Tackling the pervasive myth of writers’ block

I was talking about writers’ block yesterday. Here’s a little Christmas gift, the chapter on the subject from this year’s non-fiction book on the business of putting together a novel, Writing: A User Manual.

You never walk into a supermarket and have the person on the till say, ‘Sorry, I can’t serve you today. I’ve got checkout person’s block.’ Yet every day, every minute it seems, someone somewhere in the world dashes their hands to head and shrieks that the muse has mysteriously departed them.

At events I get asked all the time, ‘What do you do when you get writer’s block’? As if it’s a given, we all suffer from this strange and perhaps mythical ailment. Do I? No. There are times when I struggle for something to write. That’s not the same as being unable to work on a story at all. But the block thing is so commonly written about it must, in some sense anyway, be ‘real’, in the way Father Christmas and Bigfoot are deemed to exist too. I’ve even seen published writers bewailing their block in public, which is odd indeed. A word of advice: public bewailing by writers on any subject is best avoided, not least because we’ve got a very cushy job compared to many.

What should you do if you can’t think of something to write? Anything but stare at the computer pleading for help. In case you haven’t noticed, it can’t hear you.

Take a break. Mow the lawn. Walk the dog. Learn to speak Croatian. Give your aching brain a rest from being banged against the narrative wall. Do that and my guess is the solution will one day leap into your head at the most unexpected of moments and you’ll be kicking yourself over how obvious the solution sounds.

The ‘I don’t know what happens next’ ailment is the easiest to deal with. It’s like unblocking a drain. You just have to work to find where the obstruction is, then clear it. A more insidious kind of block is marked by a sudden collapse of confidence, a feeling that everything you’ve written so far may be inadequate or downright rubbish, coupled with a conviction that you have no way forward even though you may actually have a storyline written down somewhere that suggests otherwise.

Both are common signs of classic second-act angst. It can manifest itself over a simple mechanical turn in the story, but really that’s a symptom, not the disease. When you reach this state everything is starting to become more metaphysical: what the hell is going on here and does anyone care? Seen objectively – which is usually pretty much impossible for those infected by this condition – the whole idea is clearly ridiculous. Books don’t die halfway through; they get killed. By laziness, by ennui, by a lack of self-confidence, planning or care.

When people talk about block what they are often saying, it seems to me, is that they fail to have a direction for the story in question. They may have an end in mind. What they lack is a confident string of staging points. This is one reason why we’re putting down some possibilities in that ‘Unplaced Scenes’ folder. Simply thinking about how you get from A to B is one way of loosening the jam. You could even write that future scene, or the climax of the book if you like, just to keep you going.

Yes, you did read that correctly. There is no law that says a narrative, even a fast-moving and linear one, needs to be written in the order in which it is to be read. If the next five scenes are hazy but the sixth is clear then go and write that. You’ll probably have to change it by the time you fill in the missing steps to get there but so what? You’ll be back in the game. There are even people who try and write the final scene of the story part way through, or even at the beginning. Not me, though I could imagine doing that for a short story. We’re all different. If it works for you, use it.

Then there’s the book diary. Always remember: this is one way you can work on your novel without having to write it. If you’re keeping this, faithfully and lovingly, there may well be a note somewhere that fires an idea in your head. Even if there isn’t, you can go over your thoughts about the work as it progressed and try to understand where things went awry. Was a story thread lost somewhere along the way? Did you deviate from your intended path? If so, how can you recover the original route?

Blocked writers need to be dragged away from staring at that blank last page in the manuscript. Reading and learning from your book diary is one place you can still stay connected to the project without being constantly reminded of your inability to hit the daily word-count target.

Another tactic. Make a backup copy of your book so far then take an axe to a second version and slash out everything you don’t like. That’s right. It’s called editing. Cutting stuff is good for the authorial soul. It forces you to think about what’s important and what’s not. I once went to Italy with a 30,000-word manuscript and came back with it whittled down to 12,000, happy as could be. I told one of my author friends of my delight and she thought I’d gone mad. But that was progress. By pruning away the unnecessary I found what it was that I wanted to say.

Counting words is one thing. Counting words that matter is another. Cutting like crazy will also teach you one of the most important writing lessons there is. If you are blocked on some seemingly insurmountable problem on page 182 you can bet your last penny the problem, and its solution, actually lie way back in the history, probably around page 131. Tackle it there and you’ve a hope of finishing. Keep banging away at page 182 and you may well go mad.

Print out the pages so far and try and see them through the eyes of a reader. You’ll be amazed, too, how things look when they’re ink on paper, not dots on a screen. Moving from computer to a physical page will give you a fresh insight into the story and keep you engaged with it.

Ask yourself how it would look if it were written differently. What would it be like if you switched, say, from first person to third? If some of your characters were male instead of female, young instead of old, black instead of white? Dream a little, go off-piste.

Finally, use that outline function to the full. Drag some scenes around the timeline. What if this happened here instead of there? When authors wrote with pens and typewriters they would produce scenes and chapters in separate parts. They could play with the running order very easily – they just renumbered the page. It’s even simpler on a computer – so experiment and try to work out how your story might change if the narrative were rearranged.

This kind of problem can affect writers at any stage in their career. There’s a different kind of ‘block’ that’s reserved for the start. I wrote my first two books, Semana Santa (now Death in Seville) and Epiphany, in a whirl. The first took a whole summer, the second just six weeks to produce a 160,000-word draft. I was on a roll. After years dreaming of being an author I finally discovered I could produce a book. It was hard work – I was holding down a full-time job in journalism at the time too. But it was achievable.

Then came book three, the final one in my then contract. I sat down and I had absolutely no idea where to go. There wasn’t a storyline. There wasn’t even a frame of reference. I didn’t know what kind of writer I was trying to be, what kind of book I was hoping to produce. The clash between journalism, which was paying the bills, and fiction, which I hoped would one day do so, was getting unbearable. I was working too hard at both. So I banged out something that was rough, misshapen, unpublishable, and got it thrown back at me. What was going on?

Something pretty much every author will encounter somewhere along his or her career once you begin to get published. Most writers spend years dreaming of finishing a book before they ever get to complete one. When you reach that milestone you think you’re there. Truth: you’re not. You’ve scarcely begun. The hardest part is still ahead because your first one, two or three books are works that have been sitting festering inside you for years, waiting to be vomited up into the world. The core material is there already. Once you find the gagging trick it will come out relatively easily. Then, after a while, there’s nothing left inside. Suddenly you’re dry-heaving and that’s never going to be pleasant.

What happens at this point? Let’s be honest: a lot of people give up. They find it too hard to get past that rock. They look at the meagre amounts of money they’ve made for all the work put in and wonder if it’s really worthwhile having to start from a truly blank page.

Stubborn old sods like me persist (stubbornness is a key virtue for writers in case you hadn’t guessed). I dragged myself out of that pit the hard way. I read the manuscript I’d produced, worked out that somewhere in it there was a kind of sci-fi thriller, then rewrote the whole thing several times until it resembled something like a conventional story. It came out as Solstice, did pretty well and got me published in the US for the first time.

If you hit that rock and want to get past it the only way is to grind your way through. Learn the basics of the craft, which probably escaped you in the mad rush to produce your first couple of books. Try to work out what kind of writer you are and how much that matches what kind of writer you want to be. Get your head down for the long term, because chances are it will be long – have you noticed how few of those authors who have big hits with books one or two are still getting published at all ten years later?

Make sure you keep the ideas tab in that book diary open. One day – and it may be years away – you could be very grateful for it.

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