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Broccoli and Other Things: A Post with Lots of Oddball Writing Advice

Read poetry. Regardless of whether you write it. Poetry is language at its most distilled. Every word counts, down to its last syllable. Poetry turns ordinary words musical, and says as much as possible with as little as possible. Reading poetry can help you find a similar sense of precision with each word you write.

Freewrite. Are you getting into lots of anxious fights with empty computer screens or blank pages? Put your project aside and try freewriting. Give yourself ten minutes, and write out every single thing that goes through your head, even if it’s ridiculous or boring or embarrassing. Write it as you first thought of it. Don’t cross things out. If something comes out wrong, correct it in the next sentence. Sometimes things will become feverish and fascinating and you’ll need to keep writing past the ten minutes to see what else comes out. If you want to know more about freewriting, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg is a good place to start.

Leave your car at home. Cars get us from one place to another as quickly and conveniently as possible. But cars are also insulated and cut off from the world. Try catching public transport, or cycling or walking. You can’t help but notice the people living their everyday lives all around you, how sometimes they’re dressed in mismatched clothes and muttering about people who aren’t there, and sometimes they’re on the phone, explaining in epic detail why they’re running late and telling the person on the other end that the bus is closer to its destination than it actually is.

You get a fuller sense of places as well. When you’re walking, you know the weather intimately, not just that it’s sunny but also that it’s sunny and cold, like the air is pretending that the sun isn’t there. You see buildings more closely, which ones are cared for and which ones are bedraggled, which ones are friendly and which ones are standoffish.

Then you can put everything away in the filing cabinet inside your head, in case you need to use it in something.

Try writing out dreams. Sometimes dreams are sharp and striking and won’t leave you alone, even when you’re well into the day, but more often dreams are thin and wispy, like absentminded butterflies. They like to disappear on you as soon as you’ve woken up properly. I keep a notebook near my bed so it’s easier to catch them. I’ve lost count of the number of story ideas I’ve had from dreams. Even when they don’t give you ideas, dreams are interesting. They give you a sense of the things that go on inside your head in the background when all the logical everyday stuff is switched off. I like coming up with dreams for my characters too. Sometimes they make it into the story in passing, more often than not they don’t at all. Still. You know a character better if you know their nightmares.

Be kind to your hands. They do a lot for you. This may seem like ridiculously obvious advice, but I know people with Repetitive Strain Injury. It’s chronic and ugly, and there are steps you can take to reduce your chances of getting it. If your wrists are sore, stop. The story won’t go away. Actually, even if you feel fine, regular breaks are still important. Even if you’re in the middle of a really really extra special incredibly important scene. Actually, especially if you’re in the middle of a really really extra special incredibly important scene. Because if you’re anything like me, you’ll be scribbling or typing furiously.

If you like to write by hand, invest in a good pen. One with good inkflow so you don’t have to press down too hard. I go through about one a week at the moment. They’re expensive, sure, but physiotherapy and voice recognition software are a lot more expensive.

Pay attention to light. It can be a fantastic way to create atmosphere.
Light is important to us humans. It influences our moods, our perceptions, our energy levels. A face glimpsed among trees, dappled by the shadows and the green-tinged light reflected from the forest, will seem quite different to the same face seen on a beach in hard, dry, sunlight, or in a darkening room at twilight, with the shadows of a venetian blind striped across it like a convict’s uniform. (John Marsden, Everything I know About Writing)
Don’t stick to what’s safe. If the thought of writing about a particular thing scares you, you should probably try writing about it. Even if it’s just as an experiment. Even if you think it would make your relatives worry about you, if they were ever to come across it. Trust me. The scary stuff is often the strongest stuff.

And last of all. I’ve cut this quote down a lot, so this post doesn’t end up too epically long, but you should definitely track down Bird by Bird and read the full version, if you haven’t already.

This is my favourite oddball writing advice of all time:
“There’s an old Mel Brooks routine, on the flip side of the “2,000-Year-Old-Man,” where the psychiatrist tells his patient, “Listen to your broccoli, and your broccoli will tell you how to eat it.”...

The problem is that so many of us lost access to our broccoli when we were children. When we listened to our intuition when we were small and then told the grown-ups what we believed to be true, we were often either corrected, ridiculed, or punished... Sometimes intuition needs coaxing, because intuition is a little shy. But if you try not to crowd it, intuition often wafts up from the soul or subconscious, and then becomes a tiny fitful little flame. It will be blown out by too much compulsion and manic attention, but will burn quietly when watched with gentle concentration.

... My friend Terry says that when you need to make a decision, in your work or otherwise, and you don’t know what to do, just do one thing or the other, because the worst that can happen is that you will have made a terrible mistake. So let the plot go left in this one place instead of right, or let your character decide to go back to her loathsome passive-aggressive husband. Maybe it was the right thing, maybe not. If not, go back and try something else. Some of us tend to think that what we do and say and decide and write are cosmically important things. But they’re not. If you don’t know which way to go, keep it simple. Listen to your broccoli. Maybe it will know what to do. Then, if you’ve worked in good faith for a couple of hours but cannot hear it today, have some lunch.”
(Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird)
Do you have any unusual writing advice to share?

Leila Austin

Leila lives in Middle Earth, also known as New Zealand, and writes YA fantasy.

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  1. I completely love this. (Writing Down the Bones /and/ Bird by Bird! Whee!)

    Lovely. :)

  2. I love freewriting! There's something about scribbling in a journal that always makes me more inspired. I'll also definitely have to start a dream journal--such a great idea!

  3. Wonderful post! Bird by Bird is one of my favorite books. I'll have to get my hands on Writing Down the Bones.

  4. Fantastic post, Leila. So true about public trans - it's educational, to say the least! And oh my goodness yes on the poetry. I wish I'd read more of it when I was younger, but I'm trying to catch up now. :)

  5. I LOVE this post! I really hadn't thought about poetry in that sense. I'm going to have to start reading more :)

  6. Great advice! I read Bird by Bird years ago, but it's obviously time for me to reread it!

  7. Wow, I really love the advice, especially freewritting. Thank you!!

  8. I really like the one about writing out your dreams. I get most of my inspiration from my dreams.

  9. Great post, a lot of these things I've tried doing already.

    Other advice I have would be:
    Write about everything. I say this because my bus would pass this one house every day, (and the guy I liked lived there) but it was an old house, older than most around, mostly because it was the small, historic part of the area. And I wanted so bad to sit across the street and write a story around the house. Not a description, but a plot driven story. Imagine how excited I was when I learned that the house used to be a funeral home.

    Other advice, which probably isn't good -- use the Sims! I use it to act out scenes if I need to see them. Sure, it doesn't work very well, but it's an option. And setting up scenes and taking pictures gives you a visual to help.

  10. Great post! I've been meaning to start writing down my dreams in a dream journal. Perhaps that's a project for this week.

    One thing I do with my students is to have them create alternate endings for a story that they enjoy. All of us have at least one book we've read that we wish would have ended differently. Why not practice by writing the ending that you think should have happened?

  11. Love this post -- especially the recommendation about poetry. Thinking about words like that, so restrained, so exact, helps refocus my energy.

  12. Lovely list. I used to write dream reports. First thing when I woke up I'd write down what I dreamed. I'd find myself trying to make sense of the nonsense I'd been dreaming, asking myself 'why did Anne have all those lemons' and 'was it necessary to hide them quite so carefully', and before I knew it I was waking up the storywriting part of my brain.

    I guess I should get back into the habit!

  13. One of my WiPs was loosely inspired by a few (very run down) streets in my home town. There was a good month where I'd use my lunch break to wander up and down those streets, just thinking about the characters.


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