Man, that was HARD. I wrote recently about focusing on one thing at a time. I’d been listening to a podcast where Tim Ferris said he’d once heard someone say that being able to focus on one task at a … Continue reading
During the podcast, which centred on self-improvement, he quoted someone who’d come up with the line that in today’s world, if you are able to focus on one thing only for two to five hours, it’s the modern-day equivalent of a superpower.
What do you get if you focus solely on one thing for two hours, then? I’m on a mission to find out. When I write, I seldom, if ever, complete any piece of writing without doing something else at the same time.
Mostly, I’m listening to the radio. But I’m also watching the email icon, and if I get a new e-mail, I’ll come out of Word and read it. Then, I might write something and feel the need to look stuff up—whether it’s fact checking or the thesaurus as I seek an alternative to a word I keep using. Or I’ll just look up anything random that pops into my mind.
There’s one piece of work I do every week that I never manage to write without doing something else. I wander off to see if my cat wants attention, or I check on the washing hanging outside. I fold up clothes or change the sheets on my bed. As I don’t find the work inspiring at all, it’s an effort to finish it. It would be much less of an effort if I just concentrated, wrote the whole lot at once and got it over and done with.
Ah, procrastination… thine embodiment is the writer.
The radio? Switch it off. My inbox? Close the mail app. Checking things—highlight them as a reminder to verify or refine after the words have been written. Housework? It will wait.
Pic thanks to Topher McCulloch on flickr
Here’s a short extract from a project I’m working on…
“Oh wow. You’re so pretty.”
Kippy wasn’t sure he liked a man touching his face, but Danny had reached out a hand and swept two fingers slowly from the temple to his jaw.
“I adore freckles.”
There was another thing Kippy wasn’t sure about: campness. Danny was as camp as Christmas, as the saying went. The party hadn’t been his idea, but Lillian insisted. She’d kind of taken him under her wing when he first arrived in Glasgow. She was very posh, but then he and posh girls got along if Daisy had been anything to go by.
Kippy was older than everyone else at art school, apart from Lillian whose parents had been wealthy enough to finance her through not just one, but two gap years. She swooped on him on their first day.
“Ooh—and what’s your name, precious?”
He was monosyllabic, partly through nerves and because he didn’t want to get into yet another Daisy situation where a woman fell for him.
She shook her head when he said ‘Kippy’. “I’m not calling you that. What’s your real name?”
“Alan Kirkpatrick.” He was still mumbling, hoping this pushy blonde would push off.
“Hmm,” she wrinkled her nose. “Terrible, too. I suppose I’ll have to stick with Kippy.”
She threaded an arm through his. “We need to stick together. Everyone else here is so young and so inexperienced. I hate teenagers, don’t you?” Said with all the bloated confidence of one just a year out of her teens.
Kippy’s worries about a repeat of the Daisy situation came to nothing. Lillian knew he was gay, she announced grandly. She had a sense for these things. As someone only just coming to terms with life beyond the closet, her revelation made him uncomfortable.
He remembered the teasing he’d put up with while he was doing his college course some years ago. Davy, Ewan and those other apprentices, the ones skilled in wrinkling out differences in their peers, zoning in on anything they suspected wasn’t just so. Had he not hidden it as well as he thought?
Kippy hadn’t actually known what he was hiding for a long time. Instinct had warned him to keep quiet about how different he felt from everyone around him anyway, though. He hid behind Daisy for some months until…The Thing happened. And then his life changed, mostly for the better but the start of his new life had been unbelievably hard and painful.
Lillian was like no-one else he’d ever met. She insisted that in the 90s, it was de riguer for al la mode women such as herself to have a GBF. When he looked mystified, she sighed. “A gay best friend, precious.”
She cocked her head to one side. “You’re from the sticks too. I don’t suppose you had much opportunity to explore your sexuality.”
Honestly, sometimes it was a bit like having a conversation about sex with your mum. He squirmed.
“Auntie Lillian can help!”
She was unbelievably nosey too. She asked questions all the time, almost as if she was researching him. So, tell me about Kirkcudbright? What about your mum and dad? When did you realise you were gay? Have you ever kissed a man?
When he finally admitted that no, he’d never so much as given a guy a hug, she clapped her hands together.
“That’s awful. First thing, then. I must introduce you to some friends of mine.”
Hence, the party.
These being Lillian’s friends, the party was taking place in a flat in the west end, just off the Great Western Road. These flats were so posh, they had two floors.
Lillian had insisted on picking out his outfit for him. Kippy had been going through a phase of velvet blazers, but she turned up her nose on them. “Too obvious!” She held up a plain white tee shirt and his old, worn Levi’s.
“Be the man in the laundrette,” she said, referring to the old advert where Nick Kamen stripped off, puts his jeans in a washing machine and sat in his boxers waiting for them to dry.
As a fourteen-year-old, Kippy had watched the advert a lot. Even now, if Marvin Gaye’s Heard it Through the Grapevine came on the radio, he felt his body quiver in excitement.
The outfit seemed to have done the trick. The party-goers were sixty-forty men to women. Lillian and Kippy were fashionably late arriving, and the attention that greeted them was flattering.
The party’s host made his way towards them, his eyes fixed on Kippy.
“Lillian! You beautiful thing, you. Who’s this?”
Danny wasn’t his ‘type’ anyway. Until very recently, Kippy couldn’t have told you what his type was. A picture swam before his eyes, a half-naked man wearing turned down overalls and a lazy grin. He blinked several times, hoping he wouldn’t cry.
Lillian leant forward and whispered something to Danny.
“I’ll get you both a drink,” Danny said. “And then mingle, do! We’re all good friends of Dorothy here.”
He winked, the eyes then flashing Kippy a lustful look.
“Are you okay, Alan?” Lillian asked. She was the only person under thirty who ever called him that, but he thought he maybe liked it. She said, ‘Alan’, when she was being serious, or asking difficult questions.
“Aye,” he nodded slowly. He’d be better once he had a drink in him. “Who’s Dorothy?”
©Emma Baird 2017
Ever wondered what a writers’ retreat is like? Me too…
Author Jackie Copleton (A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding, long-listed for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2016, a BBC Radio 2 book club pick and a Richard and Judy Book Club choice last year) kindly obliged me with this explanation…
Alone with the Voices in My Head
By Jackie Copleton
I’m just back from a two-week writing residency in rural Ireland in January, probably one not best suited to those who like the comfort of a street lamp or a café that hasn’t closed for winter. But I loved my stay at the Heinrich Böll Cottage – including all the solitary hours and one offer to marry me off to a neighbour who sold turf.
The ‘Secret’ of Writing Retreats
The cottage had a fire but no internet or television and only one radio channel. By day three I already knew which presenter to avoid. Nightfall came at 5pm and unless I wanted to put on a luminescent safety jacket and walk ten-minutes in the dark to the nearest pub for human company, that radio was the only contact with the outside world. It was lonely but I wrote shedloads. I had little to do by way of an alternative. And therein may lie the ‘secret’ of a writing retreat.
The temptation to get the whip out and only write from dawn to dusk is understandable if you’ve forked out money on a tight budget for a self-funded stay and that voice in your head keeps asking, ‘Can you afford this? Is this whimsical self-indulgence? Why can’t you just write at home?’
However, a writing residency isn’t just about the words, it’s about space and time. The best lines, the plot breakthroughs, the aha moments of observations or dialogue often come when you’ve fallen in a bog or have run into an abandoned house to avoid the hail or you’re having a stand-off in the middle of the road with an annoyed looking tiny horse.
Despite setting myself rough word targets a day, I also managed to get outside to walk, cycle and drive over Achill Island in County Mayo. I saw megalithic tombs, a deserted village, treacherous cliffs, rainbows and stars. And I suspect these spots of beauty, rather than chaining myself to a desk, were what helped me get the words out in a flow rather than a dribble.
I have no idea if what I’ve written is any good, but in a fit of enthusiasm I went from that funded solo retreat to a subsidised self-funded one with other artists at beautiful Cove Park in Argyll thinking I’ll push on and try to finish a first draft – but I’ve hit a tiny wall. I’m still writing but not in the flurry I experienced in Ireland.
As I type these words a couple wearing matching slippers are curled up on the sofa opposite me in front of a wood-burning stove at the main centre. They look the picture of domestic compatibility while my book and I appear to have had a small domestic. Our slippers are not matching but we are still talking to one another.
That’s the thing: you can find the perfect location, a great set-up (solo or surrounded by inspiring other writers), have an action plan and the money saved but if you’re not feeling it, you might as well be at home doing the ironing or getting your tax returns completed, with Facebook, Netflix and Radio Four all providing a glorious noisy thrilling distraction until the words bubble to the surface.
However, if you get the opportunity, go for it. But remember to leave your chair at regular intervals – you’re collecting experiences not just writing about them.
(Top pic shows the paperback cover, while the bottom picture is the hardback.)
I’m a big believer in the powers of the search engine. Ask a question – any question – and someone’s asked it before you. Here’s a case in point. Yesterday, I wanted to describe someone going into a beauty salon. Those of you who do make use of salon services, particularly nail bars, will know there’s a certain very strong, chemical smell associated with them. What is it?
I began to type the words, “what does a nail salon” in. By the time I’d typed “sm”, auto fill had kicked in, and the suggestion “What does a nail salon smell like” appeared.
The first site I found was on answers yahoo – and funnily enough, was from someone writing about nail salons and wanting to know what that smell is. The answers weren’t terribly helpful. Someone had suggested dead cats, but one or two sites later and I had my answer.
That’s just one example. For the book I’ve just finished (first draft only), I needed to know if exploding cars happen often, what takes place at a memory clinic, how Alzheimer’s is diagnosed, what happens during a medical termination, when Glasgow Caledonian became a university, if Botox is a brand name or a generic name for face-freezing injections, and the lyrics to a number of songs,* all of which was revelaed with some judicious searching.
Then there’s the joy of the online thesaurus. You discover you’ve just used the same word three times in the last two paragraph and off you head to the thesaurus to find an alternative.
I have no idea how writers managed before the internet. Did they save up all their queries and then go to the library? Did they have to phone people up? Would the novelist writing about a nail salon 25 years ago have phoned up a salon and asked the question? As a result of the difficulties of research, did writers just write about things they knew a lot about?
Thanks heavens for the internet, hmm?
*Those lyrics might need to come out. I’m trying to work out if I would need to pay a fee for them, if I misquote them slightly, or have characters speak the lyrics to each other. There’s more information about using lyrics in your writing here.
This week’s Friday flash fiction was inspired by my inbox… tediously full of sales emails this morning.
Checking the door was firmly closed, Ardell’s Head of Marketing opened her desk drawer.
She poured herself a hefty slug of bourbon. It had been a stressful few months. Sales at Ardells had suffered and its management team twitched nervously.
“What can we do?” they railed. They lowered prices, they extended opening hours and they employed the pushiest salespeople, incentivising them with impossible targets.
Nothing had worked – and now it was Thanksgiving. She hadn’t even made it home to her family.
Oh well, she might as well put on a sale tomorrow. Call it something.
Black Friday maybe?
“What happened then, to make Friday so welcome this week?”
“Oh, you know… clients. Demanding ones. Forgetful ones. I had to re-issue three invoices this week.”
“Last Friday wasn’t a great day.”
“Good point. There are a lot of people who won’t recall Fridays with favour for a while.”
“We should re-claim Fridays of course. Show them we are not afraid.”
“Too right! Fridays are when we kick back aren’t they? We go out and we celebrate with our friends and families. We drink and we eat and we laugh.”
Je suis en terrasse.
Pic thanks to Slapix.
Recently, I heard someone opine that the first draft of a novel was basically a ‘word vomit’.*
Ooh, I get what she meant, but as someone who has just written the first draft of her first book, ‘word vomit’ made me want to cry. I must endeavour to toughen up if hearing some other person’s description of the writing process makes me react in such a pathetic way. It was not a personal comment on my own attempts, for heaven’s sakes!
Having triumphantly typed out ‘The End’ almost 14 days ago, I have ignored The Book ever since. I didn’t dare look at it and, as I had really galloped towards ‘The End’ at the rate of knots, not caring about casualties such as spelling, grammar, credibility or sense, I certainly feared to view it again.
So, adopting my best school prefect voice, I said to self today – “You MUST look at this. You MUST read it again. You MUST change stuff if necessary.” So in between writing bathroom blogs and bugging the editors of air conditioning websites (yes, really), I read Book Part 3.
Declutter – It’s Good For You
In another bid towards encouraging creativity (or putting off bidding for jobs online – you decide…) I finally got round to clearing out the spare room. I now have the dedicated office I promised myself way back in April. It’s a minimalist space where creative energy will flow, uninterrupted by endless tripping over of piles of washing in various states of dryness and dodging piles of paperwork. That’s the theory!
A women’s magazine I’m rather fond of (Woman & Home) had an article about de-cluttering in its latest edition. The aim, apparently, is to own no more than 100 things if you want to be free. Store all your music, books and pictures on your PC or online, go for a capsule wardrobe and the rest is easy. Idly, I wondered to myself, do ‘toiletries’, ‘skincare’ and ‘make-up’ count as three things, or should one count up the individual items? If the latter is true, I may well have reached the 100-item limit five times over. Woe!
Just to demonstrate that I can do a 100 limit, I did recently write a piece of flash fiction. It was for a competition. I didn’t win, or get mentioned or anything really, but it’s the taking part that counts, don’t you reckon? Here it is:
I’m a Deelan – Oh My Lord!
On Thursday I came home from work, disheartened.
My cat didn’t greet me at the door, but a handsome stranger was waiting in my kitchen. “Bobbee,” he said, “do you recognise me?” I shook my head. “Who has kept you company all these lonely months? Who has slept on your bed every night while you cried yourself to sleep?”
“You are Jazz?!” I exclaimed. “My cat?”
“I’m a deelan,” he said, “a human who can change into a cat and you are one too. Look!”
He clicked his fingers. I changed into a cat.
If any of you have your own examples of flash fiction, I’d love to read them so please feel free to post in the comments.
*LinkedIn – the writers and editors group. Very good for brain storming, and asking for advice on the creative and the more prosaic, such as ‘hey, what printer do you use and why?’
I think, I think in blog these days…
Bear with me. I find myself in the kitchen mindlessly drying dishes. My brain – I would say ever alert, but that’s not always the case – flits from subject to subject, hits on a few flights of fancy and goes: “Aha! Light bulb moment! Next blog post coming up!”
And then words sort of start coming, sentences, phrases and some urge to remember them and write them down appears from nowhere.
“Do you know what, insomnia – so interesting!”
“Procrastination – I can spin a tale or two out of that!”
“Cakes – there’s TONNES of material in them.”
Dear reader, you are the unfortunate victim of such sorry witterings. I apologise. Good lord, what the internet has unleashed on human kind…
THE NAUGHTY STUFF
What I also do, which is kind of naughty [HUH – you at the back there! Were you hoping for full-blown blue stuff? Not a chance my friend.] I look at everything that goes on around me and I kind of suck it up, [Grr, you at the back – STILL looking for the naughty stuff??] chew it up and use it. So a phrase, a story, a recollection I heard years ago will often resurface in what I write. I keep my fingers crossed that the originator doesn’t recognise the gem they told me that I’m now regurgitating.
Recently, I used two phrases/ideas I’d heard. One was about shoes. I was doing freelance work, writing about Louboutins. I ‘borrowed’ an idea to create an amusing intro for the article, where a woman I once worked alongside used to describe how she visited department stores and talked to the shoes she wanted to buy. “Hey girls, mummy’s going to take you home very soon.” That kind of thing.
Next, I was writing my own book and I’d recently seen this fantastic phrase on Facebook – “Who shat on her cornflakes?” Said lovely wasn’t looking too cheery in a pic. I saw the phrase and said to myself, “I’ve got to use that. It’s sublime.” And I did.
MOUTHS WIDE SHUT
I shouldn’t confess to this. My family and friends may resort to zipping their mouths shut in front of me in fear of their every uttering being sucked out and used up. I promise, dear all, to use only the occasional piece and I will thank you extensively, should I ever be fortunate enough to be in the position of writing ‘Acknowledgements’.
And finally… Lovely Sharon who blogs at sunshineandcelandines ran a competition recently, offering one of her gorgeous creations as first prize. I entered and won! The picture illustrating today’s blog is that prize. Isn’t is absolutely beautiful?
Oh, oh, oh! I have a deadline to meet dear readers. Once it seemed like many moons away. Now it gallops towards me faster than a…
Stuck for a metaphor here. Faster than my own attempts to neck a glass of red wine come Friday evenings? Faster than the cat comes screeching into the kitchen when he hears the fridge door opening?
Trouble is, it’s a self-imposed deadline and we all know how they work – or don’t work, truth be told. I’m still writing, but The End doesn’t seem quite as nigh as it did the other week when I was flushed with the glory of 8,000 words.
So as I lay in bed last night battling insomnia (again, though my friend Kylie’s good advice to concentrate on saying one word over and over again in your head has proved useful), I came up with a good old Top Ten list in my head and thought to myself: “Aha! I can procrastinate, blogger-stylee, while hopefully helping my fellow writers battle their own bouts of writer’s block/lack of self-discipline.”
- Drum roll… Ahem, just write. Set yourself a target of a number of words which you think you can easily achieve. Write that number – and only that number – and bask in feelings of achievement.
- Have an imaginary conversation with your lead character. I invited Katie to sit down across the table from me. I asked her how she was and how she would like the book to end up. ‘Happily,’ she said, ‘oh and can I snog one of the big boys from Year 6?’ I tutted, but said I would look into all options.
- Write your ending in synopsis form. I’ve actually written plans all the way through writing. The basic structure was always there, but as the book has developed, sometimes I’ve needed to add things in so I would write another detailed plan. It was useful because it included background on characters and why they were doing what they were doing.
- Go back over other chapters and tweak. It makes you feel as if you are doing something worthwhile.
- Go for a run. Or a walk, or a cycle ride. Basically, just get out in the fresh air and puff and pant a bit. Physical energy often stimulates mental energy.
- Think around different options for your book. I’ve been talking to my brother-in-law about an app which would serve as some kind of publicity tool, but thinking in different ways is good for creativity in general.
- Join a writers forum/group. I’m part of the LinkedIn writers/editors group and the people on there do have incredibly fascinating conversations. There’s all kinds of help and advice available, even if you just want to get a few people to shout at you online: GET WRITING YOU IDLER! (They wouldn’t; they’re too kind.)
- I’ve had a few astonishingly patient people reading my book for me as I go along, and I ask them from time to time if they think a chapter works and if they think a particular storyline is plausible/credible.
- Go and read other people’s writing blogs. I follow a few of them (the bottled worder, Daily (W)rite, thebookofalice, writings of a Mrs, Gabriel Locatero, Francis Barann, Sophie Bowns and a few others and it’s heartening reading about other people’s writing methods and practices.
- Drum roll… Ahem, just write.
What do you think? If you have any top tips for continued creativity, I’d love to hear them.