How to Be More Creative

Last night, I was driving home quite late. It was actually dark – yes, that late. But still hot, of course. I stopped at a supermarket at 9pm and when I came out, it was almost surreal, how the heat just hit me. It was like being in a foreign country.

Anyway, as I drove home, I listened to Radio 4 and the ‘Bringing Up Britain’ programme came on, which I’ve never listened to before but ooh, very interesting because this episode was about CREATIVITY and principally how we can foster it in children, as, “by 2020, it’s estimated that creativity will be in the top 3 most important skills for future jobs.”

But they also talked about how, as an adult, you can increase/improve your creativity. They had a couple of very learned and wise professor-type men on the programme, spouting their words of wisdom and… steps back in amazement, they were basically saying the same as Julia Cameron said, over 25 years ago in her book ‘The Artist’s Way’ (and which, ahem, I have quoted on this blog several times).

So, what did the wise men advise, in order to become more creative?

Well, every day, we should take 15 minutes of ‘unfocussed time’, when we’re not looking at a screen of any kind, or listening/speaking to anyone. It’s time to get back inside your own head, without the distractions of external media (and yes, being in the bath or shower count, as that’s often when people get good ideas, isn’t it?).

So, I was thinking, this is all very much like Morning Pages, which I think of as a word-doodle-brain dump-meditation and which Simon Whaley has written about here.

On a weekly basis, we should try to ensure we have new experiences and gain new knowledge, as ‘research shows that changes to your routine will increase your creativity’ (and it can be as small as ‘pressing a different button on the vending machine each day’). Hmm, is this not just like going on an Artist’s Date?

I wrote an article for Writing magazine a few years ago, entitled ‘Be Curious’ and now seems as good a time as any to publish it here:

Be Curious

As writers, we’re always striving to be original and to find that new angle but how can we keep our minds open and our ideas fresh?

One way of boosting creativity is to keep your ‘inner child’ alive. In short, by being curious.

We were all children once. We lived in the moment, continually asking questions and pushing the boundaries of our world through play and daily new experiences but as adults, most of us lose that child-like curiosity and lack of self-consciousness. As we get older, we’re far less likely to try new things and ifs easy to get stuck in a routine.

You can help reverse that trend and boost your creativity at the same time, by practising being curious.

Start by doing something different as often as possible. It can be the smallest thing, such as drinking your tea out of a different mug or taking an alternative route to work. If you’ve always wondered what’s down that road or over that hill, wonder no more — go and find out!

Part of being curious is to value each day as different and full of possibilities. I do that each morning by changing the date on my calendar in the kitchen, to signify a new start.

Try speaking to people you might not ordinarily engage with. Chat when you’re at the supermarket check-out or the hairdresser’s, even if your usual inclination is to be quiet. Ask questions. You might just get an idea for a story, a character or a subject for an interview.

If you always write or read fiction, try writing some poetry. Got a good idea for a story? Why not try writing it as a poem first? In my classes I urge new writers to be open-minded about trying genres they might not otherwise have considered. This way, people who were very dismissive of one type of writing often end up loving it.

You can literally look at the world in a different way by moving the furniture around in the place where you write. Instead of gazing out of the window, why not turn your desk to face a blank wall (which is what Stephen King advocates in his respected work, On Writing)? Or write at the kitchen table for once, instead of your study upstairs.

Author Henry James urged would-be writers to, ‘Be one of those on whom nothing is lost,’ and being curious is not just about having new experiences: do things differently and you’ll pay more attention. And if you’re noticing new things, you’ll almost certainly get some new ideas.

So, if you always use a laptop, try writing instead with a paper and pen. If you have a regular list of things to do each day or week, try doing them in a different order or at a different time. Going to the shops when the schools are emptying and it’s dusk will, for example, be a very different experience from shopping at ten in the morning.

New experiences will stimulate and free your creativity, so resist the urge to live your life by a timetable.

Many of us like routine because it makes us feel secure but sometimes, as writers, it does us good to get out of that comfort zone.

Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, ‘Do one thing every day that scares you.’ This doesn’t mean you have to do a parachute jump or ride a rollercoaster. the scary thing could be submitting your work to a competition or phoning an editor to follow up a pitch (or even rescuing a spider from the bath, instead of asking someone else to do it!).

Try being curious for a month. Keep a list of all the different and ‘scary’ things you do each day and write down how you feel at the time too. The results could be intriguing.

Being curious: things to try:

• Accept invitations you might normally turn down (poet Ian McMillan famously says ‘yes’ to everything! That’s why he’s on the radio so much).
• Make contact with someone you haven’t been in touch with for a while.
• Get up or go to bed at a different time.
• Tune into a different TV programme or radio station; read a different paper. Don’t dismiss any of them as rubbish or boring until you’ve at least tried them.
•Try new recipes and resist the urge to always have the same meal when you go out to a restaurant.
• Don’t do the usual and take your notebook to a coffee shop to write. Why not try looking at the world differently by writing in a laundrette, an art gallery or a busy shopping centre?

PS: We went to the sunflower fields the other night, hence the new (temporary) header. We got a bit carried away with our picking and the house is now full of sunflower heads (and lots of yellow pollen and leaves everywhere). But lovely. 🙂

Posted in Artist's Dates | Tagged , | 9 Comments

Getting Your Facts Right

Rain Report

Hello, I am back from my holibobs ‘up North’, where, I am pleased to report, I spotted a smidgen of rain one afternoon, as we drove to Loch Lomond but not as much as I was expecting/hoping for (it was Scotland, after all!).

BUT, as there still hadn’t been any rain here, I came home to find my hanging baskets and pots half dead. Our neighbour promised to water them but I think she forgot. Never mind.

Facing Facts

Recently, I spotted an interesting exchange on Twitter, which made me think about the importance of getting details right, in writing.

I can’t quote the tweets directly because, I’m fairly sure, they’re subject to copyright but, in a nutshell, a reader was congratulating a writer on his/her short story. However, the reader pointed out (coyly, with lots of emojis and #justsaying hashtags), ‘apples don’t ripen at the same time as…’… other fruit that was mentioned in the story.

Now, I happen to have read this short story myself and it’s about a woman gathering in produce from the garden and making jam with her mother, so getting that bit right – about when fruit ripens – is pretty important. I am not exactly ‘gardener of the year’ but I’m fairly sure that apples ripen in the autumn – September-y sort of time – so, definitely not the same time as strawberries and gooseberries, which are June/July-ish, right?

The author replied with a cheery tweet and words to the effect of, ‘Chill! It’s only a story!’ – but I think that was missing the point. For that reader (and perhaps for others), that story was spoiled. The illusion of being in that imaginary world – which is what it feels like when you read something that grabs you – was ruined and the reader was reminded that she was, in fact, only reading a story (a story with some wonky fruit-ripening facts).

I remember, on a People’s Friend writing workshop a few years ago, Shirley Blair, the Fiction Editor, stressed the importance of getting your facts right. She mentioned a story the magazine had published which took place in the London Underground system and which made reference to a particular tube station which – at least one reader took great pleasure in pointing out – hadn’t actually existed until about ten years after the story took place. Red faces all round.

Author – and former police detective – Rebecca Bradley is so irritated by some of the police procedural errors that she’s seen authors make in their fiction (eg: calling female police officers ‘WPCs’ which, apparently, they haven’t been called for donkeys’ years!), that she’s set up a consultancy – a police procedural fact-checking business, which, if you write UK police procedural crime, might be of interest.

As well as getting your facts wrong, other things that can jar your reader out of the story and interrupt the ‘flow’ include:

* Long, convoluted sentences that the reader has to re-read before he can understand them.
* ‘Ping-pong dialogue’, that goes back and forth between two or more characters for so long – and without the necessary speech tags or other ‘clues’ – that the reader loses track of who’s speaking.
* Characters’ names changing half way through a story (I’ve seen that a few times!).
* Confusion between characters who are too similar
* Repeating words or phrases too often/too close to each other (so that the reader notices and is irritated by it!)
* Too much backstory, delivered in a big lump of prose (bor-ing!)
* Repetition of ideas or information, that make the reader ask, ‘Haven’t I read this before?’
* Typos, grammatical errors, spelling and punctuation mistakes.
* ‘Over-writing’ (that might not be the correct term but that’s what I call it and by that, I mean, when the reader is being patronised and told things that are obvious).
* Anachronisms – eg: having your bride and groom dance their first dance to Madonna’s ‘Holiday’, in a story set in 1982 when, of course, we ALL know that classic song wasn’t a hit in the UK until January (ironically) 1984!

Hmm, please, someone, write that story.

And there are many more. I’m sure, as readers, we’ve all got our pet hates! Have I missed any off that particularly annoy you?

Posted in Short Stories | Tagged , | 19 Comments

Waiting for The Rain

Not sure what these are called (anyone?) but we saw them on our walk today.

Apparently, after all these weeks and weeks of blistering heat, rain is on its way. The lawn is yellow, the plants are shrivelling up and it’s too hot to sleep. We need it!

It’s been a football-focussed, outdoor-living, Love-Island-watching few weeks (don’t judge me!) and I haven’t done much writing, I must admit.

But I did manage to send a letter to Writer’s Forum magazine and it’s the ‘Prize Letter’ in this month’s issue, which came as something of a surprise!

Yes, the pic is a bit blurry (it’s not your eyes) but honestly, I’ve just faffed around for an hour trying to download photos and I’m afraid (as per my last post!) I’ve decided it’s ‘good enough’.

I was responding to an article in last month’s issue by Kath Kilburn, in which she advised writers on how to keep healthy while working from home (go for a walk, get fresh air, interact with others. That kind of thing).

My response was, that although I agreed with all she said, actually (*smug face*) if you have a dog, you do all those things without thinking about it. I also threw in a couple of references to the Cinnamon Trust and for those who don’t have a dog of their own but would like to walk one.

I wrote the letter (dashed off in less than five minutes) because it was something I feel strongly about, something I know about, something I’m interested in. And I thought no more about it. And there you go – it was not only published but I won a prize for it too (a year’s subscription to the magazine), so someone (the editor!) thought it was good.

It was only a little letter but perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned there (I’m telling myself, too): write from the heart, write what you know and what you’re passionate about and not only will the words flow but you might – just might – strike a chord with someone.

It’s making me think, at a time when I definitely need to rethink my writing plans, given all the recent kerfuffle with Woman’s Weekly, who are now demanding ‘All Rights’ when they purchase fiction. (see the womagwriter’s blog if you want more info on that).

PS: I’ve just checked the weather forecast. No rain for us (if it’s right!) for another week. *Trudges off to fetch watering can*

Another pretty flower (thistle?) from our walk

Posted in Bonnie, Cotswolds, Magazines | Tagged | 16 Comments

Are We Being Too Hard on Ourselves?

Recently I met up with my writing buddy Sally, to talk about our progress (or lack of it) and to set short and long-term writing goals.

This might sound super-professional and organised, but don’t be deceived: it’s just us saying what we hope to do in the next few weeks and months (Oh, and I even wrote it down this time!).

We had a bit of a moan too, of course, about how difficult this writing palaver can be.

It’s hard to get published, to promote your book, to earn any money, to cope with (well-meaning?) people’s expectations and opinions.

And that got us thinking: where’s the fun gone? We realised we’re not enjoying our writing as much as we used to. We need to lighten up and write for pleasure, without the spectre of ‘will this be published/paid for/accepted/any good?’ hanging over us.

Perhaps, we thought, we’re being too hard on ourselves.

I can’t speak for Sally but I know that I’m something of a perfectionist and I’m not saying that in a boastful way because, actually, that’s Not Good for a writer.

It means I procrastinate and take forever to write anything (I’m continually tweaking and changing and I’ll only consider something ‘finished’ when I’ve spent hours on it – and probably much longer than I need to).

There’s a great quote (by someone) which is the mantra I would love to be able to live by: ‘Don’t get it right, get it written!‘ In other words, just get it down and then you can tinker with it (if you must!). I have a terrible tendency to want to polish and perfect each sentence before I allow myself to move on.

It means I don’t write as much as I want to. It means that attempting anything longer than a short story feels like a much bigger task than it might seem to someone who isn’t a perfectionist. It means I procrastinate because I’m waiting for the ‘perfect’ moment to start and because I know that whatever it is, is going to take a while and be hard work.

I used to work with a capable young lad called Jason who, when he was given a task to do (say, to write a press release), would just launch into it, with gusto and enthusiasm and get it done in the quickest time possible. First draft, no revisions and there! It was done! He’d hand it in – good enough, if not perfect – and wouldn’t even think about it again. On to the next thing! Oh, how I envied him (but I was also quite cross, in an illogical sort of a way. Why didn’t he agonise over it, like me? How could he possibly have done it ‘properly’ if he’d done it that fast?).

If you have perfectionist tendencies too, then I’ve looked up some tips to help us. If you’re a Jason-type, then lucky you – you can skip this bit!

1. Apparently, we perfectionists place pressure on ourselves because we’re focussed on the end result, the (often unachievable) goal, the place we want to get to.

We need to enjoy the process (and the fact that we’ll be learning along the way). I suppose this could translate into: enjoy writing that short story, regardless of whether it will be placed in a competition or accepted by a magazine editor. And if you’re writing a novel, recognise that, even if it’s never published, you’ll have learned so much just from the act of writing it, the next one will be even better.

2. I focus on what’s gone wrong, rather than what went well. You too? But one mistake doesn’t equal failure! If 95% of something has gone well, we should be spending 95% of our time focussing on that, rather than on the tiny part that wasn’t quite as it should have been.

3. Perfectionism can lead to a fear of failure, which means you avoid taking risks. It can create mental paralysis. This has definitely happened to me: I’ve had ideas for articles but not pitched them because a) they’re probably stupid and will be rejected or b) what if they are accepted and then I can’t write them?

4. Waiting for that ‘perfect moment’ to start to write, can also mean a perfectionist is a procrastinator. A perfectionist’s work is never done! It’s important to set time limits (short term – eg: an hour for this blog post – and long term – first draft of the novel to be finished by Christmas). Otherwise, you’ll never finish what you start.

5. We perfectionists need to be kinder to ourselves and not so self-critical. When I was walking the dog today I left her (special!) collapsible water bowl on a path. I went back but of course, it was gone. And my head was full of ‘How could you be so stupid?’

Here are some lovely phrases for all us perfectionists to practise and say to ourselves, every day (perhaps look in the mirror while you say them, wink and blow yourself a kiss?)

“No-one’s perfect!”
“We all make mistakes.”
“I can only do my best.”
“Making a mistake doesn’t make me stupid – it just makes me human.”
“Everyone has a bad day sometimes.”
“I can’t please everyone.”
“Not everyone is going to like me and that’s fine…”

6. Embrace ‘Good Enough’! Good enough is much better than striving forever for perfection.

7. Keep away from ‘toxic friends’ or those who want to put you down or criticise (so, if you belong to a writers’ group that makes you feel disheartened and useless, why are you going there?). Instead, surround yourself with people who lift you up and make you feel good.

8. Use social media wisely (ie: limit your time on it – or have a complete digital detox, if it’s getting too much). No-one’s life is as perfect as it can appear on Facebook and if you’re feeling a little down about your own writing, reading everyone’s ecstatic tweets about how they’ve sold a story, got an agent or won a writing competition, can make you feel even worse.

And in addition, there are often posts and tweets along the lines of ‘You SHOULD BE WRITING!’ and ‘It’s National Writing Day – what have you written today?’ that can make you feel ‘lacking’.

Alex Gazzola nails this in his blog post ‘Stop Telling Writers That They Should Be Writing!’ – definitely worth a read.

Ooh, the little perfectionist in me just said ‘8? Wouldn’t 10 be a better, round number of tips?’ But I say to that little P, ‘No, mate. 8 is good enough.’

Posted in Finding Time To Write | Tagged | 11 Comments

‘Saying I Will’ – the Story Behind The Story

Royal Wedding – photo taken from the TV!

I’ve got a confession to make, dear Readers: I keep things from you.

You see – and I’m sure I’m not alone in this – my story ideas tend to come from things that happen to me. And as many of you are also writers, with your eyes and ears on ‘high alert’ for a good idea, there’s a danger that if I tell you an amusing anecdote or a strange chance remark, you’ll use it in a story yourself (possibly even unconsciously!) before I get a chance to do so. It’s fair enough, isn’t it?

Because, as we all know, there’s no copyright on ideas. I blogged about that here last year.

But if you’re wondering how I use chance remarks to generate story ideas, here’s an example:

The Story Behind The Story

The background to my story ‘Saying I Will’ (published in WW a few years ago), was originally published on the womagwriter blog but it’s been taken off, so I feel justified in putting it here. But apologies if it rings a (wedding?) bell – as you may have read it before.

‘Saying I Will’ is about a woman, Trisha, whose ex-husband is re-marrying and how it’s made her feel.

WW actually spoiled the ‘twist’ a little, as at the beginning, I wanted the reader to think it’s Trisha who’s getting married (the first line is, “On the day of the wedding, I wake to bright sunshine…” ) but in the ‘blurb’ WW printed a line from the story which clearly tells the reader that it’s her ex-husband who’s getting married – but never mind. Once they’ve bought the story, they can do what they like!

I actually got the idea for the story from 2 different sources and I love it when I’m able to bring two ideas together like that because that usually means the story has a bit of ‘depth’ and layering to it.

Source 1: The Charity Shop

I took a bag of stuff into our local charity shop one summer and commented to the man behind the counter on what another miserable day it was (it was raining). He shrugged and said, “It can rain every day this month as far as I’m concerned. Especially on the 28th.”

So, naturally, I asked him the significance of 28th (of July, as it happened) and he explained that his ex-wife was getting remarried on that day and they were having a marquee in the garden. (Sad really, wasn’t it?).

I probably didn’t help matters by telling him (truthfully) that my brother’s birthday is 28th July and he always has a barbecue and, as my brother is Mr Jammy, the sun ALWAYS shines (and actually, it did again that year and I thought about the charity shop man on that day).

But my little conversation made me think, ‘There’s a story in that’. But I didn’t quite have enough material to turn it into something…. until …

Source 2: The Daily Mail

The Mail, and other tabloids, whatever you may think of them as ‘newspapers’, are a great source of ideas and inspiration for women’s magazine stories as they have lots of women-focussed lifestyle articles and human interest stories.

And not long after the incident in the charity shop, I read an article in the Mail about what to do if your ‘ex’ is getting remarried. One suggestion was to go on holiday – to a different time zone – and concentrate on your future, instead of mourning the past.

Ta dah! That was it. That gave me the rest of the story. Trisha and her old college friend Sarah head for California and drink champagne on the day of her ex’s wedding. And when Sarah asks her if she’ll drink a toast to the rest of her life, Trisha says, “I Will!”

Posted in Blogging, Ideas, Magazines, The Royal Wedding | Tagged | 13 Comments

“Is it the Grammar?” On getting the critique of my novel back

Two things have happened recently: 1) I packed my bags and went on a tennis holiday to Greece (and managed not to fall over. Hurrah!) and 2) I’ve had the critique of my novel back. Eeek!

To be honest, I got the critique last week, by email and I only opened the file and read it a couple of nights ago (5 days later).

In my defence, we’d had visitors over the weekend and I wanted to wait until I had some quiet, alone-time, to read it … OK, that’s a bit of a feeble excuse. In truth, the real reason I didn’t read it any sooner is because I was scared!

Of course, I’ve had feedback on work before (although, not recently) but never on anything as long as 80,000 words or on anything that I’ve invested so much blood, sweat and tears in.

The good news is that it’s not completely terrible. In fact, there are lots of good bits. Modesty prevents me from being more explicit BUT (you knew this was coming, didn’t you), I’ve got to work on stuff, particularly in the final third. I need to put the characters’ emotional journey on the page much more and make the reader sweat a bit before the ‘happy ever after’. You know, easy stuff like that.

My elderly neighbour keeps asking me about my book and when I told her I’d had my critique back but I needed to do some more work now on the manuscript, she asked, “Is it the grammar?” Erm.. well no. The grammar is the least of my problems. The grammar, I’m happy to say, is just about OK.

As well as wondering if it was all going to be completely terrible, I was also putting off reading it because I knew it would mean more work. Back to the drawing board and all that. Another draft beckons – which has to be done before the end of August because I have a RNA critique to take up before then.

Of course, when you’re giving someone feedback on their work, there’s little point in being anything other than honest but don’t be brutally so. Be kind! (My critique-person was kind). There’s always something positive you can say about someone’s writing. A damning critique can put someone off writing for months, or years or even for life, whereas a few kind words can boost a writer’s (usually fragile!) self-esteem and give them confidence.

As Mark Twain said, “I can live for two months on a good compliment.”

PS: This is my 600th post! Think how many novels I could have written instead…!
PPS: Is anyone watching ‘Love Island’? No? No, no, me neither. Rubbish. Mastermind for the Masses. Bubblegum TV. Absolute trash. Oh, but I really, really, really hope Dr Alex finds someone…soon!

Sunset cruise in Greece. Apparently someone saw a dolphin’s fin.

Posted in Books, Novels | Tagged | 16 Comments

The Force of 15 Minutes

While I was on holiday last week (hence no blog post!), I was perusing the books on my kindle, as you do and I re-read a handy little book that I bought some time ago – The 15 Minute Writer: How To Write Your Book in Only 15 Minutes a Day.

Yes, I am a sucker for ‘get rich quick’ (or, in my case, ‘write with minimum effort’) books!

Anyway, it reminded me, that the draft of my novel (erm, which I might have mentioned a couple of times), started out exactly that way: I had my notebook and pen by the side of my bed and as soon as I woke up each morning, I sat in bed and wrote for fifteen minutes. There, my day’s writing was done.

Obviously, I ended up spending a lot more time on it (hours and hours and hours) but my resistance to starting what I could only conceive of as an impossible feat (ie: writing a whole novel), was broken down by keeping it very small, simple and easy. At least until I had a big chunk of it written and I was in the habit of going back to it every day.

Because everyone can find 15 minutes in a day, right? Of course, you might find that a block of 10 minutes or 20, works better for you. Experiment and find your optimum ‘short burst of time’.

It’s amazing what you can achieve in just 15 minutes. Little blocks of time really do add up. I like the time pressure – it makes me work that much faster and harder than if I had an hour. Usually, once the timer beeps, I want to carry on. Sometimes, just starting is the hard bit and by telling yourself ‘just do this for 15 minutes’ you can get over your reluctance.

Projects You Can Tackle in 15 minutes:

* Write a letter to a magazine or newspaper
* Draft a blog post (ta dah!)
* Outline a short story or novel chapter
* Write notes on a character in a novel
* Write all the dialogue in a scene (fill in the rest later)
* Do some freewriting/stream of consciousness/hot penning, to warm yourself up
* Write a diary entry
* Brainstorm some ideas for a competition entry
* Pen the rough first draft of a poem
* Write and post an on-line book review

Or, if you need a bit of ‘down time’ but you don’t want to spend too long, you could: read the chapter of a book, go for a walk around the block or meditate/stretch.

You must use a timer, though. ‘Guessing’ when 15 minutes is up – or constantly glancing at your watch – won’t work. If you don’t have a timer, there’s an on-line 15 minute timer here!

No excuses now! Let me know how you get on!

Posted in Blogging, Finding Time To Write | Tagged | 12 Comments