This week, I’ve been trying to write a piece for my poetry circle. Specifically, it had to be in some way related to the author Robert Duncan Milne, a forgotten contemporary of H G Wells.
As the reading for this has taken up so much of my time, I don’t have a full-length entry for this site.
However, I’ve often advised that going for a walk is a great way to sort out the ideas in your head, and that’s exactly what happened here. After days of reading, and trying to tie together a few of Milne’s concepts into a single verse, it was a lunchtime trip outside that gave me the final verse.
I’m about to read it over just now, maybe tweak it, and send them my work.
If there’s one activity that unites writers other than producing words, it’s a tendency to go for long walks, an endeavour that seems to help organise the thoughts. I aim for 21,000 steps every day – a 20,000 target, plus a 1,000 margin of error – so I’m on my feet for a lot of the time.
Over the last few months, I’ve been catching up with a podcast on my walks. it started five years ago, so it’s been quite amusing recently, as the hosts and guests lay out their plans for 2020, assuming live gigs and workshops would be going ahead as normal.
I’m now only about six months behind, but I’m finally feeling the fatigue of consuming so many episodes on the trot. I’ve therefore made a conscious decision to ease up on my listening for the moment, and I’ll catch up when I’m ready to dive back in.
Now I’m back to using the time to organise my thoughts – just like I used to – and it’s helping me produce more work. Long may that continue, even when I start my podcast again.
For instance, I wanted to write a piece for my poetry group to include in a pamphlet, but I couldn’t strike the right tone. After a few walks, I managed to sort it out and make a submission.
One piece of advice often given to writers is to keep a notepad and pen by your bed to capture any ideas that occur overnight. So for years, I’ve duly kept said pen and paper but it didn’t work; I need physical movement to come up with ideas. At least, that was the case until a few weeks ago.
I realise there’s nothing duller than hearing other folks’ dreams, so I’ll keep this brief. I saw an image of a woman called Magin – that’s Magin, not Maggie. She was in hippie-style clothes sitting next to a man in plainer clothes; both were eating ice cream. I can’t remember at what point I decided they were cousins, but on waking up, I realised there was a story there. I’m currently working through that.
Then on Saturday, I began a poem for a poetry group, in which I wanted to include the phrase ‘Young’s Modulus of Elasticity’ as it was part of the prompt. I discovered that was the easy part, and I was having some trouble completing the rest of the poem. I left it aside, went for a long walk, and headed to bed on my return.
I must only have been in bed 10 minutes when I figured out how I might continue the poem. I spent the next hour drafting five stanzas in total, then I really needed to go to sleep.
But this doesn’t mark a change in the way I come up with ideas. These are merely two cases in nearly seven years of writing and they stand out because they’re unusual. In any case, I still need to finish these pieces and find out whether they’re any good.
In preparing this week’s entry, I struggled to choose a topic: the singular ‘they’, ‘because’ as a position, past neologisms we now take for granted, the work-life balance, even the events of 11 September 2001.
I managed to start writing a couple of these topics, and I couldn’t even begin on the others. Either I ran out of material or lost my enthusiasm halfway through. I hesitate to use the term ‘writer’s block’, because I didn’t have trouble beginning these entries, only carrying on to form them into the shape of a coherent blog post.
In my experience, there are two main strategies for overcoming this difficulty. Strategy 1 is for when a deadline isn’t looming: I’ll leave it aside and go for a walk or do something else while the idea sorts itself out in my head.
However, I’m writing this on Sunday with the time fast approaching 3pm. Although it’s more than 24 hours until I publish, eight of these will be spent in bed, another eight will be spent at the office, and I would like to leave some time to proofread the text before it goes live. So Strategy 2 involves writing and writing until something usable appears on the screen. Just as you’re more likely to win a raffle prize if you buy more tickets – although it’s never guaranteed – you also have more chance of finding the right words when you write more of them.
As for the topics listed in the first paragraph, I’ll leave them aside for the moment and I might come back to them for a future entry.
Regular readers will know I’m a big advocate of walking to help with thinking through plot problems or generating story ideas, and those who tuned in to the last entry will have seen my discussion about character.
Yesterday, and the week before that, I went to a couple of car boot sales. This isn’t an unusual thing for me to do on a Sunday, even if the weather is rarely so warm, but I’d never before considered what a rich place it is for character study.
Have a look at what’s laid out and make up a back story about the reason for the sale. If a stallholder has a lot of mismatched crockery, is it from a house move? Perhaps there are a lot of records because someone has grown out of them? Then you can begin to extrapolate further, especially if you have a chance to listen in on part of their conversation.
For example, let’s say someone has a lot of signs containing inspirational quotes and is bragging about her children”s exam results. Perhaps she has so many that the time has come to sell any duplicates. Perhaps she compulsively collects them because she has low self-esteem. Perhaps she has low self-esteem because she’s always been told she’s a failure, and now relies on her children’s achievements to make her feel worthwhile. And bingo: you have a character.
I’ll also give you a real-life example of a man who sold wooden objects such as tables and bird boxes. His craftsmanship was excellent, but he would finish each one with a horrible orange-brown paint, ruining the aesthetic. Perhaps he does this because his eyesight is beginning to fail and he thinks the colour looks fine? Perhaps he’s in denial and won’t see an optician? Perhaps he constantly bumps into people and blames the other party for not paying attention? And bingo: another character.
From there, we have a story. Perhaps our craftsman bumps into the woman with low self-esteem at a car boot sale and blames her for not looking where she’s going? Maybe they start talking and find out they both love gardening? Could the story end with them moving in together on condition that he changes the colour of his creations?
We’re midway through July now. In some respects, this is a troubling month for me.
Firstly, there’s the weather. I can’t speak for anywhere else, but I’m from Scotland and it can fluctuate wildly. Thursday brought the sort of weather for lying in a hammock and listening to the Isley Brothers. I took the opportunity to walk to the seaside and enjoy a round of crazy golf and a trip on the road train. By Saturday, the rain was tipping down in the least Julyish fashion you can imagine.
Secondly, the daylight. Regardless of the weather, near-perpetual daylight does things to the brain. I find myself waking sometimes an hour or two before my alarm, which does nothing for my concentration.
Thirdly, it’s holiday season for many people. You’re out of your normal routine and writing might not feature as highly as it does during your normal day.
But there are ways to keep your writing flowing even through the least Julyish July. A gloriously warm day or a change of scenery might provide you with fresh ideas. I make it a habit to carry a pencil and notebook with me, and I recommend taking a sharpener as well. And if it’s practical, perhaps a 5am writing session would work for you, or at least give you an opportunity to catch up on your reading, and that can be as important as writing.
Just remember that if you’re writing about summer and you plan to interest a publisher in your work, it might be up to a year before you see it in print as lead times are months long. Right now, editors are planning for Halloween and even Christmas, and probably won’t take you on until the New Year. So if you have any festively-themed stories, this would be a prime time to dig them out, even if it seems a very long time away.