Love the block, don’t block the love (or What the Farmer told the Mountaineer)

Welcome, all you wonderful people who write fiction. How is your progress up the treacherous crags of Story Fell and Novel Mountain?

Oh. Oh dear! Like that, is it?

Well, bear in mind that even though you write alone, these steep pathways and sheer cliff faces you’ve chosen to climb have been scrambled up – and over – by uncountable others throughout the past and, even now, as you find yourself shivering and solitary on an impossible ridge, others are in similar difficulties all over this vast, forbidding peak.

Therefore, today’s post is a kind of Mountain Rescue service, dropping an extra length of rope, a change of socks and a cup of hot, reviving soup!

I’ve reached an age at which I am tired of struggling, swimming upstream, self-flagellating and generally agonising over my art. I kind of wish I’d come to this realisation years ago but the reality is that, if I had, I probably wouldn’t have the understanding I have now. Remember that old saying? “Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want…”

Recently, I’ve been thinking about that hoary old chestnut, writer’s block.

There’s a grand, hilarious fib I tell when strangers/fans/students etc ask me if I ever suffer from said chestnut.

“No.” I say.

(I say it firmly.)

“Writing is my job. Do plumbers get plumber’s block? Or Lawyers? Or warehouse pickers? Course not. They may not want to go to work but they have to, and so do I.”

People believe me too. They might have a moment of “Is this guy messing with me?” but when they see the look in my eye, they realise it’s the truth.

I’m a good liar like that.

To give you an idea of what I really think about writing on a bad day, here’s a line in one of my notebooks from some years ago. It offers a minor clue as to my state of mind when at work on a piece of fiction:

Strategies for coping with writer’s block: Cry, panic, self-mutilation. Helps to be drunk for all of these.

It has become clear over the years – through teaching writing to people of all ages, mentoring other authors and just hanging around with writerly types – that every writer is unique. We each have different desk routines, work ethics, drafting habits and everything else.

Why wouldn’t we, when we come from so many diverse backgrounds, each of us with entirely unrepeatable psychology and genetics driving us? No matter which area of the craft a writer develops a problem with, there isn’t a fix-it that works for everyone. This is also true for writer’s block.

That being the case, here’s the conclusion I’ve come to about getting stuck:

It may look broke, it may act broke, but it ain’t broke. And what ain’t broke, as everyone knows, don’t need no fixin’.

“But I’m sitting here clawing my own eyes out because NO WORDS WILL COME,” you say.

I know. I’ve been there so many times.

Sit back. Relax. Don’t panic.

Let’s go for an agricultural metaphor here, seeing as writing is all about inner fecundity and growth and natural magic…

If you were a farmer working a field, you would understand the importance of allowing that field a decent amount of time to lie fallow, so that it has ample opportunity to regenerate and become fertile again after the reaping is done.

Writing isn’t only about getting the words down. Sure, if you don’t do that then there’s no story, but there will be days, weeks – in my case, months and years – when words don’t come. There are many reasons why that can happen; sometimes obvious, other times not. None of that matters.

I’ve come the realisation that we have a choice about how to proceed when the words dry up. We can plunge into the customary negative spiral of auto-annihilation or we can do the right thing: sit back and chill.

Yes, you read that correctly.

Because when it isn’t about hammering away at the keyboard or getting hand cramps from working longhand, writing is about dreaming and wondering and staring out of the window. It’s about taking a stroll, watching a movie or rearranging your vinyl collection. It’s about eating ice cream and doing the ironing (not at the same time).

Just because you’re unable to set down a single word, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer. It doesn’t mean you’ll never write again. It may only mean that your ‘field’ is depleted and you need to take a break. This is not a disaster. It’s certainly not something that should be allowed to spoil an otherwise perfect day.

Here’s the insight that finally came to me from so many instances, over so many years, of not being able to write one solitary bastard word:

It’s a good thing.

I did absolutely say that.

I say it because writing will never just be about the words you can see on the page. If it was, it would have lost its power over me a long, long time ago. Writing (like scaling a mountain) is a process, incorporating stages and levels and progressions, many of which none of us are either aware of or understand.

We may think we know what we’re doing but we really don’t. That’s the magic in it. That’s why I love it. Because it’s never the same twice and it’s always full of surprises. I don’t know how it works and I don’t want to. I prefer a world with a little wonder still left in it.

What I do know is this:

A writer’s mind is like a wild stretch of land waiting to be explored – or like that farmer’s field. Glancing around on any given day, you’ll see sprouts of story visible, scattered everywhere you look. They seem unrelated to each other but, under the surface of the soil, all those sprouts are connected in your deep consciousness – beginnings, middles, endings, characters, phrases, twists and turns and all the rest of it, as well as cool stuff you don’t even realise you know yet. They’re all there, all joined up perfectly but hidden beneath the earth.

When you can’t write, you don’t need to worry about it. You need only allow the seasons to move across that land so that all the incredible promise it contains has a chance to rise up. Look after yourself, be kind to yourself and you’ll be feeding that inner landscape, fertilising it with trust and love – and, crucially, time.

Some while later, it might only be an hour but, equally, it might be several months or longer, you’ll return to look around that inner stretch of land and notice that some of the sprouts have grown and new ones are appearing.

That’s the time to return to your desk with your own comfortable, familiar methods and routines. Because it’s time to start harvesting again – uncovering those hidden networks, revealing the story that only needed time and light and water and care.

Yes, you could have whipped yourself bloody and forced the words out for all of that time but the pain it would engender is, I’ve come to feel, unnecessary. If you let go of the controls, you’ll find the new material waiting for you without you needing to lift a finger.

So, fiction-farming friends and bon mot mountaineers, no matter how bad things might seem, you really haven’t lost the plot. It will come back to you.

And if, as sometimes happens, you discover you’ve dug up a turd instead of a treasure, be open to the gentle realisation that you can’t be a genius every time. Even writing a dud tale is good experience; it makes better writers of us all. And maybe all that turds needs is more time underground to transform…

So, off you go up that ridge. The sun has come out and the wind has died. The air smells clean and your grip on the rock face is secure. You can see the entire world from here but things are going to look even better when you reach the top.

I’ll see you there up there.

(Although I may be some time…)

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On writers who write about writers and the writers, like me, who write about them.

Hoorah! A new book review!

It ought to be a fair appraisal, right? But so often it reads like more than that, like a judgement. There, I’ve said it.

Oh, look. Here’s another. And another. My Twitter feed, Facebook news feed and Goodreads homepage are choked with book reviews. Well, I’m a writer; what else should I expect given my sphere of contacts?

Book reviewing is a big thing now. It’s out there, everywhere, as it is for all products and services. But is it real reviewing or is it just saying something because someone put a platform there and having a voice is nice? Is it good reviewing or is just mud-slinging?

For me a considered, informative review ought to show an understanding of the difference between assessment and condemnation. Book bloggers tend to display this kind of understanding.

Oddly, it’s writers that very often don’t.

Perhaps, for someone who has only ever been a reader of books (as opposed to to someone who writes them as well) it’s alright to condemn a novel or a collection of stories. You’re a punter and other punters want to know what you think; it was ace/it was shit/I loved it/I hated it.

Take look at any title on a bookseller’s website or any title on Goodreads and it’s immediately clear that the combined summaries of the many have become a great barometer of the quality of a book – as they are of anything you can buy online.

For me, though, having written books for some years, reviewing another author’s work makes me uncomfortable, especially if I didn’t enjoy it. That’s why I almost never put pen to paper about a book I haven’t had a good experience with.

When I was co-running the Horror Reanimated blog, our policy when authors or publishers submitted books for appraisal was the same: we only reviewed the work that we felt deserved a bigger audience, books that really rocked our world.

Goodreads is one of those places where writers do review other writers – a lot. And, whilst there are clear guidelines for how reviews are written, I still think that writers should evaluate the efforts of others in their line of work with a little more thought, a little more awareness, a little more tact.

We are all, let’s face it, in the same business.

If you’re a writer, how often have you had this experience? You’re reading a book and you know darn fine that the author is light years beyond you in their skill with language and story-telling ability. And yet, their book just doesn’t quite do it for you. Or, worse, you abhorred or yawned through every page of it – except for those bits you just flat-out envied until you puked undiluted gall.

Been there? Well, for me this is a signal to either not review the book or to make it very clear that your review isn’t a raging ego-trip but just another opinion.

I recently read Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. I love Cormac McCarthy’s work – The Road is one of my all-time favourite reads – and I’m aware that he is a superior writer to me in every way. However, whilst the language and imagery in Blood Meridian were almost transcendental, after a while the story lost its power over me. I rated it four stars on Goodreads but there’s no way I’m going to review the book. Not a chance. I mean, I can’t even be sure how much of it I understood. 60 – 70%, perhaps? How could I possibly make a judgement about it?

Judgement comes from above; only it’s cheap bastard cousin opinion can come from below, so why pretend?

And, really, it ought to be exactly the same when you read a book you feel is inferior in every way to what you, as a writer, are capable of. You know how tough this job is. You know what people go through, not just to complete work in the first instance but then in trying to garner some recognition. Is this really the moment to rubbish someone? Just because they’ll never be in the same league as you?

These days, anyone can be a reviewer. Anyone can have the pleasure of making their judgement (or is it just an opinion…) public. As long as it’s honest and not rigged, that has to be a good thing, because it leads to a kind of democracy of discernment that anyone can access and subsequently base their buying decisions upon.

But back to writers appraising the work of their peers. What does this really contribute?

You could argue, I suppose, that inventors of vacuum cleaners would be the best-placed people to judge newly-invented vacuum cleaners just arriving on the market. But could we really trust them to be objective when, like all other vacuum cleaner inventors, what they really want is a bigger share of the market?

Hm.

Oh.

Personally speaking, I will continue to save my book reviews for those rare diamonds that really knock the stuffing out of me – in a good way.

Because, frankly, I need every ounce of writing energy that I can muster, not for flaunting an opinion – something anyone can do – but for the real deal; putting all I have into creating the kind of stories that no one else but me can tell and doing it to the best of my ability.

A mentoring tale and the wolf within…

A few years ago, I was invited by Geoff Brown to be a mentor for the Australian Horror Writers’ Association.

It involved working with a particular author on a work-in-progress and, as you’d expect, sharing as much knowledge with them as possible. The payment was modest for the amount of work doing it properly would involve but I wanted to give it a try and see if I could make a difference.

Initially, I was shown two pieces of writing and at that early stage, I balked. I didn’t see any potential in either passage, so I asked Geoff if there was anyone else’s work I could look at. I was then sent a scene from a novel about a werewolf who used heroin to prevent himself from turning at each full moon. I loved the idea and the writing had real depth. I asked to work with the author and away we went for several weeks.

The author was Pete Aldin and we worked well together. I did what I could to guide, hone and encourage a person who clearly had a lot of raw talent and, like me, was quite late to the writing party.

It was a great experience. It caused me to question what I thought I knew about novel writing and come out stronger on the other side. And, throughout, despite setting some tough tasks for Pete – the kinds of tasks I’d have set for myself years before, if only I’d known – I watched his writing gain power and impact and saw his novel stretching towards fullness.

The mentoring period came to an end and we said our virtual goodbyes. I hoped I’d made a difference for Pete but I knew working with him had made a big difference for me; it showed me I had something to give, other than my stories, and it proved to me that not all writing advice is good advice because every author is so different. There’s no right and wrong way of doing it as long as what you do works – for you.

And that was the end of that.

Until a few weeks ago when Pete got in touch with some news. He’d finished his novel, taken loads of advice from lots of different people and had ended up publishing it himself. I was even mentioned in the acknowledgements. I was delighted.

I said at the time that I’d tell our story in a blog post, so here it is!

Pete’s an ace writer and his novel is a super-cool spin on the werewolf genre. If you like your characters hairy on the inside, check out Black Marks. And when you finish it, having loved it to bloody bits, go and give the man a star rating or better still a nice review…

Giveaway results

winner-winner-chicken-dinnerWell, the Goodreads giveaways that spanned most of January and February are over.

Following half a day of printing and signing letters, personalising title pages and stuffing envelopes, all the prizes are now in the post.

*pats self on back*

I gave away: Continue reading

Thank you with cats!!!

Just a quickie this morning, lovely people.

It turns out that so many of you downloaded the opening extract of The Veil it went straight into Lovereading’s Top Ten books of the week – I’m up there with Nadiya Hussain!

So it’s a big THANK YOU from me and a picture of my catsmaking-big-cats-look-small

(And if you haven’t read the beginning of the story, what are you waiting for? A quiet Sunday morning? 🙂 )

XXX

Give-away January!

I’m delighted to announce that all my proposed Goodreads give-aways have been approved.

This means that from the 11th to 24th of January I will be giving away six different titles, totalling 42 books! So entering means there’s a very good chance of winning something. Continue reading