Greetings Everyone! I’ve been noticeably absent from the Interweb World for a few weeks, and what have I been getting up to in all this time? Well, those of you with sharp eyes may notice I’ve been fiddling around with the layout of this blog but otherwise? Nothing. Shocking isn’t it? You feel like it’s not something you can admit to; it’s probably Not Allowed even!
The word ‘Nothing’ has all these negative connotations, not limited to being the name of the threat in The Neverending Story. But I’d like to talk about two ways in which I feel writers – and indeed everyone else – should view ‘Doing Nothing’ as a good thing.
There’s this old saying, in fact it’s so old that I’m vaguely convinced it may have been one of the first things ever said:
“Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits.”
It always makes me smile, but it has a lot of truth in it. If you’re an aspiring writer, an established author, or just someone interested in writing, you’ll doubtless have been bombarded with this old chestnut:
“You Need To Write Something Every Single Day.”
Really? Every single day? Now, if writing is your full-time job, that’s a completely understandable motto to work by or you run the risk of days slipping past you with nothing to show for them. But even still, I find the idea that you need to write productively all the time a bit insidious. Not least because the notion carries with it implications that is the day ends without you writing a word, you have somehow failed an assignment. Writing is supposed to be your passion, not your prison!
I’m old enough to be looking my third decade of life right in the eyes, and the best I can guarantee that I will probably do every single day is eat and sleep! Just.
I have a full-time job that pays my bills, friends I would like to spend time with, volunteering I find very fulfilling, hobbies (which are not writing-related) I would like to keep up with, family I need to assure of my continued existence… What I’m saying is that real life is a many-faceted occupation, and chopping whole chunks of it out for your writing can have long-term costs.
Obviously the cost to your health from not eating and sleeping properly needs to be noted – starving author is only a good look in fictional worlds where consequences are less of A Thing. Your art is not worth more than your health, and I speak as one who has forgotten that before and regretted it later when my body and brain finally gave out on me.
If that’s not enough to convince you, this should: your writing is going to suffer like hell!
I know we might think that we write our best work on no sleep, no food and too much caffeine but is this really true? I know for certain that this is when I personally might feel like I’m on fire and writing the greatest work of literature ever, but then I read through my work after recovering and it’s a walk through Wonderland for all the wrong reasons!
Why did I decide to change tense four times in three sentences? Have I changed the character’s name, or did I make up a new person with no explanation? Where is this scene taking place again – forest or castle, I actually can’t tell! Maybe there’s a tree indoors? Why was that a good idea?
Usually there’s nothing else for it, and I have to throw the whole lot out (metaphorically) and start again from scratch. I didn’t save any time and I just lost sleep and energy.
Sleep and sustenance people, sleep and sustenance.
There’s another risk you’re running too. A frequent thing I’ve heard writers agree on is that their characters are based on real people and real events. Terry Pratchett even accredited the invention of The Luggage to a lady’s suitcase on wheels which clattered across an uneven pavement and seemed to Pratchett, just for a second, to be alive. Hopefully the connection is clear: if you are spending all your time at your keyboard, you’ll miss out on this experience and on these flashes of inspiration. Life inspires art, so get out there and experience as much of life as you can.
So what if you end up taking a few days, or even (gasp!) weeks off from your writing? If you’re not paying your bills with your writing, will it hurt you? Get some sleep, eat more food, and catch up with those friends you’ve not seen in a few weeks. They might have some good stories for you to co-opt for your work, but regardless of that, you’ll feel better after socialising a little. Take a few walks, remember what the world actually looks like, instead of how you’ve been imagining it when you weren’t looking.
I know that draft won’t write itself, but you’ll write it better when you’re on the top of your game. Don’t feel pressured into writing without the energy to do any thinking.
Which actually brings me on to:
Thinking Things Through
Picture the scene: You’re sitting down, having lunch, and you’ve just had a brilliant idea! It will totally solve your scene difficulty and it will bring a cool and unique spin to your story. It’s clearly perfect! So you abandon your meal and rush off to write it down. then you go back, change the rest of your chapter to add in this new idea, if necessary give it even more foreshadowing in the rest of your work. Fantastic!
One week later, you re-read this chapter, possibly for editing, possibly to check on some other details and you realise to your horror that this idea was not, on reflection, quite as good as you had thought it was. And now you are either stuck with it or need to go back and change everything again. Oh dear.
We all get flashes of inspiration and they are wonderful things. I do not, absolutely DO NOT, advocate ignoring them, giving up on them, basically anything which is not treasuring them. But I do advocate for making a quick note of these good ideas and then sitting on them for a while.
But wait! I hear you cry. What if I forget the idea?
Look, make a note if you can, but I’ve learned to be less paranoid about ideas and concepts that I come up with at busy times. It’s like needing to tell a friend something the next time you see them, but then you meet them and you have no idea what you were going to say. If you can’t remember, it can’t have been important. If your idea was a strong one, then you’ll hang onto it better than if it was a weaker idea in the first place.
The same goes for finding solutions to plot holes and the like. Once you know that there’s a problem, and especially once you’ve narrowed down what it is that’s not working or needs to be filled in, don’t fixate on that issue. Make a note, stick it up somewhere you’ll see it every day (my latest example was ‘Why are Humans a threat to Fey?’ but other examples have been ‘Gravity – Yes/No?’ and ‘Walking through mirrors – does water count?’) and keep it on the back burner.
Another old truism is “A watched pot never boils” and a watched plot hole never fills satisfactorily is just as true. Any rushed solution – in writing, in real life, in general – runs the very real risk of being kinda silly. Sparks of inspiration are one thing, but if you just grab the first idea that springs to mind, there’s a high risk that it might be a mistake. When getting dressed in the morning, would you just grab the very first items that your hand hit and put them on without looking? No. So why do it with your plot?
Whenever I get a new idea half-way through writing anything, I jot it down on a large piece of paper and then start drawing out what that idea’s inclusion would change. Let’s think of an example at random…
OK, so I need a character to get from the Scottish borders to Paris in two hours. They can’t get on a plane because there’s no airports anywhere nearby. Aha! I already have some limited magic established, so why don’t I make the car fly (yes, I know that this is not original, but I’m re-reading the series right now, I’m sorry!) Right, so that solves that problem, and actually it also solves some other timing Vs transport issues elsewhere that I’d been struggling with, so that’s great! On the downside, is this the only flying car around? Yes. How does it exist then? Is it actually legal? Why does no one else have them, this seems like a cool and helpful thing to have? It’s legal, just expensive and this character has money. OK, but does everyone know about these things? Does it need to be a secret? No, it’s a big status symbol-type thing. OK, but doesn’t this journey need to have the element of surprise? Yes. So wouldn’t the Bad Guys™ know about this and have planned for this? They’ve been so clever so far… Ah.
You see how one quick fix raises all these other questions?
On reflection, it would be so much easier for this character to get a message to a contact in Paris who could fix the thing for them, or at least stall until our character gets there by less random methods. I can establish that our character has contacts in all sorts of places more easily than I can one lone flying car, it gives more tension because we still don’t know if the contact will be able to stop the problem, and we’re not sure if our character is going to get there on time, now they are using transport methods we are already familiar with.
I sometimes sit on plot or setting-related issues for weeks at a time, leaving them to tick over while I write other things or, if the problems are too numerous or I’m just losing all sense of inspiration and interest, take a break from writing and catch up on my reading pile.
It’s a win-win. I get to take a break and sort out my own thoughts, sifting out the good ones from the less helpful ones, I get to weigh up all the potential ramifications of new ideas, whether they mean discarding some old ideas and, if so, whether I want to do that, and by reading what other people have done and seeing their own ideas and worlds and stories unfold, I can get a boost in coming up with better ideas of my own.
Wanna Talk About It?
(This is just a bonus section, partly because it’s been so long since I last wrote anything, and partly because I can’t think of anywhere else to put this.)
In my last post, I gave a special shout-out to all our friends and loved ones who live with us and our creative, yet bizarre, brains. If you are fortunate to have friends you can talk to about your writing, please do the sensible thing and talk to them about your writing. This should be obvious, but I keep hearing from other writers things like ‘I can’t talk about my writing; I don’t want anyone to steal my ideas.’
OK, first things first here. If you are worried that your friends will steal anything from you ever – you need different friends. Better friends. You are worth more than that.
Secondly. Your ideas? Like, I know we all have our own ideas, but if you think you’re writing the only sci-fi novella with a talking computer, a broken spaceship and an exploratory mission, I have some bad news for you.
I’m not going to do that whole ‘There’s only 7 plots really’ thing, but the originality in writing is a hotly debated topic and like many stories, jokes, lies etc – it’s the way you tell ’em. Harry Potter was certainly not the first series of books I’d personally read about young magical children going off to school to learn about it and having adventures featuring mean teachers and horrible classmates – see The Worst Witch series by Jill Murphy – but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t unique and interesting to me and thousands of others!
Don’t feel too defensive of general story concepts is what I’m saying…
Besides, you’re only talking to people about select sections you’re stuck on, you’ll be summarising anyway and therefore losing your specific ‘writer’s voice’ (is that what it’s called?) so you’re not risking everything, don’t panic!
Anyway, the point I’m making here is that talking to other people when you’re stuck is incredibly helpful. Writing books and such is not like making films, where there’s a full team of people all collaborating and bouncing ideas off each other. Writers, when working, tend not to talk to anyone and therefore when they get stuck or skip over a logical void, there’s no one to help them.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve turned to a friend and asked ‘OK, so I have this thing I want to happen, and I want this person to save the day, but I have no idea why they would care enough to get involved. Help?’ Or I’ve written myself into a corner and I need someone else to tell me where I’ve come unstuck. Friends are full of good ideas, and even if their solutions don’t work for you, they might spark a different, better idea in your own brain that you wouldn’t have got to on your own.
Friends are also a lot kinder when pointing out that you’ve got a hole in your plot than an editor will be if you get that far without spotting it. ‘Why is this plot happening at this specific time?’ is a good question to hear early on from friends, or ‘How does this character know about these events? He’s nowhere near them.’ If you can’t answer these questions, please return to the top of this post!
Lastly, it’s worth acknowledging that just talking out loud about your plot can be helpful too. A general rule I think should be mandatory for all people creating stories: If it sounds stupid when you say it out loud; go back to the drawing board. No really. Go.
Yes, I know over-simplifying plots until they don’t resemble themselves anymore is very funny. Once you reduce The Lord of the Rings down to ‘Short guys travel to return stolen jewellery’, of course it sounds ridiculous. But that’s not what we’re talking about here.
And yes, I know that there have in the past been thousands of ideas that really shouldn’t have worked, especially when you just state them without context, but actually do. Tolkien had trees that walk and talk, and in practice the Ents weren’t silly at all but I can’t help feeling that C.S. Lewis probably wasn’t thrilled when his friend told him he’d have a starring role in his new book as a talking tree, right? Again, it’s all about how you tell ’em.
But if your own first instinct when you give voice to an idea is to think ‘Gosh, that sounds lame when I say it out loud,’ maybe give it another thought. After all, these are your ideas and you alone have all the context. If it doesn’t hang together when exposed to the light of day, take a step back.
If you are confident that you can make, oh I don’t know, a flying turtle-based postal service work for you, then go for it! I’d love to see that. But if your friend says, ‘Wait, how does Poseidon send Hera the message?’ and you say, ‘Oh, he gives it to his postal turtles and they fly up to Olympus’… Yeah, if your friend’s first response is ‘You’re joking right? How does he actually do it?’, maybe take a second to think of a different idea.
As always, if you liked this post and found it helpful, check out the rest of the series here. Let me know if there’s anything you’d like me to talk about, otherwise I’m talking about language next week.
Also, let know if you like the extra graphics? If they’re helpful or just nice to see, I’ll make some retroactively for previous posts.