Nearly every interview, Q&A or panel I’ve been involved in has invariably posed the question ‘what helps you to write?’ or some variation thereof, and I’ve happily chattered on about reading and listening to other people’s conversations (rude) and music (YES, mee-Usic!) and strolls in the fresh air etc, not to mention that old reliable, tried and tested technique succinctly outlined by American novelist Gene Fowler – staring at a page until your eyes bleed. Or maybe it was the forehead? It matters not, blood is involved, make no mistake.
So, we’ve covered all that before.
But, having just taken three years (you heard right, THREE) to thrash out my fifth novel, restarting the thing multiple times and finally just admitting defeat and re-writing the entire manuscript to re-inflict upon my editor a few weeks ago, there are a few insights I can share with you now about those things that absolutely DO NOT help me to write. Because they’re a real bugger, and they’re all around, and they will pull the rug out from under any aspiring writers among you and worse, leave you feeling like a complete and utter failure who shouldn’t even be attempting to write... anything... ever. And that won't do.
So, these gremlins. The beasties that climb on your back and knock you off task or, worse, whisper in your ear disturbing all those wonderful gossamer wisps of ideas that would otherwise be interweaving themselves in your mind and coming together to form those precious strands of a plot, or character or sentence... yes, those beasties, that can ruin goddamn everything. Maybe if I tell you about them, they won’t ruin goddamn everything for you.
1) Writer’s Block
The obvious Culprit Numero Uno; can apparently attack from straight out of nowhere even after a very good run of fluid writing and excellent musing. Threat to writing? Not a huge one in the long run, unless it’s terminal, shudder. Poses a much more certain threat to deadlines though. And to the general health of any laptop within coffee mug-slinging distance.
Slinging coffee mug at laptop
Music & meditation
Frantic pacing in front of knackered laptop while staring at wall calendar and ‘DEADLINE’ circled in red
Phoning a friend. I hear this is useful, batting ideas around, talking it out. Weirdly though, I’m extremely private about my novel writing so this is something I still haven't ever done. Give it a whirl and let me know how you get on
More staring but the Gene Fowler way, until the blood starts flowing. Then eventually, eventually, so too will the words. They may be utter crap, you may know as you write them that they’ll only be chopped again later, but they’ll be words, on the page, and words you can work with.
Yes, they’re ace. Beyond ace. Partners, kids, parents, whatever - they’re our humans and we love them and want to be with them and hear their funny interactions and bark at them when they’re being utter toads to each other and help them with their homework and business invoices and pull their splinters out and slouch around on the sofa with them catching that family movie that looks really great for all ages!
Sure, all of that stuff is crucial.
Writing does not get done while family life is in full-swing. Not in this house, anyway.
So much of writing is thinking. And you can’t think while someone’s shouting through the house that they’ve lost their keys, or the teens are arguing over who’s nicked whose favourite tee-shirt, or the youngest is asking you to identify something suspicious on the end of his finger. Love them though I do (and I really do) I cannot write when my clan are around.
Get yourself a hammer and nails.
Those buggers have to be shut out. And the doors, barricaded.
I have written books now with newborns, toddlers and teens in the background. At the crack of dawn, during nap time, in cars on Sunday league football sidelines, on notepads beside Mediterranean swimming pools and hospital beds. I’ve snatched minutes wherever possible, and I’ve no doubt other writers have found their stride doing the same, but for me, only an empty building devoid of all other human life will do. You may want to clear yourself a safe space too. Go on, don't feel bad. It's ok.
3) Life in general
Gets in the way, doesn’t it? At times?
I fought this one for a long time with this fifth book I’ve been writing. Sure I could think up a decent story and turn it into 100k cohesive words on the page, so what if the old head was rammed full of other things making it impossible to focus on anything outside of reality? Right?
Erm, no, actually I couldn’t.
Something I’ve learned the long hard way dragging my editors along behind me.
Fiction writing is all about transporting yourself somewhere far far away and seeing what’s happening way over there instead. What the inhabitants look like. How the air smells. What it feels like to walk through a garden gate there at 3pm in the afternoon.
Mental tourism, sort of.
Writing is as much about escapism as reading is, and you can’t escape from jack when you’re firmly anchored to all the heavy stuff going on all around you in the really real world, whether that’s a meltdown taking place in your personal life or, you know, a pandemic or something.
Life gets heavy. I’m sure there are folks who can switch off and use the escapism of writing to weather their own storms, but I’m not one of them. If you can’t outrun the hurricane blowing up behind you, holding on is often the best you can hope for and to do that, you have to drop everything else. The death of my youngest sister in 2016 wasn’t something that was ever going to blow over. Time was indeed marching on, but the death of my father at the start of 2020 just as Covid started to get a foothold in the UK was like rolling from one dark and turbulent period headlong into another, and realising there hadn’t been nearly enough blue skies in between. It was exhausting. And I couldn’t think straight let alone write straight.
Well, I can't really help anyone else with this, everyone has to find their own way. But what I can tell you is that the first draft of my manuscript was a complete bag of trash, made absolutely no sense and on rereading it later on, gave me a startling insight as to just how frazzled my brain had been at the time. So a few months into 2020, instead of panicking about deadlines I tried a new approach. I stopped. Breathed. Rested. Took my time. I was kind to myself (on the excellent advice of a wise friend), focused on the not insignificant issue of worrying over loved ones while a virus raged across the planet and felt strangely reconnected to the rest of the world. I counted my many blessings. And you know what? The sun started shining again. I wrote, steadily. But not at my own expense. I wrote when I felt like it and my mind was clearer and I had chance to zone out and immerse myself in the story I wanted to write. And now, it’s written. And it's better. But it had to wait until life in general, chilled out.
Oh boy, this is a biggy. So you’ve had a few bumps in the road, you’ve done the right thing and given yourself some time-out and have come back to your groove feeling refreshed and energized and ready to get back in the saddle.
And then it hits.
The Holy Shit moment.
Holy shit, you don’t even know how to ride a horse! Did you ever? Or did you get lucky? Sort of, jumped on and held on and didn’t fall off the last time, huh? Not falling off doesn’t make you a cowboy though, does it? Not falling off before will not save your neck this time around!
I hate this voice. It’s never the voice that says, ‘Dude, you’ve got this,’ or, ‘so what if no-one likes what you’re doing? You like it, it means something to you, and that’s awesome!’ It’s the voice that says you can’t, or you shouldn’t, or you’re rubbish, or past it, or irrelevant. It’s a spiteful, insidious voice and it is not our friend. It is to be ignored, wherever possible. Easier said than done, I know. Boy do I. But, you know, you have to be brave and crack on and just do your best and if that’s not enough for the rest of the world, hey ho. If it’s blood people want from you, they’re going to have to catch you staring at that blank page I mentioned earlier.
5) The World Wide Freaking Web, Baby
Oh, The Internet. Lovely, bountiful, ocean of knowledge and discovery, how we all love thee. And it's always right there, right at your fingertips, ready to elevate the mind and enrich your storyline and... and give you 10 exciting ways to peel a banana.
The world online is a killer resource for inspirations and research, of course it is, but at some point you have to actually write and at this point, detours to the net will kill your productivity. One minute you’re dipping a toe in, the next you’re ten thousand leagues under wondering how you ever drifted so far from shore. And how the hell did it get to school run time already? Argh!
Sure, you want to check how to spell some medical term critical to your protagonist’s backstory; sure you need to know how far south the Northern Lights could been seen on February 2nd 1986 by a cataract-ed eye. And don’t even think of not checking that mileage from scene 1 to scene 2 your character has to walk in heels (so long as it’s not too many miles by Google’s reckoning). The internet will be your steadfast guide, leading you to knowledge. And then, it will reliably lead you to 10 exciting ways to peel a banana... via the news headlines, latest Hollywood gossip and a quick nose at houseprices.
The mighty asterix. No, not this guy...
It’s a habit I don’t do enough but am getting better at. Every time you have a head-scratch moment, stick one of these into your manuscript. If it helps, stick a note in there too to remind you what all the scratching was about. Then, after your productive afternoon of WRITING ACTUAL WORDS, you can reward yourself with half an hour of online research, whipping through all the asterisks you’ve rallied throughout your manuscript that day. Then, you can head off for the kids feeling satisfied that you've actually moved your novel along and, when they've finished scrapping over eachother's favourite tee-shirts later, you might still get chance to wow them with a groovy new way to peel a banana... if you can still be bothered to find out how.