Writing Secrets: It’s that time of year – use it to your creative advantage
It’s the time of year we either look forward to or dread (or both in equal measure.)
It’s holiday time, the kids are home and the family needs to spend time together, which is important. And all the relatives are coming to stay.
I’m not going to batter you with exhortations to get up at 5 and get your writing done. If you’re lucky enough to have someone to wake up with, enjoy it. And if you haven’t, enjoy that too. Be a little self-indulgent.
There is a way you can build your writing practice without making yourself completely reclusive or totally unpopular. The trick is to keep those writing muscles toned without driving yourself insane trying to write anything you care about while the kids race around screaming and the aunts bicker.
One important thing, of course, is to keep reading. There’s nothing that helps writing quite like reading. Read to enjoy. Keep a book with you always for those odd moments when you’re able to indulge. My Kindle spends all summer in a zip-lock bag so I can read on the beach.
Another thing you can do is to carry a small notebook around – and use it. If you’re lying on the beach, eavesdrop shamelessly on those around you. Transcribe the exact words they use, including the pauses, the interruptions, the ums and ahs. Not only will it provide you with story ideas, but it will give you a good feel for the rhythms of real speech, which you will try to mimic in your dialogue.
Spend ten minutes a day free writing. Set a timer but not an objective. Simply start writing. It doesn’t matter what you write about as long as you don’t worry about spelling and grammar, and as long as you don’t censor or belittle yourself. You’ll be amazed how it will strengthen your voice and get you writing with greater ease and flow.
Set yourself the task of observing a setting or a group of people. Don’t just look at them idly. Watch them with your writer’s eye – and ear. Use all your senses. What does a scene feel and smell like? How does the ice cream taste?
Now force yourself to find the words to describe what you are observing so actively. Ban the generic descriptives. No beautiful sunsets, awesome oceans or picturesque villages. Never again. You are going to try to find the words which will allow us to picture the scene for ourselves. Concentrate on strong verbs and, where you use adjectives, let them specify something particular, iike colour or shape.
Have fun with your notebook. Describe interactions between great-aunt Jenny and cousin Stan. Use specific details to bring them alive.
It’s hard at first. It takes practice to observe actively and to find exactly the right words and images, but the more you do it, the more supple and powerful your writing will become.
Here’s another little exercise: observe someone – a total stranger – then develop them as a character. Decide what kind of person they are. Ask them questions (in your head, of course. You’re not going to hare across and throw intimate questions at them).
Ask things like: what are you most afraid of? What do you most look forward to? What was your most traumatic incident? And so on. If you have the time, write an internal monologue as if you were them. Slip inside the character you’ve created and allow them to write about their hopes and dreams.
See the world through a story-teller’s eyes. If you can do this, then every holiday, every trip you take, can feed your writing. You’re never really resting. You’re observing, collating, picking up material.
See yourself as a character and your life as a series of journeys. When you tell stories at the dinner table, tell them as a series of scenes, with dialogue. Collect anecdotes and scenes, scraps of dialogue and even phrases from the people around you. Scribble them down in your notebook.
Everything becomes grist to the mill eventually, and if you can see life through a story-teller’s eyes, every experience can become a good story.
Writers draw from life all the time. This is not to say they write autobiography. But they pinch aspects of life and use them in entirely different ways, for different purposes.
So, as a writer, you’re never not writing. You’re watching, collecting, practising. It’s just a matter of the way you see life: not as a string of discrete events, but as a series of stories, which build and grow.
If you celebrate Christmas, I wish you a good one. Otherwise, I wish you a happy holiday and time to spend with those you love.
There’ll be no blog from me next week since All About Writing is closing for a week, but I’ll see you bright and chirpy in the new year.