I’ve been writing for many years – not counting the bits I did during my childhood nor the stories I made up in my head but never wrote down. I’ve had ups and downs; times when I would write prolifically, times when I sit and look at a blank screen and wonder, ‘what now?’ But I have managed to find ways to get out of some of these sloughs of despond.
So what do I do when I feel as if I’m absolutely useless and will never complete anything, let alone be published? I write and/or update my writing CV. This is totally different to a normal CV. I don’t need to include my name or age: I know who I am. What I’m not always so sure about is who I am as a writer. My writer’s CV lists any successes I might have had, which link in any way with writing. I’ve done a lot of local history and published books on the subject, so my CV includes those, even though they are not fiction. I also include any talks I’ve given. Talks need to be written out first, but also have to sound spontaneous. How many of us have been to lectures which have consisted of the speaker reading Powerpoint slides to us? By the time I’ve put illustrations and keywords on the slides, then planned the full talk, using keywords as hooks only, believe me, my creative muscle has had a good workout.
I make notes of, and keep, letters I have had published – even if I don’t get paid for them. The same applies to any other writing. Winning is not necessarily the be-all and end-all; being on a shortlist, or even a long list, is just as much a mark of approbation as making it to the very top.
Include any courses you might have done, too. Gaining a degree in Creative Writing is excellent, but so is spending a day at a lecture on ‘Writing Romantic stories’ and so on. Have you been on a ‘writing day’ or even a writing holiday? They all help build expertise, so it is right to include them in a CV.
Once you’ve put together your information, don’t forget to keep adding to it. When you’re feeling down, there’s nothing like reading through the file again to remind you how much you have done and achieved so far. And if you feel it’s a bit thin? Look out for those courses, those writing days that many local councils run. Write to the council and suggest events they could put on. Talk to your local library to see if they would host writing days. Offer your services to a local magazine – they’ll often be glad to include snippets or bits of local history. Not paid? So what? You’re getting practice in putting together articles or writing short stories, but just as importantly, you are learning to meet deadlines and produce what an editor actually wants. It’s all good practice – and you get to put another success in your writing CV.
Now, you’ve put together your CV, so sit down to write. But what do you do when your protagonist refuses to talk to you? Or refuses to talk to anyone else in the story? Try writing a diary. Not the one you write about how difficult it was for you to get up this morning, or how you hate trying to think up names for your characters. No, write the diary your protagonist would write. Don’t worry if it has nothing whatsoever to do with the story you want her to tell. Just let her get on with it – think of events she might have attended, places she might have gone or people she met. What would she have said to them? How would she react to the news that …? Even if you think that all this is wasting time, you are getting inside your character’s head, and there might be something you could use. You could end up with a totally different, but more interesting story. Perhaps even a full-length novel. Once you do start writing your story, you will know exactly how your hero will react, how he will speak and think, no matter what situation he finds himself in.
Try writing diaries for other characters in the story, too. This is especially useful if you are writing a longer piece and need to have a greater understanding of more than one character. The diaries can overlap if you wish, as one character discusses another. Again, this may or may not go into your final piece but is always a useful exercise. You are getting your writing muscle in trim without the pressure of trying to finish something specific. You’d be surprised as to what grows out of this.
If you’re not already part of a writing group, join one. Even if you haven’t produced anything for some time, just joining, listening to others read their work, reading some of your own, older, pieces, will get you back into the way of writing. Talking to others about what you hope to achieve helps turn that hope into action. Listen to others read. What makes their story interesting? Can you hear them clearly or are they muttering? Are they speaking too quickly? Just make sure you learn from all that listening and read your work clearly, with pauses, with expression. You’ll find you begin to recognise which parts of your story work and which don’t much more easily, as well as getting useful feedback from other writers. If there’s no group nearby, look online to see if there’s one which seems to suit your particular interests.
What do you do when you have no time to write? First, you need to work out why. Is your family making too many demands on you? You get up early, but then so does the dog. You stay up late but soon face a demand to know if you’re aware of the fact that it is after midnight and time you were in bed. Are you your own worst enemy? If, like me, you find your thoughts too often drift towards shopping lists or you realise you just have to check your emails before starting, what do you do about it?
Try taking your laptop or notebook out – to the park if the weather’s good or to a cafe. Whilst libraries are becoming much noisier, the reference library is usually fairly quiet, and you don’t have to keep buying another coffee. Find a corner and start work.
If you have a very good friend, you could ask to ‘borrow’ their house while they’re at work. Offer to wash up the breakfast things or peel the potatoes for tea in return, and you’ll buy yourself an hour or two of peace and quiet in which to work.
Working away from home can be useful – you may notice, but don’t have to worry about, the dust on the shelves. Make sure though, that you don’t go anywhere where free wi-fi is available, or the chance to catch up on Facebook may be too tempting.
Before starting your writing, decide what you hope to achieve. Not a vague ‘write something’, but ‘complete chapter three of my book’, ‘edit the first two chapters’, write at least five hundred words of the short story for …’, ‘re-read the letters page and reply to at least one letter on a local topic’. Specify a task you are going to complete and tell someone. It focuses your mind. If you can make the decision the night before, your subconscious can prepare itself and be ready for work immediately.
So what’s stopping you?
by Vivien Teasdale