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Celebrate Writing in the Leap Year.

We have this extra day! What shall we do with it? It’s Leap Year! Babies born today will only get to celebrate the true anniversary of their birth once every four years. It’s special. I woke up this morning thinking I should write something extraordinary: A scintillating chapter of my new novel, or a fantastic short story. For most of us it is another regular working day. A writing day. A Monday. In a way, it’s a shame no one gets today off. Such a rare day deserves more celebration than a mundane public or bank holiday.

After having set myself an ambitious writing goal for the 29th of February, I sat down with my cup of tea and stared at the screen. But the fiction didn’t flow miraculously out of my fingers. It simply didn’t happen this morning. Creativity is not something that authors can turn on or off at will. And I do mention the ‘off’ button, because once I’m on a writing roll, not even sleep can keep me from the driving need to spill ideas onto my computer screen.

This morning the main reason the ‘on’ button would not engage after I awoke, is the continued excitement of remembering that I am on a short list for a novel prize. I spend altogether too much time thinking about standing on the podium in St Stephen’s Church in Exeter on the 12th of March. It makes me want to get up and dance.

But even if I don’t take home that coveted award, I am still a winner. Being on the shortlist of six finalists in the Exeter Novel Prize is a dream come true. And it occupies my every waking moment, as I’m sure it does the other five finalists. My memory has transported me back to the words filling my first novel, my first literary baby. This could be the turning point in my writing career. I’m hoping it leads me down the golden road to publication. Someone has enough belief in my work to have placed me on that shortlist. I am naturally hoping that I win first prize, but meanwhile I’m basking in the delicious anticipation.

But I’m also realistic. I know how disappointing it is not to find oneself on the long or shortlist of a prestigious prize. I am aware how every agent rejection chips away at a writer’s self esteem, sowing the seeds of doubt about those preciously coveted words. So I am wholly ready to celebrate every literary success, however small.

You might think it’s premature of me to be celebrating when I have no idea who will lift that winning trophy in Exeter on the 12th of March, but I feel it is my right to rejoice a little now, in the event that the post ceremony anti-climax clouds my sense of achievement. It all started when I wrote a novel. Hey, I wrote a damn novel! As my partner never ceases to point out, that’s a triumph in itself.

My motto for today: Celebrate every little success. Whether it’s the first sentence after deciding to pen your memoir, or seeing someone else absorbed in your published novel on the train, celebrate every accomplished stage of your journey. You are a writer!


Christmas Ghosts

We used to think there were ghosts in our house. In the dead of night we regularly heard phantoms moaning, occasionally shouting. Our mother hushed them with her calm throaty whispers and smoothed their anguished brow.

For a brief flicker of an eye in the darkest part of the night, these ghosts had come alive in my father’s mind, as he revisited the brutal task of manning a monstrous fifteen-inch gun on the rolling deck of HMS Resolution in the Second World War. His recall involved the horrors of battle with colleagues falling like flies around him, or eventually sinking with the ship.

My father’s memories, still painful even fifty years after the end of the war, were rarely voiced. Never written. And yet he was a great writer. Throughout the global meanderings of his offspring, he was sparse with the frequency of his correspondence to us. But the treasured words he wrote were thoughtful, made us laugh out loud, bound together by such magic on the page. I wanted to read them over and over wherever I was – on a far-flung Thai beach, on the rooftop of the Himalaya, or deep in the Amazonian jungle.

He should have written about his ghosts. I believe it would have been a helpful catharsis. Many literary masters tell their budding protégés they should write something about which they know nothing, to build from an empty cache of knowledge through the process of research, and allow their creativity to flourish with fresh learning. But the art of writing words can also be a form of therapy. Writing about something you know, even if no one else is ever going to read it, can help put confusing memories into perspective or identify ambiguous emotions. Get them out in the open. Address them like an adversary. Embrace them. Endorse them. Dismiss them. Perhaps exorcise some ghosts.

As I remember Dad on Christmas day, an unexplainable melancholy sets in with shared memories of departed loved ones. If you haven’t lost someone close to you, you may still know what I am talking about when I say there is something about the over-exuberance of yuletide festivities that we can never quite pinpoint. Perhaps it’s about our lost youth, or recollection of childhood fantasies that can never be repeated. They conjure a lugubrious longing.

It could be time to pick up your pen and write.

When the mighty battle ship HMS Resolution finally went down, the fifteen-inch gun my father was in charge of as an officer was salvaged and mounted on another ship – HMS Roberts. It would continue the task of producing war ghosts on either side of the line until the end of the war.

Outside the Imperial War Museum in London sits a pair of guns, one of them from HMS Resolution. I wonder if this is the same gun my father once managed. As I took photos of my two young sons some years ago, dwarfed beneath its mighty barrel, I thought I saw one of those ghosts, hiding beneath the now stationary turret. I used to hear Dad recounting toned down adventures of things he had seen in the war to my two toddlers, and wished he would write his words down so we would not forget. And perhaps to help him forget.

It is a decade since we lost Dad. For what it’s worth, I wish I had more of his words to cherish. The letters he wrote to me are lost on the trails of my adventures leading me through the formative years of young adulthood. Eventually, though, the memories too will fade. They should all be immortalised in words, lest we forget.

Write about the things we know.

My one wish, I would like to write the future and have it come true: Peace, health and happiness to all mankind.





The Myth of Writer's Block

Of course it can exist in a physical form, something that prevents you from actually writing, perhaps caused by a repetitive strain injury or broken fingers. The term is commonly used to express a feeling of panic or anxiety when you sit at your keyboard or with a pen in your hand, and don't have a clue what to write. A bit like an actor on stage forgetting his lines. It's a mental thing. But hey, you CAN still write.

Your Writer's Block is caused by idea that today you have to write a chapter of your novel, or a verse of your poem, or the conclusion of your short story, or something completely new and meaningful. You've made an appointment with yourself and have fixed your mind on completing this task. But the fact is, the creative mind can't be tied down to these time constraints. It's true that you should write something every day, but it doesn't have to be the thing that you had scheduled at the end of your writing day yesterday. Learn to be more flexible.

So you don't have broken bones, or RSI, you've been for your run, or a cycle, or done some yoga, or had a sleep, and you're sitting back at your desk. Panicking.

Instead, try writing random words. Things that pop into your mind. Still can't get that self-imposed deadline out of your head? Then write down things you see around you in the room or out of the window. A string of nouns with no relation to each other apart from the fact they are part of your environment. Take those words you just typed on the screen or wrote on your pad: 'Desk', 'Mug', 'Pen', 'Hobnobs', 'Tree', 'Lawn', 'Dog poo', and write a sentence or two about them. Totally random sentences. Add sensations - sounds, smells, feelings. See? You CAN write!

You won't have what you think is Writer's Block every day, so this exercise may not be repeated for many weeks, by which time the Hobnobs will have been eaten and replaced by a plate of fresh fruit, and the dog poo will have been cleaned from your lawn to be replaced by a carpet of autumn leaves. Next time you think you have Writer's Block, simply write words. Remember, five-a-day is better than none, but I'm sure you'll find you can manage at least a hundred.