Writing in a way that works for you
Finding Method in the Madness: Writing in a Way That Works for You. Creative Spirit podcast 8.
Finding Method in the Madness: Writing in a Way That Works for You. Creative Spirit podcast 8.
Feeling a little sluggish? Got the lockdown blues? Here are a few ways to fuel your writing during these difficult times:
Sounds obvious, but how many of us actually drink about 3 litres of water a day? I know I often fall short. By making sure we drink the right amount of water every day we will help our sleep, our skin, our brain and ultimately our creativity. I’ve started to refill a litre water bottle three times a day to make sure I reach the mark. It’s helping immensely.
2. Get up and stretch!
It’s so easy to sit hunched over the computer or notebook for hours on end and forget to move. It’s little wonder that we start to feel clogged up when we do. My latest effort on this front is to set my timer for 20 minutes and literally stand up and stretch before sitting back down for another 20 minutes. It feels a bit arbitrary at first but over time it makes a massive difference to how my body feels by the end of the day and this, in turn, really helps my creativity.
3. Switch it up!
Another way I can start to feel sluggish is if I try and do the same thing over a really long period of time. One way in which I have combated this is to switch up what I do throughout the day. My morning routine, for example, is morning pages, followed by reading, followed by crafts, followed by meditation, followed by writing my WIP. I have definitely earned a lunch break by that point! What are some ways in which you can switch it up throughout the day to keep your brain ticking over?
4. Go for a walk!
This one has always been hard for me. I suspect, if I’m going to be completely honest, I’ve become a little lazy. There are all sorts of inducements you can use to get out for 20 minutes a day. Some people use a game or running adventure app. I’ve been known to break out the Pokemon Go on occasions. Some listen to an audiobook or podcast. You could even listen to one of mine if you’re really desperate! Others take photographs on their phone. One thing I will say of this walking malarky is I never regret going, but I sometimes regret not going. It definitely makes a difference to my writing when I do go.
5. Take a Shower
As much as the body needs water on the inside, it also loves water on the outside. A warm shower (or if you are brave enough, a cold one) can do wonders for firing up the little grey cells and getting the creative juices flowing. I used to take my showers at the end of the day, but I’ve recently started to have them first thing in the morning and they are really helping. Washing our hands throughout the day can also help ground us, one of the benefits of the pandemic I suppose.
6. Hug a tree / walk barefoot in the grass
The second part of this is a little difficult to do in the middle of autumn / winter but you get my drift. These are things that literally and physically help you to connect with nature. The same could be said for paddling in the surf on a beach, petting an animal or watching the sunset. They are all things that help us to feel more connected to the rest of creation, and, in turn, our creative selves.
7. Nurture the child within
My inner child is the part of me that still has a sense of awe and wonder, a joyful optimism, and the capacity to unleash an unfettered imagination inside of me. That inner child is the source of my inspiration and the catalyst for all of my creative writing. She needs nurturing. To do this, I get down and play. As sensible adults this might feel a little bit crazy, but it really helps with my writing. For example, I might do some colouring, make a daisy chain in the grass, build the Hogwarts Castle out of Lego (I wish), go splashing in puddles in my wellies, or curl up with a favourite book from my childhood. I might buy sparkly stationery, design a map for the location of my book, dance and sing to ABBA (when no one is looking), paint my nails and get dressed up. What would you do to nurture that inner creative spirit of a child in you?
8. Create some space
This may be physical space. It might be time to empty out that garden shed and turn it into your creative writing retreat. It might be time to paint a wall, hang a picture, introduce a reed diffuser or buy a new desk chair. The physical space in which we create needs to be inspirational, comfortable but not so much that it sends us to sleep, and above all, fun. I’ve even put up my Christmas tree early and treated myself to a new bauble. It brings me a lot of joy when it’s lit up next to me. It definitely helps my writing. What would you change about your environment to inspire you in your creativity?
9. Carve out time
Just as the physical space around us is important in making space for creativity, so too is our schedule. For those that work full time in a job that is not our first creative love this can be especially hard. The same is true if we are raising a family or caring for elderly or sick relatives. Whatever the constraints we may have in our lives, if we can, it is really helpful to give ourselves some quality time to just think, listen, pay attention and create. If you’re not currently finding the time to be creative, and would like to be, what can you cut down on, cut back on and cut out to make that space? Trust me, it will be worth it.
10. Get a decent amount of sleep
Regardless of whether you’re a night owl or up with lark, sleep is as fundamental as water when it comes to creativity. We will never do our best work when we are overwrought and overtired. I’ve taken to going to bed earlier in the evening so I can wake up refreshed. I also use a sleep meditation in order to go to sleep at night. It works every time. I recommend giving it a go. It’s better than any medication I’ve ever used.
What are some other ways in which you keep the creative flow throughout your day? Feel free to share your ideas and experiences below.
So here I am on day two of journaling, blogging and writing my novel throughout the day. It’s going really well so far but one thing I’m realising is how easily I’m distracted. Whether it’s a family member coming in to ask me a question, a WhatsApp message from a friend, or even a lawnmower starting in a neighbour’s garden, I find my mind wandering, and then journal about it and pull it back to the subject at hand.
Today that subject is research! This is actually one of my favourite things to do when writing a novel as I get to learn something interesting and new. As you can see, my current research subjects are Tea and Herbal Remedies. The first is because there is a Tea Emporium in my fictional world that features heavily in the story, and secondly because of the Apothecary who does likewise. She’s Spanish, and called Carmen, but bears no resemblance to the opera of the same name.
It’s also proved useful as I’ve realised I love Assam Tea, and am going to try a herbal remedy for the inflammation in my knees. Better than popping pills any day. I think I’ll treat myself to a new teapot and cup and saucer. The bigger the better. I could even knit a funky tea cosy to go with it! But I digress. How has your day gone? Have you given the journaling a go? Is it working? What interesting subjects have you been looking into?
Here’s me signing off until tomorrow,
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.
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?
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.
P 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.
I 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.
Dun 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.
I 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.
Only 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.