Procrastination, playlists and chocolate: A few things I’ve discovered about the writing life Katie Allen @KtAllenWriting @OrendaBooks #GuestPost

Happy Wednesday, dear readers, I hope that you’ve had a fabulous week so far and you’re absolutely prepared for todays BRAND NEW guest post piece. The author in question? Katie Allen, the newest edition to the Orenda Books family and the write or Everything Happens For A Reason – find my review here!

I’m so thrilled to have Katie visiting The Reading Closet and I thank her for all her time! Without further ado, I give Katie the blog floor!

When Danielle asked me to write something for Orentober, it seemed a good time to look back at writing my first book with Orenda, Everything Happens for a Reason, and take stock of things I learned along the way.
I used to be a reporter at the Guardian, and moving from writing news stories to a novel is the hardest thing I’ve done in my professional life. If you caught me on a bad day, you’d really wonder why I made the change. I’d tell you that writing fiction is lonely (I talk to my characters and the dog all day, I used to have real-life human colleagues). It’s often frustrating (as a journalist, I never had time to chuck hundreds of words away, with fiction I ditch page after page, shouting “oh God, this is so awful!”). And it can be so demoralising (there were the rejections early on, many of mine were focused on how my subject matter of stillbirth was “too sad”, and even now the book is out there, it so often feels like everyone else is doing “being an author” better than me).
Then again, when writing goes well, and I sense I’ve pulled off a particularly sad or funny line, it feels like nothing else in the world. When my wordcount goes up rather than down on a given day, that feels pretty amazing too (for all my grumpiness, I am quite easily pleased.) I also feel incredibly lucky to have a flexible job where I can see so much of my family. And now Everything Happens for a Reason is out there, I have the massive privilege of receiving messages from readers touched by my loosely autobiographical story of life after loss.
As I do it all again for a second novel for Orenda, these are things I try to remember – maybe one of two will be helpful to you, whatever type of writing you do:

1. Aim for words not hours

It took me a few months of making myself sit at a desk for five or six hours a day before I realised how easy it was to pretend I was working productively. Often, I would have little to show for hours at my desk. I plotted and re-plotted, pretended to research, read books about writing, but very little actual writing happened. Then I switched to setting a wordcount target per day. The target varies depending on what else I have on and on what type of scene I am writing, but it gets me started and just about keeps me going – and I reward myself chocolate on days when the target is hardest to hit. The target is usually relatively low, so I at least achieve something rather than nothing. It’s an elephant a spoonful at a time thing, eventually the words add up to a first draft of a book.

2. But realise the value of an hour

I heard Anthony Horowitz say this on the radio, and he in turn took it from Margaret Thatcher. But never mind. It’s great advice for a procrastinator like me. His point was: Don’t fall into the trap of saying, “I only have an hour” (for me, it’s usually, “I only have an hour until I have to go and pick up a child.”) Instead, see what you can get done in an hour and (hopefully) surprise yourself.

3. Find people who’ve done it well and keep them close

Not actual people, but their books. I keep a few books on my desk that tend to be in the same point of view as the one I am using. So when writing Everything Happens for a Reason, those were books also in first person, mainly present tense, and some of them written as letters (my book is written as emails). When I got stuck on certain scenes (like, “Oh no, they have to have a confrontation here and I just don’t think I can do confrontations.”) I would reach for one of those books and look for how that author had done it and be reminded that it could be done. I’d see how they started the scene, what things they were clever to leave out and to include. I wrote about some of these inspiring books for Orenda here. []

4. Don’t skip getting to know your supporting cast

I cut corners on getting to know some people in my first book and by the first draft it really showed. My writing tutor Clare Allan had some great advice when it came to Lola, a supporting character in Everything Happens, and how she needed things going on in her life beyond the scenes shared by my narrator. Clare said that one should be able to imagine that the book could have been about any one character who appears in it. This made me stop and spend some time on Lola and on my narrator’s husband, Ed. I wrote diary entries by them to work how they would sound if telling the story, what their days were like, what their secrets were, what they hoped for.

5. Pictures, maps and music help put me in the story

I found it helpful to have pictures on my wall of where certain scenes took place (lots of Nunhead Cemetery therefore) and how certain characters might look (including the main cat and dog.) I also needed maps to work out if my timings made sense when my character raced around from dog walks, to school pick-ups to spying missions. I had floorplans and pictures from estate agent websites (some of them in the picture above) of where my characters lived and those helped when I got stuck picturing a dialogue. I also had Spotify playlists for main characters to help me feel what they felt.

6. Let readers do some work – but be kind

A big focus of the creative writing Masters I did seemed to be not spelling everything out for readers and giving them some of the satisfaction of working things out. I would agree with this approach and certainly prefer that style of writing as a reader. But the manuscript of Everything Happens for a Reason that I shared with my agent, Caroline Hardman [] left a bit too much work for readers. Her biggest feedback when we started edits was to be kinder to readers. Yes, readers want to work things out but they also tend to read books over several days or longer, with interruptions, so help jog their memory about who someone is, help them understand what on earth is going on – however erratic your narrator might be feeling and acting.

7. Turn off the internet and leave the phone downstairs

Initially, when writing fiction was new and exciting and I could only see all the advantages over writing news stories, I would scoff a little at authors who said they needed to turn the internet off to get anything written. Why weren’t they enjoying the solitude of writing, the silence of the phone not ringing, the absence of news editors? That didn’t last. Now I need to leave my phone out of reach and turn off the internet connection on my laptop. I don’t allow myself Twitter on my laptop, I use the downtime settings on my phone (for when I break my own rules and sneak downstairs to check it.) It all makes me feel like a child with no self-control, but it works. And then when I do log on later, it feels more like a treat. Now I’ve shared this, I daren’t ever go on Twitter again during daytime hours…

8. Put drafts onto a Kindle

This stops me tinkering with a draft line by line when I do a first read through (although I am guilty of highlighting as I go). The idea is to get an impression of what it feels like to be a reader of whatever I’ve written. Ideally, I’d put it onto my kindle (as a word document) then leave at least a few days before reading. Also, doing this makes it look like a real book, which is very exciting.

9. Write down ideas immediately

This is simple and always true, if I have an idea for a line, a scene or a detail while out walking or whatever, I will almost always have forgotten it when I get back to my desk. So now I write all these thoughts into a notes file on my phone. I won’t use most of them, but at least I am less angry at myself for being so forgetful.

10. Do something which really needs doing every day

This comes from the book The Simplicity Principle [ ] by my friend and all-round super-thinker Julia Hobsbawm. I am finding that writing fiction can leave me feeling quite cross with myself at the end of some days – and I miss going into an office, working with colleagues and the instant fix that comes from daily journalism. But I am much happier when I remember Julia’s advice to “Try and complete something which really needs doing each day.” As she says, that can be a piece of writing, or de-cluttering a cupboard. Whatever it is, for me, it keeps at bay that feeling of time slipping away with nothing to show for it.

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