writers’ block

Something is better than nothing – a writing motto

When I’m well and into the swing of a project, I can happily churn out at least 3K per day and usually 4.5-6K at the end. With editing, 10 pages is a minimum.

But sometimes the words or edits just won’t come. Either I’m under the weather, or my brain is solving a problem, or I just don’t quite know how to get from where I am to the next plot point, or I’ve got some paperwork to sort (noooooooo! not the paperwork!!!!!!!! It’s worse than the writing!!!!!!!).

For whatever reason, sometimes I just can’t settle into a rhythm of work and it’s more than just an issue of getting started (if it’s that, do a writing sprint or make a pact with an author friend). Sometimes it’s a bigger problem and I’m stuck in a rut for days on end. When that happens, I keep myself going with a motto that really goes against the grain for me:

Something is better than nothing.

It’s not a motto to let myself off being lazy – I’m a ‘progress, progress, be productive, make progress’ person. Instead, it’s a motto to comfort myself when I can’t work and it’s not a fixable problem. Right now, for instance, I’m struggling to get anything done because I’ve had suspected Covid-19 since March 2nd and, though I’m getting longer spells between cycles of the fever-cough-exhaustion, it’s obviously not done with me yet. Even so, I’ve managed to edit one book and put a fresh polish-edit coat of paint on two others. I did this by telling myself – all day, every day – that

Something is better than nothing.

Some days I did a single sentence. A few days I didn’t even manage that. If I didn’t, I tried to read at least one high-quality piece about writing or books or screenwriting or history or art… something to feed my knowledge and imagination. And then I tried again to do at least one sentence. And if I managed that, then I tried for a paragraph, a page, until I couldn’t do any more. Sometimes that added up to very little, but even a sentence is a something instead of a nothing.

Some days things went well and I did a real chunk of work and of course that helped a lot – though it was extra dismal to plunge from a day like that into ‘I put a sentence in. Then I took it out. Then I spotted a typo in the next sentence. Now I’m done, brain dead, gone, bye, I’m a zombie now and zombies don’t write/edit’.

Still, slowly but surely all the somethings added up. Not half as quickly as I wanted, but they got me there. And though I’m a sprinter, not a marathon runner/writer/what-have-you, I’m also a professional and I know that when something’s not working I need to put a new tool in my toolbox to help me fix the problem and keep me ticking on towards my goals – I can’t just sit there and wait for it all to get easier (word to the wise: ain’t happening).

Something is better than nothing‘ is a great tool. Just remember, it’s there for when you really can’t – not as an emotional sop for when you can but won’t.

 

 

Acer leaves

Are you in the mood?

When writers talk to me about the ‘energy flows’ of their writing space, or the purity of the vibes in their study, or the necessity of being in a state of zen before they can centre themselves to create, I tend to want to vomit. While one part of me says ‘each to their own’, the part that gets irritated by people trying to make writing mysterious starts snarking on about the fact that it would rather like to examine some entrails to see what is in store for the day – preferably, the entrails of a moron who needs to ‘centre’ before work can commence.

I get the concept, I really do, and I think meditation is actually quite a good idea. It’s just the way people talk about it that gets me. Mediate. Go ahead, but just do it. Don’t dress it up as something half miraculous… And don’t dress writing up like that either.

Writing is many things but most of them aren’t mysterious if we’re not trying to pamper our lazier tendencies… or trying to exclude people. The mysteries of writing can only be mysterious if a select few – and only a select few – are clued in. I’d rather like to think that everyone could be clued in. Believing this should be a prerequisite if you also teach writing, though a fair few writer-teachers don’t seem to agree. I suspect most of these people are only teaching to make money on the side because writing often doesn’t pay enough. Which is fine, but if you’re going to teach you need to do it with decent principles rather than in a state of petulance that your last advance wasn’t six figures.

Of course, no matter what their teacher believes, some people will be good at writing and some won’t be, with varying levels of goodness and badness in between. But there’s no reason for the enterprise of putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) to be this weird thing shrouded in rites and rituals and secret handshakes and, most horrid of all, secret clubs where you’re in or you’re out.

Writing is about putting words on a page. It is both as simple and complicated as that. But there’s no reason it can’t be democratic – or at least a meritocracy: open to all who are good at what they do, whether that’s writing novels, fanfic or blogposts.

There is ‘magic’ in writing but it’s not the magic of a study’s vibrations or The Perfect Pen. It’s the magic of turning something in your imagination into words that will recreate that imagined something (or an equally interesting imaged something) in the mind of a completely separate human being. That’s pretty magical all on its own, if you think about it: the closest to telepathy as we currently get. What more magic do we need?

Another good reason to do away with the concept of the mysteries of writing is writers’ block. This is equally unmagically. It’s not some pseudo-illness that other people just can’t understand because they’re not true artists [sniff, sniff, wail: my tortured soul, etc. etc,]… It’s simply a problem with the process of getting words on the page, usually because you don’t actually know what you’re doing with a specific project yet and haven’t blindly stumbled on the right answer through pure dumb luck so have to actually work at it. That’s something that happens to all writers all the time. The thing that makes one person a ‘real’ writer and another not is that the ‘real’ writers just get on with the hard work of figuring out where they’ve gone wrong… or they turn to a new project, taking a break to get some perspective on the old one. Either way, ‘real’ writers get on with the act of putting words on the page.

And there we lead into why I find the idea of having to ‘centre one’s energies to get the creative zibbles flowing smoothly’ such a lot of rot. Meditate to clear your mind because you’re plagued with self doubt: a great idea! Do a bit of yoga or karate or go for a walk to give yourself time to climb out of the real world and into the world of the book: absolutely, go for it! But don’t see it as some weird magic ritual.

Everyone’s inner writer has a delicate ego. But that doesn’t mean it should be pandered to and inflated by silly means. I generally prefer the word ‘writer’ over ‘author’ because it comes from the verb: a writer is a person who writes. Who puts words on a page. End of story.

Or rather, the beginning…

 

Dawn shining around tree by woodland road

Is writing going to make you happy?

I don’t believe in writer’s block. All writers have problems with writing. No matter how sensible and practical we try to be about the process – no matter how hard we try to treat it just like any other job – creative work is different. Sometimes you sit down to write and you just can’t. It happens. But you haven’t been struck down by some terribly affliction. You’re not ‘blocked’. Or at least I’m not when this happens. I’m just stuck.

Writers get stuck all the time. Multiple times a day in my case. That’s what writing is. It’s about lurching from one thing that’s too hard/too confused/not working to a bit where ‘Yes! Life is wonderful and birds sings and the words coming pouring out’ and then suddenly it’s back to ‘Disaster! My life is over! My writing sucks! Why do I do this to myself?’

Creative Writing students often ask me questions about what they see as the glamour of being a writer: sipping alcohol and discoursing about one’s genius to an admiring cirle of would-be writers, being presented by grovelling artists with potential cover designs, being chased by reporters dying to hang on one’s every word… And perhaps one in a thousand writer’s has an experience like that. Success in sufficient quantities can bring grovelling and people desperate to hear you say hello (what a disincentive to doing well!), but I expect almost every writer on the planet has reasonably similar experiences when it comes to the act of writing: in short, that it’s infuriating one minute and bliss-and-joy the next. That when it’s flowing and working properly, all is right with the world… and then Life Is Over a the blink of an eye.

When students tell me they can’t wait to be respected authors and have everyone know their name, I ask them what aspect of the actual writing bit they love. Quite often they talk about praise. Now, praise isn’t a bad thing to want at all, but if that’s the bit you really love maybe writing isn’t a good career path. Maybe you will get showered with praise, but if you can’t enjoy the act of writing itself you may find you don’t ever finish enough work to sustain a career to keep the praise coming in.

Writing as a hobby means you don’t have to push through being stuck. Writing for a career means you do. All Day Long. If you hate that aspect of writing  and just want to skip to the praise the finish article may (or may not) garner, you could be setting yourself up for a miserable life. Which doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t write – let alone that you’re not good at it – but perhaps you should think about about whether it’s the right career path for you. I try to explain this to my students at the outset but it often doesn’t sink in until they have to produce a long portfolio piece – a novella, a collection of poems, a full-length script. Some love the idea of having the finished thing but they just can’t stand the process.

And that’s fair enough. But it’s pretty important to be honest with yourself about it. If you don’t like the process of writing, is it going to fulfil you as a career? Is it going to make you happy?

You don’t have to be a career writer to write. But you may need to change your expectations if you don’t.

Getting an agent is often a long, hard slog. So is getting a publisher. And even both of these things are no guarantee of any degree of success… let alone that you’ll get published again. So it’s worth thinking really carefully about why you want to write. It may be that the chances of ever getting enough of the bits you love (or think you’ll love) about being a writer are too low to make all the misery worth it. And let’s face it, writing is miserable as well as wonderful. I think you have to love the infuriating process of writing to have any shot at being happy as a career writer. And if you’re not going to be happy most of the time – or perhaps all of it if you don’t get an agent/publisher or reach the dizzy heights of success you have your eyes set on – is it really a good idea?

Maybe you’ll enjoy writing more if you do it as a hobby and just see what happens. It doesn’t mean you’re not a ‘proper’ writer (whatever that is), it just means you’re being realistic about your best chances of leading a happy life.

Or maybe, on second thoughts, you would be happy just to be published, maybe, some day. Maybe you’re happy to face the doubts that it will ever happen and be content just to keep trying even if you don’t get there. Maybe you’re more ready than ever to keep on slogging when you get stuck instead of hurling yourself down on the sofa and telling your bestfriend that you’ve got writer’s block (though fair play if you want to hurl yourself down, demand comfort and decide to share a whole tub of icecream before you get back to work).

Set your eyes on a career as a writer if the act of writing is going to equate to a happy life for you. If the praise you might or might not receive if you ever get an agent/get published/get your book noticed is what you’re after, then go for it… but maybe go for it with a different career to keep you fulfilled in the meantime. A lot of my writing students who go on to have fulfilling careers and happy lives, come round to this idea. Some of those who don’t, find way to make a living and thrive on the pursuit of their writing dreams in whatever time they can put aside. But some chase those dreams while hating the process of writing. And they tend to be, and remain, pretty miserable. It always seems such a waste to me when they might well find the praise they’re after doing something else… and then discover a love for the process of writing that leads them to success in that too.

At the end of the day, if you don’t love writing even when it makes you miserable, maybe it’s time to think again about how devoted to your writing dreams you should be. Determination and perseverance are great things as a rule, but not when they’re just going to lead you to live a miserable life.

So one of the big things I try to teach my writing students is to figure out what sort of writing dreams are actually going to equate to happiness in their lives.

… Just some things I’ve been thinking about after speaking to several ‘old’ students and hearing what they’re doing now.

 

 

acer leaves in a pond

Procrastination or process?

So I’m working on a new book. Quite a lot of this work looks like staring at the screen. Or searching for theme music. Or reading articles about writing/books. Or fiddling with my headers on various social media sites. Or making tea. And more tea. And even more tea.

I’m not entirely convinced that (all) of this is procrastination.

I think a lot of it might actually be my brain putting up one of those awful hour-glass ‘processing, please wait’ symbols that just make you want to scream until it’s time to Walk Away From The Computer before you end up hitting it (my keyboard periodically takes some serious punishment).

Anyway, the point is that at least some of this is just part of my writing process: it’s my way of letting my brain work out problems and things I just don’t know yet about the book… But some of it is just mucking about and not knuckling down.

The trouble is that it’s very hard to tell the difference. Right now, this minute, do I need to be hard on myself because I’m not writing… or should I be nicer to myself when my brain is just processing a little slowly?

One of my professional goals is to figure out how to make my brain beep when the hour-glass disappears and I’ve solved whatever problem has made me stuck.

One of the reasons I spent so much time yesterday searching for the right theme music is that having the perfect song/piece for a book helps me not to procrastinate. After a few days of playing the song constantly as I work, I start to associate it with the book to the point where putting it on helps me slide into the right mindset, putting me in the world of the book, placing me in the right emotional frame to connect with the characters and the narrative style. It’s a useful shortcut. The key is to find something that is so perfect that you don’t think about the music – it needs to become part of the ‘feel’ of the book.

So, for my brand new YA psychological thriller I need something haunting but menacing at the same time. Ideally, something quite stripped back. I’m currently discussing the playlist options over on Facebook, but comments here with suggestions are very, very welcome too!

I’m slowly coming round to the conclusion that, leaving aside the issue of often not settling down to work quickly enough in the morning, I mostly stop writing and start pootling about aimlessly letting my brain process when I don’t know quite what I want to say next… Which is probably fair enough, but often I don’t return to the book quickly enough once I’ve figured out my next step. So that’s something I need to work on.

Something that helps a lot with that is making plans. I’m much less likely to be stuck when I know all the steps in the plot from the first to last page. I still get stuck on exactly how to angle scenes, but at least I know roughly what has to happen in each… and that gives a lot of structure to my thought process and makes it easier to come up with the right option – or at least a good option to try out on the page – so I’m not stuck for as long. True, sometimes I have to try and try again to get the angle right even when I think I’m unstuck, but if I also have to figure out what the reader needs to learn from the scene, where the conflict/tension is, and what changes in the scene it’s a pretty tall order.

So my plan for the evening is to write up the plan for MoB (the title abbreviation for the new book). It’s in fairly developed form in my head… So developed I can’t quite keep the pieces in order any more. I need to get it down on paper in note-form so I can spot the gaps and start filling those in. Then I need to put myself in front of the computer and write until I get stuck… and then I need to keep going back to the book just in case I’m not stuck but procrastinating. And I need to keep doing that until the book is finished.

I’m aiming for the end of the year for a first draft.

How about you? Are you processing or procrastinating when you’re not writing? How do you tell the difference? How do you try to shift the balance away from procrastination?