Sunday, 28 April 2013

The Lion in the Attic: My Top Ten Tips for Boosting Writer's Creativity

Writer’s blogs are full of advice about boosting our creativity, and I have been trawling through them with interest. I have also read articles and watched programmes giving similar tips; but do they work? Below is a run-down of my favourites.
1)      Doing things differently
A Horizon programme, The Creative Brain: How Insight Works (14 March 2013, 9pm, BBC2) showed that having a new, surprising experience such as going up in a glider for the first time boosted people’s ability to come up with creative solutions. This was also the result for a research subject who was asked to carry out a familiar task (making breakfast) in a new way. Doing things in the same way all the time dulls our creativity and leads to rigid thinking which makes creativity more difficult.
   Having been sky-diving for the first time last year, I can confirm that having such an exhilarating new experience shakes you out of your usual complacent mind-set and stimulates your brain. However, I am also a creature of habit: until recently, when I went swimming in the mornings, I always used the same locker. Since watching the programme, when I catch myself on doing something in the usual way, I take steps to do it differently. I’m all over those lockers now! This one takes constant vigilance, since today’s innovation can quickly become a new habit – but try it. Go sky-diving. Clean the house in your underwear. Wear someone else’s underwear. Have lunch for breakfast – and see how your writing sparkles.

2)      Fasting
Bear with me on this one. I am fervently anti diets and am aware that this sounds like a crackpot idea, and that it makes some people quite angry. The evidence is out there to read, but here I’m only sharing my own experience. Eight months ago, some colleagues were trying out intermittent fasting, when you eat 500 calories or less (for a woman, 600 or less for a man) for two non-consecutive days a week, then eat what you like for the rest of the time. I tried it for a challenge, to see if I could do it. What made me carry it on was the totally unexpected boost to my energy and brain-power. I found that I felt sharper, more focused, healthier and much more energetic as a result, and I have continued to feel that these are the benefits. This week I have challenged myself to write a poem every day and was again astonished to note how much brighter and more creative I felt on a fasting day. Just saying!

3)      Silence
The world is full of noise, and we add to it by filling every moment with television, radio and i-pods, often mixed with other stimuli, such as checking Twitter while watching the news, giving our full attention to neither. Such constant input does not allow our thought processes to work through to their conclusions. We are not letting our poor brains finish their sentences. When things are at their worst, I wake up in the night thinking about things, simply because during daylight hours, my mind has not been able to process them. I urge you to find a time when you turn off all sound and just rest quietly for a time, allowing your mind to ponder. I have found a new route to work that is longer but quieter (I am lucky enough to be able to walk to work), and I don’t take music with me, but just walk quietly with my thoughts. This probably boosts my ability to think deeply and innovatively more than anything else. You don’t need hours, just some time every day when you turn off that radio and let your mind entertain you.

4)      Reading good writing
This might seem obvious but can be something we neglect if we are spending every spare moment writing. What you need to read probably depends on what you are striving for, or struggling with, in your own work. Recently when I was challenging myself to come up with new, fresh, surprising but apt ways of expressing things, I found reading Alan Hollinghurst’s  The Stranger’s Child a huge help, since he is so gifted (or so hard-working) in this area. Please add a comment to this post if you have found that a particular writer has helped you with a particular need. I would love to hear from you.

5)      Daily practice
This is recommended by many writer’s blogs. You might not feel that you need this if you are working on your writing every day, but think again; this is about boosting your creativity generally, which goes beyond just getting down to work. This week, while fasting (see point 2) I turned the radio off on the way to swimming (see point 3) and came up with the idea that I should write a poem every day this week. I have not written poetry since my teens, when it was an inalienable part of being the teenaged me, and returning to it has been both a challenge and a joy. I am not going to inflict my efforts on you because the point has been to produce a few lines daily, rather than to write something polished for public consumption. In any case, I don’t want to push my luck when I am already making you fast and turn your radio off.

6)      Exercise
OK, I know, now you really hate me. However, exercise not only stimulates and relaxes the body and hence the mind; it also provides a good distraction from the writing process, which the experts seem to agree is good for boosting problem-solving creativity. You don’t have to take up British Military Fitness if doing one-armed press-ups in the mud of your local park is not your dream activity; just go for a walk and let your mind run free.

7)      Honouring your creativity
A while ago when I was busy working and child-rearing and had allowed my writing to slide into the ‘one day, when I get time’ category, I kept having a dream. I would discover an attic room at the top of our house that I hadn’t known was there, but I would find it filthy with dust and covered in cobwebs. More recently, with my blog underway and my focus firmly on finishing my novel, I went up into the dream attic again and found a lion there. He was huge and beautiful, with a voice like Aslan, and he let me get on his back, ready to fly away with me, because he and I were going places. Dreams speak so beautifully of deeper truths that we are trying to ignore. Creativity is the lion in our attic. We can let it fall into disuse, or we can nurture it and make it more powerful. To do this, we need to take it, and hence ourselves and our hopes and dreams, more seriously. We are not given these gifts to let them wither away.
8)      Spring coming – hooray!
This is not in any of the other blogs. But you and I know it’s true. Everything just feels better. We can achieve anything!

9)      Having a cat

Honestly, one of the blogs recommended this. I am trying to believe it is true that cats are helpful to our writing while my cat, Misty, sits behind me, poking my head ever so gently with her claws, to tell me that she has lunch (she doesn’t) and that it is overdue. The picture shows her helping my film-maker son, Ben, with some film editing. I’m not sure if she is actually boosting his creativity here.

10)   Spending time with like-minded people
This is where you come in. Many of the blogs I have read about blogging (this is becoming very incestuous isn’t it?) have said that you will learn more from the posts comments of other bloggers than you dispense in wisdom from your own blog. I do hope this is true. Please leave a comment telling me what tips you have tried for boosting your creativity, and which were most successful. Or try some of the above, and report back!

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Book editors' pet hates - authors please avoid!

Since my day job is Managing Editor for an art and craft book publishing company, I thought I might offer advice to writers embarking on a professional editor/author relationship. Most authors are a pleasure to work with, but there are one or two things you might want to avoid if you don't want to cause your editor unnecessary suffering.

Don't tell your editor that you have a husband/wife/friend who is an (amateur) expert at proof reading and is going to edit the text for you. They will feel instantly undermined and will foresee a battle for editorial supremacy.

At your first meeting, don't run down everything about your last publisher. Alarm bells will ring for your editor. If everything always goes wrong between you and your publishers, you might want to start considering what the common denominator is. Could it be you?

When making text corrections, do not just send in the text you first sent, with your changes buried within it. Your editor will have edited this first version, so by sending it again you are making them do the job twice. They will also have to play 'spot the difference' to find out where your changes are.

Do not battle over every comma. Allow the editor to do his or her job and confine your objections to things that really matter. Having your work published always involves some relinquishment of control. Take a deep breath and aim to be as rational as you can.

Do not deliver every stage late and then get distressed when told the book will not be ready for a launch you were planning. Some authors treat deadlines as a moveable feast for them but expect schedules to be kept by everyone else.

Do not insist on using a favourite holiday snap of you for your author photograph, in which you are not looking at the camera, your hair is blowing over your face and a friend has to be cropped out of the frame. Have a photograph done professionally if you want your book to look, well, professional.

Don't turn up unexpectedly at the office and expect your issues to be dealt with then and there. Editors have other books and deadlines and need to schedule you in, reacquaint themselves with the finer points of your book and in some rare cases, brace themselves for your arrival.

Do not be alarmed if your editor is not a renowned expert on the subject on which you are writing. He or she is paid to be an expert at editing (unless you are publishing in a very specialist field). Not being an expert can help an editor to make your work accessible. If the editor can't understand it, then it may not be clear enough. The editor takes the place of the idiot to make your writing idiot-proof.

Do not ring to ask for early copies of the book, or publicity material, for an event that is only a day or two away. It will be the production and publicity departments who will be thrown into panic by this, but the editor will have to hear about it. Give people plenty of notice and they will be happy to help; it is in their interests to help  you publicise your book.

If you bring a friend/partner along to meetings, make sure they take a supporting role and don't tell the publishing team how to do their job.

Don't allow a well-meaning friend or partner to become your self-appointed agent. Your publisher wants to liaise with you, the author. Third parties can become over-protective like some doctor's receptionists and publishing deals have been known to fall through because of them.

Do not go to ground. Keep in touch with your editor. There’s no excuse for become completely incommunicado when you are supposed to be working on a project together. Unless perhaps you are Salman Rushdie.

If you include acknowledgments in your book, don't forget your long-suffering editor. It can be dispiriting to be left out of an acknowledgements list that includes every member of your family, your friends, primary school teachers and pets.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

An inconvenient truth about inheritance

As I was working on the final chapter my novel, in which some legal ends are tied up after one character, Uncle John, has been killed, I thought I had better do a bit of research on who inherits if someone dies intestate without direct descendants. I discovered that my heroine, Sarah and her brother, David, as the offspring of his sister would inherit a huge manor house, plus the Gatehouse where Sarah lives. This was not something I wanted to happen! For one thing, David’s wife Deb (also Sarah’s best friend) stands accused of the manslaughter of Uncle John at the end of the novel. It would not look good for her if she and David stood to inherit after his death! More than this, though, this is not a Jane Austen novel (no disrespect), in which the heroine's trials and tribulations end with her taking her rightful place of mistress of a huge estate. In the words of the song, it's not about the money, money... An inheritance would be a huge distraction from the conclusion to the themes of the novel. This inconvenient discovery made me feel as though the plot of the novel had taken on a life of its own and was using legal reality to skew my intended outcomes.

I pondered all this on an early morning run, pounding the pavements in the cold and thinking it through. How could they not inherit? Should the uncle have left his property to someone else? This seemed very unlikely since he was close to no one apart from his twin sister. Battersea Dog's Home? He shows no affection for dogs. I realised I was going to have to plant the idea earlier in the novel that he might leave everything to someone else, perhaps maliciously in order to prevent his sister's offspring from inheriting.

I eventually decided to have the uncle’s own father threaten to 'leave it all to Battersea Dog's Home' as a way of needling his son into working hard so that he could run the Clinic in future. The uncle mentions this to Jim, Sarah’s husband, when he is inquiring about their status as tenants at the Gatehouse. This solution allowed me to delve deliciously into Jim’s lingering insecurity and prickliness about class at the end of the novel:
Battersea Dogs’ Home. When he had heard about the will, Jim had pictured himself on that sofa in Reception in his football gear and squirmed with shame and resentment, seeing now that through his icy politeness, Briers had been sneering at him. How stupid, how incredible to bother feeling that about a man who was murderous and depraved; ‘Dr Sicko’ the tabloids had called him when it all came out in the media furore surrounded Deb’s trial. He had almost taken everything from them. Why even care that he had thought Jim a gold-digger and laughed in his face?’

This need to disinherit my heroine turned out to have an upside. It focused me on the theme of inheritance that already runs through the novel. What do we inherit from our parents? Curses? Mysteries? Strengths? Weaknesses? The issue is all the more poignant when, like Sarah, we have no memory of the parent to give us clues.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Writer's Reluctance

As the name of my blog suggests, my  lifelong tendency to be secretive about my writing brings to mind Jane Austen's creaky door, which she refused to have mended because she valued its warning that people were approaching so that she could hide her writing. She also published all her books anonymously as 'A Lady', because it was considered 'too forward' to put your name to a novel if you were not already famous. Nevertheless, times have changed and being 'too forward' is part of the writer's task these days, so in a most unladylike manner I am launching in with my first blog post. I feel sure Jane would have approved. I wonder how witty, pithy and entertaining her blog would been if she had had the technology - and society's blessing - in her day?

I am suffering not so much from writer's block, at the moment, but from a certain reluctance to get down to the task. I know why it is: for over a year, I have been making some fairly sweeping changes to my novel, Unspeakable Things, as suggested by a consultant. Realising the scale of the task, I dedicated myself to spending some time every evening and every weekend on writing. I even cancelled a week-long trip so that I could take the days off work throughout the year as writing days. Writing has been enjoyable and I have relished the time spent on it and resented anything that has kept me from it. This makes it all the more noticeable that I am shuffling and time-wasting and having a 'quick look' at Facebook before getting down to work now.
   The reason is this: I am coming to the end of a long 'pass' through the novel that has taken more than a year. The overall task of rewriting is nowhere near finished, but I think a part of me has taken fright as I have rewritten the later chapters, feeling that it is nearly over, and not wanting it to end. Because once I am finished with the writing bit, which I love; I have to face the getting it out there, offering it up for scrutiny, getting knocked back bit, which I'm sure all writers dread.
   I know what the remedy is. I need to get over my reluctance and rediscover my relish for the writing process. I'll just have a quick look at Facebook and I'll be there...