Friday, 15 December 2017

How to Be a Writer

By Candy Gourlay

This is another one of those 'I pressed SEND' blog posts.

Douglas Adams: I love deadlines


I've been solidly working on final edits for a few weeks now,  interrupted only by the usual stuff that comes from actually having a life outside books.

Still, I was fairly confident that I would make the deadline, despite an unexpected intervention by Southwest Trains when I found myself spending a day riding cancelled trains and waiting on sidings for fires to be put out.

See, I had colour-coded my chapters on Scrivener, pink for FINISHED FOREVER AND NEVER TO BE TOUCHED AGAIN and blue for TO BE WRITTEN IN NICER WORDS. I could see that my manuscript outline was a sea of pink. There were only four items in blue. What could possibly go wrong? Well. Those blue chapters, it turned out, needed a complete revamp.

And so, dear reader, I did one of those marathon writing things where you write through the night, sleeping for an hour at a time when your eyes won't stay open anymore, while taking frequent showers to fool your brain into thinking it is still fresh.

My editor is usually kind about missed deadlines, but there was definitely a little frisson in her response when I sent her a grovelling message to say I needed more time.

Two days after my deadline had passed with that dreaded wooshing sound immortalised by Douglas Adams, I wearily pressed SEND and stumbled to bed, glancing at the clock on the way. It was 6.45 am.

I think I mostly did a good job in the end. Those are the key words: in the end. Because I spent the whole time on an emotional see-saw:

Fear, as the time ticked on.

Rapture, when I found words.

Despair, when I didn't.


Several times during this experience I asked myself what the point of it all was. Why I was doing it? What was I trying to achieve? Could I do it again and again? Why would I?

Did writing mean anything anymore?

To my readers?

To me?

When I woke up the next day, I  was so tired I found myself scrolling through wellness articles on the internet.

It being the end of the year, there was a bonanza of them: 8 Ways to Have a Better Relationship in 2018 ... 9 Ways to Live Healthier in 2018 ... 5 tips to Help You Figure Out What to Do With Your Life ...

That last one quoted this advice from Nathaniel Koloc, CEO of a recruiting services company:

Careers are long, so think long term. It's not about what job you want next, but what life you want.

How would all that apply to a writer who started writing books rather late in life? (I am 55 and have written only two books in seven years – in an industry where the consumer outgrows you before you've had a chance to build a body of work. )

Koloc advises workers to pay attention to four categories: legacy, mastery, freedom and alignment.


According to the article, legacy and mastery is about body of work, about 'what you want to achieve and the skills you want to cultivate and strengthen.'

Okay, so I'm putting a tick on that one. One thing you quickly realise when you begin writing books is that it is a life long learning experience.

I always quote Neil Gaiman quoting his friend Gene Wolf in the foreword to American Gods:  'You never learn to write a novel. You only learn to write the novel you're on.'

This is the part I love about being an author, the learning all the time, the figuring out how to do it, the craft.

But the other half of the question is what do you want to achieve?

When I started, what I wanted to achieve was to write a book that children will read and love.  I don't know that all my readers have loved my books, but some must have because they bother to tell me so.

But once you write one book, you have to write another one, don't you? Because author. That's what authors do. But what if my next book is the wrong one to write? What if I get halfway through it and it doesn't work? What if what if what if?

But that is not thinking long term. It's not about what job I'm doing next but what life I want, Mr. Koloc said.

Hmm. Something for all of us to think about.


The article defined freedom as 'the conditions you need to have the lifestyle you want, like salary, benefits, flexibility.'

The funny thing about being a children's author is that people are constantly offering you opportunities to promote yourself by appearing for free in a festival/book group/conference/talk. It always comes as a shock when they discover you want to be paid.

Most authors I know make their living from speaking engagements. The book itself does not make enough money to put socks on one's  children's feet. So in effect, this thing you had yearned for, that you created with heart and soul, turns out not to be the living you want to make. It's merely an entrance ticket to the world of paid performance.

But again, I am focusing on the next thing rather than the life. Where the money comes from is relevant, but what it's there for is to enable the life I want.

Hmm. There it is again.


Alignment, Mr. Koloc says, is about belonging. It's about culture. It's about values.

When I was still a struggling-to-be-published-rejection-punching-bag, I made one of the best decisions of my life.

I decided that I wasn't going to wait to be published to live the life of a children's writer.

I joined an organisation called the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators so that I could hang out with people like me. I love SCBWI. Even now as a published writer, SCBWI is where I continue to meet the best people to hang out with.

I attended every talk about writing children's books that I could find. I was learning. I was immersed.

And then, most important of all, I began to write, which really ... if you want to write, is the thing you have to do. You don't become a writer by saving it for when your children are grown/your job is easier/your dog is potty trained. You just have to do it – which I am proud to say, is what I did.

I suppose this blog post is me, after a particularly tough time, trying to remind myself of why I spent the last few days banging my head on a keyboard.

Yes, it's been hard ... but it was all part and parcel of enabling the life I want.

So many of my friends in the children's writing world tell me they feel fraudulent, that they can't call themselves authors until they've got that publishing deal. According to Mr. Koloc: that publishing deal? It's just the next thing.

Ask not how you can become an author, ask how you can live an author's life.

You're probably living it right now.

Candy Gourlay is the award-winning author of Tall Story and Shine. Follow her Facebook page to receive posts on reading and writing children's books. Visit her website to book her for school visits and other speaking engagements.

Friday, 3 November 2017

The Insomniac Writer: cure or endure?

by Teri Terry

I often have trouble sleeping - it isn't anything new. In fact in a weird moment of synchronicity, here is a memory Facebook threw up at me from five years ago, just as I started writing this blog. 

I can actually remember the first time I had trouble sleeping. I was in year ten at school and there was a big maths test the next day. Some kids were stressing about it and our teacher said those immortal words: 

The most important thing is to get a good night's sleep. 

I call this the curse of Mrs Lutz. It began a lifelong pre-exam/pre-job interview/pre-first appearance at Edinburgh etc inability to sleep.

The curse of Mrs Lutz - the can't-fall-asleep-because-of-worrying-about-something-reasonable-to-worry-about sort of insomnia - isn't the most dominant sort for me now, though. 

Most of the time I fall asleep easily enough, sleep for about three hours, and then ... wake up. And often that is it - for hours. Butterfly brain flits and races in so many directions! From things I plan to do the next day - usually my nighttime list is beyond anything reasonably attainable - to past events - and almost always: my current work in progress. Plot tangle? Character issue? You name it, I'm on it. I'll be awake for two or three hours and then fall asleep for another one or two. The problem that comes is if I can't have that last hour or two because I have to get up for an event or to let in electricians or any other pesky matter of real life - then I get in a too tired to think sort of state where I'm not much use to anybody.

From comments on Facebook and Twitter it seems apparent that trouble sleeping is a writer thing: another area for collective comfort.

The insomniac writer is nothing new:

There is a really interesting article by Greg Johnson published in VQR in 2003, "On the Edge of an Abyss: The Writer as Insomniac" that catalogues a long list of literary heroes and their battles with insomnia. From D.H. Lawrence, Charles Dickens, Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, William Wordsworth, Walt Wiltman, insomnia seems to be a badge of honour, sometimes loved, often hated - a creative time or a hell of self-doubt and insecurity. And is it a case of not being able to sleep, or refusing to allow sleep to come in and take consciousness away?

Here more recently is Debi Gliori from brainyquotes, one I really relate to:
There are whole months at a time when my head is so full of ideas that I wake in the middle of the night and lie in the dark telling myself stories. There are also long, dark nights when I just know I'll never write another word.

Sometimes I'm so desperate for more sleep that I'd do anything ...

Is there a cure?

I went to a talk on sleep and dreaming at the New Scientist Live exhibition recently by psychologist and author Richard Wiseman. He gave top tips for better sleep, so here goes:

1. Napping: 
It is part of our biology to have a dip in alertness around midnight and around noon. If you nap when that dip occurs midday it will improve your memory and alertness and decrease heart disease! Sounds good. The trick is only about 25 minutes: any longer than this then you slip into deep sleep and feel worse instead of better when you wake up.

2. Get the length of sleep right: 
Sleep cycles - of light sleep, deep sleep, and REM (dreaming) - last about 90 minutes. For good health it is essential to go through these cycles: in light sleep you process psychological matters, in deep sleep you heal physically, and dreams work through your worries and concerns. You need to wake up at the end of the cycle to feel refreshed. So go to sleep in factors of 90 minutes, with about 15 extra to fall asleep. 

For e.g., if you go to bed at 10:45 pm, so hopefully are asleep by 11 pm, plan your wake up time at either 5 am (ouch) - giving 6 hours of sleep and 4 sleep cycles; or 6:30 am, which is 7.5 hours sleep, 5 sleep cycles; and so on. If you wake up at 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. you'd be in the wrong stage of sleep, and get that jarred awake feeling when the alarm goes and feel more tired.

I found this interesting because my nighttime bouts of insomnia always seem to happen about 3 hours after I go to sleep; and if I get more sleep later in the morning about 90 minutes seems to be about right.

3. Alcohol:
Having a nightcap disrupts deep sleep and dreaming. Avoid for 2 hours before bedtime.

4. Phones and laptops:
Don't use screens for 2 hours before bedtime: light disrupts melatonin and sleep. Ten minutes on your phone before bedtime is equivalent to a two hour walk in bright sunshine.

5. Reverse psychology:
If you can't fall asleep, try to stay awake instead! Keep your eyes open and you'll soon fall asleep.

6. Music:
The right sort of music can promote sleep. He suggests something called Night School Music which he said can be downloaded for free; I couldn't find it on line so I'm guessing it might be linked in his book. Personally I find when I'm staying in hotels if I can't fall asleep in different surroundings, I put Mark Knopfler on low and it helps me drift off.

7. Distraction:
If you wake up and your mind is racing, distract it. Do something like an alphabet game (where for e.g. you name an animal or a piece of fruit for every letter of the alphabet in your mind), or read. I used to play scrabble on my phone as I found it does the same sort of thing, but - whoops - no screens, no. 4 above.

8. Get up:
If you're awake at night for more than about ten minutes, get up and do something in low light for a while - e.g. read, do a jigsaw puzzle - something that takes your attention. The reason to get up is to avoid associating bed with sleeplessness.

Cure or Endure?

There are some great tips on the insomnia battle there. I'm not much of a napper but I'm with him on 2, 3, 4, 6, and occasionally (if I have to get up early the next day) can make myself do 7, though it is a battle of willpower to make myself do it. But I can't convince myself to try 8. And somehow I think I've finally realised:

I don't actually want to. I like being awake, thinking, in the middle of the night. I may regret it the next day, but I don't want to let it go.

I'm not alone:

In it's early stages, insomnia is almost an oasis in which those who have to think or suffer darkly take refuge. 
Sidonie Gabrielle Colette

I have patches of insomnia, and I'm fascinated by the otherness of the world at night. The stillness. Daytime preoccupations fall away, standards change, thoughts change. It's a canvass for reinvention ...  
Morag Joss

I prefer insomnia to anaesthesia
Antonio Tabucchi

p.s. I would have sprinkled in interesting images through the blog but I'm SO tired after missing my later sleeping slot to let in the electricians at stupidly-early-o'clock, I just couldn't manage it ...

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