writers’ block

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.



pond in a snowy wood

Of course something is wrong with your first draft

… I keep telling myself this, but it’s not entirely helping.

The new book is going well. Really it is. But I’ve got that itchy-all-over-in-my-brain feeling that writing the first draft of a new book gives me. It’s partly because it’s a weird business, splitting your time between two entirely different worlds – especially when one intrudes with a phonecall about your breakdown cover renewal just as someone’s telling you their deepest, darkest secret in the other. Very disconcerting.

So there’s that. And the urge to finish, finish, finish, finish, FINISH before I lose my marbles completely and start believing I am my main character (ah, the perils of the first person perspective).

But then there’s the fact that there are Major Things Wrong with what I’m writing. Of course there are. It’s a first draft. That’s what first drafts are for. Actually, as first drafts go this one’s pretty good (for me, at any rate). But a good first draft is never going to be a good book. Well, not unless there’s really something very, very wrong with you (and I say that with no trace of jealousy at the very *idea* that someone could write a stunning first draft – if you can, please don’t tell me). On the plus side, even if there are people who can, most of us can’t and don’t. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say that the best writing is re-writing (as EB White apparently did) but rewriting is what makes a first draft into a good book (unless you’re weird and creepy, in which case go away or at least pretend you write problematic first drafts too).

I’m at that difficult point in a draft where I don’t know if the itchy feelings are so intense because I’ve made a mistake that I’d be better off going back and fixing now or if it’s just that I’m feeling resistant about something. I am a bit struck at the moment, so it could just be the ‘I don’t wanna! It’s too hard! I hate writing and I want chocolate and cake and probably alcohol’ thing.

It seems to me that being a writer means that you sometimes hate everything you love most about writing. It’s just how it is. The fact that you can’t help writing, even when you hate it, is what tells you that you love it more.  I think that’s one of the big differences between people who like to write and people who do it for a living: if you do it for a living, you have to admit that you love it and hate it simultaneously but there’s more love than hate so you’d better get on with your next page before you get miserable because you’re not writing and writing is the most wonderful (awful) thing ever <pause for breath>.

And that’s the other thing that itchy feeling is: that ‘love/hate, why do I do this to myself? I could have been a stockbroker, for Gawdsake!’ thing. (No, I couldn’t but all writers have delirious moments when they think anything must be better than writing… which is not to knock stockbrokers, or not entirely, but some of us can and some of us can’t be strockbrokers. I’m not sure any of us have to though, unlike with writing.)

If you make the hideously stupid career choice to write as at least part of how you make your living, it’s generally because you don’t feel like you can be happy otherwise. And, frankly, you won’t be happy quite a lot anyway. For most of us, there’s a huge amount of rejection even apart from the frustration and fury of writing itself. But there you go. In the midst of the awfulness of the first draft, as I gnash my teeth and consider wailing, I can’t wait to write the next bit. I’m just afraid that the itchy feeling is telling me it’s going to be rubbish… But I’m going to go and write it anyway.

Is anyone else in the same first-draft boat? Any recommendations (for chocolate and biscuits to try, if not for getting past it?)

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?

still water and stones

The thing about writer’s block…

… is that it’s a load of bovine excrement. I’m totally with Terry Pratchett when he said that “There’s no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write.”

Now, I’m not sure I agree whole-heartedly with the second point. However, I do see how the oft-times self-indulgent culture of Hollywood ‘creatives’ may well have lent weight to the term (though let’s face it: the only reason Hollywood creatives are worse than creatives from anywhere else is that they’re permanently gathered en masse and so can legitimise their worst flaws as ‘part of the creative process, don’t you know?’). My background may be psychology, but that doesn’t stop me from thinking that there is such a thing (especially in America, and I say this as an American) as too much therapy.

To my mind, writer’s block is a widely accepted excuse for not writing. For giving up and giving in. For indulging in too much chocolate/alcohol and, most of all, one of the ultimate writing sins: laziness.

Writer RJ Ellory once asked me if I’d ever had writer’s block. I was stumped over how to reply. While I hadn’t, I was worried that he (and our audience, since this was at a conference I was organising) might see such a response as arrogant. Thankfully, he didn’t give me time to reply and, instead, provided his own answer by paraphrasing Pratchett. But it goes to show how much a part of the popular mystique of writing the concept is.

But if it is just bupkis, why is it so common: so accepted? Why have so many people written about getting over writer’s block?

I think it’s part of a modern trend of manufacturing and sharing excuses: if we all agree on the same excuses, we can reify them to the point where we can all sit contentedly back and fail to do what we should – what we could – if only we weren’t so busy giving ourselves and each other permission not to.

That’s all writer’s block is.

However, I freely admit that I have been stumped on writing projects more times than I can count. I quite regularly can’t move forwards with a story in my head, let alone on the page. But this isn’t writers’ block. The problem isn’t some mystical, magical, airy-fairy difficulty with a recalcitrant muse (though I did study writing for a while with a person who truly believed that angels sang his poems to him in his sleep: I’d have bought ear-plugs if I’d had to listen to such drivel all night). If I’m stumped with a writing project and just can’t make progress, the problem is that I’m missing something about the story.

Perhaps the characters aren’t developed enough in my head for me to understand what they would or wouldn’t do in certain circumstances. Maybe it’s that I don’t know where the story is going, or there’s some huge hole in the plot. But the answer isn’t to say ‘Woe! Oh woe is me! How evilly I am afflicted! Let me sit and whinge (and whinge some more) about my tale of woe! Come, my friends. Come and comfort me with the knowledge that I must sit in idleness to recover from this terrible affliction that fate has cast upon me. Oh woe, most desperate woe! I had better eat too much junk food and watch rubbish on TV if I am ever to recover.’

Well, you can try that but it’s a recipe for getting fat, flabby, bored and, above all, boring to everyone around you. If you want to whinge, get a cat. The cat will look at you with disdain and communicate that you’re pitiful even for a human, hopefully shaming you into getting off the couch and out of your dressing gown.

Give yourself one day if you must, especially if you choose to really go for it and enjoy your woe to the max. (Actually, one day of pretending you have writer’s block can be a fantastic guilty pleasure, but remember not to over-indulge.)

Instead, remember that the answer to being stuck on a writing project usually takes one of two forms:

  • Give that particular project a break and come back to it with fresh eyes and fresh energy.
  • Work harder.

If I decide a break is needed, I’ll usually take a week and spend it seeing friends, travelling a bit (even if it’s just locally) or catching up on errands. I tend to find it particularly helpful to do something physical to give my mind a break. But after a maximum of two weeks, even if I’m not ready to go back to the problem project, I start writing again. There’s always something else you can work on. Plus it’s best to work on something very different from the thing that’s causing you trouble.

But never give up and let yourself believe you have writer’s block. Remember that you’re just stuck on one project. So get on with another, for goodness sake. Then, at least, you can feel good about the fact that you’re accomplishing something, even if it’s not what you feel is your number one writing priority.

As for working harder, well that can take lots of forms.

Maybe you need to ask yourself some tough questions. Am I being too self-indulgent with this book? Does X really belong in the script or is it only there because I love it and what I’ve written about it so far? Have I just gotten too attached to all the things I found out while researching the book?

Maybe you need to backtrack. This is harder than it sounds. Once you’ve got it into your head that X happens, or character Y looks like this/talks like this/has Z in their back-story it can be a real wrench to change your mind and accept that it just isn’t doing your story as a whole any favours. Think it through, see why the change is necessary, then take a break. Come back to the story when you’ve had some space and it’s gone a little fuzzy around the edges. That’ll make it easier to re-envision the story with the change(s) in place. Otherwise you risk feeling ill at ease with the project, as if you’ve spoilt the book. ‘Is it really the same story if I change X?’ is a question I’ve asked myself many times. But that’s not an important question for a professional writer: it’s a completely personal, emotional one. The important writing question is ‘What makes for the best story?’

Sometimes backtracking means ditching material. Never delete anything, is my advice. Cut and paste the phrases, sentences or even whole chapters that have to go into a fresh ‘Cuts’ document and hit save. Then go back to your draft, take the material out and hit save on the new, reduced document. Now you haven’t ‘lost’ all the effort you put into writing the material that had to go: you’ve just taken it from a place it was causing trouble to use another time.

I rarely go back into my cuts files once I’ve created them, but that’s not really their purpose. They’re all about making the process of cutting – of ditching effort – easier. And why not? Writing is hard enough.

But the key thing in ‘working harder’ is research, research, research and perhaps a little research for variety. Read about every aspect of your story you can think of. Somewhere along the line, you’ll find something that will be useful, either directly or because it sparks an idea that leads you forwards.

Sometimes research involves scratching away at a troublesome plot point day by day, even for just 5 minutes at a time. If you don’t find gold after a few months of scratching and are effectively trying to dig your way to Australia via China, then maybe the problem is that you’re digging in the wrong place. Hunt about: spend your time thinking about why you decided you needed to start digging in that spot in the first place. Unpick the assumptions that led you to decide that you needed to fix that particular problem. Maybe the problem is that you’ve taken your story in the wrong direction. Maybe being stuck is a sign that you’ve gone down the wrong path.

But whatever you do, don’t go about thinking, let alone saying, that you have writer’s block. Only pseudo-writers who are too busy indulging in the idea that their creative drive needs to be carefully nurtured have the time to sit about not writing. Real writers get on with it.