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Posts Tagged how to beat writer’s block
Do you need help to get your novel started or finished? Four of us experienced scribblers talk about how we stay creative through the tough times and reveal our secrets for drafting, fixing and finishing, not to mention keeping our confidence. Solutions include running, composing music, meditation and lying on the floor scribbling on sheets of A4 using the hand you don’t normally write with.
My co-conspirators are Orna Ross (who is the author of Go Creative, several literary novels and leader of the Alliance of Independent Authors), Kevin Booth (who’s a translator as well as an author and trained as an actor before he took up writing), and Jessica Bell (who runs the Vine Leaves Literary Journal as well as having a parallel career as a singer-songwriter, which you might well know already from her appearances on The Undercover Soundtrack).
We’re forming the creative posse at IndieReCon, a free online conference for writers at all stages of their publishing careers. Do come over – and check out the other terrific events in the line-up. There’s info from all kinds of experts in publishing, writing and marketing.
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Writing mentors, writer’s block and the Wife of Bath – guest post at Jon Winokur’s Advice To Writers
In some ways, I have Chaucer to thank for all this. At school I wrote an exam essay in which I speculated about the plots you could make from the Wife of Bath, based on her character. I also have to thank my English teacher. If she’d been like the other staff, she’d have told me off for not answering the question. Instead, she urged me to take writing seriously – long before I thought that was possible.
Today, I’m guesting at Advice to Writers, a blog by Jon Winokur. Jon is co-author of a biography of Rockford Files star James Garner, and that makes him exceedingly cool and me very honoured. We do discuss more up-to-date concerns than Chaucer, though, including how you get from a theoretical dream to words in a reader’s hands. We’re talking mentors, writing routines and writer’s block – do come over.
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I have a friend who is a graphic designer, and he’s as adept with words as he is with images. Recently he said to me: ‘I don’t know how you get a book finished. I have all these ideas but my imagination’s like a rope that frays into too many ends.’
(You see what I mean? He should definitely write.)
‘Do you make notes?’ I asked.
‘Yes, but when I look at them they’re dry and dull.’
Aha, my friend. You’re making the wrong kind of notes.
The wrong kind of notes?
Years ago, I used to keep a dream diary. I found it a few months ago and expected the entries would be indulgent nonsense, without the meaning, resonance or early-morning mind that makes a dream a good experience. But no; in those fragments the experience came back, just as odd and wondrous. Now I’m not going to bore (or scare) you by quoting one here, but what I will tell you is why they still worked.
They were written with a dream-head. They captured experience as well as logic and explanations.
What’s this got to do with making notes?
In Nail Your Novel (original flavour), I wrote that you should keep your earliest draft. If a scene has lost its sparkle, look back at the first time you had a go at writing it. Yes it will be shambling and embarrassing, blurted onto the page. But it will also contain emotional language, straight from the things you were feeling as you discovered it. This is the freshness and immediacy that can disappear with editing, or when you try to refine, get formal or explain.
It’s also the quality that can disappear when we write notes after a brainwave.
So when I write down an idea, I make sure I include this raw response. I write them as a stream of consciousness, like a dream. Because that’s what comes to me first: the certainty of what I want the reader to feel. If possible, I’ll also keep a talisman that will allow me to replay it again, and indeed might have been the initial inspiration – a scene in a book or a film, or a piece of music. (We know all about that here, with our Undercover Soundtracks.) There will be practical elements too, so it’s not complete gobbledygook – eg ‘man sees woman in coat that’s just like his wife’s, assumes it’s her and follows her’, but those look dry when you read them in isolation.
Stories are emotional. You want to make sure your notes help you remember the impact that made you so excited, as well as the hows and whyfores.
Do you find your ideas have dried up and died when you read your notes? Do you have any tips for keeping it? Let’s discuss!
Psst… My second novel Lifeform Three is coming very soon. It’s a fable in the tradition of Ray Bradbury. If you’d like to hear as soon as it’s released, sign up for my newsletter. If not, as you were :)
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I’ve had this very good question from Alison Strachan, who tweets as @Writingmytruth
What happens when you realise half way through writing that you needed to plan more?
There’s a story I tell in Nail Your Novel about how I learned the value of planning. Years ago, I embarked on a novel, ever so excited, wanting to explore a disturbing incident and see where I’d go. The first chapters galloped along nicely. I read it out to my writing group, who loved it. On I went, flinging ideas down. And soon I realised I didn’t know where the hell I was going. After 60,000 words I gave up. And I’m not a person who does that. It annoyed me intensely.
But I knew the characters were running in pointless circles. I simply couldn’t see a way out of the rut.
60,000 words. What do you do with all that?
I didn’t know then, but I do now. Here’s the cure.
1 Deep breath
It’s okay. You haven’t proved you’re unfit to write a novel. You haven’t ruined your idea.
2 It’s never too late to make a plan
Some novices feel they must write it all perfectly in one go. But seasoned writers might stop, start and re-start many times before the book is finally ready.
Once the manuscript is finished and handed to an editor or an agent, it’s likely that their critique will suggest extensive changes – especially if you’re learning the ropes. Some of these mean you have to re-plan on a fundamental scale, including character arcs, plot, structure and pacing. Welcome to rewriting.
So that means … even if you’re a chunk of the way into the book, it’s not too late to make drastic changes. Heck, it’s not even unusual.
3 You haven’t even wasted your time
All that stuff you wrote isn’t junk. It’s browsing. Some of the scenes you’ll be able to use as they are. Others will need to be rewritten, deleted or replaced. Relabel the file as ‘development notes’ and you’ll feel more comfortable about changing it.
4 Take control
Now you need to understand the material you’ve already got. My favourite tool is the beat sheet – a summary of the purpose of each scene as it is at the moment. Don’t judge whether they’re good or bad; that comes later. For the time being, you’re making a map of what you’ve already written. Another way to do this is by summarising each plot event on cards or a spreadsheet. Once you can see the book at a glance, you can figure out how to use this material or whether to delete it. You can also plan more events and scenes to the end of the book.
5 Restore your faith
The chances are you’re not as keen on the idea as you used to be. To rescue a book, you need to reconnect with the initial spark, see its potential once more. You might have some early notes you made right at the start – see if these rekindle your excitement to make a story. If you haven’t got any, start a new file and write yourself a note about the qualities of the idea that first inspired you.
Perhaps you’ve moved on from the original idea. If you’ve learned there are different depths to mine, that’s good. Write a new mission statement.
Or is it time to move on?
I never actually returned to that 60k draft, and sometimes our early attempts are not fit to be developed further. What they teach us is more important than the content. I still think there’s mileage in those characters and their situation, but they need a bigger spark to get them working properly. I’m not taking them on again until I’ve found it.
When I think about it, a good half of writing is rescue and salvage. Sorting out muddles and solving problems. If you’re writing and you suspect you should have made a plan, your instinct has just told you something important. Do whatever helps you get control of your material. There’s no wrong time to realise this. Except when you’ve hit ‘publish’…
You can, as you’ve probably guessed, find plenty of tips like this in Nail Your Novel, original flavour.
Thanks for a great question, Alison. Guys, what would you tell her? Share in the comments!
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Usually, the best remedy is to give up and do something else.
But Charlotte Rains Dixon reminded me in a comment here a few weeks ago that sometimes it’s good to push through. Even if you’ve run the tank dry. And sometimes deadlines mean you don’t have the luxury of a break.
Here are some ways I get my muse to pick up.
Behind your pesky page there’s a seductive internet. And you’re sitting there, annoyed with the way your creative day is going.
Do not open your browser. Surfing turns so easily into skiving.
If I’m trying to break a block I go to my reference bookshelf. Not the dictionaries, although The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought can provide a surprise or two. But beside these sensible titles I have a collection of oddities that friends have given me (probably because it’s easier than guessing what fiction to give a fussy novelist). Thus I am the lucky owner of Never Hit A Jellyfish With a Spade – How to Survive Life’s Smaller Challenges. The Z to Z of Great Britain. And Mirror Mirror on the Wall – Women Writers Explore Their Favourite Fairy Tales. Any of these, consulted at random, can provide a wild card to astonish the imagination.
Poetry collections are handy too, to remind me to look beyond the surface for deeper significance. Especially if I’m asking myself if I’ve missed the real reason why a scene or event has to be in the book.
It also helps to define a few parameters.
- Work out what can’t happen – both for this individual story and for the readers of your genre as a whole. Then you know where you should be heading.
- Ask yourself what matters in the scene. Why it’s important to the story and to the characters. (If it’s not, job done.)
- Quite often if you’re stuck, your brain is telling you you’re trying to write the wrong thing. Are you forcing the characters to say and do things they would find unnatural? Should you listen to what they would rather do?
- Are you stuck because the scene repeats an idea you’ve used elsewhere in the book? Now you know to make it different.
- Are there hidden significances or issues you’re glossing over? That ‘stuck’ feeling might be your helpful writerly subconscious telling you you’re wasting an opportunity.
Still stuck? Push on anyway
Now this is what Charlotte was talking about. Write anyway. Yes it works. Sometimes you’ll be surprised by what comes out. It’s like having an interrogator refusing to let go.
‘What happens now?’
‘Bah, I don’t know.’
‘That’s not good enough, I don’t believe you don’t know. Tell me again – what happens now?’
When I do this, my first attempts are risible, and I keep deleting. But after a while I find the scent. I’ve often resorted to this in revisions, and written some of my best scenes because I stayed stubbornly in the saddle.
You could follow the lead of science fiction author A E Van Vogt. When he was stuck, he would move to the spare room for the night and set the alarm to wake him after an hour and a half. When it went off, he would force himself to try to solve the problem, inevitably falling back asleep. He repeated this all night and in the morning, voila.
Which just goes to show what it can be like living with a writer sometimes. You can find other less unsociable tips in Nail Your Novel. :)
Thanks for the cat pic turkeychik
Tell me what you do when you get stuck and time off isn’t an option. Share in the comments!
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I post 4 to 5 useful writing links per day… and other stuffMy Tweets
- ‘Skinny-dipping in greenish-hued waters’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Consuelo Roland October 1, 2014
- So You Want To Be A Writer? New radio show to get you started September 29, 2014
- Novels aren’t movie scripts: how to write great dialogue in prose September 28, 2014
- ‘Tom Waits makes my brain chemistry change’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Trevor Richardson September 24, 2014
- The gap in your narrative, the scene you’re avoiding – stop and brainstorm! September 21, 2014
- ‘Memory lightning’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Nick Cook September 17, 2014
- Self-publishing answers: from writing to finding your readers – podcast with Nick Thacker September 14, 2014
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