100 ways to write a book: The Helen method

Mslexia has a regular feature called 100 ways to write a book.  They interview a particular female writer and in addition to that, we get an insight into how the author writes.  For example, in the Dec/Jan/Feb 17/18 issue, Sarah Perry who wrote The Essex Serpent is interviewed and The Perry Method includes advice such as “If an idea occurs to you that makes your scalp tighten, it’s a sign that it will make a good story”.

In a similar vein, the creative nature writing guide I’ve mentioned also has a section about method.  It discusses use of journals, seasonal diaries, jotting down ideas on scraps of paper, dictating notes to a voice recorder, starting at the end, working on multiple projects and so on.

DSC_0610 levels

There are so many different ways to write and the important thing is that you find the one that works for you.  If you look online or in a bookshop, you’ll see pages and pages dedicated to teaching you how to write.  These generally aren’t about technique or style, more often than not they are about getting you to actually put words on paper.  And this is what the 100 ways to write a book column tends to be about.

I could not even entertain the idea of telling anyone how to write.  I am a retired, disabled, 31 year old woman with no children and no housework.  I am in an unusual situation.  I have all the time in the world to write but I also have limits imposed by pain and fatigue and brain fog.  But over the last year or so I have honed my way of writing.

I know I ebb and flow through the day and I know mornings tend to be the most reliably productive time so I try to make use of this.  Your own rhythms will be different to mine but I wanted to share my approach in case any of it is of help.  It has also been a helpful exercise in self reflection and I think a good reminder for when writers block strikes!

So, here is The Helen Method:

  • Write in a personal way, you chat to your reader, you befriend them and in doing so you build a relationship.
  • Even though you desperately want to write a beautiful novel, you can’t right now. The time may come but today you are a poet and a creative non fiction writer.
  • Always have word open on your laptop. You have significant hand pain and so you need to type, despite longing to be able to sit with an elegant fountain pen and inspiring notebook.
  • Write little and often. This helps with pain management but also creativity begets creativity.  Writing little and often makes it habit and means you don’t try and hold ideas in your head…
  • Which is important because your memory is not what it used to be. Keep a notebook at hand and a pen in sight and scribble down words and phrases before they are lost to brain fog.  But do not write any more than that by hand, see previous point.
  • Read lots.  Read often.  Read variety.  Non fiction and fiction.  Kindle and audiobooks.  Poetry and prose.  Magazines and articles.
  • And once you have devoured the contents of other people’s writings, ruminate. Go quiet.  Switch off Netflix and let the information swish around inside you. Feel into it and find the angle, find the hook.
  • Don’t try and tell the reader everything you know about a subject. Unused facts and details are not wasted.  They will be used elsewhere.  They helped you to understand.  The reader doesn’t need to know everything you know.
  • Similarly, stay focused. In your excitement about a topic, you are likely to head off on too many tangents and lose the narrative and the reader.
  • Go back to all those words and phrases and half started poems that you always mean to finish.
  • Most importantly, write because you enjoy writing. Write for no other reason than it brings you pleasure.

What tips would you include in your writing method?

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