How I write

The Royal Literary Fund has recorded a mini -podcast with me on how I write – with a black coffee, and some dark chocolate and then I begin!

‘Writing a novel feels like being an ultra-marathon runner, it’s going to be a gruelling slog to reach 90,000 words and I will be unable to pause, to breathe properly, to take in the view until then.’

You can listen here:

Sanjida O’Connell

 

What do you think? Let me know how you write.

 

I’ll be your coach

 

I’ve just returned to working for charity, First Story, this month. First Story’s aim is to change young people’s lives through writing, particularly those who might be disadvantaged socio-economically, and/or suffer from a lack of confidence. I had my first creative writing workshop with the school I’ll be Writer in Residence for last week. Before I met the group of students I’ll be working with, I was wondering what to tell them. I want to inspire them to be writers, as well as to give them the confidence to flourish, but I’m not sure that I personally feel like a teacher, or even know that creative writing can be taught. In spite of having published twelve books, I don’t have any qualifications in teaching and I have none in English past the age of 15.

So what I said was:

I am your space: I am your space in which to think about and practise the craft of writing. 

I am your permission: I give you permission to be writers. 

I’m never going to say to a single one of these young people that they are rubbish, that they cannot do it, that they need to demonstrate proficiency in key aspects of the curriculum, pass an exam or sit a test. I hope that having the time, space and permission to ‘have a go’ will help them blossom, both now and in the future.

Finally, I said:

I am your coach. 

In most subjects taught in schools today, the educational model we follow is that you attend classes, practise, learn, graduate and then make your way on your own. But in sport, the model is that you are never, ever done. Everyone needs a coach. Even the greatest football player or Olympic athlete needs a coach. There isn’t a fool-proof path to become a premier league player, nor to win a gold medal at the Olympics. What players do is that they learn, they practice and they are coached. It is a never-ending process of attempting to improve under the guidance and tutelage of a person who has your back. The way to become a great cyclist, gymnast, football player or even a writer is with help. It is not, as someone tweeted at me recently, about reading a few articles online and doing it by yourself.

As Atul Gwande, surgeon and author of Checklist, says, ‘Coaches are on to something profoundly important…They build on your skills and address your weaknesses.’ Gwande, who is seen as being top of his field in general and endocrine surgery, hired a coach, thinking that this fellow surgeon, would have little to teach him. After the first session, the coach had made pages of notes on how Gwande could become a better surgeon. Two years later, Gwande’s techniques had indeed radically improved.

For me personally, I’ve benefitted greatly for the coaching I’ve received from my agent, Robert Dinsdale, my many editors over the years, and my writing buddies. In my role as a Royal Literary Fellow, I frequently receive training and coaching from other fellows. I still believe that I could benefit from more help and dedicated coaching for my thriller writing. (Any volunteers?!) As Gwande says, ‘It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you’re going to be that really matters.’

 

Who am I? Finding ourselves in others

WHO AM I? FINDING OURSELVES IN OTHERS

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Last week I gave the keynote speech at Sidcot School’s Peace Festival. It was a double honour, because it was also the launch of the James O’Connell Peace Field. Named after my Dad, the field is full of wild flowers and several yurts, which are spaces for meditation, reflection, doing a bit of homework, as well as being part of the Peace and Global Studies Centre that Dad inspired.

 

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My brother, Pat O’Connell, said a few words about Dad, and my mum, Rosemary O’Connell, cut the ribbon.

 

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The day was about identity and I talked about how we find our identity as we’re growing up (or even as grown ups!). Identity, I believe, is formed by where you come from, who you love and who loves you, but you can also shape it yourself. Your origins do not have to be your destiny. And as you grow and change, your identity changes too.

 

 

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My two favourite quotes from the talk are by Coco Channel:

A girl should be two things: who and what she wants.

…and Dr Seuss:

Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.

 

What do you think forms and shapes your identity?

 

 

 

 

BE – Well Dressed Outdoors

category_dress80BE – WELL DRESSED OUTDOORS – It is tricky to find outdoor clothes that do what you want – keep you warm/dry/cool – and are ethical and stylish (I kept a blog for the Independent newspaper on the challenge of dressing ethically for a year). If you’re watching or filming wildlife, you’ll also need apparel and equipment that blends in with countryside colours – no fuschia-pinks or

With owl

scarlet-reds, I’m afraid.

As I’ve recently been working as a presenter on a BBC series called The Urban Jungle (due out in August), what to wear outdoors/on camera has been on my mind. Over the years – I filmed several series for the BBC on British Wildlife with Chris Packham – I’ve narrowed this down to:

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The Urban Jungle

category_diary80THE URBAN JUNGLE – Last week I finished the programme I’m presenting in the series, The Urban Jungle. It’s 11 half hours, each one produced and filmed in a different British region, on wildlife Martin's Pondin our cities. The series is due to be broadcast in August on BBC2.

We were filming the introduction and links to the documentary in Martin’s Pond, Nottingham: a perfect example of a wildlife haven in the city centre. In between takes I spotted a pair of coots with their nearly adult chicks, a moorhen building a nest, some damselflies and a group of long tailed tits Watching moorhensperforming acrobatics in the willows overhanging the pond.

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Just write!

category_diary80JUST WRITE! – I’ve been thinking about what advice to give someone who is starting to write – I’m going to be teaching a course on beginner’s fiction at the Arvon Foundation in October – so it’s been on my mind. You can still book a place if you’d like to come: it’s a wonderful, week long retreat in Devon with time to write, writers to talk to and workshops run by me and fellow novelist, Christopher Wakling.

So what would I say to someone who wants to write a novel and is just starting out?

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More toast please

category_drink80MORE TOAST PLEASE – For the last couple of weeks I’ve been on a radically low carb, relatively high protein diet. When I say low, I don’t mean, cutting out the odd slice of bread, I mean, a total of 20g of carbs a day. That means most vegetables (unless they’re green and watery) and most fruit (apart from rhubarb and occasionally raspberries) are too high! For someone who loves toast, chocolate and has an apple a day habit, this has been somewhat hard.

Jumping at Stonehenge

I noticed many years ago that I had an intolerance to wheat and that if I had high glycemic index carbs (anything white basically!) I would have awful blood sugar swings, migraines and put on weight. So I cut down on carbs and now try to only eat wholegrains, such as brown rice, wholemeal pasta, granary bread. Last autumn I saw nutritionist, Jamie Richards, who specialises in training athletes and is a proponent of low starch diets. I said that I want to be healthy, slimmer with more muscle definition, and have plenty of energy. I need the fuel from carbs for my runs, but then I don’t burn off enough calories to make a difference. Jamie checked my iron and vitamin D levels (both low) and recommended SpaTone, which is iron-rich water from a spring in Wales and doesn’t cause digestive problems like constipation. He advised taking Bio-D Mulsion Forte vitamin D drops and Allicin – a high dosage garlic supplement to help protect me from all the bugs my two year old daughter ‘shares’ with me.

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