Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Writing for Beginners (40)

Give yourself a break

It’s that time of year again: the holiday season. When people bitten by the writing bug take a long, hard look at the calendar and affirm, ‘I’m going to do some serious writing!’ 

This decision is often accompanied by purchasing a fresh note pad, giving the laptop a wash and brush-up or trying to figure out a way of getting everyone else to push off to Ben Nevis for a few days and leave you in splendidly creative isolation.

Well, sorry to kick sand in your face, but this is remarkably similar to other summer-time promises like, ‘I’m going to clear out the loft’ ‘…creosote the fence’ or ‘…tile the bathroom’. And, like my dear old dad used to say about good intentions, it’s all very well trying to put on your wellies while walking downstairs, but you’ll probably end up disappointed.

One reason we fail to achieve everything we want to during these all-too-rare breaks, is because we set our sights too high. We rarely get all the quiet thinking time we expect or need (yes, staring into space like a hypnotised goldfish is an accepted writerly phenomenon); we find all manner of other distractions for not being able to put words in the order we want to; and instead of being relaxed and ready to let the prose flow from the brain to the paper, we end up stressed, irritable and ready to bite holes in the sun-lounger.

I’m not suggesting, of course, that all your writing plans should be given the elbow just because the rest of the family want you to go to Bognor, Berlin or Barbados. Or because your friends are likely to descend on you like a marauding army the moment you put pen to paper. You probably need the fun just as much as they do, anyway.

But what you might do is scale down your expectations without losing sight of your aims or even being any the less productive.

(Actually, thinking of beaches, I should probably ‘fess up straight away and say that I can’t recall ever having written anything meaningful on a beach… not unless it was that rude word I carved in the sand at Cromer one summer when I was ten. I think it was only the fact that I mis-spelled it that saved my bacon).

I’ve scribbled to good effect on trains, yes; boats, too – and planes – especially when I’ve wanted to avoid conversation. Even walks in the country have produced that blinding ‘Yes!’ moment, when a problem was overcome with a flash of inspiration. But never by the sea. Too much sand in delicate places, too much weather, too much nature and way too much going on around me to be ignored. Although, on the last point, I once sat on a deserted Cape Cod beach and got endless enjoyment watching absolutely nothing go by. It was brilliant!

So, the thing to do is set your aims to suit the circumstances. Instead of trying to write a short story in its entirety, why not simply sketch out the main characters and an outline plot – maybe even two? For a planned feature, jot down a tick-list of the points you want to cover – maybe even the illustrations or photos you could use to go with it. For something more ambitious (yes, the book) rough out what you would like to see happen as main events in the plot. List the characters, with whatever descriptive details might occur to you, and the locations. Even build some idea of the chapters and their contents to suit the flow of the story.

Vague as it may seem, what you are doing is working on building a framework which, by its very looseness, will give you a number of useful options about what to do next.

You’re not being bogged down at this point by unnecessary detail or structure, nor are you lured into going over the same points again and again due to fractured concentration. And none of these scribblings needs to be hugely accurate or in any specific order; all that can come later. It’s merely another use of the stepping stone process I’ve mentioned before, but it can lead to real progress.

So much better, I find, than staring in bug-eyed frustration at a blank screen or note pad and wondering, if you buried the noisy g*t next door in the nearest flower bed (along with his strimmer), would anyone notice?

I find this shorthand form of creativity much easier – and in the end, considerably more satisfying than trying to write against all odds. In fact, it’s as though the very act of not trying too hard unleashes a buzz of ideas. And being able to refer back to my ‘notes’ at any time, no matter how unstructured they might be, allows me more flexibility in what I’m doing.

It also lets me face that first holiday gin and tonic of the day with a real feeling of accomplishment. And accomplishment, to most of us, is surely what it’s all about.


·       Don’t set unrealistic writing goals when you know circumstances are not in your favour.
·       Random jottings can be just as productive as a full page.
·       Prepare a framework, then fill in the detail when time allows.
·       A relaxed mind is far more creative than a stressed one.
·       Don’t forget, have some fun, too.
This article was taken from my book 'Write On! - the Writer's Help Book' - (Accent Press) - available in p/b and ebook.

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