The Joy of Writing: A Vital and Life-Enhancing Passion

Do I find writing to be a joyful experience? Short answer: yes and no.

Yes, there are times when it’s difficult, times when I’d rather be anywhere other than at the writing desk, and times when I think I’m kidding myself about being able to write anything worth reading and that I should pack it in.

Writing for survival

BUT those negative times are relatively rare.  And no matter how bad the writers’ block or the procrastination or the self-doubt might be, I honestly can’t imagine not doing it. It’s vital for my health and wellbeing, it’s my purpose and my passion.

Writing for daily life

The everyday, practical, non-fiction type of writing – that is the lists, the lists about lists, the problem-solving mind maps, the journaling and the diary keeping – all help me work through problems, get organised and make decisions.

And when things are getting a bit too much – during times of stress, anxiety or depression – writing, for me, has really come into its own. At times like these writing, in the ways mentioned above, has been therapeutic and helped me find my way through and out the other side.

Writing for a living

As for the professional side of my writing – the creative, imaginative stuff that I do – well, that’s where the real joy comes in. I love setting out with one or two characters and finding out from them what their story is.

For me, writing a novel truly is a joyful voyage of discovery. Those first one or two characters introduce me to more characters along the way. They reveal where they live and they share their problems, dilemmas and challenges with me.

I love fleshing out the characters, creating the details of their homes and daily lives, providing the backdrop and landscape in which their stories take place. I also enjoy getting them out of the difficult or maybe even life-threatening positions I’ve put them in.

And it’s wonderful – if sometimes inconvenient – when having hit a metaphorical wall in a work-in-progress, the solution suddenly comes to me unbidden – when I’m in the shower, when I’m about to fall asleep or when I’m out walking. But inconvenient or not, I love it when my sub-conscious mind takes care of the difficulty.

Then there’s the buzz of seeing the finished article, of holding the book I’ve created in my hands. There’s nothing like it.

Apart, that is, from the even greater buzz when a reader tells you they loved it.

And it’s most certainly not about the money earned – although that’s helpful – but as long as at least one person reads and enjoys my made-up stories – probably even if that’s just me – I’ll keep on doing it.

A life-enhancing joy and passion

Yes, writing truly is an essential joy.

So, what is your passion – is it writing or something else? What drives you to pursue it? Can you imagine your life without it?

Two-faced January

English: Bust of the god Janus, Vatican museum, .
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As I said at the start of the year, my post on the last Tuesday of each month would be a look back at my month in terms of my reading, writing and other significant/trivial/funny/sad news. So let’s see…

At the beginning of the month, and indeed the year, I resolved to get on with my novel. It’s my second book and it’s two-thirds written. I planned my time and input, set my word count targets and was raring to go. Then as you’ll see below, to paraphrase John Lennon, while I was making my plans – life happened – and my newly gained momentum was stopped in its tracks. I did however manage to continue to take part in the ‘A River of Stones’ 2012 project and have posted a small piece of mindful and observational writing each day this month. All have been posted here on the blog. I also wrote my regular piece for the writers’ magazine ‘Words with Jam’.

My reading this month has included fiction and non-fiction. And, before I tell you about it, I want to share a cool quote from Annie Proulx with you that sums up how important I believe reading to be for all of us who call ourselves writers. ‘Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write. I read omnivorously – technical manuals, history, all sorts of things. it’s a relief to get away from your own stuff.’ I think that says it all.

I began with Sara Maitland‘s ‘Book of Silence‘. Maitland is a long time favourite fiction author of mine. But this was non-fiction – part account of her retreat into silence and part reflection on her own writing and creative processes. It was interesting and, in places, thought-provoking but it was a little slow and rather repetitive here and there. I guess a bit of a tighter edit would have resolved these problems in an otherwise fascinating book.

My fiction reading is a freebie – a pre-publication proof copy from the publisher of ‘Brighton Belle’ – the latest novel from Sara Sheridan. I’m almost finished it and it’s a thoroughly enjoyable crime thriller set in the 1950s. I’ll be doing a full review of it  soon.

And in other news – so, there was I, all organised – ready to go back to work after the festive break – writing plans in place for the evenings and weekends, house move imminent… Then wham! The house move went bosoms skyward, the car had a catastrophic breakdown, and my dear father-in-law passed away very suddenly. Yes, a bit of a stressful time – the muse fled.

However, things are resolved – the house move is back on track, the car is fixed – £700 later – all down to dirty fuel apparently. And although it was tough to say goodbye to ‘Grandpa’, his passing did bring the whole family together and gave us some unexpected time with our lovely, wee, seven-week old granddaughter. A true January scenario –  with our family looking to the past and to the future.

I hope that February will be a bit quieter – although there is the small matter of moving house mid-month – and that my muse will feel safe to come out of her cupboard…

 

 

 

 

Just Do It 4 – location, location, location

The terrestrial planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth...
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Setting

Welcome to the fourth and final post in this series on novel
writing for beginners. So, where were we? We’d overcome fear and
procrastination. We’d got to know some likely characters. We’d developed a
story idea into a plot. Now we need to consider setting.

And there are a few things to consider when deciding when
and where to situate the story. Obviously if it’s a historical novel, then
when, and most likely where, will be implicit in your story content. And the
same will be true, at least to some extent, with any type of genre fiction.
Science fiction is likely to be away from planet Earth, crime novels will involve
a police station and so on.

However, even with genre, there will still be decisions that
you have to make. Is your Victorian thriller set in the homes of the
aristocracy, the middle classes or amongst the poor on the streets? Is your
tale of the Roman occupation told from the emperor’s court or the subjugated
settlement?

With contemporary fiction, the choice of setting is wide. Is
the story centred around a family home, village, city, workplace, or in the
midst of a ritual such as a wedding or a funeral?

Sometimes the setting is almost a character in its own
right. It may dominate and determine the plot. It may evolve and change as the
story develops. For example, if your story is one about survival on a remote
mountain top, vast desert, or alien planet, the nature of the environment that
the characters are in is crucial to the events and outcomes.

Once you have decided on your setting you need to bring it
to life. It’s exciting – there might be houses to furnish, landscapes to form
and plant, cities and worlds to create from scratch. Then again you might set
it somewhere real and just tweak the details.

Whatever you do, make the setting consistent and coherent. I
draw floor-plans of the houses in my novels – so that I don’t inadvertently
move the kitchen from the back to the front of the house, or shift a staircase
from one side of the building to the other. Similarly with fictional villages
and towns – drawing a map is a good idea. Think about what the characters see
when they look out of the window, walk down the street, enter their workplace,
fly their spaceship, approach the battlefield, sit in their kitchen…

Make sure the setting is believable and has integrity. Even
when, or rather, especially when, creating a non-Earthly world. Even if a
planet or parallel world is completely manufactured by you, it should still
obey its own integral rules of physics.

Give enough detail – using all the senses – so that the
reader can begin to inhabit the world of your book. But don’t put in long
chunks of bulk description. Feed in the details as you would with character
traits. ‘Show don’t tell’ is just as applicable with setting. There’s also no
need to repeat these details. Once your reader knows that the main character
has a cream leather sofa, don’t go on about it. Trust your reader to remember.
Also, trust your reader to fill in the gaps – as you would do with the
characters’ physical appearance. Good writers give just enough detail to set
the reader on their own imaginary path. Just think how annoying it can be when
a book you love is dramatised for television, and the characters’ physical
appearances and the look of their homes and villages are dictated by the
casting director and the set designer.

So creating your novel’s setting should be fun, but keep it authentic
and credible. Give enough of a map that the reader can find their way in and
orientate themselves, but leave them enough room to explore and make sense of
your created world for themselves.

And that just about wraps up this ‘Just Do It’ series. The
intention was to get those of you who are aspiring writers to take the plunge
and become actual writers and to give first timers some basic tips on the
foundations of novel writing. There are further aspects such as use and quality
of tone, atmosphere and style and the all-important voice which are also
necessary to novel writing. But let’s keep these for another time, further down
the line.

For now get the characters, plot and setting assembled and
set off. Go on, just do it!

Synchronicity

Event A precedes B in the red frame, is simult...
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It’s weird, isn’t it – how sometimes, events ‘out there’ coincide with and match stuff you’re doing in real life?

I’m writing my second novel at the moment.  I don’t want to say too much about it at this stage but here’s a general outline.

 The book is set in Scotland and Israel and the main character is a half-Jewish Scot whose mother was a holocaust survivor. Her soldier son has been killed in the war in Afghanistan.

The underlying themes are those of cultural heritage, homeland and the displacement caused by politics and war. And these are overlain by the more personal themes of dislocation caused by betrayal, bereavement, and the ageing process. The parallels between enforced Scottish migration, the Jewish diaspora and the plight of the Palestinians are all touched on – as are the parallels and contrasts between Scotland’s and Israel’s national status – but ultimately it’s a story about homecoming, recovery and the sustaining power of love.

Part of my inspiration came from the fact that I’m a Scot and had a Jewish great-grandmother. I have Jewish Israeli friends who daily risk their personal safety by taking a pro-Palestinian stance and I’ve been to Israel twice.

So there I am writing away and two published novels are brought to my attention.

First – the Man Booker winner for 2010 – The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson. Main storylines in this book – what it means to be Jewish, bereavement and thwarted hopes. It’s a story of friendship and loss, exclusion and belonging, and of growing older. I haven’t read it yet but it’s on my list.

The second novel – I was attracted to it after reading several reviews in which it was highly praised – and I’ve just finished reading it. It’s called ‘To the End of the Land’ and it’s by David Grossman. It’s an anti-war novel. It’s set in Israel and is a story of family love, bereavement, and the reality and surreality of life in Israel. The main characters are Israeli Jews who are ambivalent about their nation’s status. It’s a wonderful book and I’ll be posting a review of it very soon.

Now, it’s gratifying to find that I’m inspired by the same themes that inspired two such revered authors but I also feel rather daunted.

However, I’m choosing to interpret this synchronicity as auspicious rather than ominous. I’m going to finish my book and can only hope it will be at least a zillionth as good as the two mentioned above.

Footnote: I had dinner at the Haifa home of the first Arab Israeli academic to get a post at an Israeli university and the question of land and nationhood was being discussed. The host mentioned this quote from Tolstoy – who said that the only land a man needs is a hole, six feet by two feet – his burial plot.

I was reminded of Chekov’s retort to Tolstoy – namely that a man needs the whole globe, all of nature, where he can display his free spirit.

The Scottish writer Neil Gunn said life’s about us getting along, understanding one another and the earth. He said that when we do that we get peace of mind and with luck a little delight.

I’m with Chekov and Gunn – always was – and now Jacobson and Goodman are at my shoulder too. Exalted company indeed.

Here’s to synchronicity…