Let’s help each other make this a year for writing

 In Newsletters, Tips for Writers

Welcome to this month’s newsletter

Many of our community, it seems, have earmarked 2018 as their year for writing. We’ve had so many requests for help and support, we’ve decided to dedicate this newsletter to answering just some of the most common queries we’ve received.

Below, I’ll be looking at: how to find the time to write, how to use your writing time well, and what happens when you get stuck.

Finding time to write

First of all, the vexed question of finding time to write. Sadly, there is no easy answer to this. Unless you have the kind of life which doesn’t intrude (ha ha), your writing has to fit around your other obligations.

Some people swear by a small number of words every day. Anthony Trollope wrote between 5.30 and 8.30am every morning, before leaving for his day job in the postal service.

But many people find it hard to squeeze in time – even an hour – every day, and the inability makes them feel inadequate. I can understand the problem, though. I have never managed to write every day.

I always struggle to squeeze the words out when I first sit down, so an hour every day feels to me very unsatisfactory. I was always fortunate in being able to use a few hours once or twice a week. After a first stilted hour, my writing usually begins to flow.

The disadvantage of this method is that it takes time to get back into a piece you last touched a week ago. When I’m busy with a manuscript, I read my last few paragraphs the evening before I sit down to write. Then I sit quietly by myself for fifteen minutes or so, either free writing or meditating.

You’ll find that ideas for the next day will burst into your head. Scribble these down in a notebook. Start your next day’s writing by typing up the first couple of paragraphs from your notebook – and then you’re on your way. You may end up changing them later, but it doesn’t matter. You’re back inside your project.

If you can only negotiate three hours once a week, it’s better than nothing.

Use your writing time well

The trick, of course, is to use your writing time well. Oh, the pressure, the pressure… But the point is to get some words down. You don’t have to get great words down. (That’s often what your second draft is for.)

I have always had a Calvinist streak. The ability to be strict with yourself serves you well as a writer. When it’s your time to write, force yourself to sit at your computer. (You may make a cup of coffee first, but you may not wipe the surfaces or consider how badly the grocery cupboard needs re-organisation.)

Don’t wait for inspiration. It’ll never come. If you’re lucky, you might feel inspired once you’ve been writing for an hour, but not always. Never mind. When you look back at your writing, you’ll struggle to see the difference between the writing you managed when it felt you were wading through mud and when the words flew through you.

Sit staring at that empty screen until a word appears, and then another. Don’t allow yourself to get up and do something else. DO NOT start checking your email, or Facebook. In fact, ban yourself from checking anything until your writing time is up. If you’re able, leave your phone in another room, on silent.

Another trick is to lie to people. If you tell people you’re spending Saturday morning writing, they’ll say: “Oh great, I’ll pop in for coffee then”, or even, “Okay, so you’re not doing anything, you can drive granny to the airport.”

Lie. You have a desperately important deadline, which cannot be missed on pain of death.

Getting stuck

Getting stuck seems to be another common ailment.

There are days when it’s harder to write than others. There’s a lot going on in your life – emotionally or otherwise. That’s when you have to be strict about staring at the screen.

A little meditation time can really help – allowing you to withdraw from your daily concerns for a while. If you’re really struggling, set a timer and spend ten minutes free writing. This also has the effect of drawing you out of your daily worries and it allows the ideas to flow.

On the other hand, you may have to look dispassionately at your writing and consider the problem may lie there.

Did you spend enough time developing your characters? If you don’t know them, inside and out, before you begin, they might not feel real to you. Their interactions feel forced and difficult to write.

Solution: spend several days of writing time building who they are: not just their external characteristics, but what they’re like in their innermost secret selves, and how they became the people they are.

Once you’ve done that, you may find it necessary to go back to what you wrote before … or even, in extreme cases, use it as raw material and start again. But, if it gets you going, it’s worth it.

People also sometimes get stuck once they’re past the beginning. That’s often the easy part. But now they’re facing the middle and perhaps they haven’t paid enough attention to their destination.

Solution 1: You don’t need to know every step you’ll take until the end of the book, but look closely at your character and consider their emotional arc. Who are they at the start and, very importantly, what do they want?

What will happen to them – in broad strokes – along the way? Who and where will they be at the end how will they have changed (even if you don’t know every detail of your ending)?

Solution 2: Look at the scenes you’ve been writing. Does every scene show us more about your characters and take their story further?

What happens in these scenes? If you can’t answer this question in just a couple of sentences, chances are these are not fully fledged scenes. They may need reworking.

Lastly, if you’re writing memoir, don’t think you’re exempt from these issues. It’s often easier for memoir writers to get stuck. Because they think the story already exists, they don’t pay attention to it. As a result, it’s easy for them to rush off at tangents without considering whether every scene carries the story onward.

I’m afraid … life exists, but the story doesn’t. Not until you develop it. Any number of things happen to us every day. Very few of them will end up in a book.

It’s a matter of selection. But first think about the emotional arc of the character (even if that’s you) and what story you’re setting out to tell. Then it will become clearer which scenes from your life will take that story forward.

Just because something happened, doesn’t mean it needs to be immortalised.

News about us

Our flagship online Creative Writing Course is currently running so if you’re keen to learn the skills you need to write a book – fiction or creative non-fiction – and to write confidently in scenes, you can still join the course.

It could be that’s all you need to unblock and for the writing to flow. Click here to sign up and get started today.

Our famous Venice Writing Retreat, which offers that most precious commodity – time out of time in an inspiring venue – is now very nearly full. There’s only space for one writer left.

Lastly, our very first Creative Screenwriting course kicks off on Thursday 15 March. This course forms the first step in learning to be a proficient script and screenplay writer. It’s a ten-week on-line course that runs you through the essential skills required by anyone who wishes to write for either film or television.

To celebrate the launch of this new course, we’re offering it at a full 25 per cent discount if you pay in full in advance. It’s a once-off offer (never to be repeated) so hurry, hurry, hurry!

We are now able to walk you through the entire process, from the most basic steps to more advanced techniques, and on to a mentoring programme, which will allow you to write your own script or screenplay from beginning to end.

And don’t forget the competition

If all else fails, writing something within strict guidelines takes the pressure away and often helps you unblock. Try your hand at our February-March competition and see if it does the trick. Click here for all the details.

It has the added advantage of offering the prize of a gift voucher worth R1000, to be redeemed against any of our courses or programmes from our flagship online Creative Writing Course to our Venice Retreat.

Wishing you a month full of writing


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