Category Archives: How to’s

Overcoming writer’s block

 

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I’ve been wanting to write something on this for a while but have shied away from it – probably because, when it comes to overcoming writer’s block, there’s no such thing as a magic wand. Sorry.

But I can give you some of my own experiences with this god-awful phenomenon and, hopefully, you may find something useful in there. Even if it’s just the knowledge that you’re not alone!

Every block is different

Most writers will tell you that the process for writing every book is different – just as any mother will tell you that every pregnancy is different. Writer’s block is the same.

It can happen for endless different reasons, for combinations of reasons and, seemingly, for no reason at all. But it’s worth thinking about why you might be blocked, since this may help steer you towards a solution (if there be one) for overcoming it. Time to dig deep.

Where are you emotionally?

Writing is an emotional thing and, when you’re going through an emotional period in your life (whether up or down), there’s often nothing left at the end of the day for writing. Unfortunately there’s unlikely to be much you can do but wait for the period to pass; unless of course you’ve identified why you’re emotional and it’s something you can change (eg do you hate your job? Get another one).

Are you too happy?

Most artists will understand this. To write, I need to be a bit sad – wallowing in a gentle state of melancholy works best (at least for me). There’s music in sadness, and without it I can’t write. I remember when I fell in love a few years ago and, prior to that, I’d been in the peak writing zone of my life. But after the fall, my writing went out the window and no amount of listening to mournful music could get me where I needed to be. So I had to wait it out. Nothing else for it.

Are you too sad?

Similar to the above, if you’re in the depths of depression, you may be able to write but you’ll likely hate what you produce. Believe me, I’ve been there – and what came out in that time was mostly self-indulgent drivel. Having said this, some of that drivel made a useful starting point when I dragged myself up to the surface again, so don’t discard it. And if you haven’t heard of narrative therapy, Google it. Writing helps, whatever its purpose.

What’s going on in your life?

My husband and I migrated to Berlin for around two years at the beginning of 2012. We’re back in Australia now, and thank god for that. My writing suffered over there more than it ever has before; anyone who’s migrated will know just how much that process can take out of you, particularly when things never level themselves again or take a long time to do so.

I had actually thought that migrating would help with my writing because it would give me new material. I based this on the amount of writing that emerged when I moved into my house in 2009. I was wrong. Migrating depleted my energy levels and nothing was left for the white page. Again, I had to wait it out.

Is it self-imposed paralysis?

Are you too critical of your own work? Are you not getting enough encouragement from yourself and/or others? Have you been reading too many books by brilliant writers recently and is this making you feel like an incompetent baboon?

Ditch the good stuff. Read crap. I’m serious. You don’t even need to buy it – searching the net for various blogs and articles will show you just how many people can’t write, can’t spell and don’t understand grammar. I realise this sounds a bit mean, but in the service of getting our pens moving or our keyboards clacking, sometimes those downward comparisons can work (‘Well at least I know the difference between “your” and “you’re”, so maybe I’m not that bad’; or ‘Even if my grammar sucks, at least I know how to create good characters’).

Also, give your writing to some friends. If you’re lucky, you’ll have someone who can provide useful criticisms and encouragement.

Walk away

You know that thing when you see a new movie and say, ‘Oh, that’s the actor from that film and his name is…’ and you don’t remember the details until the film has finished and your friends have left so you can’t tell them?

Same principle – looking at things directly doesn’t always help. I remember in my final year of school that I would do jigsaw puzzles when I was writing assignments/essays and didn’t know what to say. The answers would often come to me when I was concentrating on something else, like finding all the edge pieces. Let your subconscious mind do its own thing. Free it. It’s smarter than you are.

Work on anything but your novel/story/article

If I’m having trouble with a novel I’m working on, I often force myself to write something else – an email, a blog post, something for work. Writing other stuff can get things moving in your mind, or at least make you realise just how much you prefer working on your primary project instead. That in itself is helpful.

Critique someone else’s work

I’m lucky enough to have a few writer friends to swap work with. I’m often asking to see their work – not only because I want to, but also for selfish reasons: seeing holes in others’ work can help me see them in my own. My friends say the same. It really does help to have a network.

Go back to old stories

Have no ideas? Rework something old and make it better. I’ve done this a few times, and it’s resulted in re-casting some short stories, a few of which have gone on to win placings in competitions. You don’t always have to write something new or have new ideas. Go back to old ideas/work and see what you can do.

Research

Whenever I’m not in the mood for writing, I research instead. As writers we need to be accurate about historical details and the like, so go through your project and fact-check anything that needs checking. You’ll feel like you’re writing even though you’re not, and you’ll be moving your project forward even if you’re not writing those beautiful sentences you’re so desperate to write.

 

That’s all from me for now! Do you have any ways of overcoming the dreaded block? If so, I’d love to hear them.

 

 

 

 

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Tips on how to write a novel

The title of this post is laughable really – don’t know why I used it. There is, of course, no ‘way’ to write a novel. You just start writing, learn things through trial and error, work out what works for you. You have to find your own way. Having said that, it’s always useful to hear how other writers go about their processes – sometimes you’ll find something that fits for you.

1.    To plan or not to plan

I don’t plan. Never have. Though I do know a couple of writers who do (most don’t, in my experience), and their first drafts do tend to come out a little nicer in terms of structure and direction. If you’re new to the writing process and feel you need some guidance, there’s plenty of stuff online to help you plan your novel. I did have a crack at Randy Ingermanson’s ‘Snowflake Method’ once and found that pretty useful. Don’t think I stuck to the plan in the end though, but it felt nice to write it out. Comforting.

Don’t worry about having a beautifully planned novel before you’ve started, and don’t get hemmed in by any plan as you start spitting out the words. See where the words take you.

I should say that, once I’ve got the first draft out, I do write the whole thing out in terms of plot/character points and compare it against something like the hero’s journey. But I don’t worry about that kind of thing before or during the first draft; I’d never get anywhere if I did – there’s something paralysing about getting bogged down in all that (but that’s just me).

2.      Do something towards your novel each day

If that sounds like too much hard work, ask yourself whether you actually have the stamina to write a whole book. I’d recommend taking one day off your book per week, nothing more.

If you’re not feeling creative, revise/edit your work. If you’re strapped for ideas, do some brainstorming or rewrite a scene in a different way (eg from the perspective of a character other than the one you’ve been using). There are of course days when you just don’t feel like writing or when you’re too tired or distracted to do anything useful – and even revising stuff you’ve already done could set you back because you’ll change things that are better left alone. On those days, research. All books need research – even those that ostensibly have no historical or informative content. And there’s nothing stopping you writing a synopsis of what you’ve done so far – these can be useful for seeing holes in your book anyway.

Of course, there’s much to be said for taking a prolonged break from your work and then coming back to it with fresh eyes after a month, two, a year. But that’s later. In the initial stages? Just keep writing until you’ve got the whole thing down on paper, otherwise you’ll lose your momentum.

3.      Find your own process

How and when do you write? For me, I have to write in the morning, when my creative brain is at its best. After about midday I get what my godfather refers to as ‘toothpaste brain’ and it’s bloody useless for writing. It’s still good for editing/revising/research though, so I do those things in the afternoon.

I do most of my writing in cafés – I prefer to be somewhere with movement. Others would hate that though, and work in a quiet room at home. Some people like to be somewhere visually stimulating, like a nice park (I’ve tried that a few times myself – it’s worth a crack).

Some people prefer to write long hand and then type what they’ve done. That would drive me insane – I type so much faster than I write and if I try to write long hand, I lose where my crazy brain’s going because I can’t keep up with it. There’s a romance to writing things out though, in tattered, dog-eared notebooks. I wish I could say I did that.

4.      Use the spaces

When I used to work in hospitality and had no customers in my section (and no more napkins to fold or cutlery to roll), I would stand somewhere and pretend to look useful, jotting notes down on my order pad. Sometimes if I’ve just missed the train and need to wait around, I’ll look for things I can make observations about – other people on the platforms, the state of the station house, Melbourne’s weather in June. Whatever. Carry a notebook with you always to record the good ones. Sometimes you’ll strike gold. That’s one of the things I like most about being a writer, using the spaces – nothing gets wasted.

5.      Read

This is part of my process but of course it doesn’t apply to everyone. One of my friends is a brilliant writer and he reads a book about every five years. I can’t do that. I read truckloads of books within my genre, noticing how others do it, working out what I do and don’t like. I read outside my genre of course but I’ve found it best to read the kinds of books that I want to write – the more the merrier. Trust me, it helps. You’ll start to feel like you know what you’re doing (for like a second, before you realise once again that you’re lost in the woods).

6.      Critique others’ work

I’m fortunate enough to have a few writer friends (and I did a writing course not long ago where lots of workshopping was involved), and we often swap work. It is of course so much easier to critique others’ work than your own, to pick up their ticks (like overusing certain words/phrases or starting every sentence with a noun) and see the holes/opportunities for development. However giving feedback on others’ work will open your eyes a bit and make you better at reviewing your own.

7.      Ignore the advice of people like me

Sounds obvious, but there’s no right or wrong way to write. Find your own path. Don’t let people tell you what to do, and certainly don’t get disheartened if others’ writing processes seem more refined than yours. No one knows more than you do about how to write your book, and the process for each book you write may well be different.

I think that’s probably enough from me on this subject for the moment. I might update the post in future as I think of all the things I’ve missed!

I’d be interested in hearing from other writers about their processes and tips.

The final thing I should say is: don’t chuck in the towel. Writing isn’t easy, and the more you do it/more you learn about it, the harder it seems to get. Roll with the punches and just keep writing.

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