Posted in Personal life, Writing

Why Every Author Needs to Take a Break Now and Again

In my role as Advice Centre Manager for the Alliance of Independent Authors, I commission and sub-editing a daily blog post about all aspects of writing and publishing. I also write occasional opinion pieces for them . Not all of these posts will be of interest to non-authors, but I thought I’d share my latest post here, because the principles apply to other kinds of professions too. Whatever work you do, it provides the best excuses for taking a holiday – plus some lovely pics from my summer vacation!

(Here’s a link to where the post originally appeared.)


picture of Debbie on Glencoe in rainhat
Following my own advice to take a break in Glencoe, Scotland, last month

Do you find it hard to make yourself take a break from your writing life? Here’s the justification you need to take some time out and recharge your creative batteries!

In today’s post, Debbie Young, indie author, litfest director and ALLi’s Author Advice Center Manager, makes the case for the importance of rest for writers, not only for physical recovery, but also to reinvigorate creative intention and gain perspective.

Whether you’re nearing the end of the summer holiday season in the northern hemisphere, or enjoying the first signs of spring in the southern hemisphere, her personal account will give you the excuses you need to start planning your next vacation now!

 

Indie authors, as their own publishers, are their own bosses.

Most of us are ambitious to write great books and get them into the hands of readers. However much we do, there is always more to do: more writing, more marketing, more admin. A writer’s work is never done.

If ever a writer was able to check off every item on their to-do list, I’d question whether they’re really a writer at all.

Too Busy to Take a Break?

Whether or not we have a day job, family commitments or other pressures, we pile the work on ourselves, multi-tasking and straining the last drop of creativity out of each day:

  • We keep notebooks by our beds for those middle-of-the-night story ideas
  • We dictate copy in our cars and on walks
  • We get up early/stay up late to squeeze those extra writing hours out of the day
  • We eat and drink at our desks (oh, those crumbs in the keyboard!)
  • We may even exercise while writing – though so far I’ve resisted the lure of the treadmill desk!

If we saw a loved one working that hard in their chosen career, would we applaud them, or would we be imploring them to cut themselves some slack? Treat yourself the same way – you deserve it!

Too Old to Take a Break?

Once you reach a certain age, as I have, you may also start to feel additional pressure of “time’s winged chariot” (though Andrew Marvell’s poem is about a rather different activity), and worry about running out of time altogether (“When I have fears that I may cease to be Before my pen had gleaned my teeming brain…” – John Keats.)

Theories abound as to how to make the most of each day, how to divide up your time into the most productive chunks, how often to take breaks etc etc.

But I hold that nothing boosts your productivity more than completely downing tools for a week or two, counter-intuitive though that may seem.

Too Broke to Take a Break?

I’m lucky – I’m at that time of life when I can afford family holidays away from home, but you can still take a holiday at home, or rather, based at home, if your budget doesn’t run to fancy trips.

The important thing is to STOP – and pause – and rest – and return, revitalised to your writing life, stronger for having left it for a while.

This is how Orna Ross, director of ALLi and author of the Go Creative! series, describes the importance of rest in the indie author’s life.

Headshot of Orna Ross
ALLi director Orna Ross prescribes creative rest and play for all creatives

Creative rest and play are not breaks from the process of writing, publishing or business building. They ARE the process.

It happens at two levels. One is the obvious refreshment and restoration we get from taking a break away from the desk. All efforts to to perform, to make, to do draw on a pool of creative energy. Once that energy source is depleted, we become less effective. It’s like drawing water from a well, we need to give it time to fill back up again. But also the subconscious mind is core to the creative process itself, immensely more powerful than our surface, conscious minds. We have our best ideas, our aha moments, our insights and inspirations when we are relaxed, rested, playful.

Orna recommends a mini creative vacation each week, in the form of a “createdate” with yourself – something that I’ve found to be a really powerful and invigorating tool, even though I don’t always manage to fit one in each week. (Here’s an account of one I went on earlier this year.)

Practising What I Preach

Easy for me to say, you might be thinking, so here are some examples of what I gained from the two-week break I took earlier this month with my family.

  • New perspective on my writing schedule
    After an exhausting thirteen months publishing four novels, I decided to slow up, now that I have a strong start to my catalog of novels. I felt it was important to get the first three in my Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series out quickly, but that’s not a sustainable or reasonable pace long-term.
  • Revelation about my writing ambitions
    Having established myself as a lighthearted, humorous writer, I realised I do also have within me an ambition to write something more serious that won’t be described by reviewers as “a chuckle on every page” or “Miss Marple meets Bridget Jones”, much as I love those accolades.
  • Desire to research
    Having dismissed myself tongue-in-cheek as a lazy writer because I’m writing about what I know – English village life – I began to hanker after researching some meaty topics that I could then fictionalise, either within my village mystery series or outside of it.
  • New system of time management
    I’ve designed a new method for managing my varied workload: allocating a name to each day to do with a specific subset of tasks (e.g. Festive Friday for planning festivals and events), and saving up the related work for that day only. However, every day with a “y” in it, I will allow myself to write fiction!
  • Stimulating new sights and experiences
    From catching interesting radio programmes on the journey, to finding seaglass on the beach, the fortnight was full of new stimuli for new story ideas, as outlined in the photos below.
photo of woodland stream near Ben Nevis
Waiting for my family to finish a treetop walk near Ben Nevis (I’m not great with heights!), I realised I need to spend more time in the tranquility of woodlands – great for future createdate ideas
photo of vaguely butterfly-shaped granite
At the Cruachan Visitor Centre, where you can take a trip INSIDE a mountain, we were given a piece of granite as a souvenir – I chose mine for its shape, immediately thinking “The Granite Butterfly – what a great story title!” (Click image for more about Cruachan)
photo of two vintage teddy bears
This vintage bear (left), which I’ve named Galloway, called to me from the window of a charity shop in Dumfries, last home of the poet Robert Burns – I couldn’t help but start wondering about his back-story. Small teddy on right is my own since early childhood. Click image for more about the Scottish region of Dumfries and Galloway.
photo of heart-shaped necklace filled with real forget-me-not flowers
Spotted in the Glencoe Visitor Centre shop, this necklace filled with forget-me-not flowers will serve as a real talisman for when I’m writing about my character Sophie Sayers, who is described as “the girl with forget-me-not eyes”. (Click image for more about Glencoe Visitor Centre).
five pieces of seaglass arranged like the petals of a flower
Whenever we go to a beach, I look out for seaglass. These five different pieces were collected by me and my daughter on the shores of sealochs. Back story ideas again… where did they all come from?

How will your next vacation transform your writing life? You’ll never know unless you take it!

Posted in Travel

Foreign Holidays: Who Needs Them?

Looking up Water Street from the Brook - Castl...
Castle Combe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Preparing for a two-week stay by an American teenager on her first trip to England, our list of “must-sees” soon fill a page. When we try to slot them in to the available fortnight’s calendar, we find there are simply not enough days.

Most of the destinations on our roster are less than an hour’s drive from home (and I don’t drive very fast). The Roman Baths, the Cotswold Way, Berkeley Castle, Slimbridge, Castle Combe, Bristol Zoo… we are spoiled for choice. Foreign vacations: who needs them, when we have such a wealth of tourist attractions on our doorstep?

English: Nonsuch Palace by Flemish School
Nonsuch Palace, Cheam

Here is further confirmation (not that I need it) that I’ve chosen to live in an idyllic part of England. But when I think about it, I could say much the same about the other places I’ve lived.

Even in the duller bits of suburban London, (Sutton and Cheam, anyone?) unexciting in themselves, have been a stone’s throw from astonishing places of historic and cultural richness – and I don’t just mean the obvious suspects in central London. Tucked away in Cheam, for example, was the site of the former Nonsuch Palace, Henry VIII’s grandest project –  enough to set any historical novelist’s imagination on fire and a far cry from the suburb’s more famous resident, Tony Hancock of 23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam. Similarly my home town of Sidcup, in south east London, has a wealth of historical associations including the nearby Eltham Palace, now owned (and treasured by) English Heritage. This was the childhood home of Henry VIII (he got about a bit, you know).

English: Frontage of Heslington Hall, York, th...
Heslington Hall, the administrative centre of the University of York (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My three years at university in York were like living in a museum, though the campus itself, a couple of miles beyond the medieval walled city, has dubious architectural value, other than in the Elizabethan manor house, Heslington Hall, reserved for admin staff rather than lowly students.  (Think of the film set of  “A Clockwork Orange” and you’ll be along the right lines.)

Walter Rothschild and zebra-drawn carriage
Walter Rothschild and zebra-drawn carriage – not yet stuffed (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Post-university, I discovered that Tring, though not renowned as a tourist attraction, had a great deal to offer the discerning visitor. Not least was the wonderful Rothschilds’ Natural History Museum, which I discovered a couple of hundred yards from my front door at 10 Frogmore Street. Its bizarre legions of stuffed zebras on shelves, once seen, justify a special trip to this small Hertfordshire town. For years, my husband or I had only to say “zebras on shelves” to each other and we’d be transported back, smiling, to many a pleasant afternoon. When, after a few years, we announced to my young nephews, frequent visitors to our home in Tring, that we were moving to Gloucestershire, their response was an anguished cry of “But when will we get to go to Tring?”

I admit that I’ve lived largely in middle-class, middle-England rather than in any gritty industrial regions, but even so, I think tourism is a state of mind rather than a consequence of postcode. There can’t be many people living in Britain who couldn’t reach somewhere spectacular and interesting within a 30 minute drive/bus ride/walk.

Cotswold Way in the setting sun...

But actually, even without that much effort, I think I could have a pretty good summer holiday just in my back garden, especially if we had the luxury of a bit of sunshine. A week ago, my daughter and I spent a lovely afternoon out there, giving our tiny pond a belated spring clean, playing badminton (very badly), and having our own mini-Olympics. We picked some raspberries. We built a bug hotel (a great way to clear the garden of sticks and stones and broken bamboo canes: another fine example of  Janet’s theory of how to get something done by doing something else). As we went  indoors for tea, I found myself looking forward to our summer holidays, not to planned trips to the Zoo or Slimbridge or National Trust stately homes, but simply to spending more time in our back garden. There’s a whole world of adventure to be found out there. All you need is the right route map.

Still prefer foreign destinations? Then you might like to read a bit about my trip to France last year! (Hypocrite? Moi?!)

Lost In France

Or Scotland:

Dorothy Was Right – There’s No Place Like Home

Posted in Personal life, Travel

How to Pack for the Summer Holidays

Rucksack
Image by brandsvig via Flickr

Packing. The very thought of it takes the edge off the excitement of going on holiday, at least till we’re on our way.

It shouldn’t be such a difficult task. As we spend most holidays in our camper van, we don’t have to bother with suitcases. We pack our possessions straight into the van’s streamlined cupboards, and here they stay, out of sight, until we need them. Well, that’s the theory, anyway.

Years ago, when we were child-free, holidays meant sailing in Greece. Packing in those days meant shoehorning toy-sized toiletries and capsule wardrobes into a collapsible sausage-shaped bag, ready for decanting into ship’s lockers on arrival. A camera, notebook and pen (plus daily access to yesterday’s English newspaper for my husband) were our only desert-island luxuries. Leaving behind the clutter of everyday life at home and at work was exhilarating. Forget feng shui – there were barely any material items to arrange.

Then in time, we had a baby to pack too. Until babies are about three, there’s an inverse relationship between the size of the child and the volume of luggage it requires. Just as Laura’s own baggage was starting to reduce – no more bottles, bibs or buggies – she hit toddlerhood, when she didn’t want to be confined to a boat. She needed playparks full of children to become her new friends. Any nationality, language no object, provided the children were her size.

And so slickly we transferred, like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, onto land. We traded in our boat for a camper van. Drier, less lurching, and less likely to strand us due to weather conditions, it was a welcome and natural evolution from amphibian to reptile. And while I was in charge of packing, it was still soothingly minimalist too.

But now that Laura packs her own bags for holidays, new challenges have arisen. Numerous cuddly toys and dolls anthropomorphise into inseparable friends who would simply pine away if left at home without her. By the end of last year’s summer holiday, Laura’s entourage took over the entire vehicle. So for our half-term trip to the Highlands, I decide to set a new rule: one bag of toys per person. A serious constraint for Gadget Man, but a less daunting challenge for me: most of my toys are books to read or write in. It is easy to smuggle extra rations onto the van’s built-in bookshelf.

I expect a rebellion before our departure. But no, Laura sits demurely on her booster seat with an old black barrel handbag of mine bulging at her side. On her lap is a single cuddly toy: Heather the Best-Dressed Rabbit. (Heather even has her own gas-mask case for this term’s World War II topic). I’ve suggested that instead of taking lots of toys Laura pack a bag of Heather’s clothes to ring the changes along the way. I am pleasantly startled to see she’s taken my advice.

Pointing the van north, we hit the road. The half-grown crops in the Cotswold fields undulate as we pass, as if waving goodbye. They will seem so soft and green on our return from serious Scottish mountains.

Four hours later, when we stop for the night at Morecambe Bay, the true contents of the little black bag are revealed. With a coy, self-satisfied smile, Laura unzips it and begins to pull out an endless stream of toys. It’s like watching a conjuror do the handkerchief trick. Three rag dolls, four horses, two dogs, a bird…. all these and more are soon strewn around the camper van, leaving my husband and I scrabbling, as ever, for a space big enough to sit in. One bag of toys it is, so I cannot complain. But what an astonishing mastery of the art of packing for one so young. I sigh and sit down next to Heather. When the summer holidays come round, I think I’ll put Laura in charge of loading the van.

(This post was originally written for the Tetbury Advertiser, July 2011)