It’s lovely to see you here in my on-line writing world where I hope to share my news, views and updates with you.
I’m very excited to be introducing my debut novel, ‘Dancing Through Fire,’ which was a long labour of love (you can read about this in my post called ‘My Writing Journey’).
Let me tell you a bit more about it…
Set on the sun-drenched shores of Mallorca, ‘Dancing Through Fire’ is a bittersweet tale of love and redemption in an unlikely friendship.
Guy Saunders is a loner living in a dusty old farmhouse on a hilltop in Mallorca, trying to escape his tragic past.
Ellie McAllister is a naive young girl from Scotland working in a local taverna for the summer.
Following a traumatic event one evening, Ellie stumbles into Guy’s world, throwing him head first into an unlikely friendship with a traumatised teenager. Determined to heal her before she heads home at the end of the summer, Guy risks losing his closely guarded life of solitude and anonymity as he faces old ghosts and gossiping locals to save the young woman who has reawakened him.
Twelve years later, Ellie finds herself returning to the dusty old farmhouse and the man she has loved since that summer. As Guy faces his own mortality, he and Ellie struggle to come to terms with their individual pasts, and their relationship, as they take each other on a journey of love, loss and hope.
Some comments from Amazon readers:
‘A magical debut novel featuring Ellie and her personal journey. If you are looking for a read which is unputdownable while immersing yourself in an emotional roller coaster this book is for you! I loved this book and couldn’t turn each page quickly enough. The descriptions of the Island and of the many characters who Ellie meets along the way are captivating. Enjoy!’
‘An outstanding book for a debut novel. Beautifully written with a deft touch, it was a real page turner that was hard to out down. A beautiful story showing life’s twist and turns told with warmth and poignancy, created around believeable, relateable and likeable characters. When’s the next book?’
‘A light hand, poetic skill and huge empathy for characters. A truly skilled first novel.’
Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels
When I’m writing I think in colours. Every character, every scene, every plot twist is represented in my mind in shades which find their way out of my sub-conscious and into my fully conscious creative mind. I didn’t realise I did this when I was writing book 1: it struck me when I started book 2 and realised that the colours in my mind, which were influencing the tone and the look and the feel of the story were altogether different.
‘Dancing Through Fire’, set pre-dominantly in Mallorca, is all the colours of warmth: hot pinks and tangerine oranges, deep raspberry reds and golden yellows. They are colours which are weaved through the book along with cobalt blues and emerald greens, all rich, vibrant, life affirming colours. When I look back on my time writing ‘Dancing Through Fire’, I realise how much of it was spent visualising; bringing to mind the details of eyes, flowers, sunsets, oceans, food, clothes and skies. I could not write the scenes in my head until I saw them in colour – every last detail. It wasn’t that I described every last detail, I just needed to know it and see it before I could start to put it on paper. Take the following extract, a key moment in a reunion which, despite being filled with emotion, could have been flat and lifeless had I not brought it to life with the colours I saw as I wrote it in my head.
“And I can’t quite believe it, that she’s here at my table again like she never left, like it isn’t twelve long years since we last did this. It makes me feel as if I have reawakened, as if everything around me has suddenly come to life again….Even the hibiscus flowers around my garden have opened wider than I think I have ever seen them before and they are straining upwards like mini satellites searching for the sun and absorbing it into their buttery yellow petals and flame orange hearts. There is miracle in the way they respond to the heat, their tips translucent gold against the clear turquoise sky. At nights they will bow their heads ready to sleep, wrapping petals like satin shawls around themselves and I will marvel all over again at how clever they are. They are mesmerising today, in this heat and in this company.”
(‘Dancing Through Fire’, by Catherine Alexandra)
Book 2 is all neutrals; pale gold, light caramel, soft grey, dusky blue, sea green…. The setting is different (East coast Scotland) and so the weather and the environment is going to naturally be cooler but the colours aren’t just about that; they’re as much about the characters and how I see them. They walk in these colours; they breathe and love and fight and restore each other in a haze of soft, pale, muted tones. It’s hard to explain, but if I didn’t see them in colours so vividly in my imagination I do not think I could bring them to life on the page. These colours carry their experiences and emotions, everything about their lives as they shift from silvery grey dusks to gunmetal grey storms, baby blue skies to inky black nights. Each scene, each plot twist, each conversation is imagined in shades of a palette which colours the entire book.
I’ve come to realise that for me, as a writer, a mind without colour is unthinkable. I’ve often been asked what I think comes first: plot or characters. I’ve deliberated long and hard on this one and in doing so missed the obvious: it’s neither. Colours come first, for me anyway. I usually have an idea in mind, but what I see, or even feel first, are the colours which will eventually blend with words to bring life to new characters and their stories. Now that I have realised I do this, and can do it in full creative consciousness, my writing experience is all the richer. If you haven’t thought about writing this way, give it a go. It might change how your see everything; how you imagine and create and produce. It might also, as I have found, enrich how you see the world around you as you actively seek to find the colours in everyday life.
I never thought I’d see the inside of a police cell. If anything I feared the idea, what with my claustrophobic tendencies and my inherent need to be the good girl. Stepping into a cell wasn’t part of my plan and it certainly didn’t fit with the ‘teacher, writer, nature appreciator’ bio I was cultivating. Yet here I am, writing about my experience of hearing that heavy steel door slamming shut on me, leaving me standing cold and alone in the middle of a bare, lifeless, 8×6 space of nothingness. Let me explain…
When I’m writing, I tend to focus on things I know or have experienced or can easily imagine by asking myself the ‘what if’ questions. It’s one of the reasons I’m drawn to writing women’s fiction: I can relate, and therefore write with more authenticity. I can use the emotions known to me as a woman, the issues which impact on us at different stages of our lives and the commonalities which bond us to underpin any number of plots and story twists. Sometimes, however, along comes a story-line which demands a different level of knowledge and understanding. And that’s when the life of a writer becomes interesting; it becomes an opportunity for growth and a chance to experience the lives of others.
When I finally accepted that my current work in progress (book 2) was going to involve the police, an arrest and some time in a police cell (I don’t want to give too much away here) I knew I was going to have to approach the local police and ask for some advice. After an initial enquiry to Police Scotland I found myself sitting face to face with a police Sergeant who patiently answered all of my questions, indulging my creative whims and wonderings as he walked me through protocols, procedures, logistics and legalities. I took copious notes, and as one question was answered another was asked. It was a fascinating couple of hours which not only helped me make sense of my own story-line but which also sparked numerous ideas, spinning a web of possibilities for my characters and their lives. It was the first time I had really done any ‘professional’ research and as we talked I realised that I was absolutely exhilarated by the discussion: I was in my element. I admit, there probably aren’t many writers out there who don’t like talking about their work, but talking about it and realising that you’re developing knowledge and opening yourself to new ideas at the same time is altogether different.
As our conversation ended, I was asked if I’d like to see the holding area, where people who have been arrested are processed and interviewed. I had a sudden rush of imposter syndrome, wondering if this was the moment when I’d be accused of imitating an author, only to find myself guided gently by the elbow into a cell as they quietly closed the door and went to call for a psych evaluation. It’s a very real fear, imposter syndrome, and let me tell you, a police station isn’t the place to have it. I decided to feel the fear and do what I had to do anyway. For my art, you understand.
Know this: f you haven’t ever been arrested keep it that way. The cold harsh reality of the police desk, the small interview room with no windows and the unrelenting formality of it all is not for the faint-hearted. It was quite the eye opener. As I walked through each different area, hearing what happens at each stage, I tried to walk as the character in my book, putting myself in their shoes, imagining what they would do and say and feel. When we reached the cells, the Sergeant talked me through what it would be like when it was busy, on a Saturday night for example. He spoke about what I would hear and see and experience, details which I frantically wrote down in my notebook : it was research gold. Then came the question which stopped my pen mid-word.
‘Would you like to experience what it’s like having the door shut on you?’
After an initial thanks but no thanks reply he very kindly pointed out that it would be great from a research point of view and that he’d be right outside all the time: the door would only be closed for a few seconds. He was right. I stood in the middle of the cell, feeling cold and alone and decidedly apprehensive as the thud of the heavy steel door reverberated around the space. True to his word however, the door opened just a few seconds later and I made a quick exit.
A couple of things came out of this for me. First of all, I was struck once more by the kindness of strangers. The police Sergeant I met with didn’t have to be so generous with his time and so engaged with my research. I was blown away by how helpful he was and how interested he appeared to be in my writing process. I think he appreciated that as a writer of fiction I was determined to get it right; to raise real issues and handle them with authenticity. The second thing I learned was that real life research, i.e. not surfing the internet, is one of the most dynamic and energising aspects of being a writer. It connects us with other worlds, other lives, other possibilities. It helps us grow our minds and open our hearts as we explore what we don’t yet know. And let’s face it, as a writer, that’s exactly what we want to do for the readers who open our books and step into our worlds.
Before I begin, let me be very clear: I have not mastered this. Over the last year, I have however worked very hard to try and increase my productivity by figuring out what works best for me. I’ve not worked out the key to applying them all at the same time (wow – could you imagine that?!) but across a period of time, in any number of combinations, these different practices / approaches have helped me to increase my productivity.
I started really thinking about this following the publication of ‘Dancing Through Fire.’ As I threw myself into writing book 2, I quickly discovered that when you’re working full time in a busy job with a fair amount of day-to-day stresses, time and energy for writing soon disappears. I was hitting the mid-afternoon slump, just as the school day finished (for the kids anyway) and so my productivity was crashing. As a result I’d get home, be too exhausted to think about the book, let alone write it, and by the time I’d perked up I’d have to pick up on whatever was left over from the school day. Something had to shift, in fact many things did.
I’m sharing the following changes in thinking and lifestyle I’ve made so that if you’re in the same place, struggling to get the best out of yourself and to make the most of the hours you have in each day, you can maybe find something here to help.
1. Diet and exercise
I quit sugar over eight months ago. A month after quitting sugar I quit carbs, adopting a keto diet approach to eating. This has been the single most significant change in my lifestyle to increase my productivity – it has balanced my hunger, my sugar levels, my mood and my energy, meaning I no longer get the mid-afternoon slump and I have the mental and physical energy to be significantly more productive in all areas of my life. It can be a controversial diet but don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. As a lifestyle it promotes sensible exercise too – long walks in the fresh air, occasional bursts of high energy activity, cycling and so on. If it doesn’t suit your body type, find the diet and exercise regime which does. It’s basic self-care and it can make all the difference to how well we function.
Seems straight forward enough but how much do you really get? I’m up at 6 am every day so I aim to be asleep by 11 pm each night to give me optimum performance the next day. Anything less and I start to suffer, particularly if it goes on for a few nights. That extra episode of Criminal Minds just isn’t worth 50 minutes less sleep…
Easy said, I know. I struggle with this too. What I’ve learned is this – if your idea of relaxing is sitting on the couch for a couple of hours watching back to back Criminal Minds then do it. If you relax by walking your dog and listening to music, or going for a run then do it. It’s not what other people tell you to do that matters, it’s what physically and mentally relaxes you. We all need to do it, especially the people who tell you they don’t.
Mmhh… I think it’s fair to say we all have our highs and lows on this front. I’m more self-disciplined when I compartmentalise my time and chunk my tasks – it makes things more achievable. I’ve discovered that being self-disciplined means having clear boundaries, particularly around self-care. Eat your lunch, no skipping. Take five minutes, behind a closed door if need be, just to breathe and bring your shoulders down from your ears so you can get on with what you have to do. Self-discipline = self-care in many ways. Be firm with yourself so you can create the conditions for getting things done.
5. Know yourself
I’m not talking about a conceited kind of self-interest, I’m talking about knowing when you’re at your best for certain things. I’m at my best first thing in the day for writing. I know this and so I work round this when I can. I’m getting better at knowing when I’m going off track and what I need to do to fix it: have a 10 minute nap, make a cup of tea, eat something etc . It’s not about working in a prescriptive way, following generic guidelines – what works best for you will be very different from the person next to you. You know you best.
Linked to the next point about mindfulness, hobbies are essential for switching the brain off and focusing on something altogether different from the day to day thoughts which occupy your mind. What do you love to do? What activities make you forget time? For me, reading, gardening, photography, cooking / baking can all do these things. Doing something creative, tapping into that bit of ourselves, also has a wonderful way of spilling over into other areas of our lives and enriching them, for example our day to day work. Here’s a link to an old post I wrote about why writers need hobbies: https://calexandrabooks.com/2018/03/12/why-writers-need-hobbies/
When I’ve mastered point 4 myself, I’ll be making time for this every day. I’d thoroughly recommend the Headspace app if you’re a beginner – it offers 3 minute sessions which anyone can do. The best thing about meditation? You clear your mind, slow your thoughts down, and create space for your head to get to work. I can’t tell you how many times, post-meditation, the answer I’ve been looking for pops into my head.
8. Motivational quotes
Not cheesy at all. The right quote can find you at the right time, powering you on to finish a difficult task or stay focused on what matters. I personally look for quotes from writers who I admire and who talk good sense about their craft. It inspires me.
9. Spend time with the people who matter
Let’s be blunt. The people who can be the biggest drain on our energies and therefore our productivity levels generally aren’t the people who matter most to us. I need time with the people I love to re-charge me, to ground me and to remind me what really matters. My family is everything to me. Time spent with them does more to energise and motivate me than anything else. Love matters.
10. How much do you want it?
This is the question I ask myself every day. I have it typed out on a piece of paper and blu-tac’d to my computer to remind me. If I don’t want it that much, enough to sacrifice other things and prioritise my life around it, then I’m wasting my time. If I really, really want it, then I know what I need to do…
Having put your debut novel out into the world, and started what you dream will be an exciting, fulfilling and long career as a writer, the question of Book 2 soon starts to dominate your thoughts. The temptation is to focus purely on the marketing and self-promotion which comes with self publishing your first novel as an indie author, but the danger in doing so, is that the business of actually writing your next one gets lost along the way.
I’ve fallen head first into this trap over the past 12 months, torn between how much time I spend on social media publicising ‘Dancing Through Fire’, and how much time I devote to getting on with Book 2. My intention to self-publish Book 2 on 1st January 2019, exactly a year to the day I published Book 1, turned out to be the aim of an innocent; a first timer in the industry. It was bold, it was sincere, but it turned out to be unrealistic in between navigating this strange new world as a writer and working full time as a teacher. Lesson learned.
On the plus side, I have made enough headway to be pleased with the progress of Book 2 and to know I’m on the right tracks, something which can be more difficult to gauge than you might think, particularly if Book 1 and Book 2 aren’t linked an any way. I’ve been incredibly lucky to receive some amazing and generous reviews from readers who took a chance on me and my book (this, I should add, is the most motivating thing of all) and who offered positive feedback around my style, my use of language and my storytelling. As a writer, I therefore want to make sure that I build on these strengths so that Book 2 doesn’t disappoint. I might still be a very small fish in a very large pond but it really matters to me that I get this next book right, not for the sales, but for the readers who have encouraged me, supported me and invested in my very early writing career.
Taking a different approach in Book 2 is therefore a gamble of sorts. I wrote the first chapter initially as a short story, over a decade ago. When I got to the end I filed it away knowing that I hadn’t quite finished with the main character yet: she had a much bigger story to tell. I worked on it a little, in the years between finishing ‘Dancing Through Fire’ and actually publishing it, and found that my voice in Book 2 was very different: that first chapter had been written at a time in my life when things were quite difficult and I was disillusioned. I’m ok with this change in voice though, given the difference in the female protagonists in the two books, and the very different contexts, but it did raise the question in my mind as to whether or not readers would welcome the change.
So why take a gamble at all? For me, I change, develop, experiment and mature as a writer not just as part of the natural process which comes with time and experience but also out of fear of becoming a formulaic writer. Whilst I want to retain the personal writing style, use of language and storytelling techniques which have been well received in ‘Dancing Through Fire,’ I am hoping that the story and the characters in Book 2 will be a departure from what could otherwise so easily become the ‘same old.’ It’s a very real fear for me, having read so many formulaic books through the years.
At the moment, with Book 2, I’m in the writing no-man’s land: the middle. I think most writers would agree it’s the trickiest place of all. You’ve set the scene, started telling the story, and you know where you want it to go (mostly anyway – characters have a habit of changing the plot mid-way, taking you in a whole new direction) but there’s a whole lot of story to happen in between. The middle area is the danger zone for me – the area where I can start to lose structure and direction if I’m not careful. It’s where I can lose focus. The challenge, as I see it, is to keep the writing and the plot tight and to resist rushing to the end which is already planned out in my head.
There’s also something about Book 2 which says you’re in it for real. It isn’t just a passing phase, this writing business, it’s a life choice, the pursuit of a passion , a new career in the making and a commitment to the readers who make it possible for you to write at all. The thrill of publishing that first novel, your debut, is just the beginning. When I talk about my plans for Book 2, when readers ask me how it’s going, when it’s likely to be published and what it’s all about, I feel an energy like no other: the kind of energy which comes when you’re in your element. There’s an excitement about knowing there’s more on the way, that you can and will, and already have shared your words and your stories with the world. And that makes all the challenges, the self-doubts, the ‘what – ifs’ and that ever present imposter syndrome worth it all in the end.
I remind myself of this as I sit here, the white screen waiting for me, with a thought provoking cup of tea in hand…
Here’s to Book 2!
When you finally put your book out into the world you know that you’re opening yourself up for feedback and criticism – it can be a daunting prospect. You also hope that if readers enjoy your book, they might leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads to encourage others to give it a go, and that can be a thrilling prospect.
What I didn’t fully appreciate when I first self-published on Amazon KDP however, was just how much I would come to value the reviews left by readers. Having spent 22 years pulling everything together to put my book out there, the reviews from readers who have enjoyed my story continue to mean more to me than the sales figures. My partner said at the very beginning that it wouldn’t be the number of books I sold that would be the measure of success; it would be that first 5 star review from an unknown reader. He was right. When that first review appeared on Amazon I was thrilled. My story had reached out to someone I didn’t know and touched them in a way that inspired them to write about it and recommend it to others. Job done. Then the next review came in, and the next… With each review a little momentum was gained and my confidence grew, showing me that I was in fact an actual author and not an imposter!
Leaving a review for a book does much more than boost a writer’s confidence though; it can have a major impact on the success of a book. The more people talk about a book, the more potential readers become interested. Readers listen to other readers: a few words of praise from one can influence another much more effectively than most well planned social media campaigns.
Reviews also influence what search engines show potential customers. If a book has a good number of reviews it indicates that it’s of interest to a good number of people and so the search engine decides it’s worth displaying. Reviews ultimately make your book more visible in an on-line world which is crowded with ‘products’ fighting to be seen. They therefore become a valuable marketing tool. In fact many professional review sites, bloggers, potential publicists and so on won’t even consider supporting or representing a book which doesn’t have a certain number of reviews already under its belt.
As a writer, reviews give me a unique insight into a reader’s mind, showing me what they enjoy, value and appreciate. In this way readers, and their reviews, can influence a work in progress. What readers think and feel is, after all, central to a writer’s work; it’s what drives us.
With that in mind, I’d like to say a huge thank you to the readers who have taken the time to leave a review of ‘Dancing Through Fire’. These reviews have supported me as a new indie author, putting my debut novel out into the world, in countless ways. They have motivated and encouraged me, surprised and inspired me. They really are the ultimate measure of success for those of us who aim to reach out to others through stories.
To see the full list of reviews for ‘Dancing Through Fire’ on Amazon, please click on the link below:
There’s no doubt that I often do my most productive writing when I’m really cheesed off about something. I’ve discovered that anger fuels my creativity; I type at twice my usual speed, words gushing in fully composed sentences from my determined mind. It doesn’t really matter the source of the pissed-offedness either. It just matters that it becomes the energy I need to get the words on paper. My writing, even if only for a few moments, becomes adrenaline fuelled.
So what exactly is going on when this happens? To put it simply, when the brain has perceived a threat, or stress, we have what we call an amygdala hijack. When this happens, the amygdala (the reptilian part of our brain which processes our emotions amongst other things) kicks in and everything else, including rational thought and reasoning, kicks out. At this point our sympathetic nervous system is activated, resulting in the ‘rest and take it easy’ parasympathetic nervous system being deactivated. Before we know it’s even happening, our fight, flight, freeze or flock responses take over, enabling us to engage in a short burst of strenuous physical exercise (punching or running), unless of course we go into freeze mode or rush to the nearest coffee shop for safety in like-minded numbers. It is of course more complex, and there are a zillion degrees of stress, but the point I make is that when we find ourselves in the grip of an emotional hijack, we have an opportunity to channel anger and the resulting physical and neurological processes we go through into our writing to good effect.
So if rational thought and reasoning go out the window then how can there possibly be any constructive writing ? The truth is, a stress response which triggers adrenaline can let you write unabandoned and without hesitation, words flowing unchecked; something you can’t always do too easily if you’re in calm, rational, analysis to paralysis mode. Writing in an abandoned, unhesitating manner can bring a whole new freedom to your work. I’m not advocating writing an e-mail or a letter you quickly post whilst in such a state of writing freedom – that would be reckless, if a little satisfying. I am however suggesting it might be a good time to sit down and work on that book, or that blog post: something you can later go back and edit. You might be surprised to see what you can produce under stress, when your emotions are running high, giving you a whole new kind of motivation. It’s particularly interesting if you manage to write a tricky scene, one which doesn’t come naturally under calmer conditions. You might find a voice you didn’t know was there, one which perfectly fits that character you haven’t been able to nail.
I’ve used stress to fuel my writing on several occasions and I’ve always been surprised by how much I can achieve and how quickly I can achieve it when I’m in the angry zone. I find myself putting everything about my usual way of thinking and writing to the side and trying something completely different.
Where possible I try to use the less pleasant emotions to achieve something more positive. It doesn’t always work. Sometimes I freeze on the sofa with a large mug of coffee and a slab of dark chocolate stressing about how I should be writing while I’m stressed. More often though, writing when stressed works for me and when I go back to read it after I’m calm, I realise I have a little nugget of gold to work with which makes it all worth while.
Which reminds me – I must go and thank my other half. If he hadn’t swiped that last square of chocolate just once too often now, I’d never have finished this post…
I recently recorded an interview with Glen Moyer, a Scot by heart and heritage, who lives in Texas. Glen hosts his own podcast show ‘Under the Tartan Sky,‘ in which he explores Scotland’s diversity and the wealth of creativity and entrepreneurship on these shores. I was lucky enough to meet Glen through a mutual friend on Twitter (one of the good things about social media) and was thrilled when he gave my book a read and enjoyed it. This led to some interesting discussions around genre labels and what it was about my book, and my writing style, which might appeal to women and men. The result was a fascinating, lengthy and extremely enjoyable interview during which Glen managed to get most of my writing secrets out of me; it’s what happens when you’re in the hands of an experienced broadcaster and interviewer 🙂
If you missed it, and you want to know who inspired the character of Guy and why I chose to write from both a male and a female perspective (amongst other things), then you can listen to the full interview here:
A massive thanks once again to Glen for reaching out across the water to support and promote a new, self-published indie-author in Scotland. Take a look at his web-site for some fascinating articles and podcasts about all things Scottish!