Moving house as a distraction? – Word Counts 94,156 +12,128

WordPress is a rotten conscience. Or a very good one, depending on your perspective. Log on after an absence and it will cheerfully announce just how long you’ve been away. A year, to the day, apparently. I’m sorry? A year?

And what can I say about the 365 days that have passed?  Another year where one book doesn’t get completed and yet another project gets started in a flurry of enthusiasm only to disappear into the ‘too-damn-hard-to-finish-and-put-out-there basket. I find it hard not to be hard on myself. ‘Be gentle,’ I tell myself, ‘all in its own good time.’ But I’m not sure I believe my own crap.

One of the things that I love about writing is that you can do it mostly anywhere – that sits well with my nomadic soul. I have written chapters (longhand in a notebook) standing up on the Tube, on my iPad on buses, in cafe’s in many a foreign city and this is being written on a train to Brighton, UK. Yet, I recognise that moving home five times in the last year has definitely impacted the rhythm of my writing. Read any advice to writers and most (except, perhaps Cheryl Strayed, who totally advocates binge-writing) insists you write every day, ideally at the same time and probably at 4 or 5am. This, I admit, is not something I have yet achieved. I stay up too late and I like my sleep too much. Oh yes, and I now have a full time, ‘permanent’ job again – for the first time in many, many years, which crowds into my free time like an over-demanding child.

We’re nearing Brighton. I’m not going to let perfection stand in the way of getting the words out there and have another year go by without publishing. Lucy’s story has progressed, as has the non-fiction book so I’m going to cut myself some slack and say, ‘it’s all heading in the right direction.’


That has to be a start, surely?



© itshelsbels March 2018


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Lucy came back – Word Count = 87,853

I recently stumbled across a draft post, saved over four months ago, entitled “It’s been a dry 7 weeks – Word Count = 89,467 – DON’T PANIC”.  I had started the post in November with: “Although the word count has grown since my last post, at the end of September, everything ground to a halt.  And halted it has stayed.”

Four months on, you’ll notice that the word count has, in fact, gone backwards and I didn’t actually write for four, whole months.  Not a word between the end of September and the first week of January 2017. If you’d asked me what the block felt like, I would have said, “It feels as though Lucy (the protagonist) has stopped sharing her story with me.”

I teetered during those months between moments of panic that Lucy might never speak to me again, condemning me to put the oh-so-nearly-finished manuscript into the infamous bottom drawer and being quietly confident that she’d be back when she (and I) were good and ready.

So, what happened during that quagmire of inactivity?

First, it was a blatant and rather obvious case of self-sabotage.  Late in September, I had had a feedback session with Cynthia.  She made some solid observations around a couple of the characters that she had felt were less vivid than others I’d written.  I accepted the notes, recognising that I had spent less time on character development with those individuals, despite their importance to the story. We discussed where she saw Lucy’s character arc and storyline heading – both of which were directly in line with my outline and plans. She could see the story trajectory, despite my patchwork-quilt approach to writing, assuring me that I wasn’t far off having a very respectable first draft, that would require only minimal re-work.  On the whole, her comments were positive and I was reassured that I was still on the right track.

“Finish?”  My subconscious obviously started screaming.  I say “obviously” because, being my subconscious, I couldn’t actually hear it. Once I’d sussed it, though, conscious thought rationalised it.  “Well, of course you’re a bit nervous.  If you finish it, you have to DO something with it. Unless you want it to be the next worst thing to the oh-so-nearly-finished manuscript in a bottom drawer, which is the finished-but-STILL-in-the-bottom-drawer manuscript.”  Now, here’s the thing.  Just because I’d spotted it and called out my fear and self-sabotaging behaviour, it didn’t get me writing.

I decided to be patient.

Next, life happened.  Some of you may remember I live(d) in Mallorca and, last year, was sharing a flat with my old school friend. That’s a whole other story that will, one day, be written but in a nutshell, having lost touch for over 30 years, we reunited in December 2015. After one long weekend on the Island in March last year, she went home, sold her flat in UK and moved to Mallorca, where we set about being recycled teenagers rather than middle-aged women.

In October, she fell ill.  Initially, we thought she had food poisoning from a bad plate of tapas.  However, having already conquered bowel cancer – one of the key reasons that had galvanised her into moving overseas – when she started to turn yellow we (she, far more than me, in my ignorance) knew things were serious. I’ll spare you the details of just how serious. Suffice to say, the next few months saw us heading back to the UK, where she spent more time in hospital than out of it. I packed up our flat in Palma, put everything except the essentials into storage and moved back to Brighton so I could keep her company as she embarked on another dreaded journey of chemotherapy.

She made it to her 50th birthday in early December, which we celebrated with a pyjama party for seven but she didn’t see Christmas.

And throughout that time, I didn’t write a word of Lucy’s story.

And still, I tried to be patient.

Then, in the first week of January, as though with the new year came a new phase, I wrote 202 words.  Not many, for sure, but it was a start. I also deleted 8,616, a paring back of outlining no longer required and research notes moved to where they belong – the research folder. I was back to 81,054 but I was writing again.

Slowly, slowly, the final, missing block is coming through and I continue to be patient.

Tucked in amongst the unfolding of Lucy’s story, my bewilderment of finding myself back in the UK, an attempt at commission sales and the ebb and flow of grief, a new project also unfolded. I know, dear reader, we’ve been here before – remember the short play last year? This time, it feels less like a distraction and more like a welcome accompaniment. It’s not a novel, so it’s a very different book and I’m finding the freedom of having two distinct projects (OK, OK, three – the original one is still there, too!) quite liberating. When I sit down to write at the moment, one or the other tends to present itself as being most pressing. So, I honour that and remain grateful that anything is showing up!

On this path of discovery of how to be the writer I am, it appears that I might be a multi-consecutive-project writer. Which is fine. As long as I also evolve into a multi-consecutive-projects-who-completes-some-of-them writer.

I’ll be happy with that.

© itshelsbels March 2017

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The ‘writing vs marathon training’ comparison – Word Count = 78,049

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Word Count = 63,893 + a stage play

Nearly two months has flown by without a blog post, but I’m not concerned.  During that time the novel has progressed by a very respectable additional 21,500 words and in the last two weeks I’ve accidentally written a short play.

Perhaps I should explain.

I may have mentioned in this blog, somewhere along the way, that I went to drama school and completed a masters in acting in my mid 40’s.  It was one of those “I don’t want to wake up at 60 wondering if I could have” decisions that I haven’t once regretted (sure, there were some very challenging moments during those 14 months where I wasn’t sure if I could carry on, if I’d left it ‘too late’, if this was a wise idea, but I never had any regrets for following that path).  Once qualified, I realised fairly swiftly that living in London and working as a jobbing actor did not suit me at all, so I took off and travelled and worked.  Somewhere along the way, I rekindled my love for writing. Its portability, in particular, allows me to wander the world and still be able to tell people’s stories, a driving theme and passion behind my acting.

When I started writing, people naturally wanted to put these two aspects together. “You’re an actor”, they would say, “You should write plays.”  But I didn’t want to write plays.  Screenplays maybe, but not for the stage.  Mainly because I didn’t think that I would make a very good playwright – my writing style is rather literal, a bit too linear; less suspension-of-reality, more once-upon-a-time.

A couple of weeks ago, I was allowing myself to be distracted by Facebook, instead of writing, when I spotted a post from @ActorAwareness about a scratch night for new writing.  Actor Awareness is a campaign run by Tom Stocks, fighting to have more equality, diversity and working class actors in the industry.  Every six weeks they host a night where six short (less than 15 minute) new plays are presented, each time featuring a different theme such as class, gender, sexuality, age and so on.  Next month’s (on 15th August, in London) is entitled “Intergenerational”, targeting older actors.  The plays must have a maximum of three actors, including a minimum of one actor who is 40+ (yes, folks, that’s ‘older’ in this game).

At 49, it is a subject close to my own heart.

So, I consulted my digital scrap book (I have a Scrivener project where I store snippets of ideas, inspirations and curiosities that may, at some point, turn into books or stories or screenplays or poems).  And there, I rediscovered a piece I had outlined a while ago, with the vague idea of turning it into a screenplay or novel at some point.  It met the criteria – in fact there are two characters in their 50’s – so I started to play with whether their story could be told in a short theatre play.  And apparently it can.

Now I have a less-than (here’s hoping) 15 minute play, written and ready to submit ahead of tomorrow’s deadline.

You may be wondering why I would blog about this before I even know whether it’s going to be selected.  Whilst I really hope it is (although it will mean lots to organise from a distance and waving good bye to much paid work in August!), truly, the fun of this project has been the experimenting,  a chance to stretch my writing, put me outside of my comfort zone, the opportunity to collaborate with friends and the necessity of working to a tight timeframe to achieve the deadline.  It’s a new writing scratch night and I don’t have the luxury of time to get lost in over-perfecting.  So, it will be selected, or it won’t.  Either way, it’s been an enjoyable project.

Now, it’s time to get back to Lucy and Harry’s story.

(p.s. I’ll let you know how the submission goes)

© itshelsbels July 2016

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Sanity savers – Word Count = 42,353

Looking back at my blog history, I appear to manage a post about every 4-5 months, which is hardly a devoted-following-building level of activity.  Nor will it allow me to create one of those blogging empires, where you get paid for clicks and ads and referrals.

Despite this, I am very excited that the novel (for that is what is it now, an actual novel, not just ‘The Book’) is trucking along nicely.  There is a full outline, pretty extensive (and growing) character outlines, a calendar of events and much, much more.

As a new writer, I am learning this craft as I go along, drawing on resources as I discover them;  balancing my need to get on and learn by doing with the opportunity to learn from people who already do this called ‘writing’ for a living and discovering tools that help me to stay on track and remain calm during the creative process.    In this post, I wanted to share a few of the things I have discovered that are helping me do just that:

  1. An editor/coach: Those of you who have read some of my other posts, will have already heard me talk about working with Cynthia Kane of Open Book Editing.  For those who are new to this journey of mine, Cynthia is a development editor and literary agent who I’ve been working with for a while now.  She reviewed my first 50,000 words of mind-ramblings, which turned out to be, at minimum, two distinct projects, not the single one I had initially thought.  She also saw plenty of options for where I could take the material and encouraged me to explore some of the other themes she could see within the work.

    When I announced, last December, that I had shelved all 50,000 words and started a brand new work of fiction, she was just as enthusiastic, reminding me that nothing is wasted in this iterative process of word-crafting.  Since then, we have put together a coaching strategy, which holds me accountable and encourages me to push forward and put a priority on my writing.  Initially, I submitted a full story outline and some sample chapters for her to assess.  We then agreed on a timetable and now I submit work to her every three weeks – whatever I’ve written.  At this stage, I have asked for the feedback to be limited to general “am I on the right track?” comments, rather than any detailed editing, as I want to stay in freeform, and not give too much power to my analytical, sometime over-critical mind.  I love the pressure of having a date in my diary, even if, in the end, it is being driven by me.

  2. An Outline:  A quick search for the phrase “How to write a book” on provides 19,751 hits, so there is certainly no shortage of advice for would-be writers.  I even own a few of them already, some I’ve even read.  But in January, I stumbled across a book that has impacted my whole approach to writing: Structuring Your Novel by KM Weiland.  Before reading this, I had no idea that there were two types of writers – “pantsers” (people who write by the seat of their pants, letting the creative juices flow from fingers to keyboard directly) and planners (those who meticulously outline every twist and turn, character arc, possible story-turns, time-lines, character outlines…).

    Now, if you and I had been a party and you had asked me what sort of writer I might be, I would have guessed a pantser.  I like to think of myself as quite spontaneous; I like to believe in creative inspiration.  However, on reading KM’s book, I discovered I was actually a planner and I had already started employing many of her suggested techniques into my process, quite naturally.  For those of you who think that planning might stymie your creative flow, I have found it to be the opposite.  It transpires that I don’t write chronologically  (well, not this time, anyway).  By having an outline, I can write whichever chapter or scene is calling to me and know that it is likely to move the story forward.  New characters and situations have still appeared, but when they have, I’ve seen very quickly where and why they fit into the overall story.

    Having a good software programme also helps this process, which is point 3.

  3. Software: At some point, I may write a more in-depth analysis of the programme I’ve chosen, but, for now, I will simply say that buying Scrivener has been an invaluable investment into saving my sanity.  It enables one to create a detailed outline, easily moving chapters or sections around, split and combine blocks, meta-tag, timeline, create character templates and store research – from web links to photos, MP3 files and video links. Split screens, snapshots, section labelling, key word searching, project statistics and compiling – it took me over three days to work through the on-line tutorial and I’m still learning about it’s extensive functionality.  In the end, though, being able to see how everything links, track my progress and store all aspects of this one project in one place, has been an absolute revelation.  SO much more intuitive than a word-processing programme, I couldn’t imagine writing without it now.

So, the journey continues.  When I started this blog, I had no idea where the journey would take me and I still don’t, but as Steve Jobs said:

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.
So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.
You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.
This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” 

Here’s to continuing to connect the dots.

© itshelsbels May 2016

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Less about the word count – all about the process

For the first week or so of my self-enforced isolation, I set rigorous targets of timed writing blocks and word counts, calculating the number of days and weeks available, working backwards and coming up with a set of expectations.  This is what I needed to achieve (or so I thought), to validate my time here in the mountains.  But somewhere towards the end of week 2, a few realisations landed, the first being that by switching from writing a memoir to a novel, EVERYTHING truly has changed:

  1. I no longer know the character: In fact, other than the small glimmer of an idea when I was in Slovenia, I am really back at square 1.  If the protagonist is no longer me, then who is she?  Who are her parents? Does she prefer tea or coffee? What are her fears, her hopes, her dreams?  When did she lose her virginity?  What films make her cry?  The questions (and occasionally, the answers), come thick and fast.  And I discover that I care, passionately, about honouring her, and her supporting cast as multi-dimensional and interesting characters.  I feel as though I’m back at drama school and I’m loving the process of discovery and creation.
  2. I no longer know the story: It is not possible to crash out thousands of words based on my memory of events – now I need to research all sorts of topics I know nothing about.  How do you become a Legal Executive and more to the point, how did you become one in the UK 15 years ago?  This is feeding the endlessly curious part of me (but possibly could prove distracting).
  3. I no longer know the world of the story: When did supermarkets rise to popularity in England? If I was a sensible young man, buying my first flat in London in the early 1990’s where would I have been able to afford?  What would my neighbourhood have been like?  Whilst it may be fiction, I’ve chosen to set this story in a fairly recognisable location and contemporary period, so I want readers to recognise them as such and not be jarred by thoughts like (“yeah, well, he’d never have been able to buy there” or “they didn’t even have supermarkets in Kent until 1998, I know ‘cos my Dad worked for the first one.”)
  4. And I still don’t know the plot: Some of Cynthia’s early feedback about the memoir was that if it wasn’t going to just read as a diary of events, it needed an arc, plot points, conflict.  These requirements still exist.

And then there’s the tricky issue of genre.  It was easy when it was “memoir” and in my post on 2nd January I announced that I was writing “Chick-Lit” – but now, having downloaded and read some, I’m not so sure.  Luckily, I took heart from the following quote “…is it chick lit?  Maybe.  But instead of worrying about labels, focus on writing your book.” (From ‘See Jane Write: A Girl’s Guide to Writing Chick Lit’ by Sarah Mlynowski and Farrin Jacobs, Quirk Books.)

So, these past few weeks have mainly been about re-evaluation.  If this isn’t a one-book-wonder of a memoir (oh, plus the ‘big, close-to-the-heart’ project, which continues concurrently – two more interviews completed) then I’ve realised I need to get on and learn how to be a writer.  And no, that’s not an excuse to slacken off and stop writing, but I have switched focus from word count to crafting.  Given that this is my rest-of-lifetime we’re talking about (let’s face it, you can never grow too old to write), I’ve also been putting some consideration (and effort) into how I structure my bill-paying life to accommodate the journey.

In my next post, I’ll share some of the books I’ve been finding inspiration in, some that I’ve been learning techniques from and the technology I’ve chosen to invest in to help with this next phase of the adventure.

Right, back to arcs and inciting events.

© itshelsbels January 2016

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Walking in the Woods – Word Counts 36,462 + 13,601 + 11,332 = 61,395

I’ve recently discovered Kyle Cease, described on his website bio as “a keynote speaker, transforming audiences through his unique blend of comedy and transformation” and, I have to admit, I’ve been doing a bit of binge-watching of his videos – both comedic and inspirational.

The video that led me to him is The End of Control in which, (at 1:32) he says “why don’t you go to a cabin for a while and write a book.” And it occurred to me that that is exactly what I am doing. Well, maybe not a cabin – it’s more of a studio apartment – but it is half way up a mountain, in a little village, where I know absolutely no one and speak neither of the local languages. For someone who is usually intensely people-focused, both at work and socially, this has been an interesting choice and is, rather unexpectedly, turning into a bit of a life experiment.

The first few days proved quite tough as my chosen reality hit home – really, what the hell had I done? Why this this location? It was apparent that I might spend the next six, or more, weeks having no real face-to-face conversations, just the occasional stumbled attempt at German or Italian when needing to convey something important. But it was unlikely that I was going to discuss the meaning of the Universe, our role in life, the nature of love….or have much of a social life either. “It’s going to be a very lonely 6 weeks”, I thought.  Although, I reminded myself, I had really come here to focus on my writing. The book(s) that have stumbled along over the past few years needed a good kick in the back-side and how else do you do that but allocate some time, go somewhere with minimal distractions and WRITE?

However, it also occurred to me that this time would provide a wonderful opportunity to experiment with some other aspects of my life that I’d had curiosities about. What would it be like if I actually slept as long as I wanted, no alarm clock? (It turns out I quite like about 8-9 hours); What would it feel like to get up and do yoga or a movement meditation, like 5 Rhythms, every morning? (Great, as it turns out. As tiny as my place is, it’s still big enough for a yoga mat and even to dance around a bit); What about seated meditation – a practice I’ve been trying, rather unsuccessfully, to incorporate into my routine for a while now? (I’m enjoying the space it provides but still struggle with the inner demons that tell me I should be “doing” something).

How about getting out into nature each day – for a walk or a ski, given that the local field is just 1.5km from my front door – oh yes, one of the reasons I chose this precise spot.  Ah yes, it’s this last one that has provided me with some real nuggets of wisdom and clarity. Being both action and future focused, I can get rather wrapped up in “OK, so what’s next?” as soon as I hit the next anticipated milestone. Yet, here I am, through my own choice, sitting in a studio half way up a mountain, with nothing to do but write, move my body, meditate and cook for myself in my cupboard-sized kitchen (there aren’t many choices for eating out, either!)

And in the woods the other day, striding through the snow, I suddenly realised that this was what it was all about – the whole experience. It isn’t just about the writing. The writing may never go anywhere further than the hard drive of my computer, but I will still have had THIS EXPERIENCE. And I will never wake up and wonder what it would have been like to go to a “cabin” up a mountain and write for a few months. Because I’m doing it.  And that is the point.

© itshelsbels January 2016

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