Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Answering Saskia

So Saskia said:

the question I wanted to ask was in what ways did you try to 'keep your hand in'
or keep learning and growing as a writer during the time you were unwell/unable
to write? I have been tooling around doing some outlines and character
development for fun but wondered what other tips you might have for someone who
is still dead keen but currently incapable of spending the true time required. I
don't want to slip backwards because I know my writing has improved in the last
year or so....
Enough waffle! Any advice greatly appreciated!

Firstly, Saskia – you have my sympathy. Two little ones and twins on the way are not the best combination for being at your very best as a writer! I have two dear friends who are both pregnant right now – one with twins too - and those hormones are complicating matters. Obviously the little ones are going to have to be your priority for quite some time to come – specially if you have any more children who never sleep! I have a son who never ever slept when he was little so I understand that too. It’s equally obvious that actual writing time is going to be strictly limited – so what can you do?

Looking back to the time when I was ill and couldn’t actually spend much time writing, I know that one of the things that helped me a lot was just plain reading – I did more reading then than I ever have time for now. And I miss it. Reading fills up your idea banks, it feeds your imagination, it shows you the way that established authors deal with the basics – like character development, conflict, emotion. You can see how an experienced author handles Point of View changes, how they resolve conflict, how they handle potentially controversial themes or rework the tried and true plot ideas so that they seem fresh and different.

So if you can, read. Read specially the authors who are successful in the lines and styles of fiction you want to write yourself. And take a look at the new authors who are what editors are currently buying.

One other very practical thing that I always did – and still do - is never ever to let yourself get more than a couple of metres away from a notebook! I still resort to the old-fashioned way of doing things, just scribbling them down, when I don’t have time to get to the computer. And I always always have a notebook in my handbag. Snatches of dialogue, descriptions, plot ideas – they all get written down. And I make sure I have a notebook and pen in every room – even when I’m cooking or when I was too ill to get up, I cold scribble ideas in a notepad near the bed. Still have a notebook beside my bed and I often wake up in the night and scribble something down in it.

Now there’s something you might not suspect that I’m going to say about finding it difficult to get any time for writing – and that is that sometimes I remember those times with happy memories. You see, I might not have been able to get to my work physically, but I could spend long hours thinking about my characters, planning stories, working out plot details, and so – when I did finally sit down to any work, the words flowed I was so hungry to write, so impatient to get the words down - words that had been growing and stewing in my head for so long - that as soon as I got a chance to write, I couldn’t stop. When my son was small and at playschool, I used to have to walk there with him, thinking of my story all the way, then I’d leave him with his friends and run home – it was about a 25 minute walk – thinking and planning still. Once home, I had barely got an hour and a half left before I had to pick him up again but I would write as fast as I could – because the ideas were right at the front of my mind. These days, I have much more time to write, but actually less thinking time. The times I spent doing washing or the ironing (which I hate ) I could use in the same way. And visits to the park etc gave me more thinking time.

I think you’re doing the right thing – looking at outlines, at character development - and here if I can do some blatant advertising, perhaps my 12 Point Guide to Writing Romance might help. Each section has a set of questions and exercises at the end of it – so you could read through that, work on each one – or even just a part of each one. And you’d still keep thinking as a writer.

One thing that I did when my son was small – I know you have a bit of time before this is possible yet - but my husband and I both write so we worked on a share system – sometimes I would have our son and he would write, other times, he would look after The Offspring and I would shut myself away. Again this time was always very well used because I’d been planning the novels in my head.

The thing is that if you keep using your ‘writer’s brain then it will not grow rusty. Plotting and planning and even daydreaming will help this. I also believe that even just a few sentences scribbled down each day – each chance you get – can mount up. My birthday treat would be time free to write to my heart’s content.

As I got better and my son grew up, I learned that getting up an hour earlier was worth all the effort of forcing myself out of bed. In the peace and quiet before everyone wakes up you can get an amazing amount done. Of course when broken nights are the problem , this sounds like the world’s worst form of torture, but I’ve also snatched time when the Offspring was asleep, or I’ve napped with him – if he ever napped! – and done the writing early in the morning thing. These days I still find that I work well if I get up early, make a mug of tea and start. Ideas are usually there in the morning as I go to sleep thinking over the point I’ve got to in the plot – and often it sorts itself out during the night.

I don’t know if there are any Writers’ Groups near you. If you’re the type who likes to talk about writing then they can help encourage you. Personally, I’ve never joined one – I prefer to use my time for writing rather than talking about writing! You don’t say where you live but here in the UK, the Romantic Novelists’ Association offers a lot of support to their unpublished members – specially at the Conference or through the New Writers’ Scheme which I’ve mentioned before. But these will probably be something that would have to come later when you have a bit more freedom.

Basically, the advice boils down to – a little is better than nothing - don’t let your writer’s mind grow rusty from lack of use. Even if you’re only scribbling down notes, planning out a timescale for a book, building characters – you’re ‘keeping your hand in.’ And ask – okay - demand – time for yourself. It’s amazing how much can be done in an hour – even half an hour - if you use it to write.

I remember when The Offspring was about 3 – I had left him at the playschool and I had a precious 2 hours but first I had to go to the market and buy veg etc. I didn’t have a car and it was a mile to walk home. On the way, I suddenly ‘heard’ the opening of a book inside my head. I’ve no idea where it came from but it was as if someone had spoken the words out loud:

“Rowena, my dear, I really must insist.”
Councillor Stacey slapped a
podgy thigh with an equally podgy hand to emphasis his words.
‘I want
nothing but the best for you and Alan, and from what I hear this Vincent fellow
is the very best, so let’s have no more protests. . . . ‘

I still had to get home before I could note down the words – I kept repeating them to myself over and over as I walked home. And then as soon as I was in the house, I grabbed the nearest piece of paper and wrote them down. I only had minutes before I had to set off again to collect my son – but I had an opening and all through the rest of that day, I was thinking over this idea – asking myself questions – like who was ‘this Vincent fellow’ and what was his past relationship with Rowena who was obviously the heroine. Asking questions, trying to work out what had happened and why and what would happen now – and why – I could do all that while collecting The Offspring, bringing him home, feeding him, playing with him, bathing him . . . and when he was finally asleep again I could get down as much as possible on paper. It didn’t matter if it was rough – as the saying is – you can always edit a bad page, you can’t edit a blank one.

That opening turned out to be the beginning of my very first published book - The Chalk Line

I think you’re going to have your work cut out, Saskia. Four little ones is a handful in any book. So I hope some of these thoughts have helped you.

If the worst come to the worst, you can always do what the famous and internationally bestselling romance author Charlotte Lamb is reputed to have done. With five children, she had trouble finding peace and quiet to write so she bought a large playpen – not for the children – but for herself. From inside the security of the playpen she could supervise the children at the same time as writing. She must have had phenomenal concentration!

Good luck! I hope the twins arrive safely and are fine and healthy – and I hope you manage to find some time to write or at least plan for writing in the near future.
And if you ever do get a book finished – let’s hope for ‘and accepted’ as well - or have any good news about your writing then please let me know.


liz fenwick said...

Hi Kate,
I came to your blog because of a headline on the Telegraph website Silician Giant Smoulders and well my eyes just read the first and the last word :) However It was good timing as I found your anwer Saskia useful as I have just spent the summer not writing. When the kids are home full time I have no time and no energy but I read like crazy (including the Anakotiss(sorry about the spelling!)Marriage was one ....awsome, couldn't put it down and cried)and thought about the next book. Finally today I exploded on a mind map and was shocked to find out just how much had been boiling away while I wasn't writing :)


Anonymous said...

CarolC said...

Kate thanks for this brilliant and insightful post. Saskia I'm sure it will be as inspirational for you as it has for me.

My son (the only one for now) is usually a great sleeper and I'm lucky as my mother-in-law helps out loads with childcare, but I still find myself struggling to find the time I want to write.

Kate I've often thought of what it must have been like for you in the early days as I remember you saying your son hardly slept and you'd been ill.

Like I said I know I'm lucky, but I think writing is like all great passions. No matter how much time you have for it - you can never get enough ...!!!

Kate Walker said...

Liz - Sicilian Smoulders - I love it - I may have to steal that for a headline when the Sicilian Brothers books come out! Thank yyou so much for the compliment on The Antonakos Marriage - but it's The Italian's Forced Bride that has made everyuone else cry!
I'm so glad the post helped you - but I'm a little worried about you exploding on a mind map! It sounds both painful and messy! ;-)

Carol - glad to help. It isn't easy to write with small ones even when you have help or they do sleep - I think one (child who didn't sleep + trying to write) led to the other (being ill) so I've had to learn to pace myself - but as I said, your mind is always free and I do miss those times - frustrating though they were then - when I could think out and plan while doing something practical or pplaying with the Offspring.

I hope they help Saskia too

Nicola Marsh said...

Kate, your advice is brilliant.

I have a toddler, and tried various ways to write when he was younger and ended up exhausted and frazzled. Now, I only write at night when he goes down, so though I start at 8.30pm, I manage to write non stop for a few hours.

That said, I've just had my longest break from writing ever and it was very hard to start the next book. I helped by constantly thinking about my plot and resorting to trusty notebook to jot down ideas or story developments whenever I could, plus reading a lot, as you suggested.
This writing business is tough and every bit of advice helps. You've given us that in spades so thanks :)

Saskia King said...


Thank you so much for your reply - I found it very useful and yes, inspirational too! :)
Ironically, the day after I posted that question on your blog I got a revisions request on the full I currently have in with the MX editors. Knock me over with a feather! So I am hard at work (or trying to be) to try to 'nail' it before the babes arrive. I definitely try to make the most of the time the littlies are asleep but know for those first few months with two newborns the sleep thing might not be happening much... That's ok. Frankly, writing keeps me sane and I figure the kids will be better off with a sane mother. My husband is also a writer of sorts (a journalist) and he is extremely supportive and takes the kids out to give me some day writing time in the weekend etc.
I'm going to give these revisions my all and try to learn as much as I can from them - but above all have some fun doing them because ultimately, that's why I'm writing in the first place. After that, who knows?
Off to send hubby out for a supply of notebooks!
Thanks again,

Sue aka MsCreativity said...

Mega congrats on the request for revisions Saskia!! I wish you the very best of luck with them.

Kate thanks for this post. There have been many times this year when I've nearly given up again on my writing because of my health and 'real' life etc. I still have days when I feel overwhelmed, but you are so right.

Even writing little bits here and there, and brewing on everything when I'm unable to write, have helped. And reading lots and lots of fantastic books in between has helped immensely.

I'm still only 34% of my way through, but with the help and advice that you and other writers give so generously, I know that I will finish this book.

Thanks Kate.

Sue :-)


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