Making Friends with Failure

We need to talk about failure.

Or rather, we need to talk differently about failure.

Failure is something we’re conditioned to dread and not really talk about … and yet failing is an inevitable part of life.

As long as we dream and strive and try to move forwards in our lives we are sometimes going to fail.

So, it makes sense to me to try to reframe failure in a more positive way – as a stepping stone rather than a dead end.

A while ago, I wrote an article on the subject for The Guardian. You can read it here.

Off the back of that article, I was invited to give a talk on overcoming failure at the BBC.

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With Ros Atile, Head of Development at CBeebies

As part of that talk I shared the following 6 steps for dealing with failure positively. 

If you’ve recently failed at something – personally, professionally or creatively – I hope they help you move forward…

Step One

When failure happens, allow yourself to feel sad. Don’t try and block your negative feelings. Acknowledge what happened and that you feel like crap. Throw yourself a pity party.

Step Two

But know when to leave the pity party. Don’t be that annoying guest who stays too long. Don’t wallow in your sadness or anger or fear. Don’t let your failure come to define you. Make the conscious decision to let go and move on.

Step Three

Let go and move on by turning your so-called failure into a positive. Turn it into a positive by asking yourself the question: What is the lesson here? Or, How is what has happened also for the good?

Step Four

Another great question to help you move on is: What does this failure now leave me free to achieve? For example, when I was dropped by my first publisher – a devastating failure for me at the time – it left me free to take my career in a brand new direction and start writing for young adults. This in turn, led to some of my greatest career successes.

Step Five

Let go of the old failure and refocus your attention on a fresh new dream. See this dream as a light at the end of the tunnel, something to aim for to lead you out of the dark.

Step Six

When you’re still reeling from a failure it can be hard to start working towards a new dream. Counteract any inner doubts or fears by adopting a one-a-day strategy. Set yourself the simple task of doing one thing a day towards achieving your new dream, no matter how small. The one-a-day way will build momentum and soon lead you to fresh adventure.

And finally…

It’s not failure that plots our path in life but how we react when things go wrong.

Don’t let your failures imprison or define you, let them educate you and motivate you to move on.


Top Ten Tips for Young (or New) Writers

When I was a teenager I thought that my passion for books and writing was going to save me.

From the ages of fourteen to sixteen I’d rebelled against the system, bunking off school, going on protest marches, clubbing and drinking and taking drugs.

But then I had a reality check. If I wanted to leave the estate I’d grown up on – if I wanted to create a life I loved – I needed to start working hard to make that happen.

So I knuckled down and worked harder than I’d ever done before to pass my A levels so that I could get to uni.

I thought that a degree in English Literature and Screenwriting would be a passport into the world of writing.

As it turned out, it wasn’t.

I dropped out of uni two years into my course as I allowed the voice of fear inside my head to tell me that I didn’t belong in that middle class world.

I was wrong, but writing did end up saving me … just a few years later than planned!

I now care passionately about helping young writers believe in themselves and achieve their dreams.

So, if you’re a young adult with a writing dream, here are my top ten tips (PLUS some exciting workshop news at the end of this post).

Please feel free to share with any young – or new – writers in your life…

One: Write about what you’re passionate about

… As opposed to what you think will be popular. Don’t follow a trend, make a trend. It will help you stand out and your writing will be all the more vibrant and real. Plus, writing about the things that fire you up help give you the stamina to keep on writing.

Two: Start small.

If you dream of being a novelist but the thought of writing 70,000 plus words gives you a bad case of the dreads, downsize your writing dream. Not forever, just for now. Start by writing short stories or blog posts. Hone your craft in smaller, easier to achieve ways.

Three: It’s OK to be bad

Everyone is bad at first. Or, as the writer Ernest Hemingway put it: ‘The first draft of anything is shit.’ The main thing is that you write. Just like physical exercise, the more you do it, the better you become. So keep on showing up at the page and putting down the words one at a time, and hone that writing muscle.

Four: Write anyway

When doubt and fear strike, write your way through them. If your inner voice tells you that you’re not good enough, ignore it. It’s just your fear trying to protect you from disappointment. Focus instead on how amazing it will be when you achieve your writing dreams. Keep writing your way towards them.

Five: Use a character questionnaire

This is probably the tool I recommend most to other writers. Not only does it help you create interesting and well-rounded characters but it should give you a ton of ideas for your plot too. You can find a character questionnaire here. Feel free to add your own questions to it.

Six: Focus on your reader

When you start writing it can be really easy to forget all about the person you’re writing for. Remember your reader. When you’re coming up with ideas, fleshing out characters, creating a plot and writing a scene, ask yourself: what will my reader get from this? Make sure they’re getting something.

Seven: Do the right writing

There are many different types and genres of writing. Make sure you’re doing the right one for you. In my next novel, Tell it to the Moon, one of the main characters, Amber, is really struggling with writer’s block. She just can’t seem to find the motivation to write. But when she starts writing a play she just can’t stop. Experiment with different types of writing until you find the right one for you.

Eight: Don’t let the dream-busters get you down

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that whenever you have a dream you will encounter ‘dream-busters’. These are people who will try and put you off your writing dream with sly put-downs or passive aggressive remarks. This is usually down to their own unhappiness or jealousy. Try not to let it hurt you – let it fire you up and make you all the more determined instead.

Nine: Learn from constructive criticism

Writing is such a personal thing – even when you’re writing fiction it still feels liking you’re pouring your heart and soul on to the page. So if you receive criticism it can really sting. But – if the criticism is constructive – try to learn from it. Even best-selling authors get notes from their editors telling them how to improve their work. And ultimately, that should be your main objective – to make your writing the best that it can be.

Ten: Write for joy

Don’t write for fame and fortune, write for the pure joy of it. I used to think writing success and talent was measured in book sales, now I know for a fact that this isn’t true. Now I measure the success of my books in terms of how much joy I had while I was writing them. You should too – it makes the whole writing thing SO much better.

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Bonus tip: Come to my young writers workshop

I’m running a workshop for young writers (age 11 – 15) on Saturday 27th May at Brighton Festival.

We’ll be going into all of the tips featured here in a lot more detail.

And it will be a lot of fun.

Find out more and book your ticket here.

 

Young writers wanted…

I’m looking for young writers to write guest posts for the Moonlight Dreamers website.

Topics I’m looking for posts on include:

  • Achieving a dream
  • Writing
  • Sexuality
  • Bullying
  • Friendships
  • Political causes / activism

Or you can pitch me an idea of your own.

If you’d like to find out more or pitch me an idea, simply fill out the form below…

 

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Coming August 2017

Tell it to the Moon, the Moonlight Dreamers sequel, is available to pre-order on Amazon here. Perfect for writers, dreamers and people who want to be the change.


The Gritty Truth About Writing

It was a Saturday night.

My head was thumping and my eyes were sore.

My entire body ached – especially my shoulders, which were knotted tight.

How much longer will this go on for? I wailed into the darkness.

I thought of the rest of the world all out enjoying their Saturday night – dancing, laughing, drinking cocktails with fun names like Tequila Facelift and Vodka Orgasm – and it made me want to weep into my glass of water.

But I wasn’t ill that Saturday night.

I wasn’t stricken down by the flu or in the grips of a migraine.

I was writing my first novel.

And I was wracked with exhaustion and despair.

I had no idea if what I was writing was any good.

I had no idea if I’d ever get the plot to work.

I had no idea if my characters were likeable or even believable.

Basically, I had no idea.

I felt like giving up practically every single day but somehow – thankfully – I kept going.

And I kept going because I had grit.

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Writing a book takes creativity and imagination … but it also takes a huge amount of determination.

It’s easy to dream of writing … but quite another thing to keep on showing up at the page, day after day after day after day.

Or, in my case back then, as the mother of a young son, night after night after night after night.

So, how do you find the grit to get the words down on the page?

How do you overcome the nagging doubts that sit on your knotted shoulders as you type, telling you you’re not good enough?

The answer is, you have to want it really bad.

And you have to get crystal clear on why you want it so bad.

It could be that you’re desperate to share the message of your book with the world…

Get crystal clear on why that is. Who or how would you be helping?

It could be that writing is as essential to you as breathing…

Get crystal clear on why writing makes you so happy. Make your writing all about enjoying the journey, stop obsessing about the destination.

It could be that you love the idea of entertaining or inspiring or thrilling or scaring readers with your words…

Get crystal clear on how happy this would make you feel. Picture your words lighting up others all across the world.

If it helps, free-write your answers to the following prompts:

  • I have to write because…
  • My dream life as a writer would involve…
  • If I don’t follow through on my writing dreams I’m afraid that…

 

Back when I was writing my first novel my main motivation was the financial freedom a book deal would give me.

When I had moments of doubt and despair like on that Saturday night I’d remind myself of exactly how badly I needed to make it as a writer.

Making it as a writer would put me back in control of my own destiny again, doing something that I loved, and really, who doesn’t want that?

So, I kept on showing up at the page, learning my craft from my many mistakes as I went.

And a couple of years later, my first novel was published.

I’ve since had ten other books published.

And one thing I’ve learned more than anything else is that it’s grit, fuelled by desire, that makes writing dreams come true.

 

For more writerly inspiration please visit the Dare to Write section of this website.


The Gilmore Girls Guide to Great Writing

The only good thing to come out of my bout of flu earlier this year was that – in my desperate search for something to watch in my feverish, bed-ridden state – I came across the show Gilmore Girls.

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Gilmore Girls is a comedy-drama series about a young single mum and her daughter, set in the fictional small American town of Stars Hollow. It originally aired from 2000 – 2007 and all seven series are now available on Netflix PLUS a Gilmore Girls revisited special.

Each series contains twenty-two, forty-five minute episodes. It’s a Netflix binger’s paradise. And – in my humble opinion – a masterclass in great writing.

To anyone interested in writing, I thoroughly recommend you watch it. Here are my takeaways from a writing point of view and why I think it’s so good…

 

Great, nuanced characters

Gilmore Girls has a huge cast of characters, all of them colourful and well-rounded. It’s a great example of how it pays to spend time developing your characters before starting to write. Take time to flesh out their backstory; to give them interesting quirks and traits and to develop their own distinctive voice.

 

Whip-smart dialogue

And speaking of voice, Gilmore Girls excels when it comes to dialogue. There’s a lot of dialogue in the show but it’s razor-sharp, funny, pacey, and packs a punch. The verbal sparring between the characters is brilliant and each of them have their own distinctive verbal ticks.

 

Wonderful world

The world of Stars Hollow has been so well realised you want to slip through your screen and live there too – or at least I did! The funny traditions, the town meetings, Luke’s Diner, the store, the town troubadour(!), the writers have created a wonderful world for the show. Take time to develop the settings for your stories so that they become characters in their own right.

 

Perfect balance of humour and poignancy

Although Gilmore Girls is way more funny and feel-good than sad, it still has its very poignant moments. This contrast between light and dark makes it compelling viewing. You become emotionally invested in the characters because the writers show us their vulnerabilities and make us truly care. Make sure your own story contains light and dark. Play on your reader / viewer’s emotions to make them care.

 

Realistic relationships

The relationships between the characters in Gilmore Girls are believable and compelling. Even the closest relationship in the show – between Lorelai Gilmore and her daughter Rory – is tested at times. And when they become estranged in one of the series it made for gripping viewing. On-off romances, mother-daughter tension, professional and love rivalries, friendship, fallings out – Gilmore Girls has it all and handles it all in a way that’s engaging and believable.

 

Well-developed secondary characters and ‘baddies’

Even the minor characters in Gilmore Girls are interesting and well-developed. The same is true for the occasional ‘bad’ character. We’re shown why they’re troubled and as a result feel empathy for them. The writers haven’t been lazy or taken any shortcuts and this greatly adds to the richness of the viewing experience. Take the time to fully flesh out all of your characters – it will really pay off.

 

Full of heart

As a result of all of the above Gilmore Girls is full of heart. You feel better for watching it; warm inside and more hopeful and optimistic about the world. It’s like mug of hot chocolate in TV form but without being too sickly-sweet. I can’t recommend it highly enough…

 


2017: Leaving the Bad and Bringing the Good

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I love this time of year – and not just for the opportunity to eat mince pies for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

I love it for the opportunity to draw a line in my life, to pause and take stock, and to turn the page into a fresh new calendar feeling renewed.

But you can’t start 2017 feeling renewed if you’re dragging a load of bad stuff from 2016 with you.

So the purpose of this blog post is to help you step into the new year feeling light and full of hope.

It all revolves around four simple questions:

What didn’t work for you this year?

And what have you learned from the things that didn’t work?

What did work for you this year?

And what have you learned from the things that worked?

Let’s look at each question in a little more depth…

What didn’t work for you this year?

Although it can be all too tempting to try and block out the bad events of the year and pretend they never happened this exercise gives you the chance to try and make sure they never happen again. And we all want that, right?

So to begin, take some time to jot down all the things that didn’t work for you this year.

It could be a decision you made that you now really regret.

It could be a relationship that brought you nothing but stress.

It could be some limiting beliefs about yourself and your life that held you back.

It could be that you chose to react to a certain person or situation in a way that didn’t serve you at all.

Things that didn’t work for me in 2016 include: wasting too much time fearing things that never even came to pass. Not wholeheartedly pursuing my burning desire to start writing books for adults again … again out of fear. Another thing that didn’t work for me was getting way too angry about political events in 2016. My anger didn’t achieve anything and only made me feel worse. These are all choices that I now regret.

But you can turn your regrets from 2016 into hope for 2017 by asking yourself the second question: What have you learned from the things that didn’t work? 

I’ve learned that there’s no point fearing something that hasn’t yet and may never yet happen. I’ve learned that I shouldn’t let fear stop me from pursuing my burning career dreams because our time here is precious and short and if we don’t honour our deepest desires we risk a life of disappointment and regret. I’ve learned that what the world needs is more love, not anger, and when I write about love I get an overwhelming response from others.

When you’ve answered the first two questions in full move on to the third:

What did work for you this year?

Write a list of all the things you’re proud or grateful for in 2016; the things that went well.

It could be that you’re proud of a work or academic achievement.

It could be that you’re grateful for a friendship or relationship.

Maybe you’re proud of a choice you made.

Perhaps you’re grateful for the opportunities 2016 gave you.

Things that worked for me in 2016 include: Helping someone close to me navigate a difficult period in their life. The publication of my novel The Moonlight Dreamers. Relaunching my writing coaching service. Starting running again. Going to a regular dance class. Moving to a brand new part of the UK. Making some amazing new friends.

When you’ve completed your list ask yourself the final question: What have you learned from the things that worked?

I’ve learned that nothing beats the feeling of helping someone you love back to happiness. I’ve learned that I can write a book about friendship and diversity and people will want to read it. I’ve learned that when I coach other people and help them achieve their writing dreams I go into a magical, ‘I was born to do this’ zone that can’t be beaten. I’ve learned that starting the day with a run means starting the day on a high. I’ve learned that dancing brings me infinite amounts of happiness. I’ve learned that the biggest dreams – like moving to a brand new place – always scare the hell out of you at first. I’ve learned that by taking a risk and going out on my own when I first moved and trying every weird and wonderful thing on offer, I quickly found my tribe.

Once you’ve answered all four questions re-read your answers and really absorb the lessons.

Use all you’ve learned to form the foundations of your new year.

Resolve to let go of the bad.

And bring the good.

Wishing you all a 2017 full of joy, peace and dreams coming true.

Siobhan x

Do you need help achieving a writing dream?

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If one of your dreams for 2017 is to write a book but you’re unsure where to start, or need some help getting focused, my Finding the Plot coaching session could be just what you need.

Finding the Plot is a deep-digging, plot-seeking, character-developing, half-day session with me designed to get you focused and fired up to write your novel, non-fiction book, short story collection, screenplay or script.

Here’s what two  recent clients had to say about working with me:

“I keep getting loads of ideas now. Our session definitely shifted something in me. I’m daydreaming about my story all the time. Thank you so much for your input and enthusiasm, it really has had a huge effect on me.”

 

“Thank you so much for yesterday’s session. I came away feeling enthused and excited about writing again (which is no mean feat, considering how reluctant I was to start re-writing!)”

Find out more about Finding the Plot and how I can help you here.

 


We ALL Have the Right to Write

Yesterday, someone posted this message on my Facebook wall:

Hi Siobhan,

I’ve read your book and I want to take that next step and do this properly. I’ve been writing this book for 22 years and my busy working life has got in the way. I don’t want to feel frustrated any more. And being dyslexic doesn’t help either. Writing is all I think about and I want to learn…

I replied to the message on my wall but I couldn’t stop thinking about it because it struck a chord deep within me and I’m sure it will resonate with a lot of people reading this too.

Because expressing yourself through the written word can be so bloody hard.

And it can seem like so many obstacles are stacked up against us.

Lack of time.

Lack of money.

Not coming from ‘the right’ background.

Not having any contacts in the ultra middle class publishing world.

Not knowing exactly where to put speech marks or commas, or semi-colons.

Not knowing what a semi-colon is!

Not knowing how to spell.

But NONE of these things mean you’re not entitled to express yourself through the written word.

In fact, often, these things will mean that you have far more inspiring and powerful stories to tell.

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Let me give you an example…

For many years I worked as a freelance editorial consultant for a publishing company. I was the only person working for that company who’d grown up on a council estate – a fact that initially made me feel slightly awkward but would ultimately make me incredibly proud.

Every so often, the bosses at the company would announce that we’d have a young person coming to do some work experience for us.

Every time, without exception, these young people would be the son or daughter of a friend of the bosses. Privately educated, hyper privileged and with very little interest in publishing. They were there simply to tick the work experience box.

I’d watch them wasting the hours away, surfing the net or updating their Facebook and I’d feel so angry. It’s so hard to get a toe in the door of publishing. It’s almost impossible for most people to land a work experience role. It made my blood boil to see such a rare opportunity being wasted on people who didn’t want it.

Then I did some work for a charity that supports homeless teens. One of the girls I worked with was passionate about writing – and incredibly talented. Life had dealt her a crappy hand leaving her homeless at age 16 and she desperately needed a break. So I asked my bosses if she could do a week of work experience with us.

To my surprise and delight, they agreed.

Seeing her sit down at her desk on the first day of her work experience was the proudest moment of my writing career.

She was working class, homeless and black. Three things you hardly ever see in the publishing world.

And she worked her butt off for that week; happily doing all the admin jobs we gave her, asking intelligent questions, soaking up the experience like a sponge.

She even brought in biscuits to share with us – despite having next to no money.

Watching her work ethic and her desire to learn everything she could about writing was humbling and awe-inspiring.

But this is the one true advantage of being dealt a crappy hand in life … such as homelessness or racism or poverty or dyslexia … it puts a fire in your belly. A burning desire to overcome the odds and prove the doubters wrong.

I felt that same fire, growing up on a council estate and then again later, as a single mum.

I took the anger and fear I felt at my situation and I turned it into determination – to learn, to grow, and to share my stories with the world through writing.

And I urge you all to do the same.

If life has dealt you what at first appears to be a crappy hand, use the resulting anger and fear as fuel to propel you into better days.

Turn your frustration into inspiration.

Don’t listen to anyone who tells you you haven’t got what it takes to achieve your dream – especially if that person is you.

Remind yourself that all the very best writers and musicians and artists and creators went through hard times and they all turned their pain into gold.

Don’t waste any more time making excuses and giving in to doubt.

Know that you have a right to write.

Believe in yourself and your creative abilities and share your creations with the world.

It will be a much richer place for the inspiration you’ll bring.


Don’t Give Up Too Soon

 

TRUE STORY: Once upon a time, I wrote a book. I was very happy with what I’d written – excited by it, even. I handed it into my publisher feeling elated.

Then I got my editor’s letter.

In summary: she didn’t like what I’d written.

She liked the way I’d written it but not the key storyline, which she asked me to take out.

I was gutted.

But I took out the storyline and delivered Draft Two.

I handed it into my publisher feeling relieved to have completed the rewrite but slightly dejected. It didn’t feel like it was mine any more. It felt flat and uninspired.

Then I got my editor’s second letter.

In summary: she didn’t like what I’d written.

She felt it was lacking in drama.

I agreed.

But by this time I was so disheartened.

I was about to move house. I had another book to deliver. I didn’t have time to do another major rewrite. I didn’t have the energy.

I cried.

I got into a major ‘woe is me‘ strop.

I comfort ate my way through the Cadburys catalogue.

I wondered if I ought to just quit.

Sometimes giving up can seem like such an inviting option.

Especially when you’re wrung out and feel stretched to breaking point.

Quitting = an end to the stress

Quitting = an emotional fire exit

But giving up too soon can lead to a lifetime of ‘what if‘s and disappointment.

Sometimes, when you’re close to giving up, that’s the very time you need to dig in and double down and graft your way through to the other side.

You don’t need to quit, you need shedfuls of grit.

Once I’d taken a couple of days to wallow in self pity I reminded myself that having a book deal – especially nowadays – is a privilege and an honour.

I reminded myself of how hard I’d worked to get to this point.

I reminded myself that sometimes life isn’t easy but it’s the hard times that make you appreciate the good.

I told myself that I’d rather be a grafter than a quitter any day of the week.

And then a very good friend of mine gave me this invaluable piece of advice:

‘You sound as if you’re not coming from your heart any more. You’re too caught up in your head. Forget what’s happened and tune into your heart. Write from your heart. Forget all the rest.’

So I got back into my heart and I got stuck in.

And I approached the story with fresh, rather than jaded eyes.

And I wrote for from the heart and for the love of it – and for the love of my characters and the reader too.

And this time round, the writing experience was an absolute joy.

Everything fell into place.

I laughed and I cried and I hoped and I dreamed along with the characters.

And when I typed THE END I knew that this third version of the book was the best by far.

But if I’d given up after the second version it never would have seen the light of day.

Sometimes we need to push ourselves to the limit to discover what we’re capable of.

We need to push ourselves past the fire exit marked QUIT to find our way to the prize.

Athletes know this.

They train themselves to break through the wall. To keep going no matter what.

Creatives need to do this too.

We need to train ourselves to overcome criticism and rejection and the desire to quit and to keep on creating anyway.

I delivered the third version of the book to my publisher feeling happy and light.

Then I got my editor’s third letter.

In summary: she loved it.

She thanked me for not giving up.

I thanked her for pushing me to do my very best.

Don’t give up too soon. Dig in. Double down. Keep on creating from the heart. Keep on pushing yourself to do your best work.

 

Need help with your writing…?

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If you enjoyed this post you might like my book DARE TO WRITE A NOVEL, available from Amazon here.

You can find out more and download it as a PDF here.

And you can follow my writing-related posts on Instagram here.