Tag Archives: creative writing

Choosing the Next Thing

go away bagI came back from Scotland with a marked desire to embark on a big project.  I suppose this isn’t something new, but is a desire I have been nurturing for a while.  It represents the need to get away from writing what are essentially someone else’s characters, and write my own.

I need something to get my teeth into, a full length novel to help me get my confidence in my ability to actually write something BIG back.  Its been a long time since I finished anything substantial in terms of original work, and I need this.

I was reading this article by justine Musk, in which she talks about some writing advice she was given by a teacher:

“Will writing this book change your life?” the teacher asked me. “If the answer is no, then that’s not your real baby.”

If we write our own psychodramas, if we write our way to self=knowledge, then I need something that reflects the place where I am in my life at the moment.  A novel that parallels my own journey.

I sat down with my notebook and wrote about the four projects I could choose from:  two Victorian novels, one Evenlode book, and one fantasy story.  Then I picked one of the Victorian novels and tried to write a little bit in the voice of the protagonist, mainly because I am struggling with making her a three-dimensional character, which is what has stymied progress so far.  And suddenly, everything made sense.

This novel is about being who you truly, authentically are.

And that is exactly where I am in life.  I am trying to own and be who I really am.

So in order to make the protagonist realistic, all I have to do is write her as me.  My voice, my problem, my reactions and interests.  Its not the way you are supposed to write a character, but it is a way into creating her in a believable way.  This way I can explore her voice and see the story from her point of view.  This pretty much buggers up everything I’ve previously written for this project, because its all third person, and varies the voices through each of the three main characters.  But that approach didn’t gel, which is why it didn’t get any further.  Now maybe I can find a way in.

And then all I have to do is to stick with it until its done.

I have no idea whether this will work.  Maybe this time next year I will have completed another Evenlode novel instead.  You never know.  What I don’t want is to still have four unfinished works in the pipeline by then.  I need to finish something.  So I’m going to ride this wild donkey side saddle, and see where it takes me.

Wish me luck,

Happy Creating,

EF.

 

 

Writing the Senses: Smell

nose by bex

Nose (self portrait) watercolour and pencil

I spoke before about what I call Embodied Writing.  I don’t think you have writing that is truly immediate and visceral without grounding it in the physical.  Using your senses is one way to do this.

I looked up the sense of smell, and was blinded by a great deal of science on the olifactory system.  A couple of little morsels I did manage to glean included:

  • Women have a stronger sense of smell than men, and their sense of smell is most powerful during ovulation.
  • The senses of smell and taste are related, and both depend on responding to volatile chemicals in the atmosphere.  Which is presumably why I sometimes feel like I can ‘taste’ a smell.
  • In the human brain, the temporal lobes, which deal with cognition and memory, and the olifactory bulbs, which handle the perception of smell, are very closely linked.  Scientists have speculated that this is what gave Homo Sapiens the evolutionary advantage over their rivals.  It also means that smell and memory are closely linked, which is why certain smells can take you back to breath-takingly vivid memories of the past.
  • You sense of smell starts deteriorating in your teens, but that said, some pensioners have a better sense of smell than the average twenty-something.  Like taste, though, smell is likely to be something you will lose as you get older.

Smell helps us identify the ripe and healthy food from the rotten.  It helps us select a mate, and stay safe from dangers such as fires and wild animals.  Smells connect us with our past, with positive and negative memories.

Nurses in front line dressing stations in the First World War reported vivid memories of the odors of rotting flesh amongst the casualties; and we all remember that quote from the film ‘Apocalypse Now’ about ‘the smell of napalm in the morning’.

For many of us, the scents of cinnamon and nutmeg instantly transport us to Christmas, and the smell of a favoured sun tan lotion can have us basking on a tropical beach even if we are actually sitting in a park in Barking.  Watching cookery programmes is often so frustrating for this reason too – why doesn’t someone invent ‘Smellivision’?  And if you have ever walked into a supermarket and found yourself drawn to the Bakery, even though you only came in for loo roll, don’t be fooled.  Marketing specialists know how seductive that delicious scent is, so they pump the scent of baking bread through the air conditioning system to coax your brain into feeling hungry – and thus buying more.

Smells are hugely evocative, from the smell of poster paint on our first day at school to the aroma of wet earth after a summer storm, and that is why they are so important in writing.

Writing Exercises:

  • Take out your writing notebook and note down some of your favourite smells.  What are the scents that are the most evocative for you?  Make a list, then choose one and write down the memory that is associated with it, or why you chose it.  Take the time to write in as much detail as you can.  Think up as many adjectives, as many ways of describing the smell as you can.
  • Over the next few days and weeks, make a point of thinking more about your sense of smell, and the smells around you.  If you are like me, and not a perfume wearer, or someone particularly aware of smells, you may have to work at this.  Try to keep it in mind.  Every day, try to pick a particular smell and write about it in your notebook, describing it as much detail as you can, and making connections with its context, or what memories it evokes for you.
  • Take yourself on a ‘Smell Safari’.  Visit a florist’s and smell the flowers.  Hang out at the bakers or in a shop that sells spices.  Health Food shops and New Age shops often have interesting scents.  Walk around the park, or in the country, smelling nice things and the nasty ones. (Don’t get too close to the nasty ones, though, for health reasons!)  Don’t forget to take your notebook and make copious notes.  Don’t limit yourself to nice perfume stores, though they can be interesting in themselves.  There are millions of smells out there to sample, and very few of them are manufactured.
  • Write a few character sketches of people you know, describing them solely by their smells.  What about the characters in the stories you are writing at the moment – what would they smell like?  What smells would they like, and why?
  • Find out more about your sense of smell and how it works.  Maybe you can work out the science better than I have.  Then, test it out.  What smells excite you, what smells depress you?  Do some smells make you fearful?  How do you react emotionally to individual scents?
  • Read Patrick Sűskind’s splendiferous masterpiece, ‘Perfume:  The Story of a Murderer’.  A whole book written about the sense of smell?  Yes, it’s incredible.  You won’t believe your eyes.  Or possibly your nose.
  • Imagine a familiar smell.  Now take out your notebook and write about a context or scene in which that familiar, comforting scent becomes sinister, even terrifying.  Now try it the other way around.

Once you have built up this memory bank of information about smell, think about how you can incorporate it into your writing.  How can you use it to describe your characters, what telling details of scent will be enough to show your reader a person’s nature?

Happy Sniffing,

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 Writing Life: Literary festivals

Finding your tribe as a writer, or in any kind of creative endeavour, is an important thing to do.  Being around other writers provides support and inspiration, and I think it’s a crucial thing to do.  Writing can be a very solitary activity, and its no surprise to find that many writers suffer from depression.  You try sitting on your own every day for six months of the year and see how it affects your mental health!  Its important to get out.

Literary Festivals and author signings are a really good way to fill your well and get affirmation for your work.  Maybe you won’t be able to present what you’ve written to other people, but being around those who are interested in the same things as you, undergoing similar challenges, really helps.

As a writer, you also need to gauge the market and be aware of your contemporaries’ work.  Reading is an important thing to do, and if you really love writing, you will love reading just as much!  Literary festivals give you a chance to be exposed to books you might never pick up otherwise, to hear authors speak about their work, and to ask questions about their writing process.   Think about it – a huge reservoir of inspiration and knowledge out there, just waiting for you to tap into it.  Why would you not?

Your local bookshop will probably have readings by authors scheduled, and these are worth attending because they are more intimate, and allow you more personal access.

Check the culture and review sections of newspapers, and the ads in writing magazines, as well as noticeboards in libraries, for details of the bigger events and festivals.  Some music festivals are starting to have literary strands too, so keep your eyes peeled.

My nearest festival in the one at the University of East Anglia, but its slightly different from a three day or week-long event, in that it studs two university terms with readings by authors, playwrights, poets and journalists.  This gives a wide variety of speakers over a six month period, and allows me to attend where I want, and to absorb what I learn over time.  And because it is such a prestigious centre for creative writing, it attracts some seriously big names.

I have attended events with Arthur Miller, Jeanette Winterson, Rose Tremain, Simon Armitage, Seamus Heaney, Iain Banks (need you ask!), Rachel Cusk, Alan Hollingshurst, Isabelle Allende, Richard E Grant and many others.  I went under sufferance with a friend to see Ian McEwan, whose writing I hate, only to be utterly charmed and instantly determined to reread everything he has written.  And I saw Doris Lessing the week after she had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.  She was feisty, fascinating, and marvellous despite obviously being in terrible pain, and she tore the rather pompous interviewer to shreds, which was very satisfying.  At the end she received a spontaneous and heartfelt standing ovation, and I actually found myself crying.  You can’t find better inspiration than that!

Be warned, however.  Sometimes your idols can prove to have clay feet.  I went to see Graham Swift, whose books ‘Waterland’ and ‘Last Orders’ I had adored.  He read so badly, and was so miserably boring, that I felt insulted enough to vow never to read another one of his books.  And I haven’t.

Brett Easton Ellis was a writer whom I had worshipped since reading his work for my degree.  I clamoured to get a ticket to see him.  And now I can’t remember a thing about him, not even what he looked like, and certainly nothing of what he said.

I generally come away from these events feeling inspired and excited about doing new work, full of ideas and hope for the future.  It can be a dangerous game, however.  Be prepared, if you go to an author reading, to feel insignificant, and that you work is poor and will never be published.  It happens sometimes, though less often the more you write, and it will pass.

The important thing, however, is to go.  Attend events with even the least known authors, since they are often the ones who will inspire you the most.  (And one day, you might be up there too, so it adds to your own karma to support other people!)  Ask questions, and read the books.  This will enrich your own work, as well as introducing you to writing you might never have experienced otherwise.

Challenge yourself.  I don’t really do poetry, but went along with a poet friend of mine to see readings by several poets, and was enchanted.  I’ll never be a poet, but this form has opened my mind to the possibilities of language, and I’m so grateful.

Finding your tribe, and being amongst other writers is important.  It helps you feel part of a joint creative endeavour, but it also feeds your Muse.  There is a whole world of wonderful written joy out there, and literary festivals area an easy way into it.

Happy listening!

EF

The Writing Life: Writers Groups

DSCI2689

I belong to a writers group.  And it’s great!

It all began years ago, when I started the Diploma in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia.  It was the first writing course I ever went on.  I walked into the room and found myself surrounded by people like me.  It was the first time I ever felt like I wasn’t different and strange.  I had found my tribe.

Writing is a solitary occupation, so it is crucial for both your mental health and your work to socialise.  And what better way to do that than with other writers who are going through the same trials and tribulations as you are?

As part of our diploma course, we went on a weekend retreat, involving taught sessions, visiting speakers, workshopping and private writing time.  It was a huge success and we bonded.  Many of us went on to study for the Advanced Diploma in Prose Fiction, which was primarily a workshop-based course, and that further cemented the group.

Since then we have continued to meet, once a month, to share our work, our experiences, problems and interests.  And an awful lot of tea and flap-jacks!  Members have come and gone, buts okay.  There is a core group who have stuck together for over a decade now, sharing life experiences, supporting one another through MA courses and publication.  We go on annual retreats together, about which more in future.  We meet at each other’s houses, planning dates ahead and each offering to the host nights most convenient.  Hot and cold drinks, nibbles and cakes are provided to lubricate the conversation.

Based on the old course model, each member brings a piece of new writing that they have done, and we try to keep it to around 1,000 to 2,000 words in length – any longer and it takes up too much time.  You can read your own piece, or ask someone else to read it.  (It is sometimes really helpful to hear another person read it in order to pick out the parts where the writing is less fluid.)  Then people comment.  Helpful and empathic criticism is offered.  We always make sure we start by pointing out what we like about the piece.  Often, if it is part of a larger work, people will ask questions about plot or backstory.  Because we know one another’s work so well, we can refer back to earlier stories, or earlier parts of the work, and kick around ideas to find out what might be a useful improvement for any problems.  At the end of every participant’s session, they are asked how they feel about what was said, which gives them the chance to say anything that has been missed in the discussion.  We usually manage to workshop about three pieces of prose in a 2.5 hour meeting.

Not everyone may have something they want to read, or will have had time to write that month, and that’s okay too.  They contribute by commenting on and supporting the work of others.  We have prose writers and poets.  We share news of any courses or day schools that may have been attended, and often discuss what books everyone is reading too.

And of course, we do a lot of nattering and gossiping too.

Outside the regular meetings, we have been known to circulate work and meet informally for writing sessions.  We even do writing sessions over the phone.

I encourage you to find your own tribe.  You can do it online or in person.  Libraries and publications such as Mslexia and the Writers Digest often have small ads for writers groups.  Or start one yourself, as we did.  Make sure you are happy with the atmosphere and ethos of the group you join, however.  There is no point in sharing your work and then having it brutally cut to pieces.  Gaining confidence in dealing with confidence is one thing.  Bullying is quite another.  There are pitfalls with joining any group, but the advantages with a good one will outweigh any glitches.

My pals in the group have stuck by me through thick and thin and seven novels, and I am eternally grateful to them for their kind support and criticism.  And for banning me from using the word ‘massive’.  Sometimes you need that kind of pal.

Dear Bridget, Clare, Heidi, Nina, and Sally, I love you.

And now I had better get myself together and go and put some flap-jacks in the oven, because they’ll be round tonight and I haven’t written anything yet!

Happy creating,

EF

Inspiration Monday: Architecture

Travel Pictures Ltd

Shark House, Oxford

The Inspiration Monday series is designed to give you a selection of places to look for inspiration for whatever art you create, from writing to quilting, from dance to pottery.  There are places and things to inspire you everywhere, no matter how blocked you feel!

Alright, I confess.  I’m a bit of an architecture nut.  I’m lucky.  I live in a country that is just bursting with fabulous buildings, from the modest to the outrageous.  So much has survived from our long past, and so much is being produced now that is thrilling and new.

Architecture provides a great inspiration, even if you are not into history, as I am.  It is especially useful as a starting point for the visual arts (how about making a quilt based on architectural motifs from your local area, especially if you live in a place that has an interesting and original vernacular architecture of its own.)

For a writer, architecture can be more than just set dressing.  Think of the magnificence of the stately home, Brideshead, in Evelyn Waugh’s novel, ‘Brideshead Revisited’, a building whose ornate Catholic imagery permeates the relationships of all the characters.  Or perhaps the dark secrets represented by the rambling corridors of Manderley in Daphne du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’, where the gothic corners hide secrets that threaten the happiness of the unnamed heroine.

Architecture is not just about the grand mansions of the rich and privileged.  The sqallid, shabby, utilitarian flats of Orwell’s ‘1984’ are just as terrifying as the monumental Ministry of Truth.  Or perhaps the rickety walkways and rookeries of Oliver Twist’s Victorian slum dwellers, or the eponymous ‘L-Shaped Room’ described by Lynne Reid Banks.

Peter Mothersole's House

Peter Mothersole’s House, Norwich

I’ve had a fascination with the building pictured above for some years now.  It’s eccentric and rather alarming pitch to one side only makes me love it more.  I’ve made it the home of one of the characters in my new novel.  In fact, it would not be so far fetched to say that this house has inspired the entire novel.

Compare the pictures below, and consider the kinds of stories that might happen in each, architecturally different, setting:

Speedies

Speedy’s, well known to all ‘Sherlock’ fans.

Greek villa

Greek Holiday Villa, Lesvos

terrace houses

Terraced Houses, Northern UK

awesome-modern-house-mediterranean-coast-1

Modernist Mediterranean house

Architecture can be the starting point for your art and writing.  It can be set dressing, atmosphere, even a character in its own right.  Using architecture as a starting point can ground your work in it’s local context, add weight to the story, place it in a particular time, economic class, religious mode or social millieu.  You can say a great deal about your characters through the kinds of houses they live in, the buildings where they work and worship, and why they choose these and not others.

Writing Exercise:  Look Up

Porch heraldry, Blickling Hall, Norfolk (NT)Porch heraldry, Blickling Hall, Norfolk (NT)

Next time you are walking around town, look up above the shop fronts.  You usually spend your time looking into the plate glass windows at all those gorgeous things you can’t afford.  You may not notice the kinds of buildings they are housed in.

In Britain and across Europe, you may see fascinating architectural details that you never noticed before, even in a street you have walked up all your life.  In other countries, you may see less history, and more the story of the way the architecture is used by it’s inhabitants, the way they have added to it, moulded it to their own needs over time.  What kind of lives are lived out behind these walls?  What stories have these beams and doorframes witnessed?

You might like to learn to read a building, to spend some time researching architecture in your area, the little quirks that are local.  In most countries you will find builders have used the materials that come to hand: wooden logs, local stone, thatch, reeds, brick of different colours, pantiles. What is local to your area?  What is the local style? What shapes do the buildings make – are they low, huddling to the ground against the weather, or do they tower above the streets, dwarfing the inhabitants, statements of power and wealth?  Can you incorporate this into your art?  What does it say about the kinds of lives people live, and have lived, around you?

Happy Creating!

EF

Inspiration Monday: On Walking

Footprints Ardnave 1Many great writers have also been great walkers.  Imagine Jane Austen striding across the Hampshire countryside around Chawton, her home village, the hem of her white muslin gown getting stained with mud, or Virginia Woolf stomping over the Sussex Downs, hands buried deep in her pockets, muttering sentences and paragraphs for her current work under her hat brim.  The Romantic poets were famous for striding around the Lake District, soaking up the epic scenery and composing all the while.

There is something meditative about walking, a rhythm that comes with stomping feet, the steady repetition of step after step over the ground.  The act of walking induces a kind of trance, a change in consciousness that opens up our minds.  When I am able to walk, I can exorcize even the foulest of moods, and I always come home with an idea, an image, a sentence at the very least.

Walking gets us close to our environment in a way that travelling by other means can’t.  You cannot see details from a car the way you can on foot.  A cat lazing on a sunny windowsill.  The colour of a starling’s wing.  A family gathered around the kitchen table, enjoying a late sunday lunch together as you pass.  On foot, you can surreptitiously peer in through windows, or linger to observe a view, a cloud or a flower.  We can even listen in to conversations we might miss otherwise:

‘Andrew, did you put the blood and bone tub back in the shed last week, because I can’t find it?’

Walking allows us to observe the world whilst being part of it.  It brings us into Flow, a place where our thoughts smoothe into a creative stream.  We can walk ourselves out of being stuck on a project, and we can walk ourselves into a new one.  Plus, it burns calories and keeps you fit and, well, and who doesn’t love that?

Creative Exercise:

Put a notebook or sketchbook and a pencil in the pocket of your jacket.  You could even take a camera.  Put on a sturdy pair of shoes and go for a walk around your neighbourhood.  Take twenty minutes, more if you have it.  Try to walk with a steady motion, a regular rhythm.  Drum out a beat with your soles. Open your mind to whatever thoughts come up.

Look around you.  What little details, or big stories to you witness?  You can scribble things down on your way, or you can stop, if you have the time, to take notes, draw a sketch or two, snap a few photographs.  You don’t have to photograph people, remember –  a wonky chimney stack or a graffitied sign might spark your interest, perhaps even an interesting pattern made by litter in the gutter.  Take the time to witness and observe.  Combine this with the meditative beat of footsteps.  A treasure trove is outside your door.  Even if you only walk and see, do that much.  When you get home, note down what you have seen for use later, and enjoy feeling refreshed.

Walk twice a week for preference, daily if you can.  Get to know your locale.  Push yourself by walking in new places.  Extend and vary your routes.  Walk whether you feel like it or not.  Especially when not.  Putting one foot in front of another gets your mind to a new place that is always worth exploring.

On Process: A Room of One’s Own

In this new series of posts, On Process, we will talk a little about discovering your own creativity cycles, and how best to optimise them.  We’ll start with the most basic requirement: space.

Virginia Woolf coined the term ‘A Room of One’s Own’ in her book of the same name, in which she explored creativity and feminism.  Her thesis is that in order to be a serious artist, you have to have dedicated private space in which to work.  While I don’t think this is entirely true – many great books have been written at kitchen tables, for instance – I think it is an important consideration, and it really does help.

These days I am lucky enough to have a room of my own.

My study 1As you can see, its a mess.  Currently, it has a very nasty case of piles. (Piles of paper and junk, that is.)  The fact that it has become such a dumping ground, to the extent that I am now doing most of my writing sitting downstairs on the sofa, and I’m not doing any painting at all, is an important barometer for how much value I am attaching to my own art and writing practise.  In other words, not much.

One of my goals is to revamp my study.  This is because I need a Room of My Own.  Psychologically, I need to recognise my right to my own creative independence, and that is what my study signifies to me.  I need to make a gift to my creative self of a loving and beautiful space in which to make my dreams happen.  Its hard to claim that right, but I’m working on it.

You may not have the luxury of your own space, in which case, I sympathise because I spent many years in the same position, sharing a desk in the corner of our dining room with my husband.  (Even though he had his own office at work – not that I’m bitter, you understand!)  Still, there are ways to mark out some territory that you can call your own, a space where you feel totally free to create as you want.  That may be a corner of a shared room, the luxury of an actual studio, garden shed or study, or if you are not so territorial as I am, maybe a favourite table at a local cafe where you go to write, think or journal.

Where ever you choose, consider this space as not only a private area, safe from others, but also as sacred to your art – whatever form that takes.  When you go there, it should signal to your Artist Brain  that it is time to create.

Light candles, perhaps, and if you are so inclined, make a little altar to attract creative energy.  Surround yourself with pretty, evocative things.  Get some nice stationary and writing instruments.  A few pebbles can be delicious to handle and look at.  Make some inspiring signs to stick up, to remind yourself that you are entitled to this, that your voice is unique and deserves to be heard.  A painting that you like, objects that have emotional value for you, some nice furniture if you can afford it (I would love a comfy armchair to read in for my study), a noticeboard with inspiring images on it, wll all help to make even a small corner your own.

My Study 2In this picture of my study, you can see some of the things I cherish as part of my creative process.  (Sorry for the small lettering, I haven’t quite got the hang of Paint yet!)

I got the lovely chair for my birthday last year.  I’d never had a special, proper chair for my home office before. It still feels like an outrageous luxury!  There are fairy lights in the shape of roses around the window, which are nice when I am writing at night, as I usually prefer to.  There is my collection of books about writing, and books for reference, my Image Box for inspiration, and of course, my much cherished Benedict Cumberbatch calendar, which my adored niece made by hand for me last year.  On my desk, I keep a framed photograph of Virginia Woolf herself, because she is such an inspiration to me, both as a writer and as a person.

Try to carve out some personal space within your home environment to dedicate to your creativity.  Even if you are only able to keep your journals in a favourite tote bag down the side of the sofa to use when you can, it still counts.  It will help to enhance your creative process, and enable you to battle those critical voices that tell you your work isn’t good enough.

I’ll keep you updated on my efforts to reclaim my study from the mess and make it a place to snuggle down in to create.

Inspiration Monday: Weather

I live in the UK.  We have lots of weather here.  Bucketloads of it!  It comes from having a maritime climate, caught between the cold North Sea and the Atlantic Gulf stream.  It characterizes our nation and our culture.  We are famous for it.

Since I came to live here in Norfolk, I’ve been fascinated by clouds.  Norfolk is famous for ‘Big Skies’.  It impossible to explain that until you have been here and seen the wide open spaces.  Norfolk is not as flat as everyone seems to think – Noel Coward has a lot to answer for, in my opinion – but what it does have is open vistas and large expanses of farm land reclaimed from sea.  The result is fantastic cloudscapes every day.  It colours the way people here live, and the way they view their lives. (If you are interested in how the landscape affects the people here, I can’t recommend highly enough the novel Salt by Jeremy Page.)

Weather gives atmosphere to writing and painting, as well as to life itself.  Just look at this image by painter John Aitkinson Grimshaw, who specialised in moonlit landscapes.

Boar-Lane-Leeds-1881This one shows a wet day, and the slick cobbles and leaden sky are so evocative.  What secret stories might be happening on those wet pavements, or behind those glowing shop windows?

Compare these two images of the same building, the National Trust’s property at Ickworth in Suffolk.

Ickworth sunny Ickworth weather

Granted, the angle is slightly different, but look at the sky – one with glowering cloud, the other with sunshine.  The atmosphere is significantly different in each, a sense of forboding in the right-hand image that simply isn’t there on the left.

You can use weather to prompt your creative work, as Grimshaw did, or you can use it to enhance it.  You can see this is the paintings of John Constable, and the writings of Emily Bronte.

Writing Exercise:

Andrew Cowan, in his brilliant book on Creative Writing, suggests keeping a notebook solely on the weather, noting adjectives and descriptions every day for a year in order to inform your stories.  It is hard to write credibly about a snowy day in a heatwave, for example, or vice versa, so a record of what weather feels, looks and smells like can be incredibly useful!

You might not want to go quite as far as recording the weather every day for a year, but try a writing exercise where you look out of the window – or even better, go outside and experience the weather first hand.  What is the temperature like?  Are there clouds, and if so, what kind?  Is the air moist, crisp, cold, humid?  What does it smell like?  Are there ice crystals on the vegitation, or are the flowers in full and sumptuous bloom?

Record what you see, and then go a step further.  How does this weather make you feel?  What kind of events and interractions might happen on a day like this?  Is it a foggy day for furtive meetings, a dark, moonless night for dastardly deeds, or a hot and sultry afternoon suggestive of languid adultery?

You could use weather to enhance the atmosphere of a scene, or you could contrast it to add clarity to the action.  Imagine a meeting of high ranking spies in a sweltering noon, brows beaded with sweat and shirts stained dark under the arms, whilst all the time, the great business of state is being negotiated.  Spend some time in your notebook playing with weather.  Try out a scene in one kind of weather, then set it in the opposite.  What kinds of problems and interesting ideas does this raise?

Happy Creating!

Flow, or How To get Out Of Your Readers’ Way

flow at Ardnave

Ardnave Beach, Islay – I didn’t have an illuminating photo of a stream, so rocks will have to do!

You’ve probably heard of Flow.  It is that psychological state of perfect concentration that we fall into when our attention is completely absorbed in something, whether it is running, painting, reading, crafting or anything else that involves us completely.

As a writer, Flow is what you are after in your reader.  You have probably felt it yourself.  Remember those books that were so engrossing that you could lose hours at a time between the pages, and not notice?

The trouble is that when you are reading, the tiniest thing can jolt you out of it – from the cat meowing for its tea, to your baby crying to be picked up, or even something as small as the rain tapping against the window.  As a writer you are up against this too-human tendency, and your job is to make sure that you do not add to the distractions.

This is why getting the nuts and bolts right is so important.

For example, have you ever come across a typographical error in a printed novel?  It seems to be happening more and more these days, and I find I notice at least one in every novel I read.  It is irksome.  It makes you suddenly aware that you are in the act of reading a book, rather being so caught up in the action that you are in it with the characters, a part of the crowd.

I have judged a number of short story competitions in my time, and I never fail to be amazed at how writers fail to take account of this. Being aware of your readers’ flow can improve your writing immeasurably, and can make the difference between a prize and publication, or languishing at the bottom of the reject pile.

Its not just about presentation – lets face it, in this digital age, your work could be presented in any number of ways, so even if you make sure you conform to the industry standard of 12 point, double spaced text, (which I would always advise) your reader may not ultimately be consuming it that way.  You can make the difference, and keep your reader in the moment, by observing a few simple rules:

1. Pay attention to punctuation.  It’s a small thing, but it makes a big difference.  Read your work aloud, and notice where you take a breath, or pause.  That’s where a comma should go.  Read a good book about it.  You can’t do better than this one.

2.  Don’t trust the spell checker.  It can’t tell the difference between ‘passed’ and ‘past’, and that little difference could be enough to annoy your reader out of their flow, and maybe give up completely.

3. Get to grips with language.  Knowing the meaning of words is really important, so don’t just take it for granted – Fanfiction writers, I am looking at you!  Just because someone else uses the word ‘ravage’ instead of ‘ravish’, doesn’t mean you have to make the same mistake! (And ‘leisurely’ is not an adverb. Grrr!)  When in doubt, look it up!

4.  Don’t use overlong sentences.  You aren’t Henry James.  Thank God.  Keep it to one or two clauses at most.  Don’t ramble.  Short sentences may increase the pace of your scene, but you can slow things down in other ways if thats what you want, through description and reflection.

5.  Don’t repeat yourself.  This is a private bugbear of mine, I have to confess.  You don’t need to use the same word three times in a three line paragraph.  You’ve got vocabulary – use it!  If you want to understand how the breadth of language can be used to write a whole book about just one thing, avoiding  repetition, read Patrick Süskind’s dazzling novel,  ‘Perfume’.  It proves you really don’t have to repeat yourself.

6. Proof read.  And then do it again.  And then get someone else to proof read for you.  Seriously.  There are so many typos and spelling mistakes (commonly referred to as ‘smelling mistakes’ in our house) that you often can’t see without help.  (And now I am having a mini-nervous breakdown that there will be typos in this article that I haven’t seen – you see, we all do it, so beware!)

These are just a few simple things you can do to give your reader a smooth ride.  If you do that, not only will they keep reading to the end, but they are far more likely to come back for more.  And thats what you want!

Happy writing!