Alongside ‘are your characters based on real people?’, ‘don’t all writers earn shed-loads of money?’ and if, like me, you are in the rom com market: ‘would you like to write a proper novel one day?’ this has to be the question writers get asked most frequently. It’s also one of the most difficult to answer. Personally, I get my ideas from everywhere and nowhere; sometimes they land fully-formed on the page and at other times I feel as though I’m beating them out of my brain with a big stick. Sometimes inspiration springs anew after a chat with a writer friend and at other times it’s a question of trying different approaches until I find one that works. However, the thing that got me writing in the first place, and which keeps me motivated enough to continue, has to be reading.
Feeding the Itch
Of course, it’s one thing to decide airily ‘I know, I’ll write a novel’ and quite another to keep plugging away until you finally type the words ‘The End’. The problem is *spoiler alert* being a writer isn’t all sipping champagne and planning your acceptance speeches for major literary awards – although of course those are very important parts of the job. Sometimes it’s a question of sheer hard grind. What’s vital, therefore, is that you keep feeding the itch that got you started in the first place, otherwise your writing va-va-voom will shrivel up and die. Luckily, the solution is simple: make sure you read regularly, particularly books in a similar market niche to your own. For a writer, taking the time to enjoy and feel inspired by other people’s work is as important as eating your greens or remembering to breathe. If (as happens occasionally) you can’t bear to read anyone else’s books because you are experiencing a crisis of authorly confidence and would have to hunt them down and kill them for being fluent and eloquent and interesting and all the things that you are convinced you are not, then by all means read something else: try poetry, a magazine article or a play – hell, even turn on Eastenders – but make sure you somehow stay connected with the creative energy sloshing round the cosmos. At the very least, experiencing someone else’s written output – in whatever form – demonstrates the art of the possible: they did it which means you can do it too.
As well as being an inspiration, other people’s writing can also help you on a practical level. As we read, we subconsciously absorb far more information than we can consciously recall afterwards. The human brain is pre-programmed to look for patterns and structures, so whilst you and your conscious brain are happily enjoying the latest Hilary Mantel, your subconscious is busy searching out and filing away patterns, structures and ideas that it might want to use later (see ‘The Process’ below). Read enough and you will eventually build up a blueprint, a subconscious sense of how a piece of writing should ‘work’, which you can then draw on to make sure your own efforts are heading in the right direction. If you can do this consciously, or ‘mindfully’, you’ll speed the process up no end. Like the current vogue for mindfulness meditation, mindful reading is about training your mind to focus on the task in hand (in this case, reading) so that when it comes across something particularly moving/satisfying/engaging you are able to notice your interest and stop and think: ‘that’s good. Now, how did the author do that?’
I have an American author friend who is a great believer in what she calls ‘The Process’. She reckons that whilst you are doing the dishes, phoning your mum or walking the dog, your subconscious mind (yes, that again) is busy thrashing through ideas for your WIP. ‘Trust The Process’ she says whenever I get stuck – and she’s right. Furthermore, as long as you write regularly and keep your book churning over in your mind, reading (or watching films and TV) will actively aid The Process. Imagine everything you have ever read or watched has been recorded by your subconscious mind as an entry on a giant mental database. As your brain clicks through The Process in its quest to create your WIP, it’s revisiting and analysing all the relevant database entries it can find. And it does all this without needing to be asked – awesome!
As well as problem-solving on your behalf, The Process also helps you to simply write better. If you are a self-aware, discerning person (and I know for a fact that Writers’ Workshop only attracts self-aware, discerning people) you will be gauging your writing to check it’s at publication/submission standard. However thanks to The Process, the more you read the easier this becomes because you automatically internalise the standard that everyone you are reading is writing at and subconsciously echo it in your own work. You won’t even know you’re doing it. (I love The Process).
Finally, a Few Quick Fixes
Being well-read also means you have a whole raft of fixes you can go to when things get sticky. Here are just a few:
• Need a snappy line for a character and you just can’t think of anything? Imagine what a famous character might do or say in a similar situation. These are your words (we’re not plagiarising here) but written in the style of an existing character you know and admire. Personally, when I need a quick, funny retort I often wonder what a certain Edmund Blackadder might have said…
• Saggy middle? Find your favourite novel or screenplay and have a look at what happens midway through. I would bet real, actual money that the author has added a new piece of information or a cunning plot twist at round about the halfway point that ups the stakes and keeps you turning the pages. A classic example is Mr Darcy’s out-of-the-blue first proposal in Pride and Prejudice. Think: how can I tweak my WIP to achieve a similar effect?
• Really stuck? Can’t see the way forward? Thinking about giving up? Remember: trust The Process. Close your laptop and go and read a book or watch something with a similar feel to your WIP on TV. Don’t feel guilty – you’re a writer so this counts as work. Mentally hand your problem over to The Process and see what jumps off the page/screen at you. Your brain will be sorting through its database of possible solutions and, the moment it spots one, it will let you know.
Do read. Allow yourself to be inspired, moved, outraged and entertained. Remember that, like you, every single published author has had to wrestle with that blank page; remember also that they won through in the end – as will you. Above all, trust The Process and listen to what it’s trying to tell you. You never know, it might just have that answer you’ve been looking for…
Allie Spencer is former barrister turned award-winning author and creative writing tutor. She has had five romantic comedy novels published to date (two of which were shortlisted for the prestigious Melissa Nathan Award) and her teaching experience covers everything from leading large workshops to supporting new writers on an individual level through manuscript critiquing. She is passionate about all aspects of writing and literature and, as well as being a professional writer, has a scholarly background in the study of English. Allie runs our 4 week Reading for Writers class, details here.
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