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?
Writing always evolves as it progresses: characters change eye and hair colour; names change; subplots develop; you decide the whole thing belongs in a different time period or setting. It’s tempting when you realise something needs to change to go back and correct it from the beginning of your manuscript: that way you can progress knowing that all is in order. However, there are a few problems with this approach:
1. It takes longer to nail down a first draft
A first draft has lots of energy as it’s the draft where you’re discovering the story as you write, and that gives it momentum. If you go back to correct whilst writing the first draft, it’s easy to lose that sense of excitement and the energy in your writing will fade.
2. You get fed up
If you constantly go back and edit things whilst writing the first draft, you can easily start to feel bored. This is because you’re going over the same material time and time again. If you feel bored, it’s very hard to crank out that first draft – writing becomes a chore, not a pleasure.
3. You’ll probably change your mind again
When you write a long piece, such as a novel, there are hundreds of strands you need to keep track of and ultimately tie together into a satisfying story. Change one bit, and you have to change other bits. Then if you decide actually your first idea was better, you have to go back and change it all back again. This all takes time, it’s tedious, and you’re more likely to lose patience with the whole thing and give up.
Here’s a technique that I use in my own writing which ensures I get the first draft written quickly, I keep track of all the changes I need to make, and without spending precious time going back and editing. I use a technique called writing ‘as if’. It works like this. Imagine I’m writing a novel about someone called Dora who lives in 1900. Part way through writing, I think it would be more fun if she was called Edna and lived in 1920. Obviously, I can do a ‘find and replace’ for the name change, but there are huge implications for the story in changing the time setting. Instead of going back and making all the necessary changes, I simply type in capital letters across the page:
FROM THIS POINT ON DORA = EDNA
FROM THIS POINT ON SET IN 1920
To make it stand out all the more, I often make the font larger, and colour the text in red. I then carry on writing AS IF I have gone back and made the changes. In other words, I write the rest of the piece with the character called Edna, and set in 1920, with all the implications associated with that change. I also make a note in a notebook I keep for editing purposes, describing the changes I’ve made and jotting down what I’ll need to attend to when I come to rewrite.
It means that I can keep on writing without having to stop, go back, and make changes, and it means I know where to focus when it comes to the rewrite: tackling all those notes made in my editing notebook. If I then change my mind again later on, I simply write:
FROM THIS POINT ON SET IN FRANCE
make a note in my notebook, and keep on writing, as if I’ve gone back and made the changes.
I’ve found this technique helps me to keep writing without feeling bogged down, and without worrying that I’ll miss something. By jotting all the changes down, I keep my mind clear for writing, instead of trying to hold all the changes in my head. It makes both the first draft and subsequent rewrites much smoother and faster.
Try it, and let me know how you get on!
I’ve talked before about the importance of having a routine to your writing: a set time of day when you write, writing in the same place, and writing in the same way, all of which serve to invoke muscle memory and get you into your writing session more quickly. Writing rituals are a way of reinforcing your writing routine, but they also act on your emotions and can help you to overcome writers’ block.
Writing rituals include anything you do when you’re writing that don’t relate to the writing itself. Rituals could be lighting a scented candle, the clothes you wear, music you play in the background, what you drink while you’re writing. For example, I like to put some scented oil in a burner, have the radio on low in the background, and make a cup of coffee in my special mug, and use the fountain pen my grandmother bought me, when I’m writing. I know of another writer who paints her nails bright colours. Others wear business clothes; some do their hair and makeup; some have a lovely china teapot that only gets used when they’re writing.
Having a writing ritual helps to remind your brain that it’s writing time now so better come up with something to write about. They also remind you that you don’t need to ask anyone’s permission to write. Writers commonly suffer from anxiety about their writing: am I good enough, what if my writing’s rubbish, who am I to try to write? Writing rituals can send a powerful message that you’re worth it – worth the posh cup and saucer and the handmade biscuits; worth the makeup that makes you feel a million dollars – and worth the time and effort you’re putting into your writing.
It’s very easy for writers to put off writing: to get time and space for writing often means negotiating with others and insisting that your needs are just as valid as others’. It’s hard to do that if you have nothing to show people yet, especially if you’re feeling a little uncertain about your work. Small yet frequent acts of self care can help to combat that uncertainty and give you the confidence to stand up for your writing. Whatever makes you feel pampered or special will do it, whether it’s using the best cup or putting on a slick of red lipstick before you start writing.
These small habits are reminders to yourself that you deserve this time and space for writing, and help to transform writing time from a chore into a treat. It’s easy to see writing time as work – there’s a natural anxiety about whether the words will come at all, and if they do whether any of them will be useable. But if you set up the session with a series of rituals that nurture you, the session is less fraught from the start and becomes less about the words per se and more about you nurturing a need within yourself.
To me, the best rituals work on different senses: the lingering fragrance of a scented candle reminds you throughout the day how you’re moving forwards with your writing and staying committed to it. The flash of brightly coloured fingernails over the keyboard makes the words dance. Music can heighten the mood you’re creating within your writing.
Over the years I’ve known and worked with many writers. Here are some of their writing rituals. If any of them appeal to you, why not adopt them and see what effect it has on your writing?
• Playing music in the background
• Lighting a scented candle
• Painting their fingernails
• Putting on makeup
• Wearing their favourite clothes
• Flowers on their desk
• Using a special cup and saucer
• Making a ‘proper’ cup of coffee
• Making tea in a china teapot
• Drinking a delicious blend of herbal tea
• Sitting in the chair that has the view of the garden
• Eating a posh biscuit
• Doing yoga before writing
I’d love to know about your writing rituals. Tell me about them in the comments below.
I’ve often mentioned that I record how many words I write each day. This might sound obsessive and nerdy, but when I’m writing a novel, it helps me to work out when it’s likely to be finished, and how well it’s flowing. If I hit a patch when my word totals are low for a few days, it suggests that section of the book is gloopy and needs an exciting subplot, some scenes cutting altogether, or more work on getting to know my characters. Tracking my word scores lets me know quickly when my writing is out of kilter, and that means I can act quickly to correct it.
I also get to see what an average day’s writing looks like for me, so I can set goals and targets based on it. I can tell my agent I’ll have a first draft done by Christmas because I can easily work out what’s achievable based on my normal work rate.
Tracking my words also sets up a nice little bit of competition with myself, and spurs me on to do better. If I can see that I normally write 1200 words in a session, I challenge myself to write 1300 each day. It also encourages me to write every single day as it's difficult to say 'I'll do it tomorrow' if that would mean a gap in an otherwise perfect record. Setting word goals also helps me get momentum going when I start a project, for example in the early days of a new novel when I’m not exactly sure what the story is, and I’m writing my way into it.
Measuring my progress towards a goal helps me to see where other factors are affecting me. If I put a gold star on the calendar for every day I hit my word goal, it's easy to notice if Mondays (or Wednesdays, or Sundays) are the days I miss. Then I can ask what it is about Mondays (or Wednesdays ... you get the idea) that interrupts my writing, and means I can do something about it.
How can you make every word count?
1. Set Clear Goals
Set clear writing goals that are achievable, but which will stretch you a little; something like: I will write 500 words a day, every day, for a month. Or 'I will write and submit two short stories to X and Y competitions before Christmas'. A wishy washy goal like 'I'll try to do a bit of writing' is unsatisfactory because you won't know when you've achieved it. Plus, it's not challenging enough to stretch you.
Write your goal on a post-it note and put it where you will see it every day. Using the Sticky Notes feature on your laptop - which puts a post-it on your Windows desktop screen - is a good, quick way to do this. You can also add sticky notes with quotations to encourage you.
2. Keep it SimpleUse a simple system to record your progress. If your goal is to send out two stories a month, then you could use an excel spreadsheet or index cards to record which story was sent where, when. This will also help you keep track of submissions and resubmissions so you don't accidentally send the same story out simultaneously.
If your goal is to write 500 words a day, you could enter your daily total in your diary or in a spreadsheet. A gold star on the calendar, marking every day you write your journal, for example, is a visible reminder of what you're aiming to achieve and can encourage you even when you're feeling flat.
3. Review your Progress and adjust accordingly
If your target was 500 words a day, and you routinely achieve that, increase your target to 600 words a day. This will stretch you, but it's not as daunting as upping the target to 1000 words a day. Get to the 1000 words a day target incrementally, by making sure you hit 500 words a day, then 600, before increasing it to 700, 800, and so on until you reach your target.
If you often miss your targets, revise them. Perhaps you've set a target to write on 6 days a week but you normally only manage to write 3 times a week - reset your target to writing 3 times a week. It's better to build up your writing stamina slowly and feel pleased with your progress than to beat yourself up each week for missing your target. Review your progress after a month, and increase your target if it's realistic and achievable for you to do so.
4. Celebrate Milestones
Plan what you will do to celebrate when you hit your target and write it on your post-it notes to encourage you. Good celebrations for writers include: listening to music, reading a favourite short story, visiting an art gallery, putting flowers on your desk, or buying a new notebook.
If you’ve read Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way, you’ll be familiar with the idea of Morning Pages. Briefly, she recommends that all artists start the day by writing three full pages of a journal. The writing must be done without stopping to think, without criticising what you’re writing, and if you can’t think what to write, you write ‘I can’t think what to write’ over and over again until your brain jumps the tracks and finds something to say. Many people swear by Morning Pages, particularly if they’re having a tough time, as the writing enables you to let go and release everything that’s worrying you. It clears the pipes ready for the day ahead. Some writers report that they spend months writing drivel about the minutiae of their day until one glorious morning a character steps onto the page and enchants them.
I’ve tried morning pages on various occasions, and tend to return to them if I’m feeling unsettled or uncertain. When I write them, they’re more moaning pages than morning pages. For me, they don’t result in characters tripping blithely onto the page, but they help me to understand and release the stuff that’s holding me back or keeping me stuck. When I have a bee in my bonnet about something, I use the moaning pages to whinge on about it, digging into layer after layer of gripes, hurts, and frustrations until I’m so sick of writing about it I say, “Enough!” and let go. For me, moaning/ morning pages are a way to work out what I want to do, how I want things to be, and how to get there.
Morning pages are great discipline – you must fill three pages a day, every day. The routine preps your brain that it’s writing time and creates a writing routine. It’s not meant to result in publishable prose, though you may come up with an idea that you later rework. In fact, Cameron recommends that you don’t look back at what you’ve written for several months. When you do, you may be surprised. The pages offer a window into your subconscious – they show you your obsessions, your dreams, and what’s holding you back.
When I want to find a new character or a new story, I don’t use morning pages, I use free writing. The techniques are similar – you write for a set period of time, or decide to cover a certain number of pages, you write without stopping, and if you get stuck you repeat the last few words over and over until something new comes to mind. I use free writing most days as a warm up. They’re the equivalent of practising scales or jogging round a running track – giving my creativity a bit of a work out. When I look back over my writing, I see themes appearing, images and ideas that attract and intrigue me. Ideas that I then go on to explore in fiction.
Do you use morning pages, and if so, are they for creativity or for getting the gripes out of your system, or both? I’d love to know what works for you. Tell me about it in the comments below.
A year ago, my writing buddy died. He was my cat, Wimsey. I’d had him for over 14 years. This post isn’t going to be filled with sentimental reminiscences or cute cat stories, though there will be a few of those; more, it’s going to consider what happens to your writing when you experience trauma, loss or serious illness.
But to start, how can a cat be a writing buddy? Like this. If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you’ll know that I write first drafts in the same way that I’ve written since I was a child: sitting up on my bed, writing longhand in a notebook. Wimsey would curl up beside me on the bed, sometimes batting at my pen as it moved, occasionally knocking a hardboiled sweet around the skirting boards for my entertainment. As I often tell my coaching clients, it helps to think of writing as playing, and having the cat charge about after a boiled sweet certainly stopped me taking myself too seriously. Later, when he was an old, old cat, he’d press himself full length against me, his hot paws on my leg, his head positioned so I could feel his breath on the back of my hand and within easy stroking range.
When I transferred my handwritten draft to the computer, he lay on the floor under the desk with his paws on my foot, or positioned himself on the chaise longue in my study, occasionally emitting gurgling noises to remind me he was there. And as for printing out material ready to send off? I often had to reprint the title page because there was a paw print on it. Quality control, cat style.
Writing is an up and down business, and us writers have a tendency to gloominess, so having someone who’s always thrilled to see you is essential. My husband loves me, but he doesn’t fling himself on the ground and writhe around in pleasure that I’m home (maybe I should speak to him about that?). When everyone hated my story, the cat didn’t care. Equally he wasn’t that fussed when everyone was raving about my latest novel. He helped to smooth it all out.
When he died, I was recovering from whooping cough. It was a serious infection and I was physically very weak and rather depressed. I’d just started writing a new novel - ironically about grief and loss - and Wimsey as usual had been there, assisting with the writing and it was flowing nicely. I keep a spreadsheet with my daily word counts on it, and at the point he died, there’s a month’s break in the writing when I didn’t write a single word. How could I? I didn’t know how to write without him there. It felt wrong. And, frankly, I was so grief-stricken that I couldn’t care less about the wretched novel.
When I coach other writers, I emphasise the importance of routine: writing in the same place, at the same time, with the same writing rituals. It prepares your mind for writing. Now my usual rituals and routine were broken, and I didn’t know what to do. How could I create a new writing routine that would get me through to the end of this new book?
I admit, for a while I considered just jacking it in, but then I realised that this was just another writing challenge in a long line of challenges that I’d overcome over the years, and that were waiting for me in the years to come. Life is littered with setbacks, griefs and disappointments, the trick is to learn how to come bouncing back after them. After a month of not writing, it was time to find my way back. This is what I did.
I had elements of my routine that hadn’t changed: writing longhand, on my bed, with a coffee, and with the TV chuntering in the background. Keeping those bits took me half-way to my usual writing conditions. The problem was he’d left a big hole in my life and my mind kept on saying, ‘This feels weird without him’. I needed to quiet my thoughts so I could write. I did this by taking a few minutes at the start of each writing session to simply focus on my breathing. Just breathing, I could do that. After a few minutes, my mind had stilled, and I set a goal for the writing session ahead – to write the dialogue in a scene, to write a description of a character, to feel excited about what I was writing, to discover a new aspect of a character. Then I wrote.
What I wrote wasn’t as important as the fact that I was writing; I knew I could sort it out afterwards. But setting down words, when I didn’t really want to, when it felt wrong – that was the key thing. I kept a note of my word counts, and the first day I managed 300 words. The next day I did 250. Two days later I wrote over 2200 words in a sitting and it took me just over an hour. After that I kept at a steady 1200-1500 words each sitting, written in around an hour.
Yes, it was painful, and it was also fascinating. Grief has a strange energy to it. It’s strong and furious and overwhelming, and it’s not constant. It came in waves that I could feel building. I watched as it crashed over me and bashed me about, then watched it recede. I couldn’t write about it, though. My grief-stricken characters had to wait for the editing process to have their emotions properly attended to.
Is it still difficult to write without my writing buddy? Yes, but then it’s still odd to do my Pilates exercises each morning without him licking my eyebrows, and it’s weird doing the gardening without him filling in the holes the moment I’ve dug them. Life is constantly changing. Us writers, us stuck-in-the-mud, wedded-to-routine scribblers, aren’t immune to it, and the ability to be flexible, to find a new way, is ultimately our strength. Over a lifetime of writing, we’ll all come up against obstacles – ill health, looking after family, changes to jobs and homes, changing what and how we want to write. Raging against it all won’t help; we need to find gentler, more nurturing ways to get back to writing. Sometimes that means tweaking what we already have; sometimes it means being brave enough to create a whole new approach to our writing.
And now over to you. Have you overcome challenges to keep on writing? Tell me what you did and what worked best for you in the comments below.
Kim Fleet lives and works in Cheltenham. Her two cats help the creative process by standing on the delete key.