June 2, 2011

Finding my writing space

I don't like writing at home. I find it hard to muster up the motivation to sit down on my bed or in the sitting room to work on my novel or a short story. I always get distracted by something or someone or I just end up saying, "I think I'll watch Absolutely Fabulous instead." My usual favourite is to write in cafés; sometimes sitting there sipping absinthe but usually you'll find me with my usual poison of choice, coffee, while I feel like a bohemian cliché. However to my disadvantage I end up spending money. I've recently been wondering if I could find a place where I could go to write, where I might remain both focused and inspired, with the added benefit of not spending a mini fortune on caffeinated products.

A colleague in my writers group pointed out one useful advantage of my new doctorate (yes, I am now a Doctor in Physics with summa cum laude!) is that the National Library of Spain would grant me a library card with "access all areas" to the archives, purely because I have a doctorate. I decided this would in fact be an fantastic idea and potentially could be very lucrative. To get a standard library card is not really an issue, but why go for a standard library card when I can get the special "exclusive" research status one?

The National Library is a beautiful building, designed in dramatic neo-classical style it's unmissable if you go down the Paseo de Recoletos. I realised having the opportunity to take my MacBook and just sit down and write without distractions in a beautiful building surrounded by books is not to be missed. I applied online this morning, I submitted all my documents electronically only to receive an "OK" for my application and that my card was ready to be collected.

After lunch I packed my computer and went down to this gorgeous library. The security was tight, and the building was stunning. I sat down to one of the mahogany desks in the main reading room (more like a reading hall) and edited two chapters of my novel and finished my short story set in Venice. The place was a delight to work in, and I imagine I'm going to make it my new home shortly.

Sometimes it's good to find the right space. Cafés are great if you don't mind spending copious amounts of money on coffee or wine, but the library is free and focusing. I don't think I'll give up my café lifestyle completely, but my wallet would thank me for picking the latter. The place you write in is important, so make it the best you can get - and what better than the national library?

May 6, 2011

A creative hiatus - lack of commitment or a necessary evil?

I've been a bad writer during 2011. I have edited a small segment of my book, wrote maybe one and a half short stories and lately I feel I've lost my literary va va voom. I could tally a list of excuses, one of them being I wrote a 200 page PhD thesis on the "Magnetic Moment Measurements in Stable Sn isotopes using the Transient Field technique after Coulomb Excitation in Inverse Kinematics" which I suppose counts... maybe, and then went galavanting round Venice and Córdoba, hosted a bunch of guests, and am now preparing for the final 100 yards of my doctorate by getting my defense talk prepared for May the 16th. Oh and of course trying to find the answer to the dreaded question of "what to do with my life now" which is better not to even to ask.

I didn't write much but I did take pretty pictures of Venice!

Suffering from this non-Catholic guilt, I continue to beat myself up over this writing hiatus. Maybe it was a whim? A trait in my fickle personality just waiting for my next big fad. It doesn't matter I published a short story or wrote a 100,000 word novel in 3 months, am I really a writer? My friends all tell me I was exhausted; I had bigger fish to fry and writing a PhD thesis and publishing a scientific article still counts. But one useful piece of consoling advice came from another writer friend of mine on the other side of the world: All artists need to rest at times

Following in the footsteps of Byron, Thomas Mann and Hemingway counts!

Writing involves putting a lot of yourself into your work, it's an exhausting feat both physically and emotionally, and like any form of dedication everybody needs to rest at times. Like the act of dreaming processes the thoughts and events for the day like a defragmentation program, a break from writing is a necessary evil to rejuvinate the little grey cells. Opera singers can stop for a year and come back with a vengeance, so why should I waste energy feeling deflated because I lost my motivation to write? When the right moment comes I'll be ready to do it again. Forcing myself to edit a novel I don't enjoy editing will not result in a good book; forcing myself to write a short story I have no inspiration to write is futile. I have to love writing, and while discipline is good I shouldn't do it till I hate it, especially when I'm not being paid for it (yet!).

Adventures in Córdoba are inspiration. 

A friend of mine, a professional soprano, felt the same when she had a down time with getting jobs. Her mother said: "Go out, walk and swim, take care of yourself because it's all part of the job!" Living is key to the writer. Travelling as a lone woman in Venice is material for a short story; taking my mother to Córdoba on Easter Sunday adds flavours the atmosphere of my prose; going out with friends and observing people is material for writing. If one walks down the street and drinks in every gesture or describes the places they see with words of detail or even down to describing the scent of a place - they're still a writer. A writer is more than a scribe, they have the ability to bring life to words and colour them from experience. 

Details are important. 

So I took a hiatus to write a PhD thesis and to travel, maybe they'll appear in future work. So I took a needed rest to recover my exhausted brain, it's better then persisting and writing like some 17 year old on Urbis. Life takes over sometimes but it's just as important, the same goes for rest.

November 30, 2010

Getting your foot in the door of short story publishing - upping the odds?

I'm by no means a widely published author, I currently have about ten works in progress, one story ready to find a home, one almost ready for submission, and one published short story, and a novel which I really should get on editing with. However there is something I've noticed amongst the various rejection letters which become part and the parcel of getting your work out there - "this isn't suitable for us."

Now, this may be a euphemism for "this is crap but nice try," or it could actually be a comment to take at face value. I got a rejection for a journal for one of my stories which said: "this is a nice story, would have been great with the issue of our previous theme but not for the next one," which is actually a nice rejection, you'll notice that a lot of writers are happy with nice rejections, a fact most non-writers may fail to understand.

When beginning the long and painful process of trying to publish your short stories, you decide to play a lottery of submitting things to as many journals as possible and hope that the law of probabilities means that someone will eventually pick your work. How many of us read the submissions and conveniently ignore the bit that says "please buy our journal and see what we're about and if you're right for us" when we're just desperate to get published? I've purchased a few journals, but I have been too lazy busy to read them yet, and just sit on my overcrowded bookshelf making me look literary. Maybe that should be my new year's resolution? Read more lit journals as well as focus on my writing.

I got lucky with my story which was published in the Writers Abroad anthology - it was a perfect fit to the theme they were looking for. Since then I've had the brainwave to start searching for anthologies and submission calls which fit the stories I already have to offer. While you need to still have a strong piece to submit and while not any old crap will do, actually submitting to something which fits the criteria for the anthology/journal opens up the probabilities a lot! This really should be common sense, but it's also a lot harder work for the budding writer - there are so many journals and anthologies out there, how to find them?

Duotrope's Digest is a fantastic resource for looking for the right journal or anthology for you. It has EVERYTHING listed on here. Just look up anthologies only and already you're faced with a bunch of themed anthologies to pick from currently calling for submissions - maybe there is something there perfect for you? Or even something which looks interesting to write for, just for fun and to try your luck

You can also sign up to various journal's mailing list and get updates and submission calls for their themes their interested in. With a little work the opportunities will start to come, and once you start submitting your work which a magazine, anthology, or journal is looking for you might find you're more likely to find an acceptance letter than a rejection.

November 20, 2010

Read my short story "Counterfeit Goods" for free!

The "Writers Abroad Short Story Anthology 2010" has come out in time for Short Story Week  , and features a short story of mine called "Counterfeit Goods".  It features a collection of short stories by expat writers on the theme of expat life, from writers all over the world. Download the e-book for free from their website: http://www.writersabroad.spruz.com/

November 8, 2010

Literary Cabaret Night

I've recently combined forces with another friend from my writer's group to do a literary night. I've hosted private literary parties in the past (when you invite a small group of people round and read poetry and short prose and consume vast quantities of wine), and there is a bi-anual open mike night in Madrid too, which focuses on showcasing one's own work, but talking with my friend, we wanted something a little different and informal. She proposed that we should ask the bar owner the café where we hold our writers meeting to let us do something once a month - poetry and prose reading not limited to your own work. However, I have a lot of singer and musician friends and thought maybe we could open it up a bit - make it something with a literary focus, but open to the other arts, and the International Literary Cabaret Night was born. It's a bilingual night, since we had to sweet talk the owner who wasn't keen on an English only night in his bar, but we realised it's actually better to do a night in English and Spanish.

Poster Design by the lovely Lance Tooks

We did our first one back in October and it was a success!  About 20 people came and most of whom participated. Granted, this one was more poetry and prose focussed, but everyone really enjoyed it and the owner is excited for us to do the next one - which is next week.

If you're interested in coming, and you live in Madrid, it's on the 16th of November @9.30pm in Café Isadora in C/ Divino Pastor 14.  Free Entry. The International Literary Cabaret is an night of interactive Cabaret - you are the star! Read your own poetry or recite from your favourite poets; act out a scene from a play you love; sing your favourite aria; read your short stories, or just improvise. Emphasis on English or Spanish, but poetry in other languages is more than welcome! 

November 2, 2010

I'm getting published in the "Writers Abroad" anthology

I've been busy over the summer and autumn months, writing new short stories and working on the novel. In addition to that, I began the long and lengthy process of submitting a story of mine to various journals. Some say it can take up to 6 years to get your first piece published and to brace yourself for a mountain of rejection letters. I submitted into a competition (but it was a prestigious one, so I didn't have very high hopes there), and other journals - some "highbrow" ones - well you don't get if you don't try - and some lower level ones. I got a couple of rejections, some just form ones saying "not for us, thanks" and others saying "good piece, would have fitted with our last issue but not this one, please try us again though." Most of them were still in the system being reviewed.

We had a literary open mic night in Madrid where I read a couple of my poems, even though poetry is the area I feel most self-conscious of. I think out of everything I do, my poems are the most intimate and raw things I write. My friends love them, but a lot of people criticise them for being too personal. But I'm going off tangent here so back to my point, after this night the organiser emailed all the participants with a call for submissions for expat writers and with the theme of dealing with expat life, or just living abroad. The story I was already submitting to journals fit this criteria perfectly. I fit the criteria perfectly!  Anglo-Hungarian writer living in Spain, you can't get more expat than that, right? So I submitted.

 I didn't expect too much and when I got the email yesterday, I expected that it would be another rejection letter. But when I opened my email I started to tremble like a piece of cooling jelly.

"Dear Deborah
Thank you for your submission. I am pleased to inform you that your story Counterfeit Goods has been accepted for the Writers Abroad Anthology 2010 in support of National Short Story Week. "

I ran into the kitchen and showed my flatmates, to check if my eyes didn't trick me. I shook for an hour as I called and texted all my friends. It's not a big journal, no, but they are printing my story. That to me is the most important thing, and it means so much. It's a tiny step into this world, but I won't stop here. I have a few pieces I'm working on now with intention to submit, and it's all a matter of perseverance and finding the right magazine for you.

I think this last point is the key. I was lucky I found out about a call for submissions which was IDEAL for the story I had been sending out. Writing something which is good helps, but sending it to a magazine looking for something else won't really help. They key is finding the right one for your story. Rejection isn't just about quality, a good piece of work could get rejected for not being right for that magazine or issue.

Well, that is an important lesson I've learned.

If you wanna check out my story "Counterfeit Goods" - it should be up on the Writers Abroad website in about 2 weeks in electronic form: http://www.writersabroad.spruz.com/

September 5, 2010

Returning from an unintentional hiatus

I've realised it's been months since I've posted in Writing on Absinthe, which is a pity, because this blog was very useful for me to process the things I've learned as a writer. My neglect of this blog does not come from laziness, in fact I've been working (yes, still doing a PhD in Physics), writing, travelling, and sorting my life out.

I have been writing, a lot even. I've finished the first draft of the novel re-write (second version of the novel, but I still call it a first draft because I began again from scratch), which has totaled at 100,000 words. I was amazed I had the motivation to complete it, since I wrote a previous version back in November which I wasn't happy with, but I found by writing a poor quality first draft to be very educational for writing the second version. I love the story and I love the characters, although I suppose this is not unusual for a writer to love his or her own work, but I didn't like the way it was previously written. The story jumped too much without any structure, and in truth it was poorly written. But I've learned a lot since November, and if anything I've grown a lot as a writer thanks to the support I've found in my writing community who have pushed me to learn from my mistakes, as well as the vital task of just write, write, write and read, read, read. I came to the novel as a more mature writer (still with my own faults but at a marginally higher level), and I came up with a better way to structure it. So far the feedback from beta readers has been excellent, and it's really motivated me to work on it more. When someone tells me something is good, I don't feel the need to sit back and give myself a pat on the back, rather think how to make it better. Talent is one thing, but skill is only acquired through sheer hard work. Fortunately the criticism for the book I've received so far has been encouraging, but also practical - highlighting the weak points I need to work on. So the novel project is still very much a work in progress, but one which I feel has a lot of potential, but most importantly - I write it because I love it.

Evidence of my travels - Barcelona

I also undertook the ambitious task of writing a short story a week (first draft, not edited) over the summer. I don't think I met that particular target, but I did pen 8-9 stories at least which is no mean feat. An interesting thing I learned from this was that writing first drafts with such a frequency and intensity, I've already seen a rise in the quality of the first drafts. Previously, my first drafts were AWFUL, and I would edit them over and over again until they we adequate. Now, while they still need editing, I'm reaching a level where they are actually not horrific in quality. I plan on working on the best ones to consider submitting (or just hand into my writers group).

Over the summer I've only learned to just keep persisting. Write and write, but with a critical eye. To look at ones own work without the rose tinted glasses. Seek feedback from outside eyes for guidance or a just a reality check, but at the end of the day try to see things yourself. Most importantly, you have to love writing. To sit down and write and edit is not a an ordeal or a chore, you enjoy it or can't live without it. Without love, writing for any other reason is futile.

June 23, 2010

Expanding vocabulary and finding the right words

An excellent skill for a writer to develop is how to express with less. Contrary to popular belief, being able to utilise a copious amount of flowery language isn't necessarily the path to good (modern) writing. Some writers can manage wordiness if it fits their style, while others triumph in taking the minimalist approach. Back in the days when I wrote novels about terrible tragic romances with lots of sighing,  I expanded my book with elaborate words because I believed that more is more. My short story writing has reformed my wicked ways, and now instead of excessive padding aiming to compete with Russian doorstoppers, I now condense short stories into 4000 words or less, hence: cutting out the crap. You learn more by reducing your word count; it has made my writing tighter for certain.

Finding the right words is important: such as saying something with one excellent verb or noun as a descriptive replacement for the weak verb + adverb or the weak noun + adjective combinations. I plead guilty to occasional overuse of adjectives, less adverbs though since I caught the adverb cooties from having read too much on writing (I'm looking at you Mr. Stephen King). Sometimes there will be a word, too vague to convey your meaning and you hit the thesaurus for a better one.

But beware of thesauruses, named akin to a species of Dinosaur they should be treated with the same caution! Sometimes a word, even the perfect one found while perusing is a bad choice if no one knows what the word means. None of us, even literary readers want to read a book which has you reaching for the dictionary every five seconds; maybe the most educated Oxford don might be able to follow your prose, but in the lean, mean, fighting machine world of publishing it needs to appeal to the average person. Play it by eye, if the replacement word doesn't have you reaching for the dictionary then it's good to go. Read more and your vocabulary will expand.

Also think of your sentences. While editing this post I've come across many longwinded phrases which could do with a haircut. Eliminating passive voice helps, because instead of I was walking you'd use I walked: Immediately you cut a word - yay! Annihilate verbs when you don't need them and cut out pleonastic words like "just, actually, this" etc. will reduce word count.

The big question is why? Why should one cut out words? Think of it this way, expressing with less impacts more and clarifies more. Too many words and we trip over sentences.

June 16, 2010

On experience: Are writers interesting people to begin with?

I'm getting to a point where someone will invite me to do something, or go somewhere unusual and my first thought is "why not, it'll make a good story"/"It might inspire me". I'm catching myself thinking this more and more, and it's a reason that is slowly creeping up my list of priorities like ivy on a ruined house.

Writers seem to live very passionate, dramatic and interesting existences. Reading the Diaries of Anaïs Nin, the Tropics of Henry Miller or even notes of Hemingway's Parisian days makes me long for such an exotic and bohemian life. I feel it is almost a pre-requisite to be an interesting person if you want to be a writer. At the risk of sounding conceited, I'm not "boring": I grew up in England and Hungary; living the expat lifestyle since turning 20, first in Germany and now Spain. I've done my own share of unusual things from working in various physics laboratories including CERN; to lacing mezzo-sopranos up in corsets backstage at the opera. Saying that, I know a lot of people with far more interesting and glamourous lifestyles than myself, so I don't feel extraordinary.

But I do find myself saying "yes" to more things these days than before. Trying to find inspiration is hard, and there is the big ol' cliché of "Write what you know", which kinda puts a dampener on the aspiring writer with an uneventful life (a stupid cliché, considering the current popularity in fantasy, horror and sci-fi genres).  It's hard to pull a story out of thin air; in my case it's either long and complex with five million subplots or it's been done. For short stories, which are so vital to me  in teaching myself to edit, 90% of what I write about is basically a fictionalised autobiography. Even when I write a story, which is fiction, purely fiction, I find myself drawing from experiences I've had and places I've been to and really, my fiction is just my sub-conscious vomited onto the page in the form of a plot.

Is experience a valid form of research? Certainly it is, you can read about the Acropolis till the cows come home, and you might even be able to write successfully about it. But it doesn't beat going to Athens and walking the steps of the Parthenon, sitting down and feeling that hot marble soften the muscles in your back with the background noise of multilingual tourists and locals, breathing the contaminated air of Athenian pollution. You can get facts from research, but experience gives you all the sensual little details that helps a piece of fiction take life.

Every experience is of value, but sometimes we can pick and choose from the places, people and things in our life and use our imagination to write something fictional. Yet, I feel there is an invisible bank or portfolio where I can put the more interesting things from my life into and draw from them when writing. I want a heavy bank account to draw from so I'm greedy and take everything which comes (within reason...) which I could eventually use. The question is, are writers interesting because they are writers or writers because they are interesting? I think writing injects the curiosity, but it's up to the writer to do the rest.

June 15, 2010

Giving Criticism

Back in November, when I went to my first writers meeting in Madrid I was scared. Not about showing my own work (although I admit, I was a little nervous about being shot down), but for having to criticise others' work. I wasn't sure where to start. Would I hurt people's feelings, and above all did I have the right to criticise because of my lack of writing experience?

At my first writers meeting, I received a handout on a very useful template on how to critique someones work.  Now granted, I personally haven't used this exact structure in my own critiques (I prefer to give verbal feedback because I still don't feel I'm at the level to write on someone's manuscript), but it's very useful tool for giving effective critique. When I receive critiques of my own work with these points addressed it's incredibly helpful:

1. A Summary of the story in a few sentences.
2. What are the Strengths of the Story?
3. What are the Weaknesses? 
4. Suggestions for improvement.

This format is very useful because it highlights what you did well, since no one likes only negative criticism - even when it's constructive, but it also highlights one's strengths. This is good for morale, but also helps to gauge what I'm good at and it helps me to develop my positive traits and become self aware of my writing. Knowing the weaknesses of course are a necessarily evil. There is always going to be something wrong, something that seems awkward, insecure, a continuity error in the story or even just the grammar. We need our weaknesses pointed out so we can actually do something about it. It doesn't need to be disheartening, we all make mistakes - especially a novice writer. We are not born great writers even those with great talent work their butts off writing everyday and learning from mistakes; writing is a craft which needs to be worked on continuously.

My confidence has increased on the criticism front. I know a lot more about writing from my own mistakes and having read a lot of books about writing. The hours spent on redrafts and re-writes I have made on my own work has taught me to be critical, initially with my own work and now I can apply that same critical eye to the writing of others.

One doesn't need to be an expert to give criticism. This is a very important point I learned. We buy books, read magazine articles and recite poetry (ok the latter not so much...you'll find me reciting Monty Python or Black Books before poetry) and you don't have to be an expert writer to know what you like and dislike and what doesn't work. We all have opinions, sometimes that is all one needs to exercise. It's nice getting feedback from someone who knows what they are talking about, but every opinion is valid so why shouldn't your own be?

Giving your own opinion and criticisms not only helps other writers, but also helps you. It teaches you to develop the critical eye you'll need for your own work and gets you actively thinking about the strengths and weaknesses of other writers, who wont write like you do (none of us write like each other - that's the beauty!).

I think it's important to remember though that another writer's style is not yours. This is a point one also needs to bear in mind. When someone sends you their manuscript, unless they're asking you to ghost write,  for heaven's sake don't bloody rewrite it! I know it's tempting to put things in your own voice; I'll look at a sentence and think "hmmm I would have written that differently" and there is nothing wrong with the suggestion, but often there needs to be the ability to distinguish what is general criticism, something which is a universal weakness to a personal preference. It's good to be clear on these things as you are sure to see different people giving different pieces of advice. Your opinion matters and could indeed be useful, but it is subjective.

Critique the work of others and you'll be able to look at your own work objectively as well.