Creative Writing Workshop – the BIG mistake I made

The room looked HUGE

Almost a year ago I was asked by a friend if I could pull together a private creative writing workshop.

Initially, I said no, I’ve written a few books, sold a few books, but still felt I was winging it as far as being an author was concerned. I certainly didn’t feel qualified to teach anybody anything.

She asked again a few weeks later. This time I was going through a (stupid)  ‘pushing myself out of my comfort zone stage.’ Figuring I had months to prepare I shoved aside my fear of public speaking and agreed and then promptly buried my head in the sand. If I didn’t give it too much thought, it couldn’t be happening.

Only it was.

At the beginning of this year I realised that I only had a few weeks to prepare. I never go into things half-heartedly so panicking I ordered literally every ‘how to write a novel’ book I could find (and there are a LOT out there). I had many sleepless nights. I had no idea what I was doing. I knew NOTHING. I  had previously been told by a copy editor that I mixed my concrete and my abstract nouns (apparently this is bad), got my clauses in the wrong order (apparently this is worse). I was an imposter with no formal qualifications.

I spent hours – HOURS – online, looking at what other courses offered, realising that to give a basic grounding in the fundamentals of writing I needed 6-8 weeks. I had an afternoon. And yet, as a former course junkie I knew that many workshops contained a lot of waffle, ice-breakers, time-filling exercises that didn’t always mean a lot. I wanted to write a programme which covered ideas, plot, point of view, show don’t tell – a lot to cover in a relatively short period. I spent a ridiculous amount of time pulling together content, my fourteen-year-old son testing everything I’d produced. 

‘I love the exercise with the news headlines,’ he said.

‘It took me half a day of trawling the internet to choose them,’ I told him.

‘Mum! You’re a writer. You could have just made them up.’ 

He had a point. I’m an idiot.  

I carefully wrote and rewrote my itinerary, growing quietly confident I could do it. Until several days before when the thought of sitting in front of a room full of strangers brought me out into a cold sweat. I roped in fellow author, Darren O’Sullivan.

Not only is Darren a former teacher, he’s a good friend and a fabulous writer (check out his books here). We often talk at literary festivals and events together and as our approaches to novel writing are completely different  I knew we’d both bring something unique to the course. Aside from that, we always have a blast. 

And we did.

Who can be nervous with Batman at their side?

The course participants were lovely. Really lovely. Thankfully, not one of them came in waving a grammar quiz at me, or demanding to see my (non-existent) degree.

During the afternoon, I was asked a question about whether it was bad to write out of order. ‘The thing I love about writing,’ I said, ‘Is that there’s no right or wrong way to do it.’ As I spoke I wanted to smack my palm against my forehead. In the lead-up to the course I had got it horribly wrong by trying to over complicate something that is fundamentally simple. It’s not easy to write a book, I wouldn’t claim otherwise, but there are things you need to know and things you don’t. I STILL don’t quite understand concrete and abstract nouns and why they shouldn’t go together. If I’m honest, I don’t really care. What I do know is how to construct a story that keeps readers turning the page, the elements every novel needs. My hours of angst had been unnecessary. Ultimately ‘write the story you’d like to read’ still remains the best advice I can give.

Darren and I thoroughly enjoyed the workshop and hopefully so did everyone that came. They all left with the start of a piece of writing that they can develop, a smile and a copy of my latest thriller, The Family and me and Darren got to take home the leftover cake. 

I learned a lot during the workshop, both about myself, (I can do things if I push myself) and things I’d forgotten about novel writing that will help me going forward, including the one basic thing I’d let slide recently. I’ll be sharing that in my next post.

Public speaking tips for writers (putting a bag over your head is not one of them..)

I am a writer. I am an introverted writer. The thought of public speaking makes my skin prickle and my head swim and yet it is something writers are often expected to do, and to be honest, despite the fear, it is something I am eager to do. The chance to meet readers. To talk about my books. A couple of weeks ago, on World Book Day, I gave my first ever talk to 250 primary school children on reading, writing and following your dreams (you can read about that here.) Beforehand I was lucky enough to get some tips from my good friend and fellow author Graeme Cumming who is so adept at public speaking he belongs to a Speakers Club (for fun!!!). Thankfully I got through my own talk without fainting/vomiting/crying/all three and I’m delighted to welcome Graeme onto my blog today to share his wisdom with you. 

Getting up and speaking in public is stimulating. For most people, though, that stimulation isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Over the years, research has shown that, when it comes to fears, public speaking tops most lists. Fear of dying tends to rank about 4th or 5th, which kind of puts things in perspective.

Some time ago, it was pointed out to me that, for pretty much anyone to be successful in their chosen career, at some point they’d have to speak in front of others, otherwise you limit your opportunities.

Up to then, I’d been thinking I could get away with it. In meetings, I didn’t ask questions, I never volunteered to make presentations, and the closest I got to being the centre of attention was if I made an off-colour joke. I realised things needed to change, otherwise I’d still be a low-grade building society clerk when I retired.

Fast forward… well, quite a lot of years, and here I am embarking on a new path with my life, that of author. One book out and two in the pipeline. I’m a writer. But does that mean I no longer have to speak? Not a bit of it. Sure, we have social media to help us connect with our readers and the wider world. But that doesn’t mean to say we don’t need to get up and speak to groups. There are book launches, invitations to speak to peer groups, libraries, book clubs or schools. We may even have to make a presentation to agents or publishers.

A lot of people ask me: what can I do to eliminate the fear? The bad news is that it never really goes away – at least, not in my experience. I first started practicing public speaking nearly 30 years ago, and I’m still nervous if I have a new engagement.

But that doesn’t mean to say I have the same fears I started with. Those have been worn down as a result of practice and experience. Like any activity, the first time you try it, you feel apprehensive – usually because you don’t want to make a fool of yourself. But the more you do it, the easier it gets, and you even begin to look forward to it.

In the absence of having the opportunity to get loads of practice, though, here are some things to remember that’ll help with the nerves:

* Your audience have come along to see you. They’ve made an effort to come out and they’re interested in what you have to say. They’re already on your side

* Since most people put public speaking at or near the top of their worst fears, an audience will have a degree of sympathy and understanding that it’s a nerve-wracking experience. They’ll forgive your mistakes because they’re just glad they’re not doing it.

* You may be about to make your first ever speech, but the audience don’t know that. They also don’t know what goes into giving a speech, so they have very little to judge you on. Pretend you do it every day of the week, and they’ll assume that’s the case.

* If you’re visiting groups who regularly have speakers, they’ll have seen some dire performances. By coming along with something you’ve prepared well for, you’ll already have a head start on a lot of their previous speakers.

That last point about preparation is important. Don’t go into a situation hoping you can wing it. Only a very few people have that ability. So do spend some time preparing what you want to say. You don’t have to be word perfect – though my own preference is to rehearse – but you do want to know in advance what message you want to get across to your audience.

Something else to bear in mind is avoiding the temptation to give excuses in advance for why you’re about to give a rubbish speech. We Brits seem to have apologetic genes, but we should never say sorry for our performance. Most of the time, the audience won’t know the difference. What you consider to be bungling will seem like it’s just part of your style of presentation.

There are techniques you can learn to improve as a public speaker, and if you do face the prospect of having to do it, they can be useful. Even though I’ve been involved in public speaking at one level or another for nearly 30 years, I still like to practice, which is why I joined a Speakers Club. These are safe environments in which to learn and develop, and are usually relatively low cost. Some people will go on training courses for Public Speaking, which are intensive and you learn a lot quickly. But, unless you practice regularly, you can lose the skills just as rapidly.

I hope these tips and comments will help, but if anyone has any questions or would like to learn more, please do contact me via my website and I’ll be happy to assist.

Thanks so much Graeme for taking the time to share your experiences. I’ve found it really useful.

Graeme Cumming is the author of Ravens Gathering, “a dark and creepy piece of horror and mystery writing”. His talk, “How to Become a Bestseller” gives an insight into the modern world of writing and publishing. For fun, he is also currently Education Director at Sheffield Speakers Club. You can read more about Graeme and his work at www.graemecumming.co.uk.

Is being introverted a flaw? A writer’s life

 

Definition of word confidence in dictionary

I’ve always been quite an insular person and growing up people were quick to label me, I was ‘shy’ and ‘withdrawn’ and I became convinced something must be wrong with me. Teachers would shake their head as I became close to tears after being forced onto the school stage to take part in a play, and although I tried as hard as I could during rehearsals it was never good enough – ‘try harder,’ ‘be louder,’ ‘act confident,’ – but I didn’t know how to be anyone except who I was. I wasn’t allowed to perform on the night as I was ‘too quiet’ and I felt ashamed as I was told I needed to be more outgoing; I wouldn’t get anywhere in life if I wasn’t.

At break-times my hands grew clammy as I was instructed to put my book down and pushed towards large groups of children and urged to ‘make friends.’ What nobody asked me was whether I was happy sitting reading, and I was, largely. I was always comfortable with my own company and a story to absorb myself in. I had a small, but very close group of friends to turn to if I wanted to socialise, but sometimes I wanted to be alone. This seemed to make others uncomfortable as though I needed ‘fixing’ and I began to see being introverted as a flaw.

As I grew I found myself apologising A LOT. Sorry for not being an extrovert, for volunteering for things, for pushing myself forward and as people gave me tips to fix a problem I didn’t know I had, my confidence began to ebb away. What was wrong with me?

Today I remain introverted to a degree, I think perhaps many writers are, but it has just struck me how much I have grown this past year. Just five months ago, the day before my debut ‘The Sister‘ was published my excitement was tempered by fear. Fear of being judged. Fear of falling short again. I felt sick with nerves. On launch day my publisher had booked me onto local radio to talk about my book and as my husband drove, I cried for the entire 45 minute journey there, terrified the words would stick in my throat and my tongue would tie itself into knots. Who would want to listen to me?

My second novel, ‘The Gift‘, is published tomorrow and this time around I feel nothing but pure exhilaration. I’ve just taken a call from BBC Radio Northampton confirming I’ll on again tomorrow afternoon and I surprised myself by feeling genuinely excited and I’m sifting through my thoughts as I write to try and uncover why.

I think perhaps being published is a validation of sorts, acceptance if you like, that it’s ok to sit for hours and hours in solitude, to make up stories. To be content with a quiet life.

I’ll always be an introvert but little by little, with each and every word I write, my confidence is growing. The feedback from readers, reviewers and bloggers has been life-changing. People are enjoying my stories. Stories I probably wouldn’t be able to write if I was an extrovert and I think maybe, finally, it’s ok to be just who I am.

 

Why a book review changed my life

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As a child, when the school reports were handed out, my stomach churned with anxiety. It’s not that I was a bad student, but I was very shy and this was something teachers were quick to point out. Every. Single. Year.

‘Louise has a good grasp of English but doesn’t join in the class debates, and needs to…’

‘Louise excels at maths but is very quiet in class, and needs to…’

‘Louise produces some excellent work but fails to put her hand up, and needs to….’

 But. But. But. And it didn’t matter how much I studied, the exams I passed, or the homework I always (nearly always) handed in on time. It was never enough. I was never enough. There was always a ‘but’ no matter how hard I tried. My results were good but my personality was always in question and my fragile confidence shrunk year after year, and the more I was told to speak up, the more insular I became.

Last month when my debut novel ‘The Sister,’ went out to Book Bloggers I was literally shaking with fear, and for days and days I couldn’t face seeing if there were reviews. I was writing my second novel and I knew I should look and take anything constructive and use it to improve my writing, so I took a deep breath, and logged on to Goodreads and clicked on a review which said: –

‘The Sister is Louise Jensen’s first novel but shows the maturity of a writer who is already very skilled at her craft.’ ‘Louise’s writing style captivated me instantly. I could hear and see each scene as it unfolded.’

So that was the good bit and I read on waiting for the ‘but….’ and ‘she needs to….’ but there wasn’t one and I’m not ashamed to admit I cried. Throughout this process I’d felt that if one person enjoyed reading Grace’s story it would all be worthwhile and suddenly it all was. Not everyone will like my story I know. Not all my reviews will be glowing, but that’s ok.

Publishers and authors talk about how important reviews are in terms of sales, of getting your name out there but I never thought they could have such an impact on the way I feel about myself.

The reviews have eradicated the memory of sitting, hands trembling, while my Mum sliced open the envelope containing my school report. That feeling of never being enough. I finally feel that I might be, just the way I am.

 

 

Flash Fiction – Do you see what I see?

Her

I hover outside the door, wobbling on unfamiliar heels. The bass thumps in time with my heart. Thirty minutes I promise myself. Half an hour of social pleasantries and chit chat, how bad could it be? I rearrange my face into something resembling happy and push open the door.

I scan the sea of faces, smile and wave at my boss, now he has seen I have made the effort to come I am almost tempted to leave. I don’t belong here, all the women look gorgeous and tiny in their little black dresses. I feel like the ugly duckling, horribly out of place amongst swans.

‘Drink?’

The most incredible looking man I have ever seen stands at my side, proffering a glass of champagne. He is so out of my league. I wrap my damp palm around the glass, wishing I could press its coolness against my forehead.

‘I was drawn to your smile.’

I clamp my lips together. I wish I had listened to my mum and wore my braces.

‘You look beautiful.’

My eyes dart around looking for hidden cameras or a row of sniggering men nudging each other with their elbows, waiting to see if I will fall for it. I look for someone I could talk to, anyone would do, even Brian from accounts.

‘That’s a stunning dress.’

‘This old thing. I’ve had it ages.’ I fiddle with the straps of my pale pink satin gown. I knew I shouldn’t have bought it this afternoon, it makes me look fat but after four hours of shopping I had given up on finding something that looks good. I should have stuck to black.

‘It really flatters your figure.’

I cross my arms over my belly and bite back tears. ‘I am on a diet.’  I hate this man, why is he making me feel so bad. I gulp my champagne. It churns inside my stomach.

‘Will you dance with me?’

That’s a step too far. I thrust my empty glass at him and leave.

My night is ruined.

Him

There isn’t quite angels singing and beams of light as she enters the room, but it is close.

I watch as she waves and smiles at someone and my stomach twists sharply. I want to be the someone she smiles at.

I am hesitant at approaching her, my small talk sucks, but if I don’t someone else will, she is so gorgeous.

I grab two glasses from a passing waiter.

‘Drink?’ My pulse is rocketing. Please say yes, please say yes.

She does!

I fumble around for words, she looks so confident, the polar opposite of me.

‘That’s a stunning dress.’ It is. All the other women are in black, legs and boobs spilling out. She looks different, classy.

She mutters a bored response.

‘It flatters your figure.’

She isn’t stick thin like so many others here. I want to touch her so badly.

She studies the floor. I don’t blame her. It’s far more interesting than me.

Sweat pools at the base of my spine, my shirt sticks to me.

‘Will you dance with me?’ Marry me, be mine forever. I have never felt like this.

I have blown it. I am left cradling an empty glass and an image of what I so badly wanted to be.

I should have known she was out of my league.

My night is ruined.

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Written for Streams of Consciousness Saturday. Write the first thing you think of following a prompt and post, no editing allowed.

 

The prompt this week was compliment/complement. It triggered off so many thoughts about how we often deflect compliments, we don’t believe them, we feel embarrassed by them. How often do we assume someone is more confident, happier, more content than we are? We often don’t see ourselves how others do at all.