I am incredibly bored with reading writing advice. Like productivity blogs, writing advice blogs are the spam of the of the internet, even more ubiquitous than porn. And sadly, not nearly as much fun to look at.
Writing advice seems to say really dull things like, “Don’t worry about selling your story, worry about writing a story that will sell itself.” Yawn. Thanks, that’s really helpful. So, how do I do that? I would love to just sit at my desk and go, yes, I am writing a story that will sell itself.
My last post on this tackled the real issue of avoiding distractions. Distractions can be the devil and when you need to buckle down, that’s a great article for buckling down. But of course, if you have no ideas, all the buckling down in the world ain’t gonna help you create anything. It will only allow you to rack up hours of chair time and a real working knowledge of the wall in front of your desk.
Currently, as I have said, I am staying with friends. I had previously thought that my job allowed me enough free-time to write to my little hearts content. I will, just two days into living with friends, admit I was wrong. A lot of jaws of people who know me quite well are dropping right now, after all, I rarely admit to mistakes. But yes, my thinking that endless hours of alone time would breed creativity was wrong. I still maintain that, as described in Writing Advice, Part One, you do need time to yourself to get any real work done. But you need other people to gather up ideas.
So, here is my inane writing advice that I advise you all take…
No, seriously, move. It doesn’t matter how happy you are or that your brother lives just one house over and that you have your kitchen walls painted a beautiful shade of lavender that you spent hours choosing in Home Depot. There are no new ideas where you are. My friend Nick spent five years in China and not only did he learn Mandarin, he wrote a book which has just been published. Jason moved to the UK and learned to think outside of the box that he was always writing in when he lived in middle America. His writing has a new depth, not because he has a new cast of characters to write about, but because it is much easier to write about things that you are not in. A writer needs distance from their subjects, just the same way a scientist does: writing needs objectivity. So, while you should always write about what you know, you shouldn’t be doing what you are writing about at the same time. Sure, there are authors who write about their jobs while they are at them and some of these books are very successful. But they are exceptions. And, to quote my favorite comedian, Greg Behrendt, and also relate writing to dating: “You aren’t the exception. You are the rule.” So don’t try and argue because if you were writing something sheer genius at this moment you wouldn’t be looking for advice, you’d be writing. Or drinking.
2. Live with other artists.
Live with musicians, actors, writers, painters, designers…whatever you can find to live with. Even if they are crazy, you will probably learn a great deal about yourself by watching what they do. At best, you will find them kindred spirits you can bounce ideas off of and maybe even work together to create things. And, if you are a very lucky person, you will live with people who will understand that sometimes you get caught up in your work and forget to make dinner and then they bring you some. And sometimes they will bring you rhubarb cake with rose petals on it. But you have to be very lucky for that. It’s also useful as a time saving technique: if you already live with your friends, you aren’t wasting travel time and you can have a quick cup of tea or watch an episode of Arrested Development together when you need a break from work and then head right back to your room afterwards.
3. Go for a walk every day.
I love being outside and yes, vitamin D and sunshine are going to make you feel fabulous and refreshed every time. And you know what, take a camera. Take pictures of everything. Be a tourist in your own city. Look into people’s windows. Imagine what goes on in there. I used to live next door to some people that had two front rooms chock-full of religious iconography and heavy velvet curtains. I had all sorts of stories in my head about what went on in there. Talk to people. Pet dogs and smile at children, even if you don’t really want to. Buy some flowers from a flower market or stall, which you can later put on your desk. Drink some juice and sit in the grass. Or stomp in puddles. Or make snowballs. Or whatever.
4. Cook every single day.
Make something in the kitchen, whether it’s a rhubarb tart or salmon and couscous, turn on some music, dance around the kitchen and make some food. Cooking is a creative art and you have to feed creativity.
5. Join a writers group.
Or a book club. Doesn’t matter really, although they are clearly two different things. But mainly, both will help you hone your debating skills and you get hear all sorts of opinions. You should always be sharpening your wit and also, ignoring the advice of Stephen King. Telling your opinions to people you don’t know is good practice for this. Maybe you will think everything everyone says is rubbish, but maybe they will say it in an interesting way and you can steal the dialogue.
6. Go for drinks with random people.
I once wrote a brilliant short story (if I do say so myself) based on a conversation in a pub between three mathematicians discussing how many cups of tea they would have to make for other people in order to get to heaven. It was a bizarre conversation, but it was an amazing jumping off point for me. And I would have never thought of it myself as I hardly know math at all. So, random people know random things that you had no idea about and again, you can steal the dialogue. Not that writers steal stories…
7. Get experience.
You know, go to a yoga class or try out Buddhist meditation or take a philosophy class or read every book on the third bookshelf in the fourth stack over from the window in your library or volunteer to take dogs for walks at the SPCA. Maybe just get drunk and go swimming in Trafalgar Square. Whatever. Anything at all. Again, you will meet interesting people that you can steal ideas from, but also, you will now know something new and that broadens what you can write about, if you are intent on writing what you know.
8. Write short stories.
Novels are overwhelming and when you are sick of writing they will crush your soul. Write a short story. If that’s still too much effort, write a poem. I know, I know, poems are hard work. I have poet friends. But I did not say write a good poem, I just said, write a poem. Prose poems are great because they straddle the line between a short story and a poem and you can be vague and weird all you want. And honestly, once you get the emotions out, which is the crux of any story, you can focus on the details and the structure. So, a lot of times, a hastily written prose poem is basically brainstorming for a short story, which in turn can be a jumping off point for your novel. Baby steps is a perfectly legitimate way to walk.
9. Ignore everything but yourself.
I know, I know. Sounds like the opposite of everything else I have just written, but um, it’s not. Because when I say this, I mean, you rock. Wear what you want, sing aloud on the tube if you want, spend 15 minutes inspecting a piece of pavement that intrigues you. You aren’t wrong in wanting to do any of those things. Everything you like is amazing and you can write about anything you like. Don’t be afraid or ashamed or worried about what you write, that someone won’t like it or god-forbid-if-this-gets-published-my-mother-will-be-so-upset. Don’t “write a story that will sell itself”, write a story that you don’t care if it sells. Write something that makes you feel powerful or happy or cleansed. If later on, after you have something completed, you think to yourself, well, great, but if I just tweaked this here and rearranged that bit, then I bet someone would publish it and also, my mother wouldn’t cry herself to sleep at night, then do that. But save the first draft and keep it for yourself. Write honestly and worry about making it palatable for other people afterwards.
10. Watch a lot of TV.
I don’t know why, but it helps me when I want to write dialogue. I feel like even when I am not writing about anything even remotely close to what I am watching, just getting down the pattern and the pauses that people use when they are speaking is very helpful. Terrible TV with bad acting is useful as well, after all, you want to know what not to write as well, don’t you?
11. Eat cheese.
Cheese has an awful lot of morphine in it, which is relaxing in small amounts and downright ethereal in large amounts. I recommend Stilton with cranberries or blueberries mixed in, eaten with a french baguette.
12. Tell all of your stories verbally, on the phone, to your friends.
Don’t even tell them it’s your writing. Treat it like it’s gossip. Tell it and see what they think of the plot. They can’t see you, so how your face moves or what you are doing with your hands can’t influence them. Tell it to a lot of friends because, as I explained in this post about the art of self-editing, each time you tell a story, you work out the important bits and refine your tale a little bit more. This should actually help you cut down the editing later on. Also, my friends and I had a discussion the other day in a taxi about men who sell derivatives for a job. Nothing against these type of men, as all the ones I have met are very very very nice, but it did take A FORTY-FIVE minutes to explain his job to me. M says, you should be able to explain what you do in 10 seconds or less. I took it one step further and suggested that your job title should be able to describe your job pretty accurately, if not your specific field. To relate this to writing: if it takes you longer to sum up your novel than it would to read the first paragraph of it, you don’t really know what’s going on in it. I freely admit that this is a main problem I have. My novel is not finished because I still can’t write a plot summary, so I’m going to keep working on it until I can.
13. Post-It-Notes are amazing.
Along with the last suggestion, the idea of having a post it note above your desk or on your computer screen that says: THEME and then what the theme of your work is, is apparently very very helpful. Again M (can you tell we drink a lot of wine and discuss writing a lot?) says that some famous author, whose name escapes me just now, does just that, so that when he is writing he is constantly reminded of the purpose of what he is writing. He won’t get distracted by a great line that doesn’t serve his larger purpose. He probably writes it down and tucks it away for something else, but he won’t put it in any piece that it doesn’t fit with the theme.
14. Collect pictures.
Pictures you took, your friends took, pictures from magazines and books. Post them around. Take them down. Color on them. Write on them. Write stories about them. Use them as a visual reminder of the settings of places in your writing or the characters themselves.
15. Write love poems to food.
Why not? If someone makes a particularly fine lemon Bundt cake and it makes you cry from how lovely it is, write it a poem. It’s the perfect thing really: you have a specific topic and central theme and character, it’s silly, it sharpens your wit, and anyone would be overjoyed to read an ode to their culinary skills. Also, it helps you appreciate the small things in life and duh, the only difference between the tired plot in your novel and the plot of every single other book is the details. Learn to focus on the details.
16. Set a deadline and then procrastinate until the last minute.
Seriously. Be just like my friend Deborah. I previously wrote a post about my playwright friend Deb and how to be more Deb-like. But I’ve also noticed, recently, that she has another interesting trait that I think could work quite well for other writers: meaningful procrastination. This is to say, she is most productive when she knows something needs to be done very very very soon. So, she spends most of her time happily working at things, but gracefully enjoying herself as well, not killing herself over stress at all. And then, a week or so before something absolutely positively must be finished, she buckles right down and let’s the pressure spur her creativity. Everyone around her knows how important it is for her to get the task at hand done, so they give her space and don’t pressure her into doing social things. People respect deadlines. And all the time up to the point where she has to sit in her room for five days straight, she’s experiencing all sorts of amazing things. Which goes along with tip number 7. An also with this fantastic Calvin and Hobbes comic…
M has been taking a screenwriting class and it has been giving him great ideas for his own work, but it has also made him very good at editing and offering people useful advice on their work. So, now M is working with me an pretty much all of our friends on different projects and he says it’s making him feel more creative. Again, anytime you get to bounce ideas off of other people, something amazing should stick to you. And also, if you are in any way stuck in your own work you really should be doing anything you can do to not be staring at the wall, bashing your head against the desk in frustration at your dearth of creativity. Hanging out with other people makes it socially awkward to self harm, so you’ll have to focus on something else, like gathering up ideas for your writing.
18. Take a Bath.
This is something I like to do on a daily basis, mainly just because I like bubbles and swimming and a bath combines these two very amazing things. But I suggest it, not to relax you, but because I never have more ideas than when I can’t write. Like when you are at a very boring meeting at your office and all sorts of ideas come flooding into your head, when your hands are soapy and you can’t be anywhere near a laptop and even paper is awkward, that’s when you your brain goes mad with ideas. So take a bath and close your eyes and play some relaxing music and I promise you, even if nothing else worked, this will. Plus, after a long day of doing all the above tips, you are really going to need to clean up before bed.
Okay, I am spent. So all you get are 18 tips. But when I say “all” I actually think 18 is quite a few because I checked pretty extensively what else was out there on the internet and I think I managed to give you 18 tips that haven’t been hashed and rehashed ad nauseam. Plus, you got some Calvin and Hobbes comic strips to amuse yourself with. My generosity astounds me…