Fishing for mojo

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For the first time in over a decade I am struggling to write. Even this blog feels like it’s being ripped out of the deepest agonies of the soul and the words don’t want to come.

It’s not just the Major Life Event. It’s also because I’m between projects; I finished my latest draft of my latest novel just before Christmas, and don’t know what I’m working on next. My attempts at a new novel have stalled, and whilst I have plenty of ideas circling manically around my mind, I can’t seem to latch onto anything. If I were in the middle of something I could snatch half-hours to add odd words and I wouldn’t feel quite so much like I was failing.

This is a torment. I love writing, love creation, and right now I don’t seem able to grasp hold of anything. I know it’s just a phase, a passing moment of enforced downtime. But that fear is constantly buzzing in my ears: what if I’m burnt out? What if I’ve lost the spark? Major Life Event notwithstanding, this is the ideal time to write: I’ve time at home; the MLE’s at her sleepiest; the wife is taking frequent naps. It’s not going to get any easier than this. This is prime writing time. Why aren’t you using it?

I am my own worst enemy.

Intellectually I know that this will pass. Things will get clearer. I will carve out a new routine. But emotionally all is doom and despair. I have no writing career from which I can take a year out. I don’t want to let down my social media followers (which is massively ridiculous; I’m hardly that egocentric. But I don’t want to lose any momentum I may have gained. Which may also be ridiculous, but still).

I need to take a proper break and let my spiralling mind settle. Things will get better. I just need to go fishing for mojo and then I’ll be feasting on productivity again.

With apologies for the random, half-formed images and metaphors.

Diet hard

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I want to write well. I want to write a book that people will enjoy for the story but also admire (or at least not notice) for the writing. I’d rather not do a Dan Brown or an EL James and produce something wildly popular but critically reviled. The problem is that no-one can agree on what good writing actually looks like. It’s a problem that what constitutes good writing has changed over the decades.

Virginia Woolf would not be published today. Neither would Tolkien, nor Asimov, and certainly not Philip K Dick. Angela Carter would find it a struggle. Dickens would be told to put his writing on a diet. And yet we’ve had a rash of humongous coffee-table-breaking Booker winners; literary fiction at least seems to have an attitude of more-is-more.

Where does this leave us mere mortals? A (literary) member of my writing group is always trying to make me add in more description, more feeling, more atmosphere. Another tells me I slow the pace too much with unnecessary wordage. Where do I go? Lean and slick or full and florid? Will Dan Brown still be mocked in a generation? Will he be forgotten, or will he be held up as a paragon in university literature courses?

At the moment I have Oneiromancer in Fat Camp. I’m doing my best to slim it down, carving around 5k from my latest draft. It still tips the scale at over 130,000 words. Do I carve yet further, really take the axe to it in an attempt to leave it at the 115k I originally envisaged? There must come a point where I lose important detail. Characters need time to stew, to percolate and simmer. It’d take some severe telling-not-showing to condense all that I want to convey into a pocket-book sized paperback. There are limits to what can be cut.

I have a feeling I’ve said all this before, and probably more than once. This is because, though I can say I’ve improved as a writer – both in terms of the words I use and my knowledge of structure and the shaping of stories – over the years, the doubt never really goes away. I still worry.

I’m approaching forty and I’m in a dead-end job. I’ve prioritised writing over financial security. I have a family I can’t support. I’ve been told I’m wasting my life (although not by my wife, who not only encourages me but has a vocation that pays). I’ve given a lot to a dream I know might never come true.

My aim is to make a living from writing fiction. To do this I need to have a novel published. That needs to sell well enough to support a second book. Only then can I begin to think I have a career. And only then can I look to ‘success’ – in my terms, a basic living and respect from my peers.

My brain knows that I’m going the right way about it. I’m producing material. I’m reading, both for pleasure and to learn the dark arts of structure, plotting, character and the like. I’m editing other people’s work. All good things.

But the future is still a long way away. My heart frets. I’m getting old; I have some of those stupid grown-up responsibilities to stress over. Time is the real enemy. How long do we have to struggle before we get where we want to be?

Second guessing

A Writer Faces Self-Doubt

A writer is the most doubting person in the world. No other area that I know if is so filled with uncertainty. Is this project any good? Can it be made better? Will anyone get what I’m trying to do?

There are rules. There are guides to grammar, to structure, to character. But, at the end of the day, the only way a writer can tell if he’s done something worth sharing is to share it. This makes a writer horribly vulnerable – not only to mortifying mockery but also to the extremes of ego. He lives by the judgement of others in a way that very few other fields do (I can think only of other arts) and that can lead to unwarranted cockiness before the inevitable backlash.

Even stranger is the fact that a writer only finds his own voice when he breaks those rules. Mine comes from the way I omit words and write sentences with a word order that’s technically less than optimal. Much of my editing in fact, actually takes the form of removing these tics. Other authors make their reputations by playing with structure and with genre. In the process they create something that’s uniquely ‘them’.

All of which means that no writer is ever sure, when they get words on paper, if what they’ve written is any good. Sure, experience helps – every first-time novelist will think that their first draft is perfect and inviolate. Experience teaches you that that’s only a starting point and most of the work is still to come. It also tells you what you should be looking out for in your own work, if you’ve got your beats in the right place, if the dialogue is to be worked on, if there’s anything you know isn’t quite right.

But it also means that the doubt never quite goes away. You’re never sure you’ve got it right. You constantly second-guess yourself, can’t tell if you’re making substantive improvements or if you’re just tinkering at the margins.

Which is why we need beta-readers. It’s why we need editors, why we need reviews and sales. To tell us that we’ve not been wasting our time, that there is actually something worthwhile in our brains, something that someone else actually enjoys like you do. It’s not about money or status: it’s about the sense of self.

Because when we send that manuscript out to be read we have absolutely no idea if it’s any good or not.

The doubt-beast; or The loneliness of the long-distance writer

What if I can’t pull this together? What if every turn disappoints the reader? What if, instead of a nail-biting action-adventure full of depth and passion, I’ve come up with the literary equivalent of a novelty Christmas single.

I doubt. Everyone doubts. This ain’t my first rodeo and, to be honest, I can’t really imagine writing without anxiety riding the shoulder. It’s almost a comfort; without it I’d worry I was becoming cocky and not caring enough about my work. As it is I’m suddenly struck (for the doubt-beast is a stealth predator) by a fear that what I’ve written is really – well, a bit crap.

I’m not worried about the actual words. They are, doubtless, shit. I’m fully intending to go through this manuscript half a dozen times before it’s ready for professional scrutiny, and the actual quality of writing will, in theory, develop with each pass.

Nor am I too worried with characters, not right at this moment, and for similar reasons. I’ll start to worry about them after my second draft, where I’ve swept away all the foreshadowments I didn’t use and replaced them with the ones I actually need.

No, I’m worried about the actual ideas. I’m worried about choices made and the roads not taken. I’m worried about logic and motivation and cop-outs and gone-too-far-edness.

More specifically, I’m worried about the following:

  • Do I have a decent three-act structure?
  • Is my underlying idea strong enough?
  • Do I have too many point-of-view characters?
  • Is the whole damn thing too complex? Am I trying to do too much?
  • …but the ending lacks a twist or revelation. Is it not complex enough?
  • Is my world consistent? Is there a thread I failed to knit in tightly? Will everything unravel if it’s pulled upon?
  • At almost every stage I could have taken different paths. Have I gone the right way? What opportunities have I missed? What else could the novel have been? Why haven’t I written that novel? Would it be better?
  • Does the story work?

These questions are, in fact, pretty much what I’d want a beta-reader to tell me. And it’s no bad thing to have these questions out there now; it means I’m actively looking for fundamental errors. Simply, I’m alive to ways my story could be improved.

Doubt – self-doubt – is your friend. It’s a way of making sure you look at things from every angle. It’s your subconscious’ way of making sure you’re doing the best you can. It also gives you something of a shield for when you do finally send your work out into the wider world and prepares you for the inevitable criticism from early readers.

But doubt can also be crippling. Too much fear and you’ll never get that first draft down. Which is why I cry ‘Onwards!’ Onwards, to the end. I lock doubt in the broom-cupboard of the mind, or set it to worrying about what I’m going to get the Missus for Christmas (not that novelty single, that’s for sure). Doubt has no place in a first draft. I will save all the questions it throws up – all the above and many, many more – because they’ll be tremendously useful as I move through my revisions. But for now it’s all about getting this draft finished. And I’ve still got my Eternal Climax to overcome.