The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron – a life-changing read. Cameron writes about Art with a broad definition. Artists use words, paints, dance, food, glitter crayons, soldering irons, knitting needles… To create is a to be human. She encourages a dedicated, disciplined life – a habit of journalling and ‘Artist Dates’, which emphasize the great joy to be had in creative ventures. Art is to be approached with playful, childlike openness. Cameron’s advice is liberating and inspiring.
Best read one chapter a week, with a group of like-minded and gracious artists.
The Anatomy of Story, by John Truby.
Reading this was an every-other-page-eureka-moment experience. He’s pitching this primarily at screenwriters but it applies to any kind of story and really helped me to get my ideas clear, and to hash out complex characters with complex needs and problems, in a complex world, without it getting just plain confusing.
On Writing, by Stephen King.
This is a great resource and thoroughly enjoyable, but also a butt-kicking read. It begins as a memoir – a series of thirty-something stories from King’s life; each significant to his writer-self. The bulk of the book is about the craft and practice of being a writer of fiction. No mystical secrets, just the good plain advice you may not really want to hear (eg. half-decent grammar is important because without it your reader won’t understand what you’re trying to get across). This book demands of its reader, ‘Are you serious about writing? How serious?’ Makes you think, and write, and read some more – all good, IF you’re serious.
This book will encourage you to put perfectionism aside and to create. Lamott encourages writers to put down word after word, to write lots of bad and better and better work. Packed full of candid stories, this book is a mine field of insights into creative process. I’d go so far as to say that this was a healing read.
Write Away, by Elizabeth George – this book convinced me to do all the background work – collecting ideas, settings, character notes, research, etc. – and outlining before getting far into writing a novel. George explains her own writing process and offers great tools, as well as motivation to work hard – as all good writing books should! If you’re a planner, or you want to give planning a go, this is definitely a great resource.
Best read cover to cover, but I initially skimmed through and took on the bits most relevant to my current work.
I would also recommend ‘Real Writing’ by Rachel McAlpine. There’s very little info online about this book and I suspect it’s hard to get your hands on.
Character and Theme – Advice on creating characters with themes.
Read this while you work on character profiles and histories.
Another Planning device – The Snowflake Method: this is a good and thorough method by which to plan a novel right from the word go – starting with a one-sentence summary and working up through in-depth characterisation to plotting out the whole novel, scene-by-scene.
Advice on Plotting. A succinct 10 step guide to character-driven plot.
Nanowrimo! Need motivation, tools, a deadline, and thousands of other writers to cheer you on?
Nanowrimo takes place every November, when writers around the globe take on the challenge: write 50 thousand words of a novel in just 30 days! And the website is stocked full of goodies all year round. You don’t have to wait till November.
Made by me…
Creating Characters – I looked at loads of character profiles and made one of my own, a kind of combination of the best bits of all of them (as far as I’m concerned).
Feel free to use my character profile, in part or whole, and modify as you wish. Feel free to express your gratitude by linking to my site.
I ran a workshop on editing and revising, and created writing exercises which are helpful for self-editing a novel. Click here for the PDF: Editing & Revision Exercises
On Getting Stuff Done
One of the major obstacles to making progress when working without a brief, or a deadline, or a boss… is that its easier to just do nothing – or rather, do all the other things that come to mind when you sit down and face that blank screen, or canvas, or whatever.
It’s easier to never quite sit down, to never face the blank whatever. Procrastination, busyness, lagging motivation… it’s so easy to make very very slow progress. Or none at all.
Two key elements to making progress:
1. Know what you’re aiming for. Sure, you might end up there or somewhere else entirely, but a goal helps you to move forward, even if the goal changes.
2. Make REGULAR progress. Small, maintainable goals work like stepping stones to the big goals. It is helpful to feel you are progressing – it makes it easier to keep going, especially if the Big Goal is a long way away.
I was introduced to some very useful tools that help with these two things.
Start out with a statement of who you want to be – but put it in the present tense. This feels awkward, especially if you’ve never used positive affirmations. You might sound kind of silly but positivity can’t do you that much damage. Have a look at my example: Self Manager – Example
You probably want to take some time over this statement of intent and at a later date go back to it. You can do so every week, if you like, as part of this whole process. Don’t get stuck here, though…
The next step is to come up with steps that you can take THIS WEEK. These can be tiny, seemingly insubstantial actions, or more significant… it depends on the week. But be realistic, especially at the outset. If you make big, bold resolutions, and then they don’t happen this week, it is more likely that you’ll give up. If you make small, easy resolutions, and successfully fulfill the vast majority, then you are likely to feel encouraged and motivated going into the next week.
Here’s a blank copy to use and adapt: Self Manager – Blank
Of course you can make your own version, adapted to your life style and routines, perhaps a shorter or longer week, or starting on a different day. You may want to do the whole thing digitally, or entirely by hand – old fashioned pen on paper. I prefered to print a version with only the bare essentials typed in. I also had the Goal written in pale grey. Each week (well, most weeks) I would rewrite the goal as part of the process. Then I would go over the whole thing and write in anything ‘optional’ by hand. Colour coding was also helpful for me at one time. Make your version visually appealing to you.
Don’t skip the weekly “check up” – tempting though it may be. This is what will keep you going. It doesn’t need to take long, and your plan doesn’t have to be dramatically different week-to-week, but do have a look at it regularly. Make sure you are, in fact, make progress toward your goals and not getting bogged down in all those urgent but not actually important (to you and your goals) things – though these often seem very important at the time. Also, note your progress and success. You might only be making tiny steps – but they are steps in the right direction! Celebrate that. Feel good, go on. Be encouraged by your own progress.
This tool was really helpful to me at a time when I had a lot of freedom and free time, but also at another period of my life, when I was very busy and my free time was almost non-existent. When creative projects were the first thing to get dropped, I found this got me ‘Making Time’ for them. Unexpectedly, it also helped me to rest. If rest was scheduled-in then I found it much easier to ignore the to-do list and rest. I did not feel guilty about putting my feet up and reading a book, simply because it was in the plan.
On Freedom to be…
Being overly busy and tired are not good for creativity, or general health and happiness. Unfortunately our value and success as human beings is often measured by just how busy we are. It is difficult, and counter-cultural perhaps, to resist this philosophy.
Guilt and fear will also hold us back from fulfilling your creative dreams and potential – plus, they will suck a lot of the joy out of life.
Advertisers thrive on making us feel guilty and inadequate. They sell products by first telling us we can never quite be beautiful enough, successful enough, organised enough, good enough parents, house-keepers, lovers, etc. without buying their products.
Remember: they are trying to sell you something. They will make you miserable, if necessary, in order to do so.
Advertisers are the easy enemy to spot here. Much of society can often play a similar role. If there are people in your life who make you feel useless, discouraged and disempowered, you need to consider taking steps to limit their influence.
There is no simple solution, but I think it is necessary to consider how we can resist those aspects of the pervasive cultural and philosophy that hold us back, as artists, but also in a much wider sense.
On Finding Inspiration
Exposure to good art inspires me. If I’m short of ideas for paintings, then looking at paintings helps. Taking photographs also helps. Confronted with a frame, I start to look at the world as a potential subject.
Reading good books helps in a similar way, but this can be more difficult – it’s hard to know at the outset if a book is going to be wonderful and inspiring. If aspects of a book are not working well then I try to learn from some other writer’s mistakes.
Books about writers might be helpful. Books that you’ve read before and know will spark you off are a safe bet. Perhaps make a list of these or keep them together and on hand in your home or work space.
These last two were significant to me in formative years – at a time when I was discovering my love of writing. Obviously this is my personal list and yous may be very different.
I go through phases of enjoying short story collections. I don’t have to commit more than half an hour and I am exposed to a wide variety of writing styles and genres. I find I will read, and even enjoy, stories which, if they were novel-length, I might avoid.
Consider your own favourites – stories about writers, stories that are interesting, daring and well-written, films and television with engaging dialogue, interesting characters, layers of comedy and insight… Some favourites of mine are The West Wing, Miranda and a new show with Allison Janney (I’d watch anything with that woman in it), Mom.
Surround yourself with that which you admire and soak up all the inspiration you can get!