Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Writing 101: (Questionable) Tips From The Girl With Words

Lately quite a few people have been asking me for writing tips. This is kind of amazing because it means people think I have something of value to offer. I’m not so sure I do, but hey, I’ll do my best! At the very least, this will motivate me to write more than I have been the last three days. I had a really great week last week, and then this week…Nadda. Zip zilch nothing of value. The curse of the creative life.


These ‘tips’ are just based on my own experiences. I’m not an expert, and I’m yet to have anything published*. Proceed with caution…


A question I seem to be asked a lot these days is ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ I like this question because it makes me imagine an idea factory in my head where I can go and browse the shelves until I see one that I like. It would probably be easier if it worked that way, but the reality is I don’t actually know where I get my ideas from. I am constantly telling myself stories in my head. I’ve done that for as long as I can remember. Most of them are clich├ęd and not something that I would try to write down, but my brain is always searching for something to latch onto and turn into a story. For example: As some of you may know, I have two jobs. During the day I teach primary school children (aged 5-12), and at night I (sometimes) work with my mother. She owns a cleaning company, and together we clean the local cinema (I know, super glamorous. But hey, this is how I pay for a zillion trips to Mars so I’m not complaining!) One night last week when I was vacuuming the entrance, I saw a guy sitting at a table and doing what looked to be math problems in a small notebook. He didn’t speak to anyone or look at anyone, and was just generally behaving oddly. Plus it was like eleven o’clock at night or something, so it was weird that he was there at all. Who hangs out at a cinema (at night!) and doesn’t watch a movie?? In reality I think he was probably waiting to pick someone up, but in my head, the situation played out like this:

What if he is a ghost? What if I’m the only one who can see him? Oh my gosh, maybe I’ll go over there and vacuum near him and accidentally bump into him and say sorry, and he’ll be like “oh my God you can see me??” and I’ll be like “of course I can…” and he’ll be like “I’ve been sitting here for three days trying to make people see me but no one can. I thought I was losing my mind.” And then I’ll be like, “Sure, whatever,” and start to walk away and he’ll try to grab my arm to make me stay and his hand will go straight through me and…

This continued for the remainder of the night (about 3 hours) so by the time I came home, I had an entire story planned out, right down to why he would be visiting the cinema as a ghost, what the math problems were for and how “I” was going to help him [I also had a whole cast of characters]. As soon I got home I wrote down a general outline of the story in one of my many, many notebooks so that I could come back and turn it into a proper story later. I haven’t yet, and maybe I never will, but the idea is there. Maybe I’ll take one small element of that idea and turn into something completely new, or add it into something I’m already working on. The point is, I find that inspiration is everywhere, if you are open to it. I’ve been inspired by things that my kids at school tell me, or by some of the crazy games they play. I've been inspired by books I've read, movies I've watched or songs I've listened to. Honestly, finding ideas is the easy part. It’s the execution that can be difficult.


I’ve said this before, but when it comes to improving your writing, the best thing you can do is just write. Actually put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and write something. It doesn’t matter if it’s awful. It doesn’t matter if you spell every second word wrong or commit atrocious grammatical crimes. All you need to focus on is getting a story down on paper – a story that delivers a beginning, middle and an end. That is actually harder than it sounds. I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve written myself into a corner and couldn’t find a way to finish a story. That doesn’t matter, though. When that happens you learn from your mistakes and either backtrack to change things so you can reach a satisfying conclusion, or dust yourself off and start a new story. Not everything you write has to be publishable. I have a ton of posts saved on my computer that I originally wrote with the intention of putting on my blog, but then changed my mind because they weren’t good enough. There’s a gap, you know, between what you want to achieve and what you’re capable of achieving. The only way to close that gap is to work. Work and write and don’t give up. Push through the hard times and the times where you feel like you can’t write a single sentence worth a damn. Like anything worth pursuing, getting to where you want to be will take time, patience and effort. There are no shortcuts. The only way to get better at writing is to write. Write often and write anything. Don’t worry about making it pretty and presentable (yet). Sometimes amazing things can happen when you shove your inner Cubbins** into a cage. For example: Last week I had this story in my head that I wanted to write, but I was avoiding doing it because I knew it wasn’t something that I’d want to share with the world. It was a story just for me, so it seemed like a waste of time. I tried to ignore the ‘craving’ for a few days (the best way to describe it), but after sitting blankly in front of my laptop for a few days, I said ‘screw this’, and just started writing. Because I knew that I wasn’t ever going to show anyone what I had written, I was able to turn off my inner editor and just let the words come. I wasn’t hung up on sentence structure and cadence and the placement of commas; I just wrote…And finished a 23k novella in three days. Let’s just take a moment to read that again: twenty three thousand words in three days. Now if I wanted to publish that on my blog or anywhere else, I’d have to edit the bejebus out of it to make it fit for public consumption. I know that, but that’s hardly the point, is it? The point is I wrote it. There’s a certain kind of magic in starting a story and finishing it, and if that experience taught me anything it’s this: Writing for the love of writing is never a waste of time, and I am capable of far more than I ever imagined. And so are you. Just show up and write, and amazing things will happen.


Another thing that seems to keep coming when people talk about writing is the difficulty in finding the right place to start. This can be tricky, but my advice would be to write the part that interests you. Start there. Start with the initial scene that gave you the idea. BLAME actually began life as a cool dream I had based on an elaborate and reoccurring fantasy I had when I was a kid (I can’t tell you too much as it will give the story away :p). I woke up and immediately wrote down that scene, and I’m still waiting to incorporate it into the story. Maybe it won’t even be used, but that won’t matter because it did its job. It inspired me to write. So find the scene, the moment, the character, the situation or the line that inspires you to write and start there.  You can always go back and fill in any missing details later. Or you may find that the scene which you thought belonged in the middle of the story is actually the perfect beginning. You won’t know until you start writing, so…Are you beginning to see a theme yet??


The final thing I want to talk about are the days where everything feels too hard. Where you can’t even form a coherent sentence and you feel like you completely suck at everything and you should just move to the mountains and die alone. We all have those days. I’m sure even wildly talented writers have those days where they question every word they type. As a certain someone*** says, some days you feel so strong, and other days you’re like, ‘What the f#%k am I doing??’ That’s normal, and honestly, I’d rather have days of crippling self-doubt that push me to try harder and do better instead of believing I’m awesome and churning out rubbish (though let’s be honest – that happens anyway). On days (weeks, months) like that, I believe we should take a breath and remember why we’re fighting for our dreams in the first place. Seek out the things that inspire you and let them restore you and give you a new reason to push forward. That’s easy for me because I know exactly what (or who) is going to do that for me. If you don’t have a go-to person, place or thing to inspire you when things feel too hard, I encourage you to find what works for you and stick by it. Hold onto it with both hands, because you’re going to need it. Pursuing a creative life and chasing your dreams is not easy, but we only get one life. We only get one shot. You don't want to waste that by wishing you had tried. Every person you admire started out like you once. Dreaming. Beginning. Learning. Fighting for it. They got where they are by working. If they can do it, so can you. So can I. We can do this. We can. I believe that with all of my heart.

Dream out loud.


*Well, maybe this counts as being published :3
**'Cubbins' is the name of my inner editor //Winks dramatically for those of you who understand :p
***Jared Leto. Duh.