Why writing is better than thinking

Laptop full of stickers - I didn't add those!

I’ve known a few psychology students and graduates but only one has said something that I still remember over a decade later.

We were talking about the difference between thinking and writing and she pointed out that you write linearly. Linear order forces your writing into some kind of structure, but thinking, as Tony Buzan has written about, is more creative and less ordered.

I’ve found this distinction to be useful for me. When thinking about subjects I start off trying to find a solution and then my mind goes all over the place, just one more permutation of what Buddhists call monkey mind.

When writing, though, I can strive towards an end, and follow a path. There is an evolution of an idea, a progression and an actual conclusion. And most probably this helps provide some understanding. Often I don’t know where the topic has come from and how it relates to me until I’ve written through and reached the end.

I don’t rate thinking too much and prefer meditation or waiting for my intuition to kick in but writing seems to help draw both of these processes out.

My 3-year-old computer-hog doesn’t allow me too much access to a computer so I’m trying to get as much writing done as possible on my phone and then tidy it up later.

This post on One Man and his Blog got me thinking about why I blog (when I get around to it).

Three ways to beat writer’s block

I am writing a book and I have come to the first major crisis point about a quarter of the way in. Something important has happened and I know where I want my main character to end up but how do I get her there?

It doesn’t help that I have just finished the first season of the Killing and not only was there an engaging and fascinating storyline but there were also three other strands, at least, which were working beautifully alongside the main plot.

So my next task is to find ideas for my main storyline and for the parallel strands.


Advice columns – Good for gentle ideas. The stories available can be stranger than fiction because in real life things don’t need to make sense and you won’t always find out what happens but it’s still useful. They are also a great way to find out what people consider important and it can be something quite trivial.

– the colour of a bridesmaid’s dress
– snooping on a partner’s emails

Post secret – this is a site where people send postcards anonymously. The format provokes short and dramatic revelations
– deciding to leave on Christmas day

Law cases – you can find out the details of what happened and also how some of these end because of the availability of judgements. A great place for inspiration, especially if you are writing a mystery or a thriller – see http://www.bailii.org/.

An example:

the attack on the home of Mr Murnin. His bungalow was attacked at about 11.30pm on the night of 4 June 2000 when an anti-personnel device consisting of a Russian-made hand grenade was thrown towards the house, causing an explosion which blew in the window of the room where Mr Murnin was sitting watching TV. Also in the house at the time were his four children and his 13 year old nephew, Mark Murphy, who was staying the night.

Those are some ideas for getting yourself out of writer’s block. I hope they provide some inspiration for you too.

Do you have any tips for similar situations?


I have been…

I Have Been:

I found this on Roofbeam reader’s site and I liked the look of it


Not so much. A little bit at New Europe, a bit on here and sometimes in my head, working on that novel.

That novel is proving quite difficult emotionally. I wish my subconscious would be a little more light-hearted. Here’s what I wrote on the morning of the attack on the little Chinese children and the killings in Newtown (some hours before they occurred, I hasten to add) and I can’t bring myself to write anymore yet:

The white casket seemed too small to have to spend the rest of its time under the earth on its own so Roisin thought she would go with it. No one held her back as she walked forward and stepped on the ground that was slowly sinking down. Face down, body in contact she felt all the pain flowing through her chest and there was the sound of wailing. Was she wailing she wondered? She couldn’t make a sound, hadn’t spoken in three months so it couldn’t be her. No need for noise as she started to hit her head against the wood. Twice she made contact before hands grabbed her and lifted her away. Too little, she thought. Too little


I’ve been more successful with my reading if a little more promiscuous. I start many things but finish few. I am up to M on my A-Z challenge and have started the award-winning Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. I find it difficult to enjoy historical settings however so it’s a huge struggle. I am reading Vagina by Naomi Wolf and Your Many Faces by Virginia Satir. The latter is (or was?) a renowned family therapist and I wanted to learn about techniques that could help us lead a happy / healthy (happier / healthier) family life but it seems more about discovering yourself. It’s very good so far. Wolf’s book is a little more contentious as it was widely mocked and ridiculed when first published so I wanted to read it for myself.

It’s not an easy read as part of it delves into the brutalisation of women. There is much of interest. Some of the reviews I read mocked the pro-Assange views and the ultra-femininity but didn’t mention the horrors that women face such as female genital mutilation, and the mass rapes and torture that women experience in war. I believe that Wolf’s thesis is that we’ve come from a time when women used to be sacred and now they are regularly abused and defined by their sexuality.


I’ve been listening to Jonathan Coulton who seems to have a Banksy-esque style of juxtaposing contexts to provide much mirth (as well as political insights). My favourite is Good morning Tucson which starts with the line “It’s still so dark because it’s still so early”to which I listen on the way to the station for my early train in the dark.


I’ve just finished watching the Killing series one and the number of themes I could write about from that grows every time I think about it. Lundt is a single mother, she works in a police department which lies, is political and bureaucratic and uses almost criminal techniques to get what it wants; Lundt practically abandons her son in the process of the investigation but it’s hard to see how she could have avoided it; the political system in Denmark hints at issues with immigration and integration and the complexities of political dynamics.


At the bottom of Park Street at the pop up art gallery Antlers there are some beautiful pictures of Bristol and other places. I wish I had the money to do more than look. I’ve also been looking at Christmas lights on College Green and along the harbour.


My favourite thing.

I’ve been studying a MOOC as one of around 85,000 students at Duke University. I’ve been watching the lectures on my phone and doing the quizzes and I used the inter-library loan system to borrow the course book. The amount I still have to learn about arguing is astonishing. I have also signed up for two more courses on data analysis from Harvard and John Hopkins university respectively. I’ve also signed up to a gender in comics course.


Tired. Intrigued. Constantly amazed at how we managed to create another human being. Too tired for most other emotions but quietly aware that nothing stays the same.


The Mousetrap at the Bristol Hippodrome in 2013.

The Killing series two and three.

Running again. Bristol 10k in May.


For enough energy to be inspired by life.


Scandinavian thrillers – Jo Nesbo and the Killing so far.

My little girl’s feet, her bouncing, her singing, her dancing and her laughing and her tummy.

– the fact that we’re still here after the Mayan apocalypse.

White chocolate syrup.
Chinese food.
Netflix on my phone.
EBooks on my phone.

Happy 2013.










EBooks are not that cheap when you’re writing from the heart

I was talking to a volunteer at the Cheltenham Literature festival yesterday who told me that it’s one of the only festivals that makes a profit because authors can be bought cheaply as they are promoting their books. In fact, there was some confusion at the Frankie Detorri event as people looked for a book and had to be told there wouldn’t be one until next year.

This made sense to me, that Cheltenham especially was used as marketing. Same with chat shows where celebrities go on to promote something. I’m not saying it is true, it was all in passing and I haven’t asked the festival itself but it fit with my perceptions / biases.

Reading this Deepak Chopra article though you’d think it was all doom and gloom for authors and that the eBook was the culprit because it’s a lot cheaper than other versions / editions. The biggest proof of this may be that the biggest release of the year, the Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling was in third place on the kindle list on Amazon on that day because rubbish such as the Expat was being sold for 20p.

Rowling, however, was certainly not discounted and nor did she need social media marketing such as blogger reviews. Allegedly, the Guardian reviewer, in fear of possible leaks, had to read it under the watch of a guard. The publishing house did not need us bloggers. Nor for Marian Keyes new book which was selling for £9.50 on kindle, just 40p cheaper than on hardback. I never knew until know that it was the immediacy of availability that cost so much and not the production process.

In fact, if the eBook is selling at the same price as the hardback, the profit margins must be hugely different. No publishing, material costs nor delivery to worry about with eBooks.

What we do have to worry about is the idea that there is something wrong. Chopra has written 65 books and behind his admonition of following your heart and do what you love, his text-heavy article is a nostalgic trip to a time where things were more secure. New writers would have to deal with a brave new world of insecurity.

But it was always a time of insecurity for writers. It was only ever secure for those best-selling authors whose advances were secured and now they’re getting knocked a bit because 20p books are keeping them from the number one slot and people are buying drivel like 50 shades of get a life.

So I did like Chopra’s point of write from the heart. He had other points too but ultimately at least you will have written something that you can enjoy even if you never make any money from it. My personal theory is that quality will always stand out but there you go. Maybe the second book can have all the marketing thrown at it.

** Look – on the day of publishing this post, the pre-order of Bat by Jo Nesbot on Kindle, is £8.54. That to me is such a large amount for a book which can’t be shared and can’t be passed on after my death.

Why life is better as a sitcom

One of my challenges for the year ahead is to write some blog posts in particular genres or styles. I’d like a sitcom, horror, drama, science fiction, fantasy and whatever else I think of at the time. Part of the challenge is to practise my writing while the other part is to take the opportunity to look at my life through various filters of reality.

My first attempt is something I have been pondering for the last couple of days. I want to write a scene of my life as a sitcom. There’s something quite lovely about thinking of life as a comedy. You don’t have to take anything too seriously. No matter how tough the situation you always end up with a laugh or two. There is a standard pattern of how things work and how they turn out which is a reworking of the hero’s journey in a different format.

I have been trying to think of a topic and a title for my first episode. Family Times? Struggles Ahead? Motherland? They’re all awful.

So no title yet but I have found the topic, a Christmas visit to my daughter’s grandparents. There is a train journey, family gathering, Starbucks, toys and cuddles etc. It took a little while to figure out that it could even fit into a kind of format. My initial thought was that it was just an event which started and ended, lacked some humour in the form of jokes and one-liners and while it did have some structure and even a B-story, it didn’t really lend itself to anything interesting.

However, I have been reevaluating by looking at different important points in the descriptions of the hero’s journey. The ordinary world is challenged by a conflict of some kind, and in its resolution, the hero grows and changes, ready for another adventure having learned something new. There is progress. There is meaning. Hopefully, there is also a good soundtrack. If I rework the story properly there are some truths that uncover vulnerabilities, rejections and painful histories.

Evaluating life in terms of these points can be quite illuminating and all of a sudden so many things gain a greater importance. It’s still hard to write good jokes though.

A few examples of the hero’s journey:

1. THE ORDINARY WORLD. The hero, uneasy, uncomfortable or unaware, is introduced sympathetically so the audience can identify with the situation or dilemma. The hero is shown against a background of environment, heredity, and personal history. Some kind of polarity in the hero’s life is pulling in different directions and causing stress.

2. THE CALL TO ADVENTURE. Something shakes up the situation, either from external pressures or from something rising up from deep within, so the hero must face the beginnings of change.

10. THE ROAD BACK. About three-fourths of the way through the story, the hero is driven to complete the adventure, leaving the Special World to be sure the treasure is brought home. Often a chase scene signals the urgency and danger of the mission.

11. THE RESURRECTION. At the climax, the hero is severely tested once more on the threshold of home. He or she is purified by a last sacrifice, another moment of death and rebirth, but on a higher and more complete level. By the hero’s action, the polarities that were in conflict at the beginning are finally resolved.


I’ll also be needing a laugh track.

National Novel Writing Month, Bristol

November is a hop, skip and a jump away which means so is National Novel Writing Month. 30 days of writing 1667 words a day in order to complete a 50,000 word novel. It doesn’t have to be a quality piece of work. It can be anything and I’ve heard of people getting to the end by typing potato every other word. No matter. If you’ve ever wanted to write a novel then this is the time to join in with millions of other people around the world.

If you live in Bristol and Bath then there are plenty of real world meet-ups and chats going on as well. Check out the Bristol and Bath forum or your own regional branch. Come join us – it’s fun.

I am taking part for the seventh time and you can find me on the site as Josiekin or on Twitter as @stillawake.

NaNo in a Nutshell

What: Writing one 50,000-word novel from scratch in a month’s time.

Who: You! We can’t do this unless we have some other people trying it as well. Let’s write laughably awful yet lengthy prose together.

Why: The reasons are endless! To actively participate in one of our era’s most enchanting art forms! To write without having to obsess over quality. To be able to make obscure references to passages from our novels at parties. To be able to mock real novelists who dawdle on and on, taking far longer than 30 days to produce their work.

When: You can sign up anytime to add your name to the roster and browse the forums. Writing begins November 1. To be added to the official list of winners, you must reach the 50,000-word mark by November 30 at midnight. Once your novel has been verified by the NaNo web-based team of robotic word counters, the partying begins.

Where: You write wherever you’d like. On your computer, on your iPad, on a typewriter—anywhere is fine, just as long as you’re writing!

Bristol Write-Ins: Every Thursday from 6pm and every Sunday from 2pm in the Watershed throughout November.
Bath Write-Ins: The first one is from 5pm at the Green Park Brasserie in Bath on Tuesday.

Scheduling my time

Last September I decided that I needed more structure in my writing so I chose three subjects which I knew somewhat and posted on them three times a week.

I lost interest in transport as soon as I stopped commuting so the Transported column pretty much drifted away. The data column disappeared when I couldn’t find the motivation for writing about a subject which I spent all day looking and analysing.

The only subject that kept my interest was the baby column and that really took over most posts so I moved it to its own home.

So here I am, seven months later and all the routine and structure I had attempted has disappeared.

I think it’s a good time to set up a new routine and a useful way to work towards some goals.

My last opportunity for NCTJ exams is in November and I need to work on my shorthand, portfolio and studies. I would like to write a novel or at least publish a book. I plan to go back to posting more photographs and I also want to write at least one review – of something cultural – once a week and keep up with the read-a-long I have been doing.

First attempt at setting a schedule:

Monday: something to do with the NCTJ course, not sure what yet; photograph;
Tuesday: photograph;
Wednesday: novel update? Writing? Photograph;
Thursday: not sure
Friday: um.. opinion piece on something political maybe?
Saturday: book related post;
Sunday: cultural review.

I’ll finalize the schedule and play around with it until May, then follow it for a month and see how it works out.

Any thoughts or suggestions, dear readers?

I also want to post one question to you each day. I am terrible at interviews so this will be a chance to work on that too. I hope you don’t mind being part of my experiment.

Thoughtfully yours, as ever.

Achieving My Resolutions in 2011

The new year has come and gone and I have managed only one resolution so far. I have jotted down some other things I’d like but there’s one strong resolution about posting every day while the not so resolute ones include generally broad themes such as be creative, sell an article, use HDR exposure in my photography and others. Writing a novel has drifted off the list somewhere after the last NaNo but it can quickly be scooched back in as can goals such as eat healthier, run a marathon in a below-five hour time, well maybe a half-marathon PB instead. All possible perhaps but none of them ardently pursued or explored yet.

I am probably not the only one with resolutions on my mind and in my wanderings around the internet I came across the following article with some great advice on how to create powerful goals / resolutions. I am passing the information and link on to you, gentle reader, so you may hopefully gain something useful from it as well.

The article by Lululemon is the fifth day of goals and resolutions so if you want to read about why we goal set and learn about tips for thinking about the ideal vision of your life go back and check them out.

Steps for this stage:

  1. Use present tense – This is meant to help you think about the goals as being part of your life already rather than out of reach.
  2. Use affirmative language – focus on what you want and avoid thinking about what you don’t want.
  3. Check that you can you measure it – if you can’t measure it then it isn’t a goal and otherwise how will you know when you have achieved it?
  4. Specific – be specific, concise and keep it all to 15 words or less without needing any justification.
  5. By when – dates keep you accountable so state a month. Not all new year’s resolutions need to be for the end of the year.

These tips seem like a good start to me and for more information do check out the original article at Lululemon.

First step in being creative, cross stitch components


NaNoWriMo, The Bristol Story

NaNo is short for National November Writing Month and once a year, for thirty days, a gang, a group, a motley crew if you will, of Bristolian and Bath writers gather and chat, both physically and virtually, about writing,. This year we have two Municipal Liaisons who take responsibility for organising our meetings and writing to everyone.

There was a NaNo kick-off party today where we sat around and took up a lot of space in the Watershed. Anyone is welcome to come and join us at one of the write-ins, of which there are three a week:

Tuesday: The Griffin Inn, Bath, 6pm onwards
Thursday: The Watershed, Bristol, 6pm onwards
Sunday: The Watershed, Bristol, 2pm onwards

Few of us know each other and there is no need for formalities such as remembering names. If you are in Bristol or Bath, all information about events for our region can be found on the website by clicking the Europe :: England :: Bristol & Bath link on your profile page.

There are 687 people signed up to the Bristol and Bath region although the event takes place worldwide and not only with physical gatherings. In 2009 there were 167,150 participants and 32,178 winners. I have participated since 2005 and have only won once, last year. There is no pressure to win, to show up, or to even write if you don’t want to. However if you do want to try your hand at writing 50,000 words, this is as good an opportunity as any.

NaNo in a Nutshell

What: Writing one 50,000-word novel from scratch in a month’s time.

Who: You! We can’t do this unless we have some other people trying it as well. Let’s write laughably awful yet lengthy prose together.

Why: The reasons are endless! To actively participate in one of our era’s most enchanting art forms! To write without having to obsess over quality. To be able to make obscure references to passages from our novels at parties. To be able to mock real novelists who dawdle on and on, taking far longer than 30 days to produce their work.

When: You can sign up anytime to add your name to the roster and browse the forums. Writing begins November 1. To be added to the official list of winners, you must reach the 50,000-word mark by November 30 at midnight. Once your novel has been verified by the NaNo web-based team of robotic word counters, the partying begins.

Where: You write wherever you’d like. On your computer, on your iPad, on a typewriter—anywhere is fine, just as long as you’re writing!

NaNo write-up at the Watershed in 2008

Sign up at http://www.nanowrimo.org.

When can you manicure the lawn?

My dad has been a journalist for years. He has written for papers, run his own newspapers, magazine, radio programs and still writes when he has something to say. He is actively political and writes because that’s how he gets his message across. I studied politics, twice, but don’t always have something say. .

On a car journey years ago he was telling me about a young journalist who had written an article about which began: ‘God sat on his throne and smiled at the beauty of the day’ or something similar. ‘Quick’ said his editor, ‘get me a quote from God’.

His point was the same one as Terry McDermott notes in his article ‘A Thousand Cuts’ about the difference between reporting and blogging. McDermott’s word ‘slumbered’, used to describe two political candidates in a meeting, was changed to ‘lumbered’. He was asked if they actually slept through it. The reply was no, that it was meant figuratively, not literally. “We don’t use figurative language here” he was told.

The ‘here’ in the previous paragraph refers to a newspaper and while I have never worked at one, I grew up with many a journalistic word of warning and was raised to ensure that every glance I took, at a piece of writing, was a critical one. I once categorically refused to allow someone to use the phrase ‘manicured lawn’ in a piece they were writing. The word manicure refers specifically to taking care of the hand from the Latin word ‘manus‘ (as in manual, in terms of labour, not an instruction manual), I told them.

Another of my dad’s favourites was the discussion on what is news. Dog bites man is not news but man bites dog… now there you have a story. A common journalistic cliche in any language but one turned on its head in Terry Pratchett‘s book The Truth. The first newspaper in Ankh Morpork is the subject of this tale and the former Western Daily Press journalist manages to turn the cliche into something all the more witty and self-referential. Half way through the book, and probably only a month or so after I was adamant about manicuring the lawn, I saw that he went and used the same phrase. Who was in the wrong?

I started writing this post as I was catching up on last week’s FT Weekend and had just read an article by Chris Giles on George Osborne’s trip to China. The headline is ‘China takes an interest in Osborne’s reading list‘, the emphasised part is ‘Countries with high budget deficits must show the world they can deal with those deficits’. My favourite bit is the Chinese vice premier telling Osborne of his love for Jane Austen, and especially Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. “The Treasury could not confirm last night which were the chancellor’s favourites, nor whether he had read them.” It was a smile of a moment in an otherwise straight report on a visit. FT house style and everything.

McDermott’s article contrasted blogging and reporting and it’s a much agonised distinction on both sides of the writing medium (professional and not). The point may be that, while the medium is the focus of the argument, the conversation will fail to die down. When you have nothing to say then the way you write may be the only thing left to talk about.

As my sister reminds me now and then, Ephemeral Digest is a blog, and I can write what I want. I am privileged to not have to worry about what constitutes news and what makes an article. Now and then I do worry about it but a funny moment in a broadsheet reminds me that there’s always a balance out there.

My dad’s advice wasn’t just a way of discussing writing. He was trying to tell me how to best get my message across. My ambition is to find more ways to do that so I’ll happily stumble along and be creative when necessary. Until grass grows hands, however, I won’t be manicuring any lawns. That’s a promise.

Up ↑