Friday, 21 March 2014

A short break…

Dear all, just a very quick note to say that I haven’t blogged for a couple of weeks due to being unwell and taking some time off to recover and get my strength back, and I won’t be blogging for another couple of weeks while I travel and sort out some personal arrangements, so to anyone who visits this blog, it is still live and I look forward to blogging again in April.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with some images I took on a recent walk, it made me realize that if I carried on blogging while not 100% it will probably only come out even more incoherently than it normally does…so rather than doing something half heartedly, I’ll wait until time and energy is back on my side. Also, I started Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged while I was laid up in bed and I can't put it down so this gives me a chance to get stuck into it!

Cheers all,

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Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Having a cold at least means I can let my imagination go…

Dear all, you may have heard me moaning in the last couple of blogs, like the typical man wuss I am, about how I’ve had a cold this week. It’s been a real pain because at first I thought it was just a 24/48 hour thing, but it turned into three days in bed with a headache, earache, toothache and sneezing…so, yes just a normal cold. Had I been in a job the obligatory ‘I’m dying’ phone call into the boss would have meant a few days off work. As it is, I am not employed and I am using my savings up to live in Spain for a little while, both as a break and an experience and in order to test my ability to write. So although I didn’t like being ill before, I really don’t like being ill now as it feels terrible to lose precious days out of this one year of escape.
                  Aside from the general unpleasantness of being unwell something else got to me, I had nearly three full days of thinking time, I felt unable to write or to go out so instead I just thought about what I was doing this year and of course being unwell didn’t lead to nice thoughts! I became a little depressed, wondering what I was playing at doing this trip. I doubted every word I had put down since being here, every idea for a story, every character, every plot twist, my vocabulary, my expressions, my descriptions…on and on it went, a mental dressing down. I questioned why I was continuing to try, maybe I should quit and go home, and maybe I should rethink everything…
                  Then I started to feel better. What a change of mood! From being miserable and doubting practically everything about myself except my age and name…the head cleared, the sneezes and toothache stopped…a sense of wellbeing returned. Fantastic.
                  I’m not saying I suddenly believe I’m the next literary sensation, I didn’t think that before and I don’t think it now, but my self-belief is back and with it the energy and will to write, thank goodness. I have so much to do!
                  Anyway, I ventured out for some much needed fresh air and a bit of the sun’s warmth today and I thought I’d share a few pics. I sat reading the Kindle for a couple of hours and it was just the tonic. It’s great to feel part of the world again and I’m looking forward to cracking on with some work.

Sunbathing with my Kindle...have I spent too much time alone? You decide...

Another thought came to me while I was out today that was a bit of a surprise. I was looking out at the lake and thinking how terrible the previous few days had been but that it was good that I had had a chance to think about things when I realised that people don’t often get a chance to sit on their backsides and just think about things. Not because we don’t want to, but we are busy, we have responsibilities that we can’t easily slack off from and ignore like when we were 18, they are important and people rely on us, we can’t not go to work, we can’t not look after our partners or our children or whatever. When was the last time you had the chance to just sit down and let your imagination run wild? I’m not talking about a half hour here and there on the train but that everyday normal life time you had as a kid when you could laze around and idly chit chat to your friends making up stuff and letting the world go by without concern?
The answer is probably not for a long time. We just don’t do it as adults, we always have our time filled, we always feel the need to do something and move on to the next task, or someone needs our time and attention.
                  It made me think back to my childhood when certain friends and I would enjoy making up our futures. It’s probably a common thing but I remember how fun it was to sit down and create these amazing universes where my friends and I would roam. Maybe we would be princes, or kings, or the rich owners of private islands or famous always changed. We would sit there for hours just talking, running amok had its moments as well but I’m talking about when as kids we would spend entire days pushing the limits of our imagination.
                  So as I lay there unwell, those moments came to mind. I am away from home so I didn’t have my friends and family around to help me and distract me, or take me out, I couldn’t rent movies, or buy a disgustingly large take away order, I couldn’t take a bath*…I couldn’t do the things that I normally would to entertain me from whatever I was going through. Instead I had me, myself and I, and I spent the time (once I started feeling better that is) thinking about my stories, my characters and so on. It made me realise that I don’t take any time out anymore to just make up stuff. I am always thinking I should be doing something. And whether that is writing related, it doesn’t’ matter, I am working on the laptop or checking emails. I have not been that kid who has just sat down and talked all day about the goings on inside my imagination (and I’m including all day sessions on the beer here too) and I really miss that. I do, I really miss just having that sense of freedom to talk inanely and crazily and just explore where my mind takes me.
                  I’m going to make sure that in the future I make the time to just sit and think. I will purposefully NOT take my laptop, I will NOT take pen and paper, I WILL specifically make time to just think. I would like to have that sense of freedom of thought as I did when 7 or 8 or 9. Let me know if you try it too.

On a different note, what it also made me think about is how lucky I am and how much I need to work on the depression front. People have so many hardships to endure and there’s me shutting down for three days over a cold and slumping into an attitude of self-loathing and self doubt. It is such a cliché to be so condemning about my writing; I really do just need to get on with it. For those of you who produce work through thick and thin I admire you, I’m in awe of people who work with such discipline and focus no matter how difficult their personal lives are.
And for those of you who are going through a difficult time, I hope whatever it is you find the strength to get through it and whether it is a silly little cold like mine or a serious condition then don’t give up, don’t doubt yourself and if you feel down, speak to someone, read, seek help and just keep going.

*In case you were wondering I have a shower…I haven’t gone three months without washing.

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Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Using real events

Dear all, I have spent the day ill in bed, I thought I was picking up but overnight the cold came back with a vengeance. Before I give you my address to send over all your flowers, chocolates and death threats to stop writing I thought I would talk about using real life events in fiction. The reason this came to mind is that in between bouts of sleep and taking paracetamol I have been watching news channels such as the BBC and CNN most of the day.
            Without going into any political discussions here it goes without saying the Ukraine situation has taken the largest chunk of the coverage along with the Oscar Pistorius trial and whatever your views I want to relate it to fiction writing. I don’t want to trivialize them because they don’t affect me, it is just that this is a blog on my views on writing and I don’t want to sound as if I am an expert on these issues when I am not, and that is exactly the point of this post.
            I am interested in writing fiction that has in the main, a contemporary setting and today has made me think about how I go about incorporating real events and the implications of doing so.
             The first question I have is how do I select the events to use? This will in part be answered by the development of the story and the direction it may take, but before I get on to that choice being made for me by the characters I create, there will also no doubt be a decision I as the writer, or by default the narrator I chose, makes. You see, for example, if I have contemporary London as the background to a story, there is only so much I can fit into to the descriptions of every day life, I can’t repeat every news story, every cultural event, every law, every court case, every sports event and so on, just as I can’t use every historical event that has ever happened to show why and how the current setting is the way it is. I have to choose and the process by which I do that I am not sure about. Sorry to keep using London but it’s my home and very likely the setting for a lot of my stories to come so I have to examine that. It is a city of over 8 million people, how do I select which cultures to involve, which religions, which institutions, which buildings, etc.?
If I am writing a story that has 2014 as part of its time frame is it my duty to include the Ukraine crisis because that is such a huge story I cannot pretend it isn’t happening even if it has nothing to do whatsoever with my story, but as a backdrop it is something that would look ridiculous by its omission? The thing is, I may think it is a huge story but I bet there are people that couldn’t give a flying fig about it and may not be paying attention at all. Then again, I could use that excuse for any topic! How do I actually know?
What level of research do I need to do before I feel qualified to involve a real life event and then what level of responsibility do I have to justify what I say? Do I have free reign to make up whatever the hell I like? Can I change things? For instance, can I use a real event but then fictionalize parts to suit my needs? I’m not talking about a general ‘rule’ for fiction writing, there are no doubts legal implications that any writer and publisher would need to know and work to concerning all sorts of issues that are simply not up for discussion. We all know about famous examples of the right to free speech and where this line may vary country to country, also the difference between creating fictional drama and purposefully using fiction to portray racism, homophobia, etc. I don’t want to discuss that here as I am not qualified to and it’s not really the subject I am interested in, that is something to take up another time, this is just a general point about the limits I feel I have, or rather, the limits I want to set myself for my particular type or style of writing.
What I am really interested in is character development. How do I build a character up by including background information that is relevant to my story but also based in reality? I guess one way of looking at it is how do I not hide behind a character by being selective in what I use? If I am to create interesting individuals that are believable they cannot just be different facets of my own personality, so the things I watch and read and learn about will be different with multiple characters. What research is needed to find and create other truthful characters with varying beliefs, interests, jobs, families and so on? It’s a twist on the character development issues I have spoken about before and remember studying about in my degree.
For instance, depending on what time of the day and what channel I caught the news, I may have heard and seen different interviews, different guest speakers, different recorded clips, different angles or views…all of that may or may not go into my characters, what level of research is needed before I think I am happy to go ahead with it? You have the usual research, books and reference libraries, Internet searching and research papers, etc. but do I need to go even further? Do I need to interview people from both sides of an argument? To go further on the above point, I could have sat glued in front of the television all day and purchased every single newspaper and feel as well informed as possible…but still only from the western viewpoint in what was available to me. I wouldn’t have been able to watch any Russian television, Russian news, Russian newspapers and so if for arguments sake I had an everyday normal Russian character in my story how would I know what they would have been told compared to a Ukrainian…or an American…and so on, I can’t use my information to build that character up because in reality they would have been built up using entirely different sets of information. Just wondering.
What about using not only real life events but real life people? Am I justified in throwing about names if I am not an expert on them? An example from today would be using Putin’s name in a story. Do I need to read some biographies on him before feeling okay about doing that or can I just say that if the character doesn’t know anything about him then I don’t need to either? Does it really matter? Who is going to judge the quality of setting if it is a tiny part of the story? Can I simply hide behind the characters and leave it at that?
The difference would be using a real life event as the core fundamental concept of the book. As a reader I can’t say I know much about Indian independence from British rule but what if as a writer I wanted to use that? I’m obviously talking about one of the greats here, Salman Rushdie and Midnight’s Children. Slightly different to my ability I’ll grant you ;) my level is probably more to do with the closing of a pub in my local High Street, not exactly a high-level global political diplomatic earthquake but by using a famous example I hope you get my drift. I don’t think at this stage of my ability i.e. the very beginning, I have got it in me to make any grand political statements but it is just a thought!
It is something I will keep in mind and take seriously as the years go on because I do feel that I want to use real life events in my work but to what extent I want to use them to make an interesting and realistic story, or to make any social or political points I don’t know, that will emerge as I start writing I guess.


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Tuesday, 4 March 2014


Dear all, there was an interesting article on the BBC website the other day concerning the topic of practice. The core concept being if you practice for a certain amount of time can you become good, or possibly great, at anything? I can’t remember where I have read about it before but it is a theory that has been around for quite a while. This particular article discusses the 10,000 hours principle. Have a read of the article if you have the time, there is debate to be had of course but as a topic I thought it would be interesting to relate it to writing.

I have said many times that the best advice I think you can give someone, is not specific technical advice, but simply the encouragement to keep going. There are countless books you can read that can teach you technique and countless courses you can go on and that is great. However, what I am fast learning is the need to simply produce a lot of work and how that in itself can make you better. I won’t go into the argument about geniuses here, or natural talent and all that, let’s keep that for another time. I like the idea that by putting in a certain amount of work, you will get results. The main thing with that is the reliance you need on yourself to constantly judge and appraise and critique your own work. You have to be honest and brutal with what you produce as otherwise you will keep on producing the same quality. Yes, you have to do all the other things that go with practice i.e. get feedback from others and all that, of course, but when you think about how much time goes into something it’s incredible. If you take the 10,000 hours figure, divide that by 24 for the number of days, that is 417…over a year of solid practice if you never slept, ate and brushed your teeth. If you average a working day to 8 hours, that is 1250 days, or three and a half years of practice every single day, no weekends, no holidays…if you work a 9-5, Mon-Fri and let’s say for example 45 weeks of the year…that is five and a half years.
            Let me ask you, if you started a job, would you want to be good at it in five and a half years time? I hope so. How many of us practice our hobbies for 40 hours a week consistently week after week after week? If you enjoy a Sunday game of football (ahem, soccer) then that is 90 mins. So you would have to play every week for something like 130 years to reach that number…I enjoy writing so if I have totally messed up that maths you know what excuse I have ready…
Whether or not you go along with this theory, or even the suggestion of it, it’s interesting to talk about practice in general. If I write every day, even if it is just in a journal, notes only, not formal prose, would my vocabulary, expression, style and so on improve? Surely I would say but you are free to argue.
I am really trying to write every day, I’m not always succeeding and there are plenty of temptations keeping me away from the keyboard but I would say at the very minimum I am thinking about writing every day. I would say that this is hugely important for a writer, I can’t explain it but there is definitely a process by which your mind, your subconscious, develops your ideas and stories while you are away from the laptop. After sleeping you can often find your brain has churned away to resolve some issue you were having, the same when going for a walk, or a run and so on. It is not just a mental exercise, many different people talk about the essential need for the brain to have time to think things through, there are many famous sportspeople that describe how important thinking through their technique is to them and their success, not just the physical practice of the free kick, or the serve, or the pass or whatever it was, but the mental visualization of it, going over and over and over and over it in your head. That too must form part of the hours of practice you need and for someone who is interested in writing I would say sometimes the best ideas come from those moments. However, you need to put yourself in a position where it is a conscious effort during the day or night, you tell yourself to think about it because you are passionate about it and enjoy it so much so your body and mind want to work as one to do it anyway, it may be a pressure but it’s one that is perversely enjoyable, even on those days when you think you are the stupidest most unskilled untalented idiot in the world who should just run away crying and never be heard from again, you have the opportunity to learn…I have plenty of those days by the way, I think I have already achieved my 10000 hours practice at that, several times over!
Of course, you have to vary what you practice; you can’t expect to be good at everything if you only ever repeat the same thing. A footballer doesn’t just practice passing and totally ignore penalties (English players aside that is….ooooooouuuu, don’t think I can ever go home now) and a boxer doesn’t just train to punch uppercuts and totally ignores hooks, and so on. You need to vary what you learn and with writing that goes too. That is why I am really enjoying this time away to test ideas out, experiment a bit, I can focus on character development one day and setting description the next, first person and third person and so on. There is so much to do that it will always and forever be just practice though, that’s the way I see it.
I had in mind to talk about experimenting with different styles but this took over today, I’ll talk about that another time. I have always felt that we could do so much more if we tried harder but it is so hard to do when you have commitments, if you have a full time job, children, studies and all the other things that go to making it hard to focus on the hobbies and it gets to the point where because you haven’t reached an expected standard, either expected by yourself or others, you give up, and that’s a real shame. So whether or not the 10000 rule is true, the old adage practice makes perfect still holds, I will try and write every day and I can always make myself feel better by saying that even if what I have produced today is total rubbish, I have learnt something just by the act of practicing…that’s an excuse I’m never going to tire from!


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