Review and Interview with Romance Author Suzy England

What happens when the secrets of your past suddenly become the plot of a best-selling novel?

Suzy England


I don’t think many of us have considered this stomach-twisting possibility, but this is the premise of Suzy England’s debut book, ‘The Weekend’. Wealthy socialite Clark stumbles across a table full of hardcovers at a New York bookstore while waiting to propose to his girlfriend… and quickly realises that the books flying off the shelves into the hands of romance readers everywhere are a detailed, steamy and very identifiable recount of a thrilling affair he had with the author – a weekend he has never been able to forget.

It’s easy to see just from the summary why this story would be a hit, so it doesn’t come as a surprise to learn that ‘The Weekend’ was already an established success in its homeland of Wattpad before it was picked out by editing students at University of Southern Queensland, and then acquired by Black Phoenix Publishing Collective for mainstream publication. It’s a fun and quirky read, alternating between the story’s present day and the novel Clark is reading, and it’s sweet, but it’s also remarkably well-written. Suzy England is considered with her words, often moving the scene along with feeling and dialogue rather than big blocks of prose. This seems especially fitting for a moving novella about a whirlwind romance that takes place almost entirely in one small cabin over a single weekend.

I caught up with Suzy to ask her some questions…

Before we start off, can you share a bit about yourself, your education, work history, writing experience, etc.

According to my mom, my love of writing started in 1st Grade when I penned a poem about a bubble. My teacher loved it! I guess that’s when the seed was planted. It’s funny – I was talking about that poem with my mom recently and she said that when she read my poem for the first time, she didn’t believe that I actually wrote it myself. I don’t remember the exact wording of the poem (and we lost the original when our home burned) but evidently, it was somewhat advanced for a seven-year old’s mind. Imagine being accused of plagiarism by your own mother! LOL!

In 3rd grade, I fell in love with author Judy Blume. I read every one of her books–multiple times with some titles. In 5th grade, I started a writing club. I even had a pen name – Lucky Lemon Lollipop. Sophisticated, huh? I journaled and wrote poetry throughout junior high and high school. I wrote a modern version of Thorton Wilder’s play Our Town during my sophomore year. My English teacher printed copies and used it as a companion piece with the original text for several years. My senior year of high school, I fell in love with Chaucer (if that’s even possible) and wrote my own Canterbury Tale in iambic pentameter. If that doesn’t say nerd writer girl, I don’t know what does.

I entered adulthood–marriage and motherhood–and didn’t write a word for years. Then I found the world of online fanfiction. My first thought: Who are these weirdos who make up stories about existing characters? Within a year of stumbling on various online fandoms, I became a weirdo too! I have written fanfiction off and on for four different fandoms since 2005. Not only has it helped me grow as a writer, but it has also created some of my strongest friendships.

I graduated from college in 1994 with a degree in Education and became an elementary school teacher. I’ve taught 2nd and 3rd grades, and now I teach Physical Education. Best job ever! I get paid to play games with kids all day! I am excited to announce that I’m starting a Creative Writing club at my school this month. I’ll be working with several 2nd graders, coaching them in all areas of writing in preparation for a district competition in the spring.

True story: Back when I was in my last year of college, I went to see a psychic. Now I don’t hold much stock in mystical readings, but a friend begged me to go with her and I thought, why not? Looking back, the psychic predicted a lot of things that have actually come true in my life, with regard to relationships, children, and the like. But the most curious thing she told me was that teaching was not my true calling. She didn’t say exactly what my true calling would be, only that she saw letters and words in my future. Lots and lots of words.

What was the inspiration behind writing The Weekend?

The Weekend actually began life as a very short fanfic which married my love for a certain fandom with a well known novella. It has undergone many rewrites and has featured two very different endings. While most loved my original ending, some readers wished for an alternate ending. So I wrote a different ending, and it was well received for the most part. But I knew in my heart that my original ending was the true ending, so The Weekend will be published with my original ending. My apologies to those who like the alternate ending better. At the end of the day, I have to be true to myself and write the story that’s within me.

What other novels would you compare The Weekend to and have you always been a lover of Romance novels?

The Weekend is my updated retelling of Robert James Waller’s The Bridges of Madison County. That book imprinted on me from my very first reading. And then Clint Eastwood made his beautiful movie with the incomparable Meryl Streep and a haunting soundtrack/score and I fell in love with the story all over again. I find that whenever I’m flipping through television channels and find it playing, I stop whatever I’m doing to watch. I have always loved Romance novels and credit my mom for sharing so many wonderful books with me. And the titles she wouldn’t share? Well I’d just sneak those and read them in secret! (*ahem* every Jackie Collins novel I could smuggle into my room!)

Can you share your writing routine with us? Are you a morning or night writer, paper or pen, plotter or pantser?

I’m a night writer! Well, more of a “late afternoon/early evening writer.” Also, I’m a big “shower writer.” I do some of my very best thinking and compose some of my best dialogue in the shower. As a teacher, I try to get as much writing done in the summer months as possible. I didn’t write much this past summer BUT I did read a ton of books (16 novels!) so I’m gonna call it “research.”

Hate to admit it, but I’m 100% a pantser. Ugh! It can be so painful at times! I wish I could be one of those writers who map everything out in advance, but I’ve just never done it that way. I write exclusively on my laptop but keep a notebook and pen close by to jot down ideas when my computer isn’t handy. I have seven completed works and I haven’t written myself into a corner…yet.

Knowing what you now know, what advice would you give to aspiring writers regarding the writing process and the path to publication?

Four things:

  1. Write the stories you want to read. If you love it, others will love it too.
  2. Edit, edit, and edit some more. And then, when you’re certain your story is perfect, edit it again because I can promise that you missed something.
  3. If you’re pursuing a traditional publishing path, be careful not to query literary agents too soon. I have queried agents with projects that were not ready when I naively thought they were.
  4. Join the #WritingCommunity on Twitter! You will connect with authors all over the world who will love you, champion you, and send you hilarious vids/GIFs/memes when you’re having a bad day!

As far as publishing goes, there are so many paths! Never in my wildest dreams would I have guessed that by joining Wattpad back in 2015 I’d be publishing my novella today. The craziest part? My publishing dream came to me, via a DM from a Wattpad reader, asking to submit The Weekend to her Editing and Publishing class at the University of Southern Queensland for a full scale publishing project. I have learned so much on my journey with the incredible USQ students and their wonderful professors, who are also industry professionals and head Black Phoenix Publishing Collective.

Someone said life writes the best stories, and honestly, I think my path to publishing is one of the best.


‘The Weekend’ is available now for pre-order (link to come)! It will be released in eBook and print on 25 November, 2019, from Black Phoenix Publishing Collective. You can find out more about Suzy England at her website, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

The Five BIG Lessons I Wish I’d Known Before Writing My Novel

(Click here to watch the video version of this week’s blog).

As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, it took seven years to write and then publish Every Time He Dies. 

That’s a long time to stick with one project, and the manuscript changed many times as a result.  

The great thing about sticking with a project for a long period of time is that you learn many, many, lessons. For today’s blog, I’m going to unpack the five big lessons I wish I’d known before writing my novel, Every Time He Dies. Hopefully, these lessons will be useful to you as you continue along your own path to publication. 

1 / Have Patience

Like I said at the top of this blog, it takes a long time to write a book. You have to be patient with yourself and the project. Of course, it doesn’t have to take a long time to write a book, like the Book Writing Police won’t be banging on your door, fine in hand, if you write and publish a book in three weeks. But this is my blog, so I’m talking about my experience, and ETHD took a long time. There were so many times when I thought I was pulling the train into the station only to discover that some nasty so-so had extended the tracks. 

If I knew on day one that it would be seven years until my novel was published … well … this book may not exist. Huh? Who am I kidding, I still would have written it. I’m a writer, after all, so what else could I do? Watch Netflix? Pft. 

You will hit blocks.

You will suddenly realise there is a massive plot hole and you don’t know how to fix it.

You will worry that maybe this manuscript is unsalvageable and maybe you should start working on something else, but please (!), do not be quick to throw away a manuscript! 

Let things simmer. Consider how the story could be saved, restructured or overhauled.

Chances are, if you roll up your sleeves and get to work on fixing your broken down bicycle of a book, you’ll wind up with a manuscript that becomes the envy of every kid in the neighbourhood. 

2 / Resistance is greatest at the end

I never got sick of my book. Okay, look, I never got sick of my story, but I definitely got sick of proofreading and checking meticulous details such as formatting. Weirdly enough, I often had to remind myself to pay attention to the language and grammar of each sentence while I was proofreading (alongside five other readers I had enlisted), because I kept getting caught up in the story — the story I had written!

Working on ETHD was mostly a joy. However, I technically could have published this novel two years ago. So, why didn’t I? 

Well, there’s a bunch of logistical and practical reasons, but basically, it boiled down to two factors:

  1. Money
  2. Time

I could have published the book two years ago, it was good enough, but I wanted the book to be great and I wanted to be fully prepared myself.

I needed to know more about the industry, more about self-publishing, I wanted to add a bit more description, to enlist another round of beta-readers, to save a bit more cash etc. etc. Basically, I wanted the book and the book launch to be as successful as possible. 

Perfectionism is a bitch. 

This resistance to publishing my novel really boiled down to one factor: fear. 

I wanted reassurance that I was making good decisions. Is now the best time to publish? Is the book ready? Am I ready? Do I know what I’m doing? (Pst! You never know what you are doing).

Now, to be honest, the book has benefited from this two-year delay. Those extra two years gave me the time I needed to polish the manuscript to the best of my abilities, to hire the professionals I wanted to work with and to have a solid understanding of how to publish, marketing and promoting the book. 

So, it was worth it. However, perfectionism can easily turn into procrastination. Don’t let your manuscript become mouldy in the bottom drawer. Fix it up, pay a bunch of professionals to help you, and get that baby out there!

3 / Don’t do it by yourself

Don’t do it by yourself because you can’t do it by yourself. It takes a village to raise a child, and it also takes a village to publish a book.

Personally, I love reading the acknowledgement page at the back of a book (this isn’t always featured in fiction books but it’s becoming more common). While the author’s name may appear on the cover, I love learning about the many hands that were involved in the writing, revising, publishing and distributing of that text. 

My novel was shaped indirectly by the advice and guidance of my creative writing lecturers as they taught me how to write, and it was also directly shaped by their feedback on early drafts. The critique I receive from classmates and later, beta-reader, provided much needed direction as they identified the weaknesses that I couldn’t.

The markups I got from friends and family (ie: non-writers) told me what the ‘average’ reader would think of my story. Mentorships with professional editors and later, hiring professional editors showed me how to add body to my skeletal draft and how the story could have a totally different — and better — shape. 

Somewhere along the way, an early reader said, “You’re a great writer, but your ideas need a bit of work.” Now, I would have been offended had it not been the truth.

I am a good writer, but sometimes I need the input of others to lift my work to the next level. 

The thing is, our life experiences and perspectives are limited. When we share our art with (trusted) others and invite their feedback, we get the rare opportunity to see our work through another person’s eyes. Then, we can see where the story is weak and we can get to the business of fixing it. 

4 / It’s okay for the story to change

The version of Every Time He Dies that I am publishing is TOTALLY different from the book I set out to write seven years ago. 

The thing is, I am a fast writer and a slow reviser. I wrote the first draft of this book in a matter of months. I then spent years considering how the story could be different. What could I do to make it stronger, better?

It took a while to figure out whose story it really was, what voice I wanted to use, the perspective it should be told in, the mood and so much more. 

The novel’s premise changed dramatically twice.

First, it changed from a novel about two teenage boys to a novel about an adult woman and a ghost. Then it changed again from a novel about a group of strangers coming together to create a community to a novel about distigrated families, told through a dual perspective of a father and his daughter — don’t worry, I kept the ghost. 🙂

The first time the premise changed, I was excited. The second time, I was exhausted. Probably because I knew how much work would go into changing the story. However, the story is so much better now.

Hard work is hard, but the results are so much more pleasing. So, don’t be afraid to make big, dramatic changes!

5 / Seeing your book for the first time

Okay. So, I totally squealed the first time I saw the digital file that showed the front, spine and back cover. Finally, I got to see what my book was actually going to look like!

Maybe it’s because we live in such a visually orientated world, but for so long I’d been living with the vision of Daff, Lawrence and Liam’s story inside my head in the same way that we can recall memories or scenes from a movie.

For the first time, I was now seeing an exterior, visual symbol of the book I had spent so long writing. Hell, even viewing the files for the interior format design was exciting! Now, I could see the layout my pages were going to have, how the chapter titles were going to be presented, what the book itself was going to look like. 

Now, this euphoria was doubled the first time I held a physical copy.

So much of our life occurs in the digital space, so sometimes we forget how amazing tactical products or experiences can be. I could see how big my book was, and rather than looking at my words on the screen, I could now touch them with my fingers. I could sign the flyleaf and easily pop the book in my bag. My story was now mobile! Hmmm I mean, digital versions are mobile too, but you’d be WAY more upset if you left your i-reader or kindle at the bus stop!

It’s taken a lot of time, money and energy to get to this point, but I have to say that it was totally worth it.

I had to write Every Time He Dies, but I’m also ready to release it.

It’s time for the novel to go off and have its own experience in the world away from my meddling grasp! While my work on the novel is completed, your experience of this story is just beginning, and I can’t wait to hear all about it. 


EVERY TIME HE DIES

AVAILABLE FOR PREORDER + GIVEAWAY

‘Who knew that a book about murder, grief and disintegrated families could be so funny?’ – Paul WilliamsEverytimeHeDies_3D

‘A unique modern mystery that is one part psychic practices and one part police procedural. The fast pace, dynamic characters and intricate plot will keep readers hooked until the end.’ – Gregory James

‘It’s rare to find an Australian-set book of this scope and genre that could stand among its international peers and hold its own, but I won’t be surprised to see this book find its success in all corners of the crime genre reading world.’ – Shayla Morgansen

‘Can someone please make this into a TV series? This is a fabulous read and I want to see Liam and Daff on the small screen.’ – Carol Seeley


CLICK BELOW TO PREORDER NOW

Amazon Australia

Amazon US

Amazon UK

Barns & Noble

Bookdepository

Booktopia

Kobo

Glose


PREORDER GIVEAWAY!

Everyone who preorders a copy of Every Time He Dies (paperback or ebook) will go into the draw to win one of THREE MAJOR GRAND PRIZES.

To celebrate the release of Every Time He Dies, I’m running an EPIC book giveaway. The three grand prize packs include signed copies of:

🎉Dying in the First Person by Nike Sulway
🎉Bordertown by Gregory James
🎉Haunted by Shayla Morgansen
🎉The Spark Ignites by Kathleen Kelly
🎉Every Time He Dies by Tara Louise East

IMG_1576

If you preorder a copy, simply take a snapshot of your proof of purchase and fill out the entry form here. 

WAIT, THERE’S MORE!

Everyone who preorders a copy will ALSO receive the first five chapters straight to their inboxNot only will this tide you over until the book arrives, but it’s also my way of saying thanks!

Knowing Your Why: The Story Behind Every Time He Dies

As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, it took me seven years to write Every Time He Dies. Seven years is a long time. Now, I wasn’t working on the novel that entire time, but still, it takes a certain level of discipline to stick with an unpaid, time-consuming project for that long — even when you love it.

In short, if you want to write a novel then you have to know why you want to write it.

A why that is bigger than: 

  • it’s fun
  • it’s something to do
  • well, it’s better than cleaning the house!

There has to be a story behind your story. It doesn’t have to be a personal story (in fact, this can sometimes become problematic), it can a topic or issue that you want to explore more deeply. 

Why do you want to dedicate your precious time to writing, revising, publishing and promoting a novel? What are you trying to say with this novel? What are you trying to figure out by writing this book?

For me, I started writing Every Time He Dies after a close friend of mine passed away after a very long, and painful illness. This friend was only a few years older than me. They were young, fit, had a good diet, a great family and a sunny disposition. 

I’ve (weirdly/unfortunately) been to a lot of funerals. In fact, I’ve been to more funerals than weddings (the current ratio is 3:1). I’ve lost friends and family to illness, suicide and tragic accidents. In short, I’ve had my fair share of grief and I’ve lived in close proximity with others as they’ve gone through their own grieving process. 

In the West, we have a tendency to bury our grief and we avoid all conversations about death because we see it as morbid, but Death is a part of Life. As the now famous graph from TheOnion.com shows, Earth’s Death Holding stead At 100 Percent. 

So, I wanted to write a book that expressed my own feelings about death and grief. 

Please note, Every Time He Dies is a work of fiction; it’s not a fictionalised version of my life. The plot is entirely fabricated and yet, as the great adage goes: most memoirs are a work of fiction and most fiction is memoir.

You won’t discover anything about my personal life by reading ETHD, but you will come to know what I think about big topics like time, death, identity and memory. 

I wrote this book because I need to figure out my own feelings about death and I needed to do something with my grief. Some people drink, play sports or speak meanly to their kids. I write books. 

Every Time He Dies is a book about grief, but it’s also a book about life. It’s a story about bravery, female friendships, trusting your gut, forgiveness and the malleability of time.

Plus, it has a talking ghost … so it’s actually pretty funny … 

Writing is how I figure out what I think about certain subjects and topics.

Writing is slow. You have to really think about what it is you are trying to say and Every Time He Dies is the product of that exploration and I think it says it very well. 


EVERY TIME HE DIES

AVAILABLE FOR PREORDER + GIVEAWAY

‘Who knew that a book about murder, grief and disintegrated families could be so funny?’ – Paul WilliamsEverytimeHeDies_3D

‘A unique modern mystery that is one part psychic practices and one part police procedural. The fast pace, dynamic characters and intricate plot will keep readers hooked until the end.’ – Gregory James

‘It’s rare to find an Australian-set book of this scope and genre that could stand among its international peers and hold its own, but I won’t be surprised to see this book find its success in all corners of the crime genre reading world.’ – Shayla Morgansen

‘Can someone please make this into a TV series? This is a fabulous read and I want to see Liam and Daff on the small screen.’ – Carol Seeley


CLICK BELOW TO PREORDER NOW

Amazon Australia

Amazon US

Amazon UK

Barns & Noble

Bookdepository

Booktopia

Kobo

Glose


PREORDER GIVEAWAY!

Everyone who preorders a copy of Every Time He Dies (paperback or ebook) will go into the draw to win one of THREE MAJOR GRAND PRIZES.

To celebrate the release of Every Time He Dies, I’m running an EPIC book giveaway. The three grand prize packs include signed copies of:

🎉Dying in the First Person by Nike Sulway
🎉Bordertown by Gregory James
🎉Haunted by Shayla Morgansen
🎉The Spark Ignites by Kathleen Kelly
🎉Every Time He Dies by Tara Louise East

IMG_1576

If you preorder a copy, simply take a snapshot of your proof of purchase and fill out the entry form here. 

WAIT, THERE’S MORE!

Everyone who preorders a copy will ALSO receive the first five chapters straight to their inbox. Not only will this tide you over until the book arrives, but it’s also my way of saying thanks!

The two things you need to know about writing a novel

Writing a novel is a big deal. There are so many components that you need to consider and educate yourself on: writing craft, publishing, business. And there are so many habits that you need to develop: discipline, a writing routine, time management skills.

I learned so much writing Every Time He Dies, but there are two massive lessons that I want to cover in this week’s blog, and they are:

  •  Writing a novel takes as long as it takes 
  • The story will change. A lot.

It takes as long as it takes

If you’ve been following this blog or my Instagram posts for a while, then you’ve already heard that it took me seven years to write and publish, Every Time He Dies.

Of course, I wasn’t consistently working on the novel that entire time (that would be embarrassing!). There were HUGE caps of time when I wasn’t working on the novel because of various factors (study, work, relocating, travel). By the end of 2017, I realised I had taken the novel as far as I could and that it was time to get an editor. The only problem was a) I had no money and b) I was about to start Honours.

I tucked the manuscript away for an entire year while I saved money and concentrated on my studies. I didn’t touch the book for all of 2018.

With that in mind, you could say that it took six years to write and revise the novel. To be clear, I didn’t work on the novel every day for six years. Sometimes I didn’t work on the novel for three-six months because other things had to become the priority. 

Sometimes these stretches of inactivity were intentional; sometimes I needed to put distance between me and the work so that I could gain a better perspective. Sometimes I needed to detach from the work so that I could be more ruthless when it came time to begin the next round of revisions.

The story will change

Every Time He Dies changed many times. Some elements stayed the same, but the plot and characters were overhauled more than once. 

Every Time He Dies is about a woman, Daff, who finds a watch buried in the sand at Gold Beach, only the watch is haunted by a ghost with no memory of who he is or who he died. While trying to uncover his identity, Daff becomes entangled in her estranged father’s homicide investigation.     

This is not the novel I set out to write seven years ago. Initially, I wanted to write a murder mystery involving two teenage boys: boy number one dies under suspicious circumstances and boy number two tries to find out what happened. The plot thickens when boy number one returns as a ghost and together they try to solve his murder. Pretty different, no?

I drafted a couple of chapters, but the story lacked life.

One day, I was driving back home after running errands when a scene bloomed before my eyes. It was a conversation between a woman and a man, only the man was dead. The scene was electric. I pulled up at the front of my house (I wasn’t going to waste time hauling open the roller door or locking the car behind me, I had a scene to write!), raced in the front door and madly wrote out the scene. Seven years later, those three pages have remained virtually untouched.

You may have noticed that this scene was not about two teenage boys … Fortunately, I was in the early days of writing, so I had no qualms about scrapping those early chapters and starting again. 

I was teaching myself how to write a novel while writing a novel.

Writing regularly was helpful, but I supported my learning by reading writing advice books and by watching YouTube videos (regardless of genre, Brandon Sanderson’s lecturer series is a fantastic entry point!). 

Basically, I knew that I was green and that there was nothing valuable in those early chapters I was throwing out.

The scene that occurred to me was a gift from the muse (please note: this moment of inspired writing only happened twice in seven years). The scene was dramatic and climactic, and it gave me a point to work towards. All I had to do was figure out who the heck these characters were and what lead them to this moment. Easy, right? Um, no. 

It took seven years, countless re-writes, a ton of research, one mentorship, a Master Program (thanks USC), five beta-readers, a great structural editor, a great copy editor, three wonderful proofreaders and seven tons of coffee to write and publish, Every Time He Dies. 

In that time, the novel changed from a story about a group of strangers coming together to create a community, to a family drama about grief, identity, and secrets.

Characters’ changed names, gender, and occupations. Some characters were blended together, some removed and new ones added. A chapter from the middle of the book was moved to the start. The novel changed from a first-person perspective to a rotating third-person limited perspective (god, did that hurt!). 

The novel was initially set in Chicago, then Sydney, until finally, I settled on Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast. 

The title changed from Ghost Story (hey, I had to call it something) to Haunted to Concealed Constellations (don’t laugh) to Death Walkers and then finally Every Time He Dies.  

The tag line shifted from A Forensic Fairy Tale to A Ghost, A Cop and An embalmer Walk into a bar … to Even the Dead Can Lie.

I wrote 80, 000 words and then delete 20, 000 from the beginning because it wasn’t very interesting. Then I wrote another 40, 000. Then I deleted another 10, 000 of fluff. This expansion and contraction continued until the story settled at a comfortable 85, 000 words.

The point is, if you’re starting your first novel, don’t get too attached to the premise, setting, characters, voice or perspective. Cos, girlfriend, that shits gonna change. And usually for the better. 

Now that Every Time He Dies is on the cusp of release, I’ve finally started working on a new project. Perhaps this journey will be smoother, maybe it will be even more turbulent, either way, I’m in for the ride.

I hope you are too.

Every Time He Dies will be available for preorder September 16.

To keep up to date on all this ETHD and to gain early access and exclusive information about competitions and giveaway, please join my email newsletter here.

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Why Keeping a Journal is Vital to your Creative Practice

I’ve written in the past about the value of keeping a creative journal: a place where you can reflect upon your current project while you are creating it, but this post is different. This post is about journaling in general and how this practice can help your writing. 

Perhaps you’ve kept a diary or a journal in the past; a place where you could record activities, events, meetings, or appointments. But have you ever kept a journal that recorded your observations, thoughts and feelings?

If you can become an observer to your own thoughts and feelings, then you will be able to articulate certain experiences and sensations better than a writer who doesn’t take the time to analyse or reflect upon their life. 

By recording and critically evaluating your behaviour, feelings and thoughts, you will begin to clarify what your core values and beliefs are. As a writer, you need to know where you stand on particular issues so that you can write about them from a conscious and informed stand-point. 

Do not get hung up on the ‘proper’ way to keep a journal. There is no right way to record or reflect upon your day. To begin with, you might like to keep a bullet-point journal where you list the day’s events in bullet form followed by a brief (1-2 sentence) description of your thoughts or feelings. Maybe you’d prefer to write a paragraph about one event.  If you lean towards the spiritual/mindfulness side of things, you might like to keep a gratitude journal where you list all the people, experiences and objects you are grateful for. If you’re more of a pessimist, you could always rename this exercise as a what’s not wrong right now list

Writing cannot be separated from living.

If our writing becomes too detached from lived experience or from the world, then our stories will fail to connect with readers. Our words will become flat, our characters dull and our plots predictable.

If truth is stranger than fiction, then what better inspiration can there be than the content of our own lives, community and world? 

Inspiration is ‘out there,’ but it’s through our internal processing that we can turn the messy, perplexing, beautiful, scary, dramatic and reverent event into gripping stories. 

Writing is not a purely intellectual activity. It is a combination of imagination and intellect.  As Virginia Woolf said, it is the result of “discipline and the creative fire.”

All brain and no heart leads to unremarkable writing. 

Journals are loose, unpredictable and creative. You can write about the weather, reflect upon the day’s events, record your sleep patterns and dreams, your goals, your disappointments, that shitty thing you did to X and all the ways you were incredibly generous to Y. You can riff on a topic that’s gotten you all fired up or write about how a certain book or movie made you feel. What did the storyteller do right? What would you change about it?

You don’t have to write in your journal every day, but taking the time to regularly reflect on your life is a good practice. Not only for your craft but also the development of you as a human being. You needn’t write for hours. Fifteen minutes is good; three pages is enough to satisfy Julia Cameron. 

Keeping a journal may seem self-indulgent or juvenile, but that’s simply a matter of perspective. Learning to meaningfully reflect on your life, behaviours and thought processes isn’t childish. If anything, it is the mark of a person who is brave enough to examine the beautiful and the disfigured facets within their own character. 

Writing will make you a better writing. Keeping a journal will make you better still. And I can think of no better time to start than right now.

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Tiny Tales: Why Small Projects Are So Important

Writing a book is BIG.

It’s a big investment of time, energy, money, and caffeine, but don’t let that put you off trying. We have a tendency to think that the bigger the book the better, but if you’re just starting out or if you’d like to engage with a creative project minus the pressure, then starting small may be the better option for you.

Instead of sitting down to write a multi-generational family saga, try writing a tiny story about a child and their toy, an unexpected encounter, an uninvited guest or a mysterious package in the mail. 

Set a tiny word count between 10-500 words. 

You can be as precious or as un-precious as you like; you can scribble something out in five minutes, or you can spend an afternoon perfecting a single paragraph stuffed with ornate description.

Then, and here’s the kicker, publish it.

Post it on one or all of your social media pages. Stick it on your blog. Submit it to a short story or flash fiction competition.

If you really can’t stomach the idea of publishing it online, then read it to your partner, your parents, or best friend. Hell, read it to your dog! 

Learn how to engage intensely with your writing and then learn how to release it. The exercise will show you a number of things:

1) Your writing didn’t change the world, but it made some people happy
2) Your writing didn’t change the world, but it made some people unhappy
3) These people were mostly unhappy because your post had a typo

3) The world didn’t stop because you published something with a typo.

It takes a long time to write a novel. It’s an exercise in discipline and delayed gratification. These are good skills for a writer to have, but sometimes you want your cookie now, not after lunch.

Instead of writing an epic fantasy consider writing a tiny book.

This tiny book could be a collection of tiny stories, or it could be one beautiful tiny story. 

Your tiny book can be 30 pages long or 120 pages long. Don’t stress over the page count, the story will tell you what it needs. 

You could write a tiny story from the perspective of your cat. You could write a tiny story about a boy wandering lots in the city, then flip it and write it from the parents’ point of view! You could write about a segment of the population relocating to mars or about a girl who travels back in time to meet David Bowie — Oh wait, I already did that. 🙂

When you’ve finished your tiny book, make a book cover or hire someone to do it for you and then publish your beautiful little book through Amazon or Ingramspark. 

If technology ain’t your jam, then print your story and leave it on your partner’s bedside table, or slip it beneath the front door of your best friend’s house, or between the covers of a book in your local library or independent bookstore … You wild writer devil you. 

Writing can be VERY SERIOUS, but it can also be a teeny bit magical. You can write a long book or a very short book, but remember that the length of a book is not reflective of its quality or the joy experienced by the author when they were creating it.

Write long books, but write tiny books too. 

I look forward to reading what you come up with.

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How To Make Your Daily Walk Part of Your Creative Practice

In previous posts, I’ve written about how walking in a relaxed state with an open mind can lead to creative insight and new ideas. In fact, many authors consider their daily walking a part of their creative practice, as they use this time to solve plot holes and other creative problems. 

The walking practice I’m going to unpack in this post is different.  

Instead of walking with the intention of observing your surroundings and allowing your mind to wander, this post is about walking with the intention of solving creative problems by concentrating on them intensely. Cal Newport refers to this practice as productive meditation.  

Productive Meditation: walking as a way to solve creative problems

I first heard of productive meditation when listening to a podcast with the aforementioned Newport — an Associate Professor at Georgetown University and author of six productivity books. The phrase productive meditation may sound like an oxymoron and hard-core meditators may find this term slightly blasphemous but don’t discredit this practice just yet. 

The intention of meditation is to become detached from your thoughts; the purpose of productive meditation is to hone your thoughts on a creative problem. In this way, both practices are requiring you to take control of your thoughts. Meditation is about focussing on a mantra or your breath where disruptive thoughts are acknowledged and released before the meditator returns their focus to the mantra or their breath. Productive meditation is about focusing on a creative problem in order to find a solution. The idea is that when your mind wanders, you notice this disruption and shift your focus back to the issue at hand. 

Productive meditation is its most effective when done while going for a long walk, 60-120 minutes. Walking activates parts of our brain that are dormant when we’re sitting. This is why we often coming up with fresh ideas, creative solutions or insights during an afternoon stroll. 

My Experience

I decided to experiment with productive meditation after listening to the interview with Cal Newport. At the time, I was dealing with a particularly sticky creative problem. As you may or may not know, I started a doctorate in creative writing earlier this year. My doctorate comprises of two components, a creative work (in my case, a novel) and an accompanying exegesis. 

My research covers multiple areas of study including, but not limited to, ecofeminism, Anthropogenic fiction, the trickster archetype and human-animal relations. 

The problem? 

I was struggling to pull these seemingly incongruous areas of study into one cohesive narrative. While the novel doesn’t have to explicitly reflect ALL my research, I was unsatisfied with the work as it currently stood.

Basically, I knew I could do better. 

So, I followed Newport’s advice. 

To be clear, productive meditation is not as easy as it sounds. You are not simply thinking while walking. No, in order to get the most out of this practice, you must push your mind to think harder and to actively look for new connections, possibilities and solutions. Little will be gained by lazily cycling through the facts you already know and repeating the familiar thoughts you’ve already had about this particular problem.  

You needn’t power walk, this process isn’t about exercise. A gentle stroll or amble is suffice – preferable in fact – because you want your attention to be focussed on the problem at hand. Your thoughts should be turned inwards, not outwards. That being said, creative idealisation is heightened again when walking outside in nature as opposed to urban settings or office stairwells … after all, you’re not going to find much inspiration in there! 

It’s also a good idea to take a notepad and pen with you to record any ideas or insights that occur during your walk. 

My first productive meditation session went for two hours and to be totally transparent, the first twenty minutes were incredibly difficult.

Here’s a snapshot of some of the thoughts that were cycling through my mind:

  • You don’t have time for this
  • You should be back at your desk reading that journal article/writing that paper/working on the next chapter/revising that other chapter/replying to that email blah blah blah
  • This is stupid
  • Screw you, Newport
  • This isn’t working
  • I can’t find a solution because there is no solution to find
  • I’ve painted myself into a corner
  • I’ve totally screwed up this research project, what the heck was I thinking?

Now, to be even more transparent … I was terrified of finding a solution. 

Let me elaborate.

The reason I was resisting this exercise is because I was afraid that I might come up with a solution that would require me to scrap the manuscript and start again.

This is an unwelcome thought for any writer. The idea that I may have to toss my 60,000 word draft in the bin was .. let’s say … disheartening. 

Despite these thoughts, I was determined to stick with the experiment, mostly because Newport’s anecdotes were so convincing. For the first 20-30 minutes, I really struggled to stretch my mind. My thoughts alternated between all the research I had gathered over the past six months and the novel’s premise; cycling and repeating the same information over and over. 

I could sense the connections that ran between these supposedly unrelated topics, but I couldn’t articulate what those threads were.

If these connections were a school of fish, then I was standing on the pier with neither a line nor bait. 

I kept walking and I kept thinking; hard. Slowly and painfully, the connections between my research and the manuscript started to become clearer. The fish swam closer to the surface of the lake. 

After an hour, something shifting. 

If there is one thing I learned from this exercise it is this: you must stick with this process until you experience that first shift. 

That first shift is the key to unlocking your thinking process. Like a domino effect or a chain-reaction, once that first new idea pops into your head, you’d be surprised how this dislodges creative blocks and new ideas start flooding trickling in. 

As I continued my walk, I pushed harder against the boundaries of my limited thinking. I actively sought out new solutions, stopping every ten minutes to write down whatever ideas came to me. This may all sound a little vague, so let me get super-specific. 

During this stage, my thought process looked a little like this:

  • How can the research be turned into the premise for a novel?
  • How else might the research be reflected in a novel?
    (Hint: this is one of the best ways to come up with better ideas. Don’t ever accept the first answer/solution your mind comes up with. Ask what other possibilities many exist. Dig a little deeper and try to come up with at least five responses to every question or problem). 
  • What do I really want the novel to be about? 
  • How big of a scale do I want this novel to be? 
  • How do I want people to feel when they read this novel?
  • Do I want the voice/style/tone to be warm/literary/moody/eerie?

These were the general question that eventually leads to the first BIG realisation. After that, I was able to drill down on the structure of the manuscript. Another 90 minutes of walking passed. I continued to write down ideas and to ask myself further questions. Eventually, I had clarified my ideas enough to sit down at a picnic table and to write a fresh outline. 

To be clear, this was a broad outline that filled two A4 pages. (I tried to follow Steven Pressfield’s method of a single page outline, but failed!)

The Take-Away?

Productive meditation is a very effective tool that can add great value to your creative practice. My project benefited so much from this process that I’ve decided to do one session every week. 

To date, I have only used these sessions as a way to develop my creative work, but I have no doubt that they would be equally beneficial for academic work such as outlining research papers or thesis chapters. 

If you choose to experiment with this method, then I urge you to fully commit to the process. Push yourself to break out of your cycling thinking, challenge yourself to find new solutions and stick with the walk for the allotted time period (60-120 minutes). 

If you do decide to give this method a whirl, please reply in the comments or send me an email. I’d love to hear about how this method works for other creatives.


 

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