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.


Reflections of a NaNoWriMo Winner

My sister recently won a ballot place for the London Marathon. Being more of a country stroller and book shop browser I was interested to learn more about the psychology of running such a long way. Sara Kurth has written a fascinating article on the Eight Stages of Running a Marathon. I had these stages in mind when I embarked on the gruelling journey that is NaNoWriMo this year.

1. Days One – Three – Starting Nerves

The build up to NaNoWriMo is quite similar to training for a marathon. We plan, we dream, we order in food and drink, we clear our schedules as much as we can. Now day one has arrived and we are full of excitement. There is the temptation to go too fast off the blocks in the first three days and set a pace we cannot sustain throughout the month. I was really nervous, but at the same time excited, when I began, but I didn’t let myself go over the 1,667 words per day during these days in order to set a realistic pace.

It felt weird to be writing every day like this, especially when my writing has often been haphazard and spontaneous before. I also felt overwhelmed and intimidated to read the enormous word counts coming in from others, and felt pressure to go faster. However, I didn’t, and stuck to the basic word goal.

2. Days Four – Nine – I’ve Got This

By now, I’d settled into a routine of writing as soon as I woke up every day. I didn’t even let myself get a cup of coffee, but instead made do with the water that was by my bed. Once I’d reached my word goal, I could get on with other things with a clear conscience. It also meant the inner critic, who is much slower to wake than me, could be bypassed and I could just get the words on the page. I actually felt confident during this time period.

3. Days ten to fifteen – Settling In

The routine continued into days ten to fifteen. However, on one day I got distracted by a phone call when someone woke me up early, and ended up getting a coffee before sitting down to write. The words didn’t flow as freely that day. The next day, I didn’t feel like writing at all and started to feel the burn so to speak as I realised I wasn’t even half way. To combat this I just pushed through, recreating the routine over the next few days, making sure I didn’t skip meals or not get enough sleep, and kept on writing. It wasn’t a very pleasant part of the writing journey but I persevered.

4. Days sixteen to eighteen – The Wasteland

I actually started to get bored at this stage. The inner critic didn’t seem to sleep and was constantly whispering in my ear how utterly droll my story was and how no one would be interested in reading it. I ceased to be interested in reading it. It felt like every word I put on the page was a blur of nothingness and tedium. But having been warned that this might happen, I kept going, just putting one word in front of the other and reminding myself that it could always be improved in the edit.

5. Days nineteen to twenty-one – The Dark Night of the Soul

Talk about mental anguish. This was when I almost gave up. The only blessing that helped to keep me going during this time was the fact that I went away on a Writing for Wellbeing course which inspired me to get excited about my writing all over again. This is definitely a good time to go away or join a write-in if you can.

6. Days twenty-two to twenty-four – Wow! I’ve Come a Long Way!

I seemed to get over a mental hump at this stage, probably spurned on by the retreat. I spent a few moments reflecting on what I had achieved so far and I kept looking at my daily word count and thinking, “Wow, I’ve come a long way.” I allowed myself to get excited at the prospect of completing the challenge, but this made me think more about the finishing line than the next words I needed to write. As a result it started to become difficult again for me to get the words on the page. Instead, I reminded myself to keep it in the day and to only do my 1,667 words. This seemed to help me to keep going. I also created a new playlist of birdsong and bubbling brooks, and ordered some Bergamot which seems to ignite my creativity.

7. Days twenty-five to twenty-nine – I’m Never Doing This Again!

These were the days when I cursed ever having signed up to do NaNoWriMo. Every day was excruciating. I felt like I couldn’t breath, much less write. But when I look back on my word count I see I actually started going over the daily target at this point and reached my goal early. However, I didn’t want to stop there as my other goals were to finish the thirty days and to eventually finish the first draft of my novel.

8.  Day thirty – Collapsing in a Heap

Okay, so maybe not literally, but definitely metaphorically. I only wrote ten words on the last day but it didn’t matter because I’d achieved my goal and had become an NaNoWriMo Winner! I’m proud of what I’ve achieved but I know I still have a long way to go. I have about ten thousand words left to write on this first draft and then the hard work of editing and re-writing will begin. I’m looking forward to it though, but have planned a trip away for a few days before I sit down with my big red pen.

This has been an amazing journey and I’ve got to share it with some wonderful people for which I am thankful. I have taken from it the need to write every day, although I don’t think I can sustain 1,667 indefinitely. I’m probably more of a 600 word girl myself. That being said, this blog is already over 1k so I’d better draw it to a close and ask, what are your reflections from your NaNoWriMo experience this year? Do you think you’ll do it again? I, for one, am all in and can’t wait.

Susie

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