A Chip off the Old Block

By David Flin

“I’m stuck. I’ve got Writer’s Block.” How many times have you heard that from a budding author? It’s accepted as a danger, a pit-fall that can strike any author.

This is the point that I make myself unpopular with an array of budding authors. Writer’s Block is the biggest con-trick the literary community has pulled on the public. You never hear of Surgeon’s Block or of Teacher’s Block or of Sergeant-Major’s Block. They just get on with the job, and almost no-one notices any doubts that they might have had at the time.

Perhaps I should clarify where I’m coming from. I’ve been a journalist for more than 20 years. Initially as an editor of various publications, and for the last decade, as a freelance journalist. My working life has been dominated by deadlines. The magazine either came out on time, or I didn’t get paid. The article was either submitted to length, quality, and on schedule, or I don’t get paid. That concentrates the mind wonderfully.

And yet, there are occasions when an author can find inspiration to be elusive. The thing to do is not to give up and hope that the Muse will return, but to set out to lure the Muse back. There are a number of techniques that help to do this; bait for the Muse.

The Tyranny of the Blank Screen. Getting started can be a problem, and some people find a blank screen intimidating. An expanse of unblemished white can suck thoughts from the brain. One possible solution to that is to simply start with an old piece of work, and overwrite it. This way, the brain is fooled into thinking work has already started, and it’s a matter of continuing the writing, rather than starting from scratch.

I’ve found it useful. The screen is no longer blank, and it’s less intimidating. Of course, you have to be careful to make sure that when you’ve finished, you delete all of the old material before submitting.

Chunky bits Setting out to write 150K words is tough. The solution is to break it up into chunks. There’s a long tradition of doing it this way. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote many of his Sherlock Holmes stories in small episodes published in The Strand magazine. Reading novels indicates that many of them have scene breaks every 2-3K words, sometimes less.

It’s intimidating to try and write a 150K word novel. It’s much less intimidating to write a 2K word update to a piece. Writing in slices like this also means that it’s easier to get into the mind of the characters. They are working in the present, and while they might have goal, they don’t know what twists and turns may be coming along later in the plot.

Character input. If you’re in doubt what the characters would do, just let them get on with it. I’ve found that if I just start writing and try to get into their mind, it becomes obvious what direction they will start to take things.

And if you’ve got problems working out what the character would try to do, then maybe you need to consider whether the character is sufficiently well developed. If I’m honest, my trouble tends to be that I find characters just write themselves, and I’m rarely stuck for ideas.

If you do find yourself struggling to get grips with a character, one useful exercise that I have used is to put a character into a situation, either factual or fictional, that you’re familiar with, and just see how they would react to the situation. Another exercise I have used is to describe the situation to someone, and ask them how they would react. It’s almost certainly not going to be what you want, but just working out why it’s not what you want can help you work out what you do want.

Historical figures. Nothing kills an alternate history timeline faster than a historical figure acting totally out of character. It’s important to study some of the speeches they made historically, just to get the rhythm of how they talk. Getting the speech rhythm is half the battle. Enoch Powell, for example, has a rigorous, logic-based pattern; once you understand that rhythm, plausible sounding speech emanates almost automatically.

Useful activity. You’ve tried all this, and you’re still stuck. What do you do?

Correct. You get up and take some vigorous exercise. Exercise releases endorphins into the body, and these tend to increase creativity.

It also has the side effect of being healthy, but that’s outside the scope of this article.

A creative space. After a while, you’ll settle into a routine, and it’s by no means uncommon to find that there is one particular place where you get ideas easily. For me, this happens at a particular coffee shop, which I suspect is good for the profit of that coffee shop. As a digression, I’ve taught the people working there how to make proper tea, which they make for me, so that’s another benefit.

Once you get used to having ideas in a particular place, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and going to this place when you’re stuck can break the log-jam.

Talk to people. I’ve heard it said that writing is a lonely profession. That is, without any shadow of doubt, complete nonsense. All fiction is about people doing things; talk to people, listen to them, find out what they think and how they talk and what little mannerisms they have. Many people have interesting stories in their past, which you can draw on. Everything is grist to the author’s mill.

For example, one of the ladies working in the coffee shop I frequent has a tattoo of a feather on her neck, which I asked about, and she explained that she had a birthmark there which she found embarrassing, and the tattoo incorporated this into the design, and makes her feel less self-conscious about it. Writing little incidents like that into the story when stuck can get the flow going again. You may very well delete the piece later, but it’s done the job of getting you moving again.

Record it. A writer without some means of recording an idea when it strikes is missing out. Ideas can be fleeting, and five minutes later, you’ve forgotten them. You know you had an idea, you just can’t quite remember what it was. Never mind, it’ll come back to you.

No, it won’t. Write it down at the time. Nail it into place. It’ll come in useful.

Just write. If you aren’t sure what to write, and you’re totally stuck for ideas, just write anyway. What you write may very well be rubbish and will need a complete rewrite, but rewriting is easier than writing. Get something down. When you reread it, you’ll see where it needs reworking, and just knowing where something is wrong can help you get closer to getting it right.

Have fun doing it. If you’re not enjoying what you’re writing, write something else. If you’re not enjoying it, you can be absolutely certain that the reader won’t enjoy it either.

Props. Sometimes, having a random idea generator close to hand can help when you feel you’re running out of steam. I keep a deck of tarot cards by the side of this laptop. If I hit a decision point where I’m not sure what to do, I draw a random card and see if that gives me any ideas. For example, I’m not sure where to go with the next part of this advice, and I draw the Ace of Cups. Filled with joy, happiness, and bliss.

That rather suggests to me that the article has done the job of helping budding writers overcome Writer’s Block, and that very soon, I’ll have a lot more interesting stuff to read, which is always nice.

Oh, and for the record, sixty-seven minutes from start to finish.

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