Writing Secrets: Writing practice for holiday-makers

 In All About Writing

My partner and I have recently become addicted to The Bodyguard, a British series on Netflix.

If you’re anything like us, you’re probably quite capable of becoming obsessed by a cleverly constructed TV series, especially over the holidays. It certainly creates fodder for (sometimes robust) debate over who among our friends has discovered the best series.

Watching a good series can teach you quite a lot about writing, so don’t feel guilty about a binge-session or two. You can’t watch completely uncritically, though. Watch like a writer. Take note of how the characters are “shown” to us, through the way they act and speak, their body language, and the way others react to them.

Take note of every scene: how it carries the story forward. Listen to the dialogue and see how they’ve chosen to structure the story.

I was impressed by the way The Bodyguard manages not to explain a thing about the protagonist’s past, but feeds in a hint here and a scrap there, forcing us to put these clues together to form a picture of what has happened to him before the story starts.

Approach your holiday reading in the same way. I know it spoils reading for a while. Instead of just hunkering down and disappearing into the world of the characters, you become aware of the devices used. Where does the book start, what point of view has been used, how is it structured? How strong are the scenes and how skilful has the author been in showing aspects of the character, and avoiding explanation?

After a while, you’ll get used to reading critically. You’ll still be able to slip inside a different world – you’ll just notice these aspects of the book almost unconsciously.

Even if it does make reading a bit self-conscious for a while, it’s one of the best ways to learn about writing. (And it’s fun – so, enjoy it while you have the time.)

If you manage to get in some serious writing time at this time of year, you’re lucky. Many people just find the family expectations too much. So I’m not going to batter you with exhortations to get up at 5 every morning. 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 reclusive or unpopular. The trick is to keep those writing muscles toned. You don’t have to drive yourself insane trying to write anything you care about while the kids cause havoc and the aunts bicker.

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 and images to allow us to experience your sensations for ourselves. Ban the generic descriptors. No beautiful sunsets, awesome oceans or picturesque villages. Find the words and images which will allow us to picture the scene for ourselves. Concentrate on strong verbs and, if you use adjectives at all, let them specify something particular, like colour or shape.

It’s hard at first. It takes practice to observe actively and to find exactly the right words, but the more you do it, the more supple and powerful your writing will become.

Read Richard’s latest blog: ‘Monday Motivation: The magical power of momentum

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