Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Finding your feet – with Lizzy Huitson

Today's guest blog post is perfect for anyone who is thinking about writing (and a good read for established writers too!). Lizzy is a talented writer and part of the Abingdon Writer's set. I am certain you will be reading one of her novels in the not too distant future! 

Finding your Feet: Ten Tips for New Writers
So you’ve decided to take writing seriously. Maybe you’re a young person hoping to start a writing career, or a not-so-young person who’s ready to let writing out of that safe little box labelled “hobby”. Whatever your background, getting started is no simple task. Besides the actual act of getting words on the page, there are a whole host of other challenges you’re going to encounter, so here are some (hopefully) helpful tips.

·       Work at it, don’t play at it. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with writing for fun – it can be a really rewarding hobby. If, however, you plan on taking it seriously, you need to prioritise it. Don’t bother cleaning the oven when there’s writing to be done – no-one ever looks in there anyway. Try not to write for five minutes, then watch fifty-seven funny cat videos on YouTube, then blame your real job/kids/dog for taking up all your time.

·       Find a balance. That being said, don’t work so hard that writing becomes nothing but a chore. If you feel you’re in danger of burning out, take a break. A change can be as good as a rest, so put down the historical novel and write a short crime story or some poetry or Doctor Who fanfiction. Anything that breaks the monotony will help get the creative juices flowing.

·       Try not to go crazy with isolation. If you devote a lot of time to writing, it’s likely that your social life will suffer and your friends may not take kindly to being rejected in favour of fictional characters. Saying “What do you expect? I’m working on a novel” does not have the same effect as “What do you expect? I have two toddlers.”

However, there are ways of using writing to socialise. Joining a writers’ group is a way of connecting with other writers and getting your work critiqued at the same time. You could even arrange a “writing date” with another writer (get together at a cafĂ© or pub, do some writing, drink/natter and repeat), and of course there are plenty of online forums for writers.

·       Self-doubt is perfectly normal and does not mean your writing sucks. Even if it does suck, that’s OK. You’re allowed to be terrible at first. Unfortunately, self-doubt tends to linger, so that when you experience any kind of success, you feel like a massive con artist who is days away from being found out and sent to prison. Take a deep breath. Remember that you deserve any success that comes your way – chances are you’ve worked your arse off for it. Also, nobody goes to prison for bad writing.

·       Jealousy is normal and does not mean you are a despicable person. Let’s face it – all writers have egos. So it’s only natural that when other writers become successful, you may experience jealousy and resentment. The only sensible thing to do is to push it deep down inside you where no-one can see it, smile and congratulate them. Success in writing never comes easily, so remember how hard they must have worked. We’re all in this together. 

·       Get some exercise. I’m not saying that in a “Careful you don’t get fat or you’ll never land a husband” kind of way. But if you have a sedentary job and spend the whole working day sitting at a desk, then spend large amounts of your free time sitting at a desk, you are going to feel crappy. Try doing some stretches at your desk to avoid aches and pains. Go for a walk now and then.

·       Develop a good bullshit detector. Most of the time, when people critique your work, they do it out of a genuine desire to be helpful. However, a handful of people have their own agenda and will either pointlessly bash your work or give you spectacularly unhelpful “advice”. Often, it is because they don’t agree with the content of what you are writing rather than the writing itself.

Oh, and ignore that guy you met on a writing course who said you’d never be a good writer until you got more “life experience”. He is probably going to try selling you drugs or persuading you to have sex with him in a graveyard or something. You know, to give you some of that “life experience” you need.

·       Don’t be held back by writer’s block. To misquote Churchill, “If you’re going through writer’s block, keep going.” Just keep writing. Ignore your inner editor and don’t worry if what you’re writing is terrible. Get those words on the page and sort them out later.

·       Cherish your first rejection e-mail. Print it out and stick it on the fridge. Maybe even frame it. In my opinion, this is the moment you become a proper writer. Chances are, you are going to get rejected a lot so you need to shake off the fear of it. I’ve received all kinds of rejection e-mails, from the boilerplate kind to the helpful and encouraging to the strangely poetic. I’ve never received a mean or spiteful rejection e-mail.

N.B. People talk about rejection letters but I’m not convinced they still exist. I’ve never seen one…

·       Find your voice. This is the difficult one. Expressing yourself in the best way you possibly can will always be a challenge. Developing that special something that makes your writing unique may be a life-long process, but the rewards can be immense.
N.B. I am not talking about financial rewards. These will most likely be puny. I mean rewards like creative fulfilment and a sense of achievement and all that woolly stuff.

Most people become writers because they are readers. Try to imagine every feeling, thought and experience you’ve ever had because of something you read. The ways in which writers can affect people they will never even meet are phenomenal. At the least, something you write might brighten someone’s day, and that’s always a worthwhile goal. So let’s get writing!

Lizzy Huitson is a 28-year-old writer who feels qualified to give writing advice mostly because she is no longer 23. Her poetry chapbook “The God of Cold Girls and Cold Places” has been published by Dancing Girl Press, and her poetry has also been published in journals around the world, including Salamander, Goblin Fruit and Vine Leaves Literary Journal. She has had short fiction published in Fiction365 and has recently written her first novel. She lives in Abingdon and has a proper job in Oxford.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

How to fall into murder...with Elizabeth Mapstone

The Coffee Stained Manuscript is proud to present a guest blog by Elizabeth Mapstone, an accomplished fellow author who has recently published The Amazon's Girdle – A mystery with a delicious twist! 

HOW TO FALL INTO MURDER... with Elizabeth Mapstone

I never intended to write a murder mystery. The Amazon's Girdle began as a love story, with former film-star Jacques, mouldering in a corner of the Michelin-starred Paris restaurant he runs with his wife Louise, remembering his all-too-brief time with the Amazon, the one woman he truly loved. But she died. I realized, rather belatedly, I had to decide how.

A natural death, by cancer say, was out – Eric Segal and “love is never having to say you're sorry” (what rubbish!) had done that. Death in childbirth was possible, but my Amazon was a medical doctor, so improbable; and in any case, I didn't want to deal with the concomitant inevitable guilt. A road accident seemed too facile. Suicide was out. Murder suddenly became essential to the story: it was the obvious way for someone as strong as my original heroine to disappear from the scene; she'd never have bowed out for anything less.

This was a bit of a blow. I had a small cast of characters, but now I had to decide which of them was a murderer. Each one might have had a motive, but how is it that all are carrying on with their lives 17 years later? What happened? Was it perhaps one of those murders that went undetected?

Who dunnit? And who decides to investigate this late in the day? And why? Inevitably, it had to be the young daughter of the doomed love affair between Jacques and the Amazon, inspired by her own heroine, the beautiful and malicious French film-star Madeleine Marvell, who deliberately sets out to disrupt the apparently peaceful and successful life of her former husband Jacques.  Complicated? I'd say. But then murder mysteries usually are. And MM makes a delicious villain.

Given the way this story evolved in my head, it is clear that the book is not structured like a classic murder mystery. Working out whodunnit, I think, is not difficult for those who enjoy the challenge. But the motivations of all possible suspects are psychologically sound, and several reviewers have said they were surprised, even shocked at the outcome. Which is hugely gratifying!

Would I ever write another murder mystery? I'd have said NO, until I launched this one into the ether (where else?). It's been fun. So when I have finished my quiet psychological novels (The Porcupine's Dilemma is now with an agent), I might dip another toe in those dangerous waters. Marissa writes them so successfully, I shall ask her advice.

Elizabeth Mapstone has lived in France, Belgium, Canada, and now England, and is a bilingual veteran of numerous occupations: in restaurants, offices, shops, news reporter, radio interviewer, teacher, translator, political commentator, book reviewer, and theatre critic. A new mid-life career began with a doctorate from Oxford, and she became Founding Editor of The Psychologist, then a psychotherapist, and published two books with Random House: War of Words, on the psychology of arguing; and a self-help book that really works, Stop Dreaming, Start Living. Now retired, she is writing fiction, has published several short stories as well as a mystery novel The Amazon's Girdle, and once won the Luigi Bonomi prize for the best opening pages to a novel (soon to appear in The Porcupine's Dilemma). You can buy The Amazon's Girdle here.

 For more information about Elizabeth and her books see: