In which I look forward to the shiny new year

So this is 2012. It seems perfectly resonable so far, although it was trailed as a bumper exciting year, what with Olympics and Diamond Jubilees and The End of The World. Compared with the spoilers the opening week could be seen as just a tiny bit dull.

To brighten up the boredom, it is traditional, at this point in the calendar, to take stock of one’s life and make resolutions for its improvement. Now, lots of people don’t hold with resolutions. They point out that you always end up breaking them by about mid-January and then you get downhearted and end up doing worse that you were before you made the resolution. These people think they are being mature and sensible, when actually, they are fools. They are allowing their experience to override their hope. Hope should always be allowed to win in these little internal debates. Hopeful people may be disappointed more often, but I suspect they are still happier overall, and they’re definitely more fun to be around.

So, supressing my inner Eeyore, I have made three resolutions for 2012.

1.  Get fit. Get thin.

I’ll not bore you with this one. If you’ve read the blog before you’ll have heard all about it here. If you’ve not read that already then just click back there, where it said here and away you go.

Being fit is good. Not having a heart attack when you’re 40 is good. Not having to buy a whole new wardrobe every year because you’ve gone up another dress size is good. Being able to walk up small hills without turning blue and making death noises is good. For all these reasons and more I’m very focussed on losing weight this year.

My aim is to get down to somewhere below 10.5 stone by summer, and (and this bit’s important) still be the same weight by the end of the year. I’ve managed the losing weight bit before. The big challenge this year is staying at a healthy weight once I’m there, but it needs to be done, and so it shall.

2. Get some writing (apart from this lovely blog) out there into the world

There are two parts to being a writer pursuing publication. There’s the writing, and then there’s the pursuing publication. Sadly, the two activities don’t really require the same skills. One is all about sitting in a lonely garret and trying to type more words into Word than onto Twitter. The other is about venturing out into Big World and thrusting your precious manuscript into the hands of agents, publishers, publisher’s cleaning ladies, agent’s manicurists, and any other poor sod who gets in your way. That part of the deal is all about covering letters, having a killer synopsis, networking and the truly horrendous sounding Elevator Pitch.

This year I’m going to be getting my increasingly svelte derriere into gear on both fronts. The novel-in-progress which has already been in progress for far too long will get it’s final spit and polish and will be winging it’s way out to be rejected by Easter. My second novel will also be completed and out there landing on slush piles by the end of the year. And finally, I’ll have written a first draft of number three before it’s time to get all Auld Lang Syney at each other again. Oh yes I will.

3. I’m going to learn to drive.

“Hang on!” Some of you are probably shouting (those of you who know me in the Real World TM and are also odd enough to shout at your computers without shame), “You can already drive.”

And the weird shouting people are correct. I passed my driving test in 2008, at a very respectable second attempt. Admittedly the first attempt wasn’t that respectable and did involve a certain amount of trying to pull away in 3rd gear, but no-one normal passes their driving test first time, so that’s all good.

Unfortunately, since then very little actual driving has occured, to the point where I now don’t think I’ve driven for over a year. This is largely to do with the driving terror. I properly detest driving to the point of almost being phobic about it. I get genuinely scared at the idea. If I think I might have to drive the next day I won’t sleep the night before. Add that fear to a lifestyle where I live within walking distance of a city centre, do most of my paid work in central Birmingham where it’s much easier to get the train, even if you like driving, and you end up with a girl who has never got over the initial driving nerves.  

This is silly. I know that I’m a perfectly reasonable driver. A little inexperienced, but still less scary that lots of other people who hop in their motorised vehicles without hesitation. So this year, I am going to get over the driving fear, even if that does involve going back to the driving lesson stage with all the irritation and expense that entails.

This, I suspect, is the resolution I’m most likely to break. The first two are things I desperately want to achieve. This is one I’d quite like to achieve, but mainly is something I think I ought to do. And I can be a pig-headed little madam – being told I ought to do something (even by myself) rarely works as a motivator. Nonethless, I will try.

So those are my resolutions. They probably should include something about increasing my amount of paid work, but I’m responding to the low levels of freelance work out there on the horizon by making a happy face and hoping something turns up. (Anyone looking for a adult trainer in the Midlands area and/or online, please do get in touch though… I can train on advice skills, managing volunteers, welfare benefits, employment law, social media, training skills…)

Any thoughts on my aims for the year? Any resolutions of your own you’d like to share? For example, you might want to resolve to stay up to date with lovely Alison’s lovely blog by following or subscribing. I think that would be a very good resolution indeed.

In which I look backwards to Christmas and last year’s desert island.

Christmas, I think we have to acknowledge, is over. The decorations are still up but they’re starting to feel weirdly out of date and inappropriate. There are still leftovers in the fridge but no-one can really face eating them anymore, so they’ll sit there a couple more days before being thrown away with lots of comments about how chucking food out is bad and how we’re going to shop more carefully in future and only buy what we absolutely and definitely need.

So, how was your festive season lovely readers? Please do feel at leisure to tell me all about it in the comments. Mine was good in a traditional family oriented sort of a way. We did the usual couple compromise of my family at Christmas and his at New Year, with a 24 hour “just us” break in the middle. And that’s probably enough about that. I don’t want to turn into the sort of blogger who witters on about random personal details like what I had for breakfast. Marmitey toast, obviously. I’m not uncivilised.

But a very long time ago I did blog about a Desert Island Discs party and then totally failed to tell you what I’d actually picked. So belatedly and with apologies, here are my choices:

1. Tim Minchin, White Wine in the Sun

I love Tim Minchin. I don’t totally agree with all his lyrics here. Regardless of religious persuasions I don’t see how anyone could prefer the idea of hanging out with Richard Dawkins over Desmond Tutu. Tutu just comes across as jollier, and definitely more like to have anecdotes about Nelson Mandela that end, “Of course, we were both very very drunk…” However, I endorse the sentiment. Christmas is commercialised and gaudy and should be terrible, but I really really like it.

2. Jools Holland & the Rhythm and Blues Orchestra, Enjoy Yourself 

A top song for a desert island. It is important to enjoy oneself. This is also the track Jools Holland usually ends live performances with, so has good associations for me of outdoor summer gigs with friends, alcohol and little sausage rolls. Very few situations cannot be remedied by the addition of friends, alcohol and little sausage rolls.

3. Pure, Lightning Seeds

This is me and the Boy’s official Song. We picked it on a car journey to somewhere in the early years of The Relationship. I believe we’d decided that if we were in a Relationship we ought to have A Song. And so we do, and it’s sufficiently unsoppy not to cause nausea, which is also nice.

On the music front honourable mentions should go to Semisonic’s Secret Smile, The Danse Macrabre by Saint-Saens, Tim Minchin’s Not Perfect, and pretty much everything by The Beatles. On another day any or all of those might have made the cut.

That just leaves a book and a luxury item to select. I wimped out on book, and went for The House at Pooh Corner. I call this wimping out because it avoided picking between all the incredible grown-up books. I could have picked one (if I had it would probably have been between Margaret Attwood The Blind Assassin and Kazua Ishigura Never Let Me Go – at least until someone gets round to publishing all the Discworld novels in a single massive volume) but that would have felt like I was rejecting all the other books and I couldn’t do it. Anyway, In Which Tigger Comes to the Forest and has Breakfast is a work of unadulterated genius and I would lift my mood during any low desert island moments, so Winnie-the-Pooh it is.

And for my luxury, it would have to be paper and pens (which would somehow magically never run out) so I could write write write. Only having one book to read would be a personal nightmare, but if I could write I might just manage it. There are lots of elements to trying to become a published writer that are a real pain in the behind, not least the actual trying to get published part. Editing and proof-reading can also be something of a bind, but the ideas are things of pure joy, so if I could live half on my island and half inside my own imagination I might actually be quite happy.

So comment away below on all things Christmassy or desert islandy, and please come back later in the week when we’ll be talking New Year’s Resolutions. Probably. Unless I see something more interesting before then and end up writing about that instead. Farewell.

The Unromantic Romance Writer

So here’s a curious thing, dear internet, a much adored friend of mine recently pointed out to me how odd it is that I’m currently writing romance, because, she said, I am the least romantic person you could hope to meet. She’s not the first person to observe that I’m slightly lacking in the hearts and flowers department. My sister-in-law, much more recently married than my husband and I, oftens makes fun of our habit of marking shared emotional triumphs with a high five. She considers this unemotional in the extreme. She is equally bemused by the fact that she will share a heartfelt reminiscence from her wedding day, and then ask about memories of my wedding, only to be met with a blank face and a vague excuse about it having been a frightfully long time ago.

We don’t do Valentine’s Day. We don’t do anniversary gifts. For the first 2-3 years we had a competition to see who could buy the other the most ghastly wedding anniversary card, but that petered out after I refused to spend a fiver on objectively the most hideous card ever produced (about 8 pages of “rhyming” verse, much glitter, many badly drawn flowers). It would have been a surefire contest winner, but it cost five whole English pounds, which might otherwise have been spent on important accessories.

The most romantic gift my husband has ever bought me was a dictionary and thesaurus. The most romantic gift I’ve ever bought him was… no, actually I’ve got nothing to offer there.  He’s bought me flowers about three times in 15 years. If he started buying them regularly I’d probably think about getting him checked in for a brainscan. And flowers are wasted on me. They’re lovely when they’re fresh, but the following 3 weeks, where they slowly die and then begin to rot in the vase before I get around to chucking them out, does rather take the shine off.

However, I don’t think any of the above means I’m not romantic. I’d argue that it just recognises that romance isn’t something you can buy off the shelf in a one-size fits all package. To be truly romantic a gesture has to be individual. So, in our special little world, high fives are romantic. The act of mildly winding up people who think we should be more lovey-dovey is a personal, specific shared joke. The dictionary and thesaurus present really was romantic, because it was based on a very vague comment I’d made months earlier about wanting a nice dictionary and thesaurus, because I thought that maybe one day I might like to try to write stories, and a dictionary and thesaurus seemed like the sort of thing a Proper Writer ought to own. That’s personal, and personal, I think, is romantic.

So in a very individual way, maybe I am romantic, but even if I wasn’t I don’t think that would preclude me from writing romantic stories. It’s so common for writers to be asked whether they base stories on real people and real situations, and the answer, if we’re honest, is probably both “Of course,” and “Of course not.” In the bigger sense, you can ultimately only write from the brain that you have and that is entirely conditioned and created by the life you’ve led and the influences you’ve been exposed to. Having said that, I’ve never sat down and conciously based a story on a person or situation from my own life.

As a writer I don’t want to be tied to only writing about what I’ve directly experienced. I want to make stuff up. So even if I’m not romantic, there’s nothing to stop me from writing a character who is. In the story I’ve just begun my heroine is uptight, has an overblown sense of duty and is terrified of losing people she cares about. My hero is impulsive, loyal and focussed on living life to the full. When I write about those characters, I’m not thinking, how would I react in this situation? I’m thinking, how would this character react in this situation?

Your characters aren’t you. You don’t have to live their lives. If you did, there would be no fantasy novels, no historical stories and scary crime fiction would be even scarier, knowing how many people the writer had to dismember for the purposes of research.

So, in conclusion, I don’t need to be romantic to write romance. And anyway, I do think I’m romantic, but probably only in a way that 1 other person on the planet would appreciate, and in real-life, as in fiction, you only need 1 other person to make the romance work.

Reading that last sentence back I’m finding it a bit uncomfortably mawkish, so I think that’s a good place to stop. You can scurry off and follow me on twitter, or subscribe to the blog, or leave a little comment – are you romantic or does the notion induce a mild nausea? If you write, to what extent do you draw on your own experience? Or you could not comment and run along and crack on with the day. I shall go and do something bracing and emotionally unengaging. Good-day to one and all.

The downsides of writing too much too fast (or why I don’t do NaNo).

Tuesday is the 1st November, and, as such, marks the start of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month – although it’s actually totally international). NaNo is a fixture in many a writer’s calendar. The idea is that you commit to writing 50000 words during the month of November. It’s all about getting the words out, and it has become a valuable annual kick up the butt for many  writers. Some, such as Julia Crouch, have even gone on to get published with books they started during NaNo.

NaNo can be great. As a creative writing teacher, I get bored out of my brain from hearing, “I’d love to write a book but…” NaNo gets rid of the fatal ‘but’ and forces you to just get on with it. 50000 words in 30 days is 1667 words per day, or somewhere near the 2400 mark if you allow yourself weekends off. 50000 words still isn’t  a full-length novel (although it’s not far off one of the shorter formats, such as a Mills and Boon romance), but it’s an awful lot of white paper that you’ve killed off and an excellent starting point.

But I don’t do NaNo. Here’s why; it’s because I know I can write 2-2500 words per day. I’ve done it before. I wrote an 80000 word first draft of my current work-in-progress in jut under 8 weeks, writing 2000+ words per day Monday-Friday. I didn’t go back and correct. I didn’t edit as I went along. I just got the first draft out and onto the screen. I didn’t allow myself to leave the computer until at least 2000 words were done, and I did them every single weekday, whether I felt like it or not.

And that draft was terrible. Really truly terrible. Sure – there were odd sparkles of diamond amongst the manure but overall it was Not Good. And that will be true of most people’s 50000 NaNo words too. It’s not necessarily a problem. Editing and rewriting are a massive part, probably the main part, of writing a novel. I suspect that most writers’ actual first drafts are never seen by another living soul. The thing they call a “first draft” and send to critique partners or editors has had at least one vigorous tidy up before it’s deemed fit for other human beings to take a look.

But for me, where I feel I need to develop my writing is not in the area of just getting going and banging the words out. It’s in banging better words out. That’s why I’ve decided to write my second novel more slowly, to read back yesterday’s writing before I start todays, to make obvious revisions as I go along, to plan the outline of my plot and my different character’s transitions a bit more clearly. The first draft will still be terrible, but I’m hoping it will be marginally less terrible and feel a little tighter and more rounded.

So if you struggle to get started with your writing and maintain your motivation, then NaNo can be a brilliant spur. You can use the target to force yourself to get your words done every day. And it’s only a month so if the housework slides or you miss some overtime or your sleep patterns go out the window or you eat a lot more takeaway than is good for you then the sky won’t fall in. The only caveat is to remember that what you have at the end isn’t a novel. It might be a strong starting place for a novel, but you’ll need to find your own ways to maintain the motivation through the months of rewriting ahead.

For me getting the words out isn’t my particular writing problem. So, for my novel-writing at least, I’m trying a new mantra. Write less. Write slower. Write better. What do you thnk?