Psychic Distance: how terrific writers actually use it
Writing Historical Fiction, Creative Darwins, The Genre Swap and other stories

Write a lot for work? Or had a long break from fiction? How do you get your fiction voice back?

After you've gone three rounds with the Annual Report, it's frightening how often things like these somehow materialise in your novel:

Ann was in a conflictual situation and chose the least-worst option. The command structure was put into a red alert state and the opening procedures were followed.

Wheeling his idea out for the others to chew on, Bob took on board their thirst for closure and wrapped up the conference by casting caution to the winds.

Flinging the briefcase over the wall before the ticking stopped, the solution was the last thing that Carrie knew. 

I've taught creative writing to a lot of people whose day job involves other kinds of writing, and many of them find it frustratingly difficult to clean that Other voice and consciousness out of their ears, eyes and mouth; a few don't actually notice that they haven't done so. And I don't just mean journalists, but also anyone who writes reports, case studies, academic articles, legal opinions and anything else which is a) is definitely not fiction b) is impersonal or abstract c) has set, traditional ways of phrasing things or d) is apparently more concerned with denotation than connotation.

Maybe you understand the dangers of front-loading sentences,  you've managed to fight back against passive voice, and you've switched off the wriggly blue line that can't tell a good long sentence from a bad one, nor the difference between language as people really speak it and how business writes it. But getting back into your project can still be difficult, partly (I think) because there are actually two different problems to tackle before your imagination and your word-mind are working as a team again: getting back into creative-writing mode, and getting back into this, specific world.

GETTING INTO CREATIVE WRITING MODE  and getting the other voices out of your ears:

Try some freewriting - where you write for 10-15 minutes, the only rule being that you don't stop, correct or cross out. If no words come, just write "I don't know what to write" over and over again till new words do come. They always do. And you don't even have to read the result. The writer Jenn Ashworth likens it to the way washing machines start a cycle by pumping out the leftover water from last time.

Try some clustering - as a more focused kind of free association. Start the cluster by putting your character's name in the middle, or some other place or object from the novel, and see what you get. Don't try to steer it: for the purposes of this post, the value for you is mainly to draw you into that world and keep you there, and anything you find out about the project is a bonus.

Or try my all-six-senses exercise: settle yourself and, using a watch or a timer,

  1. spend one minute writing down everything that you can see;
  2. then one minute writing down everything you can hear;
  3. a minute of everything you can feel;
  4. a minute of what you can smell;
  5. a minute of taste;
  6. and finally a minute of kinaesthesia/proprioception, which is your body’s sense of itself in space: the pressure between your knees where you’ve crossed them, the pull of your sweater on your shoulders, the way the table-edge presses into your wrist.

It’s important that you do the senses in that order: sight – sound – touch – smell – taste – proprioception (body sense). With the later ones it’s sometimes hard to find a minute’s-worth to write, but don’t let yourself give up before the minute is up, Patiently staying with not-knowing-what-to-write is important because it's the state Keats called Negative Capability: the space in which the creative mind gets a chance to work.

Read poetry, drama, or your talisman novel. Poetry tenderises you: opens you up again to connotation, sound and prosody, flexibility of grammar and syntax, and the density and vividness that words can carry. Drama is all about voice, and gets you "hearing" as few other things can. A novel by someone else that you find sets up good rhythms and words in your own head can be wonderfully effective. I'd suggest you resist the temptation to watch film: it's a medium of images, and so immersive, in a passive sort of way, that you risk your tentative new words coming out as a film-script-in-waiting. 


Re-reading and correcting the last session's work is some people's way of getting back into it. I write a lot of first drafts long-hand, and I deliberately save up typing-up for the times when I'll need to re-acquainted with the project.  It can be ideal, IF you can trust yourself to do it briskly and move on. Don't Fiddle, in other words. By all means correct typos and improve a phrase here and there, but if going over old work lures you into full-scale re-working, then then it's like turning away altogether from the hill you've got to get over sometime - and the hill will seem ever more solid and daunting as a result. If you see anything that needs more fixing than a swift correction, make a note to do it, and move on as if you have done it..

Music or images: a playlist which has become associated with this project, or a stack of CDs of stuff you just like writing too, can also open you again to the project. Music helps to shut up the restless Instant Gratification Monkey, too, who will otherwise drag you off the Dark Playground of social media, online shopping or research that could perfectly well wait. If you make a Pinterest board or something similar, early in your process, then you've got it to go back to, to re-find the materiality and atmosphere of your story-world.

Write the scene you fancy writing, not the one you "ought" to write: the one that's already live in your head. Then go back to whatever your usual process is.

But mostly, just do it. Expect it to be slow and rusty, and don't read that as a sign that it's the wrong scene, or the wrong moment, or the wrong project.

  1. Clear your mind of the other stuff, look at the last paragraph and think, "Okay, what happens next?"
  2. Don't let your mind wander off to something else, just keep asking it, "What happens next?" over and over again, the way that Harry Potter keeps on having to ram his luggage trolley at the blank wall labelled Platform 9¾, until he gets through.
  3. If nothing presents itself as obvious, try playing Fortunately-Unfortunately.
  4. If that doesn't work, grab a piece of paper and list ten possible things that just might happen, however daft, from Chandler's man with a gun coming through the door, up to and including a spaceship landing. If your novel includes spaceships, then that might just be the answer. Either that or move on to elves.

The point is, nothing magical has to happen (not even elves). Or, rather, the magic - the finding you're breathing that world's air again - isn't the precondition for getting on with it, it's the result of getting on with it. As Picasso said, "Inspiration exists but it has to find you waiting for it". If the first few words or chapters are a bit dirty-washing-water, never mind. Make a note that they are, and keep going. Tomorrow you'll be able to see what they should be.