THE WRITING LIFE – when writers can’t write, part three

In the previous two posts, (scroll down the page to read them) I talked about getting stuck with each of my first three books and how I managed to get myself out of it. I started a fourth, but ended up putting it aside – my agent has since named that one ‘book three and half’. I’ll come back to it at some point, but I need to think it through a bit more, so it was the right decision. That decided, I started thinking of ideas for a new book four.

Making a plan
I’ve never planned a novel in such detail before. As I said in the previous posts, I’ve always known where I was going, but my usual method is to plan a little, write a little, plan a little write a little and so on. But my agent, who’s always been an advocate of planning, had seen the horrible time I’d had with books three and three and a half and wanted to spare me the same pain again, so she advised me (very strongly!) to plan this one in detail before I started writing.

I’d been wrangling with a new idea that had a fairly dramatic storyline, but I wasn’t clear about my protagonist’s motivation. And what was I trying to say? Each day I sat down and forced the outline a little further forward, a paragraph at a time, and I managed to develop a reasonable outline for the present day story. But I needed to explain why my character reacted that way, why she felt like that. Then one day, I remembered a short story I’d written years ago about a woman called Cornelia Blackwood and the crows she kept seeing and dreaming about. Quite suddenly, I knew that this was who I was writing about now; it was Cornelia’s story.

So although a great deal changed in the actual wriiting of the novel  – there were still plenty of surprises – I knew my protagonist’s backstory. So, not only did I know where I was going (the ending of the novel would be based on the end of the short story) but I also knew the big thing that had happened in the past, and it explained a lot about who my character was now.

Six weeks to write the plan
I’m not saying it was easy. The 3000 word story formed the basis for half a novel, so clearly there was a lot more work to do,  but knowing Cornelia’s history was key. Writing a detailed outline is like writing a novel in microcosm –  you have to let some areas breathe and develop on their own before you know what’s going to happen next. It took a while – six weeks – but  I ended up with a five-page the outline which I used as a guide.

A joyful experience
Writing the first draft took four months, and it was an absolute joy.  I had never found writing a first draft joyful before, but this time was different because I didn’t get stuck – yay! This must mean that finally, after four and a half books, I’d cracked it; I knew how to write a novel!

As it turns out, I hadn’t cracked it after all, but we’ll come back to that.

The flight of Cornelia Blackwood

The flight of Cornelia Blackwood

The editing and redrafting process took several more months, but I delivered the final version in the summer of 2017 to an incredibly positive reception. I was on a high – I’d written a book in a year from start to finish, my agent and editor loved it, and I was very happy with it myself – it was the book I’d always wanted to write, and it said what I wanted to say. But it’s a hugely emotional story, and when the euphoria of finishing it wore off, I was feeling quite drained.

I gave myself a couple of weeks off, but then I started trying to plan out a new idea. if I could repeat the experience I’d had with this book, I’d have a first draft of a new one by Christmas.

I’ll let you know how that went in part 4 tomorrow.

THE WRITING LIFE: When Writers Can’t Write, part one

I just had to include this image of writers’ block, partly because it  sums up how long It seems to be taking me to come up with a new idea, but also because of the crow.

Some of you will know that crows feature quite heavily in my new novel, and you may remember me introducing ‘Crow’ (below – he’s not real, by the way, apart from his feathers). He was a rather unusual present from my husband, who only yesterday suggested (tongue firmly in cheek, I should add) that maybe my writing problems had started when Crow arrived in our house. I know crows are often thought to be harbingers of doom, but I’m convinced that Crow is my friend, and that he definitely isn’t putting the mockers on my writing. He definitely, definitely isn’t …

Anyhoo, I set out to write a blog post and it turned into a fecking essay, so I’m going to publish it  in five parts throughout this week. Here’s part one:

Is writers’ block even real?
If you Google ‘writers’ block’, you’ll find the majority of articles and posts fall into one of two categories:

1. Claims that writers’ block doesn’t exist
2. Advice on how to overcome writers’ block ‘with these simple tricks’ (or whatever)

I should lay my cards on the table right away and declare that I’ve concluded that it does exist, and also that I’m afraid I haven’t found a simple cure, but I think I now know the difference between being ‘stuck’,  for which I do have some advice – and proper, full-on, writers’ block, for which I don’t. This series of posts is about how I came to that conclusion and what I’m doing about it.

I’d hoped that by now, the mists would have cleared and I’d be writing a cheery little piece about how I dragged myself out of the worst period of not writing that I’ve ever experienced. Sadly, I’m not out of it yet, but I’m starting to feel more positive, and even writing this has been a big step forward. I hope it might help anyone else who’s going through something similar.

Is It normal to get ‘stuck’?
With the exception of The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood, there has been a point with each of my novels at which I’ve been stuck. I also got halfway through another book but got so stuck that I ended up putting it aside indefinitely. My agent calls that one ‘book three and a half’ because I wrote it between books  three and four.  But was that writers’ block? Or was it that I hadn’t thought the story through properly?

I’m not necessarily suggesting it should have been planned in detail – though that’s probably the best way of avoiding this problem – but it was the first book I’d set out to write without having the faintest idea how it might end,  and the experience taught me a lesson: If you know nothing else before you start, at least know roughly where you’re heading.  It’s a lesson I foolishly ignored this time. I won’t be doing that again!

A glitch, not a block
Being stuck on your work in progress is horrible, and if you’re not a natural planner  – and I’m not – I’d say getting stuck on the first draft is par for the course. I’ve posted before about how I’ve sometimes felt sick with trepidation when thinking about my WIP, but I still don’t think it was true writers’ block. Each time, I had a rough idea where I was going, and the problem was how to get there, either in terms of the story itself or in terms of the way I was approaching it. It was a case of finding a technical solution to a technical problem. Each problem was different, so each solution was different, too, and I’ll talk about these in part two tomorrow. 

In part three, I’ll explain why I  think I didn’t get stuck on the writing of Cornelia Blackwood – you can read more about the writing of what I call the ‘zero draft’ of that book here:   http://susanelliotwright.co.uk/2016/12/20/the-writing-life-hurrah-great-feedback-on-the-zero-draft/ I’ll also talk about what happened after I’d delivered the manuscript and started to think about the next book.

Hope you’ll pop back tomorrow!

THE WRITING LIFE – a great big scary decision!

So, major decision since my last post. After weeks of being stuck, hours upon hours upon hours of thinking so hard I thought my brain might explode, and more importantly, in-depth discussions with my agent, I have decided to put aside the novel I was working on (my fourth) and start something completely new. Arghhhhhhh!

I feel the need for a calming image here…

That’s better. Now, a few deep breaths…

Okay, so yes, that’s what I’ve decided. Altogether, I’d written about 70,000 words, 45,000 of which I really liked, although after chatting with my agent, I can see now that I’ve not quite shown my character on paper as she is in my head. That can be fixed. But what can’t be fixed without extensive rewriting and rethinking, is the story – or lack of it – which is why I’ve decided to put this one side, possibly for a couple of years.

Those of you who read this blog regularly will know that What She Lost, my third novel which is out in January, caused me some serious problems and it too, required extensive rewriting – I think I rewrote around 75% to 80%, and it’s now much nearer to the novel I had in my head when I started writing it.

Iris Murdoch said, ‘every book is the wreck of the perfect idea’ and that pretty much sums up my experience lately. It’s so frustrating to have an idea that is close to your heart, to have something to say that you feel is important and not be able to say it in a truthful and engaging way. I’m now pleased with What She Lost, but it did require an enormous amount of work, which I was only able to embark on after my editor and agent read the first draft and we had a long, creative meeting to thrash out some of the difficulties.

This time, my agent has read a sizeable chunk of my draft and confirmed my biggest fear – there wasn’t really enough to keep the reader turning the page. There are other problems too, of course, but I know how to fix those. The bigger issue is that my story just isn’t strong enough at the moment. This is partly to do with the structure, the order in which events occur, but I think I’ve maybe come at the whole thing from the wrong angle.

If I’m honest, what I have is interesting characters and an interesting situation – but that ain’t a story! So I need to do a lot more thinking in order to find a new way of approaching this novel. I’ve created a folder on my desktop into which I’ve put all my existing notes and drafts for that novel, and to which I will add whenever thoughts occur to me. In a couple of years from now, I hope to return to this character I love so much – I’ve called her Eunice Shaw – and create a story around her that I’ll be proud of.

In the meantime, I’m in the very early stages of exploring a new idea. This time, on the advice of my agent, I’m going to attempt to write a detailed synopsis before I start writing. It’s something I’ve tried (and failed) to do before, but now, having had the experience of going so massively wrong with two novels, I’m going to do my level best to find a more efficient approach.

I will, as always, keep you posted on my progress (or otherwise…).

In other news:

  • Both my existing novels, The Things We Never Said, and The Secrets We Left Behind, Are on special e-book promotion for the rest of this month (June 2016). The Things We Never Said is less than a bus fare at 99p, and The Secrets We Left Behind is 1.99 – less than a decent coffee! (Click links to buy) 
  • Workshops: the last in the current series of our How to Write a Novel workshops is on 23rd of July and there are still places available. It’s just £40 for the whole day. This workshop will focus on how to get published – writing a synopsis, approaching agents, etc. We’ll also look at traditional versus self-publishing. These workshops have been so popular that we’ve decided to run the whole programme again starting in September. Full details  here

Also, as I say from time to time, it’s great when a reader takes the trouble to leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads – it helps authors enormously, and it really doesn’t have to be very long. In fact, I’ve just received one of the nicest short reviews I’ve ever had:

This book captured the modern day and the 60s beautifully. It captured everything perfectly. I don’t remember many authors names, I will remember Susan Elliot Wright.


Isn’t that lovely? Thank you, dear reader.