Monday, 25 April 2016

Thinking Time

Do you take time out to think? I don’t mean sitting around waiting for the Muse to strike. I mean making the effort to sit down, with a project or idea in mind, and working out how to develop it?

I think writers get used to thinking all of the time, and so we become blasé about it. It develops into one of those activities we do while doing something else: washing up, cutting the grass, going for a walk or doing the weekly food shop. But for us, as writers, thinking deserves more respect.

I’ve just finished reading David Allen’s revised Getting Things Done (GTD). It’s one of those books that needs to be reread every couple of years, just to remind yourself of some of its finer points of his technique. His idea is a simple one: have a system for collating and managing all of your to-dos, because our brains are not designed to be filing cabinets keeping track of everything we should be doing. Instead, we should clear our brains of all of this stuff and give them the space to do what they were designed to do: think.

It’s a similar principle to Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages technique in her book The Artist’s Way. She espouses the benefits of waking up in the morning and writing three pages … of anything. She sees it as an opportunity to declutter the brain of its overnight thoughts - often things we’ve realised we need to do at some point.

Once we’ve done that, according to Julia, our brain is then free to think. To be creative. Well, isn’t that what every writer wants it to do?

So, do you make time to think? How do you think? Do you stare at a blank wall? Or gaze wistfully out of a window? Do you play soft music in the background and close your eyes? I’d suggest doing whatever feels right for you, but do two more things:

- take yourself off somewhere quiet, where you won’t be disturbed,
- take a notebook and pen to record your thinking.

Take a project you’re working on (story, article, novel, non-fiction book) and simply think about it. Ask yourself some questions to get the thinking process started:

- What do you need to do next with this project?
- Is something stopping you from moving it forward?
- How is your character going to resolve their current problem?
- Have you considered all of the angles for your article?

Jot down everything that comes into your mind in a notebook. Personally, I find writing in longhand helps with my thinking process. The slow pace of handwriting gives my brain time to cogitate (although, perhaps that’s just because my brain is slow at thinking).

Experiment. Set a timer and give yourself ten minutes of thinking time to start off with. Be realistic with the other demands on your life. Take yourself off somewhere: garden, the car parked on the drive, the smallest room in the house even. Just see what happens. Over a period of time you may discover a time, place, environment that works best for you. Perhaps three ten minute blocks of thinking time a day will work better for you than one half an hour block.

Writers are often perceived as daydreamers, but thinking is a crucial activity for us. It’s not a process to be hurried. Thinking is just as important as our writing - perhaps more so, for without thinking we might not have anything to write!

Think about it.

Good luck.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Twenty Words

“Do you write every day?” a student asked, when they emailed their latest assignment.

“Yes,” I replied.

“I wish I had the time to sit down and write every day. But some days I barely get ten minutes to myself.”

I could almost hear the sigh of despondency in her response. And then the penny dropped. (As some of you know, I can be quite slow on the uptake at times.) Many people assume that when I say I write every day it means I sit down and write a complete article, an entire short story or the whole chapter of my latest novel every day. I wish.

Don’t get me wrong. I do have days when a lot of writing gets done. Last Thursday, for example, I drafted the 1700 words for the next piece in my Writing Magazine column. But the day before I only wrote 20 words. Yes. Twenty. Not because I had the back of my hand clasped to my forehead in frustration at the failed appearance of the Muse that day. It was only 20 words because life got in the way. 

It’s a new tax year, so I was experiencing the joys of gathering one’s paperwork together in preparation for the tax return. I also had to drive a relative to their appointment at the physiotherapy department. And the driveway was being tarmacked, which involved the noisiest and most earth-shuddering equipment known on the planet operating just a foot away on the other side of my office wall.

But I still managed 20 words. It was the opening to a short story. I haven’t got any further with that particular project at the moment, but hopefully, this week, I’ll be able to develop it further.

Even though it was only 20 words, it was still some writing. Writing every day doesn’t mean you have to write complete pieces. It just means … writing. Something. Anything.

The next time you’re waiting for a bus, or a train, get out a notepad and pen (or your notes app on your smartphone) and write something. Write the opening paragraph to an article, or a short story. Write six opening paragraphs. You don’t have to develop them all. But one might inspire you to carry on with it at a later date, when you have more time. Keep writing until the bus/train comes. Then, when you step on board, you can sit down with the smug satisfaction that you’ve done some writing today. (and why not continue writing, if you’re not too worried about missing your stop?)

It might not be much. But you have written. And that’s what makes people writers.

Good luck. 

Monday, 11 April 2016

Writers' Groups

Two weeks’ ago I blogged about Rowling’s Rejections (I’m making the most of this blog post, aren’t I?). And, if I’m honest, there’s one comment in one of her rejection letters that really annoys me. It’s a phrase I’ve seen in many publisher and literary agent rejection letters (and I’ve certainly had a few of those over the years). It usually goes along the lines of recommending the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook, and then suggests joining a writers’ group.

There you go. It’s easy. Get rejected by a publisher or a literary agent and it doesn’t matter, because if you go to a writers’ group they’ll sort you out. 

Er … not necessarily. I always wonder at this point how many publishers and literary agents have been to a writers’ group. They certainly haven’t been to the two I go to (although if any are reading this, and are interested, do feel free to get in touch). What annoys me about this suggestion in their rejection letters is that it implies a writers group will turn them into publishable writers. Again: not necessarily.

A writers’ group is only as good as the members it comprises. Many are voluntary-run community groups. There are some fantastic groups out there and there are some that perhaps aren’t quite as good. Some groups organise guest speakers, run workshops, get professionals in to share knowledge and experience. Others may be no more than a glorified appreciation society.

I wish publishers’ and agents’ rejection letters recommended finding a good writers’ group. That immediately flags up that not all groups are the same. I go to two groups: two very different groups. I get different things from them, but I do get something from them. I’ve always said that it’s important for a writer to find the right writers’ group for them (if they want to join a group). This may mean going to several different groups and trying them out.

Likewise, it is not every writers’ group’s responsibility to be the perfect writers’ group for every new face who walks in through their door. 

So if you get a rejection letter from an agent, or a publisher, and decide that, following the advice in their letter, you want to join a writers’ group, then that’s great. But do your research. Find out what experience the members of the group have. Is it the right experience that will help you? If they’re all poets and non-fiction writers, and you want to write cross-genre romantic vampire cosy crime novels (now there’s a niche market) are they really the right group to help you?

The right group can help you tremendously. They can offer constructive feedback on your work, and perhaps point you in the right direction for further advice. But don’t just join any writers’ group because a publisher or literary agent suggests so.

Good luck!

Monday, 4 April 2016

Giving Up

Last week I blogged about JK Rowling’s rejection letters and her (and the rejecting publisher’s) encouragement to never give up. My post fell into the timeline of a writing facebook friend who was currently in a ‘giving up’ mood. It was interesting reading the comments and support from her other friends. One mentioned how she too felt like giving up, but hadn’t and had just won a national writing competition. Another explained how only we are capable of telling our stories, and giving up would mean those stories would not be told. And there was also advice to take a day off, too.

All of these are valid points and useful. I like to think of these thoughts of 'giving up’ as showing we care about our work, and that we want to offer the best we can … but it’s the lack of confidence that questions whether we’re capable of producing the quality we strive for: that our writing isn’t as good as someone else’s. That’s when we think about giving up.

We’re always questioning ourselves: it’s why we’re writers. My confidence always takes a knock when I’m working on a big project and it’s just not flowing. There are times when I get stuck and can’t see a way forward. Without that clear path ahead it makes the journey seem impossible. So why push on, especially when we could take a wrong turn?

At times like this I dig out something I wrote several months ago. I’ll look at an article, or a short story, anything that I completed. It needn’t be something that’s been published. Just some writing that I finished. And that can help put things into perspective.

We tend to forget about what we’ve finished: what we’ve achieved. When negative feelings envelope us, encouraging those thoughts of giving up, they often have us concentrating on the problems with our current writing project. They cloud our judgement, obscuring all of our previous work. Sometimes I pick up something I wrote several months ago, read it and think, “Blimey! That’s good. Did I really write that?” And other times I’ll read something and think,”That’s awful. That doesn’t work because of X, Y and Z.” But I take comfort from the latter because it means I can see what the problems are now with that piece. I understand that as a writer I have grown since I first wrote that piece. Therefore, I am improving. I am still growing as a writer. That helps me to carry on.

So don’t panic if you feel like giving up. It shows you care about your writing. But don’t make any rash decisions. As someone else suggested, take a day off. Go and do something completely different. It’ll put things into perspective. If you really want to do this current project, you will find a way. It may not be the way you originally intended, but you’ll work something out. Feeling like giving up now will only enhance that sense of achievement when you do accomplish your writing dream.

Perhaps that’s what we need to remind ourselves: what are our writing dreams? If it really is a life’s dream of ours, then we never should give up.

Good luck.