Category: Writing

London. It’s eight days since we landed at Heathrow. The day after we left Finland the temperature in my hometown dropped to minus 27. Cold enough to make your hair turn white with frost and your nostrils stick together when you inhale. London hovers around 7 plus. Drizzle-gray. Sunshine and showers. Mostly showers.

Today I walked past the big house and the deer at Clissold Park. The sun was out. Orange light in the puddles. Bright and early joggers rushing past. I stopped to say hello to the deer. Then I met up with Madicken and we spent the morning writing together in a café. All the other customers had brought their laptops too. Madicken spotted an actor sitting behind us. It’s very north London. I wrote some words and I was pretty happy with them. Then I came home and read about the publishing industry and suddenly everything felt impossible. I did my taxes. I downloaded Spotify again and created a radio station based on Sia. I’m clicking thumbs down on anything that isn’t Sia.

This month is one of small tasks. It’s too early for a big picture. There is one thing and then the next and maybe soon the year will start taking shape. I took me a week to shake the post-Christmas fog. I went home to Finland and didn’t turn on my phone for the first five days. A sweet, disconnected rebellion. Gerry and I went for long walks when it was light. The inlet near the house thawed and then froze over again. The ice was washed up by a storm and looked like panes of broken glass, crushed and squeezed together. I’ve never seen it like that before. I ate well and often. I spent some time in the sauna. My muscles unwound themselves. I relaxed and stopped thinking about work, the future, everything. It takes a while to resurface from that. So here I am, tensing up again, telling myself I should do more yoga, writing lists and trying to get a sense of where this year will take me.

Image by David Marcu.

Finland London Thoughts Writing

I wrote this yesterday.

Last day of November. It’s storming outside, the wind is bouncing between the block of flats I live in and the one of the other side of the rail road tracks. It’s hitting windows and scraping tree branches along the walls. Sometimes a train rushes past. I hardly hear them anymore and only notice if it’s a big freight train screaming and whooshing.

London is still grey and it’s getting colder. I’ve spent the day transcribing an interview. I don’t often record the interviews I do anymore, but I’m glad I had this one on tape. There are good quotes that will only work verbatim.

December is falling into place and it makes me happy. I’ve started scheduling things and it’s a relief to know what will happen when instead of staring down a huge pile of stuff that just has to be done at some point. I think the most stressful part of being a journalist is the period before a story comes together, before I’ve started booking the interviews, when everything is still an idea. As soon as I know who I’m going to speak to and when I start relaxing, then I know it’s possible.

I’m starting to realise it’s the same with creative writing. I’ve come up with a new system. I need to know exactly what happens, from every characters’ point of view, throughout the whole book. The more I know the more precise I can be when I’m telling the story. In my previous attempts at writing creatively I’ve always been rushing, trying to get the story out as quickly as possible, because otherwise I fear I might lose it somewhere along the way (and I often do lose it somewhere along the way). But if I instead write it out quickly, in a not very coherent fashion, using plenty of clichés and a multitude of other literary sins, it already exists and all I need to do is slowly, carefully craft it into something that sounds good. Now that I’ve realised this one thing putting a book together seems more possible too.

Photo by Samuel Zeller.

Journalism Thoughts Writing

Oh, hello there. I’m sorry it’s been a bit quiet here lately. I’ve had a cold and then I went to Scotland and then I worked a lot, then there was a big art fair and then I got a cold again. I’m still sniffling away and my nose resembles something of a leaky tap, but this coffee I’m drinking is helping. I’ve even managed to finish a couple of the big items on my to-do-list. Life feels a bit more manageable again.

I have been thinking a lot about over-work lately. Why does it seem so important to be busy all the time? Is this a London thing? Is it a life thing? But I won’t go into that now, because my plan was to write about writing.

“So… how’s the writing going?” I hear no one ask, because I don’t really talk about my creative writing very often. I’m going to answer the question anyway.

I’m still working on it. I’ve been working on it for three years (which isn’t very long actually and even though I’ve been writing stuff since I was in my pre-teens, I hadn’t managed to finish any larger manuscript until I wrote the book that should have stayed in the drawer about three years ago).

I have now finished three fiction books. None of them were very good, but each one has taught me something. I’ve taken a couple of writing courses, I’ve read tons and I started seeing a really lovely writing coach. It’s all helping. I’ve also sent out a couple of manuscripts to different places. Sometimes I’ve had a response (thanks, but no thanks), sometimes I’ve not heard anything at all. It’s been dispiriting. It’s hard going when you look at your own writing and wonder what the hell your doing and the small fledgeling manuscripts you’ve dared to send off to competitions might have had more readers if they’d been rolled up, placed in a bottle and thrown into the sea.

Sigh.

About a month ago I felt especially frustrated and I thought; it would be so nice to get some kind of sign that all of this isn’t in vain, that I’m improving. And here I feel I should add that I am writing fiction because I enjoy it, characters appear in my head and they need to be put down on paper, sentences are fun to look at and make better. But writing is lonely, I am self-critical and sometimes it’s nice to get a little bit of feedback from someone out there, a pat on the back, a letter saying “we like this story”.

And guess what happened. A few days after my frustration peaked I got an email. This is what it said:

Dear Charlotta
 BRIDPORT PRIZE 2015
Whilst you have not won one of the top thirteen prizes in the Bridport Prize competition I am writing to let you know that your short story:
THE SECRETS OF ICE
was shortlisted. We had just over 4,500 short story entries this year and 100 were shortlisted.

I could have kissed the person who sent out this automated email. I sent my story to the Bridport competition, thinking I didn’t stand a chance. It’s one of the biggest short story competitions in the UK, lots of talented people who have been writing for years and years enter it. Lots of amazingly talented people win it. And I was shortlisted!

I danced and jumped around for a bit. I might have thrown a fist up in the air and gone “yess”. This is a huge thing for me, it spurs me on. I will keep going, even if all I end up doing with my writing will be to put short stories in bottles and throwing them into the sea.

Image by Max Okhrimenko/Unsplash.

Thoughts Writing

– What happened to the Russian space capsule falling through space? Has it burned up? Has it landed somewhere? During that blurry time around the UK general election I remember reading it was going to crash in the Thames. I’m pretty sure that a) I didn’t make that up and b) it hasn’t happened.

– Editing is as enjoyable as writing. I’ve spent many years thinking fiction writing should be padded out, it’s not journalism so it should contain LOTS OF WORDS and LOTS OF DESCRIPTION. But that’s a misconception (my misconception). It shouldn’t be lengthy and wordy, it should be true. Just write one true sentence some famous author is supposed to have told himself before sitting down at his typewriter. That’s good advice. Fewer words, more meaning.

aa322c2d Image by David Marcu.

– It will be June soon, but London is cold and rainy today. Summer doesn’t feel possible yet. We’ll go to Finland for a week in June. Before then I’m writing three new pieces on the UK economy and a few other things. Before then we’re doing The Other Art Fair in Bristol. Things are happening so quickly I hardly have time to write them down on my to do list. Plate spinning, that’s what life is about.

– I’ve bought stacks of books from Amazon. Most of them are still in their envelopes on the kitchen table. I’ve bought enough books to keep me busy researching and reading over the summer. When I’ve read them all I might be ready to tackle a new big project again.

Everyday life Thoughts Writing

A couple of years ago I was one of those twenty-somethings who’d spent my teens and early twenties staring at a lot of blank pages. I started novels and then gave up on them after a couple of pages. I wrote bad short stories about girls who dyed their hair a lot and befriended unicorns.

I’d written more bad fiction than good fiction. And I was convinced that I would never become a “proper” writer. A friend of mine had even confirmed my own doomed thoughts. He’d asked me if I wrote every day. I didn’t. So clearly I wasn’t one of those “real” writers.

A couple of years after that conversation I stumbled across a thing called Urban Writers Retreats, a haven for frustrated writers run by Charlie (who used to work at a chocolate factory, but might just be the Florence Nightingale of writing). Over the coming years I booked in for a couple of retreat days at an office space in Shoreditch and at a lovely farm in Devon. There was no internet and lots of cake. It was the perfect environment for a struggling and frustrated creative. During those days I started writing my first novel, the first fiction book I’ve ever finished.

Back then I didn’t let the fact that I knew very little about plotting stop me. It was only after several attempts at actually making something of the story and a rejection letter from a publisher that I realised why most writers keep their first attempt at fiction in the drawer.

Enter Charlie’s and amazing editor Amie’s Six Month Novel Course. Last year I was lucky enough to be part of a group of guinea pigs. We were guided through the novel writing process by Amie and Charlie. Over those six months I learned how to plot, how conjure up believable characters and how it feels to have a regular writing schedule. I developed and wrote my second novel, in English! With Amie, Charlie and the other course-mates holding my hand throughout the process it didn’t even feel that difficult.

Charlie and Amie have now started the application process for their third Six Month Novel Course. I’ve invited them to talk a bit more about the course and what it’s like to start out as a writer.

CandA_5Charlie and Amie.

Why did you decide to start the program?

Amie: The Six Month Novel programme was Charlie’s brainchild. She always had it sitting in the back of her mind as the next big idea. I went to her first residential retreat in Devon (highly recommended by the way because she stuffs you with cake and tea and good food while you focus on writing and relaxing) and when we were chatting in the kitchen one day I said it would be so cool to have a programme where people could finish their novels with motivation and structure and a little bit of prodding. Charlie started beaming and brought me in on her plans. About a year later I contacted her again and we started the rigorous planning involved.

Why do you think writers often need some extra help along the way?

Amie: Writers are artists. And anyone with a creative streak tends to also have a bit of a rebellious streak. That and a lack of self-confidence in their artwork. That rebellious streak is the one we want to grow and nurture to tamper down the unsureness monster.

There are so many reasons a writer won’t do what they want to do: it feels indulgent, it never turns out well in the end, it’s a lot of work, and so on. We are there to make sure you listen to those feelings, accept them, and move on from them. Our job is to keep you motivated and sometimes give you a little bit of a kick to get out of a rut.

What are the things the writers in your course are struggling with the most, what can be done to solve that or those problems?

Charlie: When it comes to writerly struggles, there is the abstract and the physical. A lot of writers say they don’t have the time. If they’re being honest though, that’s not true and prioritization will fix that problem. Practical issues are excuses people use to justify the fact that they aren’t doing something they know they want to do and feel they should be doing.

Writers actually get stuck for abstract reasons. The problem is the stuff that’s in our heads. A lot of writers either believe they aren’t good enough or are daunted by the immense size of the task ahead. Some of our favourite tricks for that are to put yourself in the right mood for writing and gradually develop a routine so it becomes a habit to write even just a little, to set yourself up with some kind of support from family or a writing critique group (or even something like the Six Month Novel) so that you have other people expecting you to write, or to break the whole down into smaller chunks—if you have a to-do list of teeny tiny steps it doesn’t seem quite so intimidating.

What would you say the publishing climate is like today for up-and-coming writers?

Amie: Publishing is one of those industries that will both never change and never be the same. While it looks like it’s so much easier to publish today with self-publishing and e-readers, it’s difficult to be seen among the crowd. Yet there is so much opportunity out there because the choices are broadening.

There are plenty of articles out there on everything you need to know about how to get published, and the different ways of getting your book on shelves, so get to googling! If you think your story deserves to be heard, then fight for it. But one word of caution: don’t ever pay a “publishing house” to do the work for you. You can pay freelancers to edit and create a cover and format your book, but if you are paying a “publishing house” to do all that work, especially if they start asking you to buy copies, run.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to write novels, but doesn’t know where to start?

Charlie: Read. Read everything you can get your hands on. Read newspapers, online articles, short stories, blogs, books… everything. The more you learn how story works, the more you will be able to craft a story.

Then start small. Try a short story first. Write as much as you can in more manageable bites that will allow you to find your voice and style without being stuck in the mire of a gigantic novel. And then? Go for it! Sit down and write. Pick a routine that works for you, whether that’s a block of time each week or 500 words a day and write!

Finally, don’t get discouraged. There will be times when everything feels hopeless and your writing is rubbish and it’s a huge job and you can’t face it. The only way forward is to just keep writing. Before you know it those 500 words a day will be a 60,000 word first draft (in just six months, actually). Accept that first drafts, and sometimes even sixth drafts, aren’t going to be perfect. Writing is a craft, just like painting, and you have to keep practising and refining.

Thanks to Charlie and Amie for the interview! Make sure you check out the Six Month Novel Program if it sounds like something you might be interested in! You can apply until the 17th of May.

Writing Writing interviews

There was a woman on the platform at Hackney Downs this morning. I looked at her for a while. She was well dressed, fashionable, her coat looked expensive (although I can’t really tell these sort of things). Her roots were showing, badly, half her hair was blond, the other dark. Why would someone who was otherwise so stylish leave it like that? Perhaps she was growing it out, perhaps it’s some trend that’s passed me by. It made me wonder and I came up with the seed of a plot, a woman found dead in expensive clothing with roots showing, not many people might make a big deal out of it, but some would, the right kind of detective would. That would be the small detail that makes the case.

I’m thinking about these things because Gerry and I watched a great three part documentary about the history of British detective fiction. It’s presented by historian Lucy Worsley and looks at how the British fascination with murder started in the 1800s, re-telling the stories of famous cases and finally examining why crime novels became so popular between the wars, the period known as the golden age of detective fiction.

That’s when Agatha Christie started writing her books. That’s when the detection club for British mystery writers was formed. It was a secret society in a town full of them. You had to swear allegiance to the club by placing your hand on a skull. It was all quite eccentric, British, funny. These were writers who didn’t seem to take themselves too seriously.

There was even a list of rules for them to follow.

  • The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.
  • All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
  • Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
  • No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
  • No Chinaman must figure in the story.
  • No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
  • The detective himself must not commit the crime.
  • The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.
  • The “sidekick” of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
  • Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

Agatha Christie inside the library at Greenway House. Image via pinterest.

I love this type of detective fiction, it’s my guilty pleasure. I have read most of the Poirot books and I would happily read them again. There is something so satisfactory about the neat endings, about there being a solution. Christie and her peers gave their readers comfort. Their great detectives could make sense of the most horrible of crimes, they offered a sense of calm and an escape in a world that was sometimes frightening and chaotic.

This is what some crime and detective fiction still does. It shows us darkness, but leaves us with a happy ending, a solution, a feeling that things might be OK after all.

I read somewhere that crime writers are amongst the jolliest to hang around at literary festivals, presumably because they exorcise all their anger, fear and sorrow in their books. I have no idea if that’s true or not, but it’s a pretty cool thought.

Britishness Thoughts Writing

It snowed this morning, big heavy flakes. It’s the worst sort of weather in this town, it keeps people indoors, only brave Londoners who have to work or desperately want their morning paper and a coffee hide behind umbrellas and hurry along the pavements. It snowed and then it stopped and now it’s just cold and grey. I’m in the studio. The heating is still not working, but at least we’ve bought a fan heater, it keeps my toes nice and toasty.

I’m writing, but I’m lagging slightly behind my target of 2000 words per day. After a marathon sprint during the last two weeks I hit some kind of wall on Thursday and Friday. Every time I sat down to write I experienced what can best be described as my inner angry three-year-old clenching her fists and shouting “I just don’t want to do anything”. I’m not sure if you’ve ever experienced this particular kind of vicious inner procrastinator, but if you have you know she (or he) can be a bit tricky to deal with. I’ve spent two days reading British newspapers, looking up interesting flats on Airbnb and reading about super volcanoes.

There are a couple of texts I need to edit. I have a finished manuscript sitting on the hard-drive, waiting for me to pay it even the tiniest bit of attention. I’ve written a couple of short stories I’d like to send out. But every time I start thinking about doing that final edit, about perhaps getting them ready for readers who aren’t my immediate family that angry three-year-old appears again.

I know what’s going on here. I’m afraid of being judged, of what people might think and feel when they read my writing, so I leave it all sitting on my hard-drive. I’m not alone here. I’m not the first person to runaway and hide because I fear rejection.

So I need to come up with a strategy, something that will appease that angry three-year-old. How do parents deal with screaming toddlers? Well I just googled “how to deal with angry three year old” and a lot of interesting stuff came up.

Among other things:

Don’t judge the child for their anger

The anger is the problem, not the angry child. So … the procrastination is the problem, not my fear of rejection? Basically feel the fear and do it anyway.

Find the anger triggers

“Work together to try to find out what triggers the anger. You’ll learn to recognise the early warning signs that anger is starting to rise.” (From the NHS website)

In other words – don’t focus on the end result, focus on the work, when the end result triggers anxiety.

Have a specific goal

“You could have a star chart on the wall and reward your child with stickers for keeping anger away for a whole hour, then gradually move to half a day, then a day and so on.”

Yes, I know lots of writers do this, they reward themselves in different ways for reaching their word targets. Would a glass of wine for every short story sent out work? Ice cream? Pancakes with maple syrup and bacon? A full hour of reading about super volcanos on Wikipedia? I’m sure I can find some kind of bribe that works.

Praise your child

“Praise your child’s efforts and your own efforts, no matter how small. This will build your child’s confidence in the battle against anger.”

This makes sense, we all know it makes sense and yet we never do it. Give yourself some positive feedback every now and then.

In the end the main thing is to keep writing, to ignore the temper tantrums, to not give in to angry toddlers and to always have some ice cream in the fridge. So… 2000 more words, here we go!

Image by Caleb George.

Writing

– London is frosty and sunny and this morning was the coldest we’ve had this year so far. The sky was pale blue and a chilly pink that reminds me of home. Last night when we drove home the sun set over the city and the top floors of the houses in Dalston were glowing orange. The Smiths played on the stereo and all those thoughts that had been buzzing around in my head stopped. I landed right in the moment, listening to Johnny Marr playing the guitar, thinking this is all so nice. Those things you thought were cool when you were fifteen stay with you.

– I’ve started a new job. I’m freelancing for Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet. It’s exciting. After about a year of not doing much journalism I’m back into the swing of things, booking interviews, reading papers, writing long lists of stories I’d like to do.

– I’m also trying to finish a project I’ve been working on since the autumn. At the moment I can’t say much more about it, but what I can say is that I’m slightly behind. I should be writing around 2000 words per day to stay on target. That is quite a lot. But I’ve been writing and writing during every spare minute I have and I’m finding that staying with a story this way is really quite good. All the characters are clear in my head, I know what I’m doing and where I’m going… most of the time at least.

– I’ve been writing a lot in Swedish lately.

– I keep coming up with strange new project ideas (for that one day when I have some down time) like writing short pieces based on London’s many ghost stories, that could also double up as a guide to the city. This does make sense in my head.

Image by Rebecca Johnston.

Everyday life Journalism Writing

I’m reading Ursula Le Guins excellent book on writing, Steering the craft, and stumbled across this quote by Virginia Woolf.

“Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words. But on the other hand here am I sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can’t dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than any words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it.”

And that’s it, that’s what writing is about. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, but I’ve been too busy to do much writing. Tomorrow I turn thirty. I’ve been thinking a bit about that as well.

Image via Tom Kondrat

Everyday life Writing

The chervil is wilting on the balcony, a sign that summer has turned and London is tired. There have only been a few storms since June. It’s comforting to know you can’t have heat like this without the occasional release of thunder.

One storm woke us up in the middle of the night. A huge bang at five in the morning. It sounded exactly as if someone had slammed a giant hammer against a metal roof. The rumble reverberated between the council block, our apartment building and the train track below. It was so loud you could almost feel the house vibrating. The vikings must have known what they were talking about because the image of a giant bearded god hammering away above the clouds suddenly felt very real. There were flashes of lightning too and thunderclaps following almost immediately after. I don’t think I’ve ever heard thunder like that before and if I had been a child I would have put my fingers in my ears and cried.

Except for that theatrical night London has been suffering with a slow-burning fever. It’s been dry and hot, but never hot enough to be truly uncomfortable. On windless days the exhaust fumes and city dust turn the air syrupy with pollution. This is when I give up and want to lie down like a tired dog, my tongue hanging out, my head heavy on my paws. Those are days when it’s worth shrugging and giving in to the fact that you will probably not get much work done and your head will feel like it’s been jammed full of cotton wool.

There are other days, better days, when white clouds race each other east and planes zoom high above. Those are the days when the heat is bearable, when the sunlight feels pleasant on my skin and I smugly imagine my body soaking up all that media-hyped vitamin D. Those are days worth collecting, a little star next to each in my calender. Days when the streets hum with happy summer thoughts, busy Londoners hold open doors and bus drivers smile at you.

Each summer in the city seems to pass quicker than the one before. I want to remember this one. With its dust-filled hot days and blue skies. I want to remember the thunder storm and the herbs on the balcony that have gone to seed.

Everyday life London Writing