Fight, flight or write.

Autonomic Nervous System Response

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…

 

The story behind the story…

UTTS+web+logo

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!

 

 

 

The Art of Procrastination

procrastinating

I always knew that I had a tendency to procrastinate when it came to doing things that I really didn’t want to do but I had no idea I could procrastinate so professionally when it came to things I really do want to do. Let me explain.

Having published my debut novel back in January, I’m now working on book 2 with a projected publication date of January 2019. It seemed like a long time off when I set that goal but as I’m now nearly two thirds of the way through the year, and no-where near two-thirds of the way through my book, I’m beginning to feel a little unsettled. I know what I want to write, I have time in evenings, weekends and holidays to actually write it and I’m 100% motivated to publish my second book, and yet…

So what exactly is getting in my way?  I’m going to do my best to work round the notion that it’s lack of self-discipline, so bear with me. First up, I’m pointing a finger at social media. Now, to be fair, one of the things I’ve had to learn pretty fast since publishing book 1 is how to work the social media side of things. It doesn’t come naturally and I was dragged kicking and whimpering onto Twitter and Facebook. Of course once the initial efforts payed off and I started to see some activity, I was hooked. Instead of productively writing of an evening I instead found myself scrolling through twitter feeds, getting into conversations, making connections and spending hours thinking about the design for the next Facebook post and what ‘word of the week’ might interest followers.  The old advice of ‘put ten minutes aside each day’ just didn’t apply. Most days, it took me longer than ten minutes to type out the perfect reply to the first tweet on my feed. I’ve learned it can be fun, it can be creative and it can be very, very time-consuming. I’ve also learned that it’s essential to invest in time to develop your ‘brand’ and to market yourself and your book as a new self-published indie author.  I have not yet figured out the way round this conundrum (writing time versus social media / marketing time) but I’m confident I will one day meet the person who will help me make sense of it all. This has no doubt been my biggest challenge as a self-published author.

But back to procrastination…

Take this summer, for example. It’s been one of the hottest on record and one of the few during which I’ve been able to lie out in the sun as the sun worshiper I am and fully appreciate the warmth. However it’s not that easy to see the screen on the laptop when the sun is shining brightly and my brightness levels only go so far and I don’t want to  accidentally delete a chapter because I can’t see where the cursor is and I might have highlighted a large section by mistake. A few failed attempts at writing in the sun (including a near drop of the laptop on account of suncream on my hands) and I quickly made the decision to save my writing for the evenings when I wouldn’t be sitting at a desk knowing I was missing that rare and glorious sunshine. I would use daylight hours to read on my lounger because reading is just as important as writing and I haven’t been doing enough of it lately. In the evenings though other things happen, like the above mentioned social media, discussions with family about my writing, checking book sales and reviews, going for a walk because I have to have some exercise (writing is such a sedentary thing to do) and watching a little TV to relax because you need to clear your head every once in a while so new, inspired plot ideas can emerge from the sub-conscious.

When I finally do sit down at my computer, at my new writing desk in my new writing nook, my supportive other half offers me a cuppa. One of my two ragdoll cats usually finds his way onto my keyboard about then and, having petted him and coddled him for a while and finished my cuppa talking to my other half I decide a little background music might be the very thing to help me on my way. What shall I listen to this evening? Remember that song from the 80’s? Let’s take a minute to watch it on youtube. You play that one for me then I’ll pick one for you. Another cuppa? And so it goes.

So what exactly is going on here? Having spent a considerable amount of time thinking about this, not procrastinating, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s because writing is actually damn hard. You may know what you want to write and you may have time and you may be motivated but actually sitting in front of that blank screen, choosing the words which will fill it is a different matter altogether. It can be a daunting thought (even if only sub-consciously) because let’s face it, it’s going to take a lot of words on a lot of blank pages to finish that novel. What I’ve also learned however, is that once you start typing, even if it’s just a few of those damn tricky and hard to find words, you’re suddenly in the zone. And it’s a good place to be, the zone. It’s filled with a tangle of wonderful words and ideas which you and you alone are crafting into a story to share with the world. That has to better than a twitter feed scan, another cuppa, or a quick trip down the Duran Duran memory lane.

Of course there is an element of self-discipline required too, but I think before I get into that one I’ll just take a quick look at my e-mails…

 

My literary gold: the writers who influence and inspire me.

Dickens

During a recent podcast, I was asked about the writers who have influenced and inspired me. When I listened back to what I had said, I realised that there was more to it than my answer would suggest.

For as a long as I can remember I have loved books and words. As a young child, growing up in a relatively remote house, reading was a lifeline. I immersed myself in make-belief worlds and had barely put one book down before I picked up the next. My earliest reading memory is discovering Enid Blyton (what kid of the 70s didn’t go there?) She had it all covered; mystery, adventure, fantasy, fairy tales, characters to admire and intriguing places in faraway lands (or magic faraway trees to be exact) She certainly knew how to grab a young and impressionable mind and entertain it.

I then, somehow, made the jump from Enid Blyton to Charles Dickens, starting with ‘Great Expectations’ at the tender age of ten. I was enthralled. Whole new worlds opened up to me, worlds from different times with characters to shock and delight. I believe his characters must surely be amongst the most memorable in literary history, encompassing all of life and human nature.

What captured me the most though, was Dickens’ use of language; rhythmical language which was music to my ears, new words, old-fashioned words, difficult words, words which painted pictures, ‘couldn’t wait to try them out’ words. He sparked in me a love of words and stories which remains unrivalled to this day. I became fascinated not just by his work but also by the man himself, choosing to specialise in Dickens during my final year at university. It was probably the first time I truly connected with a writer, or rather the influences behind a writer’s work. I believed him to be a literary genius and the greatest story-teller of all time: I still do.

Let me share a couple of quotes to illustrate his beautiful use of language:

“A man would die tonight of lying out on the marshes, I thought. And then I looked at the stars, and considered how awful it would be for a man to turn his face up to them as he froze to death, and see no help or pity in all the glittering multitude.”
― Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

“The sun,–the bright sun, that brings back, not light alone, but new life, and hope, and freshness to man–burst upon the crowded city in clear and radiant glory. Through costly-coloured glass and paper-mended window, through cathedral dome and rotten crevice, it shed its equal ray.”
― Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist

Since then, I have often reflected on what it is that attracts me to a book or a writer, and I find myself returning to many of the things which I loved about Dickens: the clever use of language, characters who show us life and humanity in all it’s many guises, and stories which surprise and delight me. Any one of these features on its own can make for some enjoyable reading, but when you happen to get all three together, it’s literary gold.

Examples, for me, would include Laurie Lee’s ‘Cider with Rosie’, a book which I return to time and time again for the sheer joy of the language:

‘Summer was also the time of these: of sudden plenty, of slow hours and actions, of diamond haze and dust on the eyes, …. snow of white butterflies, skylarks’ eggs, bee orchids and frantic ants; of wolf-cub parades, and boy scouts’ bugles, of sweat running down the legs; of boiling potatoes on bramble fires, of flames glass blue in the sun…All this, and the feeling that it would never end, that such days had come forever, with the pump drying up and the water-butt crawling, and the chalk ground hard as the moon.’

– Laurie Lee, Cider with Rosie

Another writer who I find inspiring, particularly in his portrayal of human nature, is Khaled Hosseini. The first time I read ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ I was hesitant, knowing that the subject matter would be difficult. What I found however, was that in the midst of a difficult topic was a tenderness  which moved me to tears on several occasions. It evoked in me an overwhelming appreciation of the small things and the connections we make in life which are truly special; connections with others that seem so unlikely but prove so powerful.

“Mariam lay on the couch, hands tucked between her knees, watching the whirlpool of snow twisting and spinning outside the window. She remembered Nana saying once that each snowflake was a sigh heaved by an aggrieved woman somewhere in the world. That all the sighs drifted up the sky, gathered into clouds, then broke into tiny pieces that fell silently on the people below. As a reminder of how people like us suffer, she’d said. How quietly we endure all that falls upon us.”
― Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns

There are countless other authors, from different times and with different styles, who have inspired me through the years, pulling me into their worlds and the lives of their characters; Joanne Harris, Harper Lee, Kamila Shamsie, Anita Shreve, Jodi Picoult, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, the Bronte sisters, Mary Shelley…

What they all have in common however, is the gift of being able to tell a really good story. And this, when we get down to it, is what readers desire the most.

The Genre Debate

book-genre

When I started writing ‘Dancing Through Fire’, I didn’t have a specific genre in mind – I just wanted to tell a good story. Thinking about genre came when I self-published my book and I was selecting the appropriate genre categories within Amazon KDP. At the time, I was surprised that there wasn’t a straight forward ‘drama’ genre – in my eyes my book was  first and foremost a life drama. As such, I ended up selecting 3 categories which I felt most closely related to my story : ‘women’s fiction’, ‘romance’ and ‘contemporary fiction’. Before I knew it I went on to label myself as a writer of women’s fiction, marketing myself and my book in this genre – it seemed to make sense.

Since that time however, I’ve come to realise the dangers of labelling yourself as a writer too early on and in a way which might limit your readership. Whilst ‘Dancing Through Fire,’ may appeal more broadly to women than to men, I have been very pleasantly surprised by some of the positive feedback from male readers who have looked past the ‘women’s fiction’ label and taken a punt on my book. Here’s a review from one such reader; podcast host (Under a Tartan Sky) and magazine editor Glen Moyer (review also viewable on Amazon.com):

Glen's review 2

The revelation (and it was a kind of revelation to me) that men could engage with, and enjoy my writing led me into the whole genre debate. It’s something which I went on to discuss in greater detail with Glen who, having read my book, invited me onto his show as a guest speaker (podcast coming soon…) Around the time we recorded the podcast, we talked a lot about what it was in my book that hooked him. Reading the story from two perspectives (both the male and the female protagonist’s) was a key element and I’ve since read that this is often a technique which encourages men to link in with genres which might typically be considered the domain of women. A story line which is relatable is also key and so stories which illustrate the dramas and the twists and turns of life and love have a better chance of hooking male readers.

The difference between romance and romantic is also significant. If you search for romance novels on Amazon you’ll generally find a sea of books which are all kinds of versions of Fifty Shades; what several readers have qualified as ‘soft porn.’ If that’s not where a book lies, and you’ve put it in that category, it can easily get lost within the romance genre (it’s the largest category of books on Amazon). I would argue however, as would many of my readers, that ‘Dancing Through Fire’ is romantic without falling into the afore mentioned ‘romance’ category. This difference has been highlighted by several male readers who tell me they have no interest in what is now known as’ romance’ but could easily engage with the romantic element of ‘Dancing Through Fire’.

The balance is fine, and the whole genre debate, and need to categorise your work as a writer, can be a minefield. The danger I realised I was facing was that I could easily have fallen into the trap of shoehorning myself and all future works into the ‘women’s fiction’ category. It could have restricted me as a writer, and I confess that whilst writing book 2 I have at times put genre before story; something I won’t do again. Whatever you call it and however you want to categorise it, it should always be about the storytelling – I want to write a good story which readers, male and / or female, can pick up and enjoy, without being deterred by a label.

So where does this leave me with the whole genre debate? Personally, I think there should be a ‘contemporary drama’ category, but for now I’ll settle for the more widely used ‘contemporary fiction’. The other two categories I mentioned at the beginning may still be selected when I publish future works, and my writing may well continue to appeal more broadly to women than to men, but in terms of how I market myself and my writing, I’ll be mindful that I don’t let genre labels limit, or deter, potential readers.

 

The sugar free lifestyle

 

sugar

I quit sugar just over a month ago for several reasons, but mostly for all round heath and wellbeing. As a woman of a certain age I was finding that in addition to getting more physically tired, I was also getting more mentally tired. I would get to the end of each working day and it was as if the filing cabinet in my head was completely full: there was literally no more head space for thinking or  processing. It also meant that when I got home there wasn’t much productive writing happening which, as you can imagine, was creating a problem for me given I’m currently working on book two. Trying to address the mental lethargy became my main goal – if I could clear the brain fog then I could significantly increase my productivity all round, re-energising body and mind along the way.

Having spent most of my adult life reading up about different diets and lifestyles, I knew that reducing refined sugars and carbohydrates was probably the way to go. It might also help shift that ‘increasingly harder to shift’ ten pounds. Coincidentally, as I was thinking about all of this, my mother-in-law gave me a copy of  ‘I Quit Sugar’ by Sarah Wilson. It felt like divine intervention. I went home that night clutching the book and resolving to start the sugar free journey immediately.

Although the book offered an 8 week programme to weaning yourself off sugar I found I could do it without any difficulty – I thought I had no need to take the 8 week road – I was 100% in from the get go.  It seemed a much more natural way to eat – focusing on lots of vegetables, wholegrains, protein and good fats (as a nation we have never consumed so many avocados!) whilst cutting the sugars, both added and hidden. I won’t go into the science of it all here but when you consider how our bodies were designed to eat and process food, and what and how we eat in the 21st century,  it is no wonder that we are plagued with diseases, conditions and allergies. 100 years ago the average adult consumed 1 kg sugar a year, a figure which has now risen to 60kg. Our bodies were never designed for that and consequently we’re paying the price.

So what were some of the immediate benefits I noticed?

  • I was enjoying cooking again, from scratch. I tried new ingredients and recipes and took my time preparing them, knowing I was feeding my body what it needs
  • Within 7 days the brain fog started to lift and I was achieving more throughout my working day with mental energy to spare by the time I got home
  • I lost what appeared to be a puffiness in some places, most notably my ankles – I didn’t know I was puffy until I wasn’t…
  • I was sleeping well – less tossing and turning
  • I woke up energised, ready to take on the day
  • My skin was clearer

It was going so well!

Then, somewhere in the middle of week 3 I started to feel a bit off. I wasn’t hungry, or craving sugar, or disliking my new diet in any way but I just felt…..off. Within a few days I had symptoms which I did not understand until, by chance, I looked up possible side effects of quitting sugar. The symptoms included:

  • nausea
  • headaches
  • aching joints and stiffness
  • anxiety
  • low mood / depression
  • tearfulness
  • under the surface shakes first thing in the morning

Not nice.

When I realised what was going on I was stunned. I had enjoyed such a positive start that it didn’t occur to me that side effects would kick in a couple of weeks down the line. In a way I was relieved to know it was down to the change in diet, otherwise I would have been really concerned about what was going on. What I discovered, when I read more on this, was that coming off sugar is more difficult on the body and mind than coming off certain drugs. And I had naively gone cold turkey. What it also made me realise though, was that sugar is playing havoc with our bodies and minds and yet we consume it in every possible way, feed it to our children as treats, and crave it as we would any other addiction. The only difference with sugar is this; it is the only socially acceptable form of addiction we have.

I have come through the withdrawal stages without returning to sugar, and throughout it all can honestly say I haven’t once craved the sweet stuff, though I know that isn’t everyone’s experience. I’m feeling the positive benefits again (even though that pesky 10 pounds isn’t for shifting – yet) and plan to keep going with this because when you come out the other end of it, it’s like giving yourself a whole new gear. And as a writer with a full time day job this is exactly what I had hoped to achieve from it.

So what would my top tips be if you’re thinking of quitting sugar? Here are some of the things which worked for me:

  • Be prepared – plan your shopping, stock up and cook ahead where possible
  • Try new ingredients and recipes – have fun in the kitchen, knowing you’re doing something really good for yourself
  • Have some treats to go to if you feel like you need something – a favourite cheese, a sugar free bake etc (there are loads of great recipes in Sarah Wilson’s books – my favourite is the almond bark which I keep stocked in the fridge and which feels like a decadent treat)
  • Eat lots of good proteins, particularly at breakfast – I often start my day with bacon and eggs
  • Eat good fats but go easy on them – it’s easy to over-do it when you’re cutting the sugar
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Quitting sugar and going gluten free tend to go hand in hand – if it happens naturally go with it, but starting out with both aims might be a step too far all at once

Sarah Wilson’s books really helped me, not just for the advice but also for the amazing recipes – I have 3 of her books now and they’re probably already amongst the most used cookbooks in my house. I have also just finished reading Michael Mosley’s Clever Guts book which supports and complements the sugar free lifestyle. There is a wealth of information out there on the topic and it makes for fascinating reading.

It’s been an interesting month, and it has absolutely improved my sense of health and wellbeing. Will it help me to write my way to the end of book two more efficiently? The proof, as they say, will be in the (sugar free) pudding.

 

 

 

 

In conversation

 

speech marksOn Monday 23rd April, World Book Night, I attended a book club event at the Carnegie Library in Ayr to talk about ‘Dancing Through Fire.’ It was a fantastic evening and a brilliant opportunity to meet supportive and interested local readers who had lots of interesting questions to ask.

The local talent at Aye Films (Facebook @Ayecreate) also came along to record the conversation, so now I can share it here, with you.

So what did we talk about? Here are a few of the highlights:

 

  1. How I got into writing.

 

2. The road to self-publishing.

 

3. Marketing a book.

 

4. So what’s ‘Dancing Through Fire’ all about?

 

5. Is there any part of ‘Dancing Through Fire’ which is autobiographical?

 

6. What were Guy’s motives?

 

7. Why did I make the couple Ellie works for so horrible?

 

8. Ellie and Maria – a nurturing relationship.

 

9. The things readers see…

 

10. Book 2