I read in the New Scientist recently about what makes our brain create habits. Or, rather, how and why we form them and the role of the brain.
It spoke about how the brain tries to sort repeated behaviour from that which changes or are isolated incidents it has to deal with. So, if you make your toast every morning for breakfast with marmalade, for example, the brain then shifts that into the subconscious or non-consciously thinking part of the brain. Basically, it does this so you don’t have to worry about it anymore. So that making toast is a non-stressful activity. Bluntly, it needs no conscious thought anymore. Let’s face it, you have enough to worry about and the brain is just trying to help. You need to eat and toast is, well, tasty, but not rocket science.
But, by moving it into becoming a habit, well, you stop thinking about it. So the idea goes that it frees up your brain to think about what it needs to – like the bills which have come through the post, the exciting invite about going for cocktails tonight and what to wear, and what to cook your picky family members for tea tonight etc… Your brain has enough to worry about, so filing away all those jobs which can become automatic makes them habits. If you eat toast every morning with marmalade, so it becomes a ‘habit’. So changing it becomes harder. If you decide to quit smoking, eating chocolate, or decide give up drinking for a while you’ll know that your brain is constantly reminding you of the habit; 'gotta eat chocolate'. I know that one far too well. Apparently, depending on the task, the person (lots of variables) it can take around sixty four days to stop a habit or start a new one and get it into being a subconscious action or activity.
What has this got to do with writing? If you are a new writer and reading stuff that writers have written about being a writer, you’ll frequently read them saying ‘just write’, or ‘I write 1,000 words a day’ or ‘it doesn’t matter what you write, write anything’. For a new writer this is tough, it seems like a mountain. Also, it doesn’t always make sense. Surely you want to write quality stuff. Not anything?? But for a writer who has been writing for years, unless they are faced with writer’s block and then they write through it most of the time, this is just a habit. They are saying, join our club and make writing a habit. You can’t call yourself a runner if you don’t run. Or a jam maker if you don’t make jam. Just write.
It isn’t hard for an old writer, because it has already become a habit. So, if you are reading this finding it hard to write, find the time to write, write really well, write stuff you are proud of…just write. Write until it becomes a habit. Then you’ll be trapped, just like us, with the writing bug. I may not be the best writer – clearly (ahem) – but I do try to write every day. Certainly Monday to Friday. It is harder at the weekends, when people descend on you, or you find yourself going places. You have to live, it mustn’t be a stressful task. Writing is a hobby, a habit, a place to escape.
You’ll wake up sorting out your day so you have a few hours if you are lucky to be able to write. You’ll be amazed what you will give up, as a writer, to write. A great invitation to go out. A sunny day outside. The chance to spend time cooking, or learning the ukulele. Why? Because all these things take time when you could be writing.
For more information from the article in The New Scientist about how your brain turns actions into habits, read Teal Burrell’s article: https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22930560-600-take-control-of-your-life-by-mastering-the-force-of-habit/
For most authors, it would not even be an issue - whether to publish in paperback. Before I had said paperback, I remember telling my father that I wasn't going down that route, that there are enough trees destroyed every year just to make books. That the future was e-reading. Then I got asked 'When is the paperback coming out?' In fact, for most of my friends (my age), surprisingly the paperback, or physical book is the norm. So, yet another hypocritical u-turn (my life is littered, believe me), and here I am.
If you think 'Oh, she's making such a fuss about nothing', just note that approximately thirty million trees are cut down every year just to satisfy the U.S. book industry, let alone the global. Read HERE
So I have done it. I don't feel as good about it as I should. Especially as my book isn't short (so more pages, more trees). But I can blame no one but myself. I have chosen to do it. I can only hope that it gets away with it in the name of art. That if there are any excuses for using paper these days, printing out agendas for meetings, printing out endless copies of reports etc...
Perhaps one day books will be used in some clever way in recycling, like old car tyres in playgrounds, or bottles in clothing. Let's hope
In the meantime, it was nice to meet Mike Ripley of Shots Magazine, a crime magazine he runs, back in the summer. Check him out HERE (he kindly gave me a mention too!)
Now it is winter I am increasingly feeling like a hedgehog, or some other hibernating animal, hidden under two blankets, and can be usually found on the sofa. Sometimes my pulse lowers to extraordinary low levels. I know this, because in winter there is bugger all else to do – well that I like doing – than being cosy inside, and well, taking my heart rate (it is easy and involves not much energy to do).
I have tried outdoor pursuits. I love the idea of getting up early and going to watch the murmurations. Yes, I’m all talk. The reality is that I am not an outdoor person in less than clement weather. Perhaps in the ‘old days’, whenever they were, had I been born into a wealthier family, I may have gone south for the winter. Sat in some café in Malta, or even further afield, perhaps Morocco, to take in the warm air and avoid the incessant darkness that descents on us all in good ole’ England at this time of year.
But although I love my father dearly, wealthy he’s not, so here I am, inside, just at four fifteen in the afternoon, with a single light on. Alone (I like my own company, don’t feel sorry for me), writing. Sometimes I think I get more done in the winter, writing that is. Because of the limited opportunities for a scaredy-cat like me – not out kite surfing, I take advantage and sit at my computer.
It makes me wonder how many other writers are more productive at this time of year. I suspect the answer is most. So I should thank the bleak days and the long nights for one thing. For giving me more time to scribble and scratch in my brain for ideas to translate onto the page. Of course, there is always more time for sleep too, my second favourite pastime.
Cambridge inspired me to write the Cambridge Murder Mysteries. I wanted to write for those people who live in Cambridge and love it like I do. I also wanted to be able to dig deeper and learn more about the city myself. All the iconic and notable buildings and locations make such an impression on both local and tourist.
I had to make some tough decisions. At first I wanted to write about the Colleges that exist in Cambridge, because I am so in awe of them. I also realized that my novels in this series are so unrealistic – being murder mystery genre – that it would probably be fine to use the real College names, as no one would believe that what happened in my books would really happen in the real colleges.
But thinking again, and realizing there are reasons why writers don’t use real places sometimes, I decided to change the names to make up fictional colleges, which would just be inspired by the real ones. So, the colleges in my novels are entirely made up. It is important for me to clarify this, as it is important that anything I write is seen as fiction, and not what happens in the actual ‘real’ colleges.
I have kept street names, so for those people who know Cambridge, they can imagine the fictional colleges where actual colleges might be. This enables me to keep the feel of Cambridge city centre, which is so important, given I base the murder mysteries in this beautiful location. So I want people to be able to picture the streets, avenues, parks and other places.
I have kept real pub names. This is out of respect for great places to drink! I’d like to think that perhaps if someone reads my book(s), they might go and visit, if they feel so inclined. Cambridge has the best pubs! (I am biased, I know). Characters may pop in for a drink and meet in these pubs in the novel(s). No one has been murdered in a pub yet, but if they are, I will make up that pub name and it won't be one of Cambridge's beloved pubs (out of respect to the real pubs and not wanting readers to think they are dangerous places!)
There are also some real restaurants I mention as well. Places I like to go and have known and feel are landmarks. For the same reason, if anything like a poisoning happens in a restaurant I make up the name and that restaurant does not exist in real life. Again, this is to protect any real business reputation.
None of the characters in the book(s) are based on anyone in any of the colleges in real life either. They are completely from my own imagination.
Sometimes people ask – friends – if I will put them in my books. I have to say no. First, I’d hate to ever upset anyone. What I might find amusing, someone else might find insulting! Also, I write fiction for the very reason that I like making stuff up. If I wanted to write about real people I’d be writing biographies. So, no, there are no characters based on any real people I have ever met, not will there be. They are all a mash of influences and ideas. I hope you like them. If you think you see someone you know in the book. Then that’s just your imagination working overtime ;)
Finally, Cambridge is the main character in my book(s). I cannot stress enough that I put in locations, places only with the deepest respect. I revere the city. The same goes for the university. It has given me so much, and I believe is the best academic institution in the world! I hold it with such fondness and affection, and always will.
Ricky Gervais is my hero.
I used to watch The Office many years ago in the UK, and when I worked at the BBC I once saw Ricky sitting in the old TVC HQ, in the doughnut seating outside enjoying a coffee. I wanted to say hello, but more wanted to leave him in peace. Not only is he a great comedian and clever writer. But he’s a champion for all the animals. So, he’s got my vote.
I started to follow Ricky on Twitter a while back and Ricky relentlessly shares news about animal welfare on Facebook too, if you are interested. One particular message he sent today made me want to write this.
When you are in power as a ‘celebrity’ or A lister, it is easy just to shut the windows, close the doors and enjoy your wealth and power quietly. Let’s face it, it would be tempting to protect your anonymity and perhaps follow a less controversial path. But Ricky Gervais fearlessly sticks his head above the parapet and shouts loudly about animal cruelty whenever he can, supporting those animals without a voice. Not for any benefit to himself. Just because he cares.
Today I read something Ricky had shared on Facebook, which I genuinely knew nothing about: the breeding of lions for shooting, called ‘canned lions’. Hunting for fun. It made me cry, at the crazy world in which we live where such a practice takes place? How far are we going to go to destroy this beautiful planet we live on, and all the wonderful creatures on it, which have to put up with us, crowding out their habitat and trampling all over them?
WATCH THE TRAILER
It looks like the film is out in July by a brave soul, Ian Michler. Thank goodness for the brave, protecting animals wherever they can. Go Ricky, go. Keep it up. As Johnny Depp said too, if you want the horrid pictures of animal cruelty to stop in your inbox, then let's stop the animal cruelty.
ABOUT IAN MICHLER
When I started writing ‘Poison’ I thought that would be the hardest bit, waiting for the ideas to flow. And to a certain degree it was. When you start something, you have so much choice, so many possible forks in the road to take. You have to think carefully, what is the story you want to tell, what is the tone. Do you want to write a grisly gruesome murder, a romance, a literary novel, a comedy? Do you want something surreal, or is this a book based on a true story? Choosing the avenues to pursue take time at the start.
Then you find your stride and off you go. Whether you’ve plotted it out carefully at the start, or you’re deciding to let the book lead you, this must be the favourite bit for an author. The writing. As it allows you, just like when reading a book, to enter a world outside of your own, outside of reality. You are able to escape, pretend, imagine. The only things that stop you are you either run out of ideas, or you have to put the washing on (or something as mundane which takes time and takes you away from your first love).
Then you get close to finishing. Again you are faced with questions, lots of them. Like, is it good enough? How many times should you polish it, before you risk changing the shape of what you wrote in the first place? You may have done two, three, maybe six drafts of your book. Then there comes a day when you say, enough, I’ve finished. I can move on. Little do you know - if it is your first book - that this is only the beginning again. You need to show it to others, get their opinions, and if needs be reshape bits that they didn’t understand or have given you notes on. That’s if you trust them.
Then you need to think about a cover and an ebook conversion company (if you choose to use one). Which ones? There is so much choice. More decisions. These aren’t decisions a writer likes to make. They’ve written their fiction, they want to go back to their fantasy imagination and write the next thing. Not get stuck in the hard reality of marketing. Making your book stand out on the ‘shelf’ so people see it, want to read it. The writer is really only interested in what is inside, it is all they know most of the time. It can get quite stressful, making all these choices.
If you are selling your book on Amazon then you need a profile. A lot of writers are quite solitary. They don’t want a profile. In fact they’d rather they were not even on the cover, preferring to remain almost unknown, save for hearing people say they enjoyed entering the world they created. It’s just more things that take you away from the writing, from sitting in your shed, spare room, lovely desk somewhere else by the window, for hours upon hours in another world. Publicity is the opposite of that. The last thing you will have thought of as a writer, believe me, is the need to get a good photo, not having gone out much before or seen anyone, let alone having a photo taken of them. Too busy sitting in the shed. Then you can’t mention in the blurb that you love your cat, or like camping, or anything that doesn’t resonate with the book. How can you write a thriller but help hedgehogs cross the road at weekends? The two don't gel for your audience. So you create a profile people want to read, leaving out the interesting quirky things that don't mesh with your genre.
As for me, I survived. Self publishing my novel felt a bit like when I had finished my PhD, and was reading through it for typos, checking it before it went off to the printers. Then the waiting, for someone to read it (in this case two examiners who had to test my hypothesis). Hopefully more than two for my novel, but equally I wait to see how the book is received. Completely prepared for both the good and the bad reviews. Who can tell and you sure can't please everyone.
In the meantime, I'd like to thank Robin Howlett, a very talented illustrator, who helped me enormously by providing a cover which would get people to read my book. He made it easy for me, took all the stress out of it, and provided such a wonderful cover I probably look at it more than I should, not because of my book, but because I love it (and his other illustrations on his website). Please do visit his site you will see so many great illustrations HERE
I would also like to thank Peter at BlueWavePublishing, who provided an ebook conversion service. Basically did all the IT that makes the whole thing readable on your Kindle or iBook once I'd written the thing. Who knew how complicated it could be? Peter did, which is why I used him. If you want a very patient and really supportive ebook conversion service then check him out HERE
I’ve already thanked the people who read this book and spotted typos in the dedication page of the novel, but they deserve to be thanked twice at the very least! Katie, Penny, John, Lindsay, Jo and my father John. Thanks for spotting the dreaded grammar and spelling mistakes. Without yew my buk wud h’ve loaked moore like thes.
If you are writing your first book, don't give up. Just keep going. If you are doing it alone, like I did, then I applaud you even more. I'm sure, like me, you'll wonder if you are doing the right thing at times. But remember why you started. Because you wanted to escape into another world. And if people read your book and you succeed in taking then on that journey too, and they enjoy it, then you have done your job.
What makes a good story? Reams and reams have been written on this, and creative writing courses up and down the country discuss the question at length. Is writing so scientific that if there are enough twists and turns, surprises, great protagonists who wrestle with what they want and what they need, are torn and tested through the story with obstacles in their path, reach a fork in the road and ultimately change by the end - once they have been tested - if all these requirements are part of some prescription will the story be a success? If there are inciting incidents and something is at stake all the way through, if we see the protagonist learn in the end but not before being pushed and pulled by interesting antagonists, nor without a bit of self protagonist denial, if we love the characters, even the villains, if all these boxes are ticked will the story work? Some say the vital element is jeopardy, others say without the characters driving the story then it won’t feel real, so character leads story. If the prose is more than up to scratch then will all that work to make the story perfect?
I think a good story is more than all of that. Yes, a good story needs those requirements above to make us care. But storytelling isn’t scientific, it doesn’t work if all those boxes are ticked alone. It needs something else. A story only works if it has a soul, and the writer gives it that in the process of writing. That’s why even the smartest computers (at the moment! Ahem) can’t write a truly good story. A writer does more than ask themselves all of the above and about what the character wants, a writer does more than plan out a beginning, middle and end. They live through it, they spend days, months, sometimes years with the story. They sweat it. What makes a good story is the blood on the end of the writer’s fingers. This is what helps make the story feel real, feels like there is some truth on the page.
That’s why ultimately every story is different, even though there are only seven stories in the world to tell (or thereabouts). Because every writer has their own lens through which they see the world, has their own experiences which influence them, their own voice by which to recount the story. We are all unique, and it is only when a writer embraces this individuality do they really begin to succeed to connect with the reader (or viewer if TV/play script). I believe a writer has been brave telling a story they know, they understand, that has touched them. As it can often be very painful and revealing when you see how much a writer cares about the subject matter, when that seeps through from the page into the reader’s consciousness; then the writer has succeeded in transferring their emotional response. That’s more than a scientific process, isn’t it, and important to remember when writing I think.
Poison, the first in the series of Cambridge Murder Mysteries, will shortly be published and available on Amazon Kindle Books.
The first book, ‘Poison’, is about Elizabeth Green’s return to helping the police force after a lengthy break due to bereavement following her husband’s tragic death. When a junior lecturer dies in Elizabeth's garden which backs onto the River Cam, it seems she is tied to death by fate and poison. Neither Inspector Abley, a good friend of hers who spends most of his time on the golf course, nor her grandson, Godric, who is staying with her during term time while studying at the university, think she is ready to get back into helping to solve crimes.
Elizabeth Green is a Don of plant sciences at Darwin College, the University of Cambridge, specialising in poisonous and injurious flora. Many call on her expertise, including the Cambridgeshire police force when they need advice on crimes. In her fifties, Professor Green is quintessentially English. An eccentric in her ivory tower, she maintains a sharp wit and mind, yet is flawed for having closed herself off from most other people since the death of her husband. If she could just admit she needs the love of others she could be happy again.
Unbridled curiosity and exceptionally strong powers of deduction instead embroil Elizabeth right in the heart of murder mysteries in this historic city, with all its sumptuousness of college high table, chapels, balls, the meandering River Cam, leafy Jesus Green, Midsummer Common, Grantchester Tea Gardens and Wicken Fen.
More details to follow…
Some people have to make lists to find out what makes them happy, and then decide once they have written things down in order. Like it is something which can be rationally decided. I think we know, deep down what makes us happy without the list. Some of us need to redress our goals and expectations. Some have to deal with heartache and suffering which puts a barrier between us and it. But those of us who feel it know it. I am lucky that I am happy. Every morning I count my blessings for the people and things that make me so. I do this in my head, rather than out loud, but I find it helps me to set up the day in the right frame. Some people do this at the end of the day. By the close of play my mind is already ensconced in a book, and as I drift off to sleep I am dreaming about what I have just read. I like nothing to interrupt that whiff of the imaginary world I have just left on the pages, now lingering behind my eyes before I lose consciousness, and probably snore. But even though I don't count my blessings at night, I’m always all too aware that things change as quickly and simply when a butterfly flaps its wings somewhere. Happiness is just transitory. Nothing lasts. So I'm grabbing me some now while I've got it.
What makes writers happy? Good pencils? A quiet room? Lots of stimulation and crazy people coming into and out of their lives so they have something to write about? Yes, yes, and yes. Writers are perhaps different to other people in that they live by way of observation more than most, constantly looking at the aerial view of each individual situation, listening a little more intently at what is said, why. But we are more similar to the rest of the world than others would give us credit. We just started out trying something, and like many others it grabbed us and now we are hooked. Like the sportsman, musician, dare I say it, even the odd career politician...and they are odd, aren’t they? We become driven by the goal, driven by the process, we are in it, on it, under it. Our obsession with writing that is. But where perhaps the writer can lose their happiness is when they start to consider the reader.
Some writers say just write what you want to write, not what you think others may want to read, or see at the cinema/theatre if you’ve written a script. This is good advice, I concur! Bad advice is to chase the next big thing, the latest trends. Because the risk is, you don’t write with your own voice. You don’t write from the heart, from that truth inside you that burns. If you squish yourself into another genre it might work for a while, but what if it wasn’t really you? And even if you are such a good writer and you manage to pull it off, you risk getting stuck writing stuff you don’t love. It might pay the bills. But we are all dead soon, and you’ll be dead inside before that. And you won't be happy before you die.
The best writers I have know write not just what they know, but what they feel, what creeps up inside them and grabs hold. That’s why it feels like they don’t hold anything back, aren’t afraid of pouring out their heart and soul into a book or script. Ultimately aren’t scared of upsetting people. That’s different from not caring about what people think. It’s just writing what they want to write. So write what you want to write. For only then do the boundaries get broken down, the new ground get trodden. For all the millions of books that have been written, isn’t that the biggest surprise that there are still surprises between the pages? For that to continue we all have to be different and embrace it. It’s what makes us happy. And ironically, the readers.
Where to write
Talking to writers I am always surprised by how different we all are when it comes to the process of writing. One of my writer friends starts only when the day is virtually over. She’s basically a bat. Others I know treat writing very much like a job, with a separate room in the house which at nine in the morning they visit, sit there all day until five and then stop. To be that sounds like work. But clearly they like it, and we are all so different, which is what makes life interesting (and material for writing). I heard E.L. James say in an interview that she wrote a lot on her phone on the tube on the way to work. We know Dickens wrote in the garden in a summer house for some of the time, as did Roald Dahl.
I find that I write best in the morning. Somehow it feels quiet and the peace helps my thoughts sort themselves out. I will have breakfast but not start pottering or letting any outside influences seep in. I write before the ‘noise’ of the day interrupts my thoughts. For as soon as it has, I find it harder to hear the stories in my head.
In the winter I mainly write while sitting on the sofa in the middle of my terraced home. It’s probably the exact distance between one end of my terrace to the other (I can see both ends from where I sit as my home is very small - been described as a postage stamp - quite in the middle of Cambridge). My sofa is an old fawn corduroy saggy number. It sits opposite a wood burner which burns in the winter. I’m not too far from the kitchen (which I can see - told you it was small) where I make endless cups of peppermint tea (I’m eating a hot cross bun as I type - hmm, nice). I live in a quiet street and I can hear the birds out in the garden singing their lungs out, if my cats haven’t chased them away. When the summer comes I move into the garden. I have a very small garden with a tiny log cabin at the end. I have a sofa in there too and sit, with the doors open and write - again in the morning.
What about for how long?
Many writers will say they reach a word count and stop. So that might be five hundred words, a thousand, sometimes two. Graham Greene apparently wrote five hundred words a day, many writers up this to a thousand or more. And after that, no matter where they are they put their pen down (Greene did this) or turn off the lap top. For me, the characters dictate when they’ve had enough of me, and leave. Then I stop. I can only describe my writing like this. Like they are giving me the chance to be in their world only for a while, and once they get bored, they leave. It’s just how my writing seems to work. I have to stop when they are gone.
How frequently to write
My father is a runner, and he gets fidgety if he doesn’t run for more than a few days. He’s in his eighties but still has to run. Sometimes it’s like he’s Forest Gump. I’m the same now with writing. I just have to write and if I don’t I start to grow more tetchy - just with myself. It’s a habit, and its addictive because it brings me such joy. Honestly, it also brings me escape. When I’m writing I’m not me anymore. I’m entering another world. For me, this is a strong attraction, which grows stronger. When I first started I think I just had a story to tell. But now, it is a way of life. Whatever happens…
So you are perhaps a writer. Have I go any advice? You must be tired of hearing writers say just write. But that is my first bit of advice. Write. It took me a while to be brave enough to decide that I would not just write in a note book bits and bobs, or thoughts. But decide to write something substantial. It must have taken me a year of failed starts. Writing the first page, or writing a synopsis. But I kept at it. Like learning to play the piano, it takes a while to play both hands together and then go through the grades. You put in the hours and eventually you get better. Then when it comes to where. Maybe you have no where at home, so maybe find a park bench, or a quiet coffee shop. Or, stay up late and write when your home is quiet (or get up early). Do you have a garden to write in? Once you decide you want to write you will form your own habits. Nothing is write or wrong. Whatever gets the words down. Then once they are down you can review them. But that’s another blog. Thank you for reading.