Beating the block

Whether you’re an author whose livelihood depends on new publications or a hobby writer who uses creative writing as a means of relaxation, to lose your creative mojo is a worrying state of play.  Blocks and brick walls can appear at any stage in the writing process, from the initial inspiration for a story and direction of the plot, to individual scenes.

Having only just come through one such block – at last I’m finally making progress with the plot for my fourth book in the DC Cat McKenzie series! – I thought I’d write a few notes as a reminder to myself for the next time it happens (which no doubt it will) while it’s still fresh in my mind.

For a long time I wasn’t worried, I was too busy publishing book one, redrafting book two (now being edited) and writing book three.  I had plenty to do. But time stands still for no man, or woman. I needed to have something to look forward to (as much as I love redrafting and editing, nothing comes close to the enjoyment of laying down that first draft).

So I started to think about potential premises and plots and despite having loads of ideas (probably too many) they were either too fat, with more back-story than story, or too thin, with not enough of any sort of story. None felt quite right. Hey, I think I can see the beginnings of a great story there…

Anyway, the more I thought about it, the more difficult it seemed to become and it occurred to me – how long could I coast, waiting for inspiration to strike, before I should start to worry?

But I knew that worry is counter-productive.  [One of my favourite sayings is ‘worry is like a rocking chair, it keeps you busy but gets you nowhere’ which is very true but also very annoying, when you’re lying awake at four in the morning unable to sleep because you’re worrying!]

The main thing I think that helps, is to keep it in perspective. Just because I couldn’t think of where to take Cat next, didn’t mean I wouldn’t get there eventually. I think if I hadn’t kept a sense of perspective, before I’d have known it, I would have opened the door and practically invited panic to occupy the spot I was saving for my muse.

The only problem is, sometimes trying to come up with a fresh idea for the next short story or novel can seem nigh on impossible.

With all the great fiction out there, it’s really difficult to think of something that hasn’t been done before.

But difficult isn’t the same as impossible. And even if you gave six different writers the same outline for a story, you’d still get six different stories in return.

I see it every time something comes along that’s makes me think, wow, I’ve never read anything like this before, only then for it to be followed by a glut of novels around the same theme. This is because most writers take their inspiration from what’s around them, from the zeitgeist of the day. And the reading population devour them all (well, the good ones, at least).

A good novel isn’t just about that single unique plot line. There’s so much more to a great story. It gives me the courage to take the smallest spark of an idea, the hint of a theme or the idea for a great premise and begin to sketch around it. Looking for threads that can be worked into sub-plots and ideas for the ending, to make sure, no matter how devious the criminal and insanely clever the crime, the good guy always gets to the bottom of the mystery.

Once I’ve got that, and of course a working title (for some reason I am utterly incapable of writing without one), then off I go, laying words down like bricks for the foundation of a mansion, complete with secret passages and trap doors. And for a while, I happily watch the building take shape. Until I realise the story has somehow lost its way or, to continue my analogy, the builder has their own idea of what it should look like and builds rooms I have no use for (I have no idea how my brain can somehow magic up scenes with little input from me). Or worse, the builder gets halfway through building the first floor before finding a problem that means the second storey can’t be built and I, figuratively (and on occasion literally) hit a brick wall and have to consider knocking it all down and starting again. Though not before I’ve considered whether it’s possible to simply cut in some new foundations and reshape huge chunks of lovingly crafted words hoping that more will appear once the new foundations are laid. Neither is without its problems.

Whichever approach (and I dare say both will get an equal airing in the future), it still needs those moments of inspiration to create a new direction, to inject the pace and misdirection and give the characters enough ‘life’ to bring them to life.

That’s where the advice of the greats comes in, with suggestions on how to fire up your imagination: Agatha Christie is often quoted as saying doing the washing up was a great way to come up with her fiendishly clever plots. Charles Dickens, on the other hand, reportedly used to walk 12 miles a day to keep his ideas flowing… that’s an awful lot of ideas. Stephen King’s view is that you need to sit down to write the same time every day, if you want your muse to know where to find you.

“Don’t wait for the muse. As I’ve said, he’s a hardheaded guy who’s not susceptible to a lot of creative fluttering. This isn’t the Ouija board or the spirit-world we’re talking about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks. Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ’til noon. or seven ’til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he’ll start showing up.”  Stephen King ‘On Writing.’

For me it’s a combination of all of those ideas. I write 6 days a week, even if I’m struggling to see where the story is going, I’ll just write a paragraph that describes a scene I can see fitting in, even if it seems to be going nowhere.

I find mundane jobs are the best for chewing over knotty plot problems – doing the dishes, kneading bread, tending the veggie patch, and my favourite – mowing the lawn. I find whole scenes will appear unbidden if I just zone out and concentrate on not chopping my toes off with the lawnmower. (I also write my best poetry when mowing the lawn – go figure!)

Whereas a long walk or bike ride is ideal for thinking bigger picture and generating outlines for future plots.

The one thing I don’t do is sit and focus on the problem, because if you do that, then all you can see is the problem. I force myself to go out, to think of other things, to use my eyes and ears but most of all, to open my mind and let inspiration come.


Agatha Christie photo: [May 2104]

Book photo by Jour licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

2 Comments on “Beating the block”

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    1. That is very true. And with all of those things needing doing, it’s more important than ever to be able to continue to produce good quality, interesting work. So best of luck beating that block!

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