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 – how a visual stimulus can spur you on

My last post was about how I had finally managed to write a detailed outline for my fourth novel. Planning doesn’t come easily to me, in fact, I’ve tried several times in the past to plan my story and failed miserably. This time however, I promised my agent ,who’d been gently nagging me about the advantages of a detailed outline, that I’d try really, really hard. 

At first, I was convinced I couldn’t do it, then I had something of a breakthrough when I realised I should only be telling the story from one point of view, not two. My agent and editor both liked the outline, so I made a start, setting myself a target of 1000 words a day. I started this novel on 7th of July and For the first few days, I hit my target fairly easily.  Of course, many of these words will be shit words that will be cut or changed later, but my aim is to get a ‘zero’ draft down as quickly as possible.

A few days in, I stumbled on a post on the Mslexia Facebook page, suggesting you print out a calendar and put a big cross in the box for every day you get some words down, no matter how many or how few, the aim being that you don’t break the  chain.   here’s the page – the post is July 12 if you like to have a look.

This seemed like a great idea, but I know myself, and I know that the ‘no matter how few’ could get me into trouble – would 20 words count? Ten? Two? So I set myself a daily minimum of 200, while keeping my personal target of 1000.  This is working brilliantly for me so far. Of the 39 days that I’ve been doing this, I’ve achieved at least 1000 words day on 26 days, and I haven’t broken the chain. Here’s the photographic evidence: 





Every cross represents a minimum of 200 words, and where there is also a dot in the box, it means I hit my target of 1000 words.  It’s become such a point of honour now, that I get twitchy every morning until I’ve done my 200 words. Some days, I know that life will get in the way and that’ll be the only writing I do that day, but at least I will have engaged with the novel, kept the momentum.  

It’s all too easy to avoid work, especially when you hit a tricky point. It’s true that sometimes a few days away from it can be beneficial, but it can also make it even harder to get back into, so I’d definitely recommend setting yourself a low, achievable target. To be honest, even if you don’t actually write anything, just opening the document and thinking about your novel means you’re progressing.

I first realised how helpful a visual stimulus can be when I did  NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) a few years ago. If you’ve ever signed up for this, you’ll know that when you enter each day’s word count, you see a lovely blue bar getting longer and longer as you move towards the target 50,000 words.  I wanted to do something similar when I started my next book, so I came up with the idea of having two glasses, one of which contained 90 glass pebbles. For each thousand words written, I transferred a pebble from one glass to the other, so at a glance, I could see how much I’d done, and how much I still had to do. I blogged about it here

Anyway, now I’ve come up with an even better idea – you’ll like this one! It’s in a similar vein to the pebbles, but I’m using coins instead.  I’m aiming for around 90,000 words again. So, one glass contains 90 small coins – 5p and 1p. When I’ve written 1000 words, one of those small coins goes back in my purse and a pound goes into the other glass.  At the end of the zero draft, I’ll have £90 with which to celebrate before I embark on a decent first draft.



So far, I’ve written 34,000 words, and sticking a pound a day in the glass hasn’t bankrupted me, especially as it’s not every day. It’s no accident that I’ve used champagne glasses, because I reckon one of the first things I’ll buy out of that hundred quid is a bottle of champagne, then the OH and I will have a good night out on the rest.

So, next time I blog, I’m hoping the glass on the right will be a little fuller, and glass on the left a little emptier. I’ll keep you posted!

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