Channelling my Inner Angst

During much of the writing of my current WIP I was going through a lot of personal trauma. Last year I went through a divorce after 23 years of marriage so things were never going to be easy.

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While it would have been easier to hide away somewhere till the black cloud had passed, I had no choice but to continue writing. Firstly, I have a publishing deal to fulfil and, secondly, I had to think about my future income. At times I felt frustrated as my writing wasn’t flowing as easily as normal; I was too preoccupied with other matters and it made it really hard work.

With all this in mind I was dreading the edits, feeling that I might read through the book and think, ‘what a load of rubbish’ or words to that effect. However, I’ve now reached the editing stage and I’m glad to say that I’m pleasantly surprised. It seems that I have channelled my inner angst.

There’s no doubt that the writing of this book, more than any others, has been cathartic. It’s fortunate that I write gritty crime rather than syrupy romance as I think it would have been difficult to write anything sickly sweet given my frame of mind throughout much of the writing process.

I’m happy with the book’s content and feel that it’s my best yet although some may view it as my worst in terms of the level of brutality. As I enter a new year and the next chapter in my life it’s a relief to know that I have produced something that I’m not only proud of but that I also feel is marketable, especially as my writing now provides the bulk of my income.

So here’s to a better year ahead. This will be the year when my first book through my new publisher hits the market so I’m very excited about that. I’m also hoping to push ahead in my personal life too with just the small matter of moving home to attend to and sorting out my finances. Although I expect moving house to be a stressful process I’m viewing it as the start of a new phase in my life.

Here’s to new beginnings:

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Writer’s High

There’s a feeling that many authors are probably familiar with. I like to think of it as ‘writer’s high’ but others refer to it as having the muse. I also call it being ‘in the zone’. It’s that wonderful feeling when you enter one of those writing phases during which you’re on a roll and the ideas are spilling from you quicker than you can type them up.

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Unfortunately, it isn’t always like that. Sometimes it’s an uphill struggle, especially with a new novel, and it can take a while before you really connect with a piece of work and with the characters. You’ve got your basic premise for the novel and may have drawn up an outline but it feels a bit like painting by numbers as you try to fit each of the scenes into an overall framework. However, you’re not feeling a real spark and your writing isn’t exciting you.

Then, all of a sudden, something kicks in – one idea leads to another, scenes come alive in your imagination, characters become animated and you’re typing like the clappers, before you forget everything. You stop to make the dinner, you think of something else. You go for a walk, another scene comes to mind. You go to bed and the ideas still keep spilling out of you. By the morning you’ve got pages of handwritten notes ready to type up the following day. Your mind is alive with the thrill of it and you can’t wait to commit it all to the PC before you lose the feeling. Does that sound familiar?

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It can take over your life – a bit like a drug and, although it’s a good feeling, it can get in the way of so much. When I’m ‘In the Zone’ ideas usually come to me when I’m trying to relax so it can be while I’m trying to sleep, when I’m out for a walk or even when I’m taking a shower. I find it useful to have a notepad by my bedside and another in my handbag so that I can jot down ideas whenever they come to mind. When I’m ‘in the zone’ I find it difficult to concentrate on a film as my mind wanders. That’s the reason I watch a lot of trash TV; because I don’t need to concentrate too much. (That’s my excuse anyway.)

With my current WIP it was an uphill struggle for part of it but mostly because I was going through emotional upheaval in my personal life. However, I’m now in a much better place and back ‘in the zone’. This novel has two timelines running through it and, in order to write the later timeline, I had to recap on a lot of what had happened in the previous timeline. I was relieved to find that it read quite well. Perhaps my personal struggles helped me in dealing with much of the conflict in the book.

I’m almost ready to give the novel a good edit and hope to send it off to my publisher in a few weeks’ time. It’s been a challenge as it’s the most I’ve ever written for a novel, in accordance with my publisher’s guidelines. But this story has a lot of depth to it so I was confident of reaching the word count without any unnecessary padding. I’ll be keeping you updated as I progress further with the novel.

 

Using Images to Create Atmosphere

During the writing of my current book and the previous one, Danger by Association, I have found a technique that is useful in creating the atmosphere for a particular scene in a novel. I therefore thought I would share it. Here’s an example of how it works in practice:

If you are writing about an abandoned building, for example, type ‘abandoned building’ in Google images and you should be able to view a good selection on your screen. Next, select an image that you feel captures the scene you want to create. If one image alone doesn’t work for you, perhaps you could try combining two different images. Take a note of what you can see e.g. mouldy bricks, peeling wallpaper etc.

While looking at the image, and thinking about the atmosphere, don’t forget to use the five senses. So rather than just describing what you can see think about how the building would feel. Is it cold inside? Can you hear the wind rustling through the eves? What does it smell of – damp? mustiness?

Once you have typed up your notes you will have a good idea of the atmosphere you want to create. Next, put your character at the scene. How does he or she feel about the abandoned building? Why are they there? Have they gone to meet someone? Are they frightened? Are they distressed? Use powerful verbs to describe your character’s actions as they enter the building.

Here’s an example of part of a scene I created in Danger by Association using this technique:

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A few more seconds and they were all inside. Rita scanned the room as her eyes adjusted to the gloom. Their makeshift entrance led into a classroom. The place had an eerie feel to it and Rita shuddered.

There were no longer any desks or chairs, but in the half-light she could see cupboards lining one of the walls. The doors of one cupboard were hanging off, its contents spilling out onto the dusty classroom floor. She was surprised the cupboards still contained old books and papers; this seemed to emphasise the state of abandon.

They crept through the classroom and into a long corridor. Here a strong smell of urine assailed them. The ceiling was high with small skylights. This meant that there was more light here than in the classroom, but in the gloom of night it cast strange shadows on the walls, which unnerved Rita.

In the distance she could hear weird noises; a tapping, and a faint gushing sound, perhaps from running water. She also thought she heard the murmur of voices but it was difficult to tell.

Hopefully by following this technique you will write scenes that capture the atmosphere you are aiming for.

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Playing with Words

As a writer I love playing with words and I love words themselves. I know – weird aren’t I? Some words I love more than others. With certain words it’s because they have a lovely sound to them. With others it’s because they suit their meaning so well that no other word would quite suffice. There are many words that are so powerful and descriptive that they can transform a whole paragraph. In fact, ‘transform’ is one of the words on my list. Here are some of my favourite words:

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–         Expertise – It’s like experience, knowledge and skills all rolled into one.

–         Transform – it’s more powerful than ‘change’, don’t you think?

–         Incongruous – I love this one, it’s says exactly what it means.

–         Onomatopoeia – This relates to the use of a word that sounds like its meaning. What I love about ‘onomatopoeia’ is the sound of the word, the use of four vowels together and the fact that very few people can spell it. I can’t think of any other word that uses four vowels together – no doubt someone will put me straight on that point. I believe it stems from either Latin or Greek so there could be other four-vowel words that have been adopted by the English language.

–         Detract – I feel that no one word captures the meaning of this word in the same way. Although you’ll find alternatives such as ‘lessen’, Words 2‘diminish’ etc. in a Thesaurus, ‘detract’ means more than that. For me ‘detract’ makes me think of moving away from something or taking away from something, especially when used as ‘detract from’.

–         Encapsulate – I just love the sound of it. Again, no other single word does it justice. ‘Summarise’ is used as a synonym, but ‘encapsulate’ is more than that; it’s the act of taking all the components and bringing them neatly together as though in a capsule.

–         Retrospect – To me this word means more than just ‘reflection’, it’s looking back but also learning from past mistakes. Again, no other word conjures up the precise meaning.

–         Basically – It’s an excellent opener for a sentence and leaves the reader full of expectation of what’s coming next. It can open up an explanation, a conclusion or a summary. ‘Basically’, it’s a really useful word, but unfortunately I realise that I do tend to overuse it.

–         Divisive – Another powerful word, which was overused on the death of Margaret Thatcher – it was definitely the media word of the week. Now, whenever I hear that word my brain automatically connects it with Margaret Thatcher.

–         Replicate – Sounds more sophisticated than duplicate or copy.

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–         Proclivities – Means tendencies or inclinations but it’s often used in a negative way so it’s usually the word of choice if someone has perverse sexual tendencies. This word always makes me smile because of my mucky mind. It reminds me of Les Dawson (one of my all time favourite comedians) who said that some words are just funny because of all the connotations associated with that particular word.

Do you have any favourite words? What are your favourites and why? I bet you can think of some that I love but I’ve forgotten about – alas, the middle-aged memory isn’t what it used to be!

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Inspired by Dog Poop

It’s often said that writers find inspiration in the most unusual places. One example that sticks in my mind is that of song writer and famous singer Barry Gibb who tells the tale of how he came up with the idea for the song, ‘Chain Reaction’. Apparently he had been sitting on the lavatory and then pulled the chain to flush it (back in the days when lavatories had chains rather than a handle). This prompted the idea, ‘I’m in the middle of a chain reaction’, which is a line from the chorus of the song ‘Chain Reaction’, penned by Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees and sung by Diana Ross.

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A few weeks ago I was writing a particular scene from my latest novel, which is the third book in the Riverhill Trilogy. During the scene I have an unsavoury character walking through the shopping precinct on the Riverhill estate. I wanted to capture how run-down the estate was and how this particular character fitted into his environment. I had written an initial draft of the scene, but wasn’t quite happy with it. It didn’t feel seedy enough.

I took a break and went for a walk, which often helps to clear my head and make me feel more relaxed. In fact, I often find that when I switch off for a while rather than toiling over a difficult scene, the ideas flow more easily.

Whilst I was out walking, to my dismay, I noticed an unusually large amount of dog dirt on the streets. After recoiling from the filthy mess, an idea hit me. That’s it, I thought – dog dirt. Yes, dog dirt, with flies buzzing round it. This triggered other thoughts and by the time I returned home I had the scene written in my head. I just needed to type it up on the computer. I’ve included the scene below, and hope that it now hits the right tone:

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As he progressed through the precinct, Maurice encountered occasional globules of yellowy green mucus stuck to the ground. Its consistency was so thick and slimy that it usually took several downpours of rain to wash it away. Catarrh; a product of pollution, cheap cigarettes and poor diet.

Maurice trudged along, kicking up greasy paper wrappings that had spilt from the overflowing bin outside the fish and chip shop. The wind had blown litter against a small wall surrounding a bogus raised border. Its upper area was now a failed garden full of barren bushes, downtrodden weeds, cigarette butts and the occasional used condom. Among the litter, flies fed hungrily on dog faeces and discarded chips spilling from a carton.

He continued on past the last shop, a bookies. Curiosity made him glance inside; it was the busiest shop on the precinct, crowded, dark and fuggy with the haze of exhaled cigarette smoke and cannabis hanging in the air.

This was his sort of area; a place where the menacing and the vulnerable co-existed.

Book 3 in the gritty Riverhill Trilogy of crime thrillers is scheduled for publication in the summer. I’ll be including more excerpts and background information as we approach publication date.

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The Writer Behind the Words

The new Budweiser advert for the American Super Bowl is causing quite a stir. In it, Dame Helen Mirren warns viewers against the foolishness of drink-driving. Here’s the link if you want to check it out: Budweiser ad 2016.

Helen Mirren opens the ad by describing herself as a ‘notoriously frank and uncensored British lady’ while regal music plays in the background. She then goes on to launch an articulate tirade of insults against anyone who drink-drives.

She is the perfect choice for the advertisement; a commanding figure who previously played the starring role in ‘The Queen’. Her delivery is undoubtedly excellent. The words convey the message perfectly while the accompanying video footage advertises Budweiser beer by displaying Dame Helen’s enjoyment of a Bud with burger and fries. The words to the advertisement may even have been written with Dame Helen Mirren in mind.

While she may describe herself as ‘notoriously frank and uncensored’ in the ad, the British press have proudly used a range of descriptions for her including, ‘elegant and eloquent’. But it made me wonder who the person behind the words is. This thought often runs through my mind when watching TV. Something will capture my imagination and I’ll think, ‘that’s a clever bit of writing’.

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It’s something that people often lose sight of; behind every TV advertisement, film, drama, documentary, billboard ad etc. there is a writer. Ironically, while actors and actresses are lauded for their performances, the writers who supply their words are seldom mentioned. I checked the media coverage of several newspapers and TV channels for the Budweiser advertisement, yet not one of them mentioned the writer. In fact, they didn’t even mention which advertising company Budweiser had used to produce the advertisement.

So, what other media are writers involved in?

Ooh, just about everything: TV, radio scripts, cinema, theatre, billboard campaigns, mailshots, email campaigns, the Internet and social media. In fact, major companies employ copywriters specifically to manage their social media accounts as well as produce regular blog posts for their websites. Even prime ministerial and presidential speeches are penned by writers; people who are employed to write speeches on their behalf.

Speeches

If I was to ask you to name the best speech of all time you would probably say Martin Luther King, ‘I Have a Dream’, or the Obama Victory Speech of 2008. But what if I was to ask you who wrote those speeches? The majority of people wouldn’t know. Incidentally, the memorable part of Martin Luther’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech was probably written by himself although he delivered it without referring to the text. You can read the full story here: I Have a Dream Speech.

Writers are the people who hide in the background but are behind so many impactful words that many of us will retain in our memories for years to come. Many writers prefer it that way. We are often shy and retiring types, and I for one have no desire whatsoever to appear on the stage. But wouldn’t it be nice if, in circumstances such as the above, the writer received even a one line mention in acknowledgement of his/her input.

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The Illness that Impacts my Writing Life

I recognise the signs straightaway. First comes the nausea accompanied by dizziness. The dizziness is there throughout, but sometimes it’s accompanied by a weird, frightening sensation. It’s as though the whole room has suddenly shifted, and I have to grab hold of something to stop me falling over. Then comes the headache. It’s defined as a headache, but it’s much more than that. A constant hammering that won’t go away. An oversensitivity to light and sound. Shakiness. Irritability with everybody and everything. Small tasks become a major chore. Conversations become onerous. And I just want to take to my bed; the only answer to migraine, it seems.

I try not to take to my bed though. I resent the timewasting, especially as these attacks are the consequence of something that is supposed to be a natural occurrence; the menopause. Besides, once is starts I know that I will feel like this every day for at least a week. I can’t afford to waste that much time.

Migraine

They come in varying degrees; some are worse than others. Yesterday was a bad one, accompanied by a swollen and upset stomach. It lasted for most of the day, and I did take to my bed. I came down later to hang the washing up. Although I was over the worst, I still struggled to carry the basket upstairs. I was so dizzy that I felt as though the weight of it was pulling me over. My husband said I should have asked him to do it, but how could I when he had already done everything else that day?

I’ve been feeling this way for six years. The first year was bad, then I had a break of a year and I foolishly thought it was all over. It came back with a vengeance and I’ve been stuck with migraines ever since, apart from one three month break.

It changes pattern too. For a while I was well for two weeks out of three, and I could pretty much predict when my ‘sick’ week was going to be. Then it went to one week in two. Now I seem to be ill more often than I’m well. My last lengthy spell lasted two weeks followed by a break of just three days. Then I had two days of mild migraines followed by a five day break. Now it’s started again.

Most days I can work through it once I have taken sufficient medication. As I’m typing this, I feel nauseous, my head is pounding and the bright white background of my computer screen is forming strange shapes, which are dancing around on the screen. I also keep making typing errors that I wouldn’t otherwise make so I have to keep going back and correcting them. But I’m determined not to give into it. I have the light on my PC turned down low but it still affects me. I’m waiting until I can take a second Sumatriptan so I can see if I will then feel well enough to tackle some of my book this afternoon.

Pill

I’m currently taking Sumatriptan mostly, and 25mg of Topiramate in the evenings. I don’t like Topiramate, and have gradually reduced my intake. It’s an anti-epileptic drug, which seems to make me more forgetful and affects my concentration. Unfortunately, there is no specific preventative drug for migraines so doctors experiment with various drugs until they find something that works.

I have tried various medications but nothing prevents them. I’ve just changed my HRT in the hope that it might help. Saturday I had a lovely day and commented to my husband that I was beginning to feel like my old self. There was a shred of hope that maybe the new HRT would solve the problem. But then it all started again on Sunday.

When I’ve had a bad run of migraine, I become forgetful and my concentration is poor. Then there’s the confusion. I’ve only had one episode of confusion, but it was scary. I take medication for several other health problems – five tablets each evening in all. As I take them I always make a mental check so that I take the right ones in the correct amounts e.g. this one’s Montelukast for my asthma, this one’s Fexofenadine for my allergies etc. One evening I went to take my tablets, but when I read the names on the bottles and packets, they meant nothing to me. I didn’t recognise any of them. It really freaked me out. About two hours later I had a migraine attack. My doctor told me that it was the aura, which presents itself in different ways.

Tablets

Then there’s the emotional side. When I’ve been feeling ill for days it gets me down, naturally. This illness doesn’t just impact on my writing life but on every aspect of my life. I become short and snappy with my family. I have to cancel nights out because of illness. In fact, I don’t make many arrangements to see friends anymore. It’s a waste of time as I never know when I’m going to be well.

With frequent migraines it’s a challenge to manage my working life without thinking about anything else. It makes it difficult to think straight. It stifles creativity. It takes the pleasure out of every situation, and turns everything into a major chore.

I also become angry. On a bad day I think ‘why me?’ And if a middle-aged, menopausal woman moans about hot flushes, I feel like screaming at her that she ought to be grateful if that’s her only symptom of the menopause. I get angry at smug celebs on TV who boast about how they sailed through the menopause by taking the natural approach. They encourage others to do the same, but how do you take the natural approach when cooking a nutritious meal feels like a mammoth task half the time?

Angry

But the determined side of me tries to be positive. It’s only migraine, and it’s menopausal so it won’t last forever. If I’ve had it for six years then surely it must be coming to an end soon. There are many people worse off than me; people with terminal illnesses, for example.

Although it impacts my working life, I’m lucky with my choice of career. I know that I wouldn’t be able to hold down a full-time office job, for example. I’d either be off sick or shouting at everybody in the office to leave me alone. So, I’m fortunate that I work from home, and I can put things off if I’m feeling particularly bad.

As I’m now earning a salary from my books, I’ve cut down drastically on my client work. This is because anything that’s deadline driven is difficult, as I never know when I’m going to be ill. However, with my books, even if I have a bad writing day, I can go back and correct any errors when I’m feeling on top of things.

When I look back at this post I’ll probably cringe with embarrassment at the ‘poor me’ implications. But today I’m at the start of a migraine spell and I’m feeling disheartened at the thought that it might last two weeks again. And I just want to crack on with my next book! If anyone has any suggestions for tackling hormonal migraine, they will be most welcome.

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