creative writing

4 Ways To Use Pictures As Writing Prompts

Picture source: #Adapt , a portrait by Imogen Schwarz,  Ian Potter Centre , Melbourne.

Picture source: #Adapt , a portrait by Imogen Schwarz, Ian Potter Centre, Melbourne.

“A picture is worth a thousand words.”

It’s a phrase we’re all familiar with.

But a picture can also produce a thousand words - if we choose the right one.

Never before have images enjoyed such ubiquity.

We capture life’s moments as they happen. And share them instantly with loved ones around the globe. Even our messages can feel incomplete without an emoji or three.

But behind every picture is an idea waiting for words. 

A feeling. A memory. A realisation. Or a story. 

What if we found those words? Gave the pictures we love a voice?

In this post, I’ll look at four ways you can use images to help you write (even if it’s not a thousand words!)

  1. Expressing your thoughts

Every so often, we come across an image that stops us in our tracks. 

Like the portrait at the top of this blog post. A girl in a gas mask poses for a selfie. 

In case you’re curious, an Australian high school student painted it. It was her response to China's air pollution after a trip overseas. As she writes on the wall plaque: 

“Fuelled by self-obsession with social media, we turn a blind eye to environmental problems. We would much rather adapt to a dystopian world than stand up and fight for action.”

That picture stayed with me long after I’d left the gallery. But that doesn’t mean it will have the same effect on you. 

You’ve got to choose an image that moves you. When you react strongly to a picture, you’ll have plenty to write about. 

Are you on Facebook or Instagram? If so, you’re exposed to dozens on images everyday. Most of the time, you scroll through and give your friends’ photos a quick like. But when something really grabs your attention, you comment. 

You’re already using images as writing prompts to express your opinion. Save them so you can go deeper and write more later on.

When you’re writing, think about the response the picture triggered. Why did it move you?

Writing ideas

Choose a compelling or provocative image, and try one of these:

  • Journal about the picture to explore your views. 

  • Write a short piece of creative non-fiction inspired by the picture.

  • Write a blog post about the topic or issue it raises.

  • Express your opinion through a personal essay.

2. Telling stories

Think about the world’s most well-known paintings.

The Death of Socrates. The Last Supper. Guernica. The Rake’s Progress.

So many of them tell a story.

People have been using pictures to depict narratives for thousands of years. The Aborigines didn't have any written language until Europeans arrived in Australia. So they shared their cultural stories with the next generation through rock painting. 

This works just as well in reverse. Pictures can also be a rich source of inspiration for stories. 

Tracy Chevalier based her novel Girl with a Pearl Earring on the painting with the same name. Here’s how she described her initial idea:

“A poster of this painting has hung on the wall of my bedroom since I was nineteen and I often lie in bed and look at it and wonder about it. It's such an open painting. I'm never sure what the girl is thinking or what her expression is. Sometimes she seems sad, other times seductive. So, one morning a couple years ago I was lying in bed worrying about what I was going to write next, and I looked up at the painting and wondered what Vermeer did or said to the model to get her to look like that.” - Tracy Chevalier

Children’s writer Ransom Riggs is another example. Riggs had been collecting second hand photographs since he was a boy. As time went on, he noticed a common theme among his shots. In an interview with Writer’s Digest, he described them as “Edward Gorey-esque Victorian creepiness.” Eventually, they led to the creation of his popular fantasy novel, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. 

Wondering how to give this a go? Start with portraits or action scenes. When you look at the picture, imagine you’re out with a friend. You’re at an art gallery or looking through a photo album together. Ask your imaginary friend questions about the people in the picture. Who are they? What are they doing? What are they thinking? Why are they there? You can do this in your head, or on paper. Or if that sounds too weird, take a real friend to an exhibition and bounce ideas off each other!

Writing ideas:

  • Use a photograph to inspire of piece of flash fiction.

  • Write a letter from the point of view of a person in a portrait.

  • Write a short story based on a painting.

  • Choose a picture of a real event and write a diary entry from the perspective of someone involved.

Source: Copy of  Girl with the Pearl Earring  painting by  Robert Waghorn  on  Pixabay

Source: Copy of Girl with the Pearl Earring painting by Robert Waghorn on Pixabay

3. Reflecting on your experiences

Have you been away recently? 

Chances are that your camera is full of photos. Visual souvenirs of the things that caught your interest. Or encounters that moved you in some way. 

Writing gives you the opportunity to process your experiences by recording more details. It forces you to slow down and consider your reaction.

Begin by zooming in on the moment in your photo. Where were you? You can already see how it looked. Now describe it in words. Next think about the other senses. How did it sound? Smell? Taste? Feel? How did you feel while you were there? Has your perspective changed?

Travel photos are my favourite type of writing prompt. The possibilities are endless. Here are a few to get you started:

Writing ideas: 

  • Explore a new side of yourself through a personal journal.

  • Start a memoir of your expat life.

  • Set up a travel blog to share your adventures.

  • Write for travel publications to help others.

4. Exploring your creativity

Not all writing needs to have an end goal. You can also use images to stretch your creative writing muscles. If you’re new to writing, you can use them as training sessions. Even if you write regularly, picture prompts make great warm-up exercises. Use them before you get stuck into your other writing. They’ll keep you sharp and stop you getting bored. 

And, as we’ve seen, they might give you ideas for future projects.

Recently I decided it was time to get out of my comfort zone and explore a genre I don’t usually write in: poetry. You can read about my haiku-writing experiment here. It challenged me to think about my travel photos in a different way and go back to a beginner’s mindset. 

Here’s how you can play (or push yourself) with photo writing prompts:

  • Write a character sketch for a person in a photograph or portrait.

  • Select an interesting photo and write a one-sentence caption for it.

  • Write a paragraph describing a place in the photo, but choose an unusual perspective.

  • Find a photo and write about it in a style you don’t usually use.

Conclusion

So where can you find good images?

Instagram and Pinterest are good starting points. You can also use online photo libraries such as Pixabay and Unsplash.

Out in the real world, visit art galleries and museums for inspiration. If you’re waiting for an appointment, take advantage of coffee table books, magazines and wall posters. Even advertisements can stimulate ideas.

Images are everywhere. If you choose the ones that speak to you, you’ll never run out of things to say. 

***

Want to delve deeper into this topic? Download my free writing guide. You’ll also get story samples showing how 4 different writers responded to the same photo prompt. 

Changing Your Inner Narrative About Writing

Do any of these thoughts sound familiar?

I’m not creative enough to tell stories. None of my ideas are original.

I haven’t got the right voice to start a blog. I’ll sound like I’m lecturing.

Writing poetry is too difficult for me. I should stick to prose.

That last thought used to be one of mine. I’ve always liked reading poems. But I didn’t think I had the kind of brain to write them.

I put poetry into the same category as music. Not my strength either. As a kid, I never got past the recorder. When we did school productions, my friends played in the orchestra.

I donned black clothing and waited until the lights went out. Then I’d dart across the stage moving sets and props until it was time to retreat into the safety of the shadows again.


To me, poetry was just as mysterious as music. Something that required a deep understanding of the rhythm of language. Finding rhymes. Counting syllables. Figuring out where to put punctuation. It seemed to constrict. A barrier to creativity rather than a way to express it.

It’s only recently that I’ve begun to challenge my beliefs about writing poetry.

I didn’t plan it that way. It started when I was going through an extra busy period in my day job. Although I still had time to write, I didn’t always have the energy to work on my fiction. I felt frustrated that I wasn’t finishing anything. So I decided to begin experimenting with haiku.

After all, they were only three lines. How hard could they be to write?

What is a haiku?

Haiku (singular and plural) originate from Japan. Traditionally, they focus on the natural world. In English, they’re 17 syllables long. The first line has five syllables, the second seven and the last five. And best of all, they don’t have to rhyme.

How I approached haiku writing



I decided to use travel photos as inspiration. When I was living in England, a friend and I went on a four-day camping trip to the Cotswolds. It rained the entire time, but we loved every minute of it. It was all so different from back home. I was especially taken by the stunning historic buildings everywhere. In New Zealand, the oldest house you’ll find dates back to 1822.

My first haiku was about the Chilean flamingos at Birdland Park and Gardens in Bourton-on-the-Water. Such an exotic sight to see in the English countryside! It took a day to write this haiku, but I wasn’t thinking about it all the time. I let the image float around in my mind between tasks. At the end of the day, I jotted down all the phrases that had come to the surface. The words had spent all day in my head. So it only took about 15 minutes to get them onto the page and arrange them the way I wanted.


Spindly legs splashing

English flamingos forage

Highlights in the grey.


My second haiku was about a thatched cottage we came across in one of the villages. Rather than feeling too tired to create, ideas were coming thick and fast now. I looked at the photo and wrote the whole thing on my phone during a tram ride to work.

On tiptoes we peek

over topiary. Wonder

who calls this place home?

Cottage in the Cotswolds, England

Cottage in the Cotswolds, England

When I started my third haiku, I ran into trouble. I wanted to capture my feelings about a ruined abbey that we’d visited. I struggled for two days. Flicking through a thesaurus, I tried to condense my thoughts into 17 syllables. So much for believing that writing a haiku would be faster than writing a story! I couldn’t get anything to fit.

It was only when I stopped and asked myself a question that I started to make progress.

Why does it need to fit?

I wasn’t writing these haiku for publication. I was writing them for myself. To remember my travels. And to experiment with a new form of creative expression.

So I made my last haiku five lines.

In empty archways

Grass threads through stonework.

At sundown, each blade quivers

To the distant toll

Of long-ago bells.

13th century Hailes Abbey, Gloucestershire, England

13th century Hailes Abbey, Gloucestershire, England

Two ways to change your thoughts about writing

Changing your attitude to writing is all about tricking that little voice inside your head. The one that’s telling you it’s too hard. You can shut it down by making things easy for yourself.


1. Break it down

Instead of writing a poem, try a haiku or a limerick. Or go even smaller and write a poetic caption for a photograph.

Want to start a blog? Begin with microposts on Facebook or Instagram. Not confident about sharing your work straightaway? Change your settings so only a few close friends can read your post.

If you want to write short stories, choose something that happened to you or a friend. Describe it in a single scene without worrying about what comes before or after.

2. Bend the rules

New writers are often told “Don’t break the rules until you know how to use them.”

Why? Because it's best to stick to the guidelines if you're writing for other people. Other people could mean a publication, a writing competition or a particular audience.

But if you’re writing for yourself, bending the rules can give you creative space. It also stops you from getting overwhelmed when you're trying out a new genre.

Haiku are short. But that doesn’t mean they’re going to be quick and easy to write. By allowing myself to use more than 17 syllables, I took the pressure off and finished my last verse.

If you read Japanese haiku in English, they’re not usually 17 syllables either. We're dealing with two different languages here.

Traditional haiku focused on the seasons. But there’s also no limit to the topics covered by modern day haiku writers.

Conventions are constantly evolving.

Creativity comes when we stop seeking perfection. Confidence grows when we allow ourselves to experiment and make a mess.

The results may not always be our best work, but they’re the start of something more important.

They’re the start of a shift in mindset. The start of a realisation.

We’re capable of more than we think.

Is Writing Still On Your Bucket List?

It’s late. The only people left in the bar are a couple of tourists. They gaze out the open doorway.

On the terrace, the fairy lights in the overhanging trees cast shadows across the face of an old man sitting on his own. He’s hunched over his table, his brandy forgotten, as he scribes sentences into a moleskine notebook.

“He reminds me of Hemingway,” says the first tourist.

“Who?”

The second tourist yawns. It’s the last night of their holiday. They’ve been on their feet all day and most of last night too.

“ ‘A Clean, Well-lighted Place’. The short story we studied in high school.”

‘Mmm.”

The second tourist pours the last of the cerveza into their glasses. The lights dim. One of the waiters begins to roll down the shutters.

The first tourist stares down into the cerveza, voice barely audible.

“You know, um…I…I’ve always wanted to write.”

***

Writing is on a lot of people’s bucket lists.

The stranger at a party who’s going to write the next best-seller just as soon as he finds the right idea.

The uncle who’s planning to write his memoir when he retires.

The mum who will start a blog once her kids leave home.

Or the friend who confesses her lifelong dream of being a writer in the semi-darkness of a bar after a few drinks.

Are you one of them?

In this post we’ll look at some of the things that might be holding you back and what you can do about them.

Obstacle 1: Fear

When Provision Living did a survey on bucket lists, they discovered 5% of people were not achieving their goals because they were afraid.

I suspect that this figure would be much higher if we only asked them about writing.

After all, if you suffer from acrophobia you’re probably not going to add skydiving to your bucket list.

Unless you want to work through this fear so you can fly overseas.

But it’s not going to be activity you choose to do because you enjoy it.

Writing’s different. It’s probably not going to be on your bucket list if you hate it. It’s there because it’s something you enjoy for its own sake — whether that’s the process of writing or the feeling of accomplishment you get from creating something from scratch.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t be just as scary as skydiving.

The fear which comes with writing is the same kind of fear we have when we go out on date with someone we like.

The fear of judgement. The fear of rejection. The fear of not being good enough.

Our ego is at stake. Making ourselves vulnerable is uncomfortable.

Solution:

There is no quick fix for this one, but there are things you can do to start shifting your mindset.

The first thing to understand is that you don’t need to get rid of all fears to start writing. You can begin your story in spite of them. Fear and writing canco-exist.

Think of fear as a bad housemate who you can’t kick out because of some weird clause in the lease. You’re stuck together in the same house, but that doesn’t mean you can’t lock yourself in your room and start typing.

If fear’s trying to follow you in, take a look at my free booklet The Fearless Writing Guide: How to drop your doubts and take off. You’ll find more strategies you can use to keep that door locked!

Obstacle 2: Cost

Writing’s expensive, right? You need to enroll in a writing course, pay an agent, pay an editor, buy a new computer, buy writing software, rent an office…

Solution:

Sure, these things are nice to have. And some of them, like an editor, you’ll need later on if you want to publish a book.

But you don’t need any of them to get started.

That’s the wonderful thing about writing. It’s probably one of the easiest things on your bucket list to start in terms of cost.

If you’re in Australia like me and want to try hot air ballooning, a one-hour flight is going to set you back around AU$500.

Want to visit the Pyramids of Giza? AU$2000. And that’s just the flights to Cairo.

All you need to begin writing your story is a notepad and pen. If you’re using your computer, there’s no need to splash out on expensive writing software. Start typing in Microsoft Word, Apple Pages or whatever program you already have.

Charles Dickens and Jane Austen didn’t have access to creative writing courses or private offices when they crafted their stories. In fact, Dickens had to leave school when he was a child to work in a blacking factory because his father was thrown into debtors’ prison. Austen didn’t have her own bedroom or study. She wrote many of her novels on a tiny walnut table next to the front door.

Start with what you have.

Obstacle 3: Time

The whole idea of creating a bucket list is to make a file of all the things you want to do before you kick the bucket. We like to think that’s a long way off.

Everyday busyness takes over. Study, work, family. Bucket lists get folded and placed at the back of drawers.

That’s why the 2007 movie The Bucket List struck a chord with so many people. In the film, Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman play cancer patients who have less than a year to live. They discharge themselves from hospital and travel around the world to complete their bucket lists before they die.

As it turns out, Jack Nicholson’s character lives until he’s 81, but the character of Carter, played by Morgan Freeman, passes away shortly after returning from the trip.

None of us know when our lives might be cut short or restricted by an illness or accident.

Solution:

Think about why writing is on your bucket list. How important is it to you? How would you feel if you never got there?

If writing’s important to you, you need to start now. And that’s something we can all do, no matter how busy our lives are.

That’s not always the case with other bucket list items. If you’re in Australia and you want to see the Northern Lights, you’ll need to fly for nearly 24 hours to get there.

It might take you months or even years to write your story, but you can start today by setting aside ten minutes to write.

Obstacle 4: Size

If writing’s on your bucket list, the chances are that you’ve written it down as something like this:

Write a book.

If you haven’t started, don’t feel bad. It’s not easy to begin something that’s going to be 80,000+ words. Especially if you’re not used to writing anything longer than an email.

Solution:

Does it have to be a book? Think about why you’ve put it on your bucket list.

Why do you really want to write?

To help people?

To influence people?

To leave a legacy?

To challenge yourself?

To record your memories?

To reflect on your experiences?

For therapy?

For fun?

Could you achieve the same results by tackling something smaller?

A novella? A short story? A piece of flash fiction? A guide? A booklet? An article? A series of blog posts?

What’s more important to you, the process or the outcome?

Perhaps writing’s not something you’re meant to tick off your bucket list. Maybe it’s not meant to be a one-off experience like visiting the Pyramids.

Perhaps for you, it’s meant to be the start of a new creative habit.

A habit that will provide you with pleasure and fulfilment throughout your lifetime.

***

Need a hand getting started? I’ve created a small booklet that takes you through some quick and practical steps to help you begin writing regularly (and enjoying it!) You can download a free copy here.

Fighting Self-doubt: Act Like a Child - Post 6

I don’t mean throwing your laptop across the room when you feel blocked.

I’m talking about revisiting that curious, adventurous, innovative person you used to be when you were a kid.

In this series, we’ve looked at a lot reasons behind self-doubt, but really, they all come down to one thing:

We grew up.

So let’s turn back the clock.

And start making a list.

Think back to your childhood.

You’ve got five minutes.

What new skills did you learn?

What new things did you invent?

What new experiences did you have?

Photo by  acetpharma  on  Pixabay

Photo by acetpharma on Pixabay

Finished?

Of course you haven’t.

Every life experience is new when you’re a kid.

Here are a few from the top of my list:

  • Exploring the riverbank with my brother

  • Writing stories about our toys

  • Building huts in our backyard

  • Making pikelets with my mum

  • Learning how to ride a bike with my dad

  • Growing sunflowers in my own garden

Not all of these experiences turned out well. I fell in the river. My pikelets stuck to the pan. And some of my sunflowers died.

These things upset me. But like most kids, I looked at them as experiments, shrugged, tried again or moved on to other interests.

It’s only once life loses its freshness that serious self-doubt starts to set in. Past failures build up and society’s expectations begin to influence us. As we start careers and families, our time becomes shorter and more precious. We’re less willing to take risks and ‘waste’ time on something that might not work out.

As adults, anxiety and hesitancy have a nasty habit of turning up when we try something new.

And creative writing is always new. You might have written short stories or blog posts before, but this is your first time with this one.

You can fight this by returning to a child’s mindset.

It’s why so many writers have other interests.

As an adult, H.G. Wells followed his passion for playing war games with toy soldiers and guns.

Writer Colin Middleton Murry describes a childhood visit to Wells in the 1930s:

He rushed round frantically, winding up clockwork trains, constructing bridges and fortifications, firing pencils out of toy cannons. It was all quite hysterical — quite unlike any grown-up behaviour I had ever known.
— Colin Middleton Murry

This interest led to the publication of a rule book for his game called Little Wars. It’s now recognised as the first recreational war game.

You don’t have to write about your hobbies. Wells is better known for his earlier science fiction novels. But Little Wars turned out to be a happy by-product for him.

Kurt Vonnegut was one of many writers who painted. In a video interview in 2000, he stated that:

I’m not an artist, you know, but I also recommend that people practice art, no matter how badly because it’s known to make a soul grow.
— Kurt Vonnegut

Is self-doubt holding your words back?

Try looking at life the way you used to: with playfulness and curiosity.

What childhood activities could you revisit, either on your own or with kids if you have them?

I’ve recently started doodling and colouring. I’m not working on any particular project and I don’t feel the need to finish what I start.

Doing something lighthearted is a great way to reset a tired, anxious mind.

And creating for its own sake is a relaxing and reinvigorating process. I’m always surprised at how many writing ideas come to me while I’m colouring.

Playfulness is not just for kids. If your childhood interests no longer appeal, try something else. There are plenty of adult activities that can take you back to the same exploratory mindset.

I once tried a belly-dancing course. I was terrible at it! I couldn’t get my hips to move the right way, but it didn’t matter. I had a good laugh with the other students and enjoyed expressing myself in a different way.

Here are some other activities I tried for the first time as an adult:

  • Took part in a laughter workshop

  • Watched a live musical

  • Did zumba

  • Went to a speed-dating event

  • Attended scrapbooking classes

  • Was an extra in a short film

  • Learnt how to sail

  • Cooked kangaroo meat

Give yourself time to play, even if it’s something short and one-off.

Self-doubt’s not going anywhere. But that doesn’t mean you can’t push it to the back of your mind and get on with exploring.

The more curious you are about life, the easier it will be to approach your writing in the same way.

Write playfully.

Write adventurously.

Write what’s important to you.

Because that’s where stories come from.

They might not be award-winning stories.

They might not be contract-winning stories.

But they’ll be the best kind of stories.

They’ll be your stories.

Fighting Self-doubt: What If I Fail Again? - Post 5

Earlier in this series, we looked at how fear of failure can make you doubt your writing.

But what if it’s not just fear?What if you’ve failed before?

You write regularly.

You submit stories.

Enter writing competitions.

The response: rejection.

Or worse: silence.

One way to deal with failure is not to see it as defeat. Many creative people view it as the world throwing down a gauntlet. Failure becomes a challenge that galvanises them to work even harder.

You may have come across the famous quote attributed to Thomas Edison:

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10, 000 ways that won’t work.”

There’s a lot of controversy surrounding the invention of the light bulb. But we do know that Edison was responsible for other important developments like the first commercially viable electric light.

This attitude is all very well if you’re inventing the electric lamp. Earlier versions weren’t doing their job. They were too expensive and didn’t last long.

Creative writing is more subjective. You may think your story is doing its job. A publisher might disagree.

Stephen King started writing when he was very young. The Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine turned down his first submission. Unconcerned, King stuck a nail through their reply and hung it on his bedroom wall. By the time he was in his mid-teens, the nail wasn’t strong enough to support all his rejection slips. He had to replace it with a spike!

One of those submissions was a short story called The Night of the Tiger. This one included a short, personal note:

“This is good. Not for us, but good. You have talent. Submit again.”

– from On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

King describes how he rediscovered this story in a box years later. He rewrote it and sent it back to the same publication who accepted it.

Of course by then he was an emerging novelist. His writing skills would have improved.

But it’s a good example of the idiosyncrasies of the publishing world.

Why had the publication turned it down before? They said it was good. Was it the wrong time? The wrong style? Did it need too much editing? Or were they reluctant to take a chance on an unknown writer?

You only have to join a book club or a writers’ group to see how many different opinions people can hold on one piece of writing.

I remember one time a friend lent me a novel she’d just finished. She said it was the best book she’d read that year. She wasn’t the only one. The novel in question had won the Nobel Prize.

I couldn’t finish it.

As a writer, I could appreciate the beautifully-crafted sentences. But I couldn’t connect with the story.

Are you struggling to get back into writing because you’ve been rejected?

Think back to all the times you’ve disagreed with people over books and movies.

Consider why you and your friends had different opinions.

“Not for me” is not enough.

Go deeper.

Was it something about the plot that didn’t work? Or was it difficult to relate to one of the characters?

Why?

Ask other friends for their opinions. Are there other people with the same view?

Thinking about this can help you evaluate the feedback you receive on your own writing. Is there something you can work on to improve your work? Or is it a question of different tastes?

To return to Edison, the job of the electric lamp was to connect people and illuminate life.

Isn’t a story’s the same?

As long as your story’s doing that for someone, it’s not a failure at all.

Fighting Self-doubt: What’s your story’s shape? - Post 4

What if getting started is the easy part for you?

For many of us, writing the first few pages is not the problem. Self-doubt has a nasty habit of creeping up on us part way through a writing project.

Virginia Woolfe captured this in her diary.

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning of a new book quiets down after a time and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.
— Virginia Woolfe, A Writer’s Diary, 11 May 1920.

I couldn’t agree more. My hard drive is full of abandoned projects.

A few years back, I decided to take part in NanoWriMo as a way of creating a regular writing habit. NanoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month is an annual writing challenge. People from all over the world commit to completing a 50,000-word novel in month. To ‘win’ NanowriMo, you need to write an average of 1,666 words every day in November.

I got to about 13,000 words before I gave up. I didn’t have trouble writing every day.

The problem was that my novel didn’t have “an impending shape.”

My characters wandered around town and had long conversations in cafes. But they weren’t actually doing anything. I’d made the mistake of starting a story without doing any planning. I’d launched into it with a loose cast of characters and vague idea of theme.

It didn’t take long for me to lose faith in my novel.

You might be a panster, a writer who flies by the seat of your pants. Maybe too much structure brings on writer’s block rather than cures it.

But if you’re a planner like me, outlining your story might be just what you need to stay confident.

A plan doesn’t mean you have to write detailed chapter summaries. And you don’t need to know your character’s favourite breakfast cereal before you start writing. But filling in some of the gaps can definitely help.

My plans vary, depending on what I’m writing. Some days they’re a few bullet points. Other times they’re chunks of text I’ve copied and pasted from a freewriting session. For other projects, I use scene cards. At the moment, I’m experimenting with mind mapping and colouring. I find mixing things up can be an effective way to spark new ideas.

These days I plan everything, even blog posts.

Over to you: Is “an impending shape” important for you? If so, how do you plan your writing projects?

Fighting Self-doubt: What If They Don’t Like My Writing? - Post 3

In the last post, we looked at the relationship between self-doubt and comparisonitis.

But what if your feelings stem from a fear of others judging your work?

Because they will.

It’s comforting to know that even established writers worry about criticism.

In an interview with Unwin and Allen, Khaled Hosseini describes going through this. He had recently started his second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns. His debut novel, The Kite Runner, had sold millions of copies and won several awards. As his fans waited eagerly for his next book, Hosseini began to worry about his literary abilities.

He pushed through by realizing his experience was normal. Numerous authors before him had battled with the same thoughts. As he got further into his story, he was able to focus all his energy on his characters and forget his fears. To help himself get into the zone, he rented a windowless office that he referred to as his bunker.

You might not have the money to rent a special writing room.

But there are a lot of other places you can go to immerse yourself in your writing and shut out the voices in your head.

Try using a spare bedroom as a temporary office. If it’s difficult to find your own space at home, get out of the house and write in a public place like a café or library. We don’t always need silence to write. A change of scene can also be a great distraction from our mind chatter.

Sometimes I write in food courts as they’re much bigger than cafes. I don’t feel pressured to give up my table as soon as I’ve finished my coffee. I can be alone and have company at the same time.

And they have good air conditioning too!

Self-doubt doesn’t stop after you’ve published a certain number of books.

In 2012, journalist Decca Aitkenhead interviewed J.K. Rowling. They spoke about the upcoming release of Rowling’s first adult book, The Casual Vacancy. When Aikenhead mentioned how much she enjoyed the book, Rowling could hardly contain her excitement.

After Harry Potter, Rowling was under enormous pressure from her readers. She explained that she approached this by imagining the worst case scenario.

The worst that can happen is that everyone says, ‘Well, that’s shockingly bad — back to wizards with you,’ then obviously I won’t be throwing a party. But I will live. I will live.
— J.K. Rowling

You might be thinking it’s easy for J.K. Rowling not to care what people think. After all, she is a multi-millionaire.

But she never set out to be one. Before anything, she was and is a writer. After Harry Potter there was no need for her to keep writing, but she did.

As writers, we all have one thing in common:

Our stories are part of who we are.

When someone criticises our work, it’s like we’re being judged as human beings and found lacking.

Push back by imagining the worst. If we put our fears out in the open, we become lighter and freer.

When I’m imagining the worst case scenario, I find it helpful to go back and list all the reasons why I write.

The first one that comes to mind is that life has so many layers to it. I can’t just live it. I have to write about it too. I need to capture tiny pieces to reflect and reimagine.

If people don’t like what I write, will it hurt?

Yes.

Will I stop writing?

No.

Why do you write?

Fighting Self-doubt: I’ll Never Be As Good As <Insert Your Favourite Author> - Post 2

As I write this, it’s 38 degrees here in Australia, which got me thinking about bushfires. We’ve had plenty of those this summer.

When we experience self-doubt, it’s like a bushfire has started in our heads.

They’re both hard to control.

All we need is one spark on a dry day.

One thought begins smouldering. It sets other thoughts alight and suddenly our whole mind is ablaze. Soon all we’re left with are charred and barren remains.

That empty feeling of unfulfilled dreams.

But it’s not all internal. Something sets the spark off in the first place.

Self-doubt is strongly linked to the outside world, or more accurately, to our perception of it.

We read the books and posts of others and wonder if our writing will ever match theirs. Reading about other writers’ successes can either be inspirational or self-destructive depending on our outlook.

As writers, we need to read to improve our craft, but if you’re constantly comparing your work to those who are further ahead, it’s time to take a break.

In her book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron goes as far is to recommend a week’s reading deprivation as a way of refilling the creative well. She claims:

For most blocked creatives, reading is an addiction. We gobble up the words of others rather digest our own thoughts and feelings, rather than cook up something of our own.
— Julia Cameron

As a massive bookworm, I can’t bring myself to try this, but I can see the value in it.

I know how easy it can be to lose yourself in a good book. Sometimes it seems like the best antidote to a lack of self-confidence your own writing.

Is this something you struggle with?

If you’re like me and can’t bear the idea of not reading for a week, try limiting your reading time.

I do this with social media. When I upgraded my phone last year, I went into every application and turned the sound off. It’s also the first thing thing I do every time I download a new app. When I check my social media accounts, it’s on my terms. I’ll go in when it suits me — not when my phone thinks I should.

My social media time is usually my commute. I know I only have a short window before I arrive at work. Sometimes at weekends, I go for whole days without looking at my accounts.

Social media is not about keeping up with what everyone else is doing all the time. Its real superpower is that we can use it to find kindred spirits and create communities.

I love connecting with other writers and seeing what they’re doing.

But restricting the time I spend in my accounts allows me to do it in a much healthier way.

I don’t feel compelled to read every update that comes through. When I do log in, I can concentrate on the people I’m interested in. I’m less likely to feel overwhelmed by comparisonitis if I’m not being bombarded by constant notifications about everyone’s lives.

You don’t need to be as good as your favourite author. You need to be as good as you.

And sometimes you need to turn everything off to do that.

Fighting Self-doubt: Why We Need To Go Beyond “Just Write” - Post 1

“Just write.”

It’s the most popular piece of writing advice out there.

It’s honest.

It gets to the point.

But it didn’t help me much when I was new to writing.

I knew I had to sit down and do it.

But sometimes my self-confidence was so low, I couldn’t get started.

How do you apply this advice when you can’t even get yourself into the chair?

There is so much more to working through fear than just forcing yourself to write. That might work for a while, but it’s not sustainable. Self-doubt fluctuates. It’s not only something you have to deal with as a beginner writer. Even experienced authors worry about their writing ability.

That’s why you won’t find quick hacks for getting rid of self-doubt. The best way to manage your fears is to shift your mindset over time. Focus on creating the most favourable environment for your writing. If you combine this with healthy habits, you’ll feel strong enough to tackle your insecurities whenever they resurface.

This is the first post in a series about fighting self-doubt. Over the next few weeks, I’ll share different approaches that have helped me. I’ll also look at some of the strategies other writers use, so you can get back to “just writing.”

Find Your Lost Child: 5 Prompts to Reconnect With Your Writing

“What’s your favourite book and why?”

I’m at a city writers’ group and this is the icebreaker the organiser has given us to get to know each other.

Without hesitation, my partner launches into a passionate description of a French existentialist novella.

I’m a writer. I should have a clear answer for this, I think.

My hamster mind treads the wheel of classics from my English lit classes at uni.

No clear answer.

I spin through the myriads of other titles I’ve stumbled across. Treasures in libraries and second hand bookshops. Epiphanies in the various cities where I’d lived as an adult.

But it’s only when I go back further that the wheel comes to an abrupt halt.

Peter Pan.

What is it about our favourite children’s books that stays with us so long?

With Peter Pan, it’s certainly not the narrative style. Rereading it is an adult, I find J. M. Barrie’s interjections condescending; his tone sometimes smug. I’m not impressed with the gender stereotypes either.

But Peter Pan is a product of its time.

Children don’t notice these things. They’re too absorbed with the characters and the story. When you’ve only been alive for a few years, there’s something fresh and magical about any new world.

That’s not to say adult books can’t have the same effect.

But it’s often much harder.

The closest I’ve come as an adult is when I travelled overseas for the first time.

The fact that I settled on Peter Pan as my favourite got me thinking. What impact had it had on me? Could I use it to tap into future writing projects?

If you’re struggling to move forward with your writing, try looking back. Our favourite books are often the inspiration behind our current desire to write creatively — even if we’re not interested in writing for kids.

Take a moment to think about the book (or books) you loved as a child.

Below are five writing prompts to help you get started. At the end of each section, I’ve included some extra questions to encourage you to dig deeper.

Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens. Image by  Stevebidmead  on  Pixabay

Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens. Image by Stevebidmead on Pixabay

1. Why did you love it?

Which aspects of your book intrigued you when you were a kid?

For me, it was the character of Peter. I was especially taken with Peter’s description of how he ran away the day he was born:

“It was because I heard father and mother,” he explained in a low voice, “talking about what I was to be when I became a man.” He was extraordinarily agitated now. “I don’t want ever to be a man,” he said with passion. “I want always to be a little boy and to have fun. So I ran away to Kensington Gardens and lived a long long time among the fairies.” — Chapter III, Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie

My 7-year-old mind didn’t seem to take any issue with a newborn baby setting off to Neverland on its own. I was too impressed by Peter’s fierce sense of independence.

Another scene that made a strong impression on me is when Peter and Wendy are trapped on Marooners’ Rock in the Mermaids’ Lagoon.

The tide is rising.

Michael’s kite drifts by, its tail dangling in the water.

But it will only hold one.

Peter gallantly offers it to Wendy, claiming that:

To die will be an awfully big adventure.
— Chapter VIII, Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

As an adult, I see a scared kid trying to put on a brave face. As a kid, I was awed by his apparent fearlessness.

I always identified more with Peter than with Wendy.

There was a part of me that wished he would fly through my window and take me away on adventures.

But I wanted to help him fight pirates. I had no interest in being his mother!

It wasn’t only Peter. I was in love with Neverland itself. My first copy of Peter Panhad a colourful map featuring all the locations in the story.

Questions to explore: What part of your favourite book had the biggest impact on you as a child? Was it a particular character? A scene? The setting? Why did it leave such a strong impression? Which qualities, behaviours, situations or places did you identify with?

2. How did it influence your past?

For this question, start with your childhood. Then think about your adult past too.

My love of Peter Pan led to lots of make-believe games with my little brother. One involved leaping off the couch and trying to fly. In another, we would re-enact the final dual between Peter and Captain Hook with garden stakes.

It also sparked a love of drawing maps and writing my own fantasy stories. This continued into my teenage years.

As soon as I finished university, I tried a different kind of flying. Heading overseas, I sought adventures in new countries. I trained as an English Language Teacher. Spain, with its romantic language and exotic culture, became my own Neverland for a while.

Questions to explore: Think about the strongest feelings and desires you experienced as a child. Sometimes these stay with us. How has your favourite children’s book shaped your life? Think about your life experiences, decisions and interests.

3. What values from this story can you bring into your adult life?

In Peter Pan, the lost boys are the children who fall out of their prams in Kensington Gardens. If they’re not claimed in seven days, the fairies send them to Neverland to live with Peter.

If you responded to the last prompt, you might find that mixed feelings resurface. There might be things you wanted to do in your life, but you suppressed them because, well, adult life happened.

In a way, many of us become lost boys and girls when we grow up.

I went through periods when I became consumed by self-doubt and stopped writing.

Even now, although I write regularly, there are still times when adult life gets in the way. I find that the best strategy to push through this is to recultivate Peter Pan’s sense of play.

We don’t have to be adults all the time. We all have responsibilities and we all have to grow up, but sometimes it’s OK to escape for a bit in between. It’s not about being self-indulgent. It’s about self-preservation and finding ways to reconnect with the creative kids we used to be.

Here a few things I do to ‘run away’:

· Hang out with my friends’ children

· Explore new places in and around my city

· Revisit childhood activities

(At the moment, my favourite one is walking barefoot along the beach).

Questions to explore: What values from your favourite book could you bring into your life now? These could include activities, behaviours or experiences.

Image by  jjduncan19  on  Pixabay

Image by jjduncan19 on Pixabay

4. How has this book informed your writing so far?

Think about the plots, themes, settings and characters that you loved. There’s a good chance that these have found their way into your adult work without you realizing. Consider any non-fiction you’ve written too.

My passion for adventure stories led me to experiment with travel writing for a while.

The theme of overcoming fears features in a lot of my blog posts.

And when I write fiction, I’m a big fan of strong, independent characters who go to great lengths to hide their vulnerability.

Questions to explore: What keeps turning up in your writing? Go beyond creative writing and think about any kind of writing you do. For instance, if you comment on a social media posts, what really gets you fired up?

5. How could it inform your writing going forward?

Revisiting your favourite children’s books can energize any kind of creative writing project. Perhaps you want to pen short stories, write your memoir or put together inspiring blog posts.

Questions to explore: Think about your answers so far. Can you see any patterns or common themes? Could you use any of them to revitalise a piece of writing you’re struggling with? Or could they be the inspiration for a new project?