A Writer’s Life: What to do when you can’t write

Source Wikimedia Commons

Doh! Frustration

By “can’t write” I mean actually kicking and screaming I can’t write writer’s block, my brain is not working or I am sick so I can’t write. This scenario is very different from the I can’t write because I don’t have time – it’s Christmas, the study is being painted or I’m starting a new job or a relative is sick. These situations are really “I have decided not to write at the moment” although we still lament the fact we can’t write to our friends and family.

In 1987 whilst I was writing my first novel I had to have my appendix out. I was two thirds of the way through the manuscript set in the Wye Valley at a youth hostel for school children. Every week a new lot of school children arrived with several teachers to look after them. Just before my appendectomy this new group were assembled on the doorstep of the beautiful old hostel (a former priory) overlooking the Wye river.

I was so excited to get back to the writing after my operation. I actually had a week off work and envisaged getting so much done. I turned on my computer and the blankness was overwhelming. The new group wouldn’t speak to me. It was as if they hadn’t arrived and the rest of the characters weren’t talking either. They were incommunicado. After a few failed attempts at stringing words together, they all just literally packed their bags and left. I was distraught.

I realise now of course that I was suffering some sort of reaction from the anaesthetic. For weeks in bed at night I felt like I was sinking from the head down. I couldn’t concentrate and I definitely couldn’t write. It was so frustrating and a bit worrying. It lasted I think about a month until I found a way out of the haze my brain was in and was able to coax the words back.

The only other time I have experienced the “kicking and screaming I can’t write” was last month and I am only now just getting the words to flow again. What happened? Well, just before my planned holiday to New Zealand, I had a manuscript assessment done by the wonderful novelist Belinda Castles. I received the assessment only days before my cruise and decided that I would tackle it after I got back mid November. I would be renewed and rested and excited. The perfect mindset for a major rewrite. I arrived home on a Wednesday with an awful virus caught from a passenger on board (many at our table were sick) and didn’t have the energy to even open my laptop. I avoided emails for days. Editing was definitely out of the question! For three and a half weeks as it turned out. I have only just begun the rewrite this week and I am finally excited and confident.

What did I do on both occasions to fix the problem? It’s simple and obvious. I read. Well in regards to the assembled school teachers and children I didn’t actually read. To start with I just looked at a book of watercolour sketches of the area of England and Wales where my manuscript was set. I gazed at the beautiful scenes (meadows, woods and streams) and after a day or two managed to read a small amount of text. Soon after I discovered a way back into the manuscript through the landscape that my characters were either living in or visiting.

Last month I reached for the short stories of F Scott Fitzgerald (which I’m still reading) a non fiction book about Sylvia Plath’s month in New York in 1953, a speculative fiction novel and also some short fiction which I devoured. The standout was Andrei Makine’s A Life’s Music. It was so good to read elegant sentences and straightforward plots.

As a writer I marvel at other writers who say they don’t read. How can they learn and improve their own writing if they don’t touch base with how other authors construct sentences, decide on points of view and characterisation and of course evoke a setting? This writer is completely mystified. I frankly don’t think it’s possible and don’t ever intend to try. The only problem I’m faced with in my reading is not finding the time to read but who to read.

At the moment I am very much aware that I need to streamline my manuscript and the books I’ve been reading lately have definitely given me some ideas how to do it. With these new ideas and Belinda’s assessment I am ready to go. Here is what I read November and early December. I wish my readers a Merry Christmas, a Happy New Year and of course happy reading! My Goodreads bookshelf.

How Many Drafts of Your Novel Should You Do?

My answer is six and that is probably my average. If the book proves problematic then I’ve reached eight but that’s generally my maximum. I’ve heard other writers speak of astronomical numbers such as 18, 27, 34 and even fifty odd.  I immediately think how do they do that many drafts? But me being a suspicious person, when I hear such amazing figures I often wonder what they consider constitutes a draft. Say, maybe a quick adjustment of a few words here and there, a scan and then start again? Is that what they call a draft? Put the thing away for a week or so, pick it up again, flick through, change another paragraph and that’s draft 25 for you? I don’t know of course. I can only tell you what my methods are so here goes…

Draft 1 is obvious of course. That’s where you get the main storyline down including what scenes to put in, what to leave out and from whose point of view. Last Tuesday I completed the first draft of my work in progress The Grey Silk Purse. Strictly speaking it is not a complete first draft. It is missing one final chapter and the epilogue which is a letter. Both I can’t do at this point until I’ve done heaps more research.

And this is where the 2nd draft comes. I will now go back, look up and check 95 # points of research such as the uniform of staff working in a stationery shop in Newcastle in 1920. In my novel Tomaree. In Crossing Paths I actually don’t remember that I had as as many things to check. I managed to do most of my fact-checking as I went along.

Before I generally start writing a novel I have already done a fair amount of research. Whilst writing the first draft I’ll check as many points as I can but when fact checking starts to really slow me down that’s when I put a # in and move on.  With the second round of research I will often have to change the narrative slightly to accommodate facts I have recently discovered. I will also tidy up my prose and check overall length of chapters. Is that scene really necessary kind of thing. With The Grey Silk Purse I have a massive construction problem two thirds of the way through. I will tackle that and will also have to keep a good eye on it in the next draft.

In the 3rd draft I will usually start drilling down, checking my word usage (okay for that particular character or time etc) my paragraphs (are they too long?) I also check how the writing flows. This is a good time to actually really look at any scenes or chapters that still trouble you. Can I do without it altogether or do I need to rewrite? Any extensive rewrites at this stage will have to be checked closely because they will not have been read anywhere near the amount of times of the rest of the work. This is where I often check odd things like the colours of the diaries in The Grey Silk  Purse. There are four different diaries that feature in the manuscript and they are all different colours.  I will probably check the word count of each diary and that I’ve got the colour correct for each one (particularly as these are referenced later in the novel).

It is usually around the 4th draft that I like to print the whole manuscript out and work at it on paper,  pretending I’m a ruthless editor working through page after page, slowly but very carefully. It’s where you really get to see how the manuscript will look in hard copy.

It’s funny how many things you can pick up and fix in this different format.  You’ll find it is very handy when looking at dialogue. I also generally write my edits on the page and then do another draft putting them in to my word document. This will then be the 5th draft.

In this draft I will not only put in my changes but do a global search for a particular word that I think I might have used too much.  (This is why it is a good thing to keep your manuscript all in one document!) I’ve done this with all my novels and it is never the same words that keep cropping up. It is generally different words for different books. When you realise you’ve got 162 “wondered”s you can then push yourself to find alternatives. (In this 900 word essay I have 13 “check/ed/ing”s. Maybe too many but hey this us what this piece is about.)

The 6th draft (if all is going well) is the final read through. It’s a chance to read the manuscript for the umpteenth time.  (Because if you are like me you will often re-read it a lot of times before you even start the second draft).  You can check every word for typing errors and watch out for those slippery little suckers the closing quotation marks which (for me anyway) have a habit of disappearing at a great rate. Are there any missing? Can you find any more typos? Realistically you will not find them all so that’s where a friend can come in handy and do a read through for you. Another pair of eyes will always pick up things you’ve missed. That’s my experience anyway.

And now your baby is ready for an amazing journey. Kiss it goodbye and wish it luck.