20 September, 2021 § Leave a comment
Want to learn how to write creatively? Most writers start out thinking they can write. Some can. Many realise after initial attempts that there’s an endless litany of lessons to be learned. Plot, Structure. Theme. Characters. Setting. Tropes. Editing, Publishing. And they are just the big topics.
When wanting to develop your writing skills, there are two avenues to follow, or are there?
- hunt for a tertiary education eg Masters in Creative Writing
- hit the search engines and see what turns up
Many published authors are disparaging of getting formal qualifications as a writer. Some are published because they wrote their seminal book as part of their degree. Can you teach creative writing? Yes, insomuch as there are conventions and techniques to be learned. Yes, insofar as gaining the discipline to produce a body of work. The question is how many people start a creative writing qualification compared to those who publish as a result? Is there a set of statistics to validate the value of a degree in writing?
Tap ‘creative writing’ into an accepted search engine and you will return over 1. 5 billion results. Amongst those will be articles, blog posts, videos, and courses. Narrow that search to ‘learn how to write fiction’ and you will find more than 500 million references. That is a lot of rabbit holes to chase down to find the nugget you seek. There has never been a better time to learn to write well in terms of the volume of information and resources available to you. There has never been a more confusing time to learn how to write well given that very same volume of information and resources. What tends to happen is you dig around the results from your search and before you know it you either lose hours stuck in the web of usefulness or you find as you dig deeper there is so much more for you to learn. Either way, what you are not doing is the very thing you seek to do: write.
By all means, if you have time or money to invest in digging deep into the web offerings or a formal qualification, take that path if it suits you.
Let me give you alternatives.
- Write as often and for as long as you can. Each time you write you will develop your craft. Freewriting is a good way to kick this habit off. Simply commit to writing for ten minutes at a time without lifting the pen off the page. After a time you will notice the difference in your writing and will spot a few story ideas.
- Read as much as you can, even if it’s just a page a day, peferably in the style you enjoy – crime, romance, historial, memoir. Each read will implant a sense of structure and style in your mind which will spill onto the page as you write. Highlight passages that grab you, note sentences that strike you, jot down ideas that come to you. This is learning, not copying. You are teaching yourself by reading published authors.
- Spend time in your local library. Check the books on their shelves in the writing and literature section – take one or two home and learn from them. Borrow Stephen King’s ‘On Writing”, Anne Lamotte’s ‘Bird by Bird’, Stephen Zinsser’s ‘On Writing Well’, Natalie Goldberg’s ‘Writing Down the Bones’ to name a few. Ask your librarian about Book Clubs – they often run quite a few and will encourage you to read widely. Most libraries also have access to Historical Resources to explore local history or family history – both great sources of inspiration for writing ideas.
- Find a couple of easy,low-risk writing competitions which give you prompts to write to and a deadline to end on. Books or websites with writing prompts are good but it’s too easy to procrastinate without a time limit. Writer’s groups often have writing comps and exercises to improve your writing.
- Join your local writing group – you will get access to workshops, talks, craft development and feedback amongst other things. The cameraderie in writing groups is only limited by your preparedness to get involved. You may or may not find someone who writes in your genre but all chances to improve your writing don’t come packaged in neat little bundles. You have to untie them to find what’s inside, but all are learning opportunities.
Learning how to write is best achieved by finding what works from those who have gone before, and writing as often as you can. Keep in mind though, once you start writing, there is no end to the learning.
There is always something to pick up along the way and play with.
And if it’s not fun, why do it?
9 May, 2021 § Leave a comment
It never ceases to amaze me … the diverse backgrounds and deep desire people have for learning to write.
I’ve met a wonderful people in my writing workshops over the years.
Here’s a sampling of some of their stories:
- One has written a family history and has an idea for a story on a relative who was a convict.
- Another would love to write children’s books with her daughter.
- Alice is well into her 80’s and is being encouraged by her grandchildren to write down all the fantasy stories she has related to them.
- Jack has been working on a rollicking good Aussie young adult adventure story.
- Johann wrote an epic historical family memoir and needs to shape it up for publication.
Each of these is an ordinary person. They work, they have families, pastimes, and pressures. And they have either a burning desire or a persistent itch that drives them to write. Just as all successful and famous writers were and are ordinary.
Well, not all. I met Bryce Courteney many years ago before he became an author. At the time he was a copywriter and in his own fledgling business after being a big success in Advertising in a major firm. He went on to write commercial fiction, publishing annually just in time for Christmas sales. He learned a lot from his advertising career and made sure he wrote to meet the market. He was a unique individual, but he was a regular person.
There lies the magic!
To be a writer is within the reach of anyone.
Let me repeat that: to be a writer is within the reach of anyone. Including you!
All it needs is to find a story to tell. And the commitment to telling it.
Your past, your present, and your future each have nubs of ideas that can turn into a story.
Idea sparks surround you – in the news, advertisements, things that capture your attention, something you heard said, watching people at a cafe. The genesis of a story can be anywhere. It’s a matter of catching that seed, germinating and nurturing it, and watching it grow.
If it fails to thrive, put it aside and plant another story seed.
If you are a writer, you do more than say “one day”. You pick and prod at writing as time permits. You make time to write. You read and learn. You put ink to paper (even if indirectly through a keyboard). And you never let go of the dream of creating a work that gives you satisfaction and possibly appreciation from others.
In the words of Winston Churchill, “Never give up”.
30 April, 2021 § Leave a comment
When someone is about to embark on a writing journey, they often do so because they want to document their memories, or those of someone close to them. Why? Either for posterity or to share a fascinating period of time or to distribute to family now and in the future to give a glimpse of the times they lived through.
In fact, life writing, or memoir, can be one of the best places to start your writing practice. You don’t need to worry about imagination, or being creative, or deciding what genre or style to write in … you simply write from memory. You write the life you know, have experienced and can talk reliably about. Who else is an expert on your life more than you?
If you are one of those organised people who has kept a diary for all or part of your life, your raw material is easily accessible! The rest of us have to rely on memory, and we know how unreliable that can be.
Writing about a period of your life can be entertaining, cathartic, difficult, humorous, and everything in between.
Personally, I avoided writing memoir pieces for two reasons. Firstly my memory is limited: a lot of my life is blank and I rely on photographs much of the time to recall certain things. For those times I don’t have a physical image, I have an emotional or mental image in mind. Secondly, it can be painful bringing back some memories and life events. They say not to dwell on the past but at some point we all revisit it to reminisce or remember.
If you’re intending to publish your memoir, then making it easy for the reader to engage in your story is paramount. In all writing, you need to find a way to let the reader into what’s in your mind that you are trying to share or replicate for them. How you do that is through traditional story-telling techniques.
In memoir, perhaps one of the best methods is to employ the ‘show, don’t tell’ approach.
When writing a piece, aim to recollect as much sensory detail as you can.
- What season of the year was it? What time of day? Example, ” Wearing my shiny new black shoes, I skipped through the freshly fallen leaves that were all tones of yellow, brown and orange: I felt them crunch under my foot.” That gives you the sense this piece takes place around Autumn/Fall. Much better for the reader than saying, “it was autumn.”
- Think about the feelings you had at the time and where you felt it in your body. “I knew I did wrong and my throat started to constrict, my tummy tightened and my chest felt like it would fall in on itself. I hid my hands behind my back: I knew I was in for the Principal’s cane.” That has more import for the reader than “I was scared going to the Principal’s office because I knew I’d get the cane.”
- Which of your senses were involved? Was there a certain smell, aroma or scent? Were there noises around that were distinctive like “the rumble of an approaching locomotive”? Could you taste something? How about the physical feel of something, example, “the yellowing linen on Grandma’s table was crisp and standing to attention. I ran my hands over the tablecloth and it was smooth – so stiff I didn’t dare crinkle it.” Sounds, scents and tactile memories are keys to readers memories and imagination. You can use music to underline a period of time: “and I heard ‘Let It Be’ by the Beatles playing in the background” puts the memory around 1970 and will probably have your reader singing the words in their head.
- In your memory piece, were other people involved? Who was there? What role did they play? How did you feel about those people? How did you feel about them being there? Alluding to them or describing them and the impact of the other people being there brings your reader in as well.
- Did anything change, alter or shift during this period? Was it a pivotal moment in some way?
Memoir or life writing is more than the simple retelling of events. The more visceral you can make the experience, the more you can engage your reader to really make them feel as though they are in the moment with you/your character.
Use emotion, sensory cues and lots of showing (not telling) to bring this life-writing alive.
Make your reader want to turn the page to find out more.
This article was inspired by an online webinar presentation led by Dr Alison Daniell on the topic of Life Writing, held by Southampton University.
Photo credit: jarmoluk @ Pixabay https://pixabay.com/photos/photos-hands-hold-old-256887/
26 April, 2021 § Leave a comment
Why enter a writing competition?
Entering a writing competition forces you to write. It gives you a deadline and, hopefully, a topic or theme. And an impending deadline sure helps to focus the mind! Procrastination thieves are everywhere – if you’re like a lot of writers or aspiring writers then you might be inclined to put things off – you’ll write after … the washing is done, the shopping is done, you polish the car … you get the idea. A whole lot of perfunctory activities suddenly come into into prominence when you know you need to sit down to a blank page.
One of the big reasons people often enter writing competitions is the chance to compare your idea of how well you write to how others receive your writing. If your work gets through to the finalist round or you win a prize then that is confirmation of you as a writer. Don’t dismiss the size of competition or how many words you wrote – you made a mark and the judges chose what you wrote. Give yourself a pat on the back, bask in the glow of achievement and set your sights on writing the next entry.
How to win a writing competition?
Well, obviously, if there were a formula we’d all be winning and there’d really be non competition!
Surprisingly though, a lot of writers knock themselves out of contention before they even get to be read.
1. Firstly, you have to enter to win. Sounds simple enough but how many times have you printed out the entry form with the Terms and Conditions and lost them in the detritus of daily living, only to find them when the deadline has passed? Oh. It’s just me then? Or, you talk yourself out of actually writing by listening to that Negative Nancy in your noggin – tell her to take a hike until you’re done writing. Set up a ‘Competiton’ folder both on your computer and your desk to keep details of competitions in so you don’t lose them. I put them in deadline-date order.
2. Once you have the deadline date, the next thing to do is to pencil that in your diary – even if you’re just thinking about it. (If you are a Master Procrastinator, put the date a couple of weeks earlier!).
3. When you decide which comp to enter, use that end-date as the starting point to writing: calculate how many days/weeks you have along with the number of words required – schedule your writing time for that entry. Set your end date at least a week ahead so you have time to review and revise before submitting.
4. Before you start writing, read the Terms and Conditions, thoroughly. Especially note the open/close dates, word count limit, any theme, the purpose or reason for the competition that might give clues on what material is expected), format requirements, submission method eg online, email or by post. Research the organiser – that might inform you about their expectations or preferences with might give you an edge.
5. Word counts noted are usually fixed as a maximum, not suggested. Do not go over them and don’t go too far under them. If the entry states 1000 words and you send in 1001 … you’ll be thrown in the slush pile without a look-in. Note, word count often excludes Title, but check! Conversely, if you send in 250 words for a 1000 word comp, you’ll also be out. Match your entry close to the required word count but never over it.
6. Formatting is critical to follow – again, another opportunity to be eliminated. If the entry form asks for Courier 12pt single spaced and you send in 10pt Marker Felt double spaced, you’re upping the likelihood of being disqualified.
Following the Terms and Conditions of an entry is the first challenge in winning. Organisers review each entry at the beginning and cull those that don’t meet terms. In the ‘first round’ they’ll ask questions such as – has the entry submitted on time? is the layout as requested? Is the word count at or close to what’s been asked? Has the entry fee, if any, been paid? Have other conditions been met eg eligibility, theme etc? These administration actions take place up front, before your entry even has a chance of being submitted to judges.
You’d be surprised how many entries are disqualified at the first hurdle.
“But I wrote a really great story!”
Adhere to the requirements – they are there for a reason. If you’re not sure about anything ask the organisers or see if their website has a set of FAQs that might help. Keep in mind that organisers get hundreds if not thousands of entries and it’s not possible to respond individually.
With the technicalities out of the way, let’s look at writing your piece.
Consider what the organisers are looking for in any entry. Then, muse how the typical writer might respond … and brainstorm alternate approaches that are a little different. Twists, quirks and unexpected entries stand out from the pack – that can be a good thing if you are on target with your entry in all other respects.
For fiction, focus on your storyline, keep your point of view consistent, along with your style and tone.
Keep the reader engaged with pace and some tension.
Do some research where necessary to make your entry as good as possible.
Write your piece as best you can. Then put it aside for a while. Go play with something else then revisit your writing entry and see if you can revise it and improve it.
Remember to edit and proofread before hitting ‘ submit’. Give yourself every opportunity to put in your best entry.
Sad to say, there are no magic methods to winning a writing competition. You need to write a good story that fits the brief and meets requirements. The number of people who fail to give themselves a fair chance by not meeting requirements, or not even submitting is surprising! Don’t be that person.
Want a handy reference to what’s in this article? I created an informative infographic to keep on your bulletin board to remind you of the key points in entering a writing competition. Grab it below.
13 March, 2021 § Leave a comment
At 6.30 am this morning I woke to be ready to join in and listen to Women’s Voices, Telling Stories, storytelling evening hosted by Liz Weir. (It was evening in Northern Ireland!)
What a feast that was. I’m only sad that I had to leave early after an hour and a half. So many women weaved words of magic to spell-bind the listener. It was like times past where you’d sit around the campfire or hearth and listen to stories being told. Before the days of wireless and television and social media apps. A time when people focused on people and mesmerised children and adults with tales well spun.
It was a delightful hour and a half for me. I was enchanted, engaged and energised with creativity. I took notes of passages and phrases that stood out like “skin shimmering like white pearl” from Masako Carey, and many more.
Listening to storytellers is not something I’d normally do. It was an opportunity that presented itself and I grabbed the opportunity. I don’t plan to be a storyteller. But something told me it would be worthwhile times spent – and it was.
So, switch up how you take in information, what you consume, where you normally look for inspiration.
Doing different things accesses different regions of the brain and perks up your creative space. It shakes things up. Our brains are inherently lazy. Actually they’re highly efficient. They are designed to make sense of our world and then repeat the same process. Every now and then we benefit from changing our usual patterns, Like taking a different route home – you suddenly see things you’d not noticed for some time such as a tree in bloom or shedding its autumnal leaves. You’re alert to your surroundings because they are not overly familiar.
When you alter what comes into your vision and hearing, like listening to storytellers, you reconstruct temporarily your brain pattern. I feel inspired and creative and ready to write with new ideas after that session. I wouldn’t have felt that this morning if I’d followed my usual morning routine.
How can you shake up today or tomorrow to access some creativity and inspire your writing?
11 January, 2020 § Leave a comment
Writing challenges are terrific to spark your productivity and focus. It doesn’t matter what kind of challenge – just focused action with butt in chair doingness.
If you want to get the best out of any challenge, here are two key things you need to do.
Schedule the time
That’s right. Drag out your trusty diary – digital or paper – and plug in the times to be allocated to this challenge. Then stick to it! Some challenges will have specific times allocated where everyone in the challenge gets on a call or skype in or whatever.
Check the times and dates, double check any time-zone calculations if needed, and mark those times out in your diary. They are non-negotiable appointments with yourself.
Here’s a tip – sync all your diaries so you don’t miss the time!
Set up a reminder to alert you ahead of time to get ready. You know, grab your coffee, get your papers together, kick start the computer, sharpen the pencil, grab the sign-in details and chocolate (always chocolate).
Decide on your priorities
It helps to know ahead of time what you’ll use this time for.Obviously if you sign up for a 30 day squat challenge, you know exactly what you’ll be doing. But in writing, we have so many choices 🙂 Will you work on your book, your book front matter, your back matter, your author platform pieces, your quarterly planning schedule …?
As soon as you sign up for the challenge, write down what prompted you to do so. Usually, there is something in the back of your mind, prompting you to join, that said ‘this will help me to …’. That. Write that down. And if you can’t remember, write down a shopping list of the things you need to be getting on with. Then pick which is most important and can be progressed in the time frame you’ve got. Notice I didn’t say completed. It’s about moving forward. If you can complete something, all the better. But don’t overly stress yourself.
Know what you are going to work on before you start the challenge.
30 Writing Challenge Activity Ideas
Here’s a grab-bag of activities and tasks that might inspire you to get underway or done during a challenge.
- write a chapter in your book
- brainstorm chapter titles and choose the best ones
- mock up an idea of your cover design before getting it done professionally
- review your book notes and refine any ideas
- create a book plan if you don’t have one
- outline your blurb
- draft your book’s premise
- set up your front matter eg dedication, acknowledgement, disclaimer etc
- sketch out your characters – protagonist, antagonist, others
- make notes about your setting to stay consistent
- list a set of questions your non-fiction book will answer for the reader
- prepare a speech you plan to give eg at a local library book launch
- write up a blog post or ideas for a series of blog posts
- write an essay or an article for publication
- create a series of social media posts
- prepare a publishing calendar including social media, blog, newsletter
- think up some swag ideas to sell on Etsy then create them
- put together a timeline to finish and publish your book
- write a set of course notes and materials
- draft a description and keywords for your Amazon listing
- compile a book bible including mock cover, and all elements (setting, characters, chapters, messages)
- prepare a set of questions you’d want to answer in an interview about your book
- create a freebie lead magnet, giveaway, reader/subscriber gift – journal, planner, checklist, quiz, workbook, recipes, extra stories about characters – be imaginative
- write a prequel to your book series
- generate ideas for a pen name and decide on one
- set up digital spaces for your author platform eg website, facebook, etc
- draft and finalise your author bio
- check your online branding is consistent across platforms
- prepare for your book-signing event (include extra pens)
- create a calendar of events/activities for the year
Note that a writing challenge doesn’t have to be about the act of writing. It can be, but if you are also a self-publisher then there are lots of moving parts to distribute and market your books. In that case, there are even more activities you could take action on.
Ideally, you are set up with a plan and are working towards an end goal. If not, then any activity that enhances what you are doing is good. Better is when you select tasks to tie on with your overarching plan. That’s why you need to set your priorities before heading in to a challenge. Work hard on the right things.
Of course, you don’t need a collective writing challenge: do a challenge on your own. Set a specific day and timeframe, say Thursday from 1-3pm. Mark that in your diary. Decide what exactly you will work on, say drafting a table of contents. Note that in your diary too. Decide where you’ll do it and get everything ready before your time starts so you can hit the ground running. Get into the routine of doing a self-challenge a week and you can make progress faster on things that matter.
I challenge you to join a challenge or set your own. DO it now. Your future writing productivity will thank you for it.
28 November, 2019 § Leave a comment
Another literary legend lost.
His death last Sunday is punctuated by the volumes of words from this prodigious talent. A critic, intellectual, broadcaster, presenter and ever-improving poet James has left an indelible mark on Australia and the world.
The ‘kid from Kogarah’ who traversed those suburbs a couple of decades before I lived there, managed to propel himself from suburban life to being a player on a far larger stage.
There were elements of James’ personality and behaviour that rankled yet none can deny the way his words leapt into your soul like a burr in a shoe demanding to be noticed.
He was someone I’m happy to have admired from afar. I suspect had I been a dinner guest I would have been swallowed like a minnow by his gigantic mind and acerbic wit, being left as pulp to be rinsed off the dinner plate.
Above all else, poetry was his literary love.
Read some of Clive James.
Watch his videos.
Take on board his turn of phrase.
See the effect his words have on your writing.
Make that your tribute to him.
2 November, 2019 § Leave a comment
As NaNoWriMo kicks into gear, Anne Lamott offers some inspiration.
The start is the thing. The blank page. The “what will I say?”, “how will I start?”, “who am I to try?”, “write a book – what was I thinking!?” … Insert your own Debbie Downer statements that poke their way into your creative genius, preventing anything from getting on the page.
NaNoWriMo is a monster of a challenge and not to be taken lightly. The premise is to write 50,000 words as a first draft in 30 days. It happens every November. And die-hards love it as a way to commit and write.
NaNo asks you to prepare yourself in October by quashing any reasons that will stand in your way of dedicating time to your writing. Why wait ’til October? You can do these things now to focus on your writing.
- Get healthy food and snacks ready
- Have your beverage of choice on tap
- Work out where you will write
- Decide when can squeeze writing time into your overloaded schedule
- Make some notes about what you’ll write – as brief or as full an outline as you can bear
- Calculate a word count target for your sessions (50,00/30=1667 a day)
- Apologise early for unintended crabbiness
- Let everyone know you’re dedicated to writing big-time ie get a do-not-disturb sign;
Anne Lamott exhorts us to stop putting off writing as an unattainable dream we’ll do one day or as soon as …. Write as is. In other words, fit writing into your life as it is now. Don’t wait for that magical time when you have time. Make time. Read her full piece here.
NaNoWriMo aims for 50,000 but you can set your own target. Try 10,000 words over the month. Maybe 5000. The trick is to get going. Once you do, you may be surprised how easily the words flow. Start now and by NaNoWriMo you’ll easily do 50k in a dedicated month.
Get your ideas, thoughts, sentences on paper. Tidy them up later when you’ve exhausted your memory, imagination and brain and can then step into logic mode.
Just get the words down.
Don’t die with your book still in you.
Anne Lamott is the author of Bird by Bird: some instructions on writing and life, one of the essential craft books to have in your collection. She has written both fiction and non-fiction. Watch her interview on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tKX5HXY0MGA for ideas and insights on this engaged writer.