Saturday, 29 January 2011

How To Write A Novel - Part 2

You have the great idea, you’ve planned the chapter order, you’ve created four-dimensional characters and created the likely ups and downs that will happen in your story. You’ve created a setting. You’ve done the planning and the preparation. You’ve researched background information...

Now you need to translate all that to the page.

Writing the First Chapter

This is quite daunting; in so much as this is the beginning of a journey, not just for your characters, but also for you. It’s the start of a story that will have a beginning, middle and an end. It’s about taking that leap off the edge and jumping into the unknown.

It’s not always an easy prospect. Where do I start? How do I start? Should I start with description or action or dialogue? 

The simple answer is to not think about it too much, don’t overanalyse things. Just get writing. Remember, this is your first draft of many, so the aesthetics of writing are not important at this stage, because the editing process will do the essential work. (Try not to edit too much until you’ve finished the novel).

For the first chapter, however, there are a few things to consider.

Firstly, you should start as near to the action as possible, or a defining moment in your character’s life that sets the character on his or her journey. Don’t make the mistake of writing pages full of dreary stuff leading up to the defining moment or action, or fill the reader with endless background information before you finally getting going by chapter five. This will kill any tension or trepidation and bore your reader. Jump straight in with the story.

The first few lines, the first paragraph should grab your reader’s attention and hook them in.

The Hook

This is what you use to compel the reader to want to read your story and keep them reading until the closing paragraph. It’s the same principle used on the back of book covers: the blurb that enticed you to buy and read it.

The hook can be a paragraph, a sentence or just a few words that grabs your reader from the off and doesn’t let go, i.e. ‘He lifted the blade and sliced cleanly’ is a simple first paragraph hook. Or ‘He knew he was going to die, but he didn’t know when...’

These simple hooks make the reader want to learn more.

Whatever you do, don’t open your chapter with the ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ cliché. Be creative, be imaginative. Be anything but clichéd. You can start with a short description of action, or dialogue that grabs the attention – you decide. Dialogue should never be mundane.

Also, remember that you don’t have to tell the reader everything about the situation or the main character from the opening chapter. The best way to provide information is to drip-feed snippets. Tease the reader. This is one of the best ways to keep them interested.

The art of a good story is to tease the reader, and slowly feed information as the story unfolds.

Make sure you make your main character available to reader at the earliest opportunity. Again, it’s not necessary to launch into an entire life history or full-on description of what your character looks like – just entice the reader with snippets here and there throughout the chapters. Let the reader do some of the work – enable them to picture the character, the situation and the scene for themselves, because that’s part of the enjoyment of reading a good book.

Of course, the purpose of any story is to get from the beginning to the end, so your narrative and dialogue should always move the story forward.

Create immediacy with your reader. This means your characters and scenes must leap off the page, that this world is so believable the reader thinks they are right there with your characters, they’re feeling the emotion, getting involved with the action. How do you accomplish this? By thoroughly knowing the background and setting and the characters of the story and bringing the fictional world to life with narrative, description and dialogue.

Set the tone. The reader will know immediately if the story will be action packed (thriller, crime etc), filled with sadness (true-life style, romance, literary etc) or sprinkled with humour (funny, satirical etc). There’s nothing worse than picking up a book and not realising that half way through it’s a horror story and not a thriller.

The reader should also learn from the first chapter the likely conflicts that might crop up, especially if there is tension created between characters. Conflict is at the heart of any story, so let the reader get a taste of this as soon as possible. Editors and readers alike want to know what is at stake for your character; what is making your character undertake this journey and why? And ultimately, what will be the outcome?

Ending a chapter

As with the beginning of the chapter, the ending of a chapter is just as important, because you will still be employing that hook technique to reel the reader back in to continue reading the second chapter, third, fourth and so on. Again, you’re giving an invite for them to read on. Don’t be over the top, or necessarily dramatic, but a simple subtle hint at what might come is all you need to keep the reader interested.

For instance: ‘...as the sun set, she knew exactly what she had to do...’ Something like this sets up some intrigue for the reader. This is just an example, so it can be even more subtle than that, if you wish.

And before you know it, you’ll be into the second and third chapter...and onto the rest of the story journey.

The best way to remind yourself of these starting points is to draw up a simple checklist:

1. Open with a life-changing situation or action.
2. Introduce the main character.
3. Move the story forward.
4. Create immediacy
5. Set the tone
6. Set up the likely tensions and conflict to come
7. End with a hook to the next chapter.


Next week: Part 3 – The middle section of the novel.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

How To Write A Novel - Part 1

Planning and Preparation

When once the itch of literature comes over a man, nothing can cure it but the scratching of a pen. But if you have not a pen, I suppose you must scratch any way you can” - Samuel Lover, Handy Andy, 1842

Sitting down and writing a novel is no easy task. It’s extremely time consuming, it’s daunting, difficult and at times frustrating, but it is always very rewarding because by the end of the process, you have a tangible, finished product that not only entertain and thrills, but you will also have become a better writer for it.

But writing a novel isn’t just about sitting down in front of a blank screen and producing words. There is so much more to consider what is, essentially, a mammoth undertaking. If you are starting your first novel, there are lots of things to consider first before you even commit your words to paper or screen – some planning and groundwork is required before you start to lay the foundations of your story, because without it you will find the process overwhelming and you’ll hesitate, so much so that you won’t even be able to write the first line.

Writing a novel is one giant circular structure of planning, researching, writing, editing, polishing, submitting...then the next project of planning, researching, writing, editing, polishing, submitting etc.  The one thing this process demands from you is commitment. No commitment = no success. You will spend months or years planning and researching and then writing your novel, following by a period of editing. This is where around 15% or 20% of your work will be slashed from your pride and joy. This means many scenes may have to be re-written or even cut completely. It is not unusual to lose entire chapters. The ability to do that, and remain focused, is what a committed writer will do see his or her words in print.

Where to start?

The starting point is your idea, not the actual writing, as most people assume. Without your initial idea, there is no novel. You need some sort of idea of what your story will be about, so this is where you start some kind of planning. As I’ve already mentioned in previous posts, writing a novel or short story is entirely subjective in how you approach and execute it. This article is merely for guidance and advice, to hopefully make your job as a writer that much easier. Some authors do little planning, others are meticulous in their approach.

You can choose to do preparation or none at all. How you go about your planning is also entirely up to you. Agatha Christie once said, “The best time for planning a book is while you're doing the dishes”.

My advice for new writers is to at least do some planning and preparation. I fall into the ‘meticulous’ category, because I like to make sure my idea evolves into a concrete, believable story. I have everything planned in as much detail as I can. I don’t have to follow it to the letter, but it serves as a guide. Of course, you will have your own way. It’s whatever feels right for you.

Take the wise words of Benjamin Franklin: “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail”.

Planning is all about knowing what your story is about – the plot – and who the story involves – the characters. The plot is the basic premise of the novel. This is subject to change as the novel evolves, so don’t worry too much about planning it in-depth, just as long as you have a believable plot (nothing too outlandish). You might also think about possible sub-plots to accentuate your main plot.

The one thing you must have is credible and fully rounded characters. It’s wise to invest some time researching and building your characters before you start writing, giving them biographies and backgrounds, otherwise how can you write about someone you don’t know? Characterisation is vital.

You should also know the theme (the core idea, like revenge, fear, hate, greed etc) and a rough direction it will take. Not to be confused with plot, the theme is the undercurrent moving beneath the surface of the story. For instance, if you are writing about greed, then perhaps make some notes on what this is and what it means, and the implications of greed on the way people behave in your story.

Know your genre – don’t write a sci-fi novel if you’re into women’s fiction and love to explore the lives of primarily female characters, or don’t write a bodice ripping Mills & Boon style romance if you love gore and blood and demonic creatures of the night. For most of us, we write the same material as the stuff we like to read because it interests us, we like it and we feel comfortable with it. Write what feels comfortable to you.

With some idea of a plot, a theme, characters and genre, you can put all that against a setting. Where does the story take place? Will the action take place in different states or counties; will it take place in several countries? You might know this from the start, or it might come a little later as you progress through the story, so some of these elements don’t come into play until you actually start writing, and that’s because a novel is a constantly evolving entity.

Another thing you will need to know before you start is to know what viewpoint you want. This is where many novels collapse, because the writer isn’t clear on whose story they are telling. Know whose story it is from the outset, otherwise you might find you will have to change the structure of the novel halfway through when you realise that in fact it’s a peripheral character that becomes the satellite character, not the character you thought it would be.

Another thing to consider in your planning is point of view (or tense). Not to be confused with Viewpoint, this is whether you want to tell your story in first person, third person singular or third person multi-viewpoint. This is very important. I know many writers who start out with one POV and have to change half way through because they discover the POV just isn’t working. That’s because they haven’t thought the process through. Know which POV will work not just for the story, but also for you, because writing an 80,000 – 100,000 word novel in first person is difficult for new novelists to master.

(See Point of View, which one? Aug 2010) for more advice on POV.

Understand that every story is about conflict. Your novel will need conflict because without it, the story won’t be worth reading. Any novel is always about a character being in a situation that needs resolving. Your character will face many problems in order to resolve that situation, which means things get progressively worse before that final moment, when the situation is at its worst, and the character must change and take difficult action to bring about a resolution. The key here is not just about what the character does to achieve this, but how the character evolves with the story and how he or she changes because of it.

Drama, instead of telling us the whole of a man's life, must place him in such a situation, tie such a knot, that when it is untied, the whole man is visible” - Leo Tolstoy

Try to give your main character not just an external conflict – the main thrust of the story – but also an inner conflict that relates to the story. It could be something like facing a fear, facing a moment in the past or facing past mistakes, (characters aren’t perfect after all).

Finally, have some idea of your beginning. The idea is to start your novel as close to the main action as possible. The best way to do this is have a rough chapter plan. You don’t have to know exactly how many chapters you will need, or the length of them, and you don’t have to meticulously plan every single one, but rather have some rudimentary idea of chapter flow. You will find that the chapters evolve as you write, but having a guide to work through helps to formulate the chronology of the story.

Once all these elements are in place you can start to plan how they will all come together to create your story with use of lists, timelines, mind maps etc. (See the previous article Tools for Short Story and Novel Writing, Jan 2011) for ideas on the tools that could help the process.

How you plan and prepare is as individual as the writing you produce. You are in charge, but it’s wise to start with a solid foundation to your project.

As for my next book, I am going to hold myself from writing it till I have it impending in me: grown heavy in my mind like a ripe pear; pendant, gravid, asking to be cut or it will fall” - Virginia Woolf

Planning & Preparation Summary:

• Idea
• Plot
• Subplots
• Overall theme
• Know your genre
• Characters
• Character Viewpoint
• POV (Tense)
• Conflict
• Rough idea of the beginning and some chapter outlines.

You should have here all the elements in place to start writing.

Then the real work begins...

In Part 2 we’ll look in depth at beginning the novel and translating the idea into words.


PS - As a little aside from all this planning, you might be interested in a fascinating article, "20 Acclaimed Authors and Their Unique Writing Rituals", which details the approach of many famous writers to how they write, everything from standing up and working, being on autopilot, lying in bed or writing while naked...we all have our own way!

Click on the link:

http://www.mastersdegree.net/blog/2011/20-acclaimed-authors-and-their-unique-writing-rituals/

Thanks to Kate Rothwell for sharing this.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Tools for Short Story and Novel Writing

The tools for writing short stories and novels are the instruments that make planning and writing your stories that much easier to manage and organise. They include everything from the old-fashioned pen and paper and notepad to a vast array of novel writing software available online to download.

Well-organised writers fair better with their writing than those who are somewhat disorganised, simply because their approach is controlled and ordered and they have all their resources to hand.

Every writer will have the basic tools of writing: Computer, word processor or an old-fashioned typewriter, the obligatory pen and paper, dictionary, a generous amount of creativity and a wild imagination. There are, however, other tools that a writer can utilise to help keep organised; especially as writing a novel has a tendency to generate lots of paper, and most of them are already at your disposal.

Novel Writing – Planning Tools

The basic thing for any writer planning a novel is the development of the story arc and the characters that inhabit that story, the construction of a story from the ground upward. You don’t have to plan every single thing or nuance that happens, because novels never go exactly according to plan, but getting some basics down gives you a guideline to follow and keeps a sense of management over your novel.

How a writer approaches novel planning is a personal, subjective thing, but there are plenty of useful tools to help us organise ourselves, things like Mind Maps, Timelines, Lists, Charts and Spreadsheets, databases and computer programs, all there to make our life easier.

Mind Maps

These are so useful for brainstorming your initial ideas. They consist of bubble or wire diagrams used to represent ideas, tasks or other items linked to and arranged around a central key word or idea. They help a writer to visualise, structure, and sort ideas, themes, characters and plot points etc. These are great for simply generating and throwing out ideas.

All writers are creative creatures; they love nothing more than to free their imagination, and mind maps are a great way for exploring that imagination.  (See belowClick on Change Zoom Level, bottom RH corner of your computer screen for closer look).



















Timelines

Timelines are a useful tool for anything that needs a chronological order. This could include events in your story or novel, such as potting high points and low points or the number of chapters and a brief description of them etc.

They work well as a visual aid because you get to see something that is in a progressive order and it makes it clearer to you how things could unfold over a certain amount of time. You don’t necessarily have to meticulously plot them on a computer; you can do it by hand on paper - whichever works best for you. (See example below).


















Storyboarding

The more artistic writers out there might like doing a basic storyboard of key scenes that sometimes pop into your head. I do this sometimes, by simply sketching out important scenes or character conflicts. It helps me visualise how I see it, because sometimes a big scene might play out in my mind rather like a movie and I want to follow the same “cinemagraphic” approach.

Lists

Another old-fashioned method that has proved eternally useful is the list. Not to be underestimated in their simplicity, lists are just as helpful as mind maps and timelines if this is your preferred method of bullet pointing ideas, events, characters, conflicts and so on.

You can make a list of practically anything when writing, and each writer has his or her own way of doing so. Some like a visual sheet of paper in front of them, so a handy A4 organiser/notebook is perfect for that, while others prefer to keep lists in a simple Word format on a computer for easy access. It’s up to you, but lists are so important to writers because they help us organise our ideas into a simple to follow analysis.

I tend to use many lists, so for example, a list of characters, a list of chapters, a list of possible points to research, a list of resources that I might need during the course of the project etc.

Charts & Spreadsheets

These tools are great for those writers who prefer to use simple charts to chart events chronologically, or to create interactive lists which they can regularly update and change. Using Excel is perfect for organising and keeping up with your writing. What you put in your chart, or how you use it, is entirely up to the writer, but some writers find this approach helpful.

Spreadsheets are good for creating a database of information in relation to your novel, especially when you start to amass lots of information. This may take the form of character lists, plot points, or it may be a database of the agents and publishers that you have sent your MSS to, so you can easily keep track of your submissions.

And the beauty of all these programs like is that you tailor them to fit how you work and what you want from them.

Notice boards/white boards

Some writers like to visualise things as they think out their ideas, and white boards are perfect for jotting down those flash ideas, notes, mini-mind maps or wire drawings, timelines etc. They are yet another useful tool to help writers organise how they work and retain information, plus they offer the information at-a-glance and they can be used over and over again.

I use white boards to jot down any quick ideas I might have, a list of upcoming anthologies, flash fiction submissions and competitions, as well as reminders for events or writing projects.

Powerpoint

Why Powerpoint? How can this help? It depends how you use it, but it’s yet another useful organisational tool that might otherwise be overlooked. Not all people can get on with spreadsheets or timelines or other planning tools, so another way of planning your novel is by adding information to Powerpoint slides, for instance and including all the things you might need for your writing project, for instance a short synopsis, a detailed plot, a list of all the characters in your novel, complete with bios and backgrounds, the theme(s) and background to your novel, the possible subplot(s), a reminder list of things to include, like pace, emotion, tension, conflict, the five senses, the objectives and opposing obstacles in your character’s path and a list of research items etc.

This is so useful as a reference tool (and cuts down on all the bits of paper flying about) because you have everything there at a glance to help you with your novel. I use Powerpoint to detail everything I need on a writing project because I find it easy and handy to use.

(See the example below).


















Novel Writing Software

There are plenty of software programs for the budding writer: Snowflake, Storybook and Writer’s Cafe are just some of them. These are a useful aid for new writers; lending advice and guidance while helping you formulate your novel. They won’t actually tell you how to become published.  That’s down to you, but they will help you organise your novel.

Organisational Tools -

Notebooks/organisers

No writer should be without a notebook of some kind. They don’t have to be anything special, just a simple writing pad is apt. This is where ideas, scribbles, musings, observations and bits of scenes can be jotted down for use later and then incorporated into your novel.

Very often inspiration and ideas strike at inopportune moments, so a handy pad is great for scribbling something down before you forget it. Most writers will have umpteen notebooks or organisers lying around. It’s rather like a woman and her shoes...writers just have to have notebooks.

Project Files

No writer is without files, whether they’re actual files or digital files. Each writer is different on their preference, but useful nonetheless for keeping bits of notes, research and ideas related to your project. I tend to use both actual files as well as digital files. When I’ve finished my project, I copy all the digital files onto a CD and pop it into a box file containing all my other documents relating to that project. That means I have a hard copy file of everything and a digital one, just in case of loss or damage or any other eventuality that might occur to your project.

I have a backup of my MS, notes, papers, research, electronic files, photos etc, in a box file on the shelf, so if something happened to my computer or my electronic files, I have something I can refer to and I know I won’t lose any valuable information because I have a hard copy of everything.

Memory Sticks/CD’s/external backup drives

Essential tools for every writer. Memory sticks and re-writable CD’s are lifesavers. There is nothing worse than spending hours and hours working diligently on your masterpiece, only for there to be a power cut...or your computer crashes...or a virus corrupts your files.

Every writer has experienced a mini breakdown after becoming victim of forgetfulness. Back up regularly. Whichever medium you prefer – whether memory sticks, re-writable CD’s or external memory drives, always make sure you back up any work, together with all the files on your computer.

OneNote

This is a useful organisational tool in that it acts as your electronic filing cabinet by allowing you to run a host of projects by allowing you to gather, organise, search, file notes and screen clippings, thoughts, reference materials, research and other information. All your notes will be visible with easy to use, colour coded notebooks, sections, and pages. It’s a great organisational tool (and it saves on paper).

I use this for all my major writing projects, and as with other electronic files, your OneNote files can be backed up too.

Hopefully there is enough resources and ideas here to keep budding writers well organised and able to manage projects efficiently!

Resources

• Internet – every writer’s best friend when it comes to research.
• Library – Again, a visit to the library is just as useful for research.
• Artists’ & Writers’ Yearbook – Listings of agents and publishers in the UK and some in the US. (Non-UK writers should check their own equivalent resource publishers).
• Dictionaries/Thesaurus – No writer should be without either of these. There are plenty of online dictionaries, but a hard copy of the OED or similar is even better.
• Writing magazines and books – These are a great source of help, advice and support.



Next time: Part 1 How to plan a novel.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Subplots

I’m often asked by new writers how subplots should evolve. Some writers find subplots difficult to get to grips while others are put off trying to attempt them, but subplots are really simple tools for giving your novel an extra dimension and are quite easy to construct. To understand how to do that, a writer needs to first understand the function of a subplot.

The subplot is a secondary, or tertiary, plot to the main thrust of the novel. If you imagine the main storyline as a tree trunk, you can have several branches of connected stories – the subplots. All these connect to the main story, the tree trunk. These connecting stories help to give texture and dimension to a novel; they give the reader something more than a one-dimensional, primary story.

Your subplots must always connect and relate to the main story. They are there to lend support and substance to your main plot. They are also there to maintain the reader’s interest.

Another thing to consider with subplots is that they should happen because of the main story, not because you think it’s a good idea to digress and concentrate on something that is totally unrelated. This will only confuse readers and detract from the story altogether. Don’t fall into the trap of making up an unnecessary subplot because you think the story needs it, because invariably your story doesn’t. Remember, they should evolve naturally from the main plot.

(On the whole, short stories and novellas don’t have subplots because of brevity.)

When do you use a subplot?

It all depends on your story. Most subplots appear quite early novels, as new characters and situations unfold. A subplot can happen because you introduce a new character further along in the story, or perhaps there is a situation that conflicts with the main character’s goal which forces a different action from them. Perhaps there is a love interest, perhaps the opposite. Perhaps there is a shadowy character waiting in the wings, someone relevant to your main character, or perhaps something in your main character’s past is important, and this is told in flashback... all of these are subplots. Ideally – although not always – they should create conflict with your main character to add greater depth to the overall story. 

Subplots are not always apparent when you start writing your story. It may be they start to emerge as the story matures and develops, or it may be you have a clear indication of a subplot from the start. Each writer is different in that sense. There is no right or wrong way. They should arise naturally from the main story, so try not to force them; otherwise, you’ll end up with something that is contrived and not worth reading.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate a subplot is to take a look at a famous novel. Let’s look at Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

In this story, Scout, the main character, and her brother Jem, live with their father, Atticus Finch, in their town in Alabama. It follows a period of their lives during the Great Depression as Atticus, a lawyer, agrees to defend a local black man, Tom Robinson, for the rape of a white woman. It is set against a backdrop of prejudice and racism. This is the main plot.

During the summer, a boy named Dill comes to stay with his aunt and becomes friends with Scout and Jem, but Dill is also a catalyst for their interest in the spooky house down the road, which belongs to the mysterious Boo Radley. Few people have seen Boo. The children are equally fascinated and scared of him. He leaves them little gifts in the hollow of a tree. This is an indication that Boo is not the terrible person that we first imagine, and he will play a pivotal role at the end of the story. This is a subplot.

The townsfolk turn against Atticus and his family for defending Tom Robinson, so Scout feels she must defend her father against the name-calling at school, and takes to fighting with the school kids who mock her father. This is also a subplot.

Despite the truth of Tom Robinson’s innocence and Atticus demonstrating that Mayella Ewell, the supposed victim, and her father Bob Ewell, the local drunk, were lying about the whole thing, the court convicts him. Robinson is driven to try to escape, but is shot and killed. Ewell plagues the Robinson family. There is tension between him and Atticus. Their strained relationship is a subplot.

The climax of the story leads Ewell to drunkenly attack Scout and Jem as they walk back from a Halloween party. Jem is beaten and his arm is broken. A mysterious shadow steps in to save the children from harm and takes Jem home. Scout follows, realising it is Boo Radley. Boo has killed Bob Ewell. The Sheriff decides that far from prosecuting Boo, Ewell drunkenly fell on his own knife. Scout walks Boo to his house. At last Scout realises the importance of ‘walking in another’s shoes’ and seeing life from other people’s perspectives, rather than judging them with prejudice, as they had done so with Boo.

There are several subplots running parallel to the main story, all of which help to round off the whole thing quite effectively. Layering a story this way with subplots helps bring numerous elements together, collectively woven into the fabric of the main story. Harper Lee does this so well, taking the children’s own prejudices and setting them against the racism and prejudice of the Deep South, the tensions of white and black people, the truth against deceit and honour and integrity in the face of diversity.

How do you add subplots to the story?

How you do it really depends on how you write, your style, but the best way is to change the viewpoint your characters by alternating your scenes or chapters. Doing this will mean that the reader will then became part of the deepening story through the subplots because they are privy to new parallel storylines, whereas your main character may not. This can add suspense and tension. Different character viewpoints will allow you to explore different connected storylines, until eventually they all connect in the final chapter. This technique is also a good way of introducing secondary characters.

Resolve All Subplots

The most important thing you need to do with any subplot is to resolve it by the end of the novel, otherwise you will leave your reader wondering what happened to the hero’s love interest, or what became of the shadowy figure, or the conflict you may have created with different characters. There is nothing worse than following a subplot and not knowing what happens at the end!

As with any novel, write, experiment and create and see what comes of it.

Summary:

• Subplots must connect to the main story (plot).
• Subplots must happen for a reason and make sense together with the main story.
• Subplots should move the story forward. They should enrich, support and deepen the overall story.
• Subplots should reveal information about the main story, the situation or characters, which readers should become privy.
• Subplots should keep your reader interested.
• Subplots must always be resolved.


Next week: Tools for planning a novel

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Unblocking Writer's Block

We’ve all suffered from it. You sit there, willing something to happen but...nothing, not even a flicker of brain activity. It arrives with no warning and leaves you stilted.

Writer’s block is a bit like lightening: you don’t know when it will strike, or where. It’s a condition which arises when a writer loses the ability to produce work and the causes are numerous, whether that’s psychological, creative or real. Defining writer’s block is difficult because it encompasses so many things.

It’s an affliction which writers dread, and the effects are real, but writer’s block is a bit of a misnomer. It’s not an actual block – nothing is stopping the writer from writing. It’s a perceived state of mind. To understand writer’s block you first have to understand that you have the problem, not the blank screen or piece of paper. It’s easy for writers to blame their inability to write on everything and anything, when in fact the underlying cause is usually a creative matter and lies with the writer’s inability to extract that creativity.

The length of a bout writer’s block can vary. In mild cases it can last from a few hours to several weeks. In severe cases it can last months and in some cases it can last years.

It could be a temporary difficulty in writing because of lack of motivation with your story, lack of inspiration, or perhaps you are at the beginning of a story or novel and are therefore unsure where to begin or how to approach it. This invariably means there is a lack confidence.

The most common cause of a creative blockage is daily life because it so easily distracts a writer from the creative process. Children, life in general, looking after a home, holding down a job, looking after relatives – the list is endless. Life can sometimes suck the creativity from us and writing can suffer.

Another common cause could be that a project may be fundamentally misconceived, or beyond your experience or ability. You may be trying to write out of your comfort zone, or attempting a genre you’re not used to. Again, this is down to lack of confidence and it may be a case of finding structure, routine, doing research and finding feedback that helps you get back that confidence.

Sometimes fear and anxiety can cause the block, worrying over things like chapter length, presentation, spelling and grammar or simply whether it’s good enough. Self doubt can cause writer’s block and if your confidence is low then the block will become a long term barrier. It could be that you’re four chapters into your masterpiece and you suddenly dry up, or you are barely a few pages into your short story and inspiration stops. This is why so many writers abandon their novels. The author simply can’t move the story forward, or doesn’t know how to.

In some cases the story doesn’t even start: you want to write but have no idea what to write. Some writers are daunted and overwhelmed when starting a novel, but as Mark Twain wrote "The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one."

Even trying too hard can cause a block. This can stunt creativity and stop you writing altogether because the writing process has one fundamental rule: you have an idea and then you write, rather than trying to write until the idea forms. That’s like squeezing toothpaste through a needle: instant block.

The blockage may not be psychological. Sometimes writer’s block is physical and can occur because the writing area you use has more waste paper than a recycling plant. For some it’s impossible to work around clutter; it has a creeping ability to stifle you and your creativity, without you even realising. Organise yourself and your files. Make your writing space a comfortable, tidy, well-lit area where you can relax and write.

A change of scene can help. Perhaps your stuffy office is holding back your creativity. Writers spend great chunks of time locked away in their offices, so why not go somewhere different and see if it inspires? What about writing in a coffee shop, maybe a park or even on public transport? New scenery, new sounds and new people can spark creativity.

Of course, there are practical ways of clearing writer’s block, provided you have the motivation to do so:

A good writer will always have a notebook to hand, pages full of notes, anecdotes, thoughts, observations, sketches, quotes and so on. This should serve as a catalyst for creativity. If you haven’t got one, invest in one and start scribbling. Whenever writer’s block threatens, go back through your notebook for inspiration and ideas to try and stir those creative juices.

If writer’s block sets in part way through a project, then the most practical thing to do is leave the project for a while and do something else. Sometimes just a break from the project is all you need. It’s easy to concentrate our efforts too much on one project. This is our cue for a break. The more you try to push writer’s block, the likelier it is you will fail to write a single sentence. Go for a walk, meet with friends and relax, maybe do another hobby...anything to free the invisible band that can sometimes constrain.

Conversely, switch to another writing project. It may not work for some, but might work for others. Some writers find it helpful if they have a couple of projects on the go. When the block happens on one project, they switch to another to keep the creativity going, and then return to the first project once creativity is re-established. Perhaps take a random word and build a flash fiction piece or write a poem around it. Something fresh may spark creativity. However you look at it, you are still writing and you will end up with another piece of work to your growing CV.

Read your favourite author, or similar novels to yours. This is the single most powerful way of kicking writer’s block into touch. Why? Simply reading the work of authors you admire can create a surge of enthusiasm to write again because the feelings of aspiration and inspiration are powerful tools. It makes us want to write.

Join a writers group, or an online writer’s forum. There is always help and support from others who can help you rekindle creativity. You can discuss your block, the underlying anxieties and the fears which may be causing it and in return receive help and encouragement on ways of overcoming those anxieties.

As with the notebook idea, sometimes it’s worth doing some writing exercises, similar to the one-word flash. These can help loosen the mind and get you to write different things:


1. Pick a word and write a flash piece or poem around it.

2. Take an old photograph and write about it.

3. Minute writing – not exactly a minute, but a reference to a set time to write something, say 10 minutes, or 30 minutes max to produce a story. This really focuses the mind, it gets your brain thinking and brings out the editor within you.

4. Write a letter to yourself, tell yourself everything you ever wanted to say, and don’t hold back on emotions. This helps to clear the air with yourself, especially if you have anxieties, and you may feel better for it.

Of course, there is one fundamental question you should ask yourself when you have writer’s block. Why write in the first place? Tell yourself the reasons why you do it.

Whether you do it for a living or a hobby, you write because you love to. By understanding the reason behind your writer’s block, you can begin ways of overcoming it and turning that blank screen of death into a screen full of words.


Next time: Constructing sub-plots