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starting your book

So you want to be a writer? Here’s how.

I wonder if you ever thought about this: every great author had to start from scratch.

Every successful writer out there was once a wisher… someone who wished she could write that book she’d been carrying around inside her just waiting to come out… someone, perhaps, a lot like you.  

How did they make the massive leap from wanna-be writer to real writer?

Was it a lucky break?

Was it some lightening bolt of creative genius that struck them by chance & resulted in a master piece?

I’m confident if you asked your favourite author, he would laugh before answering with a definite “Not a chance!”

So what is the secret? How do you stop wishing you were a writer & become one? I’ll tell you. Here it is, ready?

 The first three baby steps to switching gears from wanna-be to real writer

1. Declare yourself a writer 

As writing-coach Jeff Goins puts it, this is not about faking it until you make it. Deciding and declaring your status as a writer and not a wanna-be is essential to making that step. It’s about making a mental shift & setting your intention in stone. So go on. No more excuses. Write it down. Pin it on the wall. Tell a close friend: I am a writer. But of course that’s just the start… 

2. Start writing… now.

I know, I know. This one sounds like a total no-brainer. But actually, this obvious step is where most people fail to move from wanna-be to writer. Writers are people who write. Sure, they do other things too–dreaming, planning, researching–but all those things can become just ways of procrastinating from the one essential job of the writer, which is (you guessed it) WRITING! So if you want to be a writer but your’e not currently writing anything, get yourself a journal or a notepad and write something: ideas, observations, thoughts about stories you love… remember, you don’t have to write Gone With the Wind on day one. Baby steps. But you must write

3. Learn the basic tricks of the trade 

I absolutely believe the best way to become a better writer is to write, and write, and write. But you don’t have to figure it all out on your own. Many have gone before you & picked up tricks– methods, processes, little secrets of the craft– that will make your new life as a writer a lot easier & a lot more fun. 

That’s where we come in! In June and July, we’re reposting our best writing-tips to walk you through the process & motivate you along the way. Writing a novel is an emotional roller-coaster, no matter how many times you’ve done it. There’s nothing like having a shoulder to cry on & a hand to guide you through each step. That’s what we’re here for!

So whether you’re gearing up for NaNoWriMo in July, writing your 100th novel, or giving this whole writing thing a go for the very first time, these tips are going to help you… I can guarantee it, because they’re the same tips that’ve helped us along the way! 

So here’s your homework: Declare yourself a writer today, & let’s get writing!
Sign up for our email alerts (in the right margin) so you don’t miss a single tip!

 

Interview with author/illustrator Anna Caroline Grant (top tips from a born artist)

If Creativity were contagious, every struggling author and artist would want to hang around with Anna Caroline Grant. To this bright, articulate, life-loving ten-year-old, creating seems as natural a thing as breathing… or dancing, in her case. Her recent works include such novelties as the legend of why the willow tree weeps, and the chronicles of a traveling bouncy ball. I’ve had the pleasure of proofing quite a few of her illustrated stories, and my reaction is always the same: “How does she come up with these amazing ideas?!” followed by, “Why can’t I think up ideas like these?!” The answer is simple: because Anna Caroline is one of a kind, and her stories and pictures reflect that to a tee.

Anna hails from the USA, but lives in Spain along with two parents, four siblings and one dog. I was lucky enough to pin down this little sprite in the midst of her busy, creative daily life and ask her a few questions about her creative process. Read the interview below & prepare to be inspired!

Q: When did you first start writing & illustrating?                                                                        A:“I knew I was going to create children’s books since I was 4.” Of course, back in those days, Anna’s stories were much simpler — a description of a flower or a fairy. But Anna explains that her stories have grown along with her. “I’ve been writing stuff like that until now, when I’m writing stuff I feel like I’m going to publish.” And with her winning attitude mixed with dedication to her craft, getting published is only a matter of time for Anna. So next, I wanted to know…

Q: Where do you get your ideas?                                                                                                        

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Anna’s illustrations are characterized by emotive power & attention to detail

A: “That is a very good question!” Anna exclaims, stopping to consider. It seems her sources are myriad. But one stands out from the crowd. “So the key to this is reading other books.”Anna gives an example of recently reading E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web and getting an idea to write about an unlikely animal friendship. “Not a pig and a spider, because that would be copying.” The key is mixing bits of inspiration together to form something new, Anna explains, like cooking up a story stew. “I put that idea with an idea from another book, and it makes a new story that’s a bunch of other stories mixed together.”

Funny thing is, I recall a very similar description of story-making from another, much older author by the name of J.R.R. Tolkien. Looks like Anna’s in good company!

Besides books she’s reading for fun, Anna also gets ideas from her language classes at school. She explains how studying parts of speech gives her the tools she needs to write descriptively. And then it’s down to practice. Sounds like a lot of work goes into these wild and wonderful stories, so I’m wondering…    IMG_1849

Q: What’s the best part of writing and illustrating?                                                             A:That answer comes easy: “Illustrations!” I recently attended an interview with some of Britain’s most celebrated author/illustrators included Oliver Jeffers, and I was curious to hear how Anna would answer this question that they all seemed to struggle with…

Q: What come first, the story or the picture?      A:“I always think of an image in my head first,” Anna answers without a moment’s hesitation. “For example, I read a fairy book and think of a fairy that can’t fly.” For Anna, all it takes is one image like that flightless fairy to give birth to a whole story. She makes it sound so straight-forward, so easy! So I have to ask…

Q: What’s the hardest part?                                                                                                                      A:(Having been pulling my hair out over my latest book this week, I’m bowled over by her answer) “It’s mostly easy… but if I had to pick a hard part, it’s when I can’t think of the next story to write.” But Anna is a classic glass-half-full person, so even those stuck-in-the-mud moments can’t keep her down for long. “In those tough times… you just write descriptively,” she says confidently, as if it’s a given that stories come out of writing what you see just like apples come from apple blossoms. And why not? It’s clearly working for Anna, though I still suspect she has some secret super-power when it comes to Creativity. So I ask her to spill the beans…

Q: What advice can you give to kids or grownups who want to be writers but don’t know where to start?

A: Anna’s top tips are GOLDEN NUGGETS: *(DO NOT MISS THESE!)

  1. Do the first thing that comes into your mind. If you don’t like it, you can just do something else.
  2. Keep practicing and keep reading
  3. Look back at old stuff you’ve read or written. Sometimes you just need to put the pieces together.
  4. Anna’s #1 piece of advice:

The secret to drawing and writing is to try to have fun doing it. Not just thinking ‘this is important. I have to do this perfectly.’ Don’t take it too seriously so it’s ‘Think, Think, Think.’ Think about it for a moment and then write it! Just do it!

My suspicions prove true. The pixie dust that gives Anna’s Creativity flight is special to her, but it’s also something we can all take away from her approach to creating stories and art. It’s supposed to be FUN!

And that’s what inspires me so much about Anna Caroline Grant. She works hard, but her stories flow out of a joyful, life-loving spirit. After all, what’s the point of writing if you don’t love doing it? Take it from this 10-year-old, and watch this space! You’ll be seeing her name at your local bookshop ‘ere long! But for now, here’s an exclusive sneak peak at Anna’s new venture: illustrated poetry!

“A Child’s Dream of Nature”

by Anna Caroline Grant

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Inspiration: “Looking out the window!”

Part III: The Art of Asking ~ putting the ‘quest’ back in ‘question’

Only the curious have something to find. – Nickel Creek, ‘This Side’

Think of the most creative person you know. That person who always sees shapes in the clouds and pulls stories out of thin air. That person who sees the world, not as it is, but as it might be. That person who’s ever filled with wonder & bursting with imagination.

Were these creative souls simply born with it? Perhaps. But then aren’t most children born with a sense of awe, a readiness to absorb information &, most notable of all, a billion questions on their lips? The problem with many of us struggling artists is not a missing ‘creative gene’, but rather a loss of our childlike sense of life as a grand adventure. Thinking we’ve seen it all, we stop looking (see Part II on the Art of Observation). Not wanting to appear ignorant, we stop asking questions. We become jaded, & our imagination just doesn’t work like it used to…But what if we could revive that lost art that comes so naturally to children? The Art of Asking, that is.

There is a direct correlation between Curiosity and Creativity. The one fuels the other, so if you let Curiosity dry up, you can bet your Creativity will sputter out & wind up rusting in the junkyard of your busy, uninspired mind. Unless you choose to embark on a quest that can reverse the hands of time & get your Creative mind banging on all cylinders again.

The Quest for better Questions

In his book for cooking up Creativity, Five Star Mind, Tom Wujec explains the revitalizing power of asking questions:

Inside the word ‘question’ is the word ‘quest’,  suggesting that within every question is an adventure, a pursuit which can lead us to hidden treasure.

Asking questions excites your mind out of its drowsy state by laying an open road before it. Just like Bilbo Baggins startled from his stupor by a troop of adventuring dwarves, your brain secretly longs for a mystery to solve, a quest to fulfill. Asking questions is an invitation for the brain to step out of its routine & into an adventure.

Asking questions gets your brain moving. Wujec explains that a question puts the brain in a state of irresolution, a bit like an itch that demands scratching. And believe it or not, your brain LOVES this irresolute state! If you don’t believe it, just look at the masses of Sudoku & crossword puzzles sold in your local bookstore. The brain sees the challenge & sets right to work to scratch that itch. Before you know it, your creative mind is on fire!

Irresolution is a potent fuel, a source of energy & motivation. – T. Wujec

Asking questions gives you a target & helps you aim. Here’s where you can apply the Art of Asking directly to your writing, & especially when you feel utterly & hopelessly stuck. Asking the right kind of questions can be the hand up you need to get you unstuck & on your way again. So just what are the “right kind” of questions? 

The best questions drive us to see the bigger picture, not just the immediate problem. For example:  Instead of “Why is my protagonist so BORING?!”

Try “What do I already know about this character?”  -or- “How might this character respond in another situation?”

Also, the best questions are open-ended, inviting not just one answer, but many possible solutions.

For example: “In what ways can I make my protagonist more interesting? or more believable?”

It is only fair to mention a Caveat here in bold: Your questions may not lead you to a final resolution… They may even lead you to ask yet more questions!

But that’s OK! In fact, that’s the point! For the creative writer, it’s not the answers but the Art of Asking that counts. Merely asking keeps the creative mind in motion & childlike wonder alive. Mastering this art will take practice-so much unlearning to do before we can have the humility to learn afresh! But the pay-off is enormous. Just consider all the books on your shelves that began with a simple, silly question:

“What if you fell down a hole in the ground & landed upside-down in a fantasy world?”

“What if you walked into a wardrobe & found yourself in in a winter’s wood?”

“What if an ordinary boy discovered he was actually a wizard?”

Do you dare to begin the quest? Who knows where your questions may take you…

Part II: The Art of Observation~ how to seek & find Inspiration

Moment of truth: Have you ever put off writing because you just didn’t feel “inspired”? I wager most of us (myself included) would have to plead guilty.

Lack of Inspiration holds a high position on the list of excuses wanna-be writers make for not writing.

Fair enough, you may say. Inspiration is a key ingredient of Creativity, right? You can’t create cold. One needs a catalyst to get the stone rolling; a spark to ignite the flame; a bolt of lightning to strike life into Frankenstein’s monster before he can rapturously proclaim “It’s aliiiive!”

But what if the Inspiration you’re waiting for doesn’t come?

The word “Inspiration” comes from Latin that literally refers to the act of God breathing -or inspiring– life into being… breathing a soul into mere flesh & bones. Prime example: in the book of Genesis, God breaths life into Adam (the 1st man) & thereby infuses him with God’s own attributes, including & especially Creativity! Then he tells Adam to get up & start using it! Look around at all those stars, plants & animals! Give them names! Grow gardens, build houses, write sonnets, procreate & fill the earth with the fruit of Creativity…& all from that one little initial spark of Inspiration.

So here’s what I’m driving at. If you’re alive reading this, you have the same gift of Inspiration Adam had– a soul to drive you, 5 senses to take in the world around you & a brain to make some sense and use out of it all *(that, you might say is the bare bones of how Creativity works).

So why do we feel we’re lacking Inspiration? Maybe we’ve just forgotten how to find it. Maybe our 5 senses need a dusting off. Maybe instead of waiting for lightening to strike us right where we sit, we need to become storm chasers… or more aptly, Inspiration Chasers (you can just hear the epic theme music cue, right?).

I’m talking about The Art of Observation. If you’ll master it, I guarantee inspiration for your craft will never again be hard to find. But be warned: once you learn how to look, you may find Inspiration lurking literally everywhere, more than your brain & notebooks combined can possibly contain! Leonardo da Vinci summed up this principle well when he said

l’esperienza fu maestra di chi scrisse bene. (Experience was the good writer’s teacher)

When we experience the world, not passively, but through the kind of active observation that would make Sherlock Holmes proud, we have all the inspiration we need to fuel our creative writing.

So here’s my first tip: Be prepared to be surprised!

Inspiration comes in funny ways & when you least expect it… only you should be expecting it everywhere & all the time. For instance, last week I was invited to a Sunday lunch. Only when I arrived at the lunch did I discover that I was one of ten guests & the only one under the age of 75. The afternoon was spent loudly articulating every word for those hard of hearing & repeating myself to the one lady with memory loss. A waste of an afternoon when I might have been reading Rilke or waiting in meditation for the inspiration bug to bite? Ha! I came away with mountains of it!

I soon discovered my lunch companions were a kaleidoscope of mannerisms, dialects, peculiarities & brilliant senses of humour, to say nothing of the wonderful narratives they shared from bygone days that might as well be fantasy lands for one my age! Their lives were rich, their perspectives so different, & they were so very willing to share all that wealth with anyone willing to listen… on that Sunday afternoon, that someone was the privileged I.

Anyone you meet, if you look & listen long enough, has something unique to offer as fodder for fiction. And the very young & very old in particular seem to overflow with inspiring tales and insights. So don’t shun new company. Strike up chats. Be a listen ear. Hear the untold stories that walk right past you every day. They might just inspire the plot for your next fiction piece!

Secondly, gird yourself with the writer’s weapons: en garde!

Once you’ve learned to look for inspiration in every new environment, you’ll want a way to catch it & keep it before it flits away (beware the writer’s curse: Inspiration always strikes whilst in the shower or behind the wheel! Do not attempt to write or type in these situations!).

Keep a handy little notebook & writing utensil of choice on your person whenever possible. One of the best habits you can form is keeping an observation journal. Write down your first impressions of a person, place or object. What made them or it stand out? How do they differ from others around them? Jot down physical traits, speech (tone, pace, notable turns of phrase), attitude, movements, expressions… sky’s the limit! Just get it down & don’t assume you’ll remember later on.

And finally, distill your observations into literary descriptions

you could stop at step 2 & still reap the benefits of observation: your mind & notebooks would be that much fuller of potential characters, settings or intriguing objects. But if you aim to write to the next level, why not go a step further?

A good writer does more than string together a load of adjectives when describing someone or something. She chooses those descriptions-nouns & verbs as well as adjectives & adverbs–that capture the essence of the thing or character. Remember, your readers have the gift of creative thought as well. They can fill in the gaps. What you the writer must give them is an impression on which they can build their own images of your created world.

And here we come to the beauty of writing. The writer captures inspiration in order to distill it and create something new to inspire the reader. You might call it recycling inspiration! But it all begins by putting to death the old excuse that you’re “waiting for inspiration”. Instead, practice the Art of Observation! You’ll soon find Inspiration is yours for the taking & for the making!

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