I made five goals for 2016 and here’s how I did…

So this time last year I set myself five goals for 2016. Time to see how I did…

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What happened

Me and my girlfriend both sat down at the end of 2015 and thought ‘What the hell have we achieved this year?’ and we couldn’t really come up with anything. It was pretty depressing, thinking that a whole year could go by and you’ve got nothing to show for it. Plus I can be quite an aimless person sometimes and my priorities can change loads from one month to the next.

I decided that for 2016 I wanted to consciously set out with around five aims in mind – even if they weren’t hugely ambitious – and then spend my year trying to achieve them.

I realise that this sounds a lot like New Year’s resolutions (and it is) but I really wanted to make sure that I stuck with these goals and didn’t just forget about them in February.

Some of the goals were quite private at the time, so I kept this to myself.

What I did

I thought about what I actually wanted to achieve in all areas of my life (relationships, work, hobbies, admin, etc).

Then I wrote my goals down on a small laminated piece of card and kept it in my wallet, meaning I got a regular reminder about what I wanted to be up to. (That’s also why it looks a bit tatty after 12 months.)

It was quite liberating actually, because once I had consciously decided on what I did want to prioritise, I stopped feeling guilty about the things I wasn’t going to achieve (like getting fit, eating healthily, etc).

Here they are.

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How I’ve done

Goal 1 – Get engaged. Well… I did get engaged to Sarah! Back in March at Tynemouth Priory. So a big tick there.

Goal 2 – Finish my novel. This was a real slog, and I had to set myself fortnightly deadlines to get anywhere with the first draft of my next novel. It turned into a bigger task than I thought and has ended up at 240,000 words. But, as I mentioned in this blog post about my latest novel, I did manage to finish it. In fact, not only did I finish a ‘rough’ and ‘raw’ first draft in September, but I’ve also written another autobiographical novel-length work since, as well as keeping a journal throughout.

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Goal 3 – Get a new job. My current role at DWP was coming to an end in October 2016 and I was apprehensive about what I would be doing after. Early in the year I managed to secure myself a continuation of that job, but then I went one further and got a job as an Account Manager at a Newcastle PR agency. So tick!

Goal 4 – Finish the house. We moved into our place in August 2014 and I had this idea that within two years we’d have it decorated. There were a few things which I ticked off this year, including getting the bedroom floor sanded and varnished, and buying furniture for the back yard so we could spend summer outdoors. There’s always more to do with home improvements – and due to lack of money I couldn’t do them all – so this one got a solid half mark.

Goal 5 – Relearn the guitar. I got a guitar last Christmas so figured I should probably learn how to play it again (after a few years of dabbling in my teens). I took a term of classes at the Sage and learnt a few songs using the Ultimate Guitar app, but I admit that I haven’t persisted with this goal so I doubt I’m any better now than I was at the beginning of the year. I say this is a fail.

Overall: 3.5 out of 5

What I learnt

One thing that I did learn from this is that the more specific a goal is, the easier it is. Think about getting engaged or getting a new job – these are momentous life events which require a lot of effort, but they’re also very tangible so it’s easy to say if you’ve achieved them or not. In future, I’d go for goals that are specific and tangible.

Also, like I mentioned before, I learnt that consciously prioritising your life is liberating. It helps you cut out distractions for other things that you could be doing, because you’ve decided not to do them. Goals might actually help you stop feeling guilty about underachieving.

Roll on 2017.

To NaNoWriMo or not to NaNoWriMo, that is the question. (And the answer is probably, yes.)

So it’s October 31st. To muggles this means Hallowe’en, but to writers it means something more important: NaNoWriMo Eve.

Writers I know are divided on whether to take part or not. (It’s the same as writing groups and retreats, in that sense.) In fact, most of them say it doesn’t work for them so they don’t bother.

I think the vote against is based on the fact that you consciously prioritise quantity over quality: a lot of the guidance on the site is about writing through the badness, ignoring the inner editor, and so on.

There’s also something subtly competitive about the month. You try to ‘win’ at writing. You’re kind of competing against other writers too, which is not normal.

So, yes, I can see why some writers don’t like NaNoWriMo. It has a specific ethos which doesn’t fit with writers who like to work autonomously and independently.

So obviously it does work best for writers who like pressure and deadlines and a kick up the arse.

I find myself somewhere in the middle camp, as I need enough pressure to make me write every day, but not so much that my creativity seizes up. (Precious, I know.)

I tried NaNoWriMo for the first time last year, and wrote about 60,000 words that November. It was for a literary epic that ended up at 250,000 words – so I couldn’t exactly celebrate at the end of the month when I was still less than halfway through my novel.

Looking back on my manuscript, I’ve also found that my NaNoWriMo chapters are less focused and less convincing than those I wrote more slowly over the following 9 months. It’s as if I didn’t have time to do the mental prep-work I usually need, and ended up rambling as a result.

However, this year my writing project is much more suitable to NaNoWriMo. It feels like it will be 50,000 words; it’ll have short chapters, so I could write about one per day; I have 25-30 chapters left, which could take me 6 months unless I just get my act together; and it’s autobiographical and an ‘easy write’ so I feel like the voice and quality will be there.

So, if you’re still trying to decide whether to NaNoWriMo or not, ask yourself:

  • How do I write best: under pressure or with space?
  • Does my project fit into the timeframe?
  • What’s the ratio of mental time vs writing time?

Ultimately regardless of all that, I think it’s good for writers to get out of our comfort zone and try a new way of composing. So unless you’ve got a writing routine that works perfectly for you, just do it.

For me, the answer for Year 2 is yes. How about you?

Why not being a writer is good for writers

I’ve follow Amie McNee for a while on Instagram and read her latest blog post dealing with that awful question for aspiring writers: “But what’s your real job?”

This got me thinking (and I never know where I fall on this debate so I thought for a long time!)

I find answering this question so awkward that I always say I’m a PR man who does creative writing as a hobby. So first of all: well done Amie and everyone else who proudly says “I am a writer!” It takes guts.

But there are things I don’t quite agree with – and I don’t think it’s just me being pedantic (though that has been known).

First off all a ‘job’ is whatever pays your bills, so if you ain’t getting at least some cashflow from writing, then writing ain’t your job. It can be your passion, your goal, hell even your life purpose (all of which are more meaningful than just a job) but it can’t be your job.

Secondly, just as we should be proud as writers, we shouldn’t be ashamed of our jobs. Loads of aspiring, and even successful, writers have jobs as teachers or PRs or freelancers or lawyers or whatever. If you’re in denial about the fact you’re not a full-time paid writer, then that’s not healthy.

Thirdly (and this is where my title makes sense) I think there’s a way of solving the writer-job conflict. I think we’ve got to embrace our shitty time-consuming jobs which take us away from our real passion. That’s right, cherish all of those frustrating emails and long meetings and 7-hours-a-day spent away from your novel.

I’m not just being facetious here. I genuinely think there’s merit in having a separate work life: it’s full of writerly material like characters and situations you don’t get elsewhere; it connects you to a different world in which your priorities don’t matter; its humbling; it forces you to analyse yourself and your environment.

For me, one of the worse sins that full-time writers commit is writing a novel about writers and writing. JK Rowling does it with Cormorant Strike investigating the publishing world. Richard Yates does it in Young Hearts Crying. Even Philip Roth is guilty.

These are the books in which you have a character or narrator who is a novelist or poet and they spend their time writing and thinking about writing. And it’s all because the real writer has nothing else to talk about. Professional writers have no material as compelling, no passion or drive as vital, as those of us who spend our time at some other job.

So I think we should use our jobs for our own purpose. To mine material, to make us more determined and focused. That’s what some great work-based novels do, like Heller’s Something Happened and Yates’ Revolutionary Road.

That’s why for me, not being a writer is one of the best things for my writing.

New things I like

I work in PR and marketing, so I always keep my eyes and ears open for cool new things.

I noticed two TV ads recently which I thought were really unexpected and impactful.

One is by Nationwide and is a series featuring spoken-word poets “talking about what’s important to them” – I particularly liked the delivery of Hollie McNish’s poem ‘Little Things’.

The other is by TalkTalk, and is essentially a mini fly-on-the-wall documentary of a regular family in their house, called ‘This Stuff Matters’.

I was wondering what stood out about these ads.

I guess one thing is personal preference: I like spoken-word poetry, and I like subtle and low-key advertising, so both of these naturally would appeal to me.

But I was also thinking that every type of media—TV, newspaper, radio, online, social, etc—has its own set of rules and expectations. It’s similar to films and novels, where each genre has its own tropes, like the happy ending in a rom-com or the obligatory action-film car chase.

If brands are aware of these expectations, they can cleverly subvert them and stand out.

The tropes that I expect from a TV ad are things like: sleek production quality, emotive music, professional voiceover, attractive product shots, maybe some story-telling with a character and plot.

So I like these two ads because they both subvert those expectations. They use the tropes of different media like documentary and poetry, and they draw on these different qualities, using them in a big broadcast channel.

I think this is better for the brand and the customer, to be honest. At least it prevents us from living in some homogenous environment where the media we consume all live up to our expectations.

 

A poem for the writers, on National Poetry Day

Here’s a poem I wrote a few months ago, just for the hell of it. I found it hiding in notebook just now.

Happy National Poetry Day!

The writer

The writer is an accomplished child-minder,
decorator, gardener, husband, father,
amateur footballer, barista, shopper,
cleaner, driver, office worker and cook.

The writer’s time is not his own,
but borrowed by family and friends.
The writer’s mind is not his alone,
but taken by chores, to-do lists and debts.
The writer is a busy island.

Then the writer creates another world for himself.
Takes a pen and carves time in his making.
The movement of his hands describes new lands.
When the house is quiet, when the streets are dark,
by the light of the desk lamp, the writer writes and writes.

Why I stopped blogging and started journalling . . . and why I’m now doing both

The problem with blogging

I’ve blogged on and off for a few years.

I used to write a blog called Really Practical Criticism, where I did “close readings of modern life” (that was 2011-12). And then more recently I just wrote updates on my minor successes as an aspiring writer, like when I got published in a magazine or something (around 2013-14).

Then I just stopped. To be honest, I didn’t really see the point in blogging: it takes a long time, a lot of effort to maintain, and not many people were reading what I was writing.

The fact is, in a blog you write for an audience, and not only do you edit and revise your work to interest or impress them, you also self-censor before you even start writing. Personally I ended up double-guessing and overthinking. Instead of using it as a way to exercise my creativity in a relaxed way, I would end up asking myself: what should I write about, what would interest people, how can I make this more interesting, etc, etc?

It wasn’t that I didn’t have any ideas; I had tonnes of thoughts and I also had the desire to say things honestly and clearly, but didn’t feel comfortable expressing them through this medium.

The benefits of journalling

So this time last year (Sunday 2nd August 2015 to be precise) I started writing a journal instead.

I didn’t set out to journal, it just started naturally. I happened to be travelling on a long train journey for work, and had a notebook and pen on me. I was annoyed about not being able to find enough time to write my novel, and so I basically scribbled down a long rant about it.

Then over the following weeks I wrote my thoughts about books and magazines I was reading, kind of like ‘literary criticism lite’. I also wrote about my novel: trying to articulate the plot and characters, or just venting the troubles I was having with it.

Within a year, I have filled five notebooks with thoughts on books, writing, relationships, work, life, basically whatever interests me at that time.

Writing a private journal solves all of the problems that I had with blogging: there’s no self-censorship, no audience, just my own small thoughts. I write whenever I want – sometimes with a fortnight gap, and then sometimes twice in one day. It’s inspiration-based.

If you haven’t tried it, I would seriously recommend it. Just pick up a pen and paper and write whatever comes into your head. You’ll be amazed what you end up writing, and the act of articulating your priorities and problems will help you understand them better too.

The problems with journalling

As you might have guessed, my decision to start journalling came out of a bigger desire to become more self-aware. At the same time, I was lucky enough to get onto a development course at work, which meant I had my own coach and mentor who were posing loads of intriguing questions to me. So most of my thinking during the past year was focused on how I could understand and improve myself. If you’d asked me at any point what the key to life was, I’d say self-awareness. And journalling was a key part of my self-awareness.

But then I started having my doubts. This summer I happened to be reading The Sportswriter by Richard Ford: it’s a great book, but the narrator is a frustrating guy. He is passive, non-committal, numb and cynical – everything that I was trying to avoid being.

But then I started to understand his philosophy. What he’s critical of is people who take a reductionist approach to life, especially writers and teachers. He talks a lot about when he was “seeing around”, by which he means being distanced from his own feelings and trying to analyse and objectify them. The better alternative is actually to be “fully in your emotions, when they are simple enough to be in” and to “relinquish and stop worrying”.

All of this got me thinking: is journalling actually the right thing to do? I had been labouring under the impression that my attempts were well-guided and noble, but what if they weren’t? What if in reality I was just feeding and fuelling my neurotic desire to be in control of situations, to analyse ‘objectively’, to create my own private forum in which I was always right—when in reality I would be better off trying to live authentically and “be in” my feelings rather than “seeing around” them?

What next?

This is all a long way of saying that writing in a journal is great, but it’s not everything. In many ways, being introspective means being isolated. Explaining means explaining away. And that thinking you’re self-aware shows a real lack of self-awareness.

And in many ways, I missed having that dialogue with the outside world. Maybe instead of marshalling my thoughts on private things, I could be blogging ideas about media and copywriting and design and other things that interest me. If form determines content, teh medium of blogging would make space for new ideas. (It might also make me a more light-hearted person, lol.)

So now that I am going back to agency life professionally, I want to be more extroverted and outgoing in my writing – and intend to start blogging more regularly, as well as journalling whenever the inspiration takes me.

Do you journal and/or blog? What do you think?

I finished my novel! (Well, the first draft)

I’m very happy and relieved to say that I finally finished the first draft of my novel today!

That’s right. After a false start in 2014 and then about year of concerted concentration, my novel English Interiors has now got a beginning, a middle and an end. So I decided to celebrate by printing it all out in this big wad of literary loveliness.

img_0016 Excellent news, I know. Thanks very much. You’re too kind.

Now I know there are tonnes of problems with it which I need to sort out, including the fact that characters’ names and personalities change throughout (or they just disappear entirely), and there are pages and pages of longueurs, and the pivotal middle section is an incoherent mess.

I also need to ask myself some pretty fundamental questions like: is this one novel or a trilogy? It weighs in at 240,000 words (which is about 800–1000 pages) so I either need to cut it in half somehow, or split it into three.

In fact, I know that the second draft is probably going to be longer and harder than this one – next I need to figure out what it’s actually about, how it all fits together, how to cut out extraneous scenes and how to make the language sing.

But for now I’m just going to breathe and relax and enjoy the fact that my first draft exists.

Anyway – regardless of what happens in the future, this is the most rewarding thing I have done. Ever. (Maybe.) It’s the only thing in my life that I am completely responsible for, and that I can take all the credit for. I’m massively proud of the fact that I had a goal and stuck with it.

I hate cheesy quotes, but a few months back when I wanted to ditch the whole thing, one of them spurred me on:

You only fail if you don’t try, not if you don’t succeed.

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