Sunday, 24 April 2016

Writing for beginners (17)

Writing from cold

There are times when even the most disciplined of writers, head bursting with ideas and plotlines and eager to get on with their current project, will sit down in front of a keyboard… and promptly grind to a halt. For whatever reason, although pumped full of positive thoughts and intentions, they don’t know how or where to start.

It’s not so much the dreaded writer’s block which afflicts them, but something more common, yet thankfully, much easier to deal with. It’s a kind of inertia.
It might be compared with going to the gym intent on having a good physical workout, but finding yourself faced with all that complex equipment, such as treadmills, pulleys, weights and pedals, you freeze. Sometimes the brain simply cannot tell the body where to go first, and you end up in a half-hearted session with no real benefit or outcome other than a feeling of frustration and tiredness.

The only answer is to start somewhere simple, with a gentle exercise.

Writing from cold is another kind of warm-up, only with the emphasis on using the brain muscle. And in the same way that a session stretching on the mat or walking on a treadmill for a few minutes can ease one’s way into a routine, using a warm-up exercise on the keyboard can perform the same function.

The easiest way to approach this is to take a look out of your nearest window, and make a mental note of what you can see (not what you know is out there – different thing altogether). The scene doesn’t matter, nor does the time of day or night. Nor should you try to capture every detail. What you are looking for is a snapshot, including maybe one or two items which catch your eye the moment you see them.

Now go away and write that scene in one sentence – two at the very most. Whether you write in storytelling mode or straightforward descriptive style is up to you; the important thing is to write what you see and make it as interesting as possible.

Next, ignoring anyone real who might be out there, add to that scene by bringing on a person. What gender or age they are, what they are doing and why, whether they arrive or are already in place, is entirely up to you and your imagination. They might be walking a dog, kicking a brick or simply standing looking at the scenery. They could even be up to no good, if you feel that works.

Now bring in something to which your first character has to respond. It could be the arrival of another character. It might be a vehicle or even the ringing of a mobile phone. The important thing is, something must happen to bring this potentially mundane scene alive. You could add to it by supplying dialogue between the characters; a greeting to begin with, a familiarity between them which speaks of past knowledge, or a question which pinpoints them as strangers. Are they friends, colleagues, competitors or enemies? Have they come to this place on the same errand or are they on opposing sides?

What you are setting up in this exercise, in addition to getting your physical writing muscles working, is a small story or a scene in which there is action or conflict. More importantly, you are easing your brain into writing mode, that strange mix of imagination and creative moulding where you begin to think less about hitting the keyboard (or worse, cleaning it) and more about organising a scene and its associated characters, first in your head, then onto the screen. In other words, you’re doing what you set out to do, just like every day when you are writing normally.

In the same way that athletes go through a warm-up routine before focussing on a specific training programme, writers sometimes need to flex their literary and creative muscles first before they get started. And rather than trying to jump straight into a scene and come up against a brick wall –  the equivalent of muscle cramp for an athlete who hasn’t prepared well – approaching it in a more relaxed manner can pay dividends and save a lot of frustration and heartache in the end.

A note of caution: this scene might go nowhere. It could fizzle out before you’ve got a grain of a workable idea from it. That doesn't matter. Sub-consciously, you’ve been quietly getting yourself into the ‘zone’ – that area and mood you need to be in to get your creative juices bubbling over effectively.

Moreover, there’s the possibility that you’ve been creating something new, something useful, which you can save and put on the back-burner, ready for the next time you're searching for an idea.

And the one thing you can never have too many of is ideas.

·       Describe a setting, then add to it to build a potential story scene.
·       Let the brain run free; don’t focus hard on any one thing.
·       Add more people or actions – anything which makes you keep writing.
·       The physical and mental activity is merely getting you into the habit for what lies ahead.
·       When you feel ready, save what you’ve written and get on with your current project. The scene you have saved might serve you well in the future.


For more advice and tips on writing, see my book 'Write On! - the writer's help book' - available in paperback or ebook. With thanks to Writing Magazine for allowing me to reproduce them here. 


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