A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
The theme on Author Allsorts this week is how writers can avoid distractions when it comes to their work. But I think that sometimes we need to be distracted – distracted from our own stresses and anxieties and hang-ups that prevent us from being able to do what all writers ultimately want to do above all else: actually get the writing done.
One of the most common questions I get through my blog and website is some variation on this:
“Do you ever feel that your plot is too big/too small? Too cliched/too out there? I’m scared of starting/finishing/getting to the middle of my novel. I know what needs to happen and I want to write it, but every time I try I get stuck. I’m too afraid to start/go on/finish. Is this writers’ block? Do all writers go through this?”
This is what I call a writing roadblock.
I happens to every writer (every writer I know, anyway) at some point. For many of us it happens pretty much like clockwork at some point, often more than one point, with every single book we write. In my case to begin with I’m usually scared the story is too SMALL. I worry that not enough happens, that I haven’t made the right choices to stretch my characters and engage my reader’s emotions, that I’ll just run out of stuff to write after 30,000 words. I worry that it’s all flawed because I’ve missed some profoundly important conflict that would have made everything in the book worthwhile. Hence this Post-It stuck in the first page of one of my old notebooks:
But being scared that the story is too big, that it’s too ambitious, that you won’t do it justice, that it’ll be too long…those are crippling fears too (that’s The Scary Place I’ve posted about here, and which I usually enter at around the 50% mark of my manuscript).
These roadblocks are hard to break through specifically because they don’t come from the logical part of your brain. They’re not based on anything you can put your finger on. They just appear out of nowhere, causing a nebulous sense of dread that makes us feel we’d do anything to avoid actually writing. Organise tax returns from previous years into colour-coded files? Yes, sir! Scrub the bathroom clean with our own toothbrush? On it! Embroider teeny-tiny motivational sayings onto teeny-tiny cushions just in case the mice that live behind the garden shed need cheering up? I volunteer as tribute!
This isn’t about writer’s block. I think writer’s block is a real thing, but it usually has one of several concrete causes (which you can read about here). Roadblocks are less about being *unable* to write and more about not being willing to because of your own fears, your conscious and unconscious worries about writing. And there’s only one cure. One way to kick that writing roadblock to the curb.
If you’ve read many of my writing posts before, you probably know what I’m going to say next.
The one way to destroy a writing roadblock is to write.
It will NOT go away on its own. You won’t wake up one day and find it’s miraculously evaporated. In fact, part of the horror of this problem is that you may wake up on many mornings thinking ‘This is the day! Today I will write!’ and then proceed to make excuses, procrastinate and potter until midnight instead. You know you’re doing it, and as time passes a vile, slimey-slug squirming begins to fill your stomach as you realise that yet again you have wasted an entire day and nothing’s changed. But you’ll still do it, day after day after day. You will never be able to escape the sense of horrible forboding until you make a concrete plan to punch through it – and actually write.
And the longer you leave it? The harder it gets.
I know it’s horrible! Believe me, I know! But taking charge is the only way.
HERE’S WHAT YOU NEED TO DO:
At this point you’re using these as an excuse to avoid writing. They’ve become part of the problem. Put them at the bottom of the drawer. You are forbidden to look until you actually NEED to check a fact or remind yourself of something. The same thing goes for your story’s Pinterest Page!
If you’ve been sitting in the same room in the same chair, or lying on your bed, or perched at your desk, every day, stewing over his for hours at a time, then congratulations – your brain has now incorporated the location into your sense of dread. Any time you go there, you’ll feel all your motivation and confidence begin to drain away.
Pick another location. Somewhere you would never normally associate with writing, but where you will practically be able to work. A new coffee shop. A corner in the library. A friend’s house, if they can be trusted to leave you alone. I find trains very good for this, personally. Anyway, chose a place and go there.
Tell yourself that you will start writing at precisely whatever-o’clock and that you will write for a certain, set amount of time. But it’s vital to make it manageable. It’s no good saying you’ll get up at 6:00am and write for three hours – after weeks of not writing at all, your mental writing muscles can’t take a full out sprint like that. You’ll fail and then you’ll feel even worse. Give yourself a reasonable start time, and a reasonable writing period. Half an hour is a good stretch to start. I actually have an egg-timer for this, and it really does help.
You’re writing to fill up the blank page at this point. It doesn’t have to be great. It doesn’t even have to be good. You’re not seeking to solve all the problems of your book forever more. You’re just getting back into fighting condition. I find it useful to use a pencil and paper when doing this, because it looks messy and smudgy and reminds you that it’s just scribbling, not actual writing. But if you normally write with pen and paper, maybe you’d want to switch to a laptop, so long as you’re okay taking it with you to wherever you’ve chosen to write.
And because this is just stretching your writing muscles? You don’t have to start at the beginning of your story, or dive straight into the contentious scene in the middle that caused you to get stuck in the first place. You can play with that awesome scene with the cliff and the hawk that’s been teasing you, get your main characters to kiss or fight for the first time, or just write a long, rambling speech from that noisy character who keeps muttering in the back of your head. Whatever you want to write and which seems fun. Don’t set yourself a word or page target either. You just need to scribble for the required time.
As soon as you’ve started writing again, as soon as you’ve defied the dread and the worry and the stressing-out and put pen to paper for fun again, you remember why you actually wanted to do this writing lark to start with.
Don’t go too fast – don’t put pressure on yourself when you start to feel better. But don’t let yourself off the hook either. Keep doing your half-hour scribbling sessions until you get to the point where you’re starting to over-run, to not want to stop. Then stretch yourself with forty minutes. Maybe think, ‘Today, I’m going to use my forty minutes to play around with opening lines. What would be the coolest opening paragraph for the first chapter? Hmmm…’
Then one day you’ll find you’ve written for two hours straight and that you’ve got a first chapter staring at you.
Writing roadblock? Dust.
I hope this was helpful, muffins! Let me know about your writing roadblocks and any sure-fire cures down in the comments 🙂
YA novelist Zoë Marriott lives on the bleak and windy East coast of Britain, in a house crowded with books, cats, and an eccentric sprocker named Finn (also known as the Devil Hound). Her folklore and fairytale inspired fantasy novels are critically acclaimed and have been nominated for many awards, even winning a few, including a USBBY Outstanding International Book listing for The Swan Kingdom and a Junior Library Guild Selection and the prestigious Sasakawa Prize for Shadows on the Moon. Zoë is proud to be represented by Nancy Miles of the Miles Stott Children’s Literacy Agency. Continue reading…
Books: THE SWAN KINDGOM | DAUGHTER OF THE FLAMES | SHADOWS ON THE MOON | FROSTFIRE | THE NIGHT ITSELF | DARKNESS HIDDEN | FRAIL HUMAN HEART | BAREFOOT ON THE WIND