Writing 101: Catching Your Own Imagination

Yes, Writer Tip Wednesday is a little behind, but in my defence, I was stuck on a road to and from Manchester last night for more hours than is humane…so my blog post didn’t go up – you can blame Manchester! Hehe. Following on from my In Search of Originality post, it got me to thinking. Whether we’re creating something unseen before, or merely imitating, the birth of either comes down to one thing in the writer’s mind, no matter what experience is added: imagination.

Such a powerful word, isn’t it? In an instant, it conjures up images of writers from the past thoughtfully chewing on the end of a quill pen, sitting at a cheaply candle-lit desk in a scruffy loft. Or of a bohemian shawl-clad woman smoking copious but elegant cigarettes as she shuffles through stacks of paper to find the said pen. There’s a whole discussion on where exactly imagination comes from, and some scientists now believe the brain as a whole calls on different areas when creating – so no single ‘place’ where the muse sits. So how do we catch hold of this ghostly force floating around our minds?

I think every writer is familiar with ‘writer’s block’, that irritating period where your brain conks out, puts its feet up, and has a drink without you. “I’ll call later,” it says, before hanging up on you. And you just know it’s having fun without you. But after writing professionally for a few years now, I think writer’s block isn’t a brick wall as such, maybe just an obstacle. And with all obstacles, there’s a way around them. I’ve had a few hellish times with blocks in my writing time, and I think I’ve come up with a few (if some are a little strange!) ways of dealing with it, and finding the left turn around the obstacle to your book. So, I’m going to share them with you guys…

 

Stream Of Conscious Writing

This is good for if the story is coming through okay, but your descriptions and words just aren’t up to the task just yet. You’re going to need a pen and paper for this one, and possibly need to travel to places similar to those in your story. I’ll give an example for this one; in a recent chapter of the book I’m writing now, I need to describe a wet, autumnal day. I just couldn’t feel the scene like I wanted to, so…as it’s currently autumn here in Britain, and wet, I went outside with a pen and paper, at 11pm, and using the outside light in our yard, starting writing everything I could see, hear and feel around me, without stopping to consider what I was writing down. I wrote things like ‘Strange light of the dusk’, Sweet and musty’, and ‘frenzied buzzing of a bird’s wings’. I may not use those exact words or phrases in a book, but as I read down the sheet of paper, it brings the memory of a wet, autumnal night back to me sharply, helping me to create the scene I need. I’ve since done a few others, for a ‘cold, crisp autumn morning’, and ‘sunny afternoon in autumn’. Obviously, I’ll have to wait a while for the rest of the year until I have a whole collection, but you get the idea. So if you’re stuck on how to accurately describe a shopping centre, go and write whatever you see, hear and feel there, without stopping to think what you’re noting down. Need to know what a quiet afternoon in the countryside is like? Go visit it for a bit one afternoon, and take your pad and pen! I promise it’s surprising how well this simple exercise can help, and it’s interesting to note all the things you never notice when you’re thinking too hard about it.

Yes, you will actually type this fast. Good, huh?

Yes, you will actually type this fast. Good, huh?

 

Relax For A While!

Yeah, thought you guys might like that one, haha. But seriously, if you’re thinking too much about any one thing, you will get burn out. It’s not pretty. *shudders* But don’t relax too much, that’s the key. If you’re having trouble concentrating on your scene because nothing is coming forth, go and do something else for a while, but make sure it’s still something creative. Go bake a cake, put a shelf up, paint something – as long as you’re still engaging those practical, imaginative parts of your mind, it can be good to change what you’re doing. Continuing to do something creative (based off when I’ve done it, mind, I can’t guarantee results) that’s different seems to help your brain figure things out differently, but by still engaging the same parts of your mind, you’ll find your thoughts drifting back to your book – and nine times out of ten, you’ll also figure out the problem that had you stuck while you were writing. Try it out, and see if it works for you.

Hmm....maybe this isn't the best way to relax. Maybe.

Hmm….maybe this isn’t the best way to relax. Maybe.

 

Talk To Yourself

Okay, I know. This one does sound we’re going into crazy people territory. But show me a writer who doesn’t have a little madness in them. This method can be useful if you’re having difficulty penning out a conversation between two people, and you don’t want it to be flat or dull – you’re also going to need either a good memory for this method, or a pen, paper, and fast hand. Clear a space where you can walk about and imagine the setting for the conversation – I suggest doing this when you’re on your own, by the way. Nothing more embarrassing than being walked in on when chatting with yourself. 😉 Pretend to be the character who initiates the conversation, really get into their mindset. Walk as they would walk, think how they would think, even do a ‘voice’ for them, if you like. Say the first line they would say, then get into the mindset of the other character (or characters) and think of how they would reply. It help to imagine what your response might be to what was said. (What would you say to “I am your lost-lost brother,” for example? Or, “I killed them,”?) Play out the conversation between the characters, and don’t forget to imagine what arm movements they would use, whether they would sit or stand, and where. What expressions would they have while speaking? It might sound mad, but I promise, do this and memorise it, then write it down; or write down notes and write it down, and it will be one of the best conversations your characters have ever had.

Turns out, he was just writing a book. Who would have guessed?

Turns out, he was just writing a book. Who would have guessed?

 

Listen To Music

It’s on my list, but I think this is one method (from all the writers I know) that already gets used a lot – because it’s so good! But, I think you get the best results when you choose music for a playlist with no words at all – so that basically means no setting up all your favourite popular songs. The reason for this is that sometimes hearing other words spoken can be distracting, and you’ll find yourself spending more time singing along than writing, haha. Is your book set in Ireland or Scotland? Find some powerful Celtic music to set the mood. Maybe you’re writing a novel set in the Roaring Twenties? Search for some sultry jazz music. Keep softer, gentler music for emotional scenes, and fiery, powerful music for battle scenes or arguments. Choose music that will fit the ‘vibe’ of your book, and make a playlist that lasts twice as long as the time you set aside for writing each day. (So if you write for two hours a day, make the playlist four hours). This means you won’t be listening to the same piece over and over, unless you want to, of course! Set the playlist to ‘shuffle’, plug in your headphones, and let the writing begin. It’s incredible what emotions and thoughts can be stirred by listening to an appropriate piece of music, and I’ve found ideas usually flow endlessly after you hit the right track.

You know it's good when your cat nods along.

You know it’s good when your cat nods along.

 

So these are some of my favourite methods for cracking down on that irritating writer’s block. Try them out, and let me know if any of them work for you! What about you guys, do you have any other methods you like to use? Share them in the comments below, I’d love to know a few more! 🙂

In Search of Originality

There were two things I watched on TV last night which made me wonder how genius in writing comes about. The first program was Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, easily my favourite of his plays; and ‘The Gambler’, an average film in which the main character attempts to teach what I’m asking at one point. What did make Shakespeare such a genius? I did a little reading last night, and my personal favourite of the theories was Jack Kerouac’s explanation – that it is divided by those who create original work – ‘geniuses’ – and those who imitate, even brilliantly imitate – ‘talent’.

He stated, in an essay for Writer’s Digest titled Are Writers Made or Born?, written in 1962which was also later on included in The Portable Jack Kerouacthat he thought this was the case. He started the essay by stating, “Writers are made, for anybody who isn’t illiterate can write; but geniuses of the writing art like Melville, Whitman or Thoreau are born.” He went on to say that no one else could have written Moby-Dick, Leaves of Grass, or any of Shakespeare’s plays – that the writers of these works of literature had something they were born with, something that couldn’t be taught. To explain the difference to talent, Kerouac used the following example; “Some perfect virtuoso who can interpret Brahms on the violin is called a “genius,” but the genius, the originating force, really belongs to Brahms; the violin virtuoso is simply a talented interpreter — in other words, a “Talent.” Or you’ll hear people say that so-and-so is a “major writer” because of his “talent.” There can be no major writers without original genius. Artists of genius, like Jackson Pollock, have painted things that have never been seen before… Take the case of James Joyce: people say he “wasted” his “talent” on the stream-of-consciousness style, when in fact he was simply born to originate it.”

On the other side of the argument, there was Mark Twain, with his famous quote; “…all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them…” This was from a letter written to his friend Helen Keller, after she was accused, and later acquitted, of plagiarism. This is the most common theory of originality most of us know – I even remember a teacher from school saying something very similar, something that upset me at the time. As a child, I’d unconsciously remembered a story (I can’t even remember which one anymore!) and elements of it ran parallel to the short story I’d written. They noted, delightedly, as a child had took on reading something they hadn’t expected, that it reminded them of this other story. I hated the story I’d written after that, glaring down at my pudgy little hands, holding the sheet of paper with childish disgust. I’d thought my story was unlike all others! Once I grew up, and read a lot more books, I realised that it was near impossible to write something that truly is original, something that uses no other elements any other book has. The very fact my own books fit neatly in genre categories shows that there are many of us in the same boat – most of us, I expect. That feeling I had as a child stayed with me though, and it made me not want to write anything for a long time. As Salvador Dalí even said, “Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.”

But I think there’s some common ground between these two ways of thinking. On the one hand, I agree whole-heartedly with Jack Kerouac. I think genius is born, not made, and most of us – including me, haha – can merely hope to fall into the ‘talent’ category. But I also agree with Mark Twain. Whatever we think is original, may have been created a long time before those stories were written down. Who knows? Having said that, I have a hard time imagining the way Shakespeare spun words together, or the way Herman Melville brought a raw accuracy to the characters of his book, could ever have been repeated before. But I think while we’re imitating genius and trying to hone our stories as well as we can, we can always aim for that elusive ‘original story’. Because without aiming for genius, talent can never be as good as possible. 🙂

What are your thoughts, guys? Which side of the argument do you lie on?

 

Top 10 Literary Villains (Or Maybe Anti-Heroes)

This is something I posted a while back over on another blog as part of a tour, but it’s always fun to give things an airing a little while later – and who doesn’t love a Top 10 list? There’s a lot of heroes in my books who turn out to be villains, or at the very least, an anti-hero. So without further ado, here’s my Top 10 Literary Villains (Or Maybe Anti-Heroes).

 

  1. Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights

There’s an argument that Heathcliff isn’t always a villain – he’s maybe the villain on this list who is most a product of his circumstances. He is a tortured soul, thanks to Catherine, but I just can’t forgive how he later twists Catherine’s daughter into a cold, distant person like himself. But, there’s something of the hero in him at the start of the book, so I can’t condemn him completely as a villain.

Lookit the brooding. The TORTURED BROODING, PEOPLE!

Lookit the brooding. The TORTURED BROODING, PEOPLE!

 

  1. Marquise de Merteuil from Les Liaisons Dangereuses

Seductive, witty and charming, the Marquise also plots what is a horrific downfall in a young woman’s life, ending with her eventual disgrace, the death of Valmont, and the Marquise’s own disgrace. There’s a calculated, cold edge to her words in the book (which is made up of letters between the two main characters) that comes through even in her charming moments, and always leaves me with a shudder along my spine.

"Tell me you did not just diss me to my face. Tell me you didn't."

“Tell me you did not just diss me to my face. Tell me you didn’t.”

  1. O’Brien from Nineteen Eighty-Four

A villain who lives up to the backstabbing nature of one, O’Brien is first portrayed as a good person, one rebelling against the Inner Party, when in fact, he’s completely on their side. With a determined calculation, he easily weaves Winston and Julia into their own demise, eventually ending in breaking Winston’s spirit. And what could be more evil than breaking down the inner psyche of a person?

Just look at the plotting...or he's forgotten what he was going to say.

Just look at the plotting…or he’s forgotten what he was going to say.

  1. Cruella de Vil from The Hundred and One Dalmatians

This woman was the stuff of nightmares for me as a child. Surely there can’t be anything more evil than seeing puppies, and instead of wanting to cuddle them, wondering if you can get matching gloves out of them after making the coat? Aside from her obvious cruelty and nastiness to those around her, Cruella just can’t be forgiven for wanting to commit a monstrous act against innocent animals.

The face of pure evil.

The face of pure evil.

  1. Long John Silver from Treasure Island

A mixture of father-figure and cutthroat pirate, this is another character who flits that line between good guy and bad guy. There’s something likeable about him at the start of the book; taking a young boy under his wing, doling out worldly advice while whistling down mast-lines. But in the end, like all the characters on this list, he shows a darker side and shows that bad guys finish last.

That is a pretty nifty balancing act.

That is a pretty nifty balancing act.

  1. Patrick Batemen from American Psycho

Here’s a villain…who might not be a villain. We have no idea, thanks to the psychotic mind-set and hallucinations that Patrick suffers from, but there’s no doubt that his mind is at least villainous. A shallow, modern version of a villain, this character brings to light all the bad traits that most of us have at one point or another experienced – greed, envy, the list goes on.

Patrick had finally got sick of waiting on the so-called customer service line on the phone. "Second in line? I've been here for seven hours!"

Patrick had finally got sick of waiting on the so-called customer service line on the phone. “Second in line? I’ve been here for seven hours!”

  1. Moriarty from The Final Problem by Arthur Conan Doyle

No list would be complete without the ‘Napoleon of crime’. The somewhat chilling aspect of Moriarty is that he was based off real-life villains (most notably Adam Worth), giving him an edge of something we might see every day on the news. This is a criminal mastermind, who while an absolute bad guy, you can’t help but admire for his intelligence and skill. Although he actually only appears in one book, you can’t mention Sherlock Holmes without remembering this nemesis.

"Maybe I wouldn't be so evil if I went into colour..."

“Maybe I wouldn’t be so evil if I went into colour…”

  1. Mr Hyde from The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

What I love most about this villain is that while he actually has a physical appearance in the novel, he is also a clever metaphor for the duality of all people – a ‘good’ side and a ‘bad’ side. Over the course of the novel, Dr Jekyll actually tries to cease becoming Mr Hyde, but his efforts are fruitless, again showing how difficult it is to stop being a monster once you become one. A great villain in a great book, and one of the best images to describe humanity.

Peeping at keyholes. It doesn't get much worse than this, people. Oh, wait...

Peeping at keyholes. It doesn’t get much worse than this, people. Oh, wait…

  1. Bill Sykes from Oliver Twist

The drunk, abusive, murderer of prostitutes-with-a-heart-of-gold only misses out being number one on this list by one place. This villain gets a scathing description in Dickens’ novel, and there’s little to no redeeming features about him. A gritty look at the actual kinds of people who hung out in dark alleyways during the Victorian period, he’s a villain that reminds us of a gloomy and frightening past that wasn’t actually fictional at the time this book was written.

Someone really needs to introduce Bill to shampoo. I'm just saying.

Someone really needs to introduce Bill to shampoo. I’m just saying.

  1. Claudius from Hamlet

Let’s see…murders his own brother by poison to gain a throne, then marries his brother’s widow and then plots to murder his nephew. That’s pretty damn evil. The unfurling of this villain throughout Shakespeare’s play starts with him shown as a pretty decent king – until Hamlet’s ghost appears. His motives become clear, and his only remorse is private, sealing his fate. His villainy also famously ends in pretty much everyone but a dog called Tom and a maid picking berries in the garden ending up dead, as the poison gets a thorough splashing over young Hamlet and his mother.

"So I said, 'new drapes? Sure, if...um....if they're poisoned.' Er, wait. Forget I said that. Everyone drink up."

“So I said, ‘new drapes? Sure, if…um….if they’re poisoned.’ Er, wait. Forget I said that. Everyone drink up.”

So there’s my list! Even as I wrote this, I thought of a lot more, and I’m not even decided on the positioning of each one. So who have I missed out that you would put in the list? Who are your greatest book villains?

 

Female Writers in History,and the World’s First Novel

Growing up in the western world, when I was at school, I was taught that the world’s first ‘true’ piece of writing lay in the epic poem Beowolf. The poem itself is a wonderful glance into the history and thoughts of ancient people, and in how they considered the world around them. Beowolf, the hero, must slay the monster, the monster’s mother, and finally, a dragon, before he is mortally wounded and dies after becoming King of the Geats. It’s a great story, and has created much debate over whether its origins lie in Danish or Anglo-Saxon oral traditions, complete with its memories of Danish paganism. But can it’s origins lead us to the world’s first novel?

The simple answer is no – and this is a fact I only learned recently! Which is why I’m sharing it. 🙂 The Tale of Genji is considered to be the world’s first true novel, a classic piece of Japanese literature written sometime in the 11th century. And an important factor of the novel is that it was written by a woman. Murasaki Shikibu was a noblewoman who lived around the peak of the Heian Period. A sad fact of this is that we in fact cannot be sure of her real name – Murasaki Shikibu is a nickname.

Portrait of Murasaki Shikibu, by Kanō Takanobu

Portrait of Murasaki Shikibu, by Kanō Takanobu

At the time Murasaki was born, women were excluded from writing Chinese, the official language of the government in Japan. However, Japan was at that time, also becoming more distinct in its own right, gaining its own cultural and national identity, and written Japanese was becoming a way for noblewomen to write in their own hand. Unusually for the time, Murasaki was raised in her father’s household, when most women would have been raised in their mother’s households – but her mother had died when she was young. Murasaki also came from a long line of poets, on her father’s side. In The Diary of Lady Murasaki, she wrote, “When my brother … was a young boy learning the Chinese classics, I was in the habit of listening to him and I became unusually proficient at understanding those passages that he found too difficult to understand and memorize. Father, a most learned man, was always regretting the fact: ‘Just my luck,’ he would say, ‘What a pity she was not born a man!'”

The Tale of Genji follows the story of a son of an emperor, Genji, who is politically moved from the line of succession. He has something of a difficult start in life, with his mother dying when he is young, and the story follows the course of his romantic ventures, ultimately ending in a somewhat miserable ending. (Look it up, there are some beautiful illustrations to go with it, and the story itself is a fascinating glimpse into the complex politics of Japan at that time).  There are, of course, many other factors in whether Murasaki was the only author of the novel, and whether she wrote it off-hand, or if it was commissioned. But it remains the world’s first novel, and it was written by a woman.

Yūgiri ("Evening Mist") from Chapter 39 of The Tale of Genji

Yūgiri (“Evening Mist”) from Chapter 39 of The Tale of Genji

This is an interesting point to take in, because it would be several centuries before a woman was again able to write a book that would be read by others, at least in the western world. As Christianity gained a foothold in Europe, women were increasingly deprived of rights and education. However, some literature remains from that period written by women, and it is from them that we know much about women in the middle ages. Women found a voice through religion, and a few published their prayers and reflections when they became nuns or abbesses, the most powerful career choice a woman could make at that time. These include ladies such as Clare of Assisi, Bridget of Sweden, and Catherine of Siena. However, writing about more unorthodox religious experiences, such as visions, were less acceptable, although they still exist. There are even, if searched for, glimpses into courtly love and politics. The Alexiad was written by the Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene, daughter of Emperor Alexius I in 1148, and Marie de France and Christine de Pizan also contributed in this fashion.

Later in the 17th century, a woman even wrote an early example of what would come to be known as science-fiction – Margaret Cavendish, then Duchess of Newcastle, wrote The Blazing World, a fantastical adventure where a young woman travels to another realm that can only be accessed via the North Pole. Another book, La Princesse de Clèves, was anonymously published in France in 1678, but it is thought to have been the work of Madame de La Fayette, a minor noblewoman. It is an interesting novel, because it was the first ‘psychological’ novel, that entwined subplots with its characters, and provided a realistic outlook on life at that time, as opposed to the usual romantic damsel saved by the hero, ending in a happy marriage.

The title page from The Blazing World

The title page from The Blazing World

A portrait of Margaret Cavendish

Moving on to the Enlightenment and early 19th century, there are still many women to be found who added a large chunk to the literary world. The most famous of these, of course, is Jane Austen, whose works are known throughout the world. Her novels are regarded as having huge historical significance for their social commentary – but also, at a time when women were not encouraged to be clever or to have opinions, her wit and dry realism offers a viewpoint that at least some women at this time were not regarded in this way.

Jane Austen, as drawn by her sister Cassandra

Jane Austen, as drawn by her sister Cassandra

Another less well-known author from this period is Anna Laetitia Barbauld, an English poet, children’s author, literary critic, and essayist. She had a successful writing career, but it ended abruptly in the early 19th century when she published Eighteen Hundred and Elevena criticism on Britain’s part in the Napoleonic Wars. She was also a teacher at Palgrave Academy in Suffolk, and was politically involved with the issues of the day. (Her own story is really interesting, and you should definitely click and find out how much this lady achieved in her lifetime). In 1818, another famous work of literature was published – Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheusby Mary Shelley. It was also one of the novels that contributed to the Gothic literature that was emerging at that time. She’s most well-known for this novel, but she in fact wrote many more books and articles, such as the historical novels Valperga (1823) and Perkin Warbeck (1830), the apocalyptic novel The Last Man (1826), and her final two novels, Lodore (1835) and Falkner (1837).

Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell

Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell

A portrait of Anna Laetitia Barbauld

A portrait of Anna Laetitia Barbauld

The Victorian period, for all its constraints upon women, still produced many novels and works of literature by women. Some of the most famous are the Brontë sisters. My favourite of these three female writers is Charlotte Brontë, mostly for her novel Jane Eyre. It was the first novel where the the female protagonist, Jane, was plain, somewhat serious, and spoke her mind, showing her intelligence and often sparring verbally with the male anti-hero, Mr Rochester. He himself was far older than her, not seen as particularly attractive, and was flawed from the outset. In short, it was a framework of what we would consider to be vital parts of modern novels; that characters should be flawed and realistic, and that real life often offered up a more thrilling story than glossed-over fiction. It is a reminder of her period, however, that when the novel was first published, it was published under the pseudonym Currer Bell. (The ‘Bell’ surname was also used by her sisters for their novels. An important note of the novel (as with many in the Victorian era) was that it promoted proto-feminism, and explored sexuality and religion – three things that the Victorians at the time used to explain that it couldn’t possibly have been written by a woman.

Portrait of Charlotte Bronte

Portrait of Charlotte Bronte

Other prominent female writers at this time included Christina Rossetti, best known for her narrative poem Goblin Market, which is often described as having many references of sexual imagery. Another poet at that time was Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who wrote from the tender age of four, and it’s largely thanks to her mother (who compiled these poems) that we still have them today. Aside from contributing largely to the world of literature, she was also a campaigner for the abolition of slavery, and her work helped influence reform in child labour legislation. There is also famously George Elliot, whose real name was Mary Ann Evans, who was also an editor and critic as well as being a novelist. Wanting to have her work taken seriously, and also wanting to break away from the stereotype of female writers at the time writing romances, she made the decision to publish her work under a male pseudonym, much as the Brontë sisters did. The novel that sticks most in my mind from her works is Middlemarch, a novel that has eight intersecting though separate volumes that follow a cast of characters. The novel covers a range of themes, from the status of women and marriage, to education, religion and political reform. It also touches on several historical events, referring to them throughout. While reviews at the time were mixed about Middlemarch, it is now considered to be one of the greatest works of fiction in the English language.

'George Eliot' when she was 30, by François D'Albert Durade

‘George Eliot’ when she was 30, by François D’Albert Durade

Cover from Book 1 of Middlemarch

Cover from Book 1 of Middlemarch

There are literally hundreds, if not thousands of female writers in history (and I haven’t even included the 20th century here, otherwise this would be a really big article!), but many of them have been forgotten or are less spoken of than their male counterparts. Women have been writers since ancient times, many writing even though education was withheld from them, was deemed ‘unfeminine’, or considered to be less than capable in taking part in politics and social life. I also think it’s a testament to each era that many of these women were openly supported and encouraged by men who were not afraid to speak out and seat women as equals by their side – usually men who were intelligent, educated men themselves, many also adding hugely to the great volume of literature we still have today, including the husbands of many of these women.

At the present, there’s a huge shift coming for equality, for both men and women, and it’s interesting to look back on history and see all the tiny chinks that have brought us up to this moment. There’s still a long way to go, but I reckon we’ll get there eventually. And it’s also wonderful to see that women contributed so much to literature, the vehicle of so much change. 🙂 What’s your thoughts on this? Who are your favourite female writers from history?

For a near-exhaustive list of female writers since ancient times, check out A Celebration of Women Writers, a great website that details many female writers and their works.