A post about anxiety, cultivating creativity, and online resources for writers.

Three weeks ago, after passing through three major international airports in my attempt to get home from the Falkland Islands, I went into two-week self-isolation. Except that it doesn’t feel like three weeks ago. It feels like two days – and also about seventeen years. I don’t know whether anyone else has experienced this, but for me, time seems to be in limbo. The days just roll over one another, and it would be far too easy to spend them all staring into space, or at a screen, or at the birds in the garden. (NB: I have definitely done all of these things since lockdown began.)

Let’s start by saying that this wasn’t the post I was expecting to write for today. The one I’d scheduled was an update on how travelling for multiple consecutive weeks was affecting my writing process.

Obviously, I’m not currently travelling. I got about halfway through my epic trip (Argentina, Uruguay, Antarctica, South Georgia, the Falkland Islands, and Australia), before coming home. In fact, I was en route to Melbourne when Australia closed its borders, and I had to spend a frantic hour at Dubai airport, trying to persuade the Emirates airline staff to put me on a flight back to Manchester instead. (Luckily, they did – and when the lovely woman at the desk handed me the ticket, I actually burst into tears. But that’s another story.)

Aeroplane wing over the Falkland Islands

So now what?

Right now I should have been in the middle of a 3-week writing residency at the KSP Writers’ Centre, in Perth. Part of me wanted to host my own in-isolation residency at home. After all – I don’t have to go anywhere, and isn’t that one of the joys of a writing residency? But I’ve also been finding it difficult to focus over the past few weeks. Which begs the question:

Should I be using this lockdown time to write?

I’ve seen countless posts about this on twitter. People saying that the lockdown represents ‘ideal writing conditions’. People saying how much writing they’ve managed to accomplish now they’re not having to go to work. People commenting how they’re finding it impossible to write right now. People despairing that suddenly stories hold no interest for them any more, as how can fiction compete with our current reality? People clinging to stories and poems as lifelines.

In short: there is no right answer.

There was an excellent Anne Enright quotation doing the rounds on twitter a while ago, from an article in the Guardian:

‘Honestly, there is a lot to be said for tooling about all day, looking up recipes and not making them, not bothering to paint the living room and failing to write a novel. In the middle of the messy non-event called your mid-afternoon, you might get something – a thought to jot down, a good paragraph, a piece of gossip to text a pal. Boredom is a productive state so long as you don’t let it go sour on you. Try not to confuse the urge to get something done with the idea that you are useless. Try not to confuse the urge to contact someone with the thought that you are unloved. Do the thing or don’t do it. Either is fine.’

So let’s talk about solitude.

As writers, we often crave solitude. That time away from work colleagues or family or friends, where we can just be on our own, inside our own head, to write. Some of us travel hundreds of miles to go on residencies, just to get some of this solitude. Some of us usually find it in a public park, or in the middle of a crowded café.

Because solitude isn’t necessarily the same as being alone.

As Anne Enright says: ‘Boredom is a productive state so long as you don’t let it go sour on you.’ And solitude is a kind of boredom. It’s a state of mind that writers can spend years learning to cultivate. It isn’t just sitting on your own at a desk, with nothing else you’re supposed to be doing. It’s a way of shutting off the critical part of your brain, to make room for the creative bit. It’s sitting with the door open and waiting for the ideas and thoughts and words to arrive. It’s an active and a passive state at the same time. Solitude, the way a writer needs solitude, is a way of being alone with the universe.

And it’s difficult to make room for creativity, when your head is full of external anxious thoughts.

Notebook and laptop on a kitchen table from above, with coffee, breakfast and a candle

Let’s talk about anxiety.

I mean anxiety with both a capital and a lower case ‘a’. Because these times are tough. All the clichés that have arisen over the past few weeks are true: this isn’t normal; these are difficult times; the world is upside down; it’s too big to process; we just have to get through this day by day.

There are times, sitting at my kitchen table with my notebook open and a pen in my hand, that I could almost imagine there’s nothing untoward happening outside my own four walls. There are days when I’m bored – in both the positive, creative, Anne Enright sense of the word, and in the listless, sour sense of it. And yes, I cultivate both of these. Because if I didn’t, I couldn’t cope.

At the time of writing this, the UK death toll has almost reached 10,000. And that’s just the figures for hospitals – it doesn’t include all those people who’ve died at home or in care homes. Hospital staff and other key workers are going without adequate PPE. There are thousands of people who won’t get proper funerals. Who are dying alone, their loved ones having to say goodbye over skype. There are nurses sitting with dying patients, holding their hands, to stop them from dying alone.

When I think about all of this, I freeze up. It’s too much for my brain to handle. Possible, reading this, you’ll see this as me turning a blind eye. As choosing to live in my own (honestly quite beautiful) bubble, of sunny Cumbrian walks, and baking banana bread, and reading books. And yes, of course I choose that. When choosing between a meadow and the abyss, who on earth would elect to fall?

That doesn’t mean I don’t care. But I know what anxiety feels like (big and small ‘a’). I recognise those heart palpitations. The sweats. The sick feeling. The vertigo from looking over the cliff-edge inside your brain. Even writing this post has got me feeling all of that, feeling dangerously close to the edge. And if I let myself get stuck in those thought-cycles, I’ll be no use to anyone.

So I steer myself away. I try to read, when I can focus on it. On better days, I try to write. I bake. I make soup. I get in shopping for my parents. And, sometimes, I try to avoid looking at the news.

Freshly baked carrot cake muffins on a cooling rack

So how is my writing going with all of this?

Of my first three weeks in isolation, I spent the first one writing absolutely nothing. I figured that was fair enough. I’d just come back from a massive round-the-world (or half-way-round-the-world-and-then-suddenly-home) trip. I was still jet-lagged, not to mention just generally tired. I needed time to adjust to what I keep seeing referred to as ‘the new normal’. And, to top it all, I had an exhausting cough that may or may not have been coronavirus. I gave myself the week off.

During week two, I also wrote very little – though I did find a way to ease myself back into creativity: Tania Hershman’s Arvon Short Story Challenge. The challenge consisted of five daily prompts, each designed to help you into writing a short story. What worked for me was that the prompts themselves only took about 20 minutes each, so I could do them without feeling like there was great pressure to spend hours in a state of focus, or to write something meaningful. It was like doing physiotherapy exercises after an injury, working a muscle back into life.

I did write a short story from the exercises. It took me two weeks, rather than one, but that doesn’t matter. The point is, the exercises opened a door.

That doesn’t mean that everything’s back to normal. There’s still that difficulty in focusing, and I’m still tired a lot of the time. (I don’t know if this is a hangover from the maybe-coronavirus cough, or just a reflection on my constant state of low-level anxiety.) But I’m managing to think about writing, and to write little bits. I’ve made a promise to myself that, during the weekdays of what would have been my Perth residency, I’m going to write something every day. It doesn’t have to be a lot. One day last week, I wrote 200 words, and I’m counting that as a success. The important thing for me right now isn’t volume – it’s keeping the engine running.

I’m currently working at between half and two thirds of my usual capacity – less for the creative stuff, but more for the practical and administrative side of things, which tends to require less head-space. Also, apart from writing this post, I took a full two-day weekend this week, and honestly it’s made a world of difference. I hardly ever do this, and this weekend has made me realise that I ought to do it more often. After all, writing is work, and it isn’t good for us to work 24/7.

So all in all, I’m doing surprisingly ok. Blips here and there of course, but getting through each day as it comes, and managing to think creatively, which is what I hold onto.

Notebook, pen, laptop and coffee mug on a kitchen table

A few online resources:

Stay safe & well – and happy writing, or not-writing, or whatever you choose to do with these lockdown days.

Kitchen table, with notebooks, pens, coffee and a vase of flowers. In the background, theatre seats and the bottom of a set of wall-mounted bookshelves.

Novels are long. Really long. So long, that even if you’re full of ideas & enthusiasm when you start writing one, there’s almost definitely going to come a point when you’re not going to be quite as certain.

Sometimes, this is just a case of motivating yourself. After all, 70,000 words plus of writing, rewriting and rewriting again is a lot of time to keep yourself engaged. You’re bound to get frustrated with it from time to time, and it can be so easy to find a million things you’d rather be doing than writing your novel: baking; cleaning the windows; answering emails; scrubbing the toilet with a toothbrush… It’s a case of reminding yourself what you love about the novel you’re writing, and then making yourself get back to it.

But sometimes, it isn’t just about making yourself a big pot of coffee and chaining yourself to the desk. Sometimes, you can be hugely motivated to write, and yet still find yourself stuck in a particular scene. There are hundreds of reasons you might find your story isn’t really going anywhere. But there are also ways to help yourself over the hurdle of that difficult scene.

1. Go back to basics.

If I’m stuck on what’s going to happen in a scene, I often find it’s because I haven’t done enough preparatory work. Often, this boils down to me not knowing my characters well enough. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – every writer works differently. Some writers plan everything in meticulous detail, constructing a ‘beat-by-beat’ of each scene, so that they know exactly what has to happen when, and then they just have to write it. Some writers go in knowing absolutely nothing. They start with a phrase or a first line or a vague idea, and build the whole thing up through the drafting process.

Personally, I’m somewhere in the middle. I like to plan just enough so that I have a vague idea of what’s going on, but not so much that there’s nothing left to discover in the writing process. I think of it a bit like walking through a tunnel under a mountain. I don’t need to see the whole route, but nor do I want to be blundering about in the dark. As long as I can see the next few feet in front of me, and have a vague idea of where the tunnel might bring me out, then that’s fine.

The good thing about this way of working is that I’m always getting to know more about my characters, the whole time I’m writing them. The less good thing is that I don’t know everything about my characters when I start writing – which means that sometimes, I have to go back and do some of that ‘preparatory work’ part way through the drafting process.

Often if I’m stuck, it’s because I’ve lost sight of what my character wants.

Everybody has something that drives them. Most of us are driven by multiple desires at once – some short-term (I’m cold and want to get warm) and some long-term (I want to be the first woman on the moon). The chances are, you’ll already have figured out what your character’s long-term desire is, during the planning process. But in the individual scene that you’re stuck on, maybe that long-term desire isn’t what’s driving them, and they’re being driven by something much more short-term. Maybe they have two or more conflicting desires – after all, most of us do. But in almost every moment, there’s going to be a desire that comes out on top.

One of the best books I’ve ever read, for understanding character-building, is Will Storr’s The Science of Storytelling. I’d recommend it for anyone wanting to understand character and build up a character-driven narrative.

Once you know what a character wants, you can put problems in their way, and see how they go about solving those problems, in order to achieve their desire. Goal + obstacles = story.

If you want a perfect example of how desire + obstacle can create narrative, watch The Martian. Without giving too much away: Matt Damon’s character is stuck on Mars, and his goal is to survive long enough for somebody from earth to send a rescue mission. It’s a hostile environment, where the obstacles are stacked against him. Each time he crosses an obstacle, another one rears its head. Not only does this create narrative drive, it also gives the narrative a sense of tension and release, as we follow the character’s desire to live.

‘At some point, everything’s going to south on you… and you’re going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem – and you solve the next one – and then the next. And if you solve enough problems, you get to come home.’ – The Martian

2. Make characters interact.

It can be so easy to write long extensive scenes in which a character sits in a room, possibly looking out of a rain-blurred window, contemplating life. I get it. Let’s face it – that’s quite possibly what you, the writer, are doing a lot of during the writing process, and they do say to write about what you know…

I wrote a whole novel where (for a significant chunk of it) the protagonist believes she’s the last person left alive on earth. The temptation to have her sit down and just think highly philosophical thoughts for long swathes of text was huge. But at the end of the day, that rarely makes good narrative. And if you’re stuck, maybe it’s because nothing is actually happening in your book. I recently spoke to a friend who was having trouble with a scene she was writing for precisely this reason. Her character was simply standing by the window, raising the tension and giving the writer a chance to describe the carpet tiles in great lyrical depth.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with lyrical description. Some of my favourite writers have this lyrical gift in spades. But when you do describe something in great detail, it has to be a choice, and not just as a way of stalling because you’re not sure what’s going to happen next.

My advice to my friend? Bring another character into the scene. Force them to interact.

Of course, how they interact will depend on who the other character is, and on their relationship to character number one. And I mean that in narrative terms, not just in terms of whether they’re the character’s sister or boyfriend or a distant stranger.

Let’s say that Character A (the one previously sitting and pondering the rain) is the protagonist. What is Character B’s purpose in the story? Are they there to assist the protagonist? Or are they the antagonist? If they’re the antagonist, then maybe they’re the one providing those obstacles we talked about in the previous section. (Think of the way a villain tries to foil the hero in a superhero film.) If they’re there to assist the protagonist, maybe the two of them are overcoming an obstacle together (think Thelma & Louise).

Still stuck on how to make your characters interact? Give them a task to accomplish together. It can be as simple as cooking a meal, but the way they interact during it will reveal a lot about their characters, and about their relationship with one another.

3. Start a fire.

If that interaction still isn’t getting you anywhere, then try something more dramatic. Give your character or characters a catastrophic event to react to. The beauty of rewriting is that you can always cut this event later, if you decide it really doesn’t fit your plot. But it can be a useful tool to get you past a difficult stage in the writing process.

In her book A Novel in a Year (based on the newspaper column of the same name), Louise Doughty advises crashing an aeroplane into a hospital, then seeing how the characters respond. Obviously that’s a hugely dramatic event, involving a whole community. But if you wanted to make it smaller and more contained, then why not start a fire? (In your novel, of course – not on your desk.) It could be a big house-burning-down sort of fire, or it could be a small more easily containable fire. Either way, it’s the sort of emergency that brings character traits to the fore, and heightens relationships between them.

I always think that writing fiction is somewhere between finely tuned craft and childlike play. So don’t be afraid to play around with your characters. Put them in unusual situations. Write fan fiction of your own novel, if it helps, to see how your characters would respond in different circumstances. You can always pick and choose the bits you want to include later on.

writing in cafes - notebooks and coffee

4. Skip back a bit.

It’s a well-known truism that, if you run into problems on page 200 of your manuscript, the likelihood is that the original problem started on page 100.

I forget who originally said this, but it’s certainly proven true for me – not just in fiction, but sometimes in poetry as well, albeit on a smaller scale. Often, the bit you’re struggling on isn’t the problem. The problem is buried somewhere much earlier.

I suppose it’s a bit like catching a cold. The first time you cough or sneeze isn’t the first instant you’ve caught the cold. The illness has probably been there for a few days or hours, incubating as your immune system begins its attempts to combat it, before the symptoms show themselves. It’s the same with fiction. Something happens early on in the novel, or your character makes a wrong choice, and suddenly 100 pages later, you find you’ve reached the dead end.

The trick is working out what that choice was. Try working out what events led to the scene that you’re stuck on. Can you change one of them slightly?

Over-simplified example: a girl is walking through a forest, on the way to her grandmother’s house. She sees a wolf, and wisely avoids talking to him, because she’s always been told to avoid wolves. There’s a moment of dramatic tension where you think she’s going to break her promise to her mother, but because she’s the hero, she never does – so she continues through the wood till she arrives at the cottage. When she gets there, she has tea with her grandmother. Suddenly, you’re stuck in a scene where Red Riding Hood and her grandmother are making smalltalk about the weather and nothing is really happening very much.

You have two options.

Option 1 is to introduce a big dramatic event, such as a fire. Maybe a spark from the grate ignites the rug, and before you know it the whole cottage is in flames, forcing them out into the forest, and perhaps straight into the arms of the prowling wolf, who has followed Red Riding Hood to the cottage. Suddenly, you have a crisis, and a problem they have to solve. You have a story again.

Option 2 is to go back to a point earlier in the story, where Red Riding Hood meets the wolf. Instead of ignoring him as she’s been told to do, she tells the wolf all about where she’s headed, giving him time to reach Grandmother’s cottage ahead of her, to eat Grandmother, and assume his disguise. We change the protagonist’s actions, and by doing so also introduce a character flaw: her reckless disobedience (the flaw which, in the Roald Dahl version of the story, becomes her saving grace). Once again, we now have a story.

Writing poetry in a cafe in Grasmere

5. Skip forward.

If you’ve tried looking backwards in the story, and got nowhere, then you’re always free to go the other way, and to skip forwards. After all, there’s no rule saying you have to write your novel chronologically. It’s perfectly acceptable to write the bits where you know what’s going to happen, and then fill in the blanks later.

(Programmes like Scrivener are particularly useful for this, as they allow you to segment your writing project into scenes and chapters, then move them around if necessary.)

You might not even know what order the scenes go in just yet. That’s also fine. When I was drafting My Name is Monster, while I did have a vague notion of the direction of the story, there were definitely bits that I moved from one part of the novel to another during the writing process. At one point I had the whole manuscript printed out and arranged by scene on my living room floor, with all my furniture pushed back to the walls, so I could rearrange the order by moving the pages around from one place to another.

So if you’re stuck? Move on and write something else. You may get to a scene later on, where you realise X needs to have happened already in order for Y to happen later. Suddenly, you realise X is the missing ingredient to the scene you were stuck with all along.

Whatever happens, the important thing is to not let it get the better of you. Don’t give up – and keep writing!

Quite often when I go into schools to run writing workshops, I get the children writing about objects. This is useful because it’s something that can be done at any level of confidence or ability in writing, but also because there’s something about having the subject of your poem physically in front of you that makes matters easier; if you get stuck, you can just look a bit more closely at your object.

Of course, I don’t just give the children an object and then let them get on with it. That would be incredibly uninspiring. Instead, I give them prompts – ways of examining their object that they might not have thought of before. Usually, we spend quite a while just getting ideas down on paper before we actually think about the ‘poemness’ of our writing.

NB: While I usually do this as a poetry exercise in schools, it can just as easily be a prose exercise, helping you to practise your description, or to give particular weight to an object within a story.

Choosing an object:

Ok, so what sort of object can you write about?

The simple answer is, of course: anything. When I go into schools, I have a bag of objects that I take in with me, most of which are mundane artefacts you’d find in pretty much any household. These include:

  • a candle
  • a fork
  • a ladle
  • a glove
  • a scarf
  • a top hat
  • a claw hair clip
  • a clothes peg
  • a shell

There’s nothing dramatic or special about any of these objects. The only meaning they have is the meaning that the poet chooses to give them. In many ways, this makes them the perfect subjects for poetry, as they’re essentially blank canvases.

Then again, you could choose something that isn’t a blank canvas at all: an object that has particular emotional or historic significance for you. A wedding ring. Your grandmother’s spoons. A ticket stub from the concert where you had your first kiss. Choosing an object like this, that already has its own story lurking inside it, could also really work, giving the writing added depth, and a sense of an entier life behind it.

Why not try the exercise twice, once with a significant object, and once with something random you’ve picked up from around the house.

5 ways to write about your object:

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1 – Physicality

This is perhaps the most obvious way of looking at your object, but this means it’s a good palce to start. Begin by putting your object on the table in front of you, and looking at it. Set a timer, and look at it for a whole minute. Try to notice every detail, as though at the end of the minute, someone is going to take the object away and you’re going to have to conjur it entirely from memory. Think about what colour(s) it is. Does it look hard or soft? Big or small? Comfortable to hold or not? Heavy or light? Think about what shapes make it up. What is it made of? Something natural or man-made, delicate or industrial-looking? Does it look shiny or dull?

Once you’ve looked at it for a good long while, pick it up.

Think about what it feels like, how it sits in your hand. Does it make a sound of its own accord? What about when you tap it against a surface? If it’s safe to do so, see how it smells & even tastes. I’m forever telling children to use all of their senses, but it’s worth remembering that as an adult as well.

This is how your object physically occupies space within the world.

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2 – Uses & Changes

Once you’ve examined its physical properties, exploring it as an artefact in its own right, you can start to think about it in a social context, and within the context of time.

Think about what the object is used for. Does it have a purpose, or is it merely decorative? If it does have a purpose, does it have just one? Maybe it has a primary and secondary use. Maybe it’s an all-purpose gadget. If it’s an ornament with no particular use, then how does it work decoratively? What makes it a piece of decoration?

Then think about how the object might change. For example, a candle can burn, and it can melt (either from being burned, or from being left in the sun). What causes it to change? How does it look / feel / sound / smell / taste in its new form? Is the change reversible? Is it a desired end (such as with the candle), or a problem (such as a fork that might tarnish / bend out of shape, for instance).

From merely being a physical object existing in the world, the object now has context.

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3 – What is it?

This is a great poetry game (nicked from Liz Berry) to get children thinking metaphorically, without using offputting grammar words, like ‘simile’ or ‘metaphor’. It’s called: it’s not this, it’s that.

Essentially, you’re trying to get back to your inner child, and to use your imagination. We’re not interested in what the object actually is – we’re interested in what it could be.

So, a candle might be a rocket, or a unicorn’s horn, or a wax crayon, or a skyscraper, or a rolling pin. A top hat might be a steering wheel, or a boat, or a drum.

Don’t be afraid to play with the object. Turn it upside down, or back-to-front. Put it on your head. Look through it. Make it move in some way.

It’s not a scarf, it’s a road leading over the horizon.

It’s not a glove, it’s a spider scuttling across a bedroom floor.

And of course, the richer you can make these metaphors, the better.

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4 – History

From thinking about the object as a general version of its kind (for instance, a fork like any other fork, or a candle like any other candle), now you’re going to think of it as specific.

Every object has a history. Even a brand new one has been bought from somewhere, or given to you as a gift. It has a life before the present moment. Whether it was on the shelf in a supermarket two days ago, or it’s been passed down through the family for generations, think about where this object has been. What journey has it been on? Whose hands has it passed through? Has it changed at all in that process?

Depending on the object, this could be something deeply personal. If you’re writing about your great grandmother’s wedding ring, for instance, then there’s going to be a lot of family stuff going on there. If you’re writing about that friendship necklace you traded with someone when you were seven, who you haven’t seen since you were twelve, then maybe you’ll end up exploring your childhood through the object.

This is the point where your poem opens out, from thinking about the object itself, to thinking about the world beyond – whether through the lens of your own life or otherwise. It’s often (but not necessarily) the point where the poem gains meaning.

And if you’re struggling to think of a historical journey for your object, think about what it’s made from. What’s the history of those materials? Where did they come from? Are they natural or man-made? What was their existence like before they were turned into this object here in front of you? Go as far back as you want. After all, every wooden spoon started out as a seed.

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5 – Who Am I?

One last little prompt, to take you in a slightly different direction: give your object consciousness.

You don’t have to give it agency, like the toys in Toy Story – but imagine it’s aware of the world around it. What does it see? What does it remember? (This is another way to approach the ‘history’ prompt.) Specifically as this object, does it feel to be held? To be used for whatever purpose it’s used for? What does your object want?

Try writing about the object in first person. What you may find, is that the poem becomes a kind of self-portrait, from the perspective of an everyday household object. If that’s the case, roll with it. If not, treat it as a useful exercise in exploring perspective within a poem.

And good luck!

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If you’re looking some ways to expand on these prompts, using the language generated here to create something more, with a rich sound-world, check out Five Poetry Prompts: Generating Material for a Poem.

So many times, at book talks and author events, I’ve heard people ask a writer: ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ I’ve been asked it myself – often by children in school writing workshops. And it makes sense as a question; we’re so often fascinated by the workings of other people’s minds, and by the creation of something out of nothing.

But the thing is, it’s kind of a difficult question to answer. A lot of the time, our ideas seem to appear to us from nowhere, from the mysterious depths of the unconscious. Call it inspiration. Call it a synaptic glitch. Call it the creative brain working overtime while all you appear to be doing is washing the dishes. However you see it, it’s certainly difficult to pin down, and many writers don’t really have a clue where that initial spark of an idea actually comes from.

Which is great if you’re a writer and enjoy maintaining an air of mystery – but rubbish if you’re stuck for story ideas and just want somewhere reliable to find one.

Writers’ block and what to do about it

Well here are five prompts for seeking out an idea. Unlike some of my previous prompts, these ones are actually sequential – so they lead on from one another. The idea being that, at the end, you’ll have enough of an idea to get you writing a new story. It may work for you. It may not. Either way, practice makes perfect!

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1 – Go somewhere you’ve never been before

‘Once a year, go somewhere you’ve never been before.’ – Dalai Lama

Most of the time, when you see this quotation online, it’s superimposed against a backdrop of palm trees or world maps or aeroplanes. But going somewhere new doesn’t have to mean travelling to another continent. It can be just as interesting (and certainly much cheaper) to explore somewhere new within your own back yard.

It might be a neighbourhood you’ve never visited. A walk you’ve never gone on. A café or pub you’ve wandered past but never actually been inside. Make it somewhere where you can comfortably sit and write for an hour or so, without getting thrown out, or so cold that your fingers no longer work. Then visit it.

As soon as you’re there, start looking around you. Notice everything: the smells, the overriding colour of the place, the feeling of the atmosphere, the sounds – whether they’re in harmony with one another, or whether there’s one particular sound that stands out. Notice how you feel when you’re in this space – not just emotionally, but what is it like to physically occupy a body in this particular space on this particular occasion? Write all of this down. As much as you possibly can. Build a complete picture of your place.

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2 – Who’s There?

This post isn’t just about creating a believable setting. If you’ve spent time on the first prompt, you’ll already have done that. After all, reality exists in the details. Instead, it’s about using place to generate story. So, next, we need to think about character.

Create a character who inhabits your space. If you’re in a café, then maybe your character is the person making the coffees. Maybe it’s the old woman who goes there every afternoon for a cup of tea. Maybe it’s the man who brings his toddler on a Monday afternoon. Maybe it’s the cyclist passing through.

Whoever you choose (and you can base them on an observed person or on somebody totally fictional), make them detailed. Figure out who they are.

If you want, you can start by using some of the more generic character prompts.

5 Fiction Prompts: Getting To Know Your Character

They, once you already have a bit of a sense of who this person is, you can make it specific to this particular setting. What are they doing in the space? Are they familiar with it, or is it their first time there as well? Are they comfortable in this space?

The relationship between the person and the place that you’re describing is going to be key, so don’t be afraid to make it a large part of their character formation. For instance, the old woman who goes there every afternoon might have her eye on the young barista. The cyclist passing through might be suddenly hit with a desire to visit his estranged brother, because the taste of a particular chocolate cake reminds him of a childhood birthday party.

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3 – Look Deeper

You have an idea of who your character is, and how they occupy this space. But what do they want? What’s going to happen?

These two questions are intrinsically linked. Nearly always, what happens in a story is governed by what a character wants, and the barriers that are in place to prevent them getting it. So let’s look at how place can help us with that.

Now you’ve created your written portrait of this place, think about what it represents. For instance, if you’re on a walk that runs next to a train track, there are all sorts of themes that could be sparked by that – themes like industry, progress, moving on, being on the edge of things, forced direction… Then again, if you’re in a bustling café in the centre of town, there’s a very different set of themes in play: socialising, food, consumerism, communication… Or, if you’re at a swimming pool: water (and all the many things that can represent, such as depth and memory and life and purification), being out of your element, children, health and exercise…

This is the hidden level to your place, the aspect of it that speaks to the subconscious, to our story-building brains. And we can use it to help tell story, or even to help prompt it.

First, list as many themes as you can that are connected to your place. Write them down so you can see them. Then, once you have the list, choose the one that most interests you.

Let’s say my place is a café, and I’ve chosen the theme of ‘communication’. And perhaps the character I’ve chosen is that cyclist passing through, who tries the chocolate cake and is reminded of his brother.

For this exercise, what my character wants has to be connected in some way to the theme. So the chocolate cake might spark a desire to communicate with his brother. Maybe their problem has always been an inability to communicate.

(If you want to add another theme, and you feel you can do that without muddying the waters, then go ahead. For instance, their inability to communicate might be based on their different appetites – not necessarily literal, but emotional; their different approaches to consumerism.)

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4 – Through Their Eyes

Now that you know your place, and you’ve gotten to know your character and what they want as well, we’re going to combine the two.

Write another description of the place, but from your character’s point of view.

Remember to keep in mind who your character is, and what they want. What do they notice about the place that you didn’t? Maybe they’ll notice particular people, or the stains on the waitress’s apron, or the way the sunlight sparkles off the teacups. My cyclist with the estranged brother will probably notice families conversing, or the moments of failed communication between others – such as when the waitress gets somebody’s order wrong. Maybe he’ll also notice something symbolic, like the frayed wire on the telephone cord. If he likes the café, then he might also be noticing all the things his brother would dislike about it.

The character’s state of mind, what they want, and how they feel in the place will all govern how they see it.

It might be easier to write this in first person. If it is, then go for it.

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5 – Now What?

Now you have a more complex understanding of your place. You’ve observed it closely. You’ve created a character to inhabit it. You’ve seen it through their eyes.

This is all great, and hugely important work for the scene / story / whatever it is you’re about to write. But so far, nothing’s happened.

So we come back to what our character wants, and what obstacles are in their way to getting it. List them, if you like. Then try putting them in order: what’s the biggest barrier to them getting what they want? What’s the one that they’re going to find hardest to overcome?

This might be connected to the place, or it might be completely separate. For instance, with my cyclist, it could be that he can’t renew communication with his brother because they fought over their mother’s will, and his pride is at stake – or maybe he still thinks his brother is wrong. Then again, it might be a physical barrier connected with the café: he came into the café to get out of the storm, and now so much snow has fallen that it’s impossible to leave.

Of course, you could be really clever and do both: a physical barrier that becomes a metaphor for the psychological barrier underneath.

Once you have your barrier, the only thing remaining is to figure out how your character is going to overcome it – and the extent to which they’ll be successful. This is your plot. Your ‘what happens’.

And so the final task? Write it!

‘I guess I should be writing but I can’t think what to write about…’

Sound familiar?

Sometimes, it’s true, our brains are overflowing with ideas, and the only problem is how to get them all down on paper fast enough. But as most people will know, that isn’t always the case.

A few weeks ago, I posted 5 poetry prompts designed to generate poetic material by making language work to produce itself. Which is all very well and good if the ideas are already there, but sometimes it can just be useful to have someone to give you a nudge. So in this post, instead of suggesting an idea for a poem, I’m going to do even better than that: I’m going to suggest five.

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1 – Abstract Object

This one requires you to find an object – preferably one you find interesting in some way. It may be particularly tactile. It may be intricate and beautiful. It might be old and falling apart. It doesn’t really matter what it is, so long as it’s something you think you can use to write about. Go outside and rootle around your garden, or wander through the park till something catches your eye. If it’s raining / you don’t have a garden / it’s the weekend and the park is full of children, then find something inside your house. Pick a couple of objects, if you like, then you can decide which one to write about later.

Of course, you could just imagine the object. After all, I’m an entire internet away, and I’ll never know whether the object is actually there in front of you or not – but you’ll probably find this exercise easier if it is.

Once you have your object, spend a good few minutes exploring it. Look at the object from every angle. Think about what it feels like. Does it have a smell? Can you see the object’s history in its physical appearance at all? Does it tell a story? How do you hold it – if you hold it at all? Try to notice something about it that you wouldn’t notice at first glance. It might be useful to set yourself a timer (2 minutes? 3 minutes? 5? Whatever you feel comfortable with) and allow yourself to do nothing but focus on your object until the buzzer goes.

Now you’ve got to know your object, you can begin writing. The exercise is this:

Choose an abstract noun, and describe it as the object.

The easiest way to do this is to choose an emotion as your abstract noun. And the best way to think of the poem is in terms of metaphor. So, you might want to start your poem by saying your abstract noun is your object. E.g.

Love is a sheep skull.

Sorrow is a standard lamp.

Hatred is an acorn.

Loyalty is my grandmother’s wedding dress.

Desperation is a new biro.

Joy is a chipped plate.

Try to be as specific and physical as possible in your descriptions. Not everything will work with the abstract noun, but that’s ok – you can edit later. For now, you’re just writing. And the more physical description there is, the more rooted & grounded your poem will feel.

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2 – Praise

Our second exercise is to write an ode: a poem in praise of something.

This might sound fairly ordinary – but there’s a twist. After all, it’s easy to write a poem praising sunshine, or payday, or a person you love. (And let’s face it, those poems can also get kind of sacharine.)

Instead, write a poem praising something that’s normally looked down on. Something normally seen as inferior, or best kept out of society’s gaze. Something most people might not even notice – or if they did notice, wouldn’t give much thought to.

If you’re stuck, try writing a poem in praise of one of these:

  • the shopping trolley in the canal
  • chewing gum on pavements
  • ugly babies
  • tumble dryer lint
  • the draught
  • empty beer bottles
  • stretch marks
  • peeling wallpaper
  • rising damp

We’re doing a number of things here. We’re treading new ground, speaking about an ordinary object in an unexpected way. We’re elevating the ordinary to the realm of the extraordinary. We’re forcing ourselves to think about something in a way that surprises us as well as the reader – a bit like the first exercise, we’re getting to know something well.

This could also be a good opportunity to practise writing in a different register, or tone. You may just want to write a descriptive poem about your subject, describing it in a positive way. But you may decide to write your poem addressing the subject, which may lead to you writing in a heightened register. Think: ‘O shopping trolley’.

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3 – Excavating the Cliché

This is another prompt that involves looking at things unexpectedly. It’s an exercise I use in workshops quite a lot, because it can be done at any level or in a number of different styles. It’s easy to adapt to a way in which you feel comfortable writing, while also challenging you to think outside the box.

For the prompt to work, you need to start with a cliché. I know, I know. Normally we’re told to avoid them like the plague. They’re ‘dead language’ – which means that we’re so familiar with them, we’ve stopped truly seeing the images inherent within them.

Example: I cried a river. 

We’re all familiar with this expression. It’s overused, to the extent that now we usually just see it as over-dramatic. What we no longer see is the inherent image of the tears flowing, so many it’s like a literal river. We know that’s what it means, but we don’t see the river in our mind’s eye. Instead we just see a person crying, potentially into a glass of wine.

So for this exercise, I would excavate that image. Mine it to its full depths, and write a poem about it. You cried a river? Ok. What kind of river? Was it a brook tinkling down the mountainside? Were there cataracts, and sheep drinking from its banks? Or was it the Ganges? Was it a slow brown ooze? Was it filled with people washing and praying? Were people cremated on the river of your tears? The richer you can be with this exercise, the better.

Looking for some clichés to get you started?

  • My love is deeper than the ocean.
  • I’m free as a bird.
  • My mind is a prison.
  • There are walls around my heart.
  • The wind whispered in the trees.
  • Her face lit up.
  • You are my sunshine.
  • We hammered out our differences.
  • Breaking the ice.
  • He threw a tantrum.
  • Her face fell.
  • Time flies.
  • Old as the hills.
  • Fit as a fiddle.

Remember, the more detailed you can make your image, the better – and the further it is from being a cliché.

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4 – Use Your Senses

Ok. We know this one. If you want to write well, you have to describe things using your senses. We were probably taught this at school, when we learned to do ‘descriptive writing’. Using the senses helps to bring the reader into the world of the poem, or the story, or the memoir, or whatever it is you’re writing. It places them there. It gets their neurons firing and they imagine themselves in that place or situation. It starts to create empathy.

So if we already know all this, why am I saying it here?

Partly, I’m saying it because, even though it’s something we know we should be doing, it’s surprising how often people forget about at least two of the senses, possibly even three or four. We’re generally pretty good at describing how things look. We may also be good at describing feel, or sounds. But a lot of the time we forget about smell, and about taste.

Which is crazy, when you think about it, as there’s tonnes of research linking the olfactory senses to memory, and memory is a goldmine for poetry.

So I want you to write a poem in which you smell or taste something. It can be something pleasant, or something not so pleasant. But try to make it something specific. So not just ‘pie’, but ‘blackberry pie’ – and not just ‘blackberry pie’ but ‘the blackberry pie your sister made on the first time in her new kitchen’.

Try writing the poem in the present tense (so you’re in the moment of smelling or tasting whatever it is), but try to also link it to memory in some way. It can be a real memory or an invented one, as long as it’s something ‘past’. Something that gives the poem an expanded sense of time.

(If you’re not sure what I mean by this, try looking at Louis Macneice’s Soap Suds or Kim Addonizio’s Wine Tasting.)

And, just as with the other exercises, try to be as detailed as possible.

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5 – Things Behaving Badly…

…or at least unexpectedly.

For the last prompt, I want you to give yourself free reign. Embrace the childlike. Remember that this is a poem, not a piece of journalism, and things can behave however you want them to.

So if you want to write a poem where buildings get up and walk away, you can do. Or if you want to write a poem where planets are coins dropped by the gods, or where all the birds leave and are replaced by flapping books, then go for it.

Whatever it is that takes your fancy, try to pick just one thing. So for example, you wouldn’t write a poem in which the world was flat as an LP and every time it orbited the record player everyone had to jump the needle AND where people outsourced their souls to computers. You’d pick one of those ideas (or, more likely, your own much better idea) and focus on that. So you’re sticking within the rules of your own unexpected world.

And again, try to be detailed. Be specific, and ground your poem in physical description. Use those senses. That way, whatever bizarre thing is happening in your poem, it will still retain a sense of realness.

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And that’s it! I hope you find these prompts useful for generating material. And if you get something from these prompts, but are struggling to take your initial ideas further, then feel free to mix and match these prompts with the 5 prompts on using words to generate more words. Good luck, and happy writing!

 

From beginnings last month, to endings…

This month’s writing prompt is about writing to a constraint. For me, some of my favourite writing has come from not being able to write completely freely. A good example of this is form.

‘Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.’ – Robert Frost

I’m not sure I fully agree with this quote by Robert Frost, as I think writing free verse carries its own challenges and subtleties. But I know what he means.

Sometimes, witing to a form can force you to raise your game. It forces you to take the poem in a different direction. If you can’t find a word that says what you want to say and still fits the form, then you have to say something different. Form can push you outside of your comfort zone, and force you to think outside the box.

(It’s actually the same reason I often won’t let my school groups write rhyming poetry, when I want them to focus more on freeing their imagination.)

writing prompt - Katie Hale

This prompt isn’t to use a traditional form, but it hopefully it will bring out something different and unexpected in your writing.

Write a poem using the end-words from a different poem.

Take another poem (by somebody else) as your starting point. Try to make it a contemporary poem that you don’t already know, so that you’re not constantly thinking of the original poem while you’re trying to write your own.

Don’t read the original poem; just write down the last word of each line.

Then, write your own poem, ‘filling in the gaps’. What you should end up with are two completely different poems (the original and your own), but with the same words ending their lines.

Obviously, once you’ve done this exercise, you can rewrite your poem and remove any of those end-words that really don’t belong, and edit your poem as normal.

Your original poem can be any contemporary poem (try to avoid anything too old, as you may get stuck with some anachronistic ‘thou’ and ‘thee’ language). But if you’re struggling to find one, here’s a suggestion:

Window, by Peter Dale

And if you don’t want to see the rest of the poem, the line endings are as follows:

gaze
seem
sun
it
mist
her
look
love
face
pass
sun
child
hers
personal

Good luck! I’d love to see any / hear which poems you chose. Comments in the boxes below 🙂

Happy New Year!

When I was running Rabbit Rabbit (rabbit) young writers’ group, I used to send the young writers a writing prompt every week. I missed doing it, so I’m going to share a writing prompt as part of my weekly (weekend-ly) blog posts. I’m not Jo Bell, and this isn’t 52, so I’m going to share one a month rather than one a week: the first Sunday of every month.

And because this is January and it’s the first one, I thought I’d share a prompt about beginnings.

writing prompt - Katie Hale

If you think about famous novels, there are probably at least a few whose opening lines come to mind. Which makes sense – the beginning of a book is the part that’s supposed to grab us and make us want to read further.

For me, a good opening to a book is one that draws me in. It’s one that raises questions, or suggests a struggle that needs to be resolved. Sometimes it puts us right in the middle of the drama, straight away.

Take these examples – which, because we’re still within the festive season, I’ve done as a quiz (answers at the bottom of the post):

QUIZ:

  1. ‘It was a cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.’
  2. ‘Marley was dead, to begin with.’
  3. ‘When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.’
  4. ‘He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.’
  5. ‘People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.’
  6. ‘Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.’
  7. ‘When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it’s never good news.’
  8. ‘It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.’
  9. ‘He was afraid to go to sleep. For three weeks, he had been afraid of going to sleep.’
  10. ‘The boys, as they talked to the girls from Marcia Blaine School, stood on the far side of their bicycles holding the handlebars, which established a protective fence of bicycle between the sexes, and the impression that at any moment the boys were likely to be away.’
  11. ‘It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.’
  12. ‘The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way towards the lagoon.’
  13. ‘They say it came first from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved.’
  14. ‘In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.’
  15. ‘Like most people I lived a long time with my mother and father. My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle.’

How many did you get? Answers at the bottom of the post…

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Writing a gripping first sentence is all very well for the opening of a novel, which sets up plot and conflict and character and story. But what about poetry?

I wonder how many of us think about setting up conflict and character and story in the opening of a poem? I wonder how many of us write opening lines to grip people with the drama of the poem, the way we might in a novel?

So that’s my prompt:

Write an opening line for a poem, which sets up drama and / or mystery, and whose sole purpose is to grip the reader.

Then, and only then, you can try writing the rest of the poem.

Here are a few poems that I think grip the reader really well:

‘Here, Bullet’, by Brian Turner

‘Bird’, by Liz Berry

‘Kiss’, by Ruth Padel

Happy writing!


ANSWERS:

  1. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
  2. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
  3. The Road, Cormac McCarthy
  4. The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemmingway
  5. Less Than Zero, Bret Easton Ellis
  6. Northern Lights, Philip Pullman
  7. Stormbreaker, Anthony Horowitz
  8. Catch 22, Joseph Heller
  9. Strange Meeting, Susan Hill
  10. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark
  11. A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
  12. Lord of the Flies, William Golding
  13. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz
  14. The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald
  15. Oranges are not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson