Welcome to the second in the series of blog posts I’m writing during my time as the 2022 Hysteria Writer In Residence. Last month I talked about submission guidelines and why it really matters to pay attention to them when submitting to competitions and journals. For this month I promised a discussion about getting started and revising, and as I come to write this blog post the topic has really made me smile.
Some of you reading this will have read one or two things I’ve written, or at least know I write, submit, get published, or place in competitions reasonably regularly. This last month though? Phew. It has been an uphill struggle. The words are willing but the spirit is weak. Or something like that. (Illness, caring responsibilities, pandemic exhaustion – I bet there’s a fancy name for this – work, family, and so on can all add up. Ask me how I know.) So. I thought I’d share five strategies that might help you get started on a new piece and then do an initial revision of that piece. Each strategy comes at generating or revising in a different way.
Just Fifteen Minutes
Some of you may know this technique as the Pomodoro technique – you set a timer and write for a set time. That’s it. No fancy stuff. You just sit down and promise yourself you’ll write for five minutes, or ten, or whatever. A short time is better than a longer time. You can always start the timer again. I recently treated myself to a glass sand timer that runs for fifteen minutes, and I’ve found that’s about right. You don’t have to write anything in particular, sometimes it’s just about trying some words out to see what they look like. Sometimes you might have a prompt to work to, or the stirrings of an idea. Just five minutes, or ten, or a few more.
Write just 300 words. I wrote a 30,000 word novella by writing 300 words a day. There’s even a community and tag on Twitter: #Novel300. Make sure you’re using a platform/app that shows you how many words you’re writing, as you go. They don’t have to be beautiful words, or sentences, or even a whole piece, just 300 words. One word after the other. This paragraph is 100 words long. So it’s three paragraphs like this. If you’ve a prompt it won’t hurt, but 300 words is a start and might be the bones of a complete flash.
Write down a dozen words on twelve scraps of paper and throw them in a mug. They can be random, or themed (what’s on your desk, what’s out the window, what you found at the bottom of your bag when you went on holiday). They don’t have to be nouns (names of things) but I’ve found it works well if they are.
Pull the first word out, and write about it for three minutes. Now pull the second word. Write it into the piece you’ve already started, writing for three more minutes. Repeat. Keep going. If you do all twelve words you’ll have written for almost forty minutes. There may not be a whole draft of a piece, but there will be some seeds or seedlings, especially if the words were themed in some way.
There’s actually a physical professional version of this that you can buy online but I started with just three china mugs and some slips of paper. In one mug goes a whole bunch of different characters – lone parent, tired office worker, goddess in the trees – in the second mug goes the setting – classroom, museum, docklands – and in the third mug goes the inciting incident – finds a lost wallet, a dragon arrives, a promise must be fulfilled. You pull one slip of paper from each mug and just write to what you’ve got. Add another character. Add a crisis. Up the ante with some stakes. These three things are usually enough to get you going.
Shake n Bake
You’ve made a start and have got the first draft. And you want to do a bit more. Here are some useful tips for working up a second draft. They’re a different kettle of fish to line edits or even developmental edits (more on this next time), I think of these as revision strategies for a piece in its early stages.
- Change the font and size. Go away. Come back and read it again, out loud. Things that glitch will stick out visually or aurally
- Put the text into a reader and listen to it. Again. Things that aren’t working will stick out.
- Change the tense for the whole piece – or just a bit that’s giving you trouble – rewrite in the new tense, now switch it back
- Change the narrative voice – if it’s in the first person, switch to third, or second – this will often reveal a whole bunch of stuff that’s not there yet – write it back in the original voice. Or not.
- Close the original document. Now write the story again. What comes out might have all the best bits or at least the most important bits. Compare the two drafts. Go from here.
You may find that none of these work for you. There are lots of other strategies out there for generating ideas and getting writing. And lots of writer workshops that will prod you into getting something down on the page. Sometimes though? Maybe you need a bit of input time rather than output time?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I gaze out of the window trying to will the sentences to come. Across the lane from our flat is an allotment. It’s busy, well-tended, and productive. Lots of the people with plots are just getting into spring planting, some things that overwintered are coming up, there is a faint haze of green over everything. I can see there will be a summer and autumn of plenty.
But. There’s a practical reason (as well as complex theological reasons) why the Christian period of Lent (the run up to Easter) is all about fasting. In horticultural terms, it’s what’s known as the ‘hungry gap’, where there is little in the way of variety and it’s all thin pickings in the hedgerows or vegetable beds. But, despite the lack of productivity on the output front, gardeners still feed the soil, tend the beds, compost the clippings, order the new seeds and so on. Preparing.
I think it’s the same for writing. Sometimes it’s all about the ‘hungry gap’ where there’s precious little variety and not much output. But this can be a period where we keep going with the things that nurture our creativity, feed it, warm the words, order new notebooks, plan our writing, compost old writing, and wait. Ugh. Wait. It can be hard to wait, especially if you’re usually productive, and you’re watching deadlines or competition longlists flash by. But new words will grow again, even if sometimes the winter lasts longer than forecast or the soil in which you’ve planted has lost some of its strength.
At some point though, things do shift, in the garden and in our writing lives, especially if you’re kind when you’re at your least visibly productive. The sun warms the ground, it feels like there’s an extra five minutes in the day to get some words down, the compost enriches the soil. Two sentences suddenly fit and phewww, off again. I keep being kind to myself during this ‘maybe words are growing’ period, and I turn back to the different generative strategies above to help support this rather provisional new growth. As I let it grow in its own time, I remind myself that this quiet phase ‘is’ the work as much as the actual writing and publishing is. Usually, gradually, I find I can try again to make the most of my composted words and life, and the words spill out.
At the risk of over-extending the metaphor, next month I’ll be talking about plotting (even for a 50-word piece) and pruning (this is basically the next stages of editing and revising). Until then, well, I hope you have good gardening