You know how this time, last week, my kids were back in school and I was raring to get stuck into my writing?
Things haven’t exactly gone to plan. Granted, Wednesday through Friday I got words down and I revised a few scenes (and killed some of my darlings in the process) … but then my five year old daughter got sick. Was sick all weekend, and hasn’t made it to school at all this week. Nothing serious, thank goodness – just a mild gastro, followed by a head cold and sore throat – but it’s lingering, and she’s not a patient patient, my daughter. Lots of wailing and diva-worthy demands and gnashing of teeth ensue when Miss I-HATE-To-Sit-Still-And-Rest is ill. Sigh.
Of course, I haven’t worked on my book for days (and it’s taken three days of stop-start typing to even get this post done!). I have that horrible, churning feeling in my gut that always attacks me when I’m away from my book too long. But I’ve managed to stamp on the fully-fledged panic, that terror that I simply won’t be able to get back on track with my writing. After all, I’ve had long breaks from my writing before, and have managed to get back on the horse every time …
But I’m realistic. I have no doubt that despite my cautious confidence, I’ll still be sweating bullets that first time I sit back down to write. So, while I wait for my daughter to get better, I’ve been going through my toolbox, sharpening up the tools I’ve acquired over the last four years of serious writing, ones that I know will help me break through this stall without too much pain …
1. Ease in gently. At first, I won’t write anything. I’ll just edit – fix typos, insert commas, change colons to semi colons … the easy-peasy stuff I actually find very soothing because it’s not really writing, and thus, there’s no pressure. This duping of myself always does the trick; after a few minutes of editing the ideas start to flow, I ease back into the work and before I know it I’m writing whole new scenes. It’s like when I was a kid, and finally mastered the art of riding a two-wheel bike; all that concentration on the minutiae of the process - the pedaling, the steering, the ringing of the bell - and then, without realizing it, dad had let go and I was doing it all by myself. Sweet.
2. Write longhand. For whatever reason, when I sit down to write on my Mac, it’s Serious Business - if I’m typing, I MUST produce something solid and polished and good. Somehow, the way my brain works, this rule – this self-imposed pressure - doesn’t seem to apply when I write longhand. So I know I can break through any performance anxiety if I allow myself a few minutes of brainstorming in long hand before writing – bullet points and arrows and crossing out and asterisks and underlining with different coloured pens and highlighters … all this serves to quell my nerves and unlock my creativity.
3. Move out. If I relocate from my study to a café or the library, or even just to another room in the house, again, the pressure is off. If I’m not in my “office”, then it doesn’t matter whether what I write is good or bad. I know, I know - I’m a head case, but it works for me.
4. Write a “to do” list. Something I do at the end of each writing session is take a few minutes to jot down notes about what I need to do next. It’s kind of like leaving myself a breadcrumb trail for the next time I work on my manuscript. Opening up my manuscript file, I see (thank God!) I’ve left myself the following list of things to do next:
Tidy end of scene four then add to master file.
Start scene five “Garret murder” using notes saved in Draft 2 folder.
Work on outline of Isabel and Louise scene.
This makes taking up where I left off so much easier.
5. Leave a hook. Looking at my manuscript again, I see I finished my last writing session by leaving myself a “hook”. This is what this "hook" looks like:-
THEN PHILIPPE – DESCENDING STEPS OF JOFFRIN MANSION - WATCHING ISABAEL HUG OLD MAN, THEN SHE IS HANDED UP TO COACH. KNIFE STILL SNUG IN HIS BOOT. HE TOUCHES HIS POCKET, FEELING FOR THE ITEM THAT FELL TO THE FLOOR – HER SCALPEL. HE HAS FOUND HER. HIS [NAME OF THE TWO PICTURES] – DEATH AND BRINGER OF LIFE – KERNEL OF A PLAN IS FORMING.
Leaving off writing in the middle of a sentence or a paragraph - or, in this example, where I’d actually completed a scene by the time I had to stop writing, by jotting down a few thoughts and images for my next scene (I’ll also often leave myself a messy few lines of description or random dialogue, if that’s what’s coming through loudest) means I’ve left myself a hook to grab on to, next time I work on my book. I don’t have to sit there, trying to start a scene from absolute scratch. Having words already on the screen, no matter how little or how sketchy, means I always start with something ready to work with. Much less intimidating than facing a blank page and a blinking cursor.
So, these are the tools I hope will get me back into writing mode. I say "hope" – as I said, I’ll be a bundle of nerves until I’ve actually done the writing. But at least I won’t be completely paralysed by full-blown, creativity crushing, panic; that requires a jack-hammer to break through it, and I don’t have one of them in my tool box. Well, not yet.
How do you all start writing again, after you’ve stalled?