Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Writer's block

I was up at the Sheffield Book Award yesterday where Mister Creecher was awarded Highly Commended in the YA section that was won by Martyn Bedford with his book Flip.  Afterwards, at the book signing, one of my visitors - a thirteen year old girl called Ida - said that she was a writer but was suffering from writer's block.

Ida left a comment on this blog, but I didn't publish it because she also gave the name of her school and I was a bit concerned she might not have intended to give so much information.  Anyway, I thought I'd carry on the conversation I was having with her in this post.

Some people don't think there is any such thing as writer's block, and that it is just the over-dramatisation of a perfectly normal problems writers encounter all the time.  It does feel like a bit of a curse, and that even talking about it can't be a good thing.  But the fact is that whether we believe that it exists or not, sometimes it is harder to write than it is at other times.

Sometimes we run out of ideas.  Or we run out of ideas we want to use, which isn't exactly the same thing.  The ideas we have may no longer seem right for the kind of writer we want to be.  Because that can change over time.

Sometimes we have the ideas - lots of them - but we don't seem satisfied with what we write in answer to those ideas.  We lose confidence in our ability to deliver those great ideas we have.

Perhaps we have things going on in our lives that are a distraction.  They might be things that will later inspire a really great piece of writing, but we haven't had time to digest them yet.  Maybe where we work has changed somehow and it has disrupted our routine or is breaking our concentration.  Maybe we are too miserable.  Or too happy.

Worst of all, maybe we have that terrible demon on our shoulder saying that we just aren't good enough.

Well, I'm going to work on the assumption that this isn't true.  So what can we do, if we don't seem able to write?  What can Ida do?  Well, I think there are a few things she can try.

If you get stuck in a piece of writing for too long that it is stopping you from working, then put it in a drawer and don't look at it for as long as you can.  When you next look at it, you will have a better idea about whether it was as bad as you thought or is actually a lot better than that.  Either way it will be clearer what needs to be done to save it, or whether - as we have to do sometimes - it is better to accept that it isn't worth any more of your precious time.

But more importantly, with that piece put away in the drawer you can write something else.  I would suggest writing something short - a short story, a blog post, a book review - anything really.  Just write something.  And try and write something every day, or as often as you can.  Maybe you could keep a diary.

If your block has happened before you even start a project and even these short pieces seem to be painful, then I would suggest reading a book.  Read something you really like - either something you have read before and loved or something by a favourite author - someone you admire.  Remind yourself of how exciting writing is and why you wanted to write stuff in the first place.

But get back to writing as soon as possible.  Don't weigh yourself down with your own expectations.  Play to your strengths and write something you would like to read yourself.

Now as Ida is 13 I will also say here that sometimes - not always, but sometimes - the problem with young writers is one of planning.  I have no set rule about planning.  Sometimes I plan very rigidly and sometimes not.  It depends on the book, and even when I plan rigidly, the book goes its own way once I start writing.

But sometimes a plan can be very liberating because you know where the story is going and you have these stepping stones as a route.  It means that you are filling the gaps rather than trying to fill the whole book every time you sit down to write.  If you are having problems getting your ideas written, try planning the story before you start.  There are lots of ways to do this.  Here is one:

On a sheet of A4 lined paper, write the number 1 to 10 in the margin, leaving several lines between (obviously you can do this on a computer if you'd prefer, but I find that for the first plan I still pick up a pen).  If you imagine 1 to be the first scene and 10 to be the last, then put a paragraph next to each number giving yourself some idea of what happens in that part of the story.

This will give you a written framework to refer back to each time you write and will help you to make decisions that may block your writing.  If you get all of the 'When does this character die?', 'When do these characters first meet?' stuff out of the way, all you have to do is write.  Don't allow details to stop you.  Can't think of character's name?  Steal a name from the phone book or an index or a magazine.

This is perhaps most useful for a short story, but you could do the same for chapters in a book - list the chapters as numbers and give yourself a little note about what you want to happen in each.  But maybe a short story is the very thing you need to write.  Maybe a novel is going to be too much.

Even if you never use this method again, have a try and see if it works to get you started.  Because getting started is the key thing.  When I don't write for a while it takes me a long time to get myself back in the zone I need to be in.  The longer you go without writing, the more likely it is that you will be disappointed with what you write.

So good luck Ida, and good luck anyone else out there having problems.  Hope this helps.