Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Falling over the edge

We’re well into autumn here, and the fire is crackling over at our place almost every night.  It’s getting cold, working outside in the study, but I don’t mind – I’m really picking up speed with this new book, and everything seems golden.

But it isn’t always like that.  I was kind of inspired to write this post after reading another writer’s question recently, asking ‘what’s your hump point?’, and also because I’ve read a few articles lately about writer’s block.  To my mind, the two things are linked (and remember, folks, this is just my mind we’re talking about here –those of you who know me, you’ll recall that my mind is sometimes an odd and contrary place to be.  I just don’t want to generalise here about All Writers, cos, hey, for a few golden years there my kids thought I was some kind of super-being, but I ain’t that super).

First, the author’s question about ‘hump points’ might need some clarification.  The author was asking what’s the hardest point in your writing process with a book – do you struggle with beginnings?  Or maybe it’s middles or endings which you find hard.  Or is the whole thing just a slog from start to finish, like pulling teeth?  How do you combat that?

Writer’s block is a regular topic of conversation in the writing community – in fact, if you Googled ‘overcoming writer’s block’ you’d probably get thousands of hits for articles and queries about it.  I have a peculiar relationship with writer’s block, which is that I don’t really believe in it.  It’s not that I don’t think writers get blocked – I know they do, and I’ve experienced blockage myself – but I don’t call my periods of drought ‘writer’s block’, because to me that sounds like some sort of inescapable disease, and I don’t want to label it like that because I think that gives it power.

This post isn't really about writers block, but I do struggle with hump points in a manuscript draft.  I had one with Every Move, and I just got through one with the new book, so I may as well throw in my fifty cents worth on the subject (actually fifty cents sounds expensive – let’s just call it two cents).

So here’s the situation: you’re drafting a new project, and it’s all flowing well.  You’re excited, cos it’s new, and you’ve got lots of initial ideas, and the writing is really moving.  A few weeks in, and it’s all looking good.  Then one day, you wake up and pull out your pen and paper/keyboard/charcoal and crayons, and you look at it there, and…you’re drawing a blank.  Your ideas are kind of turning around in circles chasing their tails.  You don’t know what’s gonna happen in the next scene, or the writing feels flavourless and dull.  Everything feels foggy, and suddenly you’re just hitting keys (in my case) hoping and praying that your mojo will return.

You’ve hit your hump point.

For some people, it comes early in the process – getting the crank started is really really hard.  For others (and I think this might be more common), you hit a point at about the middle of the book, when everything you’re writing seems like crap, and you can’t figure out what to do next.  For yet others, it’s tying everything together at the end – oh my god, you’ve written yourself into a corner, now how the hell do you get out of it?

Other (way better and more experienced) writers have shared their wisdom on this issue, so let me summarise their suggestions: take some exercise, get some sleep, take a break and interact with friends and family (remember them?), get some fresh input (films, tv, music, art, nature, other people’s books), make sure your health is ok, try to reduce or wait out external stress, put the manuscript away for a week or more and go back to it for better perspective, go back to a point where the writing was flowing and see if you made the characters do something OOC, stop writing and do some plotting-out, or even stop writing and let the characters live in your head for a bit to find out where they want to go, change your work routine, do some research, work on something else for a while…  There are plenty of potential solutions.  Some authors I know have even opted to scrap the entire draft and write it again from scratch (*cue wailing and gnashing of teeth*), or put it aside and resolve that this manuscript is not yet sufficiently ‘baked’ in their head for them to complete it (again, weeping, but for some folks, they have a sense that this is the right course of action).

My own attitude is a bit of an amalgam of all these things (and yes, I have dumped a project at the 40,000 word point – never a whole book, though, that’s gutsy).  It’s also complicated by the fact that each book is different, and often your process varies (I like to say ‘matures’, heh) every time.  Which, as Lili Wilkinson once pointed out, is what it should be – feeling locked into a certain way of doing things, a certain way of working, can make your life kinda difficult if the project requires a change of attitude or approach.

With Every Move, I was on deadline, so I was under external pressure.  I’d also written a crazy-arse number of plot threads that needed tying up, and I felt overwhelmed.  That required some pleading with my editors (actually not too much pleading, cos they’re awesome like that) for a little more time, and some plain old sitting down and mapping out what had to happen (see ‘plotting-out’, above).  But my struggle with that manuscript was really about making a personal realisation: I didn’t want the story to end.  I loved the world, I loved the characters, and I was having a hard time letting go.  It wasn’t until another author friend (thanks again, Simmone!) kindly pointed this out to me that I had a little lightbulb moment, and after that, tackling the ending of the book was considerably easier.

With this new book, No Limits (working title), it was different.  I got stuck about a third of the way in.  But it felt familiar, and I realised that it was a bit like the way I’d felt when I was writing my first book, Every Breath.  That’s when I figured out something.  Again, this is a personal experience, so it won’t apply to everybody, but what I figured out was this:

By the time I’ve written about a third of the book, I feel a great reluctance to go on.  I can’t sit in front of my screen for more than a few minutes at a time without wanting to just jump up and do something else.  Turning on the internet to get on social media seems hugely attractive – in fact, doing the washing or sweeping the house seem hugely attractive at this point.  Or reading a book.  Or watching tv.  Anything but sitting down in front of that goddamn manuscript.  I’m not doing any work, but I’m thinking about the manuscript all the frickin’ time.  I get a horrendous amount of doubt – doubt about the characters I’ve made, doubt about the plot I’ve set up, doubt in my own ability to pull it off.  I become a tetchy, dissatisfied, all-round horrible person to live with, and then I feel guilty that my family has to put up with me (sorry, honey!). 

This is usually what writers mean when they say they’re stuck – they’ve hit the wall (in running terminology), and every word they put down at this point starts to sound terrible.  It’s like getting a cramp.  And because writers live in their heads so much, getting a brain cramp is really painful and frustrating (and sometimes, cos writers can be a bit insecure like that and doubt+insecurity is a bad combo, it can be really debilitating).

So here I am at my hump point.  I’ve invented all these threads, created this whole world with the characters, y’know?  But I’m stuck.  I do as many of the things on the ‘writer’s block solution list’ as I can – I talk to people, I get more sleep, I watch tv and read books, get some exercise, do research, yada yada – and some of them even help a little.  Although I’m still assailed by this awful feeling like I’m teetering on the precipice.

But that, I figured out, is a good thing.  It means that I’m coming to terms, within myself, with the idea of completing this thing I started. 

My tetchiness and dissatisfaction have a genuine cause - I’m about to fall over the edge, into the unknown.  I’m scared.  I’m working without a safety net.  Anything could happen.  I could fail.  I could write a really sucky book.  I don’t know if I’ve got the goods to make it work.  I don’t know if I’ve got anything meaningful to say, that people will want to listen to.  I’m at a crossroads moment.

I said I spend a lot of time with my characters inside my head at this point – that is actually really necessary.  I’m fleshing out their existence as people, and I’m churning over alternative ideas about what will happen.  I’m rolling it all over in my head.  Although I often scribble down notes in an exercise book when these points hit me, it’s a very mental process.  And it’s a kind of ‘dragging up your courage’ moment.  I have to come around to the idea that I’m capable.

So finally, after I’ve tetched and churned and agsted about as much as I can stand (which is about the time my family wants me to leave home and go live in a monastery or something), I finally throw up my hands (y’know, my mental hands) and say, okay, bring it on.

Do I really want to write this book?  Um, actually – yes.  Yes, I really do.

So now I’ve done it.  After this point, I’m committed.  I’ve got to go on, I’ve got to see it through to the end, no matter how difficult or frustrating or nerve-wracking it might be, or how doubtful I might feel about my own ability to make this story work.  Soon after that, most commonly, I’ll sit down with the manuscript and…it’s back.  I’m back.  The system has rebooted, my mojo has returned, the flame is burning again.  Interestingly enough, after I get past this point of decision, this point of mental commitment, I’m utterly invested – the ideas are coming again, and fast.  I’m eager to get back to the writing, I can’t wait to be in front of the keyboard.  I’m impatient for writing days to come round (which leads to its own brand of tetchiness, when I’m denied writing time by Real Life, but that’s another story).  This is the time when – like I did with my first novel – I actually jump out of bed at some ridiculous sparrow-fart time of the morning, feeling excited, because I’m getting the chance to dive back into it.

So to me – and excuse me if it sounds like I’m thrilled about re-inventing the wheel here, but personally, this was a recent revelation – it’s about making the mental commitment to continue with the work.  That’s my hump point.  And now I know, I can give myself a swift kick when it comes around again (or at least, y’know, not stress out so much about it) and remember that it’s normal.  What got me through, on this occasion, was a quote from multi-award winning, multi-book writing romance author Valerie Parv, in response to the question “How do you know when you start writing that you can do it?”.

Her reply?  “The answer is that you start writing to find out if you can do it.”

I hope your own writing is going well.  I hope you haven’t hit the wall, or gotten stuck, or blocked, or arrived at a hump point.  But if you have, I hope this helps, somehow.

And I guess that’s my two cents on the matter.

Xx Ellie

PS – you know how I had a massive giveaway here on the blog for the Every Move release?  Well, I had it, and it’s over, and there was only one problem – one of the winners didn’t get in touch with me.  And it’s been, like, two weeks now, and I really want to send this parcel to somebody!

If you are Elizabeth Gordon, can you please contact me in the next 48 hours?

If you’re not, and you entered, you’re still in the running.  If Elizabeth doesn’t get in touch, then I’m gonna have a re-draw from the existing pool of entrants (I still know who you are, so don’t stress).  I’ll pick a new winner, let people know on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.  If I don’t hear from the new winner within 48 hours, I’ll choose a new name, and so on, until we get this parcel won!

That’s it.  Have a good week :)


1 comment:

  1. I love (yet hate) the idea of a hump point, and I know the feeling all too well though I'd never thought of labelling it that before. My ideas always come to me with a beginning and an end, but it's the middle that spends a long time being vague. Sometimes too vague...

    It is a matter of getting from point a to point b sometimes, and wondering, doubting, whether you're doing it right. I don't believe in writers block particularly either... I think it's more a case of "writers doubt", when you're so paralysed by self-doubt over your work that you either can't go on or don't know how to go on with it.

    Thanks for the tips :)