Category Archives: Writing for Fun

Writing in Cafes

In my last post I wrote about the joys of writing in the open air. Today, it’s raining and the joy has become a little soggy, so I’m penning this sitting in my favorite café in Sydney’s city center.

This isn’t a quiet place. I can hear the hiss and gurgle of the coffee machine and the murmur of orders at the counter. Background music is playing. It’s boppy and upbeat but not too loud, the singer’s words merging with the low hum of conversation around me.

The smells are a delicious mix of coffee and freshly baked pastries, plus, today as a bonus, I’m picking up a waft of mango every few seconds. I know some cafes and bakeries that set up their ventilation systems to direct delicious smells into the path of passersby. Hardened veterans like me can often walk meters past before turning back and buying a croissant or a currant scroll.

Today’s rain is a cold insidious drizzle that sneaks up on you and leaves you soaked before you realize it. No one is sitting outside the café. People entering go through the wet-weather rituals of furling umbrellas and shrugging off coats. Each arrival and departure lets in a sliver of chilly air and baleful glances are cast at people who leave the door open too long. We’re enjoying the cozy pleasure of being warm and indoors on a cold wet day.

I’m scribbling away in a small notebook, a secretarial steno pad. The pages have chocolate stains from the dusting on top of a cappuccino, a fond memory of a previous visit. I’m people-watching while trying to avoid gawping and eavesdropping. Two ladies are sitting at the next table. One of them is venting some frustration, telling a story with lots of arm movements and her face switching between laughter and irritation. Her friend is attentive, body still, leaning slightly forward in her seat and with her head cocked to one side.

I lose my focus on the couple as my words start to flow. I’m keeping my pen moving, give or take the occasional interruption for refreshing sips of cappuccino and nourishing bites of a caramel slice. Is nourishing the right word to use for a caramel slice?

I drift into a writing zone where the sounds and smells of the café are still present but they are muted and blurred. I register people coming in and going out from the fingers of cold air creeping in from the door, but I don’t look up. The things that are concrete in my world are the page, the pen and the words I’m writing.

I finish the last of my cappuccino, a cold remnant of froth sitting at the bottom of the mug, and put my notebook back in my bag. The friends chatting that I had been watching have left, and their place has been taken by a frazzled mother with a stroller.

One of the things I get from writing in cafes, apart from the cappuccino and the caramel slice, is the sense of being in a writing zone which is different from the one that I inhabit when I’m sitting at my desk at home. The swirl of people around me when I’m writing in a café makes me feel both connected and disconnected. Perhaps at a sub-conscious level I’m aware of being part of a group while at the same time being my own little island.

(A note for Sydney weather buffs: I wrote this a couple of weeks ago but I’ve been working on book two of the Sinister Sydney series and I didn’t get around to posting it until today, which is a bright sunny day, ideal for sitting outside cafes and watching people pass by.)

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Writing ‘en plein air’

“Aldred, what are those foreign words you have dropped into the title?” I hear you cry. “Are you trying to be sophisticated?”

‘En plein air’ is French and means in the open air. It was used to describe the trend among painters in the second half of the nineteenth century for painting out of doors rather than in their studios. The impressionists were particularly keen on ‘en plein air’ because they wanted to catch the varied effects of light on the landscape. Many celebrated paintings were painted ‘en plein air’ as well as several less famous ones such as ‘soggy canvas after a sudden downpour’ and ‘brief sketch of a field with a charging bull including original blood stains’.

I find writing ‘en plein air’ stimulating and it provides me with a welcome break from my desk. My favorite outdoor writing spots are beaches and parks but I’ve also done this at bus stops, railway stations and outside shopping malls.

I like to take a walk before I sit down and write, paying attention to the things that I pass and using all my senses, sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. So for example, if I was walking through a strand of gum trees on a hot day, I would notice the color and shading of the bark and I would feel its smooth, warm touch beneath my hands. I would hear the raucous laugh of a kookaburra and the buzzing of flies, soft, loud then soft again, as they shot past my ears. I’d smell the tang of eucalyptus in the air, and when I licked my lips I’d taste salty sweat mixed in with the chemical flavor of my sunscreen.

I find the act of paying attention to things on my walk relaxing because my mind forgets to worry about everything else. It’s a little like writing in that respect. One word of caution: try not to stare too hard at passersby as this can freak them out.

Once I’ve sat down, I pause for a minute before I start writing. This is partly because I need to catch my breath after the walk, but it also gives me a chance to absorb my surroundings. I don’t wait too long though. It’s a bit like jumping into a cold pool: the longer you hesitate, the harder it gets.

I like to begin by writing about what is immediately around me, using each of my senses in turn. I’ll then describe my walk and write about anything else that comes into my mind. If I dry up, I’ll go back to describing the sensations around me. I keep my pen moving even if it means writing “this bench is really uncomfortable and my bum is sore”.

I never judge the quality of the pieces that I’ve written out of doors, but I do find that they have helped my writing in a number of ways:

•    They act as a record of a place that is in some ways more concrete than a photograph because I’ve used all my senses rather than just my sight.

•    They provide me with a well of images that I can draw on in my subsequent writing.

•    They make me think about how images can create mood in my writing. For example at the beach, a giddy, grinning Labrador dashing in and out of the waves makes me smile while a gull pecking at the cigarette butts scattered around a bench makes me sad.

The above are all valuable benefits but for me the best reason for writing ‘en plein air’ is that I enjoy it. The act of writing is its own reward and that is what ‘Writing for Fun’ is all about.

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Beat Your Inner-Critic

In the previous blog in this series, I talked about your inner-critic who is like the school bully that beats you up from inside. He or she is the part of you that kicks over your own sandcastles.

I mentioned that one of the ways I keep my inner-critic at bay is to remind myself of the simple pleasure that I receive from writing.

  • I love splurging words on paper. It’s joyful and exhilarating.
  • I can express myself and no one will interrupt me.
  • I find writing down my thoughts and feelings helps me think more clearly and I feel less muddled.

I know that the writing is its own reward and it does not have to meet someone else’s standards to be acceptable. I’ll also add that it doesn’t have to meet any of my own standards either. Remember, the idea is just to write without judging the quality of what you have written.

Well, after that lengthy recap, I’ve just got room for one fresh sentence. Isn’t recycling wonderful? Actually, I’ve still got room for one fresh idea and it’s a cracker!

Imagine you’re part way through a session at the writing gym, developing your bum glue. Your inner-critic attacks, whispering to you that your writing is boring rubbish and you’re wasting your time. You try to ignore it and keep writing but it won’t let up.

What do you do?

You can continue to try and ignore it, but you have another option.

Give your inner-critic a big hug and invite it to join you in the writing gym. That’s right, it’s part of you and it’s joined you at the gym, so let it join in your workout. Write in the voice of your inner-critic; spray its words onto the page.

“I’m a dreary, zero-talent doofus with nothing important to say.”

Are you going to stop there? No way, soldier. Rule number one at the gym is that you keep the pen moving.

“I’m sad. I’m pathetic. I’m boring. If being boring was a sport I’d be an Olympic gold medalist. The biggest contribution I can make to writing is to cut off my hands.”

Keep going. Make that lazy, bludging inner-critic, who has been hitching a ride on your back, do some work for a change. Listen to its voice. It’s whining. It’s dull. It will start to repeat itself.

“I’m sad. I’m pathetic. I’m so boring even my inner-critic is boring.”

Once it has run out of things to say, you can thank it for its contribution and go back to what you were writing before it interrupted. It usually stays quiet after that.

Once you’re aware of your inner-critic you can have some fun with it. You can play ‘dress-ups’ and give it a voice and personality. It might be like Gollum from ‘Lord of the Rings’ having a bad hair day: “I can’t keep my comb over flat, Precious.” How about a particularly nasty, sarcastic teacher like Snape from the Harry Potter books? My inner-critic was the inspiration for one of my characters in the Nobody’s Fool Quartet. Twist, Prince Dorian’s sarcastic and spiteful fool is my inner-critic dressed in motley.

The best thing about engaging with your inner-critic is that you become aware of it. It likes to stay hidden and drip its toxic words into your mind as though they were nothing more than your everyday thoughts. It wants you to accept what it says as true, without challenging it. And it doesn’t just want to spoil your writing: in all areas of your life, it will be looking for ways to put you down and make you under-perform.

Visiting the writing gym regularly allows you to see your inner-critic clearly and you realize just how much influence its voice has over the rest of your life. You will not be able to silence it completely, but you will learn to pick out its voice from among your other thoughts and challenge what it is saying.

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Meet Your Inner-Critic

In my previous blog in this series, I said I would talk more about my suggestion that you should not judge the quality of what you write. I also said I was going to introduce you to your inner-critic who is like the school bully that beats you up from inside. As this is a writing blog, I thought I would do that with a short story.

The Boy at the Beach

Every morning the boy would play by himself on the beach. He would build a sandcastle with a moat, ramparts and tall towers before going off to school. During the day, the tide would wash away the castle but the boy did not mind that. He knew he would have the pleasure of building another castle the next day.

One morning the boy had just finished building his castle when he became aware that he was not alone. From the corner of his eye, he saw a boy with a clenched angry face peering over his shoulder.

“This is the most ugly, useless sandcastle in the whole world,” the angry boy said. “You should be embarrassed to have built something so sad and pathetic.” The foot of the angry boy shot out and scythed down the towers and ramparts in a flurry of sand.

The boy stared in shock at his ruined castle. He wanted to hit the angry boy, but by the time he turned round, the angry boy had disappeared and the beach was empty.

The next day the boy returned to the beach. He was a little nervous after his encounter with the angry boy on the previous day, but the beach was deserted. He built another sandcastle, making his ramparts straight and strong and the towers as tall as they could be. He had just finished chiseling battlements onto the tops of the towers when be became aware that once more the angry boy was peering over his shoulder.

“You haven’t got a clue how to build a sandcastle,” the angry boy said. “You should be ashamed of littering the beach with lousy junk like that.” Once again the angry boy’s foot shot out and down fell the towers and ramparts.

The boy gaped at his ruined castle and swung round much faster than he had on the previous day. It made no difference; the angry boy was nowhere to be seen.

The next day the boy returned to the beach. He was scared of the angry boy but he was determined to build his sandcastle.

The boy’s hands shook as he tried to smooth the ramparts. He glanced around sharply trying to see if the angry boy was approaching and knocked over a tower. “This is rubbish,” the boy cried and kicked over his sandcastle. He did a furious war-dance stomping up and down on the sand until he had obliterated every trace of the castle.

The next day the boy did not go to the beach. He never went there again.

The End

“Thanks Aldred, that has really cheered me up, not,” I hear you say. “Why do you call this series ‘Writing for Fun’? Why not call it ‘Wallowing in Misery’?”

The goal of the story is not to make you short circuit your smart-phone or keyboard by blubbing tears over it, but to make you think about how destructive your inner-critic can be. Your inner-critic is the voice inside your head that says you are rubbish at writing. It will tell you that your words are embarrassing drivel and you should be ashamed for having written them.

In the above story, you are the boy. The beach is your imagination. Every morning you make time to write and the sandcastle is your writing. During the day, the tide of life sweeps in and as you concentrate on work or school you forget about what you wrote, but on the next day you return to your writing and build another sandcastle. The angry boy is your own inner-critic, speaking spiteful words about what rubbish your writing is, so that in the end you wreck your own sandcastle and stop writing.

It’s not a perfect match because you can revisit your previous writing, while the sandcastle has gone for good once the tide has washed it away, but I hope you get the idea that the inner-critic can damage your writing.

Your inner-critic feeds off the idea that what you write is not good enough. It doesn’t care what you are comparing your writing to, so long as it can tell you that you are an inadequate loser who has failed to measure up. That is why I suggest you make it a rule that you never judge the quality of what you write.

When my inner-critic starts spilling its toxic words inside my head, I remind myself of the simple pleasure that I receive from writing.

  • I love splurging words on paper. It’s joyful and exhilarating.
  • I can express myself and no one will interrupt me.
  • I find writing down my thoughts and feelings helps me think more clearly and I feel less muddled.

The writing is its own reward and it does not have to meet someone else’s minimum standard to be acceptable.

In my next post I will talk more about the inner-critic and give you some further strategies to stop it kicking over your sandcastles.

 

 

 

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Keep the Pen Moving

I have a fresh, blank document opened on my laptop. I have turned off my internet connection and my mobile phone. I have fed Blenkinsop the cat, twice. I am not to be interrupted. I set my timer to thirty minutes * and enter the word gym, ready to develop my bum glue.

What do I write about?

The short answer is: anything I like.

The long answer is more helpful, but it is much longer, spreading out over several blog posts like a river bursting its banks, and it begins with taking a step back.

This series is entitled ‘Writing for Fun’ and that means you can write about whatever you want. What is important is the way in which you tackle the writing.

I’m going to make two suggestions. First: write non-stop. Second: don’t judge the quality of what you write.

Let’s look at that first suggestion of writing non-stop.

When I say write non-stop, I mean non-stop. If you’re using pen and paper then you keep the pen moving at all times. You don’t suck it or insert it in your ear and twiddle it while searching for the next word. If you are using a keyboard then keep those fingers tapping away and keep that cursor moving forwards. That’s right soldier, no retreating to change a word or stick in a cool phrase or delete a mistake. You misspelled a word. Forget about it. Attack the next word and advance the cursor.

You will be amazed by what happens when you try this approach. Having to keep the pen moving, or the fingers tapping, forces your mind to be creative. You come up with ideas you never knew you had inside you.

It also means you capture your first thoughts. We learn by experience that we should question our first thoughts. First thoughts might suggest that bungee jumping from the roof of your garden shed is a great idea. Second, third and fourth thoughts will tell you otherwise. However, when writing, your first thoughts often have an originality and raw creative energy that your more refined and respectable second, third and fourth thoughts lack.

“What happens if I dry up part way through the session?” I hear you ask.

You keep the pen moving. This might mean you write “What do I write next? I can’t think of anything. Blah. Blah. Blah. This is so boring. This is so fi,n smf dyi[jof and rats I’m hitting the wrong keys and I can’t go back and change stuff and I’m so frustrated and …” At this point, the writer’s head may explode, followed by the gentle patter of blood drip, drip, dripping on the keyboard, as bits of brain slide slowly down the screen covering up those annoying spelling mistakes.

If you dry up, the first thing to do is relax and stay calm. We are writing for fun, not to produce head-exploding anxiety attacks. Remember my second suggestion above: don’t judge the quality of what you write.

If you relax, you will find that fresh ideas and inspiration arrive. One thing I do when I dry up is to ask myself a simple question, something with a definite answer rather than anything philosophical or profound.

I tried it just now with a notepad and pen. “What am I having for dinner tonight? Beef burgers. I’m eating a cow. What’s my favorite cow? I like the French one that laughs on packets of cheese slices and the one that jumped over the moon in the nursery rhyme. When I was little we went on camping holidays in the Lake District and we stayed in a field next to a farm. I wandered about the farm and saw the cows in their stalls that smelled of cow poo and I saw them being milked.”

I’m off again writing and I could go on for hours about camping holidays and hill walking and playing cricket in a field where the ball would spin off cow pats. All these memories were sitting there inside my head, but they spilled out because I had to keep the pen moving.

I’ll give you some more tips in future blogs on how to keep writing if you dry up or can’t get started, but in my next blog I’ll be talking about my second suggestion: don’t judge the quality of what you write. I want to introduce you to your inner-critic who is like the school bully that beats you up from inside.

* I like to do thirty minute sessions of non-stop writing. When you’re first starting out with this, and you have the merest smear of bum glue holding you to your chair, it’s fine to do ten minutes and then build up gradually.

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Bum Glue

“Doctor, this patient is suffering from excessive farting.”

“Pass me the bum glue, nurse.”

“We gave  our last jar to the local airport, to fasten the wings on planes, doctor.”

“Too late, anyway, nurse. The patient has let loose a ripper. His hospital gurney just became a jet powered vehicle, and he has just shot through six wards, breaking the land speed record, a dozen windows and several bones.”

Bum glue has nothing to do with the brief fart-related scene above. So what is bum glue? Well, if you’re going to do some writing then at some stage the seat of your pants will need to meet the seat of your chair. Bum glue is the internal force that keeps you sitting in your chair, while you write.

Why is it an internal force?

Sometimes external forces can keep you sitting down and writing. For example you might be sitting an exam or you might be working at a job where your salary depends on your boss being able to see you sitting at your desk, writing reports on projected growth in widget sales. These are external things that are keeping you in your chair.

Now imagine that you are writing for fun. At any point in time you could get up and make a cup of coffee, or visit a friend, or shoot some hoops or go for a jog. The list is endless. The only thing that is keeping you in the chair writing is the power of bum glue, your own will to do it.

“This bum glue sounds wonderful stuff,” I hear you cry. “Can I buy it online? Will it be delivered to my door in discreet brown packages?”

Bum glue is a home grown substance. You develop it yourself. What you have to do is practice and build it up gradually.

The way I started was by setting aside ten minutes every day when I would not be interrupted. I would turn off my mobile phone, unplug my computer from the internet and sit down and write. At first it was hard. I had a timer set for ten minutes and I breathed a sigh of relief when it pinged. However, I kept going, and in a little while I began to look forward to my writing sessions. I then found that I’d be in full flow when the timer pinged and I’d ignore it.

At this point, we should have a soundtrack of inspirational music together with a video of me scribbling my way through a stack of paper, but it wouldn’t be true and not just because I type directly to my laptop. Some days the writing flowed and other days it was clunky and painful, but I stuck to my task and my chair. I was developing bum glue, the magic stuff that helps you stay in the chair when the going gets tough.

One discovery I’ve made is that on the days when the writing seems most forced and painful, often halfway through the session, I will stumble on something I want to say and the writing will take off. The sessions that start off the hardest often produce the most truthful and revealing words. Without bum glue, I would miss out on these insights.

Suppose, you’re now sitting with a blank piece of paper or a blank screen in front of you, ready to develop some bum glue. What do you do next? The short answer is that you write. The long answer is coming in my next blog, ‘What do I write about?’

A brief digression on writing posture

I mentioned in the article above that when writing the seat of your pants had to connect with the seat of our chair. “But Aldred, I write lying on my stomach,” I hear some of you cry out. “I mean what could be nicer than taking a rug to the local park, lying out in the sun and writing a page or two?”

I take your point. I’ve often dreamed of buying an extra long pencil so that I could lie in bed and write my next novel on the bedroom ceiling. Sadly, Mrs Chase objected to this idea. I did point out that Michelangelo had worked on his back when painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, to which Mrs Chase replied that if the Pope was offering to sponsor my next novel, she would reconsider her decision.

Anyway, you should feel to write in whatever position you find comfortable. The main thing is to be writing.

 

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Are you kidding?

Writing is fun. “Oh puhleeezzze.” I can hear some of you cry, across the vast electronic savannah of the internet.

For many people writing is like quarrying stone, and we’re talking about quarrying by hand with no dynamite or excavators the size of tower blocks. With the pickaxe of your brain, you chip away at the boulders of language to come up with shards and splinters called words. Is your job done, once you’ve collected these chippings? No, the work is only just beginning. Those words have to be arranged into sentences, and those sentences have to be made into a road to carry the reader safely from the start of your piece to the end of it.

And I’m telling you that writing is fun? “Oh puhleeezzze, Aldred. Do you hang out with dentists and get them to give you fillings for a laugh?”

At this point, I will clear my throat ready to deliver one of my favorite gruesome dentist stories, perhaps the one where the dentist falls of the chair trying to pull the patient’s teeth from the blood-soaked surgery ceiling.

“Hang on, Aldred,” those with sharp-eyes and delicate stomachs will interrupt. “We’ve noticed all these buttons dotted about your website, which when clicked on direct us to places where we can buy your books, with the result that some of our money becomes some of your money. Are you writing for fun or profit?”

The answer is both. I’m hoping to make some money by selling my books, otherwise in a little while I’ll be writing sad, blog posts like ‘please buy my books so I can feed my cat, Blenkinsop.’ (I promise I’ll find another job before I have to resort to writing even sadder blog posts such as ‘please buy my books because Blenkinsop and I are giving each other hungry looks and one of us is going to get eaten, soon.’) However, regardless of whether anyone buys my books or even reads them, I’ve had the best time creating them.

In these ‘Writing for Fun’ blogs, I’m going to tell you about things I do that make writing enjoyable for me. You can experiment with them, and pick the ones that work for you. The next blog in this series is about bum glue which is not as disgusting as it sounds. See you then.

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