You may remember me posting, a while back, about writing the story you want to write instead of the story you feel you should write, and how you should always try to be true to your own voice and heart’s desire when working on a piece of fiction.
I’m not about to take it all back now, or anything. Don’t worry. I still believe, one hundred percent, in what I said in that post.
But what happens when you feel like you really can’t hear the song your heart is singing? What happens when, for whatever reason, you’re too tired or fried or worn out to make sense of the story-shards in your dried-out brain? This has been happening to me, for loads of reasons, over the past few weeks. I’ve finished with ‘Emmeline’ – for the time being, at least. It’s not on my radar at the moment, at any rate. I have other ideas, some of which – like ‘Eldritch’ – are at quite an advanced stage, and others which are mere shades, ideas, blobs of inspiration. I want to work on something else; in fact, I need to.
But whenever I try, all I get is a wall.
I tried to begin drafts of two new ideas last week. One of them was going reasonably well until I started to think about it editorially; then, I scuppered myself. ‘This won’t work, and that won’t work, and this is silly,’ I told myself, picking through my proto-story. Then, I lost all faith in it, and I gave up. I started something else, but it didn’t even last a whole chapter before sputtering out. This was stressful, and frustrating, and not a little scary.
So, for a day or two, I stood aside. I left it be. I worked on other things. I read a bit. I tried to relax.
And I made a list.
Sometimes, in order to find your heartsong, you’ve got to zoom in on what you love. Nothing focuses me like lists; I’m a big fan of to-do lists and shopping lists and Christmas lists, and what have you. This list, however, was a different type of list than any I’ve made before. It was a list of themes in all the books I adore, and which have shaped my life – or, at least, all the books I adore which came to mind during a brainstorming session. I didn’t overthink it; I didn’t look at my bookshelves; I didn’t censor myself. I just let my mind flood with thoughts, and I picked through what I found. I wanted this list to be as natural and instinctive as possible, and so I didn’t want to influence myself too much. I wanted to think of the books without pressure or influence, and I wanted to think of their themes without too much effort. If I found I was struggling to remember something, I moved on to the next section of the list. I typed it all out with my eyes shut, thinking as freely and as loosely as I could.
And it was a very interesting experience.
I spent fifteen minutes doing this (it’s important, when brainstorming, to give yourself a time limit) and I came up with fifteen authors, which is a neat coincidence. I began by thinking of books I loved, but that quickly morphed into authors whose books I love, so I just let it flow. The usual suspects came first: Alan Garner, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Philip Pullman, Susan Cooper, but strangely, I almost forgot Terry Pratchett. He only barely swooped on to the end of my list of things I love, and I added him with a guilty feeling, wondering how on earth I could have left him off.
Like I said, doing a brainstorming list like this can really reveal things to you.
Then, I listed out the things I love in each author’s work. These could be themes, or particular storylines, or ways of writing, or treatments of characters, or all of the above; some of them were encapsulated in a single word, while others took sentences. There was no shape or rhyme or reason to this: I had no minima or maxima. I simply stuck down whatever came to me. Some authors had twenty beloved things; others had fewer than ten. I had more items after Frances Hardinge’s name than anyone else’s, which didn’t surprise me, but hot on her heels was Celine Kiernan, which was interesting. It’s funny what you discover about your own reading habits when you just let your brain take over! Saint-Exupery, an author I’ve loved all my life, had the fewest beloved things, at eight in total – Hardinge had twenty-five.
Then, it was time to analyse my findings. I went through all my lists to see whether there were shared items between them, and if there were, exactly how many and how often they appeared.
Magic appeared thirteen times.
Siblings and/or family appeared twelve times.
Mythology and/or folklore appeared ten times.
Other worlds appeared eight times.
Loyalty appeared six times.
Other themes included ‘Interesting adult characters’, ‘High stakes’, ‘Travel’, ‘Technology’, ‘Mystery’, ‘Animals’, ‘Alternate history’, ‘Self-respect’, ‘Quest’, ‘Psychology’, ‘Individuality’, ‘Risk’, ‘Bravery’, ‘Unspoken but understood emotion’, ‘Friendship’ and ‘Maturity.’
These are the things I love in the books I love. These themes, when given free rein to emerge, are the ones which floated to the top of my mind. These things are what make stories important to me, and what make them meaningful. These are the things upon which I’ll hang my creativity, and the notes I’ll use to make up my heartsong. Finding them really helped me to focus, and bring my spinning mind under control, and it also helped me to sketch out story arcs for some of the ideas that are clattering around inside my head.
This listing technique is something I’ll definitely use again if I feel my brain getting out of whack, and I’d recommend it to you, if you’re looking for ways to zoom in on what’s important and find inspiration. If you do give it a try, let me know how it goes for you.