In last week’s newsletter I posted a comment from a survey I did a few years ago by someone who still gets The Fear after 15 books.
‘Often I feel I can’t write another good sentence.’
Shortly afterwards I had a message on Twitter from author Judy Astley:
It turned out it wasn’t Judy who’d written the comment, but as she said,
‘a lot of us feel the same every now and then, however OK we’re doing.’
So I asked her to write a guest post for us about it. Here’s what she says – what I find interesting is that the frozen feeling she describes is exactly what someone like me deals with, it’s just the concerns that change. And if anyone knows the solution, it’s someone who’s written 18 books, right?
I once said that the trouble with writing for a living is that every now and then you get those awful terror times and think, can I actually ever write another publishable sentence? It’s a blankness of brain, the sense that the fickle Muse has flitted out from under my desk after more than 20 faithful years and flown away to shack up with some whip-keen young author whose talent is at that thrillingly fresh in-bud stage rather than close to running-to-seed.
For me this occasional horror is not so much Writer’s Block as a feeling of being frozen – as if everything I’ve ever wanted to say has already gone into my books and that even if I come up with a good paragraph I have the sensation that I’ve used the same phrasing before. I’ve even gone and looked through the book I think it might be in (and there’ve been seventeen of them so there’s plenty to check..), just in case.
The only way to deal with it is to write your way through it. Force yourself. Believe me, I’ve tried everything else, from re-painting the front door to going to Ikea for tea-lights I don’t need and a lie-down on their beds. I go to Waitrose or tend my greenhouse seedlings but it’s all sly procrastination and the longer you’re away from the keyboard the more you end up sidling past it and putting off the moment. There might be the odd moment of inspiration in the bath but mostly, words come from more words: here, at the Mac.
And when you DO get to the moment, I think you’ve got to allow yourself to write any old thing to get past the mind-mud and into the flow – after all, it’s not as if you can’t delete the dregs and no-one’s looking over your shoulder. Or write something completely different if you still can’t get into the novel. I sometimes write little pieces for Paragraph Planet (paragraphplanet.com) which have to be exactly seventy-five words. That focuses the mind. A while ago I wrote a piece for an international Life Writing competition too – 1,800 words that were not fiction. That was exciting (and 2nd prize – yes!), working a style and topic that was something completely ‘other’.
I thought I’d run right out of story ideas a year ago, but then I re-read my first novel, Just For The Summer, because someone had asked me how I knew what ‘rules’ to follow before I wrote it and I wanted to remind myself what I’d done (I hadn’t known ANY rules, that was clear, and yet it worked) and I started wondering what happened to the characters. So I started (tentatively) on a follow-up, bringing back the same characters to the same Cornish village but twenty years on. There were moments in the middle when I could feel that same mild “what-next?” panic but really it wasn’t too bad. I let myself just go with the rush of it and…relaxed. The result, In The Summertime, will be published by Bantam in July and Black Swan as a paperback in June 2014.
You can find Judy at www.judyastley.com, and she’s @Judyastley on Twitter. She has a particularly fine list of likes (includes cashmere, graveyards and liquorice comfits) and dislikes (tiny dogs, rubbish eyesight and people who think they’re in her novels) on her site, which you should check out.
*Amazon links are affiliate ones. You can, of course, just google her or buy on the links from Judy’s site