Writing through Writers’ Block

"What?" you ask. "How can you write through writers' block? Doesn't it mean you're stuck, and can't write?"

Well, yes... and no.

Here's how Cambridge dictionary defines writers block: the condition of being unable to think of what to write or how to proceed with writing.

I'm currently in the middle of writing the third (and last book) in the Adventures of Viola Stewart, The Illusioneer & Other Tales. The first story rolled onto the page. In From the Depths, Viola is in Scotland, recovering at a beach resort after her ordeals in Eye of the Beholder.  Of course, she is swept up in a series of unexpected events. We meet a new character. This story ended up twice as long as previous shorts. I didn't want it to end.

I started on the next short story, Tomorrow, When I Die. This is a more convoluted story, requiring fiddling of ... (spoilers!) and some fun research on Victorian Christmas traditions. Then it happened. It crept up on me, taking me by surprise; the realisation that this was to be Viola's last set of (traditional) adventures. ("Gasp!" I hear you say.

Never fear, dear Reader, I have a few plans up my sleeve - but that's for another time, another blog.)

About this time, a late bout of dust-induced summer bronchitis hit. I felt like shite. Being ill is certainly not helpful when trying to build up the will-power to wade through the dreaded marshland I designate Writers' Block. I see it as a marshland as it is inconvenient, an impediment to moving forward and I must plan my way to proceed or sink further down.

First find the cause: why do I get writers' block?

I've thought about this in depth (perhaps way too much!). It seems to strike me at two different stages:

  1. When I'm staring at a blank page. I know the gist of the story. I can usually see the end scene in my head, the mood I want to create. But the words refuse to flow from my brain onto the screen. At this point, I am usually working pen on paper; words seem to flow better with a pen or pencil in my hand.
  2. when I am nearing the end of a story. I'm finally having fun. The characters are co-operating, even enjoying themselves. Then the penny drops; it has to end. I panic. I don't want it to end. I don't want to leave my characters behind. But I must. Perhaps if I don't write those final words...?

These are things I have to deal with. They are not new. In 2014, I had almost finished the first draft of what I thought would be my first novel, The Department of Curiosities. I had about four scenes to write. Crunch, the writers' block hit me.  What was I to do? I started on a short story, (reviving) a character from An Eye to Detail, short listed the year before in Australian Literature Review's murder and mystery short story competition.

The block shifted. I kept writing Viola's s adventures with gusto (There were minor blocks but nothing as long-lasting as that with DOC.)  I'm now ready - and can't wait - to return to The Department of Curiosity - my next project after The Illusioneer. 

How do I Tackle Writers' Block?

I have a box of story ideas. I keep getting them. Not all are worthy of a full story, but they are there. I usually have at least three (sometimes four or five) stories on the go. When I hit the wall, I redirect my energies toward another story and let the original one bubble away in the background - ensuring I move forward, and not wallow.

This time I was side-tracked onto a story to submit to a (absent) Sherlock Holmes anthology: write a story in the Holmes mileaux, sans Sherlock himself.

Bang! The main character was there. Her enthusiasm was contagious. I could see, hear, smell the final scene. This short is now being polished with final edits and about to be submitted. Wish me luck. (And another series is born. I can't wait to write another story with my new detective and her soon-to-be-drafted side-kick. Though I need to finish The Illusioneer and the DOC first.)

Short stories are fantastic. They give me a brief holiday from my main project, just enough time to let the original story gurgle back up to the surface.

April is Camp NaNoWriMo and I'm ready to plunge Viola back into her adventures. I hope you'll join the ride.

Photo © 2017 Karen J Carlisle. All rights reserved.

Surviving the Crash and Burn: NaNoWriMo Wrapup.

And that's it. The end of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) for 2016. The aim: to write fifty thousand words in 31 days - a short novel from start to finish. For more information on NaNoWriMo click HERE.  Those who 'win' gain glory and prizes - including discounts for writing software and editing, free eBook creation, and a free masterclass by James Patterson. Mostly it's for the glory - the satisfaction of finishing the first draft of a novel. This year my project was the third journal in Viola Stewart's adventures - The Illusioneer & Other Tales.

Did I win? No. I managed just over 17,200 words. Technically I crashed and burned on day sixteen. november Did I fail? No. "But you only managed half the word count goal?", you say. "So what," say I. And here's why:

There is more than one way to win in NaNo. Just participating - getting off my butt, putting pen to paper, cajoling my brain into production and not giving into procrastination is a huge win.

The week before NaNo, I had given into anxiety (What if I haven't got another book in me? What if it's crap?) and devoured chocolate in an effort to feel better. NaNo loomed. Two days to go and I wasn't ready! Out came the notebooks. I dove into the internet, researching nineteen century illusionists, Victorian beach holidays and the Loch Ness monster (amongst other things).

November started with promise. I had a goal. I had a deadline. I was going to make it! Then real life happened. Doubts crept in. By day sixteen I was exhausted. The migraines started and I still had Supanova (convention) to content with. I tried to push through. I got frustrated, annoyed, anxious.

Then I remembered writing is like an iceberg. The reader glimpses but a fraction, the final product. There's a lot more to a novel than just the final words on paper. The foundation is the important thing.

Once I gave myself permission to 'fail' at NaNo, I managed to relax. My migraine faded. The anxiety abated. I could think more clearly. My health improved. I wrote notes. Lots of notes. Clues required later in the story; plot threads to be gathered and finalised. I drew a map, vital to follow the action and make my life easier when I returned to work on the first draft.

If I hadn't had those NaNoWriMo statistics staring back at me,  I may have continued to wallow. I didn't moan that I had a block  or I was going to fail. Instead, I asked myself: what else can I do to help achieve my final goal?

NaNo was just one of many tools in my writing box. A way to get closer to my final goal. By the end of the month, I had completed more than one-third of my final goal - the third installment to Viola's adventures. In turn, this encouraged me to start looking at the final book cover. I even got out of my chair and got some gardening done (yeah for exercise and endorphins).

So, how did I really do for NaNoWriMo? If you only look at the numbers on my dashboard then, yes, technically I did crash and burn. But in my heart, I beat this bout of anxiety. In my heart, I won.

And that's what really matters.

The Power of Books.

I hadn't realised series 10 of the ABC's Book Club has changed format. I sat down - tea cup in hand, a piece of home-made banana and walnut cake in the other - and cued up this month's episode. Bonus! There were two. It is scheduled weekly, not monthly for 2016.

Episode two was entitled: Books That Changed My Life. The question was asked of the four guest panelists. Their answers were varied: The Uncanny X-men graphic novel,  The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake, Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence and Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller. This got me pondering. What book changed my life?

I thought about it for a week. Many books have influenced me, but which one book had changed my life? This wasn't an easy question.

I come from a religious family. My faith was introduced to me at a very young age. The Bible influenced me greatly, from a very young age. It shaped my beliefs, my ethics. It guided me. It challenged me. It made me ask questions. But it didn't change my life because it had always been there.

I thought harder. I've read so many books, but had any caused a specific change in my life? Then it was clear. The book that changed my life was Lord of the Rings.

In high school I was an avid mystery reader - Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh. It wasn't long before I had finished the books in that section of the library. In grade eight, the school librarian, who made it her quest to widen a student's reading vocabulary, gave me a copy of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.

A new, fantastical world opened up to me. I read and read Lord of the Rings. I sourced other books on Middle Earth. My library now boasts three copies of The Hobbit, three copies of Lord of the Rings, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, Farmer Giles of Ham, The Lays of Beleriand, The Silmarillion and The Unfinished Tales and other J R R Tolkein essays.

It was a big part of my adolescence. But how did Lord of the Rings change my life?

First: I discovered speculative fiction. I could transport myself to a place where anything was possible. It provided an escape from a difficult family situation and the uncertainty of the eighties when world leaders had their fingers hovering over the 'big red button'. Once hooked, I found a hero in Doctor Who, I found adventure in Star Wars. Instead of physically running away, I absconded into fictional worlds where good triumphed over evil and friends were loyal, even against the odds.

This led to the imaginative world of Dungeons and Dragons. I now created my own worlds, drew up maps, created world histories and characters to fill the void. This inspired me to write my first book (still hidden somewhere in storage boxes). I wrote fantasy, science fiction and Doctor Who adventures. I researched history - leading into decades of historical re-enactment - and fell in love with words. Those early seeds grew over the years. Writing and speculative fiction came to my rescue in another time of need. Helping me to cope with anxiety.

I'm fortunate to have discovered Lord of the Rings at a pivotal point in my life - a time I was pondering life, the universe and everything. The themes of preserving our natural environment, resisting corruption, of loyalty and sacrifice for others and the ability for the smallest of people to make a difference in the world follow through the books. They shaped my life and re-enforced childhood teachings. I care for the environment, companion plant, save water, recycle. I worked twenty-eight years, looking after the health of others. I crave for a world where friendship and loyalty are more important than material wealth.

Over the years, I kept returning to Lord of the Rings - to the Ents who fought against the destruction of their home and defeated Saruman. I returned to Aragorn the hero, to Galadriel the elf-queen who resisted the temptation of the ring and to Samwise, the loyal friend - who I think was the real hero of the tale.

LOR collection