Journeys in Writing – Why My Goal is Just to Keep Going

As I mentioned in a previous post I am attempting NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), which is why this blog has been so quiet these past couple of weeks *insert tumbleweed here*. I figured it would be a perfect opportunity to do it, since I’m working at a 12-hour-a-week job in Germany as opposed to my usual hectic schedule of essay writing and general university busyness. It seemed like the perfect time to try and write 50,000 words. I already had a novel planned, I probably had as much free time as I ever will have in the near future, and if I didn’t do it now then I would probably have to wait at least two years before another opportunity would arise (I do not anticipate doing it again next year!)

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This is what my writing page normally looks like – mostly scribbles…

I have to admit, I was sceptical about my ability to do this. I’d struggled to even finish the first chapter of a book in the past, and the vast majority of my story ideas had come to nothing. Who’s to say the same thing wouldn’t happen again this time? My attitude (though I refused to admit it to myself) was: ‘If you expect to fail, you can’t be disappointed.’ With my external zeal and my internal safety net, there was no way I could fail, right? Well, this all changed when I got into the first week of NaNo. Within a few days I was streaking ahead of the targets, on a high from my success. Never had I expected to be able to keep up with the word count targets. But there I was, not only keeping up with them but streaking ahead, writing more than I ever had in my life. I was on a high. My cautious expectation of failure was gradually being overshadowed by the growing seed of happiness and pride. I, for once, despite everything I had thought, was going to be successful.

Unfortunately, the feeling of ‘this is too good to be true’ came crashing down on me, and saw the enthusiasm of week one being steadily usurped by the why-oh-why-am-I-doing-this-I’ll-never-be-a-real-writer-so-why-kid-myself sentiments of week two. No matter how hard I tried to force myself, I was consistently falling short of my wordcount targets. That’s if I was writing anything at all. I found myself comparing myself with my writing buddies, one of which had written over 60,000 words (!!!) by the end of week two, and I was sinking ever further into the pit of despair, affectionately known by the NaNoWriMo community as Week Two Blues. Somehow, though the pep talks and forum discussions on the NaNoWriMo website would try to convince me otherwise, I felt like I was alone in my struggle. How could anyone else understand my sense of failure when they were all succeeding? Why had I even thought I could attempt something like this? Did I not know that it was something only Other People could achieve?

Hands up who else has felt like this.

Finally, at the start of week three, I realised something very significant. I was keeping myself from success by focussing on my failure. I was letting the fact that I would probably never catch up to the target wordcount as an excuse to not even try.

I also realised that the forum comments and pep talks and seemingly endless NaNoWriMo blog posts I was seeing around the interwebs probably were not lying to me, and this feeling of inadequacy in the face of writing difficulties was probably not unique to me. In fact, there might even be a fair few people who feel, and have felt, the same, many of them now with successfully published books under their belt. I would never criticise someone else for not meeting the wordcount deadlines, so why was I being so hard on myself? I have read many times (and even said so myself) that nothing worth having comes easily. Why should this be any different?

So my new aim is this: Just keep swimming.

Okay, so a more appropriate goal would be to ‘just keep writing’, but the quote above is more memorable. I cannot count the number of times I have read writing advice that said ‘Rule Number 1: Don’t Give Up’. Now to take that advice!

First off, now that I’ve freed myself from the pressure of the wordcount goal, my priorities have shifted. I’ve started reading again, which always brings fresh inspiration, and gives me an example of something to aim for. I am currently reading The Professor by Charlotte Bronte and Mostly Harmless by Douglas Adams, both of which are absolutely crammed full of brilliant turns of phrase and inventive ideas.

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Another thing I will be concentrating on that I have been neglecting so far this month is development of my characters and world. Seat-of-the-pants writing may work for some, but for me the characters, setting and plot all have deeper meaning if I can spend some time with them away from the actual text and figure out where they’re headed and what they’re about. Now when I return to my prose I will have fresh ideas and a newly sharpened focus, ready to defeat this thing once and for all.

What about you? Are there any things that you find great about NaNoWriMo, or that you are especially struggling with (or have in the past)? How do you overcome falling short of your hopes?

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All our journeys

I only just reach the train in time, hopping on just before the doors slam and we glide out of Munich main station. We’re headed to Verona, one stop on my way to Venice to visit my friend. I smile to myself, my relief at catching the train turning to excitement that every clatter of wheels brings me closer to my destination.

I stumble through the carriages as the train sways, but finally make it to my reserved seat. I heave my rucksack onto the overhead rack and take my seat by the window. Beside me, a man in a faded red jacket is sitting with his hands folded over his paunch. He’s smiling at me, eyes a mass of crinkles behind his thick glasses. He’s turned to look at me, still smiling. He’s staring, but his face is open and warm, and I don’t feel uncomfortable.

He leans over to me now, and says something in heavily accented Italian. I smile back but say nothing. He catches sight of the English title of my book.

“Ah, inglese.”

I nod. He carries on smiling, but doesn’t say anything more.

The other side of the aisle, a small child is kicking her seat and scowling. Opposite, a woman is rocking a grizzling baby and trying to ignore her. The little girl kicks her seat harder. The woman makes shushing noises and closes her eyes, leaning her cheek on the window.

The train stops at another Munich station and a woman sits opposite me. She’s wearing heels and her hair is neatly styled. She pulls out a fashion magazine and opens the front page, but she’s still looking out of the window. We start to pull out of the station.

Immediately, the woman’s face creases up and for a minute I think she’s trying to suppress laughter. Then I notice the tears streaming down her face. I avert my eyes and concentrate on my book. I can still hear her shaky breathing as she tries to silence her sobs. I glance up, and she’s hidden behind her magazine now, her breathing a little calmer.

I want to talk to her, see if she’s OK, but I know she’d probably rather be left alone. I want to tell her that I’ve been there. I was the one stifling my sobs when my train pulled out of London and I left my mum on the platform, pulling me away from all that I knew and into the unknown. But my sadness then was only temporary. Maybe this woman’s sorrow is deeper. Maybe she’s been in town for a funeral. Maybe she’s leaving someone she loves for the last time.

It occurs to me that I don’t know anything about my fellow passengers, or what their journeys are for. We’re all on the same train, but our destinations, our purposes, our individual journeys are different. Mine is one of excitement and fun, and reunion with an old friend. For the others, this journey could mean anything. A stressful family visit? A boring commute? An adventure? A homecoming? Regret? Heartbreak?

We’ve all got our own journeys, and our own stories to tell. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that others do to.

Journeys in Heartbreak – ???

Ok, so this is more of a question post than anything. How on earth do people deal with heartbreak? It’s a thing that happens to everyone, and to some people it happens quite a few times in their life.

Queen Elizabeth II said: “Grief is the price we must pay for love.” And I suppose this is true. But sometimes, while in the middle of heartbreak, this can seem like a very far-away truth.

I found this while perusing Book Mania! on tumblr, and it really struck me.

“The nicest thing I heard during the worst time in my life was this: ‘you have to suffer heartbreak so you know what to tell your daughter when she has her heart broken.’ I’m Alexa Chung and one day I’m going to have a daughter and I’m going to know what to say to her. I’m going to say:

‘Nobody goes through life without having their heart broken and one day you’ll wake up and it will be okay.’

I can’t fucking wait for that day to come.”

— Alexa ChungIt

This, I suppose, is one small positive thing to be taken from heartbreak, that while you are dealing with it you will grow in empathy and understanding, and you will be a stronger person for it.

But, in the here and now, when you are actually going through this stuff, it doesn’t really make anything better. So I’d really like to know. How do you deal with heartbreak? Does a way to deal with it even exist? Or is time really the only cure? (Are there some things even time can’t fix?)

Journeys in Learning – The Trouble with Advice

Sometimes, being new at something is really hard.

It is hard to jump into something feeling like everyone knows more about that something than you do. It can be very tempting, instead of diving into that something and working at it until you get better, to try and find every piece of advice you can about it. This is certainly what I tend to do.

In some ways, finding out how to do something from more experienced people is a great thing. It provides important signposts for the journey, and helps you know what to expect, and if you’re on the right track. The trouble is, most advice you find on the internet (which is where I get most of mine!), or even in books, will not be tailor made for your needs. It is near enough impossible to find a piece of universal advice that will suit every person and every nuance of situation, even if it seems to be quite specific to your problem.

Allow me to give you an example.

This summer, having decided (rather tentatively) to give writing a try, it was my first instinct to plunge head-first into an overwhelming ocean of writing advice, from authors, publishers, bloggers, even newspapers and magazines. I soon found, however, that, rather than making me feel prepared to begin my actual journey as a writer, it was making me feel disheartened and inadequate. Take this article for example:

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/feb/20/ten-rules-for-writing-fiction-part-one

It’s a huge list of writing tips proffered by successful authors. You don’t actually have to click on the link (it’s a pretty sizeable list, and that’s only part one!), because I’ve picked out just a few pieces of advice to illustrate my point:

“Trust your reader. Not everything needs to be explained. If you really know something, and breathe life into it, they’ll know it too.”

“Write only when you have something to say.”

“Remember you love writing. It wouldn’t be worth it if you didn’t. If the love fades, do what you need to and get it back.”

How on earth do I breathe life into something? Am I over-explaining things? How do I trust a reader when I don’t really believe anyone will ever read this?

Do I really have something to say? Is what I’m about to write good/important/worthy enough to even put into words?

Do I really love writing enough to make this work? What if I don’t want this enough? Am I just kidding myself???

Do you see what I’m getting at? None of those were bad pieces of advice, quite the opposite. But it’s my reaction to them that is the problem. What immediately springs to mind is not how I can incorporate these into my writing, but rather all the ways I can possibly fail to do so. This may just be my insecurities talking (when do they ever shut up?). But I’ve found that my writing (and peace of mind) is much more content when I shut out others’ advice (I’ve already read enough of it to last me a lifetime!) and just WRITE!

Now I just need to take my own advice…

Journeys in Writing – Overcoming the Shame-Spiral

Just over three months ago, I started this blog as a means of getting some daily (well, that was the intention!) writing practice, and maybe learning some truths about myself along the way. Instead, I’ve created another task-master, another box to be ticked, another thing to fail at and feel guilty about. That’s the trouble I’ve found with writing so far. The hardest thing, for me, is to get back up and keep going when I feel as though I’ve already failed.

The more I write, the more inspired I become, so the more I write… And so the cycle of positivity continues. When I don’t write, as I haven’t been for a while, the more my page starts to look like this:

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The negative cycle, or shame-spiral as I sometimes call it, is my number 1 cause of writers’ block. I don’t write, so I feel bad about myself, so I don’t want to face the issue, so I don’t write… Thus the shame-spiral continues.

I think my attitude is very aptly summed up in this blog post by the brilliant Allie Brosh: http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.de/2010/06/this-is-why-ill-never-be-adult.html. The subject matter is slightly different, but the concept is very much the same.

I know I’m not the only one who experiences this, as evidenced here. But what is the solution? How on earth can I break out of this spiral and force myself to just WRITE!!

Journeys in Childhood – My Top 11 Children’s Books

Moving to a foreign country, I have found, makes you look at the concept of home in a completely new light. This blog post, that I wrote months ago but never got round to finishing, now strikes me on a whole new level. These books that I loved so much when I was younger (and still do!), not only have inspired me to write, but provide a concrete link to a time that is gone forever, and a place from which I am separated by hundreds of miles. I hope you enjoy this list as much as I enjoyed making it!

Looking back, my fascination with literature and reading began at a young age, when I discovered the magic of books and their wonderful ability to transport you to different worlds and open your mind to new ideas. For this reason, I have decided to list the top 11 books (in no particular order) that stuck with me in some way, either because they changed my ideas about something, inspired me to write myself, or even just created a magical world I could get lost in!

  1. The Star of Kazan by Eva Ibbotson – Absolutely bursting with lush descriptions of Viennese cakes that made me desperately want to go to Vienna! This is one of the first books that made me realise the power of setting and description, when executed well (as it so often isn’t).
  2. Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman – I haven’t actually re-visited this book since I first read it many years ago, but I remember being extremely moved and struck by the issues being raised, as well as engaging with the characters in a way that shifted the focus and gave it more depth.
  3. Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech – Simply written but absolutely heartbreaking, as with all of Creech’s books. She just has a magical way of capturing emotion which has particularly stuck with me.
  4. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett – I have always found this book absolutely captivating! One that I have re-read again and again.
  5. Harry Potter (series) by J.K. Rowling – I couldn’t narrow it down to just one of the books, since it is as a whole series that they make the most impact, and that they showcase the thing that, for me, makes these books so memorable and engaging, which is the incredible detail and thoughtfulness with which the world of magic is created and sculpted around the reader. It has inspired me to try and create a fantasy world of my own.
  6. Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster – This book evokes strong memories of my childhood, when I was ill and my mum read it to me. A bit of a silly story really, but also charming, and I love how the main character’s voice is so strong throughout.
  7. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis – Powerfully symbolic but in a way that is understandable for children, and somehow easy to identify with, even though it is set in a fantasy world.
  8. Northern Lights by Philip Pullman – Known as the Golden Compass in the US, this was recently (ish) made into a film, and I was supremely unimpressed by the way the magic of the setting was lost, even though the descriptions in the book are so visual. I suppose it is the mark of a great story, when the images in the reader’s head are so vivid that no visual adaptation can live up to it.
  9. The Railway Children by E. Nesbit – One of those books that you read on different levels as a child and as an adult.
  10. Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo – Morpurgo is the absolute king of writing poignant, deep, but also fun, children’s literature. I loved this book, but found it absolutely heartbreaking.
  11. The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett – This is still one of my absolute favourite books. It is hard to pinpoint exactly what makes It so special, but possibly it is the perfect balance of wry humour, inventiveness, originality and mystery (combined with great characters and plot, of course!). This book has definitely inspired me to write!

Do you agree with my list? What are your favourite children’s books? Let me know in the comments.

Journeys in Upheaval – In with the New

Today finds me writing a blog post much later than I would have liked (yet again). As I mentioned in my previous post, I have moved abroad as part of my language degree, and am currently residing in the small town of Lemgo, Germany. While this is certainly a convenient, and in parts true, reason for my silence, there are definitely other factors involved.

I started a separate blog, following a request from my sister, to document my experiences and keep everyone at home up to date with what I’ve been doing. (If you’re interested, you can find it here at http://yearabroadfuntimes.blogspot.de/ ) However, posting on this blog, along with another writing commitment and a teaching job, has been taking up a lot of writing head-space. Not only that, but I’ve found that it’s a lot easier to write a simple description of what I’ve been doing than it is to delve a bit deeper. The purpose of the other blog is just to keep people informed of where I am physically rather than emotionally, which is where these two blogs differ.

Here are some things that have changed since arriving, things that haven’t made it onto my other blog, either because they’re irrelevant to its purpose (as a means to inform rather than evaluate), or they’re simply too personal:

Writing

This is one thing that is particularly annoying me. Before I came, I had a significant writing project on the go, one that I was excited about, and was really hoping to see to completion. Since arriving, this project has hit a road-block, which I can’t seem to shift. Why have I stopped writing?* Does this mean I’m really not cut out to pursue this as my career after all? I certainly hope that’s not the case!

Language

What I’m about to say may seem strange, since I’ve spoken German for 8 years (or is it 9?) and learning the language is the whole point of coming. But it is still the absolute hardest thing about being here. Never before have I so appreciated the ability to express my thoughts without much restriction, to express my personality and desires, and to use nuance to imply my emotions. These are definitely things I took for granted before. And I just can’t do them in the same way in German. This, I’m sure, will get better with time. But for now I’m stuck…

Faith

This is a hard thing to admit. It’s always tempting to put up a front and pretend everything’s fine, so as not to discourage others. But the fact is, even the most faithful Christians have doubts, and I certainly fall far below them.  I’m in a faith-rut of my own making. I know that God’s still there, that He’s still faithful to me. But how do I get close to Him again?

So there you have it. My current biggest struggles. I must admit, they were much harder to put into writing than I’d anticipated! It’s certainly a lot easier to write about my day-to-day experiences, rather than my innermost thoughts!

Does anyone have any advice? Or anything at all that could help me? And what are you struggling with at the moment?

*I haven’t stopped altogether! I’m just making frustratingly little progress with my project. And by ‘frustratingly little progress’, I actually mean none at all! Oops.