Writer’s Block: How to bash through #amwriting #writing

Writing is hard work – just like a proper job …

I used to think that being a writer was a pretty cushy job. After all a writer is their own boss, they can go to work in their pyjamas, drink as many cups of tea as they like, and all they have to do is bash out a few thousand words each day and within months – maybe even weeks – they have a best-selling novel and millions of pounds in the bank.

Of course that was before I actually became a writer. Now before I go any further, I should say that I know there are countless worse jobs – in terms of conditions, physical and emotional demands, and sense of achievement – than that of book writer. But I know that for me – and many fellow authors – it came as a bit of surprise to discover that actually it has a lot in common with other ways of earning a living.

And one of the main factors that working as a writer has in common with any other occupation is that you have to turn up – whether in pyjamas or a pin stripe suit – with or without liquid refreshment, and you have to be productive. You can’t be all precious and sit there sighing as you wait for your inspirational muse. Oh no, you just have to get on and write. You have to hit the daily word count target and keep the publishing schedules and deadlines firmly in sight at all times.

So when the dreaded writers’ block hits – and it inevitably does at some stage – it’s important to find ways around it and to get back up and running without too much delay. And so I thought that in today’s post I’d share some of the things that help me demolish or at least get round this most horrible obstacle to creativity.

Firstly it’s important to know the possible reason for the block. It might be fatigue, it might be self-doubt either about writing ability or doubts about the worth of the story itself, or it might be a particular scene or chapter that’s proving troublesome.

Procrastination is permitted

If it’s fatigue, then it’s important to give yourself permission to rest. It doesn’t have to mean going off on a world cruise, or even taking a whole day off but it’s okay – indeed it’s essential not to let yourself burn out. Procrastination is sometimes not only permissible it can be vital. So listen to music, indulge in a hobby – be it sewing, gardening or motor-cycling. Or you could have a nap, go for coffee and a cake with a friend, or even curl up with a book by some other writer who’s obviously managed to overcome their own particular blocks.

Doubt is a demon that needs to be kicked off the pitch

If it’s that wicked wee demon known as Doubt that’s getting in the way – then reading part of something you’ve already written and had published can help reassure you that you can do this. Similarly reading positive reviews of your work can be a great way of boosting that fragile belief in your author-self. And if you’re still awaiting publication then taking a minute to recall why you’re writing in the first place can work just as well. For example try recalling who or what it was that first inspired you to write and use it as metaphorical armour to fend off the demonic enemy. Or read over any earlier pieces of work you’re proud of and remind yourself you’ve done it before so you can do it again.

The need to reboot and refresh

And if it’s a particular piece of plotting or characterisation in your work-in-progress that’s giving you grief, getting away from the desk for a good walk can prove helpful. It’s amazing how when your body goes off for a wander, your mind does too. The brain will work away on the problem in the background while you take some deep breaths and take in the views and then when you least expect it will notify you of a possible solution. And if a walk isn’t possible, then any of the above remedies for fatigue can often help with plot-freeze too.

But if diversionary tactics don’t work then it’s quite all right to go round this particular block. So you can leave that particular scene or plot development for later and get on with subsequent chapters for a while. You can always flag up possible continuity issues as you go while the block remains unresolved and sort them out later. And it’s quite possible that by continuing on your way, your brain will again do that thing of going off on its own and solving the problem while you’re looking somewhere else.

And even in the most extreme event – where you and your brain arrive at the conclusion that a major rewrite or indeed abandonment of the book as it is, is what’s required, that’s still progress. And by re-booting the project you will also have kicked the wall over.

Walk round the wall, jump over it, or kick the blighter over

So, in summary, stalling is okay. It happens, it has to happen, and it’s all part of the writing process. The important thing is not to let it be an excuse for giving up. All jobs have their frustrations, but it’s only in the most extreme situations where our health or safety is in doubt that we need to quit.

Most of the time the problems that come with the territory are challenges that can be resolved.

And, as long as the answers to the questions below remain as they are today, I’ve no intention of letting some puny wall get in the way of writing that bestseller.

Is writing an important and vital part of my life? Yes

Do I love my job as a writer? Yes

Can I imagine ever retiring? No

So it’s bah to writer’s block. The show – or in this case the book – must go on!

Playlists for Plotting: How music helps me write #amwriting #writing #mondayblogs

Similar to lots of jobs

Sorry if I’m shattering any illusions here, but being a writer is hard work. In lots of ways it’s a job like many others.

You have to turn up at your post. You have to put in the hours. You have to produce some sort of result.

Sometimes it can be tiring, frustrating and nerve-wracking.

At other times it’s invigorating, rewarding and morale-boosting.

And as long as there are more of those good times than the not so good then you’re motivated to keep going.

A different way of working

But working as a novel writer also has some unique aspects to it – or if not unique then they’re shared by only a few other professions.

Firstly, it’s a job where you have to work on your own. Even if you work in collaboration with another author, it’s still only you who can write your contribution.  You can’t share or delegate.

Secondly, you’re the boss. You’re answerable to you – and so it’s easy to let yourself off the hook. ‘Not in the mood? Don’t feel writing several thousand words today? Rather wash the windows, sort your sock drawer, play around on social media? That’s okay. You’ll easily catch up when you’re in the mood.’ But of course you won’t. You’re procrastinating and the novel won’t write itself.

And thirdly, even when the spirit is willing and you’re at the desk and keen to get going, it can be hard to know how to proceed, hard to shut out the world and hard to stay in the zone.

The magic of music

And that’s where music comes in. I find that background music really helps me both get in the writing zone and helps me stay there. I don’t necessarily even hear or at least actively pay attention to it as I’m writing, but if my concentration does go then it’s the music that brings me back on task.

The plot playlist

That’s why I compile a playlist for each of my books. And it’s amazing how just hearing that first track gets my brain where it needs to be and the fact the tunes continue to play in the background helps to keep the real world at bay.

So, today I thought I’d share a sample of five tracks from each of the playlists I used for the first two books in my Skye series of novels as well as some from the one I’m currently using as I write the third book in that series.

Displacement Playlist

And I love you so – Don McLean

Lon-dubh (Blackbird) – Julie Fowlis

Meadowlarks – Fleet Foxes

You are the best thing – Ray LaMontagne

I’m gonna do it all – Karine Polwart

 

Settlement Playlist

Mad World – Michael Andrews

I still care for you – Ray LaMontagne

Your Ghost – Greg Laswell

Wherever you are – Military Wives

The sound of silence – Disturbed

 

Fulfilment Playlist

Wicked Game – Chris Isaak

It’s always been you – Ray LaMontagne

I could never say goodbye – Enya

Fuel to fire – Agnes Obel

In our tears – Secret Garden

 

All the tracks on my playlists are atmospheric, evocative and appropriate for the feelings, moods and ideas I write about. These are just some of them.

If you click on a song title you’ll be taken to the track on Youtube where you can listen to the song for yourself and see what you think.

Do you find music helpful when you want to concentrate on something? Or is it distracting – if so what does help you focus?

 

Writing Fiction: Made Up Places

In my last post I wrote about five favourite real-life places that have featured in my books. So in this one I thought I’d share some other places that feature in my fiction but that are entirely made-up.

Now, you might be wondering why I felt the need to invent places. After all, my books are contemporary fiction and are set in real geographical locations with plenty of actual distinctive and exciting settings to choose from. Even my children’s book with its historical and fantasy elements is based in the real world settings of Edinburgh and the north of Scotland.

There are various reasons why I invented some additional settings as well as making full use of the real ones. Some were practical and some were just part of the fun of using my imagination. After all as an author I get to enjoy making up characters and their stories, so why not add in some pretend places too.

Imagined Houses

One of my favourite sorts of places to invent is a character’s home.

The house I created for Caitlin in my children’s novel The Silver Locket was based on a real house. Caitlin lives in Edinburgh with her father and her siblings in a large Victorian villa. And the house I used as a starting point was the one my piano teacher lived in – a house I visited regularly as a child. Another house familiar to me from childhood was the seaside one where one of my friends lived and this gave me a starting point for Rosie’s house in Change of Life.

For both Rachel and Jack in Displacement and its sequel Settlement I spent a fair bit of time creating their houses.

Jack’s house is a former croft house and although it’s over a hundred years old, he renovates, modernises and extends it. One of the outcomes of the work he puts in is lots of large windows that make the most of the light and the views. He also knocks down interior walls to make larger more open rooms.

Rachel’s cottage is on a working croft. It too is over a hundred years old. It’s the house she grew up in and has not had any recent modernisation work done to it.

For Jack’s house especially I trawled through magazines such as Ideal Homes and House Beautiful to get ideas. I also based some of the exteriors and interiors on actual houses including ones I’d lived in myself.

Once I had some starting point pictures in my head I then drew out the floor plans for the houses. I put in as much detail as possible – including the location of doors, windows and stairs as well as the layout of the furniture. I also made a note of the direction in which the houses faced and what could be seen from the windows. And these plans were important – not because I intended to include every detail of these dwellings in their respective novels – but in order to maintain clarity for myself when I imagined my characters moving around in these spaces. But not only that, it was also in order to maintain consistency for my readers who I hoped would be able to imagine these spaces for themselves.

Imagined Streets, Villages and Towns

Almost all the outdoor settings I’ve used so far in my novels are real. The walks taken by the characters, the towns and cities and villages they live in exist – even if their actual address doesn’t.

But I did make up one place and that is Halladale the crofting township where Displacement‘s (and its follow-up books) Jack and Rachel live on the real Isle of Skye. I located Halladale on the (real) Waternish peninsula at the northern end of the island but I decided to go for a made up community. The reason I did so was to give me freedom to lay it out as I chose to for the purposes of the story – and also so that nobody in the relatively small island community could possibly mistake it for their township or their house.

However, having opted for this made-up location meant that once again I had to some detailed drawing to do. After all I couldn’t have a character’s house facing the loch on one page and then have it turning through 180 degrees to face the hill a few pages later. So the whole township was committed to paper and stuck up on the wall.

Freedom to Create

I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed making up all those places. The houses in particular were great fun to do.

And that’s part of the joy of being a writer – having the freedom to just make things up – people, stories and places.

If you’re a writer do you use real locations in your writing? As a reader do you prefer real world settings or made-up ones – or a bit of a mixture?