Following a thread

Planning your writing: is it a necessary evil; essential for success; a vital part of the writing process; a killer of creativity – or all (or none) of these?

Journeys vary.  We may set off with a firm destination and a route in mind.  We may wander and see where the fancy takes us.  Or we may know where we want to end up but have no fixed plan for how to get there.   And each of these works as a metaphor for someone‘s writing process – what works for yours?

It seems to me that it’s like following threads.  Strands of yarn, all different colours, lengths and thicknesses.  Like Theseus in the labyrinth, I follow a strand, running it through my fingers to see where it leads.  Sometimes it leads to a tangle, a ball of other threads, or a dead end.  Sometimes I choose a different thread, or sit down to unpick the knots in the one in my hand.  Sometimes I knit a length of yarn into a square and tuck it into my pocket for later, and sometimes I knit strands together and see the beginnings of a blanket growing.  And there’s the occasional mass unravelling.

Sometimes it all seems like an almighty mess, but it’s a necessary part of not just the writing process but the planning process as well.  I can’t separate planning from writing; they seem to happen alongside one another: follow a thread towards what I think may be the ultimate destination (always accepting that I may not be going where I think I’m heading), write that thread down (or knit it up), get distracted or excited by another bright strand, and follow that to see where it leads – only to discover that it’s connected to the original one in a way I hadn’t imagined at the beginning.  It’s the same with research and idea-gathering: I find a spaghetti-plate of strings to follow and make sense of.  Eventually I may be able to braid them together into something coherent, but for most of the process it pays to get comfortable with uncertain wanderings.

What’s your metaphor for your writing process?

Keeping the momentum

I understand why people advocate writing every day.  It’s all about keeping the momentum and building a habit.

If you work on something regularly it stays in your head.  Ideas come when you’re in the shower, and when you sit down to work on it again you can plunge straight in; you don’t have to spend half of your previous writing time trying to get back into it or working out where on earth it was going.

As I’ve written elsewhere today, habits stop you having to think.  Training your brain to switch to autopilot – it’s 7am; I write at 7am – means you’re more likely to just sit down and begin.  And it might just free up a few neurons to come up with creative ideas – even when you’re not in the shower.

Progress: unpicking the knot

I’ve written over 3,000 words today.  Mostly just notes, and thoughts to follow up, but still – 3,000 words.  Does it matter?

If I’d only written 100 words, would I be feeling as positive as I do now?  Well, yes.  The point is to make progress.

Over the last few days (weeks, really) I’ve been making progress, but mostly in my head.  Thinking things through, working things out.  It didn’t feel like progress at the time, but now that the words are spilling out of me, I can see that I needed that time of seeming inaction, of stuckness.  Like unpicking a tight knot: there’s a period of time where you pick and pick and nothing seems to give, until eventually you feel that slight loosening that gives you hope.

If I’d written 100 words today, it would still feel like progress.  Because now I have a glimmer of an idea of where I’m going.

Telling today’s story

rain on windowToday’s story is about sitting on the sofa instead of at my desk because it feels less like work and more like having a little party all by myself.  I’ve wrapped mysef in a blanket and am considering a second cup of tea in a minute.  That’s how racy it’s getting around here.  Today’s soundtrack is bucketloads of raindrops splattering the windows, and the visual inspiration of the day is the grey picture above.  The cosiness of a rainy day from the right side of the glass.  And the joy of remembering that working at home means you can work wherever you like.

Of course this was not the story I was going to tell you.  I had some other plan which I thought of yesterday.  I’m not sure now what it was, even when I look at the note I made at the time.  It was probably a good idea, but it was yesterday’s idea and by the time I sat down today to write it, I wasn’t feeling it any more.

I know writers talk a lot about discipline, about writing regularly whether you’re in the mood or not, and I’m all for that.  What I can’t do is make myself write something I’m not feeling.  So I sit down to write at the allotted time, but when every word on the screen feels like another tooth being pulled, I’m probably not writing what I need to write today.  The only thing to do is to begin again, and tell today’s story, even if it’s not what I planned.  Even if today’s story means inventing a whole new chapter when I was supposed to be finishing chapter 3.

Today’s story can only ever be written when it’s fresh.  Once it’s written you can do whatever you choose with it.  You can edit and rewrite it many times.  It can be a blog, a paragraph in the introduction to your book, a stand-alone essay or a passing reference in the middle of chapter 7.  Or just a private note to self and some good writing practice which will never see the light of day.  It’s all good.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t revisit yesterday’s ideas.  If I was still feeling the truth of yesterday’s idea, you’d be reading a different blog and I’d probably have finished writing it half an hour earlier.  But if we do nothing else, we must write the truth we feel.  And if we can do that while enjoying a cup of tea on a comfy sofa, so much the better!

They are not your people

The words I read came from the heart.  Admittedly, they were written a long while ago and never fully polished.  Perhaps they weren’t quite ready for a public airing.  Plus, they were a part of something longer which hadn’t yet been completed either.  And the audience was expecting a fictional story, not a personal essay.

Is that why the words were misunderstood when they were read to an audience?  Is that why the listeners took issue with the philosophy when all they’d been asked for was a view on the writing itself?  Is that why the whole thing was so painful and annoying?

I learned three things that evening:

  • Make sure the work that you share with others is work that you are truly happy with.  If you have none ready, share nothing and keep writing.
  • If they don’t understand what you’re saying, check whether you’ve written what you thought you had.  What’s clear in your heart and head may not be clear on paper.  It doesn’t mean you’re wrong.
  • If you stand by your writing and your words, then those who didn’t understand are not your people.  They can be your friends, but they are not your audience.


A lot’s been written about ideas and where to find them.  I like this post, and this one (especially the thought of God getting in a huff, taking ideas off Michael Jackson and giving them to Prince!), but there are many more.

Hanging out the washing gets me every time – it’s a good job we have a stack of paper for writing shopping lists which lives just inside the back door, as I’m forever popping back in to jot down some phrase or other.

It’s difficult to make notes while riding a bike, but I need to put a notebook in my saddlebag to catch the butterfly ideas that follow me wherever I ride.  They have a habit of flying off to settle elsewhere by the time I get home.

I’ve used the word serendipity before, and make no apology for using it again.  As I said then, it’s a great word – and a great source of ideas.  Writing – and pretty much any creative endeavour – involves stitching together seemingly random thoughts, ideas, events, words… But you need another of my favourite words, intuition, to take advantage of it.

A few days ago I was reading a book (I can’t remember which, and it’s not really relevant as by the time we get to the end of this very long sentence we will be far away from the source anyway), which sent me off on a train of thought which, via Tai Chi and several other now-forgotten mental stepping stones, reminded me of another book, Chop Wood Carry Water, which I’d borrowed from a friend years ago but couldn’t remember much about, but I ordered it anyway because it felt like the right thing to do, and then promptly forgot about it until it arrived in the post today while I was writing a series of blog posts about beginnings, at which point I opened it to a random page (doesn’t everyone do that? – that and start reading at the end!) which happened to be in a chapter stuffed full of great quotes and insights about…beginnings.

Intuition told me I wanted to read the book again; then serendipity worked its magic.  Good job I was listening.

When you have nothing to say

When you have nothing to say, do you write anyway?

I once said to a colleague, “I think through my mouth”.  In other words, I don’t always know what I think about something until I talk it through.  I still remember her look of horror.  Her way was to analyse, consider, look at all the options and information, think and carefully weigh up her words before deciding on and communicating her thoughts and opinions.  I can’t imagine how we ever got on so well!

It’s the same with writing for me.  I start, and then the direction reveals itself.  Sometimes that means going back and revising the beginning, but the important thing is to have begun.  What the beginning is, almost doesn’t matter.

Having nothing to say – or write – is no excuse for saying – or writing – nothing.  Begin with one word, then another and slowly but surely they will arrange themselves into something.  You may not have written a masterpiece (though you might!) but you will have written something.  And writing begets writing.

When you have nothing to say, write anyway.  And share it with someone.  I’d love to read what you wrote when you thought you had nothing to say!

Butterfly net

You won’t catch butterflies sitting at your desk.  Look for them out and about.  Take the net with you.  They will flutter past as you drive, as you walk or cycle or buy groceries or tend a child with a grazed knee.  Grab them swiftly and gently, and put them in a jar for later.

Next time you’re at the desk, take out the jar and let them flutter around you until they alight on the page and slowly arrange themselves in order.  Now you can write them down.