Showing posts with label Nicola Morgan. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Nicola Morgan. Show all posts

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

How to score top marks at school - Liz Kessler

A local school gave me a serious problem this week.

First of all they invited me to come to their school. They then proceeded to be one of the most wonderfully helpful, friendly and accommodating schools I have ever had dealings with.

Doesn’t sound too much like a problem? Well, no. Unless you are the next school who invites me to visit. This school has set the bar so high that they will be a VERY hard act to follow.

Now, I’m a great believer that every problem has a potential gift in it, if we are open to seeing it. And here’s the gift. As well as the lovely day, the school has given me the chance to write this blog, which means that from now on, if anyone invites me to visit their school, I can simply point them here and say, ‘Can you do it like this?’ and if the answer is ‘Absolutely,’ then we’re on. So, thank you Truro School for making those conversations much easier.

So here are my top ten tips for a great school visit...

1. The first email from the school’s librarian was friendly, clear in what they were asking of me and polite. Oh, and it included this line:

‘Your books are extremely popular, particularly with their local connections, and we very much hope that you will consider visiting us!’

Lesson one: flattery will not hurt your case.

2. When I stated my fees, the librarian was absolutely fine with this. No quibble; no, ‘We can’t afford to pay you, but it will be great exposure for you’. Just a, ‘Great. Please can we have a full day’s visit?’ Heaven.

Lesson two: please remember that in order for an author to visit your school, they will be giving up at least a day that they would otherwise have spent working at home and earning money, so please do not ask us to visit you for free. Before you do, ask yourself if anyone else – the teachers, the librarians, the head of English, the cleaner who will prepare the rooms for the visit, the admin staff who will send letters home – will be in school that day without being paid.

NB: If you still have any questions about the whole ‘being paid’ thing, take a look at this wonderful blog by Nicola Morgan. Hopefully this will ease any remaining doubts.

3. Approximately four emails into the exchange, the librarian brought up the issue of selling books. We discussed which ones would work best for the age groups I would be talking to, she agreed to send a letter home to parents letting them know books would be available and organised the ordering and selling of all the books.

Lesson three: Our livelihood depends on selling books. Most of us love visiting schools and talking to children – but we do need to sell books or our publishers stop publishing us, and if this happens, we stop being authors and you don’t get to invite us to your lovely school. So, yeah – well organised book sales will make us happy every time.

4. The exchange of emails was extremely friendly and lovely and easy from start to finish.

Lesson four: authors spend all day in front of their computers. We LOVE receiving friendly, lovely emails from people.

5. The librarian asked me how long I would like my sessions to last, how many children I’d like in each group, which ages I'd like to talk to, and we discussed between us whether workshops or talks would work best.

Lesson five: find out your visiting author’s strengths. Ask what works well for them. Negotiate. Do NOT ask them to do eight sessions in one day. Ever.

6. A couple of weeks before the visit, I was sent a proposed timetable for the day. It was just as we had discussed, showed the number of students in each group and included important things like ‘tea break’ and ‘lunch.’

Lesson six: Going to a school you’ve never been to can make even the most experienced amongst us nervous. The day will be full of people, places, routines and rules that YOU are probably very familiar with but we are encountering for the first time. A very clear schedule for the day that tells us where to be, when, who with and what will happen in between takes a lot of question marks out of the day for us.

7. Let’s just go back to the bit about lunch. Two librarians took me to the canteen with them. I was shown where everything was, and we sat together and enjoyed a lovely lunch. The only hardship was the bit where (because I’m on a diet) I made myself walk past the delicious-smelling fish and chips and choose a jacket potato and salad instead. Which was actually very lovely, as was the company.

Lesson seven: It doesn’t have to be grand or gourmet, but please do feed us. And even better, eat with us and chat to us and don’t make us have to sit on our own in a scary staffroom wondering where to go to get some food.

8. A week or so before the visit, the librarian emailed to ask me how I’d like to be paid. I was given an email address for the finance department to send my invoice to and was assured that payment would be made direct into my bank.

Lesson eight: Pay us. Please. On time, nicely, easily. No one likes to chase money, and most of us don’t like to spend all that long talking about it. 

9. The day itself! This was absolutely wonderful from start to finish. I was met in the foyer by the librarian who by now felt almost like an old friend. I was taken to the library where my books were on display, with showcards and posters everywhere. 

I was offered tea regularly throughout the day. I was greeted by the school’s headteacher who came in to see me and thank me for coming. I had plenty of teachers on hand for the crowd control during the talks. I had friendly, enthusiastic kids, teachers, librarians who listened, asked questions, joined in and generally made the whole day feel wonderfully smooth. I have to mention the lunch time session with a small group of very keen readers. This session was so warm and lovely and gave me an opportunity to share my writing process and some of the more personal aspects of the job with young people who I think really appreciated the opportunity to have this smaller session with me.

Lesson nine: I think by now, if you do all the things above, the day with you will probably go a bit like this too. I know that schools are all different and it won’t always be smooth and easy all the way – and nor should it be. But as librarians and teachers, what you can do is put in the legwork to make the day as organised as it can possibly be. The rest is up to us. If you’ve done your side of the deal, it makes it easier for us to do ours – which hopefully means that everyone involved will get the most out of the day.

Oh, and if you want bonus points, saving a space in the car park for your visiting author would be an extremely lovely touch.

10. After the event, the school wrote a little article about it which they sent to me. They emailed to say what a lovely day it was and shared photos on twitter and Facebook. This rounded the whole thing off perfectly.

Lesson ten: remember, in a few years, you’ll have a whole new set of students. If we had a wonderful time, we will almost definitely want to come back next time!

Thank you Truro School for setting the bar so high and for making my job a pleasure!

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Friday, 22 April 2016

Shoulder to shoulder with Tommy Donbavand - Nicola Morgan

Many of you know that our friend in the children's writing world, Tommy Donbavand, is fighting cancer. Yes, I am using the word "fighting" knowingly. I know that many people rightly take issue with the way we use words like "fight" and battle" in association with cancer but not with other illnesses. It's right to quibble about words - words are important and they reflect and can also define and refine our emotions. But it is the word Tommy uses - and he talks about that here - and, damn it, he can call it whatever he wants and we should call his encounter with cancer a fight if that's what he feels about it. Personally, I don't see any problem with using these words for cancer; the problem is that we don't - and should - use such words for other illnesses that people go through treatment and adjust their lives for.

Anyway, I digress.

I've never met Tommy in person but it's easy to feel you've met him even if you haven't. And I should have met him: he joined the committee of CWIG, the Children's Writers and Illustrators Group of the Society of Authors, back in November. But he wasn't able to make the first committee meeting. And then, cancer struck.

I'm really looking forward to meeting him when he has won this war but he has some beyond-tough battles to go through first. I know that serried ranks of good people, children's writers, readers and a vast army of others, are behind Tommy as he faces this tricksy enemy. I don't know if it's OK to say that we are "shoulder to shoulder" because, however hard we try to understand what it's like, we aren't experiencing what he is experiencing. But I want him to know that we are with him, as much as we can be.

And there are things we can do to help.

1. We can read his blog. It's extraordinarily open, vivid, searing, mind-opening. Important. We can leave comments there, showing our support.

2. We can do our very best to enter that very human and absolutely crucial mind-state of empathy. Reading his blog helps us in that. Reading helps empathy in deep and powerful ways. When writing works - and Tommy is a highly skilled writer, so his would - it allows the reader in some way to experience or mirror the mental state of the writer. That may be painful for a reader, but if we can do it, I think that strikes a powerful blow for humanity.

(Please note: although I'm against the over-use of trigger warnings, I do completely get that some people really may not be in a position to cope with reading about Tommy's treatment and feelings. If you feel you can't, for personal reasons, don't feel bad. You can still do the next two things!)

3. We can spread the word about his TOTALLY brilliant idea: virtual creative writing lessons for schools. As he's said - and as his great friend, Barry Hutchison, explains here - losing his income from schools events and writing workshops has been a massive extra pressure for him and his family, and will continue to be so because the treatment will damage his voice for some time. Schools, this is a huge opportunity for you and I think Tommy's offer is immensely generous. You won't regret it!

4. We might be able to support financially, as Barry explains here.

5. We can help keep him smiling. I chickened out of this yesterday. I had to choose a Get Well card for the CWIG committee to sign. You've no idea the problems my over-thinking, neurotic brain had with this simple task! Many cards are hopelessly trivial and fluffy. Some I felt were too flowery or wishy-washy and old-fashioned. Some talked about feeling "under the weather". Loads had pictures of thermometers in teddy bears' mouths. I wanted one that not only didn't underestimate what Tommy is going through but also reflected his character - or what I believe I know of it from his social media presence. So I bought one I thought would make him laugh. A really silly, bonkers one.

Then ... I chickened out, because I stupidly worried that making him laugh wasn't "appropriate", that it was disrespectful, that it wasn't right if coming from the Society of Authors. So I bought another one, brilliant sunflowers, uplifting, I thought. But not funny. We've signed that and sent it.

But no: forget serious and respectful. How about trying to make him smile? So, here is the one I didn't send:

Go, Tommy! Beat the hell out of the enemy and Get Well Soon!

Monday, 22 February 2016

Heart? Head? heart? Head? - by Nicola Morgan

Both, is my answer. Only if we’re (exceptionally) lucky can we earn a living following only our heart. If we’re sensible, we keep our head firmly where it’s supposed to be, checking that the heart doesn’t get out of control.

Stephen King, in On Writing, talks of writing the first draft with the door closed, listening to no one but our own heart (I paraphrase) and the second draft with the door open, listening to our professional knowledge of what needs to be in the book in order for it to be published and for people to buy it.

So, balancing head and heart and not letting one get out of control for too long (though a bit of wildness is allowed!) seems a valid way for a writer to go about the business of being a writer.

But there’s another eminently right-headed way of being a creative person: to do some projects where you mostly follow your heart and others where you get your head down and do stuff that people want to pay for, even if your heart sits in a huff in the corner of the room, ignored and pissed off.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, not least during a discussion on Facebook after I'd praised this piece by Andrew Crofts, provocatively titled, Struggling as an author? Stop writing only what you want to write. Now, I didn’t enjoy all of it but what I do agree with are these ideas that I took from it: that the world does not owe us publication just because we want to write something; that we owe a great deal to readers and sometimes we ought to compromise in order to give them at least something of what they want; and that it is perfectly legitimate and sensible to write some things for purely commercial reasons and others for the heartsong.

Last week, something happened to my family which provides an example. Some of you know what’s coming. A couple of years ago, my younger daughter and a friend, Caroline Bartleet, who were working for a film production company, decided to crowdfund and create a short film, from an idea of Caroline's, inspired by her hearing a 999 call while researching for her day job.. Caroline would be the writer and director; Rebecca would be the producer. They got a team together, all in the industry, many of them working for love or favours; they raised the money they needed through Kickstarter; and, after months and countless hours of planning, filmed it over one weekend last year. The resulting short film was Operator.

Meanwhile, of course, they carried on working in their jobs. Because you have to pay your bills. Operator went into post-production and was ready last summer. They started submitting to festivals, with no expectation of anything.

It was picked up by many festivals, most excitingly the London Film Festival, where it had its UK premiere. Just before the news of LFF came, Rebecca went freelance, with a leap of faith and bravery.

Then, astonishingly, it was nominated for a BAFTA. We knew it was good, because we’d seen it and we’d seen it with other audiences and witnessed their reaction. But a BAFTA??

Incredibly, they won. An actual BAFTA. She has her very heavy golden trophy to prove it. (She's on the left in the pic.) Personally, I think it should stay in our house – so much safer. I would polish it, too. 

They followed their hearts, gambled with their time and immense effort, and the generous help of all their Kickstarter supporters, and they won. Beyond their dreams. Huge luck, of course, but nothing venture, nothing gain, and that was down to hard work and skill.

(The link to their website, with a clip, is here. They haven’t had time to update the news yet! There's a Skype interview here. And the official You-Tube clip and interview with Zoe Ball. Matt Damon may feature...)

My point is only this: that sometimes you must follow your heart. Sometimes that’s how to feel alive. And sometimes you have to follow your head, because that’s the only way to eat - and stay alive. So, Rebecca is back at her uncertain freelance jobs, where she may be a BAFTA-winning Producer but she’s still at the coalface doing jobs that may be below producer level, jobs that she hasn’t initiated, jobs where her heart may not always be. But it's still film production, just as ghost-writing (etc) is still writing. Heart and head.

I know other young people who have started bands, for example, with just the same mentality: this is where our hearts are; the heads are paying the bills. And maybe one day the two will come together.

Do what you can, do what you have to, do what you want, do what works. Just say yes. Head, heart, head, heart? Whichever you can. Just don’t feel demeaned on those occasions when you follow your head instead of your heart. Heads are good. But they don’t work without hearts. And vice versa.

Nicola Morgan still needs to practise what she preaches. One day. Oh yes, one day.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Does money damage creativity? - by Nicola Morgan

No, I didn't mean that headline to be clickbait for publishers looking for reasons not to pay authors. Although there's a motivation theory which suggests that might be no bad thing.

I sense shudders of fear going through the ranks of writers reading this. You're thinking, "She's lost it! The woman who is known for fighting for the right to be paid decently is now suggesting we'd all be better writing for nothing. Call the white coats! Someone shut her up, NOW!"

I want to talk about motivation, or drive. Drive is the title of Daniel H Pink's excellent book, which draws on shedloads of research into the psychology of motivation. It's essential reading for every employer, teacher, manager, team leader, parent. It's a brilliantly structured book, too, and NOT one those those books which is really a magazine article tediously stretched into book form by the injudicious inclusion of eleventy million examples to prove one point. Drive takes you through the various motivational operating systems, from Motivation 1.0 - the need to survive; Motivation 2.0 - reward and punishment, a system espoused by the behaviourists and ruling our world until recently; and Motivation 3.0 - which differentiates extrinsic (eg money) and intrinsic (eg satisfaction and pride) rewards and recognises the risks and weaknesses of Motivation 2.0.

For routine, linear tasks, extrinsic motivation (money, prizes or other specific rewards) works. For creative, lateral tasks where you are looking for solutions to problems, generating ideas or creating something new, those rewards don't work so well, or sometimes at all. What we need then is "intrinsic motivation", the sense of achievement, improvement, mastery, that feeling you get when you succeed at something difficult and the reward is the sense of success more than the physical trappings of it.

Let me give you one fascinating and provocative example, which is supremely relevant to writers and goes straight to the title of this post.

Teresa Amabile, Harvard Business School professor, is a well known researcher into creativity and has done many studies into creative motivation. In one study, she and colleagues got 23 professional artists and asked them to select ten of their commissioned pieces and ten of their non-commissioned pieces. The pieces were given to a panel of art experts, who did not know what the study was about (nor did the artists), and asked them to "rate the pieces on creativity and technical skill." The researchers reported, "Our results were startling. [...] The commissioned works were rated as significantly less creative than the non-commissioned works, yet they were not rated as different in technical quality. Moreover, the artists reported feeling significantly more constrained when doing commissioned works than when doing non-commissioned works."

Now, although this is interesting, there are obvious aspects which aren't surprising at all. Commissions may naturally tend to be more constrained and less motivational. After all, it's someone else's vision you're having to work to. The task has been set by someone else and the artist is being told to be creative, and being told to be creative could be a dampener even for a creative person who presumably loves being creative.

But it's worth thinking about. What happens inside us, to our motivation, when the task has been set for us by someone and we are working to their deadline and parameters? Surely we do lose some kind of ownership of it and thus at least some of the motivation to excel? You'd think that being chosen for a project and being paid for it would be highly motivating. And, sure, those moments when you get the invitation and the go-ahead (and later the payment) are positive and uplifting. But maybe not so motivating. Maybe not so conducive to doing our best, most original work.

You'd think, too, that the desire to please the person who gave you the commission would be motivating, because their praise will be your incentive. But the Motivation 3.0 theory of drive, and all the research behind it, gives plenty of examples of payment, pressure and goal-orientation being detrimental to creative achievement.

So, I'm asking you: a commission may be comforting (and, of course, everyone needs enough money to pay bills - Motivation 3.0 absolutely accepts that) but is it possible that you might do your most creative work uncommissioned?

Or, more precisely, and this is a slightly different question and a more challenging one: could the fact that you've been commissioned, and that you therefore know exactly what your goal is, be getting in the way of your creative potential?

Thoughts, please! But I'm not paying you: your reward is intrinsic...

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Retreating - by Nicola Morgan

I recently went on my first writing retreat. It was to Retreats For You, in deepest Devon, with Lucy Coats, Mary Hoffman and Anne Rooney. For some inexplicable reason, this quickly became referred to as the Naughty Retreat. *cough*

I'd put myself under pressure for this trip. I knew I had to break through some writing barriers. Or what? Or I was going to feel really bad about myself and my (fiction) writing. As you may remember, I've explained that I've been writing so much non-fiction for the last few years that my fiction brain has ossified.

This retreat was to sort that out. I didn't have a word target (though I did want at least 5000 words out of it - which isn't much but would be more made up stuff than I'd managed in the previous few months) but I wanted to "get into" the novel I had just started and get to know my fictional character. I wanted to get some kind of "flow" going in my writing. I wanted to feel like a writer again.

My agent, eternal supporter as she is, had inadvertently almost scuppered this before I started, by telling me that I should not for one moment think that only my fiction made me a writer. She told me to be proud of my non-fiction success and not beat myself up if that was "all" I was doing at the moment. Not so easy. Hearts and heads don't do the same things.

ANYway, should you ever want to give your writing brain or heart a boost with a retreat, Retreats For You is the place!

I walked for hours. And found mysterious and rural settings, objects and inspirations for my novel, which is not now going to be set in Scotland...

Once, I walked so far into the wilderness that my imagination started to get the better of me and I had to return hurriedly to human civilisation before I met the axe-murderer who was cracking those twigs over there.

I wrote, in my thatched cottage bedroom, fuelled by coffee.

I wandered in the village and loved its library telephone box. 

I found a dragonfly


And every evening at about 6pm, THIS was brought to my room! Yes, it is Prosecco! Which may go some way towards explaining why was this called the Naughty Retreat.  

We were delightfully cared for by Deborah and Bob, with their home-baking, their willingness to do or provide anything and their general laidbackness. And the roaring log fire every evening. Well, it was apparently July.

But, did it work? Well, I did write 5000 words and, reading them back a couple of weeks later, I like the words. My character did start speaking to me and I do love her and want to know more about her. I did spend a lot of time writing (more than the 5000 words suggest) and I did feel like a writer. 

On the negative side, I didn't achieve that "flow" I'd been wanting. I think this novel is too early, too fragile yet. And I think the ossification I mentioned is too, well, ossish. But I did get the sense that one day I could get flow back again, if only I would allow myself more time like this. 

More time like this? You mean I could go back to Retreats For You with the Naughty Retreaters? Bring it on!

Nicola Morgan writes fiction (really!) and non-fiction and still spends too much time doing speaking engagements about adolescence or the reading brain and readaxation. Information and contact at

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Authors giving work experience - does it work? by Nicola Morgan

(Adapted from my own blog, as it's relevant here and I'm not a little fraught.)

Writers are increasingly asked to offer work experience to school pupils and young people increasingly have to ask for it. Some of you might have wondered what you'd do. One writer-friend of mine was contacted by a young person who said, "Nicola Morgan says..." as though I know something about the whole thing. Well, as you can imagine, I have some thoughts...

For example, recently, a 13 year-old girl, Iona, came to me for a week. I nearly said no but I'm so glad I didn't. Although I'd had an excellent experience once before, I had vowed never to do it again because after that excellent one I had two instances of agreeing to offer work experience, spending a great deal of time working out what we would do during the week or fortnight and then being let down at the last minute. I also had several people contact me in extremely lacklustre ways, along the lines of "I have to get some work experience - can you give me some?" Which is not likely to work.

It's not easy for a writer to offer work experience. Most of our work is in our heads and no one else can do it. It's hard to find things that someone else can help with. And there's not much room for two in my office! But I like helping young people and I like learning from them, which was why I offered that original work experience a few years ago.

Still, for the reasons above, I'd decided not to say yes again. Until Iona came along.

It was her email that did it. She was excited, bright, had done her research, gave enthusiastic reasons for being keen to work with me. She ticked all the boxes and pressed all the buttons. So I said yes.

Then came the forms from her school. Health and safety; employer's insurance; impossible things for me to fill in. So I phoned the school and said I couldn't do it because I couldn't fill in the forms. I wasn't an employer, for a start. And I didn't have time or inclination to jump through hoops.

However, where there's a will there's a way and we agreed that it would be a private arrangement between me and Iona's mother. Luckily, Iona's mother was a model of common sense, and so was I, so we got this sorted in a sensible way.

Iona was a complete and utter delight. So easy to have around; independent; very keen to learn; said yes to everything; brilliant with You-Tube and a camera... 

What did we do?
  • Iona helped with ideas for a novel I was stuck on. 
  • We had a meeting with my publicist and discussed various upcoming projects, including marketing for Brain Sticks.
  • We both had some writing tuition from Lucy Coats - that was fun!
  • Iona contributed to an article on author events which Duncan Wright, school librarian, and I were writing for the School Librarian Journal. She had to give her viewpoint as an audience member and she made some excellent points, one of which I've already used in my own events.
  • She interviewed me and filmed me, putting together a video; she also took some other footage which we're going to use in the future. I regret to say that she laughed at my appalling acting skills, but I'll forgive her for that because it was hard not to laugh.
  • She helped me get to grips with iMovie...
  • We assessed a picture book manuscript that a Pen2Publication client had sent me (with the client's permission)
  • We talked about and worked on all the editing processes of a book's journey
  • She had to assess a revision website I'd been asked to give an opinion on - our opinion was not very positive!
  • She wrote a stunning email to a company for me.
  • I gave her some advice on a piece she was writing for school; and her revised version was SO good. But, more importantly, when she wrote that email for me, it was a brilliant email because she'd taken on board everything I'd taught her. As Lucy said, "she soaks up information like a sponge."
  • She spent a day with literary agent Lindsey Fraser.
Iona was so excellent and so nice (nice is very important when you're working one-to-one) that I've offered her paid work in the holidays. She's coming with me to the Aberdour festival, where she will help me with my events and do more filming. She's also coming to the Edinburgh Book Festival with me, to two of these events. And then she's going to put together a new film for me: A Day in the Life Of an Author. I can't wait! Because, although she taught me how to use iMovie, she's still a million times better and faster than me.

Iona should be very proud indeed. She will go far!

Tips for young people who are thinking of asking for work experience with an author:
  • Research the author and show that you know what they do and why you want to work for them.
  • Be very enthusiastic and polite. Even use a dollop of flattery... *cough*
  • Show that you understand that work experience with an author is unusual and difficult; show that you want to help as well as learn.
  • If the author says a polite no, write a polite reply. They might have something for you in the future.
But the big question is WHY? Young people, ask yourself why you want to do this? What do you hope to learn and what do you think would be interesting. And for authors, why would you want to do this? For me, it's simple: I like giving opportunities for talented and eager teenagers to push themselves. I get a buzz from that.

Good luck to both parties! It can work really well.

Do take a look at Iona's short video interview here and you'll see why I say she's good:

I will be at the Edinburgh Book Festival often between Aug 15th and 31st - do let me know if you'd like to meet up. How about coming to the event I'm doing with Cathy Rentzenbrink (author of the heart-wrenching The Final Act of Love and also director of the Quick Reads charity) and Charles Fernyhough, psychologist and expert in the neuroscience of reading. Our event is about the science of reading and I'll be talking about the science behind Readaxation and the power of reading for pleasure and wellbeing. Email me: [email protected]

Saturday, 30 May 2015

The fragility of the imagination – by Lari Don

I sometimes feel unreasonable when I say that I can’t write in my lovely bright study, unless the house is quiet and I know I won’t be interrupted. (I know it’s really annoying for my family, and fairly contradictory, since I can write in noisy cafes, libraries, bus stations, train carriages and staff rooms…) But I know that in order to put my whole self into the world I’m creating, I need to feel confident that I won’t be distracted. And I’m discovering that sometimes there’s just too much life and stress and STUFF going on, for me to be able to create stories.

I’ve been thinking recently about how easily the creative process is derailed, and about the fragility of a writer’s imagination.

Last week, Nicola Morgan, a writer I greatly admire, for the books she writes and for the wisdom she shares about writing and publishing, wrote a powerful post about how she’s struggling (temporarily, I hope) to write fiction, rather than non-fiction. Her post made me think about my own writing.

As well as novels, I write retellings of old myths, legends and folktales. Fewer facts and more magic than most non-fiction, but even so, I find this process, the craft of retelling something that already exists, fairly robust, much less likely to be disrupted by someone asking what’s for tea, or by more fundamental disturbances in my life.

However, I find the process of writing fiction, creating the new world of a novel, much more fragile.

One of my novels crashed and burned a year or so ago. An idea I was entirely committed to, characters I loved, a world I was fascinated by, questions I desperately wanted to answer… And it died. I spent months researching it. I wrote 21 chapters. Then it just died.

I couldn’t see where the story was going. So I abandoned it. Put all the books and research notes into a cardboard box.

And then I put that box with all the other boxes. The packing boxes.

Because that book crashed and burned in a year when I moved house twice. A year in which I sold a house, failed to buy another house, moved out of the first house anyway, lived in a (wholly unsuitable) rented house, finally bought another house, and moved house again.

And I will never know whether the story collapsed because of fundamental problems with the idea, or because of the disruptive circumstances under which I was trying to write it.

I will never know, because I just can’t face opening that box and re-entering that story, even though I suspect the essence of the story is fine, and it was just too hard to create that world inside my head, when the world outside my head was so unstable. So that book is probably dead.

But a book which is NOT dead is the one I’m currently writing. I’ve had an unsettled couple of months, when it’s been hard to get the peaceful focus I’m beginning to realise is essential for me to write fiction. And I had a minor crisis last week, when I was on the verge of wondering whether my current novel was falling apart.

But then I realised I’ve been trying to sort out the central plot problem during a General Election (always a busy time in our household) and while one of my children has been on exam leave (giving me no daytime hours to write in a quiet house.)

So, rather than packing this book in a box, I’ve reminded myself about the fragility of my creative process, and I’ve decided not to make any big decisions about the plot until I have time to think in peace and quiet and calmness. (Next Monday, I hope!) I’ll give myself time to get back into this world in the way that works for me, rather than panicking and abandoning it, and souring my relationship with this story and these characters for ever.

What writers do is very strange. Perhaps we don’t admit that often enough. Writing fiction, for whatever age, is essentially quite odd. We invent worlds, and live inside them. We do it convincingly enough to invite others to join us in those worlds. We invent people. We have close and emotional relationships with entirely imaginary people. We give our characters lives, make those lives dramatic and exciting and painful, then sometimes we take those lives away.

That’s a very weird thing to do. It’s precious, it’s delicate, it’s fragile. It needs nurtured, not forced. And it can never be taken for granted. Writers have to be allowed to admit that, to ourselves first of all.

 PS – I’d really like to thank Nicola for her honesty last week. It helped me think about my own creativity and its flawed fragility...
Lari Don is the award-winning author of 22 books for all ages, including a teen thriller, fantasy novels for 8 – 12s, picture books, retellings of traditional tales and novellas for reluctant readers. 

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Friday, 22 May 2015

The death of (my) imagination - by Nicola Morgan

I don't know what I'm asking for here or why I'm burdening you with my trivial writer's angst. No one's dying, though something is dead. Perhaps it's just a silly scream in the dark and I should deal with it silently. All I really ask is that if you think there's no such thing as writer's block you do one or both of two things: think again or say nothing. You don't know.

My imagination has died. "Use it or lose it" is the brain's well known way of functioning. And not functioning. Well, some time ago I stopped using my imagination and filled my writing brain with non-fiction; and now I've lost it. I used, years ago, to write fiction and non-fiction happily in tandem, bobbing from one to the other constructively and profitably. But a few years ago the non-fiction took over. It took over because I loved doing it, because it was (for me) easier, because it was successful, because it was bringing me in royalties, because it led to lots of wellpaid events (generating more non-fiction writing as I prepared myriad handouts and presentations and blogposts), because it gave me self-esteem and reputation, my niche, self-actualisation.

I thought that was enough for Heartsong. I should never have forgotten that for me it wasn't. Imagination was the lifeblood of my heartsong and I'd accidentally left the tourniquet on too long.

So, when I tried to write fiction, without which I don't feel whole, I found that the fiction muscle, my imagination, was dead.

At first, I thought, as you are thinking, that it was temporary. Dormant, not dead. All I had to do was all those things we know about, the things you're all wanting to say in support:

  1. Just do it - apply butt to seat and fingers to keyboard and write
  2. Give yourself time - don't worry
  3. Get outside and walk
  4. Stop thinking about it - it will come back
  5. Try a new environment
  6. Try another new environment
  7. Do some creative napping
  8. Listen to your dreams
  9. Read lots of fiction
  10. Read poetry
  11. Allow yourself to write rubbish
  12. Make yourself write rubbish
  13. Set yourself targets; don't set yourself targets
  14. Read Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
I did them all to one degree or another. In fact, Writing Down the Bones nailed the problem in such a way that it created a new block by identifying the block: "If all of you does not believe that the elephant and the ant are one at the moment you write it, it will sound false. If all of you does believe it, there are some who might consider you crazy; but it's better to be crazy than false. But how do you make your mind believe it and write [it]?"

And that is the problem. I don't believe. Because of that dead imagination.

You see I'm trying to write a novel in which the central idea - invisibility - is a physical impossibility. You need your imagination to write or to read about it. And when I come to write it, to create it, all the time I'm thinking, "Don't be stupid: that can't happen." There's a disconnect between what I know stories do - the suspension of disbelief - and my ability to suspend disbelief for long enough to create belief.

I can't make anyone else believe it because I don't believe in it - what I'm trying to write or my ability to write it - any more. 

I don't expect an answer. And I don't want to sound self-pitying. As I say, no one died. There are really only two answers: give up or carry on trying to force life into a dead thing, charging up those chest paddles.

Or give my imagination a name: maybe Lazarus. No, I never believed that story either. Actually, I probably did once, before.

[Edited to add: funnily, someone crashed into me as I was walking along the street just now and he looked completely shocked and confused, as though I had been temporarily invisible and he was trying to work out how that could be. Then he just carried on walking as though he was thinking, "Yeah, so, she was invisible. So what? Get over it."]

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Walking while working - Nicola Morgan

Big apologies - I have reposted this from my own blog, mainly because I only realised last night that I have to do my ABBA post but also because it's VERY relevant to writers...

A few weeks ago, I joined the band of people who work while walking. I type and do almost all my desk work while walking on a treadmill. It has been eye-opening, body changing and inspiring. And unexpected in some ways. Here’s what happened and what it is like.

Over the last year, I’ve been reading a lot about the health dangers of being too sedentary and not doing enough exercise. And I am (was) very sedentary. My desk work and my workaholic personality kept me rooted to my chair for hours and hours on end. It didn’t feel good but I couldn’t stop.

About a year ago, I bought a Fitbit One, to inspire myself to walk more. Although this helped at first, somewhat, there were two problems for me: 1) I was still a workaholic and still needed/wanted to get a lot of work done so I was still staying at my desk too long and 2) I have an arthritic and cartilage-wrecked knee which has been getting worse and which doesn’t like the manic walking pace that I do, partly in my effort to get the damn walking done as fast as possible and partly because it’s just a Type A personality thing. Walking on roads is painful and walking on hills very. Cycling, too.

So, I decided to deal with this sedentariness properly.

I knew that a friend of mine, Vee Frier, used a treadmill set-up, so I got her advice. I am not sure if I have the same setup but it’s the same principle.

(Warning, my solution is not cheap. But it’s tax deductible!)

I ordered this special desk to go on my desk to make it the height for standing at; and a treadmill especially designed for the purpose, because it’s slim, fits under a desk and goes more slowly than a gym one. And has no incline.

The desk arrived first and as soon as I started working at it, I hated it. (Fear not: this has a happy outcome.) It was extremely painful and my knee reacted disastrously. In the nearly three weeks before the treadmill arrived, I thought I’d made an expensive mistake. I was already wondering if I’d be able to send the treadmill and the desk back.

The treadmill arrived and I switched it on. Hooray! It didn’t work! Excellent! I could send it back.

Then I realised I’d misread the instructions and put the magnetic safety doobry on the wrong bit. As soon as I rectified this, the machine sprang into life. Unfortunately, I was kneeling on it at the time, fiddling with things, and – trust me – this is not a position you want to be in when a treadmill springs into life or anywhere.

The second thing I discovered was that it was NOISY. Hooray! A reason to send it back!

However, I am not faint-hearted so I duly lugged it up to my garden office, with the help of Mr M (I’m as strong as he is but it’s always good to give him a task). And left it there over the weekend while I dreaded Monday.

Monday came and I hobbled up the garden to my fate.

And walked for 3 hours at 2mph. With no pain. Gently lulled by the swooshing noise in the background. While typing. And concentrating unusually well on my work. With ideas pouring from my brain and onto the keyboard.

I also realised I loved the desk thing, too. It’s quite big and also sturdy. I can have my keyboard, laptop, mouse, notebooks, and COFFEE.

Thus began my personal revolution. Three weeks later, my knee is bearing up, I’ve walked between 12k and 20k steps each day (whereas on some previous days I’d be doing fewer than 1k) and I’ve lost 4lbs (which could also be the sugar I’ve given up, though I ate very little of it before). I’ve discovered that 2.5mph is the ideal speed for me while typing and it’s a speed I can walk at without thinking about walking. It’s much slower than my outdoor walking pace, and I think this is why it’s good for my knee – it’s motion without so much flipping force.

More to the point, I LOVE walking while working. I’ve
always found walking a great way of loosening my creative brain and freeing up ideas but how very much more convenient it is to do that while actually at the screen!

It feels very good in every way.

It’s very easy to put it on its side out of the way if I actually want to sit down.

Btw, can you see the odd thing under the upper desk? With a red button on it? That’s the console, where you adjust the speed and things. And there’s a red cord, which you are supposed to clip to your belt, with a red magnet at the other end, attached to the console. *cough* I erm, don’t… This is so that if you faint and fall off, the treadmill will stop.

I’ve only fallen off once and that was because I tried to turn round and pick something up. (Don’t do this, really. Especially while holding coffee.) Several friends sent me videos of people breakdancing on treadmills. That’s a trick for the future…

I have found another advantage: all this walking makes me feel nice and warm so, though I’m using some electricity for the treadmill (500W at the most) I don’t need a heater any more. In fact, I’m working with the door open a lot of the time.

It's the best of every world. I'm often reluctant to recommend things, as I know everyone's different, but if you're thinking about doing this - do!