blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

Where do you write?

anywhere, or one specific somewhere?

boy writing on a rock_StockSnap
StockSnap via pixabay

Where do you like to do your writing?

Images of beautifully curated writing spaces fill Pinterest and mock less organised writers at the top of equally beautiful articles. White walls enhance carefully chosen artefacts on the table, and there is always coffee with artistic foam.

JK Rowling started Harry Potter’s journey at The Elephant House Cafe in Edinburgh. Beat Generation writers like Jack Kerouac met at Vesuvio Cafe in San Francisco. Maya Angelou rented a room in a local hotel by the month. Marcel Proust wrote in bed. Roald Dahl and George Bernard Shaw had sheds in their gardens.

A piece by Holly Isard in AnOther magazine delved into the many idiosyncratic places chosen by writers old and new.

The necessary environment is that which secures the artist in the way that lets him be in the world in the most fruitful manner.
Robert Creeley

Creating a ritual

A space to write can form an essential part of the ritual of writing. The mind and body is primed for the coming activity, and overcomes the inertia of getting started. This is particularly important to evade writer’s block. Like a sports or crafts person, we need to show up and do the work. By having designated space and a list of things to follow, you can avoid the empty brain syndrome of not knowing what to do next.

However, one size does not fit all. Some like music, others, white noise, others natural sounds. Some must have silence, and others like activity around them while their peers shudder at the thought and close the door.

Routine is a prison

Most of us have busy lives. In order to write every day, or capture inspiration when it strikes, we must be able to write in different places. Life is rarely ideal for more than a moment, especially if writing is something you squeeze into a packed schedule rather than your sole activity.

Knowing your ideal writing space is one thing. Learning to block out the non-ideal will free you to write elsewhere. Before my last holiday I would have said it was too hot, too distracting and uncomfortable to write at the beach. In fact, writing by hand in a small notebook and observing people was a revelation. Dialogue fragments, poem ideas, and simple journaling poured on to the pages. The background sounds of the sea are very soothing for me, which helped.

Play on

Music can be the best companion, or the worst. I find lyrics distracting, as they compete against the words I’m trying to find. Instrumental music is good, especially familiar pieces that fade into the background. You can find lots of playlists on 8tracks designed for study or writing. There is a free option with ads, or you can pay a monthly fee to avoid ads and make your own playlists.

I tried a nature noise generator and found that rain is soothing but thunder distracts me. There are over one hundred and fifty noise generators available at myNoise.net. They are grouped by activity or need, such as focus, to mask tinnitus or external noise, or for relaxation and sleep. Each soundscape has several elements that can be customised to create your perfect mix.

Not only helping you to work better, the soundscapes can also keep you company while working alone.

woman sitting on concrete pillar
Photo by Sachin A on Pexels.com

Making anywhere your best place to write

Creating a ritual and finding a dedicated space is helpful to a solid writing habit. Being able to change things up, whether that means learning to write with noise or creating your own soundscape to block it out, will broaden your options. Routine should be your servant and not your master.

In the end, it is about creating different options for the situations you find yourself in. Then you will not be reliant on your lucky mug or favourite pen. When the idea strikes, you will be ready.

blog, writing process

31 day writing challenge – the results

close up photo of may graphing paper
Photo by Bich Tran on Pexels.com

In May 2018 I took part in the Ninja Writers challenge to post every day. I wrote about what I hoped to achieve from the daily challenge here. My stated aims were

Consistency
Community
Confidence

So how did it work out?

Consistency

I posted every day, using a mixture of some old posts remastered, new posts, and serialised fiction. The remastered posts were interesting to revisit. They showed that my blogging has improved: tighter writing, using pull quotes and bold text so readers can skim quickly. I can edit faster than two years ago.

I saw that some content is evergreen. Even two years later it is still relevant, as long as it is updated where needed.

Community

The Ninja Writers daily post group on Facebook had a new lease of life, with new members and more prepared to post links. This had dwindled to nothing. Occasionally I would be the only person to post in the thread, which was not encouraging. I read more, being sure to check out writers new to me in the thread, clapping and commenting. We all love acknowledgment; I made it a point to give more. And my own FB group were wonderful cheerleaders.

Confidence

This is how my stats looked for April 2018. I posted four times (one each Friday) and had 263 followers. Views varied between 2 and 122 per day.

Screen Shot 2018-06-01 at 23.08.13

And this is how they looked for May 2018. I posted 31 times and had 310 followers, a net gain of 47 (gained 51 and lost 4.) Views varied between 23 and 110 per day.

Screen Shot 2018-06-01 at 23.07.55

Views                         +150%
Reads                         +145%
Fans                            +150%
Followers                   +18%
Number of posts       +775%

I increased visibility, partly from having more content published by publications such as The Creative Cafe, PS I love you, and The Writing Cooperative. All have large readerships.

I increased interaction by replying to or clapping on all my comments. This has led to conversations with like minded writers, and we check out each other’s work. It builds a fanbase.

I increased followers by 51, 165% of my target. And lost four along the way. But I didn’t win big with anything.

Conclusion

I met my goals, but

  • It was arduous, even with a plan and reusing old content.
  • The almost eight-fold work increase was not matched by the other metrics.
  • Short fiction was hardly read even when serialised, which was discouraging as I think this is my best work.
  • Having posted 10 new and 1 old poem, I can also call myself a poet, maybe.
  • I can’t keep up my quality and post daily.
  • I managed to let a piece go that I didn’t think was great, which was new and terrifying. On the other hand I’ve posted good pieces with less engagement.
  • I’m much better at seeing ideas for blog posts in everyday life.

The sweet spot probably lies around 2-4 posts weekly for me. I’ll try that from June onwards and hope to build on the momentum I’ve picked up. I’m still gaining followers, a few at a time.

When people post about this experiment, the numbers are always fabulously large. I guess for most of us the reality is more modest. We keep slogging away, and maybe the next post is the one that goes viral.

blog, writing process

Given but not taken

Why do we find it so hard to accept compliments?

 

daisy-gift_GLady
GLady via pixabay

Last night in my writing group, we critiqued each other’s work as usual. One piece sparkled with wonderful dialogue. It is one of the writer’s signature strengths, and I told her so. Her smile faltered and I could see her thinking no, that’s not me.

But, it really is.

Writers bemoan the lack of decent feedback. If the feedback is negative, we are wounded more or less deeply, but we hear it. If it is positive however, we tend to discount it. This is like turning your back on a gift. Worse still is when we immediately deny the truth of the compliment. This is like slapping the gift to the ground and stamping on it.

Who has not felt disappointed after giving a compliment that was rejected?

The Johari Window

 

Screen Shot 2018-06-05 at 11.33.49

(from toolshero.com )

The Johari window model was developed by psychologists Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham in 1955 at UCLA. Designed as a tool for self awareness and analysing group dynamics, it is, like any good theory, applicable to many activities. (you can find more information here )

If we want to improve, we need to hear what others know about us that we don’t know about ourselves. Thus we seek feedback and act on it, to reduce the blind spot.

It’s like having someone tell me what the back of my head looks like.

Denial is a common response when faced with conflict between how we see the world and how the world sees us. When we internalise the observations of others (given in good faith) and adjust our behaviour accordingly, we move forward with greater self awareness. Our blind spot is smaller.

We are hardwired to notice threats in our environment, a legacy of the lizard brain that reacts quicker than thought to keep us safe. Hidden behind polite self-deprecation is fear.

Oh sh*t they’ve seen through me and now they know I’m an impostor. They want something, they don’t mean it, they’re trying to trick me.

Receive with grace

But, we’re better than our lizard brain and we can engage our big, beautiful cortex. You know, the bit of your brain that does the actual writing. We can feel the fear and defeat it.

Think of a compliment as a gift. Be polite, smile and say thank you like you were taught. The more you practise, the easier this becomes.

Doesn’t matter if you like it or not, that comes later. Give your cortex time to catch up to the instinctual response.

When you unwrap it later, in private, you might see that you’ve been given something precious after all.

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

When baking isn’t Zen

but you still get to eat a cookie

home made oat and raisin cookies
actual cookies baked by me

I wrote a piece recently about overcoming writer’s block by immersing yourself in the Zen of simple things. In this case, baking cookies.

It was all there; soothing repetitive tasks, making something tangible, a dash of creativity in the ingredients (these are oat, mixed fruit and ginger cookies, in fact.)

I thought I had done a Good Thing.™

Then this dropped into my inbox from Austin Kleon. You know, the Steal like an Artist guy.

Screen Shot 2018-05-26 at 12.51.54

Procrastibaking is a thing?

My world tilted. Was it possible that I had procrastinated without knowing — I had in fact procrastibaked?

No, no, say it ain’t so.

Okay, it might be so, sometimes, but I stand by my original article. And I learned something after the cookies (and my story) were baked.

  • creativity is a remix, combining existing elements in a new way
  • procrastination+baking = procrastibaking — love that word
  • inspiration is everywhere
  • productive procrastination still produces something worthwhile
  • whatever, I got to eat cookies and they were delicious

Now, go read his article and the book, which is fabulous. I’m off to make tea and raid the cookie jar.

 

 

 

 

 

 

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

Time, lost and found

how to find time for anything you want to do

blue anemone flower by Albenheim via pixabay
Albenheim via pixabay

 

How many people say “I wish I had time to write/paint/play sport” but do nothing about it?

How many people have said to me “I don’t know how you find the time to write as well as work?”

Quite a few over the years, is the answer. I’ve said it myself. What I am really saying is, I refuse to organise my life so that I can do the thing. I’m making excuses.

Time is precious, finite. It cannot be manufactured, but it can definitely be wasted. It is like holding sand in your fist, not noticing it slipping between your fingers but bemoaning the slow reduction in the pile. With a little effort you could find a way to contain it, as far as anyone can.

Everyone has the same 24 hours a day, 168 hours a week, 8760 hours a year. Achieving something worthwhile, something that’s important to you, means making the best use of those hours. Whatever you want to do, whether it’s write a novel or train for a marathon, can only be done in small chunks. John Grisham wrote his hugely successful legal thriller The Firm in the time between hearings, while pulling the long hours of an attorney.

Write 250 words every day, and by the year’s end you’ll have 91,250 words. That’s a novel’s worth.

We underestimate the power of steady effort over time. It really does add up.

Free time + wasted time = enough time

Start with a chart

Yes, really. Start with a simple chart showing seven days with a slot for each hour. You can make one with a spreadsheet or find it on the web. Or you could draw your own.

  1. fill in essentials like sleep, work, travel, caring and domestic commitments
  2. add all the extras you currently do like exercise, entertainment, hobbies
  3. see where the gaps are

It’s important to be honest about what you do with your time. If you think all your evenings are full, consider how much time is spent on watching TV. Maybe even consider tracking actual hours watched for a week.

A 2015 survey showed that 31% of UK adults spent 11-20 hours per week watching TV. A further 39% watched more than 20 hours weekly.
The New York Times ran an article in 2016 showing that Americans watched on average five hours of TV daily, and 90% of that was live TV. We have DVRs and catch up TV, but we don’t necessarily use them.

TV is the thief of time

When I decided to start writing seriously again, I cut out mindless TV viewing and channel surfing. It wasn’t hard. There are a few programmes I like to watch, but I don’t follow soaps or serials (apart from NCIS, and even then, repeats are a real thing.) Working days were long and stressful, but I needed writing time. And reading time. And just plain old decompression time. I programmed in my writing time to suit my schedule. And I set the box to record anything I liked, to watch when I had time rather than when it aired. Let’s face it, Saturday night can be a lean time on the box if you don’t enjoy game shows and reality TV.

Listen to the sinking feeling

Did you sigh when you filled in some commitments? If they are optional, consider dropping them. If they are essential, be critical. Can you spend less time visiting a relative you see regularly? Could you listen to an audiobook on your commute? Do you look forward to catching up with that friend, or does she drain you? Pay attention and act. Limit time and energy drains, even if you can’t eliminate them. Your gut knows, even as your brain rationalises.

Night owl or lark?

All of us have circadian rhythms that mean we peak at certain times of the day. For many, that is first thing in the morning. Waking early might gain you the hour you need. But that might not suit you. You work shifts; you have small children who wake at five anyway and you cannot face waking before that; you’re narcoleptic before noon even with a double espresso. Maybe the later hours are your best time. If you can’t sleep, get up and write. It worked for me. I wrote this poem about insomnia during a sleepless, jet-lagged night.

Our time on earth is finite. In a year’s time we won’t remember the soap opera finale or the latest game show winner. But we can have an achievement to celebrate, which makes our lives meaningful. Be mindful with your most precious commodity.

Take control of your time and commit to the things you really want.

 

 

 

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

Flour, butter, sugar

baking a solution to writer’s block

raisin-cookies_pixel1
pixel1 via pixabay

I’m stuck. Just forty minutes ago the words were flowing, full steam ahead. Now they’ve dried up. I stand, stretch, sit again. Still no words.

It’s time to follow my own advice.  I say that writer’s block can be overcome*, so this is my opportunity to walk the talk. I resist the temptation to fall into a social media vortex. The weather is too hideous for gardening or a walk, so I head to the kitchen.

Flour, butter, sugar. The basic elements for baking are all there, and it is truly amazing how many variations flow from them. Like Lego blocks, they can build many things. I grab my trusty recipe for oat and raisin cookies.

Not enough butter, so I make up the shortfall with avocado oil. It’s supposed to be super healthy, and it ought to be at that price. Must have been feeling well off that day.
The recipe says raisins. I substitute mixed fruit and chopped ginger.
Little changes make these cookies uniquely mine, raisin and oats and something else.

Creaming butter and sugar is repetitive and soothing. I can’t get this wrong and there’s no pressure of time. I sift the dry ingredients together and inhale the aroma of cinnamon, noting the random speckles of brown against white flour.

While I combine ingredients, the story problem simmers in the background. It’s meditative, this focus on a single thing. I lose the plot. I start clean up while the oven preheats. Blobs of dough sit unevenly on assorted baking trays. They’ll all taste great.

The aroma of baking is heavenly and I inhale deeply. The kitchen is quiet and tidy again. After hours of mental effort, turning the focus outwards and creating order restores calm. I feel more in control and the nagging voice of doubt recedes, because the cookies are a small but certain win.

And then the protagonist whispers, “I fell asleep on the train and now I’m waking up in Sheffield with a dead phone and no money. Help.”  Oh yes, I can work with this. The next steps light up in my brain and I return to work energised, with tea and a warm, delicious cookie.

*No more writers block

Simple repetitive tasks are calming, approached in the right mindset.
Step away from the keyboard.
Let your subconscious work on a problem while you occupy your brain elsewhere.
Engage all your senses and pay attention.
Limitations create problems. Solving those problems demands creativity.
Making something tangible is satisfying
in a way mental work is not.
Small wins help enormously on the way to the bigger goal.
Enjoy your cookie.

 

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

Murder victims wanted

clematis-purple_cocparisienne
cocoparisienne via pixabay

Writers love words. Some of us love words too much. We slide from literary gourmet enjoying only the finest expression, into gluttony, stuffing far too many two-dollar words and fanciful metaphors into one or many paragraphs. When we wax too lyrical, we are guilty of writing purple prose.

“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”
Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch

 

Purple prose is hard to define and somewhat objective, but it is essentially language that is excessively ornate and overdone. It is verbose, redundant and melodramatic. Sometimes it is completely off-topic. Purple prose is the enemy of clear writing.

But what happens to the phrase that sings through my heart and seems to leap off the page, my absolute favourite line even though it doesn’t really fit? I don’t murder it.

I simply transplant it to a more conducive spot, where it can grow and find full expression.

I do the same in my garden, where there are no weeds, just plants out of place.*

I take eye-catching words and make them into poetry.

In poetry, vivid imagery is encouraged and welcomed. Writing a poem exercises different writing muscles. Economy married to expansive imagery squeezes a quart of meaning into a pint pot of syllables and stanzas.

Challenge accepted

John Vorhaus put it well in his post Easy no help you where he talked about challenging yourself to do difficult things, in order to grow as a writer.

I agree wholeheartedly, though like any form of exercise, each to their own. I can’t imagine writing detective stories or historical romance for practice. But prompts and random words and genre-mashing? Bring it on.

I can practise discipline of economy with words in writing poems and songs, and use it in fiction. The aim is sharper, leaner description without getting too flowery.

And I don’t miss my brilliant phrases, because they have another place to bloom.

*Sometimes the right place is the compost heap. Like all creations, the best gardens are edited ruthlessly.