Posts Tagged writing prompt
‘So you don’t find the blank page worrying?’
Creative writing teacher Jane Jones was interviewing me as part of her women writers’ summit (watch this space). Actually, we recorded it multiple times because of tech catastrophes so a lot of our discussion never got saved. (Moral: don’t use untried software. Also, Zoom helpdesk are the embodiment of patience.)
Anyway, one of Jane’s topics was how we start writing. I said I’d always felt at home talking to the page. When I was a kid, I simply loved to write – letters, stories, reactions to books I’d read. At the age of 13 I discovered science fiction fanzines and sent them articles and reviews, which I really hope have fallen into landfill. Why science fiction fanzines? Chiefly because they accepted copy from teenagers writing in their bedrooms. I was shy and awkward in real life, but in manuscript I was a right chatterbox. I could think in ways I didn’t in verbal time; be inventive, confident. The page was a welcoming place.
Which is when Jane brought up the subject of the scary blank page.
The young me, typing to the world, never had a moment’s stage fright. Because I always started with a purpose in mind.
And this is where we pinned it down. The frightening thing is not the blank page. It’s the blank mind. And I find the blank mind as paralysing as anyone.
So what can you do about it? Here are some suggestions.
It’s quite hard to generate good ideas to order. I’ve had many of my best inspirations when I’m not consciously trying to work on them. While making dinner or a packed lunch for the next day, or at the gym, or walking to the station, or writing something else.
Always keep a writing task on low simmer in your mind. Perhaps look at your notes for the next scene or story you’re going to tackle, or reread a scene you’re going to edit, but don’t actually try to solve any problems. Just present it to your brain, shrug and go concentrate on something else. We all hate unsolved problems. That’s why we have the phrase ‘preying on your mind’. Before you know it you’ll be getting good ideas without even trying. (Thanks for the pic Leo Hartas. More of his work here)
First thing in the morning
Some people like to write first thing in the morning as an exercise. What if you arrive at the page without a thought in your head? Did you have a dream? Write that.
For a bonus point, write it so that another person can understand why it was significant to you. Dreams usually make wondrous sense to us and none at all to anyone else. Your task in this exercise is to write your dream so that it reveals its meaning and resonance to everyone, not just you. Add context and questions, or perhaps some answers.
Voila. You just wrote a personal essay.
Books and websites of writing prompts are a veritable industry in themselves. Here are a few ways to grow your own.
Look through your photos and do this.
Nose around Flickr for people’s private photos. Set a timer so you’re not browsing for ever. Find a picture of an interesting place and write about somebody who just ran away from it.
Use music – go to my companion site, where writers talk about using music. Read any of those pieces and they’re sure to get you in the mood. Or, if time is short (or you might end up getting pleasantly lost instead of writing), pick a song title at random and write about that.
It’s dead easy to think of writing prompts to help other people conquer their blank pages. Drumming them up for yourself isn’t. Such is the nature of blank mind.
Sometimes we get stuck in a small way. We don’t know what our novel’s characters should say or do, or how to solve a practical problem. If you haven’t got time for the ‘prey on your mind’ tactic, tackle it head on. Start writing any old nonsense – and sense will usually emerge. (In Nail Your Novel 1 I’ve got plenty of suggestions for that.)
The biggest blank of all – the next book
The scariest blank of all, for me, is when I’ve finished a book. As I edit and shape a manuscript I feel increasingly at home. Every change feels meaningful and rewarding. Even if I have ideas for the next book, I don’t want to leave the current one because I don’t have that sense of familiarity. It’s like leaving a much-loved job for a new one with too many unknowns.
The other night Husband Dave decided to discuss next books. I said, of course, that Ever Rest will be my next book after this one I’m working on. No, he said, I mean the book after that. He reeled off a few of the ideas I’ve discussed with him and said ‘I’m looking forward to those’. I took a gulp of wine because I was not. I felt panic. I’d got a sketchy synopsis or two, but no real engagement with them yet. That work still has to be done and it feels like a lot of blank, a vast Arctic of it. Here is Dave, in wife-frightening mode.
So blank mind can also be a relative thing. It can be the contrast between a work that’s so detailed you know it as well as your own life, and something that’s mostly untrodden. Blank mind doesn’t have to be 100% unknown. If you’re going from 80% known, then 80% unknown can be plenty scary enough.
But that’s just part of the job of writing. We manage somehow.
What am I working on at the moment? This thingy on the left.
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Give me your thoughts on the blank page, the blank mind … if that’s not a contradiction in terms.
This is me, passing before your eyes as an extra in Clint Eastwood’s film Hereafter . (Here’s my post about it, since you ask. Back now? On we go.) Blink and you’d miss me because your eye would quite rightly be on Matt Damon and the other characters who mean something to you.
And look at all the other folk in the scene. Extras, nameless, not even in the script. All of us, there to be ignored.
But if we weren’t there you’d miss us even more.
Something I see so often in first novels is that scenes look unpopulated. The main characters and the setting may be well drawn, but there is no sense that there is anyone else in the world of the story. School gates are deserted; the shopping mall is empty; there is never another car on the road. It makes the reader feel something is wrong. Background people are a crucial detail for making us feel a scene is real.
I know why this happens. When you envisage a scene, it’s hard enough to put in all the stuff that is relevant. But the background?
Directors on big movies have the same problem. They concentrate on the principals. The job of making a background come to life belongs to the assistant director and team. You almost have to do a similar thing yourself when writing – make one of your jobs populating the background.
Of course, you don’t want too much of it. It mustn’t get in the way. When you’re opening a scene and letting the reader know who’s where and what they’re doing, add a person or two – perhaps a woman with her chin snuggled in her yellow scarf, walking fast to her car. The postman in a fluorescent vest swinging his leg over his bicycle.
You can use details of movement or life to punctuate pauses in dialogue or to underline tensions. Perhaps one of your characters hears a clack of bricks being thrown from the scaffolded house into a skip. He thinks that throwing something was exactly what he felt like – and instead he’s having a conversation that’s going nowhere. Or someone sitting in a cafe sees someone at an adjacent table waving to a passing friend and it reinforces their sense of being alone.
Imagination wrung out like a rag?
Of course, we’ve all got enough to think about inventing our significant stuff. It used to frustrate me too until I discovered Flickr. Now I search for a street scene or a bar and grab one that has the right look and feel. Instant background people – and I can get back to the characters I know and what they’re doing.
When you’re setting your scene, don’t forget the unimportant people.
Do you have any tips for populating a scene? Share in the comments!
Imagine a novel could guest on Desert Island Discs. For those of you receiving outside the UK, Desert Island Discs is an immensely popular and long-running show on BBC Radio 4, where guests are asked to choose pieces of music that form a soundtrack to their lives.
Starting today, the red blog will be hosting writers who use music in the creation of their novels. I’ve got scores of them lined up to talk about special pieces that have guided them to a deeper understanding of a character, or helped populate a mysterious place, or clarified a particular, pivotal moment.
First up is Dan Holloway, founder member of the literary fiction collective Year Zero Writers and the literary project eight cuts gallery. His novel The Company of Fellows was voted favourite Oxford novel by readers at Blackwell’s. He’s talking about Songs From The Other Side of the Wall, and the music that helped him develop his rather individual characters.
Do you write to music? Many authors do – as background, as a character’s favourite or bittersweet tune – or maybe just a way to erase the traffic rumbling by in the street. I’ve found over the years that the right music can do more than immerse me in a scene – it can also collide with it to actively create unexpected twists and nuances. As though the piece is speaking to the novel at a subconscious level.
I call it the undercover soundtrack and I’m talking about it today at the red blog – as it’s about music. And also because I got this terrific review for My Memories of a Future Life today so I figured its blog deserved a little attention of its own. Do come over.
I was critiquing a manuscript recently and as with all drafts, there were areas that sang beautifully and others that needed more work. Some types of scene came to life in a three-dimensional, gut-pummelling experience. Others trotted through at a distance as though the writer was including them dutifully but wasn’t interested in them. (And this distance wasn’t deliberate; sometimes we use these techniques for specific effects but that wasn’t what was going on here.)
Of course you know what I’m going to say. If you’re not interested in writing a scene, the reader won’t be interested in reading it. Either don’t bother or find something in the scene to engage you.
How to pep yourself up
Perhaps you don’t feel very sure of the content. Ask yourself – what are you not sure of? Do you need to do more research to bring it to life – for instance, if it’s a new location you don’t know well? Or do the characters need more to do beyond the main goal of the scene?
Or maybe you know full well what’s going to happen but you’d rather get to the next interesting bit. In which case, you either need to generate something in the scene that excites you (for instance, add conflict, twist events an unusual way) – or do something else entirely, no matter how inconvenient that seems.
But listen to the voice that tells you you’re unengaged. It’s telling you for your own good.
But this client’s manuscript was different. It was a thriller, but the author wasn’t engaged by his chases, backstabbing, skulking and close shaves with assassins. All of these were competent and well planned, but told at a summarised distance. I showed him how to make them ping off the page, of course. But he came to life, all by himself, in spectacular fashion in an extraordinary near-drowning scene, where the character has a haunting, hallucinatory encounter with the people stalking his psyche from his past. It was as though another book was trying to fight its way out of the one he thought he was writing. And one that was much more real to him.
This is, I suppose, one of the mysteries of writing. Just as parents have to let children be who they are rather than who they can be moulded into, writers sometimes have to let their true genre bust out by itself. Inconvenient though that might be if you think you’re writing a straightforward, saleable genre novel.
Is your book telling you you haven’t yet found the right genre?
Thank you, Iko, for the picture. Coming August 30: My Memories of a Future Life.
I’m fascinated to know if anyone else has done this. Have you tried to write one sort of novel and found you naturally wrote another?
Today I’m guesting at Janice Hardy’s blog The Other Side Of The Story. Janice might be familiar to you if you follow my writing tips on Twitter because she blogs exhaustively and perceptively about writing. I first came across her in a post about opening lines and the example she gave – from her own fantasy/SF novel The Shifter – has stuck with me. I’m sure it will stick with you too:
Stealing eggs is a lot harder than stealing the whole chicken. With chickens, you just grab a hen, stuff her in a sack and, make your escape. But for eggs, you have to stick your hand under a sleeping chicken. Chickens don’t like this. They wake all spooked and start pecking holes in your arm, or your face, if it’s close. And they squawk something terrible.
I’m not a fantasy author, like Janice, but I am fascinated by what gives fantasy its power. Underlying every good fantasy is a core of truth that means we put aside our logical minds and believe the story is really about us. Where I think this is most interesting is where it happens in mainstream fiction too. It’s a harder bridge to cross, of course, but once you tempt the reader over, the story possibilities are enormous… It reminds us most of all that every story has a logical side and also an emotional side. Anyway, I hope you enjoy the post.
I love a good party. Anyone might collide and anything might start. Or finish. A party is fate’s way of throwing a die.
Which makes them perfect for a story.
For some reason, a dinner party scene doesn’t do it for me. Of course it can throw folks together, as randomly as you please. But a dinner party is more difficult to choreograph, as most of the action takes place around one table, and juggling a sixsome or eightsome is tricky on the page. Most of the time I find excuses to split them up, sending them out to the kitchen to flatten the soufflé, or outside to have a smoke.
A party, though, comes alive on the page more naturally. Its loose informality means you can drift through a succession of intimate groups or pull back for a long shot. You can use montage to clip a conversation of everything but the most startling line. Or show that somebody is a crashing bore without boring the reader. You can shuffle strangers around with very little contrivance.
What parties can do in a story
Parties might be a focal point for society, as in Jane Austen’s novels, when they are often the only times that characters might meet.
Jilly Cooper has rounded off a good number of novels with a rousing gathering, letting the characters bash out their differences under the special conditions a party allows.
A party can also kick off a novel rather well. Iain Banks used a party early in The Crow Road to give a sense of reunion among his characters – and ended the sequence on a poignant note as the MC saw the girl he loved with another guy. Writing as his M alter ego, he used a party early on in one of his Culture books to set up his world.
You might start with a celebration and have it end in tragedy or outrage – as in Sleeping Beauty. The contrast will make the tragedy all the stronger.
Most of the plot of Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim comes from a party the MC is forced to attend at his new boss’s house. The scrapes he gets into set the rest of the book in motion.
A party can have an internalising function too. I used a party scene in My Memories of a Future Life to show the character trying to keep up with her old world after a personal disaster, pretending everything was all right. We can see it isn’t. Later in the book, she goes to another party, held by the friends of a character she hopes to find out more about. The surreal atmosphere reflects her internal state as her life takes another swerve. (Two parties may seem heavy going for one book but I atoned in Life Form 3 where there were no parties at all.)
My rules for a good party
So we’ve established that parties can give you hours of story fun. But like the real thing, they take a bit of organisation. Here are my rules for making your party go with a swing:
1 A party sequence needs a point of view. It could be one POV character or an omniscient camera, but keep it consistent. Don’t start as one and end as another.
2 When lingering on groups of people, keep to small numbers. It’s extremely hard for the reader to keep track of more than three people foregrounded at a time, and some writers never have more than two. Although you may like that ensemble scene at the start of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, where all the characters are nattering in a café, it does not translate well to the page.
3 Keep letting the camera look up to take in what others are doing and to demonstrate that there are more people there besides the ones you’re looking at.
4 If you have a tense exchange, don’t hurry away from it too fast because you need to get round to the other people too. Lock the characters in the bathroom together if necessary so that they can take their time.
Thank you, Oddsock, for the picture. And in other news, My Memories of a Future Life will be available on Kindle soon, so that will be an excuse for a party too…
How have you used parties in your fiction? What purpose did they serve in the story? Which writers give the best parties? Share your examples in the comments!