During the Second World War, posters were put up warning people 'Loose Lips Sink Ships' and to 'Be like Dad - Keep Mum'. The posters were to remind people that they didn't know who was listening - that a casual conversation on a bus could give away where troops were based or ships were heading.
So what's this got to do with writing? Well, loose lips sink ships, and plots, and characters, dialogue, twists, metaphors and settings.
Let me ask you this. When an idea for a story or a novel or a poem comes into your mind, do you jot it down, play with it, write it, rewrite it until it's the best you can make it and then send it off? Or do you jot it down, tell your husband about it over dinner, act out the brilliant bits of dialogue to your friends, describe the plot twists in minute detail to your mum, and try out the comedy on your kids? Chances are if you do, that the story/ novel/ poem never gets written at all, never mind rewritten and sent off.
Bursting Your Bubble
Why? Because when writing is new it's very fragile. That initial idea isn't really an idea, it's a seed. A starting point. It needs nurturing and feeding. How do you nurture and feed? You jot it down, you play with it, you write some bits, you think about it, you leave it alone for a while, you idly turn it over in your mind while cooking dinner.
Talking about it makes it lose the magic. Imagine that idea is a bubble - exciting and colourful and different from every angle, but pass it around a bit and it'll pop. To go back to the seed metaphor, talking about your idea is like digging up the seed every few hours and seeing if it's sprouted yet.
How To Kill Your Idea
Your brain will get bored with the idea if you talk about it. While it's new and fresh, it's exciting. It's yours to discover. The more you keep it secret, the more energy that idea has, the more it will grow, and the more you'll want to write it. You'll write it because you need to know what happens next.
Tell other people about it and they'll soon take the magic away, often unintentionally, sometimes not. Comments like, "Hm. Interesting" don't help you to keep the excitement alive. Nor do, "Is that character based on me?", "What will the kids think?" or "What you need to do is ..." Talking about a partly formed idea is the swiftest way to kill it.
People rarely laugh at the hilarious bits until you've written them and worked them. Scraps of dialogue are flat if taken out of context. All of this makes you despondent. When you go back to your notebook it's just a heap of words scribbled down. The gloss, the intrigue, the possibility have all gone.
So when it comes to writing, when that brilliant germ of an idea strikes, remember the advice on the War posters, and 'Be Like Dad - Keep Mum'. Keep it a secret until you've worked and polished that piece and it's as good as you can make it - then you can tell people about it.
I’m planning a new writing project at the moment, and it’s at that delicious stage of quivering on the edge of my consciousness, a blur of colours and half-formed characters; some scenes that are sharp and clear, some that shimmer with possibility, a whole lot more that are just a scrap of intention. While I’m brewing the ideas, I use lots of different stimuli to help the ideas to form – visiting possible locations and taking lots of photographs; acquiring objects that will keep me literally in touch with characters and places; eating and drinking the things my characters eat and drink; and putting together a playlist.
I use my playlist to conjure up a particular period of time or to evoke a place, to create the emotion I'm writing about, or simply to get me in the mood for writing. I asked some writer friends if they also use music, and they all said, yes, they use music to enhance or create mood while they're writing. If you've ever cried listening to Tavener, or found yourself jigging in your seat when Shania Twain comes on the radio, then music could help your writing, too.
Imagine your story or novel is being made into a film. What sort of music will be playing in the background at different points? What will be the theme tune for each of your characters? Choose music that moves you, that makes you dance, sing, cry, reflect. Play this while you're writing, or in preparation for a writing session. Music that spooks you, cheers you, or that simply has memories for you is good, as you have an emotional connection with it that will come out in your writing.
I like to compile a playlist for each book I write. I have a theme tune for each character, and several pieces that reflect the emotions in different parts of the novel. I also have themes that reflect the way other characters feel about each other. For example, my private eye heroine Eden Grey has the theme tune of Billy Joel's 'She's Always a Woman'.
I put all the tracks onto my MP3 player, go out for a long walk with my headphones on, and when I come back my brain is thrumming with the atmosphere of my novel. I find I get into the writing much more easily and the words flow better when I've primed myself with music first.
I also like to ask myself what sort of music each of the characters in my books listens to. Do they chill out with some smoky jazz, or get churned up by Beethoven? Finding your characters' musical tastes can get you into their heads, and then their thoughts, desires and fears are only a semiquaver away.
What’s on your writing playlist?
We all have days when the brain is sluggish, inspiration has gone AWOL, and the words simply refuse to flow onto the page. On these occasions help is at your fingertips, with a range of apps aimed at writers. The major benefit of these apps is that you only have to carry your phone and you have access to inspiration whenever and wherever you need it.
Below I discuss the apps I use to spark ideas and to get into the mood for writing. Just to be clear: all the apps are free (though some may offer in-app purchasing), and I’ve not been given any incentive to review them.
These are the ones I use regularly:
Brainsparker is a general creativity app to help you think through a problem and come up with a range of different solutions. It generates a phrase or picture at random for you to mull over and inspire new insights on the problem you’re facing. For example, a picture of a clock might encourage you to revisit the timeline for your project or consider if you’ve allowed enough time to complete it. Phrases such as ‘reverse your priorities’ encourage you to stop thinking about the problem that’s on your mind, ask yourself what your priorities are, and what would happen if you focussed on something else.
I use Brainsparker whenever I feel stuck on a writing project, or if I feel stuck in life. For example, today Brainsparker offered me the advice ‘stop thinking, start doing’, which reminded me that it’s easy to get stuck in weighing things up and trying to second guess what the outcomes might be, and actually it’s best to simply get on with things.
Paperblanks gives you a journal prompt in a range of categories such as ‘just for fun’, ‘travel’, ‘personal/introspective’. An example of the last is ‘A time when I felt really brave was …’ An example from the category ‘Story a day’ is ‘Eureka, she shouted. I’ve finally found it.’
I use Paperblanks each morning when I do my writing practice. This is my equivalent of a musician practising scales and arpeggios: a warm-up simply to get words on the page. Sometimes it leads to a story but usually not. I use Paperblanks in two ways. Firstly, I simply copy out a random prompt and start writing and see where it leads me. I might find myself writing about a memory or I might find myself making something up. Secondly, I use it in the persona of one of my characters, as a way to get deeper into the character’s life. So if the prompt is ‘My favourite way to keep warm in the winter is …’ I write as though I’m the character. It’s been really fruitful to use it this way and I’ve got deeply into a new character I’m creating.
Fast Fiction Prompts
Fast Fiction Prompts generates a random character, setting and plot, and the challenge is to incorporate all of them into a story. Today’s random selection was: a werewolf, at sea, and a character’s video game addiction saves the world. The fun here is in stretching your imagination to find a way to include these disparate elements. Again, it might lead to a story that you can send to a competition, or it might not.
I use this app for a bit of fun and for the challenge of seeing if I can get all the elements into a story that sort of makes sense. It encourages me to write outside my comfort zone – I’ve never written a story about a werewolf and maybe once I get started I’ll find out I love writing about them. I use this app mostly as a writing warm up, or on those occasions when I have a vague sense of wanting to write ‘something different’ but no ideas about characters or plot.
Coffitivity is an app that provides background noise to your writing. Many writers like writing in cafes and find the bustle conducive to creativity. For those days when you can’t get to a café, Coffitivity provides the background hum of chatter, coffee machines and crockery. There are three settings in the free app: morning murmur, lunchtime lounge and university undertones. They’re all slightly different so you can find the right pitch and level of noise to suit your writing.
I use Coffitivity when I’m feeling overwhelmed by the thought of writing, the days when ‘writing’ is too big and scary and I need to convince myself I’m actually just playing with words. Sometimes I put the radio on in the background and persuade myself that I’m just doing a bit of scribbling whilst listening in. Once I’ve got the first sentence down I find I don’t hear any more of the radio but get caught up in what I’m writing. I get the same effect in cafes, and Coffitivity replicates that sense of not ‘writing’ but ‘scribbling in a café’ that helps me overcome the sense of overwhelm and get some words down on paper.
These are my favourite writing apps and how I use them, but there are hundreds of writing apps available. I’d love to hear which apps you use to get writing, overcome blocks or find inspiration. Tell me about them in the comments below.
How is your relationship with your writing? Is it loving, warm, and based on respect? Or is it turbulent, suspicious, and leaving you unsatisfied? Here’s a quiz to help you find out:
1. It’s your writing time. What do you do?
A. Whatever I feel like that day – a poem, a song, a story. Or I might do some sketching instead. Or go for a walk. Or plant some seeds.
B. I stare at the novel I wrote 3 years ago and wonder if I’d be better off focussing on a short story instead.
C. I quickly read through what I did last time, check my notes, and get cracking on my current writing project.
2. How often do you send work out?
A. Depends. I might dash off a poem and send it to a competition, or I might write a letter to the editor, a recipe, a filler, a tip and send that off, if the mood takes me.
B. Sometimes. I tend to submit several stories in a month, then go 6 months without writing or submitting anything.
C. I have a regular schedule for writing and submitting work, and have a target goal of 10 pieces of work out for consideration at any time.
3. What’s your writing ritual?
A. I don’t have one. If I have an idea I might scribble it down and work it up then send it out. Or I might not.
B. I make sure the house is spotless and that there are no dishes in the sink. I clean my desk, answer emails, and check Twitter until I feel inspired before I start writing.
C. I make a cup of coffee and light a scented candle and then start writing.
4. Where do you go for an artist’s date?
B. Coffee shop
C. Local museum
5. How often do you think about giving up writing?
A. Never – I’m not that bothered about it.
B. Frequently – is it supposed to be this hard?
C. Sometimes – but then, who doesn’t?
Now tot up how many As, Bs and Cs you have.
Mostly As – FLIRTY
Writing – you can take it or leave it. You flit from one thing to another, trying all different genres and types of writing, but not committing to any one in particular. You write if the mood takes you, and if not, you’re happy to paint, swim, dance, or do whatever takes your fancy in that moment. Deep down you secretly yearn to see your name in print, one day.
TIP: If you want to see your work published, pick the style you enjoy the most, read widely within it, and devote time to polishing your best piece before sending it out.
Mostly Bs – STORMY
Writing – you love it and you hate it. It’s wonderful when the words are flowing, but that seems so rare. Usually you’re staring in despair at what you’ve written wondering how the idea that was so magical in your head can be so flat on the page. Secretly you wonder if it’s this hard, are you meant to be a writer at all?
TIP: Build a more stable relationships with your writing by setting aside 10 minutes every day just to play with words and see where it takes you. The more regularly you can do this, the less you’ll despair at writing a rubbish first draft.
Mostly Cs – MONOGAMOUS
You have a solid relationship with your writing, including regular dates and a plan for where you’re heading. You have the occasional blip but quickly get yourself back on track. You’re dedicated to a single genre, and work conscientiously on a single project until it’s completed before starting another.
TIP: If you’re feeling stifled or bored from time to time, experiment with other forms and genres, just for variety. Your writing will benefit from the change and will recharge your enthusiasm.
What’s your writing relationship style? Let me know in the comments below.
My short story ‘Cat Chat’ is published today in the People’s Friend magazine, and in this post I’m going to write about where the idea for the story came from, and how I adapted and shaped my initial thought into the finished piece. Like many writers, I’m quite shameless about pinching stories from my family and friends. Often someone will tell me something and I’ll mentally file it away thinking, ‘I can do something with that.’ The ‘thing’ they’ve said might be a phrase or a comment, or it might be an anecdote. I never use other people’s stories in the same format they told them to me: I strip down the idea to find the bit that captured my imagination, then I play with it until I get a story, so the final story bears no resemblance to the original. This is how I did it with ‘Cat Chat’.
My family is one of pet-talkers: people who act as ventriloquist for the dog or cat. Maybe you’re one yourself, or maybe you’ve come across people like that, people who put on a special voice for the dog and conduct a conversation with it, seemingly oblivious to the fact they’re talking to themselves. Maybe you think it’s cute; maybe you think they’re bonkers. Anyway, in my house we talk for the cat. If you’re not sure what people actually say when they talk for the cat, here’s a typical exchange between me and my cat, Harriet:
Me: Look at that cute dog on the telly.
Harriet: I don’t approve of dogs. They’re not as good as cats.
Me: It’s a clever doggy, doing tricks.
Harriet: See what I mean? You’d never find a cat doing that. Imagine working for a living! Cats are far too clever.
When I met my husband, and he first heard me talking for my cats, he thought I was bonkers. Fast forward a couple of months and not only was he also talking for the cats, he’d adopted his own special voice for doing so. We were talking about his first reaction to hearing me talking for the cats when I realised there was a story in it.
Firstly, I needed a conflict. As it was a story about talking for a cat, there had to be a talker and someone who found it weird. And because I love writing stories for the People’s Friend that involve a grandmother and granddaughter, I went for those characters and had the grandmother as the cat-talker and the granddaughter worried about it. Now for the inciting incident, the thing that kicks off the story. As the granddaughter has known about the cat-talking all her life, why does she suddenly find it weird? Answer: she’s a teenager who’s just got a boyfriend and is worried what he’ll think about it and is scared he’ll dump her. To up the stakes and to add a touch of humour, I made the grandmother very gentle and the cat a bit of a thug:
“How’s my best boy then?” asked Nanna, bending to stroke Bandit.
“Alright, old girl. Where’s me grub?” said Bandit, in a low, gravelly voice and distinct East End gangsterish accent.
“You hungry, my poppet?”
“Starvin’! Me stomach finks me froat’s bin slit,” said Bandit.
The girl is determined that her boyfriend won’t ever meet Nanna, and Nanna is equally determined to meet the new boyfriend to give him the once-over and make sure he’s good enough. So there was the set-up. All of them nice characters but with genuine conflict arising from their personalities. Next I had to increase the conflict.
I like to vary the sources of conflict within stories, so if the inciting action comes from outside the main character (from another character or from a situation), the next conflict comes from within the character herself. In this case, I made her feel terrible guilt at wanting to keep Nanna and the boyfriend apart. She loves her Nanna, yet is embarrassed by her, and feels terrible about it. I twisted the knife a little to increase the conflict and (hopefully) get the reader to ask ‘How is this ever going to be resolved?’ by adding a scene where the girl tries to talk to her mother about her concerns:
That evening, in the car, I said, tentatively, “Mum, do you think it’s odd how Nanna talks for the cat?”
“She’s always done it.”
“I know, but is it weird, do you think?”
“Her mum, my grandma, was just the same,” Mum said, indicating the turning into our road. “I asked her about it once and she said her grandmother was just the same.”
Great, so it’s hereditary.
Mum pulled up outside our house and tugged on the handbrake. She glanced across at me. “Why? It doesn’t bother you, does it?”
“No, it’s just … I wondered what other people might think.” The blood flooded my cheeks as I said it.
“Stuff what other people think,” Mum said. “Come on! Homework, then dinner.”
Next I had to figure out how to resolve this. There are a few rules with story endings: they can’t come about by chance or fate, they must be the result of the character’s own actions, and they must be in character. I normally sketch out as many potential resolutions to the story as I can and then see which one is most natural but least likely to be spotted in advance by the reader. Keep them guessing to the end if possible! In this story I gave the grandmother a sore throat and the granddaughter speaks for the cat on her behalf, resolving both the original conflict (what will the boyfriend think about Nanna speaking for the cat?) and the emotional conflict (the guilt about feeling embarrassed).
If you’d like to read the whole story, it’s available now in the People’s Friend magazine dated 10th February, 2018.
OK, I admit it. My secret vice is watching crap TV. You know the sort of thing – programmes that are evidently low-budget, involve supposedly real people in real situations, on during the day time, and that make the mind boggle that such people exist. The kind of programme you don’t admit to watching even to your best friends. The sort of programme some people pretend they’ve never even heard of. Programmes that leave a warm hug of schadenfreude behind. Addictive, enjoyable, totally veg out crap TV that is surprisingly good for writers. And if you’re still not sure which programmes I’m talking about, I mean Botched, Tattoo Fixers, Secret Eaters, any programmes about doing up or selling houses, Bridezillas, Don’t Tell the Bride, any programmes where angry brides/ dance instructors bitch-slap each other, Wanted Down Under, Escape to the Country, Bargain Hunt, Crap in the Attic (sorry, Cash in the Attic), TOWIE, Real Housewives of Nowhere You’ve Ever Heard of, Posh Pawn, and anything that involves people with no brains and too much money spoiling pets/ children/ cars/ property.
Now before you come over all ‘you’d never catch me watching rubbish like that’, one, I don’t believe you – we’ve all been caught watching Hoarders at some point - and two, crap TV has a lot to offer us writers. Here’s how:
1. It’s all about conflict
When I teach writing workshops and explain that the energy in a story comes from the conflict, often people think that conflict means fighting, and that characters should be squabbling all the way through. Conflict actually just means anything that stands in the character’s way, whether it’s missing the bus, a letter not being delivered, illness, lack of self-belief, or getting soaked in the rain.
Crap TV is full of conflict. Take Secret Eaters (known in my house as Secret Scoffers), one of my favourites. In it, people who are overweight keep a food diary in which they record everything they eat. The diary always shows that they eat nothing but carrot sticks and lettuce leaves. Unbeknownst to the participants, however, a team of private investigators has rigged up their home with CCTV, they follow them every step they go, and log every single mouthful. Low and behold those mouthfuls turn out to be cake, chips, pizza, beer and kebabs. Confronted by their own self-delusion, they instantly mend their ways and drop a stone in two months.
Here’s the conflict: wanting to lose weight but being unable to do so, and unable to see where you might be going wrong. Deluding yourself that you eat a healthy diet and ignoring the fact that biscuits still count even if you eat them in secret. Being confronted with your own bad habits. Being followed by a private detective.
Or how about those ‘My house is a tip but I can’t understand why no one wants to buy it’ shows? The people are desperate to move, have had the house up for sale for years, and no one has put in an offer. Along comes Mr or Ms Expert on Selling Houses, who instantly spots that they have Grandad stuffed and on display in an armchair in the sitting room. “Do you think the fact your dead grandfather is in the house might be putting people off?” the expert asks.
“But this is our house!” they cry. “This is how we like it.”
A painful amount of time later they are finally forced to concede that if they want to sell, their house has to be how other people want it to look, stuffed Grandpa is put into storage and magnolia is slapped on the walls. An offer comes in immediately.
Here’s a conflict that we’re all familiar with: wanting to move home but something’s in the way, whether it’s not being able to agree with our partners on what we want; not being able to afford a deposit; not being able to sell our current home. In a twist on the ‘not being able to sell’ theme, I once wrote a story based on my parents not wanting to sell their house. They'd put it up for sale but changed their minds, and persuaded the neighbours to behave objectionably every time someone came round for a viewing until they could take it off the market and not incur the estate agent’s fees. True. My reworking of this heart-warming tale appeared as ‘The Noisy Neighbours’ in That’s Life Fast Fiction Australia. My mother thinks I ought to give her the money I earned from it.
2. It shows you how other people live
Crap TV gives amazing insights into how other people live. Not just in a Jeremy Kyle ‘do such people really exist’ sort of way, but a ‘how much money have they got and why are they spending it on that’ sort of way. If you don’t know what it’s like to have an unfortunate tattoo, but have a character in your novel who is just that sort of person, watch Tattoo Fixers and you’ll get more than enough inspiration. If you don’t know what it’s like to have a gormless boyfriend, watch Don’t Tell the Bride.
Crap TV also shows you what people aspire to. Take Escape to the Country, possibly the best satire on the middle classes. In it, people with an astonishing amount of ready cash decide they’d like to swap city living for life in the country. They come up with a wish-list for their perfect property, and for every single one it goes like this: detached with character features; at least four large bedrooms; a large country kitchen (a kitchen the size of a football pitch will still not be large enough – how many friends do they have?); huge entertaining space; a cottagey feel; at least eight acres for bees/ chickens/ llamas/ vegetable plot.
And then there’s the glimpse into people’s homes, the stuff they have around them, and the way they live. If you need descriptions of interiors, head to crap TV to see how rooms are arranged, how ornaments are displayed, kitchens are used. Our friends tend to be similar to us, so when we have a character who’s totally different we can be at a loss to understand how they live. None of my friends are mega-rich housewives, but crap TV has plenty of them happy to show off their furniture, clothes, make-up and daily routine if I ever need to describe it in a story.
3. It gives you ideas for stories
Although a lot of crap TV is stage-managed, you can still find inspiration for stories there. I’ve already mentioned my story about selling houses, but I’ve also written and published a story based on Don’t Tell the Bride (it was called ‘Don’t Tell the Bride’ and was published in the People’s Friend magazine). Watching the programme, I wondered what it would be like in real life (as opposed to TV life) if a girl couldn’t plan her own wedding and her fiancé had to do it. My story had the conflict of not knowing what he’d choose for the big day, the disappointment of seeing the dress he’d chosen, and the surprise ending, but steered clear of the money being spent on a lads’ week in Vegas, uncontrollable crying, and threatening to call it all off.
I have also written and published a story inspired by Antiques Road Trip, in which someone accidentally buys a very valuable antique at a car bootsale, and have drawn on the many programmes about people trying to eat healthily in a short story about how food and feeding people means different things to a mother and her daughter, published in Take a Break Fiction Feast as ‘Don’t Make Them Fat, Too’. That wasn’t my title, I hasten to add: the magazine made it up, changing it from my suggestion of ‘The Food of Love’.
The way I approach crap TV if I’m looking for inspiration is to imagine what the conflict/ problem would look like in a normal person i.e. not someone who’s been put into a set-up and had their lines scripted for them. Then I try a few reversals, so If the show is about twenty-somethings, I imagine a seventy year old in that situation. A grandad who gets an unfortunate tattoo? Then I think about telling it from a different perspective. What does the tattoo fixer think about the grandad? What does his granddaughter feel about it all?
Crap TV is a great way to unwind at the end of the day, and let’s face it, we all need some time when we switch off our brains and just wallow in other people’s problems and silliness. But if you get caught binge-watching Botched, you know what to say. “Oh this, it’s research. For my writing, don’t you know.”
Time for you to fess up. Let me know in the comments below which TV shows you’re strangely addicted to, and whether they’ve inspired a story.
Happy writing and watching,
When we think of writer's block, we tend to think of the obvious manifestations of it: all out of ideas; not knowing what to write; feeling the muse has deserted us. It can also present itself as procrastination - anything is more interesting and compelling than writing the next scene, even doing the ironing or putting our socks into alphabetical order. And these other tasks can seem urgent - they must be done now and we can't concentrate on writing until they're complete.
Then there's perfectionism: wanting to write something perfectly first time round, and unable even to start writing as we're convinced that:
1. It won't be perfect first time round (correct - it never is, and actually shouldn't be perfect. The first draft is all about discovering the story you want to tell) and
2. Rewriting and making it perfect is a sign of failure (incorrect - writing is 90% rewriting).
And then there are the blocks that don't look like blocks. Writer's block in disguise. These can be tricky ones to spot, because they seem to have nothing to do with writing at all, but their function is the same - to stop you writing. And, like all writer's block, the reason they need to stop you writing us because deep down you're afraid. Of failure, of success, of writing something that's rubbish or shocking or that reveals who you truly are at heart.
Let's have a look at some of the ways writer's block comes in disguise, and what you can do to address it.
We all live busy lives, and tiredness seems to be a feature of modern life. When tiredness is writer's block in disguise, it shows up at times you've set aside for writing. Up till that point you're bright eyed and bushy tailed, then the moment you think about writing, you slump. This can be the case particularly if you're trying to establish a writing routine. You've decided you want to write for half an hour each day, and have marked out clear spaces in your day to accomplish this, but whenever it's time to write, you feel worn out.
The reason you suddenly feel tired at these times is because humans are naturally wary of change. Setting up a new writing routine, like establishing any new habit, is a change, and subconsciously you rebel. Sometimes the rebellion takes the form of tiredness. Your mind regards change as unwelcome, so sets about finding a way to prevent it.
To overcome this block in disguise, try this technique. Use tiredness to overcome perfectionism. Accept that you feel tired, and decide that you'll write anyway, but because you feel tired, any words at all class as a victory. This means that you're free to write absolute rubbish and that's OK - you're doing the best you can despite feeling tired. It's very likely that once you start writing, your energy levels will rise and the writing will get easier.
2. Being a little bit poorly
I'm not talking about having the flu or a stomach bug here, but that niggly not-very-well feeling when you think you might be about to get a headache, or might be about to come down with a cold, or are just not feeling 100%. Like tiredness, this is also resistance to change. Perfectionism can rear its unhelpful head, too, as being a little bit poorly makes it unlikely that you'll turn out a perfect first draft.
Overcome this by firstly checking that you're really only a 'little bit poorly'. Are you still able to go to work, look after the kids, go for a walk or read a book? If so, this might well be writer's block in disguise. Like tiredness, you might find that once you start writing you experience a miraculous recovery. Actually, writing can help you to feel better if you're ill. I write when I can feel a migraine brewing - it often helps.
But how to start writing when you're feeling poorly? The trick to use is 'just ten words'. Commit to writing just 10 words. They have to form a coherent sentence, you can't just write 'blah blah' ten times. If you haven't spontaneously combusted after 10 words, commit to writing 10 more. Keep going in this way for 5 minutes. If you've hated every single second of those 5 minutes, stop writing. If you're feeling a little more settled, write in the same way, 10 words at a time, for another 5 minutes.
3. Other people
This is a sneaky disguise because it appears that the block is completely outside your control. It manifests in this way: you've set aside some precious time to dedicate to your writing, but then a friend rings you up, having a minor crisis such as needing someone to pick up her kids while she waits in for the boiler repair man, or she's had a bad day at work and can you come over for a chat?
You've got a choice here: to yourself and your writing, or to your friend. Depending on the crisis, you might decide your friend needs you and ditch your writing to go and help her. Sometimes this is unavoidable. In these cases, reschedule your writing date immediately.
But sometimes the 'crisis' isn't urgent. It doesn't have to be dealt with right now, and if you were ill or on holiday your friend would cope. You have the option to say, 'Sorry, I'm not free right now' and get on with the writing session you had planned. The question is, are you a bit relieved by your friend's cry for help, because it gives you a valid excuse for missing your writing session? If so, this is a block in disguise. It's a block, because it's stopping you from writing.
Overcome this by learning to say no. It's a lot easier to say no if you've made an appointment with yourself in your diary and have committed to it. If you find it hard to say no, ask yourself if the appointment was a hot date, would you be so willing to forgo it?
When you've said no, approach your writing session by using the 'just 10 words' technique, as there's a good chance you'll be squirming with guilt for daring to put yourself and your needs first, and that can make concentration difficult.
Writer's block can be sneaky and manifest in ways that seem to bear no relation to your writing. How does your writer's block come in disguise? Tell me about it in the comments below.
Wishing you happy and block-free writing!
Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of words in your life?
Think about it. You probably start the day by checking your phone for messages and emails, and maybe you'll also have a look at social media, just to find out what's going on and what you've missed while you've been asleep. Then you might go onto a news website and catch up on the headlines.
Next it's off to work. Reports to read, reports to write, emails to read and respond to. PowerPoint presentations. Staff appraisals. On and on those words go. And lunchtime is probably spent on your phone or tablet surfing social media.
Back home and there's more social media, and then you get to write your own stuff - the novel or poem or short story you're working on. A whole day full of words.
It struck me recently how full of words my life has become, and I've added to the volume of words by returning to study. Lots of books to read, seminars to prepare for, and lots of essays to write. Don't get me wrong - I love words. Words are my bread and butter. But sometimes, you can have too much of a good thing.
So at New Year I decided that instead of writing a list of everything I wanted to do, be and have this year, I'd cut pictures out of magazines and make a collage in my bullet journal. Not only was it fun to play around with scissors and glue, and deciding on the arrangement of the pictures, but seeing the pictures gave me a much more powerful emotional attachment to what I want from this year.
It's said a picture paints a thousand words, and that's true, but it also creates an emotional response. You can write out what you want and why you want it, but making a picture of it so that you can spend time gazing at it and reconnecting with those emotions, is a powerful way to remind yourself of what it is you want in your life, and what's important to you.
Writer’s block – that feeling of being so stuck and uninspired that doing anything else, even the ironing, seems more appealing than trying to write – can be caused by many things, and sometimes the cause is that you’re writing the wrong thing.
What do I mean by the ‘wrong thing’? It could be a project that’s simply unachievable considering your current lifestyle and circumstances; it could be writing something in the wrong form or genre; or it could be a project that’s quite simply lost its gloss. Clues that you might be writing the wrong thing include:
• A sinking feeling every time you think about it
• You’ve been working on it, off and on, for a period of years, and the end seems as far away as the moon
• If it suddenly vanished, you’d feel relieved
• Your characters aren’t talking to you
You might start out writing something that was the right thing at that time, but over time, it can become wrong for you. This can happen if this is your first large writing project, and you haven’t been able to commit to a regular writing schedule. Over the months and years, you pick it up, do a bit, and then put it aside again. And the longer this goes on, the more stale it becomes in your mind, and the more likely you are to have had a new, fresh idea that’s much more appealing.
When this happens (and it’s happened to most writers, believe me), it’s tempting to say, “I’ll finish this and then write the new idea.” But we’re not talking about having to eat your vegetables before you get your pudding, here. It’s your writing and you can write whatever makes your heart sing. It’s fine to leave the first project for a while, or even abandon it altogether, while you pour your energy and enthusiasm into your new project. The benefit of doing this is you are more likely to get into a regular writing practice if you’re writing something you love, and this can then be used to complete the original project, if you decide to go back to it later.
Sometimes, the idea you have doesn’t fit the way you choose to express it. You might have a great idea and instantly decide it should be a novel. Hold your horses! At the planning and exploration stage, it pays to spend some time thinking about how the idea would develop in different genres or in different forms. How would it work as a play? As a short story? As a narrative poem? Make sure the form and genre you choose are the right ones for the ideas you want to express.
If you’re stuck and a writing project is getting you down, put it aside and ask yourself these questions:
• If I lost it, how would I feel?
• If I wasn’t writing this, what would I be doing?
• What if this idea was written as a play/song/sketch/poem/short story?
Have courage, and make the changes your writing needs to get back on track – you won’t regret it when you’re happily scribbling away on a project that thrills you.
Many years ago, I read an article about the joys and perils of writing groups. I can’t remember the name of the author, or where I saw the article, but it has stayed with me, because it illustrated its point using a story.
It goes something like this. A writers’ group met every week; each week they were given a theme to write about, then they brought their work for comment and critique to the next session. One week they were given the theme of ‘a chair’. They all wrote a story about a chair and read their work aloud at the next meeting. All but one of the participants wrote a story about a rocking chair on a porch: stories that were sentimental and twee. One person wrote about the electric chair, and the story was full of compassion and redemption. The other members of the group turned on the author and castigated him for writing about such a horrible topic, but it was the electric chair story that went on to be published, not the rocking chair stories.
This anecdote was told to warn people that writing groups can have their downsides, but to me it has two further messages for writers:
• Stick to your guns
• Be different
There are many writing competitions that ask for submissions on a theme. How do you avoid the twee and hackneyed (the rocking chair) and find the original and bold (the electric chair)?
Write then Discard
Firstly, write down everything that comes to mind when you think of the theme. Chuck away all your first ideas, as they will be the obvious connections and the ones that the majority of people will write about.
Keep on brainstorming, looking at the theme from different angles, asking questions, and turning the obvious on its head. Keep going until you’re out of ideas.
Quieten the Chatter
If you find it difficult to do this, it could be that your conscious mind (the bit that’s coming up with easy, obvious ideas) is holding sway and needs to be quietened down so your subconscious can come up with more tangential ideas. There are a few ways to let your subconscious come forward:
• Sleep. This technique was used by Milton to write Paradise Lost: he would awake in the middle of the night and dictate 30 or 40 lines of poetry to his wife and then go back to sleep again. If you value your marriage, I don’t recommend his technique, but you could set an alarm for 20 minutes in the afternoon and have a catnap. Start writing the moment you wake up, before the conscious mind has time to interfere.
• Meditation. This isn’t about thinking about nothing, but about quieting your mind so you can calmly watch your thoughts and let them go. Even simply sitting still and counting your breaths will help to numb the chatter.
• Doing stuff with a rhythm such as walking, swimming, cooking or sewing. These activities provide a space where your subconscious can do its thing and push original ideas to the front of your mind.
Go For It!
Once you’ve quietened your conscious, brainstorm as many ideas as you can, digging deeper into the theme until you find an angle that makes you stop and think, “Hey!” Explore that idea from different angles, playing with character, voice and setting, until you get a fizzy, excited feeling and the urge to start writing. That’s your story.
Once you’ve written the story, check that it still reflects the theme. Stories can go off in directions of their own sometimes. If you don’t think you’ve captured the theme adequately, simply send the story to an open competition and have another go at the theme.
Judges often comment that story entries are very dark, and that few humorous stories are entered in competitions. If you can write humour, your story will stand out from the pack. And if you can dig a story out of everyday situations, even better. It’s tempting to throw yourself at the big themes (cancer, miscarriage, death, war), but these get repeated time and again, so find the story in something ordinary and make it extraordinary.
How To Do It
Here’s an example of how I might tackle a short story on the theme of ‘death’.
My first thoughts would turn to the hackneyed and (dare I say it?) done to death: cancer, suicide, World War I. After that it might be widowhood, murder or euthanasia. Notice that these are all ‘big’ themes, and over-represented in competition entries. So digging a bit deeper, I might think about the people who deal with death every day: undertakers, morticians, florists, stone masons, and nurses. And does the death have to be of a person? What about the death of a pet? What about pet cemeteries or taxidermists? Could it be about the death of a language or a way of life?
How would humour work in a story about death? Again, try to avoid the obvious and the temptation to make it blackly humorous, and explore instead if there is a way to tell the story with gentle humour and compassion.
A unique slant on a given theme, told in a compelling and original way – that’s the ‘electric chair’ way of storytelling. Give it a go and let me know how you get on.
Kim Fleet lives and works in Cheltenham. Her two cats help the creative process by standing on the delete key.