Sunday, January 19, 2014

Oh the irony … handling writer's block

I set out this week to write a post about writer’s block. For several hours all I had was the title, which struck me as somewhat ironic. Maybe I should have set out to do a post on writer’s extraordinary productivity instead.

I’ve never really considered that I suffer from writer’s block. I view my work as a craft not an art, and whilst I’m always striving to become a better craftsman, that doesn’t mean I can get away with sitting around waiting for the muse to strike. Putting arse in chair and putting fingers on keyboard generally works for me. This is a job, after all, no longer a hobby. For years my screensaver has been a revolving line of text which reads: Get On With It

I’ve always thought of writer’s block as being a dreadful case of staring at a blank page and not being able to get a word down. But according to the definitions I’ve found online while researching this blog, it can go much further than that. It also covers being able to write, but being convinced that everything you produce is utter rubbish.

If that’s the case, I’m a chronic sufferer.

One of the best blogs I ever came across on the subject was penned by Charlie Jane Anders on io9 a few years ago. In it, she explores the different types of creative shutdown that form WB, and how to overcome them. The blog itself is well worth reading, but here are the highlights:

You can’t come up with an idea.
This has never been my problem. I have so many novel ideas they’re falling out of my ears. Unless, of course, we’re talking about blog ideas, or short story ideas, and then yes, I do stare holes in the walls. These days, if I’m stuck I try writing up any kind of scene for which I have half an idea, regardless if it might fit with a current project or not. The io9 blog recommends you do a ton of exercises to get your creative juices flowing, from writing a random scene in which somebody dies, or falls in love, or writing a scathing satire of someone you hate. (Of course, just be careful not to accidentally email this one out to your writing class buddies …)

You have plenty of ideas, but none of them seem to go anywhere
This is a tougher one to get around and I admit to it being an issue with me. Until I have the starting point of a story of any kind nailed down I feel I can’t proceed further. CJA suggests working out the purpose of a project—that the novel idea you’re losing a grip on is actually a short story, for instance—which may rescue it. Saving them for a later date is often the only thing you can do, and come back to them later—and by that she means sometimes years later—when any reservations surrounding them have had time to disperse. Instead, look round for something fresh. If your creative mind is working so hard on reasons to reject the current crop, the chances are it will soon produce something that works here and now.

You can’t make progress even though you have an outline
This always happens when I’m in the middle of a novel. I’ve carefully worked out my outline beforehand, but there will always be sticky bits, and they’re usually where things have got a little vague. I tend to think of working from an outline as like driving along a road at night. Your headlights are on and you can see the road immediately in front of you in stark detail, but beyond that things are more hazy. You know ultimately where the road leads, but that doesn’t mean a deer isn’t going to leap into your path, or an oncoming driver will career into your lane and you have to be prepared to react to that. If I’m trying to shove a story forwards and it won’t go, there’s usually a good reason. The best bits—to my mind at least—are the ones that arrived easily and fast.

CJA points out there could be a couple of reasons for getting stuck in this way. Either your outline has a major flaw and you won’t admit it, or there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with your outline, but you just can’t see a way of getting from one high-point to the next. In either case, she suggests going off on a bit of a tangent and seeing what happens.

You have no idea what happens next
This can quite often happen if the night before I didn’t stop writing until my forehead kept nudging the space bar. The next morning I’ll open up the document and discover that not only have I stopped in mid-sentence—occasionally in mid-word—but I have no idea where I was going with it. Sometimes the bulk of the previous paragraph makes very little sense either, but that’s another thing altogether. This is why I try never to end the day’s work at the end of a scene or chapter, so I do know what’s supposed to happen next when I pick up the thread again, and I re-read the previous day’s scribblings as well to get me back up to speed. CJA suggests, if you’re really stuck, to have something unexpected happen. To have Huck and Jim take a wrong turn on the river and get lost, or to drop a safe on someone. Or, as Chandler would say, to have a man walk into the room with a gun.

You think your story took a wrong turn waaay back, but it’s only finally come to a head now
This is terrible. I mark progress on a book by the cumulative total of words and having to throw away some of those words because you’ve wandered down a literary cul-de-sac just throws the whole project out of whack. To quote some old phrase: there’s no harm in turning back if you’re on the wrong road. That’s not to say it doesn’t hurt, but don’t throw any of that excised chunk away. The chances are it might come in handy for something else further down the line. You just might not be absolutely sure what that is yet. CJA suggests that you miss a section and carry on from the point you feel you should have been at, had you not decided to deviate in the first place, leaving the missing part to be filled in later. As someone who frequently writes out of sequence—many’s the epilogue I’ve written before the rest of the book—this would work for me.

You’re bored with the characters
Here CJA and I deviate because she suggests that perhaps this is because you haven’t worked out who your main protagonist is yet, and you’ve been concentrating on someone who’s a minor character. Because most of my books have been about one main protag—Charlie Fox—and are written in first person from Charlie’s POV, it’s pretty hard not to know whose story I’m telling. Deciding how much weight other characters have, however, and differentiating between them sufficiently within the story is another matter. CJA’s advice is that sometimes you have to find the knife before you can twist it, and therefore writing a dozen pages or so of nothing-much-happening will help you get inside the world you’re creating and possibly also discover whose voice grabs you hard enough to make it obvious they should be the main character rather than a bit-part player. Of course, this doesn’t cover minor characters who have been assigned a cameo role and completely steal every scene they’re in. Charlie consultant surgeon father is one such character. Every time I let him walk onto the page, he walks away with it. And there was another character—a retired FBI agent called Walt—in FIRST DROP: Charlie Fox book four who just begged to be given room to tell his own story. Maybe one day …

You keep imagining all the reasons why people are going to hate your work
CJA describes this as your Inner Critic—you can’t make choices because you keep imagining how someone at goodreads will tear you apart for it later. The Inner Critic, she says, has its place during revision, but during the first draft stage is better drowned out with some Finnish death metal. I’d agree with this, but at the same time I tend to self-edit as I go along, and therefore I don’t rush a first draft onto the page with the thought that I can correct any problems at the second/third/fourth draft phase. But, this is just me. I know everyone writes in their own way and therefore I do give sneaky house room to my Inner Critic during the first draft. I just try not to let it paralyse me to the point where I can’t get anything down. Reading over and over what I’ve written previously, trying to refine and improve it, always helps.

The Difficult Third Quarter
Here I’m deviating completely from CJA’s list to add a few of my own. The Difficult Third Quarter—DTQ—is one of my constant bugbears when I write. The first quarter of the novel I’m racing into the story, introducing the players and asking more questions of the reader than I’m answering. The second quarter is for some answers, followed by more questions and a few red herrings. But the DTQ is when you have to start pulling the threads together. Pull them too tight too soon and the ending falls flat. Don’t pull them tight enough and you’ll be left with too much explanation to do in the final chapter. Unless you write the kind of books where the detective settles everyone down in the drawing room for the big reveal, this is something to avoid.

So, my question this week is do you suffer from writer’s block and if so what do you do to combat it?

If you're willing to risk suffering from writer's block I hope you'll forgive me if I insert another gentle plug for the second Crime And Publishment event, which takes place on March 7th-9th at The Mill Forge Hotel on the outskirts of Gretna Green (elopements optional but not essential). I’m honoured to be one of the tutors for this course of crime writing workshops, along with Chris Ewan, Michael Malone, Darren Laws and Inga McVicar. Contact Graham Smith on for details.

This week’s Word of the Week is aeolist, meaning a pompous person, or someone who pretends to have inspiration or spiritual insight.


  1. THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU. I have teacher's block and been searching for a lesson plan for tomorrow. Now I'll just run with your piece--full credit given of course. By the way, not to be ungrateful, but did you happen to run across any Sponge Bob cartoons on the topic as (s)he appears to be the inspirational leader for many of this generation.

    1. LOL. You're welcome, Jeff. And I've just emailed you a Spongebob pic as I couldn't find a way to insert it here :)

      Your wish, oh master ...

  2. Z, What a great and useful piece. Like you, I see writing as my work, so I work at it. And I just keep going telling myself that it does not have to good, the story just has to get out there. Then I can work it over and over until it is good enough. I never heard of anyone having editor's block. Polishing later is always possible. I wish I could come to Gretna Green. the name of the place alone is romantic enough to be inspiring.

    1. I confess that I find doing major rewrites after I've finished a novel more difficult than adjusting the story as I go. If I feel something's really not right, it's hard to go forwards without fixing it. I know the saying you can fix a page whereas you can't fix a blank page but I can't quite bring myself to work that way.

      And even if you don't make Gretna, there's still that railroad trip you mentioned -- Tanzania, wasn't it? xx

  3. Since I am essentially a pantser, I find myself suffering from plot block more than WB. Of course PB is both helped and hindered by having a co-author - sometimes the brainstorming clears the way; sometimes two competing plots struggle to be reconciled.

    When writing, I suffer more from a sort of artistic flatulence - full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. I usually know very quickly that elephant turds are more appealing than what I am producing - but persuading myself to stop is sometimes difficult. If I just chucked the words as soon as I thought they were crap, I'd be better off. But I guess I like the words I am producing, even if together they are nonsensical, pretentious, or boring.

    1. You see, Stan, this 'everything-I-write-is-crap' kind of feeling IS indeed a form of writer's block, methinks. Besides, you must know how many of us are fans of your work! And having spent some time with you I cannot believe you could be pretentious or boring, and everyone needs a little of the nonsensical every now and again ...

      I find nothing is ever wasted, even if it isn't suitable for the book I'm writing right now. The first scene I ever produced with Charlie Fox in it eventually found its way into book three, HARD KNOCKS. And one of my final passes of a mss is to ruthlessly remove any excess words. If I like them but they don't move the story forwards I stick them in a folder marked 'rubbish' and occasionally trawl through it when I'm looking for inspiration.

  4. It's certainly a good thing there are no aeolists hanging around here!!!

    Aside from that, I...uh...umm... just a second, I have to go check my social media... I'll be right back, as soon as the conclusion of this sentence makes its appearance in my....uh...

    1. 'Tis indeed, Everett!

      And yeah, whoever said procrastination is the thief of time had yet to discover Facebook ...

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