As I’ve said before, creative writing can be an incredible release, allowing us to escape to new worlds, explore things we’re wrestling with and express ourselves fully. Sometimes it can feel difficult or even intimidating to get started in creative writing. To find some guidance on how to get started, we got a chance to speak to author Alex R. Kahler. Best known for works like The Immortal Circus and The Runebinder Chronicles, Alex has written two dozen books for readers of all ages and has focused specifically on bringing more LGBTQ+ representation to genre fiction. We got Alex’s advice for diving into creative writing as well as his go-to tips for gaining inspiration and diffusing writer’s block.
Carrie Ann: Are there any practices or exercises you do to engage your creativity?
Alex: I absolutely love going for long walks. Nothing gets my creative brain engaged better than, well, actively stepping away from the computer and doing something physical. By putting my ideas on the backburner and just absorbing my surroundings and falling into a rhythmic exercise, I find that my subconscious or writing brain is able to make connections and build a story better than I ever could if I was just sitting and trying to force it. Even just pacing back and forth has helped me navigate difficult plot holes.
Carrie Ann: What do you think creative writing has to offer people who pursue it, even just as a hobby?
Alex: So much. Creative writing can be very therapeutic. It can offer a space to reflect, a space to let go, a space to process. It can also give the writer a chance to ‘try out’ other lives. Writing develops a great deal of introspection and self-awareness, an ability to problem solve and think ahead. Plus, there’s the satisfaction at the end of the day that you have created something that simply did not exist before. You’ve put something new into the world.
Carrie Ann: Are there any specific works, types of media, places or people that make you feel particularly inspired to create?
Alex: This is a tough one. I think that once you start writing (or creating in general) you begin opening up to inspiration wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, so it’s difficult to pinpoint an exact source. I know, however, that being out in nature inspires me. As does a good song I can have on repeat for hours. Or live shows. Or a binge-worthy TV series. Honestly, I think most of my inspiration comes from non-book sources, from places that engage my other senses.
Carrie Ann: Do you experience writer’s block at all? What does it feel like when you get writer’s block and how do you combat it?
Alex: Oh of course. I’ve just started running, and besides feeling like my joints are much older than the rest of me, the similarity to working on a project is far too apparent. There’s the sluggishness right before you’re about to Do The Thing. The desire to stay in bed just a little bit longer. And then, the first few minutes when all I can think is why am I doing this? This doesn’t feel good.
But, like running, the only way out is through (and pacing yourself!).
I do think it’s necessary to take breaks from projects, to work on something else for a time. Especially if it’s an altogether different creative medium. But you eventually just have to come back and push through. It gets a little easier when you’ve taken some time off. You strengthen the creative muscles and give your subconscious something to mull over.
And, hey—the most important thing to remember with writer’s block is that it doesn’t have to be perfect! You can always go back and edit.
Carrie Ann: What are your favorite things to write about?
Alex: I love love love world building. Dreaming up fantasy worlds and magical systems is one of my favorite things. Probably because that’s how I spent most of my time as a kid. So my favorite things to write are inspired by fairy tales and myths and daydreams, but also colored from my life experiences: wizards and circus artists, faeries and boarding schools, magic and friendships. Getting to step away from the mundane world and into pure fantasy is incredible, especially since I know I get to share that with others.
Carrie Ann: When you get an idea you want to write about, how do you get started? Do you usually work to create the big picture or do you begin by focusing on smaller details?
Alex: A friend of mine has a saying: don’t scare the bunny. And I’ve held onto that phrase for years.
When I get an idea (usually as I’m trying to fall asleep) I’ll write it down in a note app or on a scrap of paper and then I’ll let it sit. I don’t want to scare the good idea off. And I think that’s what happens if you jump at it the first time you see it. The Idea usually just isn’t ready.
Sometimes it will sit there for hours, or weeks, or even years. But I always go back over my list of ideas, and sometimes a few of them join up, and sometimes the spark turns into a bang and suddenly The Idea forms. When that happens, I’m all about world building. I’ll grab a big sheet of paper and list out everything I can think of pertaining to this particular world or story: architecture and landmarks, plot points that I know I want to happen, magical systems, mythologies, the characters I see inhabiting the world. Slowly, as the world forms, the plot takes shape. But it’s rare that I start a book based off a character. It’s almost always about the world.
Carrie Ann: What advice would you give to someone who wants to write but doesn’t know what to write about?
Alex: I say this gently: Just start.
It’s that simple, and that difficult. You won’t know what you love to write about until you’ve written a bunch of things you don’t. Just as you won’t find your voice until you’ve mimicked many others. Read broadly, write broadly. And, most importantly: don’t share those first tender drafts. Even to people who will be respectful and positive. I think that the magic needs to be kept to yourself at first—you have to let it build, and then your confidence will build. I still don’t talk about first drafts or ideas to anyone except my agent and a select writing friend or two. Even then, I keep details vague.
I say this because even though we are our own worst critics, I think we all write with the idea— and fear— of someone else reading it. So we self-edit. We don’t give ourselves room to play. We immediately crush the dream by saying this is stupid or this has been done or this will never sell. Those statements aren’t important. What’s important is giving yourself space to play and create without outside interference. That’s where the magic is.
Carrie Ann: Are there any prompts or exercises that you’ve found especially helpful when you’re trying to write something new?
Not to sound like a broken record, but walking. Any repetitive physical activity that lets me drop out of my brain and into my body. That, and I’ll start a new document and format it all pretty and just start tossing in ideas and notes.
Put as much as you can on the page to start— there are no wrong answers or ideas! Give yourself everything you can to work with.
And then, don’t work with it.
You can learn more about Alex and his works at www.arkahler.com