Most people like to know where they are going, have a route, a map, when travelling or heading into the wilderness, and it is the same with storytelling. Yet, like travelling, sometimes the magic only happens when you deviate a little from the plan, let go, loosen up and allow yourself to write untethered by a strict directive. For many writers, particularly when starting out writing fiction, the magnitude of rules can be paralysing instead of helpful.
If entangled in the tenets of structure or conflicting advice, rather than enjoying the creative process of writing a novel, novella or short story, it can become laboured, and with it, our writing may seem a little laboured too. Readers know when you haven’t enjoyed writing a piece, they can feel any resistance through your words.
Planning of course has its place, sometimes it’s even essential but if you find yourself immobilised by your plot and plan or lack thereof, the ink in your metaphorical pen can dry up. Then instead of the literary loveliness you’d so fondly imagined, what appears on the page just doesn’t quite sit right. The setting isn’t as evocative as envisaged, the characters too may seem a little flat. If what you once visualised feels thwarted, unable to flourish on the page, try these travel-inspired techniques.
Get Deliciously Lost
Travelling without a map can bring its own gems. Sometimes there is nothing as delicious as purposefully getting lost. Writing like travelling, can be rich with experience but you have to leave the shore or main bazaar, deviate from the path and find routes that you never have could were you to stick to the strict doctrine of the guidebook.
When we lose ourselves in a place and roam free we can discover those enchanting secrets of a culture. It might be a locals’ favourite eating place, or a shaded square that evokes a serene stillness within us but – like travelling – when we write we must allow ourselves to experience the place and our process, however that place may be, and leave a little room for the magic to happen.
When the words refuse to flow or you’re struggling to even begin, spending time doing a free-write, whether guided by a topic or not, can loosen even the most stubborn creative blocks. Drop your judgements and simply allow your pen to move and keep moving, just as you would were you to be discovering a place with fresh newness.
“The rule for writing practice of “keeping your hand moving,” not stopping, actually is a way to physically break through your mental resistances and cut through the concept that writing is just about ideas and thinking,” says author Natalie Goldberg.
“You are physically engaged with the pen, and your hand, connected to your arm, is pouring out the record of your senses. There is no separation between the mind and body; therefore, you can break through the mind barriers to writing through the physical act of writing, just as you can believe with your mind that your hand won’t stop at the wood, so you can break a board in karate.”
You can free-write on a character, a setting, or simply write, allowing yourself to swing with whatever comes up. It can be both liberating and joyful, and also reignite your passion for a project that has perhaps become a little stale.
Be Aware of Every Sense
When you write with all your senses you truly evoke the scene and setting. Just as walking down a road in a strange town and country can immerse you in the exotic smells, sights and feelings of a place, so too can you invigorate your writing by attending to these details and writing with the same awareness as you would were you to be there.
The bubbling syrup on an Indian sweet wallah’s stove, the colours, sounds and smells of a spice market, the tooting horns of a hundred cars, the soothing swash and backwash of a palm-lined shore and scent of the ocean mingling with the fragrance of pine trees.
Your characters are also far more then simply what they look like or are doing in the scene. “Don’t just use visual details,” says author Darcy Pattison. “Also include kinesthetic details, or how the character moves. Graceful, limping, stutter-step, lumbers, waddles, stomps. Using sensory detail can enliven even the most tired prose, and with it, enliven your passion too.
Try this Visualisation Technique:
Choose a passage or scene in the story you are writing and put yourself in the character’s place with this visualisation technique:
- Take a deep breath and close your eyes.
- Imagine the scene before you in your mind’s eye. Truly immerse yourself in the place as if you are this character.
- Keep breathing gently and evenly as you do so and go through each of the senses.
- What does the setting smell like? Is it light, dark or rich with colours? What can you hear? What small details can you see/feel/sense that were until now hidden?
- Open your eyes and do another free-write on your experience. Keep this for later to add depth to your story.
See the Details [and Put Them into Your Novel]
When you take time to experience a place it can be as if time slows. All the little details of life that are so easily missed in our busy world come into our awareness. “Good writing is detailed,” says author Rebecca T Dickson.
“Those details bring readers into the story so deep, they get lost. As writers, we love this. We want to create real life. Will you use every piece of that detail in your final manuscript? Again, it doesn’t matter. Until you know the story, you cannot tell the story.”
Taking time to include subtlety, detail and sympbolism in your creative writing can bring depth and layers to your story. “In the first chapter of Brontë’s story, Jane Eyre is reading a book called Bewick’s History of British Birds, which features significantly bleak and desolate descriptions of the English landscape,” says K.M. Weiland, author of Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel.
“On the surface, these descriptions have no connection to Jane’s world—except that, of course, they do. Brontë could just as easily have given Jane a cheery romance to read. Instead, she used the bleak descriptions to symbolize Jane’s bleak life as an orphan living with her cruel aunt.”
Symbolism can also be used in less subtle ways such as the weather, which always affects the mood of a place and of course the setting and characters in your fiction. “Weather is a tool to evoke mood, guiding the character toward the emotions we want them to feel (and by extension, the reader as well),” says Angela Ackerman, author of The Emotion Thesaurus, The Positive & Negative Trait Thesaurus books & blogger at Writers Helping Writers.
“By tuning into specific weather conditions, a character may feel safe, or off balance. Because we have all experienced different types of weather ourselves, when we read about it within a scene, it reminds us of our own past, and the emotions we felt at the time. So, not only does weather add a large element of mood to the setting, it also encourages readers to identify with the character’s experience on a personal level.”
Step Out of Your Comfort Zone [and Take Risks]
Fear is the product of memory, which keeps us focused on our past. Remembering our past hurts and fears makes us ensure that they will not repeat themselves but attempting to impose the past on the present can never wipe out the threat or fear. That can only happen when you find the security in your own being, your own essence.
“It was Charlie Chaplin who said that nothing is permanent in this wicked world, not even our troubles…and he was right,” says author, speaker and writing coach, Stephanie Lennox. “Don’t let failure stop you from trying again. Nothing worth having comes easy, but that makes it so much sweeter when you do achieve what you wanted to achieve. Remember to savour and cherish every moment as they come.”
When you put yourself into any extreme new situation, you are forced into pure consciousness. There isn’t any space for self-consciousness or engaging with your own self-criticism because you’re entirely present. Stepping out of your comfort zone and taking risks can work wonders for your life and your writing.
The term comfort zone is in fact a little misleading as stepping out of it is not necessarily uncomfortable, and after you take a few risks or challenged yourself a few times, you may even find it enjoyable. Whatever fear you hold onto by clinging to the familiar, it’s important to accept that there’s a far greater underlying fear in the helplessness engendered by knowing that you’re not being true to yourself or your dreams, creative and otherwise.
Let go of unhelpful beliefs and begin to build up your inner strength from this moment onwards. Believe in yourself and your abilities, being a victim is the easiest thing in the world but being proactive and dedicated, choosing to create any way, to write any way, that is true courage.
Keep a Notebook
Just as when taking a trip it is lovely to keep a journal to remember your experiences, having a notebook that is entirely dedicated to your writing project can be a valuable tool and touchstone. Not only keeping and generating new ideas and inspirations but also reminding you of the initial sparks of each project.
“This is your equipment, like hammer and nails to a carpenter. Sometimes people buy expensive hardcover journals and because they are fancy, you are compelled to write something good. Instead you should feel that you have permission to write the worst junk in the world and it would be okay,” says Natalie Goldberg.
“Give yourself a lot of space in which to explore writing. A cheap spiral notebook lets you feel that you can fill it quickly and afford another. Also, it is easy to carry. Try out different kinds. In the end, it must work for you. The size of your notebook matters too. A small notebook can be kept in your pocket, but then you have small thoughts. That’s okay.”
Often those sparks of inspiration come when we are far from our writing desk, when our body is relaxed and our mind at ease. Keeping a notebook always helps to generate more ideas and also ensures that they are as fresh as when you first thought of them.
To make both your thoughts about the project and the writing itself more lucid, pay attention to your ideas just as you would when experiencing a new place and write them down in a notebook.
“The aim is to burn through to first thoughts, to the place where energy is unobstructed by social politeness or the internal censor, to the place where you are writing what your mind actually sees and feels, not what it thinks it should see or feel,” says Natalie Goldberg.
“It’s a great opportunity to capture the oddities of your mind. Explore the rugged edge of thought. Like grating a carrot, give the paper the colorful coleslaw of your consciousness.” Restore your thirst for your literary travels and renew your love for the protagonist’s journey by reading your original inspirations.
Whenever you feel a little lost or a little disenchanted by the project, refer to this notebook. Carry it everywhere. If your passion wavers, refer to it; if you have a seed of an idea, write in it.
Here are the ‘rules’ for capturing your first thoughts and writing in a notebook (excerpted from Chapter 2 “First Thoughts” in Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg):
- Keep your hand moving. (Don’t pause to reread what you have just written. That’s stalling and trying to get control of what you’re saying.)
- Don’t cross out. (That is editing as you write. Even if you write something you didn’t mean to write, leave it.)
- Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar. (Don’t even care about staying within the margins and lines on the page.)
- Lose control.
- Don’t think. Don’t get logical.
- Go for the jugular. (If something comes up in your writing that is scary or naked, dive right into it. It probably has lots of energy.)
Change Plans and Travel without a Map
The world is a fascinating place, worthy of deep exploration. Sometimes however people choose to always visit the same places, always take their holidays and vacations in the same spot. If your story is feeling a little too predictable, a little too anticipated or inevitable, lose the map and try this simple but powerful technique.
Like travelling, when plotting it can help to let go of our original plans and go with the flow, to step back and take a more panoramic view, allowing the unexpected to occur and new inspirations to breathe. Renew your passion for your literary travels and bring fresh ideas to your plot.
Use This Plotting Phrase:
A secret of great writers is this magic phrase ‘what if’. What if the protagonist didn’t go there but did this instead? What if she missed the last train to Lhasa and found herself talking to a Sherpa in a café in Kathmandu? What if instead of this character being kind, he has a disturbing secret that’s causing inner conflict or will ruin another character?
The possibilities for experience when travelling are as endless as they are in your fiction. Allow yourself a little freedom. Using this powerful phrase when plotting, whether through a free-write or list, can be liberating. Keep saying ‘what if’ as you plot and/or free-write. This technique may throw up utter nonsense but it can also offer jewels.
In contrast, not knowing where we are going or being overwhelmed by the options can lead us to question and judge far too frequently as we try to assure ourselves that we are not wasting our time, nor writing something that no one will ever want to read. Boundaries, like the boarders of a country on a map, can offer the limitations you need to focus on the individual stages of a project or story.
The key is in a balance between allowing your writing the liberation it needs to roam free while maintaining the constraints through which you limit the scope of your imagination, thereby allowing your creativity to flourish and avoid being overwhelmed by options.
Try this Productivity Technique:
Break up your project into manageable chunks, depending on how much time you can reasonably dedicate to it on a daily basis and plan ahead of your writing session so you know which section you will be working on. It can be beneficial to set your writing goals to be slightly smaller than you think you can attain, 15 minutes a day for example, so that when you reach them, like climbing the final steps to the top of an ancient temple, you want to keep going, so do.
Key in this process is to always work on each individually and to the exclusion of all else. This provides the necessary framework for you to create without becoming overwhelmed by the magnitude of the project or distracted.
Even if you only have time to write for 15 minutes a day, knowing what you will be working on ahead relieves a lot of internal angst and subconscious pressure. It also allows you to maximise this time by being able to dive straight in.
Allow Your Characters to Speak to You
When travelling in a new place, you [hopefully] wouldn’t force people to converse with you but instead meet locals as you linger or fellow travellers along the way. Sometimes you and another find an instant connection, other times you have to warm to each other and have trust, just as with your characters.
Some authors suggest making lists of every miniscule detail about a character, from what they like for breakfast to the first song they ever bought and although this can be useful, too much detail can sometimes hinder instead of help. Trust your innate ability to see the world through the eyes of your characters and allow them to reveal themselves to you.
“All writers have an intuitive/analytical streak running through them. That’s why we are writers. We compulsively see the world through the eyes of characters, of “others”, and we are driven to express that inner vision in words,” says author and writing coach, Lauren Sapala.
Depending on your mood and the place you are in, a city or town can have endless faces. The deeper you go, the more you discover and it is the same with the characters in your fiction. “Think of your character as a jewel that has about a thousand different facets. If you keep turning them over and exploring new sides, you’ll keep discovering new information about their personality and motivations. And there’s always another way to turn things. There’s always another side to explore.”
Try this Character Writing Technique:
Instead of creating your character with 1000 questions, drop all judgement and invite your characters to speak for themselves. It may sound a little crazy to those who do not love to write fiction but giving the pen to your character, whether through a character interview or free-write, and letting whatever comes up come up, can deliver far more than a list of characteristics.
You can find out far more about their unique traits and inklings just by allowing them to speak. Even if at first it appears to be nonsense, you can edit nonsense. You cannot, however, edit the thoughts in your mind. As you come to truly know and even care for your characters, you naturally add to their depth through your story.
We’ve all seen people who travel to a place only to not even experience it. They take their photographs and smile for the camera then move onto the next place of interest, never truly being there, never truly present.
Just as if you are to understand a place, you have to pause and experience it, unless you dedicate yourself to the process of writing, truly immerse yourself in both presence and prose – and allow yourself to write with the rich awareness of your entire being – those glints of gold in the mud will be skimmed over, and missed.
“When you are present, the world is truly alive,” says Natalie Goldberg, quoting a meditation teacher. Being aware when writing means to write with your whole being. To engage both heart and head, to write from your gut, creating from the deepest part of yourself.
Try this Taoist Technique:
If you are feeling stressed-out, ungrounded or overwhelmed this sequence swiftly delivers you to a place of stillness, refreshing your spirit and quieting your thoughts. In turn bringing you back to the present wherein you are free to continue your day and create, renewed and rejuvenated.
- Be aware of your breath, inhaling and exhaling slowly and evenly.
- Place the right hand on the Hundred Meeting Point GV 20, which is on the top of your head (see image here)
- Now place your left hand at the Third Eye Point or GV 24.5, holding GV 20 with GV 24.5 together.
- Close your eyes in stillness and breathe deeply for one to two minutes.
- Keeping your right hand on GV 20 move your left hand to the Sea of Tranquillity CV 17, which is located at the centre of the breastbone (see image).
- Continue to breathe deeply as if you are breathing directly into the Sea of Tranquillity point, as if it is an aperture through which you breathe. This has a tremendously calming effect.
- Stay in this serene stillness for one to two minutes.
- Open your eyes and enjoy renewed tranquillity and calm.
For more Taoist Techniques click here.
Being aware, conscious and present is to be mindful and through this aware state of non-judgement, you allow your stories to come into being naturally of themselves without pausing to tweak or question what is on the page. It may not always be wonderful but the very act of grounding and being present can help to both inspire new concepts and ideas and also loosen any stiffness inherent in your flow.
Find Your Own Way
It’s natural to try and work using the methods of other authors while finding our own unique way to write but unless you allow yourself to trust the process and find your own way through the act of writing consistently, improving your craft will always remain out of reach.
“If you’re an introvert, or just a writer who struggles to make real headway in your writing, the answer lies in the simple practice right in front of you. You have to write,” says Lauren Sapala.
“Even if you cringe while you’re doing it, or you’re disappointed because it’s not matching up to what’s inside your head, or you can’t find the perfect words, you have to press on. The more you write, the better you’ll get to know yourself and your writing practice. Your trust in the process and your own creativity will grow.”
The Big Picture
Maintaining an awareness of where you are and where you want to be can help keep you focused on a project. With every step forward, every new scene completed or chapter written, like travelling through new territory, you find both your skill and confidence grows.
When immersed in a new culture of place it can feel liberating. It doesn’t always go to plan, sometimes it even goes badly but give yourself permission to allow it to. Grant yourself the same freedom in your writing. Having a flexibility of thought and fluidity in process too, it will increase both the enjoyment and in turn your devotion to a project.
“When you write…sit down with the least expectation of yourself; say, “I am free to write the worst junk in the world,” says Natalie Goldberg. “There is no security, no assurance that because we wrote something good two months ago, we will do it again. Actually, every time we begin, we wonder how we ever did it before.”
Just as each of us are only our own unique journey, each of us must find our own way to write. Instead of always adhering to firm rules, find your own way of travelling this journey of writing a short story or novel; find what works for you. Allow your stories to be told. Even if no one ever sees them, to write and without concern of commercialism or consequence is to write joyfully, to travel without a map.