ALICE'S WRITING WORKOUT
Have you ever dreamed of becoming an author?
Writing a novel is a bit like magic, you get to create a whole world out of nothing at all, and I find disappearing inside a story is an excellent way to escape the real world when it gets too loud. So if you are stuck at home at the moment, and fancy a workout for your mind, here is something for you to try. It doesn’t matter whether you have ever written before, and I promise that all you need to get started is a pen, some paper, and a little imagination.
This writing workout includes three sections: Getting started (how I begin every novel), a fifteen minute writing exercise (which I promise everyone can do), and my Top 10 Tips for writing. I hope you might find some of it useful, and that it might be a welcome distraction during these strange and sad times. Anyone can write a story. They live inside us. All you have to do is find the key and unlock what is already there.
Firstly, nobody knows anything. Someone much cleverer than me said that once upon a time, and it is true about a great many things, including writing. All I can share with you is how I do it. You have to find what works for you, but this is how I have written all of my books. Before I start every new novel, I need three things, all of which you should be able to get hold of relatively easily:
Some coloured index cards. These cost less than £2 on Amazon, but if you don’t have any, or can’t get hold of some soon and want to get cracking, you could use different coloured post-it notes, or cut up small squares of scrap paper and use different coloured pens.
A pen! I use a nice pen to sign books, but a super cheap one to write them. I promise you don’t need to be, or have anything fancy to do my job.
A dog. This might be harder to come by in lockdown if you don’t already have one. But I can’t imagine writing without my fury assistant, so he’s on the list.
I’m a planner. I think about a story for a very long time before I commit to writing it, and I plot everything out on a giant board before I write a word, (you can see an example above). I start out by sticking the index cards on large mounting boards, the kind you can get in an art shop. But you could use a corkboard, a roll of wrapping paper, or a magnetic whiteboard if you’re feeling fancy. Remember that it’s the ingredients that make a cake delicious, not an expensive cake display stand, so don’t get too hung up on “equipment.” But how do you go from a few handwritten index cards to a finished novel?
I use different coloured cards for different characters and timelines, and I always know the end before I begin. Each card is basically a scene, or a chapter. I write a card for each character with their name and everything I know about them so far. I also add my title and three acts to the board, but don’t worry about that for now. Let’s just focus on growing your seed of an idea into a story.
There is no right or wrong way to write, but for me, starting a novel without a plan would be like going on a big walk with the dog without a map – I’d spend the entire time worrying about getting lost instead of enjoying the journey. Plus, planning a new adventure is fun!
Take one index card and tell me what kind of story you want to write. Whatever you want. A thriller? A love story? A fantasy novel about unicorns in space? You get to choose and it can be ANYTHING! See? Fun!
Take a second card and let’s come up with the first scene of your story. I just wrote a short story for a magazine. My first card when plotting it out read: “Boy meets girl.” My second card (possibly influenced by current events) read: “Boy and girl visit same supermarket during lockdown. They both reach for the last tin of baked beans on the shelf. Boy says girl can have it if she agrees to a date when lockdown is over.” That’s one card, the seed of an idea, then I wrote some more cards/scenes and together, those scenes grew into a published short story.
Here are some first card lines you can try if you can’t think of your own right now:
Girl walks into a pub (I miss the pub) and finds it is completely empty. She tries to leave, but discovers the doors are now inexplicably locked. Then the lights go out. Your next card is what happens next.
Woman discovers fiancé is cheating on her the day before their wedding. Goes on honeymoon without him. A very attractive man sits next to her on the plane. Your next card is what happens next.
Dog runs away on a walk. Owner is distraught, puts up missing posters everywhere, then discovers that the dog is living with her neighbour but has been given a new collar and name. What happens next?
That is literally how I write all of my stories. Each card is a piece of the puzzle you are trying to solve. All you have to do is write a couple of sentences on each one, always asking yourself what might happen next? You will get to know your characters by putting them in different scenarios. Audition them, discover whose story it really is. Who has the most interesting point of view and should get to tell it? What do your characters want? What prevents them from getting it? Create some conflict. Take things away from them. What is the best/worst thing that could happen to them? You can’t make any mistakes at this stage of planning. Have a go, and see where the story takes you!
You’ll get the most out of this if you try not to read ahead. There are three points to this exercise to get you started, each takes 5 minutes, so that’s 15 minutes in total. It’s a bit like a Joe Wicks workout, but for the mind. I find it useful to do this the old-fashioned way with a pen and paper, (rather than a laptop) but it’s up to you. There are no rules, but maybe set an alarm for 5 minutes for each one, so you don’t go over the time limit. Remember, it doesn’t matter what you write, nobody is going to read this except you, (unless you choose to share it). Be kind to yourself, let your imagination wander wherever it might like to, and have fun!
Think of your happiest childhood memory. Mine is easy, it’s the first time I was finally allowed to have a dog. But what is yours? Close your eyes and time travel back to that moment. Where are you? What does it look like? What can you smell? What can you hear? Can you taste anything? Tell me what you felt that day so that I can feel it too. Tell me everything in first person, and paint the picture with every colour your memory allows, so that I could read what you have written and feel as though I am there with you. You’ve got five minutes. Don’t overthink it and don’t cheat. Go!
Now I want us to go somewhere a little darker, sorry in advance but we won’t linger there too long. The shade of dark is up to you. I want you to think of the saddest thing that ever happened to you. You know what it is already, and remember that nobody is going to read this unless you want them to. This time I want you to try and write about what happened in third person, as though you are describing something that happened to someone else. Give your character a different name if you want to. That should make it easier. Again, don’t overthink it. Be brave and be honest. You’ll only be fibbing to yourself if not, and you can always burn it afterwards. Five minutes. Go.
This last one is fun, because writing is fun, and it’s important to remember that even when it is difficult. If you were a new superhero, who would you be? Your special power might be reading? Or knitting? Gardening? Or being able to drink a bottle of prosecco and still fly in a straight line. Whatever it is, write in first person, in character as your own personal superhero (a cape is optional) and I want you to go to take me to your happy place. Mine is always by the sea. What place did you miss most during lockdown? It might be your mum’s house, or park run, or the cinema, or the pub! Write about what the superhero version of you is going to do, who they will meet, and where they are going to go, so I can come along too! This is your last five-minute writing workout, go!
Now put the pen down and step away from the words. Leave your writing alone and let it simmer for a while. If you want to, you can try reading what you’ve written the next day. I find a little distance can often help you to see what is right under your nose. Which piece of writing did you enjoy the most? Did it feel more natural to write in first or third person? Did you feel more comfortable writing something light or dark or with a hint of magic? Is there some nugget in what you have written, that you could expand into a story?
TOP TEN TIPS
In terms of inspiration, if you want to write, you just have to open your eyes and ears to the world around you – there are stories everywhere if you know how to look and listen. You have a good stock of stories already inside your head, you just have to remember where you tucked them away, and choose whether or not to go looking for them. Some boxes are best left unopened, but it’s amazing what you can find in the attic of your mind. If that sounds like something you might enjoy, or if you’ve ever dreamed of being an author, here are my top ten writing tips:
I think if you want to write well, you need to be someone who reads. This Stephen King quote says it perfectly: “If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write.”
This might sound obvious, but books don’t write themselves. Don’t just talk about writing, you need to make time, (which may well mean making sacrifices) and be dedicated enough to actually do it. Writing, like anything, gets better and easier with practice. Write, then rewrite, then repeat. Write until not writing makes you feel anxious.
3. Be prepared to kill…
…your darlings. This might be your best piece of writing in the whole piece, but if it doesn’t move the story on, it’s got to go. It’s often harder to do than people realise.
4. Be kind…
…to yourself and others. I find that’s a good rule for life as well as writing. Don’t expect to get it right the first time, and try not to beat yourself up when you don’t.
5. Trust your gut
I have ideas all of the time, I might be on a train or walking the dog, or in bed in the middle of the night. It could be an idea for a novel, or even just a sentence. It might just be a collection of words that sound beautiful inside your head at that moment in time. Trust your gut. Write them all down, even the daft ones! That way, when you come to paint your story you’ll have all the colours you need.
6. Be yourself
You should write the book that you want to read. Don’t try to write like someone else, be yourself and write about something or someone that you are passionate about.
7. Be brave
Grow a thick skin (if you weren’t born with one) and wear it always.
8. Learn to handle rejection
It’s part of the job I’m afraid. Rejection hurts, so find your own armour (it doesn’t have to be made of metal – it might be friends or family). If you sometimes struggle to believe in yourself, find someone you can trust who does.
9. Have fun!
Being an author really is the best job in the world. Whatever stage you are at in your writing journey, enjoy it! Let your imagination wander wherever it wants. You get to make something out of nothing, nobody can stop you, it’s magic!
10. Never give up
Don’t ever give up the day dream! After almost ten years of rejections, this is my most important tip. I promise every author gets rejections, it’s a rite of passage, the secret is to just keep writing and never give up.