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…)


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.

What stops or slows your writing?

I can write in complete silence.  That’s my favourite writing environment.  Birdsong and the wind in the trees are acceptable background sounds.

I can write in a busy, noisy place too – as long as I can’t hear the specifics of the noise.  (So a huge hum of conversation is fine, but if I can hear every word my neighbour is saying to his companion, it drives me nuts.  I have been known to move tables in cafes and trains.)

I can write while someone is watching television in the same room – but it takes ten times as long (for once I’m not exaggerating) and is an almost unpleasant experience.  Having someone else’s words collide with my own makes me almost seasick.  I think that’s why I can’t even write to music; the words in my head crash into the words of the song or notes of the music and create what It feels like a physical disturbance.

Sometimes, though, if writing is to happen, it has to happen in less than ideal circumstances.  Such as writing slowly and haltingly in the room where a kids’ film is playing – so I don’t have to choose between being Mummy on Duty for a poorly boy and being Writer on Duty so I can continue to be true to myself.

What stops or slows your writing?  And do you write anyway?

Autumn leaves: playtime

I watch a small blonde girl playing.  She picks up a fallen leaf in each hand and studies them.  She waves them over her head.  She shreds one to see how small she can make the pieces.  She skips and she laughs.

I was a small blonde girl once.  I’m going out to play in the leaves.  All work and no play is no good for anyone.  It’s playtime.

Blessings: writing from a happy place

Blessing: “a beneficial thing for which one is grateful”.

Does your best writing come from counting your blessings or from writing down your – or someone else’s – hurt and sadness?

Do you have to feel comfortable or uncomfortable within yourself to write?

Which do you prefer to read: a joyful story or a dark one?

It’s not that I think there’s only one answer to these questions.  We would probably all give different answers on different days.  But in general, I think (in contrast to the angst-ridden teenage years) my most productive writing is the writing which comes from a happy place, a place in which I’m counting blessings aloud.  And, in the main, I’d say that’s my best writing too.

Maybe it comes from being a Mum.  Since motherhood began for me nine years ago, I’ve been more squeamish about sad or unpleasant tales than I ever thought possible, and more of a sucker for a feel-good story.  (There was a time when the boy was a baby when I watched a baby elephant on a National Geographic show wander away from its family and be lost forever.  I cried buckets and it’s etched on my mind forever.)  I don’t want to be sad.  I want to be uplifted and glad.

I’m sounding more like Pollyanna than I intended here.  Bear with me.

Writing dark, bleak emotions often seems easier, or even ‘better writing’, somehow.  Thinking about it now, though, I think it’s probably more of a challenge to tell a positive tale and write positive emotions – without ending up sounding like Pollyanna!  And a recent exchange on the letters page of Writers’ Forum magazine supports that: in response to a letter complaining about the ‘dark, violent and bleak’ stories that had been published, the editor wrote: “I agree[…] but most writing comps, not just ours, are inundated with bleak tales.  People write them because they think creating ’emotion’ means writing about sadness or misery, but this is rather lazy.”

What do you think?  Joy or misery – what’s your preference in reading and writing?

They might not understand (and that’s ok)

You’re sitting in a cafe with a friend, catching up on all the news.  She asks what you’ve been up to, and you mention writing.  She looks blank.  You tell her of your two recently-published articles, and after a bemused pause, she asks, “Can you make money doing that, or is it just…”  She trails off, leaving you to wonder what she would have completed her thought with.

“Just…a hobby?”

“Just…a waste of time?”

“Just…something to do while you look for a proper job?”

Or is it just something she doesn’t understand?

Would you be defensive in that situation, justifying yourself and explaining the writer’s life in great detail?  Would you find yourself curling up inside and thinking, she’s right.  I’m wasting time.  I should stop playing around and get a real job.  I’m no good at this anyway?  Would you get angry and flounce out, vowing never to associate with such a Philistine again?

Or would you stop and think about it?

Do you understand every one of her decisions?  Do you really ‘get’ what she spends her time doing?  Does working in a bank / horseracing / collecting toy pigs (or whatever it is that she loves doing) make your heart sing in the same way it does hers?  And if it doesn’t, why would you expect her to understand your need to write?

Many people won’t understand.  And that’s ok.  If we all wanted to be writers, the world would be lacking an awful lot of plumbers, actors, farmers and a lot more besides.

When they don’t understand, write anyway.  There will be others who do understand.  Write for them, write for you, but write.

PS. In case you were wondering how I responded (because you really weren’t fooled into believing this was a hypothetical situation, were you – although the pig-collecting etc was made up), I simply said, “Yes, you can make money from it,” and moved on to something else.  We’re still friends.