Writing Lessons 4


So far this week I have written about how to get writing. I have suggested ways to invent characters, how to get ideas down and how to set them out.

Today I’m going back to first principles for all those of you who don’t have the faintest idea how to start. 

The first, absolute essential, I believe, is to have a place to work. My friend Jenny Kane writes her books in the local coffee shop, where she is such a fixture, they have put up a brass plaque at the place where she sits and types. Those who are lucky enough to have the money will often build a shed in their garden where they can work uninterruptedly, like Roald Dahl. Others will start off at the kitchen table – that was my own start point. 

However, when you are starting, you need to have a firm commitment to your writing. That means selecting your work area, and setting out the time when you will sit there and try to write something. It does not matter a damn where this location is. The only criterion is that it is the same place every day, and that you sit there at the same time. It is the fact of being in the place where your brain knows it has to start working and at the time it knows it must work.

Some professional writers will pooh pooh this idea. They will tell you that they can write anywhere, and it doesn’t matter where. They are right. They are also professional writers. They are experienced in preparing themselves for work and getting on with it. You are not, yet. You have to try to create an environment where it is easier for you to work. Having a defined space where you can sit and write is extremely important. 

The other point I want to reiterate is, get rid of distractions. Turn off all notifications on your computer and phone. You have defined the period when you will be writing, and now you have to make it a commitment. For that hour or two hours, you must prevent interruptions. That means no social media, no telephone, no TV, no emails, nothing!

Ideally you should try to have no noise of any sort. My own approach is to have music relevant to my work. If I’m writing a medieval story, I will have medieval music playing – sometimes film music from a film that inspired me, such as the music from Kingdom of Heaven. If I’m writing more modern spy and crime stories, I’ll have something like the music from the Bourne films. The music helps you think yourself into your story. It also has the effect of giving you an audible cue in the morning, when you’re trying to read yourself back into your story. If you play the same music in the morning as you played the previous evening, it will help pull you back into the mindset you were in when you wrote the last scene. 

So you are sitting down. Your mind goes blank, just like the screen. What do you do?

I have often been asked what on earth to do when I have writer’s block. The short answer is, I make damn sure I don’t have it. A writer is only a writer if he or she is writing. Generally, if you are a creative person, it won’t affect you, but that is only because you know how to kick yourself out of it. 

For example, one useful practice is to have a blog or similar place where I can write. It makes my brain get used to the idea of work again. As soon as I pick up a keyboard to write one of these blog posts, it is getting my head ready to be creative. If you write a fifteen minute brief blogpost, you will find it much easier then to crack on with the next scenes. 

However used you are to writing, the most important aspect of writer’s block is the fact that you cannot write. So professional writers like me will write anything. It could be that the first hour or so generates nothing more than ramblings and crap writing that cannot remain in the book you’re writing. In that case, delete it later. Meanwhile, keep writing, because it is the momentum of the story you need to find. Once you hit that sweet spot where you can feel the story taking over, life becomes infinitely easier. 

You don’t think the character is right for the plot? Then ditch him/her. Create another person. You want a villain? Remember the bastard who fired you, put him into the story. You need a vicious, gossiping harpy? Think of the woman who always bitched and moaned and spread malicious rumours about everyone in the office. You want a poor victim? (And please, avoid ‘beautiful blondes’, ‘feisty young women’ and all the other very tired cliché characters) Pick on someone like you, or a good friend, someone with whom you can empathise. If you can feel sorry to lose the character, that will come across to the reader. 

I don’t know if you’ve heard this, but it’s supposedly proven that telephone operators who smile at the phone while talking get a far better reception than those who don’t. The cheerful attitude comes across. In the same way, a writer who is experiencing the atmosphere in a book will communicate that to the reader unconsciously.

So you have your workspace, your time, you have cut out all interruptions, and you know you have to write. Your notes on the beginning of the story are on a sheet of paper beside you or on the wall in front of you, a constant reminder. 

The very first thing you’ll do now, I promise, is go to make a cup of tea or coffee. Or go for a wee. It is an unchanging fact of life that an author in search of writing will be able to distract himself or herself faster than blinking. Sitting down to work? I must sharpen my pencils. Maybe my pen needs a new ink cartridge. I should start a new notebook for this new story. I should phone Suzie about going to her house for supper next week. Did I put in the Sainsbury’s order?

An author’s mind will flit from one thing to another. The most common things often tend to be based around stationery. Many aspiring writers will grab for a notebook and pen when they start. There is no problem with that. It is fine to use whatever tool suits you. 

But you must try to keep the brain focused. Concentrate on the scene, on the characters, on the outline plot you have. Pick the main character you will write from initially, whether it is a victim or a perpetrator, witness or only someone who stumbles across the victim in the road. Decide which point of view you are going to use, and then start writing. 

For now, the main thing is, find your happiest working space so that you can write. It doesn’t matter where it is. Just find somewhere that works for you, and start writing!

Best of luck

5 Responses to “Writing Lessons 4”
  1. robynbranickbooks says:

    This was uplifting. I feel like I am not alone on some of my quirky writing habits. Thank you for this post.


    • Thanks, Robyn. In fact it’s one of the main points I want to get across to aspiring writers: that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to write. So often people seem to believe that there is some magic series of rules, just follow them to the letter, and in six months you’ll equal JK Rowling’s sales. I just want people to experiment with different approaches.
      Thanks for the comment! All feedback gratefully received!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. goodluckwoko says:

    Thank you sir, this article was helpful.
    Glad it’s been useful, my friend.


  3. Jack Eason says:

    Reblogged this on Have We Had Help? and commented:
    Avast there ye lubbers, here be part four of Capn Michael advice…


  4. BreakingBone says:

    yeah… i get it… basically make your story and extension of your personal experiences… and that is what makes things more relatable right… great read thanks


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