Here, a bright feather of iridescent purple and blue, plucked from the bird of happiness as it flew by. I fashioned a quill, dipped in black ink drawn from a pale, eyeless octopus that, shunning light, knew only deep sunless despair. And with these, I write a song for you.
Here, a dark mysterious shell, some glittering grains of sand, pulled from the farthest shores of imagination. I searched after lightning struck and used sea glass to bottle tamed fragments of raging sea. And with these, I carry the storm home for you.
Here, a smooth jawbone and a horn, ripped from some ancient creature now extinct. Elbow deep in blood I dug through rotting meat and guts, and boiled the bones white. I strung sharp teeth on sinews and scraped the hide clean. And with these, I make necklaces and furs for you.
Here, a fine pattern hinting at past violence and pain. The icy burn of a Judas kiss, a red-hot blade slipped into my heart both left their names behind. Fresh scalpels carved embedded bullets and forgotten shrapnel from my flesh. I cried healing tears till wounds were mere memory, scars written on my skin. And with these, I trace forgiveness for you.
Here, a brimming cup of clear water. I stumbled among rocks, scrabbled in the earth with ragged hands, searching for the source. I toiled endlessly, shaping the clay, firing each hard-won vessel in the furnace, though so many lay broken on the midden of experience. And with these, I bring refreshment for you.
Here, a monarch butterfly caught in amber. I chased many joys but captured only one, sacrificed to preservation that more might see it close. I dissected and catalogued the pieces, then remade them into a lesser whole. Deathless yet not alive, its colours are held where a tree wept, hardened by time. And with these, I offer possibility for you.
Here, a hoard of objects orbiting my gravity. A lock of hair, a puff of breath, a glistening tear. A heartbeat, a ruby blood drop, a remembered sunrise. A sea-worn stone, an autumn leaf, a stolen kiss. All these I have collected, sewn into a Frankenstein quilt with hopeful stitches. And with this patched creation, I offer my love to you.
First published 15th April 2017 in The Creative Cafe on Medium, and winner of the creative challenge
There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.
Into every life some rain must fall. Whether actual or metaphorical rain, it’s soon joined by tears from someone. Maybe that someone is you. It’s a fact that bad things happen to all of us. Then we must choose how to respond.
The energy of anger and grief
These powerful emotions can wreak havoc when suppressed. Instead, try directing them outwards. When I’m angry, I clean my house. I release the anger, and I get a tidy living space; two birds with one stone. I might dig in the garden if the weather permits. You might prefer to walk, or run, or do some boxing. All are good, allowing the body to let go of the tension, and maybe producing something positive too.
For a writer, all emotions are fuel.
To make our characters three dimensional, to give them life on the page and in the reader’s mind, means giving them real emotions. The characters need motivations and reactions that feel believable. As writers, we decide what to include, what to imply, and what to leave out. And we need empathy, that is the ability to feel what another person is feeling. It is the shared experience that defines empathy.
empathy I understand your feeling, because I have felt the same sympathy This feeling is unpleasant, and I am sorry you have to experience it
Put simply, empathy is personal; you walk a mile in someone’s shoes. While sympathy is impersonal; you acknowledge the stone in the shoe without putting it on.
Write what you know?
We are often told to write what we know. If we took this literally, there would be very little literature beyond first person narrative. Stories need characters, and characters need fleshing out. When I think of a character who is not like me, I must inhabit their skin.
I need to draw on my own experiences, in order to know what my male humanoid in a distant galaxy might do in the middle of a pulse laser battle. I have not been in that situation, but I know what anxiety, fear, pain, and courage feel like.
For myself, I rarely bother with detailed check sheets for my characters, except when it comes to personality traits. I am much less interested in a character’s favourite colour, than in how they react to each situation. When I understand how each character thinks and feels, dialogue and action come naturally. And characters gain a life of their own, doing and saying surprising things. I just have to follow them, typing as fast as I can.
No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. Robert Frost
Resources for character personality traits
One of the most popular schemes for assigning personality traits is the Alignment system, developed from the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. There are nine alignments, drawn from combinations of good-neutral-evil and lawful-neutral-chaotic. They deal with ethical and moral standpoints such as ‘rules are rules’ as opposed to ‘rules are meant to be broken sometimes’ as opposed to ‘what rules?’
Like all classification systems, it is not perfect, but it’s very helpful in making your characters both internally consistent and more diverse overall. Each cast member needs to be authentic, but different from the others.
If you want to make a relatable villain, she must have some trait or behaviour your readers can share or empathise with. Otherwise all villains are chaotic evil, and that is not enough to sustain interest. (A possible exception might be Heath Ledger’s Joker, but one is enough.)
Another fabulous resource is the writers’ thesaurus series by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. The Emotion Thesaurus details emotions along with their possible causes and effects on a person. This allows a writer to create finely detailed and observed characters.
Suffering can become art
We don’t have to suffer for art; we will suffer whatever happens, because that’s life. As creators, we can use our suffering to build something that will show the world a truth, as we see it.
Write what you feel.
That’s the alchemy whereby pain becomes beauty. That’s art.
I’m working on something new right now, a long form story that might run over 10K words. It’s flowing very well, and I’m writing to a mental outline (because I’m really bad at writing them down).
What’s the problem, you ask? It isn’t my primary WIP.
I signed up for a course to help me plot that WIP like a pro, and then write it efficiently. Sadly, I am struggling with the step-by-step approach that is absolutely guaranteed to work. Except when it doesn’t.
Because the plotting isn’t working, my WIP has ground to a halt. In contrast to writing the shiny new story, I found myself blocked, struggling to regain that easy sense of creation. Meantime, I have written a few short stories for the writers’ group. But the more I struggle to fit into a particular way of doing things, the more constrained I feel. It’s like wearing blinkers inside a box. I can’t see which way to go, and straight ahead isn’t working.
Plotters vs. Pantsers
We are often advised, if we want to grow in skills and as humans, to challenge ourselves. I am all for this. So as a confirmed pantser, I am trying to learn the art of plotting. Currently, this is not going well. But – I am still writing. During the writing and re-writing of my first novel, taking time away to work on another short project had many benefits.
A sense of achievement from finishing shorter pieces
A rest from story problems
During which I gave my brain a chance to come up with answers
Returning to the main WIP refreshed and with new ideas
It’s all material
I found the picture above at random. I chose it for this post not because it’s immediately useful, but because I like clouds and mist, and it suggests a story, . It’s beautiful, and therein lies its utility. Inspiration cannot always be harnessed to a particular vehicle. Like a wayward horse, sometimes creativity needs to have its head and explore the meadow. Afterwards, it is more amenable to direction.
If I think I have writer’s block, it is a sign that I am trying to force myself in the wrong direction. Time to check out another path and keep going, because all writing is #writing.
Last time was all about releasing fear and dreaming on a grand scale. I’m giving us all permission to chase great big audacious goals, because why limit yourself? Dreams occupy the infinite space of imagination. There are quite enough people telling us we can’t do the thing. Don’t add your own internal voice to that dreary chorus.
So, you have a goal in mind. Our goals differ in the details, even if they seem superficially the same, and that is definitely okay. This works for any dream, not just writing. Let’s look at one dream; “I want to go to a bookstore and see my book for sale”.
The goal is physical book in major bookstore.
This is true North, where the compass points. You need to plot a route from your current position to that goal. You may be a long way away, you may even think you’re on the wrong path, but fear not. If you plant your flag, you can always make your way towards it by degrees. You might say the goal is write a book, but this is usually an intermediate goal. A big one, sure, and one to celebrate, but not the end of the journey.
The principles of mapping a route apply equally to any goal, whether intermediate or ultimate, smaller or bigger. The process differs only in the number of steps required.
So you’ve written a book, and that’s great. You plan to follow the traditional publishing route. Before you can pick it up in Waterstones or Barnes and Noble, some more things need to happen.
1. write book
2. find agent
3. land publishing deal
4. sell book in stores
That’s four steps. Each of those steps can be broken down further, but the first one is the biggest. It is also entirely under your control. It’s all down to you. Now, we’ll take the first step and look at it closely. How do you write a book, and can it be any book? Writing 80-120K words (typical, for novels) is no mean feat.
you must decide what kind of book- what genre or subject
you must find the motivation to finish
you must write the best book you can
Three more steps. Let’s take the first, and break it down again.
What kind of book should you write?
For non-fiction you need authority; that is, the reason people should listen to you. That may be personal experience (I lived this), or it may be academic status (I studied and researched this), or it may be achievement (I succeeded at this). Typically, you will need to demonstrate that you have a platform from which to drive sales, in order to interest an agent. That is your potential audience, which may be smaller, particularly for technical works. For books with a smaller niche, perhaps self-publishing might be better. Another question to answer.
Building that platform and demonstrating your authority is outside my scope, but you can find information by Jane Friedman here .
For fiction, consider your interests. You could start with brainstorming or mindmapping.
Favourite books, films, poetry, artistic pursuits
core principles; love conquers all, the world is cruel, good always triumphs in the end
any characters or situations that pop up ( I have a space pirate in my head, waiting to be written)
From your list or map, start to pull out themes. For example, I love speculative fiction and adventure, good vs. bad but in all shades between black and white, I believe love comes in many forms, and that women and men have equal agency. Those ideas colour my fiction.
Where can I find inspiration?
Some people seem to brim and bubble with ideas. Others, not so much. I talked here about being one of those people who don’t have fifty ideas jostling for space in their head. My ideas come from pictures, song videos, snatches of conversation, or just out of thin air, when my unconscious mind throws something into the real world. (Sometimes they don’t come until after I start work, which is a good reason why you must keep writing. Don’t think about it. Just do it.)
The really useful question for fiction is, “what if?”. Keep asking that question, and stories will come. Somebody wants something, encounters obstacles, is forced to change, and in the process attains their goal. That’s story, in a nutshell.
Looking at finding the motivation to finish, let’s break that down. You could set a word count goal, find a writing buddy, join a writers group, find a mentor and so on. Writing the best book you can will involve editing, feedback, rewriting, working on your craft to name a few.
Each of these steps can be broken down further, in a process sometimes called ‘chunking down’. Eventually you’ll reach the smallest possible step, the first step on the journey. A big dream is built from a million tiny pieces, consistently and mindfully assembled. See how small a Lego brick is, yet you can build the whole world, if you have sufficient.
Big dream ahead, only 37465 miles to go
Your flag is planted so far away, you can hardly see it for all the obstacles and turns in the road. But it is there, and now and again you’ll check that you’re still headed towards it. You can ask yourself a simple question, when considering an activity; does this move me towards my goal? In life, saying yes to a thing means saying no to something else. Make sure you’re saying yes to what’s important for you.
So now, dreamer who wants to make their dream a reality, write down your specific goal. Break it into smaller goals, and break those into their smallest constituent parts. Write it all down in a form of your choosing. That could be a spreadsheet, bulleted list, mindmap, post it notes, or whatever.
Now, pick a tiny step, one that you’re certain to accomplish. For example, make a list of your favourite films. Or Google local writers’ groups. That’s pretty easy, right? Tick it off your list.
Congratulate yourself, and resolve to make another tiny step tomorrow. Celebrate reaching your intermediate goals, and enjoy the journey. You know where you’re going.
The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Lao Tzu
Okay, so it’s properly 2017 now. The tree and cards are gone, we’ve all gone back to work or school. It’s traditionally the time to look forward, make plans, set intentions and make resolutions for this New Year that we won’t keep.
No, this is the year of setting ourselves up for success rather than failure. Where last time I talked about footprints in the snow, this week is more about deciding where those steps are leading. What is the distant goal or mountain peak on which you hope to plant your flag? Without some end point, your journey is literally aimless.
However, your goal is not my goal. And that’s okay.
One writer might want to be a New York Times bestselling author. The next might recoil from that, but simply want to hold their book in their hands. Another writes only for their own enjoyment, to know themselves better or work through an issue in their history. And yet others want to make enough money from their writing to support themselves. Very different goals, needing very different tools and routes to success. Though it should be said that most writers want to be read by others.
A story comes alive in the telling.
That includes the stories we tell ourselves, that sabotage and undermine our conscious efforts to reach the goal. They usually boil down to fear, that protean trickster hiding behind a thousand faces.
My stories are too _____________
The market is too ____________
But this is fear talking, and that leads to fantasies that have no basis in fact. Writers succeed when they refuse to listen to this internal critic, that claims to protect you, even as it slams the door against the possibility of reaching your goal.
Fear keeps you home, anxiously listening for noises and wolves at the door, when you should be packing your bag and walking boots and getting out there. Remembering a big stick and wolf repellent of course, because a great antidote to fear is anticipating challenges and making a plan to overcome them. Success is not bestowed on a lucky few without effort. Success comes to those who stumble, fall, take a hit, and get up again ready to fight on. Success comes to those who keep going.
What’s your goal?
I’m going to talk about writing because that’s my medium, but this visualisation exercise can apply to any creator.
Take a moment now to exhale, and get comfortable. Close your eyes and fly away into the future. Time does not matter here. You’ve achieved your ultimate writing (creative) goal. Breathe easily as you sharpen that picture of yourself and bring it into focus.
Maybe you’re watching the film of your book. You’re sitting in a bookstore, with a line of fans waiting for you to sign your latest book. Or you see your name on a book in Waterstones or Barnes and Noble, and smile to yourself. You get a letter from a fan, telling you how much reading your story helped them.
You’re typing away on a new MacBook in your ideal study, and your days as a wage slave are behind you. Or you are at a party, and when asked what you do you say confidently, “I’m a writer, and this is my latest project.”
Be specific. What project? Is it your current WIP or another book? How many people surround you? What are you wearing, what can you smell, touch, hear and see? Is the bubbly drink in your glass Prosecco or beer or soda water? Put in every vivid detail, and set no limits. Imagine it all, because this is where you are going. It’s Shangri-La, it’s the promised land, it’s your perfect idyll.
And it will only exist if you first create it in your mind’s eye.
We are artists and creators. We are the dreamers of dreams, and we deserve to dream for ourselves first. This picture is one to fix in your mind and come back to when things get hard, as they will. To fix it, or anchor it in your brain, it must be associated with a physical sensation. Pinch your left thumb and middle finger together firmly, while the dream plays in your mind’s eye like a bright, colourful movie.
You might be sitting alone on the side of a rough road, bleeding from being knocked down. But the memory of your happy future self is like a photo in your wallet. You can pull it out and remind yourself just why you’re out here, trudging this long and difficult path, risking pain and rejection and loss of faith. The anchor helps you recall it. Pinch your left thumb and middle finger together.
Breathe; time loops on itself, as you relive the memory of your future here in the present. The magic of creation is bringing into reality that which existed only in your own internal world. Dream for yourself, let your creativity flow in the service of a bigger goal, and it will give you the strength to get up and go on again. This is your true North, where your compass points.
Next time I will consider how to plan the route, but remember this.
The prize must be worth the journey. So dream your best dream.
Medium, the writing platform, recently hosted a competition. The prompt was to describe your ideal writing environment. If you look at Instagram or Pinterest, you can see endless pictures of beautifully arranged workspaces. The wood desk just so, with a new notebook, fresh wildflowers in a jam jar, an antique typewriter or a shiny new Macbook, perhaps some reading glasses and a cup of expensive coffee. You know the kind of thing. In a recent post on Medium, Nicole Bianchi shows us where some famous writers did their work, and adds inspiration on what a writing space should include.
I like to see gorgeous visuals, but my reality is far removed from that.
As I write this, my laptop is set up on the dining room table. Books are piled on the sideboard because the bookcase is crammed with more books, CDs and who knows what else. A vase of orange roses provides a colourful focus, and outside promises an orange/pink sky painted by the setting winter sun.
Sounds lovely, and it is. It’s also untrue.
There’s much more to see, but you would have to tune out the piles of papers and magazines, shoes that should be elsewhere, odd items of clothing and assorted detritus. (And no, I don’t always have roses.) It would require serious wrangling to get a perfectly curated image, which I could then share in the hope of convincing you that not only my desk, but my entire life is beautifully, artfully arranged. An image that whispers, click the heart and make me feel loved.
I wrote before about wrestling beauty from a cluttered reality by focussing on what matters. Still, there is no doubt that I find ordered spaces tranquil and calm, and surely that releases energy to spend on creating things? Well, yes, and no. If I have to spend an hour clearing up before I start work, it will never get done. My brain will be hijacked by a hundred thoughts, resentments and distractions, and why can’t he hang it up? I’ve asked him a thousand times, so sick of being taken for granted…
And just like that, writing vanishes in a cloud of righteous procrastination.
The whole picture is one truth, and the edited highlights are another version of the truth. Maybe my untidy room is the first draft of the perfect writer’s haven. Here’s another truth.
My ideal place to write isn’t a tangible reality. Although, a corner of the spare bedroom might one day become that haven. First I’d have to tidy stuff, move other stuff, buy a desk… Maybe next year, when I can summon enough energy to go to IKEA. And then assemble the desk.
Instead, I think of my ideal writing space as a state of mind.
My mind needs to settle, cast off the mundane, edit out the noise. Like a deep pool, it requires stillness. Only then can I see past the surface, clear to the bottom. Only then can my characters reveal themselves and come to life, beckoning me on so that I can follow, hoping my fingers can capture their adventures.
That state of mind might come with silence, or with music. I use 8tracks as a source of instrumental music, because I find words distracting. There are lots of playlists for study and writing. I’ve never written in a coffeeshop; maybe that’s a challenge for next year. But if you like the sounds of background activity, then coffitivity offers different options for human white noise. What’s your ideal writing space?
I can’t wait for conditions to be perfect. The only time is now. My ideal place to write is away from the daily grind, just far enough to lose sight of laundry and unread books and washing up and tonight’s dinner.
Let me dive into imagination, and see what treasures are waiting there.
We do, eat, read, and watch the same things. My supermarket online order page has a feature called ‘Your Usuals’ because apparently, 80% of my order is the same every week. If I don’t pick these items, it reminds me before I reach the checkout. Strange that in a world dominated by the latest new thing, we cling to the tried and tested. Maybe that explains the dominance of the movie franchise, the re-imaginings and remakes and tired sequels. Much less risky than something completely new, but ultimately not very interesting either.
A new challenge
When you have worn a rut following the same path, strike out elsewhere. It’s often best to start small, that way the risks are less, but the payoff is still worthwhile. It could be the start of something really worthwhile and rewarding.
To use an example from gardening; I grow or make something new every year. This was easy in the early days of the garden, when it was a blank canvas. However, I had no money, and so it was often seeds rather than plants. I tried different seeds, and found out what worked with minimal outlay.
I grew things that were almost impossible to buy, like the red leaved castor oil plant Ricinus communis carmencita. I grew things that were so easy, the prices charged for small plants made me angry. For example, Verbena bonariensis proved easy and beautiful, and as a bonus seeded itself. Since I raised many seedlings, I could afford to dot them around the plot and see what worked, and where. I tried plants that were said to be too tender for my garden. I still have Geranium palmatum, which tolerates my clay soil and also seeds itself, against the odds.
It would have been nice to have the money to just buy whatever I wanted, but it would not have taught me much. Time and money are always inversely related, if you lack one you must put in more of the other to get results. I grew sunflowers with my children when they were young, but I used the opportunity to grow more interesting cultivars as well as the skyscrapers they loved to measure. The time investment paid off several times over.
Last year, I made wine with a heavy crop of rosehips from my Rosa glauca bush. This year, I planted Musa ventricosum maurelii (bought from the supermarket for £10). It did very well, and has just been lifted to overwinter in the porch. Well worth taking the chance, and it should be even better next year.
Cultivating the beginner’s mind
Maybe you’re quite good at something. Not at the level of mastery, because who has 10,000 hours to commit to something? (Even if this pop theory has been debunked.) But pretty good, and it’s started to get easy. We want easy, we don’t want difficult. Maybe it’s not any one thing that’s well within your capabilities, but life’s activities in general. Problem is, it can also get boring. We start to lose interest. At this point, you can go one of three ways.
Spend less time and effort, and probably give up after a while.
Spend more time and effort, challenge yourself to improve with a new goal.
Put the thing aside, and do something different.
Any of these could be a valid option, depending on the activity and how important it is. Above, I talked about the second option. I’d like to argue here for the third option. Why? Because starting from scratch is liberating, fun, playful.
Beginning without expectation or judgement is freeing. At the start of school, we’re eager for knowledge, full of questions and ready to make mistakes. We are willing to fail.
We end school downcast and oppressed by expectations, testing, targets and curricula. We cannot afford to fail.
In the process, all the fun of learning is stripped out, all our enthusiasm squashed.
How about starting again?
It could be a return to something you did before, or not. It could be learning a new language, fixing a car, making bread or curries or furniture. For me, it was art. I needed something completely new, but it was also a return to the girl who used to design clothes and matching shoes in a sketchbook. I took a life drawing class, and picked up a pencil for the first time in decades.
Having made the conscious decision not to judge my work, nor compare with others, I relaxed and concentrated. How to show a three dimensional object on a two dimensional page? How to shade the folds in fabric? Which softness of pencil? What kind of paper? I asked questions and enjoyed the novelty of knowing nothing, learning from ground zero.
In short: I played, and it was good.
We do not stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.
George Bernard Shaw
Adults can learn. Our brains are much more adaptable than we think.
Adults should learn. It keeps us energised and interesting.
Adults must play. It keeps us young and puts a smile on our faces.
Adults benefit from play. Our newfound energy will boost the rest of our activities.
Letting go of outcome, focussing on the process and the journey, could be the best thing you ever did.