• West Cork Literary Festival 2021

Five Top Tips for a Long-Term Writing Career by Elisabeth Gifford

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Elisabeth Gifford

Elisabeth Gifford

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Let’s say you’ve survived the shock that writing a novel actually means what feels like writing that same novel several times over with lots of drafts and changes of plans and rounds of edits. Congratulations. You persevered. You’ve caught the eye of an agent and publisher and now it’s happy ever after. What could possibly go wrong?

The Lost Lights of St Kilda will be my fifth published book. I thought it might be an idea to share tips for writing for the long term.  Not writing tips as such, but more stay writing tips.

  1. Firstly, do you really want to give up the day job? I found having my part time teaching job not only meant the security of a steady income when publishing income can be irregular, but it was also good to have the stimulation from the outside world and the chance to interact with lots of people. I sometimes wonder if I wasn’t just as productive when I also worked part of the week. Now that I’m full time, my secret escape has become my job. I love it but I need strategies to keep the excitement and make the most of my time. Structuring the day and week helps greatly, as does a timetable towards deadlines. It also helps to break up writing blocks with some exercise, and with meeting people or arranging various activities. If I get cabin fever, I might walk a mile across the park to a coffee shop, write a thousand words by hand, then walk home and type them up. I find I get more done if I’m a bit busy and stimulated by new ideas. If you have children, then you will already have plenty of this.
  2. Posture. I know this sounds like I write in pearls and a twinset, but as many know to their cost, this is important. A couple of years ago I began to have shooting pains in my lower arms as I typed, especially if I tipped my wrists up. I self diagnosed repetitive strain injury from excessive typing and bought a pair of wrist splints from Amazon so I could type on through the pain. Finally, I saw a physiotherapist. He explained that it was not repetitive strain but my work posture was terrible, arms slumped on the desk, wrists raised. He gave me shoulder exercises to build upper arm strength. The idea was to not rest the arms on the table but hover my fingers above the keyboard. With shoulder exercises and some massage, and eventually a steroid injection in one side, the pains went away. I gave the wrist splints to a charity shop. I now try and keep up the exercises, watch how I sit with back straight and supported, change my position or table during the day, and also sometimes stand to write and take walks in between – on a good day.
  3. Managing your mood as you romp through the sunny uplands of being a writer. Your book is about to come out, your dream has come true, and you feel …. terrible. Chewing your fingers and overcome with anxiety about the disasters that might greet your novel. This is normal. Every time. Nothing to do but ride it while carrying out a sensible plan for promotion with your publicist. This is where writer friends, online or in person, are so important, a sort of literary NCT for mothers and fathers of new books. It’s great if you can find communities to share your writing life, or even writing. Even when you have written several books, as you sit down to begin the next one it’s easy to feel that you’ve forgotten how to do it. Or you worry about issues half way through the book. Best advice I was given was to spend time problem solving, but don’t think about the same problems on a loop all day so that it affects your mood. And get out of the house plenty.
  4. It’s normal for first drafts to be ‘bad’. Even if you plot tightly before you begin to write, the first draft should have enough air in it to let your creativity and your characters’ voices begin to come through. The first draft feels to me like the weaving of the broad cloth of my story. Once I have that roll of fabric, I can begin to snip and sew it into shape and sew some pretty tight seams. By then I might want to take out thousands of words and write new ones, but I’ve come to see that stage not as a correcting of bad mistakes but as part of the creative process. Everyone has a slightly different way of going about writing a novel. There’s only you who writes quite like you. I love reading other writers because there’s always something new to learn about how people go about writing a story.
  5. Cherish your dreaming time. If you are a full time writer, you naturally feel you must be at the desk, writing full time. In fact, that writing has to come from some well of creativity or inspiration. I found that if I did not allow myself to spend time reading, visiting possibly relevant places, listening to music, walking and thinking then I was missing the experience of that alert but dreamy state of imagining and noticing that was often the source of scene writing, and even plotting. It’s a sort of writer’s mindfulness, or mindlessness, and a rather nice place to be. I found that my writing became more ‘tell than show’ and felt drier and less fun to do without this imagining time. Some of the best ideas and scenes can pop into your head when you think your attention is on something else. Many people even find that writing long-hand can help the creative process. Of course when it comes to editing, the dream state writing needs a fair bit of rounding up and pointing in the right direction and some of it may be asked to leave in the nicest possible way.
  6. (!) And last of all, the biscuit tin versus taking some exercise. On second thoughts, I will draw a veil over that scenario as you don’t need to know everything. Safe to say, I can’t have biscuits in the house if I’m working. The serious point being that writing is sedentary, but mental activity is underpinned by physical activity. I’m lucky enough to have some great places to walk nearby and always come back with ideas mapped out, or new ideas. I also love walking in new places, noticing and feeling the atmosphere. I think Dickens and many other writers relied on a daily walk. Note to self: activity and healthy eating need to be built in to the day or week if you want to be writing for the long run. Oh, and flu jabs are wonderful for avoiding losing time to feeling unwell. Highly recommended.

(c) Elisabeth Gifford

About The Lost Lights of St Kilda:

1927: When Fred Lawson takes a summer job on St Kilda, little does he realise that he has joined the last community to ever live on that beautiful, isolated island. Only three years later, St Kilda will be evacuated, the islanders near-dead from starvation. But for Fred, that summer – and the island woman, Chrissie, whom he falls in love with – becomes the very thing that sustains him in the years ahead.

1940: Fred has been captured behind enemy lines in France and finds himself in a prisoner-of-war camp. Beaten and exhausted, his thoughts return to the island of his youth and the woman he loved and lost. When Fred makes his daring escape, prompting a desperate journey across occupied territory, he is sustained by one thought only: finding his way back to Chrissie.

The Lost Lights of St Kilda is a sweeping love story that will cross oceans and decades. It is a moving and deeply vivid portrait of two lovers, a desolate island, and the extraordinary power of hope in the face of darkness.

‘Desperately romantic, lyrically written and with a fascinating plot.’ Katie Fforde, author of A Rose Petal Summer

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Elisabeth Gifford studied French literature and world religions at Leeds University. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway College. She is married with three adult children and lives in Kingston upon Thames.

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