What does ‘being in the middle’ mean to you?

A few weeks ago I was asked what being in the middle meant, and I replied, ‘mundane.’ If you’re in the middle you’re either winning nor losing. The middle is neither success or failure. Neither happy or sad. Being in the middle is nothing, right?

I went to a one to one Pilates class this week as I’ve been struggling with my core and pain in my left hip that I’m seeing a physiotherapist for. During the hour I learnt more about my personality than my body, although I did also find out that, unsurprisingly after three children, I don’t have much of an actual strong or stable core. My instructor said she could clearly see that I don’t do things by halves. She asked me if I’m an all or nothing kind of girl and I didn’t realise until I had to answer that question that I undoubtedly am. First, she asked me to move my knee in and out as I was lying on my back, and instead of taking it slowly I moved my knee far too much and far too fast. Again, I didn’t wait in the middle to analyse stuff and see how I was doing and what I was feeling. The move was completed with gusto and efficiency. In. out. Done.

And when I got to thinking I realised that this pretty much sums up how I live my life. I go from zero to immediate fight or flight behaviour. I am in a constant state of flux, never stopping in the middle to just, dare I say it, ‘be.’ And it’s the same with my writing, I love the early creative bursts where the story is unfolding and I’m discovering new things about my characters and their motivations. And then when it’s done I want it published and I want it published now. I want it to be good enough already. I don’t mind admitting that I struggle with that middle part, the editing, the slow and steady unpicking of what’s going on, the close observations and discoveries. I’m too impatient. The end goal, the success, is always what I’m chasing. I’m not sure why the middle part of everything fills me with such dread. It’s not that scary. Editing can be enlightening. It can perfect an almost perfect sentence, or chapter, or story arc. It’s what makes the whole thing so much better.

Yet every time I get feedback and know I have to do the inevitable next edit and start another draft I have a couple of days of frustration. I’m annoyed that I’m still not at that desirable end goal. And then I start thinking and mulling the feedback over and something magical happens. Every single time I somehow find a new enthusiasm for my work-in-progress and I have new ideas and I get stuck in. Every single time I say, ‘this is the last draft, if it’s not good enough now I give up,’ but I never do. And why? Because I can’t. Because I’m not at the end yet and like it or not I have to endure the tortuous middle part if I ever want to get there.

And so I’m sat here somewhere between lunch and dinner, writing this blog post and I’m thinking about what I can do to help me enjoy ‘the middle’ more. Because the middle is important, especially in a novel or short story. The middle is where stuff happens, good and bad. (Think Gone Girl.) It’s where decisions are made, secrets are revealed, characters fall apart, a twist is revealed. It’s where the pace can ramp up or slow down. It’s where the action happens. It’s where you can be pulled away from being all or nothing and where you’re so invested in it you have to see it through.

Being a writer isn’t just about writing. In the early days it’s also about learning what kind of writer you are. I met with the lovely Emily Koch recently whilst in the middle of submitting my novel to my editor and waiting for her feedback. She had some wonderful words of wisdom, as she always does, and told me to remember how much I love writing. Because whether I succeed or not, whether I am published or not, whether I win awards or not, I write because I love writing. Because – like so many other writers – I can’t not write.  I don’t just write for success and notoriety, I write because it would be impossible for me not to.

And maybe this current middle bit where I’m waiting for a response isn’t so bad after all. At least it’s not another rejection, right?

Words, words everywhere…

My youngest son wears hearing aids, he’s not profoundly deaf, but his condition makes it hard for him to hear. And I find it very frustrating when he gets disciplined at school for ‘not listening.’ What the teacher needs to say is that he hasn’t followed the instruction given, not that he didn’t hear it in the first place. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one in my eyes and one where words aren’t being used as effectively as they could.

Being a writer I’m often very careful with the words I chose to put on the page and the order in which I write them down. I’ve never been a writer who has trouble with having a novel that is too long, it’s always been the other way around, but that doesn’t mean I’m always concise and effective with what I write, and I’m not always so careful with the words that come out of my mouth, however, nor the ones with which I use to talk to myself. You know, the ones that say you’re not good enough, or that you’ve probably offended someone without meaning to, in fact, you definitely have.

Recently I have had many conversations about effective use of language. I went on a mental health training day where a midwife told us that they are no longer allowed to call their hospital department a ‘delivery suite,’ for they are not delivering pizza. It now has to be called a ‘birthing suite.’ And then I spoke to a friend who knew someone whose daughter developed an eating disorder in her teens. As a child the girl had been tall for her age and everyone had always commented on how ‘big’ she was. She took this to mean fat. I’ve also spoken to many teachers who know not to say a child is naughty, but what they are doing is naughty.

If we thought about it too much we’d never speak again for fear of damaging our children or unintentionally upsetting someone, but where we can I’m beginning to think what we say and how we say it is more important than we think. We need to be mindful of our words when speaking to others or ourselves, or when writing a novel or article, and even when tweeting and blogging. For these are all places where meaning can easily be ambiguous if words are not chosen carefully. They can do more damage than the author ever intended, I should know, I’ve been that author.

Over the last few months I’ve been very focused on using effective language – I’ve been editing my first novel and I’ve been having therapy, mainly for OCD, and anxiety linked to my sons’ medical conditions. Both of these things have been primarily focused on the words I use and how they can be misinterpreted, or aren’t clear enough, or are downright unhelpful. I’ve learnt to cut sentences that start with…

But what if….’

‘I shouldn’t…’

‘I ought to…’

Nothing good has ever come from me thinking things beginning with those words. They lead me to catastrophise and feel guilty. They make me more fearful. They offer no comfort, only criticism. And in noticing these words and making subtle changes I am learning to cope with situations better, although some better than others, it’s taking time. It works in writing too. Changing the negative into a positive can make a sentence more powerful. Instead of describing a character by showing how they’d never behave I now write about what they do. There’s always a more powerful verb than don’t, shouldn’t or can’t. I saw a TED talk recently about how different languages have their own nuances, and how negative the English language can be without us even thinking. For example, have you ever heard someone say that they broke their leg? It’s the way we speak, the way it’s been for a long time, putting blame on ourselves. In other languages if you said, ‘I’ve broken my leg,’ then the listener would think you took a hammer to yourself and did it on purpose. Generally when you break a bone it’s an accident. You didn’t break it, it broke. You didn’t spill the milk, it spilt. It was an accident. Blame need not be apportioned.

I’ve also been more observant about how I am spoken to, and how I react to words that come at me. If I assume they’re going to be hurtful then of course they generally are, whereas if I choose to look behind the words themselves and think about the place they are coming from, then that usually changes my perception of them. I’m learning to let go of the words that say more about the person saying them than they do about me. It can all be so subjective, a bit like fiction you could say. Best to not leave anything open to misinterpretation in my opinion, but then that can cause issues to. Some people really don’t like hearing the truth.

But overall I’m learning, in both my editing and my life, to focus only on the important stuff. The meaningful bits. When editing I need to get my point across as quickly and clearly as possible, removing as many unnecessary words as I can. And therapy is proving that I need to do the same with my internal voice. Basically I need to cut out the crap and just…Get. To. The. Point.

And quicker!

The waiting game…

You’ll discover the wonderful irony of this blog post as I get going, procrastination is an ever present curse…

I’m currently sat in the local coffee shop, with two fellow writer friends, writing novel number two, whilst novel number one is with an editor. And, of course, after every word I type I am checking my emails, which is roughly every two seconds. Even though I know in all probability I’m not going to get a response any time soon, because editors are very, very busy people.

And so instead of plodding on with novel two (I will come back to this) I have decided to procrastinate – first by sorting out new social media names and blog links (goodbye @InstinctiveMum and hello @jfaulknerwriter) and second by writing this blog post. It’s the very first one on my shiny new author’s website and focused mostly on writing and not parenting. I am of course mainly writing this post so the next time I am in this situation I have something to read and refer to and get comfort from because, so I am reliably informed, the waiting does not get any easier.

So here are my top seven tips for surviving that hideous in between period – when you’ve done all you can do with your work in progress, and you’ve tweaked and fiddled and edited until you’ve lost all perspective and have sent your manuscript off to an agent or an editor.

Here goes…

  1. Write. Maybe, for example, a blog post. There’s always something you can write about. It’s great procrastination, plus it allows you to find a home for all of the superbly awesome adverbs you’ve not been allowed to write in your novel.

 

  1. Catch up with old friends. Send out numerous texts and await replies. Meet them for coffee, for lunch, for wine, and DO NOT TAKE YOUR PHONE. Or if you do take your phone switch off email notifications. You can put your hand to better use by using it to transfer wine or gin or cake to your mouth.

 

  1. WRITE. (Yes…I know I am repeating number one a little bit here – but it’s important.) Don’t stop writing. Articles, blog posts, short stories, the next novel. Never stop. Busy your mind with new characters and new plots. Do it, do it, do it. I do try however, most of the time, not to faff about anymore or even look at the draft of whatever I’ve been working on and have sent off. I recommend you close the file on your computer and/or put a paper copy in your bottom desk drawer because a) you’re more than likely to discover a gaping plot hole and cringe, and b) you may edit it in a very different direction to how your agent/editor feels it should go and end up creating even more work for yourself.

 

  1. Give the dog an extra walk and…obviously…do not take your phone. Clear out cupboards, have a spring clean, go for a swim, shop, or bake. Do all of the things you’ve put on hold because you’ve been head down and meeting a deadline. Basically keep your hands busy so they don’t keep picking up your phone and checking your emails. How you keep your hands busy is up to you….

 

  1. Observe. Jot down new ideas. Listen to conversations. Go to different places and make notes about them. You never know what will inspire you, plus getting out of the house is by far more enjoyable than stewing in it, unless of course the weather is pants, in which case stay in and have a hot bath. Or do number 6.

 

  1. Read. All writers know how important, and fun, reading is. Read something you wouldn’t normally pick up – you can learn just as much from a novel you don’t like/enjoy as you can from one you can’t put down. And watch films. I like to notice plot twists and when exactly in the movie they happen. (thanks for this tip Emily!) It’s nearly always at the same time. There’s definitely a formula and it’s also interesting to see how plot points and character motivation are set up/revealed in dialogue.

 

  1. WRITE. WRITE. WRITE. I know. I need to take my own advice now, don’t I?!

 

Have you got any more tips? I’m only a week in and quite probably have a few more to go….help me!!!