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 – a room of one’s own

Virginia Wolfe famously told us, ‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.’ Well, the money bit is tricky – most of us have other jobs or at least rely on teaching and critiquing to keep the lights on. And I know that for many writers, men as well as women, having a room that’s exclusively for writing is a luxury they can only dream of. I know that I’m extremely lucky to have a lovely study-cum- office at the top of the house.

I have an ergonomically designed desk and chair, two monitors, a comfy sofa, a coffee table, lots of books around me – it should be the perfect environment for writing a novel. But what do I do at that desk? I do admin, then I faff around on Facebook. Then perhaps a bit more admin, before taking to Twitter. Next I’ll probably check my Amazon sales ratings and see if there are any new reviews. Then I’ll check my email again and if there’s nothing that needs answering, perhaps it’s time for a quick look on eBay. I probably need more ink, or a lightbulb, or something.  Then I’ll just have one more look on Twitter before I make a start. Chances are I’ll find a link to some fascinating  blog post and that’ll be another 15 minutes gone. You know how it goes.

A designated place for fiction
One of the articles I read recently was one of those ‘top tips for writing your book’ pieces. Now, I know as well as any other writer that the top tip for writing your book is just sit down and bloody well write it. But one of the tips was, don’t write your novel in the same place as you do your admin and social media – have a space that’s exclusively for writing. This made  sense. I can see how having a special  ‘writing place‘ and going to that place regularly to write helps to automatically switch your brain into writing mode. It’s probably one of the reasons so many of us like writing in coffee shops, as well as the fact that we can’t be distracted by domestic chores and we’re less likely to be distracted by admin and social media.

I love writing in coffee shops – I wrote most of The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood in the coffee shop across the road – and as long as they ‘re not busy, many places don’t mind you sitting there with one drink all morning. But even one coffee a day has become unaffordable for me at the moment, though I still try to  go once a week. So I needed an alternative. After spending last Saturday doing a tour of the secondhand furniture shops, I found this little fold-away table for a fiver.

I’ve tried writing at the kitchen table, or in the sitting room, but there’s always something The House wants me to do. Fortunately my ‘room at the top’ is divided into two with a plasterboard wall so that guests can stay overnight without feeling as though they’re sleeping in an office. It’s a small space, not big enough for a proper desk, but perfect for this little fold-up.

Trick your brain into focusing on fiction
So I can still be tucked away at the top of the house, but I can close the door to my study (when the dog isn’t demanding it be left open so he can be near the radiator and see me at the same time!) and I can focus entirely on the novel instead of being constantly tempted to check Facebook or Twitter.  It was also a conscious decision to work facing a blank wall – an attempt to trick my brain into thinking the most interesting things are happening on the screen.

As for whether that’s true, I can’t say at the moment because I’m in the very early stages of a new novel. That point where the confidence I had about it at first has disappeared, and The Fear has arrived. A quote from Iris Murdoch springs to mind – “Every book is the wreck of a perfect idea.” Ain’t that the truth!

Ah well, for me this is a normal state of affairs. I just need to put myself in that chair every day, switch on my laptop and step into my fictional world. It may work, it may not, but one thing’s for sure, nothing’s going to happen if I don’t try, and I’m pretty sure that reducing the distractions will help.

What do you think? Should we write fiction at the same desk where we pay the bills?

TTFN!

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