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.

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes

Can you feel the love?

baby-clapping_dhanelle
dhanelle via pixabay

I’m never sure how many claps to give on Medium.

It seems easy enough. We have up to fifty claps. Express how you felt, whether you were moved, signal which stories stand out. But it’s really not so simple.

I decided to engage more with stories and writers on Medium this month, as part of the Ninja Writers daily challenge for May. Writers thrive on attention, like we all do. It’s wonderful to know that somebody read your words, and was moved to respond in some way. The woman in an online group who posted “please read this but I never have time to look at anyone’s posts, sorry” horrified me. How can you expect to get what you don’t give? Especially when you’re in a group that has reciprocity as a stated principle? No, I will not read your stuff.

So I’ve been thinking much more about claps. As is the way of these things, thinking leads to paralysis.

A centipede was happy — quite!
Until a toad in fun
Said, “Pray, which leg comes after which?”
Which threw her mind in such a pitch,
She laid bewildered in the ditch
Considering how to run.

Katherine Craster

It’s much easier with a binary choice, because more options leads to fear of picking the wrong one. So on Twitter I either like it or not. Simple. Why overthink it?

I don’t want to be mean, and I want to be fair. I know writing takes effort, whether the result is good, bad or boring. But does that translate to five, ten, or fifty claps? What if I gave a piece one clap, is that an insult like under-tipping, or am I rewarding effort while saying, this wasn’t for me?

Fifty is too big. I should divide into multiples of five, but I know other people don’t do the same. Are they clapping in small numbers because it’s bad, or are they just not big clappers? I’ve never given fifty claps, and would be shocked to receive the full number. It’s better we don’t know how many claps individuals give, but as with salary secrecy it’s hard to shake the fear of being undervalued.

I’m being more generous this month, but still the etiquette of clapping eludes me. Perhaps I should just pick random numbers and forget about it. And look forward to the day I am moved to give a piece the full fifty.

blog, writing process

Everyday writers, extraordinary ideas – and me

gold nugget
PIX1861 via pixabay

Kelvin Teo curated a list of his favourite quotes from Medium in April 2018. I was honoured (and surprised) to be included, with a quote from my piece Timeworn.

It’s a great feeling to get recognition for something I wrote. I already had positive comments on Timeworn, and inclusion in this list makes me happy. Also there are new writers on his list to discover. Recommendations mean a lot in the crowded online world.

So what does this mean?

I achieved my aim, of connection through words. The highlighted phrase is not my personal favourite from that piece, but it is someone else’s. Once it’s out there, we can’t control how our words are received.

I guess the takeaway lessons are

  • write it and let it go
  • submit to publications to increase potential readership
  • celebrate successes, big and small*
  • keep writing

*I think tea and cake is called for…

blog, writing process

Visual Thesaurus – mapping words beautifully

Screen Shot 2018-03-02 at 12.18.29

Do you love words? Do you sometimes struggle to find the exact word to convey your meaning, whether for poetry or prose? Here’s help, and it’s beautiful.

The Visual Thesaurus is one of my favourite tools. It functions like a mind map for words, linking words, meanings, synonyms and sometimes antonyms. The interface is elegant and clean, and it blossoms on the screen like a flower.

Like fire, but not

For example, take ‘fire’. Typing this into the search bar brings up the animated map above. It shows different synonyms for fire, colour coded by verb, adjective and noun. When you hover over each node, a definition appears with example sentences containing that word. If you click on any word, a second map appears, and you can navigate back and forth until you find the precise word you need.

At the centre above you can see the word ‘hire’ which is the opposite of one sense of fire. This is useful when you can’t quite remember the word you need. The brain works in strange ways, and Visual Thesaurus allows us to approach the needed word in reverse.

Another word for burn?

Screen Shot 2018-03-02 at 12.19.37

Clicking on ‘burn’ brings up this map, which is also fully interactive. You could follow any word, generating maps which vary in the number of nodes, but always give new ideas.

You can choose to hear the central word spoken in US or UK English. It is possible to print your result for offline use. The site has many other links and word games, enough to keep logophiles happily scrolling for hours.

The cost is very reasonable too: $2.95 monthly or $19.95 annually. You can try it free for fourteen days.

I love the infuriating, sprawling, mongrel language that is English. I love its willingness to assimilate words from other languages, giving so many shades of meaning that it is usually possible to find that elusive nuance that I’m seeking. That breadth can outsmart a tired brain which knows that fire is sorta, kinda right but not quite.

But what about other languages?

Fear not, VT has you covered. Dutch, French, German, Italian and Spanish are also included. You can choose to search one or more languages. Here is the map for ‘fire’ showing UK English plus French. Every word is fully searchable.

Screen Shot 2018-03-02 at 13.34.52

How cool is that?

This tool allows much greater variety in description. It’s satisfying to write about fire without using the word. This tool gives you the alternatives you need, in a comprehensive, informative, visually appealing format. You’re sure to expand your vocabulary if you spend some time with this thesaurus, whether native English speaker or not.

And it’s fun to use! We all need more fun in our lives.

Give Visual Thesaurus a try now, and tell me what you think.

 

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, short story, writing process

Haven

a 100 word drabble on ‘the comfort of strangers’

cottage-seaside_Free-Photos
Free-Photos via pixabay (edited)

A fierce storm rolled in as I scattered John’s ashes. No chance of a ferry back to the mainland. I sat in the empty terminal building, truly alone.

A kindly old woman approached me. “Might I offer ye a bed for the night?”
I followed her home, hiding my grateful tears. Sleep came easier than I expected.

The morning dawned clear as she waved goodbye. But when I described her to the Ferrymaster, he looked baffled.

“You’re mistaken surely. Morag died twenty years ago, and Cameron’s Cottage has been empty since.”

My blood ran cold. My name is Margaret Cameron.

Commentary

This piece was written in collaboration with Gordon Adams during a meeting of Northants Writers’ Ink. This writing group meets regularly and collaborative writing is always an enjoyable event. This time we were tasked to come up with a drabble of exactly one hundred words, on the comfort of strangers.

We considered a number of scenarios around chance and fleeting encounters. This story would take place in a transient environment where people come and go; waiting rooms, airports, bus stations, vending machines. Frequently these are also places where lives change in an instant, surrounded by a rushing humanity that seems not to care, taken up with its own drama. Yet, flashes of kindness do appear, sometimes when they are sorely needed.

Packing a story into such a small space is a challenge. Once we fleshed out the action, we began writing, and then cutting to shape. Like poetry, every single word must earn its place and preferably do double duty.

Writing is usually a solitary pursuit. It was a real pleasure to bounce ideas off someone who got my drift and contributed to the process too.

We had a time limit of about forty minutes, and the ticking clock also forced us to get on with it. Like so much in life, done is better than perfect! I prefer to write poetry, but this short form has a lot to recommend it.

 

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes

NaNot today

impala_MonikaP
MonikaP via pixabay

In my writing groups, it’s all about NaNo; daily word counts and writing yourself into a corner and plot holes you could drive a bus through. Maybe that’s the answer to the plot problem. Have the protagonist drive a bus through – never mind…

Things I’m doing instead of NaNoWriMo

  1. Wondering if I should have done NaNo, then reaffirming my decision to pass.
  2. Lunch with friends, bonding with one over the recent loss of her mother.
  3. Sitting at my desk, watching a pheasant walk across the lawn.
  4. Wondering why the pheasant is in my garden.
  5. Chatting with the delivery guy and comparing weekend plans (me: not much.)
  6. Writing a fragment of a poem.
  7. Making a new iTunes playlist, even though I find it hard to write to music with voices.
  8. Pouring away my third half-drunk cup of tea.
  9. Making fresh tea and deciding I do deserve a biscuit. (see point 6)
  10. Gathering the last few chillies from the garden before the frost gets them.
  11. Downloading another book to my Kindle. If not writing, should be reading, right?
  12. Looking at the TBR pile of actual books and sighing.
  13. Wondering again about NaNo.
  14. Concluding that I just don’t have time.
  15. More tea.
  16. Staring.

Where did the day go? Time to make dinner…