The curse of Writer’s Bottom (and my attempt to fix it)

As a writer, I spend a rather large amount of my time sitting.

This is arguably truer now than it was when I was freelancing. At least back then I’d typically walk (or bus) to town, move from coffee shop to library and back again in any given day, with the frequent need for refreshments and a change of scenery meaning I’d get up and move around on a regular basis.

Now that I’m in an office, that’s no longer the case. I drive to work, park in the on-site car park and proceed to my desk, where I’ll spend the best part of eight hours tapping away on a keyboard, barely surfacing for air. The only saving grace is the fact that my desk is almost as far from the coffee station and facilities as possible, and that my need to escape from the office most lunchtimes means I’ll often head outside.

However, the result of this almost complete absence of movement is that I’ve gained weight, as you may expect given my increasingly sedentary lifestyle (true, it could have been compounded by the fact that I’ve since moved in with a man whose love for wine and cheese almost outweighs my own, but I prefer to focus on the writerly thing rather an over-indulgence in the finer things in life).

It isn’t a huge amount – just enough for me to notice – and I’ve heard that it’s a common affliction among writers; a side-effect of the job, if you will, one that’s become lovingly referred to as Writer’s Bottom (a term that I believe was coined by Jane Wenham-Jones, and a pretty apt description at that).

Common it may be, but the time has come to do something about it, so I’ve decided to take decisive action – I’m attempting to give up sugar.

*pauses for dramatic effect*

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Ok, now I’m not taking it to extreme lengths – I’m still allowing myself things like fruit and natural sweeteners, and I accept the fact that there’ll be off days (heck, I’m even planning for some of them) – and I’m not expecting it to last forever (viewing it as a complete this-is-for-good lifestyle change is just too much for my sweet tooth to cope with), but I’m trying it for a few weeks to see if I can manage it, and hopefully it’ll have the desired effect. At the very least, it could mean I reach for the chocolate a little less often. We can only hope…

I’m under no illusions that it’s going to be easy. On Day 1, I quickly realised how much of a challenge it was going to be – and a week into the whole thing I’m still realising it. There’s sugar in EVERYTHING. A quick glance at the ingredients list of any typical foodstuff will give you an instant sugar rush.

Even things you may initially think of as being relatively healthy are chock full of the granular devil. Soup has it. Sushi has it. SALAD has it. And will someone please explain to me the logic behind adding sugar to dried fruit? It’s fruit! THE SUGAR’S IN THERE BY DEFAULT!!

But I digress.

Tough it may be, but a week in and I’m realising that this thing could work. Preparation appears to be key, thereby avoiding the lure of pre-packed plastic-wrapped monstrosities at lunchtime, and if my scales are to be believed I’m already a couple of pounds down – and that’s with a weekend where I wasn’t exactly strict in any way shape or form – but it hasn’t come without sacrifice.

I’m craving sugar on a seemingly constant basis. I’m tired. I’m hungry. I miss chocolate. An afternoon snack of hard-boiled eggs simply doesn’t cut it. My evenings are filled with unrequited longing as I try to ignore the increasingly loud growls of my stomach when it’s craving a 9pm sugar hit. (Incidentally, I’ve just read an article that likens sugar withdrawal to that of drug addiction. This explains a lot.) 

If anyone’s got any tips on how I can keep my resolve going without ransacking the cupboards in a sugar-withdrawal-induced mania, I’d very much appreciate it.  

But still, it’s possible. It isn’t easy, but it’s possible. Writer’s Bottom will not win. Famous last words? We shall see…

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PAY THE WRITERS

Have you heard Huffington Post’s attitude towards paying for content? If not, you’re in for a treat: it seems that the editor of Huff Post UK is “proud” that the company doesn’t pay writers, otherwise it wouldn’t be “real”.

That’s right. The UK editor of a multi-million dollar (or so I’m guessing) company doesn’t think it’s appropriate to pay writers. You know, the people who are writing the content for the site that earns him the money to live on. Which of course writers don’t need.

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In an interview with BBC Radio 4, Stephen Hall explained why he doesn’t pay the 13,000 or so contributors to Huff Post UK. 13,000 of them. All unpaid. And he’s proud of it.

Here’s what he said: “If I was paying someone to write something because I wanted it to get advertising pay, that’s not a real authentic way of presenting copy. So when somebody writes something for us, we know it’s real. We know they want to write it. It’s not been forced or paid for. I think that’s something to be proud of.”

I’ll just let you bang your head against the desk for a minute.

Done? Ok.

I’m almost speechless. It’s such an appalling statement. It’s as if any revenue from advertising that may magically appear is a happy coincidence, not something that’s been meticulously planned and budgeted for.

But it’s so blatant, too. How is it even possible? It’s as if someone’s saying, “You create the work that gets us paid, but we won’t pay you. HAHAHA!” Who, in any other profession, would be happy with that arrangement?

Essentially, it’s fuelling the belief that we, as writers, aren’t worth paying for. That our words are nothing more than mindless fodder for those with time on their hands to read them. That it’s easy to bash out words on the page – a monkey can write Shakespeare, after all.

It perpetuates the idea that we should be doing it for the love of our craft, that the prospect of “exposure” and respect should be enough to keep food on the table and our houses paid for, and that the warm glow of knowing we’re being truly “authentic” in our vision is all we need to sustain ourselves.

Except it isn’t. It doesn’t even come close. Respect doesn’t pay the rent.
Now, there are of course cases where writers write because they want to, with no prospect of remuneration at the end of it. Be it the creative need to write (someone who simply has to); to build a personal platform, brand or authority (perhaps on a blog); to practice technique and form by simply getting words on the page; or maybe to enter competitions. These kinds of things are acceptable forms of freebie writing and are arguably a vital part of the writer’s craft, being a way to hone their skills, get their voices heard, and ultimately carve a path to success.

But that’s it.

It shouldn’t be the case when it comes to writing for commercial purposes. If you’re writing for a publication, individual, or company that’s making money from your writing, you should be making money from it, too. Huff Post is entirely based on content providers. It depends on them. It’s all words. Your writing sells and it’s what earns them the big bucks.  So why shouldn’t you be suitably compensated for it?

“But you should be happy to write for nothing! It shows you’re real! It shows you’re authentic! It shows you’re a true artist!”

Oh really? Would you work for nothing simply to prove yourself as a good chef/accountant/lawyer? Should we not pay builders, doctors, solicitors, engineers or the Huff Post editor, for fear that the treatment we’d get, the service we’d receive, would be inauthentic if we paid for it?

So why treat writers any differently?

It simply doesn’t happen in any other industry, bar the creative one. And it’s ridiculous. If you’re working, if you’re providing a service in any way shape or form, you should be paid for it. Writers included.

The joy of a festive read

On Sunday I was nursing the kind of hangover that can only be achieved when a Christmas-lunch-with-friends turns into one-too-many-Christmas-drinks, but while I was annoyed at the complete loss of a day, it had a rather happy consequence – namely, that I was able to curl up with a book on the sofa for a few hours. A Christmas book, no less. This book:

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I absolutely love a good festive read, and this one didn’t disappoint. It was a wonderful, warm and humorous look at how Father Christmas came to be, complete with elves, magic and all the joys of the season, and although it’s technically a children’s book, I defy any Christmas-loving adult to be put off by it. It really did fill me with festive cheer and I was beaming by the end of it, and I have no doubt that I’ll be keeping it for my future offspring to read and learn about jolly old (or, indeed, young) Nikolas.

There’s something about a Christmas book that defines the season for me, much in the same way that a favourite Christmas film does (The Muppet Christmas Carol, without question) – even if you haven’t yet got round to writing the Christmas cards or putting the tree up, reading a Christmas book can make you feel instantly festive.

You can’t beat curling up under a blanket with a book, a mince pie and a hot chocolate (or mulled wine if it’s that kind of evening) to instantly get into the spirit of things. Bonus points if you’re surrounded by candles or fairy lights, and double the bonus if you’re wearing Christmas pyjamas. Or slippers. Or socks. Etc…

It’s a chance to wonder at the sheer magic, the warmth, that Christmas can create, and perhaps the best part of it is that there’s nothing commercial about it. For me, the key to a good festive read (or film for that matter) is that it imparts a sense of joy and love for my fellow man – I forget about the stress of finding the perfect present or what would happen if I forget the bread sauce, and simply want to get up and hug my loved ones.

It’s one of the highlights of the season for me. I try to re-read A Christmas Carol on an annual basis – it’s a must, a festive tradition – and A Boy Called Christmas could now be up there as one of my new favourite festive classics. Not too schmaltzy, not too twee, but just right. I’m now scouring the book lists for a new Christmas read to feast on, so if anyone’s got some festive recommendations to throw my way, I’m all ears! I do love a happy festive ending *cracks open the mulled wine*

The frustrated writer (a rant)

“But you get to write all day! You’re doing what you love for a living, you’re so lucky. I wish I could be writing instead of working on the tills/in a call centre/in an office [delete as appropriate].”

Do you? Do you really? Because let me tell you, writing for a living isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, unless you truly are lucky and are getting paid to write about the things you want to write about.

I don’t have that luxury. At all. I “specialise” in a single subject, but at best the things I write about barely interest me, and at worst I flat out detest the words that are spewing from my fingertips. It’s dry, boring and there’s nothing to get my teeth into, and the pressure of writing a lot of words in the minimum amount of time means I’m barely brushing the surface of most things.

And I’m still in an office. A bland, boring office that saps my inspiration, energy and sanity on a daily basis. By the time I get home from a day of churning out page after page of uninspiring claptrap I’m in no fit state to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) for the duration of the evening. I often can’t bring myself to do anything more than think about the kind of things I want to write about. And even that’s pushing it.

I get frustrated at my lack of motivation, which in all fairness, has been brought on by sheer brain-melting boredom and a necessity to get thousands of words onto the page during my working hours, burning me out in the process. My brain cannot fathom the thought of writing anything else; it just won’t. It straight up refuses. It has devolved into mush.

I go to bed and lament my job and my inability to write in my own time. I sleep un-restfully, wake up annoyed (and already bored) and head back to my desk where I’m silently screaming at the screen by lunchtime.

And so the pattern continues.

I think it’s actually sending me slightly crazy.

Of course, I know I’m lucky really. I’ve got a stable job that allows me to live fairly comfortably, and there are certain parts of it that I genuinely do enjoy, it’s just that I don’t get the time to really develop those aspects (cue more frustration).

I’m in a better position than many in that I have security – certainly more than I had when I freelanced – and I suppose I do still get to write for a living, even if it isn’t exactly on subjects I’d choose to write about. I can’t imagine doing anything other than writing as my day job, that’s for sure. Silver linings and all that.

But we all need to rant sometimes, right?

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The Lester Dent Master Fiction Plot challenge


Have you ever heard of Lester Dent? Or more specifically, his formula for writing a great story? If not, allow me to paraphrase slightly.

It’s a formula – or master plot – for writing a 6,000 word pulp story. It lists everything you need to include and when, from the murder method (if that’s the kind of story you’re going for) and the all-important location to the overarching menace that stands in the way of the hero.

It even breaks it down into handy 1,500-word chunks to help you stay on course, outlining the action that needs to take place in each section (and crucially, when that action needs to occur), when to introduce your characters, and how to build atmosphere – everything you need to craft a suspense-filled pulp tale.

Of course, there’s more to it than that, and you can find the formula in full here: http://www.writerightnow.co.uk/lester-dents-formula-writing-adventure-pulp-fiction/ (There are plenty of other blogs that cover it, but this is the post that I keep referring back to. Thanks Writerightnow.co.uk!)

It’s an intriguing concept, and one that seemed hugely successful for Mr Dent. The creator of Doc Savage, this is a guy who wrote hundreds of books in his time, all of them (as far as I can gather) of the pulp variety, so the formula must have worked. Of course, it still requires a huge amount of imagination and plenty of ideas to enjoy that kind of success, but it can’t be denied, it sounds like a great starting point.

As far as I can tell, there’s no reason that this kind of formula can’t be expanded to suit the requirements of a novella or even a complete novel, either, and it could probably work with more modern iterations of the mystery/thriller genre as well. But it doesn’t hurt to start with the basics, so I’m setting myself the challenge of writing a 6,000 word pulp story according to the rules of Mr Dent (the more I say Mr Dent, the more I’m getting Batman flashbacks. But I digress…).

Essentially, it’s a template, and as a fledgling fiction writer, a template is something I can most definitely work with. I like the idea of having guidelines I can refer back to that can help me build a narrative, rather than diving in with no real idea of what to put where – and it could probably help with the whole fear of the blank page thing, too.

As an added bonus, I love the pulp style as well, particularly stories with a noir feel. The Postman Always Rings Twice was one of the first books I read in the genre and The Big Sleep quickly followed, while Patricia Highsmith is by far my favourite of the more modern noir-ists. I’m looking to order a title by Christa Faust (The Money Shot) to get my teeth into a modern-day pulp story, too.

Maybe it’s just me, but I get a distinctive Sin City-style image whenever I picture that genre – all inky tones and sombre mood, with the odd flash of red thrown in for good measure – and I’d love to write something in that style. My first love may be writing with a psychological edge, but there’s no reason why I can’t deviate from time to time. Or even combine the two. Now there’s a thought…

So, the stage is set and I’m ready to go. I’ve got the formula and a few ideas buzzing around, and now all I’ve got to do is get them onto paper. Challenge accepted. Wish me luck!

The fear of the blank page

I’ve been thinking about the kind of stories I could write for a while now. Ideas have definitely been brewing, be they in the form of concepts, characters or even images, but so far, that’s all they’ve been. Ideas.

I’ve scribbled them down and have been carefully mulling over the basics, getting flashes of inspiration every now and then, all of them written in my brand new notebook (which I just had to get before I could start taking this writing lark seriously again), but they’ve yet to take any real shape.

Essentially, I’ve yet to properly put pen to paper (or the digital equivalent). I haven’t written anything that could be even marginally construed as a narrative; nothing fiction-related in the slightest. Basically, I’m scared, and it’s this fear that’s holding me back.

It’s the fear of not being good enough – of writing rubbish, of not being creative enough to qualify as a true writer, of not even knowing what to write, how to write or where to start. The fear of the blank page.

It can be a crippling, debilitating fear, I’ve found. It can completely immobilise a writer and prevent them from putting even a single word on the page, so every idea remains locked away. It can prevent a writer from becoming a writer.

And it’s starting to annoy me. Considering the fact that I face the blank page several times a day in my role as a financial journalist, it’s something that I really should have grown out of by now. If I was completely paralysed with fear every single time I had to write a new piece, I’d never get any work done whatsoever and would quickly find that I become a *former* financial journalist.

But this isn’t journalism. It isn’t work and it isn’t something I’m getting paid for. It’s an entirely different way of writing, and it has an entirely different set of motivations.

It’s writing from my own ideas, my own thoughts; not from a press release or research findings. I don’t have anything solid or tangible to build my narrative around. And I don’t have any real need to write – from an external point of view at least – other than that I need to write.

I think that it’s precisely because it’s so different that it’s so terrifying. As it stands, everything about this new phase of writing is entirely theoretical. All I have is a basic idea (or two) about what I want to create. There are no well-rounded characters and there’s no clear, defining story arc for me to build on.

But the fear can’t paralyse me forever. I may not have anything to work with yet, but if I don’t start, that’ll never change, and I’ll forever be a writer of fiction in theory rather than one in practice. So, I’ve come up with a few key things that I’m going to put in motion to try and face my fear:

  1. Write anything. Even if it’s terrible. At least then there’ll be something that I can work with and improve on – everyone’s got to start somewhere.
  2. Don’t be afraid of writing rubbish. An addendum to the above, but important nonetheless.
  3. Start with a title. Even writing a few words on a page can make it seem less daunting – it isn’t blank anymore, after all. Case in point: I had no idea what I was going to write in this blog post, and almost didn’t start it at all, until I wrote the title on a fresh document. It’s amazing how writing a few words can spur you on to write more – it’s made me realise that it’s possible to build something from nothing.
  4. Have a different mindset. Rather than thinking of it as a blank page (which, as we’ve established, is a terrifying concept), why not think of it as a clean slate? A fresh start? A chance to create something new and exciting? It shall no longer be a blank page – instead, it shall be a new, exciting opportunity that’s waiting to be explored.

So, that’s the plan at least. Feel the fear and write anyway. Let’s see how this pans out.

Going back to my roots

I’ve wanted to write for as long as I can remember.

I wrote poetry from a young age (my Mum still has several of my earliest creations tucked away) and careers projects always involved books of some kind. I loved writing in English lessons and would create meticulously crafted stories; in fact, any lesson offered creative potential. A project on the Spanish Armada became an in-depth narrative that filled an entire exercise book, while a simple one-page essay could be eked out into reams of carefully-honed words. I was never one for brevity.

But, somewhere along way – I can’t remember when or why – I must have decided that writing wasn’t a suitable career choice. Perhaps I couldn’t see a way of actually earning a living from it, that dreams of multi-million pound book contracts were just that, and that a far better idea would be to focus on something else. (I changed my mind later, hence my launch into the freelance world and beyond, but that’s another story.)

I don’t think it was a particularly conscious choice, but what I focused on next was psychology, and that was the start of my second passion in life.

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There’s something about the human mind that fascinates me. That we all have essentially the same physical components, but that something about us – be it genetic predispositions, differences in the way those genes are expressed, a slightly different mix of chemicals, or simply our environment – makes us entirely different from the person sitting next to us. No-one, not even supposedly-genetically identical twins, has exactly the same personality, or precisely the same reactions to external stimuli.

Certain aspects of the mind can’t even be explained, over a century after the father of psychiatry first began his analysis of the human psyche. Things like sociopathy – how does one become a sociopath? What is it about their genetics, their upbringing, their chemical composition that makes their emotional reactions, and their mind as a whole, so different to those of so-called “normal” people? (I could talk for hours about whether anyone actually is “normal” and what defines it as such, but not right now.)

It’s these questions in particular that excite me, and perhaps explain why I centred on psychology at A-Level, and again in my degree. It could also explain why I’ve gone back to my roots, as it were, in my writing.

My writing has always had a psychological edge. In fact, I recently opened a notebook that had remained firmly shut for some four years, only to find that the ideas I’ve been mulling over in recent weeks – all sociopathy-based, incidentally – were the exact same ones I first wrote down all those years ago. Almost to the word (in some sentences, the exact same words). And I had no recollection of them whatsoever until I went back to that notebook.

Coincidence, no? Perhaps those ideas were always there, just out of conscious reach, bubbling away under the surface and silently pushing me to get back to that creative space. But I’m taking it as a sign. Having recently returned to my first love, I’m going to combine it with my second, and see what kind of melting pot I can create. Let’s get cooking.