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

NaNoWriMo, your wrists and the triumph of common sense

by Ekaterina Fawl

My first NaNoWriMo was a wild ride.

I’d heard about this challenge from a friend. They weren’t doing it that year; all my questions as to why not were met with hollow laughter.

I decided to give it a try, and do it all by myself. I didn’t join the website, thinking it would just upset me if the Internet recorded my early failure for the posterity. I didn’t think I needed a writing buddy, or any kind of community support. All I needed was write 1667 words a day for a month. Easy.

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I write things

by Ekaterina Fawl

Writing has been my hobby and obsession since I was about seven, and it has also been my secret.

As a child I hid away the stories I scribbled in my spare school notebooks. As many kids, I was somewhat fascinated with the macabre. My stories were dark and gory and I didn’t want my budding goth aesthetics to cause any alarm to my parents.

Of course I never told anyone about my writing when I was in my teens. Even wearing the wrong kind of hat could destroy your social standing in those years, let alone admitting to something so hopelessly uncool and nerdy. I had spent enough energy trying to dodge the swotter label. What would my peer think about me doing extra writing – for fun! – after I meticulously finished all my homework for the day? Continue reading

The Landscape of Inspiration

by Susi Liarte

Imagine you are walking through an old town. The houses and paving are all made from local materials because these were the easiest to gather at the time. This is what it means to write what you know – to draw from the experiences and inspiration you have to hand. However, it does not limit what you can create because you are always gaining new ideas. When you are walking through a different story, a different author’s landscape, even when you are looking at familiar things they are built in a unique way. Your work from the past is also an old town; what you create now can capture its style or rise like a piece of modern architecture. Regardless, what you design with your imagination needs a strong foundation – the writing craft itself. Continue reading