Writing breakdown- a diagnostic guide

?Anybody who has ever written a novel will, at some point during the process, find themselves hating their creation, feeling weary, sick and despairing, overwhelmed by the sense that they have wasted their time and effort, and certain that if they are ever going to write a successful book, then this will not be it.

It is possible that there are exceptions to this rule, that there are people who sail through the process untroubled by doubt, fatigue and existential terror. I have never met any of them, and frankly don’t want to; the jealousy would be unbearable. For the rest of us, these feelings are an inevitable part of writing. If you only have one such crisis per book, you can consider yourself lucky. The crucial issue is correctly to diagnose the problem. Is it a temporary loss of confidence, to be overcome by gritted teeth and persistence, or a warning from your subconscious that something has gone horribly wrong? Here is Doctor Andy’s pathological analysis of writing breakdown.

Diagnosis: The Fear
This is the most common form of writing problem, and features to some extent as a complication of nearly all the others. It is however powerful enough on its own to kill a book if not tackled quickly. The Fear takes on many disguises, appears in many forms. At heart though it is a simple lack of confidence in your own ability to do it, and in the quality of your work. I suspect this never goes away; however successful you may become, there will always be the lurking anxiety that you will lose the ability to do it.
Recognising The Fear for what it is is the vital first step to overcoming it. It will often pretend to be one of the other problems listed below, particularly Project Disorder. The main treatment is simply to keep going, and don’t look back. Whatever is worrying you about what you’ve already done, let it go. You can always fix it in revision, this is only a first draft, it doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be written. Move your story on, find out what happens next, make the next scene as good as it can be. Don’t re-read, don’t analyse, and don’t imagine that other people find it easy. If you feel The Fear, it means you’re doing something right.

Diagnosis: Exhaustion
Writing is hard, and so is life. Sometimes you just need to give yourself a break. The problem is that The Fear loves to masquerade as Exhaustion, because then it achieves its goal of stopping you writing. How, then, to tell the difference? The biggest clue lies in how it’s been going immediately prior to the problem arising. If you’ve been putting a lot of hours in, it’s been pouring out of you, and you just feel spent, like you have drained your well of ideas too dry, then it’s Exhaustion. If you’ve been finding it difficult, have been away from your writing because other stuff has been getting in the way, and you feel sick at the very thought of sitting down to your story, then a break will be disastrous. The only answer is to write through.
Genuine exhaustion requires a break, doing something restorative. You shouldn’t think about your story unless you feel like it- let your subconscious brew it for a while. However, the break must be pre-defined, like a holiday from a work. Make yourself an appointment to return to your writing, and keep it, however you feel when that time comes round.

Diagnosis: Constipated story
You just can’t think what happens next. The characters are staring at you from the page, asking what their motivation is, what they should be doing and why, but you have no answers. You have a lurking sense that the story took a wrong turn at some point. As you stare at the blank page, The Fear creeps in and begins to tell you that the whole project is useless, and that you should just give up.
Treatment: Sometimes it is beneficial to have a rest, but you need to be careful that The Fear does not take root and kill your book while you’re not looking. If you do take a break from your novel, it is often a good idea to work on something else instead, just to keep your writing muscles limber. Occasionally it helps to take a couple of steps back in the narrative: find the last point you were happy with it, scrap everything afterwards (keeping a copy just in case, of course!) and start again from there. However the most effective way of loosening a constipated story is to challenge your assumptions. If you’ve written yourself into a corner, then the walls are all of your own making, and equally are yours to knock down. Think about the things you have taken as given: do they have to be that way? Like a picture of a vase becoming two faces, you’ll find yourself suddenly seeing your invented world differently, and the solution will have been blindingly obvious all along. This is one of the best feelings in writing, and is worth hanging in there for.

Diagnosis: Project disorder
You develop an overwhelming sense that the story you are working on is a waste of time, and that you should abandon it and start on the new idea that has been exciting you. This is almost never a good thing. If you are more than a few pages in, you have already made a commitment, so at some point the idea seemed worthwhile to you. It is much less likely that you were wrong then than it is that you are now, while you are experiencing The Fear, Exhaustion and so on. The new idea can only benefit from a bit of composting time, and you will do a better job of it when you have the experience of completing a novel. When you come to write it, you will have a much stronger sense of what it’s all about and how to do it justice.

What is usually going on, though, is that the new idea is like the unattainable fantasy figure we might obsess over when a long-term relationship is going through a difficult patch. If the fantasy ever becomes reality, it rapidly loses its shine, until another idea wanders past and catches our eye. This leads only to a string of incomplete stories, chasing perfection and achieving nothing. The simple truth is that the idea itself is nowhere near as important as the act of finishing it.

Treatment: Nearly always it’s best to keep going.

Diagnosis: Career dislocation
You find yourself thinking that this writing lark is not all it’s cracked up to be. You’ve been working on your novel for ages, but don’t seem to making any real progress. It’s boring, it’s lonely, and it’s really hard work. Reading is no fun any more, you miss your social life, your gardening, your chilled out evenings in front of the telly…
You need to give serious consideration as to whether writing is really for you. There’s no shame in recognising that it’s not your vocation. Our culture bafflingly nurtures the idea that writing is easy, that ?everybody has a novel in them,? and there’s an industry grown up around encouraging people in this folly. If you’re finding writing difficult and tedious, that’s because it is. The satisfaction comes from overcoming the challenges and finishing your story. Writing a novel, like running a marathon, is on many people’s ?bucket lists?; but if you can’t face putting in the hours and keeping going through the pain, then you’re better off going skydiving or bungee jumping instead.

Beating the block

“There’s no such thing as writer”s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn”t write.”-Terry Pratchett

In my last Writing Advice post, I stressed how important it is to write regularly. What do you do though if the words won’t come?

Whether or not you agree with Terry Pratchett, the concept of a “block” is probably not helpful. It externalises the problem, gives it weight and substance. Some days it”s just harder to get going than others. Below are some tips for overcoming the fear that a blank page can induce.

1. Make time and space for writing.
You can?t write if you aren?t physically sitting down with pen and paper, or at a computer. (OK, so you could dictate more or less anywhere, and most mobile phones now have voice recording. If this works for you, great- but personally I have to see the words, otherwise I’m just talking, not writing.)

2. Don?t wait till you?re in the mood.
Inspiration is usually a symptom of writing, not a cause of it. If you wait for the Muse to arrive you’ll probably never write anything. She rarely visits of her own accord, but is rather summoned by the ritual drudgery of sitting and putting words on paper, or on a screen. You sit down to write regularly, not because you feel like it, but because you?re a writer, and that?s what writers do. And those days when you feel physically sick at the very thought, when you would rather lick the toilet clean than face that blank page: those are the days when it’s most important to do it.

3. Be aware of your own delaying tactics.
Maybe you have to check your emails first, or rearrange your pens in order of size, or say a prayer, or update your Facebook status. Whatever rituals you have invented to delay the moment of writing that first word, you’re unlikely to be able to eradicate them completely. The secret is to be conscious of them, and keep them under control. So you allow yourself to look at your emails, for example, but not to reply to any until you’ve written 100 words. Give yourself a brief period for mental throat clearing, but don?t let it expand to fill the time available.

4. Write anything.
OK, now you’re staring at that blank page. Where do you start? Firstly, you should write something. Anything. Just spoil the purity of that empty space. Vandalise it. Fill it with junk, random words from your head, thoughts, feelings, memories. Eventually sense will emerge, because writing nonsense is actually harder.

5. Write what you want to read.
The easiest way into your story is to write what you want to read at that moment. Can’t concentrate because you’re simmering with rage at the way someone’s treated you? Write a revenge fantasy. Depressed? Write an escapist daydream. Feeling horny? Write a sex scene. Indulge yourself, tap into what’s strong inside, then let it get complicated. Who are these people? How did they get here? How are they feeling? What happens next?

6. Give yourself permission to write badly.
Don’t worry about whether what you’re writing is any good or not. On a first draft, the only thing that matters is to get your story down on paper. Everything else comes afterwards. In fact, you can almost guarantee that what you’re writing will be crap, because it’s a first draft. That’s fine. “Real” writers don’t produce good writing by magic; they do it by hard work. (Terry Pratchett writes a “draft zero”, which he never shows to anybody- the sole purpose is to find out what the story is.)

7. Story is everywhere.
Thomas Hardy used to get his plot ideas from his local newspaper. Inspiration is not a rare, fleeting thing; the air is thick with ideas, the trick is to be tuned into them, to be open. Stories are everywhere, on the TV, on the radio, on the street. Look out of the window. There’s a story, right there.

8. Steal!
It’s absolutely fine to copy writers you admire. Just remember that “talent borrows, genius steals”- in other words, take their ideas and make them your own. Don’t copy their words, but do update their plots, change their settings. Think about their themes, and ask yourself why those themes resonate with you- what in your own life reflects those concerns?

9. Only writing counts as writing.
Thinking is not writing. Planning is not writing. Research is not writing. Reading advice on writing is not writing. Going for a walk is not writing. All these things might be useful and important, but they don’t count as writing. If you’ve created time and space for writing, make sure that’s what you use it for- and that means putting words on paper.

10. Break it into manageable chunks.
All you have to write is 100 words. That’s all. Just a couple of paragraphs. Then give yourself a little reward: a cup of tea, a game of Solitaire, whatever floats your boat. How do you feel now? You could do another hundred easily, couldn’t you? That’s not too scary. Maybe that first bit is rubbish, but you’ve got a better idea now. Maybe you could do 200 before your next break. Repeat, and repeat again. Before you know it, you’ve finished your first draft. Give yourself a big reward, you’ve earned it. Then the real hard work starts.

Helpful things to think:
Every word you write is better than every word you don’t write.
Nobody’s first draft is any good.
That’ll do for now, I’ll fix it in editing.
What happens next?
Time spent writing is never wasted.

Unhelpful things to think:
This is rubbish.
Nobody would want to read this.
I’m wasting my time, I’ll leave it till tomorrow.

The most important thing you need to know

All the Writing Advice posts on this blog so far have begun with a quotation intended to illustrate my point. This one does not. That is because I am about to tell you the single most important thing you need to know if you want to write a novel and get it published. When I tell you, you will be disappointed. Either you will not believe me, or you will think it so obvious it does not need saying. So the quotations will come at the end, a chorus of better writers than me reinforcing the point.

So, are you sitting comfortably? Here it comes. To be a writer, you have to write.

That’s it. A tautology, perhaps? An empty platitude? In fact, this is where many people fail. They think that because reading is easy, that writing too must be easy. And it probably is, for a week or two, as the long planned words bubble out of them. Eventually, though, the day will come when they feel empty, when they look at the blank page with fear rather than excitement. “I’ll leave it for today,” they think. “I’m not in the right frame of mind.” But the next day, the blank page is still there, and before they know it, weeks will pass, then months, and the book will die, shoved out of sight so that it cannot reproach them for their neglect.

This might sound familiar; it certainly happened to me. Even if you do manage to return to face the blank page, even if you can write a whole novel in this way, in dribs and drabs as inspiration takes you, I do not recommend it. Firstly it will take a depressingly long time to get your novel finished, if you ever do.

More importantly, though, your writing will not be as good. The parts of your brain which produce your book are like muscles: they benefit from regular exercise, and need to be kept in top condition if you are going to be a contender in the highly competitive world of literature. The good news is that, as you tone up your mental muscles, writing becomes easier as well, and those blank page horrors less frequent.

It is essential to establish a regular routine. What that looks like for you depends entirely on your lifestyle and circumstances. For some, it means getting up at dawn, and writing for two hours before going to work. For me, it meant giving up my social life to spend every evening writing.

However you arrange things, it is better to set yourself realistic targets and achieve them. For example, 500 words a day, 5 days a week, it might not seem like much. But if you can keep it up for a year, you can even allow yourself four weeks holiday, and you will still have a 120,000 word novel at the end of it. If you try to write 2,000 words every day, you might write your book in two months, but you are more likely to run out of steam and become demoralised.

It is better to think of words written than time spent, otherwise you may find yourself spending your writing time staring into space. When you sit down to write, then make sure you write something, anything; write nonsense if you have to. Eventually sense will emerge. But those days when you don’t feel like it, when your brain doesn’t seem to work, when you feel physically sick at the idea of having to face the blank page, those are the days when it is most important to write. That is what makes you a writer. And if you don’t believe me, here comes the chorus:

“You can’t say, I won’t write today because that excuse will extend into several days, then several months, then? you are not a writer anymore, just someone who dreams about being a writer.” (Dorothy C. Fontana)

“I don’t wait for moods. You accomplish nothing if you do that. Your mind must know it has got to get down to work.” (Pearl S Buck)

“People on the outside think there’s something magical about writing, that you go up in the attic at midnight and cast the bones and come down in the morning with a story, but it isn’t like that. You sit in back of the typewriter and you work, and that’s all there is to it.” (Harlan Ellison)

“Through joy and through sorrow, I wrote. Through hunger and through thirst, I wrote. Through good report and through ill report, I wrote. Through sunshine and through moonshine, I wrote. What I wrote it is unnecessary to say.” (Edgar Allan Poe)

“The secret of becoming a writer is to write, write and keep on writing.” (Ken MacLeod)

“To be a writer is to sit down at one’s desk in the chill portion of every day, and to write; not waiting for the little jet of the blue flame of genius to start from the breastbone ? just plain going at it, in pain and delight.” (John Hersey)

“The way you define yourself as a writer is that you write every time you have a free minute. If you didn’t behave that way you would never do anything.” (John Irving)

“Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.” (Stephen King)

“If you wait for inspiration, you’re not a writer, but a waiter.” (Anonymous)