Exercising the storytelling muscles

I kept always two books in my pocket, one to read, one to write in.

Robert Louis Stevenson

I can’t stress how important it is to read and to take notes. These are probably two of the most important things a writer can do. Regular reading exercises the storytelling muscles of your imagination. It keeps your head in fiction mode and consciously or not, you will learn from what you read. You will see how to affect the reader, build suspense and craft a clean and effective sentence; you will also be able to identify those parts of the text that don’t work for you, and interrogate why that is. 

Note-taking is just as essential. As you go about your day, jot down interesting turns of phrase that you hear, plot ideas, character or place descriptions. Whether you use a paper notebook or a phone app, get it all down somewhere and you will find this serves a duel purpose. Firstly, you will be able to mine these notes for inspiration and detail; secondly, the act of translating what you see and hear into words will keep the writing part of your brain active and engaged, like an engine constantly ticking over, so that when you sit at your desk to write, you won’t be starting cold.

Fishing for Inspiration

Stop overthinking everything. Sometimes, you just have to stop trying to second guess yourself and just start typing (or painting, or playing music, etc.) You can plan and plan, but a lot of creative inspiration comes in the moment. Ideas are forged in the flow of the work, and improvisation is the mother of creativity. So, lay the groundwork and then just get out there and do it.

Inspiration can strike in the most unexpected ways but in my experience, it strikes hardest while I’m actually wrestling with the story in my net, and its important to capture its bounty before it slips back beneath the waves.

Our imaginations are like the sea. So much lurks beneath the surface, seemingly lost to us; but occasionally, a tempestuous thought or sudden fortunate confluence of tides will throw up a gem of an idea.

So, don’t wait for inspiration to strike. Start typing and see what happens.

When to write and when to edit

There’s a piece of writing advice that goes around and around, and it says: “Write first, edit later.”

What this means, is that you should concentrate on finishing the story before you start tinkering with it, or you’ll never finish. And on the whole, it’s sound advice. You need to get the first draft finished before you can really see the shape of the thing, so that early chapter you spent so long revising might not even be needed anymore.

However, I’m not one for prescriptive advice. You can do it that way, or you can do what I do, which is sort of halfway between the two extremes.

I try to get my first draft finished before any major changes, but if there’s something huge that affects the rest of the book, I’ll go back and change it there and then. Also, if I’m finding it hard to get going, I might go back and edit some earlier scenes to ease myself back into the flow of the story.

Using this approach, I tend to produce fairly clean first drafts. They may need some structural edits, but they’re not a complete mess.