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2. Getting started
2.1 Generating ideas
One of the most common questions asked of published writers is ‘where do you get your ideas?’ The truth is, there is no magic wellspring from which writers find their ideas, and no two writers generate ideas the same way. You’ll likely need to explore a number of different methods of generating ideas before you find a few that work for you.
Generating ideas requires you to relax and not pressure yourself. Your imagination is a muscle that you can strengthen through practice and experience.
For some people, ideas come in many random forms and often, for others, finding something that strikes a creative chord can be a challenge. For everyone, paying attention, and even collecting things that inspire you, is a worthwhile habit to nurture.
Writers are eavesdroppers, spies, thieves and magpies. They are always taking in information around them. You must actively encourage your own sense of detail, your curiosity.
Next time you’re standing in a queue, or riding to work on public transport, take an interest in what’s going on around you. Make a note of specific details:
- What a man’s cologne smells like.
- How that teenager is talking to her school friend, the vernacular she uses and her gestures and posture.
- Whether the bus is clean.
- The subtle body language people express when tired of waiting in line.
- Whether the seat is warm from the last person who sat there.
Specific details are worth noticing. They are the things that make your writing come alive, that help your readers to sink into a fully-realised world and empathise with your characters because it feels true.
Notice also that in the examples above used four of the five senses. Details are not just limited to what you can see. Keen observation means taking in all kinds of sensory detail.
When you start to observe, you’ll realise you can’t keep every stray spark of inspiration in your head. You need a reliable place (or places) to keep mementos and reminders of the things you stumble across from day to day. Some of this you may write down: snatches of overheard conversation, random sentences or descriptive phrases that drop into your head. Other things will be artefacts and images that you may stash in a box or hidey-hole, when physical or digital.
Perhaps you have a shoebox of old ticket stubs, newspaper clippings, buttons, frayed ends of ribbon, coins and other ‘stuff. Each one could set off an idea, the beginning of a story.
Or maybe you keep a folder on your computer or phone for filing away random thoughts, words, images, and the like.
If you have neither, it’s never too late to start.
Everything is potentially a story. Writers never throw anything away.
Where do you get your ideas from?
Although it must be one of the most common questions asked of writers, the answer is rarely straightforward.
A story may begin with a simple idea. How and from where that idea originated may be convoluted, murky, and typically mostly unconscious.
Nor does it help that the process of writing even the most straightforward story, poem, novel, script, or article generates further ideas: threads to follow and random thoughts to tease out. In other words, creativity begets creativity.
Writing begets writing.
Ideas come from everywhere, but those ideas may not emerge until writing has already begun.
One of the first things this course suggests is to commit to a daily routine of writing. When you’re getting started, it doesn’t matter a great deal what you write. What does matter is that you are writing. If you keep this up for long enough you’ll discover that finding ideas will never be a problem, because you have begun to train your brain into a creative habit.
Writers with long careers are presented the question slightly differently: aren’t you worried you’ll run out of ideas?
In fact, the opposite is more likely to present a challenge for regular writers: having more ideas than you could possibly write stories for
So, write something creative every day: a paragraph, a haiku, a blog post (even if it’s private) or a more traditional journal. This regular discipline is not just about getting words down, it’s about training yourself to think like a writer, to experience every day the act of taking a thought and turning it into words.
We might harp on about this, but reading widely and consistently is an essential part of being a writer. Writers of all experience levels don’t work in a vacuum (much as we might imagine they do). Being inspired by another writer’s approach to the craft can provide you with a fresh perspective of your own work.
Pablo Picasso is widely quoted as saying ‘good artists borrow, great artists steal’. Rather than inviting you to commit wholesale plagiarism, the quote demonstrates that it’s okay to be inspired by others, but there’s a big difference between copying another artist’s work and taking inspiration from it and making it your own.
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2.2 Motivation and confidence
Writing is a personal activity and one that requires dedication and focus. There will be times (many of them) when you feel disappointed, disillusioned and close to giving up.
Everyone can be a creative writer. Absolutely. You can learn the craft of writing and develop your skills. You can learn to tell better stories. You can acquire tools and knowledge to help you identify weaknesses in your prose and edit it into much stronger writing. It may surprise you to know that creative talent is not the thing that sets most successful writers apart from their peers. Confidence and persistence are far more important attributes.
In July 1933, book editor P.R. (‘Inky’) Stephensen offered advice to Xavier Herbert after reading an early, half-million-word draft of Herbert’s novel Capricorina. He told the budding novelist would need ‘diabolical persistence’ if the story were to ever see the light of day. This fictional masterpiece of northern Australia was finally published five years and many dramas later and has never been out of print in 80 years.
2.2.1 Don’t try to live up to the ‘myth of the writer’
There are so many myths and misconceptions about writing:
- if you’re truly talented you’ll find it easy
- when you are gripped by the muse or inspiration then the words will flow
- good writers produce such high quality first drafts they don’t need to edit much
- writing can only be done in a perfectly quiet, rarefied atmosphere
They’re all rubbish. Utter nonsense.
Most professional writers find writing to be the hardest thing they do. They work exceptionally hard to make their writing as strong as it can be, and that usually involves many drafts. They don’t wait for inspiration—professional writers can’t, because they have contracts and deadlines and editors waiting for their manuscripts. They also learn to write almost anywhere in order to fit it in around their busy lives.
If you place unrealistic expectations on yourself from the beginning you’ll sabotage your own efforts at creative writing. Enjoy the process, but don’t wait for perfect conditions before diving into it.
2.2.2 Give yourself permission to write a shoddy first draft
Writing is as much a craft as it is an art. You can adopt a craftsman’s attitude to your own writing. Embrace learning, improving, trying and failing.
Think of writing as re-writing. In other words, really great stories are refined through many drafts and lots of editing. International bestselling author Nora Roberts once said ‘I can work with a bad page, but I can’t work with a blank page.’ If you try to create a perfect story on your first draft you’ll never finish. Instead, enjoy the heady rush of getting the story out on to the page for the first time. You can worry about the mistakes later.
2.2.3 Silence your inner critic
Many writers say the thing that most interferes with their writing is the little critic sitting on their shoulder as they type. The critic whispers into their ear as they write:
- That’s a boring sentence.
- Can’t you think of a better verb than that?
- Nobody will think this is entertaining or great literature.
- Your friends and family are going to read this one day.
- Your skills aren’t up to scratch for this story.
- And so on and so on…
Ever had that experience? You’re not alone.
It can be paralysing. It stops you from moving forward with the story because you’re too worried about the quality of the work and everything that comes after you’ve finished it.
Similar to giving yourself permission to write a shoddy first draft, you also need to learn to silence that inner critic. What do they expect for a first draft anyway? Anyone who claims to have written a masterpiece on the first go is a filthy liar. Your inner critic has no idea what he or she is talking about.
2.3 Activity: Free writing
Enough talk! It’s time to put this advice into practice and start writing.
Free writing is exactly what it sounds like: an unstructured session in which allows you write whatever comes to mind. It’s a stream of consciousness method.
The trick is not to censor yourself. Simply start by putting your pen on the page or fingers to the keyboard. Now write. But wait, what are you supposed to write about?
This is the trick of free writing. You write whatever comes to mind, even if what comes to mind is: ‘this is stupid, I can’t think of what to write about and it’s hot in here, I should have got some water before sitting down to do this…’
Write it down. Then write some more. Don’t worry too much about punctuation or sentence structure or even making sense at all unless that stuff comes naturally to you. Just keep getting words down and don’t stop.
Give yourself five minutes. Set a timer so you don’t have to watch the clock. It may take some time to emerge, but you will be amazed at how random things combined can create truly marvellous images and ideas.
The product of free writing is not intended to be shared. It’s a kind of ‘limbering up’ of the mind, a creative priming exercise that will serve you well if you do it regularly.
Many of the activities we will be trying throughout this course and others from QWC will use prompts to focus use free writing combined with prompts.
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2.4 Activity: Forming habits
Thinking about organising the time and space for your writing will support you to find out how much time you have to spend, and enable you to consider how long it might take to achieve your writing goals. Primarily it is for you to make some commitments to yourself about how you are going to get writing done.
This exercise will strengthen your writing by:
- Setting yourself achievable goals that fit into your life and don’t overwhelm
- Making your writing a part of your daily life
- Creating habits that will make sure you are outputting words, not procrastinating.
What to do:
Open a document file or a notepad and put together a writing plan. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, in fact simpler is typically better.
Here are a few things to think about while putting a plan together:
- When are you going to write? (e.g. every day or only some days a week, morning or evening, etc.)
- Where are you going to write? (e.g. at home, at work during lunch, in a cafe with a notebook, etc)
- What goals do you have for what you are you going to write? (e.g. two short stories by July, 300 words a day, one chapter a month)
- What strategies will you use to help you reach your goals? (e.g. turn off the internet, make a diary appointment)
- What rewards will you give yourself when you achieve them? (e.g. a nice dinner, a holiday, enrolment in a special writing course)
Here’s an example:
- When: Monday and Sunday evenings, 6 – 9pm
- Where: in a cafe at work on Mondays, and at the workspace at home, writing in my notebook
- Goals: finished three short stories by end of May
- Strategies: keep a log of my progress, make appointments in my calendar, write new words only, no revisiting or editing previous work
- Rewards: buy myself some lush new stationery, enrol in AWM’s Exploring Narrative course in the second half of the year
You don’t have to share your plan, but if you like, you can post your plan in the forum below to compare it to other Fundamentals participants.
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2.5 Writers write: creative writing every day
Okay, you’ve limbered up with some free writing, set a schedule to practice the craft as often as you can, and promised to keep yourself accountable for finishing the work that you start.
So, now is the time to let you in on a secret.
You have already established what you need to make yourself a writer: It’s not about being published. It’s definitely not about being famous. It’s about writing.
Whether you’re a beginner or you’ve finished several novel manuscripts or screenplays, what separates writers from those who only dream of being writers is actually doing the work.
It’s easier to say than to do. After all, what happens when:
- You get writer’s block?
- You’ve got to pick up the kids from sport?
- You need to get dinner on the table?
- You need to finish that big project at work?
- The niggling editor in your brain whispers that your words aren’t good enough?
These are all real challenges that nearly all writers experience at some point.
This section will explore practical strategies for overcoming these things. We hope, by the end of this course, you’ll not only feel proud of the words you’ve written, but you’ll also feel confident in calling yourself a writer.
2.5.1 Writing journal
One such strategy is to begin a writing journal.
A journal can bring together things that inspire you including pictures and quotes, as well as use it to write in fragments of ideas, dialogue, free writing, plots and characters.
There are plenty of digital apps for taking notes and sorting them, many of which synchronise between phone, tablet, and computer.
But it doesn’t have to be so high-tech. A journal may be something as simple as a single word processor document or a folder with a series of documents for each topic or set of ideas.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with pen and paper, either. Many writers carry a notebook everywhere; others keep ideas on a pin board or even on the fridge.
The important part of the writing journal is that it’s available when you need it and that you can go back and find your ideas again later. It usually helps if you have a space reserved purely for your writing.
2.5.2 Dedicated writing time
Putting a slice of time away dedicated solely to writing is perhaps the best way to practice writing every day.
Of course, this is not practical for everyone. But do honestly consider your schedule. Your dedicated writing time doesn’t need to be long – fifteen minutes is enough, as long as you can sit down consistently and write. It doesn’t matter when in the day, either. You may find you’re most productive in the early morning, or the moment you get home from work, or when the children are napping, or during your lunch hour at school. If you can carve fifteen minutes to an hour out of your schedule every day, you’ll be surprised how much you can get done in that time.
One of the major challenges of dedicated writing time is guarding it from the outside world. Life has a habit of finding ways to test your motivation, and non-creative people will sometimes fail to appreciate your need for time to practice your craft. In these cases, you will need to talk to your friends and loved ones to let them know what you are doing and not to disturb you. Close the door, install an internet blocker, and find way to minimise distraction and temptation if you can.