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!

Maintaining Focus as a Writer

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image via shutterstock

A question that’s been concerning me of late: should I, as a writer, take the wide landscape view when deciding what to work on, or should I zoom in and maintain a tight, close-up focus?

Yes, the above sentence is a metaphor. Hey, I’m a writer. What do you expect?

But seriously, the wide view or the close focus question is something I’ve been thinking about recently as regards my writing.

Regular readers of the blog will know that I’m currently working on my next novel, the sequel to Displacement. However I haven’t added a word to it for about a month. It’s not that I haven’t been at the desk and it’s not the case that I’ve done no writing in that time.

And to be fair to me, during this monthly hiatus, one of the weeks was taken up with having the family, including young grandchildren, to stay over Easter, which was lovely but quite rightly precluded getting anywhere near my desk. And there was also the weekend away at the Scottish Writers annual conference – another lovely and worthwhile time away from the keyboard.

But the rest of the month I was at my desk. I just wasn’t working on the novel. No, I was working on entries for writing competitions, writing blog posts, writing book reviews and doing all the apparently necessary online networking that writers have to do nowadays. I was spread rather thinly, spinning many plates, pick your own metaphor…

I was also procrastinating as far as the novel is concerned. I’ve hit the metaphorical wall (okay, I’ll stop with the metaphors now). The novel has stalled and having lots of other writing, and writing related, tasks to do gave me the perfect excuse to put it to one side.

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However, I’ve now got a grip and regained some focus.

This is partly down to me giving myself a talking to – a talking to that involves reiterating that procrastination is for wimps and requires to be worked through and overcome. And it’s partly down to something the keynote speaker, crime novelist, Caro Ramsay, said in a workshop she gave at the aforementioned Scottish Writers’ Conference.

I realised, just as in any other job, I needed to prioritise. I needed to remind myself why I write – answer I love it – and what it is I most enjoy – I most enjoy being immersed in my characters’ lives. I also needed to remind myself that I’m in the privileged position of having been able to take early retirement from my teaching job in order to have more time to write. But that time waits for no-one and it’s fairly galloping along.

And Caro Ramsay’s words also came back to me and helped me sort out my priorities. She’d asked those of us attending her writing workshop why we went in for competitions, why if we were novel writers did we not just get on and write our novels?

She pointed out that she had no pieces of writing ‘in a drawer’. Everything she writes is for publication and gets published. This wasn’t said in order to boast about her publishing success, but rather to emphasise the point that all her writing has one purpose, i.e. to produce and publish a novel. She was urging focus and commitment. And this is someone who works fulltime as an osteopath and who writes in her ‘spare’ time AND who has published many novels with major publishers, Penguin.

Now there’s nothing wrong with writing competitions per se. I’ve entered many in my time with varying levels of success. Something I find very useful about them is the deadlines they provide and in some cases the feedback that is given. However, they’re mostly short stories and I’ve now come to accept that writing shorts is not my forte. And I must admit I’d recently got sidetracked by the whole competitions thing.

And I accept that social media networking, reading and reviewing the work of others, and writing my blog are all not just a vital way of connecting with readers and other writers, they’re also enjoyable in their own right.

image via shutterstock

BUT novel writing is my thing. It’s my strength, my first love and my passion. And so I must get back to prioritising what I love the most. Like Caro Ramsay, I want all my writing published. So I’m going to focus on what’s got a chance of being worthy of publication and that’s definitely the novels. I also have a sense of loyalty to my readers. I promised them a sequel and a sequel that shall have.

Therefore I’ve put a moratorium on competition entries for the foreseeable, and I’ve made diary commitments to when and to how much time I’ll give to the different aspects of my writing life each week with the novel getting the biggest share. No excuses, no procrastinating. I show up and even if I write drivel, I get on with the damn book, I move it forward.

I know that sometimes my focus will falter, sometimes real life will get in the way of the imaginary one, but that’s fine and I’ll attempt always to pay back any novel writing time lost. I might fall, but I’ll get right back on the horse – sorry – metaphor crept in there!

So here’s to getting Settlement finished and out by the end of the year. And yes doing this post was in the diary for today.

What sidetracks you and how do you stay focussed on what matters most?

When the Muse Downs Tools Mid-Shift

The Muse
Image via Wikipedia

System failure? No Signal? Use the Down Time.

You’re working on your latest novel. The plot, characters and setting are all worked out. Voice and atmosphere are established. It’s all flowing well – until that is, something causes the whole process to seize. It’s the equivalent of the blue computer screen or the ‘no service’ message on your mobile phone.

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Image via Wikipedia

 

It’s not writers’ block. You’ve still got ideas and motivation, but something is jamming the transmission from brain to page. The inbox is full but you can’t retrieve any of it.

It was a fellow writer, Cathryn Louis, whom I met on Twitter, who posed the problem. Cathryn (@CathrynLouis)  http://www.cathrynlouis.com made a plea, via twee,t for advice as to what to do when her ideas vanished  mid-sentence whilst working on her novel.

And round about the same time, another writer and Twitter friend Nettie Thomson, (@NettieWriter) http://nettiethomson.com  put a post on her blog about ideas being like buses, i.e. all arriving at once after a long time of no-show. Nettie pointed out that it’s often the case that when you’re busy working on one project, ideas for several other pieces start to appear. Now while this is inconvenient and distracting, I suspect the phenomenon can be used to solve the sudden signal failure problem.

When you experience a loss of service, you need to divert your brainwaves elsewhere. Leave your subconscious to ponder away on the work-in-progress. Trick your brain by being busy doing other writing stuff, or, even – gasp – non-writing stuff.

Such as:

  • Write a piece of flash fiction. This is sprint rather than a marathon and is good cross-training for a novelist. Pick something you can see as your stimulus – the scissors on your desk, the desk itself, your footwear, an ornament on the shelf – anything… Set your word/time limit and go.
  • Write an opening chapter or short story in a genre you wouldn’t normally work in. So if you’re a writer of romantic fiction, try sci-fi for example.
  • Write a letter to a loved one – alive or dead – telling them what they mean to you.
  • Write a review of the last book you read
  • Write down your earliest memory – use all your senses to recall the time – perhaps write it as a poem
  • Go for a long, hot bath.
  • Go for a walk or a run or a swim
  • Dig the garden
  • Listen to music
  • Meditate

The above is far from being a comprehensive list, but I hope you get the idea. AND the above is NOT procrastination. You are a writer all the time – even when you’re not actually writing. Don’t beat yourself up when you take timeout from the work-in-progress.

Let your creative processors do their maintenance and updates without intervention or force from you. You’ll only cause a complete crash if you don’t. And total writers’ block may well ensue.

When it’s ready your system will reboot and you should gain access to all your files again. And in the meantime you can enjoy a spell of letting go and letting be.

Clearing a blockage

Sorry not to have posted anything for a fortnight. I’m told by those who know about such things that it’s very bad form not to post at least three times a week. All I can say to that is – ‘those who know about such things’ are obviously not working full-time as well as writing a novel and having family responsibilities. Apparently I should have postings pre-written for use in the times when I’m too busy to write posts. Eh – what? So –  not only do I have to find time for all of the above but I also have to find time to pre-write postings. Sorry – no can do! My aim is to post once a week and so far I’ve just about managed it.

So what was the problem last week? Writer’s block – that’s what. The novel had stalled. One of my main characters – the male – had gone quiet. I couldn’t reach him or get inside his head – I needed to get to know him better but he wasn’t having it. It was SO frustrating. I’d sit at the PC hoping he’d come through – but no. I tried ‘interviewing’ him, I tried moving on without him, I tried re-inventing him – but no joy.

Then came a breakthrough. There I was staring at the computer screen, praying for inspiration and it happened. I had my i-tunes playing and a track called ‘Your Ghost’ by Greg Laswell came on – and that was it. I’m not sure if it was the words, the tune, or the mood of the track but whatever it was, it did the trick. Mr Main Character was back and he was talking non-stop – desperate to tell me his story.

So I just had to get on and write down every word he said. Hence no posting last week. I managed to write 2500 words in my free time last week. I’m proud of that – no matter what ‘those who know about such things’ might have to say on my neglect of the blog. So there ! 🙂