Image: Matthew Loffhagen
So, a story of great potential is whizzing tirelessly in your brain and your fingers are itching to set it down. But how do you give longevity to that initial burst of inspiration?
Here are 7 suggestions to help you get the most out of your day.
1. Create the right work space
Pretend for a moment your brain is a dog and you would like to train the dog to be disciplined around the food bowl. So you select a special place that becomes The Area of Discipline and, over time, the dog learns that when it’s in that space, it must behave and do as it’s told.
That space can be pristine; food bowl perfectly centred on the mat, no crumbs scattered about, or organized chaos with a few chewed toys lying nearby for comfort—but it remains the same and, in its consistency, it encourages not only discipline, but security.
Whilst I would fully encourage sitting down and writing anywhere—a park bench, on a flight—training your brain to engage in “Nobel Prize for Literature” mode in a particular place in your home is extremely helpful when you set your mind to producing a novel. It will help maintain momentum and consistency and, whether you are aware of it or not, it will create a form of security blanket: this is my writing place.
That writing place will be whatever works for you—an impeccably tidy desk with a view of the garden, or a claustrophobic corner with a view of the over-stuffed bookshelves—it does not matter, as long as you are comfortable and as long as it gives you that security to let the juices flow.
It is possible that, on occasion, you find that security blanket is just not helping that dreaded writer’s block. When this ghastly moment happens, I would suggest going somewhere entirely new. Rent a cottage in the middle of nowhere for a week, somewhere with a beautiful view and few people, and look at the story with ‘fresh eyes’.
2. Identify your writing time
Most unhelpfully, my brain decides to be creative around the time I’d rather like to go to sleep. I cannot tell you how many brilliant lines I have lost by telling myself, lazily, “I’ll remember that in the morning.”
The moral of this story is that you might find your creative juices flow at strange times, early in the morning before the coffee (unlikely) or late at night when all the lights are off and the imagination is free to roam wild. The sooner you accept that awkward schedule, the better.
Seize the moment and get all those brilliant lines down before they drift out of your ear and into the ether.
3. Be disciplined
If you are juggling a 9 to 5 job and/or a family, you might not have the luxury of yielding to the whims of the creative juices. It would thus be prudent to be disciplined and force those creative juices at regular times. Two hours in the evening, after the children have gone to bed, perhaps, or an hour between work and ballet class.
Ernest Hemingway, apparently, wrote 500 words every day. As per his example, it doesn’t have to be a large amount, but enough to stay close to the story and enough to exercise those creative muscles.
4. Keep a notebook on hand
Returning to my previous story of lost literary gems that I have not remembered in the morning—the simple solution is to keep a notebook close at hand.
Whether it be by your bed, or in your bag when, whilst on the bus, you are struck by an idea, being able to jot down a line or two is sensible.
It is also helpful should you stumble across a piece of information that would tidily fill that gap in your historical novel.
Whipping your notebook out whilst having coffee with a friend is a little antisocial, I might add, and it would also suggest to said friend that you weren’t really listening to what they were saying.
5. Edit later
Have you ever woken up and been rather astonished by the breadth of detail in a dream? That is the power of your imagination unbridled. There is so much there to be mined, but so often we miss the seams of gems because we are too worried about Health and Safety—is it safe to insert a comma there? Surely there’s a more impressive word for that?
When the juices are flowing it is much better to succumb to a trance-like state and just write. Yes, the initial prose might be dreadful, but let the words flow uninhibited by thoughts of “Where does the apostrophe go again?” You will get your story down and you might also be pleasantly surprised by the course on which your imagination will take you.
The editing can come later when you swap your ‘Literary Genius’ hat for the ‘Rabid Editor’ one. That is the time to debate grammar (usually the debate is with Microsoft Word insisting that something is wrong when it isn’t) and that is the time to play with the wording in a sentence to get the flow just right.
6. Read out loud
Getting “the flow just right” leads me to the suggestion of reading your words out loud. So often a sentence looks acceptable on paper, but, when read aloud, you find it’s clunky and it lacks rhythm and lyricism.
Pretending to be at a book signing, with an enraptured audience listening as you read the first chapter of your novel, is hopefully prophetic and also constructive. If you find you are embarrassed to read something out loud to yourself, you stumble over words or a sentence makes you think “Huh?”, it probably means that sentence or paragraph needs a little tweaking.
7. Take a break
In my spare time I like to sketch. I am the sort of artist that prefers to draw things exactly as I see them—I am no Picasso—and occasionally I will have been working on a piece for so many hours that I have become too close to it. There will be something that doesn’t quite work, but, because I have spent too much time with it, I cannot identify what it is.
The best cure for this: walk away. I will leave the project for a night, maybe even a few days, and I will go back after my brain has engaged in other projects and is feeling refreshed. More often than not, my eyes go immediately to where the problem lies and I know how to fix it.
The same can be said for a writing project. You might spend so long in each other’s company that you tire of one another and start to argue. Having preached discipline, I will be unhelpfully contrary and say allow yourself time apart.
A tricky moment in the plot or perhaps an unwieldy paragraph that was frustrating you to the point of tears will most likely be easily dealt with when you have given yourself a break and thought about something else for a while.
Be strict, be sensible and be kind to yourself. Piece of cake, right?