Do you want to hear a story? The Listening Post will have plenty of them, for you to listen to – and add to, if you wish. This aural collection of short stories, curated for Margate Bookie, are written by local writers (like me!) as well as some of our MA students at Canterbury Christ Church. Intrigued? Come down to the Book Buoy, put on a pair of headphones, and set sail…
Posts from the ‘Writing’ Category
There seems to be no agreement on which author first said a writer had to write their “first million words” before they were really ready to write. Some attribute it to Ray Bradbury, while others cite Elmore Leonard namechecking John D. McDonald. I was certain it was Kurt Vonnegut, because he gives so much good advice. Whoever said it, I’m happy to reach my own million-word milestone. While I might not count them, draft after draft, I have proof of them in the form of morning pages: a million words, typed over my first cup of tea. Want your own badge? Join in at 750words.com. As for me, I’ll see you in the morning – doing pages!
I got my start in MsLexia, as they are kind enough to remember. It’s not too late to get your story in for the next Short Fiction Competition Deadline – 30 September. Want more information? Check the blurb below.
Got a great little short almost ready? Get writing!
I have two workshops left with the wonderful new Whitstable initiative Write Mind, developed with WhitLit, the Whitstable Literary Festival, and Canterbury Council. Follow the link to learn more about the programme, including other writing workshops with author Andrew McGuinness and plenty of book chats, and to book your space. Guess what? The workshops are only £5, giving new writers a real chance to have a go!
Saturday 22 June: 11 – 12:30 WHAT IF?
Writers thrive on the game of “what if” to make stories and characters move in unexpected directions. Using a series of prompts & magical objects, workshops writers will work to create improbable worlds where anything can happen!
Saturday 29 June: 11 – 12:30 DRIBBLES & DRABBLES
The final Write Mind workshop will focus on the short-short story: 50 – 100 words, to be exact. Through prompts and guided writing, writers will have the chance to write, edit & polish and short-short story.
Last week, I had the opportunity to run a series of morning writing workshops for Whitstable Wellness Week. In these workshops, we wrote, we talked about writing, and we looked at all the ways that morning pages can work for writers. I think a lot about writing and morning pages. In fact, I’m thinking about morning pages this morning, while I write my own morning pages, writing my way into the day.
What are morning pages? They’re an idea introduced by Dorothea Brande in Becoming a Writer in 1934 and re-introduced by Julia Cameron in her transformative The Artist’s Way. But the form might be ancient, of course – any time a writer sits down to write with intent in the morning can be considered some kind of morning pages. Brande asks that we wake through the writing, that we reach for pen and paper (or in her case, typewriter) as early as possible, so that we can begin writing before we are fully awake and before the editor in our heads can wake up and tell us the writing’s no good. Aim for 3 pages in a notebook – or 750 words. What words? Brande suggests it doesn’t matter: you are aiming for “quantity, not quality”. You are simply filling the pages to train your mind and hand that you are in control of when writing happens – no muse awaits you, no editor can stop you.
In this rapid writing, we are able to come to terms with what we think, as we have written it, and how we feel, as we might not yet have been able to express. New thoughts and feelings, memories and impressions bubble up to the surface, summoned. Somehow between the lists of worries and plans and concerns and intentions, there is always something that seems to come of its own accord, a glimmer of something that hints at something new – a new way forward, a fresh approach, an unexpected connection. We write to fill the pages, to train the mind and fingers for the stamina and discipline that writing demands, but we also create the clean white page and the moment in time that allows for breakthroughs, for the work that is in our heads already to come out and show itself. Done regularly, this action becomes a ritual – and then it becomes a routine. It becomes a normal impulse, allowing a writer to set the day up through her words. (What if you’re not a morning writer? Even the idea of “morning” is elastic: morning pages can begin your “writing day”, whenever that time comes. If you’re a night writer, morning pages can draw a line under the day that has happened and create the sense of morning, as you settle in.)
I saw all kinds of breakthroughs throughout the week as writers opened their notebooks or laptops and returned to the page. In the beginning, I offered only gentle prompts to get them started – and these prompts could be returned to while writing, in case of feeling stuck or unable to write anything else. If you come back to the prompt and write it, you are always writing. And if there is any kind of “rule” about morning pages, it is that you should keep your hands moving and fill the page before you stop to think about all the reasons you might stop. We used such simple prompts as: I want/I don’t want; I think/I don’t think; I remember/I don’t remember; or Today I/yesterday I, Tomorrow I… Sometimes we wrote ourselves into the room, using all five senses to root us into time and space: what do we see; what do we hear; what do we smell; what do we taste; what can we touch/what touches us. We wrote our way through light and pressure, temperature and proximity, where we were in our bodies, in the room, the building, the town, the world. And from there, there are always new directions, tentacling out from every sense. Sometimes, writers had a story in their heads as they arrived, and they were able to write their way into their own characters, using these five senses, to root them into story-time and story-place: this can be a powerful way for a writer to slip under the skin of a character, to see the world through her eyes and to capture what she notices. And from those sensory details can come whole backstories, memories, connections and objectives. The senses point at a person who whole and formed, capable of her own thoughts and feelings – we only have to follow them and her, into a scene.
Sometimes I offered first lines, “firestarters” as writer/poet/psychogeographer Sonia Overall calls them in her workshops: some lines I pinched from her. “That was when it happened”, and “I could see the fire from there”, and “I can still see it” are the ones I like to use. Sometimes I kept throwing words out – simple nouns for writers to catch and stitch into their writing: this idea of “word cricket” was introduced by write Vanessa Gebbie in a flash fiction workshop. We also talked about how these batches of 750 words could themselves be made of dribbles and drabbles and pieces of flash fiction that might stitch into something larger, such as Sophie van Llewyn’s novella-in-flash Bottled Goods, or simply hint at new ideas that will lead to new projects. Really, the possibilities are limitless. The form of morning pages are elastic enough to contain any thought, idea or feeling: that is what they are, after all – a container. Morning pages contain – and guard – and hold our writing, our sense of selves as writers, and our desire to engage with the words.
There are morning pages workbooks and journals. There is an online site for morning pages – which I use, 750words.com. But really, all you need is something to write on and with, along with the determination and will to write. If we write, we are writers. When we tell ourselves that this time and this writing matters, that we reach for our writing at the start of the day, we reinforce the idea that our life must align itself around this desire – this urge – to write. And maybe the universe will follow.
Whether you’re down or up, rushed or calm, so busy you can hardly see – morning pages are a fresh start – every day. A new beginning, waiting for you. I believe in their subtle power and have, through almost ten years of writing them, watched them enter and transform my writing life. It was a genuine pleasure to see the idea take hold in this small, evolving group in Whitstable, and if the group is able to carry on, it will be my genuine pleasure to sit among them, reaching for words.
My next outing on the morning pages train will be at Kent Festival of Writing. If you’re coming – see you there!
There’s a new festival in town: Whitstable Wellness Week runs 23 – 29 March 2019. Whitstable Wellness Week offers creative workshops from art to dance, writing to cooking – free. Organised by Escape to Create’s Catriona Campbell and Red Zebra, which provides social prescribing in East Kent, Whitstable Wellness Week seeks to encourage people living with physical or mental health conditions, and those who are lonely or feeling low, to try one or more creative activity during the week to see if it helps them feel better.
Every morning throughout the festival, I’ll be running a morning pages workshop at the Horsebridge, with tips and prompts to get people writing – and keep them going. I know morning pages can help anyone to feel better! For more information, visit Whitstable Wellness Week. See you at the morning pages!
Ahoy! September was a blur of planning: I’m currently lecturing for the Creative & Professional Writing programme at Canterbury Christ Church, working with a range of student writers and forms. But I’m still running workshops out in the world. I’ll be working on POV, but there are lots of great events here – including a “writer’s circuit” with fellow lecturer Sonia Overall.
Why not pop along to Canterbury and boost your writing?
These are the doldrums between Christmas and New Year, flat land that stretches between the poles that define many of our calendars. 5 days of “Chrimbo Limbo” that span the time between the frenzied, all-consuming build up to a day of food – or faith – and the tail end of the year, one which many will be happy to leave. From our cars or sofas, from muddy woods or frozen beaches, we can feel the world turning. Time, flying. This is a hinge, a pause before the first new day of a new year, filled with possibility.
How can we hang onto this sense of time? How can we use it to prepare for a new year or a fresh start without creating the feeling that we should “do more” or “be more” or “be new” somehow, which is its own kind of all-consuming frenzy?
I return to the page and the old ritual of morning pages.
I have written about morning pages before, and how to get started on them; it is a practice that continues to sustain me. It has become a natural – and necessary – start to my day. A space and time to shape and sharpen my thoughts before the day begins and time sweeps me away in the wake of what it wants.
Morning pages are 3 sheets of A4 (or my preferred online method at 750words.com) written without planning, editing, or censorship. These are raw words, written faster than we can think, as we come to wakefulness. That is their power. It is us, when no one’s looking in a clean space that we define and refine, daily.
It is a place to flex and stretch, mentally and emotionally. An iron for the mind, smoothing away the wrinkles. A meditation made with moving fingers.
These last few months of 2017, I felt too busy to think. My mind was always scratching away in every direction, trying to make sense of tensions and disappointments, moods and missteps, conflicting bits of information and inspirations. When I felt there was no time for morning pages, I knew that they were more essential than ever. How else to keep some control over my own day, other than to take my first 12 minutes or so and write down how I felt, what I wanted, where I wanted to go? Morning pages became a place to capture 750 words of my work-in-progress, before I had to turn to other projects; somedays, it was the only work I was able to do that day for myself. Through a very season, and university term, I kept writing morning pages and using them as starting places for scenes and chapters. Now, at this pause before a new year, I find the WIP is nearing 30K. It will certainly be over that mark, when we toast a brand new year.
Consciously and unconsciously, 750 words sets me up for writing, however busy the day, because I have focused myself on it. I have stated my intent. I have set my brain on that work, as I boil the kettle, as I let out the dog, before the dash and rush to come.
In the new year, I will be teaching many mornings. For those of you who know me, you know how jealously I guard mornings, when I feel I write at my best. Though we aren’t always in control of our timetables, I aim to stay in control of my brain and my time, as best I can. In the coming new year, with all its early starts and pressures, I will seek to continue my practice and share it with students, asking them to begin our day with morning pages. I hope to introduce them to a practice and a ritual that will nurture their writing and their thinking, so that it might sustain them through their writing lives, as it does mine. Looking for a new you? Try an old practice. Morning pages.
See you on the page.
Hello! If you were on yesterday’s writing retreat with the Kent Festival of Writing, here are the links I mentioned. If not, feel free to read anyway – and join us on the next one!
PLANNING: Our day began with a look at tools, as we all quickly identified that one of the things that can hold us back as writers is a lack of organisation, whether in structuring our days or our work. Finding the right tools is essential for keeping track of our writing – and making the most of our limited time.
INDEX CARDS keep me organised. I use them while I’m planning and while I’m writing. I like that you can add cards easily – no software required – and shuffle them to change the order of scenes or elements. After a first draft, I use them to get to grips with my structure and my story – to track what happens when, what the consequences of events are, and how they affect the characters. This way of tracking plot and meaning with every scene comes from Lisa Cron’s “Story Genuis”: if you like the idea of using index cards, give it a read. And if you prefer your index cards to be digital, there are apps for that. Try Cardflow – it’s free.
WHITE BOARD/CORK BOARD: Some people like the freedom of a big board in their writing space – TV thrillers make us all want rooms full of cards and photos and string – but we might not all have the space. If walls are at a premium, you can work with digital boards. Stickyboard 2 is a giant white board with an endless supply of sticky notes, while Scapple is a programme for digital mind-mapping. Apparently, the drawing and linking of words fires new synapses while we’re planning – and as it’s made by the fine people who designed Scrivener (more of that below), it also interfaces with that software.
POST-IT NOTES: The Queen of Post-it Plotting is Julie Cohen – read about her method on her site. She likes their portability, their flexibility, and how they stack together when multiple story strands meet in a scene. (But I wish their glue was a little tougher!)
BUTCHER PAPER: I first heard about planning on long rolls of paper from Shelley Harris from her fab blog post, Plan-O-Matic. In the workshop, we looked about how the paper can roll down, from Scene 1 to The End, or how it can run sideways, along the narrative arc. I use long rolls of paper for story planning – but I like the freedom of lines and squiggles, all drawn with my beloved Sharpies. Wondering how to get to grips with a really complicated plot or series of strands? Get drawing. There is, of course, an app for this too, and it’s called Daedalus. But a little Googling shows that this software no longer works with Dropbox, so if backing up is an issue for you – and it always should be – they suggest using Ulysses as an alternative. Here’s what David Hewson has to say about it:
EXCEL: It may be the dullest piece of software on our computers, but it can really help you keep track of vital information. I use it to log dates: characters birthdates, the beginnings and endings of wars, vital dates for inventions or key events, and specific bits of research. Some use it to keep track of characteristics: eye colour, hair colour, etc., so that characters aren’t repetitious.
SCRIVENER: If you like the sound of one piece of software that can integrate all of the above, try Scrivener. I wouldn’t write without it. It’s a linear planning place, like a roll of butcher paper, that transforms into a cork board with the push of a button, and it provides flexibility with moving, finding, and sorting text that MS Word can only dream of. And now that it interfaces with mobile defices, it is the perfect tool.
At yesterday’s writing workshop, we also talked about our “issues” as writers: what’s holding us back, what’s making it hard? I really enjoyed the chance to think about how to answer each concern – here’s what we all came up with:
MENTAL BLOCK: What happens when we just can’t write something, when the words or the story has us stopped in our tracks? Often, blocks are a sign that the road has run out – there’s something crucial we don’t know that keeps us from moving forward. Do some planning and find out what it is that you don’t know before you try to write. Find out the “what” of your story before you try to tell it.
HOW TO BEGIN: Oh, the terror of the blank page! Where to begin? We talked about the value of prompts to get us going. We did some free writing with a series of words, called out at random, and we responded to a series of images, either looking at them with our senses or making a story from what we saw: who/what/where/when/how. If you have trouble getting started, fill your toolbox with words, pictures, objects, and books that provide inspiration. This is also a method for KEEPING IT FUN.
HOW TO PLOT: Find our how you think and how you work. Try out all the tools above – and make sure you’re clear about structure and plotting. We talked about John Yorke’s Into the Woods as a great book for thinking about structure and storytelling. Here’s him giving a talk about his book – he also regularly offers workshops.
HOW TO MANAGE TIME: This is a big one! We talked about setting limits, so that we use what time we have effectively, rather than frittering it away. In bursts of writing, 30 minutes at a time, everyone seemed pleased and surprised with what they were able to achieve. If you don’t have someone like me bellowing the time at you, you could try an egg timer or use the Pomodoro Technique. And, when time is limited, working with a system like Index Cards will help you to focus on small moments or elements to work with, instead of being overwhelmed with how much there is to do every time you sit down. Lastly, know when it is that you write the best – and defend those hours. There is little point in setting time aside to write – when that time is not your best.
HOW TO FIND A COMMUNITY: Writing is a lonely business and like-minded souls can cheer when the work gets hard. Similarly, there’s no one like another writer to help you celebrate every time you reach a milestone: finishing a draft, finishing an edit, getting an email from an agent. One way to find a community of writers is to write with them – keep going to writing workshops to find your tribe. Every year, I go on retreat with two writers I met at a workshop years and years ago – I trust them with my tender, early writing as well as my ups and my downs. When it’s hard to find the time to retreat, you can find a community on Twitter, by following other writers and with #amwriting. And why not try NaNoWriMo? The National Novel Writing Month starts 1 November and will put you in touch with cheerleaders, prompt-makers, sprint-starters and tens of thousands of writers, all over the world.
HOW TO FINISH: In our retreat, I asked you to jump straight into the hard part – the crisis, the climax, the thing you were afraid to write. Many of you had real breakthroughs, jumping in and swimming hard. However you begin, keep going!
And that is good advice for all of us!
‘The day is for the living, and the night is for the dead.’
So begins the first of this year’s Reith Lectures with Dame Hilary Mantel on BBC Radio 4. You will know Mantel from her astonishing Tudor series (Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies) and any number of her other wonderful books. In her lecture, she defends the role of the historical novelist and talks about her unique approach to writing from and about history. Here’s a link to the BBC Radio 4 Player, as well as a transcript of the lecture, if you’re unable to listen. I’m not a historical novelist, but I took so much away from this talk and am looking forward to the next one, next week:
UPDATE: Here is a link to her second talk.