Writer’s block, or wooing that errant muse

We’ve all had it (or, at least, those writers among us have). Those days when the words just don’t come, whatever you try; days that turn into a week, two weeks, and suddenly the pressure to write is adding to the problem, weighing you down with a sense of failure, of literary impotence.

It just won’t happen, and you know you’ve got it: writer’s block.

Okay, so let’s break that down a bit. What do we mean by writer’s block? What exactly is it that’s just not happening?

Starting blocks

The image that comes to mind straight away when you mention the dreaded WB is that blank page: either fed into the maw of a lovely old Corona typewriter, or the blank screen, a new Word file with that blinking line, just waiting for your words. Come on, type something, dammit!

That blank white canvas is pretty scary, isn’t it? It certainly is for me, particularly if I know I have something like a mere hundred thousand words to go. So skip that stage. Just as a sprinter’s starting block (see what I did there?) is a launch pad, so too should a writer use all the aids necessary to make that blank canvas less daunting, and more inviting.

A simple thing: my manuscript template has dummy text in the header (‘title goes here’ by Keith Brooke, and then the page number), and the opening page has my contact details at the top, and then a nice big bit of dummy text where the title will go. If you have a title already that’s great: put it in here. Your blank canvas is now the structure that will hold your story. If you don’t have a title, it doesn’t matter: look at that blank canvas and there are words on it, it’s not just a white void.

Another thing I do is have some working notes in my manuscript, even if it’s just a couple of lines about the scene I’m currently writing (but usually it’s more). So, right from the outset, I’m almost never faced with a blank page: it’s busy, it’s full of words, and that makes it so much easier to write yet more words. It sounds silly, but it works.

The opening sentence

I try to know the opening sentence before I open that new file with the not-blank first page. Then, even if I’ve written it down in my notes, I won’t copy and paste: I’ll type it afresh when I start the story. Sometimes it’ll be the same, sometimes I’ll tweak. But nearly always, the act of typing invites more words to follow: another sentence, the second paragraph, more.

Still no opening sentence? Who cares? Write what you do know: don’t worry if the opening sentence sucks, just start writing the scene. You can always return and fix the opening later; what matters is getting those words down.

Arse (aka ass) to seat

How awful is it to be sitting in your writing chair and not writing? If you know you’re struggling, it feels far better to just not sit there so you’re not confronted with it. After all, the grass needs cutting, the dinner needs preparing, the stairs need vacuuming the spare room needs painting the kettle needs descaling the gutters need clearing the car needs washing the aardvark needs…

There are so many ways to scratch that ugly arse rather than just applying it to your seat and writing.

But you’re waiting for your muse! Of course you are. I remember at one of my first ever science-fiction conventions, standing at the bar with Kim Newman as he advised the then-newby Nicola Griffith that professional writers never have that luxury: we sit down, we write. Sometimes it sucks, sometimes it doesn’t, and often on those extra-sucky days we suddenly hit our stride and do some good stuff.

Hey, maybe the way to track down that errant muse is to sit down where it expects to find you and start doing what it’s supposed to influence! Just a thought.

The business of writing

So many things get in the way, right? Every writer is running a business, and that involves a lot of things that aren’t actually writing.

All that promotional tweeting, all the networking with authors and editors on Facebook and Google Plus, the pictures you really need to post for your follower on Pinterest. The blogging…

Oh, hang on: we’re talking distractions here, not blocks. I know all this stuff can get in the way, but when I’m writing I try to treat social media like the office water cooler: take a break, have a chat with someone, catch up on the gossip, then back to my desk. If you can’t do that, then how about, you know, switching the fuckers off for an hour or two? The world won’t stop.

Research

That’s a good one. How could anyone question the assertion that you need to do just a bit more research before you start writing? Hell, even you believe it sometimes, don’t you?

Putting a block to writer’s block

We all love that whole suffering artist thing. Or maybe we don’t. Maybe it’s a bit annoying sometimes.

Yes, writing is creative, it’s artistic, and sometimes it’s harder than others. Maybe the more artsy among you might not like what comes next, but really, have you ever heard of plumber’s block? Or nurse’s block? Or teacher’s block?

Calling it a block might make it sound more arty; it might make you feel like you’re living the life of an artist, suffering for your work. But call it procrastination or distraction and suddenly it sounds more like work avoidance than anything remotely artsy.

Yes I’ve had times when I’ve been unable to write. There have been times when I’ve been on medications that just slow everything down and remove the urge to be creative; times when I’ve been so stressed by stuff going on elsewhere in my life that writing has fallen down the priorities list; times when I just can’t be arsed.

And I’ve had times when it would be very easy to say that I’ve been blocked, but I’ve always tried not to fall back on that. To me, it’s a cop-out. At times like that I’m not blocked, I’m choosing not to write, for whatever reasons. And when you get like that, there are lots of things you can do to try to get the words flowing again. Unless, of course, that seems too much like treating writing as a job and you’re too arty for that, darling, and you prefer to sit back and woo your errant muse.

So: you’ve got writer’s block? Well it’s time for some tough love. So sit down, and bloody well write, and then you can complain about how you suffer for your art and it’ll sound a whole lot more authentic.

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About Keith Brooke and infinity plus

Keith Brooke is a writer of science fiction, fantasy and other strange stuff, and editor and reviewer of same. He is also the publisher at infinity plus, an independent imprint publishing books by leading genre fiction authors. View all posts by Keith Brooke and infinity plus

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