Tuesday, 30 September 2014

How Not to Waste Time as a Writer

Using my Little Red Book
to organise  my time.

I can’t count the times that  promising writer says to me -

‘If only I had the time I could really focus on this novel/article/poem/short story.

A Weird Situation

For a writer the only answer to this dilemma is to take time, to take control of your time. In doing this you will create dedicated time for you to imagine and for you to write afresh.

Writing creatively is often viewed as an inchoate, random, uncontrollable act -weirdly beyond the writer’s control based on the notion that all writers are dreamers. How does this compare with the expressive arts? Contrast this frenzied image with an artist going into her or his studio or a musician turning up at her or his rehearsal room.

Contrast this also with the reputation of highly successful present day and earlier writers -  part of whose success is built on their ability to organise their time to ensure systematic daily, weekly and monthly blocks of time to devote purely to their imagining and their writing.

Perhaps to be so successful and productive, needs the quality of what the world calls ‘selfish’. (We need a new word for this quality …) I sometimes feel that – because of their cultural brainwashing - women writers are worse at this ‘selfish’ thing than male writers.

I have often said that making time to write creatively is ‘my first priority after the safety of my children – before the house, the table, the call of friends. And these days,  surfing the Internet, tweeting. Even blogging (Though I have to say that does have its creative element.)

I have become used to to the faintly judgemental looks when I make this statement. The disbelief or disapproval comes equally from men and women of my acquaintance. But still I get my head down and write my stories, my novels and articles.

My Theory Is Based On Blocks Of Time

These blocks of time evolved during the time I was teaching full time -  first in schools then in higher education and wrote and had accepted for publication several stories and three Young Adult Novels.

This Is How My Method Evolved.

 My life in school and then college was keyed around the academic year: three terms and three longish holidays. This gave me six blocks of time  to attend to my writing as an important part not just of my time but my of identity.           Of course my preparation and my teaching also had to be properly  planned in. My teaching  commitments trained me to focus intently on a major creative  task (teaching)  and meet  deadlines (for preparation and marking).
           During the holidays I would use these skills in the free-lance way to research and write first short stories then novels which were accepted for publication. And during term times I would work spasmodically on my creations, close editing prose and developing characters and listing, brainstorming new ideas for new ideas.
        After that when I moved into writing full time I knew how to make time to write and went on write a book a year for twenty years – not ‘churning them out’ but giving them special time and space in my life to ensure quality, credibility and qualitative development.

So I thought I’d share with you my idiosyncratic views on how to make proper time in your life for your writing.

(This is not a recipe for everyone but perhaps  aninvitation to look at your own time-control more objectively as a writer and develop it systematically and – most important – give it priority in your life – first after the safety of your household perhaps.)

First you need to consider your own creative approach

Look back and estimate the light and shade of your normal practice as a writer. Estimate when you are in  a good mood and in full flow, how much writing you can do in a morning, an afternoon, a day in the week. Grahame Greene did this and aimed for and achieved 800 words a day – about five thousand words a week.  This adds up.Work out how many days in a week you can make your writing your absoluter priority. This can be as little as one our two but if you build it into your life you will be surprised how productive you become. 

When – during ‘holidays’ or purposeful breaks you increase this to four or five days you have practices in place which will ensure that you go straight into creative mode. If you have it in you’re a fine novel will grow out of this process.

Here We Go!

Make dates with yourself to  write.

1.      Choose  a block of time

           - a week, a month or several months.

In this block of time draw a line through whole days (or mornings, or afternoons),  in your diary and scrawl Writing  right across it, just as you might do if you were away on holiday. NB By ‘writing’ I don’t mean sitting at a desk, emailing, internet surfing, blogging, catching up with phone calls. You can block other times in your day(s) for those things.

2.      Choose  a space.

Chooses a space or spaces where you regularly write – a particular room in your house, a carrel in the library, a deep chair in the loungs of a favourite hotel, a corner tabe=le in a café, a car parked on the moors. (I have chosen all these places in my time…) You need to have a dedicated space for a big project.        If you draft by hand this could be a big bound notebook and  a tray on a shelf that you take time when you want to work on. Or it could be the big notebook in a rucksack ready to take to the library/bar/café/hotel of your choice.         If you are transcribing and editing, or writing directly onto the screen then you should create a folder with the generic novel title. Inside the folder should be your main manuscript and perhaps relevant informational research files, query files and any correspondence to do with this project.Perhaps you could include (my favourite) inspirational images     Always save the story file with the last date you worked on it. (The date is the best code. Easy to lose track)          

       If you are working on the computer at home it may be difficult to cultivate your 'dome of silence.' (See Below …) If so, pop your laptop into your rucksack and  make for that library carrel. If no laptop, copy the folder to a USB stick, pop that in your pocket and make for the library or any other place where you can gain private access to a computer.

3.    Cultivate your Glass Dome of Silence.

Once you develop it this approach can work in even a crowded place. They key is to become blind and deaf to everyone who is around you. It is possible. I do it. When you get this skill,  by some magic it increases your focus on your story.

(This does not, however, work in a crowded family room – children, spouses crash through the glass with ease,). In your home you need a separate space ro raise your dome – smallest room, corner of a bedroom or bathroom  works quite well, If this is not possible get out of the house into the café/library etc.

4.   Keep a Little Red Book.

Well, mine’s red. Yours could be green, pink, blue….I would say avoid black, but I don’t know why I’m saying that.
         In the front of the book brief yourself to write that day. It might be finish the bit where Francine… Or The bit where the family car crashes. Or  They bury the body. Always small scenes which are accessible enough for you to fall into them to write and start writing. 

        At first your mind will wander to other things – necessary emails, phone callse,bits of research.. If this happens turn to the back of your little red book and list them. The write down a time at least four hours ahead when you will allow yourself to deal with them. In your little red book you can list research tasks that need doing, Necessary phone calls and emails, research.

Remember on your chosen writing days such things are not as important as your story. Give your story priority on your writing days. Such task should not count as ‘Writing time’. On other days you can tweet, tickle, lunch, surf to your heart’s content.

Try all this for a year.

However weird this is, you will be surprised how you fall into a fruitful writing  rhythm when you deliberately create the time and space  for your own creativity to blossom and develop into a fresh, original story which will satisfy yourself and your readers. Perhaps even agents and publishers even in this dire climate.

TO REMIND YOU . If you are a writer anxious to complete your novel , my book The Romancer might get you going again on the road to completion,.. In The Romancer you will find my much praised Forty Day Plan For Writing a Novel which is about you as a writer organising your time on a large scale.

Happy Writing!



Saturday, 20 September 2014

Working and Playing in the Languedoc with no WiFi.

You may have noticed my two week absence on these pages. So sorry about that.

I went back to the Langudoc with A and D, my two favourite writers, for a work-play September break. The weather was stunningly hot. The woman in the stationary shop mentioned the ‘unseasonally hot weather’; the woman on the oyster stall said the same, adding ‘You should go to the beach!’ 
Cafe Writing

The hot weather ‘broke’ in the last few days and it was ‘only’ very warm in the morning and hot in the afternoon. On our last day, dragging our cases across the bridge over the River Hérault which, instead of its usual gleaming silver-green was now a churning brown, spitting trees and logs as it hurled itself towards the sea.
The River Hérault, still  in a silver state.
The big performance-pontoon had sheered away from the quayside and was bobbing about mid-river. The  Hérault  had burst its banks further upstream - a serious affair:  lives had been lost.

We all had plans for our stay.  A and D had their own reading, writing and planning  projects, My tasks were to mop up some last pieces of research for the final edit of my novel, Writing at the Maison Bleu; to read some more short fiction - Truman Capote, Edith Wharton, Henry James – in preparation for our October 25th Room To WriteWorkshop on The Novella; to write exploratory pieces towards my own new short fiction.

I also had a  plan to send  to you some ‘Postcards from Agde’ - to follow on from the ‘Postcards from Marseillan’ (scroll back) that I wrote for you in June.

This was not to be. We had quite elaborate plans to have WiFi Internet Access in our slice of a medieval house. For various reasons this didn’t materialise. We had to make do with WiFi facilities at the Melrose Café on the Quayside which was only intermittently available. In other years here we depended for the Internet on the WiFi facilities in  the library (The delightfully named Maison de Savoir). But to our chagrin this year it was closed for refurbishment.But to our chagrin this year the library was closed for refurbishment.

So –  our work/play break consisted if two weeks in the sun in dusty, atmospheric old Agde -  virtually without the Internet.

All I can say is that it was great. It was remarkably peaceful and fruitful – living and working in a kind of seclusion: no checking out, no Tweeting, for Facebooking, no emailing. There was a lot of writing, planning, talking and
thinking. And a lot of sitting in cafés, over café crème or Pastis, watching the comings and going in this busy little self-absorbed town.

A little bit of writer’s paradise, 

to  be truthful. 

On the plus side I did find two new fantastic book sources for my new novel -

Writing at the Maison Bleu.

Reading and Writing

On the minus side I really did miss writing my Postcards from Agde  just  for you. I would have written about :.

Autimn Fruits

Cooking and Writing 

A Reading Corner 

Windows in Strange Places

Wish you'd been there. Wx

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Dubious Advice to Writers

My Response to Avril Joy's excellent post How Not to Write the Book That Makes You Millions – 2  www.avriljoy.com/

  1. Wendy says:
    Brava! Marvellous You have articulated here so powerfully what many of us feel. The truth is that we writers are the sometimes gullible consumers in this new industry of ‘advice to writers’. To follow the advice leads us down the road of writing a 21st Century brand of inferior pulp fiction to be sold like soap, rather than continuing on a quest to become better, deeper and stronger writers producing work to be proud of which might sell in tens or twenties or hundreds to discerning readers who are looking to be entertained, interested and – dare I say – enlightened, This is in the very best traditions of popular fiction since novels were first written for more widespread consumption.

  2. Look at, for instance, Daphne du Maurier, Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote, Alice Hoffman, Elizabeth Bowen, Katherine Mansfield  Alan Sillitoe, Scott Fitzerald, George Orwell, Sylvia Plath, Chinue Achebe, Edna O'Brien, Anne Tyler, Isabelle Allende , Pat Barker, Chung Chang and so on....

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

In Praise of Good Teachers.

Good teachers can be loud, puffing, over the top, self-indulgent, vain, self-centred, didactic. They can be impulsive, rebellious - even at times bullying.

They can be intuitive, creative, empathetic, enabling, life-changing, unforgettable, graceful, intelligent, sometimes even intellectual and totally obsessed with their subjects.  
In the case of great teachers all these things are rolled up in one unique intense quixotic bundle.

Good teachers display some unique elements from this list. I hope during my 23 years of teaching I was one of these

I know that nowadays teachers need to be brave in the face of on-site texting, phoning and bullying, hidden knives and drugs, and sleepy over-wrought or over-hung pupils.

On top of this they have to endure befuddling paperwork and head-teachers wrapped up in some arcane business-model involving obsession with their public profile and their accountants' impossible bottom line, rather than the opportunity they have for changing the chances that society may offer their pupils.

Thankfully there are still good and great teachers around who, despite the drawbacks, are pulling off success after success in educating their pupils to change their own lives and the lives of others

At its worse this situation has led to a layer of rather robotic professionals who are rule- followers, ticking-box teachers, survivalist teachers, rather than teachers who synthesise the diverse teacher qualities described above.

For such despairing teachers the pupils and students are at the end of the queue for professional attention. And sadly the ethos of some schools today can drive these often talented, desperate people out of the profession altogether.

At heart I  don't feel sorry for teachers. After all, unlike the pupils, they are volunteers, not victims. I have to save my sympathy for the pupils who have only one stab at this education thing.

But teachers now have to survive in a culture of perpetual tinkering   I recognise that they have to operate in a profession whose architects are ideologically, not pedagogically driven   in a culture where politicians of every persuasion  see schools as a perpetual social laboratory.

All writers use their experience to inform their writing. So inevitably teachers, young and old have played their parts in my fiction.

Here are just two examples:

My novel  Children of the Storm  begins early, on the day  in 1914 when the Germans bombarded Hartlepool and a young teacher arrives at school to find it blown to smithereens and her headmaster dead in the central hall,

In my novel Cruelty Games  Rachel a very idealistic teacher meets Ian,  a charismatic former pupil who, twenty years before set, in train a series of terrible events which have affected Rachel for all of her life

Thursday, 28 August 2014

In Praise of Fiction and THE RISK OF READING

All of us  – writers, readers, teachers, parents, probation officers, managers, MPs and lawmakers - anyone who cares about our world should read THE RISK OF READINGby Bob Waxler

Avril http://www.avriljoy.com/ has written on her blog about how she and I met and worked with Professor Bob Waxler on the absolutely seminal international project Changing Lives ThroughLiterature.  

Meeting Bob in Boston USA was inspirational and we related to his principles of the life-changing properties of reading stories which we were putting into practice in the prison where we worked.

There is something messianic about Bob. Even now, years later, he will say ‘Keep the faith!’ at the end of an email.

In his book Waxler argues that we need "fiction" to give our so-called "real life" meaning and that reading narrative fiction remains crucial to themaking of a humane and democratic society.

Waxler 100w
Robert P Waxler  
 University of Massachuset
Waxler’s book considers the importance of story in terms of "real life", The Risk of Reading focuses on human language, especially language shaped into narrative, and how such language is central to the human quest for identity.  

Waxler argues that we are "linguistic beings," and that reading literary narrative is a significant way to enrich and preserve the traditional sense of human identity and knowledge.

This is especially true in the midst of a culture which too often celebrates visual images, spectacle, electronic devices, and celebrity. Reading narrative, in other words, should be considered a counter-cultural activity crucial on the quest to "know thyself."

Reading literature is one of the best opportunities we have today to maintain a coherent human identity and remain self-reflective individuals in a world that seems particularly chaotic and confusing.

Our own work on this project was with men and women in prison. There we witnessed the transforming affect of whole narrative fiction in our project. (We read whole books, not bite-size pieces…It was not an O or A Level course in Literature...)

THE RISK OF READING made me think don't we too, on the outside, live in different kinds of prison? Narrative fiction has a strong role here too in restoring wholeness to our lives. It certainly did for me as a child and a girl who noadays would have been considered underprivileged

Reading narrative fiction feeds the brain, flowers the imagination, strengthens the empathy muscles in the individual. It could just save the world from self-immolation. 

Bob Waxler is interested in changing the world. And he might just do that through this important book.

Keep the faith! as Bob would say,

This book is out in November but can be pre-ordered now,. The very thing for some thoughtful person’s Christmas stocking, perhaps.

Links: I have written  elsewhere about this HERE and HERE 

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Gabriel: A Character Inspired by Underground Miners

The Family

As the grand daughter and niece of lifelong underground miners I 

grew up with the feeling that miners were exceptional, even mythic 

human beings.

      I had one uncle – down the pit from 14 to 62 years -  whose
 knowledge of  the very veins of the earth was down to experience, insight and long study. The seams underground were his obsession, even his poetry. 

       I had another uncle – a leader of his men – who when he was aboveground grew prizewinning flowers and had a hand in creating new strains of certain familiar flowers. He also had a very good singing voice  which he liked to share.
Doodling  -Thinking  of Gabriel
Read a chapter about Gabriel's
Perceptions of Light and Colour
 on the Tab above or HERE 


The Artist

It was a nephew of the flower-growing uncle – the late Norman Cornish - who in his youth turned his mind and his hand to drawing and painting, and ended up with a national reputation as a very respected artist.  
        Then I met the late Tom McGuinness – and entirely different artist from Norman, whose luminous paintings created new ways of seeing the world both above and below ground.


The Writers

Inspired by my background  I have written short stories based on my literary and museum own research, as well as  my  family experience of the role of the underground miner.  And  I am a particular admirer of writer Sid Chaplin – one time miner whose novel The Thin Seam is of perfect  evocation of men working underground.

        The thing is, I am  novelist, not a painter. So it was that into my life - into my imagination - strode the lovely Gabriel Marchant who is not any of these me above but who would not have existed without them. To me now he is as real as any of them.

The novel is called Gabriel Marchant; How I became a Painter

 and for a week is on  Amazon Kindle from 99p

Gabriel’s own story is fiction but it  springs out of my personal experience of a particular place at a particular time and my research into the true experience of people whose lives were changed in such a way.

The  Dedication. 

In the book I say: This novel is dedicated to all those whose lives impelled them to dig in the darkness, who still found the grace there to create beauty. In particular I honour the inspiration of the art of Tom McGuinness, Ted Holloway and Norman Cornish, in addition to the literary inspiration of the writer Sid Chaplin. All of them, in their unique fashion, flourished as young people through the magic of the Spennymoor Settlement. 
See the images of their work in Wales and McManners' wonderful Shafts of Light


Truth and Fiction

I hope  in this novel, through my fiction, I have arrives at some truth about the lives and the heritage of all those grandfathers  and uncles,  going back through generations in my family.

       I was thinking about Gabriel Marchant when I came across this quotation from Eudora Welty. It made sudden sense to me. 
She says  "Art, though, is never the voice of a country; it is an even more precious thing, the voice of the individual, doing its best to speak, not comfort of any sort, but truth. And the art that speaks it most unmistakably, most directly, most variously, most fully, is fiction; in particular, the novel.” 

Most Important: The Reader ***** on Amazon

The first reviewer says: 'Gabriel Marchant' is a rites of passage story sympathetically revealing life in the raw. Gabriel matures not only as an artist but discovers at Archie's Settlement 'the complication of women' through Rosel, art teacher and older woman, Marguerite an artist’s model and Greta the gauche, clever schoolgirl who makes a pact with Gabriel to do 'the thing that men and women do.'
     And always in the background is Archie working to release the butterflies in chrysalis state, a gifted group of young people desperate to escape the web of ignorance that could condemn them to life in the dark as black as any mine'

Gabriel is on Countdown offer up to end of the month.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Unknown Worlds. WIP

Extract from my work in progress, A clutch of writers are working together in the Languedoc

... Again Joe leapt off the bed. He shook his head very hard and - without bothering to decant it into the glass - gulped down water from the water-jug. Wiping his mouth with his hand he satdown at his work table and turned on his laptop.  
Then he closed his eyes and brought up a vision of the first group home - lvy House – where he lived when he was ten. He decided that this new story must start on the boy’s first day because he’s in the front hall and the kids could only use that when they arrived. The rest of the time they had to use the side door. Then, remembering what Kit said, Joe begins to make a list 

Black and white tiles
fine carved staircase
table with fancy  flower arrangement - dusty
long, thin red carpet  
two over-stuffed chairs – dusty
smell of burnt broccoli,lavender, wax, coke dust

Joe began to think that this story would be about the fear the boy felt  on entering this unknown world. The words started to flow onto the screen,...

From At the Maison Bleue

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

The Evolution of Paulie’s Web ( Now on Special Kindle Offer)

The Meeting

I first met my friend and RoomtoWrite collaborator, novelist Avril Joy, in prison. We were both, in our own way, ‘serving time’. Avril was three quarters of a the way through a twenty-five year teaching commitment. I was  beginning what was to be a four year association with this women’s prison as a Writer in Residence. It was then that she started out on her writing career and it was then that I had the life-changing experience of helping a whole range of women from all walks of life to find their (often silenced) voice in writing.

The Novel

One of several great outcomes of this experience for me, my novel Paulie’s Web, was a long time coming. It took me ten years to digest these powerful impressions sufficiently to write this novel as true fiction - in a way that still paid tribute to the many  women I met while working there;  I thought that if it went some way to cracking the absurd stereotypes of 'women in prison' that would  be an extra delight.  It is true that there are some dark passages here in the novel but the ultimately optimistic tone of this story is a true reflection of the mutual support, humour, stoicism and kindness that I was witness to in my prison experience.


So, what is it about?

Paulie Smith, rebel, ex-teacher and emerging writer, comes out of prison after six years, her conviction overturned. As she moves around in the next few days, struggling to readjust to the scary realities of life
‘on the out’, she reflects on her life in prison. She focuses particularly on her first few weeks inside, alongside the four very different women whom she first met in the white van on their way to their first remand prison.

Paulie’s thoughts move from Queenie*, the old bag- lady who sees giants and angels, to Maritza who has disguised her pain with an ultra-conventional life, to Lilah, the spoiled apple of her mother’s eye, and on to   to the tragedy of Christine - the one with the real scars.

And then there is Paulie herself, who ended up in prison through no fault of her own. The unique stories of these women, past and present, mingle as Paulie - free at last - goes looking for these unique women who have now been ‘on the out’ for some years and are, Paulie hopes,  remaking their lives.

Read the Chapter introducing Queenie HERE
Or click on the tab in the heading.

Most  importantly: The Readers

*****Amazon Reviews - Samples

***** ‘… I loved the characters in Paulie's Web: their strengths, their weaknesses, their back-stories and in spite of everything - their humour.’

*****  In this exceptional and insightful novel, Wendy Robertson introduces us to the hidden world of invisible women that is prison. Her characters and their stories leap off the page at us, there are no stereotypes here, this is not Prisoner Cell Block H or Bad Girls but it is every bit as compelling. She is a consummate story-teller, who weaves a fascinating web around these disparate lives and if you want to know what prison is really like and who the women we lock away every day are then READ THIS.

***** ..’With the sharpness of a journalist and the skill of a novelist, Robertson cleverly brings all of these characters to life, making the reader care about them. She has a deft style, almost a magician's touch, in that the characters quickly take root and you feel yourself urging Paulie forward and hoping she and the others find some resolution and peace. I loved the characters in Paulie's Web: their strengths, their weaknesses, their backstories and in spite of everything - their humour…’

*****  ‘Wendy Robertson has pulled off something quite remarkable in her latest novel, Paulie's Web. I loved everything about it and read it in one sitting - on a long haul flight, something to be grateful for, even on that level.

***** ‘..Wonderful novel based on much truth of prison life impacting on women.’

***** ‘…also an argument for the way that literature and education can transform the lives of prisoners. It has as much of a good feel exit as is compatible with the plot … Wendy is a brilliant story-teller who has written more than twenty novels. This one draws on her experience of being a writer-in-residence working with prisoners. It's a fascinating glimpse behind the tabloid headlines at the unimaginably hard lives of some of those who end up in the prison system because of mental health problems, abusive childhoods, drink and drug dependency.’

Link here  Avril Joy   

Hope you enjoy it as well. wx


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