The Notebook: All writers need a notebook. It might be a beautiful Moleskine or the back of a bus ticket, a smartphone or an ipad, or even in your head if you have very good recall. Whatever suits you, learn to make a space in your life for story ideas. Get into the habit of noticing off-beat news stories, jotting down overheard conversations or odd things you see in the street. Often it’s not just a single thing but the juxtaposition of words, events and images so listing them all in the same place can be a creative act in itself. Inspiration for fiction is all around, but the writer has to train her imagination to be aware of it, and the notebook is your first step.
Next you need: A Daily Writing Regime: Writing is a discipline like any other. The writing muscle needs regular exercise. Write every day, preferably at the same time and in an environment specially created for it (even if this only means clearing a space on the kitchen table for the laptop or always using the same pen), even if it’s only for 15 minutes and what you come out with appears to make no sense at all. Plough on however difficult and mundane it seems – just because writing is classified as an art form, don’t kid yourself that you can sit around waiting for inspiration. The Muse helps those who help themselves!
Exercises can be really helpful in getting started, whether you’ve never written before or are coming back to it after a break. Here are a couple of suggestions:-
Set your alarm fifteen minutes’ earlier than usual. As soon as you get out of bed in the morning, sit down in your writing space and write for ten minutes. Don’t pause before you begin or stop to think while you’re writing, just let the words flow on to the page. You need have no regard for spelling, punctuation or any of the other constraints which we can sometimes find inhibiting. Remind yourself this work is private – no-one is going to see it but you.
This is brilliant for freeing up creativity and reassuring yourself that you can get words down on paper. Even many experienced writers do this exercise regularly because it can, in itself, be a source of inspiration, helping to unearth ideas which have been buried deep and blocked from coming to the surface by the preoccupations of everyday life, whether that be other work or family commitments.
ONCE UPON A TIME
Sit in a cafe, or at a window overlooking your street or garden, anywhere where there is something to watch. Note down everything you experience – using all the senses, not just sight. What do you hear, smell, taste, touch? Once you’re satisfied you’ve recorded everything your senses are telling you, go back to the beginning of your passage of writing and add the line, ‘Once upon a time...’
You have begun a story. This opening line will work its magic on the jumble of impressions you’ve written down. It will start to impose order. Once upon a time, something happened, then something else happened. Your opening line forces you to begin sorting your observations into some sort of order.
Next time, we’ll look at the difference between plot and story and consider more closely how we order a narrative and what effect our decisions have on it.
Goldberg, Natalie, Writing Down the Bones, Shambhala 1986
King, Stephen, On Writing: A Memoir, Hodder & Stoughton, 2000
Sarah Bower is a prize-winning novelist and short story writer. She is a regular contributor to the Historical Novels Review and Ink, Sweat and Tears as well as Words With Jam. She works as a mentor to other writers, and teaches creative writing at the University of East Anglia, the Open University and the Unthank School of Writing. She holds an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia where she is now based in her role as co-ordinator of the mentorship scheme for literary translators run by the British Centre for Literary Translation.
Sarah is the author of THE NEEDLE IN THE BLOOD and SINS OF THE HOUSE OF BORGIA (originally published in the UK as THE BOOK OF LOVE) and is currently working on the second of two contemporary psychological mysteries. Her work has been published in eight countries.
You can find Sarah on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @SarahBower