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.
Does this ever happen to you? You have a great idea for a story, and spend some time mulling it over, getting excited, maybe jotting down some notes or a structure. Just as you’re ready to start writing, a little voice in your head says, “Who do you think you are to write this?” And suddenly you’re all flat and worried, and can think of a hundred people who would do justice to the story better than you.
Hot on the heels of the little voice comes another. “What will people say if you write this? You’ll make a mess of it. You’ll look an idiot in front of the whole world.” The little voice is something of a catastrophist. Suddenly all your enthusiasm for your idea has gone. Even if you were only thinking about writing the story for your own amusement, now all you can think about is other people wondering who the heck you think you are to even contemplate writing this story. You’re an imposter.
Imposter syndrome is extremely common: that feeling that you’re not qualified enough, skilled enough, experienced enough to do something, and that horrible fear that you’re going to get found out. It’s that squirmy sensation you get when you apply for a job that’s a grade above where you are now: when you get the job, you’ll be well and truly out of your comfort zone. The same thing happens when you write, and the bad news is it never goes away. I recently interviewed a number of high profile, prize-winning, best-selling writers and all of them initially told me they weren’t experienced or good enough to contribute. No matter where you are in your writing career, imposter syndrome will be lurking.
The good news is you can do something about it.
1. Recognise that it happens when you’re about to leave your comfort zone. Yes, this is scary, but it’s necessary if you’re to develop your skills and grow as a writer. Concentrate on why you’re doing this, and know that the feeling of discomfort will be worth it when you achieve your goal.
2. Write a list of all your achievements, not just to do with writing, but everything you’ve achieved in your life. How many times have you felt uncertain, unprepared, not good enough? Remember the uncertainty of starting university, your first job, having your first child. You got through it then, and you’ll get through it now.
3. Remember that this is your story and your idea, not anyone else’s and therefore it’s yours to write. If you were to hand it to another writer, they wouldn’t produce your story only better, they’d produce their story roughly based on your idea.
4. Write out the worst than can happen and go totally overboard: people hate your story, you’re hounded out of your home and forced to live on Mars to escape from their fury, then you contract a terrible Martian illness that makes you turn purple. Make this so outlandish you start to laugh. This helps you to realise that if (note IF), someone doesn’t like what you’ve written, you’ll survive.
Your mind likes certainty. It likes to know that it can deal with situations, and stretching yourself means stepping into the unknown. The mind doesn’t know if you can deal with that new situation, so it tries to dissuade you from what it perceives as a potentially dangerous situation by triggering imposter syndrome. It’s trying to be helpful, but it also keeps you small. Recognise that the appearance of imposter syndrome means that you’re about to take your writing to another level, and welcome it. It’s showing you that you’re on the right track. Then take that step.
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.
Book launches – are they all literary conversation and erudite jokes, or a booze-up with books? Based on my own experiences of launching Paternoster and Holy Blood, here’s a tongue in cheek account of what really happens behind the scenes.
1. It’s like a wedding
Like a wedding, you spend the whole event saying, ‘Hello, how are you? Thank you for coming’ to people, before having to dash off to have your photo taken, greet new arrivals, shake hands with the man from the newspaper, and sign books. After the event, you spend a week emailing everyone who came, thanking them for coming, and apologising that you didn’t get to speak to them for very long. Also like a wedding, you spend the whole time being hugged and congratulated by people you’ve never met before and have no idea who they are.
2. Your biggest fan will wax lyrical about your work, but only when your publisher is out of earshot
I love it when people tell me they’ve read my work, and love it even more if they tell me they liked what they read! It’s always a real thrill to have people come up to me at events and say lovely things like, ‘I’ve been waiting for your new book for ages. I’ve been looking forward to this.’ It’s incredibly kind of people and I’m always immensely touched. I just wish they’d say it – loudly – in front of my publishers instead of whispering it to me in the corner.
3. It’s not about you
Have you ever been at a wedding and someone stands up during the reception to announce that they’re pregnant? They hijack the bride and groom’s day and make it all about them. Book launches can have a similar effect on people. It goes like this. I pick up a message from a total stranger, which says, ‘I saw the poster about your book launch and it’s such a funny coincidence because I’ve always thought I could be a writer, too.’ Any other week of the year, I’d write back with encouragement and advice; try to swing off my book launch and make it about you? Nah.
4. It’s all about the catering
When I launched Paternoster, I made the mistake of writing on the invitation ‘Wine and nibbles will be served’. To me, this means ‘A range of beverages and small snacks will be available’ so I was surprised by the deluge of indignant enquiries I received:
‘I can’t drink wine – I’m driving/ breast-feeding/ tee-total – what will I do? By the way, I can’t drink orange juice because my dentist says I’ve got enamel erosion and I can’t have sparkling water because of my IBS and I can’t have anything with sugar in it …’
And then it was ‘What do you mean by ‘nibbles’? Don’t forget I’m gluten free/ dairy intolerant/ only eat organic from named and certified happy vegetables.’
Answering these outraged queries took an inordinate amount of time, so when I launched Holy Blood, I simply put ‘Refreshments will be provided’. This also meant the person who came along, drank five glasses of red wine in quick succession and then left, was discouraged from attending.
5. You will forget your friend’s name
Signing books is a complicated business. First, you have to remember to sign with your special ‘author signing books’ signature and not the one you use on your cheques; and you have to come up with some sort of pithy phrase to make you look open, approachable, witty and intelligent (haven’t found it yet – open to suggestions); and you have to make sure that the ink is dry before you close the book so it doesn’t imprint itself on the opposite page. So it’s hardly surprising, your honour, that after thirty minutes of this I’ve completely forgotten my friend’s name. I look at her, I think ‘I know you. I know I know you, but what the hell are you called?’ So I sign the book with a generic ‘All best wishes’ and pray she won’t ask me to personalise it.
6. You look peculiar in every photo
When I was a teenager, a boy told me I had a dead-pan face. This was very hurtful and I told my mum, who said he was right, I did have a dead-pan face. But looking at the photos from every single talk, workshop or launch I’ve ever given, I think I’ve overcompensated. In every photo, I’m gesticulating wildly and pulling a range of bizarre faces so I look like an understudy for Rowan Atkinson. The only ones where I don’t look demented are, naturally, blurred.
But despite all this, when it’s all over and we’re on the way to the bottle bank with the empties, I think, ‘That was great. Can’t wait for the next one.'
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!
Publication day always catches me out. I see my book advertised for sale, saying it’s available for pre-order, and the date when it’s expected to be published; and I get the emails from my publisher with a rough date when they expect the book to be out, but still I’m never prepared. It’s like getting married: you know the date but it always seems to be weeks away, until you wake up on the morning of the wedding and wonder which shoes you’re going to wear.
This time, I was expecting my latest novel Holy Blood to come out at the beginning of April, and had a schedule prepared for blogs and announcements and invitations to the launch. The publication date is always a little hazy to allow for hold ups with the printer and distributor, so when the doorbell went on Friday afternoon, I genuinely thought it must be someone collecting for charity or wanting to read the meter. I didn’t expect a large and hefty box of books to be thrust into my arms. But it was, and there they were, the copies of Holy Blood I’d ordered months ago when it was accepted for publication.
At least this time I got my copies of my book before my mother. When Paternoster was published, I knew it was coming out in June, and for some reason I thought that meant the end of June, so I went away on holiday. I was staying in a seaside cottage, weirdly called ‘Eden Cottage’ (the name of my protagonist) and along from it was an ‘Aidan Cottage’ (the name of the other major character in the books). Just to add to the weirdness, there was a little ornament hanging up in the cottage with ‘Paternoster’ written across it. The signs were all there. The cottage was only a couple of hours from my mother’s house, so I went to see her for the day. She lives 300 miles away from me, and I don’t get to see her that often. A mere two hours to get to see her was nothing.
I was at my mother’s house when a parcel came for her, and in it were six copies of Paternoster that she’d pre-ordered. She got her copies before I even knew it was published. When I got home at the end of my holiday, my author copies still hadn’t arrived. I had to wait another few days. But Mum got hers, and mightily pleased she was to get hers before me, too.
Anyway, this time it was just me and the cat to open the box and take out the books as carefully as if they were new born lambs, and line them up on the table and admire them.
This is my fourth published book, and I still feel the same sense of disbelief as I did when I held the first one, Sacred Site. It’s a mixture of wonder that the book is finally, actually done and finished and a proper book, the text neatly aligned and the cover all shiny and thrilling. And I can’t quite believe that I’m the one who wrote it. Every time I flick through the pages a bit of text catches my eye and I think ‘Did I write that?’ Sometimes I’ve forgotten how I wrote and crossed out and rewrote and got fed up and walked away and came back and tried again. I forget the bits that made me laugh when I wrote them the first time, and still make me laugh when I read them now. Again there’s that sense of amazement for forgetting them. They seem like someone else’s words, not mine. I don’t know whether that’s because it’s a long time from finishing a book to seeing it published (almost a year for Holy Blood) and I’m so deeply into writing a new book that I’ve dismissed the old one from my mind, or whether the writing was simply channelling, after all. Sometimes it jolly well feels like it.
I think that the thing that makes it all wonderful though, is it that when it's a ‘proper’ book it distances itself from me: the book is an entity all on its own. The umbilical cord that tied it to me has been cut: it’s time for it to make its own way in the world. It’s a strange and amazing feeling, and one I never get used to.
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.
It’s that time of year when the magazine and newspaper supplements are full of things you should do/ should stop doing in order to have ‘your best year yet’. Top of the list is always some sort of detoxing – foods to avoid, foods to eat in abundance, and good health habits to cultivate.
But what about your writing? The start of the year is a good time to review your writing practice, and identify what’s working for you and what could do with tweaking. So how do you detox your writing? Let’s look at how you write, and what you write.
Detox the Way You Write
Take a few deep breaths to clear your mind, and then go to the place where you do the majority of your writing, whether it’s your study, the sofa, or a cubbyhole under the stairs. If you normally write in a coffee shop or library, then imagine the place.
What’s your immediate reaction? If it’s anything other than ‘Oh goody, let’s get writing’, your writing space could do with a detox. How cluttered is it? How sparse? How warm and inviting? Over the past few years, we’ve heard a lot about decluttering – stripping back everything that you don’t absolutely love and have to have in your life, and now the trend has flipped the other way and I’ve noticed a trend towards re-cluttering. But before you rush out to restock on junk, remember that what is sparse to one person is untidy to another. What’s important is what you need to feel comfortable and creative.
Can you easily put your hand on the right notebook, outline or character sketch? If not, rearrange things, discarding and refiling as necessary until everything you need for your writing is close by. This might well be a tidying up exercise, but not necessarily. If you work best with music playing or with a scented candle burning, you might need to move your i-pod dock and candles into your writing space.
My own desk has a scented oil burner, an array of notebooks in bright colours, a mug full of pens, a box of index cards, a light, a radio and a salt lamp on it. Not so bare I feel inhibited, and not so cluttered (for me) that I can’t find what I need. But that’s me – you will have different requirements for your writing, so gather what you need and set up your space so it works for you. If you normally write in a coffee shop and it’s not quite as inspiring as you’d like, shop around trying different places at different times of the day until you find one with the right level of busyness/ peace for you.
Detox What You Write
We all have bad habits when we write. Metaphors and similes that we’re too fond of; words we don’t quite know the meaning of but use anyway; and words we get muddled up. For example, I’m far too fond of describing shock as ‘her heart turned to stone’. The first time it was probably OK, but now I’ve overused it and need to find a better way to describe what shock feels like. I have a bad habit of using ‘like’ instead of ‘as though’ (‘it was like her heart turned to stone’ vs ‘it was as though her heart turned to stone’) and I’m not all that clear on the difference between might and may. But knowing these weaknesses means I take more care when I use them in my writing, and (hopefully!) get them right.
Look at your own writing and seek out your bad habits. Do you use visible words when writing dialogue? For example, instead of simply using ‘he said’, do you tend to write, ‘he bellowed/ cried/ screamed/ expostulated’?
Not sure about the difference between effect and affect, or between perspicacious or perspicacity? Continual and continuous? Knowing that you have a blind spot when it comes to these words is helpful, because you’ll know to double check every time you use them.
Editors, agents and publishers will point them out, or you can ask a trusted friend to read your work and highlight your writing bad habits.
It can be hard to spot bad habits in your own writing, but here are a few tips:
1. Change the font and font size before re-reading and editing your piece. This shifts the line breaks and makes the writing appear ‘new’ to your eyes, meaning you’re more likely to spot mistakes.
2. Change the size of the viewing pane – if you normally write and edit with the screen at 100%, change it to 150%.
3. Read your piece from the bottom up – this takes away the meaning and flow of the piece and means you can concentrate on the actual words.
With your writing space optimised for happy writing, and an awareness of where you need to adjust what you write, you’ve set yourself up nicely for a year of productive writing.
Happy detoxing and writing!
All the best,
Kim Fleet lives and works in Cheltenham. Her two cats help the creative process by standing on the delete key.