Stoking the Fires

Most of the time we are not writing.
This is largely due to the Dreaded Day Job.

Ideally, of course, one would either have a job which fuelled the creative juices, or a job which left your mind entirely free for thinking about writing. (All right, ideally one would be able to write as much as one liked with no outside work and an enormous stipend, but join me in the real world for the sake of the argument. Also, bring back the non-ironic use of the gender-neutral indefinite pronoun. Thank you.)

If one does not have such a convenient job, the cold hard reality is that there’s precious little mental space left for the Work In Progress. One has to make the most of what time one has – to stoke and tend the fires of inspiration, so that when time is available. one wants to write – and is ready to write.

The Stoker

So how does one do this?
There are many strategies, but unfortunately a lot of them double as prime forms of procrastination.

Reading about writing is one of my favourites.
Reading books about how to write, books about writers I admire – they fill me with enthusiasm. Reading books in a similar genre or tone to whatever I’m working on – at best, they fill me with an envious delight (I wish I’d written that!) and at worst, they map out pitfalls to avoid in my own work.

The useful thing about reading about writing as opposed to writing itself is that it can be squeezed into any little gap in the day, providing there is a suitable book present.

Do I detect a resemblance?

Picking up a book and reading comes naturally to me (not picking up a book and reading requires concentration and effort), whereas picking up a pen and writing requires preceding thought and usually the spreading of associated papers over a wide area.

Daydreaming about the Work In Progress is even more handy for stolen moments here and there as it requires no paraphernalia. The downside is when one has a earth-shatteringly brilliant idea (perhaps the seed word for one’s WIP) and finds one has no way of writing it down.

Of course, writers are advised to keep pen and paper on their persons at all times, but even writers need to bathe. (please note: words written in condensation on shower walls are seldom legible afterward.)


While in the throes of the Dreaded Day Job, one can also use such things as images and music to seize the imagination and recall the mind to the story underway.

Perhaps your DDJ allows you to use a personal music player (of whatever sort) – then play yourself the soundtrack to your tale.
Or images – I often to change the wallpaper on my work computer to something that reminds me of my story, and every time I see it I get a little thrill of excitement, as the story flows through my mind again.

The I of The Forest

In fact (and I am sure I am not the first writer to whom this has occurred), the whole business of feeding the flames of writerhood is remarkably analogous to other forms of devotion – whether human or divine.

We dream of our beloved. We talk about our beloved to anyone who is prepared to listen (or too polite to run away). We cherish art and music that remind us of our beloved, and we want to learn everything there is to know about them.

There is no question here of chores, or duty. Every moment we can snatch with our beloved is a pleasure, a golden trophy plucked from the mire of workaday life.

Tell me, how do you keep your fires burning?

Monkeys with Typewriters

:How to Write Fiction and Unlock the Secret Power of Stories

by Scarlett Thomas.

The title for this book (and therefore this post) is drawn from the author’s reflection that it actually does make a difference to us whether books are written by our fellow humans or by monkeys playing with typewriters and striking lucky with Hamlet.
Because stories tell us what it’s like to be human, and monkeys, regardless of whatever genetic overlap they may have, simply have no idea.


Scarlett Thomas’ advice on writing has been refined by years of teaching writing (as well as writing herself), which gives her work a rather practical (if elementary) edge.

There are some areas, however, where I found myself unable to relate – for example, the matrices she has her students draw up to consciously mine their pasts and interests for writing material, in the section on How To Have Ideas. I don’t know about you, but I have no trouble coming up with ideas. It’s getting the time to work them out and finish them off that I struggle with.

There is also the matter of differing styles of writing. Thomas is experienced enough to have realised that not all writers are minimalists, and therefore paring every sentence to the bone will not be a fruitful exercise for some. While all can benefit from considering whether their words are pulling their weight, effect-wise, there’s no use trying to edit yourself to this:


if your natural style is something more like this:

Carnevale di Venezia - 2010

No prizes will be offered for guessing at which end of the continuum I frolic.

The part of the book which I enjoyed the most, which has stayed with me the longest, and which I think for me at least is the most challenging, is a relatively short section near the end of this book (not counting appendices, notes etc etc).

It deals with the concept of the thematic question – the big universal question with which your story deals (although, please note, rarely answers). What is the nature of power? What is love? What is truth? What does it mean to be human? and so forth.

Then, as with her students, she sets the challenge of boiling it all down to one word – a seed word, as she calls it – which encapsulates the thematic elements of the story and resonates through it in all manner of ways.

my name on a grain of rice!

It is, she admits, not an easy exercise – she suggests practising on other people’s novels – but once you find the word for the work it is enormously exciting and enlivening and helps you keep your story on track – because now you know, right deep down at the heart of it, what it is about.

Plus, as she points out, it’s much handier for fielding the question at parties: “what’s your book about?”

Disclaimer: no-one gave me a copy to review, nor did I part with my hard-earned for it. I borrowed a copy from the library. You may consider that this makes me a Scrooge who won’t support her fellow artists; I consider that this makes me an unbiased reviewer.