The Productivity Experiment: Hermitage Part 1 – The Voyage

Born and raised in one of the largest cities in Scotland, I’ve grown accustomed to the convenience of the bustling city centre and the excitement of the thriving night life. The only time I’ve felt remotely at home anywhere else has been my infrequent visits to even larger cities. Simply put, I’m a city boy at heart.

When it comes to being productive however, there are times when it all becomes a little too noisy. I enjoy the city life but the city life is a constant distraction that can often tear my focus away from my dream to become a writer. No matter where you’re from or what kind of lifestyle you lead, it’s all too easy to fall into a standard routine. Do your time working or studying followed by the unproductive down time in a bar, in front of a computer screen or just sleeping the day away.

The very idea of a regular routine is contradictory to the ideals of what stimulates the creative mind. A writer is capable of opening up a whole new world to his or her readers through the power of words. Together with their readers they can explore new horizons and reveal the impossible with just their imagination. The flexibility to create something new and exciting simply cannot be nurtured if they themselves are unwilling to explore the new and exciting.

Therefore, I decided to expand my horizons by reaching out beyond my comfort zone and spending some time away from my regular routine. For just a few days, I decided to abandon my comfortable city life and take a camping trip alone to the sleepy western Isle of Arran. I had never ventured out of the city without friends or family accompanying me so I couldn’t help wondering: How would I fare without my comfortable bed, my drinking companions, my terabyte of computer games, my Netflix? I neglected to take a phone charger and removed the battery from my phone to stop myself from checking it every five minutes; Would I feel frustration or anxiety without the instant access to the infinite media and information provided by the internet that I’d grown so accustomed to?

The extent of my camping experience was limited to the music festivals of my teenage life where I was always surrounded by more experienced campers. The realization that I had never pitched a tent on my own was shocking and in its own way, a little saddening. Therefore, I pledged to learn it all the hard way. I packed up my tent and sleeping bag with some basic supplies and without much forward planning, set off on a train to the coastal town of Ardrossan where I would pay for passage off the Scottish mainland.

I’d love to say that I did all this with much bravado and confidence but in truth, I spent the hour long train journey with my heart trying to climb out of my throat. I’ve always had the willingness to jump into new situations so long as there was someone at my back but this was different. There was no point to prove, nobody watching that could judge my actions. This was a conscious decision made with no motive other than to explore the unknown and as simple as a typical camping trip may seem to some of you, in my eyes this truly was the unknown.

I arrived at the Ardrossan Harbour to see my next method of transport preparing to dock. The ferry was much larger than I’d anticipated which gave a realistic sense of the scale of my trip. From here, the ferry would travel directly to the Isle of Arran, a small isolated location that would likely escape the notice of most tourists on a map unless they were looking for it. The plan I had formed for this trip hadn’t developed any further than getting on that ferry; what would come after was a terrifying mystery to me. Even as I purchased my ticket and began to board, I considered the possibility of getting back on the train home and pretending the day thus far had never happened.

Nonetheless, I deposited my bags in the storage area, taking only a notepad and pen with me onto the main deck and began to write these very thoughts, though much less articulated. A stream of consciousness was scribbled onto the first few pages as if they would be the last words I would ever write. I believe it was along the lines of “I don’t know what I’m doing here, I’m going to get lost on a hill somewhere on a remote island so long as this boat doesn’t sink in which case I don’t know why I’m bothering to write on you because you’re made of paper and no one will see and…” You get the point.

Yet as the walkway was disconnected from the ferry and I resigned myself to the journey ahead, excitement began to overwrite the mild sense of panic within me. I watched the mainland grow further away and as we picked up speed, my writing changed with the new sensations I felt. For the first time, I felt like this trip was helping me to flex my creative muscles.

Each paragraph seemed to alternate as I went from describing the sights I saw to noting the ideas that the journey inspired for boat-related scenes in my own fictional writing projects. At the back of the ship I stared in awe at the foaming white path that the ferry cut into the water; in my mind’s eye it had been there the whole time, marking the way home and symbolizing just how far I had come already. At the front, my head snapped up from my notepad as children screamed, pointing excitedly at the porpoises that inhabited the waters, surfacing from time to time alongside the boat. When I read of similar scenes in fictional writing, the cynic in me often thought that these moments didn’t exist in reality. On those rare occasions however, a few simple moments can seem truly magical.

As the Isle of Arran came into clear view, doubt began to revisit me. Camping laws in Scotland are very flexible but I had no idea where to even begin in finding a spot to set up for the evening. I had only set out two rules for myself: It had to be somewhere beautiful and solitary.

As I scanned the coastline it seemed I would be spoiled for choice. Save for the small town where we would be docking, the scenery seemed almost completely untouched by human civilization. I collected my bags and stuffed my notepad away in preparation for the next step of the journey. Stepping off the ferry into the sleepy town of Brodick, I set off in search of the tourist centre in order to acquire a map. Within the hour I would be setting out north from the quaint little town and into the unknown.

The Productivity Experiment: Hermitage continues soon with Part 2: Into The Wilderness

The Creative Mind: Battling The Block

Creativity is a fascinating thing! There are countless possibilities to what can form in the creative mind with no limits to what a single individual can invent. Ideas can be shared universally by others but the devil is always in the details and when it comes down to the details, every idea becomes completely unique. When you consider just how much work that big old brain of yours can really do, it’s actually quite mind-boggling (pardon the pun)!

And yet, finishing a project we can be proud of is always an uphill battle. There’s always room for improvement in our work or a more efficient way to complete it but these often feel like goals that are just out of our reach. This can be due to a lack of confidence in our abilities, a sense of urgency to meet deadlines and a series of other factors. The most common problem however is that old classic; the dreaded creative/writer’s block. 

It’s the most disheartening  and infuriating experience you will ever deal with as a creator and it can strike anytime for any number of reasons. If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve already experienced it on more than one occasion and if you haven’t, I can guarantee that you will.

There’s no definitive explanation as to what causes that creative block but there are many ways for you to work around it. Some of these suggestions may tailor to you, some may not. Regardless, you’ll be much better off attempting them than you will sitting around waiting for the block to just pass of it’s own accord.

Maintain A Positive Work Space

Many people mistake this to mean “clean your room” but that isn’t strictly true. Everybody has a unique process of their own and while some may feel the need to keep everything tidy and organized, there are others (like myself) who have a more chaotic process by nature. Project notes can be neatly stacked on one work desk and scattered across another yet the results can be equally successful.

This is because both desks have one thing in common: They tailor to whoever is sitting behind them. If you prefer your working environment to be clean and organized then keep it clean and organized. If you have an alternate system that works for you then don’t deny that system. Stick to what suits you so you always have the positive mentality that can bring out your best work.

There are naturally a few limits on what’s effective for both sides of the spectrum. Depending on the size of your project, an organized individual may spend more time trying to maintain their work space than they do actually working. Meanwhile, a mountain of dirty plates and an overflowing ashtray does not count as an effective contribution to an organized mess. Whether you’re organizing everything you do or just letting it stack up in a pile, always make sure your work space is a positive environment for you.

Don’t Cram Your Schedule

Setting unrealistic deadlines while maintaining your day job/studies/social life adds to your stress until you inevitably begin glancing towards the clock while your mind wanders to the next task on your busy schedule. That time is meant for creating. Juggling your other activities simply hinders your progress and you will notice the decline in your quality of work.

If you’re taking time to work on your creative project, make that time about your project and nothing else.

If You’re Going To Procrastinate, Do It Properly

If you find yourself hindered by the block for an extended period, get out the old notepad. Write your progress so far and then rewrite it. Put the questions that you’re failing to solve onto paper and write the potential solutions around it. Just seeing those questions sitting in front of you can spur you forward unexpectedly. A whiteboard can be a surprisingly helpful ally as you fight to breach those walls.

If those questions remain unanswered, move on to the next part of your project for a time. There’s a time that comes with any unsolved problem where frustration and stress begins to hinder you further. The best solution is to take a step back for a time. Focusing the mind elsewhere an allow for your subconscious to try and put the pieces together in the background while you make progress elsewhere.

Don’t force yourself through a problem you’re not solving when there are better ways to spend that time. Being aware of your own progression is one of the most encouraging  sensations for a creator and you should hold on to that throughout your entire process. Your momentum can be slowed but it should never be allowed to stop for long.

Change Up Your Own Schedule

There is such a thing as spending too much time on your project. Powering through a creative project when you don’t feel inspired can be much more damaging than taking an extra break or two and if you force yourself to put your nose to the grindstone for too long, the passion for your work can die pretty quickly. Maintaining that creative spark is nowhere near as difficult as reigniting it.

Unfortunately, it does happen quite often. The big problem with creators is that they are usually overly eager to get their project completed and out into the world. That time will come but it won’t happen overnight. Eat, Sleep, Create, Repeat will not do you or your work any favors, you need to take time to yourself and make the rest of your life as varied and interesting as possible.

Don’t just stick to your usual recess routine, change things up as much as you can. No matter where you’re from, there is always something you haven’t done before. It doesn’t need to be anything special, you don’t even need to go anywhere sometimes. Just do something different, even something ridiculous!

Go for a run, sign up to paintball, pull an all-nighter watching bad TV, sit in a park and watch the passers-by, try new food, visit a nightclub, sing in public, go on a day trip, when was the last time you did a cartwheel? Just do something different as often as you can! Even making yourself feel like a fool will provide your mind with new stimulation. 

The creative mind craves new adventures no matter how small or silly they may seem! Be aggressive in seeking out those new adventures so that your creativity expands even further. You’ll come out on top in the end, more confident in your abilities than ever before!

Brainstorming 3: Structuring A Timeline

This is a continuation of Brainstorming 2: Relevant Writing

It All Paints A Single Picture

I may be providing this information a little later than I should have but there’s one thing you should take note of when reading these Brainstorming articles:

All three articles discuss the various aspects of a single process and the advice provided should NOT be considered as advice that should be followed in any kind of chronological order. You should consider all of it throughout the entire brainstorming process. When you brainstorm an idea for a story, you should be considering how the story will be structured while constantly reminding yourself to keep it all relevant.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about Timelines.

So What’s A Timeline?

timeline

A timeline is the easiest way to summarize what happens during a set period of time. Rather than offloading a ton of information, a timeline usually only provides the necessary details for someone to understand the primary events that occur during that time period.

Usually a timeline is portrayed with a horizontal line portraying the passage of time. On that line, there are several points marked with dates or times that are considered relevant within that timeline and are often accompanied by a piece of text summarizing what key events occurred during that time. (see image above)

How Does This Translate Into Fictional Writing?

You often see timelines summing up historical events but preparing your own fictional timeline is an excellent way to lay out the path your story will follow before you begin writing. This way, you have a set journey to take your readers on and a clear end in sight.

I tend to write out the events of my timelines as bullet points on a simple word processing tool like Notepad. This allows me to clearly separate the key points of a story like so:

“The Forgotten Seal” Chapter 1 Timeline

  • Introducing the main character (MC), a village boy on his way to work. 
  • He is stopped by a group of boys who beat him.
  • The MCs employer fires the boy for coming into work all beaten up.
  • The MC returns home and fights with his parents over losing his job.
  • The MC runs off into the fields in a fury.
  • The MC discovers a strange seal half buried in the field. 

This outlines the beginning of a potential story. There is little detail provided but the key points are in place for the writer to follow. Since the timeline is only provided as a guideline for the writer, there’s little need to explain the finer points of these events for anyone else. So long as you understand why these events are happening, you can use this guideline to help maintain the solid pace of your story.

At the same time, you may wish to include extra details to answer some of the smaller questions that justify the events taking place. Where does the boy work? Why was he beaten? Why aren’t his parents supportive in his time of need? How does he come across the seal?

Whether you wish to answer these questions in the timeline or not is entirely up to you. It’s essential that you understand everything unfolding on the timeline but it’s also important to keep the timeline summarized and to the point. The more time you spend writing down information you already understand, the longer it will take to finally get writing the story itself.

What Kind Of Timeline Will Help You Most?

There are two main timeline styles that are commonly used and how useful they are is really dependent on your individual writing style.

Chapter Timeline 

The example above is a Chapter timeline and is the most detailed timeline I would consider using when preparing a story. As the name implies, it is used to plan out the events that unfold in a single chapter. It excludes any dialogue but paves out the route on a moment to moment basis.

This timeline is a great support to ensure you maintain the pace of your story but it can cause your writing to be a little rigid. The best writing can come to you while you’re in the moment and the events you wish to write in those moments can contradict what you have written in the timeline. It can even shake up the entire timeline, rendering the next points you’ve prepared useless.

It’s helpful to have guidance ready when writing the story but not as helpful as your own flexibility as a writer. If you adhere too strictly to your timeline when you write, you may not always bring out your best work.

Summary Timelines

On the other end of spectrum you have the Summary timeline which covers the entirety of your story from beginning to end. You may think this will involve a great deal more writing but this is actually the easiest timeline to prepare. It’s also usually the first timeline you need to consider when brainstorming a story.

Rather than listing off every minor event like you would for a single chapter, the aim for this timeline is simply to outline the key events of the story in it’s entirety. At this stage you have the freedom to work out the direction you want the story to progress without the need to fully answer why it progresses that way.

In all other aspects however, the timeline can be structured the exact same way as before:

“The Forgotten Seal” Summary Timeline

  • Introducing the MC.
  • Discovering the Seal.
  • The village is attacked by mercenaries.
  • The MC flees with the seal.
  • The MC befriends a warrior.
  • Some mercenaries catch up to the MC, seeking the seal.
  • The warrior reveals his skills, joins the MC.
  • The MC and the warrior arrive in the city of Tihras. 
  • etc…

As you can see, there are much larger gaps in information for this timeline but it covers a lot more of the story progression than the previous timeline did. It’s clear that the MC’s journey with the Seal will lead to the city of Tihras and he will befriend a warrior on the way but it doesn’t delve into any of the finer details of that journey. There is no indication of how he befriends the warrior or what the mercenaries want with the Seal.

You can choose to plot that out in another timeline or you can allow your writing to flow freely. So long as you cover the key points of your timeline and answer any questions that are raised by the timeline then this allows for much more creative freedom in what you write.

There are, of course, downsides to having such a vague timeline as your sole reference when writing. There is nothing to indicate how long it takes to proceed from one of these events to the next and there can be plenty of minor (but meaningful) events going on between that may slow down the pace of your story. So long as you ensure that the additional events are still relevant to the story however, this shouldn’t cause you any problems.

Other Timeline Styles

Chapter by Chapter Timelines summarize the events of each chapter in a single sentence while Character Based Timelines can be helpful for stories with multiple protagonists, covering the events of a story from their individual perspectives. There’s a variety of other styles you can take on when preparing timelines for your story but these four are the ones I’ve stuck with over time.

That’s not to say there won’t be other styles that are better tailored to your thinking process. Try a few out for practice to see what fits you.

At this stage, you should have the essentials to think up a nifty fantasy or science fiction story. I may come back to brainstorming sometime in the future as well as covering the things to consider when preparing stories in a non-fictional setting.

Keep an eye out for whatever I cover next!

 

 

 

Brainstorming 2: Relevant Writing

This is a continuation of “Brainstorming Your Idea.”

So now you have a basic outline for your story, enough so that you can pitch the idea to others and you’re starting to get excited for your new creation. On the other hand however, you don’t have nearly enough to begin writing your first chapter. All you know is what kind of story you want to tell and a few key points about the journey you want to take your readers on. Now it’s time to flesh things out a little.

In “Brainstorming Your Idea,” I did an impromptu brainstorming session of my own and I’m going to be working with that again today. So with that brainstorm session I came up with the following story pitch:

“A medieval fantasy about a boy named Blake who joins a circle of holy knights devoted to ridding the world of Esmiral of all the unnatural wild beasts that were created by an evil dark wizard long ago. These creatures prey on the unprotected villages and travelers they come across and feed upon their flesh. Only the magical blades of these knights can slay them.”

Now there’s a lot of things written there that are left unexplained which is a good thing (for a pitch) but no matter what you write you’re going to need to answer the questions posed by your pitch sooner or later. Otherwise, it won’t be long until readers just get confused and bored of reading.

The amount of preparation needed to avoid that will vary depending on the style of story and the writer themselves but there are several questions you should remember to ask yourself when working out the finer details of what you’re writing.

What’s Relevant To My Story

Now if you’re writing fantasy or science fiction then I’m sure you get as excited I do at the prospect of building wonderful and exotic new worlds to base your stories in. As a result, you can find yourself spending hours just writing about the many aspects that make up your world, especially those aspects that separate it so clearly from the world we live in.

When you get an idea in your mind it’s natural to want to fully cultivate it and understand everything about it. I feel naturally inclined to write about the magic of Esmiral that created these “unnatural wild beasts” I’ve included in my pitch. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time for me writing down the fictional physics of magic for a story.

However, a time comes when you’re building a world that you need to ask yourself:

“Will this have any relevance in the story itself?”

A portion of it might, sure. So why would you write pages and pages of information that won’t be relevant?

I can’t imagine why Blake and the circle of knights he joins would know the ins and outs of actually creating the beasts they hunt and if they were created by a “dark wizard long ago,” then it’s safe to say that the knowledge on how it was done is either long forgotten or a closely kept secret.

In fact, I think I could confidently say that magic will be poorly explained in this story altogether. These “holy swords” that the knights use are the only things that can kill the beasts so they’re clearly not handing out holy swords to just anyone. Magic and magical items are going to be a rarity in the world of Esmiral and that will be relevant information in my story.

There should still be hints of magic in the world and the knights should still have knowledge on how to combat against it but that knowledge will be limited. Therefore, the knowledge supplied to the reader will be limited too. With that logic I have just saved myself from writing several pages of unnecessary text.

When preparing your story you should always be aware of what information will be relevant to the continuation of your story. If you include walls of text containing information that doesn’t affect the progression of your story then chances are readers will either skim straight past it or just put the book down.

That’s not to say that your story should be completely streamlined though! Some information needs to be shared for readers to understand your world which brings about the next question:

 

What Do The Readers NEED To Know?

You may think this is just a different way of asking the same question but hear me out. There are certain things that won’t be relevant to the story but are relevant to a stranger in your fantasy world.

Try to think back to the first time you went on a holiday abroad; A new country that you’ve never experienced before. The culture could be completely different from what you’ve grown up in or it can have small, subtle differences that are barely noticeable. The language may be different; hell, there could be multiple languages in one country. Everything is new and exciting, right? Well…not all of it is exciting.

You aren’t excited about what they eat and drink there until you’re ready to eat. You don’t give a second thought about the religion unless it affects what you do there, whether it’s a law about what you can wear or you’re just on a tour around a famous religious landmark. You don’t care because they’re not relevant to your experience there.

How many people do you think go on vacation to Benidorm with the knowledge that King James I of Aragon reconquered the region from the Moors in 1245? How many would care? What you write should be dictated with that same logic in mind.    

If the sword Blake wields is indeed a holy sword then the reader will want to know what God (or Gods) the sword can be linked to. The reader will want to know some basic information about the religion that adheres to that God but they don’t want to read a brand new bible about it.

Your story should be the tour brochure that makes readers want to visit your world, not the history book that they’re forced to study. Consider these questions carefully and you’ll save yourself a lot of preparation time while coming a step closer to beginning a well planned out story.

This piece on brainstorming has focused mainly on the building of a new world, join me next time where I begin to discuss:

“Story Planning: Building Your Timeline.”   

 

Brainstorming Your Idea

If you’re an aspiring writer then chances are you already have an idea (or several) of what you want to write a story about. You may have a general plan of what kind of story you want it to be, what the main characters are like, the world and time period it’s set in and you may already have a beginning and end for your story ready to go. Or maybe you have an instinctual ability to improvise writing where you can begin a story without any preparation and just fill in the blanks as you go.

Or maybe you don’t. Perhaps you’ve already written a few stories that didn’t turn out as well as you hoped and you’re struggling to step it up a notch. Maybe you’ve lost enthusiasm for your current ideas or you’ve just written stories you were satisfied with but don’t know what you want to write next.

Today’s post is primarily for the latter group. The amount of preparation required differs with each writer but certain basic foundations are usually necessary for everyone before putting pen to paper. I’ll be covering the preparations that I consider necessary whenever I’m beginning a new story and the questions I think you should ask yourself. There’s a lot to consider so I may dive into each of these questions in greater detail at a later date. For now though, we’ll just cover our basics.

What Kind Of Story Am I Writing?

This sounds simple enough I’m sure but the answer isn’t as crystal clear as simply naming a genre or theme. Even if you already have an idea for your story, you need to ask yourself how you want to write it. There’s plenty to consider when debating that.

So let’s say I answered that question with:

“An action story.”

  • What kind of action? Martial arts, sword fighting, guns blazing, magic?
  • What dramatic event will be the focus of the story?
  • Where is it set?
  • Is it a modern day story or is it set in a different time period?
  • Is it fiction or is it based on real events?
  • What dramatic event will be the focus of the story?

Okay so we’ll try to answers these questions:

“A medieval fantasy action set in a fictional world where human knights battle evil monsters.”

  • What makes the monsters evil? Are they intelligent monsters committing evil acts? Are they just wild beasts?
  • Are the knights doing this out of the goodness of their heart or do they get paid?
  • Where do the monsters come from? Are they just common creatures in this world?
  • What kind of monsters are they? Are they based on mythology, other fantasy influences or are they original creations of yours?
  • Is it a single kind of monster or are there many?
  • Who are the knights?
  • Who is the story about?

Are you beginning to see how much needs considered? We haven’t even named this world or decided on a main character yet let alone decided on a beginning or end for this story. Perhaps the next phase will begin to cover that:

“A medieval fantasy about a boy named Blake who joins a circle of holy knights devoted to ridding the world of Esmiral of all the unnatural wild beasts that were created by an evil dark wizard long ago. These creatures prey on the unprotected villages and travelers they come across and feed upon their flesh. Only the magical blades of these knights can slay them.”

Now we’re getting somewhere! For something I’m making up as I go this is turning into something I’d probably read! It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a gritty action drama or a family comedy, it all begins with asking enough questions to provide an informative pitch.

Here’s where we begin to get down the details of what we’re writing about. In my example we’re talking about a fantasy world filled with magic and fictional monsters. I chose this kind of example because a common problem I dealt with when first trying to write this brand of fiction was the exciting prospect of building my own world.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that in one project I worked on, I wrote out over one hundred pages dictating every aspect of the world I could think of. From a summary of a thousand years of historical events prior to my story to the names of irrelevant towns and villages located on the other side of the world from where my story would be based. I wrote out the laws of how magic worked, laws that nobody in my world was actually aware of or ever would be and filled pages with information that would almost certainly never be mentioned in the final story.

On the plus side, that kind of writing is admittedly very stimulating and VERY fun…but it’s not story-writing. If you complete your story you can dive into the historical details and explanations of magical weapons later for fans to read up on but in the meantime, you’re just wasting time that should be spent actually writing.

That’s why my next post will be covering the most important questions you can ask yourselves while you’re brainstorming an idea:

What Happens In Your Story and What Is Relevant To It?

Thanks for reading!