Where language leads

When I was little Easter was my favourite time of year.

It was a time of hot cross buns, enough chocolate to send me into a sugar coma and puddles large enough to jump into with my wellies. It was the moment when winter seemed to be disappearing and I could celebrate my birthday with the knowledge that the long summer holiday wasn’t too far away.

For the first 8 years of my life, it was also a time for easter egg hunts at my grandma’s house. Amid the blooming bluebells and daffodils of her garden, my grandma would hide riddle after riddle. As soon as we arrived, my parents and I would be handed the first clue and we’d rush out to the garden to find the next. As we uncovered each new riddle from the dirt we’d read them loud enough for my grandma to hear as she watched us, smiling from the chair of her sitting room.

I wish that I’d stashed these small, handwritten notes in my pocket. At the time they seemed like a ticket into a very adult world of hidden meanings. They were my first introduction to the beauty and malleability of language.

I remember my mum laughing, my dad running across the garden and their gentle hints as they guided me towards the final chocolate egg. I remember scarfing down the creamy chocolate sitting on her kitchen counter as my grandma carefully laid the crust over her apple pie.

I haven’t been to an easter egg hunt in years, I can’t remember any since my grandma died. But the memory of the excitement I felt holding my her handwriting, my awareness of the hours she put into creating each riddle, hasn’t left me.

These days my traditions have changed. I still get the puddles and the hot cross buns, but I have new things like Passover and my fiancé’s birthday. Still I feel like I am carrying on some family tradition, I feel like all those riddles, all that love of language, has lead me somewhere that I could have only dreamed of a child.

This year I get to celebrate the release of my book. Coincidentally the pub date is my birthday so we will be kicking off spring with a big party. Sadly there won’t be any riddles or chocolate eggs, but I’d love you to come and celebrate with me nevertheless.

Searching for Flow

Sometimes writing feels like a jigsaw. I’m working on a piece today and I feel as if I dropped some central piece of the puzzle down the back of my brain. I can’t get past the gaping hole that’s been left.

I’m waiting for that moment, that perfect moment, when I find the missing piece and I get into a rhythm. There’s nothing like it, nothing like the feeling of fluid writing. When words seem to come, when the structure of the piece starts to lay itself out over the page like some scribbled architect’s drawing. When I write, I find myself searching for that elegant immersion, those hours when all anxiety is replaced by joy and clarity for the task ahead. I don’t always find it, but I’m addicted to that feeling of ‘flow’.

that feeling of flow

I was introduced to the concept of flow by an amazing friend of ours who’s pursuing her doctorate in positive psychology. She explains it beautifully so I should start by apologizing to her for potentially botching and over-simplifying all that she told us.

From what I can gather, the study of flow first came about in the 1960s when Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his fellow researchers began investigating artists who would get lost in their work. He studied artists, especially painters, who got so immersed in their work that they would disregard their need for food, water and even sleep.

I would be a poor candidate for Mihaly. I am rarely so distracted. My belly whines if a few hours go past without food and I always have a cup of tea sitting on my desk. But I do know that feeling of excitement that comes with writing, the belief that, if I stop, I may not find that fragile fluidity again.

The problem is, you cannot force flow. And often it is nowhere to be found. Still, writing is a job, it is a discipline, so we cannot wait around in the hope that we will discover flow with every paragraph we compose. Sometimes, we just have to sit in front of our laptops and write. As Elizabeth Gilbert puts it in her TED talk, “sometimes you just need to show up.”

Often that writing will not be pretty and the hours may feel long and arduous. But we must carry on, we must try to put the pieces of the jigsaw together and hope that, eventually, the words will flow.

The agony and the ecstasy of choosing a book title

I think I may have sprouted a few grey hairs.

My editor had to hand in my final book title today. Our past two working titles had been thrown out, and a sudden deadline gave us only three days to come up with a great title.

You would think that it would be fun coming up with a book title. Or maybe you have more sense than me, and realize that distilling a book’s essence into a few carefully chosen words is not exactly a walk in the park.

I pictured myself being struck by inspiration whilst relaxing over a picnic in Prospect Park. Instead, my brain melted in New York’s tropical heat-wave and I drove myself slightly insane trying to dredge up an idea.

On Friday I made lists of titles as the AC buzzed next to my ear. Too vague, too passive, too literal. I threw them in the bin and started again.

I formed towers of non-fiction books around my desk for inspiration. Look Me in the Eye, The Glass Castle, How To Be A Woman, Me Talk Pretty One Day…

book titlesI liked strange titles, titles that surprised me in some way, titles that made me laugh. I left the house, attempted to go for a swim (every pool in Brooklyn required a 3 block sweaty wait and the promise of Lycra-clad hoards) and came home hotter and more disgruntled.

I looked at my tower of books again.

One word titles started to stand out. Some of them were too vague or too grand. But others were bold and memorable and perfectly concise.


They stuck in my mind and followed me around all weekend. I thought about them as I danced to a funk concert, as I drove north of the city and as I watched Jeremy coaching little league.

My editor and I exchanged title ideas whenever we thought of something that we didn’t hate. Emails were shot back and forth and, finally, this morning, hours before the deadline, we decided on a title. At least, we think we did. It still needs to go through the hurdle of our publisher’s approval.

While I wait, I’m keen to hear what you think….

What makes a great book title? Do you love or hate one-word titles?

Silencing the devil on your shoulder

Do you ever have those days when you feel utterly overwhelmed? Those mornings when all you want to do is crawl under the covers, hibernate, eat cake and forget about all the things that you should be doing, all the things that you don’t think you can do.

Most of us have been there. When I was there, it was obvious that the best course of action was a long nap followed by staring out the window.


Luckily, my other half had more sense than I did. He was the one who boiled the kettle and put pen and paper in my hand.

“Just write everything down. List all the impossible things you want to accomplish. Write down all the negative thoughts that are running around your head.”

He asked for 5 minutes of my time, just 5 minutes to sit and write.

And it worked. Because when you write down the negative rubbish that’s holding you back, it doesn’t seem quite so daunting. In fact it all seems fairly manageable.

to-do list

Now we’ve done it more times than I can count. It has become second nature. Whether we are working on the business, or planning our year ahead, or making a list of everything we want to learn and accomplish, we write it down.

I tend to forget about the lists as soon as I have made them. For me, it is the creation, the brain dump, that sets me free.

The boy is different, he holds on to them. He files them safely away. And I’m so glad he does because these lists of ours, these words scribbled on napkins and grocery lists and sheets of notepads, are part of our history.

They teach us that we will always be striving, that there will always be things to worry about. There will never be some dull, serene moment when we have reached perfection.

And yet they also remind us that we are capable, that we have achieved more than we ever thought we could.

What would you put on your list?

How do you get a book published?

There is no easy process from start to finish. Learning how to write well, practicing every day and then coming up with a great story is an amazing start but the rest of the journey gets a bit more murky and uncertain from there. The statistics aren’t cheery. Approximately 2% of books that are written every year get commercially published. The true figure may be even lower. Self-publishing is now a much more viable alternative but many people still want to go down the traditional path. And the traditional path generally means a shocking amount of rejection and false starts.

book writing

Have I scared you off? Hopefully not. 2% of people are published and there are definitely ways to make sure that you have the best chance possible. For the purposes of this piece I’m going to be speaking about non-fiction (from what I have heard about fiction it involves writing a brilliant novel and then going out and convincing an agent and editor that it would be worth their while to publish it).

Non-fiction requires more planning and strategy up front. It requires you to think like a marketer, to try and answer all the questions that some future editor might ask.

Sound like fun? Perhaps not, but writing is a job, and, just like anything else, there will always be parts that aren’t as wonderful as others. You need to create a professional looking proposal that tells agents and editors that you are serious, that you will help them to sell your book, that you are not sitting around waiting for them to do all the hard work. There are lots of things you should do and no ‘right’ way or going about this but your proposal should probably include:

  1. Cover Page
  2. Table of contents
  3. About the book (1 page summary)
  4. About the author
  5. About the market
  6. About the competition
  7. Production details
  8. About promotion
  9. Table of contents (title for each chapter of your book)
  10. Short summaries for each chapter
  11. 2 or 3 sample chapters

Your finished book may end up nothing like your proposal but it is a good start, a good path to start going down. Once you have a proposal you can create a succinct, polished query letter to send out to agents. Take your time over this – in many ways the query letter is the most important few paragraphs you have written so far. It has to grab their attention and get them hooked enough to ask for your entire proposal.

Give yourself an outrageous goal. For instance, I told myself that I wouldn’t stop sending my query out until 100 agents said no to me. Hopefully you won’t get anywhere close to that number but it is good to prepare yourself, to grow a carapace of sorts. Lots of agents will not be interested. Don’t let that stop you. Keep sending out your query letter, keep networking, keep telling everyone about your book. Be shameless at trying to get an agent because, as difficult as it is to land an agent, your chances are far better than going directly to the editor and having your work end up on the dreaded slush pile….the graveyard of unsolicited manuscripts.

Once you have a good agent you have someone who can take your manuscript to the ‘right’ publishing house and steer you through the pitfalls of the whole process. At the end of it all, once you have signed a contract with your agent and a publishing house, you can breath easy for a few hours. But only a few hours, because now you have to write the book that you sold to them so well. The fun is just beginning…

Improving your writing & becoming a great storyteller

Most of us experience doubt at some point in our creative lives and all of us are constantly striving to improve. So, how do you make your work match your ambitions? How do you make yourself a great writer?

First, you need to love writing and you need to know what good writing is. As Ira Glass explains, most people get into creative work because they have good taste. They may not be able to create great work immediately, but they know it when they see it. You have to read enough to know what good language tastes like, what it feels like on the page. Even Hunter S. Thompson used to type out pages from “The Great Gatsby” just to feel what it was like to write like Fitzgerald.

You need to understand the rules. You need to understand structure and character development and plot and the cadence of spoken language. You can get that from reading, from asking questions, from taking lessons, from whatever source you fancy, but you need to make yourself an expert in your chosen field.  Then, once you know the rules, you can break out of the structure, or choose stay with in it. You can be as creative as your imagination will allow.

You need to see your writing as a job, a skill that you want to hone. You don’t have to write on a typewriter, or only write great work, or ask for others praise. You just have to write. You have to write every day. You have to have faith that the rubbish you are putting down on paper will gradually improve into something you can be proud of.

It may take you years but, once you have created something that you don’t hate, you should start to get feedback. Start off with your mum or your best friend if you want. Give yourself a little confidence boost. Then choose people from your field and ask them to be brutally honest. Heed their advice. Edit. Show them again. Try not to be destabilized by negative reactions. Start again if you have to. Push yourself to improve. Don’t give yourself a hard time if it takes a while. That’s normal. Keep going. Finally, be proud of yourself. Be proud that you stuck with it. Be proud that you have created a piece of work that you don’t hate, something that know is pretty great.

That’s my advice but what do you think? How do you make your work as good as your ambitions?

Check out this great video made to the words of Ira Glass:

Freelance Routine: What’s your perfect day?

I have been thinking about making a routine ever since I read this piece on the writer Jodi Piccoult:

“She is devoted to her routine. Five-thirty a.m.: Walk with a friend. Eight a.m.: Start writing at the computer, typing so much and so hard as to wear out several keyboards over the years. Write until 4 in the afternoon. That’s the schedule, five days a week.”

freelance routine5:30am-4pm, I’m impressed, inspired and completely intimidated. I don’t think I have seen what 5:30 looks like since I last barreled out of the house to catch an early morning flight.

My schedule is far less organized. We have two people who work for us so we have a basic 9-6 with an hour break for communal lunch in the middle. But it is all too easy to be sitting at my computer until midnight and forget that weekends are a time when sane people do fun things like farmers markets and brunches.

The joy of having your own business or writing or freelancing, is that you make your own schedule. Or that’s what people say. I think it can be a lot harder than it seems.

I may not have it as together at Mrs Piccoult, but I have some thoughts of what makes a good schedule:

1. Getting up and getting dressed before 8am

2. Doing some form of exercise (be it running, yoga, dog walking or simply walking to the bakery 3 blocks away)

3. Doing what you love for most of the day

4. Doing the things that you love less and not letting them drag you down

5. Seeing friends

6. Meeting strangers

7. Making a plan and sticking to it

8. Keeping your inbox under control

9. Fully completing at least one full project every day

10. Keeping weekends free for things that make you laugh

What about you? What schedule do you think would make you happiest?

Writing Group: In praise of the collective

Writing is a largely lonely occupation. It is something you do hunched over a desk, possibly with breaks for communal lunches and phone calls with friends at night and, hopefully, with the final comments of thoughtful editors and agents. But the creative process is done alone.

writingYet, when we are alone, it can be difficult to get perspective. We can go quietly crazy in our introspection.

A few months ago I joined a writing group. That makes it sound very formal. It is not at all. There are three of us, were friends, the other two just happen to be great writers. We are all working on books. I’m the only one doing non-fiction, the others are working on fiction novels. They know far more than I do about plot and character creation and literary illusions and language and imagery, and all the other fascinating stuff that you learn if you do an MFA in Creative Writing.

When we first started meeting I was a tad nervous, it was the first time I was showing my very personal memoir to people who knew me. I was also horribly intimidated.

Luckily, they stepped softly on my manuscript. They also showed me their work and listened as I gave them my feedback. They asked questions, they pushed me to do better.

We started over sensible afternoon tea, then less-sensible cocktails and, finally, supper. We have kept our other-halves up till midnight wondering where we were, and how talking about writing could possibly keep us out so late.

I wrote the book thanks to the amazing support of my parents, Jeremy and my friends and because of the honesty of the hundreds of people I interviewed. But my writer’s group made sure that I handed in my manuscript, on time and in a respectable fashion, to the publisher two days ago.

I hope that I would have created a reasonable book if I had never met them, but I’m not sure. They shaped my thoughts and kept me writing. I suspect the book would have been very different and I know, for certain, that the writing would have been a lot less fun without them.

It turns out that I’m a communal creature after all. I suspect that most of us are.  I’d love to hear about any groups that you are in that keep you on track, sane and motivated?

Startup Life: The perils of working from home

I love running our startup from home. I was never a big fan of office life. I went mute by the water cooler, longed to be outside in rainy London and went brain dead every morning that I had to plan what to wear. There was something unnatural to me about the sunny open plan office that I last worked in. I dreamed of a cramped home office.

writing at home

Today my dream has come true. I work from home, along with Jeremy and the rest of our team. We have lunch together every day and banter conversations down the halls of our little flat. I couldn’t ask for anything better. And yet it does have its perils.

It is hard to look professional with towels hanging from the clothing line outside the kitchen window.

The temptation to work in trackie bums is, at times, too great to resist.

I have forgotten how to walk in high heals.

Business calls compete with the impressive shuddering of our washing machine.

Midnight has become a normal time to stop working.

Without office intrigue to keep me busy, work chat has kidnapped my banter.

Still, I’m not complaining. Working from home suits me. I’m just confused, I’m not sure where my home begins and my office ends. I’ve escaped the 9 to 5 and entered the 9 to midnight. Someday soon we may have to move into a ‘real’ office but I’m reluctant. My home may be covered in brown box ‘installations’ but my commute is pretty impressive and every day feels a little bit like a stolen holiday. I’m not too keen to give it up.

Stay hungry and don’t be afraid to be different

Steve Jobs - think differentLate last night I learnt that Steve Jobs had died. At the age of 56. The man who told students at Stanford University that “you’re time is limited so don’t waste it living someone’s else life” finally met the one destination that none of us can out run.

Jobs himself said that “death is the best invention of life.” He argued that death was life’s change agent, that it cleared out the old to make way for the new. I doubt that I’m alone in believing that his death was an exception to his own rule. He was a man that lived his life as if each day were his last and he was always new, always inventing, always recreating. He never got old and nor did his ideas.

I co-run a cell phone recycling startup so I am a tech junkie. I am also a Mac advocate. My first ever computer was a bondi blue iMac back in 1999. It was beautiful. Something I wanted to have in my life even before I knew I wanted it. It made school work less boring, with Apple everything seemed just that little bit more fun and creative.

Apple products have followed me, marking the stages of my school, college and career. More importantly, Steve Jobs has inspired me. He taught me to be bold, to trust in my gut and to take the risk to do something that I love. Steve, and people like him, made me feel just a little less crazy about giving up everything to start anew. About deciding to write, deciding to launch a business, deciding to move to New York with no job and just my dreams to pay the rent. In Steve’s words I learnt to embrace “the lightness of being a beginner.”

Steve Jobs thought in a different way than everyone else. He was crazy enough to believe that he could change the world. And he did.