Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Hone your observational skills and fire up your imagination.

Earlier this month, I wrote about the nature of practice for writers and what we can learn from footballers and musicians. That post has stuck in my head ever since, like a soundless earworm. I keep thinking about what that practice should look like. What activities would I do to improve my writing?

In the post, I outlined six things I think writers should practice regularly:

  1. Observation
  2. Feeling both physical sensations and emotions
  3. Listening
  4. Intentional reading and watching
  5. Self-education
  6. Note taking

Of these, the first four will form the foundation of Grist, a new monthly Zoom call for paying subscribers where we talk about a topic that fits into one of those categories with the aim of adding a little extra grist to our creative mills.

The format of the call will vary depending on the topic. For example, I have an existing introduction to deep listening that I can walk through, or we can each share our individual interpretations of the first chunk of a TV show or script. Sometimes you might get homework to read or watch, sometimes it might be spontaneous. Some topics will be one-offs, others we might come back to repeatedly so that we can dig deeper.

What will Grist cover?

To give you a sense of the kinds of things I’m thinking of, here are some options so you can let me know (whether you are a premium subscriber or not!) what you like the sound of. Just vote in the poll on Substack.

  • Expanding our emotional vocabulary: Looking at the ‘emotional wheel’ and Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi’s The Emotion Thesaurus.
  • First Five Minutes: Welcome to Wrexham vs The Matildas – how effectively does each series set up their premise?
  • Reading: We’ll do a little background reading about Alhambra, a palace fortress in Spain, and discuss its similarities to stately homes and the usefulness of hidden spaces as plot devices.
  • Chocolate tasting: How does bog standard milk chocolate compare to a mid-market dark chocolate, and how do they both compare to chocolate from the heritage Nacional cocoa tree, a variety that’s 5,300 years old?
  • Deep listening: What is it, how do you do it and how will it help you when you’re doing research interviews?

What will I get out of Grist?

Neil Gaiman talks about the need for writers to have a compost heap:

You know, for all writers, you kind of have a compost heap. And if any of you are not gardeners, kitchen people, the compost heap is where you throw all of the garden and the kitchen rubbish, the food scraps – you throw it all on the compost heap. And then it rots down. And a year or so later, you look around. And you just have this lovely brown stuff that you can put on the garden, out of which flowers and vegetables will grow.

And I think it’s really important for a writer to have a compost heap. Everything you read, things that you write, the things that you listen to, people you encounter– they can all go on the compost heap. And they will rot down. And out of them grow beautiful stories.

Grist is a way to regularly feed your compost heap with fascinating bits and bobs that will, over time, turn into valuable fertiliser for your stories. Indeed, all of the sessions will be designed to enrich an aspect of your writing, helping you to create:

  • More compelling characters
  • Lusher world building
  • Stronger language (with less cliché!)
  • Plots that are more deeply rooted in your fictional world
  • More powerful dialogue
  • Deeper insights into your characters’ interior worlds
  • A more resonant sense of time and place
  • A clearer understanding of structure, set-up and story progression

Every session will aim to give you something interesting to chew on, some nugget of information or understanding that can feed into your own work. And it will be a fun ride, with plenty of opportunities to get to know other writers.

When will the Grist sessions be held?

Sessions will be in the UK evening, probably 19:00 BST, as I know I have some subscribers in America and that’s a decent time for those on the West Coast.

Exactly when is TBC. Let me know in the second poll on Substack whether you’d prefer a weekday or Sunday evening. My personal preference is for a weekday, but I know that might make it a bit challenging for our American friends, so I’m happy to do something on Sunday evenings, or we can switch it around each month.

These events won’t be recorded or available for catch-up – the value is being a part of the conversation. And that value is increased when people know that they aren’t being recorded and can thus share their ideas freely without worrying about what others might think later down the road. We all know how hard it can be to share our half-formed creative thoughts, and I don’t want to put barriers in anyone’s way.

If you’re not already a paid subscriber, would this tempt you into becoming one? It’s only £5 a month or £50 a year for either Why Aren’t I Writing? or Word Count.

But, Suw, where’s our fortnightly insight into writer’s block?

Today’s advice on writer’s block actually comes from Mason Currey, who wrote a rather lovely post about the role of sympathy in helping others get over or through their blocks.

Is the solution to a creative block . . . sympathy? I mean other people’s sympathy—their genuine interest in your predicament, their curiosity about it, and their compassion for what you’re going through?

I think Mason’s bang on the money. Sympathy is an important way to help your writerly friends through their sloughs of despond, and important for you to receive when you’re struggling too.

I have a friend who is my best cheerleader – she reads my stuff, tells me I’m awesome, makes me promise to keep going and to share what I write with her. And I do the same for her. I love everything she does, not least because she’s one of the most talented and original unpublished authors I’ve ever read.

If you don’t have a cheerleader in your life, start the search for one now. Don’t be scared to ask for help and support from your friends, whether they are writers or not. And be clear about what you’re looking for when you share your writing with people – if what you need is emotional support, for your friends to wave their pom-poms, ask for it, and request that they hold their critique for later.

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