Better Writing: Fuel your fascinations & inspiring authors

In my Creative Practice course, one of the exercises I give to writers is to write down their fascinations, what they are absolutely interested in, the things they love and the things they despise. Many of these powerful obsessions, interests, pursuits can become the basis of energetic writing. By starting with the times, places, artefacts or people who really grip you, you are providing the fuel that can produce many short stories (looking through the prism of your fascinations from various angles) or longer works such as novels which, like rockets trying to get all the way to Mars, need massive amounts of fuel.

As well as taking the time to explore your own fascinations and why you even want to write at all (a subject I’ll come back to in my next few posts) listening to other writers describe the background of their books, and the source of their literary energy can also help you clarify your interests and see where the material of your works might lie.

Very recently I was reminded about my own fascination in social psychology and the power of the media through watching an old documentary by writer Don De Lillo. The examples and associations that had formed the basis of many of his works reminded me of my own excitement at making such connections. What was also really interesting was to see how some of his works had started with a single idea or association- a photograph he stuck on his wall, not really knowing how it could develop into something more. Subsequently he made links with other material and began an exploration in writing of these ideas, eventually producing the novel Libra.

This same video obviously struck a chord with writer Daniel Carpenter. I spotted a great post by Daniel yesterday where he links not only to the De Lillo documentary but to several other author videos that he’s found informative and inspiring. Take the time to watch some of these and I’m sure it will fire up your enthusiasm for the art of writing and perhaps help you clarify what you find fascinating to write about.

To Daniel’s great line up I’ll simply add my very favourite inspirational author video – one from Ray Bradbury, a man of great humour and artistic energy. I’d love if you have any further suggestions of inspirational and energising documentaries you have seen by your favourite authors. Please let us know of them in the comments.

My Head Above Water facebook page or @HAWwriters on Twitter are the repository of many links to articles I’ve found that help support creativity in busy lives. Browse for more inspiration!

#flashfiction #writeprompt & great submission opportunity

Here on the blog for the May Carnival of Creative Possibility I’ll be throwing out writing challenges and prompts and we may even work up to a writing competition later in the month.

Here’s an interesting one for you, a writing prompt that will get you really thinking and also give you the opportunity of submitting to the wonderful National Flash Fiction day anthology. I’ve been involved in the last two anthologies Jawbreakers and Scraps and the standard of the work included was just wonderful. I’ve waxed lyrical about the wonders of flash fiction before and how it’s been the single most inspiring avenue of writing that I’ve been involved in and has helped me produce an abundance of work within a busy life. If you haven’t written much flash fiction before this will help you hone that craft & hopefully get the same buzz at producing a dynamite piece of writing in a short space of time.

National Flash Fiction Day director Calum Kerr says this

Once again we are delighted to open our submission floodgates to your stories for the annual NFFD anthology. This year, our topic is ‘The Senses’ and you should feel free to interpret that however you like. There are the 5 usual ones, but there is also that strange 6th sense. And what about a sense of fair play, of right and wrong, of place or of humour?

However you care to work with our theme, we want to read your stories. The word limit is 500 words, and you can submit up to 3 stories. Please include them in the email, not as attachments, and follow all the guidelines below.

All writers who have a story selected for the anthology will receive a free print copy of the book upon publication.

This year’s editors will be the Director of National Flash-Fiction Day, Calum Kerr, and this year’s Costa Short Story Award Winner, Angela Readman. The deadline date for entries is 23:59 (UK time) on Sunday 18th May 2014. 

So here is your challenge for the next few days. Explore the idea of the senses, chose one or several and really have a think about what a particular sense means and how the lack of it, or a heightened version might affect a particular character and lead to strange circumstances. Surely with the senses the writing should be vivid. I’m writing a book based all around the sensations of food and taste at the moment. The book is very visceral and sense based. One of my recent excerpts was nominated for the Glass woman prize. It might get you inspired to read it. If you’re looking for more inspiration I’ve put some of my tiny stories together in Stories to Read on the Train (for a tiny price).

I’ll give this submission challenge a go, let us know if you’re going to have a go. It’s a particular inspiring prompt so it will be interesting to hear how you got on. Also come back and say if your piece is accepted. The anthology is very well regarded and great fun to be a part of!




31 Days: Finding Wordfire

This series of articles running through January will explore ways of keeping our head above water in physical, mental, emotional and creative areas. There will be creative challenges, competitions and giveaways. For the full background see here.

A busy day today so I have just time for a flying post. I saw a link this morning  to English actor Benedict Cumberbatch reading John Keats ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ and Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky.

The luxuriance of Ode to a Nightingale reminded me of the experience of studying poetry in school, of being immersed in a poem, of committing sections of it to memory, of speaking the words and feeling the rhythm of them, becoming familiar with them. Listening to the reading of Ode to a Nightingale and the nonsense poem Jabberwocky I realised that in my quest to be a writer in the middle of a prosaic family life, I read and enjoy the language of books – for example Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane and Eowyn Ivny’s The Snow Child have been recent favourites – but I haven’t taken the time to dive right into the feeling of language, to enjoy it’s musicality, rhythm and sound spoken out loud, to experience it with many senses.

Here is the link to the poetry reading It has certainly inspired me and reminded me what I love about language and why I want to be a writer. You’re inspiration might be something different but whether it’s a book, a poetry reading recorded or live, or finding the work of an author such as Penny Goring who does things with language that you didn’t know it could do (see her book THE ZOOM ZOOM) it’s great to find something that puts the fire back into your wordspinning.

Have you found something that has made you excited about writing again? Let us know in the comments.

Don’t forget this weeks Photo Writing Prompt Comp, post entries until Sunday night!

31 Days: Inspiration and Daily Practice

This series of articles running through January will explore ways of keeping our head above water in physical, mental, emotional and creative areas. There will be creative challenges, competitions and giveaways. For the full background see here. To receive all the 31 posts, sign up for email notification on the sidebar. On twitter it’s at @31HAW or @alisonwells. Hashtag  #31haw and #headabovewater.

Not succeed but sustain

With these posts over 31 days I’m not looking at how we can magically ‘succeed’, I’m looking how we can get through our daily challenges in ways that are sustainable and can sustain us.

We all resolve to do things better, to be healthier, to organise ourselves, to be more productive but if you’re anything like me your good intentions will fade or get lost amidst the chaos that is life. I’ll look next week at goals and how both small goals and gigantic goals can work but let’s be realistic, life gets confusing and things happen so we n eed to build in flexibility so we don’t get discouraged and I’ll talk about that in next weeks post.

Daily practices I’ve undertaken this year

I’ve pledged to write 31 posts on wellbeing and resilience. It’s quite an undertaking and occasionally I wonder, what on earth I was thinking. But I want to make sure that it’s achieveable and if I need to make it easier on myself by taking shortcuts or getting help I can do that too.

I’ve undertaken to get up early to write each day but there’s a get out clause (only if I’m enjoying it and it doesn’t make me too tired to meet the challenges of family life.

I’m also walking regularly and working up to 20 mins each day on the kids trampoline in tiny increments (7 mins yesteday).

Many people follow the daily practice of the small stones, focused, mindful tiny stories or observances of nature or life and I’ve done that in previous January’s. Mindfullness is a fantastic way of calming our restless thoughts and anxieties and I’ll mention it again later in the month.

What I’m thinking is that the activities that we think of committing to at this time of year are those that will make us feel better either mentally, physically, emotionally, financially etc. They need to feed us, uplift us and be fun. If it’s a drudge, it’s not going to last.

So inspirational

I want to share with you today a link to the most inspirational talk that I listened to in 2012 – it’s a talk to young writers by author Ray Bradbury, one of my favourite authors who sadly passed away late last year. It’s about an hour long and well worth a listen and I post it on a Sunday because you might just have the time to sit and take it in.

In this recording he talks about how he got published, how he started out purely by writing the things he was interested in and wanted to write. They were stories when publishers generally wanted longer work but they worked together and the stories were collectively published as The Martian Chronicles. He talks about joy and enjoying writing, the energy as he discusses his own writing is evident.

Read a short story and an article of interest each day

In terms of daily practice Ray Bradbury gives the best advice out there. He tells writers to read a short story every day and to read an article of some kind that will feed their knowledge and curiosity. I love short stories and the complete satisfaction there is within one story, the (often) poetry and humanity. Reading articles on others lives, science, history, film, whatever immediate sends out sparks of interest, snippets that lie in your mind till later when they come out newly minted and dipped in the precious metal of your own interests.

Some of the sites I’ve found particularly inspiring in the past year have been Brainpickings (philosophy, history etc), IO9 (future science) and the site Letters of Note that finds fascinating letters of all kinds of human and world stories. I’ve been inspired so often by these sites and many story ideas have emerged from reading them.

Whatever you set out to do this year let it be something that is possible and that gives you energy and inspiration, not guilt and negativity.


What daily practices do you hope to follow this year? Can you link us to any sites that you find inspiring?

(UPDATE, this is an old post so competition no longer valid!)

Flash fiction Creative Comp

Don’t forget the 31/131 word creative challenge. Winners will be chosen later today. Please comment on your favourite entries. Thank you!

Childlike thinking makes for creative writing

The transition from childhood to adulthood involves a mental development that allows for more abstract reasoning, logical complexity, a greater awareness of consequence and an understanding of the nuanced dynamics of human relationships. However there are ways that childlike thinking can get us back to the basics of life and enhance our creative endeavours.


Babies and very young children are absorbed in the moment to moment awareness of their surroundings and the stimuli around them. The parents of young children often bemoan the snails pace at which a walk somewhere has to be undertaken but a key memory for me is when my youngest son was eighteen months and on one of his first walks in the big outside world. He became absolutely fascinated with a pebbledash wall, he looked at it, touched it, ran his fingers along it, went right up close. The other day I helped my daughter make daisy chains. To do so, we sat right down on the grass, feeling it under our fingers, surrounded by a galaxy of daisies, some fully open, some pink tipped. We selected the correct stems, just thick enough, made the delicate slice in the stem, threaded them through. There was a light breeze, bird sounds, occasional traffic, the concentration of the threading action. This slowing down and careful examination of things can bring us into the heart of a story or emotion. When describing a scene we can open it up around the mind of the reader by including the smallest of details, a cigarette butt, a shiny bottle top, a half-open fushia bud, the angle of a business man’s tie. 

Key characteristics

Children take things at face value; they make broad comparisons based on ‘similar’ or ‘different’. Only as they grow do they learn to make more nuanced distinctions. While the nuance is what differentiates a truly great writer from an adequate one, when we first introduce a character in a book, we need to use the broader brushstrokes, to give us a handle on the person, a hook. While it may not be politically correct; as humans we always make an initial judgement based on looks, similarity to ourselves, race, colour or accent. In our books our characters will make assumptions about one another based on initial impressions. These might later turn out to be incorrect. In writing, we can use the transition from the broad strokes to nuance to explore a developing relationship or an increasing or decreasing understanding between characters.

Fearlessness and Free thinking

Small babies have no depth perception and no sense of the danger of falling. Terrifyingly young children will run out onto a busy road with no sense of danger. Even older children, teenagers and even young adults carry with them a sense of invincibility. While many children invent rules for their games, there is a greater sense of freedom, where ‘let’s pretend’ means a car can fly or a giraffe can talk. As writers we need fearlessness to write at all and to take chances with our writing. We need to ‘run into the road’ into topics or subject areas that we find difficult to deal with in order to exercise our skill as writers. We also need to stretch our imaginations while making sure that our stories have their own internal logic.

Curiosity and Interest

Is a crane bigger than a whale?

Being party to my children’s homework, I realise how many facts they become aware of in a short space of time about history, mythology, geography, music, art, science. Browsing through their books I discover quirky interesting facts that are absolutely gripping. One of my favourite short stories ever is A Stone Woman  by AS.Byatt. She writes about a woman who literally turns to stone, but what stone! She is made up of so many different types that characterize the veins, the skins, the face, the limbs. The manifestations of stone also become more intricate over time. Stone happens to be one of my favourite things. In this story it was intrinsically fascinating, due to the level of detail employed but it also worked as a powerful descriptive device and metaphor. One of my sons knows everything there is to know about astronomy and I have used his knowledge in my work to provide an extra layer of interest in my stories. Facts are hooks that if used appropriately can inject life into writing.

Fundamental questions, fundamental themes

Why are we alive? Are you going to die? 

The parents of young children hear these sorts of questions every day, and often at bedtime when the impending darkness and separation may whirl up anxieties in the children. It is poignant to hear these existential questions from the mouths of babes and very often we don’t have the answers. But these questions can remind us of the archetypal themes that underpin all literary endeavours. It is commonly known that so called ‘children’s’ fairytales deal with dark themes. But these are the themes that are eminently and poignantly human. Whatever the style or genre of a book, whether its tone is light and fluffy or serious, the undercurrent of the archetypal concerns and themes will still be there. Often as adults we bury the fundamental fears and concerns under the flurry of everyday life. As writers we have to expose and deal with these raw terrors. These concerns translate into our characters’ complex motivations, make people take

The child I was

unusual decisions and do extraordinary things.

The child that you were and in some ways still are has special access to both wonder and fear. This child makes judgements and takes risks and sees things with fresh eyes. Use those qualities to create writing that has an extra edginess and magic. 

Note: I wrote this article originally in 2010 as a guest post for children’s author Olive O’ Brien.

Write for the joy of it baby!

We chose it. We want it. We can’t be doing without it. We wake up in the night or early in the morning with ideas spinning. We pace like tigers when kept from it by normal life. We do it.

And on days when all our stars are in alignment, when the keys to our subconscious have been turned, our fingers fly on the keyboard or our pencil scratchings make a frantic rhythm on paper, when we are surprised by ourselves, by the marvel of the humanity we write about, it is a wonderful, a joyful thing.

There’s so much talk now of being published, of rejections, submissions, of word count, of writer’s block and muses doing a runner, of not being able to find the space, the place, the time, the rhyme, the reason, it being the wrong season.

I wrote lately on my blog for about finding the book that YOU want to write, about finding the things that fire you up, that you gather and adore, that make you hot under the collar, of finding the hot coil in the furnace of the way YOU see the world and brandishing it, making your marks on the page, your brand (not the marketing one!) on the skin of our culture.

Write for the joy of it, for yourself firstly, then for a reader, someone intimate your book will sit close with later, you will tell them the way you see the world, humanity and they may sit head bent close to yours, to your book and understand or see something new or different they had never thought of before. Or you may reflect something back to them that is dear and intrinsic and spark of the joy of recognition in them.

Whether it’s Marc Nash‘s feats of erudition and word love, or Penny Goring’s unparalleled linguistic gymnastics, or the sparkling characterizations and life in a moment of Tania Hershman, Claire King, Martha Williams, A.J Ashworth, or the lovingly crafted slices of humanity of Rebecca Emin, Jane Rusbridge, DJ Young or the startlingly slightly surreal and fabulous creations of Rachel Carter, Kirsty Logan and Elizabeth Baines; these writers demonstrate to me through their work, and by presenting it to us in such a marvellous manner, the intrinsic joy of language, of creativity, of humanity and the world itself.

Like you all I get fed up of it. Sometimes writing is like the holy grail. To get to it at all, I need to negotiate the jungle of domestic life, climb mountains of tiredness and self-defeat.  But I want to remember the moments when a idea flashes, when a juxtaposition of words seems just right, (like when I came up with the title Origami Flamingos for one of my flashes!) when a story makes sense, the accumulated moments later when it lives and lingers and means something to others. I don’t know what else to say. We must stop sometimes and try to remember the spark, why we cannot walk away.

Do you write everyday and should you?

Stephen King’s book ‘On Writing‘ is a fabulous no-nonsense practical approach to being a writer and one that anyone serious about writing should own (in my humble opinion). From a previous reading I recalled that King said that he wrote everyday including Christmas Day and his birthday. On re-reading I see that he says that he told interviewers that because, when you are being interviewed you have to say something…However the nuanced truth is more interesting. When he’s really into a project, he DOES write everyday (including Christmas and his birthday). On the other hand, he says when he is not writing, he completely comes away from it and does plenty other things instead.

When we want to call ourselves writers, when we come to a point when writing is almost as vital to us as breathing, we can begin to eat, drink and sleep writing. We ponder plots and subplots, fret about wordcount, viewpoint, characterization. Sometimes we go to our writing day after day like inmates of an institution who don’t realise that they are free at any time to leave. During National Novel Writing Month in November, thousands of writers pledge to write 50,000 words. Why? friends sometimes ask Is there a prize? Is it a competition? No, we just do it, for ourselves. But producing the necessary 1667 words a day is a baptism of fire and there are days when you want to beat your head against the table and shout ‘No, no, no!’ You feel literally burned out. And the reason is that you are sapping every inch of your available subconscious and leaving no subconscious soup to bubble and brew and produce new rich and substantial ideas.

I’ve written before about the absolutely vital part of creativity called incubation (the psychological process whereby disjointed ideas stew and associate in new and startling ways). It famously worked in the bath for Archimedes and – as I’ve discovered this morning – for the inventor of the ATM (who unfortunately forgot to patent the idea.) At the moment I am itching to write a short story, I just love the form so much. I have plenty of ideas jotted down, some character development done, some paragraphs written but nothing, at the moment is jumping out at me. As indeed Stephen King puts it ‘good short story ideas come quite literally from no-where, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun’.  So my short stories ideas are reasonable but there is no spark to set them alight, align them in a unique and exciting way. All it will take is a moment, a chance remark, something seen on television (Gah!) or by listening to a song or reading something in the newspaper to make the difference. But that cannot always be planned and sometimes you have to work through the piece in the absense of inspiration hoping that the next time you come to it you will see it with a fresh eye.

Being committed we will write as much as we can, even when life is busy and emotionally demanding, even when we are sucked from all sides. ‘Sometimes, as King says ‘you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you are doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position‘. We need to be committed and ready to feel the fear that our work is going no-where and go there anyway. However we also need to be aware of finding a balance between word production, following through and giving ourselves the mental space to find new inspiration and drive.

Do you write everyday? Through difficult times or holidays? Or do you give yourself a day off every week? Or a break at the end of a project? What works for you? Would love to hear your comments.

The Soul’s Re-education – who’s writing do you love?

Fuel for the soul

I will never be a literary critic. I say Wow. I say Yes. I feel a resonance inside, a plucked guitar string, light shifting, I find myself holding my breath. I feel a flicker of an idea, consciousness swirling, a pulse of feeling, a glimpse of memory that sets me ready to try to say…..something, something that might in turn touch and inspire others or provide them with a reflection of their emotions, or show them a new way of looking at the world.

Who are the writer’s that refill the well for you?

The last decade for me has been a decade of what I call ‘mud’. Not in a negative sense but in a hands-on, practical, prosaic, down in the thick of things kind of way. I have given birth to and raised four children with all the nappies and puree and wiping down and tidying up and cajoling and physical helping and emotional steering that that entailed. Something has to give, sometimes its ‘air’, what’s up there, the things that take us out of ourselves, music, words, exercise, theatre, new places, silence. The children are older now, the tiny baby stage has passed. I am about to start a new decade in age too. I want to begin to refuel in all the other things that I haven’t been able to get to. I still have the physical, the hugs, the squeaky noses, the lifting, the holding, the toddler insisting he can only be happy lying cheek to cheek with me but I want the breath as well, a little bit more than before.

This means catching up on old music videos I have never seen, bands that I hear fleetingly in the car between pickups but never hear the name of. It means, perhaps DVD box sets or catching re-runs of shows I missed like Madmen, The Mighty Boosh, The West Wing. It means getting to more music shows, more theatre, more galleries. (Even if its only 1 more!). And it means books and authors.

These are the books currently on my bedside table or in a tall pile beside it.

They are by writers who were recommended to me by others or are people that I have enjoyed in the past and want to continue to become more familiar with their work. In particular since I have begun to write so many short stories I have also become a voracious reader of short story collections.

  • Hanif Kureshami: The Body (Already in awe!)
  • J.G. Ballard: Kingdom Come
  • A.S Byatt: Possession
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Memories of My Melancholy Whores
  • Nabokov: Collected stories (His work is a wonderful revelation!)
  • Jeannette Winterson: The Stone Gods
  • Annie Proulx: Brokeback Mountain and Other Stories
  • Adam Foulds The Quickening Maze
  • Virginia Woolf: The Waves, To the Lighthouse
  • John Steinbeck: The Pearl, Sweet Thursday, The Wayward Bus
  • Ivy Bannister: The Magician (short stories)
  • Paul Durkan: Life is a Dream: 40 years reading poetry – 1967-2007
  • Sylvia Plath’s: Collected Poems

These are books I have enjoyed most in the past few years and highly recommend.

  • What was Lost: Catherine O’ Flynn
  • The Accidental and Hotel World: Ali Smith
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera: Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • To a God Unknown, Grapes of Wrath: John Steinbeck
  • The Gathering: Anne Enright
  • Postcards, The Shipping News: Annie Proulx
  • Map of Glass: Jane Urquart
  • The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen (An event of a book, great illustrations, notes in the margins. Beautiful to hold.)

Short Stories

  • How to Breathe Underwater: Julie Orringer
  • Constitutional: Helen Simpson
  • Lorrie Moore: The Collected Stories
  • A.S. Byatt: Little Black Book of Stories

I also hope to become acquainted with the stories of Raymond Carver and to read the first two available stories from The Chaos Walking Trilogy (teen fiction) by Patrick Ness The Knife of Never Letting Go and The Ask and the Answer.

Help me with my re-education, my filling up of the soul and the well of inspiration.

Who are your favourite authors? What are your favourite books? Do you have any recommendations for us of authors we should become acquainted with? Are you an author we should become acquainted with? Let me know in the comments. Add in your favourite band and TV show too if you feel it deserves attention. Hopefully we can share some gems.