It’s commonly mentioned by writers as a problem: keeping focus on the book you’re currently writing. It isn’t just the intrusion of other writing or everyday chores. More than ever, writers blame the ingress of social media caused by two pressures: firstly the attraction of seeing friends’ and family’s daily activities, with consequent need to like, comment, or even worse, engage in a to and fro dialogue; secondly, the constant emphasis on the importance of social media for marketing the books we write.
There is only one way round this problem. Limitation. In the same way that we curtail, if not curb, our pleasure in food and drink in order to escape obesity, we can avoid gluttonous social media activity.
Easiest to restrict family/friends to a time of day assigned to relaxation. Just best not to open those Facebook etc at other times. There’ll always be something to divert you. For marketing, wisest to schedule a set day and time for such work and avoid it at all other times.
I wonder if Pasternak was having trouble focussing in this picture, or was tormented in sympathy with his characters?
Keeping focus on the book in process does not mean never doing anything else until it’s finished, however. You can take off for a break somewhere entirely different and yet keep your focus on your characters. Keep them and their problems in mind and relate what you hear and see to their situation.
For instance, working on my WWII trilogy, A Relative Invasion, I realised that my protagonist, Billy, had not been punished by his adversary, cousin Kenneth, for a well-meaning interference. Manipulative Kenneth would surely not let Billy get away scot free. Taking time away from the computer, I set off to wander round an arboretum and get some fresh air (and fresh ideas). On the way, I listened to a radio programme about printing and book binding. The word ‘pigskin’ made me sit up. Of course! The pigs Billy loved had been taken to the abattoir. Kenneth could punish by giving Billy a pigskin wallet for Christmas.
The arboretum itself made me realise that I hadn’t included much description of the boys’ surroundings beyond the initial one. How would they react to the countryside when evacuated away from the blackened buildings of London?
I listened to an interchange between some children nearby. The running and quarrelling suddenly stopped when one of them saw a squirrel burying nuts. It was vigorously stamping its feet, or that’s how it seemed to the younger child. She turned to her mother, ‘It’s having a tantrum!’ A lovely moment, and one I could work at for hostility between my two boy characters.
There were other ideas, too, that came from this outing. These could be called ‘writing refreshments.’
I could have taken a break and thought of other things, but keeping my focus on my book didn’t stop me benefiting from this time away from the computer. In fact, I wrote more rapidly once I got home, all the new ideas fresh in my mind. As is often the way, one new idea helped others so that the narrative moved along.
Have any of you gained unexpected ideas through taking a break away from your desk?
Some writers complain of writers’ block. Perhaps they are due for pollination from other sources.
I’ve written before about how cross-fertilization within the arts is something to seek out and to treasure. A writer, performing artist, teacher, does him/herself no good by constantly giving out and never feeding the self. Exposure to other art forms stimulates unexpected associations that would not otherwise occur. Learning the techniques involved in these arts achieves even more than just appreciating the painting, dance, acting or exposition. You can imagine the reception of new stimuli neurologically: neural pathways highlighted and speeding like electric sparks across the cortex. For a writer, new associations, especially unexpected ones, enrich the language that later emerges under the pen.
This post results from participation in a wonderful watercolour workshop arranged by Pelisande courses near Stroud.
An original idea for a botanical painting workshop, Bugs and Botanical provided two outstanding tutors with complementary skills to tutor on the topical subject of pollination. 15 participants learned from RHS gold medal-winning botanical artist Julia Trickey (plants) and Cath Hodsman, ASB, Natural History Museum wildlife artist (insects).
The two artists chose aquilegia as the flower to examine and paint because of its unique method of pollination. The nectar lies in the tip of the curled spurs, coyly tucked away at the furthest point from the seductively displayed pollen on the pistils.
Aquilegia, a beast to paint, is like an unfaithful wife. It can be approached for its nectar from the front (by humming hawkmoth) and from the rear (by bumble bee). The hawkmoth zooms into the front entrance legitimately, showing off its tremendously long proboscis (as long as its body). The aquilegia meanly keeps its nectar as far away from its front entrance as can be, but the hawkmoth can reach it, hovering humming-bird style at the flower’s mouth.
Here is Cath’s painting, showing the hovering wings and proboscis’ tell-tale golden cache, post-visit, held away from its body.
Under the microscope the fluffy body is more like a loofah, quite rough in texture. The wing has minute overlapping segments like the tessellation of a Roman mosaic.
Not to be outdone by the moth’s super-long proboscis, the bumblebee, displaying no shame about its lesser member, flies straight to the back of the flower and drills through the tube, filling its sac with nectar. This means it gathers no pollen on its furry body, a job carried out unwittingly by the moth. For its efficient pollination work on most other flowers, the bee is the ultimate in hairiness, even its eyes have hairs.
Under the powerful microscopes, the worthy bee, post nectar-gathering, is weighed down by its enormous load, carried like panniers either side of its thorax. Its complex eye has a surface like a fine metal grille. Not enough to say ‘I have eyes in the back of my head’ it has enormous eyes, comparable to the cheeks on a pig, plus three simple eyes, in the middle and either side of the top of its head. It must never stop looking.
Cath demonstrated her technique for painting every detail in the microscopic accuracy for which she is acclaimed, and is used by Kew Gardens as scientific illustrator. Her painting is a matter of many painstaking layers, very fine brushes, a steady hand and tiny movements: dots for the bee and dashes for the moth. Her drawings are the amazing result of reproducing what is seen when enlarged very many times. When a writer can portray a character or setting in that detail, readers can feel they are truly entering the lives of those in the narrative.
It was a privilege to listen to Cath’s extensive knowledge of wildlife, and equally to watch the exquisite painting of flowers by Julia. Under her hand the complex form of the aquilegia came to life, petal by petal and not just with great attention to accuracy but with incomparable interpretation. Before painting, Julia examines the plant in detail so that its structure is as clear as the light and shade on its form.
Painting wet on wet, Julia’s not so small brush delivers a touch of colour that slithers into place, The brush comes away leaving a perfect petal behind it, immaculate edges, veins, light, shade and shape. Note the plate beside her. It indicates how little paint she uses; she uses the cloth in front of her as often. Julia has videos of her techniques, as well as her beautifully illustrated books so that those who attend her courses can follow her techniques at home. http://tiny.cc/76n1yx
During the 2 1/2 day course, participants worked intensively on their own attempts at both flower and insect, straining their eyes to capture the details that make the difference between a cursory and an informed detailed illustration. Fortunately, Pelisande courses include delicious food. Participants went home enriched in mind and body, if cross-eyed.
The humming hawkmoth pollinates jasmine, honeysuckle, gardenia, pittosporum, plumeria, oleander, star-jasmine and flowering tobacco amongst others. Writers would love to think that their words were that widely imbibed.
Among most species that breed in water, the males and females each shed their sex cells into the water and external fertilization takes place. Ideas and images in our environment are cast out in different artistic forms. They are absorbed, then mentally reworked into the receiver’s mental system. In the case of fiction writers, a story emerges mostly many years later.
Among terrestrial breeders, fertilization is internal, and the parallel for the writer might be the unconscious adoption of behavioural tendencies that can come from early relationships. These then enrich the development of characters in the writer’s stories.
In reproduction, by recombining genetic material from two parents, a greater range of variability for natural selection to act upon, increases a species’ capacity to adapt to environmental change. So in writing, by reworking imageries from different art forms, something new can emerge that has greater meaning to readers than the unpollinated material that went before.
I’ve never read any Stephen King novels because I don’t like the horror or dystopia genres, but now I shall, starting with The Stand, (the novel he rates as his best.)
I just finished his biographical On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft which reveals Stephen King as an avid reader, a no-nonsense advocate of writing skills, an honest, humorous, generous guide and a devoted husband of over thirty years to boot. Such a guide soon impresses with his engaging style and self-revelations. The first half of the book is less about writing than about Stephen King’s early life, hardships, and above all, persistent writing. He writes when he’s hungry, in a corner, on his lap, in a trailer, in a run-down apartment, after ten bit jobs and later a rough day’s teaching. He does everything to put food on the table for his wife and little one before the time when he can prioritise his writing. Then the wondrous telephone call comes and he makes his first big money. (Carrie is the novel).
‘This is such a nice guy,’ you find yourself thinking, ‘I want to know and celebrate his success and then take account of the how and why.’ That success is so immense, but above all, so appealingly hard-won, that you just can’t refuse to accept what he is saying. Essentially, what he says about writing comes in the second half. It is clear, uncluttered, simple and to the point.
Many, if not most writers read books about writing: plotting, planning, joining retreats, engaging in courses, identifying underlying themes and despair that their organisation and acquisition of techniques will never be sufficient.
King has no truck with much of this. His recommendations come down to this: honest, always honest writing, getting the story down ‘as it comes’, ensuring that the action is or could be true of the characters, similarly that the dialogue rings true of them. He is not precious, and does not value pretensions. His stories all stem from some initial experience and the personalities he has met. Add to this the imagination to latch on to a stunning ‘What If?’
He gets his first draft finished without recourse to beta readers, then puts it strictly away for six weeks. He works on other things. In the second draft he fills out as well as corrects. At this point he may sit back and think what the novel is really about, what is important and consistent throughout the story. This is when he might come up with an image or metaphor that enriches the writing. What is very apparent is that Stephen King is excited about what he writes and loves the activity. He is not identifying a genre where he can make money or intending to write blockbusters. He writes with an audience, an ‘Ideal Reader’ in mind.
This book cleared my mind and stopped the flow of words circling round and down the plug-hole.
It’s not a new book and it will have been lauded and praised many times before this.
However, if there is any reader who has not read a book on Writing, they would do well to read On Writing. It’s changed me from avoiding his novels to seeking them out.
What prompts a writer suddenly write down an idea? Authors of any genre – there’s a lot going on when you write.When you think you have an out-of-the-blue idea and must just get it down, more likely the germ of the idea, even if it’s caused by something just noticed, has an appeal that lies in some unconscious association. That is, past experience will affect the particular event observed, aurally or visually. Why notice this (length of someone’s thumb), rather than that (choice of tie)? Did you know that subliminal exposure can influence preferences? Even patients with amnesia can demonstrate affective preferences without remembering any encounters with the objects of their affection (Johnson & Multhaup, 1992). But the experience of preferring one stimulus rather than another is conscious. As a writer, you are aware of ‘the good idea’ or the urge to write down something noticed or experienced, (conscious preference) without recognising that some original strong, possibly emotional, experience sparked your attention to or your ‘preference’ for a particular stimulus. What one person sees and immediately focuses upon may be ignored by another. Every scene, even the familiar surrounds of the working or home environment, holds a kaleidoscope of auditory and visual stimuli. At a party, Jane’s attention may be drawn to a particular blue-grey dress. She says, when asked afterwards, ‘I don’t know why I remember that dress. I didn’t even particularly like it.’ But in fact it’s the same colour and texture as a dress worn by a shouting aunt in a long-ago quarrel. Her focus of attention means that she fails to absorb the content of conversation in the nearby group. Derek, beside her, has his eyes on one speaker whose gestures irritate him. He can’t say why. If he’s a writer, he may think about why, worry away at the conundrum. Sometimes it is possible to dredge up the original stimulus. A writer may go back over and again over his/her thoughts about an experience such as those above. Occasionally, the origin emerges and it is usually a very satisfying feeling even when the original stimulus was upsetting. It’s a feeling of getting things into place. Why is this unconscious layer of memory part of the human experience? It has a social, a survival function. To know the minds of others, (are they dangerous, are they to be trusted?) from our very early days we must attend to and perceive the available cues, whether in their verbal or nonverbal behavior. In unconsciously absorbing tiny details that contain information about a person’s inner qualities, there is a kind of template against which new experiences can be tested over time. Moreover, when a writer includes such detail it is recognised as significant by the reader. The reader may not know why s/he has focussed on that detail in the chapter, but s/he also has this layer of awareness built up from infancy that alerts him or her to such clues. A character may be softly rubbing the edge of a desk as some significant news is given him. The reader enjoys noticing this detail and absorbing it as a guide to that character’s reaction, and ultimately, personality. It is this kind of detail that moves a piece of writing to another level, (and is often missing from plot-driven fiction). Whether it is the writer writing it, or the reader reading it, such detail makes for what we often call a ‘rich’ read. I have written about auditory and visual stimuli here. Olfactory stimuli is another matter. It is commonly known how certain smells activate long-forgotten memories in the most vivid way. I will write about this in another post. This is the first of several pieces relating to the cognitive process in writing.
There are times when writers feel stuck. Things had been going well but suddenly the writing comes to a halt. Either you keep taking too many breaks, or find yourself re-doing the same section or you sit staring at the screen knowing you’re not getting the narrative right.
The problem is that your ideas are going round and round the same path. You need different mental associations to move things along. Your brain needs oxygen, your body needs movement.
Here is a suggested ploy for unsticking yourself. If the points below don’t resonate with you, read my example.
1. Take a mental refresher, not a writing break. Read any non-fiction article on any subject. Pick out one item or aspect of interest. Let it run through your thoughts.
2. Refresh your creative intake. You can’t give out all of the time, you have to take in as well. Look at any piece of art work. You can do this online. Not many people have a gallery conveniently around the corner. Look at the work carefully. Focus on one detail. Let that stay in your immediate visual memory.
3. Writers spend too much time sitting still. Take some form of exercise straight away. You don’t need to get in the car to visit the gym; a swim or brisk walk of half an hour may be sufficient. During exercise, think about both the recent visual stimulus and the intellectual ideas.
4. Ignore the sticking point in your story. Try to put it out of your mind for the moment. Think of how the idea that resonated with you in the non-fiction article could bear upon some aspect of your narrative.
5. Return to your desk. Take one of your characters and think how you might write about that detail in the art work, how it might illuminate his/her appearance or behaviour.
6. Wherever the section of your story comes that can utilise the above visual and intellectual stimuli, be it a finished passage, a piece you haven’t yet started, or a piece you hadn’t even thought about, write a quick first draft while the ideas are fresh.
7. If this drafting activity has taken over an hour, have your next meal and then go back to the part where you were stuck.
Cynical? Try it. Here’s an example for illustration only.
Reading: Alain de Boton – What is a beautiful building? How does someone think about his home, streets or business building? (The Architecture of Happiness). Possible ideas coming from this: the effect of certain buildings in upon one or more of your characters; how the choice of furnishings increases the tensions between two characters; how the architecture in your town setting help set the tone of your novel.
Art: A painting. (Georges de la Tour) Detail – one hand of one figure. The delicate way that hand describes an emotion. Use that description for ‘painting’ one of your characters in a dramatic scene. i.e. one character, under duresse, notices the hand of another and that description shows the reader some of the emotion present.
Exercise: Brisk walk, private exercises or swim, i.e. minus the distraction of someone’s music in the gym, or instructor’s voice.
Whatever else, the above will be more productive than staring miserably at the screen or chatting on the phone about how you are stuck.
A writer recently remarked that she had difficulty in thinking of titles. I thought I’d concoct a list for beginner writers allowing use for different genres. Let me know if you like this kind of post. It can be taken seriously or not. Who knows, one of these may spark the next novel for someone. These titles are intended for associations to be made. I had fun.