Tuesday, 30 January 2018

What I'm Reading Now - January

I thought I'd add something new to the blog, a book share. 

I stopped reading for a long time after having kids, the same as I stopped writing fiction. I was too tired from the broken nights and hectic days of having tiny kids. I literally couldn't read more than a few lines without falling asleep. And if I did manage to read something my mind was so foggy I couldn't retain it, so I found myself getting a few chapters into a book before I realised I had already read it, but still couldn't remember how it ended.

I sleep trained my youngest over the past few years, really slowly and we eventually worked the gradual withdrawal to sitting outside her room for a half hour to an hour while she fell asleep. Rather than stare at my phone, I tried reading again. It took a bit of training to stay awake; short, pithy crime novels seemed to help, but I was soon able read a decent amount in that time and remember it. Now that my little monster goes to sleep without me watching over her, I read in bed as a way of winding down before sleep. I don't manage to go through a book as quickly in that way, but I'm still getting some reading time in without feeling guilty that I'm not writing or cleaning or doing something else Mom-ish.


Living abroad where the first language is not English, it's difficult to have access to a wide source of new books unless you want to spend a fortune. We go to libraries almost weekly, so we tend to work our way through the English language sections pretty quickly. I also swap books with friends. As a result I'm not picky about what I read, but I like recommendations. 

A friend brought me a copy of Bernard MacLaverty's new novel Midwinter Break as a late Christmas gift and highly recommended it. Though it wasn't what I was expecting, it is a lovely touching book. My enjoyment was helped by the fact that I went to Amsterdam for the first time last year and this is where the story of the retired couple takes place and part of the story is set around a out of the way spot that I bumbled into myself.

The pace of the novel is slow and its language softly poetic, similar to his novel Grace Notes which I also enjoyed. He focuses on the couple's in-jokes, their little moments. He draws us into their routine and inner thoughts with simple, precise detail, such as their daily Ailment Hour when they discuss any illness or injury plaguing them. 

It does have an undercurrent of religious faith which is not usually a subject I'm interested in, but MacLaverty managed to cushion it within the characters' history and relationship in a way that it was not overwhelming.

Midwinter Break is short but sweet, a gentle read for a snowy winter's day.  

Last night I started Girl Reading by Katie Ward. I bought this title and I'm afraid to say, so far I'm underwhelmed. It's a collection of seven vignettes based on real portraits of a woman reading. It ranges from the 1300s in Siena, Italy to modern day. I've read the first 'chapter' and while the author has evoked the time and place well and I'm drawn into the characters, I struggled to follow the shifts in point of view and some of the scenes just didn't make sense to me. 

The section started quite slow and we were just getting to know the 3 most interesting characters when their dilemmas were just dropped, the reader left to fill in the blanks. The author finished the section with 'Many details go unrecorded' and while I don't need a happy ending, I do like a sense of finish to a piece.

I know I will enjoy going in search of the portraits after I finish each section, the first being Simone Martini's Annunciation but I hope the author gives me more time with the next characters and doesn't leave me hanging for the next 6 chapters.

Note: once I reached the last few sections of the novel, the disjointed style of the early chapters began to make sense to the overall plot of the novel. I understood what the author was doing and it was clever and well done, but to be honest, I didn't enjoy it as a read.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Back in the Saddle Again

Writing a weekly blog is as difficult as I thought . . . thanks for all the readers who have come through the Poetry Bloggers Revival Tour. It's pushed me to keep going. I've also read some really interesting bloggers in the group, so I'd definitely recommend wandering through the list on the link above.

My scheduled writing time last week didn't go to plan, but that's not unusual. I got a page written when my son showed up in a panic and I had to help sort his problem. Once we managed that, my daughter's lesson had finished and that was the end of my writing time.

I went to my writing group though which is always a boost to my writing mood. I also edited and rewrote my submitted chapter to my group's helpful comments. I wrote a film review for my other blog. I'm still chugging away at the two poems I need to finish and I found two images in my head that are probably the beginnings of something or a couple of somethings. So the week wasn't a total loss. Sometimes you have to accept the little wins, they can lead to bigger things.

For me, the more I write, the more the writing comes to me. It's like priming a well to get the full flow. So I scribble a few minutes in waiting rooms and cafes, at night when my thoughts are all over the place even though it feels like nothing will come of the half-coherent pages. 

Today I sat down at my scheduled writing time and wrote 3 pages, most of it the beginnings of a poem from one of those ideas that was percolating last week. I also managed to write out a new list of things I want to write: a few poems to finish, but also ideas for 3 new ones. 

My poetry is a slow process, sometimes I'll write a line or two on a poem in a day or tweak a few words or structure and that's it. I once submitted 2 poems for a themed anthology and the editor, a bit of a legend in American poetry, said he wanted 10 pages for my submission, so could I whip up another 8 in few weeks. I was amazed he thought that was possible, but everyone's process is different. 

I like having several projects to work on at one time, so I can move about a bit when the inspiration slows up. I also switch between fiction and poetry, writing and editing, blog, personal and creative writing. I may not get as much done as someone who sits for hours on their novel or turns out poem after poem in a day, but I've found a writing process that works for me and sometimes that's half the battle. 

I finally feel like I'm ready to push into 2018 properly. 

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Getting Out of a Rut

Getting started writing again after the long Christmas break has been difficult; moving past all the admin I need to catch up with, organising the family, the gray weather and a general feeling of malaise and being unfocussed. I haven't been able to attend a writing group in ages because of illness, cancellation, house guests. All just excuses, however legitimate they may be.

It's easier to edit, to submit to magazines, to write this blog, to do organisational work. It all needs to be done, but for my own writing mental health I need to be putting new words on a blank page. I have the time, a new notebook waiting for me, two poems I need to finish, but I have no new ideas and no motivation.

What is your motivation? It's not always clear. Some writers require a goal to aim for: the next project, a deadline, a collection to finish. I have those. Some are pushed from behind: a need to say something, a character that demands to be heard, a poem ready to be born. This is how I ususally work, but I'm not feeling the pressure at the moment. So I need to step out of my normal routine to shake something new loose.

How do you find motivation when it's lacking? Writer's block is the grand, scary term often used. It can be a problem for some writers. Sometimes when you finish a piece, it's hard to get going again. I find that after I finish a draft of a novel, I've run out of energy to start something new. I do need some time to relax and reset my mind. I've reached that point with my poetry. I've basically completed all the poems I had planned, so am scrabbling around for new ideas. 

Even mid-project when the writing has been flowing well you can just stall. It can be your brain sabotaging your work by being overly self-critical or just anxious about what you're trying to say. Then you just need to ignore the voice of your internal critic and just keep writing. 

Sometimes the piece you're trying to write just isn't working and you need to take a step back to evaluate. You can let it simmer unheeded for a bit and work on something different, but if you leave it for too long it can be very difficult to get started again. You can also try turning it upside down and approaching it from a totally different angle. 

There are lots of writing exercises to help push past being stuck or writer's block, but it starts with putting those first words down. They can be gobblygook to begin with, just to grease the engine a bit. Scribble them on a piece of scrap so you can immediately throw them out so you're not burdened with the idea of them having to be perfect or even readable.

Write lists if you're not ready for full sentences yet. List your character's favourite places or their favourite music and then the next day pick one of those to write a simple scene with. Take that list of 'what I want to write' and bluntly write the synopsis for each one, five or ten sentences as if you were telling a friend what your next poem or story is going to be about.

Write about why you can't write. What's holding you back? Rant about the Blue Monday, gray January weather. Go off on the fact that you have a mountain of ironing to do or you haven't translated yet another medical report from Finnish. Tell how you've painted your character into a corner, that their actions aren't believable, that you've fallen out of love with them. Try and find solutions, even ones that are implausible and fun just to get you out of the rut. Have an angel pull your character from their conundrum and take them on a 'this is your life' type adventure. Write your suddenly boring character as if they've just arrived on the scene; someone exotic and mysterious. Get to know her again from scratch.

Play with words: write down ten verbs connected with one occupation (like mountain climbing: scramble, hoist, perch) and ten nouns connected with another (DIY: paint, hammer, drywall) and 10 adjectives from another (cooking: moist, rising, fried) put them together in grammatically corrected but crazy sentences and then try and turn them into a poem. Find 10 new words from a dictionary and use them in a writing practice.

Rewrite a poem or scene where you're stuck from a different character's point of view. Describe the event from the end first. Rewrite a poem by replacing every verb and adjective with its opposite.

Give yourself deadlines or word limits: a poem a week, 1500 new words by next writing group. Arrange writing dates with a friend to write new material and to share it afterwards. Schedule yourself strict writing time, no screens, no answering the phone. Pen and paper and an hour to write. Go someplace unusual and write as if you were taking snapshots of the place.

Think about what pushes or pulls your writing along. Sometimes revisiting old techniques work, other times you need to discover new ones. 

Good luck and wish me some too. Tomorrow I have scheduled writing time and will take one of my prompts books with me to see if I can reignite the spark. 

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Resolutions and 2017 Report

It's almost mid-January and I'm just getting around to posting a review of my writing year and to making resolutions. As usual they are pretty vague and extension to what I'm already doing in my writing: I want to write more, submit more and hopefully get published more.

In more detail: I have one poem to finish for my Scottish collection, then I will edit it and start seeking a publisher. I need probably another 10-15 poems for my Finnish collection to do the same. I still want a publisher for my first novel and hope to finish the rewriting of my second so I can look to editing it.

I also want to submit more work to magazines and journals. I have a routine in place for this, so that hopefully won't be too hard to keep up.

I'd also like to do some public performances this year. It's been a long time since I've read to an audience and while I loathe it and am not comfortable doing it, it's important when promoting your work, so I'd like to get back in the swing of it.

I'd like to consider getting back into teaching for next autumn. I'm not sure where or how, but there must be even a small audience out there interested in learning about creative writing in English here.

Stats Report for 2017

I didn't quite make my target of 100 rejections this year, but I submitted to 65 magazines and anthologies and made 12 book or chapter submissions to competitions or book publishers. I have also made 2 grant applications.

I have had 7 acceptances, 13 poems in total published. I also made the long-list for a first chapter competition. So that's 72 rejections for 2017.

On the writing side I have written 19 new poems and finished 9 poems that I had started in previous years. That is compared to 7 poems finished in total in 2016. I honestly think that's the most I've ever written in one year with 2003 just beating it with 25 poems.

I also added thousands of words to my second novel, though I didn't keep track of how many.

It looks good when you break it down and it's one of the reasons I have been keeping track of these little stats. It gives me a little boost for the upcoming year. 

How did 2017 work out for you? Do you have plans in place for new year. I often make a list using the 'I want to write . . .' prompt, so I can see what poems I have in mind to write and what I need to finish. 

Welcome to 2018, may it be a prosperous one, full of beautiful words and plot turns enough to keep us writing. 

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Working Well with Others - Collaboration

Sometimes the opportunity comes up to work with other artists and all I can say is to jump at any chance presented to you. Working with other writers or even artists from other media is a great way to expand your repertoire, get your name further into the public domain and to put some spice in your work.

Over the years I've had various opportunities to work with other writers for readings, anthologies, workshops and other events, but I've really enjoyed branching out with artists from different art forms such as writing an improvised short play for a drama group, creating children's workshops with an electronic visual artist and a musician. Usually I'm asked to respond to an work of art and write a poem inspired by it and to give poems for an artist to respond to.

This is what the editor Jenny O'Grady at The Light Ekphrastic online journal has recently asked me to do. She's accepted a few of my poems and then paired me with a visual artist. We've shared our work and will create a new piece inspired by the each other's work. After looking at the pieces by the artist I've already started sketching out ideas for a new poem. I'm looking to see what she comes up with as well. Our work has been published and here's a link.

It gives me a boost of inspiriation to work with other artists, especially if you can do it in person and actually spend time discussing art, the project and various subjects. Writers and artists usually work too much in isolation, it is so good to connect even for short periods which is why I push for writers to attend writing groups, readings and other events. 

On a related note, I've joined the 2018 Poetry Bloggers Revival Tour, a conversation among poet bloggers to try and post weekly in 2018. Probably easier said than done, but I'm hoping it will push myself in all areas of my writing to write more. Check out the links on the post above to find some new poets to read and follow. Join the conversation. 

Happy 2018. I hope it's a creative and fruitful year for you.