How to get the hang of creative writing

A while ago I wrote about my urge to start writing a book. In this post I’ll share my discoveries about writing. If you’re a seasoned writer, some of what I tell you may not be totally surprising.

Creative writing beginnings

At first, creative writing was like having to crack my head open – Greek mythology, goddess-Athena-born-from-the-head-of-Zeus style.

Creative writing is much like climbing a steep hill

To climb steep hills … (Shakespeare) – Image by Mark Notari on Flickr

If you’re at that painful stage, check my earlier post and do what I did. Or not. Odds are you’re trying to move a rusty lever from rational, business, objective to creative, psychological, inner-world.

Word count – how fast should you write?

There is no rule for word count. The rate at which I produce – or, let the words out – has accelerated since I started. On a really good weekday I do between 500 and 1000 words:

  1. Wake up et cetera.
  2. Commute by train: phone, 1 hour for writing max.
  3. Work.
  4. Commute by train: phone, 1 hour max.
  5. Cook, dinner, TV with family.
  6. Sit down and type: laptop, 90 minutes of writing max. But of course that blog post needs attention – time – as well.

700 words in 3,5 hours is about 200 words per hour. 250+ in extreme cases.

On bad days? 100-200 words. Zero if I don’t find the time.

Finding extra writing time

Now the days are getting longer I’ve wondered myself if I should use some quiet time on Saturday or Sunday morning (not both – please!) to get more words out at the weekends. But I’m not sure yet. Our son has entered another “I just wanna be close to you” phase. Which is endearing but extremely impractical.

Would spending a whole day writing help?

If you’re getting started in creative writing you may find that spending an entire day at the keyboard doesn’t help at all. Why not? I’ve given this some thought.

  • If I could get a full day of writing I could, theoretically, write 8 x 200 words = 1600 words. I wouldn’t call that a good day if it meant sitting at a keyboard for eight hours on a day off.
  • A good day would include 3 hours outside walking or gardening. In reality I’d spend part of those 3 hours doing housework to avoid feeling guilty about the mess after a day spent at home.
  • With 5 hours left, I’d be down to about 1000 words – which isn’t that much better than I do now.

Based on this insight I haven’t tried to write for eight hours straight just yet. Or even five.

First results, quantity-wise

So far (April 7) I’ve produced a bit over 6000 words. Since novels tend to have at least around 100.000 words these words represent 6% of a novel. That’s if I’m lucky and this stuff turns out to be good raw material for the next stage. And if I’m not on a 150K-word writing quest.

Update April 18: I’m now at 12000 words. Possibly because I really got 90 minutes’ value in the evenings in the past week? Anyway this could mean I’ve reached 10% of a novel 🙂

To be quite honest: I have no idea if I’ll be able to keep getting useful stuff out of my head. Hopefully I’ve hit a ‘steady stream’ stage.

What will the next stage of writing look like?

Easy. Rewriting.

I happened to read a post by a fellow blogger about how after writing, at first you’ll end up with “really crappy crap”.* That’s when the fun of rewriting begins. I can’t wait. But first, I have writing to do 🙂

* If that fellow blogger was you, let me know in a comment. You may add a link to your post about “crappy crap” first drafts, because it was obviously interesting enough to remember.

Tip for budding writers

Keep the pressure way down until you manage to move that rusty old switch in your head from ‘business’ to ‘creativity’:

  1. Don’t worry about word count, poetic phrases, or anything like that.
  2. Don’t force yourself into an eight-hour-a-day writing schedule. An hour every other day is fine – just write.
  3. Don’t invest in high-status writing software just yet – the empty screen will stare you down.

Remember my little unpretentious notebook. – which I’m not using any more. I’m keeping it though, as my no-pressure ‘just jot it down somewhere’ option.

Read more:

What does (creative) writing mean to you? Add your thoughts about creativity, writing and the like in a comment and expect a reply 😉

Blogging impressions: tips to make guest blogging work for you

Since August last year I’ve written “Blogging impressions” posts regularly to keep track of my progress in blogging. I regularly share tips on how to overcome issues many bloggers must run into.

Today my first guest post was published. For that reason this post is about (first time) guest blogging.

Why it’s important to guest blog

Guest Blogging (summer visitor, picture from last year)

I’m not going to give you “get a bigger audience through guest blogging” talk. Plenty of blogs will tell you that, and then they’ll try to sell you their e-books for ‘free’ after which they spam you with 400 Dollar webinars until you unsubscribe or block them to keep them from clogging up your mailbox.

Guest blogging is important as a learning method: it offers you a new writing experience. You get to write for an audience you’re not familiar with, so you only have the blog owner’s advice to go on – that and having a quick look at previous posts, and possibly comments from readers.

For that reason I view guest blogging as a thinking exercise. You’ll consider how you’ll gently tweak your blogging habits to suit the audience you’re writing for. In my case, I’d started tweaking before I guest blogged.

Don’ts in guest blogging

  • Don’t even consider writing a sloppy guest post. If you’re lucky you’ll get turned down. If you’re not so lucky, you’ll get published and a lot of potential readers will have a chance to enjoy poor writing or a post with an unfinished feel to it.
  • Don’t write 5 times better than you would on your own blog. If you can’t put in enough time to produce good posts, anyone who finds your excellent guest post and then visits your blog will turn away disappointed.

Tips to make (first-time) guest blogging work

  1. Find a blog to guest post on that is as similar in style and/or topics to your own as possible.
  2. Make sure you meet the blog owner’s criteria: word count, picture, the lot.
  3. Make sure you meet your own criteria for publishing before you submit your guest blog. If you’re not sure if your post is good enough, consider drafting and previewing it on your own blog. If you have doubts about publishing it on your own territory, don’t submit it yet.

Whatever else you do, try to match your own blog’s best posts.

Why guest blogging isn’t a must-do for everyone

If you’re happy on your own blog and you have enough readers to keep you blogging along, that’s fine. It may take you longer to assemble a crowd of readers – but then again, it may not, if you’re able to connect with casual visitors. Which happens a lot on ‘private’ blogs because there’s so much we recognize in each others’ lives.

Getting a personal connection by talking about businessy topics is harder, and tends to happen (at first?) when you blog about something you feel strongly about. You’re only human – people get that.

What are your thoughts on – or experiences and tips from – guest blogging?

Blogging impressions: this is when you stop talking about yourself

A while ago I blogged about the difference between a journal and a blog. This post centers around the question when you should or shouldn’t blog about yourself.

An offline journal is usually written by you, about you and your latest experiences, and for you – and maybe a few others. Old ship’s journals or logs are like that. “Sailed 14 hours straight today, ended up at a new undiscovered patch of ocean in the middle of nowhere, possibly near India.”

Image by Dennis Skley [Flickr]

Easter eggs image by Dennis Skley [Flickr]

In the online version, a lot of readers can read along and enjoy your jokes or sympathize with you on a bad hair day.

Blogging, like I wrote in my earlier post, means you focus on your readers. Ideally you start a conversation with your readers. So how much can you talk about you on your blog – and when should you stop? What are definite don’ts?

Private blog: when do you stop blogging about yourself?

Hey, I’m not telling you what you can’t do in a general sense. It’s your private blog or possibly journal, not mine. However:

  1. If you catch yourself ranting or whining, stop. Don’t whine or rant.
  2. If you do decide to whine or rant, tell your readers why. And then make sure they take away a couple of tips like:
    1. Boiling the Easter eggs before painting them is a good idea.
    2. Appearances can be deceptive. Just a few pitfalls I fell into which you should avoid: 1, 2, 3…. 24… (perfect list post).
    3. How I tried to make money sleeping and was swindled out of my life savings in just under a week. (Surprise: takeaway tips should tell readers how to hold on to their money.)
    4. What blogging might lead to – see my post about my experience with the side-effects of blogging.

The entertaining type of post beats whining by a streetlength. If you know an appropriate street, let me know in a comment 😉

Business blog: when do you stop blogging about your company?

Don’t blog about yourself. You might ask how you’re supposed to do that but seriously, your blog should be as little about you as possible. Focus on taking the picture, not on being in the picture.

A few further tips:

  • Don’t tell me your company and services are unique. Share thoughts and facts based on your personal experience to show the (possibly unique) value you can add, without getting up people’s noses.
  • Don’t lump your readers into a group they don’t identify with just because you see them as a market segment. Whenever you do this, you’re taking yourself as a starting point rather than your readers’ interests or your clients’ needs.

When can you talk about you?

Feel free to share your happy (business) moments:

  • Upload that picture of your kitten after it crawled into dad’s empty pajama’s – you’ll keep people going for a week. (I’m sure my parents still have that photograph in an album from the, what, 1970s?)
  • Let us know you just launched new product X and how hard you worked. Then snap out of it and tell us how that will help us. Blogging is about your readers, remember?

What do you think: so long as you mind how you do it, talking or blogging about yourself or your business isn’t such bad thing – or is it? What are your definite don’ts in blogging?

Forget knowledge management – Write Me. {The Creativity Bug}

Of late I’ve been getting the impression that I’m in trouble. And it’s my own fault for starting this blog. It’s also the reason why publishing posts seems to be getting more difficult rather than easier some days.

Write Me. The Creativity Bug

For a long time some alien but at the same time eerily familiar presence has been chewing on my mind. As I lived my life it evolved with my experiences. From time to time it seemed to fade away. This presence consisted of flashes of a story. A long time ago I’m pretty sure there used to be a different story in my head. But whatever happens, after a while something will come inhabit the space between my ears and haunt me.

Blogging – the winding path onto the moor of creative fever

When I first started blogging here, focusing on business topics, there was no problem at all. A lot of energy went into writing, editing, improving the structure of my posts, coming up with suitable images, and the like. But now…

  • Every time I start a new post about some business topic, the spectre of creativity whispers into my ear “Don’t write about that. Write the story.”
  • Every time I try to make a sensible post out of a potentially complex issue, my story will inch closer and tell me “Forget knowledge management. Write Me.”

Write Me.

To be honest, I’ve even made the tiniest of starts online. Since I’m so used to putting my thoughts onto a screen I no longer feel comfortable writing on paper when it comes to ‘big stuff’. So when I heard about a tool called PressBooks, which is based on WordPress, I went to have a look. I got an account (private) and checked the features. Then I made a few ‘posts’. And finally I started writing. Just to be writing.

Um. I got two crappy sentences out. Ugh.

I came up with several possible reasons for that.

  1. It’s fiction whereas I’m used to non-fiction. It may be ‘an historical novel’ or it may be fantasy – I’m not entirely sure. If it’s history this is going to take some serious research.
  2. Maybe paper is better at this stage? I used to ‘mommy-blog’ (keep a journal) offline 😉
  3. I’m used to writing in English for non-fiction. Whether that’s going to work for fiction – I have no idea. I do know fiction is going to send me to the far corners of my English vocabulary. It would be the ultimate challenge. I like challenges. But is this one going to be too big?
  4. This story is mine. It’s lived inside my head for ages. My experience in writing those two sentences was a bit like, well, a warning. Like a first contraction. A warning that if I start this, I won’t be able to stop the process of going into full literary labor. A warning that it’s going to be painful. And messy. And if I ever manage to get out a first draft I’ll be up to my elbows in nappies and goo.
  5. Why oh why does it feel as though this story might take up a whole book? It might’ve been easier to raise a short story through infancy.

In short, it feels like I’m peering down from a dizzying height – I’ve just moved one foot slightly and dislodged a few pebbles. As I watch them tumbling down something, someone, is asking me: do you quite sure you want to find out how far down this will take you? Also, part of me is saying “Are you kidding? I don’t have time for this sh*t.”

Bitten by the creative writing bug

Why does this feel like the scene in ‘The Matrix’ where Neo is offered the two pills, one of which will show him how deep the rabbit hole goes? Having all these thoughts milling around like a herd of nervous sheep can’t be good for anyone’s budding writing process. Why is this so hard?

In deference to my personal creativity bug I have bought a little notebook just so I can try and sooth the writing itch for now, whenever I’m commuting by train… For jotting down anything that comes up. I’ll focus on ideas rather than sentences. If I’m lucky, my efforts may result in one tortured sentence per page to start with. Possibly 😉

Worst case scenario – if there’s such a thing as a worst case here – is that I continue to produce crappy sentences for a long time. But I don’t think it matters so long as it helps me scratch this infernal literary itch.

P.S.: I’ve tried out my little notebook and I’m loving it. Because it’s unpretentious. It doesn’t tell me “Listen. I’m important. So whatever you put on my pages had better be worth my space.” It’s small – a bit over smartphone-sized, and the lines start right at the top to fit in as many lines as possible. No extra room for headlines. No nothing. It’s perfect.

How do you cope with the creativity bug? Do you blog about anything and everything – or do you find that things well out of scope keep nudging you saying: “Write Me” ?

Blogging impressions: a short post about long posts

A nice tip from a fellow blogger and it’s all in the title: “I try to leave out the parts that people skip“. Boy if there ever were a tip written just for me this would be it. Then again, if I change too much I’ll end up having to change my blog name too.

Do you really need to keep only the content you think your readers will like?

Skip or keep? Goat in spring

Skip or keep? (spring picture by ewewlo on Flickr)

Should you skip all the bits you assume people don’t pay attention to? Or will adding structure and headings keep casual readers on board, scanning your blog post for the stuff they’re interested in?

Long posts and short posts in blogging

I’ve pretty much managed to weed out two-topic posts. The question now is how long or short a post should be.

  • For posts on a corporate blog I’m sure I read somewhere that 400 words is enough. The idea is that business people don’t have time for long reads.
  • Another number I found was 500-600 words per post. I don’t recall where I read that, and that’s probably because the blog containing the information wasn’t worth remembering. Which says it all I guess.
  • Blogs containing chapters of a fictional work tend to have, well, chapter-length posts. I don’t think anybody minds the long read 😉
  • For my own blog I stay well away from the 1000-word mark. Under 900 is fine. If I manage to say what I wanted to say without sounding too dry-factual (is that a word? I just made it one) using less than 800 words it’s worth a cheer and a “Well done you” stamp in my content rambling archive.

Deliver the message – the essence of any piece of writing

So far I’ve adhered to just one rule while blogging: the right number of words for a blog post is the number of words I need to deliver a complete thought or set of thoughts about a topic, preferably with a bit of fun added into the cake mixture.

When it comes to really compact writing I wonder if anyone ever managed to beat Tacitus. Come to think of it, I remember we actually asked our teacher for a text by that specific author, because we were getting bored with translating Vergilius (Virgil) in preparation for our exam and we needed the change – and a challenge. After just a week or two, getting back to Virgil was the ultimate relaxing holiday-on-the-beach!

What’s a good post-length for you as a blogger – or as a reader? How short is a short post, and what is too long in a long post? Does any kind of ‘rule’ work in blogging?

Blogging impressions: how to change your journal into a blog

This post is about me. And perhaps it’s also about you… When I started blogging I refused to explore the question who I was going to write for in detail. So now maybe it’s time to make up for that.

Who am I trying to reach? Who is my audience?

Well, for starters:

  1. People who have a brain, and are not afraid to use it. If that’s you, consider it a compliment 😉
  2. People who like to learn, and who don’t mind reading stuff that’s about different topics so long as it’s written for non-experts.
  3. People who share one or more interests with me.
  4. Experts who like to extend their own thinking on various topics.
  5. In other words, I aim to blog for people with room in their heads for new ideas or new takes on things they know (although, if they read a lot, I may not always be able to surprise them). I blog for curious people.

Change your Journal into a blogI’m writing for people who are, in a way, like me. It’s quite possible that I’m writing for me. Which I reckoned was fine when I started blogging. After all, I’m my own best-known audience. I know what I like. If you blog for a specific audience without doing research into your intended audience, chances are that you’re blogging for you. If that wasn’t your intention, all I can say is: Oops.

Does all of the above mean you’re looking at my journal right now? Yes and no… So how do I write my posts for you on this blog of mine?

How to change your journal into a blog written for an audience

Unless my planning gives me a topic to write about up front (I’ll admit I’ve been too busy lately), I start out writing about something that’s either fascinating me, or frustrating me, or worrying me, or…
I start writing and keep writing for a while, exploring the topic as I go.
Until the bloggers’ inquisitor drops in. I keep this creature outside on a leash for my ‘raw’ draft so it doesn’t chew on the furniture or drool on my keyboard while I’m busy.

The blogger’s inquisitor is that nagging feeling you may know – that may creep up on you when you’re writing… asking:

  • Why would anyone be interested in your problems?
  • What’s in here that could actually solve someone else’s problems?
  • After all you’re not so unique that you could be the only person in the world who has this issue. Are you?

Turning…

At this point I snap out of journaling mode and start writing for YOU:

  1. Sometimes it’s a simple matter of pasting “you” where I was (yes, and the verbs too).
  2. Sometimes it means I look at the issue I’ve described in a whole new light.
  3. And I start describing details of what you might run into.
  4. Then I add tips to counter some of those issues.
  5. A key issue is that I can’t pretend to have an answer for you if I don’t have one. But as a part of my blogging activities I can look for an answer and present it to you in my resulting blog post.
  6. Or I can think about what might work for you, even if I don’t know if it would work for me.

Think about it for a minute. There’s a HUGE difference between a journal and a blog.

What is a journal about?

A journal is essentially about you. It’s where your write about stuff you run into. In the case of an online journal, it allows your readers to recognize, sympathize – sometimes have a lot of fun reading about your musings. Some of your readers may take heart in the fact that you’re experiencing the same problems they’re facing.

What is a blog about?

A (business) blog is – has to be – about your readers. Whatever you put in should be written to benefit them in some small way. That doesn’t mean you should leave out your point of view – that’s the point of it being your blog – right? I’d say it’s impossible to leave yourself out – but you can suppress your presence to the point of squeezing the last bit of life out of your blog. Please don’t.

Painting the picture more clearly…

Compare writing to painting. Turning from journaling to blogging doesn’t mean you stop ‘painting’. All it means is you don’t do self portraits anymore – most of the time.

Your work still shows your choice of topic, your structure, your style, your preferred colors and details. It’s just that your readers are no longer inspecting every pimple on your nose anymore (metaphorically speaking – I hope). Instead, your readers are exploring the world through the words you paint onto the canvas of your blog.

Read more storytelling and blogging:

I hope you enjoyed this episode of Blogging impressions. You may find previous episodes here and here. And finally, leave your thoughts on journals, blogs and (your) blogging audience in a comment!