Like with ‘If on a Winter’s Night’, I’ll always come crawling back to this little blog. Eventually.
If you’re a big reader, like me, then you’ll know this feeling. You pick up the book, only to put it down unfinished after a few chapters. You pick it up again a while later, determined to finish this time…only to put it down yet again. A third time, this time you’ll do it. Then you remember why you put it down twice before.
That book for me is Italo Calvino’s ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller’. I like metafiction. I like the concept, and the plot. Much of the book has me reading along happily, but I am still finding it a challenge to get through. It could be me, it could be Calvino – or maybe it’s a bit of both.
Personally, I don’t have much time for reading; I try to do it on my lunch breaks, but I am exhausted lately so that doesn’t happen as frequently as I’d like. As for Calvino, he’s a man of many words. Many, many, many words. He could be describing putting his socks on and make it last 6 pages. His prose is good, don’t get me wrong, but the superfluous rambling narrative voice isn’t the most engaging while you’re just trying to eat your sandwich and have some time away from screens.
This book is a big challenge. I have an English degree and review books on here for fun (admittedly very erratically!) and it’s a challenge, but I will finish it. I am coming for you and your needlessly long prose, Calvino! Look out for the review – even if it takes 6000 years.
So you have writers’ block. Whether you’re a blogger, creative writer, journalist or any other kind of writer, it happens to the best of us and boy is it bad when it does. There are times when nothing seems to get the inspiration flowing; no level of playlist making, book reading, exercising or meditating on mountain tops helps (okay, I may not have actually tried the last one and I know you’re all laughing at the idea of exercise, work with me here). Don’t panic, there is still some hope for you yet!
I’ve been writing properly for about 5 years now, and in that time I’ve been struck with writers’ block several (hundred) times. In that time, I’ve done what I’m sure many writers do; tried thousands of fruitless google searches to motivate myself, given up and binge watched box sets instead until another idea pops up. I have, however, collected several unique and interesting methods of writing, ways of getting new ideas and general tips for getting over writers’ block – so while I do still succumb to the box sets more often than I should (I am in fact searching for the remote so I can put Merlin on as I type), here are some ways that can be used to deal with the dreaded curse.
Okay, this is an obvious one, but definitely effective. Oneword.com is a site dedicated to this – they have a new one-word prompt every day. The set-up of the site allows you to write as much as possible on the word in 60 seconds before submitting it to their forums, however you can of course just as easily use the word without setting a time limit. Setting a limit can be useful, and of course you can extend and edit after the minute is over, but it isn’t everyone’s style.
If you’re looking for inspiration for an existing story, it can help to pick several mismatched or random words, and attempt to use them in a single paragraph, page or chapter. There are a lot of websites and sources (including other blogs) that have lists of words – I pick a list, then use a number generator and pick the words in line with 5-10 of those numbers. To get you started, have a few words on me – do with them what you will:
I recently finished reading Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (come back on Wednesday for my review!). Ransom Riggs used photographs not only to inspire his work, but wrote them into the narrative. The peculiar children are based on real photos from Riggs’ collection, which are featured throughout the book. This is a style of writing that I’ve only tried once, but which can make for an interesting experience for both writer and reader – and with an image already there you don’t have to worry too much about description and focus on the story, which can be helpful when inspiration is waning.
Try this on for size:
Try doing the same with music or poetry. Many writers use others’ works, particularly poems, as inspiration. They don’t have to be at the forefront of your work, but you could take the meaning or even just a line you like and turn it into a piece.
Found poetry is where you take existing texts and use them to create something else – this could even work for prose. I once wrote a poem only using text messages from my inbox.
Listen to conversations, people-watch, pay attention to things that seem interesting in your day to day life – you’d be amazed at where inspiration can come from. In the summer before my final year of university I worked at a charity shop. One day I watched an old lady eat her sandwiches on a bench outside under an umbrella on one of the hottest days of the year. 18 months later and I’m still working on a piece centred around that scene.
The Sky’s the Limit?
Try setting a time limit, or trying to write something to an exact word count. My first assignment for a university seminar was to write a love story of exactly 101 words. You could try only writing sentences with an odd number of words, or start every sentence with the same letter. Writing to strict rules can be difficult, but it’s also a really good exercise and could help get the imagination flowing in the way you write as well as what you write.
And if none of those work…
Take A Break – You Deserve It.
Sometimes the best thing to do is to take a step back, have a breather, and come back to your work with fresh eyes. Whether you go to work on something else or finish the aforementioned box sets, a break can be beneficial.
I hope this has been somewhat helpful in curing writers’ block, or providing some new ways to approach writing. These are all things I’ve tried and while they don’t always help, they are a challenge and fun to try. Let me know if you give any of these a go and how useful you found them! (Or useless, as the case may be).
It’s officially National Novel Writing Month! NaNoWriMo is the writing challenge to top all writing challenges: 50,000 words in 30 days. The challenge was created to inspire and encourage writers to stop putting it off and get that first draft written. I’ve started the challenge several times, and won twice – and although I’m not doing it this year I am excited to see what my friends come up with and cheer them on.
This is not an easy feat, and can definitely be a struggle! Here are some of the stages I’ve noticed over the years;
Remembering NaNo is coming halfway through October…and having no ideas whatsoever.
Getting a great idea, planning it out and actually feeling prepared to start.
3. The 1st of November hits, and you’re ready to go…
4. …and you’ve suddenly never been so popular. Everyone wants to cut into valuable writing time spend time with you.
5. You actually get ahead of your target and it feels so gooooood…
6. …and then you discover a huge plot hole and have to redo a huge chunk.
7. But you keep going. You skip showers, binge eat junk food and set up a caffeine IV drip. You don’t see anyone for days and your room/office starts to smell, but you’re determined to keep at it. Even when you’re not writing, you’re thinking about your novel.
8. You get really close to quitting a LOT.
9. But finally reaching the finish line feels amazing. You’ve done yourself (and your characters) proud – now go brush your teeth.
Winning NaNoWriMo is so rewarding and all of the blood, sweat, tears and cancelled social events are worth it in the end! It’s so easy to give up, especially if you get busy or come across problems with your work, but being able to say you did it feels so good. Keep going, and remember that this is only the first draft – it doesn’t have to be perfect. It is also worth saying that you should be realistic; look after yourself, and if the default 50,000 words is too much you can set a smaller target on the website. Don’t doubt yourself, you can do this!
Are you doing NaNo this year? What’s your novel about? If not, have you done it before and what advice do you have?
I am very lucky to say that I am friends with a lot of creative people. Doing a creative writing course I naturally made friends with a lot of writers, but I also know a lot of artists, and more recently have come to know a lot of bloggers. One thing all of these creative people have in common, other than much larger emotional ranges than normal and a tendency to lean to the left of political issues, is that they’re all reluctant to label themselves as such.
A lot of people I know have a tendency to say they’re ‘wannabe artists’ or ‘aspiring bloggers’. This frustrates me because it shows a lack of confidence in the incredible work they produce. It downplays and even erases the hard work they put in to what they do. I had a seminar tutor once who told us it was bullshit to think of ourselves as anything but writers – we write, therefore we’re writers. We blog, therefore we’re bloggers.
Since starting university three years ago, I’ve met a lot of writers – most in the same position as me, at university learning to hone their skills and now many of us are graduating and being thrown into the big wide world. In these three years, the same topic of conversation to do with writing has come around a lot; who should we write for?
The question is one that I struggle with personally a lot more now that I have this blog. I created it for myself, as a way to keep myself reading and writing, and so far that has also happened to be quite successful with readers; by no means is the blog popular as such, and I’m certainly not going to become a full-time, professional blogger any time soon, but my audience is steadily increasing and I think I’m doing fairly well considering it’s only been about a month. In posting what I write online, although it is from and for myself first and foremost, the reader becomes a part of the reason for writing.
I think it’s quite common with things like blogs to become easily discouraged, and for me I think writing solely for readers will do that to me; I need a schedule and I need to make myself write things on time, simply to keep me motivated, but pushing myself to write things that readers will want to see all the time will just make me tire of it. I’m currently tackling this attitude quite well; I’m not letting it bother me if my posts aren’t very successful, and instead focusing on writing the next one. This is often easier said than done, but making a conscious effort to do so is helping massively. Writing for me means writing things that interest me – and if other people aren’t interested by that thing, I have a million other things to write/review/discuss.
A friend of mine recently admitted that she was scared to set up a dedicated place on the internet for her creative writing, in case no one read it. My response to this, and I know it’s a hypocritical one, was this – who cares? It’s really scary to put your work out there, and I certainly worry that no one will read or like my creative stuff, but it’s better to have it out where someone can read it than leaving things gather dust in a 5 year old folder with an embarrassing title buried deep in your laptop.
On the topic of creative writing, we must discuss books and publishing works on paper. Historically speaking, many writers wrote for the money; Dickens was often paid by the word to write his serials, which we now of course read in the form of huge novels. It would be naive to say that many popular authors today write without money in mind, however for the majority of writers nowadays this isn’t a lucrative business; only the very bestselling authors earn enough money to live on, much less the fortunes earned by the likes of JK Rowling. Going into writing with the sole purpose of making money would be largely disappointing.
Of course, it doesn’t mean that people don’t write with the intention of getting published – there would be little point in spending all that time creating something to then not show anyone, whether we publish for free or for profit.
So, who (or what) should we write for? Ourselves? Our audience? Money? Personally, I believe a mix is probably the best bet for success, but that’s just my personal opinion – I’ll get back to you when I’m a bestselling author!
I recently had a discussion with a few friends of mine on the relevance of gender in prose. One of said friends is writing a novella in which the main character’s gender isn’t specified; the other is an astrophysicist with very little knowledge of creative writing. To me, gender isn’t important (in literature or the real world, but we’ll stick to literature for the time being) – so long as a character interests me, I have very little need to know what gender they are. The astrophysicist however claims that for him, gender is part of how he as a reader familiarises himself with a character and the setting of the text. I understand where he is coming from; some description of a character is helpful and allows the reader to form a better picture of the scene, however I struggle to see how gender would be the best way to achieve this.
During the conversation my astrophysicist friend made the point that gender allows for the reader to better understand the motives and thoughts of the character. In using gender to describe a character, we must be aware that a reader may press traditional gender roles onto the character. For my astrophysicist friend, this sets up how the character will act; a genderless character therefore would be harder to pin down. He doesn’t like if a character acts outside of how he expected them to, and he claims that a character with a non-specified gender may go against the image he has of them. A counterpoint for this is of course that characters can go against their gender roles just as easily as they can comply with them – in fact, characters can and do behave differently to how we expect regardless of gender.
The astrophysicist’s point is an interesting one, even if I’m not sold on it – say we describe a character as having long hair and wears a bracelet, for example. We discussed this at the time; just saying that would make most people assume that the character is or presents as female. Whilst we were having the conversation, however, both me and the (male) friend who is writing a novella had long hair and were wearing bracelets. For the astrophysicist, this description poses a problem – if it was later revealed that the character was at least biologically male when he’d pictured them female, it would disrupt his reading of the text. Of course, many texts with characters of non-specific gender don’t reveal their character’s biological sex, and we surely shouldn’t expect them to unless it’s relevant to the text. It may be necessary, however if a writer decides not to specify their character’s gender the chances are they won’t specify their biological sex if possible either.
Although I personally believe gender isn’t relevant, it is interesting to consider that readers will have a predisposition to wanting specified genders and traits for the characters they’re expected to relate to. We undeniably still live in a society with clear gender lines. It is ingrained in our minds from a young age that we should fit certain roles and play certain parts depending on what genitalia we are born with. We are given a gender that ‘matches’ our biological sex, which dictates our place in society – boys have blue, adventure, leadership, strength. Girls have pink, domesticity & submission. Despite this, we are moving towards becoming more accepting of the fact that these genders and their predetermined roles are simply outdated and wrong; a person’s gender isn’t equivalent to their biological sex, nor does a person’s gender or sex stop them from doing certain things. I can’t believe that anyone fits into these male or female boxes 100% – everyone has aspects of their personality or enjoys doing things that are traditionally associated with the opposite sex.
Is it societal teaching, then, that makes readers like my astrophysicist friend uncomfortable with the concept of a lack of gender? Gender can be confusing and complicated, especially when adults who have been taught from day one that there are only two genders and everyone fits one of them are now being told that there are a lot of different genders and that gender roles they have been taught to fit from day one aren’t relevant. Even for the most open minded person, it can be a process to reverse the lessons we have been taught throughout our lives, in order to fully understand how gender really works. I myself find that I have to remind myself if someone uses pronouns that don’t match their biological sex, even if they’re a close friend. It’s almost like training your brain to make these corrections as you learn.
In literature, however, gender isn’t necessarily a political thing. It can be beneficial to a text not to reveal a character’s gender, and we don’t always see this as an issue; if a character’s identity is hidden on purpose, for example, we wouldn’t expect to know their gender – especially if they aren’t an active character. I believe that gender is only important in literature if it serves a purpose. If gender doesn’t play a significant role in the text, the character’s personality and the way they are written are more important – so long as a character grips the reader, their pronouns aren’t massively significant. A character’s personality should resonate with readers enough regardless of gender or lack thereof.
Let me know your thoughts – does gender affect the way you read a character?
See you soon,
[PS- I should note that I didn’t refer to my friends by name on purpose, and wasn’t trying to sound smart by referring to one as ‘my astrophysicist friend’… but did I mention I know an astrophysicist?]