Fearing the Blank Page

I’m going to admit that, recently, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to write. Not only that, but I’ve noticed a distinct aversion to the task. The thought of writing at the moment fills my being with emotions akin to disgust: whatever words I may write, they are despicable and unworthy. Somewhere along the line I’ve lost the magic of writing – the freedom and joy that creating something from scratch can allow.

Not only this, but I can’t figure out why it is that I’m struggling. It seems that for unknowable reasons, right now, I do not want to write.

Except, of course, that I do.

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I’m a writer. It’s in my soul. I love finding stories in words, imagining characters and bringing them to life on the page, putting them in challenging situations and seeing what happens. The very idea that I am capable of doing this tugs on the corner of my lips and convinces me to smile. I adore storytelling. Yet, at the moment, the act of putting words on the page in any type of meaningful order seems to repel me.

So I have to invent ways to enjoy writing again. I need to take the pressure off; to go back to basics and rediscover what it means to write for myself. This might means competition deadlines must be put aside and their themes forgotten. Right now, I need the freedom to explore words in whatever form they come and not feel the need to shoehorn them into something they are not. To help me do this, I’ve decided on a few ‘easy’ exercises I hope will stimulate some creativity.

1. Go back to a simple expectation that I really only have to ‘write one sentence a day. Just one sentence a day. Everyday. How easy is that?’
2. Attempt an activity Rosie Garland reveals as one of her creative rituals:
“ I…write six images. What a snail looks like climbing up a leaf, what it felt like to stub your toe. I do it every morning without fail, if miss one I do a catch up session later.”
3. Remember that I write because I want to, not because I should.
4. Keep this in mind [Thanks goes to Rosie for putting things into perspective]:

blank page quote

Hopefully, by next week I will be able to report that my fondness for writing has returned, or at least that my skills are developing once more and I will no longer be afraid of that blank page. It’s been such a long time since I faced the dreaded blinking cursor that I’d forgotten how intimidating it can be and how fear of having no ideas can often prevent us from developing any new ideas.

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What do you do when you don’t feel like writing? “Feel the fear and do it anyway?” Or admit you might need more time and calmly wait it out?
Let me know in comments, or Tweet Me


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Watching you; Watching me

As writers we often make observations of other people to help inform our craft. I like to people-watch whenever I get the opportunity – standing in a queue, waiting for a train (which is happening more and more frequently of late), or even sat at my window peering over my neighbourhood. These snippets of time allow me a great deal of insight into how people behave. The way they stand, if they fidget, and their quickening facial expressions. I don’t know if it’s the writer in me, but I can’t help putting thoughts in their minds when I observe people like this; I have no idea what their true situation may be, yet I can easily make one up.

Still, despite this habit of mine, I very rarely consider what others may observe of me if they were to turn their gaze my way. Would they see a woman in a rush, because of my long, confident strides; or a day-dreamer, lost in the thoughts beyond the furrowed brow? Even now, as I type, I wish I could see what someone else would see if they were looking this way: my pursed lips, slightly narrowed eyes and square-set shoulders, the distant sound of tapping keys as I write the new bestseller*…A pause, then a slight smile, perhaps a bittersweet sigh. Would my observer perhaps consider me a romantic, sat here at my desk writing romance novels*?

We so often look out at the world that we forget it is looking right back at us. Certainly as a writer, using my skills to scrutinise others, I have rarely considered how another author might describe me during their own people-watching time. I’d like to think they’d make me into a strong character, someone who has struggled but fought to get out of the other side; not a weak woman, whose indecisiveness has led her to live a life she isn’t quite sure she really wants.

Perhaps these are the characters we really write – the ones we do and do not want to be. The observations we make of others allow us to hide them beneath facades and behaviours uncommon to ourselves, yet ultimately the inner workings are surely all our own. They are, after all, imaginations from our own mind. Imagine writing a novel where you made all those decisions you never really considered before – the ones you were too afraid or ashamed to make – what kind of novel would that be? What kind of character might you turn out to be in the end?

So the next time I’m out and I have a momentary interlude in my day, rather than watch the people around me, perhaps I’ll reflect on what it is I am currently portraying to the world; am I the me that I want to be? Or could someone write me differently?

(*fiction comes so naturally, I can barely see a world where my writing is considered ‘romance’)

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When did you last go on a people-watching date?

Do you ever go to a cafe, or sit at the station waiting for your train/bus, and just watch everyone else? This is generally considered ‘people-watching‘ and I love it. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the lives of other people that fires up my imagination. Observed idiosyncrasies that might be ingrained habits or a nervous tic, and overheard snippets of conversation give rise to potential scandals and plots.

The great thing is that anyone can do it, anywhere they are. It can be something planned – just find a spot in a cafe somewhere – or it can be a spontaneous decision to simply fill time whilst waiting in a queue at the supermarket, for example. Alternatively, if you’re a homebody, like me, it can be fun to switch on the T.V. turn the volume off and find an unfamiliar show or film; watch the characters, see what you can find out just through noting how they move and their facial expressions when they speak.

Sometimes, when indulging in a bit of people-watching, I can feel like a spy on a covert mission, trying to identify the villain! It’s addictive once I start, and occasionally I can get fixed on a single person and their behaviour and determine their entire life story. When I make the effort to sit down and observe people I notice things I would have missed before; the way a woman bites her lip whilst on her phone, or the tapping of a man’s fingers on his train ticket and the bounce of his knee.

I’ve never been caught people-watching, but I tend to have a number of tactics to ensure this doesn’t occur. I pretend to read a book or a newspaper, surreptitiously peering over the text at people as they come and go. This also works with a laptop – meaning you can keep notes straight into a document. If you’re a veteran, and use this method, you’ll likely use a wing-dings font so that no-one else can look over your shoulder to catch you ‘spying’!

three person holding smartphones

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

Mobile ‘phones are also excellent camouflage when people-watching. We’re a society of bowed heads now, with so few people bothering to look up over their screens. Tapping out notes on a phone app can work like a charm; you’ll appear so engrossed in your texting that you’ll fit right in!

As to why I’d recommend people-watching, well, other than being a fascinating anthropological exercise it’s great for building a foundation of observations that can be used for character work. Noting the look of certain people – a long, ski-jump nose on one, while another has eyes set deep in his face – and then combining these to describe an individual character can work really well. Then there is the scrutiny beyond the behavioural features : jut why is that man tapping his ticket and bouncing his knee – is he late? Has he had too many cups of coffee? Is it the first symptom of a disease like Parkinson’s? Delving into the why of the particulars of people’s habits can be a fab way to develop a character.

Then, there can be further character work surrounding how they may feel about the features and habits they’ve been assigned. Has our hero decided to swear off alcohol and the jitters are the first sign of withdrawal? Does he believe he can stay sober, or will he slip into the first pub he sees? What’s his motivation for getting sober – will he be a father soon and he wants to be a good role model for his son? Or does he need to stay sober for his job, as he’s on his last warning?

Once you’ve started asking these questions a story is likely to emerge somewhere, somehow. Usually I’ll get embroiled in these during my people-watching session, and the moment I’m more interested in my story than I am in the crowd around me I know I’ve got the start of something I need to focus on.

Have you got any tips for people-watching? When was the last time you spent time really examining the people around you?

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Tackling the Competition

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Writing competitions. If you write and want to get your work published this is one of the first routes into authorship. There are some writers who excel at applying their material to the various competition topics out there, others still who tend to focus on particular genres or types, and then there’s me. I’m great at identifying opportunities that different competitions offer, in fact, I have a list of the ones I’d like to enter for the next six months sat above my desk as I type this. Yet, despite my superb organisation skill I still struggle to ever write something that I can submit.

But, not anymore. I’m determined to write at least something for as many of them as I can. My target is 50%, and considering there are an impressive twenty-eight competitions listed and I haven’t yet got a solid entry for any, I’d better get started! Here are a few of the techniques I’m going to use to help prompt my efforts:

Take it from the top
          If ever I’m struggling with a competition theme I know all I really need is a first line to help start me off. Problem is, I usually don’t have one. So I’ve got a nifty way to negotiate a way around this issue: I borrow someone else’s line.  Photo by Thijs van der Weide on Pexels.com
It’s simple enough – just go to a book on a shelf and pick any line from any page. Usually I’ve determined a page number and line number already, so I don’t end up in the land of procrastination by searching for the perfect line for a story I have no idea for. But, if you’re so indecisive and can’t even decide on a page or line number, choose the date – page 11, line 6 for example; or the year – page 20, line 18. So long as you pick a different book every time, you’ll have a unique first line.
After that it’s just a case of matching it to the competition theme. With a first line and a genre, I usually find the story is already there waiting and it’s just a case of teasing it out. Often my mind automatically link these things together and, suddenly, a narrative appears.
Tip: Don’t keep it as the first line, it’s just a prompt. Make sure to edit it out if you submit; you’ll likely find the resulting story needs a new opener anyway.

creative smartphone desk notebook

Read all about it
          One thing I like to do is to find a news story that fascinates me and think of a character who might have been influenced by it. What was their part in it? How did it impact their lives? What if they’d reacted differently – would it result in a different news story?
The great thing about this is being able to delve into a character that already has a story written. I know what happened, now I just have to figure out what this character’s part was in it and how they felt about it. This leads to a really strong character piece that often has a believable quality in the story because it’s taken directly from life.
Sometimes I try to limit myself to stories that link with the competition theme: so if it’s travel story I look in the travel section of the newspaper, or a story about weather I search for storm related news. But, you don’t have to do it this way: sometimes the most interesting stories comes from the unexpected places.

Start with a secret
Photo by Little Visuals on Pexels.comI love a story with a secret. Even better if it’s one I never saw coming. So if I have a particular competition theme that’s troubling me I brainstorm what secrets I can associate with it. Summer Garden? What if it’s a hidden garden, only certain people can access or see? Or is it a location for some illicit liaisons? Even more worrying, what if someone is planting poisonous plants in this garden to commit a murder?
All of a sudden there are lots of stories to tell, and plenty of ways to tell them – do you tell it from the point of view of the gardener, or the lover, the murderer or the victim? What if you could tell it from the perspective of one of plants?

Just jump in
          Finally, if I think that I’ve got enough time I just put my butt in the chair and write. Usually it’s only loosely related to the competition theme, and typically if it is related it’s probably something that a hundred other writers have already tackled. But, if I keep writing and follow the thread that each word and sentence produce I’ll eventually come up with something that makes me raise an eyebrow and think, ‘Hmm, that’s interesting.
Once I’ve got that tiny germ of an idea I run with it and see how far I can get. It takes up the most time, but it’s produced some of my favourite pieces of writing and ones that I’ve been praised on by some of the readers. Sometimes, though, I can forget how fruitful this method is. I just need to trust my own imagination and let myself explore the possibilities before I settle on a story idea I can be really proud of.

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Do you have some techniques or methods for tackling competition themes? Share below in the comments, or tweet me

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Blog a Day in May

So, I did it. Every day this month I have shared a little something with the world through this blog, writing each day and committing to a challenge that I wasn’t sure I’d accomplish. Yet, here we are. I persevered even through the failure of my laptop hard drive, using my ‘phone as a substitute, and I learned a number of things throughout the month:

It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be.
On days where I opened up the screen for a new post and I had no idea what to write, I turned to places like Pinterest for inspiration. I often took the first thing I saw and ran with it, but this scenario didn’t occur as regularly as I assumed it would from the beginning. In the end, I simply wrote about life that was right in front of me as it happened. And I think it helped me make sense of the world I’m living in, allowing me to voice a few of the thoughts that usually race around in my mind never to be released.

I surprised myself.
Many days I wrote more than I intended. What started as a quick visit to make that day’s mark on the blog usually developed into a solid diversion from whatever I had planned immediately afterwards. Cups of tea went cold. The dog got restless. My fiance had to be patient, unable to press play on the series we were watching because I ‘just have to finish this’. The words sucked me in and while I’d only have thought to write a sentence or two, my over-writing self kicked in and it became a post fat with text.

I enjoyed it.
It sounds odd to state it so blatantly; as why would I start the challenge if I didn’t think I’d enjoy it? Well, I committed to it because I wanted a way back into the blog. I wanted to be writing something everyday and I was struggling with fiction. I wanted, in essence, to have written. It wasn’t about enjoyment or attracting an audience: it was a challenge to see if I could write everyday – and I can. Not only that but I’ve proved to myself that I like it. The passion for it is still there, lurking in the shadows waiting for me to put in some legwork to coerce it back into the light. Writing isn’t the chore I had labelled it.

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My current blogging corner

I reconnected.
I haven’t blogged for so long I assumed I would have fallen out of favour and off the radar. But no, I recognised many of the user handles that have been liking my posts, and even reconnected with one or two via Twitter. I’d forgotten the camaraderie that exists online, but I’m grateful for it. So, thanks goes to you – the audience who have travelled this month with me through these posts. In many ways the simple act of knowing there are people out there reading is reassuring; this is something that my current fiction is not rewarded with.

I want to keep blogging…
After all this, the challenge has encouraged me: I want to keep on blogging. Probably not everyday – but regularly; once a week perhaps. It’s time to rejoin the #MondayBlogs tribe again methinks. And I’m smiling just thinking about it, even though I have no clue what the next blog post will be about.