Monday, 29 August 2016

August Reflections

August should be like a summer siesta – long, dreamy and lazy. Here’s some of the things I’ve been pondering upon this month…


‘One must maintain a little bit of summer, even in the middle of winter.’ - Henry David Thoreau

There is such an intrinsic link between mood and season. I personally adore Autumn but some people are mournful when it begins. This brilliant Thoreau quote reminds us that there is always a little room for summer living – whether it’s more time in the garden or eating more ice cream.


This month I’ve been reading (as well as listening and watching) Elizabeth Gilbert. She has a book called Big Magic, presents a podcast called Magic Lessons and has delivered two amazing TED talks, all about the mysteries and delights of the creative process. I’ve adopted her as my mentor because her kind, encouraging and daring voice fills me with inspiration and joy to carry on. Big Magic dispels myths like creative people have to suffer for their art, as well as pinpointing exactly what it is that makes the act of creating so unique. I loved this line: ‘All I know for certain is that this is how I want to spend my life – collaborating to the best of my ability with forces of inspiration that I can neither see, nor prove, nor command, nor understand.’ Well, when you put it like that…


This month I’ve been thinking about comfort zones in writing. A while back I wrote about what Julia Cameron calls the ‘vein of gold’ (read it here) – the subjects that move and fascinate you and that make your work more vivid when you tap into them. Whilst I think this idea is so true I also think we have our own comfort zones – maybe writing the same character, sticking to the same setting or holding on to the same structure. As I delve into a new project that tackles new territory for me it can be scary to leave the comfort zone. I’m working through this by fully immersing myself in this brave new world whilst staying fully anchored to the themes and issues that I cherish.

Focus on…Full sensory Living

As writers, we’re encouraged to capture the details. I always love reading prose that brings the taste or sound of something to life. This month, notice what makes your five senses happy and make an effort to treat yourself to the things that you love to see, taste, smell, touch and hear.

Three things to look forward to in September:

1. The influx of stationary – infinitely comforting for those who the phrase ‘back to school’ still haunts to this day.
2. The last of summer in the garden.
3. Making a spiced apple cake.

Blog posts to catch up on from August:

How was your August? Let me know in the comments below…

Monday, 22 August 2016

A Literary Alphabet: C is for Classic

‘A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.’
-  Italo Calvino

For a lot of people, a classic is an old book that it sounds good to say you’ve read - probably written by a dead author, something quite long and something we know is ‘good for us’. I think we need to move towards Calvino’s definition of a classic as something that endures, transcends time and generation, and poses questions about and offer solutions for the issues of our time. Another quote from Calvino says that ‘there is nothing for it but for all of us to invent our own ideal libraries of classics.’ I love this idea. It puts the categorisation process into the hands of the readers. When you decide upon your classics you might ask yourself:

  • Do I feel a strong connection to the book regardless of when it was written?
  • Do I continue to think about the book well after finishing it?
  • Do I find myself revisiting and rereading the book?
  • Do I find the book has an effect on my life?

With this in mind I would start my list with Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence, Villette by Charlotte Bronte and Atonement by Ian McEwan.

What would make your personal list of classics?

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Should I Give up on a Writing Project?

You’re in the middle of a project, or maybe right at the beginning of one, and you feel like you want to give up. The big hopes you had for it are evaporating with every tap of the keyboard. I want to help you to get through this bump in the road and see the project through to the end. Let’s look at some of the typical reasons you might abandon a writing project and some of the ways you can overcome them.

Issue: I hate the character/setting/plot etc...

Sometimes writing can feel laborious and you feel tired of immersing yourself in what you see as your own ‘bad’ writing. It’s important to remember that you are in control and can change anything at any time. Identify exactly what you are unhappy with. Let’s say it’s your protagonist. Can you change anything? Their gender? Their age? Give them a softer or darker side? Basically, play around before you give up.

Issue: I don’t know what should happen next…I have no idea how it will end…

Although it can be frustrating and even scary not knowing what exactly will happen, I do think this is part of the writing process. That uncertainty can be exciting too. A good exercise to do in these situations is to free write for a set amount of time about everything that could happen – a solution may emerge. Alternatively, write a list of fifty ways your story might end. Play around with those different scenarios.

Issue: I don’t have time to write…

Finding a routine is difficult when your starting to write or you’ve recently had a change in lifestyle. Start small and find five or ten minutes when you can write. Be workman-like, and just write without stopping. Don’t expect to write huge swathes in these windows of opportunity. A consistent, daily output, however small, will help you build up over time.

Issue: I’m not good enough to write this…

Imposter syndrome can occur at any time, even when we’re nurturing our own ideas. You may feel the subject matter is too intimidating for you or you may think ‘who am I to write a novel?’ It’s so important to relinquish these thoughts. Forget self-doubt and lose yourself in the story, keep researching and keep writing. The idea chose you, meaning you are exactly the right person to do it.

Issue: There’s another idea I want to pursue…

This is definitively something I can relate to. Sometimes. half way through something, a seductive idea will tap at your shoulder and demand your attention. I think whether you decide to abandon something in favour of a new project depends on how far you’ve got with the original work. It’s important to follow a project through to the end and honour the idea. If, though, you’ve just started why not jump ship and seek out that exciting escapade?

So, should I give up on a writing project?

You are the only person that can judge this – it’s a writer’s instinct. If you really feel it’s not working have some time away from it and move on to something else. If it’s meant to be, the idea will stay with you until your impelled to go back to it. It may be the case of the right project at the wrong time. In other words, don’t write anything off even if you do decide to leave it for a while.

How do you keep going with your writing projects and resist giving up?

Monday, 15 August 2016

Book Group Notes: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

The Literary Lady’s Book Group Guides are designed to generate discussion at your book group or as a way of enhancing your own reading experience. The discussion points offer a ‘route’ through the book but don’t feel you need to stick too rigidly to it if an interesting topic comes up that needs further discussion!

About the Book

Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is a perfect book group read. Its philosophical themes are guaranteed to have your group talking. Wilde nimbly threads beautiful prose together with a simple yet dazzling premise: what would happen if it was possible to remain young and beautiful forever? 

Discussion Points:

- Who is to blame for Dorian’s downfall?

- What does the book tell us about the body and its relationship with beauty and sin?

- One review at the time said the novel ‘constantly hints at disgusting sins and abominable crimes.’ What is left unsaid in the book?

- Wilde is predominately known for his playwriting (this was his only novel). Do you think it was obvious from his writing style that he had a background in theatre? How would this novel play out on the stage?

- Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry is what the world thinks of me: Dorian is what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps.’ This what Wilde had to say about his lead characters. Do you think authors tend to write extensions of their own fantasies? Discuss how autobiography influences writing.

- Is this a timeless story? Are there any parallels between the book and our beauty culture today?

- The character of Dorian has several reincarnations in popular culture. Why do you think this figure endures?

- With its themes of double identities, narcissism and temptation indulged, did the book remind you of any other works? 

- What is the significance of space and setting in this book?

Have you read The Picture of Dorian Gray? Let me know what your book group make of it…
More Book Group Guides: Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote 

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Inspiration: Writing from Life

“Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind, is written large in his works.” - Virginia Woolf
A few months ago in a post I wrote about finding inspiration (you can read it here) I mentioned that our own lives are rich with material for us to extract and shape into something creative. Novels like Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar demonstrate the potency of writing real things. Writing from life lends an edge to fiction, a priceless authenticity.
Having said that, I do believe though, that all writing is writing from life. Even the most fantastical writing is grounded in reality. Every character you write has an origin, however small, in your own life. The adage of ‘write what you know’ always strikes me as limiting. I prefer to think of it as a framed painting. The canvas itself could depict any number of exotic, distant, make believe images but all four corners are firmly hemmed in by a frame. The frame is your knowledge, the things you’ve observed. Whatever you write, that frame of experience is hugging it closely.
I once read about a writing tutor who said the best advice he could give his young writing students was to go out and live life; to have their hearts broken, fail at something, travel the world. I think just by simply being alive you have something to write about. We all, for instance, have been children and have known the complexities of growing up. That’s a big theme that we can instantly draw from life. But then there are also the little things – the nervous way a person plays with their food, the annoying habit another person has of correcting your pronunciation- these things add a layer of recognition for the reader.
If we all have a fountain of experience to draw from, why then are we not all writers? I think the key lies in being able to use our life experience. I think that, like painters, we writers need to practice our still life skills. Writers need to try and recreate real life on the page. One way to do this is to treat your characters as if they are real. If you do, then, strangely over time, they begin to disobey you, flout your direction and go their own way. This is when you know that you’ve created someone authentic and dynamic.
There is something empowering about using our memories and experiences for inspiration. It can be therapeutic, a sort of alchemy in which dull, difficult periods are turned into something dazzling and made meaningful on the page. That’s not to say that our characters our just fictional versions of ourselves – although they can be. They are parts of us, the people we want to be, the people we think we could have been, the people we’re afraid to be. They’re the parts of people we’ve met, the pieces of the people we love. Writing from life can be painful, healing, revealing, inspiring. Life ‘is written large’ in our stories because all writing is life.
Do you find yourself drawing from real life in your writing? Let me know in the comments below...

Sunday, 7 August 2016

A Literary Alphabet: B is for Bookshop Dreams

For some of us, a bookshop is a spiritual home. It is where we begin new journeys, learn new things and feel comfort in being surrounded by like-minded souls. My love of bookshops has got me dreaming about the ultimate fantasy bookshop scenarios…

  1. To enter a bookshop and find a display table with your name on it, stacked with recommended books tailored to your every whim and desire.
  2. To go up to the cash desk and discover an unused book voucher in your purse. Free Books = unbeatable.
  3. To enter a bookshop and find a bed with a meringue-like duvet and for it to be perfectly acceptable to lie down with a book.
  4. Arrive at a bookshop and find that one of your favourite authors (whether living or not) is doing a book signing.
  5. Finding a signed, first edition among the shelves.
  6. Discovering your favourite bookshop operates within its own time zone that allows you to browse for hours but takes up only seconds in real time.
  7. Stumbling upon a secret, forbidden floor of books.
  8. Encountering your very own Mr. Darcy (or Mr. Knightley) when you both reach for the same book. Cue romantic plotline.
  9. (One for the writers) Finding your own book for sale with the perfect cover and a picture of you looking perfectly photogenic.
  10. Being allowed a bookshop entirely to yourself. Imagine a completely quiet shop floor with just the words of Dickens and Defoe, Shakespeare and Shelley for company.

Whilst these fantasies are very enticing to the imagination, when it comes to bookshops all we really want is to step inside, be transformed and come away with a new adventure.

Which of these do you love? Have you had an amazing experience in a bookshop? Let me know in the comments section below!

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Getting Children into Reading: Part Two - Ages 5-12

‘You can find magic wherever you look.  Sit back and relax all you need is a book!’ - Dr. Seuss

In the last post of this series, I looked at getting under five year olds into reading. In this post, I’ll talk about some of the ways you can make your five to twelve year olds fall in love with reading for life. Primary school is a crucial time for a child’s relationship with reading. Reading can easily become something associated with the bind of school and homework and academic attainment, so it’s important to make sure that your child is having time to actually enjoy and cherish books.

  • Get them to write a letter to their favourite character. They could write to Matilda and ask what it felt like to have magical powers. Or they could write to Newt Scamander about some of the magical beasts they’ve discovered.
  • A wonderful way to get children to interact with a book is to get them to illustrate a story or scene. This will encourage them to draw out the imaginative, striking images within the text.
  • Watch adaptations of their favourite books. Encourage them to think about how watching a film is different to reading a book.
  • Give them book vouchers and encourage your friends and relatives to do the same. The novelty of being able to buy a book will give them a sense of excitement about reading what they choose.
  • Heighten their reading experience by employing sensory techniques. Employ a range of textures, sights and sounds for them to explore as they read.
  • Let them read to you. This is a great way of bonding over books as well as being an opportunity to help them with pronunciation.
  • Now is a great time to get children into creative writing. Staple together some sheets of paper so they have a ‘real’ book to work with. It’s a good idea to give them a prompt of some kind like ‘heroes and villains’ or give them a starting sentence like ‘I opened the mystery door and…’
  • Take trips inspired by your reading. Open up the worlds they are exploring a little more by visiting museums and other places connected to a book. Reading Goodnight Mister Tom, for example, could be enhanced, by visiting the Imperial war museum.
  • Ask them questions about what they read. This will help them to draw out the issues being explored in their storybooks, develop empathy and increase engagement.
Coming Soon: Getting children into reading – teens.

Which of these ideas appeals to you? Let me know in the comments below…

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