The Observant Writer

by Helen Kenwright

It’s easy to get lost in our own heads, as writers. That’s not a bad thing: sometimes our minds just get full of Stuff and Feelings and Weird Imaginings that are much better off written down. But it’s also helpful to look more closely at the real world around us. Through observation we improve our descriptive skills, which in turn will make it much easier to write down the Stuff, Feelings and Weird Imaginings. 

I have a ‘7 Sources of Inspiration’ list to turn to when I want to brush up my skills and get some new ideas along the way: objects, places, people, sounds, art, seasons and elements. 

Objects

This is the classic writing exercise: choose an object and observe it in all its glory. Look at it from all angles, prod it, sniff it, lick it (if safe!). Look at it in different lighting. Through a magnifying glass. Through dark glasses. As if through the eyes of a child. Just really, really, look. It’s a classic for a reason: the more we look at something the more we forget it’s socially constructed label (‘pebble’) and the more we develop our own language for our observation, whether concrete description (‘gritty’, ‘smooth’, ‘rough’, ‘brown’) or more poetic (‘glittering mica’, ‘ice-smooth’) or delving straight into symbolic meaning (‘guardian of the centuries’, ‘essence of the earth’, ‘building block of creation’). It’s all good. 

It’s amazing how little we do really observe the world around us, especially the familiar parts. Next time you read an amazing description of a milk jug in a novel, don’t think ‘I could never write like that’. Think, ‘Wow, that writer really understood that milk jug’. And then go off, notebook in hand,  and find a milk jug to stare at for a while.

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Ranting, Blogging and Self-Expression

By Helen Kenwright

We all love a good rant, right? 

That moment when things have built up inside you to fever pitch and all your frustration and tension bursts out of you in a torrent of words, faster than a pro rapper and frequently littered with expletives: you might rant out loud, on paper or perhaps you actually are a rapper and spit it out in bars on a stage. However you do it, it can be a really valuable release.

It can also be entertaining for an audience, readership or incidental bystanders. A lot of stand-up comedy routines are well-crafted rants which pick the audience up and carry them along with passion and humour (especially satire, sarcasm and irony), inviting the audience to agree, to applaud, to get all the benefits of the rant without having to peep a word themselves. 

But there are obstacles which can prevent us reaping the benefits of our ranting. In this post I’ll give some tips on how to get the best out of a rant, whether for your own wellbeing or to entertain others.

After all, the whole world has a lot to rant about right now. 

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Writing Exercise: Sense Switch

This exercise helps you to develop your writing skills by observing and describing experiences using the senses. For more information about using the senses in writing, you may like to listen to our podcast on the topic.

Time: 30-40 minutes
Materials: Writing materials, items to sense (e.g. spices, flowers, cloth, music or other sounds, etc. – Something to stimulate each of your available senses.)

  • Find yourself as quiet a spot as possible, without too much going on, so that you can focus your senses without distraction.
  • Select an item for you to experience with your senses. Let’s say you have a cup of hot lemon tea. Experience it with all the senses available: inhale the vapours, taste it, feel what it’s like to stir with a spoon, how the spoon sounds when it clinks against the sides. Let yourself soak in all the information you’re getting about that one object.
  • Set a timer for five minutes and write down as much as you can remember about that experience: what were the smells, tastes, sounds, sights and how did it feel to touch?
  • Set a timer for another five minutes, and this time write down any emotions or memories you experienced while you were sensing the object.
  • For the next ten minutes, describe the experience using opposite senses. For example, what sound does the colour of the tea remind you of? What smell does the sound of the teaspoon remind you of? Do this with as many sense-switches as you can. (Some are much harder than others!)
  • Finally, do some free writing or write a story, poem or memory based from the experience. Include as much sensory description as you can.

Feel free to share your writing in the comments if you wish.

Happy Writing!

Working from Home: Tips from Writers. Or, how to pull creativity from chaos.

by Helen Kenwright

Many writers are already experienced home workers, whether novelists, agency writers or freelancers. Writing doesn’t pay much (if anything) so office premises are but a distant dream for most of us. Or even, a nightmare. A lot of us actively enjoy working in our own space, safely separated from the rest of humanity. 

So we are ideally placed, not only to survive the current crisis without a sense of major change (except for the toilet roll shortages; I’m afraid I have no clue how to solve that one) – but to thrive in glorious isolation. We can hand on our wisdom to all those workers who find themselves with a work laptop perched on the edge of their kitchen table, wondering how Jane from accounts is coping and planning how to cover up the unfortunately yellowed wallpaper (with the ketchup stain on it) before it features as a backdrop for their next conference call on Zoom.

It’s also a good opportunity to check in on ourselves and our own working practices. Perhaps we can take this opportunity to make sure that when lockdown is over, our doors open and we emerge, blinking into the sunlight, we are in good shape to handle the brave new world awaiting us.

So read on for some tips on how to have a healthy working life at home, whether you’re a writer or Jane from accounts, who’s trying to manage a spreadsheet on one screen and homeschool her children on the iPad.

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How to achieve your writing goals: the power of developing a writing practice

by Helen Kenwright

It’s that time of year again, when people set goals and resolutions for the year ahead. For writers, that often includes ‘write more’, or ‘write a novel’, or ‘get a book published’. We head off into January full of optimism, with a clutch of shiny notebooks and good intentions, convinced that this will be the year it happens. 

Except, then it doesn’t.

All too often by February our notebook is gathering dust on the pile on our desk devoted to well-intentioned projects, while our lives are once more consumed by responsibilities and other demands on our time. If we do get as far as opening that notebook, we are met with a blank page which gives us no more than an accusatory glare. That sinking, deflating, ‘I told you so’. 

And so it goes on.

I’ve had my fair share of writer’s block (or paralysis, or anxiety, or resistance – all are very accurate terms, in my opinion). I once took someone’s criticism of my burgeoning Dungeons & Dragons based fantasy novel way too much to heart and abandoned writing fiction all together for nearly two decades. This was terrible for my mental health, and represents a lot of wasted learning time – because only by writing do we truly learn how to write. I’m glad to say that since I did pick creative writing up again I have never had a dry spell that bad, and I’ve got a lot better at using feedback constructively (and knowing whose opinion to trust)! But every now and then I do find myself staring at the screen or the notebook, convinced that I’ve completely forgotten how to so much as string a sentence together. Or a phrase. Or even to find a word I actually like the look of. It happens to nearly every writer I’ve ever met.

I won’t go into potential causes of writer’s block here, because I honestly believe there are as many as there are writers, and for each writer it can be a different reason every day. What I’m going to suggest works whether the cause is imposter syndrome, brain fog, second-book anxiety, low self esteem, lack of ideas or broken plots. It works in nearly every situation. 

It’s freewriting.

I feel this is the most important tool I can give any of my students, and it’s the one I always fall back on myself. (Such is the impact of depression and anxiety that sometimes my friends have to remind me of this, but once I remember, and do it, everything gets better.) I see freewriting as the equivalent of sketches or doodles for visual artists; it’s the musician’s scales and noodlings. It’s the improvised dance, it’s digging your fingers into cool, wet clay and squelching it around. It’s play.

Writers are so rarely encouraged to play. But we need to. Play is the essence of the creative spirit. It’s what drives us to think of new, amazing things. To express ourselves. To put aside all the shoulds and musts of adulthood and let us believe that in this, our world, anything is possible.

Freewriting reminds us that we are writers. We have only to trust our own imagination, let our own words emerge, and we can do this.

Routine freewriting is the basis of our practice as writers. It’s like scales for a musician, stretches for an athlete. It’s the basis of a good writing habit. And it doesn’t even require skill. Just you and your writing materials of choice, and ten minutes a day.

In Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life, Natalie Goldberg says writing practice is like:

“… moving one foot in front of the other when you walk. The problem is that we don’t notice that movement of one foot in front of the other. We just move our feet. Writing practice asks you to notice not only how your feet move but also how your mind moves. And not only that, it makes you notice your mind and begin to trust it and understand it. This is good. It is basic for writing. If you get this, the rest is none of my business. You can do what you want.”

Once you have that trust that you can keep the words coming, you can let it happen. Later you can shape and mould and polish those words into the form you want. The hardest part is done. You’ve generated the clay. Now you can make your pot.

Sometimes this works in a literal sense: your freewriting generates an idea that might grow into a story, a novel, a script, a poem. Sometimes it’s just about building that trust with yourself so that when you get the idea, the writing will just happen. 

Many new writers start with the plot, or the structure, or the research, and find the writing so intimidating they never leave that stage. Their research grows, their outline grows, they may even have an impressive cast of characters. But without the writing, it goes nowhere and they end up feeling like failures, unable to convert this incredibly imagined thing into a living, breathing story. Because you can’t build a house if you can’t lay bricks, no matter how good your design.

How to Freewrite

My advice is this: freewrite every day, for at least ten minutes. You can write about anything. Pick a random sentence from a book on your shelf. Write about what’s in your fridge. Write about a memory. Write from one of the daily prompts on the Writing Tree Twitter. Write a letter to your past or future self. You can write anything. Just remember the three rules: don’t censor, don’t censure, don’t stop. 

I teach my students two freewriting methods. The first is to write whatever comes to mind in a stream-of-consciousness style (sentences and paragraphs optional). This is the traditional freewriting method as recommended by Natalie Goldberg, Julia Cameron and Peter Elbow, among others. If you get stuck, just write ‘I’m stuck, I’m stuck, I’m stuck’ until you think of something else to write. (It’s amazing how quickly the brain will get bored of that and offer you something else to write about!) 

The other method is to start with a single prompt, and free associate words from it. When you’ve got a dozen or so words down, take a few of these and free associate from them, too. Then take half a dozen of these words and for each, write a sentence including it. Then for each sentence write a paragraph. And so on.

The key to both methods is to keep writing. Don’t let your hand stop moving your pen or keyboard. Don’t cross anything out (if you really find this hard, underline ‘mistakes’ instead – but please try not to). Don’t stop yourself from writing anything that comes to mind for fear it might be ‘wrong’, ‘silly’ or ’embarrassing’. This is play. It’s learning. It’s supposed to be experimental and silly.

Opinions vary as to whether you should read your freewriting back or not. My rule is to leave it at least a month. By then I will be able to detach myself from it and mine it for any goodies I want to use in further writing, without self-criticism. Your mileage may vary!

So go on. Crack open that notebook. Open that file. It’s 2020. This is the year you do it.

Write.

Writing Groups: Giving Feedback

by Ekaterina Fawl

I’ve already talked about the joys and challenges of receiving feedback graciously (even if it’s not the glowing praise you expected!) and using it to improve your piece (even if the comments aren’t as helpful as you might have hoped). Now it’s time to turn the tables… Let’s delve into the art of giving feedback! How can we do that without crushing our fellow writers’ spirits, while giving them our honest opinion? How do we organise our thoughts? How do we provide the most useful and thoughtful feedback the writer can get?

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The Art of Letter Writing

by Bon Nightingale

[This week’s blog post is by guest blogger Bon Nightingale who, at 96, still corresponds regularly with friends and family and members of her church. She writes for us about the (nearly) lost art of letter-writing, and the part it’s played in her life.]

I remember when I was seven, my father gave me a pencil box. Oak, with a slide-top. It had compartments inside for pencils and rubber. It smelled of wood, like my dad’s workshop.

I started writing letters to my Grandma – my father’s mother. I went to her for music lessons, and we’d write little notes to each other. At school I enjoyed dictation, the pleasure of forming letters and sentences. I remember writing ‘A Day in the Life of a Cat’ for a composition exercise, and got in trouble because my imagination ran away with me. My cat lived a day as a human. He went on an adventure on a boat. My work was marked with the dreaded ‘see me’ from the teacher, who told me off for using too much imagination. After that I stuck to more factual writing. Continue reading

The Joy of Restraints: deadlines, themes and wordcounts.

BY CATHRYN BURGE

In theory, writing a story which might be included in an anthology seemed like a wonderful idea. In practice, it seemed like a very stupid one. Once I’d decided to go for it, every single story seed I’d ever had promptly withered and died. I wandered around for days trying to shake something promising out of my brain, but to no avail. Cue self-doubt and panic: I’d blithely committed myself to producing something and I couldn’t even think of anything suitable, let alone write it. Worse still, there was a deadline, an absolute date by which I’d agreed to submit a story for publication. It seemed like the only answer might be gin.

Forest. I rolled the word around my brain as I walked the dog. What sprang to mind when I heard the word ‘forest’? What pictures formed in my head?

Teddy bears. Yep, teddy bears. ‘If you go down to the woods’ and all that, swiftly followed by Goldilocks and axe-men intent on lopping the heads of princesses at the behest of jealous step-mothers. Ridiculous, I told myself; you’ll have to think again. Continue reading

Writing Groups: Taking Feedback

by Ekaterina Fawl

Being in a writing group is tons of fun. Socialising with like-minded people, getting to read their first drafts and workshop their stories as they take shape, getting a glimpse of others’ creative processes – all amazing experiences. But sooner or later comes the time do that what you have ostensibly joined the group for: receive feedback on your own writing.

You might dread it, or can’t wait to hear what the others think, or some healthy combination thereof. But the fact is, taking feedback and effectively using it to improve the story and your writing as a whole is a skill in itself. If you’re new to it, there’s quite a lot to learn there.

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Crafting a poem: an insight

by Susi Liarte

In this post I’m going to cover how I usually approach writing poems. It’ll be reflective of the type of poetry I like to read and write, which is short, rhythmic poems that try to capture some imagery or poignancy. There is no ‘knowledge’ required of types of poetry and it is not my aim to cover that in this post, so I’ll be using very little terminology. I’ll work on doing that in another post. With that out of the way, let’s start!

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The Writing Squad

writing group pixabay

by Ekaterina Fawl

Writing is a lonely pursuit. There’s really no way around it: when it’s happening, it’s just paper – or the screen – and you. We have the company of our characters, of course. We draw constant, invaluable mentorship and inspiration from our favourite authors. But there’s nothing quite like sharing your stories with actual real people.

Unless you’re already a successful writer, swamped by fanmail, you might struggle finding readership. Your Mum might read your latest masterpiece, but you might not get much more than “That was nice, dear” in terms of feedback. It might be time to discover local members of your secret tribe of mad scribblers and join a writing group. Continue reading

Journalling

typewriter-801921_1920

by Helen Kenwright

Most of the writers I know have a stack of notebooks that live a quiet life, sitting on a shelf or in the deep darkness of a drawer or chest. Doomed to be unwritten in, simply because they’re ‘too pretty to use’. I confess I have this problem myself. I can’t resist a pretty notebook, and generous friends buy them for me, too. But then I buy a stack of cheap, plain ones to write my drafts in. Workhorses. Ordinary enough that I won’t mind crossings out and bad handwriting and all that messy stuff that happens when you’re crafting something. Continue reading

No writer is an island

by Cathryn Burge

If there’s an opinion piece type that’s guaranteed to raise my blood pressure, it’s one in which the author pontificates about How To Write – particularly if their pontificating is dressed up as well-meant advice. And there are lots of articles like that out there, especially on the internet. Here, have a small selection:

  • If I’m reading a Western story and the author has tried to render the characters’ accents phonetically via non-standard spelling, I stop reading. Please don’t.
  • I don’t judge … well, actually, I do. I stopped reading a romantic story when the author thought the expressing ‘sucking face’ would make a nice change from ‘kissing’. It didn’t.
  • Careless spelling in summaries augurs ill for a story. ‘Adam’s proposal peeked Rickard’s interest’. Peeked. PEEKED. Someone please tell the author the word they were looking for was ‘piqued’.
  • Another phrase I’m sick of reading is ‘their tongues fought for dominance’.

Don’t get me wrong: we (almost) all do it. We look at other writers’ work and pass judgement on it. After all, why shouldn’t we? Developing the ability to differentiate between what works and what doesn’t can help us make our own writing better. But how can we be sure of what’s ‘good’ and what’s ‘bad’? What standards do we use to guide us? Continue reading

The Writer’s Cooldown

by Helen Kenwright

So, how was Nanowrimo for you? Or perhaps there’s another big writing project you’ve recently finished?

One of the criticisms sometimes directed at Nanowrimo is that it can cause writer burn-out. Hopefully if you’ve followed the advice in Ekaterina’s blog post last month you won’t have succumbed to total mental and physical exhaustion. But there can be an aftermath to be dealt with, and in this post we give you some advice to help move forward from the experience, however it went, and keep writing into the future. Continue reading