to the advent of the digital age. Today children up and down the country prefer to spend evenings playing computer games rather than reading fiction. Even if their parents loved nothing more than curling up beside the fire with an Enid Blyton or Roald Dahl book when they themselves were children, it seems the art of reading for pleasure seems to be dying out – and not just where young people are concerned.

That’s why the idea of World Book Night is such a charming concept. Not only does it encourage people who have drifted away from reading back into the literary fold, it also reminds them of the joy of holding a book rather than just seeing it on a screen (don’t get me wrong, the e-reader has its place, but it’s no substitute for the real thing; the touch and smell of a brand new book are amongst life’s greatest pleasures). And even more than that, it helps people to get back in touch with their imagination – something that this hectic world can all too easily oppress.

Whether your bookshelves are lined with alphabetised classic novels or the whole Fifty Shades series, it’s likely reading has had a significant impact on your life, whether you realise it or not. The digital age is here to stay, and children who are born into it won’t know the joy of reading unless we teach them. It’s up to each and every one of us to keep the art of reading alive for generations to come.

I thought it would be appropriate to post a pic of what I’m currently reading – so here it is!

Day three, Stateside – revenge of the pancakes

Day three brought with it an unwelcome hangover from the evening before, but it was nothing brunch at a traditional American diner wouldn’t cure. Once we’d managed to pull ourselves together and get ready we walked ten minutes to the Brownstone Diner. Settling into a booth, we ordered coffee, pancakes, eggs, bacon, sausages, French fries and smoothies and sat back and waited for our massive haul to arrive.

When the food did arrive I was taken aback by the sheer volume of pancakes before me – three plump doughy pillows half an inch thick and almost as big as the plate upon which they sat. My sausage, bacon rashers and two poached eggs sat on a separate plate beside them and the strawberry and banana smoothie was topped off with lashings of whipped cream. Suddenly my confidence in being able to finish everything on my plate vanished. And, sure enough I was defeated with one and a half pancakes still to go, my dreams of being a competitive eating champion shattered all around me.

Wonderful as the Brownstone Diner experience was it left us desperate for a lie down, so we headed back to the apartment for an hour’s rest before getting ready to go back out. Jen was working a shift at a restaurant in Soho so I went along with her and settled myself in a lovely little place around the corner called Sanctuary T, where I whiled away a pleasant few hours sampling speciality teas, writing and watching the world go by. When my appetite finally returned I treated myself to a delicious kale salad with truffle oil, hazelnuts and Parmesan accompanied by a glass of Malbec (which, I have to admit, made me feel terribly grown up).

On the walk back to the Path train I couldn’t resist popping back into Patisserie Rocco for a post-dinner cappuccino and mini pastry, where I proceeded to read my book by candlelight and do a spot more people watching. Afterwards, caught up in the sights and sounds around me I walked a block too far and had to retrace my steps to find the train.

When I got back to the apartment I was horrified to find a two-inch long centipede on the bathroom floor. Immobilised by fear, I backed out of the room to find my phone and Googled it to see if they were dangerous. Fortunately the answer was no; apparently ‘house centipedes,’ as they call them, are commonplace in the New York area, and whilst they’re not particularly pleasant bedfellows they are harmless and they even help control other pests like spiders (given that spiders are my worst enemy in the insect world, I suppose that means centipedes should really be considered friends?).

All in all another eventful day in the U, S of A…