The Woman Who Stole My Life (or the writer’s inspiration)

IMAG0153Inspiration for my writing can spring from the weirdest of places and as a writer, you need to constantly be asking ‘what if?’

Over Christmas I ordered a personalised iPad cover.  That’s the one on the left. Instead, the one on the right arrived  – for the wrong Rebecca.   A simple mix-up, but I was immediately intrigued (after recoiling at the unforgiveable spelling of karaoke!)  Who exactly was this Other Rebecca? It felt a bit like I’d stolen her life.  What if we were to swap lives?  Gin and fish are two things I loathe and my karaoke days died along with my job as a holiday rep.  What about the mysterious Mr Webster?  Is he a partner, a man worshipped from afar or even a dog?  Is there a story there? The Other Rebecca would doubtless hate my life too. Presumably she was sent my iPad cover in error: dogs, tea, Coronation Street, writing … (it really is as boring as it looks and she probably thought: bloody hell, at least my life isn’t as bad as hers is!) We are both creative but what brand is her creativity?  Does she knit or paint or is she just creative with the truth?

There was definitely enough material here for a short story and possibly a novel. The idea of life-swap isn’t a new one but the idea of stepping into someone else’s ready made life always fascinates.  What if I tracked Other Rebecca down?  Is she really a gin-soaked, fish-eating box set fanatic extrovert?  Would we be friends or would the hackles rise on sight?  And I do really want to know who Mr Webster is. Eventually the correct iPad case was sent but the mystery lived on in my imagination.

There are so many elements of everyday life that can light of touchpaper of a writer’s inspiration.  Overheard conversations, newspaper articles, chance meetings, something on the TV.  Life is a very rich seam to be mined.  On my dreadful commute to the Day Job I often scrutinise the weary faces of my fellow travellers and wonder about their lives, hopes, regrets and secrets.  And the Day Job itself is a great source of material, soon to be a book if I can finally make 2015 the year I turn my work in progress into a physical novel rather than a rough draft.  Watch this space!

 

 

A Very Belated Happy New Year …

… even though it’s way too late now for new year greetings, but apologies for the delay in posting: I’ve been on my annual holiday. January is always much easier welcomed in with a bit of sunshine and as it’s my birthday on New Year’s Day the new year always brings the promise of fresh starts, a bit like opening a brand new notebook and anticipating the endless possibilities on each blank page. (Like many writers, I love stationery and regularly need a Paperchase fix).

Everyone’s resolutions are nearly all broken by now.  I always begin January with the same writerly resolutions: finish my book, a work in progress since 2009; pitch more articles; and care less what others think.   It was so easy to make plans from my sunbed and feel inspired and fired up, but back in the January gloom with jetlag and a mountain of laundry to do, feeling broke and depressed (and having to return to the Day Job) it’s a real struggle to recapture that optimism.

Quiet determination and sticking power are the key.  It’s a bit like exercise: writing needs to be done every day until it becomes a habit, to keep those writing muscles honed and the brain lean.  Little but often is the secret.  A friend wrote her book on her daily commute and as I have previously commented, successful writers use the magic formula of “bum on seat, fingers on keyboard” every single working day.    Similar to weight loss, there’s no quick fix, just discipline.  Knowing all this doesn’t make it any easier though, especially as my personal resolutions also involve diet and exercise!

Wish me luck as I embark upon 2015 and I wish you all a happy and productive 2015!

We all love a compliment …. don’t we?

At a Christmas party earlier this week my appearance was complimented very enthusiastically by two male acquaintances.  It transpired that one had been in the pub since lunchtime and I know the other is sight impaired.   Did this make the compliments any lesser?  “I’d take it anyway” said a friend when I told her.   In fact, earlier this year I had a small piece published in Reader’s Digest about a similar thing which happened to me years ago at a funeral. I remember a colleague of mine being distraught after her favourite skirt was admired by a woman with very bad fashion sense.  When is a compliment not a compliment?  Or could it be that some people are useless at being praised?

As a nation we are completely rubbish with accepting compliments: it’s just not British at all.  I’ve found women of my generation in particular have been raised to be self-deprecating and modest: “Oh, this old thing, I’ve had it years”.  Being thought to be conceited is horrifying. Not so with others.  The best show of blatant immodesty I have come across was in my ex, raised by an adoring Turkish mother. After we split up he sent me a photo (this was twenty years ago before technology) of himself, with these wonderful words inscribed on the back: “Look how lovely I am.  Look what big mistake you make.”  I’ve kept it for when I need a laugh.  Part of me though would just love to have one-fifth of his self-belief.

But what about having our writing complimented?  I’m thrilled when someone has enjoyed something I have written, probably because, like most writers, I put my heart and soul into my work; it is my biggest passion.    (Apologies to my husband and the dog).  Who was it who once said “Writing is easy.  You just sit at a typewriter and open a vein”?  Very true. Nothing lifts the sensitive writer’s spirits more than being told how great your latest blog or article is.  Even the biggest bestselling novelist loves a compliment, be it a tweet, a great review or seeing someone on a beach or train enjoying their novel.  I’ve never once waved away a compliment about my writing, enquired if the complimentor is under the influence of alcohol or insisted that it was “rubbish, really”.  I try to be gracious and modest whilst saving the little dance of victory for later.

To end on a lighthearted note, the muddling of the words “complimentary” and “complementary” always tickles me. I quite expect a shelf of books labelled “complimentary medicine” to spring forth and admire my new dress.  (Oh, this old thing? I just threw it on!”)

Merry Christmas to all my readers!

 

 

The Curse of Twitter

Last week at the Day Job,  I heard a new announcement being made in court.  Following the usual warning to switch off all mobile devices just before proceedings commenced, a rider was added: “Twitter is strictly forbidden in court”. Indeed, whilst recently working in Singapore I observed a notice was attached to every courtroom door banning the use of social media sites.

Twitter in particular is a very powerful and potentially dangerous tool which should come with a “Warning – Highly Flammable’ label.  I am a fairly recent tweeter, having previously declared I would “never, never, never, never” sign up, a bit in the emphatic style of the late Reverend Paisley.  (From what I remember he backed down too, but I don’t do politics on my blog so that’s another story)  But sadly, Twitter is a necessary evil for anyone trying to promote a business, and for writers it is invaluable when building an author platform, a fact I quickly learned from reading Catherine Ryan Howard’s book ‘Self Printed’.  All my favourite writers are out there on Twitter.  It’s what you have to do. Writing can be a lonely old business and being connected up to others in the same predicament provides a great feeling of solidarity when up against a deadline, hopelessly blocked or dealing with family who think you should get a ‘proper’ job.

Accurately described by a friend of a friend as ‘shouting in the dark’, Twitter has a dark side as well as being a great place to reunite lost dogs with owners, promote your latest book or just look at pictures of  adorable puppies. When I was at school, bullying took place in the playground; today there is the whole evil world of the troll.  Also, good news spreads like lightning, as does bad.   I will never forget the awful story a friend relayed of a colleague learning of her depressed husband’s suicide via a careless social media site remark; by the time the police knocked on the door to impart the news, it had been all over the internet.   Not illegal in an way of course, but for that lady and her family absolutely devastating.

Twitter is hopelessly addictive.  The fabulous Grace Dent’s book,  ‘How To Leave Twitter’, sums it up perfectly and introduced me to such delightful vocabulary as ‘twunking’ and being pursued by an ‘angry twitchfork mob’.  Neither has happened to me personally yet, the latter probably as I can’t get over my near phobia of the hated hashtag.

Having said all that, I enjoy anything that limits the public to a small and succinct amount of words rather than a long, rambling soliloquy.  I like being in touch with my two main groups of Twitter friends, writers and dog lovers. Particularly writers who have dogs, surely the best people in the world.

I’m over on @RRidgwayWriter just in case you want to tweet me.

 

 

The Writer’s Fan Base

I was totally awestruck when I met romantic novelist Rowan Coleman at a literary event two years ago.  I’m a huge fan of her wonderful books. (She was really lovely and modest too – most bestselling writers are) There’s quite a lot of Rowan fans about, it would appear, given her novels are frequently in the Top 10 fiction charts and she has thousands of Twitter followers.

I can only dream of having a following like Rowan’s but I have two huge fans: my mother and my husband who automatically love everything I write, plus a whole gaggle of friends who loyally support my writing dreams.  A support network is vital for those many hours (days, months) of self-doubt, dry spells, bad feedback or reviews, writer’s block et cetera, but for me the real validation comes from complete strangers.  Strangers have no emotional investment in your work and the general public is a very harsh critic.  In modern society we constantly judge. So to win a stranger’s approval is the highest form of praise indeed.

For the fledgling writer it is so thrilling to have someone tell you they enjoyed your book, column or article.  A cousin I hadn’t seen for years, a friend’s sister-in-law at a 40th party and a colleague’s wife recently enthused about my ebook and I was delighted to have their feedback.  But just last week a complete stranger approached me and said how much she loved my column: although I was incognito at a writers’ event she had recognised me from my tiny photo in the paper.  (Quite a feat when you consider that I am wearing dark glasses and I write under my rarely used married name lest I offend anyone and attract an angry twitchfork mob).  This was another great milestone for me in my writing career.  Although I bet this happens to the mighty Grace Dent all the time, even she had to start somewhere.

The same with Twitter and blog followers: they are following because they have chosen to and that is an achievement in a world with so much information overload and where most of us have so little free time.

So what are the other milestones in my writing timeline thus far?  I suppose for me the defining moments are: winning a short story competition aged 13; gaining my journalism degree (unused until my late thirties);  joining a writers’ group; having my first work published; my first blog; publishing my ebook; getting a phone call one winter’s morning from the editor of a woman’s magazine asking if they could use one of my short stories; writing my column; being chosen to write for a travel anthology; and this year being asked to contribute to a popular website. Along the way there are smaller triumphs such as building my writer platform, encouragement from some really fabulous (and famous) friends and fellow writers, and seeing my name in print time and again, which never loses its thrill.  (As does a royalty or payment cheque plopping through the letterbox although for now, I’d starve if it wasn’t for my day job).    For me, it is my ambition to always be able to walk into WHSmith and know that my work is somewhere in there.  So far this year I’ve nearly achieved that.

Next I’d like a three book deal with a hefty advance, but one can dream.  And that’s what we writers deal in: dreams.

Don’t Rain On My Parade!

No statue has ever been put up in honour of a critic, as the saying goes. But is it just me or do those critics seem extra tough on us writers, especially aspiring scribes? Particularly when the subject of the negativity is striving for their lifelong dream of becoming published or winning a book deal.

Some people enjoy nothing more than shooting others down in flames. If you have ever dieted you will be acutely aware of the diet saboteur, always keen to offer a tempting slice of forbidden cake. I was recently all dressed up for a night out only to be told by a ‘friend’ on arrival at the venue that I ‘looked tired’. I wonder what was the point of that? It just made me feel terrible. And grand public events involving an element of celebration such as the Olympics or the Royal Wedding seem to attract a particular type of naysayer: those who are intent on moaning and pontificating and spoiling it for everyone else. I’m not a huge fan of Kate and Wills but I loved the feelgood factor that the celebrations brought to the UK so I kept my mouth shut. Who cares what I think? When is constant negativity a good thing?

As an aspiring writer, it is common to hear other people utter the following gems:

“Nobody is publishing books any more” (Not true, the market is buoyant thanks to epublishing)

“You’ll never get anywhere” (JK Rowling was told this many times)

“I’ve always thought I should write a book. I could do much better than the rubbish out there” (Well, you haven’t, did you?)

“That’s not a proper job” (Not even worth dignifying with a response)

“I thought that your latest article/column/book wasn’t very good/was full of errors” (And how many books have you written? None, I suspect)

I once read a dreadful book called ‘How Not to be a Writer’ where the author spent the duration of the book advising the readers ‘Don’t Do It’. No doubt he thought he was being witty but it fell flat. It was the most pointless book ever and just made the reader feel depressed.

So why do people love to put down those who are pursuing their dreams? Well, partly jealousy: you are doing something you love when they are not. In the UK we almost seem embarrassed about following our heart and trying to make something of our lives unlike our American cousins.  And it is just in some people’s nature to put others down, so I would advise you steer clear of this kind of toxic person, often appearing in the guise of a friend. You might not make it but what if you do? You won’t if you listen to negativity and don’t even try. And even if you don’t become the next John Grisham, the journey can be hugely enjoyable. Surround yourself with those who believe in you and champion your dreams.

The successful writers I have had the pleasure of meeting have one thing in common: they are modest, hard working and hugely encouraging to newer writers just starting out, recognising the need to nurture emerging talent and be generous with their time.

So join a writers’ group, follow your favourite writer on Twitter and above all remember: nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.

The Writer’s Aura

My AuraGiven Singapore’s worship of food and its obsession with shopping,  my day job bringing me here for a few weeks is no real hardship, although I have enjoyed a good middle-class moan about jetlag, homesickness and the hotel (which could star in a movie called ‘Fifty Shades of Brown’ – and not in a good way).

During my first visit here in 2006, serendipity led me to a shabby Chinese shopping centre hidden away in a very run-down part of the city where for S$20 (around £10} I had my aura read.    Every visit since I have returned for this — except the time in early 2010 where I had severe gastroenteritis and therefore didn’t have much of anything left, let alone an aura.   The spiritual realm has always held a stramge fascination for me and, of course, being a creative soul, I wonder whether this is reflected in my aura.  My husband would just describe me as gullible and mutter about fools being easily parted with their cash.

The process is very simple: you sit on a bench and place your hands on pressure sensors while a camera photographs your head and the auric  field around you.  Then a huge ancient computer-like contraption whirrs and purrs and spits out a very detailed report along with the photo.  It looks and feels hugely scientific and mysterious even if some are quick to shoot the whole concept down in flames.

The above photo is my aura as of last Monday, 6 October and it quite clearly shows I am a truly creative and compassionate individual.   I am also due a time of change ahead of me (that’ll be my three-book deal, then!) but I care more about fulfillment than money. (Definitely a writer).

Here’s a quick summary:

My right centre shows depth and compassion, and a sense of fun with idealism.  (Correct)

The left side indicates the future and it is creative, yet intellectually stimulating.  Inspired ideas are already unfolding in front of me, apparently.  (My friend and I had the very inspired idea of trying to get us an upgrade to Singapore’s Grand Dame, The Fullerton Hotel, on Monday and it didn’t go well as we were swiftly and politely ejected.)

The throat, the centre of communication, is violet indicating I am either (a) ill or (b) I have an intense desire to communicate startling and incredible visions.   I think it could be (a) in this case.  The last time I tried communicating startling visions and ideas at home it didn’t go down too well.  And  my frequent startling idea of a pay rise at work is always received with incredulity.

The heart shows I am a natural and compassionate healer.

My root is blue and white, indicating an ability to communicate on a deep and meaningful level.   Presumably that doesn’t include the number of times I have bellowed at people to f*** off  in the last few weeks.

The solar plexus, or the ‘money pot’,  says I will never be rich.

Overall,  my aura shows I may be a gifted artist or writer with my life expanding in exciting new directions.  The first part is correct.  The only thing expanding out here is my waistline and credit card bill at present, but ever the optimist I like to think that exciting new directions will come.

So is aura reading a load of old rubbish, a bit of harmless fun or is there something in it?  I’d like to think so!

Writing a Column – a few tips

I like to think I am Leighton Buzzard’s answer to the fabulous Grace Dent, or possibly even Carrie Bradshaw (minus the dreadful fashion faux-pas) as I write my regular column for the local paper.  In reality I’m neither, but my writing group have asked me to put together a few tips for a forthcoming workshop.  I’ve tried to keep it simple, as I am at heart a simple soul.

First off, writing a column is a huge honour and a lot of fun.  Where else do you get the chance to air your views, observations, opinions and whinges to a ready-made readership?  If you are offered the opportunity, seize it with both hands. It gives you the chance to appear regularly in print, boost your cuttings book and will get you used to the discipline of word count and a deadline, all good writerly training.

So here are my top ten tips, mainly from my experience, but a few were drummed into me during my journalistic training and which have remained seared on my brain:

1.Grab your reader’s attention in the first two lines.  I often start with a bold statement or a question.  Hook your reader and reel them in.

2. Know your readership inside out. Study the publication again and again if you’re not familiar with it.  Keep it relevant.  A local paper will need pieces with a local theme or link.  It sounds obvious, but it’s sometimes tempting to write about what you want to and not about what your demographic want to read!

3.You can be opinionated – that’s what columns are for.  But try to avoid ranting or pushing a particular political viewpoint if it’s inappropriate.  Don’t alienate your readership – or your editor!

4.Unless you are writing for a very highbrow publication, keep it light.  My philosophy is that life is serious and difficult enough, therefore I find humour always works well (But I have to rein myself in: my sense of humour can be a little off the wall).   Be sure to avoid taboo subjects – once again, tailor to your readership. There are some things that go on in the town that I am DYING to share but I know the editor won’t appreciate them … after all, he has to answer to his boss and the board of directors, shareholders and advertisers.

5.  Be completely professional.  Even if you’re writing your column on a voluntary basis, treat it as you would a job.  Keep to word count and present pieces double-spaced in a standard font, as per the specifications and house style of your publication.  Ask for guidelines if you’re unsure.  ALWAYS submit before the deadline.  A late column equals blank space in the paper and a huge headache for the editorial team.  Early is great.  Build up a good relationship with the editor.   Be disciplined – all the most successful writers are.

6. Once you’ve written your column, put it to one side for 24 hours before coming back to re-read and make any alterations.

7. Find your own voice.  Be fresh and original.  If you can’t write about something new, then at least put an unusual slant on a well-trodden subject.

8.Keep it topical. Bear in mind the lead time for your column.  My deadline is the week before publication, but I often write my column weeks or even months ahead, when I have time. What will be happening when your column is out?  Christmas, local events, schools breaking up, a big sporting event, religious festivals?

9.  As soon as you get an idea, write it down or make a note on your phone or tablet.  Ideas and inspiration are everywhere: in overheard conversations, shop windows, on a train or in a car, from watching the news or a chance encounter with an old friend.  Keep a stock of ideas to avoid the dreaded ‘blank page syndrome’ the day before deadline.  Some of the subjects I’ve used in column on are: New Year resolutions, men wearing flip-flops who really shouldn’t, the town’s 99p shop, the misery of commuting, owning a rescue dog, Christmas presents appearing in the local shops in September, working away from home and feeling completely homesick, the difficulty of being childfree in a society geared up for families, having laser eye surgery, and one of my favourites: being almost bankrupted by the wedding season.

10. And most important of all:  DON’T BE PRECIOUS.  Titles will be rewritten by the sub-editors, even if you think your one was better. Words or whole sentences may be cut, changed or reworded by the editorial pen.   The editorial team have the final say and are, after all, the experts on their particular publication. That’s life and it happens to even the greatest writers whose exhaled air we are not worthy to breathe in. Even after they’ve finished with it.  A friend of mine edits celebrity columns for a national newspaper and, yes, things get changed ALL THE TIME.  Don’t get upset or, even worse, argue with the editor.  Sorry to rant but I have been amazed at how seeing one’s name in print can go to the head of the most unassuming amateur writer.  And if the editor comes back to you and tells you your column is not suitable for whatever reason, don’t even think of huffing off. Learn from this and write another one, double quick.  Nobody likes a prima donna.  (If any of my colleagues are reading this: yes, I can be a diva in my day job, but I have been there a long time and have earned the right!)   Having told you not to rant, I’ve just ranted. But I think humility and a willingness to learn are vital.

So that’s my ten tips.  I hope they were useful.  Better tips can be found in the brilliant book “Wanna be a Writer?” by author and columnist Jane Wenham-Jones.

Anatomy of a Writing Group

Author Jane Wenham-Jones in her brilliant book  ‘Wannabe A Writer?’ lists the various characters which populate an average writers’ group. There will be: a deaf old lady; a man called Brian or Stan who has written a History of the Town; a woman of a certain age and girth who wears a sensible skirt; a pimply young man who is writing a fantasy novel; and a shy young girl who’s joined because her mum thinks she should get out more.  A quick straw poll among writing friends and from my own writing group experience suggests this is a very accurate representation!

I really enjoyed the diversity of my old writing group, of which I was a founder member.  People from varying walks of life and very different personalities — and, it has to be said, writing ability — came together once a fortnight with a shared interest: writing, that great leveller.  The retired, the curious, full-time homemakers, professional people, students, the unemployed, serious writers, published novelists, tentative scribblers and the terrified made up a varied and dynamic group.

Just five of us attended the inaugural meeting in a local pub one autumn evening and now, although work commitments and a house move mean I no longer attend, the group boasts over thirty members, has published three anthologies, runs a weekly newspaper column and hosts regular events such as Open Mic nights, parties and stalls at the local carnival and history day.   Lifelong friendships have been formed and many writers have gone on to have their work published.

It’s not always so convivial.  A friend’s writing group has massive infighting due to politics, huge personality clashes and a lot of bickering over the tea and biscuit rota.  As the piece de resistance, one memorable evening two members, both elderly gentlemen, rolled up sleeves and squared up to each other over the ‘constructive feedback’  that one had made over the other’s piece.  Just as with church flower rotas which, I am led to believe, are fraught with power trips, favouritism and jealousy, I have heard of several writing groups imploding under the sheer weight of artistic differences and involving break-away factions setting up rival groups.  My friend claimed that her group provided some priceless social observation which went on to fuel her own writing.

My experience was mainly positive.  I was hugely impressed with the raw talent, support and encouragement emanating from my group. Everyone was so passionate about their writing.   In fact, so keen was everyone that a strict ten-minute clock had to be observed to allow everyone a turn to read out their work.  Criticism was nearly always constructive and praise was always given where due.

I think I largely have my writers’ group to thank for gaining the confidence I needed which set me on the road to becoming a published writer.   I loved being with people who just ‘got’ my burning desire to write.  Before then, I used to look at writing as my guilty little secret.  In fact, when I met my husband, I told him I was at an AA meeting on alternate Wednesday nights rather than ‘fess up that I was at a writers’ group.  Now I’m out of the closet and able to indulge my passion in public.   Writing can be a lonely business, just you and the blank page, and building a support network of like-minded people is hugely nurturing and a vital lifeline.

So if you have a local writers’ group, do join in.  It will be an enriching experience.