Wide awake at 4:00am

creativity inspiration ideas writer's notesWhen are you at your most creative or imaginative?

For me, annoyingly, my most productive moments – creatively speaking – seem to occur around 4:00am. I’m not generally insomniac, but I see 4:00am on the clock more than I would like. It’s a peaceful time where I live; nocturnal traffic is too distant to be audible and only slivers of light peer round the edges of my blackout blinds. There’s a chill in the air; the window is open a crack, as I can’t sleep in a stuffy room.

That’s when creative ideas emerge… like how to address a plot weakness, develop a back-story or reorganise a critical scene to make it more compelling. The still of the night seems to drain away all distractions and allow a flotsam of thoughts to float to the surface. Sometimes they’re fully formed and logical, prompting me to wonder, why didn’t I think of that before? Sometimes I get the germ of a new idea, something that takes me along a more lateral train of thought. Sometimes come daylight, I filter and discard; but often, those 4:00am shoots warrant nurturing.

I’d rather my creative fire came alight at a sensible time of day, perhaps as I sat in front my PC, ready and waiting to capitalise on the outpourings of genius, ideally just after I’d made myself a nice cuppa.

But no, 4:00am it is for me.

The chance of my recalling these inspired creative ideas when the sun comes up without some prompting is… well, zero. I will remember I thought of something, but by the morning, I will have no clue what it was. It’s a lost idea, layered with the frustration of knowing something promising was within reach, but slipped away.

I tried the advice you see everywhere – that writers should keep a pen and paper by their beds so they can make notes whenever inspiration strikes, write down their dreams and so on. But that would involve switching on a light and grappling for my reading glasses, all of which pulls me from a somnolent state into full-blown wide-awakeness, which guarantees I won’t get another wink of sleep until about 3 minutes before the alarm goes off.

Tried it, doesn’t work for me; but something else does. My tool of choice has become iPhone voice messaging. I record semi-coherent notes to myself whilst hardly having to peek through my sleep-sticky eyes.

This morning my iPhone held evidence of last night’s creative spurt; a drowsy ramble through a bunch of ideas for blog posts. Yes, I’m embarrassed to admit, I was awake at 4am thinking about what to write in this blog. But I got a dozen fresh ideas out of it; that’s not bad for a few moments of ruptured relaxation, is it?

I’d like to know, do you have a favourite moment, place or environment where creativity strikes? Is it a time of day or night? Is it about being in a particular place – a daily walk, a favourite cafe maybe? Do you need solitude or companionship, the presence of a pet, a backdrop of music, the hum of family activity, or the serenity of silence? Do you carry a notepad and pen for those moments, or a voice recorder of some kind, or do you trust your memory? Post your ideas as comments – they might be a help to others.

Practice. Practice. Practice.

IMG_0385I was given a copy of ‘A Writer’s Book of Days’ by Judy Reeves at Christmas. Not out of the blue – it was on my Amazon wish list – but it was the perfect moment to receive this treasure.  For those who don’t know, ‘A Writer’s Book of Days’ is a guide and encouragement to write, to develop your creativity and practice your craft.  At its heart is an urging to ‘Practice. Practice. Practice.’  The book is designed to help the novice writer develop a regular writing habit, and it includes topics for a simple 15-minute daily writing exercise.

I write copy almost every day for clients, but my creative writing – still essentially a hobby – gets squeezed into the odd hour here and there and weekend afternoons.  I’ve never tried daily writing practice but I thought, it’s probably a good idea, it can’t hurt and it would certainly be a helpful discipline to establish, given that I cherish the ambition to become a celebrated and successful novelist (dream it, believe it, achieve it… right?).

But this exercise is about creativity, and I was faced with a dull brown notebook.  Judy Reeves says keep the notebooks cheap, because you’ll get through a lot of them.  It’s a good point, but I’m a paper crafter and to me, a plain brown cover is a surface which cries out to be crafted, elevated beyond its humble origins.  So it was that after Christmas I took to my paper and card, rubber stamps, embellishments and sticky stuff, and pimped-up that plain old notebook in time for the New Year – you can see the result above.

Then, on 1st January 2013, I began, following Judy Reeves simple guidelines (write freehand for 15 minutes without pause or review) with the first random topic: Things that enter by way of silence.  And almost one month in – 26 topics, 56 pages of illegible scrawl laid down – I’m revelling in the experience.  Almost every day, it has surprised me.  Or perhaps it’s more appropriate to say that I have surprised me.  Many times I think I’m writing drivel, but when I read it back, I find it has unexpected qualities, depth, surprising insights, interesting conjunctions of words and phrases, scenarios, senses and observations that seem to have come from nowhere and landed on the page. Not always of course – sometimes I’ve written genuine drivel – but remarkable things have emerged on to the page often enough to spur me on to keep practicing.

I’ve discovered other things too, like after a lifetime’s use of keyboard over pen, my left hand can’t tolerate the speed at which my mind races when the thoughts begin to flow – it floods with cramp-like pain after less than half a page.  Judy says you’ll be surprised how tight you’ll grip the pen, and she’s right. I’m learning to let go a little, and my hand lasts longer after 26 days, than it did on 1st January.

So I plan to stay with this surprising experience, at least for now. It’s nurturing my creative confidence and it’s throwing up a diverse assortment of treasures – ideas, images, imaginings and truths – and any one of these could be the germ of a great idea….

Colouring-in the Matchstick Men

One issue which has recently emerged in my mentoring sessions is that of giving substance to background characters.

You have your main/leading characters and you have your supporting cast, and these obviously need authentic personalities and strong voices.  But around these people swirls a universe of beings whose job it is to add realism to the backdrop of a story.  They are people in the street, diners in a restaurant, classmates, neighbours, fellow passengers, shop assistants, colleagues and more – in fact anybody not central to the story.

Without a little colouring-in, these characters are simply shadows or matchstick men, and the credibility of the world the lead characters inhabit diminishes as a result.

My mentor pointed me to ‘Songdogs’ by Irish author Colum McCann as being an excellent point of reference for well-drawn background characters.  It’s a beautifully written story, lyrical and authentic and I found many examples to learn from.  The multitude of background characters within its pages are brought to life in just a line or two.  These are thumbnail portraits highlighting a defining feature here, a tone of voice there, a smell, a style of dress, a colour, a habit, a posture, a possession. Together they enrich the reader’s vision of the world the protagonist wanders through.

So that’s another thing I’ve added to my near-infinite list of edits – colouring in the background characters.

Not long to go now, before I get stuck into those edits.  I’m only 10,000 words or so away from The End of my first draft.

More is More

As a professional copywriter, I’m often required to write to a word count to fit a defined space in a  web site, brochure or e-communication. I find the best approach is to write what feels necessary to convey the message and then sharpen and sharpen, finding more powerful words to replace flabby phrases, cutting out unnecessary ones and so on, until I arrive back at the designated word count.

I hear it’s not that different when editing your novel’s first draft. Some people say you should expect to cut at least 10% of your word count simply by eliminating superfluous adverbs, finding more concise phrasing and crossing through all the redundant and’s, but’s, that’s and was-ings. That’s never mind what you do to improve the narrative itself.

I look forward to it – mainly because it will feel like an amazing achievement simply to have reached the second-draft stage. For the time being, I’m still on my first draft. And here, encouraged by my esteemed mentor, the job is very different. ‘What else?’ she asks. What else? What can I ADD to enhance the scene, show another facet of my character’s state of mind, deepen the experience and immerse the reader more thoroughly in the time and place and space? ‘Stay here for longer,’ she says. ‘Let the reader into this scene,’ and ‘I want more of this’. I think, I must be doing something right – and that’s encouraging – but it’s not quite right enough.

It’s a challenge to this neophyte, would-be novelist, still flexing and connecting creative synapses and discovering what it means to move beyond fact and marketing-speak into storytelling and imagination. I’ve written WHAT ELSE? on a card and fixed it to my PC monitor. From now on, every scene, every piece of dialogue, every paragraph will get the question, WHAT ELSE? That is, until it comes time for the second draft massacre, when I guess the question will be what else can I delete. . . ?

Not-so-perfect tenses

Another month, another mentoring session.  This time, it was all about verb tenses – and the tension and immediacy they either deliver or dilute.

I last had to think about tenses a very long time ago, when I occupied a grainy and much carved-upon school desk. That was back in the day when, if you weren’t concentrating, the teacher could still get away with firing a blackboard rubber or a piece of chalk at your skull.  Even then, when called upon to ‘parse the following sentence’ I could rarely get beyond locating nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs. Ask me which tense the sentence was written in, and with anything beyond simple present and simple past, my otherwise capable brain would throw its metaphorical hands in the air and surrender.

My mentor cast a spotlight on three tenses which weaken my narrative.    Until she showed me what I’d been doing, I hadn’t seen it.  In case you’re hobbled by the same grammatical blind-spot as I am, here they are:

Past perfect:

  • Examples – he had studied in London; she had waited for some time

Past continuous:

  • Examples – he was browsing the internet when I rang; she was waiting for me when I got off the plane

Past perfect continuous:

  • They had been chatting for several minutes before I arrived; he had been standing at the bar for the last hour when the police arrived

I’m not going to blather on about how and why each tense is used – there are numerous resources on the internet for that.  The point my mentor was making was that for my narrative to have the most impact, the reader has to be there for the action.  They don’t need to be held at arm’s length, or told what has happened backstage, as it were; they need to see the story unfolding in front of them.

Thus:

The girl’s hands were trembling becomes The girl’s hands trembled

Most of the guests had come down for dinner becomes One by one the guests came down for dinner

And what about this clunker:

Henry had hung back. Whilst everybody else had crowded the table, anxious to be in the centre of things, he had taken up a position on a stool at the far end of the bar and ordered himself a beer.

Modified only slightly, it has a more immediate feel:

Henry hung back.  Whilst everybody else crowded the table, anxious to be in the centre of things, he took up a position on a stool at the far end of the bar and ordered himself a beer. 

The impact that choice of tense has on a narrative seems obvious once it’s pointed  out; but I guess that’s what being a neophyte is about – and I love the learning.  Now the burden is on me to go back through my 45,000 or so words and make sure she doesn’t catch me out again.

Reading and learning

I’m soaking up everything I can find on writing fiction at the moment. OK, that’s not strictly true. There is far more written than I can possibly find the time or energy to read, especially if I want to find some time and energy for… writing. Apparently, much of it is of questionable quality too, so I’m told. But here are a few books I’ve already found helpful:

  • The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes by Jack M Bickham. Good advice, practical and entertaining at the same time.
  • Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. I’m glad I waded through the impenetrable first half of this much recommended book, because the second half turned out to have some very sound advice.
  • Your Writing Coach by Jurgen Wolff. Easy to digest and good advice from the perspective of a writers’ coach.
  • On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. Advice on technique from a Master, combined with fascinating biographical insights. A must-read, whatever your preferred genre.
  • Characters, Emotions and Viewpoint by Nancy Kress. Very usable advice, particularly on two major stumbling-blocks for new authors – showing-not-telling and choosing your POVs wisely.

I’m also now reading fiction that doesn’t immediately appeal to me as being “my sort of book”, watching for technique and writerly skills as well as the pleasure of a good story, well told. And on a cold and soggy Sunday and I can think of no better way to pass a few hours than to make a comfortable nest on my sofa, line up a mug of coffee and a biscuit and stick my head in a book.