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 under my own name, plus several more as a ghostwriter.

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.


Be Proud of Where You Come From

‘How come I never get invited round to your house for tea?’ my friend Jane asked one day as we embarked upon another epic game of French skipping in the school playground.

It was a question the ten-year-old me had been dreading. I’d been round to Jane’s house many times. It was beautiful and huge and so different from mine it was like visiting an enchanted palace. There was a swimming pool in the back garden and a kitten-soft, leather three-piece suite in the living room and a phone on the wall in the kitchen (back then, having more than one phone in your house was a very big deal and having one mounted to the wall was the height of extravagance). They even had an entire store room devoted to food. Jane’s parents travelled a lot and they always brought back exotic edibles from their adventures. Delicate, wafer-thin biscuits from Belgium, brightly packaged breakfast cereals from America and squeezy candy in tubes from France. All of this overseas food was stored in a small room next to the kitchen – a room Jane and I would raid regularly for midnight feasts.

In contrast, my terraced house was small and two-adults-plus-four-kids-messy and, even worse to ten-year-old me, it was on a council estate (think the projects, US readers).

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The council estate I lived on was called James Bedford Close. I never did find out who James Bedford was but I’m not sure he’d have been all that happy with this tribute to him.

Although the estate was pristine and cheery when it was first built and we moved in – with playgrounds for the kids and brightly painted front doors (ours was canary yellow) and even had it’s own on-site caretaker – things soon went downhill.

The flats on the estate became a dumping ground for troubled people, the caretaker was axed and the brightly painted doors began to chip and peel.

Our childhood games reflected the changes. As well as playing hide and seek and knock down ginger we also started playing ‘spot the junkie’ – spying through the grimy windows of the local druggies’ flats. It was terrifying and exciting in equal measure. You got bonus points every time you spotted a prone body sprawled amongst the carnage inside.

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One family on the estate owned four dogs, named Tyson, Rocky, Rambo and Teddy, who they let roam free, day and night, providing a regular source of terror throughout my childhood and teenage years. My dad became my lifelong hero when he kicked Teddy after it went for me on the way to Brownies one night. Such bravery!

How could I invite my friend Jane from her enchanted palace, with its wall-mounted phones and rooms devoted to food into this world?

The answer was, I couldn’t and I didn’t. I was too embarrassed.

So I came up with ever more elaborate excuses as to why she couldn’t come round. ‘My dad has lots of work to do.’ ‘My mum isn’t very well.’ ‘I’m being punished for not feeding the goldfish. My parents ended up being over-worked and sick and punishing me for most of my childhood.

Fast forward to a few years ago and I’m at a lunch with a group of publishing folk. 

In my experience, publishing folk are very nice folk but they’re also very white and middle class folk and I’ve yet to meet one who grew up on a council estate.

At some point during our lunch the conversation turned to council estates and more specifically, the type of people who live on them.

The conversation became patronising and sneery and ‘ho-ho-ho aren’t working class people so frightfully gross‘.

I felt a rage in my belly, ‘fuck you’ thought-bubbles over my head.

These privately educated, privileged people had no idea of the hardships endured by those living on a council estate. To them, the poor were just peasants, there to be mocked over a nice glass of prosecco.

They knew nothing about the decent, hard-working people who live on estates. The people who are forced to live in the bleakest of conditions, often in property that ought to be condemned.

They knew nothing about the stress this can cause.

They knew nothing about what it’s like to be so poor you have to choose between feeding your kids or yourself.

They knew nothing about the way poverty and powerlessness can sap your will and kill your dreams. But I did.

One night, when I was about sixteen, a local gang set fire to a car outside my bedroom window. It was to prove a turning point for me.

I’d spent the previous two years skiving off school, drinking and taking drugs. I’d begun giving up hope that things could get better.

But as I watched that car burn, I realised I had a choice: I either carried on down that path and ended up condemned to an eternity of living in fear … or I worked my butt off to get to university so I’d be able to leave.

The next two years were like the training montage in a Rocky movie. I stopped drinking and getting stoned and started studying and running, all the while listening to a soundtrack of angry rock music and hip-hop to motivate me.

I made it to uni … and two years later I dropped out of uni as I couldn’t stand being so in debt.

But something inside of me had shifted. I believed in the power of dreams. I had proof of the power of determination and grit.

I kept working and dreaming until I’d achieved my dream of becoming a writer … and ended up at the publishing lunch.

And when the publishing folk at that lunch started mocking the people who live on council estates I didn’t feel embarrassed, like I did back when I was a kid, I felt proud.

Proud that no silver spoon or private education or networking or nepotism had bought me a place at that table – hard graft and dreams had.

And so I told them in no uncertain terms that they were talking crap. That most people who live on council estates are decent and hard-working and have just been dealt a worse hand in life than them.

I told them that I grew up on an estate and I was proud of that fact.

I told them that they ought to think more before they sneered and mocked.

And then there was silence – of the tumbleweed kind.

I went home that day feeling really upset. I liked everyone at that table – it was just their incorrect preconceived ideas that I hated. What if they didn’t want to work with me any more? What if, having worked so hard to get a place at their table, they turned their backs on me?

But that night I got an email from one of the woman present at the lunch, apologising profusely. ‘My parents didn’t bring me up to talk like that,’ she told me. ‘They would have been ashamed to hear what I said. I’ll never talk like that again.’

As I read her words I cried – and I learned another important lesson: we should always be proud of where we come from … and never be afraid to voice that pride.

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Last week, I went back to James Bedford Close.

I walked through the flats where we used to play ‘spot the junkie’.

I saw the ghost of my childhood past clambering over the remnants of the climbing frames.

I looked up at the bedroom window I used to gaze from and dream of better.

And I felt incredibly grateful.

Grateful for the start in life growing up on a council estate gave me.

Grateful for the street-smarts and the savvy and the endless adventures.

Grateful for the lesson that anything is possible with the right amount of grit and the determination to dream.


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…

 


Notes on Not Giving Up

Every so often our life is rudely interrupted.

By a shock diagnosis…

An unexpected redundancy…

A brutal break-up…

The death of a loved one…

These landmines along life’s path have the power to destroy our happiness, equilibrium, even our sanity.

I hit a landmine recently and here are some notes I wrote in the depths of despair to try and cheer myself up. They helped me. I hope they help you…

 

This too shall pass

There’s a reason why this phrase has been so widely quoted ever since its first use in the early nineteenth century – it’s true. Everything passes. Nothing stays the same. Even the very worst of times. It just feels as if they’ll never end. But they will and do. Hold on tightly to that thought.

 

These are the uphill steps to happiness

Remind yourself that you’re still on the path to happiness – it’s just that you’ve hit an uphill stretch (and quite possibly a stormy one too). The trick is to keep walking. Eventually you’ll get to the top and the view from up there will be breath-taking.

 

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Count your blessings every day

Even on the worst of days – especially on the worst of days – remember to take time to be grateful. Each night, write a list of the things you’ve been grateful for that day. Even if you have to do this to the accompanying sound of a barrel being scraped, scrape away. You’ll find something.

 

Seek out pockets of joy

Joy is always available – it’s just that sometimes you have to seek it out. And sometimes it can be very well hidden. Seek out pockets of joy amongst the sadness and stress. They are there.

 

Ask for help

Help wants to be given. Don’t let pride or some insane desire to be super-human get in the way. You’re not super-human, you’re all-too-human – we all are – and sometimes we need help. There are loads of people out there who love to be of service – let them help you now.

 

Seek comfort in hindsight

Remind yourself of other dark times you’ve been through – and got through. You can do this. Ask yourself what helped you back then. Apply the wisdom of hindsight to your current situation.

 

Visualise a happy future

Visualise it so hard you almost believe it’s happened already. Carve out time to daydream. Write down your dreams. Create a dream board. Compose a list of all the cool things you’re going to do once the storm has passed.

 

When self-pity strikes ask ‘Who can I help?’

It’s all too easy to sink into a pit of self-pity when the going gets tough. But all that does is make you feel worse. A great way to snap yourself out of a pity party is to help someone else. Perform a random act of kindness. Do something nice for a friend. Shift the emphasis from you for a while.

 

Be kind to yourself

Don’t beat yourself up, build yourself up. Buy yourself treats. Don’t burn yourself out. Prioritise. Focus solely on what really matters – like getting through the day. Put non-essentials on the back-burner. You can come back to them when things are better and you are stronger.

 

Immerse yourself in nature

It you’re able to, get out into nature, whatever the weather. When I was at my lowest ebb recently I went for a hike in gale force wind and driving rain. It felt great battling against the elements, symbolic of my struggle somehow, and the wind blowing my doubts and fear free. There’s a wisdom to be found in nature. Tap into it. Tell your problems to a tree.

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Hold on to hope

Even when it seems like there’s none to be found. Hold on to the hope of better, brighter days. I’ve found mine – and you will too. Sometimes faith is all we have left, but faith is a powerful thing. I’ve known it work miracles…


How to Stay Sane … When Your Newsfeed Goes Bonkers

Yesterday, I met a friend for lunch in my favourite part of London … Southbank.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, London’s Southbank is a colourful, vibrant area, nestled on the bank of the Thames. It’s crammed full of theatres and restaurants and a skate park and second-hand book stalls. It looks out on many of London’s most famous landmarks – St Paul’s Cathedral, the Houses of Parliament, the London Eye.

But yesterday it was dank and grey – all of the landmarks obscured by a cold, grey mist.

Normally, when I have lunch with this particular friend, we’re full of sparkle.

But yesterday our moods perfectly matched the weather.

And this was in large part down to recent news events.

In the past week I’ve seen numerous posts on my social media feeds from other friends feeling equally down-hearted.

Although the internet can be a great source of up to the minute news, when the news goes crazy and we’re bombarded with stories we find upsetting / disturbing / annoying / WTF-ing it’s easy to feel trapped beneath an avalanche of gloom.

So, here’s my take on how we can maintain our sanity and inner peace in the heart of the current crap storm.

Ration your time on social media

I’m not saying come off it altogether and stop being informed. Now, more than ever, we need to be informed. But be informed in small doses. Don’t get sucked down a Facebook hell-hole, clicking on depressing link after link for hours. Get your news and go, in bite-sized sittings.

Unfollow or unfriend the people who make you feel bad

Don’t become an online rubber-necker; stalking the profiles of people you know will make you feel bad. This way insanity lies. Yes, it’s shocking and disappointing to discover that people you know (or thought you knew) and love turn out to be closet racists / misogynists / xenophobes … but don’t keep picking at the wound. Let go with love. There are far more important things that need you energy right now. Which brings me neatly to my next point…

Do something

It can be so easy to feel completely powerless in the light of global events but never forget that the power of the people is far greater than the people in power. Find out what you can do to try and bring about the changes you desire. It doesn’t matter how small it is – signing a petition, going on a march, phoning your representative, donating to a cause you believe in – all can help you feel engaged and proactive … always a way better option than disengaged and reactive.

Let your feelings out

When we’re bombarded with news stories that cause us to feel anger or fear there’s a danger of those feelings building inside of us like a pressure cooker … unless we let them out. Let them out in a way that’s constructive and won’t bring others down. So by that, I mean, no more ‘Oh great, here comes armageddon!’ posts, that are just going to spread the fear. Let your negative feelings out by writing them down in private, in a journal. Or literally shake them out of your body through some kind of physical exercise like running or dancing or going for a hike. Let your anger move through you, don’t let it corrode inside of you.

Turn your fear into fuel

Another great way of dealing with destructive feelings is to turn them into something positive. Turn your anger and fear into fuel. Create something great with it … a powerful poem, a striking piece of art, a rousing song, a funny protest banner. Think of all the great art that gets made in times of strife. Take inspiration from it and create art that will uplift and empower.

Seek out the positive

When my friend and I were chatting about this yesterday I told her that I could see real positives coming from the current situation. ‘People aren’t apathetic anymore,’ I said. ‘Events like the Muslim ban force people to look deep inside of themselves and decide which side of history they want to be on.’ I find it heartening to see just how many people are coming down on the side of love and tolerance over fear and hate. For every bad news story there’s a heartening tale of lawyers rushing to airports in the dead of night in their pyjamas to help an immigrant in need, or protesters creating a safe space in an airport for Muslims to pray. Seek out stories of hope and unity … and share them widely. Let love go viral, not hate.

Top up your inspiration tank

Another way to counter the negativity is to regularly read, watch or listen to the things that inspire you. A motivational podcast, the biography of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, the quotes of Gandhi. Seek out your positive friends … the people who lift you up rather than suck you down. Keep laughing as well as crying. Laugh out the stress so that you’re able to then double down and get things done.

Trust in Love

Put your faith in something bigger than you and political systems. If you believe in Love, have faith that Love is always stronger than fear in the end; that love – not hate – is always the answer. Take inspiration from Anne Frank, who was able to find hope in the most terrifying of circumstances…

“I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness; I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too. I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.”

When it all gets too much, go outside, look up at the sky and, like Anne Frank, know that tranquility will return once more.

With love,

Siobhan

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Reclaim their Insults … and Wear them with Pride

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the power of words.

More specifically, the power of words to hurt.

There’s a saying from my childhood that has always annoyed the hell out of me:

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.”

Anyone who has ever been bullied will be able to tell you that this saying is a load of crap.

Words can harm … a great deal.

Writers often talk about how, no matter how many positive reviews their work might get, one nasty review will haunt them for weeks or months to come.

Adults often talk about how an insult made by the playground bully years ago still has the power to take them down.

Said in spite, words have the power to etch their way on to our psyches, leaving a deep scar.

A word that I’ve seen said in spite a lot lately is SNOWFLAKE.

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According to Urban Dictionary a snowflake is someone who is ‘overly-sensitive’.

And according to Wikipedia, today’s young adults are known as Generation Snowflake because they’re more prone to ‘taking offence’ than previous generations.

And according to my social media feeds these so-called snowflakes tend to be overly sensitive to and take offence at trivial little issues like racism and bigotry and inequality and climate change and pussy-grabbing and conversion therapy. You know … nothing major.

The other day, I saw a post on Twitter mocking a group of so-called snowflakes and initially it made my blood boil.

How dare they insult young people for daring to care, I ranted. How dare they call people like us (for I too, care about these issues) snowflakes?

But then I had a light-bulb moment.

Being a snowflake isn’t an insult at all.

How can it possibly be a bad thing to care about things like injustice and intolerance and hatred and greed?

Have we seriously become so bitter and jaded as a society that it’s now acceptable to mock people for having feelings?!!

The snowflake haters seriously need to get a grip of themselves.

But in the mean-time, us snowflakes need to take their insults and wear them with pride as badges of honour.

And this really isn’t hard at all.

Not only is it easy to feel proud about caring, the snowflake also provides a beautiful metaphor.

A snowflake (in the true meaning of the word) is beautiful in its design and completely unique … no  matter how many of them fall, no two snowflakes will ever be identical.

Snowflakes might be small and delicate individually but when enough of them come together, they can bring entire cities to a standstill.

A bit like what happened on the Women’s March on Washington (and around the world) the other day.

So, to snowflakes the world over … keep being sensitive, keep caring about the things that matter, and keep coming together to bring about much-needed change.

 

Speak Out

Are you a young adult who cares passionately about what’s going on in the world?

Would you like a platform to share your views?

I’m currently looking for guest writers to feature over on the Moonlight Dreamers website.

If you’d like to be featured or find out more please get in touch via the CONTACT page on this site.

Thank you!

 


Achieving Your Resolutions the One-a-Day Way

Is it raining where you are?

Is January doing her worst?

Is it gloomy and dark and cold and uninspiring?

Is Donald Trump about to become ‘leader of the free world’?

Same here.

But … I have a tiny glimmer of light to offer you in the gloom.

A tale to tell that will lift your spirits and encourage you to pursue your dreams.

This year I have one main focus – to keep things simple.

Simplicity = clarity = space = freedom.

So, I began by applying the rule of simplicity to my new year’s resolutions.

This year I would have just three resolutions, as short and sweet as can be.

And they are:

  1. To have FUN
  2. To make LOVE my mission statement
  3. To WRITE books for adults again

 

Simple.

And, to make the pursuing of these dreams as simple as possible, I vowed to do one thing a day towards achieving at least one of these things.

Now, the one-a-day way to achieving your dreams isn’t loud and brash.

It isn’t all ‘in your face‘ and ‘on the case‘ … it’s more ‘slow and steady wins the race‘.

Sometimes, the one thing you do will achieve next to nothing.

But it will achieve something.

And every so often that something will turn out to be a big thing.

Like the one small thing I did the week before last.

It all started here…

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I’d gone for a walk in the hills near my home and I was thinking about my dream to write for adults again and the novel I’ve just started writing.

The novel is set around a pub – about someone who works in a pub.

But – although I’ve spent plenty of time in pubs – I’ve never experienced them from behind the bar.

I need to chat to someone who has worked in a pub, I thought to myself as I walked. Or, even better, I need to experience working in one myself.

I hiked on.

Maybe I could contact my local pubMaybe that could be the one thing I do towards achieving my 3 dreams today. I could send them a message asking if I could come in and have a chat.

Almost immediately my inner voice of doom sprung into life.

Don’t be stupid. They won’t want to help you. You’ll just be annoying and get in their way. Etc. Etc.

But, as I made my way back home, I couldn’t help thinking, yeah but what have you got to lose?

Realising I didn’t have that much to lose at all, I sent the pub a message.

Within an hour I’d got the loveliest message back from one of the pub’s owners – he’d be delighted to meet and chat with me.

So, a few days later, we met and chatted. And chatted. I got loads of information and it was so much fun.

Just as I was about to go, he asked me if I’d ever run a writing group before.

This question is my personal version of ‘Is the Pope Catholic?

I LOVE running writing groups and have run loads over the years. Since moving here a few months ago I’d started running a mini group in my living room but had run out of chair space.

It turns out that the pub owner had been wanting to host a writing group in his pub for a while but didn’t know who to ask to lead it.

Hello, serendipity!

Long story short, from that one simple act of sending the message to the pub, I’ve found out loads of great pub details for my book, done a spot of work experience behind the bar, and been asked to run a weekly writing group in the room upstairs.

I enjoyed it so much it’s also made me want to find a part-time job as a bartender! And who knows where that might lead…

All from sending that one simple message.

It doesn’t matter how small the steps you take towards achieving your dreams are – what matters is that you take them.

One by one. Slowly. Steadily.

Simply.

You never know where it might lead…

(For daily inspiration achieving your dreams, follow my DAILY DREAMSPIRATION posts on Facebook here.)

 

Do you need help with your writing resolutions?

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I love helping other people achieve their writing dreams.

Find out more about my one-to-one Finding the Plot sessions here.

Alternatively, you can find out more about my book, Dare to Write a Novel, here.