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

In this installment, I’m going to talk about how, after the wonderful experience of writing The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood, I developed what I think may be true writers’ block. (Click the links on the right to catch up with the first three posts in this mini-series)

After delivering the final version of the MS, I gave myself two weeks off, then started work on a plan for the next novel. This is how I’ve always worked – finish a book, deliver it, start a new book. I had an idea based on my own family, a story going back to the 1920s, of infidelity, illegitimacy, and true, long lasting love. But a novel can only be ‘based’ on a true story – you still need a plot.

After weeks of approaching the idea from different angles, I couldn’t seem to make it work, so I abandoned it and returned to an idea I’d been thinking about a couple of years ago, where a woman raises her sister’s child as her own. Long story short, I remembered why I abandoned it before, and it was the same reason I gave up on the family story – I couldn’t find a strong enough plot.

Another idea started to take shape, and I even had a rough idea of how it might progress. I began to feel excited, I had the atmosphere of the novel, the feel of it; I started to hear that wonderful ‘hum’ in the back of my head…

But there were two problems: 1. My agent thought an aspect of the idea was too similar to my previous novels – a fair point, which had occurred to me but which I’d willfully ignored, and 2. I couldn’t find a way into the past story from the present.

I spent weeks trying to make a plan, to repeat the experience I’d had with Cornelia Blackwood. But I couldn’t find a way of telling the story without giving too much away too soon. Unable to move forward and anxious about not writing at all, I made a start anyway, telling the present day strand from the POV of a supporting character and hoping a solution might reveal itself.

I enjoyed discovering the characters and exploring scenes in which tensions developed and backstory emerged. But 30,000 words in, I still hadn’t found a suitable way in to the past story. I had a chat with my agent who came up with some brilliant suggestions. I dived in again, quite excited by the new approach. But then I realised it had changed the focus so much that my original idea had all but disappeared.

So I put that one aside, too.  Initially undeterred, I began toying with two more ideas, but again, I couldn’t seem to pin down an actual plot. I had interesting situations and ideas for characters, but every time I tried to develop those ideas, to make some notes, or sketch out how things my progress, I felt an almost physical barrier.

Over the course of a few weeks, sitting down to work became harder and harder. The barrier grew bigger and stronger. It was like a massive iron plate in my chest that sent out weird impulses to my brain, making it impossible for me to pick up a pen or open a document on my computer. When I thought about trying to work through a new idea, I felt sick with fear and physically and mentally paralysed. When anyone asked me how the writing was going, my eyes filled with tears and I became too choked to speak.

I decided to stop trying to work out a new idea and just write a scene instead – I’ve always found this useful in the past when I’ve been stuck. The point is to ‘play’ with fiction, to rediscover the fun of creativity rather than get hung up on whether it’s going anywhere. But as I tried to do this, I once more found myself assailed by that same feeling of paralysis. When I did manage to force myself to write something, the writing was flat and toneless, dead on the page. The more words I added the more painful the process became. It was like trying to reanimate a corpse.

And I’ve included this image because I keep thinking of a line from an old Smiths song: ‘I can smile about it now, but at the time it was terrible’.

In the fifth and final part of this blog post, I’ll tell you what steps I’ve taken, what helped and what didn’t, and how I’m gradually, tentatively, emerging from the fog.

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: 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 – the dual narrative

Shock horror, I’ve just realised it’s over a month since my last post! This is probably because there hasn’t been much progress since last time. Up until a few weeks ago, book 4 was going well – now I’ve hit a wall.

This novel, like the first three, is set partly in the past, and so I have to work out a way of finding my way into that story from the present. After thinking hard enough to make my eyes bleed and my brain explode, and even after chatting with my lovely editor, I still don’t have an answer. the only reason I’m not physically tearing my hair out as we speak is that this is exactly how I felt with book three (What She Lost, due out in January) and I did eventually find a way through.

So, there’s not much to say about the situation at the moment except that I’m horribly stuck and I’m hoping I’ll become unstuck soon. I’m off on a writing retreat this weekend, so will be focusing entirely on the novel and trying not to spend the whole week gazing out of the window and chewing my pen. I’ll let you know how it goes!

In the meantime, I thought you might like to see a pieceI wrote on the art of the dual narrative just after my first novel was published. I wrote this as a guest post on  Isabel Costello’s blog, and had a great response from people who told me how helpful it was. I returned to it this week in the hope that it would help me find a way through my current impasse – it didn’t!

But who knows, it might be useful to someone reading this blog, so here it is, exactly as it appeared on Isabel’s blog in 2013:

I’ve always enjoyed reading dual narratives, possibly because I’m greedy – it’s a way of feeling like you’re reading two books at once. So I knew when I started The Things We Never Saidthat I wanted to interweave two stories, gradually revealing the link between them.

Writers choose dual narratives for various reasons. You may want to present two sides of the same story, to show the same events from two characters’ viewpoints in order to make the reader question the accuracy of each, as in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Or you may want to show the same character in a different time period, eg Great Expectations. Often, we use dual narratives to highlight perennial themes or to show parallels and differences across generations or cultures. A really great example is Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, which is told as four dual narratives – the viewpoints of four Chinese mothers contrasted with those of their Chinese-American daughters.

My own decision to use a dual narrative was based primarily on my desire to show how events in the past can impact on the present, but also because I wanted to introduce some variety for the reader – as well as the two different voices, I wanted to show a different time and place. Initially, I wrote the novel in three parts – Maggie’s story, then Jonathan’s story, and then a short section tying things together. What I hadn’t realised was that although this is almost certainly the best way of writing the first draft – you need to know both stories in full before you can interweave them – it wasn’t a good way of presenting the finished novel. If your reader has spent the last hundred and fifty or so pages engaging with a particular set of characters, it’s then difficult for her to move seamlessly into the company of another set of characters without it feeling like a wrench. I’ve had this reading experience myself, and even when I’ve finally managed to engage with the new section, it’s often only after a sense of needing to persevere. Although I wanted my reader to be reluctant to leave each thread, I didn’t want her to feel disappointed at having to move to the other strand, and I certainly didn’t want it to feel like hard work to continue reading my novel! So I decided that the best approach would be to interweave the two narratives from the start.

It was a daunting task, and at several points, as I sat on the floor of my study surrounded by pages of the novel, I felt it was an impossible one. But then the novelist Jane Rogers gave me some very good advice: ‘Don’t look for connections initially,’ she said. ‘Just look for clashes.’ So I did, and happily I didn’t find any, so although my first attempt weaving the stories together (a Maggie chapter then a Jonathan chapter and so on) didn’t work brilliantly, it didn’t not work, so I was able to feel more confident about trying again. That was the point at which I abandoned my original chapters and printed out scenes instead. I was then able to restructure the chapters and make them much shorter. This allowed me to make most of the connections I was beginning to notice. For example, after a chapter in 1963 ends with an emergency dash to hospital, I was able to start the next chapter with a similar emergency dash in the present day; although this one has a completely different outcome. There aren’t many such connections, but it’s extremely satisfying when it happens.

As well as similarities, you need differences, and changing the structure of your chapters in this way allows you to juxtapose lighter moments with darker ones so that your reader is able to experience a range of emotions.

It goes without saying that the voices in each narrative must be different and distinct. You can do this by making the characters speak in a completely different way, perhaps reflecting a different social or educational background, but this can be limiting, so you need other ways of showing difference. My novel has a male and a female protagonist and both narratives are third-person, so it’s immediately obvious whose story we’re hearing at any one time. I perhaps chose the easy(ish) option; but what if you have two 40-something female characters of similar background who appear in the same time period? This makes it even more important to really focus on your characters, on their emotions, on the way they think and feel, because these are the true differences between people who may appear similar on the surface. And after all, it’s the novelist’s job to get to the heart of his or her characters.

It’s worryingly easy to become confused when reading a novel that jumps from one narrative to another, so it’s really important to orientate the reader right at the start of each new chapter. Maggie O’Farrell’s first novel, After You’d Gone, jumps about all over the place in terms of who’s speaking and when; but she’s brilliant at establishing who, where and when at the beginning of each new section. I’ve re-read that book a couple of times just to observe how she does it!

The dual narrative can be tricky, but it’s definitely worth the effort. Here are my tips for making it work:
  • Write each narrative separately first.
  • Introduce both narratives quickly so that readers know they’ll be moving between the two.
  • Keep chapters short.
  • Look for clashes first, not connections.
  • Don’t be wedded to your original chapters – look at scenes and shuffle things around if necessary.
  • Make sure voices are distinctive and different – the voice should come from the heart of the character.
  • Orientate the reader quickly the start of each new section.
  • Be prepared to have several goes at getting the order right – you’ll get there in the end!

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