The Nocturnal Writer: When too much imagination is a bad thing…

I’m naturally a nocturnal writer…

That’s not to say I sit at my computer writing every night – that would be too disruptive for my family – no, what I mean is this: I do my best work after midnight, and I often write whole paragraphs in my head at half past three in the morning. Believe me, it’s not the most convenient way to work.

I know I’m not alone in this affliction. When Frances Hardinge, the Costa Prize-winning YA adult author, came to speak to us at Writers at Work as part of Hay Festival this year, she told us she’d be totally nocturnal if only that lifestyle would fit in with society.

A few of us nodded our agreement. Some of us had already had this discussion – how if we didn’t need to be mindful of our families and others keeping office hours, our days and nights could be reversed, and how much more productive we would be, how much more our natural creative selves.

After the talk, Frances signed my copy of her latest novel, ‘A Skinfull of Shadows’ – to real-life me, Wendy.

She asked me about being a natural nocturnal like her – she’d obviously noticed my nodding. I briefly mentioned how, as a child, I had swapped night for day for almost a whole year, and how blissful it had been.

I didn’t have time to tell her the complete story: that I was absent from junior school for months with an infection after an operation to remove my tonsils, and that when I was sent off to bed at night I’d write and read until dawn and then sleep until lunchtime. It suited me brilliantly.

I’d had trouble sleeping from a very young age, so I was delighted with my new routine. I was getting far more sleep than I normally did and, despite the infection, I was starting to feel better than I ever had before. But, of course, my parents were terribly worried by my new and weird sleeping habit. When my mum mentioned it to the doctor, he told her not to worry – my health was clearly improving and he predicted my sleeping pattern would too, once I was back at school.

It didn’t

The light would go out at 9 o’clock and I’d lie awake for hours, writing stories in my head. I say ‘writing’ rather than ‘making up stories’ because that’s what I did – I wrote passages in my mind, word for word, with actual punctuation and paragraph breaks. And after a night of busily ‘writing’, I still, of course, had to get up for school in the morning.

After a few months, my parents were worried by how tired I looked and I was taken back to the doctor. When I admitted what I did when I couldn’t sleep, the doctor diagnosed ‘too much imagination’. He didn’t have a cure for that.

And I’m still not cured

All my life I’ve written huge amounts in my head when I should be sleeping. I wrote paragraph after paragraph of ‘Not Thomas’ that way. I used to worry I’d forget it all, and sometimes I’d get up to scribble down passages in the half-light of dawn. But recently I’ve become more relaxed about the process. If it’s good enough to type up the next day, it’ll stay in my head. If not, I’ll have forgotten it by morning. It was encouraging to hear Roddy Doyle, another speaker at Hay Writers at Work, tell us he took the same approach.

We nocturnal writers may be a peculiar lot, but I’m certain of one thing – nocturnal or not, as a writer you can never have too much imagination.

Thanks for reading!

Sara x

P.S. Do you write best at night? And do you wish, like me, you could live your life nocturnally? Let me know what you think.

cropped-not-thomas-header.jpg

Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child neglect, love and hope, shown through the eyes of five-year-old Tomos – is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy direct from the publisher, from Amazon and from bookshops.

Separation Anxiety

Recently I’ve been waking up in the night, heart pounding, mouth dry, with a searing flash of worry in my brain.

My first thought is that I’ve misplaced something important, forgotten something vital. It’s that ‘I’ve left the baby on the bus’ feeling.

It takes me only a few seconds to realise that both my babies grew up long ago. Then I remember, thankfully, that they’re fine – they’re old enough to look after themselves and, mercifully, they’re safe.

Finally the problem dawns on me. I’m a writer. The baby I think I’ve left on the bus is one I’ve created. Not real, not flesh and blood. He’s fictitious. But somehow that fact doesn’t make me feel any better.

I’ve had this feeling before.

When my newest book was a manuscript, waiting on my editor’s desk to have its fate decided, I spent night after night waking up in a cold sweat.

It’s not that the novel feels like my baby (I wouldn’t usually feel this anxious about a new book). No, it’s because I’ve been writing about Tomos, the main character, for almost 14 years now. He’s been my pet project – tucked away in a file on my laptop and scribblings in notebooks – and he’s seen me out of my forties and into my fifties, while I get on with my other, more cheerful writing.

My real-life children have grown up in that time. Tomos has not. He’s still five. He’s still scared, hungry and alone.

pexels-photo (1)

 

And now my novel’s been published. It’s out of the safety of my laptop and in the hands of other people. Some of them will be people I know, but most of them will be people I’ve never met.

And that’s the whole point of writing and publishing a book. As authors, we want our books to be read by as many people as possible. But Tomos, he’s five. He’s like my child. And I’ve just abandoned him.

If you can remember the first time you left your child at nursery, or the first time they walked through the gates of that huge comp, or when you drove off and left them at their college hall of res, you’ll understand how I’m feeling.

Tomos. He’s out there. He’s at the mercy of others. I can’t tell him it’ll be OK anymore.

I want to pull him back. I want to hold him to me and never let him go.

But it’s too late. He’s off into the big wide world and there’s no reversing that.

All I can do is ask – if you find Tomos, scared and alone, somewhere out there on your travels, please take care of him for me.

 

pexels-photo-66357

 

Thank you,

Sara x

P.S. I wrote this after very little sleep and a large glass of wine – I think it shows! Not feeling quite so worried about my little boy now that I’ve had lovely feedback from some wonderful people who, it turns out, care about Tomos almost as much as I do.  

Sara’s debut novel for adults ‘Not Thomas’ is published by Honno Press in paperback and on Kindle and is available to pre-order now at £8.99 on Amazon.

cropped-not-thomas-header.jpg

Finding that writer’s voice – and losing it again

If, like me, you’ve attended lots of courses on creative writing and read stacks of self-help books on the subject, you’ll be well used to the phrase ‘finding your writer’s voice’. It’s that one thing every writer simply MUST do.

But what’s never clear, when you’re new to writing, is exactly how you do it. A writer’s voice seems something elusive at best, ethereal at worst. It’s enough to stop the faint-hearted at the first hurdle.

I have to admit, it’s taken me a long time to find a comfortable writer’s voice. I set off on this writing trek many years ago, via a creative writing course. And then another. And another. They were wonderful and pretty addictive. They were the ideal place to test out ideas with other people just starting out on their own writing journey too (sorry for using the ‘j’ word there).

Looking back at some of the early pieces I wrote for those courses, I realise that I made finding my writing voice harder than necessary. Instead of simply writing freely, and despite the advice from my excellent tutors, I was often trying to copy a formula.

At one stage, I was quite attracted to writing short stories for women’s magazines. I’d had a couple of poems accepted by one of the popular publications, and the prospect of being paid to write short fiction was very appealing.

Sadly, my attempts at writing uplifting stories were pretty dire. I did send off a couple to the magazine that had accepted my poems, and to some other well-known publications too. But while their replies were politely encouraging – “enjoyable but not quite what we’re looking for” – I didn’t have the know-how to work at improving the stories, and so I soon gave up.

Reading those attempts after many years have passed, I can see plenty of problems with them. An obvious one was that I simply wasn’t writing as ‘me’. I was trying to use a manufactured writing voice, and the stories suffered as a result. Forcing a voice just doesn’t work.

marketing-man-person-communication

So how do you find that elusive voice without forcing it? Well, another of the reasons those stories were rejected was because I hadn’t done my research. I’d read a few stories in women’s magazines but I hadn’t read anywhere near enough. It was more than a bit presumptuous to think I could write an acceptable story without immersing myself in the form beforehand. I thought I knew the formula so I could just go ahead and write. Very wrong.

I didn’t have the dedication to read enough short stories to improve my ability to write them. That says to me now that I was barking up the wrong tree all along. I was looking for my writer’s voice in the wrong place. And perhaps I’d have found one, but it wouldn’t have been mine.

When I gave up trying to write those short stories, I discovered I quite enjoyed writing for children. As a teacher and parent, I was reading lots and lots of children’s books anyway, so when I stopped to think about it I already knew the kind of writing I wanted to emulate. Once I started concentrating on children’s stories, my writing voice began to form naturally.

20170524_180613 (1)

I started to write stories about children too, and in those stories my central character was a little neglected boy called Tomos. I was much more comfortable writing about him than trying to write uplifting stories for magazines. I had found my topic and, as with my children’s books, the voice came naturally. Finally I understood what it meant to ‘find your writer’s voice’.

Weirdly, though, I couldn’t keep that voice. Very quickly I realised Tomos’s story would have more impact in his own words – and he was a frightened five-year-old who spoke in short sentences and used very simple terms. The moment I’d found my comfortable writer’s voice, I had to get rid of it again. I re-wrote my stories about Tomos and changed them from third to first person – I didn’t mind; I felt I had to keep writing in Tomos’s voice. The stories turned into a novel, and happily I’ll be having my pre-publication book launch for ‘Not Thomas’ this month.

I’m planning my next novel now, with the help of some lovely notebooks.

20170524_180336 (1)

Again it has a child as the central character – no surprises there – but this time that child is quite a bit older than five. Just like ‘Not Thomas’, it’ll be written in the first person. So will I be using my own writer’s voice? I guess I’ll just have to start tapping away on the laptop and see.

But it’s just occurred to me that maybe writing in the voice of a child is my writer’s voice.

Are you searching for your writer’s voice, or have you found it? What tips could you give a new writer to help them find theirs?

Thanks for reading – I’m working on finding my ‘blogging voice’ at the moment!

Please leave me a comment if you have the time,

Sara xx

(aka children’s writer, Wendy White!)

Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ is published by Honno Press in paperback and on Kindle and is available to pre-order now on Amazon.

not-thomas-header

Music to Make Me Cry – My Not Thomas Playlist

I love listening to music when I write.

I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and I’ve met quite a few authors who prefer to write with no distractions, but music works for me. I find it creates a background emotion.

There are some songs I return to, time & time again, when my creativity needs a boost. These are songs I play to remind myself that ordinary people can transform themselves into songwriters and create something fantastically beautiful out of thin air –and lots musical talent, of course. When those songs come on the radio, they make me want to drop everything and write.

Songs like Hozier’s ‘Take Me to Church’ and Stereophonics’ ‘Graffiti on a Train’ make me turn up the radio to full volume and surrender to their inspiring brilliance.

There are other songs, though, that remind me of something I’m already working on. They help ease me back into that piece of writing, and keep me in the mood I’m trying to create. They’re the ones I play quietly in the background while I tap away on my laptop.

I had a playlist when I was writing ‘Not Thomas’.

The most-played song on that list was Kate Bush’s ‘Moments of Pleasure’. In a previous post, What Wuthering Heights did for me – the confessions of a Kate Bush fan, I wrote about how playing that song helped me evoke the feelings of Tomos, the little boy who’s the central character in my book. I’d hear the music and feel the emotion, even if I hadn’t written about Tomos for months. But there were other songs that helped too. Here’s a few of them, thanks to YouTube.

Calon Lân, a well-loved Welsh hymn, was one of my starting points for ‘Not Thomas’.

In fact, for quite some time the working title of ‘Not Thomas’ was ‘A Pure Heart’ – the English meaning of ‘calon lân’. The title eventually (and thankfully) got changed, after I listened to the advice of my writing group. (More about the failure of ‘A Pure Heart’ as a title in What’s in a Name?)

Tomos sings Calon Lân near the start of the book. He’s been taught the words by Nanno – his beloved ‘foster gran’. This version, by Cerys Matthews, is my favourite on YouTube.

It’s the childlike quality of her voice that gets me every time.

In the case of Calon Lân, the lyrics loosely suited the theme of the book, particularly – and rather sadly – the opening line ‘I don’t ask for a life of luxury’, as Tomos is living in terrible poverty.

But most of the songs I listened to didn’t have lyrics that connected to the subject matter. Instead I chose them for the way the music or the tone of the singer’s voice affected me.

It was the emotion the singer conveyed that was important.

Like this one:

I only have to hear the opening chords of ‘Talk to Me of Mendocino’ by Kate & Anna McGarrigle for my eyes to fill with tears. The music and their voices manage to convey, so beautifully, that sense of longing to be somewhere else.

It’s perfect for Tomos, as he constantly longs to be back in the love and safety of his foster parents’ home.

And since I’ve already blogged about how important ‘Moments of Pleasure’ by Kate Bush was to me when I was writing ‘Not Thomas’, I ought to include another song of Kate’s which I played a lot too.

‘This Woman’s Work’ is an obvious choice, I suppose, when you think of songs that conjure up vulnerability – it was used by the NSPCC in one of their TV adverts.

Again, the opening notes get me every time.

And finally:

This last song, ‘Lost Boy’ by Ruth B, is a cheat.

It came out in 2016 and I’d long finished writing ‘Not Thomas’ by then. I was in a dress shop in lovely Llandeilo when I first heard it playing on the shop’s radio. It stopped me in my tracks.

I knew by this time that my book would be published and that Tomos’s story would see the light of day, something I’d thought for so many years would never happen. And the realisation that my novel was actually going to be published hit me.

I grabbed the nearest frock and hid in the changing room until the moment of realisation – and the tears – had passed.

Had Ruth B’s ‘Lost Boy’ come out ten years before, I’d have been playing it as I wrote. It’s Tomos to a tee. I think it’s beautiful.

All these songs have something in common – lots of emotion. One comment from an early reader of ‘Not Thomas’ said it should be printed on plastic to save the paper from tears.

Maybe my playlist explains why.

Thanks for reading.

Love,

Sara x

If you’re a writer, do you ever listen to music while you’re working or do you prefer silence?

If you’ve read Not Thomas, can you see any influence from the songs above in the novel? 

Do you have a single piece of music or a song which you always find inspirational?

Sara’s debut novel Not Thomas –  a story of child neglect and hope – is published by Honno Press and is available in paperback and on Kindle directly through the publisher and also from Amazon.

The lady’s here. The lady with the big bag. She’s knocking on the front door. She’s knocking and knocking. I’m not opening the door. I’m not letting her in. I’m behind the black chair. I’m waiting for her to go away.

cropped-not-thomas-header.jpg

Proofs & Launches

So I’ve sent the proofs of ‘Not Thomas’ back to my publisher and that’s all my input for my first (& hopefully not my last) novel for adults done. For the last week and a half, I’ve been reading those proofs very carefully – for ‘reading’ read ‘rereading and rereading and rereading’ (and I could probably add on a few more too). I was determined to be thorough as I knew this was my very last chance to change anything that wasn’t quite right. I knew it wasn’t possible to make big alterations at this late stage, so I thank my lucky stars I didn’t come across anything major I felt needed changing.20170402_151043

But something did surprise me – surprise isn’t quite the right word, shock is probably much more accurate. While I was reading through the proofs for what I expected to be the last time, I came across a description of a man called Fly. He’s definitely a horrible character, someone who bangs on the doors and scares Tomos. Fly has a web tattoo on his face, so Tomos calls him ‘the man with the web tattoo’. Nice & easy – hard to get wrong, or so you’d think.

And yet, after reading the book so many times, I spotted a place where Tomos calls Fly ‘the man with the spider tattoo’. I came out in a cold sweat. I’ve been working on this novel for a long time (a ridiculously long time in fact) and I probably wrote that scene at least four years ago. So I would guess I’ve read that description over a hundred times. And every time I must have read ‘web’ not ‘spider’. Scary. Thanks be to St Anthony for Word’s ‘search & find’ tool. I searched and was very relieved to find no other spiders lurking. But by now my confidence in my own ability to spot obvious mistakes was thoroughly shaken. What if there were other things I’d missed? So I started at the top again – reread, reread, reread.

Finally, I posted the proofs back to Honno along with my notes, and I was extremely relieved, a few days later, when my editor confirmed she’d changed that one ‘spider’ to ‘web’. Of course, there were plenty of other typos that needed changing, but none of them bothered me as much as that spider.not-thomas-front-cover-for-ai-1-12-16

And that’s all the checking and changing done, as far as I’m concerned anyway. The next time I see ‘Not Thomas’ it’ll be as an actual book. That feels exciting and a bit nerve-racking too. But it’s very comforting to have had some lovely comments back from the authors who’ve been reading the manuscript. ‘Heart-wrenching’ & ‘an affirmation of the human spirit’ are quotes I’m particularly pleased with. And all the readers so far have called it an ‘emotional read’. I’m delighted with that. It means, for those readers at least, I’ve achieved my goal.

 

As a distraction from all that proofreading, I went to not one but two book launches. The first was for Helen Flook’s wonderful new picture book, ‘The Great Dinosaur Hunt’. The launch was in Cardiff Museum, where the opening of her book is set. Helen illustrated my first two children’s books and although we’ve exchanged emails over the last few years, we’d never met. So it was really lovely to finally put a face to the name, to chat and to thank her, in person, for designing the cover of ‘Welsh Cakes and Custard’. I loved it from the very first time I saw it, and so many people have commented on how eye-catching it is. Covers are so very important, and Helen did a brilliant job.20170405_124448 (1)

The second book launch was for Eloise Williams’ gorgeous new children’s novel, Gaslight. That was in Carmarthen’s Waterstones – with wine and nibbles. And yes, cake too! (I have a thing about cake at book launches – see my earlier blog!) Eloise, who along with writing also acts, got us all involved in reading from her novel. It was great fun and a lovely afternoon. I was especially pleased to meet Janet and Penny again. They’re the force behind the excellent Firefly Press which publishes Eloise’s books. I’m looking forward to reading my signed copy very soon.20170408_150716.jpg

And from Carmarthen I dashed the 20 miles or so to Llanelli, and storytelling at Spoken Word Saturday in a very atmospheric converted chapel. I caught the second half and was just in time to hear my very own book launch being announced for the afternoon of June 10th at the Spoken Word event.20170408_171023

So what with that announcement, and having sent off the proofs, ‘Not Thomas’ seems very real now. Like I said, it’s exciting and a bit scary – my first (& hopefully not my last!) novel for adults is almost ready for the big, wide world (well, Wales at least!).

What’s your favourite sort of book launch?

Been to any interesting ones lately?

Or have you had any shocks when you were proofreading?
My debut novel Not Thomas is published by Honno Press and is available to pre-order now on Amazon.

not-thomas-header

My Three Book Rule

 

I always have three books on the go at any one time. I don’t mean I’m reading three novels all at once – that would be impossible as far as I’m concerned (although I’m sure there are plenty of people who’d find it a doddle). No, what I mean is that along with the one book I’m reading, I’m working on two others of my own – one on my laptop or with pen and paper, and one in my head. I always assumed this was the way most writers worked, but after chatting to quite a few over the last couple of years, it turns out there are as many ways to get a book written as there are authors. Anyway, here’s the process I use. It’s my three book rule.

Book One in my Three Book Rule: the novel I read for relaxation.
I know some writers don’t read while they’re working on a book themselves, but I simply could not live without reading. And how else can a writer discover what techniques do and don’t work in a novel? I read all sorts, but in the mix will be books by local and, more generally, Welsh and Irish authors, novels that have been recommended to me, novels that have been nominated for or have won prizes, and some by my favourite authors – Emma Donoghue, Colm Tóibíin and Rose Tremain, to name a few. There’ll be detective novels too, and Belinda Bauer and Ian Rankin are among my favourites crime writers. I usually read one and a half books per week – not many by some people’s standards, I know!

20170403_105350

Book Two in my Three Book Rule: the one I’ve already written and am now revising / editing.
This is the book that puts a smile on my face every day. I’ll have finished all the ‘creative’ parts of it and I’ll be tidying it up – thinking about grammar, sentence structure and whether bits need deleting or swapping around. I think of this as the practical part and it’s the bit of writing I enjoy most. There are rules to follow and rights & wrongs, and I find something reassuring in working to a publisher’s house-style.

20170402_151031

I know this will make me seem weird to many fellow writers, but it’s the part I love. I settle into my special writing chair, put my feet up and enjoy the editing process. Yes, working on Book Two is the best bit – and nothing like working on Book Three. Book Three makes me scared, and takes a long, long time.

Book Three in my Three Book Rule: the one that’s in my head.
This is the book that’s using up my imagination. It’s why I’m happy to be simply following house-style rules for Book Two – Book Three is absorbing all my creativity. Like all books, Book Three starts with an idea. That’s the seed that hopefully will grow into a full blown novel. I seem to get most of my ideas when I’m listening to music and I find melodies and tones in voices (rather than actual lyrics) can evoke characters and locations. So when I get inspiration, I tend to relate it to whatever songs or singers I was listening to at the time.

If I’m very fortunate, that inspiration will stick around. It’ll lodge in my brain and start growing. It’ll be just a sense of something to start with, a feeling, an atmosphere. There’ll be a character slowly forming. To help it on its way, I’ll make a playlist of the songs I was listening to when the idea first came to me, and I’ll play and replay it. (I’ll be blogging about my ‘Not Thomas’ playlist soon.)

I’ll think about the character that’s living in my head while I’m doing mundane things around the house or when I’m out shopping, and gradually that character’s story will grow. I won’t be able to explain it to anyone else at this stage. In fact, I won’t want to talk about it at all in case my imaginary character just turns and runs. But at some point, usually months and months down the line, the story will become solid enough for me to believe that I might just be able to write it down.

This is my least favourite part of the writing process, the bit where I have to test the story that was in my head and see if it can exist outside it. There are anxious days where I know I have to start writing but I don’t want to. If I start writing the novel only to discover it’s got no substance, then I’m back to the drawing board, hoping for another idea to begin percolating in my head. And you can never choose when that might happen – it could be years! But at some point, I bite the bullet and start tapping away at the keyboard. If the story is one that does survive being typed up, then months and months of writing start. Gradually I’ll begin to enjoy it and start to believe I’ll get to the end of writing the whole thing.

And eventually it’ll become the book I’ll be editing in my favourite chair, while – hopefully, fingers crossed & touch wood – another idea is percolating in my head.

But thank goodness for Book One in my Three Book Rule – that’s the book where someone else has done all the hard work and I just get to enjoy the end result. I really couldn’t live without it!

What do you think?
Do you have any book recommendations?
Can you read a novel for relaxation and write your own at the same time?
And does anyone else enjoy revising / editing their own work more than the creative part?
I’d love to know!

Sara’s debut novel Not Thomas is published by Honno Press and is available to pre-order now on Amazon.

not-thomas-header