Writing Secrets: Focus on what’s important
Something has shifted this year. We’re (many of us through necessity) spending less. We’re more aware of what’s important. That means focusing on the people we hold dear and on our creative selves.
Dreams are not a luxury. Don’t defer them.
I know, you had all that time in early lockdown and chances are, you didn’t use it. But that was understandable: the anxiety was crippling, and if you have kids, you were called upon to home-school them.
Now we’re faced with a very different kind of holiday, quieter, with less entertaining. So, if you do have time off from work this month, take a little of it for yourself. Even with your family at home and clamouring for your time, perhaps you can steal an hour a day, all to yourself. Wake early and work through the quiet time.
It’s a good space in which to write. It feels peaceful.
But if you want to lie in a bit, there are other ways to advance your writing practice.
If you have an on-going project, take stock of it. Carry a notebook around and, at odd moments, free-write as your character. Allow yourself to be a conduit for her voice and personality. Give voice to her concerns: what she wants, in the longer term, and more immediately.
New story ideas will flow out of this process. When you get back to her, she will appear more believable on the page. You won’t lose touch and forget who she is because you’re not giving her any attention.
Try articulating, on one notebook page only, what your story is about. Start with what your character wants, and what stands in his way. If you find it difficult to do this, your story may be in trouble. Go back to your character and work out what it is that he’s seeking.
This is not simply an exercise for fiction writers. Creative non-fiction writers often forget they need to pay just as much attention to story. Life isn’t story. It requires art, and effort, to turn the one into the other.
In your notebook, plot the next five scenes that flow from the point at which you left off. What will carry the story forward? What needs to happen next? And what does that lead to? Try to describe your coming scenes in no more than two sentences. If you can’t, your scene may be lacking its essential dramatic imperative. (Remember: in every scene, a character wants something, and faces something.)
If you don’t have an on-going project, you can still use the holiday period to build your writing practice. One important thing, of course, is to keep reading, particularly if you’re isolating. There’s nothing that helps writing quite like reading. Read to enjoy. Keep a book with you for those odd moments when you’re able to indulge.
Carry a small notebook around with you. Eavesdrop, even if only on your immediate family. 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 (if you can get out). If not, use your house, or what you can see from your window. Don’t just look idly. Watch with your writer’s eye – and ear. Use all your senses. What does a scene feel and smell like? How does the margarita taste?
Now force yourself to find the words to describe what you are observing so actively. Ban the generic descriptors. No beautiful sunsets, awesome oceans or picturesque views. 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, like colour or shape.
Instead of describing how the scene makes you feel, try to conjure that feeling in a reader by allowing them to visualise it for themselves.
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.
I wish you a safe and happy holiday and hope you are able to spend with those you love.
There’ll be no blog from me over the next two weeks since All About Writing is closing for our year-end break, but I’ll see you in the new year.
Read Richard’s latest blog: ‘Monday Motivation: The secret beneath the words‘