Let The Story Find You

The start of the year can be difficult for some. Not everyone enjoys the holiday season and once January rolls into view we still have a couple of months of cold weather (in the northern hemisphere anyway), dark nights and according to the now annual news story the supposed saddest day of the year.

However, as someone who blogs about the NFL I get the excitement of the playoffs to carry me through January and into the NFL off-season that started in February. I am intending to write a few more off-season NFL posts this year, but I don’t cover the league in detail during this time so my schedule is undeniably easier. This enables me to get various bits of writing admin done and I can also pick up the pace on whatever book I’m currently working on.

I have been dutifully working my way through the first draft of the next book in my current series all through the NFL season (a savvy marketer might have a title for said series by book two…) and it is feeling good so far, but that’s likely because I haven’t got to the serious part of editing yet.

There are a couple of things that I have picked up from other writers over the years that I want to quickly run through before I steer this post to some kind of conclusion, or at least write enough for the title to make some sense.

Firstly, I’m a big believer in the first draft’s job being to exist, all it needs to do is get you from beginning to end. Then the serious work of redrafts, polishing and improving the story until it actually works can begin.

The second things is that I also like the idea of classifying writers into gardeners and architects, which I picked up from George R R Martin. A writer who is an architect plans out everything before they write while the gardeners discover things as their writing grows. One of the reasons that I like it is whilst the idea feels true, there is some give in the analogy as thanks to time spent in my own garden and years of watching Grand Designs I’m very much aware that not all architects have everything as planned out before building begins as you might think and you definitely need some kind of plan if you hope to not have an overgrown mess for a garden. I think my partner and I have just about managed that in our garden, but I think there are probably elements of both in most writer’s approaches, it is a matter of which approach they favour.

Personally, I think of myself as a semi-organised gardener when it comes to writing. My book ideas usually has an overall arc or theme, some key moments I want to hit and perhaps  a plot plan that I base on something John Truby called The Seven Key Steps of Story Structure in his book The Anatomy of Story which is something I use to help me work through a problem if I have lost my thread or if I need to tighten the focus of part of the thing I am writing.

However, how I really find my way is to write. I’ve become more comfortable with this as I’ve finished more books, both thanks to repetition but also as I refine my process. I now have a better idea of when I need to stop editing digitally and read on paper (the change in format really helps your brain see the words you have written anew), how long I need leave a draft before I go back to it, and increasingly the timing of talking to my editor versus setting the ball rolling for production. I’m still working on judging the occasions where I have written a full explanation of how something works so that I am happy it makes sense, but knowing when I need to remove it from the actual book as it doesn’t truly serve the story to make a reader go through every single step with me.

These past two months since the new year has been spent still trying to get from beginning to end of a first draft. I restarted my novel after a bit of a break over Christmas, and the little and often approach has allowed me time to realise that part of the overall plot actually belongs in the next book rather than in the one I’m currently writing, balancing out the two books that I have planned to finish the series. At least that is what I am thinking at the moment, but as you might have picked up from this post, plans can very easily change through the process of writing and while for some writers this discovery might be made over pages of notes or a complex web of cards, I realised the big move of plot whilst cleaning out my rabbits. Repetitive manual tasks are great for this kind of clear your head and the answer will come moments. Running is another favourite time for my mind to roam and come up with suggestions because I find that a lot of the inspiration part of the creative process occurs away from the keyboard. It is still important not to wait for inspiration to strike before you start to write. For me writing is a craft that benefits tremendously from regular practise. There is always work you can be doing to hone your craft, just make sure that when the flash of inspiration strikes you make a note of what it is there and then.

This is what I mean by let the story find you.

If for instance, you are working on a book and find yourself say over a dozen chapters in and beginning to worry about how big this first draft might get. Well that is going to float round in your brain whether you want it to or not but if you leave it floating round rather than chasing a solution, then inspiration might just strike when you least expect it. Of course, the important thing with writing is the work, but I do think there is an important balance to be struck between creative problem solving, honing your craft through regular writing, repeated drafts, and finally constructive feedback from people you trust.

So if you are stuck, keep writing your words as you don’t want to get out the habit of writing, but don’t worry too much about what you put on the page initially as it can always be fixed later and make sure you give yourself plenty of time in the kind of states where ideas come to you. Be it in the shower, running, or doing household chores. It doesn’t matter what works for you just as long as it does. You might be surprised what you can achieve if you let the story come to you.

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Why do you write like you’re running out of time?

Here was are in 2019 and I was supposed to have a summary of 2018 already posted for you, but life got in the way so I’m going try to fold that into my first post of the new year as I talk about what it was like to be in the room where it happened. Now, that’s a second Hamilton reference in this post already so no prizes for guessing what I saw last week. Now, I won’t win any prizes for originality or foresight if I tell you that Hamilton is brilliant so rather than rehashing what others have written I’ll talk you through my thoughts as I look back on the last year, including some bits of pieces that hit me at the show and after.

So, where to begin? Always an important question for a writer to answer. When you last heard from this plucky scribe you either were reading about my Halloween trip to see The Dresden Dolls, or you got an insight to how December was treating me and some thoughts on books that I’d been reading from my newsletter.

What’s that you say? You didn’t know I had newsletter? Well indeed I do. It comes out roughly once a month, covering what I’ve been up to, thoughts on mostly books but films and other things get in as well and that’s where you’ll get early warning of things I’m scheming up. You can sign-up at https://tinyletter.com/Gavin_Writes and I’d love to hear from you or for you to share it with the writer or reader in your life.

So looking back it’s been an up and down year, much like most of life. The stories that I could spin you about health, love, death and illness, but they’re not all mine to tell. Some of them might creep into something because a as writer life’s events have a habit of slipping into stories one way or another, but if I’m doing it right it will be in ways that services the story and won’t be recognisable. The early advice to a writer is always to write what you know, but I don’t believe that should be the limit and as long as you do your research and start with good intentions then I don’t think you can too far wrong.

It has been a good year for seeing and doing though.

I managed to complete my fourth year of blogging about the NFL and have completed the regular season on my fifth.

I published my second book, a sequel to A Ghost Called Dog, entitled The Price of Magic, that picks up four years later from the original events in Ghost and carries on the story arc. I have also made a good start on the third book, but there’s a long way to go before I start to think about publishing it. There’s plenty more to do with the first two in terms of sales before I know how to publish the third, but I’m thinking about it. Right now I’m making lists and jotting down ideas, but you’ll be hearing from me.

I’ve kept this blog ticking over with posts about the second book and a couple of events I have been to. I plan on doing the same next year as it’s nice to keep the writing hand in when book research takes over, plus it’s always handy to try new things. I managed to see two bands I never thought I’d see last year, writing up my experience of both The Dresden Dolls and The Gaslight Anthem.

I perhaps should have written up my experiences with the band I’m in, called Diceratops, who got through to the finals of the Metal 2 the Masses Leicester competition and so although I didn’t get to play Bloodstock, we got to play at the De Montford Hall in Leicester, and network with some very cool musicians. I got a new phone last year that seems to help no end taking decent pictures (so much its even helping me learn what I need to work on with my digital SLR) so here are a few of my favourite photos from the competition. We are entering again this year, and perhaps it will be third year lucky to get to the festival.

I’m not good enough at lists to be able to say with absolute certainty what my favourite things were of last year other than book, which was undoubtedly Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers who is rapidly becoming one of my favourite authors. I wrote about it in a newsletters so feel free to follow the link there to take a look.

I also got to see a few shows in 2018, including Matilda and Agatha Christie’s Love from a Stranger at The Curve in Leicester, and both parts of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child where I was suitably nerdy.

I also got to start the year seeing Hamilton as I previously said. My partner and I really wanted to see it, even before various family members saw it (some of them multiple times) and so off we went last week. I had become pretty obsessed by the soundtrack in the last couple of months. I’m still not good at learning whole songs, but various lines and bits jump out to me. Whilst I don’t exactly relate to all the experiences of the ten-dollar Founding Father without a farther, but the title of this post comes from Non-Stop and I certainly know why I write like I’m running out of time. Mostly because I am, which is probably the kind of thing a therapist would want to interrogate me about. It certainly might explain me trying to do all the things I can, but back to the musical. I might actually just be belatedly falling in love with Lin-Manuel Miranda having discovered his previous musical In The Heights through getting the digital copy of Hamilton:The Revolution. I’ll be getting the full book from my friendly local book shop as I didn’t fancy hauling it back on the tube and nursing it under my seat at the show.

‘I will send a fully armed battalion
To remind you of my love!’

I’m pretty familiar with the soundtrack, but it was great to see Hamilton performed so you can correct all the lines you’ve wrongly attributed by voice and it’s pretty amazing to see how it is staged. I’ve always had a soft spot for King George in the play and he was suitably fantastic, but then so was everyone. I missed the doubling up of parts before reading the programme, but the nearest thing the whole show has to a misstep is having to suspend disbelief for an adult playing a nine-year-old son. However, I was taken away by the story and had new record set for number of times the second half made me cry. I’ll try to avoid spoilers, but let’s just say the senselessness of duelling over honour is really jarring to a modern ear.

‘Look around, look around, at how
lucky we are to be alive right now.’

Stepping back out into the world was also a jar but I’ll take a lot of memories with me, including the cheers at:

‘Immigrants: We get the job done.’

It feels like we are living in tumultuous times right now. A cursory glance at the news will generate a litany of things to sap the mind and spirit, so it’s been nice to take stock and remind myself of what I achieved and the things that lift the spirit. Art should challenge and throw a mirror to the world, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be entertained and cheered by it at the same time. There is space for different types and I hope to produce more in the coming years, including some more things for this site ahead of the next book.

So, as ever, to all the things!

A New Book & a New Season

I sign off to all the things a lot because by my nature I want to do all the things.

I’m currently listening to the Revolutions podcast cover the French revolution and you best believe that I want to read more about it and a tiny part of me thinks hey, learning French to read original sources would be cool.

What I am actually doing is working on a new book and blogging for another NFL season. The NFL blog started as a step towards becoming a more serious writer. It gave me somewhere to practice that had scheduled content that would ensure I have to kept at it and establish a writing routine. Over the years it has helped me by making me write a lot of words, learn more about American Football, think about coaching and leadership, get comfortable talking on a podcast, build and improve websites via Wordpres.com – the list goes on.

So whilst I have started my fifth year writing the blog and still I haven’t been hired by the NFL, ESPN, or The Ringer, it is still teaching me things. The custom menu bar I’ve just put up on thewrongfootball.com will enable me to sort out some navigation bits for my writer’s site shortly and I literally figured that out last week now that my friend is writing posts rather than producing podcasts and I wanted to tidy up the blog streams.

What does this mean for writing? Well it is true my fiction writing slows down a little for the following four months, but it also gives a flow to the year that keeps both things fresh. I would have liked to have got a bit more writing done this summer, both fiction and for the NFL blog but publishing a book takes up a lot of time and the more you want to do with a book, the more it appears I need to research. That’s not because I didn’t know where things are going with the series of books I am writing, I have the outlines blocked out and various key plot points setup, but when you start to fill them in by writing the actual words you need the detail.

‘But don’t you make them up, out of your head? I thought you just asked what happened next.’ I don’t hear you ask.

I’m pretending one of you asked this question to get to the point I want to make, and feel free to read my guest blog here if you want to get the background on the above quote, because what I said was true. However, even if I have asked the question and know what is going to happen next – that doesn’t mean I know the how of it and one of things that I have to do is work out the mechanics of everything that is happening in my books for it to make sense to me. I am slowly getting better at learning what I need to cut from my early drafts so I can better judge what to show and what to hide, which is required to stop a living story becoming a dry list of details. Yet as someone who always wants to know how things work, I need to have as many details tied up as I can so that the story works as there is nothing as jarring in a book than when the story doesn’t hold true to its own internal logic.

As someone who writes the kind of story that frequently has magic or other worldly elements, these have to stay contained within a coherent structure that does more than simply resolve plot points for me. You can’t just produce a magic object to solve a problem you have written yourself into or rely on plot armour for your characters to remain unharmed. If you establish trust an audience will go with you, but only so far and even when you are making up entirely new things they feel more real if you can structure them in something analogous.  Or perhaps you’re trying to talk about something without just saying, here comes the bit on equality or how you should live your life.

As a writer I like to have a certain amount of research done, and I have gone back and done some more for this book having made a false start of the early chapters but I’m now at a point where I’m happy to keep working through the first draft, even if I have already found a topic that I need to investigate even more deeply. Yeah, it’s a tough job for a bibliophile, needing to read books to help further your craft or to fine tune a plot point, character trait, or if you want to write something based in psychological truth.

I’m trying to balance this against the NFL blog and researching marketing to try to get my books into more people’s hands. As someone who works full time, I cannot devote the time that some self-published authors do to events so whilst I’m not trying to sneak shortcuts, and I’m not afraid of hard work, I am trying to learn more to keep things rolling and to find new readers.

Still, it’s a part of modern publishing so I’ll keep plugging away and hope you hang in with me. I have so many more stories to tell and hopefully with your help I can find enough people to keep telling them to. If you’ve enjoyed either of the books give them a review or buy a copy as a present or recommend them to a librarian if you know one.

As for me, it’s back to the never ending job list that is life.

What’s next?

The Difficult Second Album

Somehow seven months have slipped by since I last updated this blog. That’s time for an entire season of NFL blogging, multiple edits of the new book and typeset checks so I guess I had better get things back on track with this blog and quickly, because whilst I may have been quiet on here, things have been anything but quiet for me.

So, where am I now?

I have come out of the post NFL relax week or two that usually follows the end of the Super Bowl and what I think of as my NFL blogging season. The NFL blog has been a great platform to learn when I can write, gives me structured thing to practise developing content and getting writing reps in, and gives me an excuse to watch a lot of American Football. I also thoroughly enjoy my weekly chats with Dan for the podcast, which also helps me form ideas for the blog and help give it structure, and this season get NFL trivia questions wrong. For those of you who were listening you will have got a sneak preview of the title of the new book.

I have already started to outline how I might tweak things for next season, but there’s plenty of time to think about that.

Whilst the season was going on, we’ve put in place the plan for the sequel to A Ghost Called Dog got everything sorted out with the relevant publishing companies and I’ve been hard at it. Mostly I have been focussed on turning the new book into the best piece of work I can. We have used the same editor, Karen Holmes, who edited Ghost but the new book is setting up something bigger and more complex so the draft I started from needed a fair bit of work and it took a couple of passes to turn that draft into a manuscript that works the way I intended

You always learn from your mistakes and there are several things I can take away from this process that will hopefully serve to improve the next book’s development. I say improve as I believe it is a common folly for all writers to start their next book full of confidence that they have learnt so much and there will be no problems with this one. Yeah right…

Still, I am determined to improve things both in terms of planning, plotting, and my initial editing process. I think I’ll always need to write my way through problems and questions, but hopefully I can weed out the excess that readers don’t need to see before putting the next manuscript in front of an editor. I might need a better laser printer for that.

I did at least avoid the whole difficult second album problem because my life did not change radically after the release of Ghost, and although it was my first published book, Ghost was in fact the third book I had written.

Currently, I am trying to get the typeset finished. My latest batch of amends has gone back to the publisher, and I’m confident once those changes have been made that the text will be set. We will still need to check the layout to find out what if anything has drifted and if we need to move any text around pages, but we are getting close. I am excited about how the illustration for the cover has turned out and as we have the dimensions of the spine sorted I don’t think it will be too long before the full cover starts to takes shape.

I’ll keep you updated on how things are going, and I have a couple of other tweaks and changes that I’ve been thinking about for the website and staying in contact with everyone.

For now I will say, I am incredibly grateful to all the people who have had kind words to say, been supportive, or just wondered where I found the time. I’m not giving up any time soon; I have a bunch of ideas for future books outside of the sequels for the little series I’m developing now. I just have to keep going with the writing and finding ways to get that writing into people’s hands, digital devices, or even uploaded directly into your brains once the technology exists. That last one might be a little over the mark…

One Year On

Today marks a year since A Ghost Called Dog was published.

Since then I’ve been on the radio, had some lovely feedback, especially from children/parents.

I’ve recently had a letter from the British library to confirm receipt of their copy, which proves what I told my gran last year, that there is a book dedicated to her at the copy right libraries.

I can also say, that not only is there a manuscript for a sequel, but that it should be out fairly early next year. I’m only being vague as we’re still firming up a few things, and it is more than a little early for precise dates, but yes a sequel is happening and hopefully it will be bigger and better than the first book.

And if you want to see the rest of the series, then we need to get more people reading and buying, but more to come on that front in the months ahead.

I also have some fun writing challenges coming soon to the blog if I get myself organised.

There are very definitely wheels in motion.

Watch this space!

Dreams with a Deadline – Process Over Outcome

I want to try something a little different this week before we get into the grind of the NFL regular season, which is why I am cross posting this across both my blogs, so if you’re not a sports fan please bear with me for a little bit as things will come around.

For the last few weeks I have been following the pre-season of three NFL teams and generally getting excited about the start of a new season. However, this is the weekend that as the final cuts are made, for some careers are ending and for others dreams.

As you watch Hard Knocks (for the general reader a series following an NFL team through training camp) the shift in focus goes from a team coming together to the tension that surrounds them as players start to get cut and the business of football really kicks in. Something like two percent of those who play college football make it to the NFL and the average career is a little over three years. The offseason roster goes from ninety to fifty-three this weekend, and whilst the practice squad has expanded over the last couple of years, when you look at those numbers multiplied over thirty-two teams with very few alternative outlets to play American football professionally there are a lot of people left hanging now.

Once the season starts we will start talking about players who are bad or good, but in reality you have to be pretty exceptional to even make it into a training camp, yet alone make a successful career of the sport of American football.

So what happens next? Some will hold on for a call once the injuries start, some will keep themselves fit and hope to try again next year, and some will have to walk away from their dream. Something they have worked very hard to achieve, with fine margins and no way to keep going.

Those who do not like sport will find such sacrifices hard to comprehend, even if they understand that for some this represents their best chance of making something out of their life. Even those of us who love to lift or run as amateurs struggle to truly understand the pressure that a large number of these players will have been going through. This isn’t just winning or losing; this is about putting food on the table for their families, a shot at something bigger than themselves, and chasing a goal with a deadline.

That deadline is the bit that can be truly terrifying. I remember in my twenties feeling a dread every time my birthday rolled around, looking at the things I had and hadn’t achieved and holding myself up against some idealised timetable. I’m a bit more relaxed about things these days, partly through having done things like publishing a book this year, and partly as I have come to understand that I have a restless nature. A couple of days ago a friend halted halfway through a sentence as they realised they were basically calling me crazy.

An NFL blog, writing books, an NFL podcast, a band, a pretty busy job – all the things as I like to say. I found it funny because I didn’t disagree, and they left out the lifting, the runs, the morning stretches and core work, the out of hours support, walks with my partner, the list goes on.

I have come to appreciate the trying of things, but whilst there are things that get sacrificed, I’m not in a position that I have had to sacrifice everything to pursue one goal. There’s some that will talk about how you can achieve anything if you pursue their dream. For some this is true, and I can see that it is offered as a genuine encouragement, but usually by people who have beaten the odds. If I can, then so can you. The problem is that, if you’re focussed on the result, then anything other than achieving that result, and it is all too easy to not get the most out of what you’re doing at the time. And if you sacrifice everything for one goal, then there’s a lot to pick up if that gamble doesn’t pay off.

That’s not to say goal setting isn’t important, or that you shouldn’t try to do what you love, but how you get there is kind of important. If this is sounding dangerously close to one of those life is a journey not a destination inspirational posters, then that’s because it is. So why am I bringing it up now? The answer is podcasts and how I got very lucky this week.

Podcasts feature heavy in this next section because of a discussion between Jonah Keri and Katie Nolan on Keri’s podcast. At the end of every episode Jonah Keri asks his guest for an inspiration thing that has helped his guest. It can be as serious or as silly as they like, and one of the themes that keeps cropping up is that if you love doing something, find a way to do it. Make the thing that you want to do, and you will get better at it and the success may or may not come, but do it for the love anyway.

The reason that these blogs exist are because as I got older, the idea of being a writer wouldn’t go away. I was not one of those children who had a clearly defined idea of what they wanted to do and pursued it through a specific path in education. I kept fiddling with stories and ideas, and then really started working on my writing as I got more serious about it.

The NFL blog started because I loved the NFL and I wanted to work on something that would help me with the mechanics of writing. The NFL would always be something to write about, I was following anyway and it was an extension of my love of the sport.

Along the way, I discovered what I love writing about in relation to football, read more, listened to more podcasts, watched more games. A self-perpetuating interest developed. Not only that, but I learned how to manage my writing time, when I could squeeze out extra words if I needed to, and in the process learnt how to write fiction in more focused bursts without waiting for inspiration.

I read about coaching, and developed my thoughts on this, stealing from Pete Carroll’s book about developing a philosophy, and borrowing the idea from great Bill Walsh that the score takes care of itself. I still haven’t distilled my philosophy down to a handy twenty-five word summary as Carroll asks, but I know the name.

Process Over Outcome.

The idea that you cannot control the outcomes of situation, but if you focus on making the process as good as possible, then you maximise the potential for things to go well.

I’m still working on selling my children’s book, I have a lot to learn. Mostly because I was focussed on making the book as good as I can through the editing and production process.

It is also important to not be afraid of making mistakes, you have to learn from them, but if you’re paralysed by the possibility of failing then you’re not focussing on the process and you might not even try.

The Wrong Football podcast started last season when my friend Dan came to me, and said he’d like to do a podcast with me, and my response was sure, but you have to produce it as I can find time to sit down and record but I’m too tied up with the site to do much more. I approached it like I do being in a band, I have to trust the other people to do their job, go with the best idea, it’s working in a collaborative creative process. Something I’m used to with music and something I have written before about on my writer’s blog.

Thanks to this process, on Friday night I got to shake the hands of a Super Bowl winner. In fact, a pretty significant one for me, because this wasn’t any old Super Bowl winner, but a member of the legendary 1985 Chicago Bears. The team that caused the surge of interest in American football in the UK in the mid 1980s, and pretty much the reason that I am fan of the game. Things come full circle. It was a great experience, certainly for Dan and I, who were very nervous to begin with as this was our first live interview for the pod, but we settled quickly enough because after all, we were talking football.

The interview should be coming in next week’s pod, and will be accompanied by a second interview another ex NFL player Nick Ferguson who was also a great guy, very happy to talk to us and evangelise over the game. It was a pretty incredible evening before we even got to the NFL event itself.

I’m very happy for the pod, and I hope the interviews come across well. I also look back on it, and I think to my own brief stints being interviewed about my book. I don’t see my purpose there as being a hard sell, I just try to be enthusiastic about what I have created. If I wasn’t enthusiastic then I wouldn’t have created it. You hope that your enthusiasm sparks something in others, at the end of the day isn’t that what we’re all hoping for.

The truth is though, that all of these things are interconnected. In a way, the play of Shaun Gayle led to me writing a book, and writing meant that I got to shake his hand. This interconnectedness is part of life, the complexity of the world that surrounds can be baffling, and sometimes it is nice to stare at a sports field and pretend it is as simple as winning and losing. However, once you start to study it the complexity soon picks up again.

I’ll soon be predicting games and writing about the league. I’ll also be working on a sequel to the published book, running, lifting, doing all the things. Following various dreams, trying to ignore the deadlines. Process over outcome. It’s worked for me so far.