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?

We were the children

We were the children then.  Three little pairs of eyes glinting at the camera.  Six tiny feet, thirty grubby fingers and three floppy sunhats.

We’re older now than our parents were then.  Between us, we’ve produced the same number of children, the same number of twinkling eyes and tiny feet.

We’re the adults now, but still I see the little monkey in each of us.

The problem with books

Let me take you on a little tour of my bookshelves.  Just the ones in this room; if we go through the whole house we’ll be here all day.

Here are the work-related ones.  These are not the problem ones.  They aren’t many and they don’t get opened much but are particularly useful for pinching ideas from when I have to deal with a new subject or remind myself of things I used to know.

The problem ones are the knitting ones…

…the sewing ones…

…the historical ones I’ve been using for writing research…

…and the writing and creativity ones.  No, don’t touch the pile; there may be an avalanche and it would take days to dig you out.

If you added up all the time I’ve spent reading these books you’d have a big number of hours.  If you added up all the time I’ve spent actually knitting, sewing, writing – I fear you’d have a much smaller number of hours.

And that’s the problem with books.  They trick you into thinking that reading about doing something is the same as actually doing it.

A blessed relief

At the weekend I wandered around a windswept farm cooing over newborn piglets and boisterous lambs and big highland cattle.  I did this for no reason whatsoever, except that they were cute and we needed a family day out.  I didn’t read an interesting or edifying book.  I didn’t learn anything I didn’t already know about pigs or sheep.*  I didn’t have any great ideas or ponder any deep questions.  I didn’t even think about much except pigs and sheep and how cold my nose was and whether it was time for a scone or two and how a cow’s tongue can possibly be so long.

What a rest for the creative mind to get out of my head and into the world.  A blessed relief.

*Oh, wait, there was one thing.  English sheep counting words.  I knew the first few: yan, tan, tethera…  But did you know how they go on?  Oh, the linguistic and juvenile pleasure my family and I got from this:

Yan, Tan, Tethera, Methera, Pimp, Sethera, Lethera, Hovera, Covera, Dik, Yan-a-dik, Tan-a-dik, Tethera-dik, Pethera-dik, Bumfit, Yan-a-bumfit, Tan-a-bumfit, Tethera-bumfit, Methera-bumfit, Figgot.

I’m still chuckling with sheer delight.

Don’t switch it on

pen and paperIt’s the only way to begin.

If I begin the day writing, I’m likely to continue writing.  If I  begin the day by switching on the computer (to use it as my writing tool), I’m likely to spend hours reading other people’s writing, responding to business emails and getting caught up in my other work.

So now, I don’t switch it on.

Yes, writing with a pen is slower than typing.  But writing something is better than writing nothing.

Yes, at some point I have to type up what I’ve written – assuming I decide to use it.  But that’s a great opportunity for editing, and I can do it later in the day when I’ve already done my most creative work and set myself on the writing track for the day.

I also find that once I’ve begun on paper, I’m somehow less easily distracted once I do migrate to the keyboard.

I’m biased, of course.  I’ve always loved pens and notebooks and look for any excuse to use them.  But this really does work, I promise – at least for me, and at least for this week.

It’s not so dark if you turn all the lights off

In the chill of the early winter morning, looking out through the curtains from a bright, warm house, all you see is darkness.  Not just darkness: blackness.  Like a moth, your eye is drawn to the orange pools around the streetlights; there is nothing else to focus on.

Venture outside and the picture changes a little.  Now you see the circle of white light from your torch illuminating three metres of grey tarmac in front of you.  Your breath curls in smoky puffs where the light catches it.  Dark hedges loom on either side of you, but they are insubstantial shadows below tiny faraway stars.

The corner of your eye catches the faintest hint of dawn on the horizon, just a slight fading of the sky.

Turn off the torch.

Now you can see.

Naked winter trees and hedges are charcoal-black against the ashy frosted fields and the inky sky.  In the east the ink fades to palest ice-blue, shading to creamy apple-white and the faintest suspicion of a pink sunrise.  Icy puddles glitter in the starlight.

This is the world the lights had hidden from view; the magic they bleached away.

How to actually write

Even when I block out a whole day for writing (and congratulate myself for taking it so seriously), and prepare in advance a list of Things To Write, why do I let life get in the way and do all the non-writing Things To Do instead?  Why??

And what can I do about it?  (Yes, this is a plea for suggestions from you.  I know my usual way on the blog is to give you inspiration, but today let’s play role-reversal.  Please?)

Here’s the thought process.

1.  Paid work is just that: paid.  So obviously it’s more important than writing a book that doesn’t even have a proper structure or plan yet, says my inner logic.  So why wouldn’t I deal with the paid work first?

2. Family comes first.  Always.  So of course I need to phone my mum and reassure her that everything is fine, before I get down to writing business.

3. Feeding the aforementioned family is part of my job as Mummy.  So of course I would put dinner in the slow cooker before getting out the writing implements.

4. Speaking of writing implements: laptop, you are very useful and I appreciate everything about you.  But as soon as I open you I can see all my emails and a million distractions.  (See 1.  And 2.)  Yes, I could close all those windows.  But I swear you open them again yourself when I’m busy trying to type a sentence for the third time.

And here is my single conclusion so far:

Write using paper and pen.  In a different room from the laptop.  It’s the only answer.

But it’s not the whole answer.  If it was, I would have come home from dropping the boy off at school, picked up a notebook and pen, and got on with it.

So how do I convince myself that writing this book is as important as the other stuff?  That’s today’s big question.  All answers gratefully received!

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!

Digressions are beside the point

I’ll get to the point in a minute.  But first I have to digress.  (Is it a digression if you do it before you’ve started on the other subject?  A pre-digression maybe.  And what do you call a digression when you’re digressing from a digression?  Which might not have been a digression in the first place if you hadn’t started yet…)

Ahem.

I had a pile of post-its which then became a neat list of subjects for blog posts.  I have another neat list of chapter headings and subjects for other projects.  A kind of collection of inspirations.  Every time I come to a point where I need to decide on the next writing direction, I look at my lists.

Then, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, I go and write something entirely different.

It’s like cooking.  I look in the recipe books for dinner inspiration.  For hours sometimes.  Then I either make one of my tried-and-tested fall-back meals, or something which is kind of loosely based on a recipe I’ve read, but made with an entirely different set of ingredients using an entirely different method.

Is it that inspiration that isn’t used immediately goes stale?  Or is it that most of the ideas which seem good ones in the moment actually turn out to be a bit rubbish on closer inspection?  Do I not keep detailed enough notes of what the inspiration actually was?  Should I just bite the bullet and start writing about the subject to see if I can breathe life back into it?  Am I just undisciplined?

I’d be interested in your answers to any of those questions that takes your fancy, but, in my case, I think my inability to use my notes is often related to the old writing chestnut, “show, don’t tell.”

When I consciously think about what I want to write about, I seem to go into “telling” mode.  I want to give a message about something, share some kind of insight – basically, tell the reader something.  And that’s what my notes often are: summaries of the message.  But writing only comes alive for me when I have a story to tell.  So, when I look at my notes all I get is a dry lesson.  No wonder I wander off topic and tell you today’s pressing story instead. Perhaps I need to start writing my notes as mini-stories.

This was going to be a post about digital books versus paper ones.  I’ve been going to write it for ages – mostly because I once said I would.  But I’ll save it until there’s a story to tell about it.  Today, all I can offer you is one long digression.