Showing posts with label a writer's life. Show all posts
Showing posts with label a writer's life. Show all posts

Saturday, 25 July 2020

A recipe for a YA fantasy sequel - Holly Race

The deadline for the first draft of my second novel is looming, so I'm keeping my post short this month! Here you have it - my very own recipe for writing said sequel:

- Take one (1) Chosen One trope, established in the first novel. Subvert.

- Extract the world building from the first book, add a little more context and lore, knead and allow to rise for a month or two until bubbly.

- Blend plot and character arcs together until thoroughly combined. Add the world building and bring all together in a nice messy gloop.

- Marinade a handful of secondary characters until they are established and likeable. This will be made harder by the fact that you killed off a load of them in your first book and now need to create new ones. Stir into the mixture in the knowledge that only a few will survive to the third book.

- Crack three fight scenes and a battle into the mixture one by one, making sure each of them is more ambitious than those in the first book, despite the fact that when you wrote the first book, you went all in.

- Decide that you don't have enough storylines and decide to include a mystery plot, ostensibly for complexity of flavour but also because you just love a good mystery.

- Add one (or two) romances into the mix, for sweetness, and fold in lightly.

- Bake for a year, turning the temperature up to 'anxiety and panic' for the final week.

- Decorate with a pretty cover and atmospheric blurb, and present next to your first book for comparison and judgement.

Saturday, 4 July 2020

Working from Home - Ciaran Murtagh

Over the past few months I've come to a realisation, I work from home but I don't necessarily work at home. Trust a writer to get bogged down by semantics in 'week infinity + 1' of lock down and how typical of them to obsess over the difference between two very small words. But there is a difference and frankly it's huge.

Working from home never looked like this - who compartmentalises their own breakfast?

Now you might argue there are many more important things to worry about at this stage in the shit show currently masquerading as 2020, or perhaps it's precisely because of the times we find ourselves in that navel gazing about the difference between 'from' and 'at' seems like a useful waste of my time.

Every day for the past few months I've been heading to my shed to do my work, just like I have done for the past decade or so. I get the work done, but recently I've been finding it harder and harder, and I've been trying to figure out why. Now of course, the chaotic nature of the world - and in particular our country - at the moment doesn't help. But even putting that to one side, something's changed, and that's where those two little words come in.
Home sweet home

People often tell me that I'm very lucky to work at home. And I am. But the truth is -  I really don't. Maybe 30% of my working life is spent at home. A lot of the time I'll be working in cafes or pubs, on trains, in hotels, in libraries, the top floor of the Royal Festival Hall, in airport departure lounges, or in one memorable deadline crazed fever, a bench in the Whitgift Centre Croydon.

Scene of some of my greatest triumphs

It's easy to say I work at home. But given a choice I work anywhere but! I'm not conditioned to spend four months writing in the same place.  I like to mix it up. I thrive on the energy of busy places. I write about life and characters and people and I like to surround myself with them. It's hard to be inspired by a funny incident or something someone said when you're not interacting. I'm not made to be locked in my shed. I might long for the solitude from time to time, but in reality I want life and I want my words to be conceived in the hubbub of conversation and lives being lived.

Come back. I miss you guys... 

So that's what I've learned. My office might be at home, but I work in the bustling streets that surround me and it can't come back soon enough.

Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Putting Lockdown in a box - Tracy Darnton

This blog has crept up on me in the strange time warp of lockdown. What week is it? I've no idea. This is blog number four (four!!!) since this started. As I'm measuring my life now by Bin Day and Bin Day Eve, rather than by actual dates or months, I'm afraid this one is rather last minute. 

So I thought I'd share my Lockdown Box. In this weird twilight world of Lockdown/Not Lockdown, I've been thinking that even though we as a family are still largely marooned at home, something has shifted and we should assess Lockdown and better still, put it in a box. I want to do something practical in the same way I do after a bereavement or a momentous family occasion. I curate it, tame it, make it something I can put a lid on and file on a shelf. Something we can revisit in the future. What did you do in the Lockdown, Great Granny? Well, I shall say. Hold my cocoa and pass me that dusty box.

What's in it?
I half wish I could include that letter from the Government but it was ceremoniously ripped into tiny pieces. Or the giant catering can of tinned tomatoes that my local greengrocers improvised and kindly delivered to us. Or one of the lids of ice cream cartons from Deliver Moo keeping us supplied from our local Marshfield Ice Cream. Or the terrible 21st birthday cake I made from any old rubbish in the cupboard. 

I do have celebration cards for my kids stuck with their parents instead of celebrating rites of passage end of A levels and uni finals. And mementoes from the Hay festival they recreated in the garden for my birthday. 

And we've added the art we painted after watching Grayson Perry and a picture of our Lockdown Reading Pile. And the map of footpaths we discovered on our doorstep for all those walks which kept us going. And the menu from my Come Dine With Me Sicilian evening that I hoped would start off the rest of the family to do the same - but sadly didn't. 

And the book I worked so hard on but am bringing out with no book launch party - just a supreme sense of irony as it's about the effects on a family of preparing for disasters like pandemics. Yes, dear Reader, I foresaw the toilet roll shortages. 

Lastly, I'm a list maker - To Do, Shopping, Birthday gifts to buy, TBR - so we're starting another list. A family list poem. 

        The Lockdown A to Z. 

The poem's too personal, too angry in places, too mundane in others to share on this blog. And, anyway, you can guess what my Z stands for. I recommend it as a way, whatever your age, to remember and to make sense of what we've experienced so far. 

It's not finished yet - because Lockdown/Not Lockdown isn't finished. But when it is, it's going in the box. 

Tracy Darnton writes YA thrillers. Her latest novel The Rules is published on July 9th. It will be launched in a socially distanced way on Twitter @TracyDarnton but she's looking forward to a future party. 

Monday, 15 June 2020

What I've learnt from lockdown - by Rowena House

I’ve stolen today’s ABBA post title from last weekend’s Guardian, which asked a constellation of writing stars to share lessons they’ve learnt from the past few months. Here’s the link:

I particularly like this from Alan Hollinghurst: “Time itself was more precious, even if enjoyment of the passing minute was clouded by the fear of being dead within days.”

Sebastian Barry’s exquisite prose in praise of nature are pure delight (“the sonic realm of the cuckoo” and countless other gems). Do please take a look.

Mark Haddon’s piece is interesting too. He says he’s more contented now and his life, previously constrained by a fear of flying, feels less small:

“In ordinary times we are constantly being made to want more. It’s how the economy works. Advertising generates a constant, nagging absence which will be solved by spending more money. Except that it isn’t. But something has changed. Those of us who can count ourselves as lucky have more than enough. We can live with less: less eating out, less driving, less international travel, fewer shiny new things.”

Amen to that. [And who knows, humanity might even now be learning how to save our one and only planet if everyone in the developed world gets that same message, but back to writing for now…]

So what lessons have I learnt from lockdown?

King James I and Anne of Denmark: Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Perhaps the clearest one is just how important it is for my mental health to write regularly.

ABBA, by setting a monthly deadline, has been a genuine support in what has been an annus horribilis of family bereavements and new caring duties. Writing this post, for example, proves I am who I think I am: a wordsmith, with actual words to show for it.

I’ve also learnt how damn hard it is to assert my right to set aside time to write, and how difficult it is to block out the daily domestic dramas of shielding my frail and elderly dad in order to devote serious mental energy to researching my historical work-in-progress.

The guilt that I’m not doing enough for him (while also supporting my immediate family) means I can’t find the emotional detachment or clear enough headspace for genuine creativity. But I can at least (like now) examine half-formed thoughts and turn them into communicable ideas, which, if I’m lucky, I get to talk about online and on the phone with writing friends.

I’m also learning the balancing act of keeping up-to-date with the fast-evolving ‘story’ of Covid-19 without tipping into despair about the cruelty of so many unnecessary deaths in the NHS and care homes or feeling oppressed by anxieties about a second wave.

It’s okay, I think, even necessary perhaps, to feel deeply saddened about what’s happening here and abroad, and what must be happening in underreported place I’ve known such as the great slum city of Kibera in Kenya.

It’s also brilliant to have had a moment of pride in our nation when the Black Lives Matter protestors tumbled that slave trader’s statue into Bristol harbour, even if we then displayed to the world those shameful racist thugs attacking the police in central London on Saturday.

But this past weekend brought home a new lesson of lockdown: it is now effectively over, which I believe means we are inevitably facing a second wave later on in the year.

If so, next time around there won’t be the same national consensus as before that collective action to protect the vulnerable and the NHS at all cost is the right thing to do. There will be competition between the needs of the old and the medically vulnerable and the needs of the fit, younger population for whom Covid-19 is far less of a threat.

For carers like me and the vulnerable, we’ll once again be on our own, as we were before the government belatedly ordered the lockdown in March, sheltering those who need it, wearing face masks despite the smirks of other shoppers and keeping our 2m distance whatever Boris Johnson says.

This competition within society is probably inevitable. As Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, says, the 2m distance rule is a judgment about risk, and risk is an individual thing; the young can’t be asked to sacrifice themselves for others for ever.

Which, as a parent, I agree with. Who wants their child’s life blighted for a moment longer than necessary? Their mental and emotional health, their educational and economic life chances, must take precedence at some point.

Writing this on Sunday, June 14th, 2020, that pivot point looks to be happening about now.

If so, we are presumably heading for a twin-track new normal, with carers and the vulnerable physically outside society as the young and fit return to it. In which case, as an outsider, online support from friends is going to be more crucial than ever, and the process of writing the work-in-progress will become more deeply embedded in the survival layers of my hierarchy of needs, like food, drink and shelter, not just an act of self-actualisation.

It’s something I’ve heard said by many writers who, for various reasons, are housebound or constrained in some other way. Writing is a lifeline. Let’s hope it can keep us afloat for the duration.


Saturday, 4 April 2020

Green Shoots - Ciaran Murtagh

I don't know if you've noticed, but there's a lot of doom and gloom about the place at the moment. You all know what's wrong with the world and probably have a list of people to blame alongside  a heap of specific personal daily crises to deal with before even considering knuckling down to write.

I have become teacher to a six year old, professional make up model to a three year old, financial emergency service to a twenty four year old and tee total at quite the wrong time.

But rather than rehearse the problems I thought it might be good to accentuate the positive, so here goes.

We know this feeling

As self employed creatives we've always been in a precarious position when it comes to employment and finance, it's odd to find the rest of the world joining us. However, we know what this feels like, we are used to this uncertainty. It's easy to get caught up in the hysteria of those experiencing this for the first time through no fault of their own and certainly not through choice. And yes, everything else that is going on adds to the stress of the situation more than usual, but take a deep breath, you of all people have got this.

What do you normally do when work dries up? You dig it out. You self start. You get your stall in order so that when everything is open for business you are ready to go.  What did you do the first time? You knew nobody, you had no contacts, you just had yourself and you got started. It's exhausting but you need to do it again.

Write something you love. 

I just wrote a sketch for Crackerjack. Is it going to pay me a fortune? No. Is it going to get my kid through maths? No. Is it the best use of my time? Probably not. But then again - in a time like this, what is? It's very easy to think that what we do, in the scheme of things, isn't really contributing much. I'm not on the front line, I'm not saving lives, I'm not looking for a cure, I'm not fixing the problem, I'm writing fart jokes and covering grown men in custard. Here's one I made earlier...

But - and this is crucial - it's what I do. It's what I'm good at. Not everybody is equipped to fix the global problem we face. The best thing anyone can do in this situation is what they do best and trust it will be enough. If everyone does their best, we'll get through this. Right now a fart gag might not be helping, but give it six months and we'll all be in need of a laugh.

Do what you can today to make tomorrow better.

There is still work out there. 

It's hard to find and even harder to get but it is out there. In particular the animation industry is responding to this crisis very well indeed. If you have ever written for animation then dust off the contact list and start emailing, if you haven't then spend some time investigating how you might. One thing this virus has taught us is how quickly things can dry up. Learn what you can from it.

Most live action scripting is being shelved, but animation is going great guns, try and skill up so that the next time this happens you've got places to turn. If you don't fancy scripting start thinking about an original idea. Or even try and turn that book idea that may be hard to get off the ground right now into an animation idea and start pitching -  people will want content, you can give it to them.

On the book front, educational publishers still seem to be generating work. Anecdotally I know this isn't true for every publisher, but I have been approached by a couple in recent weeks to consider pitching new ideas. Again, if you've ever done any educational work dust off those contacts, email those commissioning editors and see what you can dig out. As with everything, it's tough and it's competitive but you never know.

Good luck, stay safe and lets hope May brings sunshine and beer gardens and pubs that are open.

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Taking Care of Business - Ciaran Murtagh

People always think it must be brilliant working from home, and as I sit in my freezing shed with frost on the inside of the windows waiting for the heater to come out of hibernation long enough to stop my breath steaming, I have to agree.

Sure it has it's problems, like wondering if you're going to make enough money  to justify turning on the heaters in the first place, but it also has lots of benefits. You're your own boss. You can work when you like and you can fit working hours around other things you might need to do in the day, like picking fluff out of your belly button, nursing that Bargain Hunt addiction and wondering what you're going to wear for dress down Friday, even though every day is technically dress down Friday. Truth be told, I sometimes have a 'can't be bothered to get dressed at all' Thursday...

But work does still need to be done. You can't just sit in your shed inhaling the sweet fumes of your a-ha themed scented candle (true fact) and dream of being JK. So how can you make a success of working from home? As Elvis said - you gotta Take Care of Business.

1) Routine

There is something about a commute to work that gets you out of home space and into work space. I'm not saying I want to sit on an overcrowded, overpriced train in order to be more effective, but I find I have to do something. When your commute is literally 'walk to the shed' or in previous incarnations 'walk to the spare room' then there's little time to transition.

This morning I've got myself up (big tick there), got two kids up, dispatched them to two different schools and nurseries, did the bins, tidied bedrooms and now it's time to work. Trouble is I don't really feel like it. I need to do something to kick myself into gear.  For me it's a blast at the gym, for you it might be a walk, a swim, reading the paper, something that kicks you into a different place. It may seem like you're wasting your time - the kids'll be back before you know it, there's stuff to be done. But as Billy Bragg said:

'I know it looks like I'm just reading the paper, 
but these ideas I'll turn to gold dust later
'Cause I'm a writer not a decorator...' 

2) Planning

I like to know what I'm doing in a day. Some people like to plan the night before, that's never been my bag. It's also impossible sometimes. I have book deadlines that might be a month or two in advance, I have TV deadlines which are literally 'by lunchtime' and I have the joys of working with Australia and the US who work through the night to give me work I didn't know existed in the morning.

Regardless, each morning I try and make a plan for myself. It doesn't have to be colour coded and covered in sticky notes, literally a numbered list - I am going to do these things in this order and then I'm going to stop, unless Australia wakes up early. It gives my day structure, and while it might not go according to plan, at least I know what I'm diverting from so I can come back to it in due course.

3) Breaks

Take breaks. You are not a loser for taking breaks. Procrastinating is not the same as taking a break. Recognise when you've hit a wall. I can spend an hour staring at a screen getting nowhere, I go and make a cup of tea and the thing clicks into place like a magic eye puzzle (ask your parents). Breaks are important.

4) Writing is not the only work

My job is a writer, therefore you might think the only time I'm doing my job properly is when I'm putting words on a page. It's not true. We're not coal miners, we're not paid by the tonne. Research is work. Answering emails is work. Sorting out your receipts is work. Invoicing is work. Sometimes - and don't tell my wife - sitting in a bath with a notepad and pen at two in the afternoon, is work. Don't beat yourself up too much about targets and word counts. If you are doing something that contributes to making the core business of what you do easier and more successful, you are working.

5) Don't eat the biscuit

That is literally it. In an office, you eat all the biscuits people judge you. When you're your own boss you can eat all the biscuits, go out and buy a new packet so nobody knows, eat them too and then only get blamed for eating one packet of biscuits. That has never EVER happened by the way.

What I mean is, fight your urges and your temptations. There are lots of things you could be doing and no one is going to know if you do them instead of work apart from yourself. Know what your distractions are and try and break the habit of going to them. You'll get more done, and in my case, stay slimmer.

That's it. Merry Christmas. Keep on trucking and may all your notebook pages be white.

Monday, 4 November 2019

Writing: The Next Generation - Ciaran Murtagh

This month I was lucky enough to head up to Manchester with my family to watch an episode of Crackerjack being filmed. I've written quite a few sketches for this show and it was a real thrill to see them performed in front of a studio audience. One of the sketches featured past presenters - Stu Francis, Don MacLean, Bernie Clifton, Basil Brush and Jan Hunt. The idea of the sketch was for them to pass the baton onto new presenters Sam and Mark and it was quite moving watching these performers I had grown up with paying it forward in that way.

Stu Francis was the Crackerjack presenter I grew up with. He's partly responsible for me doing the job I do now. I never thought I'd ever end up writing for him, but this remarkable career sometimes throws up those moments. I was writing silly jokes for the man who made me appreciate the value of silly jokes in the first place.

Writers are often connected to generations past and present in a very tangible way. We spend time in schools learning from the writers of the future and we spend time with books learning from the writers of the past. There is a continuum to our craft and to our work that transcends the time and place in which it was written.

Sitting in the Crackerjack studio, 30 years later than perhaps would have been ideal for my 8 year old self, it struck me how much I had been inspired by it as a child.

It's not just the show itself though, the people making it have also paid it forward. The first bit of TV I ever wrote featured Sam and Mark, they now present the show. The first bit of TV I ever wrote was commissioned on spec by Steve Ryde, he's now executive producer of Crackerjack. He took a risk on me, gave me some of his time and expertise, and now I have a career in a business I knew nothing about a decade ago.

This week I got nominated for a writing Bafta. If Steve Ryde hadn't taken that chance, if Crackerjack hadn't made me appreciate the value of a pun, I might never have been in this position. I don't forget that, which is why it's important when someone reaches out for advice or mentorship I do my best to help. Most of our careers are a hotch potch of lucky breaks, hard work and the occasional helping hand.  It's our duty to find the time to pay it forward whenever we can.

Friday, 4 October 2019

Nothing good ever happens in October - Ciaran Murtagh

The leaves are falling from the trees, the nights are drawing in and I turned on the heating in my shed for the first time in months. Nothing like the scent of the million fly carcasses that have tumbled down the back of the radiator slowly turning into charcoal to get the creative juices flowing. They do say that for every great work of art there has to be an act of sacrifice, I wonder if this is the modern equivalent.

It’s October, our country is in a period of flux and uncertainty, the Christmas adverts have appeared in the shops, it is tempting to think that 2019 is nearly over. Put off whatever it is you were going to start until the halcyon uplands of 2020 appear. Anything’s possible in 2020. We’ll probably be writing with laser beams, commuting on hover boards, or more likely, fighting over prescription drugs and reminiscing about what bananas tasted like.

What I’m saying is, nothing good ever happened on a damp Friday in October. Nothing. The promise of the year is waning, curl under the duvet and think of Christmas. Being self employed we don’t even have office parties to look forward to – not that I ever really looked forward to them, but at least someone else bought the beer.

It can be hard to remember that there’s still three months left. Three whole months. That's loads of time to turn it all around. As a redhead, it's always been my favourite time, and frankly the only one my colouring coordinates with. 

But in a world governed by advertising, we’ve had our summer holidays, there’s just Halloween, bonfire night and then Christmas left to go -  what's the point in starting something now? It can be easy to get demotivated, to start wishing the days away, to take a cue from the seasons and start bedding down for the year. 2019 is done. 


There’s loads of time. The best is yet to come. Make the most of it. It could still be your year. 

Write the thing, do the thing, make the thing.

Everyone wants to give up their job and write a book in January. Nobody wants to do it in October. Be that person, steal the march, get to the agents when they’re quiet (er). Get your ducks in a row, make your plans and don’t be conned into thinking 2019 has passed you by. October is where it’s at baby! 

2019 isn't done and dusted.  You’ve got a quarter of the year left. 2019 could still be your year.  Grab it.

Tuesday, 17 September 2019

An analogue author in a digital world - Tracy Darnton

Technology has conspired against me this month so, with apologies to all for the lack of a long blog of interest, I have smuggled this alternative message past my laptop.

I am an analogue person.
I like books, notebooks, fountain pens.
I have inky fingers.
I choose to sharpen my pencils and flick the shavings in the wastepaper basket.
I have a selection of fine pencil cases.

I write appointments in a tiny diary.
I like sending postcards. Even notelets.

My clocks have faces and hands and tick reassuringly.
I have beautiful hourglasses to time my writing.

Baking involves painstaking weighing of ingredients in balance scales and the juggling of tiny weights. Like a doll's grocers.

My car has wind-up windows.
I have a dog-eared roadmap and no SatNav.

I am happier as an analogue person.

I don't know the lingo - I may have completely misunderstood the nature of my opening line.

I don't like my laptop.
There, I said it.
I don't like my constantly crashing laptop which daily has some new horror:
display not loading,
Word not responding,
Google not responding.

All against the backdrop of holding my unbacked-up work ransom.
It knows there is no room left on my OneDrive - a concept which I only vaguely understand.

And it's switched to American spelling again.
It likes me to hunt for the @ key.

My laptop has taken offence at the large monitor I prefer to its tiny screen. It refuses to send any signal however much I change the HDMI cable and ask it nicely. I am reduced again to peering at one paragraph at a time.

I should have been a writer in times gone by - preferably a rich one, with a secretary in tweed in the corner. I could dictate my novel or hand over notebooks of scribbles and crossings-out.

Or maybe my little typewriter could be pressed into action.
If it weren't for the lack of a delete button.
If it weren't for the fact I'd be zonked out with Tippex fumes before the day was over. (Is Tippex still a thing?)

I shall have to bribe my IT department (teenager) to help again with a packet of Twirl bites.
My IT department takes a dim view of my whispering that the laptop is doing it deliberately.
But I know it is.

I shall of course apologise to the laptop and see if it is in the mood to forgive me.

I am an analogue author in a scary, digital world.
I just want to write.

Normal service shall be resumed next month.

Tracy Darnton is the author of The Truth About Lies, shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize 2019. She has an MA in Writing for Young People. It is a minor miracle that she manages to publish this blog online.

You can follow Tracy on Twitter @TracyDarnton and on Instagram tracydarnton