Potty for Podcasts

Well, it’s been a while – two months, in fact, since I last wrote on this blog. I have a million excuses, ranging from inspiration to work to health, but excuses are boring, so let’s just get on with it.

As we all know by now, I want to be a writer. No, scratch that, if there’s one thing everyone says is that you have to stop saying ‘I want to be a writer’. So let’s rephrase: I want to be an author. More specifically, an author who is traditionally published and has a physical book out that generates some money. At this stage in my life, I’m not worried about being a full-time author – I very much adore my current job, and if I did somehow miraculously become published, I would want to keep my current job and write on the side.

There’s just one small problem with my pipe dream, and that is that I don’t give it enough attention. Sure, there are moments when I do so much writing I end the day feeling smug and accomplished (mainly during November when I participate in NaNoWriMo). But for most of the year, especially since starting my new job, I hardly ever write. It’s not that there aren’t any chances to write, but I seem to pick other things like reading, watching movies with my friends, going out socialising, and just plain ol’ relaxing, especially in the hot weather England has been having recently.

Once you get out of the practice of writing everyday, it’s difficult – or at least, it is for me – to get back into the habit. I love writing, I really do, but it’s got to the point where I just don’t prioritise it anymore.

Enter: podcasts.

The only podcast I listen to regularly is My Dad Wrote a Porno, and incredibly funny podcast that I’m sure many of you are aware of. My only issue is that, like with audiobooks, I don’t know when to actually listen to podcasts and audiobooks. I’m trying to get into running (if the crazy hot weather will actually let up for a moment so I don’t die trying), and I’ve found that listening to podcasts and audiobooks on a run works perfectly for me. I can’t listen on my commute (damn you noisy tubes), and I can’t listen as I work as I can’t concentrate on writing and listening to people speaking at the same time. This is why I haven’t been very good at keeping up with the podcast scene, and why I’m so late at discovering podcasts about writing.

Honestly, after listening to a couple of episodes from different podcasts all about writing, I felt the urge to grab up a pen and notepad or whip out my laptop to get back to writing. Whether it’s people talking about books, interviewing authors, discussing techniques – all of it I adore. In particular, I listened to The Bestseller ExperimentThe Riff Raff Podcast and The Honest Authors’ show. Listening to discussions on everything from the industry and what readers are looking for to general writer worries and efforts to get published is just so motivating for me. Listening to authors talk about how they struggle to fit writing in everyday, or listening to wannabe authors talk about juggling work and writing is reassuring and, strangely, uplifting. Here are other people going through the same thing I am, all of us with the same goals and dreams in mind, all navigating the world of writing and publishing – most of the time without really knowing what we’re doing.

I’d highly recommend looking into a podcast for whatever you’re interested in – be it book reviews and writing like I am, or not. Little episodes of thoughts and ideas from other people, all at your fingertips to discover whenever works best for you. When I listen to people discussing writing advice and thoughts on how to improve feels like being in a brainstorm session, as if I’m included in the conversation. Helpful, entertaining, and motivating, I’m a new podcast fan.

Let me know if you’ve listened to any podcasts recently that you think are fantastic, whether they’re about writing or otherwise. For me, podcasts create a chance to look at the world from a fresh perspective and listen to the thoughts of someone else, instead of having mine clambering around inside my head looking for attention. A brilliant medium, one that from here on out I’ll be sure to recommend.

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Commenting on Creativity

I originally started this blog because I wanted to share my creative writing with the world. I deleted most of the first posts I made, as looking back the writing I did then seemed terrible. I’m sure if I look at the writing I did a couple of years ago I’d think it awful, but that’s the point of learning and growing – hopefully, you’ll always get better.

It’s never been a secret that one day, somehow, my dream is to be an author. Or, more specifically, a published author who can earn a steady income from books written alone. I love my current job, and if I could quit tomorrow to just write books I wouldn’t – I’d rather stay in the job I have now and write books for fun. But this isn’t what I want to talk about today. No, right now I want to write about commenting on creativity, and how that can help and hinder someone.

I was talking with my flatmate the other day about creative writing, as I sign up to so many free courses to get hints and tips for writing well. There are so many documents on my computer of half-finished stories, bullet points of ideas, and even a couple of ‘finished’ books. I have so many notebooks (which I hoard to an excessive extent) with hastily scribbled musings and random scenes, as well as several jottings on the notes app on my phone. When I was in university, it made sense to me to pick a creative writing module in my second year – it was, after all, what I dreamed of doing one day and happened to be doing most days anyway.

It’s safe to say now that this isn’t exactly a happy story.

That creative writing class was one of the worst classes I ever took at university, partly due to the terrible teaching and partly due to the soul-crushing, heart-wrenching trauma of losing faith in your dream and what you love. Yes, it sounds melodramatic, but creative writing is something I’ve done all my life – from terribly written plays when I was tiny that ripped off Scooby-Doo, to the very short book I wrote when I was 16 and foolishly thought that it was good enough to be published – and to go to a class all bright-eyed and hopeful only to come out with my work torn apart with vicious comments circling around in my mind, I thought that was the end for me.

There is a difference between constructive criticism and just criticism. Telling someone ‘your characters are a bit weak, you should try building up their backstory more to reflect a more complex character as a whole’ is very different to saying ‘your characters are awful’. And that’s what that class was for me.

Each week someone would have to bring in their response to a task – there was writing a short story based around a recent news piece, or writing a story that happened over the course of an hour. We spent the class focussing on that person’s work, and giving feedback on how we found it. I ended up with the task to rewrite something that happened to you from someone else’s perspective, something that I spent a long long time on just because I was so excited about it.

I like to think I’m not completely naive. I’m not very good at taking harsh criticism as it is, and very much like the sandwich tactic where you give a bad point in between two nicer comments. Still, I went into that class and braced myself, repeating a mantra that it was all good constructive criticism. And then the teacher opened up the conversation with “So who knows who Jonathan (my main character in the story) is? No one?” She turned to me and immediately said, “And that’s why your story isn’t any good. Because we don’t know who the main character is.”

It felt very much like a slap in the face, especially as I tried to say that I had tried to gradually introduce him in a way through first person narration that didn’t feel like a paragraph of him looking in the mirror and describing himself and his life story. Still, the teacher insisted, it was very bard form that you didn’t discover his name until the third paragraph, and the fact that you don’t get his full background in a 1,000 word piece just isn’t good enough.

And so it began. On and on she went, with some of the class chipping in with “your style just doesn’t work”, “your language choice is poor”, “I just didn’t like it at all, really”. I remember being given back 15 copies of my work, with scribbles all over it. There were some kinder ones, with comments every now and then saying “I love this bit!”, but those weren’t the ones I thought about afterwards.

So after that class, I ended up keeping my head down for the rest of the module. Frankly I felt useless, and didn’t really care to continue it. I don’t like sharing my writing even on a good day, and after that I’m loathe to share even a paragraph of something I’ve written to friends who I know wouldn’t even dream of saying anything in a nasty way.

Commenting on someone’s creativity can change the way they are creative altogether. I’m very much of the belief that a comment, remark, or critique made in a way that’s meant to be positive, or rather something said by someone who means well, is always good. When 16-year-old me had an email back from an agent saying my story needed more developing, as the main character was said to be one age but came across as another, I was at first mortified. Then, after ten minutes of thinking my life was over and plenty of chocolate, I realised that an agent had taken the time to look at my work and give me some feedback. Good feedback, at that. Looking at that terrible book now (a moment of silence for ‘Fizzy’, who will never see the light of day again), the agent was exactly right. The main character does come across as a different age, but they didn’t write back to me saying ‘This is crap, burn it, your character is terrible’. They gave me constructive criticism – which really, is a critique with guidance. Yes, the character was terrible, but I was told why and most importantly how to make it better.

Creative work is a tricky beast at best, and critiquing creative work is even worse. You know, as well as everyone else does, how much heart and soul and effort you pour into creative work. I’m sure everyone in that class felt as precious about their work as I did about mine. But it’s difficult to comment on someone else’s creation in a way that is helpful without being unkind, which is something that I think my old teacher needed to be taught. She would quite happily tear work to shreds, but offer no form of guidance for how it could be better. On another person’s work she’d just occasionally write ‘no’ next to certain paragraphs, which was as illuminating as being stuck in a cardboard box in the dark.

So the next time you comment on someone’s creativity – be it someone’s song, a rhyme they made up, a story they scribbled on a napkin – take a moment to form whatever thoughts you have in something that is helpful. You can be positive and critique someone at the same time. Even if what that person has done is a flaming pile of cow dung, you can still say something nice before you deal that blow – like the fact that the flaming pile of cow dung is a really good first step, there’s just a few changes you’d make….

NanoWriMo ‘Wrap Up’

So. I won.

Yes, you heard me, I actually ‘won’ NaNoWriMo and managed to write 50,000 words in a single month. For those of you who have no idea what the hell I’m talking about, please check out my previous posts including this one here.

I first participated in NaNo two years ago, in which I reached 30k words (something I was very proud about). I started off really strong and kept to the word count every day, but it tapered off halfway through the month. After stressing out last year with dissertation and various essays, I decided to skip out doing NaNo and instead just tried to write a little more in that month. Ever since I’ve been itching to do it again, needing that extra drive and excuse to write write write. So, this year, I started off NaNo in high spirits with twitching fingers reading to write like I was running out of time (which I was) Hamilton style.

Like two years ago, I started out very strong and stuck to my word count, even going above it on some days. Feeling pretty smug about it, I was rather chuffed with how it was all working out. Instead of reading on the tube, I’d be typing away on my phone. On my breaks at work, I’d jot down some ideas, and my time at home was spent writing away. It’s very freeing writing for NaNo, knowing that it doesn’t matter whether it’s perfect or not, you just write as much as you can every single day. I know the vast majority of what I wrote will need serious editing, but I equally know that there are a few gems there. It helped me work out the plot of a story I’ve been thinking about for the better part of a year, and it’s the first time I’ve found that I didn’t need to forcibly stretch my plot to reach 50k. Instead, I feel like I’m only two thirds of the way through the book, and think it could easily reach 70,000 or even 80,000 words if I put my mind to it.

I talk a little about the benefits of NaNo over on my reading blog (which you can read here), mainly about how I’d been in such a reading slump and the break from reading meant that I felt revitalised when I could finally go back to it. NaNo showed me that it’s not about finding time to do something you love, but making time – something which I now know I can do, and really there are no excuses.

About mid-November, I was thrown way off track with NaNo due to some exciting things going on in my work life, which has resulted in me getting a new job! All very exciting, but it meant that on my day off I wrote something crazy like 5000 words just to get back on track.

Towards the end of November, I managed to keep up and even keep ahead at times, until finally on the last day I reached that elusive 50k, and couldn’t have felt prouder of myself. It was a great goal that I didn’t for a second think I’d reach, which only made the win even sweeter.

So even though I know what I wrote is mostly tripe, and may never see the light of day outside of my computer, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

NaNoWriMo Midway Update

Up until a few days ago, I have been right on track with writing for NaNo (National Novel Writing Month, see here for more details). Unfortunately the last few days have been unbelievably hectic, so whilst I have been writing everyday I have fallen a bit behind with the goal of hitting 1167 words every day. Still, I think I’ve been doing pretty damn well (especially compared to the first time I took on the challenge a couple of years ago), and currently my word count is at 24,000 words. To be ‘on track’ I would have to be at 28,333 words, something which I don’t think will happen today.

NaNo is such an interesting challenge to be taking part in, because part of me is itching to go back over everything – checking names, small information, edit sentences, craft a few beautiful similes I’ve thought of – but that’s not in the spirit of NaNo. It’s difficult to remind yourself that this isn’t about being perfect, because at least for me I want to just go over it again and again to fix things I think read badly or don’t work. Then I remind myself that you’re not meant to stress over these things, and really it’s far better to save your stress for your word count.

It’s amazing really, how much you can do when you change your priorities, as usually in my spare time I’m dedicated fully to reading. As I’m participating in NaNo this month, my reading for this month has been so terrible I can’t even think about it without feeling guilty and slightly sad. Every spare moment has been filled with writing, and whereas I spent a lot of my time on the tube or waiting around or on my lunch breaks reading, now I’ve had my phone out typing away. Whilst in a normal scenario I’d rather read on the tube and save writing for sitting at home with my computer and a cup of tea, it’s been fun to try it out this month.

And that’s my mid-way update for NaNo 2017. A little bit behind, but still enjoying it and having fun with the story.

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NaNoWriMo 2017

Let’s do this.

I am officially participating in NaNoWriMo 2017 – which, for those of you who don’t know, is National Novel Writing Month where many attempt to write a novel in the month of November. The main goal is to hit 50k words, and whilst I have never ‘won’, my goal is always to write as much as I can and just have fun.

I have only participated once before, back in 2015, as last year I decided not to stress myself with hitting that word target every day and instead focus on my dissertation and final year of university. All month – heck, all year I have been so grumpy that I couldn’t join in last year, so I’ve been so excited for November 2017 to roll around.

I made a post about my experience in 2015 (click here to see), but I think there are several reasons why I’m so excited to participate again. Firstly, NaNo gets you into the routine of making time for writing every single day. I always say how much I want to be a writer one day, but I never manage to ‘find the time’ to knuckle down and write. NaNo teaches you to make that time, whether that’s only five minutes before you head to work or during your commute or just before you go to bed, you get into the habit of making that time.

Secondly, NaNo isn’t about creating a masterpiece. It’s simply about hitting that word target, hitting those 50k words, so of course it’s a very very rough first draft of a novel. It’s not about editing or musing over sentence structure, it’s about typing away at that keyboard and doing your upmost best to hit that goal. That in itself is so freeing – you don’t worry about whether your work is any good or that it doesn’t flow right. All you have to do is type type type, and worry about editing later.

There are several other things I’ve got going on next month (one of them may or may not be Sims 4 Cats and Dogs stop judging me), but I’m determined to throw myself into NaNo and have fun. So let me know if you’re participating, and definitely add me as a writing buddy – my name is Stammydodger, and no, don’t ask.

Finding Inspiration

I’ve been struggling recently on what to talk about on here for two main reasons. First, I’m trying to juggle lots of different things which include job applications, full-time work at a different job, applying for writing competitions, graduating, moving flat, and more. (These are excuses I tell myself, whilst I sat and watched Love Island – in my defence, you need time to wind down and relax, y’know? Self care and all that.) Secondly, I’ve lost track of my inspiration.

Maybe ‘lost track’ is the wrong expression to use here, but it’s the only one that I can think of (and I blame that on being tired and uninspired, which is kinda the whole point). It’s like my brain had a little Idea jar inside it somewhere, which had my various little musings and thoughts and what have you. Within it are several books that I want to write, plans I have for the odd project or two, and birthday present ideas. One of the main things, however, is what to write on my two blogs. For my book blog, I find it slightly easier – I’m always reading something, so I can do a review, or even talk about what I’ve read or want to read. On Alwayslovetowrite, however, it’s a bit trickier.

You see, this blog has almost been like a more PG friendly version of my diary. Whilst I don’t go into all the gruesome details, usually I blog when I’m feeling strongly about something – be that how much I love dogs, what I think about politics, or how I’m feeling more anxious or stressed. It’s the place where I can discuss about whatever I like, a platform that, in the age of the internet, I’m able to have. Anyone with access to the internet can have a blog, and that’s so exciting – all of a sudden you have a space where you can talk about what you want, because it belongs to you.

But what happens when you start to feel a bit down and tired? What happens when you come home from work or a busy day and you just want to watch some trashy TV? What happens when the only emotion you feel the most is just weariness? What do you do when you reach into that jar and the inspiration is all gone?

Because really, it’s not ideas that are running out, it’s the inspiration. I keep a small notes file on my phone where I jot down all the various ideas for blogs that come to me, and there are still a few on there that I could just use. But looking at them doesn’t stir anything within me. Nothing is standing out as being interesting enough that I want to tell the internet about it.

Some days, you just don’t feel like writing. And, like always with me, I don’t really have the answers. I think self-care is incredibly important – so much so that I kind of want to write a blog about it, which kind of helps in this current situation. Finding that thing that, in this moment, you feel strongly about, something that is important to you, is the exact thing that I always search for before I write these blogs. They’re not about perfectly crafted pieces of work, but a stream of consciousness as I work through what I’m feeling – which followers are subjected to (I’d say I’m sorry, but really I’m just rather happy you’re here).

Finding inspiration is always difficult. I like the advise of taking that much needed break, which calls to the very obese lazy lady inside me who just wants to sit around and eat all day whilst reading all the books I want to read. But I also like the proactive approach, of going out and trying to find that inspiration. Doing something new, trying different foods, reading a genre I never delve into. Meeting up with friends, going for a walk, or even taking a different route to work. It’s inspiration tied up with motivation, along with a good head space and positive attitude – a list of goals that, at least for today, I don’t feel like I can tick off.

Sometimes, all you need is a good night of sleep, with the hope that when morning comes, you’ll feel just a bit stronger to tackle the rest of the day. Fingers crossed.

Guide to University: The Dissertation

So you’ve finally made it to (what is most likely) your final year of university. You’re struck with a mixture of excitement, panic, awe, fear, anxiety, pure terror, and just a general feeling of being overwhelmed. If you’re in a career-guided degree, like Medicine or Engineering, then you won’t have to deal with one of the more larger pressures that everyone else goes through (aka what the hell am I going to do when I get out of here, how do I find jobs, how do I get interviews, someone please just help me etc), so enjoy that. However, what most people will have to suffer through, most of the time out of choice, is The Dissertation.

No one really knows what The Dissertation actually is – even halfway through writing it some people still don’t understand what it is – but essentially, or rather ‘for the most part’, it is a large essay which is seen as the main project of your final year. Although for most of us The Dissertation counts for just as much as some of our other modules, employers often ask about your mark for The Dissertation as it’s one of the only essays you’ll write which is entirely dependent on your own work. Sure, no one writes your essays for you (unless you are a cheat in which case you’re not welcome here), but there is a lot of work done for you and usually other people writing on the same thing. When it comes to The Dissertation, not only do you have to think of your own niche subject to write about (no vague or broad titles allowed), you have to do 100% of the research. Your title will likely change two, three, or even five times over the whole course of The Dissertation – sometimes just a few mere weeks before the deadline.

As someone who has only just handed in their Dissertation, I think I can safely say, now that it’s over, I’m glad I ended up writing one. A Dissertation allows you to write about what you find interesting, and sometimes is more enjoyable than your other subjects as you choose which bits to focus on, again, because it’s all your choice and preference. However, that does not mean that it’s not one giant ball of stress that weighs you down over the whole course of your year. So here are a few tips from one student to another on how to survive The Dissertation.

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First of all, once your penultimate year is over, you’ll have the whole Summer free ahead of you, and you’ll probably be planning a nice long break – and you deserve it. However, make Future You grateful by doing some reading in this break. I know, I know, it sucks, but just do a bit. Even if it’s just one or two books, or a few articles, that’s one or two books/articles less that Future You will have to do later. What truly helped me was actually figuring out exactly what I wanted to write about over the summer. I did my Dissertation on the presentation of Ancient Heroes by Modern Female Writers, and it was over the course of the Summer that I found out which books I did, and most definitely did not, want to focus on. A lot of people entered their final year having no clue what to write about, so it’s helpful to get that out of the way. And, above all, make sure you pick something that you like. Yeah, maybe you’ll lose some love for it over the course of the year, but you don’t want to be stuck working on something that bores you out of your mind.

Secondly, organise your time. Yeah, sounds simple, but do people always do it? Nope. If I could go back, I would definitely do things differently. At the start of the year, the April/May deadline seems like a long, long way away, so it’s easy to not think about The Dissertation that much. And then you start working and doing other essays, so it takes a backseat. I had the general plan of writing three chapters overall with an introduction and conclusion, so the first chapter was aimed to be finished by Christmas, the second after February Reading Week/Half Term, and the third by the end of term (which was two or three weeks before the deadline). However, what you don’t take into account is the simple fact that the first draft will not be your final draft. Sure, if you’re like me, you can finish a chapter by Christmas, but not actually finish it. I lucked out with a great supervisor, and when he sent back my first draft with a gazillion annotations and corrections, I came to the realisation that – even though I felt organised – I was already behind. In February I was still trying to redo the first chapter whilst doing the second, and when the second was sent back to me I was rewriting two chapters whilst trying to start my initial research for the third. So please, to save yourself, think ahead and organise your time. This is why employers like The Dissertation – it’s physical proof of your own proactivity and self-motivation.

Third, and I think three tips will probably be enough for you to start digesting, try not to forget about everything else. To the outside world, The Dissertation, although sounding scary, is just that – a dissertation. But in actuality, you’re not only writing a Dissertation, but are also working for several different modules, juggling various essays, and trying to keep on top of revision for your upcoming exams – not to mention trying to have a social life. So, do yourself a favour, and try to manage your time – basically a reputation of point two. Make sure you don’t let The Dissertation take over, and it will try to on multiple occasions. Set aside some time each week to work at it, and if you’ve done the first thing right and actually picked something you enjoy working on, you won’t mind researching your Dissertation instead of something else. You just have to keep chipping away at it, and sooner or later it will be a week before your deadline and, if you’ve done as I’ve recommended, you can sit back and relax whilst sipping a martini whilst everyone arounds you panics.

Then I recommend dropping that martini because, final point to make, even though your Dissertation is over, that doesn’t always mark the end of your university career. If you’re like me, you’ll still have other essays to deal with and exams to think about. So go forth, conquer your fears of The Dissertation, and good luck my friends (you’re gonna need it).

And enjoy the unending hunt for jobs, those of you who aren’t in career-focused degrees. The fun just never ends.

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