At Rio

Four years ago, on this blog, I wrote a post entitled Heading for Rio. At that time, having been inspired by the Olympic Games in London, I set myself the challenge of writing a novel and finding a publisher for it by the time the next Olympics rolled round in 2016. I also mentioned my habit of wasting time on Twitter and Facebook instead of spending time writing. As I write, the Rio Olympics are coming to a close and I’ve been revisiting the goals I set myself in 2012.

In 2012, I wrote this:

What I want to achieve by 2016 is not only to have written the book, but also (no doubt after many rejections) to have found a publisher and got it published… my aim is to finish the book in 2014, two years from now.

Significantly reducing the amount of time I spent on social media certainly freed up time for other things, including writing, and since 2012 I’ve written two and a half novels, as well as a number of short stories. Back then I also wrote this:

I know that I can do something difficult if I put my mind to it and want it enough, but in order for me to have any hope of achieving it I have to have those two elements: determination and desire.

I very much wanted to prove to myself that I could write a novel. Keeping going was a struggle at times, but I had the determination and desire to carry me through to the finish. What I hadn’t given so much thought to was how I would feel when I had finished writing it.

Since completion, the first novel has undergone numerous revisions and edits, processes I found neither easy nor enjoyable. In some cases, I had to re-read the same passages many times in my quest to sharpen them up and make the story flow. It was laziness that made the task so difficult, but putting in the effort did give me some satisfaction.

By the time I had spent a year or more editing and re-writing the first novel, after taking a break to write the second, I began submitting the book to agents, and then to publishers. Most of them replied to say they weren’t interested, and one or two of them didn’t reply at all. It’s now nearly three months since I last submitted the book to anyone, and I haven’t had a reply from that submission.

Although I found the first rejections difficult, I was determined enough to keep on trying. After a while I branched out from submitting exclusively to agents and started sending the book directly to publishers instead. I hoped this change in approach might yield better results, but it has proved no more successful.

This leaves me wondering what to do next. I’ve looked into self-publishing but it’s not the route I want to take at the moment. If I were an outsider giving myself advice I might tell myself to keep going and never allow the dream to die. There’s nothing wrong with that opinion and, indeed, I can fully see the sense of it. To have dedicated so much time and effort to the project already makes it seem only sensible to refuse to give up until I find a publisher.

In order to do that, however, I need to have some motivation, a real desire to find a publisher, whatever it takes. At the moment, the motivation isn’t there. Who knows if it might return, perhaps it will after I’ve taken a break to do other things, but until I get it back I don’t think I’m going to make any progress on that front. Far from feeling sorry about this, I feel surprisingly content.

Watching the Rio Olympics, I possibly have even more admiration for the athletes now than I had in 2012. Even if they don’t get a medal this time around, many of them – having already dedicated years to training – will keep on trying and hope for better things at the next Olympics in 2020. Maintaining such long-term goals, with an unrelenting desire to succeed, are character traits I stand in awe of. To want something so much that you’re prepared to wait however long it takes to achieve it is quite mind-boggling.

All of the top athletes I’ve heard interviewed in Rio have given their own reasons for wanting to succeed, citing different motivating factors that have driven them on. Mo Farah, the British runner who last night got the gold medal in the 5,000 metres, after achieving the same in the 10,000 metres, winning both in London before repeating the feat in Rio, has often said that his children are what motivates him. He has four children and now has an Olympic gold medal for each of them. For Usain Bolt it was the chance to do something no other athlete has ever done before, getting gold in three track events at three separate Olympics. That desire to be possibly the greatest sprinter the world has ever seen has driven him on and got him through the tough times because it was something he wanted so much.

My own desire to become a published author is a far more modest ambition, and yet from my point of view it will take something of the same sort of drive and determination to achieve it. Without that determination I’ll find it impossible, so do I still want it enough? The past four years have taught me many things about myself, some of which were completely unexpected.

One of the influencing factors in the way I view things now has been what happened to my eldest brother, Fergus, in September 2014. He was a highly intelligent and enthusiastic person, and although he suffered from various mental health problems for many years he worked hard to fight depression. He made a considerable effort to join a variety of groups, and gave a lot of his time freely to help other people. He was 51 when he went missing in Switzerland, and nothing has been heard from him now for nearly two years. I have come to the conclusion that he suffered a fatal accident in the Swiss mountains and, sadly, I wouldn’t be surprised if we never find out what happened to him.

Fergus achieved a great deal in his lifetime, and I’m sure he could have gone on to achieve a lot more. Having been made acutely aware of how fragile life is, I might have expected Fergus’s experience to make me more determined than ever to achieve my own goals while I still can. In fact, it’s almost had the opposite effect. I realise how lucky I am to be able to enjoy each day and get something good out of it, even if I do nothing of earth-shattering importance. I would still like to become a published author one day, but my attitude to life, and a possible future, has changed. To appreciate what I have today, seems to me far more important than striving for a position I might or might not attain in the future.

That isn’t to say I’m giving up on goals and dreams, far from it. I’m still hugely inspired by Olympic athletes, and indeed anyone who sets themselves difficult goals and achieves them through grit and determination. I still dream about the future and imagine the things I would like to do if the opportunities arise, and it’s these dreams that keep life exciting and inspiring. Inevitably, I sometimes think about what will happen to me if I don’t achieve my writerly ambitions, but I try not to dwell on such thoughts. There will always be things I wish I had done, or still want to do if I get the chance, but being thankful for what I have today makes the present a blessing, whatever the future holds.

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How to write a novel

The title of this post might lead you to think I’ve got something clever to say about how to write a novel. I don’t really, but I thought I’d take a break from my attempt at writing one to write a post about it.

I started writing my first novel a few weeks ago, thanks to the 2012 Olympics, which inspired me to follow my dreams (there’s a post about it here). When I checked the date of that post, I was amazed to find that it was only about 7 weeks ago, because it feels as if I’ve been slogging away at this novel for much longer than that.

Every now and then, when I get stuck and don’t know what to write next, I wonder if I’m doing it the right way, or even if there is a right way to write a novel. Certainly, in terms of knowing the storyline, it would seem that despite being the author myself, I’m pretty much in the dark. The initial idea I had about it when I began writing has completely fallen by the wayside now because it’s turned into something entirely different. Is this normal, I wonder?

I remember years ago seeing a documentary about J K Rowling, in which she showed a plan of the Harry Potter stories. From what I remember, she had a large sheet of paper which looked sort of like a family tree. The names of all the main characters were on it and their stories and relationships to other characters were noted down. Her organisation of the whole thing was staggering. I believe it was a period of six years from when she had the idea about Harry Potter to when she finished writing the first book, so perhaps that’s why her storylines seem so well thought out.

She famously wrote quite a lot of the first book in a cafe in Edinburgh, using a pen and paper, and I’ve heard of other authors who do this, to great success. I began writing mine by typing directly into my laptop. I think I had thought that there was no point in trying to write it on paper and then type it up, as that would only lengthen the whole process, but when I tried writing by hand I discovered something quite interesting. Maybe it’s because my handwriting is slower than my typing, but I seem to write more concisely using paper and a pencil (I tried a pen but it didn’t cut the mustard, why, I’ve no idea).

Quite a lot of what I initially write, I then chop out when I read it over, and at the rate I’m going I should imagine I might have to write about three times as much as I actually need for one book. It’s tempting to get annoyed with myself for ‘wasting’ days writing things I subsequently discard, but I think it’s all part of the creative process and you don’t get better at anything without practice.

My first goal on the way to completing the book was to reach 10,000 words, which I did yesterday. I hit that point rather earlier than anticipated in my schedule (I’m giving myself 2 years to write the whole thing), but I’m not getting too excited by that because it could well be that the next 10,000 words take much longer to write. In fact, the first 6,000 or so were quite hard to come by, and then the last 4,000 appeared as if by magic. Mind you, it was at the 6,000 word mark that the the book completely changed direction and it worries me slightly that I might end up going back to that point and rewriting everything that follows it, because I’m not yet convinced that I’m going in the right direction.

The jist of all this is that although I have begun the task and am making some progress, I honestly don’t know if this is how you write a novel. I’ve been wanting to write a novel for as long as I can remember, but until now I’ve never made much of an effort to achieve the ambition.

I’m quite fond of quoting a certain piece of good advice to myself that comes from Agatha Christie: “The secret of getting ahead is getting started”. Quite right, if you don’t start something how can you expect to finish it? But it’s not only the starting that’s important, because if I give up now all I’ll have is 10,000 words of text with no middle and no ending. Right now, finishing it seems a long way off, but every journey begins with a single step, and each word I write takes me closer to the end result.

My personal attitude to achieving my goal is simply to crack on and write, even if it seems laboured and dreadful at times, which it does. However, with any luck there will be some gems amongst all the debris.

My mum used to take us shell collecting on beaches when we were small, and the aim was always to find some cowrie shells, which we prized highly because they were relatively rare where we were searching. Writing this novel is a bit like walking along a vast expanse of shelly beach. There are a number of nicely preserved shells of various types, amongst a lot of broken up pieces that have been smashed against rocks and eroded, and every now and then there’s a beautiful whole cowrie shell. A lot of what I write falls into the broken shells category, some into the nicely preserved but common shells department, and every now and then a cowrie, in the form of a neat little idea or a satisfyingly constructed sentence, pops up. These cowrie moments motivate me to keep walking along the beach.

Little white cowrie on the beack – photo courtesy of mbfullemptyquarter.blogspot.co.uk

It’s very easy to look at people who have succeeded at something you’re trying to do and assume that because you feel you can’t compete with them, there’s no point in trying. I’ve often thought like that about things in life, but I’ve gradually learned that there’s nothing to be gained from it, other than misery and a lack of self worth. J K Rowling was a struggling single mother living on benefits and suffering from clinical depression when she started writing about a young boy wizard. Her determination and drive to succeed are an inspiration. She had no idea her stories would bring her the fame and fortune that they have, she just wanted to write.

Regardless of her huge success, what inpsires me most about her is that she eventually did what she’d always wanted to do: write books. The only thing stopping me from completing a novel is myself, so if I don’t do it I will have only myself to blame. On the up side, if I do complete it, I’ll have a great sense of achievement. It’s a little early to say perhaps, but, after many years of doubting myself, I think I can in fact fulfil my dream.

Heading for Rio

For as long as I can remember I’ve needed engaging challenges to make me do stuff.

Having previously promised on this blog not to drone on about my laziness, I will simply say that I often find it hard to motivate myself to do things, even when I actually want to do them, and I sometimes wonder why this is.

I read an article recently by Robert of the Embrace Possibility blog that offered a suggestion. In his words: “The reason we struggle with being disciplined is because we lose sight of what we really want and take action for a lesser want instead.”

That’s certainly true for me. I want to get on with writing, but I mess about on Twitter and check Facebook updates instead. Once I’ve had my fill of social media I remind myself that I want to write, so I go and clean the bathroom.

My usual attitude is not so much this:

Usain Bolt getting on with the job – image courtest of digitaltrackandfield.com

As this:

Messing about on Twitter – image courtesy of sandierpastures.com

However, I have also noticed that if I set myself specific challenges that grab me enough and need to be completed in a set timescale I can actually achieve them.

Right now, at the end of the London Olympics, there are athletes the world over already setting their sights on Rio de Janeiro in 2016. They’re arranging their training regimes and planning a number of targets over the next four years, with the big aim of taking part in the next Olympic Games. To me, who finds it challenging to plan the next 4 days, that is quite a staggering thought, and their inspiring attitudes have made me decide to make my own personal plan for the next 4 years of my life.

I’ve been asking myself recently what I can do that would bring me a sense of real satisfaction. I know that I can do something difficult if I put my mind to it and want it enough, but in order for me to have any hope of achieving it I have to have those two elements: determination and desire. Part of me wants to challenge myself to do something I feel is almost too big a struggle for me, and another part of me wants to find something easier, but I think I can satisfy both types of challenge by making the one big difficult thing my main aim and several smaller, easier, goals my stepping stones to getting there.

One thing that has plagued me for years is the desire to write a novel. I’m overflowing with admiration for someone like Terry Pratchett, who can not only create an entire alternative universe complete with realistic characters, but can churn out a book or more every year for years on end with astonishing dedication and skill (and it’s all the more remarkable since he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2007).

Given my years of frustrating procrastination, writing a novel is going to be my big goal for 2016, and I need to devise a series of steps that will take me from where I am now (nothing written at all) to the end result. What I want to achieve by 2016 is not only to have written the book, but also (no doubt after many rejections) to have found a publisher and got it published. I believe it takes about 18 months to get a novel published in the UK after it’s been accepted, and publishers can take 3 months or more to reply to submissions, so my aim is to finish the book in 2014, two years from now.

On the face of it, two years seems like a long time to write a novel, but I honestly think I might struggle to do it in that time. However, I am determined to give it my best shot.

Above my desk, along with my motivational card:

image courtest of ncdadogeball.com

oops, wrong one, I do of course mean this one:

image of poster by Karen Tribett, courtesy of allposters.co.uk

I have stuck up a selection of photos chopped out of newspapers of Olympic athletes from this year’s Games.  The people’s favourite, Usain Bolt, is naturally up there, along with the marvellous Mo Farah, and many others. Not all of those at this year’s Games will be heading for Rio, but many of them will, along with others I haven’t even heard of yet.

My thinking behind giving myself this 4 year plan is that as I trudge along, often questioning myself and wondering if I can really achieve my ambitions, I’ll be doing it in excellent company. When I struggle to get out of bed in the morning and feel as if my brain is running backwards all day, the same could well be happening to some of these athletes. There is going to be, I hope, some sort of fellow feeling that I can draw encouragement from.

I don’t know if anyone else might think this a worthwhile pursuit, but perhaps there’s a goal you’d like to achieve, and if so maybe you could use the next Olympic Games as your deadline, too. This year’s Olympics has inspired me more than any other, but perhaps the next one will be the best so far, if I can celebrate the realisation of my own dreams along with those of 2016’s Olympians.

Incidentally, if you feel that having a little mascot to carry around with you might help you to stay inspired after the Olympics, you might like to knit your own Usain Bolt. The Radio Times has published details of how to do it here (utterly perplexing to a non-knitter like myself, but no doubt perfectly clear to knitting gurus):

image courtesy of olympixx.wordpress.com

The Borders

I live almost bang in the middle of Scotland, which is very handy for exploring different parts of the country. When considering a little foray beyond this area, I ask myself what I want to gain from an excursion.

I’m Edinburgh born and bred (Edinburgh is in southern Scotland, but north of the Borders region), and for me the north offers adventure, slight discomfort perhaps, and something a bit alien to my southern character. I often choose to drive north in order to experience this slightly unsettling feeling, but there are times when I feel in the mood to go somewhere more restful to me, where I feel more at home.

I felt like this a few days ago when I whisked my delightful assistant off to the Scottish Borders (she’s happy to go anywhere on any occasion, one really couldn’t ask for a more amenable or willing companion).

It was a 3 hour drive to the bit of the Borders I was interested in, and so sustenance en route was required. Luckily, one of my favourite pit-stops when travelling south was open and ready for business when we passed by.

I commonly choose a scone for my morning snackette, and excellent scones can be obtained at this place, but for some reason my thoughts were more on their fruit loaf that day, and so that’s what I had, while my assistant went for a scone.

Here is the tasty, moist and delicious fruit loaf I had, before and after the application of butter:

I suppose my buttering could be described as paltry. I like it thinly spread without great lumps clustering on the surface of the item beneath. The same could not be said for my delightful assistant’s buttering. Here is her apple and cinnamon scone (apparently excellent in taste and texture) before and after buttering:

Feeling adequately filled, we set off again on our journey, arriving in the Borders at lunchtime.

Lunch was taken in the village of St Boswells, near Jedburgh, in a splendid independent bookshop with cafe:

I had carrot, orange and ginger soup with some truly outstanding bread:

While my assistant opted for a roasted vegetables salad with feta cheese:

After lunch we had a scooch around the bookshop, where, in my postprandial state, I was very drawn to this aptly designed Penguin classic deck chair:

Resisting the urge to snooze, we instead drove on a short distance until we saw a signpost intimating a viewpoint off the road, next to an impressive viaduct (it took me a full 5 mintues to remember that word while writing this post, not an unusual occurrence these days, is this early-onset dementia?):

Thanks to Wikipedia, I find that this is the Leaderfoot railway viaduct (no longer used for trains, sadly), which was opened in 1863. It’s in excellent nick thanks to Historic Scotland, who renovated it in the early 1990s.

Parking near the viaduct, we walked along a pleasant road that is no longer used for vehicular traffic. It had luxuriant hedgerows on either side with lots of small birds flitting in and out:

At the viewpoint there was a bench seat supported by a couple of curious creatures. I thought at first they were sheep but then I decided they were winged lions.

Our little walk was refreshing in the afternoon sunshine, but we were still quite a way from home and so another snack stop was required.

We found what we needed in the Royal Burgh of Lauder, a bit southeast of Edinburgh. The cafe was just along the road from the town hall, which sits in the middle of the village:

To my delight there was Lady Grey tea on offer, which came in a strange teapot with a very Scottish mug (the wording roughly translates as ‘don’t worry, stay calm’):

My assistant had Assam tea and chose an excellent apple pie to go with it, which was accompanied by a small jug of cream:

I had been wondering about this myself, but it seemed a bit on the large side, so I went for a chocolate krispie cake instead:

To one side of the tearoom was an art gallery displaying the works of several local artists, and on another side was an enticing looking archway leading through to a gift shop. I narrowly avoided parting with cash for a little wooden boat with a moveable seagull attached to it.

After that it was back on the journey north, via Edinburgh to enjoy the rush hour traffic on the city bypass (the number of times I’ve hit this traffic recently and been surprised, despite previous experience and knowledge of the time, backs up my suspicion of mental deterioration).

That little visit to Border towns has fairly put me in the mood for another trip there soon. As far as I know, none of my ancestors hailed from that bit of the country, and yet I feel a definite pull towards the area, even the bits I’m not familiar with. My sister feels a similar pull to the northwest of Scotland, so perhaps it’s just to do with personal taste.

On a completely different topic, tomorrow sees the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games. I suspect I’ll miss watching all these inspiring athletes, but the inspirational performances will live on for some time to come, and I’m already looking forward to Rio in 2016.

I believe London 2012 will be going out on a musical note with a tribute to British music. In four years’ time, no doubt our present and future Olympians will be welcomed with the samba sounds of Brazil – I can’t wait!

Inspired by the Olympics

It’s a while since I’ve written a post about tearooms, and that’s partly because I’ve hardly been at home recently to do it, but also because I was becoming a little tired of churning out the same sort of thing. I was beginning to think I was not only boring myself to death, but probably also my dear readers.

However, is this genuine boredom on my part, or laziness, or just my usual lack of dedication to something long-term?

Watching the Olympics, I’ve been struck by the dedication of the athletes involved. They spend years of their lives training for this one occasion. Although they attend other competitions as well, for most of them the Olympics is their main goal, the one thing they keep their eye on that inspires them to keep going when they’re getting bored, feeling lazy or just sick of dedicating their entire lives to exercise.

While writing a blog is by no means as arduous as training to become an Olympic athlete, many bloggers use it as a way of disciplining themselves to write regularly, practising a skill they would like to become better at. I don’t know what the percentage is, but a lot of bloggers, myself included, have a desire to become published authors, and even if we are writing other things at the same time, blogging can provide a useful bit of training that contributes to that goal.

I watched a documentary a while ago about Usain Bolt, currently the fastest man in the world (and tonight we’ll find out if he still is). He is obviously very talented at what he does, but he didn’t get where he is today without putting in considerable effort. What appeals to me about him, however, is that he’s not one of these athletes who genuinely enjoys all the training for its own sake, he struggles to discipline himself to do it when he’s not in the mood, and his coach has said that despite his success he’s not a natural when it comes to training.

Usain Bolt hanging off a London Bus – courtesy of The Guardian

In a recent newspaper interview, Bolt had this to say: “The key thing to remember is that hard work does pay off. If you put the work in, it will definitely pay off in the long run”. I’m sure this is something he has to repeatedly tell himself, to remind himself why he’s putting in all this work when he would rather be relaxing with his chums in the Caribbean sunshine and being the laid-back Jamaican that he naturally is.

A good friend of mine recently sent me a card, which arrived on the very day I needed it. I had been sitting at my desk thinking that I needed some sort of motivational text to inspire me, when this card popped through the letterbox. It’s now sitting next to my laptop and reads: “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars…”

I’m sure I had seen the quote before and it hadn’t made a particular impact, but when I saw it that day it hit home and provided the encouragement I needed to keep going. It also relieved me of the pressure I had been putting myself under, the ridiculous notion that in order to be a successful author I needed to become the next J K Rowling. It’s good to be inspired by other people who’ve trodden the path before you, but important to remember that we are all individuals, with different talents and different routes to success, and – most importantly – different definitions of success.

I initially thought that success for me would mean publishing my own book, which I did a few weeks ago. It was a good achievement, but now it feels to me like a stepping stone to other things. I’m glad I did it, and prior to publication I did work quite hard to get it done, but almost as soon as I had it in my hands I wanted to forget about it and move onto the next thing. This is very typical of me, the constant desire to do something else and the inability to stick at one thing for long. I find this aspect of my character immensely irritating, but having had 40 years of getting to know myself, I realise that this is just the way I am.

We all have to make the best of what we’ve got and, as much as I admire Usain Bolt and all the other Olympic athletes competing in this year’s Games, I am never going to be among them in sporting terms. But I have already learned a lot from observing their dedication and will power, and can apply something of that spirit to my own situation.

I’ll be watching the result of tonight’s men’s 100m with great interest, as will many millions of other people. Whether or not Usain Bolt successfully defends his title, he has already inspired countless people, and I hope that makes him feel he’s still a winner, whatever the outcome.