On a recent visit to an art gallery, I picked up a program listing the titles of works on display. Some make good writing prompts.
Later, I discovered an online random generator of art titles.
See what you can write about when you use one of these titles as your
- The Half Remembered Day
- Loose Grip
- By Chance
- Time for the Real Thing
- Scarf and Conflict
- Rejected Zone
- Manifesto of Modest Prediction
- Nude Descending the Canvas
- The Darkened Eye
- Hate in Three Stages
- Perky Old Man
- Reincarnated Biscuit of Lust
- Crippled Work
- Babble of Peace
- Broken Shade
- Fugue with Screaming Blob
- Surface of Death
A published novelist recently remarked on how little she writes daily. At first, I was surprised. But when I thought more about it, writing less makes sense.
We’ve all read accounts of famous writers who work on their material nearly all day, everyday. Two questions pop up in my mind. What have they let go of in their lives in order to gain so much time to write? And who helps them take care of the non-writing but essential aspects of life—paying bills, cleaning house, making trip arrangements, buying groceries? Some of the most prolific writers have assistants to help them with the non-writing tasks. Others eschew social engagements and any other non-writing activities, making writing their sole activity.
This novelist explained that her practice is to write 40 minutes only. But she tries to fulfil this goal each and every day. She has her plot sorted out, so she has a good idea about how to progress in her short daily writing period.
Aiming for short but frequent writing may help other writers, especially ones who find it hard to free up slabs of time to write. We may strive to get this long periods—a day or even a half-day—but rarely achieve this aim. Most of us can find 40 minutes in each day to write.
The main benefit of working on frequency rather than word count is that regular writing sessions help us settle into the writing groove. Leave too much of a gap between the sessions, and we may end up spending our writing time re-reading, picking up the threads of our material before we can write something new.
Daily writing also keeps the brain focussed on our material. Knowing we’ll be writing again tomorrow tends to make our subconscious mull over writing issues, characters, and developments, new items we may take up when writing the next day.
Although I find the daily goal of 40 minutes useful, I think that for some writers, and for some periods in a writing project, a daily goal of writing at least 40 minutes seems more realistic. Being free to write more on a day when we’re in the groove is one of the deep pleasures of writing and shouldn’t be quashed. But that doesn’t mean we can reward ourselves by not writing at least 40 minutes the next day!
Are you looking for writing feedback? Like the idea of sharing ideas and techniques with other writers? If so, joining a writing group may appeal.
The easiest option is to find an established group. It already has its structure sorted out, plus its members are used to the routine. If you join, you’ll quickly find out if the way the group operates and its members interact suit you or not. But such groups may not publicise themselves, so they are difficult to find. They may not be actively seeking new members, or if they are, it may be invitation only.
The other option is to join a newly formed writing group. There’s no history or established rules to work within, which may be good. The challenge with a new group is transforming a collection of disparate writers into a cohesive, supportive unit.
Fortunately, the development pattern of new groups has been a subject of research for many years. One important early finding is that any new group—whether it deals with writing, lawn bowls, or world domination—tends to develop via four consecutive stages: Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing.
Knowing these stages can help you understand what is going on in your brand-new writing group. And this knowledge may help you in terms of your expectations, plus hanging in there during the inevitable rough patches the group encounters as it matures.
Here’s how the four stages may play out.
A new group is fragile during its forming stage. Its members are not yet loyal, and their main concern may be what the group can do for them. The group faces instability, churn, with some people quickly exiting—sorry, not my thing—and new strangers taking their place. Group members may differ in terms of how they think the group should operate.
These different needs and expectations do not surface immediately. Why?
Members of a new group tend to be on their best behaviour, wanting to make a good first impression. Because they want to be seen as a valued part of the group, they may agree with issues that go against their true needs and feelings.
The name says it all. The brief honeymoon is over.
As members become more comfortable in their group, they now want to have their needs met. Members’ different interests and agendas often lead to clashes.
Some common storming issues in a new writing group:
- Time. People taking more than their fair share of the discussion time. Too much meeting time spent on inconsequential matters, or late starts and long tea breaks becoming the norm. Members who chronically arrive late.
- Feedback. People giving feedback that is too general, negative or trivial. Or not giving enough feedback, such as ‘Yeah, liked it.’
- Behaviour. Not preparing for the meeting. Rewriting others’ material without permission. Dominating the discussion. Going to pieces when others critique one’s work. Undermining the group’s leader. Not accepting group decisions. Getting into a writing rut, I.e., revising work again and again, rather than providing others with new material for comment.
Although this stage is difficult, these differences can get members to start thinking about what’s important for the group and what may need to be changed or discarded.
Storming can lead to one of these outcomes:
- The group continues, after resolving major issues and accommodating differences where possible.
- The group continues, based on majority rule, and dissenters opt out or are expelled.
- The original group splinters, and members either opt out or join one of the splinter groups.
- The group dissolves.
If the group continues, members begin to resolve differences and come to trust or tolerate others. Members realise they need to change in some ways in order to help the group, and they understand that it takes conscious effort to maintain group harmony.
To achieve such harmony, members may start talking honestly about their needs and expectations. It is useful to understand what each member 1) wants from the group, 2) is willing to do to help the group, and 3) will put up with. One person may want feedback, will help the group by attending nearly every meeting, and will put up with some less-produvtive members. Another person may value talking shop with others who are writing in a similar vein, will help out by taking on the role of the group’s contact person, and will accept that some members write stuff he’s not interested in.
If things go well, the group moves to this final, productive stage. Members now share a sense of unity and belonging. They become more involved and loyal, and actively help the group succeed. They may even get to the point of appreciating rather than tolerating others strengths and contributions. They trust the other members, may seek their help more than before, and they may socialise and perhaps become friends.
They now view their group as providing more benefits than drawbacks. When an issue or problem arises, they assess how it affects them individually and how it affects the group–and they may put their own wishes to one side if the group benefits are more important. If the group has no leader, one may be chosen or emerge at this point.
Evaluating the experience
If you join a new writing group, it may help to set a future review date, say, six months. Be an active member, and then, when the date rolls around, assess how your group is working in terms of helping you meet your writing goals. Even if you find that it isn’t helping that much, you may decide to stay because you enjoy other elements that the group provides, such as friendships, deadlines, and good discussions.
Writing about an unusual topic, with few expectations about what you’ll achieve, is a great warm-up exercise. It’s like practising your scales before starting to play a serious piece of music.
This writing generator provides three nouns, selected at random. Use the words to spin a fictional story or connect with fact.
If nothing comes immediately to mind, brainstorm, jotting down the associations that come up for each word, and then see where these connections lead you.
I clicked the generator three times:
CRIME SKY MONKEY
These three words suggest some possibilities–sci-fi, fantasy, bad dream, etc. I imagined a criminal named Monkey, involved in some crime where the sky’s the limit in terms of possible gains.
SKILL GONDOLA CRADLE
Three words led to a memory of strolling along one of the canals in Venice, in the Dorsoduro neighbourhood, and coming upon an old gondola workshop. The gondolas rested in cradle-supports, ready for the skilled workers to finish them.
HOPE YACHT COFFEE
These words also retrieved a memory, this time of a pleasant afternoon on a yacht in Sydney Harbour. Relaxing in the sun, I drank coffee and watched with amusement as the skipper/owner flirted with one of his guests. What happened next?
To improve our writing, we have different help options to choose from—workshops, courses, teachers and mentors, books, blogs, websites. But with so many help possibilities, we can feel as if we’re drowning in possibilities.
How do you assess what best suits you?
Dive or wade?
Some writers like to dive straight into the help pool, immersing themselves in many kinds of writing assistance. They zap through innumerable books, workshops, and websites. If they decide to try a writing group, they may join not one but several.
Some writers find it exhilarating to get their hands on so much information and help in a short period. For others, the informational deluge is confusing, stressful, and can lead to a loss of confidence.
Wading is a preference for some writers, and for others work and other commitments make it the most practical option. They start at the shallow, comfortable end of the writing help pool, perhaps reading a few relevant blogs and books, participating in a short workshop, attending a one-off lecture. As they grow more confident about their needs and interests, they strike out into deeper, adventurous water. They may enrol in a long-term course or sign up with a mentor. This approach is positive and does not overwhelm learners, but some find the learning process frustratingly slow.
Writing help works best when it fits your needs. Rather than focusing on cost and convenience, assess your
- present capabilities
- current interests
- long-term goals
Your present capabilities
What do you think are your strengths are as a writer? Where do you need to improve?
Your current interests
Jot down the last five major items you have read.
You may be surprised. Some people daydream about writing poetry but tend to read modern novels. Others may decide to break into the potentially lucrative romance market, when the reality is that they are drawn to reading essays. And some don’t read at all.
With this knowledge, you can decide if you want help options that support your present writing interests, your future interests, or both.
What drives you, makes you passionate to write? Knowing your drivers can hep you identify the learning options that best suit you. Maybe you get a kick out of experimenting with ideas and storylines. Or capturing personal experiences. Or perhaps you like the technical challenge of a particular form. Or find research satisfying. Or discover reading your work out loud is the most enjoyable part of the writing process.
Your long-term goals
What do you ultimately want to achieve with your writing in terms of these outcomes:
* Material—books, poetry collections, screenplays, etc.
* Financial rewards—money, more or better career opportunities
* Recognition and readership—local, regional, national, international
How long do you expect to write? For example, once you’ve written your life story is that it for writing? Or do you see yourself writing as long as you have the ability to do so?
What happens when you are faced with obstacles and lack of success? Setbacks make some people more determined to succeed. Others accept the obstacle—OK, I’ll never crack the NY Times best-seller list—modify their goals, and keep writing. And others stop writing and find another, rewarding interest.
Is it still . . .
Whatever writing help you choose, regularly evaluate it to consider if it still meets your needs and interests.
Participating in a writing group may be useful at first, but as members come and go, you may find that its educational value for you has weakened. Continuing to join basic workshops may be comfortable but not challenge or provide new information.
For your chosen help option, ask yourself—
- Is it still moving me closer to my writing goals?
- Is it still helping me identify my writing strengths and weaknesses?
- Is it still helping me become a more skilled writer?
- Is it still providing other benefits, e.g., networking with other writers?
Ray Bradbury started early as a writer, penning his first story when he was 11 years old. He began the habit of writing each day and kept submitting his stories to popular pulp magazines. At 22, he succeeded in getting a story published. A long writing career followed, with 27 published novels, including the popular Fahrenheit 451, and 600 short stories, including the collections The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man. His writing helped shift the focus of sci-fi from the monsters from outer space to the scarier monsters within ourselves and our society.
Years later, as a famous, respected author, Bradbury distilled his thoughts about the writing in a series of essays, collected in the book, Zen in the Art of Writing. I recently read it and enjoyed his enthusiasm and confidence.
The title is based on a book, Zen and the Art of Archery, by Eugen Herrigel, a German philosopher. While teaching in Japan in the 1920s, he took lessons in Japanese archery, which combines physical and mental skills. One day, he discovered a ‘shortcut’ that enabled him to hit the target, again and again. However, his teacher chastised him for relying on his ‘much too wilful will’ rather than functioning within a state of being ‘without purpose’, in the zen of the moment.
Get good story ideas
- Read the works of authors who write like you and the ones whose writing differs from yours.
- Read poetry each day. Poems provide story ideas, expand your senses, and provide powerful, beautiful metaphors and similes.
- Read practical non-fiction articles, but do so as a dilettante. Rather than trying to understand or learn, let your reading connect with your subconscious, your memories and beliefs. A travel article about an isolated beach may lead you to recall a childhood experience. Or start you brainstorming about what could happen there, and to whom and why.
Develop a rich, successful writing habit
Write for readers’ needs
Bradbury believed that after the first draft, writers should shape their material by focusing on their readers’ needs:
- Provide sensory richness. Help readers use their senses. Your story will seem real if you include rich sensory details—colours, shapes, sizes, smells, sounds, textures.
- Energise your story. What do your characters want? What do they dream of doing, becoming?
Knowing their focus helps readers understand your story’s dynamo or energy. Your characters will then develop much of the story for you. Incorporate:
- Emotions and passions that drive your characters
- Tensions, which come from conflicts and differences between your characters. Bradbury writes about making characters ‘fly together in a great clang.’
- Release. End a story with a crucial action that releases all the tension that has built up. The action must also ring true in terms of your characters, and what they desire and need, or think they need.
Herrigel, Eugen. (1953, pdf file of English translation). Zen in the Art of Archery.
A few months ago, I was at nearby Lyrebird Dell, doing my monthly volunteer bush regeneration. While grubbing out invasive weeds, I found broken beer bottles, a pair of deteriorating panties, and this train ticket.
Only the ticket is memorable. Why? Because I pulled it out of the mud on 2 April, the same date as the ticket, although given the Monday date, it was probably issued two years ago. What an amaaaaazing coincidence.
But what if I wanted to include a similar incident in a story? A woman is desperate for money to pay off a bad guy but can’t get the funds. She finds a dirty slip of paper—a lottery ticket. Checking the lottery website, she discovers it’s the winning ticket! Need more of a coincidence? How about if the day she finds the ticket is the deadline for collecting her winnings?
Coincidence works better in real life than in fiction. We’re like hearing about real examples. Like an acquaintance who journeyed to remote Easter Island, only to run into a work colleague. We tell each other these true tales and comment on how amazing life is, six degrees of separation, fate, and so on.
But the allure of coincidence diminishes in fiction, particularly when it breaks the sense of authenticity readers expect. It’s not that writers eschew coincidence. It’s common in genre fiction such as crime novels, where it can help mislead readers. In comic writing, coincidence can up the humour, as readers wonder ‘what else can possibly go wrong?’ In the movie The Great Muppet Caper, Miss Piggy needs to stop a jewel heist but is stranded on the side of the road. Guess what? A motorcycle fortuitously falls out of the back of a passing truck. As she puts it, it’s the perfect most ‘unbelievable coincidence’.
If a movie or novel is fast-paced and/or complex, viewers and readers may not notice the coincidences piling up until later when they can reflect on the story. But use one ill-considered contrivance crucial to the plot, and readers can no longer suspend disbelief. Examples:
- A character is looking for someone, and uncanny as it seems, that person shows up precisely when most needed.
- Something (spaceship, car, boat, walking boots) malfunctions, threatening disaster. But lo and behold, the character has some little thingy that is exactly right to fix it, thus saving the roadtrip/escape plan/planet.
- A note falls out of a book, and amazingly, it provides the most important clue. Or a character discovers the very information she has been searching for when she overhears two people discussing it.
- Two individuals both fall in love with each other at first sight. (Contrast this with the richer story possibilities when one character falls in love and the other doesn’t know or care.)
- A favourite from a forgettable movie I saw. A young woman spills something on her blouse and chooses to walk to the laundry, way at the back of a dark, spooky yard, to clean it, where, as fate would have it, the murderer waits.
- A woman who takes an interest in a young woman’s career discovers that this person is the baby she gave up for adoption years ago.
How the above items play out depends on how awkwardly or cleverly they are slipped into the story. And my point is not that writers should never use a coincidence. But rely on it too much, or use one to to create an unbelievable revelation or plot twist, and your readers may give up.
If the incident is crucial to your story, you can foreshadow. Making your mild-mannered teacher suddenly go a killing rampage leaves readers bewildered. But if small examples of the teacher’s inability to control himself are included earlier, his later meltdown becomes plausible. Some movies and books do this very well, escalating the seriousness of each subsequent incident so that the final, major outcome makes perfect narrative sense.