… is that there are no secrets.
You may know that I’ve been feeling a little overwhelmed with my writing at the moment. It’s been causing me writer’s block. I started to realise I was experiencing this when I would meet up with friends (or go to the hairdresser, or visit a relative) and someone would ask me how the novel was going. And I hadn’t worked on it since the last time I saw them, so I would say ‘Oh, you know, slowly but surely. Work has been taking priority recently.’
Being aware of my paralysis hasn’t helped. It only made me more anxious since I was more aware of the lack of words being written.
That’s when I decided to do some serious research into writer’s block. It was amazing the things I discovered. There are so many crappy blog posts and articles that offer quick-fix solutions that don’t work. Go for a walk. Write with a pen instead of a laptop. Just force yourself to write. Get up an hour earlier every day.
These things do not help. They do not address the underlying issues that prevent writing.
The more useful advice was about creating a writing habit, a routine, a small daily target, etc. But even these things weren’t quite enough. They still couldn’t get me over that initial hurdle.
So I dug a little deeper. I created a survey and ask other people about their experiences with writer’s block. I looked into psychology, and in-depth studies into different types of creative block and different methods for overcoming them. I looked into the factors that make things like habit and routine work, and the proven ways for implementing them. I looked into different perspectives on fear and procrastination and time management. That’s when things started getting more interesting. The chaos started forming into discernible patterns. It became manageable.
And I decided that after spending hours researching all of this, I would gather together the most useful information into an ebook, to help other writers in my position. Ironically, I wrote 10k words in two weeks. After a few days of formatting, I am now happy to present to you: ‘The Thinking Writer’s Guide to Writer’s Block.’
After years of developing this site, it the first item to be added to my newly created ‘Shop‘, and is available for just £4.99. This includes two printable ‘don’t break the chain’ calendars, a printable workbook, and a ’10 Writing Habits of Famous Authors’ document for interest and inspiration. And to thank you for being a reader of my blog, I’m offering you a 20% discount if you use the promo code ‘UNBLOCK2012′ (expires 31st July 2012), which lowers the price to about £3.99.
Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t a ‘quick fix’ type of thing. I’m still using the ideas and methods I discuss in the ebook to help me out of my writing hole. But I’m feeling more positive about it. I feel more equipped with knowledge and strategies. I’m getting there. These things are starting to work. I hope they can work for you, too, if you ever have the misfortune of falling victim to the dreaded block.
(Image source: http://incalius.deviantart.com/art/Just-Another-Brick-In-the-Wall-125065404)
Just a quick update on the current status of my projects.
Firstly, I had signed up to Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) with the best of intentions. I knew that I would never be able to write 50k words, but I had hoped to write 20k to add to my novel, bringing the total up to 50k.
But, things didn’t pan out. I got offer a temp job at Pearson Education that I couldn’t turn down, and so have been working three days a week. Pfft! you must be thinking. That’s nothing! That leaves four whole days to write. Well, yes, but that didn’t happen. Between recovering and working on my magazine projects, I barely had time to write. Plus, my weekends are always taken up with other things, so those days are always written off.
I wrote a grand total of 2000 words during November – 10% of my target. Not good. But at least I wasn’t standing still, either.
As usual, time is rushing by. I opened submissions to Inkspill Magazine for the whole of November, and we got plenty of short stories and poems sent in. I’m so thankful that I now have some volunteers helping me with the submissions – it is seriously a huge help. The four of us will be whittling down the submissions and choosing ones for the new issue by the end of December. Issue 6 is due out in January.
This month, I’ve spent most of my time designing a new website for Inkspill Magazine. The design is done, and is now ready for coding. I really hope that it can be ready for the new year, but I know that it is a lot of work, so I’m a little worried that it won’t be.
I’ll be spending the next week updating the back issues and adding some spot colour so that the magazine is ready for its Apple Newsstand integration! I working with a great start-up company called Appeal Software, and they’re working hard on getting Inkspill Magazine ready for the app store by the end of the year. They’ll also be working on the new magazine project early next year.
I finally decided on a name for my ‘new magazine project’ (the term that has been its reference for a while now). It will be called Contemporary Writer and will explore the craft, theory and business of creative writing. I’m seriously getting nervous at creating this now – the initial excitement has taken a back seat! I really want it to be a high quality piece of work. I’ve bought the domain, and am trying to organise hosting. The next major step will be to design the website and branding. I’m considering hiring a freelancer to help me with this, so that it can be the best it can possibly be – but the budget might be far too tight.
I was planning on applying to the Arts Council for a grant, but I’m sceptical that they will help. I’m hearing all the time that projects are being cut due to lack of funding, and I read some really negative things about the AC in the latest NAWE (National Association for Writers in Education) magazine. On the one hand, I think I might as well try, on the other hand, I don’t want to waste a lot of time and effort on something that is unlikely to yield results.
I really need to secure some advertisers for Contemporary Writer in order to pay for the printing costs. This task is looming. It’s going to be critical to the creation of the magazine, but possibly the hardest aspect to secure. How do you get advertisers for a first issue? For a magazine that doesn’t have proven track statistics to use as enticement? These are the problems I’m facing. I have some ideas, but they need very quick action, and I’m concerned that I won’t be able to act quickly enough.
But all in all, the projects are moving along. The pieces are starting to fall together, and things are taking shape.
Once the next Inkspill Magazine issue is out, and all the foundations have been laid for Contemporary Writer, hopefully I’ll have some time to write more of the novel. As it is, I’ll keep chipping away at it when I can.
The novel is a large and complex system. Get the structure wrong, and it crumbles like a building without decent foundations. Understanding how to structure plot, character history, and handle time lines can be a confusing process. How on earth does a writer tackle this issue?
Chronology of Events vs Plot
If you plan your novel, you might use two time lines. The first is the time line of the characters’ histories – the chronicle history of events throughout (and beyond) the pages of the novel. The second time line is the novel’s plot – the order of these events as they appear to the reader. This is the structure of your novel, with flashbacks, memories, dual time frames etc. You must order these events keeping the following in mind:
- What does the reader really need to know?
- How much can be implied?
- When do they need to know it? (Don’t clump everything together just for the sake of chronology.)
- How can this information be used (or withheld) to create suspense and intrigue?
Multiple Time Frames
One character can narrate the novel from (usually no more than) two places in time. An example of this can been read in Booker long-listed The Testament of Jesse Lamb by Jane Rogers. Usually, a character tells the story from a present time frame, then delves back into the past in order to explain the events that led up to the current situation.
Multiple Points of View
The same story can be narrated by two or more characters in the same time frame. Think of Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, or Leviathan by Scott Westerfield. How you order these sections is up to you. Depending on your story’s time frame, you may need to spend more time with one character than the other, if more events are linked to them. Alternatively, you can write the story from a tightly constructed time frame, and alternate sections, as Westerfield does in his novel. This technique is useful if you have two characters separated from each other, or two characters who don’t know each other, but whose stories eventually converge.
Biographical Novel vs Flashback
The biographical novel was very popular in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries – think Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne, and so on. These novels start at the beginning of a character’s life, and tell of the main events throughout a lifetime. Their structure, and their plot, is chronological. However, in more modern novels, the plot is more tightly focused around a particular goal or event, and character histories are explored through flashback, memories, dream sequences, or simply implied. The type of story you want to write will effect how you deal with character history.
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Structuring is something very much on my mind with my own novel at the moment. I have been trying to figure out how best to portray my character’s histories. Knowing what is important, in order for the readers to understand motivations and character traits, is a difficult task. Some of this information comes through implicitly. But sometimes it is difficult to know when the reader needs a little help.
For example, the captain of the airship in my novel has a slightly contradictory personality. He’s a ruffian, unafraid to roll up his sleeves, but he also sometimes speaks with polite formality and must portray himself smartly in his position of authority. A class conflict battles within him. He comes from a lower class, but has self-elevated to a higher social class by inheriting his own airship. In a world in which class has been almost eradicated, people are developing their own social boundaries. None of the characters who narrate the novel know his history. I had hoped it would be implicit, but some of my readers have expressed confusion. I have to work out a way for this to be explained. Methods I might use include: giving him snippets of narrative, from his own point of view; revealing his past through conversation; having a character reflect and speculate upon his personality.
What about you? How do you deal with structure and character histories?
Those of you with extreme attention to detail may have noticed my novel progress widget has actually gone down recently. That’s because I have cut a few chapters from my working draft. They were, in essence, far too silly.
This notion was plaguing me as I wrote. I was too close to my work to be able to tell if I was being original and creative, or hilariously far-fetched. The fact that I was doubting myself probably told me everything I needed to know.
Ideas that I’ve cut included:
- Main character escaping a zombie hoard by starting up a steam train.
- Main character’s mother escaping being held captive on an airship by discovering the captain had zombies in cargo boxes, so she kills one and gets in the box then is transferred to a zombie ‘dog’-fighting ring.
- Secondary character attends a church that was formally a workhouse and accidentally discovers that the priests are forming an army of human/machine slaves by using metal rods dipped in an adrenaline-enhancing metal-and-flesh-fusing substance thrust into the base of their brains, in order to obliterate the zombies in an epic war and claim that they won by the hand of God.
Yeah… exactly. Absolutely mental ideas. All scrapped now. Once again, I got carried away and was thinking too big. Once again I didn’t trust in the subtleties of novel writing. This is something I’m learning.
I decided I needed more of a plan, and I created a list of scenes that will form the basis of the novel. I’m happier with that, now. I’m still not sure exactly how it will end. Again, I’m torn between something epic and something less so. But for now I’m going to write what I have semi-formed in my head.
I’m also learning not to be disheartened by huge section cuts, and to keep reminding myself that first drafts are meant to be messy. Learn from me, fellow readers:
You have to work your way through the bad ideas before you can get to the good stuff.
(At least, I hope what I’m producing now is ‘the good stuff’!)
I’m not happy with the way my novel is going. It is simply not original enough.
I had a twenty minute tutorial with the head of our course, Sir Andrew Motion, and though he was encouraging, he clearly wasn’t impressed with my writing. And the thing is, I wasn’t either. He confirmed my doubts about my current story, especially when he asked ‘This is tongue in cheek, right?’ Which is not want I want to write at all.
Fear and pressure is getting to me. Deadlines that I’m not in the right head-space to prepare for are looming. I’ve been so pre-occupied with getting the word count up that I haven’t really properly thought my novel through. I know the history of the characters and the world that they live in, but I don’t know what the plot is and I can’t encapsulate my story in a title or a sentence. It lacks focus. And I’m reaching for unoriginal ideas that have all been done before, and they all seem too silly: too tongue in cheek.
This is not what I want my debut novel to be.
Once I get all my freelance projects out of the way (several have landed in my lap over the past few days! Woo-hoo! I can feed my hungry overdraft!), I’m going to have a really big re-think. I’m considering trying some more experimentational things, such as a ‘tag’ style narrative, and incorporate various worlds and stories, akin to Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, The Never Ending Story by Michael Ende, and Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. The world I have created so far is too simple.
The novel is currently set in Victorian England, but I think I want to make it more fantastical and ambiguous. I’m thinking flying cities and weird communities, rather than just city slums and airships.
I’m anticipating cutting around 10,000 words. Possibly. ‘Killing my darlings’ has always been the hardest thing for me. But I think I need to.
I think I also need to have a more detailed plot. I recently came across a post at Kidlit.com that describes some alternative plot types and I think I might try something more similar to an ‘ensemble plot’, which is the kind of plot that reminds me of The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi.
So, have I gone completely mad? Does anyone have an plotting tips or advice on narrative structures?