The Warm Up Act

Why writers need to behave like athletes

A couple of months ago I went searching for a new writing app, and stumbled across Novlr. One of the things I like about Novlr is the dark background which is easier on my eyes. I’ve been using it for my work ever since. It also has a fantastic free writing course, the Couch to 80k Boot Camp by novelist and poet, Tim Clare.

In my experience it’s all too easy to forget how important it is to warm up with our writing every day. I’ve wasted countless hours staring at a blank page or screen, groaning under the strain of trying to force my writing muscle into action when it very clearly wants to sleep. Yet since discovering this course, with just ten minutes of writing a day, I’ve found that when I do now sit down for the main event I’m so much more limber and agile and I have a new-found confidence in what I’m doing that I never had before.

It really is a brilliant course. I can’t say enough about it. The clever way in which it slowly builds on itself and navigates so many areas of the creative writing process without you even realising how much you are growing is simply thrilling. Clare is a master when it comes to teaching, and listening to him prattle on a bit only makes it more disarming and accessible.

The fantastic news is that there’s more even after the course has ended. Clare is a prolific podcaster and his Death of 1000 Cuts podcast is available online and via iTunes. This is such a gift to us as writers and I’m extremely grateful to him for providing us with so much inspiration and for helping me warm up my writing muscles.

There’s more inspiration to be found all over the Internet and in many book shops, if you know where to look. For example, the San Francisco Writers Grotto have produced a book called “642 Tiny Things to Write About.” Whilst a bit more random, and not as sequential, as Clare’s warm ups, they can certainly breath new life into a tired mind.

Above all else, warm up! It’s not wasted time, quite the contrary. It helps you save time later by giving you the life and energy you will need for the big race. It has helped me learn how to play, have fun, and think outside the box. It has helped me grow in confidence, and not to strain my brain in trying to force it to run before it can walk. What I find it prefers to do now is dance. I hope you find it works for you too.


Keep Calm and Keep It Simple

The very first time I had to give a presentation in a class at university my professor said something to me which has stuck with my ever since. He said, “you’re trying to give a lifetime of talks in one talk. You have a lifetime to give them so how about you tackle them one at a time and keep it simple?”

Keeping things simple, whether it be giving talks or writing novels, is easier said than done. We’re never just faced with a simple crossroads, but rather arrive head-on at a superhighway of different directions we could take our characters in. with that comes a crippling fear that we are going the wrong way, the imperfect way, the dead end way. What if we go a different way and it leads to the pot of gold at the end of the literary rainbow?

As I was preparing this blog post my mind started racing and ideas began streaming in. How about I write about the top five reasons why people never complete the novels they begin? Maybe one of those reasons is they overcomplicate things, but there are others, such as fear of failure, lack of time, no discipline, their heart just isn’t in it etc. But I have forced myself to stick to the point, and keep it simple.

In terms of writing, how many plots and sub-plots should there be? How many characters should I have? How many scenes should I visit? I’m always mindful of the book outline I saw by J.K. Rowling at the British Museum in which she listed one main plot and two sub-plots throughout the whole novel. Then there is A.A. Milne with his nine characters and Enid Blyton with just five. Every book we read has a different opinion so it’s little wonder we get caught up in mental knots and find it hard to move forwards. I don’t think there’s a magic number of sub-plots and characters. I just think readers know when we have too many. If in doubt, cut them out.

I always keep a separate note book beside me while I’m working called my “Ideas Book.” In it I scribble down all the extra thoughts and inspiration that comes my way so that I can get it out of my head and onto the page without muddying the waters of my W.I.P. A number of these ideas are ones I’ve come back to at a later date. There are enough others to last a lifetime, and as my professor said, I have a lifetime to write them.

Writing the blurb for the back of your book near the beginning is no bad thing. It can help you stay on track. If you can’t tell someone in thirty seconds what your book is about while stuck in a lift then you need to simplify it. If you don’t get it, no one else will.

So how do I simplify? I quite simply cut down, cut back and cut out. I cut down on the number of sub-plots so that I’m left with one or two. I cut back on any waffle, unnecessary trivialities, dull descriptions, and droning conversations, and I cut out any character who isn’t essential to the movement of my story. It’s brutal. But it’s worth it.

What are some of the things you do to keep your writing simple?

The P.O.W.E.R. Process: One Way To Climb the Novel-Writing Mountain

As writers we spend an inordinate amount of time figuring out the best way to write our novels. Over the years I have probably spent more time on process than I have on actually writing. I’ve learned the hard way what doesn’t work, and have picked up a few gems along the way. I’ve combined what I’ve learned into what I call my P.O.W.E.R. Process for getting a novel written.

Ponder

brainP is for ponder. For the few of us who have an amazing idea pop into our heads all at once that we can flesh out into a seven book, eight film and multi-million dollar franchise this might seem easy, but for the rest of us it can be quite a challenge. This is the time given over to ideas, brainstorming, and giving free rein to our imagination.

The difficulty we face as adults however is that we are taught to question our dreams and put a dampener on our hopes and aspirations. For many of us our inspirations have been quoshed with a healthy dose of realism.

Let’s do an experiment. Take a sheet of paper and fold it into eight. In the top left-hand corner draw a house, then top right do another house. Again in box three and again in each box until you’ve drawn a house in each box.

Don’t read on until you have done this.

I said no cheating!

What do your houses look like? Are they pretty much all the same? Children who are asked to do this exercise will often get really creative with it. They may draw a tree house, a boat house, an igloo or a teepee. The average adult will draw a series of box houses rather like those seen across the newer housing estates in Britain. (Thanks to Chrissie Hall for sharing this with me).

As you sit down to ponder what you would like to write, don’t be afraid think outside the box. At this stage no one else is going to see it anyway so you can be as fantastical as you like! Indulge in this stage, have fun with it; it is as important as all the rest.

Outline

story plottingI used to look at this word and say ugh. I never liked the idea of planning my novel out in great detail before I began to write. I felt it robbed me of my spontaneity and creativity. I now know two things: I can get creative about planning, and if I’ve put this work in I can write with more freedom because I’m not worrying about blind alleys or pot holes along the way.

I’m not going to tell you how to plan. There are a plethora of books, blogs and podcasts that can do that. My only advice to you is to find your own unique way of doing so. Take what you find useful from others and leave the rest behind. Whether you plan in a linear fashion or through a series of mind maps it doesn’t matter so long as it works for you when you refer back to it as you write.

One thing I will share is that it can be multimedia. I’ve found video clips of accents on YouTube that match the tone of a character’s voice, images that reflect their appearance, templates for characters, scenes, plotting etc that I now use regularly. I interview my characters as I find it easier to hear their voice when I do and they sometimes reveal little nuggets I never knew about. Get creative about planning and find a way that works for you.

Write

WriteDun dun dun! If you’ve got this far then you’re in a very strong position. You have a destination, and you have a map. Now you can begin your journey. This is the point where you can get really creative (remember the house exercise?)

The wonderful thing about having a destination and a map is that there’s more than one way to get there. You can include blind alleys, pot holes and cliff hangers because you ultimately know where your character is going. She won’t get lost. You can take your time to enjoy the scenery or you can rush her to that finish line at breakneck speed. You could even have her journey in a yellow submarine if the mood takes you.

If you have given over enough time to ponder and outline then the only thing which will get in your way are your own demons, or what Melissa J Hayes calls her ghosts. If your ghosts are haunting you as you stare at the blank page or screen I highly recommend you watch her TED Talk. She’s on your side and she has a fantastic way to inspire you to exorcise those pesky blighters.

There is no right or wrong way to get the first draft written, no magical daily word count, location, amount of time or brand of coffee that will get those words on the page. You just have to do it. What I will say is that the more you do it, the easier it gets to keep going. Our writing muscle is like any other, it needs exercise to build strength and stamina.

Edit

Elements of StyleI actually love this stage. I love it so much that I want to do it in every other stage preceding it, especially during the writing process. DON’T DO IT! Have an edit box in the same way some families have a swear box. If you catch yourself editing when you shouldn’t be, put a quarter / 50p or some other coin in the box. You’ll soon learn to stop it! You could give the money to charity. I don’t recommend you spend it on yourself. That would make me want to edit more!

Editing by its very nature is methodical and left brain. But I get excited about it because it gives me the chance to learn new words when I’m repeating myself, swot up on grammar books (I have a long way to go in that department), and hopefully polish my script until it, ‘shines like the top of the Chrysler Building,’ (brownie points to whoever knows that quote!).

I do recommend a very useful tool for this stage. If you don’t already have a copy grab yourself “The Elements of Style,” by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. It’s brilliant and makes me wish I paid more attention to dear old Miss Case at school.

Release

palms with a grain of wheatOnly when you have gone through each stage above are you in a position of power to release your work to others. If you do not yet have an agent or publisher this is when a couple of beta readers come in handy to give you honest feedback. I’d normally say don’t pick family as they tend to be biased cheerleaders but my own mum loves grammar is is meticulous about detail so is a fantastic beta reader. I have another friend who is a voracious reader and whose opinion on what makes a good story I value. She is my other beta reader.

After I get my feedback from my beta readers I do more edits. Then I step away from the manuscript and put the pen down. I can do no more. It’s time to sent it out to people I don’t know. Whether you choose to go to traditional or self-publishing route I wish you much success as you release your words to the world. My only advice to you is persevere, don’t give up, start pondering the next book while you release the first. Your stories are important. Stay true to yourself. You can do it. All power to you. Have fun.

Liv

We Are a Muse

robert_graves
Robert Graves

All my life I’ve enjoyed being around creative people. Regardless of how they express themselves, something inside me comes alive when I’m in the company of writers, artists, musicians, dancers, actors and the like. They make me want to burst and express myself in a new way. They make me feel most alive.

My mum was at Oxford with Lucia Graves. A writer and creative in her own right, she is also the daughter of World War I poet Robert Graves, who is best known for writing I Claudius. During a number of summers we would go out to Deià, Majorca, and stay with the family. Robert was a magnate for creative people. Across the road from the houses, amongst the terraced olive groves and the sheep and goats with the clanging bells, he built a small amphitheatre. It was here that he would perform his poems. It was also the venue for plays put on by members of the Royal Shakespeare Company who happened to be spending the summer there. I will always remember the night I did the thunder sheet for the Tempest.

Then there were the dinners on the terrace, the chatter, the laughter, the candles flickering in the evening light. After clearing the table one night a dancer from the Royal Ballet taught us how to jump and spin our way across the flagstones.

ballet-jump
The Royal Ballet

Towards the end of his life Robert was sadly struck with Alzheimer’s, a particularly cruel illness for such a great mind. As I sat next to him one evening as the adults were in the kitchen washing up he gently lifted his hand and put it in the pocket of my big baggy dress. It was as if he had taken my hand and we sat there, an old, drooling man in a wheelchair, a young girl of nine full of hope for the future. This was communication on a level way beyond words.

the-terrace-at-sunset
Terrace at Sunset

His wife came out to wipe down the table. She stopped and smiled and said, “if he’d been able, he would have written a poem about you.” Then she stopped some more and considered. “Wait, what I see before me right now is poetry.” That moment changed my life. It made me look at the world in a completely new way, and in that second I decided I wanted to be a writer.

I still surround myself with creative people. I go to concerts and hear incredible music, attend plays, visit galleries, read great books. All of these things and all of these people, along with fantastic sunsets, laughing children, and the moments like that on the terrace in Deià touch my soul, pump my heart, and revitalise my mind. These are my muses, what are your’s?

Denman Writing Retreat

 

I recently went on my first ever writer’s retreat at Denman College in Oxfordshire, England. Denman is owned by the Women’s Institute and offers a plethora of course for members and non-members throughout the year, including a number of different writing courses. The retreat appealed to me because I thought it would give me some quality time to write, away from the usual distractions of home. I wasn’t disappointed. The course tutor, Chrissie Hall, herself a published writer, was disarmingly brilliant at helping us strip away our fears, anxieties and confusion about what we wanted to do with our writing. She inspired us to unleash our creative energy and to share with and support each other. In just four days we had become family, forever invested in each other’s successes.

It’s amazing what can happen when a group of people with a common interest and passion get together. Couple that with an organisation with its roots in the Suffragette movement and you have an environment that is a hotbed for getting things done. That was definitely the case for me. My current WIP, a pre-teen novel about a girl called Mollie Price, was in the planning stages when I went to Denman. During my time there I was able to really flesh out my core characters, do a detailed plot analysis of the book, and finish a very strong first draft of chapter one. I’ve already begun chapter two, and shall continue work on that today.

We had lots of time and space in which to write, opportunities for one-on-one’s with Chrissie, and just the right amount of time to come together and share with one another. All this in beautiful surroundings, with a comfortable study/bedroom to retreat to if we chose to, and delicious food served by friendly staff.

I initially chose to write in my bedroom but quickly decided instead to work in the big teaching room with everyone else. I had my headphones on to help me focus, but the sheer energy of everyone working in the room together was an utter joy and definitely helped me to produce some of my best work.

I’m now sitting here, back at home with my headphones on, playing the same music I played on retreat, and it’s definitely reminding me of those feelings and helping the words  flow as I type. I’m planning on booking myself into the same retreat next year and may go to another in October on preparing your manuscript for publication if my current WIP has reached that stage.

The upshot of all this is that I would recommend writing retreats to anyone who can get to them. There is nothing like it and it will definitely help you progress with your work.

Write on!

Liv