Monday, October 23, 2017

My First Time: Roz Morris

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Roz Morris, author of Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction. Roz is an award-nominated novelist (My Memories of a Future LifeLifeform Three), book doctor to award-winning writers, has sold 4 million books as a ghostwriter and teaches writing masterclasses for The Guardian. Not Quite Lost is her first collection of essays. Visit Roz at her website, her blog, Facebook and Twitter.

My First Distraction

Many creatives don't confine themselves to one field. If you've got inventive urges in one discipline you might well have them in others. And you might easily be led astray.

My first major distraction project came in the 1990s. I was working as a sub-editor on a magazine and was supposed to be guarding my weekends to write The Novel. This was The Novel I could then use to dazzle an agent. I hoped it would start the writing career I’d begun to seriously aim for. But the manuscript was a monstrous mess. On a Saturday morning, I’d sit at the computer, open the files and they would make no sense. Characters, plot and my intentions were like a language whose vocabulary and grammar I’d forgotten.

I was an ideal candidate for distraction.

In my teen years I had been a music dabbler. I’d spend long hours at a piano, writing songs. Later I was in a student band. Afterward, writing fiction became the chief creative obsession, but occasionally I strayed back to music. When I discovered a friend (day job in high finance) was also a recovering teen musician, I couldn’t resist a Saturday making glorious noise. Just one.

Stephane came round with his keyboard. I blew the dust off my upright piano. We hit a hitch immediately. Stephane was classically trained and my hamfisted key-bashing couldn't keep up with his jazzy polish, though he was too polite to say so. What could we play that would be bearable? There, on the sideboard, was inspiration. My husband, an author, was putting together a proposal with an illustrator for a series of books for children. We spread out the artwork on the dining table—enchanting pictures of a green garden with roguish and lovable creatures.

Stephane and I composed a piece of music for one of the pictures. I figured out a melody. He added the professional zing. It was such a buzz that we wrote another.

The composition became a major task. Weekend after weekend, my tough-as-gristle novel sat untouched on my hard drive. Meanwhile Stephane and I wrote signature tunes for all the characters. Something slinky for the fox. A languid musical yawn for a sleepy cat that lived on the garden wall. Upstairs, husband and artist worked on the proposal, and when they needed a break they amused themselves with a cup of tea and a slice of home-made music.

Finally, the itch scratched, I went back to my novel. I’d like to say the musical detour had given my grey cells a refreshing break, but the novel was more opaque than ever.

My second distraction project was much more recent. I had now mastered two novels into published form and was on my third. I came back from holiday, sleeves rolled up for serious revision. I knew my manuscript needed a lot of time and understanding. But when I opened the file, it seemed to be mumbling from a far-off land where nothing made sense. I took the coward’s way out. I spent five days designing, typesetting and printing a personal recipe book, just for me.

It was such fun to use my professional know-how for sheer amusement. Curating the content from scrappy scribblings. Finding a use for the photos of dinner parties. Writing jaunty back-cover copy (If you see this book in use, keep calm and drink more).

Happy explorations; joy in the act of creativity; gratitude for whatever inspiration came on the day. It was so carefree. Writing my novels wasn’t like this, but I realised it had been in the earliest days. Once writing became my vocation, my commitment and even my bid to leave a little significance behind me, there were expectations. It could never again be taken lightly. There was the possibility, always, of failure. The distraction project, on the other hand, was an airy lark. Forgiving of inadequacy. It could never disappoint me.

But when I returned to my novel, some of that new ease remained, like a glow from a good holiday. In making a quick, cheeky book for myself, I’d reminded myself I was naturally creative. I was a person who could make something out of nothing. In using grown-up tools for play, I’d remembered the simple satisfaction of making books. I learned not to take myself so seriously. I also felt more masterful when back in my proper element.

Alas, other work got in the way. Consultancy and teaching derailed my plans again. I struggled to keep connected to the novel. A year on, I returned from another holiday, having cleared some time and....

I wrote a lighthearted travel memoir instead. My biggest distraction project yet.

I blame my husband. He spotted that I had a travel diary. Make it into a book, he said.

Don’t be silly, I said. I write novels. And anyway, those are just doodles.

But I can resist anything except temptation.

Editing the travel diary was more work than I imagined. It took much longer than a week or two. But it became my most rewarding detour yet.

I was used to writing big stories. My fictional characters endure immense turmoil. My real life isn’t like that, for which I must be thankful, but that meant the events in my travel diary were of a light and low-key hue. What’s more, they couldn’t be tweaked to create more drama. All the interest would come from presentation, interpretation, performance. How another person’s eccentricities help you discover your own edges. How a house being demolished is a reckoning with a childhood. The language of the personal essay.

Fast forward a few months, and I am back to the novel with more tools in my belt.

This travel diary was the tune-up I needed. It strengthened my repertoire, like cross-training. I’ve found narrative shapes in surprising places. I’ve let the mystery of a moment or a place speak for itself. I’ve noticed more how small events can shift your comprehension, or a reader’s. And, most thrillingly, I’ve seen that a novel is, in some ways, a personal essay for the characters.

And, for the first time, one of my distraction projects has grown up into an actual, presentable thing—Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction. It has reminded me that this process is frustrating and demanding, but so satisfying too. And that it always starts with play.


  1. I am so glad I'm not the only person who does this! I've been doing a lot of editing this past year and, while editing has its creative side (I do a lot of developmental editing), I imagining what I would do with my clients book concepts if I were writing them myself and decided I needed to make time for a project of my own.

    Right now I have one distraction project I'm just about to finish, and another I'm about to begin -- both intended for publication, but not "real novels," just things to entertain the creative brain until I find the time and mindset to return to the two novels I currently have in development.

  2. Hi Lisa - yes, inspiration is waiting everywhere to trap the person who should be busy! Good luck with yours.

  3. I'm heading headlong into a distraction project myself right now. My first two books are contracted and, mercifully, written. A third is with my agent. I have no deadline. And I'm feeling pulled toward screenplays. I'm planning to write the first draft of my first screenplay during National Novel Writing Month. A pace of four pages a day should keep me on track. I've no clue what to do with it afterward, but I think it will be a useful exercise and distraction all the same.

    1. Hi Erin! Screenplays must surely be a close cousin of the novel, so that's definitely forgivable.
      I'm loving these stories of creative people spreading their wings.