What’s this book all about?
I believe that you can learn a lot about writing through direct observation from life, just like artists do when they work with still life, landscapes or models - and that’s what this book is all about. It’s made up of practical activities for you to work on as you go along, with minimum explanation. Over the course of the book I go through six writing techniques that I consider essential. Some of these might take you by surprise because they’re not included in most Creative Writing books.
So, this book has six sections, each involving a different writing technique:
Sense of Place
Plus a section called ‘What Next?’
‘Loosen up’ involves warm up exercises you can use at the start of a session. You can also use them if you’re just starting out as a writer and you want some gentle writing exercises to help you get going. You can also use the ‘loosen up’ exercises to generate ideas or to deepen your work on a particular character.
‘Rhythm’ is all about the rhythm and sound of language as well as the rhythms and sounds in everyday life, and in particular places - so it’s also to do with atmosphere. The way written language sounds (out loud or in our heads) is often neglected in favour of the content of what we write. In every day life, we glean a lot of meaning from the way words are spoken. If that aspect is missed in the written word, the reader will experience it as inauthentic (and may not know why).
‘Sense of Place’ is about observing the details of the places we inhabit, so we can use them in our writing. When we’re writing creatively, we’ll often need to associate a place with a character, and particularly with the way a character is feeling, using something called the objective correlative. This section gives you some practical exercises to try without going into the theory.
‘Word pictures’ can mean more than one thing. A ‘picture’ you create on the page, and therefore in your readers’ heads, or a ‘picture’ you create in your mind’s eye, which you translate onto the page. It can also refer to images that use simile and metaphor, where you associate the thing you’re describing with something else. In this section you’ll learn how to create images on the page.
‘Character’ involves creating people to populate your stories, as well as noticing the details of the people around you – these can be incorporated into any kind of writing, including poetry. You’ll use direct observation from life here, as you will all the way through the book, but you’ll be noticing particular details about a person - a scar, the sound of their laugh, for instance - rather than trying to ‘transcribe’ whole personalities.
‘Dialogue’ is about listening to people speak, and trying to reflect that when you write spoken word on the page. Learning about dialogue helps you to practise your listening skills and to translate your observations onto the page. Again, this isn’t about transcribing actual conversations, or trying to butt in on other people’s business - rather we listen for interesting words and phrases said in public places such as buses and cafes, that could inspire a story.
‘What Next?’ has some tips on what to do if you’re hungry for more writing prompts. It also shows you what to do with the writing prompts you’ve designed for yourself as you’ve been working through the book.
Each section except the final one is made up of these six parts:
In your notebook
and Design your own
Short exercises - these are designed to be done over a few minutes (depending on where they take you). Aim for 5 to 15 minutes per exercise.
Storytelling - this includes storytelling tips, and ways to use the technique to create or begin a story. This exercises will help you to generate ideas for stories, or they will help you to structure an existing story.
In your notebook – while you may well want to do all of the activities in a notebook of course, these are research and gathering activities. You’re treating your notebook as a place to collect material that you can use later.
Explore – these are topics or techniques you might want to research or explore on your own. Pick a couple. Use them to kick off an investigation into a particular subject or idea, or apply them to your writing to take it in a new direction.
Extras – these are optional extras. They’re techniques you can use to deepen your writing.
Design your own – I’ve explained how to design your own writing prompts in the section on rhythm. I invite you to create your own writing prompts as you go along, so that you have a set of powerful, tailor-made starting points to use later. You spend a day observing something in particular (places or people for instance) to provide source material.
What are these activities for? Mainly, they're designed to help you let go of the judgement and self-criticism that so often goes along with creative work, and to get some words down. That way you’ll get over your fear of the blank page and collect source material for yourself so you can play with it later.
Not all of the activities will be useful or will chime with you, although often the exercises outside your comfort zone end up being the ones you really need to do. Once you've done the activities the secret is in the redrafting! You can come back and mine the short first drafts you've created in response to these activities in order to create something longer or more finished.
For example, you might end up with a story idea, a bunch of characters you like, a dialogue you want to use, the start of a poem, a treatment for a screenplay or stage play, or some ideas for blog posts or feature articles. Most of all, I hope you end up with a regular writing habit - and that doesn't have to be every day, it simply has to be regular.
If you need help establishing a writing routine or finding a time and place to write, try '3 weeks to a writing habit' or the 30 day writing challenge or both, in my free ebook 'Find Time to Write'. More on that later.