A Writer’s Despair

angeldespairI can’t think straight. My mind is in turmoil. I don’t know what to do. Who to talk to. How to move forward. Nothing is working. Feel like I’m suffocating under the weight that’s bearing down on me. It’s relentless. Can’t shift it. Can’t see through it. Can’t call for help cause I can’t trust anyone. I think it might be... all over.

Luckily, these sentiments do not belong to me. Well, not exactly. They’re inside my head, and driving me crazy. But they belong to someone else.

I’m in writing mode. At least, I’m supposed to be. But the main character in the novel I’m currently writing is doing my head in. He is stuck. And I have a deadline of the end of February––11 days––to get this manuscript finished.

My writing process is complex. Sometimes the word flow is prolific. Sometimes it’s like pulling teeth. My characters are usually good at letting me know where they need to go. And often this is different to where the original plot suggested they should go. And mostly, that’s okay. I’m happy to follow their direction because they don’t often steer me wrong.

But this character is confused. Very confused. He is confronting some very challenging issues and he’s hurting. He is fighting for his survival, and his sanity. I just wish he’d figure it out quicker. Because really, he needs to get out of my head now.

To anyone other than another writer, it may sound like I am losing the plot. But the plot has already been subverted by this character. A few times now. I’m ready to tear this manuscript to shreds. Or plot my protagonists death. A long and painful one. Or maybe I should begin a whole new novel. A nice adventure story about unicorns or something.

I usually have a bit more patience with my characters, and once they’ve established their voice strongly enough, I allow them to direct the narrative arc themselves. But, I’ve been working on this manuscript for a year now; I’m almost at the end. Though it still fits into the YA genre, it’s a bit darker than my previous two manuscripts. My protagonist, Ben, has decided to have a complete meltdown. And a character in tantrum mode is enough to drive any writer mad.

Writing the last few chapters of a novel is hard at the best of times. Really hard. You have to do justice to your characters while maintaining the integrity of the narrative arc, all the while tying up any loose ends around your minor plot points, and resolving unanswered questions––satisfactorily or unsatisfactorily.  You have to be satisfied that the end of the book is worthy of the all the work you’ve put into it. That your characters have been challenged and grown through it and changed in some way. And that they’re ready to say goodbye.

Ben is not ready to say goodbye. That’s the problem. He is holding too tight to something I’m yet to identify. A wall he can’t let down, a barrier that’s still invisible to me. Once he lets me in just a little further, I’ll be able to finish. But the more I push, the further he retreats. He is fighting me all the way. And I am running out of time.

Only another writer would get it. The rest of the world may be concerned for my sanity.

The Greatest Block of All

I’ve written a lot about Writers’ Block on this blog — what it is, why it happens, and how to challenge it. But recently I’ve experienced the ultimate writers’ block, the greatest challenge to my writing life. I say my writing life because for me, my life and my writing are intrinsically connected — one cannot exist without the other.

I’ve said many times that life sometimes gets in the way of writing, writers everywhere would be familiar with what this means. For the non-writers among you, it means things like child-raising, bill-paying (or more pointedly, the work required to raise the funds that make bill-paying possible), house coordinating, people managing, and a myriad of other things.

But what happens when life really does get in the way of writing? And this time, by life, I mean the gift of health that keeps us living and breathing and able to complain about life getting in the way of our writing. What happens when a writer faces a diagnosis that may mean her/his time for writing will come to an end—for good?

The fear is palpable. And I’m not talking about the fear of dying. I dealt with that. I’m talking about the fear of leaving this world without having achieved the one goal I set when I was ten years old and have been working toward ever since. Being a writer.

I mentioned this to a friend recently. “But you are a writer,” she said.

Yes I am. But not the kind of writer I always dreamt of being. Yet. I need more time for that. Suddenly, time for writing seems to be the only thing that matters.

I want to write full-time. I want to get my work out there. I want to be heard. Be read. I want to share the magic of narrative with young people everywhere. I want them to know the amazing power of transformation reading can bring. I want to take them on a journey that frees them, if only for a short time, from the stress and pressure of adolescence. I want them to get lost in my books.

I’ve always plodded along with these goals simmering in the background while I dealt with the reality of…well, life. I guess we take the luxury of life for granted until we are slapped in the face with our own mortality. It’s then that we understand the difference between ‘living’ and allowing life to happen to us.

The choices we make and the action we take—consciously or unconsciously—impact on who we are at any given moment in time. I am not a ‘victim.’ Never have been. I will live to write, so that I can write to live. Until the very last breath I take, no matter when that is.

Motivation and procrastination: the swings and roundabouts of being a writer

They say there’s no rest for the wicked. I don’t really know what that means, but if I were to interpret it literally, I might wish I were wicked. Maybe then, I wouldn’t be battling procrastination for the second time this year.

When motivation is the dominant paradigm with which I work, I write anywhere between one and three thousand words a day. Every day. But when the drive wanes and the procrastination demon appears on my shoulder and starts whispering in my ear about being tired, or cleaning the house, washing the car, making that phone call, or Twitter and Facebook, or any of the myriad of other misnomers it uses to tempt me away from writing, I can do nought but despair.

I need to start THAT manuscript, you know the one—it’d been incubating right the way through writing the last one. I’d kept it on the back-burner lest it detract from the one I’d actually been writing. But now that that one is finished, a terrible thing has happened. Even though I’ve written the synopsis, developed the plot, created and matured both the protagonist and the antagonist, I haven’t written a word. Not a single word.

I’m familiar enough with my own writing habits to realise that, for whatever reason, procrastination usually occurs for me as I’m nearing the end of a manuscript, and if not addressed judiciously it can develop and harden into a full-on writers’ block. And that, my friends, is a whole other ball game.

But this time, I’m at the beginning of a manuscript that has been incubating one way or another for a very long time. I’m ready. Ben and Olivia (my main characters) are ready.

Everything is in place. I’m keen and enthusiastic, even excited about it. So what’s the problem?

Perhaps it’s that the next project has begun the process of inception before I’ve penned the beginnings of this one. It’s a dilemma. Both are the beginnings of series, both are YA and both have the potential to be ongoing projects.

I write because I love writing. I love creating worlds, and scenarios, and people who then dominate my life for the year or so that each novel takes to complete. It’s a joy. There is a saying along the lines of ‘if you love what you do, you never have to work a day in your life,’ and it’s true. I can (and do) spend every waking hour writing—when I’m in the zone.  Or maybe it’s just that the one I’m ‘supposed’ to be starting is the artefact for my PhD, alongside which I need to write a symbiotic exegesis. Maybe it adds a layer of pressure that is preventing me from even commencing the project. Fear of failure? Perhaps. Though I would’ve thought that might apply regardless—writers, by the very nature of what they do put themselves up for public scrutiny anyway.

But there is a flip side. And when the procrastination demon hits, or the writers’ block appears, it all comes crashing down and my bliss morphs into headache-inducing, teeth-grinding, wits-ending hard work. I can better understand (intellectually and emotionally) the procrastination that occurs nearing the end of a novel, it’s part of getting ready to farewell a project. But it’s the procrastination at the beginning of the project that has me perplexed. Words of wisdom....anyone?

Battling the block

I’ve broken through. I faced it, fought it and won! But not before cursing it, kicking it, and banging my head against it. I’d been despondent and despairing and wondered if there was any point to continuing. I’d thought that maybe the wall was too high, the block too strong; that maybe this was the end and I should just forget about ever finishing the novel and move on to other things.

And then it happened. The breakthrough—that glorious moment when the words began to flow again.  And I knew I’d won. I’d beaten the dreaded block. I’m writing again. After months of not being able to squeeze out more than a few words at a time, I wrote 2500 thousand in a sitting. I will finish this novel.

Battling writers’ block is something every writer will face at some stage or other throughout their writing lives. This was not the first time I’ve had to do it, but something shifted for me this time round. Most writers know that writers’ block is an internal battle. It is a battle with the self rather than a battle with a dried-up muse. And the more we fight the tougher it gets.

The first time I experienced writers’ block, I was stuck for about ten years. During that period, I let other things get in the way of the novel I was writing. It was easy to walk away from it then. There were legitimate reasons I stopped writing. I was working full-time, raising a child, studying. Life got in the way, as it often does. I told myself I was prioritising. And I was. And no one could fault my logic.

But this time it was different. I’m still working and studying (though not in the same job or for the same degree), so it would be easy to justify the block; my jobs are too demanding, my health isn’t fabulous, my life is too stressful, I’m too busy, too tired, too...

Bottom line is — writers’ block is not about the loss of muse or creativity. It is about fear. The fear of not being good enough, the fear of putting your work out there, fear of rejection. Fear is the most destructive force in the universe and writers are not exempt from its impact.

Sylvia Plath once said that ‘the worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.’ She was absolutely right. For writers it’s a killer. But we are still human and it’s inevitable that the dreaded block will hit, so how can writers get through it?

Discipline and perseverance. Easy to say, not so easy in practical application. But here’s how it worked for me. I write at home most of the time. It’s easier that way. I have a study into which I can retreat, away from distraction (well, external distraction anyway) and work. I often sit at my desk in the study, in front of the computer for hours each evening.

It would go something like this: open manuscript doc, read the last chapter to orient myself to my own novel, make coffee (don’t want to have to distract myself by having to make coffee halfway through an important plot point), check email (just in case I missed anything or received an important one in the half hour since I last checked), check Facebook fanpage (notice that my writer friend is also on Facebook so have a little chat), check blog stats (good to know how many people read my blog, or have read it since the last time I checked), check Twitter (just in case I need to reply to an @ mention). Read back through tweets that arrived in the previous 60 seconds...15 minutes later... Write for a while. Ten minutes and three words later, make coffee....

This ritual tends to take place several times over the period of a few hours. At the end of it, I’ve deleted the words I’ve written (all 25 of them), and promised myself that tomorrow will be better. It never was.

It wasn’t always like this. I wrote the first 62 000 words of my current novel at the steady pace of about 3000 words a week. It wasn’t much but it was comfortable. And consistent. And the book was progressing. Then. I’m not exactly sure when it stopped. It was gradual. One day I realised that, despite only having a few chapters to go, I hadn’t written anything for weeks. And then months. And months.

Every day I sat in front of the computer. Every. Single. Day. And nothing came. I was getting desperate. I knew that something had to change. First, I had to rid myself of distraction. I tried switching the wireless off so I couldn’t waste time on the internet, but it was too easy to switch it back on when I couldn’t stand it anymore. It had to be easier.

I started scheduling writing hours in another location. I decided I would go to the local library a few afternoons a week as part of my normal routine, and write there. So for two hours, two days a week, I sat in front of my computer at the library. Of course, libraries have free WiFi and I logged on the first time I went there, but it was soooo slow I couldn’t stand it. I spent the rest of the two hours staring at my screen. No coffee, no  Facebook chat, no Twitter, no phone. Nothing. It was awful. It felt like such a time-wasting exercise and I kept thinking of all the things I could be doing. But I persevered. I stuck to this routine, however painful or inconvenient. For the first few weeks, I spent most of the two hours staring at the screen, maybe getting a few paragraphs in toward the end of the time slot.

A few more weeks and I’d still stare blankly for the first hour and a half, but find myself writing solidly for the last half hour. I’d want to stay and continue but I didn’t, I stopped at the scheduled time. Eventually (after what seemed like months) I trained myself to utilise this time. For two hours, twice a week, I’d write uninterrupted. I wrote at other times as well but the most productive period became this scheduled time.

The process of getting through the block that held my novel up for so long was frustrating and painful. But the relief I feel now that it is flowing again was worth every maddening moment.

Believe you can do it. Use discipline and perseverance, and have faith in your ability. And you will beat writers' block.

Are you ‘in the zone’?

I’m in the zone. And I’m loving it! A fabulous five thousand words down today.

For the uninitiated being ‘in the zone’ is a condition for which all writers yearn. It is often elusive, and sometimes hidden behind a solid wall, impossible to conjure. It’s that time when inspiration, motivation, and circumstance all converge to create a synergy so powerful that it drives the manuscript forward using the writer merely as a conduit.

It’s an awesome space to be in. Ideas flow through the fingers to the keyboard like water over a waterfall and everything else falls into insignificance. It becomes all that there is in that time, that place. When I’m in that space hours pass as easily as minutes and if it were not for the physical requirement to take in and release food and drink, and eventually sleep, I’d sit in front of my computer indefinitely.

Being in the zone this time around comes after months of writing through a thick fog. Every word extracted through a veil of frustration.  I’d write a hundred words and delete ninety-nine. Rewrite and delete again. Edit, delete, rewrite, over and over and over again. It was painful.

I was lucky to write one thousand words a month these past few months, so to sit down today and pen five thousand words in one day (as well as write two book reviews) is wonderful. I want to yell to the world, ‘I’m ba-ack!’ But I’ll just settle for this blog post.

Writers’ blur…

Something doesn’t feel right. I don’t know what it is. I’m not sure whether something is missing, or I’ve forgotten something. Did something happen to which I should’ve responded, or even noticed? Confusion is squirming behind a veil at the edge of my consciousness at the moment. I know it’s there but I can’t reach it. Can’t see it. Can’t fix it or make it go away.

I think maybe I’m just a little disoriented. It happens sometimes when I’m writing. I get so totally engrossed in the reality I’m creating in my narrative that perspectives blur and it takes a bit of time to remember which reality is which.

It wasn’t so bad when I was writing fantasy adventure for young people. Those worlds were a little easier to distinguish between. But it’s different now.

It’s always a huge relief to hear other writers talk about the way their characters speak to them; the solitary conversations while they’re walking the dog, or driving, or shopping, or lying in bed unable to sleep. It’s comforting to know I’m not the only one who conducts entire conversations in my head, or with imaginary companions. The concern that I may be teetering on the edge of sanity is mitigated after such revelations.

I know that these ‘voices in my head’ would, under any other circumstances probably be great cause for alarm. But at the moment I just want to know how the 17-year-old boy (key character in my current novel) is going to respond to the situation he is currently facing, without confusing his reactions with those of my young housemate, or my friend’s kid, or that kid I taught all those years ago.

Our characters are often compilations of people we know, or have known. Elements of many combine to create a realistic representation of the emotions, actions and reactions, that make someone human. Fallible. Vulnerable. Real.

It’s when you start calling the people around you by the names of the characters you’re creating that you start getting the raised eyebrow. Who am I talking to?

It’s particularly chilling at the moment because I’m writing crime. I know people like this. People capable of these horrible things. I’ve talked to them, worked with them, had coffee with them. Now I’m not saying that these particular people have committed such atrocities, but I bet they’ve thought about it. Sends shivers down my spine.

Where was I? Oh yeah… something strange is going on…