Today’s post is the first in a new series, Feed the Beast, which is all about tapping into your creative side. The series was inspired by a conversation I had with my father when I was about sixteen. He encouraged me to never forget to “feed the creative beast,” that lives inside each and everyone one of us. And warned that neglecting your creative spirit could lead to living an unfulfilled and often unhappy life. Today’s guest poster, Mary McAvoy, will give you the low down on how to begin a writing practice.
Thank you, Newburyportdaytripper, for asking me to guest post about fiction writing. I’m especially excited because Newburyport is the home of the annual Newburyport Literary Festival! No day-tripping necessary, just roll out of bed and you’re there!
Like my mother before me, I was late to release my creative energy. After raising her many children, my mother began to paint in earnest at age 65. Over the next 20 years she became a skilled artist. Several of her paintings hang in my home. I study them often and it amazes and inspires me to see what she was able to achieve in the time that remained in her life. Point being, it’s never too late.
I think that from the time I was in high school I felt as if I were meant to be a fiction writer. My B.A. is in English and the Classics. But the cultural mechanisms that guide/dictate our pathway pushed me in another direction. It’s not as if I put up a fight. I was content as long as I was learning, and I was.
Midlife, I found myself with the opportunity to revisit the idea of writing. During that time, I read somewhere that you should not decide to be a writer until you had written four books. To me, a non-mountaineer, that thought sounded like “until you’ve climbed Mt. Everest.” Since then (eight years ago), I’ve written two novellas and one and a half novels. I think each of my books gets progressively better in writing and storytelling, and I have every intention to keep on writing.
Here are the top five tips I’d pass on to anyone who is thinking of picking up the quill.
1. Find your voice before you take any classes or join a writing group. Get comfortable with your writing groove, your personal style. Complete one writing—a short story, a novella, a novel. Study your style and habits (more on habits later). Then, if you want to, take a class or join a writing group or apply for an MFA. I advise this so that you discover as much of your own style as you can before instruction and marketing influences it.
2. Read good writing. A lot. Reading helps your brain find pathways to release words and to tell a good story. When you read, study the verbal cadence the author uses. Observe the structure of the book, the chapters, the sentences, as well as the use of words (simple or complex language/words).
3. Establish habits that work for you. You’ll hear and read advice on best writing habits. But these practices have to work for you or they are no good to you. So, are you a person who is most creative when writing well into the night? Or do you tap your creative pool in the first minutes out of bed in the morning? Do you like silence when you write? Or music playing? Or the chit-chat of voices in the background? Do you storyboard an outline or write a story as it comes to you? Do you prefer pen and paper, a typewriter or a computer when you’re writing? There is no right or wrong. What works for you is right for you.
4. There’s no such thing as writer’s block. I consider what has come to be termed “writer’s block” (which is a negative energy phrase) as “a necessary silence” (which is a positive energy phrase). In my writing, a story is a gift that has been given to me. I don’t invent it. It’s as if a portal opens and I’m allowed in to see the story, as if I were watching a movie. The only difference is that I go into a trance-like state when I’m “in” the story and recording it (writing it). There are times when the portal closes. I don’t know why. I think it’s because the story gods want me to contemplate all that they have shown me, as if in preparation for what comes next. When the silence comes I don’t think of it as a bad thing. I get busy with myriad other tasks related to my writing (editing, marketing, tidying my desk) or mindless housework (vacuuming, dusting, cleaning) until the portal opens again. It may be hours, days, weeks—but it always reopens. You need to trust that it will and remain calm. Otherwise, in your angst, you unnecessarily delay its return. So, please think of the silence as a good thing.
5. Use resources. You’ll find your own resources. Here are some of mine:
Books About Writing:
Writers Retreats: I have found that writers retreats can be good and bad for writing. Before you consider applying to a retreat, it’s important to understand whether or not a retreat setting is necessary for you. Retreats can be a great place to network with other writers, but this can be distracting if you really want to just write. Some retreats are structured in a way that I would find disruptive to my work. For instance, if I’m deep in a writing trance and miss dinner because it’s at a particular hour, a ten minute walk from my work area, and I have to sit at a table and converse with other guests, well, that’s not good for my creative momentum. Although I haven’t been able to get to it for nearly two years, my favorite retreat is Wellspring House in Ashfield, MA.
Classes: Super local, Grub Street, in Boston, MA.
Bonus tip: Always carry a recording device (pencil/paper, cell phone, etc.). Capture words, phrases, sentences, rambling thoughts, characters and sketches of poems. I don’t care how old or young you are—your memory will fail you when it comes to retaining these fleeting gems (well, sometimes they’re gems). These are the seeds of your work. Save your recordings, forever. A seemingly innocuous thought one day might be the impetus for a novel two decades hence. In your recordings, log the vernacular of your time and place. You will thank yourself mightily when your writing accurately uses “hey, man” rather than, “yo, dude” or cool/awesome/rad/sweet in the proper timeframe.
Mary McAvoy has lived in the Boston, Mass. area most of her life. Her two novellas, Love’s Compass (set in Boston’s South End) and The Setting of the Sun (set in the immigrant city of Lawrence, Mass.) are available on Amazon in paperback and for Kindle. Her two novels, not yet published, are: Love, Topaz (awaiting editing) and Kaleidescope Chips (in process) You can visit Mary’s blog at sublimedays.com Mary also enjoys photography. Her photography site is TheRipestPics.com,
Feel free to ask Mary McAvoy questions in a comment below ~