Writing… about writing

It’s been a while since I have added any new post here – although part of the delay is that I have been awaiting corrections from an interviewee (Magda Sobolewska) to the article I wrote some time ago about her, the rest has just been simple busyness, which is about to become exponential – therefore, I will simply have to write in smaller bursts than I usually do!

It’s not that I haven’t been writing, because I have been, every day. Some of my writing has been paid copywriting for a range of products and various start-up companies; I also recently wrote another piece for The Vegan Review on the challenges of trying to adopt eco-friendly food choices when you have dietary issues, which I’ve just been requested to give an interview on, and am now having to fend off other requests for further articles or commissions on a freelance basis, being that I’ve also just started an actual full-time job (subbing on financial news website capital.com). Yet even with a never-ending supply of fresh inspirations, there is, I am finding, a limit to how much time I can physically manage either sitting at a computer or even writing by hand.

Most of my current writing is daily journalling or morning pages (this is a reference to a stellar work by Julia Cameron called The Artists’ Way, which if you have never read, I encourage you to do so – it is a wonderful tool for creative unblocking, whether as an artist or a writer, or really for any other creative work) as a précis to continued work on my current creative work-in-progress, an historical fiction novel set in 17th century Amsterdam and Japan (I am now in chapter 10, which I hope will be the end of Act 1 and ready to be sent out to a few willing beta readers [at 48,000+ words, this will be a long one, but I am really enjoying it… more about that shortly]).

Occasionally I still write poetry, which used to be my main form of writing expression from the time I was very young, when I was typically either known as ‘Jane the poet’ or ‘Jane the artist’. That lasted until my early 30s, until my first husband’s insistence on the need for rhyme in poetry (he was a musician) had the unfortunate effect of killing my natural poetic voice, which wrought a deep grief in me – I don’t find it at all surprising that in the absence of being able to express myself with words that I next took up dancing as a way of expressing myself. I have still written a few; the sudden drought of poetry hasn’t stopped me getting the odd poem published, but they are far rarer now than they used to be – I do hope that at some point the poetic muse will return, but at the moment I am at least pleased to be writing fiction fluently.

I am also still interviewing potential whistleblowers, collecting evidence and collaborating with others on a planned investigative exposé of all the different aspects of corruption behind HS2 as a follow-up to my previous shorter investigative article, which most readers of this blog and personal acquaintances will know I am quite passionate about.

I am certainly finding this to be true – no matter how many voices my characters or other tones of voice I use in my various forms of writing, they are all aspects of myself, and do allow me to be more fully who I am. Thank you, Alice Walker!

Yet no matter what type of writing (or even editing, which at times involves substantial writing or rewriting) I am doing, I am doing my utmost now simply to just get on and do it – this is actually a huge step for me, since I have already had a lifetime of being blocked through being a perfectionist (a wonderful skill for an editor/proofreader, but it can be a real curse to any creative writer or artist). So it is a massive improvement for me that I now just focus on the process of writing. Because of my other creative work as a visual artist, I realise that writing is quite a lot like drawing and painting, in that you usually have to do an underdrawing or sketch to map out the correct positioning and perspective, and then begin to add other aspects such as shading and tonal layering to add depth and dimension. Sometimes you have to rework the whole thing, or do several different sketches to get it right, or spend a lot of time exploring similar themes – as, for example, Degas did in his many paintings of ballerinas, or Monet’s variations on the themes of waterlilies.

You realise when you work creatively that your first efforts may not be perfect right away, but that if you continue to work diligently, you will get there eventually – the important thing is not to focus on the finished product or be discouraged if it is not perfect right away, but to persist and eventually see improvement. It is the only way!

“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.”

Octavia E. Butler


As well as learning so much daily in my own writing process, I also learn tremendously via exchanges with other writers around the world through my daily participation in the London Writers’ Salon‘s Writers’ Hour online writing sessions (and also the Weekend Writers subgroup, which is presently a real life-saver). In these daily “50 minutes of pure, focused writing” sessions, multiple writers of all styles and persuasions say hi in the Zoom chat window, then we set our intentions for the session, listen to or share some daily ‘words of wisdom’ from other writers, and then get down to the business of whatever we happen to be working on. Some are well-established, published novelists; some are jobbing copywriters, journalists, academicians and essayists; some are poets and short-story writers; some are bloggers; and several are newbie writers working on a first novel like me (well, I did write a full-length fantasy novella – a Narnia story – for my degree in English Literature and Creative Writing from Bard College in New York back in the 80s, but this is my first ‘serious’ novel attempt, and certainly my first attempt at writing historical fiction).

After the 50 minutes is up, we then report on our progress afterwards. I am always amazed at those who manage to write a 1,000 words or more in one session – my average is 400-450 – but you have to accept your own limits and not compare yourself with others. We are all running our own race, with our own end in sight – so even if I/we only manage to crawl a few inches per session, it is all progress towards our eventual goal. And this particular forum/writing group is always so encouraging – I am deeply grateful to Matt and Parul and ‘KK’ and all the other contributors to this group for providing an unfailingly encouraging writing environment – also to others like French poet and photographic artist Nicolas Laborie, who has provided me with so much help and inspiration for my novel, as well as guidance to other aspects of the different channels on the Slack forum we are able to access as patrons (although it is free to join London Writers’ Salon, becoming a silver patron for £15 a month enables access to the Slack chat as well as free talks with other writers every Tuesday, and a whole host of other benefits I have not fully explored yet).

Re my novel

In case you are wondering what made me take the leap to historical fiction, the answer is fairly simple: I thought about what I most like to read or watch as a film – and I suppose in my wildest dreams, yes I WOULD love to see my novel made into a film! – and that was that. I confess I did struggle a bit at the beginning with defining exactly which genre (and genre conventions) it would follow, especially being that at its heart, it is a love story, but it is also a world view story – and hopefully also a rollicking good adventure, at least in places (pirates! storms! sword fights! samurais! sexual attacks!).

Right or wrong, I am presently writing in the first person – and as my main protagonist is a young man, an artist sent against his will to work in the silk trade with the Dutch East India Company (or VOC), writing his first sexual encounter recently was certainly a unique challenge! – although I plan to introduce Act 2 from the perspective of his Japanese love interest, and perhaps intersperse their points of view(s) with that of a European and a Japanese observer – we’ll see.

As this novel is already quite long and there is still much more to uncover once my hero gets to Japan (he will eventually return to Amsterdam and then back to Japan again), it is possible it will end up being similar in length to James Clavell’s epic Shogun; I realise I may need to cut & refine it, which I will do at the second draft stage. At the moment I am mostly just focused on trying to get as much of the actual correct historical details (my real-life historical characters include Rembrandt, Hendrik Brouwer, Anthony van Diemen, Francois Caron, Joost Schouten, and Philips and Petronella Lucasz so far, to name a few) and plot structure + characters together as an outline, but I intend to go back to add depth to the characters while improving/fact-checking the language (some is Dutch, some Portuguese, some French, some Japanese and Balinese) and other historical details. It will take time to get it all write, but for now I am simply enjoying the adventure – both those of my character(s) and the sheer adventure of writing in a new genre.

The writing process for me – particularly for a historical novel, which just involves so much research – is very much like a cha cha: the rhythm is definitely a slow–slow–quick–quick–slow, as quite often I will need to spend time revising content I have already written. I do always make progress incrementally, but sometimes it is slower than others!

Meanwhile, as I now need to get on with the day job, I do have to say again that it is really thanks to the London Writers’ Salon that I have made as much progress as I have done so far with my novel – not to mention helping to keep me from going completely nuts during lockdown. Writing is generally a very solitary occupation, which is especially challenging for a natural extrovert like myself. In fact, I always fantasised when I was young about being in a salon, so the fact that this is part of its title makes it, ironically, a dream come true… and most certainly it has been one of the true gifts of lockdown.

4 thoughts on “Writing… about writing

  1. Loved this post Jane! It’s insightful, informative, encouraging and resonates in so many ways (such as, for me, the struggle to identify my ‘genre’)
    Do you mind if I share it wider, such as with my writing pals ie via Facebook?

    Like

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