WRITERS' BLOCK AND HOW TO BEAT IT
A DEFENCE AGAINST THE DARK ARTS
A few months ago, the Chairman of my local Writers Group asked me to give a talk about Writers' Block. Why he thought me particularly suited for this purpose, I don't know - perhaps I'd been looking harassed in between trying to finish my novel, BIRDS OF THE NILE, setting up my new website and attempting to master the idea behind Twitter (I still haven't managed that, by the way).
As far as I’m concerned, Writers’ Block is what happens when I’m sitting at the desk, pen in hand, ready to write but the words won’t come and the mind is a blank. In other words, the lights are on but there’s nobody in. It’s what Wikipedia describes as a ‘trivial temporary difficulty in dealing with the task in hand’ ie. a narrow view. And yes, as you will have already guessed I did what we all do when we’re researching our subject - I googled Writers’ Block to see what the web has to say about it and to try and broaden my understanding of the issue.
What I discovered was that not only does Writers’ Block have a far wider meaning than I’d ascribed to it but that there’s a whole industry out there dedicated to solving it. You could almost say it’s a genre of its own and it seems to me that there isn’t much that hasn’t already been written about it. So I have no intention of trying to cover the subject in its entirety and you only have to look on the web to see what an impossible task that would be. What I’m going to do is try and give you my take on certain aspects of it and hope that there’s something in there for you. If not and if what I say isn’t relevant to you then I’m sure you’ll be able to find something somewhere amongst the mountain of advice that is.
So what do I mean when I talk about the ‘Dark Arts’? It seems to me that we’re all happy to admit to what I call Writers’ Block – that little local difficulty of being unable to find words. But there’s a more insidious, darker side to being blocked that we’re not so comfortable in talking about. And by that I mean the Evil Forces that stop us writing, the Demons that whisper in our ear at three in the morning and tell us that we’re wasting our time, the Demons that stop us getting as far as even sitting at the desk, pen in hand, ready to write - at which point my more limited version of ‘Writers’ Block’ becomes a luxury, a nice to have, the very least of our worries.
Wikipedia also has a wider definition of Writer’s Block which it describes as ‘an inability to begin or continue writing for reasons other than lack of basic skill or commitment’. So, it’s not just the inability to conjure up words (although that’s obviously important) but it’s also the inability to overcome the obstacles that prevent us from even getting to that stage. The solution to Writers’ Block is often presented as the need to do a few writing exercises to loosen up the mind. We’re not going to do that – we’re going to talk about the mental battles that go on inside us and how to develop mental strategies to deal with them before they bring us down and stop us doing what I presume we all want to do - which is write.
A PSYCHOLOGICAL APPROACH
I’m a novelist. And I’ve often likened writing a novel to running a marathon – it’s long, it’s exhausting and sometimes it’s downright tedious. A short story by the way is a sprint - and poetry? Well, poetry’s just poetry ... (Writing a successful novel is actually more like running a marathon with hurdles but that’s another story). My daughter runs marathons and when we’ve discussed it, she’s told me that while it’s important to be fit and to eat the right food, at least half the battle is getting your head right. Because no matter how much training you’ve done and how rigorously you’ve followed your diet, there will come a point where you begin to doubt yourself and what you’re doing to the extent that it undermines your commitment and you wonder if it’s worth going on. And that’s when you need your head to be in the right place to get you through that crisis. The key thing is to know that you’re going to face that problem at some stage in the future so why let it spring itself on you unannounced and why not prepare for it in advance?
Top athletes of all kinds, not just marathon runners, use some form of sports psychology to improve their performance. You could say that I’m an athlete and my chosen discipline is word games and it occurred to me that I could use a similar form of psychology to get me through those dodgy writing moments and help me perform. Just like a marathon runner, the important thing is being able to recognize when you need that help and to have a pre-prepared mental strategy for dealing with it. In that way we don’t just go to pieces when something goes wrong – we get our ready-made toolkit out of the cupboard and fix it.
So my idea is to have a ‘process’ to hand that you can fall back on in moments of crisis. Athletes have set routines that they go through which they know if they follow them will lead to a predictable result. Many writers have routines they follow to help them write, too. Here are a few examples:
Agatha Christie claimed she had her best ideas while washing dishes.
Raymond Chandler found inspiration by watching his wife clean the house in the nude.
Ben Franklin wrote in the bathtub.
Ernest Hemingway liked to write standing up.
GK Chesterton took a bow and fired arrows out of the window.
Bertolt Brecht liked to write in pubs.
Truman Capote preferred to write in bed.
Jack Kerouac had a ritual of lighting a candle, writing his poetry and extinguishing the flame when he was done for the night (completely over the top but then, we are talking poetry here).
I can’t say I recommend all of these but maybe one of them is for you. I’m sure we all have writing rituals of our own - I personally can’t start writing in the morning until I’ve got at least one game of Spider Solitaire under my belt.
These are routines for writing and help us get into the flow of our work. But what if the stream has dried up and the flow is cut off? Why not have a routine for dealing with that too? The mental problems that precede what I call Writers’ Block are equally, if not more, destructive so I’ve developed a psychological strategy for use in these circumstances which I call it my Defence Against the Dark Arts. It consists of five elemental steps and if that sounds like the introduction to a self-help manual, so be it. All I can say is, it works for me and over the course of the next few weeks I’ll be setting it out in detail.
A couple of weeks ago I posted the first in a series of articles about Writers’ Block. I began by suggesting that Writers’ Block was not just the immediate inability to produce words but had other, more far-reaching aspects and encompassed all those mental problems that prevent us from even picking up a pen or opening the lid of our lap-top. When I’ve faced these issues in the past, I’ve called them ‘The Dark Arts’ and I’ve developed a strategy of how to deal with them. Since they’re psychological problems l’ve adopted a psychological approach to tackling them. The process I use consists of five elemental steps and today I want to share the first two of them with you, PAST PERFORMANCE and DESIRE.
PAST PERFORMANCE : Let’s begin by talking about past performance. A large part of my working life has been spent in Life and Pensions - an industry which is very fond of telling us that past performance is no guide to the future. Well don’t you believe it! It’s a source of constant amazement how the same fund managers produce the same results year after year. So I always start my recovery process with the idea that I’ve faced this problem before, I’ve overcome it in the past and I can therefore overcome it again now. Like the athlete I mentioned in PART ONE, I remind myself that if I go through the prescribed ‘routine’ I will achieve a predictable result. I remind myself of my past achievements and how I achieved them and tell myself that there is no reason why I can’t do the same again. After all, I’ve written four novels and none of them has actually killed me (yet!) – so what’s the problem? It helps to dwell on the good side of past performance by the way – dwelling on the bad side doesn’t do us any good. One of the things we shouldn’t do is beat ourselves up over our problem. Here’s some good advice from one of the better websites, The Writer’s Block 2002.
‘Call yourself names, tell yourself what a lazy slob you are for not writing, measure yourself against the successes of others, diminish your accomplishments, remind yourself of every missed opportunity -- after all, anything less firm would be self-indulgence, right? My own experience of this kind of self-abuse is that it is nothing short of crippling and serves no purpose except to make you feel bad about not writing. As if you didn't feel bad enough about not writing. Imagine heaping that kind of cruelty on someone else in order to get them to work. How successful do you think that would be? And how much would they resent, hate and loathe every minute under your authority? So why do you think you should respond to beating yourself up by becoming more enthusiastic and committed to your work?’
So, the first thing is to think of the good things you’ve done in the past. If necessary get your best piece of work out of the cupboard and read it to remind yourself how good you can be and say to yourself ‘You know what? I wrote that, little ol’ me’. Know that you’ve overcome the problem before and tell yourself that by following your process you will overcome it again and produce some more of that good work. In that respect I guess it’s like the first step in any self-help manual and that’s setting out with a positive mental attitude. Of course, what you do if you’ve never produced anything that was any good, never faced the Dark Arts before and never overcome them, I haven’t a clue. All you can do I suppose is try it, make it work the once and then you’ve got it for the future. But do it, for sure.
DESIRE : Now let’s deal with Desire. I was going to begin this next step by inviting you to ask yourself How much do I want to do this? How important is this to me? I was some way into it when I realized that asking questions of yourself at this stage is not an entirely wise move – it holds out the possibility of a negative answer. What we should be doing here is not asking but rather reminding ourselves how important this is. Here’s John Steinbeck on the matter.
‘The writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true’.
So rather than asking myself How much do I want to do this? and ultimately Why do I want to do it? and thereby opening the way for personal rejection, I should be reminding myself of how important it is and how much it means to me.
At some stage you will have had that conversation with yourself about the whys and the wherefores of writing. Then you will have asked yourself What am I prepared to give up in order to do this? Because In order to achieve your objectives there is no doubt you will have to give something up. For some it will be their sanity if they fail to deal with their mental pain (hopefully that’s not us). For others it will the relationships they have with loved ones which are unable to take the strain (we’d rather not have that either). But for most of us I suspect it will be time and that means you’re not going to get the ironing done today, the dishes will stay in the sink until lunchtime and your partner will come home and ask why you haven’t done this or that or the other etc. The point is, don’t resurrect that conversation every time you run into trouble. Have it the once and get it out of the way so you can get on with things.
In my case I’ve effectively given up work to write. Over the last few years I’ve worked less and as a result I’ve earned less as I have devoted more and more time to writing. That’s been a conscious decision and I don’t feel guilty about it because I made that decision in advance and I knew what I was doing. Two years ago we had a new kitchen installed. Anyone who’s had a new kitchen will know how disruptive this is. I still haven’t sorted my garage out, the kitchen windows still haven’t been painted and the pictures have not yet been hung in the downstairs cloakroom. These things frustrate me but there isn’t enough time for everything in life and they don’t frustrate me as much as not being able to achieve my writing objectives. Put it this way - if I die and my garage is a mess, my kitchen windows aren’t painted and there’s nothing to look at when I’m sitting on the downstairs loo, so what? But if I die and my book isn’t written, then that’s a disaster. Look at it that way and you’ll find out just how serious you are about writing.
In recent weeks I’ve been talking about the mental struggles involved in combating Writers’ Block. I’ve developed a five step strategy for dealing with it and I’ve already outlined the first two, PAST PERFORMANCE and DESIRE. This week I want to turn to the third, SELF-BELIEF.
SELF-BELIEF : Of all the Dark Arts that afflict us, lack of self-belief is for me at any rate the most debilitating. If allowed to take hold it becomes like a cancer, quietly eating away at you and destroying all your good intentions. In the end it can actually stop you writing at all and in extreme cases, force you to give up entirely. I speak from personal experience. It comes in two forms – one of which I find comparatively easy to deal with while the other is not. Let’s deal with the easy one first.
I can’t do this. It’s too hard, too exhausting and too much effort.
But the answer is, you can - we’ve decided that already. You’ve done it before and you can do it again. Simples. And if it wasn’t hard and exhausting and took a lot of effort, would it really be worth doing anyway? Probably not.
The more difficult proposition to cope with is that your writing isn’t good enough. You aspire to great things but the outcome doesn’t live up to the expectation. This is the Demon that comes in the night when you’re least capable of defeating it and tells you that your writing is crap, it always has been, it always will be and you don’t know why you bother. This extreme self-deprecating view of yourself is guaranteed to bring you down and must be fought off at all costs.
What I find fascinating about it is how even the very best writers suffer from it and actually believe it about themselves. Since the Second World War only two English writers have won the Nobel Prize for Literature – Sir Winston Churchill and William Golding – both of whom experienced terrible mental depression. Churchill suffered from what he notoriously called ‘Black Dog’ while William Golding gave up writing for ten years because he didn’t think his work was good enough. A Nobel Prize winner and he didn’t think he was good enough! And if he didn’t believe it, what hope is there for the rest of us? An extract from The Writer’s Block 2002 sums it up very nicely.
The Curse Of The Talented : Once you know you're good, it's hard not to think that somehow, in some way you should be better. And from better, it is really only a small hop, skip and jump right over into the realm of best and even perfect. And herein lies the trap - because if everything you get down on paper could be better, then it's also easy to fall into the fallacy that nothing you've done is really good enough. And the gap between not good enough and best is pretty hard to bridge first thing in the morning, even with a cup of really good coffee in your hand.
Now, I imagine we’d all like to win the Nobel Prize – but the chances are that we wont. Ok, so we may not be the best writer in the world, but I doubt that we’re the worst either. Look at this:
‘… he rode on that wind like some temple virgin toward the sweet, compliant fires marking the soft curve of oblivion.’
Any idea who wrote that? It’s an extract from The Bridges Of Madison County by Robert Waller, a book that topped the best-seller lists in America for over 115 weeks. Or how about this?
‘Her long fake Laura’s of La Cienega fingernails were painted a particularly virulent shade of vermilion that clashed with her overglossed cyclamen mouth.’
That’s Joan Collins, another best-selling author. I’m not sure I’d want to be a best-selling author if it meant I had to write stuff like that because I wouldn’t think it was good enough. But the point is, somebody did, and therein lies the clue.
Literature is not an all or nothing game. You may not be the ‘best’ but it doesn’t mean you don’t get to play. Just like the Football League, there are those at the top and those at the bottom – and there’s a lot of others in between. And the thing is that wherever we sit in that spectrum (and we all have place in it somewhere) we are not the ones who decide – it’s down to someone else.
Whatever we may think of our work on a personal basis, if we want success in the literary world then we are not the ones to judge. It’s not up to us – it’s up to the agents, the publishers, the critics and ultimately the reading public to decide. The responsibility we have to ourselves in all this is to present them with the best we can do and then let them come to their conclusions. So the idea that our work is crap, it always has been and it always will be, isn’t an issue because it’s not up to us to make that decision. Our job is to strive to do the best we can and then let the market make up its mind. And you never know, somebody said yes to Robert Waller and Joan Collins so somebody might just say yes to us.
The problem is that acceptance by the market appears to be such an arbitrary process. There doesn’t seem to be a universally accepted standard and it’s all extremely subjective. The saying ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ was never more true than in the world of publishing. We all know the story of JK Rowling who was rejected 17 times before someone felt brave enough to take her on and launch her record breaking career. Going back to William Golding for a moment, his first book, Lord of the Flies, did the rounds of nine other publishers before being accepted by Faber & Faber. Even then, the reader it was assigned to categorized it as ‘rubbish’ and actually wrote that on the flysheet. Fortunately for Golding one of the managing editors picked it up and thought it worth pursuing. He then asked Golding to make substantial changes to it before it was published and it went on to become one of the best known pieces of English literature of the 20th century. Had he not done so, Golding might never have won the Nobel Prize.
I have an example from my own experience when I received two entirely different reactions to exactly the same manuscript from two different agents. One was heavily critical while the other loved it. I was confused and in the light of their conflicting comments I decided that all I could do was try and produce my best work and then let the market argue the toss over it. The key thing here is this – if you think your work isn’t good enough, don’t beat yourself up about it because it’s not up to you to decide. Let someone else be the judge.
However, there’s a ‘but’. Let’s just return for a moment to this idea of producing our best work. We’ve already discovered that excessive self-criticism and perfectionism is a destructive force. As I mentioned before, I can attest personally to that. When I was 21 I began writing a novel. After completing the first three chapters I made what I now see was the crucial mistake of reading it. As you can imagine, it wasn’t good enough. I rewrote it. It still wasn’t good enough. Eventually after rewriting the first three chapters a dozen or more times I gave up on it because I thought it never would be good enough. I have never finished that novel and I gave up writing for 33 years because of it. How self-destructive is that? Was it good enough? Who knows? I never gave it to anyone else to find out. One day I hope to rewrite it. This time I’ll have learnt from my mistakes.
But self-criticism is not all destructive – it’s a two edged sword and used properly it can be a force for good. The trick is to manage off the down side ie your writing is crap, it always has been, it always will be and you don’t know why you bother (the answer to that, as we have already discovered, is that you are not the judge, someone else is going to decide) and focus on the upside. And the upside is, no matter how bad (or good!) you think you your work is it can always be improved. The Writer’s Block 2002 again:
Understand that I'm talking here about constructive self-criticism - the ability to step back from your work ONCE YOU'VE FINISHED A DRAFT and look at it with a measure of objectivity.
And Ernest Hemingway:
‘The first draft is always shit.’
Let’s pursue this idea a little further. Anne Lamott's 'Bird by Bird' is not only the honest and sensible musings of a writer on craft, it's also hilariously funny. I'm just including a short paraphrase of the ideas in the chapter of the same name, but for the full amusement value, go and read the book.
The idea of the shitty first draft, is that one of the most common causes of writer's block is setting out to write something 'good'. This opens the door to all the demons of self-disparagement, self-judgment and perfectionism - for of course, it’s not really enough that the work is 'good', it needs to be 'great', or really it should be 'the best, most insightful piece of prose that has ever been seen by human eyes...' which, the writer soon discovers, the piece she's working on obviously is not. Many blocked writers will recognize the self-defeating cycle of finally starting to write again, only to find themselves compulsively rewriting the opening paragraph over and over until whatever magic they found in the original idea is completely obliterated in the struggle to make it 'good'. The result? The piece is abandoned and the writer is further demoralized and blocked.
To break out of this Ann Lamott recommends simply writing a shitty first draft. Really shitty. Let it be as bad as it comes out - clumsy word choice, incomprehensible run-on sentences, wooden dialogue and all. Even go with a poorly thought out idea and moronically improbable ending. The only rule about getting out a shitty first draft is that you finish it.
This is a hard thing for perfectionists, but remember, no one will ever see this draft. This is not the piece you will show to your writers' group or send to an editor - the purpose of the shitty first draft is simple and twofold: it gets your idea down on paper where you can work on it and it allows you to finish something - which goes a long way toward restoring your sense of competence as a writer.
I hadn’t come across this particular concept before I did my research but I decided to give it a try when preparing this talk. You should have seen the mess I began with – but I worked on it, tidied it up and it got the job done. For me the important thing is the rule about not looking back and finishing the draft. Once you’ve got a first draft, it’s like a bank – it’s too big to fail, and after all the effort you’ve put into it, the thought of giving up on it simply isn’t an option. It can always be improved. There are actually very few writers who don’t revise and improve their work. Hemingway (another Nobel Prize winner) was obviously one, Samuel Beckett another. Here’s what he had to say:
‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’
And while we’re on the subject here’s a quote from Gabriel Garcia Marquez:
‘Ultimately literature is nothing but carpentry. With both you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood.’
A little more enigmatic – but then he is a Colombian.
I used to hate, and fear, revision and I realize now that I strove far too hard to make things ‘perfect’ first time round. Since being forced to revisit my work and reappraise it I’ve actually come to enjoy revision because I can see the improvements it can bring. The skill is to recognize when you’re becoming obsessive about it and know when to stop.
When I worked in Financial Services we dealt in quartiles. The performance of those companies in the top quartile differs by 5% or less. What that suggests is that three-quarters of our effort will get us to a result that’s 95% good enough while another quarter will get us to 100% - maybe. Perfectionism is a costly goal both in terms of resources and mental health. When I was 21, it was all or nothing and it turned out to be nothing. Now I’ve learnt to settle for 95% and the chance of something.
I’ve been speaking about how to combat the mental issues involved in Writers’ Block. I’ve developed a way of dealing with it which uses a psychological approach based on five simple steps. In the last of the series on the subject, I’m going to talk about DISCIPLINE and FOCUS.
DISCIPLINE : The fourth element in my five step process is discipline. It’s a rather dull and prescriptive subject but very necessary. Let me ask you a question. It’s a trick question by the way and I apologize for it in advance so please keep the answer to yourself. How many of you would like to be writers? Ok, so here’s the follow up question. Now how many of you actually are writers? The difference underlying these two questions is given to us by this extract from The Writer’s Block (Jason Rekulak, Running Press).
The Myth of the Muse : As an editor, I meet plenty of people who tell me they have novels “in their heads”, that they’re simply waiting for “the muse to strike”. And of course these people never ever write books, because real writers don’t have muses – real writers usually write every day, whether they feel like it or not.
Personally speaking, if I waited for the Muse to visit me, I’d hardly ever write a damn thing. I’ve decided not that I want to be a writer but that I am one. I used to treat writing as if it were a part-time hobby but now it’s become a full-time job and I would very much like to stay that way. A job means work and work means working hours. So, if I’m a writer and that’s my job then I need to work certain specific hours. I’m not alone in this and in fact I’m in very good company. You’ll find that most professional authors have pretty regular working hours.
When I was a full-time financial consultant I used to write from 6.30 to 8.30 every morning before breakfast and start my other work at 9.30. Nowadays I also write from 9.30 to 11 and my other work of promoting myself starts after that. I work those hours because I feel more productive then and because I am unlikely to be interrupted. It’s also the most important thing I’m going to do all day and I know that if I put it off until later something else will come along to stop me doing it. So come rain, shine, hail or snow I’m going to be sat there between those hours giving myself the opportunity to write. What I do when I’m sitting there is, of course, another question and we’ll answer that in a minute.
The advice on these strict schedules is conflicting. The website The Writer’s Block 2002 for instance warns us against it:
It's starts out harmlessly - a little playing with numbers. If I could write 400 words a day, 5 days a week, I could finish a 100,000 word novel in - let's see - 40 weeks, which is 10 months. And 400 words really isn't very much, so if I pushed it a little I could write maybe twice that amount, which would be 800 words a day, for 5 days a week or 4000 words a week, which would give me my novel in - wow, only 5 months. That means I could write two novels a year and still have summers off to practice neurosurgery!
The only problem is that it doesn't take very much for a seemingly reasonable goal (400 words a day, 5 days a week) to become an something utterly insane - with the kicker being that you rationalize as you go, so even though objectively you might be able to see that the new goal is absurd, there is still an inner voice that says you should be able to accomplish it. And of course, the stricter and more rigorous the schedule, the greater potential there is to screw up - miss a day - and suffer the ego blow that comes with failure.
This tells us that we shouldn’t push ourselves but Tom Wolfe suggests otherwise:
What I write when I force myself is generally just as good as what I write when I’m feeling inspired. It’s mainly a matter of forcing yourself to write.
I’m with Tom on this otherwise it’s far too easy to cheat on myself and like waiting for the Muse, nothing will happen. Forcing yourself to write is not always a comfortable experience but remember, this is only the Shitty First Draft .
So, Defence Against The Dark Arts step 4. Decide you are a writer, set yourself fixed working hours and give yourself the opportunity to write. I do set myself targets and, on occasion, I have relied on Tom Wolfe’s testimony and forced myself to write. I can tell you that I very rarely meet my targets. But I am certain that the discipline imposed by trying to achieve them gets more done than would otherwise have been the case. It doesn’t always work. Sometimes I sit there for my two hours and nothing happens at all. But on other occasions I am amazed by what I can produce and I end up asking myself, where on earth did all that come from?
FOCUS : Everything we’ve done up until now is very laudable but it’s of no use to us if all we can think of when we finally get to the desk is what we watched on TV last night, trying to remember whether we’ve fed the cat or put the dustbin out and humming that tune that continually runs through our head. In my case it’s currently Breaking Down the Walls of Heartache. Don’t ask me why or where it came from - all I can tell you is it’s there every morning as soon as I stop thinking about anything else. So last but not least we need to focus and not negate all the effort we’ve made to get here and waste the opportunity we’ve fought so hard to give ourselves. How can we do that and increase our chances of producing something decent? I have two or three methods which help me to do this. The first of these is given to us by Renulak’s Writers’ Block.
Write While You Sleep : Some writers claim that sleep (and the subconscious mind) can be extremely successful in solving problems in their fiction. If a particular element of your story is giving you trouble, concentrate on the problem – the characters, the situation, the setting – in the moments before you fall asleep. And be sure to have a notebook handy for when you awaken the next morning.
I read recently that the American author Jonathan Frantzen does exactly this. His plan is to get to the desk in the morning without any interruption so that his train of thought remains unbroken and before he speaks to anyone, listens to the radio or answers the phone, he can pour it all out undiluted.
Don’t laugh, but I regularly practice this technique. When I’m ‘on a roll’ my routine is to get into bed around nine thirty where I sit up, eyes closed with a pad of paper and a pen to hand and try to project myself into the scene or piece I am writing. I liken this to an actor getting into character before going on stage. I try to drift off imagining the scene I want to create. But actually it’s not the scene I want to create – it’s a real scene that actually exists and I am simply there experiencing it. It’s no longer fiction, it’s reality and all I’m going to do is record it. I effectively become the character and I’m actually in the scene itself. I find it’s like watching the film of my own book. Writers talk about existing vicariously – this is the living proof! It can be quite exhausting but I often drop off to sleep with all this in my mind in the hopes of it still being there when I get to the desk first thing the following morning. If I’m lucky I will have written a couple of lines that come to me before I nod off so I have a starting point for the next day. It all helps me focus in the morning. E.L.Doctorow once described the novelist as “a person who lives in other people’s skins.” Getting inside the head of my characters is vital.
This doesn’t always work. If I’m tired I sometimes drop off without a thought in my head and then I have to start over in the morning. In which case, I find props can help get me into the right frame of mind and help the focus. I once wrote a 20k word piece set mostly in Weston Super Mare in the 1950s and to help evoke the scene and provide focus I used a reference book of photographs from that era and kept it open in front of me at an appropriate page. It not only gave me lots of material and potential ideas but it also helped me to banish those annoying thoughts about the cat and the dustbin.
SUMMARY : So, in order to combat the Dark Arts, I’ve invented a process to fall back on in times of need. It goes like this. I’ve decided to be a writer. I know I can do it because I’ve done it before (Past Performance). I desperately want to write (Desire) although I worry that my writing may not be good enough. But I’m committed to doing the best I can and I know I’m not the one who will make the final decision (Belief). I’ve set myself regular working hours that I stick to like glue (Discipline) and finally I have ways of making myself concentrate (Focus). Then, if I’ve done all that and I still can’t write – then I know I must have real Writer’s Block.