What I have learned in 2020
28 December 2020. Sometimes your only choice is to run the same route at the same pace as everyone else. Other times, you have to stay put – with everyone else.
I admit it; I like to be in control, choose my course and go at my own speed. Often, I elect to do it alone. It’s one of the reasons I’ve been self-employed/freelancing for 29 years of my 35-year career.
In addition, I like making things happen. Tell me something I believe in cannot be done, and I will look for a way to do it. It’s not that something cannot be done, I think, but rather that the means of doing it have not yet been found.
Typically, I make decisions quickly, some say rashly. Perhaps it’s because I am impatient but also because I like to get things done. Once a choice is made, I go with it and move on to the next thing. I try not to second-guess myself or dillydally.
2020 – with its basket overflowing with unpleasantries, including COVID-19, unrelated health challenges for some of my dearly-beloveds, a few publishing ambitions taking longer than I had (naively) hoped to materialise and an injury to my foot – stalled me. The past ten months have shown me that even when my pigheadedness out-pigs itself, it’s not always enough to plough through the mud.
There was no way around lockdown. Friends and family had no choice but to go through the health wringer, largely alone. I am learning that publishing happens (or doesn’t) at its own pace. My foot is not the foot it once was and my runs are short and slow.
This year has taught me that being in control sometimes requires accepting there are things I cannot control or make happen. On occasion, I have had to let the reins go. However, I’m a work in progress, an old dog and I know that convincing me to add to my things-to-let-go list won’t be easy. After all, there might be another way…
Here’s wishing you a healthy, happy and hopeful New Year!
It’s worth finding your writing tribe
21 February 2020. Being a writer is largely a solitary undertaking. This can be an ordeal for writers who enjoy talking about their work and the process (that is, in my experience, most of us). As is the case with the majority of passions, we want to share our excitement – not to mention the intriguing characters we invent. And, again, as is the case with most passions, our fervour is best discussed with those who understand and can relate to it. Having a dedicated and regular time to talk about writing and reading with others who also love the activities is one of the primary reasons I like being part of a writers’ group.
We’re a small bunch (six at most), each of whom is working on his or her own creative writing project. We meet in a quiet hotel lounge twice a month. A few days prior to meeting, three members send up to 3,000 words of their current work (usually a chapter or two) to the others. We discuss the submissions over drinks and snacks – almost always vociferously and with plenty of laughter – and email our notes to the relevant writers the following day. It’s a reciprocal process; the effort you put in to critique others’ work is repaid when it’s your turn to submit. The format is effective, and members of the group have completed several manuscripts, short stories, poems and a screen play during the three years that we’ve been going. Some work has been published and other manuscripts are pending publication. We’ve become keyboard comrades and friends, and our meetings are not just useful, but also great fun.
Here are some other reasons I value my membership to the writers’ group:
It keeps you keeping on. None of us can afford to write creatively full time (yet), which means we have to conscientiously carve out time to work on our projects. Without the group, it would be easy to find excuses and give up writing. Being part of the group compels us to keep writing. Each of us needs to submit at least once a month, which implies deadlines. These are, let’s face it, mandatory for most writers.
You get invaluable feedback. Essentially, the writers’ group comprises beta readers who are committed to reading and critiquing one another’s work. Because I like and respect the members of the group, I listen to and value their feedback. Their comments challenge me, give me fresh ideas, point to holes in my plot and other inconsistencies in the story and characters, show up bad habits in my writing and encourage me. Some feedback boosts my confidence. Other times, it gives me the opportunity to revise and improve my work. Very rarely, I choose to ignore it. And, because we supply written notes after our meetings, there’s always clarity.
It’s a safe place to share our work. There is no hierarchy in our group. It’s a safe place for our writing to be read and discussed. Crucially, we try to speak the truth about one another’s work with kindness and a sense of hope and encouragement. And, when we’re on the receiving end of criticism, we try to welcome the truth and the opportunity to improve the writing and/or the story – keeping in mind, you’re not obliged make changes you don’t agree with. No one is checking whether or not their advice is taken. It remains your story and no one else’s.
You learn to give and take criticism. The road to being published is long and rocky. Many never reach their destination. Being in the right writing group can help prepare you for how tough the ride could be. If nothing else, it’s an opportunity to learn how to critique writing and how to receive criticism.
There are great networking opportunities. My writing group are not only a great place to have my work read and pick up tips about writing, members are also good sources of information about publishing and promoting books. They’re also a supportive bunch. We count on one another to attend book related events and share information.
Not all writers enjoy being part of writing groups and I acknowledge that I am lucky to have found a fabulous tribe. If you’re thinking about joining a group, I urge you to give it a try. Writing is a solitary business but, if you find the right people, groups can add to your enjoyment of writing and storytelling, and give you the opportunity to get better at it.
Journalist versus author – and what they can learn from one another
14 January 2020. This year, I have worked as a journalist and writer for thirty-five years. The greatest portion of my income has been generated as a freelancer, writing articles for newspapers, magazines and news sites, and content for brochures, websites and the like. (You can read some of these pieces here.) I have earned a smaller part of my livelihood by editing and publishing the work of others, including nine years as the publisher of my own magazine, which taught me how to run a business.
Three years ago, I wrote the book, Nicko, which was published by Penguin Random House. As such, and with manuscripts for two other novels underway and represented by literary agent Jessica Faust of BookEnds Literary Agency, I am now also an author.
Adding novels to my output and hoping to one day be able to focus solely on creative writing has inspired me to learn as much as I can about writing books. In addition to working with Jessica, I have connected with other authors and am set on finding out how to write the best possible novels. During this time, I’ve observed how different writers/journalists and authors are, and how the two might learn from one another to their mutual benefit. Here are some of my observations:
It’s in the approach
While journalists (I include writers of articles and other content in this category for the sake of this article) provide services for employers or clients and produce information as required and agreed on, many authors consider themselves artists. Journalists know that if they don’t produce quality work according to specification and on time, their livelihood is at stake. It’s a job that has to get done on deadline and when it’s done well, there’s a good chance a freelancer will get more work from that client. The do-exactly-what-is-required-really-well-by-deadline approach is key to thriving as a freelancer. Being a freelancer is, in a sense, like running your own business. If you don’t provide the service or product that your clients demand, you’ll fail. It’s that simple.
Authors, on the other hand, can be creatively stubborn and have a tendency to romanticise their work. They wait for the muse, pronounce writing akin to wringing blood from stone and entertain a miscellany of reasons to procrastinate, doubt, sabotage and circumvent their work. I know. I do the same sometimes. The thing is, it’s fine to wallow in the artistry of being an author – unless it gets in the way of actually getting the writing done, which is essential if you are serious about being published.
It seems to me that if more authors approached their work a little more like journalists do theirs – that is, like a professional job that needs to be done – they might work more effectively.
It also helps to set deadlines for creative writing. Authors complain that their greatest challenge is “getting the words down”. Setting goals and deadlines and sticking to them, like journalists are required to, will get the writing done. And when the writing is done, you can move onto the next step, be that editing, reworking, rewriting or submitting your manuscript.
We’re all storytellers
Writing a successful novel depends on creating interesting characters and telling a story that draws readers in and takes them on a compelling journey. It’s not that different for journalists.
Even if the story a journalist is required to work on isn’t the most intriguing at first glance, it’s her task to find an interesting angle and present the information in a way that fascinates readers. They might not be categorised as creative writers because they deal in facts, but journalists need to be creative about how they convey information.
Authors and journalists are similarly required to grab readers’ attention and engage them. In this regard, perhaps journalists can learn to be more creative, descriptive and daring from authors, while maintaining their objectivity.
One of the greatest challenges of working as a journalist is conveying the facts and telling a good story in a few words. Brevity and clarity are the basic skills of journalism. Newspapers and magazines follow strict templates, which are designed by art directors. Editors commission articles from writers and set word counts to fit these templates. That’s how basic it is. Even if, as a writer, you think a story deserves more space, it’s rarely possible to convince an editor to allow more words. They just do not fit in the space allowed.
Articles and information for online consumption are also limited to specified word counts. The theory is that, with a plethora of information popping up on screens around them all the time, people don’t have the time or inclination to read long articles online. Writers producing words for online consumption are compelled to keep pieces short and punchy. Word count counts online too.
On the other hand, where an author is writing a full-length novel, she has around 80,000 words to work with. What a luxury! Or is it?
In fact, keeping myself from getting carried away by being able to write so many words is something of a challenge to me as an author. Why? Because, while I feel I have many words at my disposal, I know that every one of them needs to count. Words that don’t advance the plot, throw light on the characters and delight readers are extraneous. In other words, as much as I enjoy making up stories and creating characters to tell the tale and putting myself to the test as a creative writer, I need to draw on the skills I developed as a journalist and rein myself in. Do I need this word? Paragraph? Scene? How does it advance the plot, build the character or entertain the reader?
I count myself lucky to have worked as a professional writer throughout my career. It’s helpful as I endeavour to reinvent myself as an author. It also makes me understand how much I still have to learn about creative writing – and that’s exciting.
Up and running – and writing
28 December 2019. With four days to go before we welcome 2020, I’ve been thinking about what I’ve achieved during the past 12 months. I don’t generally make new year’s resolutions, but I did set myself two goals for 2019.
Firstly, I wanted to complete the first draft of a novel I began writing in 2018. Secondly, having recently begun running again after not doing so for around 30 years due to a dodgy knee, I wanted to run a 10 km road race. I am happy to report that I completed the first draft of my manuscript and was signed by a US literary agent so that I can continue the process towards publication. I also ran two 10 km races and two half marathons (21.1 km) this year.
I thought about my two goals yesterday when I came across some notes about the manuscript that I had made at the beginning of the year. It occurred to me there are several similarities between running and writing and also to sustaining one’s enthusiasm for both. Here are my thoughts:
Do it because you enjoy it. Olympic marathon champion, Eliud Kipchoge says, “A running world is a happy and healthy world.” I get it. There are few things that make me happier than running does; writing is one. I run and I write because of the enjoyment I experience when I do them. I am unlikely to run a marathon, let alone do the 42.2 kms in 1:59.40 minutes as Eliud did earlier this year, and I haven’t sold countless books like Agatha Christie and Margaret Atwood. But that doesn’t stop me from pulling my running shoes on whenever I can and writing when I’m not running. The enjoyment of the process is what drives me to write and to run.
Embrace the solitude. Although not all writing and running is done alone (see below), they are largely solo activities. I am happy being alone for long periods at a time, which is one of the reasons writing and running appeal to me.
Make friends with people who share your passion. My family will attest to the fact that I love talking about running and writing. They’re good listeners but they don’t share my passion for the activities. Fortunately, I have a group of wonderful writing friends, including those in my writing group, which meets twice a month. We can talk writing, books and our work until the cows come home – and leave again for their pastures. It’s a fabulous indulgence. I get my running talk fix with my friend, Sue when we ascend and descend Chapman’s Peak on our regular 15 km runs. Running is also the subject of choice for conversation at the weekly Parkrun. Engaging with people who share my enjoyment of writing and running motivates me to do more and get better at it.
Be disciplined, consistent and persistent. Just like every run starts with a single step, every writing project begins with a word. If you don’t show up and take that step or write that word, it won’t happen. Being consistent is important if you’re going get fitter as a runner and make progress as a writer. Unless you have a coach, it’s unlikely that anyone presses you to run. It’s up to you to persist. Writing is the same. You’re the boss; get to it.
Find satisfaction from pushing yourself, and being creative and productive. One of the most enjoyable things about running is how I feel afterwards. The things I have experienced on the run, the weariness in my legs and the sense of having accomplished something are satisfying – particularly when I have run faster or further than previously. It’s the same with writing. I love switching off my computer at the end of the day feeling that I created a little world out of nothing and/or that I have produced another section of a project that will one day become something. And when I’ve pushed myself further in that writing, the satisfaction is greater still.
Believe in yourself. Unless you are Eliud Kipchoge, Agatha Christie or Margaret Atwood, there will always be better runners and more successful writers than you. It doesn’t matter. Only your legs will carry you during a run and only you can write your story. Have the right attitude, believe you can do it and get on with it.
Here’s hoping that whatever your 2020 goals are – whether for writing, running or neither of the aforementioned – you will accomplish them with pleasure. After all, what is life if not to be enjoyed?
Happy New Year!
When to take advice and when to trust your intuition
The first thing people spot when they step into my kitchen is a large painting tacked on the wall above the breadbin.
‘That’s lovely,’ they say. ‘Your son? He’s very artistic.’
They’re right on one score; my son painted it 20 years ago. He was about three. But lovely? That depends. It’s a simple, childish drawing of a big house with red walls, a green roof, and blue and yellow windows. Its best attributes are its proportions and the confidence with which it was fashioned. The colours are bright and the paint liberally applied. If ‘lovely’ means I love it, then it is indeed, lovely. But if, as many believe, good art should touch the mind, heart and soul of viewers and causing them to think and feel, it’s not strictly lovely.
And what about ‘very artistic’? In fact, one of the reasons I love the painting is because it was created when my son believed himself to be artistic. That was before a well meaning, but careless teacher pointed out that his art wasn’t as lifelike as that of some of his classmates and suggested he emulate their work. Inhibited by self-doubt and no longer trusting his intuition, he never painted with boldness and abandon again.
Today, my son is a marine biologist. He’s thoroughly happy and suited to his field of work. It’s unlikely he would’ve become an artist, dissuading teacher notwithstanding. Even so, I’m sorry his painting mojo was stifled so young. The big house was his magnum opus – at age three!
With my first book published in 2017, and work underway on another, I’ve been thinking about the painting and its aftermath a great deal recently as I ask myself the question: how do you know when to trust your intuition and when to take advice?
Although I’ve worked as a journalist and editor for more than 30 years, writing books is new to me. As such, I’m hungry for knowledge to help me improve. I belong to a writers’ group and read a lot about the process.
However, the more I learn, the more I wonder whether it’s possible to become so concerned and even cowed by everyone else’s insights and opinions that you lose touch with the instinct that distinguishes you as an author? And, even when you hold onto your voice, there’s the risk that your eagerness to learn and be led manifests in self-doubt and second-guessing that slows you down. Fellow South African author, Rehana Rossouw admitted in a recent interview, ‘I can’t read when I write – I either copy style and voice wholesale or fall into a pit of despair because I can’t match the writing’.
So, what’s the solution? One approach is to look for opportunities to benefit from both your intuition and the advice of others by deciding when either is most appropriate. For example:
Take advice on:
- practical matters like the importance of working with an editor, how to format your manuscript for submission, the advantages of working with an agent, how to pitch to agents and publishers, and what to look for in publishing contracts;
- how to spot and avoid common writing errors, such as repeating words, using clichés and confusing tenses;
- how to build tension, maintain a consistent point of view, write dialogue that propels your plot and builds character, and sustain the pace of your story;
- the importance of and what kind of research is required to convince your readers; and
- how to get your booked reviewed and promoted.
Trust your intuition when it comes to:
- writing the story you want to write. Two quotations resonate with me here. The first is Toni Morrison’s maxim, ‘If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’ The other is from Nayyirah Waheed’s 2013 anthology of poems, Salt and reads, ‘When you are struggling in your writing (art), it usually means you are hearing one thing, but writing (creating) another’. Until it’s written, your story exists only in your mind. You won’t find it on the internet, in books about writing or in your writing group. You know your characters and their backstories. Listen to your gut and write the story that’s within you;
- the writing process. Many of us are interested in how others work. Do you plot your manuscript out chapter-by-chapter and follow the plan faithfully? Or do you allow your characters to lead you? While learning how many different ways there are to write a book is fascinating and some information can be useful, you need to develop and trust your own process;
- inspiration. I am most inspired when hiking in the mountains with my dogs. That’s the time when the most exciting writing ideas and plot twists occur to me. Other writers are stirred by music, meditation, photography and travel. What works for one, doesn’t work for another; and
- incorporating humour in your writing. Your sense of humour is deeply embedded in who you are as an individual and therefore, who you are as a writer, which is why it’s crucial to listen to your inner voice when it comes to including humour in your writing.
Trusting your intuition doesn’t mean your decisions won’t be questioned. Neither does it mean you should disregard recommendations. Possibly the best advice I received about following my writing intuition is that I shouldn’t ignore it, but I should also be prepared to do what it takes to justify it. It requires courage to trust your gut, but it could mean the different between a good book and an unforgettable one.
So, it’s decided; henceforth, the big house on my kitchen wall is a reminder to me to be brave and bold, and not to let the voice of my inner artist be drowned by the voices of those who might or might not know better.
(This piece was first published on the Women’s Writers, Women’s Books website in 2018. You can see it there here: http://booksbywomen.org/when-to-take-advice-and-when-to-trust-your-intuition-by-penny-haw/ )