Category Archives: Writing Every Day

Back to Basics: The Writing Exercise

I’ve pretty much lost two months of creativity this year so far, and I’m keen to get back on the horse, so to speak.  Part of that involves getting back to basics.  And one of the best ways to do that if you are a writer is through the Writing Exercise.

You will need:

A timer

A notebook

A pen

A space where you will not be interrupted.

Fifteen minutes every day.

Yes, I know that the last one can be difficult, but you can manage it.

Look at the list again.  See how cheap those items are?  And yet it’s such a huge payoff for a very tiny investment.  If you don’t have a timer on your phone, you probably have one in the kitchen. The notebook and the pen can be as rudimentary as you like, just so long as you can write quickly and easily without thinking too much about how the tools feel in your hand.  You don’t want writer’s cramp, after all.  Your tools should be transparent.  You don’t want to be thinking about them.  You need to focus all your mind on the story that is finding its way out of your head and onto the page.

There is one more thing you need.

A prompt.

There are loads of them about.  You can make up your own.  You can get a friend to send you a prompt, like a writing dare, every day by email or text message.  You can use a book – I’m using Judy Reeves’ wonderful book, ‘The Writers Book of Days’ at the moment.  Or you can find lots of websites online that will give you prompts.

Don’t think too much about it, whatever your prompt is.  Just take it as a starting point, write it at the top of your page, then set your timer for fifteen minutes and let your brain make hay!

I’ve decided to give myself an extra rule, though.  I was considering the weaknesses in my work and I realised that I have a real problem writing three-dimensional female characters.  All my stories are full of fascinating, psychologically complex men and paper-doll women.  This is a bit worrying as a female writer.

So I have decided for the whole of March that I am going to do a writing exercise every day, and I am only going to write about female characters.

Merciless practise.

Let me tell you, it’s already working, three days in.  I have already created a female character that I absolutely love and want to come back to.  But I am determined to go on.  Like a ballet dancer working at the barre, or a concert pianist doing scales, I am going to practise and practise until I feel I am really making some progress.  And then I’m going to practise some more.

It’s the Habit of Art.  And it feels great.

I am doing writing exercises every day for the whole of March.  Fifteen minutes a day.  No neat handwriting, no fancy notebooks, just a cheap pen, an exercise book and my timer.

Why not join me?

(You can read more about writing exercises here.)

Happy creating,

EF

Inspiration Monday: Commuting

I’ve written already about the wisdom of walking for the creative life.

No reason why I shouldn’t repeat myself, of course.  Especially now we are in a new year, with new Intentions and new opportunities.  I have promised myself I will walk more this year.  Sometimes, this is not an easy promise to fulfil.  There are appointments to be met, after all; there is the filthy English weather (and believe me, filthy is what it is at present), and then there are my physical limitations.

Yet, in spite of the mud and the commitments and my low energy levels, I am trying to get out most days.

And there are so many things to see.  Some of the best walks I’ve ever had have been the repetitive ones to and from work, or school, the continual plodding on the pavements that sets up a meditative rhythm.  This time of year, walking home in twilight is especially evocative.  Not only can you see into other people’s houses as you pass, because many people don’t draw their curtains too early, but the landscape changes when industrial lights are switched on.

As a teenager, my walk home from our nearest bus stop was a route that skirted fields and woods.  Behind those woods, though, lay a huge industrial area, lit by massive floodlights in the dark hours.  The entire night sky glowed with this statement of manmade power over the environment.  To me, it looked uncannily like one of those landing pads on strange planets from the Star Wars films, and it fuelled my imagination continually.

Walking is not the only way to travel home from work, of course.  Sitting on a bus is great for inspiration too.  You can see so much more from the height of a bus seat, and not just into people’s windows, and thus into little vignettes of their lives.  Tableaux of office workers frozen in time as you pass their workplaces will catch your eye: someone handing over a file as the recipient reaches out to take it over a low  desk partition;  a group of besuited workers sitting around a conference table working out details of a deal; a pile of files teetering in an in-tray.  What are they talking about, these people who are so busy?  Whose lives will be changed by the outcome of that meeting, for better or worse?  What details, sinister or otherwise, are contained in those files – the potential for a fraud conviction, or the much-cherished hope of an adopted baby?

On a train, disparate people gather together and ignore one another.  They listen to hissing music on iPods and phones, tap at laptops or iPads, read books and newspapers, stare out of the window or fall asleep.  Each one has a story.  Can you be Sherlock Holmes and deduce their tale?

Viriginia Woolf, my heroine of writers, snatched up just such an opportunity in her short story, ‘An Unwritten Novel’, in which the narrator sits on a train and tries to guess the tale of a woman sitting in her compartment.  If you have never read it, I enthusiastically recommend it, not only as an example of how you can take a moment from your everyday life and make a work of art from it, but also for its fine stream-of-consciousness style and its sheer wit.  People’s occupations on trains may have changed since it was written, but the way we react to them, I should hazard, probably has not.

Creative Exercise:

How do you travel to your daily occupation?  Do you take the bus, train or Tube?  Do you cycle or walk?  Whichever you do, you may view it as a necessary evil, a time to catch up on your email, or some extra sleep.

What about reframing that view?

What if your daily commute to work, college or school became a special time set aside for creativity?

You could take a sketchbook and a biro and draw portraits of your fellow commuters.  This might develop into a whole series of painted portraits that depict your daily travels and those who accompany you on your journey.

You could compose a story about them in your head, and use it as the basis of a short story or novel, as Woolf did.

You could even go all ‘Brief Encounter’ and come up with a passionate love story between two of your fellow travellers!

(Probably best not to do this so much if you drive.  A vehicle is a life-threatening weapon, so you need to be alert and aware when you are in charge of it.  But maybe at traffic lights, you could look into other people’s cars and see what they are up to – applying mascara, fiddling with the radio, texting or picking their noses!)

What do you see as you travel?  What landscapes or buildings do you pass?  What could be going on inside that floodlit brick bunker that looks like a government establishment?  What story is being lived out on each floor of that block of flats you stomp past every morning? (I recommend Alaa Al Aswany’s superb novel, The Yakoubian Building’, for an example of this.)

Take your writers notebook and make notes of the ideas that come to you.  Make this time a time for your imagination to be unleashed.  Make a chore, a daily misery, into the highlight of your working life.

Happy creating,

EF

A Letter to Darla’s Daughter about Fanfiction

Dear Darla’s daughter,

I’m really sorry, but when your mom left a comment on my website, she didn’t tell me what your name was, so I’ll have to hope you don’t mind my being a bit general.

Anyway, she said that you are 12 years old and that you like writing fanfiction, like me.  She also mentioned that she is trying to get you to start creating characters of your own, something you and I also have in common, because I am trying to do that too.  She believes this is important, and so do I, and I wanted to tell you why.

First, though, I want to say Yay for you!  You’re writing, and that is fantastic!

Writing, as I am sure you have found out for yourself, is great fun, some of the best fun, in fact, that it is possible to have.  And fanfiction?  Well, doing that just makes it even better.  You take other peoples characters and send them out into the world of your imagination.  You can make them do whatever you like, get them into all sorts of trouble, and get them out, have endless adventures with them – what’s not to like?  And then there’s the other thing about it.  You get to act out all your crushes on the gorgeous actors and pop stars that you like.  Yes, don’t blush, we all do it!

I was writing fanfiction at your age, although I was writing about actors and shows you have never heard of, and probably never will, and fanfiction didn’t even have a name back then!  It was something you did by the light of a torch under the blankets at night and didn’t tell your friends about.  A fantasy life all your own.  It was something embarrassing you did in private, like picking your nose!

Now it’s a recognised genre, although there is still a lot of snobbery about it, like there still is about all kinds of genre fiction, like crime and romance.  (Usually the people who criticize it are not writers themselves, though, so feel free to completely ignore their opinions because they invariably don’t know what they are talking about!)  Today, people recognise that most of the great writers have written fanfiction at some point, and popular and literary novelists are being paid to write fanfiction novels for the legitimate market.

Fanfiction is a great thing to do, too, because it allows you to practise, to test out your writing skills and grow them.  The more you write, the better you get, and if you are enthusiastic about the characters, you will write more.  You get to experiment in ways you just can’t with other types of writing.  And if you share your work online, there is a whole world of other writers willing to help, advise and support you as you learn.  So don’t ever let anyone tell you it is wrong to write fanfiction, or that its not ‘real’ writing, because it is.

But here is the thing:  using another writer’s characters can only take you so far.  And if you really like writing, if you really want to get good at it, you have to take the next step.  You have to make up your own original characters.

Why?

Well, here is the thing:  At the heart of every truly great story are great characters.  Look at Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, for example.  Both are full of fantastic, original characters, from Severus Snape to Frodo Baggins.  There are outstanding characters in every truly great novel.  Think of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy in ‘Pride and Prejudice’, Scarlett O’Hara in ‘Gone with the Wind’, Willy Wonka in ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ or even my favourite, the wonderful Sherlock Holmes.  In films, you might choose the shark fisherman Quint in ‘Jaws’ (which you are too young to have seen, I suppose, but that’s a treat for the future!), James Bond or Spock in ‘Star Trek’; on the stage, there is the villainous Salieri in Schaffer’s ‘Amadeus’ or the Phantom in ‘Phantom of the Opera’.  If you haven’t come across any of these yet, I encourage you to seek them out because they are tremendous.

All original.  Each loved by millions.  And each one has ensured their creator’s immortality.

So, to become a great writer, or even a good one, you need to have at the core of your work truly great characters.

But here is the really wonderful part:

There are only seven plots. Okay, yes, you can chop them up and interchange bits of them endlessly, but basically, there are a limited number of things you can do, plot-wise.

But there are as many original characters in your head as there are people on the planet.  And here is why:

No one, anywhere, even if you are a twin, has ever had the same experience of the world as you.

You are unique.

The way your mind works, what has happened to you, the things you think about and imagine, that you think are important, that you love and hate, are all unique.  There may be a few people quite like you, but no one, anywhere, has ever experienced the world exactly the same way as you.

And because you are unique, your imagination is unique.  No one else can create quite the same kinds of characters as you.

And once you start creating your own characters, they start getting up doing things inside your head that are completely exciting and unexpected and utterly amazing.  Believe me – I was writing a novel a few years back, and one of my main characters just upped and died right there in front of me, without any warning, and I didn’t know what to do because half of the rest of the book depended on her being there!  Help!  Okay, I fixed it in the end, but it was a scary moment.  And also utterly wonderful.

Once you start creating your own characters, your writing moves on to the next level.  That element of chaos as they take on a life of their own is only the start.

That is the moment when the wonderful thrill of story-telling hits you, and you open your wings, and take off, and soar through the air.

Fanfiction is great, believe me, but it is like being a sparrow when you could be an eagle,  And wouldn’t you rather be an eagle?

So creating your own characters isn’t just thing your mom goes on about because its what she thinks is important, even though you are having so much more fun making the pin-ups on your bedroom walls have romantic adventures through fanfiction.  She wants you to taste the real freedom of the imagination, as do I.

That is why I am going to write a lot less fanfiction this year, and concentrate more on my original characters.  I’m already having so much fun with it.  So why don’t you join me?

With Best Wishes from your fellow writer,

Evenlode’s Friend.

Creative Intentions for 2014: DARE and DEPTH

Getting over our emergency Christmas is proving a longer, harder effort than I had thought.  My brain is a puddle, so don’t ask me if I have written anything or created anything yet this year, because ain’t nothin’ goin’ on up there but clouds.

However.

Just occasionally, I have flashes of conscious thought.

I got into a conversation with Writerfriend on New Year’s Eve about plans for the coming year, as I mentioned previously, and it occurred to me today, while mulling that conversation over, that having a word for the year for my creative endeavours as well might be a good way forward.

Having two might be argued as cheating.  One word should fit all of my life, after all.  And yes, it fits the overview of where I want to go this year, of who I want to be.  My word represents the attitude I want to cultivate throughout the coming year.  It represents my willingness to ‘have a bash’, to move away from a fear and scarcity mindset, away from perfectionism and Nigel.

So maybe a Creative Word isn’t so much a word for the year as a Creative Intention.  A theme.  A direction in which to move.

The word I have chosen is:

DEPTH

I want to deepen my writing, explore a more multi-layered story-world, deeper characters.  I want to write an original work that displays this quality.  In short, I want to get serious.

I suppose this is an extension of the intentions I was nourishing in the Autumn of 2013.  The desire to read more quality fiction, the need to take my writing to the next level.  I am currently making a plan to help me step into this new phase.  It will involve:

  • Reading lots of new, literary fiction (luckily, Santa was kind to me on this front, with a supply of yummy new novels!)
  • Refreshing my basic writing skills
  • Reading works on writing by published authors – A L Kennedy and Paul Auster are first on my list.
  • Writing every day
  • Making better use of my writers notebook.

At present it is quite a sketchy plan, but no doubt it will firm up into clear tasks.  I don’t want it to get too firm.  I want it to evolve and morph with my needs and creative interests.  Nothing too concrete.  It is an intention, a theme, after all.

And no doubt writing blog posts here will be part of that plan, as well as a commentary on progress.

So that’s my Creative Theme/Intention/Word for the year 2014.

What about you?  What do you want to achieve?  Is there a quality you want to invoke into your creative life, or are there specific works you want to make in the coming months?  I’d love to hear about your plans in the comments section.

Happy creating,

EF

Inspiration Monday: Observing Roles

Captain Cook's teacup

Captain Cook’s Teacup

A few days staying with my mother require me to be paraded around the village, being shown off to friends.

I am taken to her oldest friends first:  Husband was close to my father, Wife is my mother’s best friend, and something of a surrogate mother to me.  They are Scottish, loving, hospitable.

My mother sits primly on the sofa while the tea set is laid out, her little legs crossed at the ankles, not quite touching the floor.  We are having the best china, and a freshly baked Victoria Sandwich cake, set on a glass cake stand and dusted with icing sugar.  This is a proper English afternoon tea.

I notice how polite my mother is being.  The way she holds the fork as she eats her cake so delicately.  The way she plucks at her napkin.  The way she stirs her tea with her teaspoon, holding the end like a pen, making the prescribed figure of eight with the bowl, just so.  I notice the way she nods, agrees, doesn’t initiate conversation.  I realise she is being a Good Girl.  Just as her own mother taught her, back before the War, she is behaving politely in order to be accepted.

Our hosts are playing roles too.  She is the Hospitable Hostess, asking kind questions, offering more cake.  Her husband is sitting enthroned in his armchair, interjecting occasionally with amusing quips or information, partly the Wise Sage, and partly the Jester – he always played the Jester to my father’s Straight Man when I was a child.

Then their middle daughter arrives, a beautiful woman a little older than I am, with a grown-up family and a business of her own.  As soon as she walks into the house, though, she adopts the role of Mischievous Daughter, stealing a donut from the kitchen, helping herself to a cup of tea (without a saucer), lounging in an armchair and making us all laugh.

I glance at my mother.  She is laughing politely.  Still being the Good Girl.

And me?  Well, I am the Entertainment.  Which is another way of saying that I am being the Good Girl too.  Pleasing my mother by being polite and charming her friends.  Being a credit to her.  Displaying the manners she taught me.  Sitting up straight, holding my teacup correctly, watching my language, and wishing profoundly that I could play the Mischievous Daughter too, which would be a lot more fun, and more like who I really am.

We all play social roles, in company, with family, with friends, with strangers, colleagues or acquaintances.  Our roles change according to those we are with, and to circumstance.  Sometimes we even change roles within a single situation.  This is not necessarily being inauthentic, or even manipulative.  It is the way human beings function socially together, as all animals who live in groups do.  It began as a means of survival, but today has become a complicated social pas de deux.

And why am I talking about it?  Well, because if we play roles, what about the characters we write?  You may know who your protagonist is, you may have written his back story in detail, and know how he might respond in a given situation, but have you thought about the roles he might play?  Does he play roles to fit in, or does he reject them?  Or does he continually play different roles to get what he wants, to manipulate others?  And if he does the latter, how are you, the writer, going to keep track of who he is underneath those roles?

Writing Exercise

Begin to observe social encounters going on around you as dispassionately as you can.  Can you see what social roles are being played?  Who is being submissive, funny, polite, in order to win friends?  Who is refusing the engage with the social dance?  Who is asserting their dominance as Alpha Male or Female?  Who is the real person under the role?  What are their motivations for choosing the role they do?

Remember to observe without judgement.  This is not about values.  This is about behaviour.

Spend some time writing down the roles you observe, and reflecting on them, in your writers notebook.  Think especially about what lies underneath the role, what event might cause a person to adopt one role rather than another.

Write a scene about some characters you are currently working with.  What roles could be played here?  What non-verbal behaviour communicates that role – or betrays what is going on underneath?  See if you can write your characters functioning at two levels, the role they play, and the real person behind the role.  Explore this difficulty where you can to make your characters more three dimensional.

Meanwhile, I am going back to contemplating the idea that my mother, my dominant, matriarchal mother, could actually play the Good Girl, because its not an idea I have ever entertained before, and its going to take a while to get my head around it!

Happy Writing,

EF

Journal Friday: Derek Jarman’s Sketchbooks

jarman diariesIt’s been a very busy week, and I’ve been diving into all kinds of exciting new and inspirational activities, including the UEA Literary Festival.  I’ve also been submerged in the magical world of Derek Jarman’s Sketchbooks, edited by Stephen Farthing and Ed Webb-Ingall, and I want to share the inspiration I’ve found in them with you.

derek_jarmanIn case you have never heard of Derek Jarman, he was a fabulously talented artist, film-maker, designer, writer, gardener and Gay Rights activist whose career was tragically cut short by AIDS in 1994, aged 52.  He directed music videos for the Pet Shop Boys and designed the sets for Ken Russell’s landmark 1971 film, ‘The Devils’.  At his home in Dungeness, he created one of the most haunting modern gardens in Britain, one that I am deeply in love with.

I first became aware of Jarman when I saw his film, Caravaggio (1986), starring Nigel Terry, Sean Bean, and Tilda Swinton in her first film role.  Later, in 1991, I wept my way through his heart-breaking ‘Edward II’, an adaptation of Marlowe’s play that spoke of Jarman’s outrage at homophobia in Thatcherite Britain.  These are not easy and accessible films.  They are, however, fabulous to look at, and very moving.

When I came across this edition of the sketchbooks in the library the other day, quite by chance, I had no idea that Jarman was a committed visual diarist.  The sketchbooks themselves are large – family photo album sized – and each cover is decorated in black and gold, making a slightly varied but pleasing continuity.  Inside them, Jarman uses ephemera, calligraphy, drawing and painting, poetry, pages of film scripts, actors’ head shots from casting sessions, clippings from newspapers, reviews, photographs of friends and colleagues, bits of feathers and pressed flowers to document his life and each of his projects.  The sketchbooks contain his thoughts on everything from his garden (there is a carefully drawn planting plan), to his illness, to sex, history and death.

Jarman made a series of paintings, the ‘GBH’ series, of black on gold abstracts, inspired by Goya’s Black paintings, and a film called ‘Imagining October’, which arose from finding Sergei Eisenstein’s own copy of ‘Ten Days that Shook the World’, the famous book on the Russian Revolition, and on which Eisenstein had based his ground-breaking film, ‘Battleship Potemkin’.  Jarman had been shocked to discover how much of the book had been redacted with blacked-out text by the Communist authorities.  Both of these concepts are reflected in the sketchbooks, where you can see Jarman working on the idea of black bars with gold writing, seen on the cover of the volume.  Jarman’s anger at the political situation for Gays in the UK shines through these blackened pages.

One of the things that particularly strikes me is the simplicity of the layouts he uses.  Even when he is writing pages of text, making notes or journalling, there is a sense of space.  Nothing is cramped.  He spreads out, not denying himself room to work, enjoying the clarity of white space around his words and images.  This is something I will definitely take away. My diaries always feel cramped.  I always feel that every inch of space must be used, because materials are scarce.  This denial of room to grow is cramping my creativity, something I need to break out of.

I want to draw inspiration from the sheer range of activities Jarman undertook, too.  For him, there is no line in his sketchbooks between diary, writer’s notebook, sketchbook, planner or scrapbook, anymore than there were boundaries between the creative areas he worked in.  Although he was primarily a film-maker, he was so many other things as well.  Jarman teaches me that I don’t just have to stick to writing.  I can follow where ever my Muse leads me.

There are no limits to what we can create, only the ones we impose on ourselves.

Things to try:

  • See if you can get hold of a copy of Jarman’s sketchbooks.  It isn’t cheap – £28 – so maybe you can order it from your library.  You may not like his style of modernist art, but you can appreciate how he puts every aspect of his life into these visual journals to make a record of his thinking.
  • Use your own sketchbook or diary as a kind of studio to record everything you do and think about a particular project.
  • Collect clips, postcards, photos, anything relevant to stick in – Jarman even stuck a ten pound note into his!
  • Luxuriate in space.  Allow each of your drawings, paragraphs, or collaged pieces to bask in a frame of white space, so that they can shine out, and be seen for what they are.  Don’t fall into my scarcity trap – there will always be more paper.
  • Decorate the covers of your sketchbooks or journals in a similar way, as Jarman did, each one slightly different, but using the same colours or materials.  Maybe you could do ‘series’ of notebooks, with matching covers, for different projects.  Don’t be precious about them, however.  Jarman once stuck a heavy bronze seal on the front of one of his books, but it was too heavy to carry and got in the way, so he ended up prizing it off.  The scarred gold cover is even more interesting as a result.

Happy journalling,

EF

Inspiration Monday: Telling Details

sussex church

The Zen of Details

At the moment, I am fascinated by ‘telling details’.

At our writers’ group last week, my friend read out the first pages of her novel, a description of a little girl watching her mother as she used a sewing machine to make a new dress for her little girl.  It took me right back to my childhood, watching my own mother labour over the sewing machine.

It was the little details that transported me.  The jar of spare buttons which the little girl was allowed to play with.  The thunk of the presser foot being let down onto the fabric.  The smell of sewing machine oil and new cloth, unwashed, still fusty from the haberdashery.

I have re-ignited my enthusiasm for my writer’s notebook with these details.  Using the little components of life.  Scribbling them down when I notice them.

The way the local cockerel sounds like he has a sore throat when he crows.

My husband saying ‘Marriage is about sharing’ when he farts.

The dust that builds up in the corners of the treads on the stairs, and how gritty it is.

Puffs of pollen falling off the sunflowers I have rescued from the storm-lashed garden, falling like yellow flour on the tabletop under the vase, powdering a biro that had been abandoned there.

These are the little glimpses of our everyday life that we mostly ignore, but when someone draws our attention to them in prose or art, they enrich our perception, throng our minds with memories, ground us in the present in a way nothing else can.

At the moment I am working on a series of short fanfics that are grounded in these details.  I am trying to use a single detail to spark each story.  Each story then contributes to a wider portrait of a relationship.  This means collecting details. So here I am with my notebook, going back to the very beginning of my writing career, ‘back to basics’ if you like, collecting scraps for here and there and jotting them down.  I feel like a mosaicist building up a mural made of broken pots.

And it is delicious.

 Creative Exercise:  Lists

Unearth your notebook, if you haven’t been using it much recently.  If you are an artist, grab your sketchbook.  Now open your mind.  Start noticing things.  It takes practise to be sufficiently present in life to recognise the tiny details that contribute to the big picture of shared experience, but once you start, you will find them coming thick and fast.

  • Walk around the house and look at the piles of stuff that have built up.  Write down where they are.  Make a list of what is in them.
  • When you visit the bathroom at a friend’s house, look at their lotions and potions.  Make a list to jot down later.  What do the bottles and jars tell you about their life and health?  If you draw, make a sketch of them, or if it’s easier, draw the contents of your own medicine cabinet.
  • Standing in the queue for the checkout, look in other people’s baskets.  What are they buying?  Another list.  What does this say about them?  Can you make a still life that communicates what they are eating, who they are eating it with, and why?

Open your eyes wide.  Your mind is constantly sifting sensory input, picking out things that may or may not be important.  Usually, you toss most of your perceptions aside.  Instead, write down as many as you can.  Use them later in your work.

Happy Creating,

EF

The Wild Donkeys: A Strategy for Choosing a Creative Project

donkey

‘So, how’s the writing going?’

This from a man who is one of the Blessed Few.  A writer whose work was picked up by an agent straight from the much garlanded MA in Creative Writing at the Unversity of East Anglia.  Alumni include Ian McEwan, Rose Tremain, Hanif Kureshi, Tracey Chevalier and, well, you get the picture.  He is in glittering company.

He is also a really lovely man and a dear friend who takes a genuine interest in my work, so I rein in the envy monster and give him the polite and honest answer.

‘Fine.  Well, actually, I’m a bit stuck.’

‘Creative block?’

‘No, too many ideas.  I don’t know where to start.’

‘You should be writing a novel, you know.  I read some of your Sherlock stuff the other day.  It’s really good.’

‘Thank you.  I’ve written seven novels so far.  Writing a novel isn’t the hard part.  Its choosing which one to write that’s difficult.’

‘Well, just pick one and start.’

I love men.  Everything seems so easy to them.  And they are so good at handing out really practical advice.  (You’ll also notice that I don’t ask him how his novel is going.  That’s because I know.  I recognise that pained look.  I’ve seen it in the mirror too many times.)

OK, I know its good advice.  The right advice.

As Leonie Dawson puts it, I need to choose a wild donkey and ride the shit out of it till its done.

Every writer has a place where they habitually get stuck.  A psychological Marianas Trench on the road to getting their work into the readers’ hands, one that they tumble into every time.  For some it is grinding the words out, which for them is like sweating blood.  For others, it is coming up with the idea in the first place.  Some worry when they get to the middle because that’s always where they get bogged down, and some will spend ten years writing the first page.  We all have our Achilles’ heel.

For me, its choosing which idea to stick with.

So I have decided to take September off.  Not from writing; quite the opposite, in fact.  No, I’m taking the month off from worrying which novel to concentrate on.  I’m in a physically stuck place right now, and I need to concentrate on my health, on getting my body moving again after a summer of boom and bust energy.  I’m looking to create a smooth, even flow in my life, in my health, and my art.  I have faith that if I can manage to attain a relative level of consistency in my body, the answer will come to me.  Yes, maybe that sounds mad, but its just how my creative process works.

And in the meantime, I’m refreshing my theory knowledge, reading, working on my notebooking, and bashing out some major fanfiction.  I’m easily distracted, and having short stories and novellas on the go is a great way to handle that.  But sooner or later, I want to create something major.  Something big.  Something that shows both me and you, dear Reader, what I can really do.

Happy creating,

EF

The Only Two Books a Writer Needs (Part 2)

BookshelfIn the last post, I waxed lyrical about why you need a good dictionary on your bookself.  Have it to hand when you are reading.  Reading is an act of Input that every writer needs to undertake.  And no, its not stealing.  Its looking for inspiration, in the same way that artists study and copy the Old Masters in order to improve.  Reading helps you learn what works and what doesn’t, but more on that another day.

So that’s the Input.  What about the Output?  This is where the next book comes in – the writing part.

The Thesaurus

If you aren’t familiar with thesauri, my lovely Chambers Dictionary describes them as:

“…a book with systematically arranged lists of words and their synonyms, antonyms etc, a word-finder; a treasury.”

If you are serious about making your writing more vivid, you’ll need a Thesaurus.  I was introduced to Roget’s Thesaurus, probably the most famous thesaurus, while still at school, but the technique of using it is cumbersome and it completely foxed me.

Now I use a very nice, fat Penguin Thesaurus, which is alphabetical, and quite thorough enough to meet my needs.  I keep my Roget in reserve, just in case.  And yes, I have finally worked out how to use it properly, but it’s a pain, so I keep things simple.

The nice thing about a thesaurus is that it helps when you can’t think of a word (which for me is a lot!), or are looking for a more sumptuous way of explaining something.  You want a word like ‘magician’, for instance, but are looking for something a bit more, well, exotic.  Dip into your ‘thes’ and you will find:

Sorcerer, wizard, warlock, sorceress, witch, enchantress, necromancer, thaumaturge, miracle-worker.

Mmmm.  Never heard of thaumaturge before!  That’s pretty exotic, as exotic goes.  See what I mean?  Grab yourself a thesaurus and have a moodle about within its pages.  Yes, its perhaps just another way of defining words, but it defines around them too, enriching them in unexpected ways.  It will help you widen your vocabulary but also makes your stories more sumptuous.  As with anything rich, however, don’t go overboard.  Too much cream can make you sick.  Too many adjectives and adverbs (especially) will put your reader off completely.  Its a case of using the right word, not lots and lots of words.  Be vivid, not verbose.

The Others

Yes, there are other reference books I rely on on a regular basis.  I wouldn’t be without my Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, for example.  Or The Oxford Companion to English Literature, and the Chambers Biographical Dictionary.  All of them are fascinating and deeply useful – and not just when you are wrestling with a crossword!  But they are not what I could call ‘necessary’.

A dictionary and thesaurus are as necessary to a writer as a saw and chisel are to a carpenter. On a scale of need, they are prerequisites for the writing life.

As you can see from the picture at the top of this post, I have lots of books about writing.  I promise I will tell you about them in another post.  In the meantime, ferret out a good dictionary and thesaurus and keep them close at hand.  Look up any word you don’t recognise, and also those that you think you know what they mean, but have a lingering doubt about whether you are right.  Write down the ones you really love, and use them.    I promise you’ll have no regrets.

Happy wording,

EF

The Only Two Books A Writer Needs (Part 1)

BookshelfThe bookshelf by my desk

It’s that ‘Back to School’ time of year, when I can’t walk past a stationery shop without nearly having a heart attack.  Every time I go to Staples, I feel like I want to rip all the notebooks off the shelves and writhe about in them like an ecstatic horse.  The Martha Stewart Home Office line gives me palpitations.

But there isn’t enough money to buy everything I want, and besides, I have cupboards full of notebooks and pens already – how many does a writer really need?

Need is not something we really think about much these days.  It is not a First World problem, because most of have enough to meet our primary needs, and at that point, the word morphs into that seductive, purple velvet lined entity that is ‘Want’.

Want becomes most acute for me when I am in a book shop.  It is very hard to avoid the conviction that that my life will not be complete until I have the latest edition of wotsit, or that Benedict Cumberbatch will fall in love with me, if only I buy that particular tome.  I’m too much the magpie.  I like the latest sparkling things.  It’s a terrible affliction.

My new office space, and all the decluttering that went with it, has focussed my mind on this issue.  How many books does a writer really need?  And more to the point, how many books on writing does a writer really need?

The truth is, horrible though it may be, I don’t really need every copy of every book about writing that comes out.  I can get them from the library if I want them.  I only really need two books:

The Dictionary

In my opinion, no house or building, or even tent, is complete without a dictionary.  A reasonable one.  I’m not saying you have to go out and buy the full length Oxford English Dictionary, which runs to an insane number of volumes, and which only public institutions and Russian oligarchs are probably capable of affording.  You don’t even have to buy the two-volume Shorter version, which is still prohibitively expensive.  Lets face it, you could probably look up the more obscure words that these monsters contain online.

But you need a dictionary.

A dictionary is your friend.  A dictionary provides meaning in the world.  It provides knowledge.  It makes sense.  Even if English is your mother tongue, and you think you know everything it has to offer, believe me, there will always be a seven letter word beginning with L that turns out to be a seventeenth Hungarian stomach pump that you never knew existed.  That’s why I love the English language.  In all its glory, it is like an endless adventure through the Amazon jungle, where thrilling new words are always lurking under unexpected leaves.  And you never know when they might pop up.

Best to have a dictionary close at hand when you are reading.  You never know.  (You wouldn’t believe the number of times my husband has lost his temper with me in bed at night, when I have been reading my bedtime novel and found a word I don’t know – and asked him what it meant.  He’s got a PhD, and wields words like ‘hermeneutics’ on a daily basis, so I assume he knows everything.  He gets a bit short-tempered when asked about seventeenth century Hungarian stomach pumps when he’s sleepy!)

If you are intent on expanding your vocabulary, as I am, keep a little notebook too, to scribble down new words and meanings so that you remember them.

I have a very nice Chambers Dictionary, which my mother-in-law gave me.  It was second hand, but the meanings it gives are accessible, and it has a wide enough variety of words to satisfy my needs at the moment.  It is also a chunky 5.5cm thick, with nice fine paper, and so is a really satisfying thing to handle too.  You can pick up reasonable dictionaries in stationers and book shops this time of year at great ‘Back to School’ prices, but second hand bookshops and charity shops are always a good bet too, because dictionaries are slow to go out of date, and the basics will always be of use.

(Some readers will be bouncing around in their seats at this point, and crying the praises of online and digital dictionaries.  Yes, I get that they are useful, but they do not have the browsing dimension that real books do, and therefore I still recommend you get the hard copy.)

I originally wrote this as one post, but it got so big I decided to split it.  I think it words better that way, and I hope you agree!  So the next post, on Friday, will be about the second crucial book you need to have on your bookshelf.  The thesaurus.

Meanwhile, Happy wording,

EF