Disneyland with Books


Welcome to Kells

WELCOME TO KELLS. (Picture courtesy of the Hay Festival, Kells.)

Last year I volunteered at the Hay Festival in Kells and was lucky enough to be assigned to St Columba’s Church for the weekend.  How do I describe the church to you? Think old country churchyard. Now age it a couple more centuries. Add the remnants of four eleventh century Celtic crosses and a round tower from the same period. Now, you’ve got it.

It’s Ireland in less than an acre.

Kells, County Meath

Kells, County Meath

Into this serene scene streamed our guests: the speakers and the listeners.

Some of the visitors hadn’t planned to attend whatever event happened to be on at the time, but the location drew them in. Come for the tower, stay for the books. Could you blame them? The discussions on offer were fabulous. This is a small place, peaceful, so we didn’t have the rock star writers like Joe O’Connor. They were at the bigger venues, like the Headfort Arms. Instead, we had the poets and the historians, as befits so ancient and elegiac a site.

Being a volunteer, I sat at the back, keeping an ear out for people wanting information or looking to buy tickets, and all the while I listened to the experts talking about the difficulties of writing poetry in a minority language, or Ireland’s part in the First World War, or researching the historical background to Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. Each was a revelation and a joy.

There was a family from Kent who were on holiday in Dublin and drove up to Kells for the day. They enjoyed themselves so much they stayed for the whole weekend. Oh the scenery is spectacular, and the books are magnificent, but it’s the people. You know?

I do.

Everywhere you went there were happy volunteers in bright blue tee-shirts giving directions, suggesting events or places to eat, or just sharing the joy of the occasion. You couldn’t walk down the street without hearing laughter or a book being quoted. (That’s my definition of Paradise, right there.)

A man wandered around the worn old tombstones in the churchyard and stopped to ask what event was up next. A discussion about the JFK assassination? Sounds interesting. So he stayed for that and for the lecture that followed too. Later, as a soft evening fell, he shook my hand and thanked me. Like I’d done it all myself: the tower and the sunshine and the books. “It’s been a day,” he said. He had that peaceful look of a man who’s just enjoyed a long massage. “This is some event. I’ll be back next year.” Then as he stepped down the path he turned and said, “It’s like Disneyland with books.”

The Hay Festival returns to Kells on June 25th to 28th.  You can get the full programme and tickets from www.hayfestival.com/kells . Tickets are also available in Kells from the Kells Chamber Office (Carrick Street) – 046 924 0055 – open from 9.30am to 5pm from Monday to Friday, and from Antonia’s Bookstore in Trim, County Meath on 046 943 7532.

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Taking Stock


December is a good time for reflection. Yes, it’s insanely busy and there are huge distractions what with the food and the alcohol and the visitors. Still, we can usually find one quiet evening during the month to sit and think about the year that has passed and all it contained. It’s good for human beings to stop once in a while. To turn off the electronic gizmos and just think. It’s becoming a forgotten skill for some people, I’m afraid. Thinking.

Those of us who write tend to live in our heads. Unfortunately, most of our thinking involves the project in hand. This novel, this short story, this play. Whatever is on the page right now is where we focus. Yet we, too, need time to stop and reflect, and year end is a great time to do that — if only because there are shiny new diaries and planners in the shops just waiting for us to fill them with our hopes and plans for the future.

Reflection is a good way to keep focused. It helps you to plan your career instead of simply reacting to each event that happens along. Yes, some things will be beyond your control, but not everything. Figuring out where you are, what you’ve done, and what you still want to do, are important in any line of work.

“You can’t really know where you’re going until you know where you have been.”                                                                                                       ~ Maya Angelou

Thanks to my trusty To Do List (What a To Do!) I have a record of everything I did over the year. The list is unforgiving as it reflects those things I did not accomplish or am still working on, as well as my achievements. This makes it easy to see the projects that fizzled out or the goals yet to be met.

The thing to remember about end of year stock-taking is that you have to be kind with yourself. There will always be some disappointments, but you will probably find you’ve done better than you realised. There will be projects you finished and forgot about, positive responses from readers, and ideas you put in your journal that are just waiting for you to take to fruition. This is your time to gather it all together. It’s not a time to beat yourself up, nor is it time to start finishing a story you had abandoned.(End of year review always gets me eager to fix some story or other. I’ve learned to make a note of my brilliant ideas and return after the review is finished.) Right now, your focus is on reviewing where you are. If you do find projects that need to be finished, then put them on your list for next year.

How you approach the review task is up to you, but I break the task into the following categories:

  • Successes and Failures
  • Work completed
  • Publications
  • Competitions
  • Professional development
  • Other

Successes and Failures:

Like most people, I don’t spend enough time congratulating myself for my accomplishments. Writers are pretty hard on ourselves. We easily see the failures or the near-misses rather than the hits. If I sell a short story to a small literary magazine, sure, I’m pleased, but a part of me niggles that I should be getting into bigger markets by now. A novel finished is a thrill but soon panic sets in that I don’t have an idea for the next one. This is one reason why quiet, dispassionate reflection is so important. Since a little time has passed since this sale or that rejection, the heat of emotion has cooled and I’m able to judge my progress in a more objective manner. Ending the year on a celebratory note sets a positive tone for the year to come. Acknowledging the good work done over the year motivates me to keep going.

Of course, it’s not all cherry soda and chocolate cake. There are failures that need to be evaluated, and unfinished projects to be reviewed, too.

I am always reluctant to write off (no pun intended) a story that has failed to find a publisher. There are a dozen or more pieces floating around my cupboard that just didn’t get there. Yet. It’s a shame, because they were good stories. Well, some of them. But I keep reviewing the markets in hopes that one of them will like a tale that’s a bit too weird or quirky to work for most established journals. I also rewrite or revise the stories now and then. That said, I don’t expend too much energy on them. There comes a point where you have to move on. At the end of the year, I look at the stories I’ve generated over the past twelve months and see where they are. Deciding whether to stop fussing over the failures or giving them one more chance is a judgement call.

Work completed:

Now I look at the work I’ve done over the past twelve months. How many pieces did I complete and submit to markets over the course of the year? If something hasn’t yet been published, I’ll check to see if it’s still in circulation. If not, I’ll make a plan to start resubmitting it. This goes on my To Do list for January.

Publications:

Here, I include the statistics for my published novels, as well as new stories or articles that I have seen appear in print over the course of the year. It’s not only the numbers that matter here, but also things like what sort of markets are publishing my work. How big are they? Where are they located?

Competitions:

This isn’t something I spend a lot of time on, but I usually try to enter at least two or three writing contests over the course of the year. I prioritise high-profile competitions such as The Sunday Times Short Story Award. I know the odds of winning are slim so I don’t enter too many of these over the course of the year, but success in any of them can be career-defining so it’s a good idea to try at least a couple. Some people focus more on competitions than they do getting published. I’m not sure that’s a great idea. The very act of studying markets and submitting your work  takes time to learn and there really are no short cuts to help you master it. I suppose it depends on the sort of writer you want to be. If you’re happy to turn out a couple of stories a year and hope to get lucky with a contest, then I can’t say you’re wrong. On the other hand, if you are looking for long term success as a professional writer — something that’s incredibly difficult to achieve — you need as many tools in your toolbox as possible. Just my opinion.

Professional Development:

For me, this includes membership in the Irish Writers Centre, attending classes, engaging in public reading opportunities, and reading books or articles that will help me improve my practice.  I also attend as many readings and literary interviews as I can so I have a chance to interact with other professional writers. You may want to include things like developing a new skill, whether it’s in actual writing or editing, or perhaps mastering a new computer programme.

Other

I like to see how much time I have spent on other activities. For me, these include my weekly blog, working with the writers’ group, blogging for the Kells’ Hinterland Festival, and any classes I may have taught over the year. I set up my calendar and To-Do List for next year here, and I also review finances but I save that until I’m feeling brave… You can probably think of several other items that don’t fit readily into any other category, too. Just try to include as much as you can.

What’s Next?

Once you’ve completed your year-end review, it’s time to put a plan in place for next year. If you neglected your professional development this year, then try to focus on it for the next. If you have a huge stack of incomplete manuscripts vs finished ones, then maybe your goal for next year should be getting stuff finished. What are you lacking? Good word processing tools? A functional calendar? A website or blog? It’s only by looking at where you are that you can see where you are going.

If you’re of a particularly analytical mindset,  you may want to look at when you are most productive. If you keep a log of when you work, you’ll be able to see if you are a morning writer or an afternoon or evening writer. Are you more productive at the weekends? What time of year suits you best? Use this analysis to help you schedule your writing time for next year. If it doesn’t work, don’t worry; your next review will highlight any problems. You don’t have to wait a whole year for that review, either. You can do it weekly, monthly, quarterly — whatever fits your style and your schedule.

Decide the kind of writer you want to be and be that. It is for you to decide what success looks like.  The only real failure is in not trying.

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Why Stories Matter


I remember when I was about five years old my primary school teacher showed the class a series of pictures. We had to arrange the pictures in the correct order to make a story. One had to do with someone going out for a walk, deciding to take an umbrella, it starting to rain and the umbrella going up. Weird the stuff you remember. Of course, even then I couldn’t do the predictable and so I arranged the pictures differently and had a story to go with it. (I think my umbrella was magical and found the man who had forgotten it.) But the point is we all need stories so we can learn to anticipate the consequences of our actions.

That’s a lesson that seems to be increasingly ignored by otherwise intelligent people in recent years. They vote for fascists and seem surprised when their civil rights are eroded. They allow bigots to dictate the terms of civil conduct ignoring how appallingly said bigots’ input has proved every single time they’ve been given a voice.

Even cavemen told stories. They explained the night sky by creating myths and legends. They told the stories to their children and those same tales are being told today.  Children learn very young that stories have value.

“The child intuitively comprehends that although… stories are unreal, they are not untrue …”  — Bruno Bettelheim The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (1976)

My grandmother was a storyteller. When my brothers and I stayed with her, the best time was when she lit the fire and she told us tales of the headless horseman, or the telltale heart. Back then, I thought she’d made them up herself, but I later learned she was a constant reader and she passed on what she read to us. She also told us about her childhood. She’d had to leave school at the age of 12 and work as a scullery maid. All the same, she never stopped reading and books elevated her far beyond her peers.

Sadly, the world of readers is shrinking. According to the Washington Post, the number of people who read literature — novels, poetry, plays — has been in a steady decline since the 1980s. See the linked article for the specifics.

In my opinion, there’s a direct correlation between the decline in people’s ability to see other people’s points of view, to anticipate negative outcomes of actions, to see the big picture. There seems to be an erosion of sympathy and empathy in people who do not read. Look at the people around you. You can probably guess who is a reader and who is not. Do you think Donald Trump reads literature?

One of the differences between a good novel and a video-game or an action movie, for instance, is that a novel doesn’t do the thinking for you. Fiction doesn’t necessarily answer all the questions. Heroes sometimes make mistakes, they behave badly, they are, if they’re well-written, human. Villains can sometimes be kind. People from cultures and backgrounds far different from your own can teach you something about yourself. Really good books can make you think about the world in a new way. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) told wealthy people that even servants and orphans have lives they value and can feel deeply.  Robert Louis Stevenson showed that even good people can have a dark and dangerous side to them in The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde (1886). Literature opens doors, allows us to explore cultures we may not otherwise be able to interact with, challenges our values, and offers us insight into ourselves. Furthermore, when you read you enter the world of the book, you identify with the character. When you watch something on a screen you’re an observer.  There’s always some distance between you and the characters.

Neil Gaiman says,

“Reading fiction, that reading for pleasure, is one of the most important things one can do.”

He goes on to add, “I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons – a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn’t read. And certainly couldn’t read for pleasure.

It’s not one to one: you can’t say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are

Gak

Neil Gaiman

very real correlations.” Neil Gaiman

Reading is habit-forming. Once you start to read a book, unless it has been forced upon you or is not to your taste, you feel compelled to read to the end. Once you’ve been captured by the right book, you’ll find that reading is fun.

You can’t love everything. I have mentioned before that my grandmother was my book-pusher when I was a child. She had me reading The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), The Diary of Anne Frank (1947), and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) all before the age of eight. She also tried to foist Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies (1863) on me and I loathed it. So yes, you won’t love everything, but the things you do love you’ll never forget.

If you have children, tell them stories, read them books, buy them books. Make sure they have a library card and encourage them to use it.  Society is depending on them. The best decision makers are the ones with imagination. As another great reader, George Bernard Shaw, once said,

You see things; and you say “Why?” But I dream things that never were; and I say “Why not?”

 

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Cavan Comes to the Irish Writers Centre


Last week I read an excerpt from my current work in progress at the Irish Writers Centre in Dublin. Looking for the Right Word (whose title comes from a poem by the late Dermot Healy) was the showcase of the Cavan writers. Catriona O’Reilly of the Cavan County Council Arts Office said of the event, “I am delighted to work with the Irish Writers Centre in Cavan. We have a proud tradition of literature in Cavan, from the work of Cathal Bul Mac Ghiolla Gunna, Charlotte Brook, Mary Ann Sadlier, to the recently departed Dermot Healy and the ground-breaking playwright Tom Mac Intyre.  There is a genuine interest in the county to explore words and givev them a voice and I believe that this partnership supported by the Arts Council will bring a new dimension and strengh to the literary landscape of County Cavan.”

If the readings I heard during the evening are anything to go by, Cavan is well placed to take the lead in the country’s literature. Almost every reader was a prize-winner and master of their craft. Whether their preferred medium was poetry, prose, or play, they each demonstrated considerable excellence and I felt humbled to be in their presence.

For some of the writers, it was their first time delivering a public reading, although once they faced the very enthusiastic full house, the nerves vanished. It was a lovely experience, both as a participant and as an audience member. My own reading was very well received and I appreciated the foot-stomping, cheers, and applause. More importantly, they all laughed at the right places, which is welcome feedback. One woman was in tears at the end which was also a good, if unexpected sign. (I’m a writer; we’re heartless in the face of others’ tears if the tears indicate we’ve done a good job.)

Following our readings came an interview with Pat McCabe (Breakfast on Pluto, The Butcher Boy) and Mike Harding (Priest, Bird in the Snow) in conversation with award-winning playwright Philip Doherty. The men brought dry good humour to their anecdotes and, though they come across as temperamentally very different, the reserved McCabe and the exuberant Harding, their mutual esteem endeared both of them. They then treated us to some readings of their work — who could ask for more?

Actually, we could, because the evening ended with music from Cavan-natives The Strypes.

It’s great to see the Irish Writers Centre meet the literary needs in communities outside Dublin and I’d love to think this is just the beginning. Perhaps it won’t be too long until people in the other counties in Ireland, both North and South (Brexit-borders wiling), can share in the great treasure the Irish Writers Centre has to offer.

 

Irish Writers Centre

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The Writer’s Guide to Tracking Markets


There are so many myths about writing. Tell me if you’ve heard any of these before: Writers only work when they are inspired. Artists need alcohol and other chemical stimulants to unleash their genius. Writers are creative people and work best in chaos.

Lest there be any confusion, all of these myths are a crock. Writers are disciplined and work to schedule. I should say successful writers are disciplined and work to schedule. Successful writers know alcohol never did anything for any creative genius, but actually destroyed untold number of careers (and lives). And if a writer wants to be successful, he or she must be organised.

Last week we looked at ways the To Do list can help writers become more efficient and stay focused. Today, I want to look at the important business of tracking markets that might publish your work.

THE MARKET TRACKER

Of course, if you’re a completely independent writer who is happy to load your latest work onto the internet without any pesky editor or publisher getting in the way, you may not need to keep an eye on the markets. Still, I’m old school. I love seeing my short stories appear in magazines that I can buy in the bookshop, or seeing my novels on the bookshelves. Writing the best stories I can is part one of achieving these goals, but part two is finding the right market to send my work to. This can be a challenge because there are thousands of journals out there.

If you long to see your work published by established publishing companies or journals, then you need to know something about those magazines so you can send your work to the exactly right one. An informed submission saves you a lot of time and frustration, and will be appreciated by the various editors who receive your work. It also hugely increases the odds that your work will be accepted for publication. Of course, you don’t want to spend hours on a new search every time you have a story ready to send out. This is where the market tracker comes in.

As I’m a dyed-in-the-wool nerd, I made my own spreadsheet which I update once or twice a year but, to be honest, I’ve been increasingly relying on existing databases. Today I’m focusing primarily on short story markets, but you will find these tools work just as well for novelists, non-fiction writers, and poets.

THE SPREADSHEET MARKET TRACKER

Although I like databases such as Duotrope and the Writers and Artists Yearbook site (see below), I can’t seem to let go of my trusty spreadsheet. I know, you’re stunned.

The advantage of having a spreadsheet tracker that you designed yourself, or had a clever friend make to your specifications, is that it contains only the  information you want, no more, no less. While the electronic databases are great, you may have to wade through tonnes of stuff you don’t need in order to find what you want. It can also be difficult to remember specific markets that you either ruled out, or really liked, unless the database has a good filtering system. A personalised spreadsheet will help you to accomplish both of these things if you’ve done a decent job of setting it up.

Obviously, as with the To Do list, you can use good old pen and paper to list magazines and journals, but using electronic tools makes searching for the perfect market much more efficient. I also like being able to cut and paste information directly from a market’s website into my spreadsheet.

My spreadsheet contains a master list at the front  which alphabetizes all the markets I’ve researched. These aren’t just the journals that may be possible buyers for my work, but includes the ones I want to avoid, (usually because they charge a reading fee, or they acquire all rights and pay nothing). This saves me wasting time revisiting a market that I forgot I’d already discounted.

Additional spreadsheet pages go to US markets, Irish markets, flash fiction and poetry. I have a further page that lists resources and, finally, my wish-list page.

My Wish-List contains details of my top ten markets. For the most part, these are the most prestigious, reputation-enhancing journals such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Paris Review, etc. There are Irish and UK markets on the list, too, and even a couple of markets that publish genre stories. It’s purely subjective, and I sometimes add or change listings based on nothing more than the whim of the  moment. (Who, me? Capricious? You bet!)  Odds of being published in most of these journals is fairly low because of the sheer volume of submissions they receive, but hope springs eternal. (Actually, I received an email from one of these shiny markets this week telling me that a story I had sent to them some months ago is still under consideration, so you never know.)

Each of the pages on my spreadsheet contains the following headers:

  • Title (of the journal)
  • Region (US, UK, Ireland, etc.) This identification goes on the master list only, since I have individual pages of my spreadsheet dedicated to US, UK, and Irish regions. Identifying  where the journal is located is important because styles and language changes from one side of the Atlantic to the other. If I am submitting to a US-based market, I will modify my grammar and spelling for them. My cover letter will emphasize the years I spent living in the US. If I’m submitting to an Irish market, I’ll make modifications to that story, too, and mention that I was born and grew up in Dublin in my cover letter.
  • Category (science fiction, literary, etc.) I go by whatever description the journal itself has offered on its guidelines page.
  • What They’re Looking For: This includes the description from the journal’s guidelines.   For instance, The Strand wants detective or paranormal stories. The Yellow Room Magazine prefers to focus on women’s issues.
  • Pay Scale: How much they pay per word.
  • Simultaneous Submissions: This is a yes or no. Some markets don’t mind you submitting to several places at the same time, for others it’s a no-no. My preference is for the journals who are OK with authors submitting to more than one journal at a time, but I won’t dismiss The New Yorker, for instance, just because it doesn’t accept simultaneous submissions. I will, however, complain loudly about it.
  • Response time: Some journals get back to you in a few weeks; others take months. It’s helpful to have some estimate before you send your work out. If a journal doesn’t accept simultaneous submissions and also won’t respond for at least six months, you need to decide if that market is worth the possible delay in getting the piece back into circulation if it’s rejected.
  • E-submissions: Most markets now accept electronic submissions, but there are still a few who refuse anything but snail-mail, The Paris Review, for instance.
  • Website: Include the link on your spreadsheet so you can refresh your memory about the journal before you make any submissions. You also should double-check that they haven’t changed their requirements or anything else before you shoot off your latest work of unquestionable genius.
  • Notes: I tend to add a notes section to most of my spreadsheets, just in case I happen upon information that doesn’t belong anywhere else. In the case of my markets’ listing, this has proved invaluable. I can note if the editors only read during the winter months, or during the summer; if they published an author I like; or if they have an interview with their publisher or an agent I’m interested in having represent me. Oh, and if  they’ve already published my work, I include a note about the editor and any information that arose during the process.

The advantage of designing your own spreadsheet is you can fit it to meet your needs exactly.  However, I must admit it’s very time-consuming to set up and to maintain, and it does require a certain degree of skill. Happily, there are alternatives.

ON-LINE DATABASES

There are a lot of databases and websites that can offer you some listings. While the information isn’t designed specifically for you (the nerve!), you should find what you want with a little patience. Some databases are better than others, and you do have to pay a fee for some of them, but the good ones pay for themselves after you’ve made a few sales.

The best databases also offer you the chance to track your submissions on their site. This is a great tool, and really streamlines your marketing. Here are the databases I’ve used and like:

The Writers and Artists Yearbook offer online listings in addition to their book. These are mostly UK and Irish Image result for writers and artists yearbook 2018markets and you do have to pay for the privilege of using the database. Still, it’s worth checking out.

Likewise, Duotrope focuses more on US-based market listings which you can filter in a number of different ways to streamline your search. Duotrope also comes with one of the best submission trackers I’ve seen, though, again, you have to pay for it (it’s a nominal fee and, in my opinion, worth it). They offer a free trial period so you can give it a test drive.

If you’re looking for listings for general fiction including genre, with nonfiction and poetry coming soon, check out The Grinder

WEBSITE LISTINGS

You can do a Google search for a number of different types of short stories and find any number of websites that offer listings, usually in the form of a top 20, or top 50. Here are the ones I use most frequently:

If literary fiction is your preferred cup of Joe, you should definitely check out Top 50 Literary Magazines from Every Writers Resource. This list is updated annually and I love it. This site is also a great resource — well, you probably deduced that from its name — and should interest most writers. This site also includes a list of Science Fiction markets: Top 10 Science Fiction Magazines 

If you prefer speculative fiction, then I’d suggest Speculative Writing. This list isn’t updated annually, but it’s still worth a look.

For horror, fantasy and so forth, this site offers some market information:  Fiction Factor.

International marketsShort Story Magazines

THE BOOKS

There are several on the market, but these are the most common:

Writers and Artists Yearbook

Writers Market or Writers Market Deluxe Edition

If you’re short on cash, you can find copies of market listing books at your local library. They may be out of date and possibly need further research, but it’s somewhere to start.

Finally, let me leave you with an invitation. I’ll be reading from my current work in progress at the IRISH WRITERS CENTRE in Dublin on Thursday 23rd November, 2017 at 7pm as part of the Cavan Writers Showcase. Admission is free. I hope I’ll see you there.

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What a To Do!


Confession time: When it comes to keeping records about work done and work to do I’ve always been a bit… well, let’s be kind and call it dedicated. Yes, some people may use the word ‘obsessive’, but I put that down to jealousy. They envy my brightly coloured wall charts, my itemised calendars, and my spiffy spreadsheets. It’s envy, I tell you!

I like knowing how much work I’ve done on a given day and being able to tell at a glance how much I have left to do. On days when I’ve been less than productive, a skimpy chart can inspire me to do better over the rest of the week. I like seeing my word count go up, and my job done percentage approach the 100% mark.

I use several trackers each of which has a different function. I’m not saying you have to be quite as, uh, dedicated as I am, but I honestly couldn’t manage without…

THE TO DO LIST

If you only have time in your life for one tool, you poor deprived thing, I’d recommend the To Do list. In fact, I can’t imagine how you’d function without it.

Most writers have to squeeze their writing into odd moments through the day. If you have more than one project on the go at a time — I currently have four — then you don’t want to waste precious writing moments trying to figure out what’s next. With your trusty To Do list, you can tell at a glance what should be your priority.

At this point let me remind of the obvious: you should take a professional approach to your writing. Think of it as a job, not a hobby. I promise you it’s a job for all the editors, publishers, and agents you are hoping to dazzle. So, with this professional attitude in place, why wouldn’t you want to use all the professional tools at your disposal? There are plenty to chose from. You’ll find a wide range of apps available for your phone or computer; you can design your own on Word or Excel or whatever programmes you use; or you can return to the basics and dedicate a notebook to the purpose.

Organisational tools are a bit like brassieres…

Organisational tools are a bit like brassieres. (Sorry, boys, I can’t come up with an analogy for you. Jock straps?). Some women like sports bras, and others prefer delicate lacy numbers. Some like white and others prefer black or red or pastel. There are cotton bras, silky bras, and bras made of lace. There’s no right or wrong choice. All that matters is that it fits you and gives you the support you need. By the same token, organisational tools should suit the user. You may have to try a few on before you decide what you like best.

The bare minimum information on a To Do list is the date in which you’re working, the item that you need to do, and a completion due date. I mean, rock bottom. If you’re a minimalist, this might suffice, but let me suggest a few more bells and whistles:

  • Use one master To Do list for everything, but break it down into daily, weekly, and monthly items. MS Excel comes with a variety of templates you can tweak to accomplish this, but a notebook with different coloured pages — yellow for daily, blue for monthly, green for the big picture stuff — will do just as well. I use an Excel spreadsheet. The first page contains all the big-picture stuff — projects that may take a year or more to complete; all the various tasks that require my attention, this goes beyond simple writing items, but includes things like research or contacts with agents or teaching assignments. I then have a page for each month of the year, and this is broken down further into weeks and, finally, days. No, I am NOT obsessive. much. I only work on today’s list. Things I didn’t get to today will go on tomorrow’s list, but if I’ve set up my projects well enough at the outset I should keep on track. I review the big picture stuff a few times a month, just to make sure nothing is being overlooked.
  • Add a column for the project category. Although I would describe myself primarily as a novelist, I also like writing other things, too, such as short stories, articles, and the occasional play. By adding a category to the title of the work, you can track how much of your time is going where. If you think you’d like to write a novel, but you’re spending 90% of your writing time on shorter pieces, maybe you need to reevaluate your priorities or your goals.
  • Speaking of goals… Every to-do list is dependent upon the goals you have for yourself and your project.
    • SPECIFIC: The goal should be specific, “I will complete the first draft of my novel by the end of the year.”
    • MEASURABLE: You should be able to measure the goal so you can tell if you’ve achieved it or not. Have you completed your first draft by the end of the year? It’s a yes or not answer.
    • ACHIEVABLE: The goal should be realistic. If you start writing on December 1st and you want to complete a 100,000 word novel by December 31st of the same year, you’re probably kidding yourself.
    • RELEVANT: If you want to write a novel, then your goals should help you achieve that. If you write all your goals around writing a poem instead, you’ll never get that novel written. Just sayin’.
    • TIME-BOUND: The goal should have a date attached.
  • Set priorities. If finishing the novel is the most important task, then this should be number one for you to work on every time you sit down to write. Of course, if you have a deadline for a smaller project, that will become more important, especially when the due date is looming.
  • Break each big project into smaller, easier to manage tasks. For a novel, you will probably want to include your daily word-count, but you’ll also need to add research, writing the synopsis, writing the cover letter, and so forth.
  • Track the percentage completed: Some electronic programmes come with this feature built in, or, if you’re techy-minded, you can do this yourself. But even if you’re using a notepad, it’s not rocket science. If your novel is going to run, say, 100,000 words and you’ve written 50,000 you shouldn’t need Stephen Hawking to tell you you’re half-way there.
  • The ten and under rule: You really should avoid overloading your To Do list with a huge number of tasks. You’ll become overwhelmed and the tool is then self-defeating. The point in having a master spreadsheet, but breaking down the project into smaller, daily tasks is to avoid this sort of GULP! reaction.
  • Use your minions. If you have them, that is. I don’t. The stuff on my to do list is mine alone to do. But if you do have people who are able and willing to help you, then make a note on your To Do list about who you’re assigning what task.
  • Pretty it up! If your list looks inviting you’ll be more inclined to use it.
  • Post it Prominently so you won’t forget anything or ignore it. Print a copy and stick it on the wall by your desk. Make it the first thing you see when you open your laptop.
  • Allow  yourself some flexibility. I know all of these suggestions probably sound a bit draconian, but they don’t have to be. A To Do list is a tool, plain and simple. You are its master, not the other way around. If it’s making you anxious, or if you aren’t getting any use out of it, then scrap it. Don’t give up too soon, though. It takes time to adjust to a new way of working.

MS Excel has several ‘To Do’ templates that you can download and modify to suit yourself. I’m a spreadsheet nerd so I like designing my own. I know. You’re shocked.

Good old fashioned calendars are also helpful. If you have one that gives you enough space to write in details for each day (or you could use a page / day diary), you can itemise what you need to do each day and check it off when the task is complete. These are great if you’re a visual sort of person. It can also be helpful to see a calendar on the wall where you can’t escape it. As with everything else, there are calendars on all computers and phones, too, so you might want to check them out and see if they can fit your purpose, or they might give you ideas for creating your own tool.

Mobile phones also come with task manager apps. Not only do these work well for daily tasks, but they can also ping to remind you when you are supposed to work on something. I have to admit, I find this annoying and so tend not to use it, but I know a lot of people find it helpful.

Next time we’ll look at some of the other tools you might want to use, such as marketing lists, submission trackers, and so on.

Task: Write Wednesday’s blog.   Done!

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Do You Have to Love Your Characters?


The novel I’m writing currently is told from the point of view of a deceitful, self-absorbed, manipulative woman. She is paranoid and delusional and there are very few people she likes. These traits make her a fascinating character, but they also make her difficult to love. I understand her, well, mostly, and I am sympathetic towards her. She’s been through a lot and I know she can’t help her madness. But, oh, she exhausts me.

When I wrote my first novels I sometimes had writing sessions that ran up to 10,000 words in one sitting. Not often, but on occasion. When the plot is engaging and the characters are sympathetic, it’s not too hard to get so caught up in the story that you don’t want to let go.

Not this time.

With this novel I struggle to get to my standard 1000 words per day. There have been many days when it’s taken me hours to write half that number. When you are inside the mind of such a difficult character, it is very hard to sustain focus without going a little potty yourself.

Usually when I sit down to write a blog, I do some research. I make notes on my topic and I have a look at what other people have had to say about the topic. Sometimes I find quote or anecdotes to support whatever my theme may be.

You want to know how many articles pop up when you google, “Writers who hate their characters”?

Zero.

Zip.

Zilch.

Oh, there’s plenty of stuff about how to create a credible villain and why nasty bastards are so much fun in fiction, but that’s not really what I’m looking for. It’s a pity Dostoevsky isn’t around because I bet he didn’t love Raskolnikov, who was as unpleasant a creature as has ever appeared in print (Crime and Punishment, 1866). Then again, Raskolnikov isn’t a blacker than black villain. He can love, feel compassion, and can even be heroic. Still, I bet Dostoevsky had writing days when he thought Raskolnikov was a pill.

My own little angel is also capable of goodness. There are people she loves. She has long periods of lucidity in which she is creative and kind and intellectually curious. That she is fractured when we meet her is not her fault. By the time the novel begins she has begun to lose her grip on reality. Much of her unpleasant behaviour is a result of her illness and, as such, deserving of our sympathy.  I remind myself of these things when she’s driving me nuts.

Confession time: You have heard of method actors. People like Daniel Day Lewis who notoriously become Abraham Lincoln or Nathaniel Poe. One is reminded of the advice Laurence Olivier allegedly gave Dustin Hoffman, “My boy, won’t don’t you just act?” Anyway, I’m not going to be living in the woods and building canoes any time soon, but I do tend to become deeply immersed in my characters when I write them. Method writing. It’s a thing.

As a result of such close identification with my unfortunate character, I frequently emerge from a writing session with a headache. This does nothing to endear her to me. But, and here’s the thing, I’m still on the first draft. On home stretch, certainly, but in terms of writing the novel, these are very early days indeed. Once I start rewriting, always my favourite part of the process, I can write more objectively. That is when I’ll be able to approach the character from the outside and work on her shades and shadows and lights. The first draft may take a method actor’s approach, but the rewrite is where the magic really begins.

Already I can see the nuances starting to emerge. I have lengthy notes for scenes that need to be expanded, for ways of making her less repellent. Oh, she’ll still be a mostly nasty piece of work, but I want the reader to be able to identify with her, to appreciate the reasons for her sometimes ghastly behaviour.

Writing a nasty character can be fun. You can indulge — I mean, let them indulge — in all sorts of naughtiness.  It’s entertaining if you have a hero to pit them against. But when you don’t like your own main character it’s a challenge. It means tapping into the seedier side of yourself. If you truly immerse yourself in your writing, it can really wreck your head.

Of course, some of the best characters in fiction range from annoying to downright loathsome.

For instance, who’d want to hang out with Hercules Poirot? He’s vain, arrogant, prissy, and a know-it-all. If you met him in real life you’d hold a hanky to your face to avoid breathing in all that perfume. Once he started waffling about his ‘little grey cells, mon ami,’ you’d run for your life.

Then again, Poirot’s a pussycat compared with the likes of Holden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye, 1951), or Humbert Humbert (Lolita, 1955), Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights, 1847), the Ewell clan (To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960), and so many more. Other than the fairly oddity Poirot, the others are pretty recognisable. We might not know for sure that our next door neighbour is a Humbert Humbert, but we wouldn’t have any difficulty believing it if he were arrested for, well, anything at all really.

Literature is full of disreputable characters and they are the ones who stay with you. The wicked stepmother always has more traction than a dopey Snow White. But writing them… Oy-ai-ai.

Once I start the rewrite I’ll calm down and remember that it’s not necessary for me to like this or any other character. All that matters is that she’s credible, and she is. I’ve had a few people read the opening chapters of the novel to see if my heroine (ha!) is too over the top. The reactions surprised me. The always insightful Jane didn’t care for her and saw a darkness in the character that even I hadn’t suspected.  Friends from the writers’ group saw her as well-rounded and sad. Another friend thought she was flawed but strong, even heroic. This is interesting feedback and I’ll keep it in mind when I begin the rewrite, but ultimately it doesn’t matter.

At least no one thinks she’s dull.

matthew macfadyen

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Holmes in Time for Halloween… Uh, Christmas


OK, the Halloween ship may have sailed, but just in time for  Christmas or Hanukkah comes Eliminate the Impossible: The New MX Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories Vol VII & VIII.

In The Sussex Vampire, Holmes tells Watson: “This agency stands flat-footed upon the ground, and there it must remain. The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply.” In each of the stories presented in this massive two-volume collection, Holmes approaches the varied problems with one of his favorite maxims firmly in place: .” . . . when you have eliminated the impossible whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth . . . .” But what, exactly, is the truth?

The true Sherlockians among you will have deduced that this huge collection is the 7th (and 8th) volume in the MX series of anthologies — Nothing gets past Holmes fans. As usual, the contributors are among the best tellers of Holmesian tales around. This volume features contributions by Mark Mower, Jan Edwards, Daniel D. Victor, James Lovegrove, Gayle Lange Puhl, Thomas Fortenberry, Mike Hogan, Thomas A. Turley, Adrian Middleton, James Moffett, Hugh Ashton, S. Subramanian, John Hall, Jayantika Ganguly, S.F. Bennett, Steven Philip Jones, Jim French, John Linwood Grant, Mike Chinn, Robert V. Stapleton, Charles Veley and Anna Elliott, and Shane Simmons, plus yours truly, with a poem by Jacquelynn Bost Morris, and forewords by David Marcum, Lee Child, Rand Lee, Michael Cox, and Melissa Farnham.

In 2015, The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories burst upon the scene, featuring adventures set within the correct time period, and written by many of today’s leading Sherlockian authors from around the world. Those first three volumes were overwhelmingly received, and there were soon calls for additional collections. Since then, their popularity has only continued to grow, with six volumes already released, and now two more, Eliminate the Impossible, featuring tales of Holmes’s encounters with seemingly impossible events – ghosts and hauntings, curses and mythical beasts, and more.

2017 is the 130th anniversary of the publication of A Study in Scarlet, the first recorded adventure of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John H. Watson. What an amazing journey it’s been! In addition to the pitifully few tales originally presented in The Canon, a mere 60, published between 1887 and 1927, there have been literally thousands of additional Holmes adventures in the form of books, short stories, radio and television episodes, movies, manuscripts, comics, and fan fiction. And yet, for those who are true friends and admirers of the Master Detective of Baker Street, where it is always 1895 (or a few decades on either side of that!) these stories are not enough. Give us more!

The forty-eight stories in these two companion volumes represent some of the finest new Holmesian storytelling to be found, and honor the man described by Watson as “the best and wisest . . . whom I have ever known.”

All royalties from this collection are being donated by the writers for the benefit of the preservation of Undershaw, one of the former homes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Copies are available from all the usual outlets. I deduce I’ll see you in the bookshop!

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