Monday 12 August 2019

The importance of being flexible by Vanessa Harbour

Meera Syal

Do you ever sometimes listen to a podcast and the pieces of the jigsaw drop into place? It felt a bit like that when I was listening to a great podcast this week with the multi-talented Meera Syal. She talked about being open to opportunities that come along and the importance of rolling with them. Also, she spoke about how putting in hard work can create these opportunities. It made me think and I related it to how important being flexible particular as a writer can be. Forgive me but in this post, I am going to show you how being flexible can make a difference by telling you a bit about my story. 

For me personally, flexibility has played a huge part in my own life – literally as well as metaphorically – I was a gymnast when I was young. The idea of being flexible has come in two levels in my life, mainly because it has never run to plan. I have always ended up doing things by accident or by a serendipitous event. When I became divorced with three very small children, I set up a business from home and every time somebody asked me if I could do something I would say ‘yes, of course.’ I would then go away and read up madly on how to do it if I didn’t know. From taking these opportunities on it meant I got to work with companies like Sony and Nuffield Hospital and as well as charities. I seemed to have literally taken Meera Syal at her word, using every opportunity and rolling with it.

Me being very competitive!
I am old enough to know better
And yes I did do myself some damage!
Once I became disabled, things changed. I no longer had a business. I had to be open to different opportunities and be brave in an alternative way. What I did was when a leaflet came through for an open day at the University of Winchester, I popped along and so started a new chapter in my life. When I started studying English, there were some Creative Writing modules. I thought I knew what sort of writer I was. It wasn't a children’s writer. That hadn’t even occurred to me. In one module we had the opportunity to write for children. I gave it a go…the rest is history.

The next serendipitous moment came three degrees later when I was lecturing at the university. Someone came to talk to my students – the brilliant Imogen Cooper. We started chatting. It was like we’d been friends for years and we have been friends ever since. Out of that meeting came so many other opportunities that I rolled with including the chance to work with the Golden Egg Academy. That was definitely a great day. 

These are life decisions where I have run with the opportunities, some have been forced on me and it’s been a case of making the most out of a really difficult knockback. More often than not I have seen it as a positive in the end as I have taken a chance to do something I wanted to. Its all about being brave, being open to opportunities, as Meera Syal said, and being flexible.  I am sure I am not the only person to have had this sort of journey. I am positive many authors can tell you of their unplanned journey where they were open to opportunities that enabled them to write.

I have spoken about flexibility with regard to the big stuff, but it is also just as important when writing. You need to be flexible in your approach. The number of times I have heard horror stories about fledgeling writers who would not budge when agents or publishers have asked them to make amendments to their stories. They felt their narratives were perfect and they knew better.  The wonderful, and deeply missed, Carole Blake and I used to often compare notes on this. It is so important to be open to criticism during the editorial process. Of course, we all know how hard it is initially when you hear criticism but let’s be honest more often than not most of what they bring up will be stuff that in our gut we already knew, just had pretended to ignore – am I wrong? We need to take a step back and think about the editorial comments in the cold light of day and often we start to see how they will make our story better. Be flexible and roll with them otherwise you risk losing that opportunity of a lifetime and a contract.

Sometimes this flexibility means being brave enough to walk away from a story that you’ve been working on, maybe for months or even several years, because you realise that it is just not working. This is one of the hardest moments of flexibility. I did precisely that with a novel that I had been working on for four years, and it was the best decision I ever made because the next novel I wrote was Flight. Imogen Cooper gave me the confidence to do it.

The wonderful Imogen Cooper
 Flexibility can also mean shifting genre. You don’t have to stay in one genre. Flight is historical fiction and I am currently writing contemporary realism. I have previously written realism and fantasy.  However, it can be quite a challenge to chop and change. It is never an easy option. But it also can be good fun. 

As an author, and as I mentioned in my previous blog post, we must be flexible in everything we do. We find ourselves not just writing and creating narratives, but acting as our own social media manager, event manager, marketing manager, performer, administrator and accountant even. Jack of all trades, it might be said.

Acting as a judge in a competition
What I am trying to say in this post is to reiterate Meera Syal’s point about being open to all opportunities, giving them a chance and rolling with them as you never know where they might lead you. Certainly, if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here now doing what I am doing. There is some argument over who said this, but the sentiment is the harder you work the luckier you get (The golfer Gary Player is said to have said it in connection with practising golf). For me, there seems some logic in that and will keep trying to be as open as possible to all opportunities.

Dr Vanessa Harbour


Susan Price said...

First, sending you huge admiration for the way you've coped with everything.

Second: YES! I've never thought of it as 'being flexible' -- never thought of it as anything, really -- but I so agree. I've never seen the point of these 'life-plans' and 'five-year plans' when 'life is what happens while you're making other plans,' (credit quote to whichever one of the people supposed to have said it that you prefer.)

Never saw the point of immensely detailed book plans when (in my experience) you're going to throw the whole thing away about halfway through. Pantsers rule!

Ness Harbour said...

Thank you for your kind words. I have added a credit to the quote. I can almost guarantee if I plan anything it will fall to pieces almost immediately.

Like you, I cannot plan in detail a book before I write. I am definitely a pantser. I might know where I think I am going to end a story but how I am going to get there, who knows! But that's the exciting bit. I love that part of writing.

Enid Richemont said...

I'm a pantser too - very much so. When I'm inside a plot, I become part of it, and I really don't know exactly where it's leading me. Characters speak to me, sometimes forcing me to change direction, and I once had what was almost an eerily 'psychic' exerience - sort of explicable eventually, but quite disturbing. At present I'm re-working a lot of stuff I feel should have found a home, which does not please my agent.

When I was doing them, I got SO much out of school visits, including a whole book with a plot revolving round what I felt to be a quite needy small boy. Re- disability, I had a very small and temporary taste of what this must be like this year, when I had serious ankle surgery with an extremely long recovery period, so carers plus immobility for quite a while, and I still have to walk with a crutch. For people like you, who can rise above their physical state to be actively creative, I have huge admiration!