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When is the best time to write a book?

dog and seasonsI recently read an excellent article by Professor Alexandra Harris in The Author Magazine about the best weather for writing.

Traditionally people have associated springtime with artistic creativity, all those budding plants and trees somehow linked with the germination and production of creative ideas. But for a rurally based author (like me) spring is a very busy time, flowers might be bursting into life, but so are the weeds, and what with planting and potting on, and doing all the garden chores that are so unpalatable in the dark days of winter, there is little time left for writing.

Then there is summer. Surely those long warm days lend themselves to the creative process? Well yes, but they also attract visitors. Living in an idyllic spot by the sea (as we do) makes the summer even more busy than spring. All our lovely city dwelling friends who baulk at the thought of Welsh winter mud and rain, descend on us during the summer, and so, instead of writing, I find myself picnicking on the beach and hosting endless jolly barbeques in the (well-weeded) garden.

Autumn seems the obvious choice for a decent bit of writing. It isn’t so hot and the children are back at school so there is less to distract me. But no. Because now the people who want to avoid school holidays arrive, older couples and single friends, wanting long quiet walks on the coast path and equally long talks about life and loves.

So maybe I should pin my hopes on winter. But winter in West Wales is not to be taken lightly. Not only is there the problem of resisting the urge to hibernate, there’s the problem of hours spent persuading our elderly dogs to venture out into the howling gales, of the need for warm baths afterwards.

Then even when we authors do find time to pen a few words, there is the issue of trying to write about the season that we aren’t actually in. It is hard to think about snowdrops during long hot sultry August days, and equally hard to remember that lovely feeling of sun on skin when sleety winter winds are rattling the windows.

But somehow, word by word, chapter by chapter we get it done. Sometimes we have to retreat into our own cocoons, spurning entertainment, and alienating our friends and loved-ones.

Because books have to be written. And for those of us who don’t have the inclination or indeed the stamina to write all night, finding the time to work is an ongoing problem. Because time is what all writers need. We need to live – ‘to fill the creative well’ – as Julia Cameron puts it, but we also need time to write.

Even if life, whatever the weather, whatever the season, always tries to interfere.



Helen Carey’s latest novel LONDON CALLING is now available in hardback, ebook and audio versions. The paperback follows in December. All Helen’s other novels are available at Amazon, or in good bookshops.

Do you have a distracted writer in your life?

decisionsThere’s nothing worse than indecision. It is debilitating, frustrating and exhausting. All those ‘Should I/shouldn’t I’s, ‘But what if’s, ‘Which’s, ‘When’s and ‘How’s cause our little brains to work overtime, jumping from one option to another like demented fleas.

And those demented fleas are especially active at night, about 4 o’clock in the morning in my experience.

For any normal person that is bad enough, everyone has decisions to make, things to worry about. That is a fact of life. But it seems to me that writers have even more than most.

Not only do they have the usual day to day issues, like ‘Should I take Fido to the vet or will the bramble wound heal on its own?’, ‘Has Little Johnny got in with a bad set?’, ‘How can I get out of this awful job?’ or, (for the lucky few,) ‘Shall we join Mr and Mrs Moneybags on their yacht in Barbados at Christmas or would the Seychelles be nicer?’ Those are enough to keep anyone awake at night. But writers, especially novelists, also have another whole layer of decisions and anxieties to cope with, ranging from ‘Is this the right word?’, ‘Shouldn’t that be a semi colon?’, through ‘Is this scene (the one I’ve just spent two days writing) really necessary?’, ‘How much back story do I need?’ to ‘Oh no, I think I’ve lost track of the main theme,’ or ‘Should I just give up and get a job as a dog groomer?’ and so on and on and on …

Sometimes those decisions are easy to make and sometimes they niggle away for days (and nights) waiting for a flash of clarity, which normally comes just as you’re negotiating a contra-flow on the M4, or just as you are falling asleep with no pen or notebook on your bedside table.

And then, eventually, when all those decisions are made, new ones pop up, like what publisher, what cover, what promotion, what kind of launch party, will anyone buy it.

I’m not complaining. Far from it. Being a writer is a wonderful thing. But it’s not the stress free, soft option that some non-writers imagine.

All I can say is that if you are a writer then be sure to give yourself a complete break from time to time, and then go back and make those choices. Don’t give in to indecision. Work it out as best you can and press on. You can promise yourself time to improve it a few months later when you are doing your first edit. And don’t feel guilty for neglecting your friends and family – explain what’s going on, if necessary direct them to this article!

And if you are a non-writer with a writing friend, relation or partner, then be patient. Exhaustion, distraction, forgetfulness and grumpiness are normal, the writer in your life still loves you and they will rejoin you soon, but just now they have an awful lot on their mind.

Would you be happy if you’d won Wimbledon?

andy murraySo Andy Murray has won Wimbledon (and the Olympic gold and the US Open). He has even managed to improve his public profile, not just by playing well but by showing us that he is a quirky, public spirited, generous and mildly humorous young man and not, it seems, the surly, monosyllabic adolescent we all thought he was last year. He is a national hero. So we can safely assume he is happy that he has achieved his ambition.

Or can we? I have a sneaky feeling that he is already starting to think that it might be quite nice to win two consecutive grand slams, or to prove that his Wimbledon success wasn’t a one off and that he would have won even if Nadal and Federer had still been in the draw …

What I suspect is that since last week the goal post (or in his case the net cord) will have changed and he will now be aiming for something even bigger and better. Because these sportspersons don’t rest on their laurels, they are never happy with what they have achieved, they always want more.

It is just the same with writers and wannabe writers. ‘I’d be so happy if only I could get my book published …’ quickly becomes ‘I’d be happy if only I had more sales/more fan letters/more prizes/more acclaim/a film deal …’

I read a blog post today by a lady who felt brought down because she hadn’t found a publisher for her dog training book even though she had a zillion (or thereabouts) ‘likes’ on her pet blog. Another from someone disappointed by being runner-up in a novel writing competition. A third by a published writer peeved that he wasn’t getting enough Amazon reviews.

In contemporary life we are programmed to strive, to aim high, to set targets, to court success. But it seems we aren’t programmed to enjoy that success when it comes. When my first novel was picked up and published by Orion I should have felt absolute delight. In fact I felt a vague sense of dissatisfaction; somehow the reality of the moment didn’t live up to my expectations, the cover wasn’t quite as nice as I had hoped, I found the book signing sessions a teeny bit boring and my agent was already hassling me for the next in the series.

So what I’m saying is we need to try to take time enjoy the moments of triumph, however minor they are in our own mind, or in the big scheme of things. Ambition is fine, but there’s no point in it if we don’t relish the smaller successes it brings on the way.

Success comes in many guises, it’s not just about prizes, fame and healthy royalties. We can’t all win Wimbledon (I’m delighted if I get a few serves into the box). We can’t all be J. K. Rowling. But we can train ourselves to feel happy when we achieve something, even if it is only finishing a chapter, getting a nice review or successfully house training a new puppy.

No time to read?

time to readIt’s an odd phenomenon. Everyone is writing novels. It almost seems as if more people are writing them than reading them. Certainly that is the impression you get if you take a quick look at Twitter.

The problem is that having written them these new writers expect other people to read them. And they are bitterly disappointed when readers either don’t buy them or don’t enjoy them.

So why are so many people exposing themselves to almost inevitable disappointment?

In any other artistic endeavour aspiring wannabes generally feel they might need a bit of training – art school perhaps, or dance classes, or at the very least some singing or acting lessons; but with writing, of course, if you know how to hold a pen or navigate a keyboard, anyone can do it. Rustle up a story line, string 60,000+ words together and de da! you’ve written a novel!

And it’s so easy to publish now. You no longer have to wait months for an agent or publisher to deign to read your submission, your alluring approach letter, your agonisingly brief synopsis, your oh so manicured first three chapters, let alone wait another eternity for the remote possibility that they might condescend to see the rest. No, nowadays as soon as the last word is written you can hop onto KDP and by the next day your masterpiece is up on Amazon and ready to sell.

In the old days it was almost unheard of for a writer to get their first book published (most successful authors have several rejected manuscripts languishing in a bottom drawer somewhere). Now, (because they do it themselves,) it is the norm. And that’s fine, readers have a choice, they can sort out for themselves what they want to read and what to avoid. They can read the first few chapters before buying so they know what they are letting themselves in for.

But it does mean that many of the hopeful writers of those un-crafted, unpolished, sadly unstructured novels are going to be disappointed.

So what’s the solution? Well, not everyone can take an MA in Creative Writing, not everyone has access to good local writing courses. But there are lots of books about writing around. And of course, the biggest learning tool of them all, there are lots of excellent novels around too.

Reading is the key. And not just reading, analysing too, why a certain character comes alive on the page, why a particular scene seems so powerful, why you can’t stop turning the pages.

In the kind of market we have now it is even more important than ever to write a really good book. There is simply too much competition for anything less. So my advice to new writers is to read (and preferably in a range of genres and styles), to practice, hone your craft and not to publish until you are absolutely sure that you have created a well structured, readable, engaging, well edited novel that potential readers simply won’t be able to put down.

Take it easy …

People often remark that I must be very disciplined to be a writer. If only they knew … (see my earlier post about life getting in the way!) But displacement activity aside, there is an element of truth in the observation. There is certainly more to writing than just dreaming up a good story and a few characters to act it out. There is the sitting down at the desk for one thing, and the getting the words down on the page another. Those things are certainly a key part of a writer’s life, they do take self-discipline and are clearly important.

But giving time to the dreaming is also important.

Good ideas, links, snatches of dialogue, observations, all grist to the writer’s mill, come to me at the oddest moments, and usually not when I am in my office. Motorway driving is often a fruitful source of inspiration, as is walking the dogs, cooking, eating, lying in the sun (or the bath), traveling, or even reading someone else’s book.

I’m not advocating that writers give up on self-discipline in order to lead a life of sybaritism (tempting though that might be), but I am advocating sometimes taking it all a bit more easy. Too much discipline and application can tend to have the effect of making Jill a dull girl, and it often seems to me that writer’s block has a tendency to set in when writers are trying too hard.

Writers obviously have to write, but it is also important for them to live. Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way calls it ‘refilling the artistic well’ and she is right. We writers need to be constantly stocking up on our experiences, our awareness of other people’s quirks and foibles, our knowledge of life and times and our use of language.  We need to keep ourselves fresh and open to new ideas, new insights, new phraseology that we can recycle in our novels in order to keep them fresh, innovative and lively too.

So if you are having trouble thinking up ‘the next bit’ (or feel you are getting repetitive strain in your typing fingers) I suggest taking a break, take it easy for a day or two, relax, take a trip, go to a museum or an art gallery, do some shopping or some cooking, let your mind wander and have some fun. Don’t allow yourself feel guilty, just see it as part of the ‘discipline’ of being a writer.

Readers have responsibilities too

So here we are as writers, locked in our garrets, eschewing social life and family responsibilities, slaving over a hot laptop for hours on end, week after week, maybe even year after year, our entire focus on creating a cast of fascinating characters and a make-believe but believable world for our readers to get lost in for a few hours.  

A few hours? Yes, that’s right. A few hours is pretty much all it takes to read an averagely paced 100,000 word novel. Then they close the book, (or switch off the Kindle,) lean back in their chair, take a deep satisfied breath, smile to themselves, stretch, scratch, check the time and realise that dog/ family/Guinea pig hasn’t been fed, and with a last fond glance at the novel (or Kindle) they put it to one side and rejoin the real world. 

And all the months the writer spent in the garret didn’t even include the time spent in editing, packaging, marketing, and promoting (let alone Tweeting). That’s another whole time consuming (and uncomfortably competitive) ball game, one which writers are obliged to enter into just at the point when they want to start writing the sequel! 

Now I’d be the last to complain, even about the non-writing aspects of being a writer, because I love the process of writing. There is nothing I enjoy more than creating a page-turning story with characters that live on beyond the page. Or is there? 

Yes, actually there is. Knowing that people have really enjoyed reading it, on balance, probably just has the edge.  (It is a shame that one of a writer’s rare vicarious pleasures has been removed at a stroke by the advent of eReaders – the chance sighting of some stranger on a plane or train engrossed in your novel. I can confess here that I once missed my stop on the London underground because a fellow traveller was reading one of my novels and laughing out loud (with some obvious embarrassment) at the funny bits.) 

The moral of all this is that although it is clearly the writer’s job to create the best possible book they can, those of us who are readers also have some kind of a responsibility too. Not just to let the poor, socially deprived writer know that we have enjoyed their book, but also to tell other people, even to write a review. It’s a competitive world out there and we want our favourite writers to survive. Spreading the word is the best way to do it.

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