Wednesday, 1 November 2017


Been a while since I posted here, but I wanted to write something abut NaNoWriMo, and this seems the best place to put it. So here I am. Hello! Sorry about the dust and tumbleweed. I’ll have a good clean up at some point.


NaNoWriMo season is upon us once again and so the Nano-haters have begun crawling out of the woodwork, stretching their legs and wielding their snarky comments. It’s something I notice every year, and which drives me crazy every year, and so this year I’ve finally decided to say something.

Because I just don’t get it.  I don’t understand how writers, of all people  – who in my experience are, on the whole, a largely supportive community, and who by definition are natural empathisers because getting inside other people’s heads and understanding things from that point of view is literally WHAT THEY DO AS A JOB, find it necessary to pour scorn on people who decide to take on the NaNoWriMo challenge.

(By ‘writers’, of course, I mean ‘some writers’. Many wonderful writers are entirely supportive of NaNoWriMo. But not everyone is, and the people who are most vocal in their disdain for the process, as far as I can tell, tend to be professional, or partly-professional, writers. They are the people this is aimed at.)

There seems to be some sort of belief among these haters that NaNoWriMo  makes novel writing seem ‘easy’, or somehow devalues the process. That it undermines their own status as writers. And if this were true, I’d understand why some writers react the way they do. Making a living as a writer is hard. REALLY hard. I know that. And it’s natural to want to lash out at something which you feel threatened by.  What I don’t understand is why they perceive NaNoWriMo in this way. Because I’m pretty sure that’s not how anyone taking part sees it.

The arguments I hear reminds me of, and makes about as much sense as, some of the arguments which are used against gay marriage. No-one is going to think less of you as a professional writer because every November a whole bunch of other people have decided to have a go. They’re not doing it to undermine you, or to make a mockery of the profession, or to prove that anyone can do it. They just want to write. More specifically, they just want, for one month of the year,  to join in with the crazy circus which is NaNoWriMo.

I’ve made four attempts at NaNoWriMo over the years, and succeeded with three of them. By 'succeeded' I mean I managed, over the course of 30 days in November,  to get 50,000 words worth of brand new story down on  the page. (Or, if we’re being pedantic about it, into my laptop.)  And that’s all I mean. I don’t claim to have written the next great novel.  I don’t even claim to have written a novel. But each time, I wrote down 50,000 words which I wouldn’t have written down otherwise, and which all told part of the same story.  What I had, at the end of the month was an incomplete, very rough and ready first draft of a story I wanted to tell.

That’s all. And that’s all  I – and most people who take part – mean when I say I have ‘finished’ NaNoWriMo.

Sure we might go on about it a lot, and there are badges and t-shirts and all that jazz, for those who want them. But that’s not because we think we’ve written the Next Big Thing. It's because this watered-down version of ‘finishing’ (or ‘winning’, as some NaNoWriMo-ers refer to it)  is an achievement in itself. We’re celebrating the process, not the product.

No-one takes on NaNoWriMo and finds it easy. The message boards and forums are full of people tearing their hair out, wondering how on earth they are going to find time to meet that day’s quota of words, or stressing out about how behind they are, or wondering how they’re ever going to get out of the cul-de-sac they managed to write themselves into yesterday. For many people who take part, the month is a real roller-coaster of emotions. The challenge becomes crazy and all-encompassing, but that sense of achievement, when you do reach the end, or just ht a particular milestone along the way, is real. Very real.

One of the most galling comments I heard a writer once make about NaNoWriMo was “well, if people need that sort of external structure or motivation to be able to write, they’re clearly not cut out to be a proper writer. Perhaps they shouldn’t be doing it.”

The arrogance of that statement just floors me, every time. Almost every writer I know relies on some sort of structure – external or self-imposed – to force themselves to write.  They have  routines, where they sit at their desk for at the same time each day, or daily and weekly word-count targets, or they rely on deadlines, whether for the completion of a first draft or the next chapter. Many of them belong to writing groups, or have friends who are writers, or rely on the support of a critical friend to give feedback or to talk ideas through during the process. Needing that sort of help doesn’t make you less of a writer, or less ‘proper’. It makes you human.

Perhaps I’m biased, because I owe an awful lot to NaNoWriMo.  It was taking part in my first NaNoWriMo made me fall in love with writing. It was ‘winning’ in that first year which gave me the confidence to give up my safe, permanent job and try and make a living as a freelancer.  NOT because I thought I had suddenly turned into a brilliant writer who could earn money from it (I don’t, or at least not very often), but because I proved something to myself that month. I genuinely didn’t believe that I would finish, but it turned out that I had a great deal more self-discipline than I thought I did.  Discovering that gave me a sense of self-belief, and enough trust in myself to make the leap. Eight years on, I’m still freelancing, and it remains one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I'm not sure it's one I would have made if I hadn't discovered NaNoWriMo.

And it’s not just me. There are seventeen year olds writing alone in their bedrooms, who, for the month of November, get to be part of a giant, crazy, welcoming  community. There are people of all ages who have incredible stories to tell, and this is the event which inspires them to do just that. For the month of November, NaNoWriMo brings joy (and frustration, and pain, and sleep deprivation…but mainly joy) to thousands of people.  It affects them in ways you or I will never know, and in some cases, can’t even begin to imagine.

Maybe NaNoWriMo is not your thing, and that’s OK. It’s not for everyone. What’s not OK is to sneer at other people who have decided that it is their thing. Or if you’re going to sneer at them, at least do it inside your own head.  Because while yes, everyone is entitled to express their opinion, and that includes the NaNoWriMo haters, I also think it’s important to think about why you’re expressing that opinion, and whether it is going to help anyone. 

My favourite piece of writing advice, which is pinned above my desk, comes from Dave Eggers, who says: “No one can read the thoughts which are in your head. They can only read the words which put down, with great love and care, on the page.”

It’s a simple, but powerful statement. And you know where he made it? In a NaNoWriMo pep talk.

I’m not tackling NaNoWriMo myself this year. I’ve got too much other stuff  going on, with a bunch of short stories to finish, and a podcast I’m trying to get off the ground, and at some point I need to remember to do some work I actually get paid to do. But I’ll be watching from the sidelines, cheering them all on. Whether they ‘finish’ or not, whether it’s their first NaNoWriMo or they’re old hands, they are all in for a glorious ride. Let’s just let them get on with it in peace, shall we? Because by taking part, they're not going to harm anyone, or devalue the profession, or undermine anyone else's position. 

You know what might just do that? Getting all snarky about it.

Friday, 3 June 2016

50 writing prompts

I've been tweeting writing prompts for a while now. The plan (ahem) was that I would use them too, and get into the habit of doing a little bit of writing every day.

Yeah. Um....let's not talk about that.

What I have successfully managed to do is start a brand new 'tweet a daily writing prompt' habit. For ten weeks, in fact, which - since I'm giving myself the weekends off - brings the total so far to a nice round 50. Here's the full list so far:

1. A mistake you're glad you made (or one you wish you hadn't.)

2. You've been given £1000 to spend. GO!

3. Your worst culinary disaster

4. The weirdest piece of trivia you know, and why you remember it

5. A song which takes you back to a particular time or place

6. The stupidest argument you've ever had

7. Alternative career plans

8. The worst/best New Year's Eve you've ever spent

9. Write for 15 minutes without using the letter 's'

10. Your dream holiday itinerary - money is no object

11. A family tradition and how it started.

12. A time you were running late

13. Twenty of the most scathing insults you can come up with.

14. The advice you would give your 15 year old self.

15. The one that got away

16. A period of time you'd like to travel back to, and why

17. The best/worst customer service you've experienced

18. Being ill

19. Plan the perfect road trip. Destination, co-drivers, soundtrack, travel snacks....

20. Someone is in your home town for 48hrs - what should they do?

21. The best present you've ever been given

22. An interesting conversation you've overheard

23. Your childhood hero/heroine

24. Describe the best meal you ever ate

25. What was the worst moment of your school career?

26. Twenty uses for a marshmallow, which don't involve eating it.

27. An awkward conversation you've had.

28. Argue passionately for the opposite side of a cause you feel strongly about.

29. A place you fell in love with

30. Your home is on fire.You have your laptop, purse/wallet, phone, keys. What else do you grab and why?

31. DIY disasters

32. Write a chase scene - who or what is being chased, and why?

33. Someone has suddenly become homeless. How, and what do they do?

34. Set a music player to shuffle. Write about each song which plays, for as long as the song lasts.

35. Give a well known story a different ending

36. Something which hasn't been invented yet, but you wish it had.

37. Read an advice column, and write about what happens when someone takes (or ignores) the advice given

38. Trace the journey of a pound coin over the course of the day.

39. Happy Friday 13th! Write about bad luck turning into good, or vice versa

40. A fence. What was it designed to keep in or keep out, and what happens if it doesn't work?

41. The longest you've ever procrastinated about something

42. Guilty pleasures

43. Cancelled plans. Who cancels them, why, what are the consequences? (The more dire the better!)

43. A power struggle. Who has it, who wants it, how do they try and get it?

44. Time for a bit of romance! Come up with 5 new meet-cutes ( )

45. Something which annoys you even though you know it shouldn't

46. Write about a day which is governed by Murphy's Law - anything which can go wrong, does

47. Dream up and describe an extremely nice theme restaurant or bar

48. Add an eighth dwarf to the existing seven. How do the others react to his (or her) arrival?

49. List your 10 favourite words

50. What would be your specialist topic on Mastermind, and why do you know about it?

It's probably worth mentioning this all started after I did a comedy writing course, run by the fantastic Grainne Maguire who, as well as providing all sorts of practical advice and tools (not to mention biscuits) in our classes, sent a daily writing task by email each day. For those four weeks I did manage to stick to a daily writing habit, and really enjoyed it.

You can use the prompts any way you like, of course, but if you would like some advice, here is mine:

1. Write for 15 minutes. Or, if you're a fan of the Pomodoro Technique, you could write for one whole Pomodoro. If you have no idea what that last sentence means (which was me, a week or so ago) it's really worth having a look at the link.

2. However long you've decided to write for, keep writing for the entire time. Even if you think you've finished, or you get bored, or you think of something else you ought to be doing. And even if - especially if - your brain feels so empty that the idea of trying to squeeze anything else out of it makes you want to vomit. (Trust me. This will happen.) The best ideas will be the ones which come right after that point where you feel like giving up. But only if you don't.

3. Use the prompt as a starting point, but if your thoughts or ideas wander off sideways and you end up writing about something else....that's fine. Just keep writing.

4. Don't pick and choose your prompts - if you can't write every day, then commit to writing on a particular day or days - no matter what the prompt is. Most of my favourite pieces of writing ended up being the ones on the topics I least wanted to write about.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

From the department of random trivia

Long overdue for a bit of whimsy around these parts, I think.

1. Today's birthday's include both Bram Stoker, who wrote Dracula and Margaret Mitchell, who wrote Gone With the Wind. So now I'm imagining some sort of weird  Rhett Butler / vampire crossover,  with Katherine Hepburn playing Scarlett O'Hara, because it's her birthday today too. Also, Edmond Halley (of the comet), Hermann Rorshach (of the inkblot test), Dr Christian Barnard, who performed the first ever heart transplant, singer Patti 'How Much is that Doggie in the Window' Page, and one of the guys who founded MySpace. (You have to wonder what those guys are up to these days.)  Put them all together, and that's quite a dinner party.

2. Alfred Hitchcock. He's known for making cameos in all of his films of course - you probably knew that already. What you might not know is that one of his films is called Lifeboat, and is set entirely IN a lifeboat - which, of course made a cameo appearance as a casual passer by more than a little tricky.  Apparently he nearly cast himself in the role of  Dead Body Randomly Floating In The Water, but eventually came up with a more ingenious solution - he'd lost a ton of weight before making the film, so appears on screen as both the before and after image in a newspaper advert for a fictional weight-loss company.  There's a nice compilation clip of all of his cameos here:

(Hitchcock's appearances were so well known, and so anticipated, in his later films he had to get them in as near to the beginning as possible, so audiences wouldn't be distracted from the plot while trying to find him.)

3. I'm off to hear one of the Simpsons writers give a talk tonight, so I reckon I'll have a good number 3, or possibly several of them, tomorrow.  Watch this space.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Being Brave (part 3)

Oh, OK. There it is.

A faint whispering, of missed opportunities and things that might have been, has started. The ghosts of regret are beginning to arrive.  It's funny how a tiny piece of new information can summon them up; one minute you are absolutely fine and then suddenly there they are, starting to poke you, daring you to listen to them, and luring you into a wallowing pit of gloom.

(I say absolutely fine, but that's not quite true. It has been a tough, tough week; so hard I can't even begin to explain.  I have learned a lot though. Mainly that learning important life lessons is EXHAUSTING. )

I'm trying to fight the regret ghosts off for now, almost on principle, but I'm not sure how long that will last.  I've learned, over the years, that sometimes the only way to deal with pain, sadness, hurt - any of those horrible emotions - is to let them take hold of you for a while.  The trick is to let yourself feel them, wait for them to wash over you and trust that eventually they will pass, and be replaced with something else. (God knows what though. For me at the moment it really could be anything.)

It hurts, it REALLY hurts, but if you can let it hurt for a little while, your brain inevitably finds itself feeling so sick of being in pain that it somehow chases the emotion away. That's my theory, anyway.

It is literally how I've spent my weekend, and most of the past week really -  letting emotions arrive when they want to (and boy do they pick their moments),  watching them hurtle towards me, waiting for them to crash and implode then just riding them out.  Waiting, not knowing which one is going to come next, or how long it will last.

I had no idea when I wrote that first post, and made that resolution to go and do something, that there would end up being three parts to the story (The Bravery Trilogy. It has a nice ring to it, no?) but here we are.  It's a classic three act structure, and this third act has seen the very thing I was protecting myself from in the first place still sort of happening but in a way which was out of control and messy, and forced by circumstance. And so, with nothing else to lose I ended up doing  the thing I'd first decided to do, and then not to do, after all; knowing exactly what would happen, knowing exactly how much the outcome would hurt, and without the benefit of hope.

And it was f--king HORRIBLE.

Those moments of sadness still happen, and they are about a million times sadder than before, but they still lift sometimes.  And when they do lift, it's because they've been replaced with an angry energy, a fierce determination to get through this, and to be better for it, and to Just. Keep. Going.

I laughed today, for the first time. That's a good sign, I think. And I have begun eating again, which I wasn't really doing much of  earlier in the week. Some hard, hard lessons have come from this particular situation. Which is the silver lining I suppose. Plus, those in-between times have been surprisingly productive; frighteningly so in fact.

But the regret is circling.

I keep telling myself to ignore it, because after all, what's the point?  That's thing thing in life; there are no bad decisions. Not really. There is no knowing, anyway, if a decision was a right or a wrong one, because you can't possibly know that. There's nothing to measure against. You don't know would have happened it you had taken that other path, if you'd just waited a little bit longer or perhaps if you hadn't waited for quite so long.  It's so easy, and tempting, to wonder about that. But that's not the point.

At the end of the day there are decisions.  Just decisions. You make them, and sometimes you make them by default, because you don't do anything else, and then there are consequences.

So I'm trying not to listen to the ghosts.  I don't know how long that will last, and I expect that at some point I'll just have to give into them, for a little while at least, and let those feelings of regret take hold. Not forever, just long enough to give them a chance to pass.

Because eventually, of course, they will.

(I don't know why I am writing about all of this, really.  It helps to write about it though, and maybe reading about it will help someone, somewhere, too.)

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Being brave part 2

So. That tiny-but-huge act of bravery I was gearing myself up for? In the end, I didn't do it.


The particular act in question has now, for reasons I won't go into, been rendered more than little bit  redundant. Windows have sailed, ships have been bolted, horses are now closed.  Or something like that.

I keep waiting for the regret to kick in but - somewhat surprisingly -  it hasn't happened. There are plenty of other emotions swilling around in my head and my heart;  hurt, disappointment, anxiety, wounded pride.....all the really fun ones. Then there's the occasional bout of fear that things will always feel like this; that I'm doomed to be miserable forever (they won't, of course, I know they won't, but right now it's a little hard to remember that) and a general sense of confusion, interspersed with the occasional flash of anger - often irrational,sometimes not - directed at everything and nothing in particular all at once.

Mainly though,  I'm just sad. It's a constant, low-level sadness that just sort of hovers around like a mosquito, buzzing just loudly enough that I know it's there. Sometimes it settles over me and makes it impossible to think about anything else, other times it lifts for a while and I find myself surprised to be joking with strangers, smiling at shopkeepers, getting on with my day as if life were perfectly normal.  And then the buzzing starts again, and we're back to square one.

And yet, no regret.

I think perhaps it's because it was never about not being brave enough. There are risks and there are calculated risks and sometimes when you do the calculations, you get an answer you really, REALLY didn't want. You can check, and check again and triple-check but the answer is still the same, and  at some point you have to admit that it's right.  And if you're really honest with yourself, deep deep down, you knew that all along.

And so, if you're smart, you don't act.  For your own sanity, your own safety, your own peace of mind. Because there's a very fine line between being brave and being stupid; actions which are risky and ones which are downright foolhardy.  And sometimes, giving yourself permission not to act is the bravest thing you  can do of all.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Being Brave

I've been having a few ups and downs in the world of freelancing lately. Ups have included a lovely mid-week trip to Edinburgh; downs mainly involve  narrowly missing out on some work I would have loved to do, and worked really hard to try and win.  Still, life goes on. The scars will heal. The bills will be paid (I hope.)

One thing I've realised is that freelancing is a lot like dating. In the last few months I've swapped contact details with someone who sparked my interest then played the will-they-won't-they-call waiting game; I've had coffee with various people purely so we can size each other up and I've had a REALLY awkward break-up conversation. Someone I know has said to me 'I'm not going to hook up with this person, but I think they're perfect for you. Can I pass on your details?' and I've even, I'm a little ashamed to say, resorted to dodging emails in order to extricate myself from an expired (in my mind, at least) relationship. None of these things had anything to do with my personal life. 

Courting people for work, courting people for romance....there's a lot of overlap. You're constantly presenting your best self to others, then waiting for their judgement. You have to be honest with other people and - the even harder bit - with yourself, about what it is you're looking for, and what you're not prepared to do. You have to be brave enough to say no to things which aren't quite right, and trust that there's something else out there. And when you do find what you're looking for and you fall in love – whether with the perfect work opportunity, or the right person, you have to go and chase after it, without any idea of what the outcome might be. You have to take risks. Constantly.

In both love and work, there are safer options. You can simply do nothing at all (and end up unemployed and alone) or you can take the 'normal' route. Find a regular full-time job, settle down with Mr He's-OK-I-guess-and-it's-better-than-being-on-my-own. These are not terrible options. Plenty of people take those options and there is still, even now I think, a lot of pressure to follow that path. It's easy to see why it's so tempting.

But for some of us - and I think we're growing in number – that's not the right choice. The alternatives might involve doing things which are, quite frankly, sometimes terrifying, but as hard and as scary as it can be sometimes we still know what feels right for us. Don't ask me how we know - we just know. I know I'd rather be freelancing than be tied down to a not-quite-perfect job in much the same way I'd rather be single than settle for a relationship with just anyone. I suspect it's the same something, deep in my DNA, which is responsible for both.

It takes guts though. You need the courage to go against the grain in the first place. And then (and here's the real kicker) you have to keep being courageous, performing little acts of bravery over and over again. It's easy, after a while, to forget that this is what you are doing. Being brave might have become a habit, but doing something habitually doesn't necessarily make it more pleasant, or less painful. Anyone with a regular waxing appointment will tell you that.

In the news we hear stories of great acts of bravery all of the time. People climb dangerous mountains to rescue other people and watch loved ones battle cancer and  fight for what they believe in even under the most extraordinarily difficult circumstances.  Perhaps not as newsworthy, but no less important, are the smaller acts of bravery. The tiny moments of fear which we feel but try to ignore. The times we don't just listen to our heart, but we actually act on what it is telling us. Even though our head is freaking out. The times when we say out loud what we really want, or tell someone how we really feel about them, or ask a question we're scared to know the answer to.  When we finally press the 'send' button on the kind of email where you have to take a deep breath, and hover your finger over the keyboard for ages first, and then when you do press it you feel a combination of relief and anxiety and hope and wishing the internet had never been invented all at once. 

The risks we take in love, in work, in life generally every single day, seem small. We have to tell ourselves that these moments are tiny, and were no big deal, otherwise we'd never be able to cope with the thought of doing them. But sometimes  it's important to remember how big they feel in the moment too. Being brave is hard. Really hard.

One of my friends performed one of those little acts of bravery recently, in matters of the heart. It didn't pay off – or at least, not in the way that she wanted it to - but that doesn't mean it wasn't worth the risk. Regardless of the outcome, those moments leave us with something. They leave us with stories.

The stories of these tiny-but-huge moments are the ones we tell ourselves the next time we need to do something scary. We use them to remind ourselves that we know how to be brave, that we can be brave, because we've done it before.  When they have happy endings they provide concrete evidence that sometimes risks are worth taking. And when they don't end the way we wanted them to, they can give us comfort. We know that even if something terrible happens, we've been through something similar before, and survived. They help us remember that no matter what happens as a result of the crazy, hold-onto-your-hat-and-just-jump leap of faith we're about to take, we'll be OK.  

Those stories are what make us brave enough to be brave again. And again. And again.  They provide an extra boost of courage, just when we need it the most, and give us tiny scraps of faith we can cling on to. They are what make the difference between thinking and doing, acting and not acting. Being proud that we tried or regretting the fact that we didn't. 

Small moments, powerful stories.

The best thing about bravery is that it's contagious. Talking to my heroic, kick-ass friend the other night reminded me of that. By sharing her story, she passed a tiny nugget of courage on to me, too. I haven't done anything with it yet but I absolutely intend to. And when that tiny-but-huge moment does arrive, it is going to find me waiting. Still terrified, still wondering what I'm about to let myself in for,  but perhaps with enough courage now to go and find out. 

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Not to worry

You can read in full  F Scott Fitzgerald's wonderful letter of advice for his 11 year old daughter over at the equally wonderful Letters of Note website.

My favourite part is this list of 'things not to worry about':

Don't worry about popular opinion
Don't worry about dolls
Don't worry about the past
Don't worry about the future
Don't worry about growing up
Don't worry about anybody getting ahead of you
Don't worry about triumph
Don't worry about failure unless it comes through your own fault
Don't worry about mosquitoes
Don't worry about flies
Don't worry about insects in general
Don't worry about parents
Don't worry about boys
Don't worry about disappointments
Don't worry about pleasures
Don't worry about satisfactions