As I’ve floated down the river of penmanship, I’ve encountered weirs that have sent me off on tangents, damns that have blocked my way, and dangerous waterfalls that threatened to completely destroy the integrity of my work. I’ve put what I’ve learned down in this list, that I hope will inspire you to become a better writer. Feel free to add more of your own in the comments.
1. Slow down
It’s sometimes hard to be counter-cultural in a world that thinks we are designed for perpetual motion. Whether it be the pressures of work, or the demands of the social life of our children, life is definitely busier and faster than it has even been before. If you want to become a better writer you might just have to take a look at your life and see where you can create more time and space to write. For example, as children, my brother and I could only be involved in one extra-curricular activity a term. As an adult, working in Public Relations, I had to make the decision to leave on time, and possibly forgo promotions and pay rises, just so that I could come home and write.
2. Create the right environment
It is really important to find a space in your house to write where you won’t be interrupted. I’ve made a sign for the door of my little nook which reads “Warning: Creation in Progress!” to let my family know I need a little alone time. It’s also important that you are comfortable. If the chair your are sitting in constantly squeaks you might find this a bit of a distraction. Consider investing in a new one, or fixing the squeak! When I set up my own creative environment I used all the senses for inspiration. See Create Your Space for details. The most important thing is that it be a place that you want to return to time and again, and is not somewhere filled with other distractions.
3. Find the right tools
There’s no right or wrong when it comes to selecting which tools to use for writing. The important thing is to find what works for you. Some people find it easiest to write everything in long hand, from quill and ink through to pencil. Others find it easier to express themselves on whatever electronic device they may have, from computer to tablet to phone. I tend to do a little of everything. Even in my early 40s I still get excited at the prospect of getting a new pencil case every September, and yet I am also something of a slave to Apple. Maybe one day I’ll also invest in an ancient Remington typewriter…
4. Fall in love with words
I wrote Falling in Love With Words because as a writer, words are the single most important tool of my trade. If I don’t love words; how they sound, what they mean, what they can conjure up in the mind’s eye, then I shouldn’t be a crafter of them. I feel the same way about words as I do about a new yarn I discover for knitting. They broaden my horizon and expand the possibilities for my work. What are some of your favourite words and why? Take time to savour them as they spill out upon the page.
5. Read what others have written
It is my firm belief that you can’t be a good writer unless you are also an avid reader. One thing I have to constantly remind myself as I get into my writing is that I still need to have a book to read on the go at the same time. I don’t always read the same genre as my own. For example, I love the speeches of Winston Churchill, yet doubt I will ever write a speech for a British Prime Minister, let alone one with Churchill’s use of masterful rhetoric. But Churchill loved words too, and his love of them inspires mine. Equally, I do not currently plan to write a mystery novel, yet devour every from the classic Agatha Christie to my current favourite, the Maggie Hope series by Susan Elias MacNeal. Whatever you love to read, while you write, keep reading!
6. Learn from others
As I mentioned in Community Drives Creativity, there are a number of excellent online communities and resources to help you along in your writing journey. There are some excellent Facebook groups for writers of all genres and demographics. Equally, Twitter has a number of hashtags you keep tabs on, and lists & people you can follow. My advice is to just read, and follow the people who feed you the most. Don’t feel overwhelmed by the number of voices that are out there. Even within the great pool that is Twitter there are smaller communities of which to become a part. Don’t be afraid to ask questions either. There are a lot of friendly writers, editors and publishers out there who would be only too happy to help you.
7. Set realistic goals
When I first sat down to write my novel I had all sorts of grand schemes and plans about how quickly I would get it done. Little did I know that the finished work is but the tip of the iceberg of what it takes to complete a full length novel. Unless you are Barbara Cartland, who would recline on her chaise-long, dictating book after book to her assistant, I strongly suggest that you pace yourself. Don’t set yourself up to fail. Figure out a word count that works for you, and include backstory and planning in your hours of work. I try and write an average of 500 words a day. This may not seem like a lot, but over time it can soon add up.
8. Just write
One of the first lessons I learned was that I am an overachieving perfectionist. If I was ever to get the novel I was writing out of my head and on to the page I would need to overcome this. I think I have written the first chapter of about ten novels, hundreds of times over, throughout the years. If you get an idea for a story, don’t interrupt the creative flow by trying to get it right first time round. Just write! Get it down on the page and then think about polishing it. The freedom I have found in doing this has been exhilarating!
9. Think outside the box
Even if you are working on a long piece like a novel, don’t assume that is the only way to write and get your word count up. The important thing is to flex your alphabetical muscles every day. I like to write letters to family members in America, send note cards, write short articles for magazines, blog posts like this one, and even a daily entry in my journal. All of this is writing, so try thinking outside the box when you write.
10. Spend time thinking
One of my favourite sculptures of all time is Rodin’s “Thinker” which I finally got to see at the Rodin museum on a trip to Philadelphia one time. I recently did a personality test called “Strengths Finder” in which I discovered that 4/5 of my top personality traits involved some kind of critical thinking. And yet I also found that I don’t give myself enough time to think. Thinking is an essential part of the writing process in that it gives our minds a chance to wonder, and our imaginations the opportunity to come up with new ideas and story lines.
11. Write what you love
(not just what you know)
I have seen a number of people suggest that you should only write about thing that you know. Whilst I wouldn’t recommend setting your story in China if you have never been there, nor never met someone from there, I do think it is limiting for us as writers to only write what we know. If we write about subjects that we love we will find ourselves studying them, emerging ourselves in those worlds, so that by the end of writing we will come to know about that which we write. What are you most passionate about? What gets you excited? What is the kind of person, place or thing that you look forward to returning to time and again? That is what you should be writing about.
12. Know your audience,
but write for yourself
I think one of the hardest things J K Rowling must have found when completing the Harry Potter series after it had achieved worldwide success was continuing to write for herself. Of course when figuring out the genre of your book it is important to know who your audience are so that there is clarity to your work, but I personally believe that the best writing comes through knowing yourself, and finding your own voice. Don’t write to people other people because you cannot please everyone. Instead, write what comes from the heart and invite people into the conversation. Trust me, what you have to say, and how you would say it, is extremely valuable and interesting to the outside world. You just need to have the courage of your convictions.
13. Find out what inspires you
Despite being a lover of words, I am also quite a visual and audio person. I love listening to inspirational music when I write. In fact my favourite play list on Spotify is a collection of female jazz singers from throughout the decades. What playlist would help you to get create and write?
Equally, I love beautiful scenery and pictures. I often take photographs around the village where I live, and of random buildings and places that I might want to use in my work. I also have a very full Pinterest account with hidden boards for my writing. I use images I have pinned on these boards as a launchpad for descriptive writing for my book. Some might call these things muses. What a-muse-s you when you work?
A map of the village where the bulk of my debut novel is set.
You don’t have to be a fine artist to draw. Trust me, I know. But sometimes just doodling can lead to the development of ideas. For my debut novel I spent many hours sketching out the kind of world I wanted my book to be set in. In The Only Limits are the Limits of Your Imagination I talk about the process I went through in creating this fictional world. I tried a number of different mediums, including a fancy map making program on the computer, and finally settled for good old fashioned pencil, which I coloured in when it was finished. Remember most of the time these doodles will never be seen by your readers, but they are a great way to sketch characters, places, things. Even doing floor plans of buildings can help you be consistent as you write. Give it a go. I’d love to see what you come up with!
15. Overcome procrastination and writer’s block
Pretty much all writers have suffered from the curse of writer’s block at some point in their career. Procrastination is also a nasty virus that can eek its way into the soul of our creativity. When I find myself struggling with rather malady I sit myself down with a black sheet of paper and write the following: “I am procrastinating because…” or “I have writer’s block because…” I put no pressure on myself other than to write one of either of these sentences on that day. The results can sometimes be quite illuminating. I might discover than I have taken myself off on an impossible tangent to a dead end in my writing and that is why I feel stuck. I may find that I am working on something that I really don’t love that I am writing for all the wrong reasons, and can’t sustain it. I may simply find that I am tired and need some time to recuperate and think. Whatever may be bothering you, don’t give up on yourself but ask your inner voice to tell you what is going on, and write about it!
16. Find a balance between writing and storytelling
Not all writers are good storytellers, and not all storytellers are good writers. I am better at telling stories than I am at writing. My mother is a technical genius when it comes to understanding spelling and grammar but still has no clue where I get my story lines and ideas from. In order to be a better writer it is important to have balance. I am the first person to admit that I need to work on my grammar, and that without spellchecker I would be lost. What do you need to work on? What type of writing does your style suit best?
17. Remember outlines,
plans & timelines
As the storyline of my debut novel started to take shape in my mind, I spent a considerable amount of time working on the outline. Various scenes would jump into my mind, and not always in a chronological order! Thankfully post-it notes came to the rescue as I was able to jot things down and move them around as needed. I keep these post-it notes in my pencil case so I can refer to them wherever I am. Once I had the basic outline of the story I was able to consider timescales and put each scene into a timeline. The speed with which you move the reader through the development of the plot is vital in creating the mood of the piece. Sometimes transitions are as, if not more, important than the main event. All these work, plus backstories on my characters, and descriptive pieces of places and things, have been the bulk of my work. Enjoy the time you spend on this. Don’t rush through it. It will help you a great deal later on.
18. Let your characters speak to you
I have heard many writers talk about how their characters wouldn’t let them do something, or their characters showed them which direction to go in. It wasn’t until I created my own characters that I started to understand what they meant. Integrity of character is as important with the fictional people you create as it is in real life. Of course there are times when people act ‘out of character’ but that is still an authentic part of who a person is, even if it is a disturbed flaw. The people, places and things in your world will show you the way if you let them.
19. Decide when others should
read your work
If you are a sensitive soul, and a lot of writers are, think very carefully about who you show your work to and when. Whilst it is nice to have cheerleaders encouraging you along the way, my advice is not to show your work to people until the first draft is complete, and you are well into the editing stage. It doesn’t take much for people to derail you with their comments, both bad and good. Plus you don’t want to give away the entire plot so that those close to you feel like they don’t need to read it later. Keep them guessing, and maintain an air of mystery about it.
20. Seize the day! (and the night)
You never know when a thought, idea or character will pop into your head so always be prepared. I carry around a notebook and pen in my bag wherever I go and am constantly jotting down random thoughts that come into my head. I also have a notebook beside my bed for the same reason. My subconscious works overtime when I am dreaming, and sometimes I am able to glean these nuggets in the early hours and get them down on paper. Try writing down your dreams and your daydreams and see where they take you.
21. Do something else
Finally, you can’t write about life unless you are living it, so don’t stay boxed up in your writing corner all hours of the day. Get out there and live a little! The introverts amongst us may prefer to people watch in a coffee shop, or go for a country walk. The extroverts will need to be around people. Invite them round, or get out there and find them! Enjoy life, and enjoy putting life and soul into your work. Happy writing!