Life Hacks for Writer’s Block

This week I want to write about something painfully close to my heart, that evil terror, the dreaded writer’s block. We’ve all had it at one time or another, whether writing a novel, an essay, a letter, or even a blog, where it seems physically impossible to coerce you mind and your fingers into creating something even vaguely coherent.

So I thought I could compile a list of potential antidotes that can be referenced if need be (fingers crossed for never). So I racked my brain for what has worked for me in the past, and also went on an online hunt for the most convincing ways to get your writer’s groove back.

And behold, a ten-step solution to writer’s block woes.

Number One: The deceptively helpful act of doing nothing at all

When a piece of writing is driving you absolutely crazy, I think sometimes the best thing you can do is walk away. By giving yourself a little distance you leave behind the negative or convoluted ideas that are distracting you from what you’re really trying to do. With that distance sometimes the crux of the issue, what you’re really trying to say and how you can say it becomes much clearer.

Number two: The opposite of what I just suggested

Sometimes if you’ve tried walking away and it doesn’t work, or you can’t stop thinking about it or you don’t have time to give it a rest, what can work is to just keep writing. Even if you know it’s terrible and clunky and awkward, if you just keep writing at least you’re somewhat closer to getting something down and you can go back and edit what you’ve got.

Number Three: The mighty and unquestionable power of colour-coding

In a second year creative writing lecture I remember my lecturer saying that one of her favourite authors uses colour coding to figure out who her characters are, how they interact and where the story is going. She plans out the series of events by the colour of their emotions. This is something I’ve found really helpful when writing. If I know the emotional colour of what I’m trying to write it’s easier to find the words that describe it.

Number Four: Saying it out loud to a helpful ear

So many times I have been so grateful to a friend that has listened to me trying to explain, and this is for two reasons. The first is that by trying to say out loud what you’re attempting to write you’re forcing yourself to vocalise concepts that you may never have put explicitly in words – you’re forcing your brain into using language without the pressure of writing it down, then you can write it down (don’t tell your brain that). The second reason is that the person you’re telling can contribute real, valuable and fresh insights about what you’re saying and how you could say it. I can’t count how many times a friend simply explaining something back to me in their words suddenly makes my own idea so much clearer.

Number Five: Changing the way you’re writing it

Sometimes a blank computer screen alone can be enough to scare away any decent ideas or sentences that may have popped into my head. When faced with this problem sometimes it helps if I write it somewhere else. A nice colourful notepad or an old lecture pad can be a little less daunting.

Number Six: Changing where you write

The place I can be most productive is never ever constant. Some days it’s the library, sometimes a coffee shop, sometimes just being at home is the best thing to get the creative juices flowing. I’ve learnt that if I’m really struggling to get something on the page a good start is to try going somewhere else. Another thing I’ve noticed is that there’s a correlation between where I can write and what I’m writing about. For example if it’s something particularly personal, or something I’m quite self-conscious about I will work best at home, but if it’s something I’m more confident about I’m more likely to be able to write in a café or public place. Catering the setting to the writing can helpful.

Number Seven: Reading a book/piece of writing you think is really good

Often when I know what I want to say but I don’t know how I want to say it I think about how my favourite authors would have done it. I read a book that I love and let it inspire me. The writing might not be the same genre or style as what you’re writing but it reminds you what good language is.

Number Eight: Reading a book/piece of writing you think is really bad

There’s no such thing as bad writing, but writing is so completely objective in so many ways that there’s always things your going to read and think really aren’t very good. Sometimes I find that reading something too inspirationally jaw-dropping makes me spiral further into the abyss of my own inadequacies. Where as if you read something that you think’s a little crappy you’re suddenly filled with the confidence that you can do better.

Number Nine: Listen to a song that matches the mood of what you’re trying to write

Sometimes I think of writing as like a workout, but for my brain; it’s mental cardio. And just like you need a motivational workout playlist, sometimes you also need a motivational writing playlist. By using music to get you in the mood of the thing you’re writing, you make yourself more likely to emulate it with your language. Sometimes I find specific songs inspire me to write something that I would never have thought of otherwise.

Number Ten: Stop thinking about what the critics will say

Critics will always have something to say, no matter what you write, and if you’re pandering to critics before you’ve even written anything you may never write at all. I think the best things I’ve ever written I decided I would never show anyone. By convincing yourself that it doesn’t matter, that no-one will read it, that it’s just to pass the time, you might be able to allow yourself to write exactly what you need to, not what you think other people might like. Writing at it’s core is about using language to express yourself, so you owe it to yourself to give it a full-hearted, uninhibited go.

So there you have it. I hope this list will be helpful, if only just to me!


The Bones of the World

It’s both fitting and amusing that Jen’s most recent post was about deadlines, as I am absolutely beyond the deadline in getting this done. Sometimes we’re all terrible at time management, even us chiding editor-types. But I’m here now, and I’m finally blogging about immersive worlds.

There’s nothing better than diving into a new book and finding yourself in a beautifully crafted world. The best stories are so immersive that your hands clench the pages, your head bows and you’re lucky if you remember to draw breath. You can sit like this for hours, consuming (not literally, or maybe literally – it’s your imagination) the flora and fauna of a new planet or wading deep through the storied life of the protagonist’s forebears. Losing one’s self in the hierarchies of different societies and the intricacies of new cultures that span centuries is a great way to use an afternoon, or the hours before your alarm at dawn.

At Book Expo Australia earlier this month, I had the pleasure of attending the Fantasy Worlds panel to listen to Tracy Joyce, Patricia Leslie and R.B. Clague. While the conversation was wide-ranging, all three authors agreed that making things relateable was a fundamental part of good world-building in order for the work to be engaging. This is crucial, regardless of how many different technologies or magical elements a sci-fi or fantasy world may have, the reader still needs to be given a bridge from their everyday to the book. This relativity is then a foundation from which to draw the reader further in to the book.

Another aspect that the authors discussed was that the details in the world need to make sense, or else readers will turn right off. Now, a fantasy world may not necessarily align with our own rules of reason and logic, but where it does diverge, it needs to so in a way can be explained or at the very least excused under artistic license. For Tracy, in the creation of the world of Altaica, research was crucial. She would research cultures and technologies that might share some values or aspects of the cultures that exist in the fantasy world she was building. Most of this research doesn’t go directly into the book, but it allows the author to approach the good stuff that actually makes it into the final cut in an informed way. This gives fantasy fiction an element of truth, so that the reader can say “Yeah, that makes sense” and then want to know more.

In much the same way that authors should have that research as a basis, they also need to give the reader a structure. I’ve always found that my favourite fantasy authors have done this incredibly well, such as David and Leigh Eddings and Sara Douglass. I love the way in which they place their stories into these beautifully designed worlds. I’m a bit mad about this stuff and so I particularly enjoyed The Rivan Codex, which details this process for The Belgariad and The Mallorean series. I’d recommend it to anyone else who loves thinking or reading about how fantasy worlds are made.

One thing I particularly appreciate when I’m reading a new fantasy or sci-fi book is when the author lays out the bones of the world. Not in a boring way of course, where it’s just a list of where things are and why, but as part of the opening of the narrative. It gives me a place to perch and observe the structures that are driving or supporting the story.

Once these structures are eked out, I find that my imagination can be funnelled through them and directed to the important places and colours and people. This is a crucial part of making the world accessible to a reader, and it needs to be accessible or else they won’t ever really visualise it. Once I can imagine it, then I can start in on questioning it. Is it topsy turvy or earth-like and why? Has everything gone pear-shaped for some inexplicable and possibly metaphorical reason? These are things I want to know.

On a related but tangential finishing note, the other thing that I’ve always found to be particularly immersive is character development. Now this is a no-brainer, characters need to be interesting, in order to draw the reader in. Rounded characters that are full of depth, but not fully on display are the goal here. These characters must interest the reader, but the reader doesn’t necessarily have to like these characters. This is standard stuff, but please don’t forget, it as good characters will do more to make a book immersive than anything else. Again, harkening back to Eddings, the character of Silk (also know as Prince Kheldar of Drasnia, Radek of Boktor, Ambar of Kotu etc.) is a wonderful character that is interesting and fun, and importantly is very nearly real. He’s not even the protagonist and yet the reader is able to understand and relate to him, cunning and rat-like and loveable as he is. Frankly, Silk is the best (put that on the record!).

Oh and Happy All Hallow’s Eve!

What is a Real Writer?

This is not the blog I had intended to write and post today. You’ll get one about beautiful immersive worlds next week, I promise, but for this week, it’s another riposte, that can be alternatively titled “Svetlana Alexievich wins the Nobel Prize for Literature and people are jerks.”

While many people took to social media to congratulate Alexievich and commiserate with the runners-up (Roth and Murakami perhaps most notably), there was an unfortunate strain of comments that serve no purpose but to scorn both the winner and runners-up, saying that the Nobel Prize is only for “real writers”, accusing Alexievich of being a mere propagandist and Murakami of being a commercial “non-writer”.

I don’t normally heed comments like these, having gone native on YouTube in my adolescence, but the comments dismissing those who write commercial books got me steamed – P.S. world, “steamed” is back. “Real writers” is such a derogatory phrase and it belittles literature, and writers generally. It doesn’t raise certain people up, it is just divisive, tearing down anyone who wants to write and make a living. Because let’s face it, “real writers” are literary, they don’t commercialise their fiction, but instead chase writing as a pure art form. They don’t pander to a larger audience because sales = food, rent money, etc.

I know that last bit doesn’t apply to those in the running for the Nobel, but when you set up the distinction between a “real writer” and a – what? A fraud? A fake writer? – purely on your subjective literary taste, you’re dumping on the writers that it does apply to.

A study released by Macquarie University this week put the average writing income at $12,900 for Australian authors. The study also made it clear that most authors have another career to support themselves, which undoubtedly eats into their writing time. So why should we belittle those who want more time to write by earning more money from their books? Why is there a hierarchy where some books are considered more valuable than others? The idea that great literary texts make a great contribution to the world is well and good, but for those books to have a considerable effect today, they have to become widely read and hence commercially successful. The scorn for commercial drive in the literary world is contrary to the continued functioning of the literary world.

If only we had robotic slaves, so we could all devote our lives to this concept of pure art. What an uninteresting utopia. Without the struggle there is a lot less flavour in the literary world. Those writers out there, working to make a dollar, writing works for commercial audiences ought to be praised for the way they practise the craft. It’s a tough slog.

So why should we divide the system into “real writers” and “non-writers”?

We shouldn’t. It’s simplistic, offensive and elitist.

Throwing around elitism when discussing the Nobel Prize for Literature seems kind of idiotic, but I’m okay with that because I’m done with the rankings. I don’t want to read books according to tiers that the writers fit into, and I definitely don’t think that someone should be considered simplistic for not being interested in a “literary” work while preferring “commercial” titles.

Books are books. Just read them.

Also, let’s pay writers more. Please and thank you.