Before I launch into today's post - which has nothing to do with the noble line of budget ballpoint pens, I promise! - I have a couple of bits of business. Firstly, I highly recommend this post by the wise and venerable Terri Windling about perfectionism and how it's not nearly as good a thing as people would have you believe. She says:
"...we're responsible for being the artist we are...not the one that someone else (or our own Inner Critic) thinks we ought to be instead."Which happened to be just exactly what I needed to be reminded in that moment. So thank you, Terri!
The other bit of business is a lovely announcement - I'm going to be doing a panel event at the London Book Fair this year. It'll be my first ever appearance at the LBF and it's set to be FABULOUS because not only is delightful chum Liz de Jager, author of The Blackheart Legacy going to be on the panel with me, but the panel itself is coolness x3. It's title is The Dark Arts: Writing Fantasy and Horror for Young Adults, and the other panelists will be Josh Winning, and Sally Green! The panel will be on Tuesday the 14th of April at 16:00. I can hardly believe I'll get to be a part of it, and although I know that the LBF is a bit different than the YALC event at the WFCC last year, if any Dear Readers would like to come along, I'll be delighted to see you.
Now onto today's topic: when BIC just won't do the trick.
When I say BIC, I am of course referring to that well known axiom for writers: Butt In Chair. It's the idea that no matter what happens - whether you feel a bit stuffy-headed or generally uninspired or you'd really rather read the new Cassandra Clare book or spend the day arguing with that one infuriating Makorra shipper on Tumblr - when your chosen writing time comes around, you sit your rear end down and pick up the pen or open the laptop and do the thing.
Even if you sit there for the entire hour or the entire day typing the same paragraph over and over again, the theory goes, you still keep your butt sat in that chair. Because a) if you make sitting down in readiness to write a habit, your brain will soon get the idea and train you to be receptive and productive during this time, since it will realise that you're not going to give up do something more interesting no matter how it tries to distract you and b) true, elusive inspiration is far more likely to visit the writer who is already scribbling their brains out than the one who is trying to beat their high score on Candy Crush.
All of this is true, and I myself have many times advised people to adhere to BIC if they're having trouble feeling inspired. One of the first lessons that published writers learn, when the reality of deadlines sinks in, is that you can still produce decent, perhaps even excellent work, when you actually don't much feel like writing at all. And that quite often, if you force yourself through your first feelings of tiredness or sadness or just-can't-be-bothered-ness, you find yourself cheerfully plugging away without much difficulty after all.
BIC is an antidote to the much abused idea of writer's block, which is often interpreted by the less experienced writers among us to mean that if you don't feel fired up with the effervescent joy of inspiration it's totally fine to marathon Breaking Bad on Netflix until you DO. Which, no. Books don't get written that way. However, I'm not in the camp who believes that writer's block is a mythical invention of pretentious layabouts who just want an excuse to make themselves interesting without actually doing any work. I've written a defense of writer's block - or what I call writing roadblocks - here, but I make it clear that the main way to fix it is to keep writing anyway.
However, last week I had a slightly different experience, which I'd like to talk about now.
I'd been pootling away happily on BaBBook since the end of Christmas and had just written a scene which I thought was pretty darn good. I finished work for the day, counted up my words - word count for the day AND the week exceeded, hurray! - and saved everything to my flashdrive with a sense of satisfaction and no inkling that anything was rotten in the state of Denmark at all.
And then the next day I sat down to write the next scene, which immediately followed on from the one I'd completed the day before... and I choked.
Despite BIC, despite picking up my pen and opening my notebook and telling myself 'Just scribble for half an hour and see what comes out', despite knowing exactly what I wanted to write, and even having been excited and enthusiastic about writing it, a tiny voice in the back of my head was basically chanting Shan't won't nope you can't make me NYER.
I was confused and upset. I hadn't slammed into a mental block like that for a long time. Normally these days 'writer's block' for me is either about a failure in planning or knowledge (fixed by a quick list of my priorities for the next section scribbled on a Post It, or a flip through my notes, reference books or, occasionally, the internet) or about some external thing, like being tired or not feeling well. In either case, now that I'm not being poisoned by my boiler I can push through it because, underneath all that, I really do WANT to write. I want to get on with things and see how the story and the characters will develop next. But not that day. That day I felt like my fingers were physically refusing to move and it was a bit frightening, honestly.
After staring at my lovely blank page for about an hour and giving myself a slight headache, I took a break. The break ended up consuming my whole day as I procrastinated like an actual, literal, professional procrastinator. I mean, it's not that I haven't previously reached Olympic levels of procrastination. It's just that this time I couldn't understand WHY. Normally I can at least diagnose myself enough to know it's because the next scene is going to be traumatic or really tricky, or just because my depression is telling me I'm rubbish and I'm afraid to prove it. But it didn't seem to be any of that. When a second day passed in much the same way and I started to get a sinking feeling of dread.
What on earth was going on?
And then, during a chat with a member of my writing group, I had a thought. The thought related to the line edit of Frail Mortal Heart which I had completed and returned to my editor shortly after New Year. Normally by the line edit stage I've read and revised the manuscript so many times that I'm convinced the whole thing is unrepentant dreck, but because of the long period in the middle of this year when I couldn't look at my computer or do much work at all (due to CO poisoning, as we now know) I was coming to this one with much fresher eyes, and I found to my surprise and delight that I really rather enjoyed reading it again.
The best part was about three quarters of the way through when two very important threads of the story suddenly melded and produced an emotional BOOM in a way that I hadn't planned out at all. I had no idea I was even aiming at that effect. I didn't know it was coming and it really hit home. The perpetrator was my subconscious - the place where true inspiration lurks, and which can sometimes make that sudden instinctive leap, transforming great craft into actual art - working away behind the scenes, nudging me to tweak and edit, take a word out here, add a line there, and eventually create a scene which brought tears to my eyes.
So I thought about my block on BaBBook and I thought: hey, maybe my subconscious is at it again, nudging me - a bit more forcefully this time - and trying to tell me something. But what? Could it really be as simple as, Just Don't Write That Next Scene? But if it was, why? And what *was* I supposed to write next?
Almost immediately, the frustrated, constipated, Shan't Won't Nope You Can't Make Me NYER feeling dissipated. My cunning back brain, satisfied that I wasn't trying to bludgeon it to silence with BIC, suddenly began to cooperate, opening up doors to some floaty little scraps of ideas that I hadn't even noticed before because I thought I knew what I was supposed to be doing.
I pondered this while I cooked an elaborate pasta dish with homemade cheese sauce (the secret is to add Worcestor Sauce, mustard, and a dash of nutmeg by the way) took the dog for a long, slow walk, and eventually popped into my writing group to discuss it while listening to calming folk music.
What if... what if rather than writing the next chronological scene right now, I saved it for later in the book? Yes, showing it NOW, in its technically correct place in the story, would be thrilling and exciting, a great piece of action before a more quiet section. But that was all it would be. The reader would certainly know that the heroine wasn't going to die at this point so there'd be tension but not real fear. In fact, this scene, which had previously seemed inevitable and almost unavoidable, would be more like... well, predictable. Maybe even a little... unnecessary?
But if I held it back, maybe teased the reader with fragments and fleeting flashes of what had happened, and jumped the narrative and the heroine forward in time... then I could keep that whole piece of action for later in the story. Then it would no longer seem predictable. Then it would not only offer the reader thrilling action but also truly great emotional impact. It would serve as something much greater than a set piece - it would be a characterisation bombshell, turning the status quo of the story on its head. It would be *beautiful*.
And what's more, if I worked it that way, many other tiny issues which I hadn't quite figured out how to tackle yet would suddenly click into place, functioning together like a well oiled watch to add to rising tension and the reader's investment. I wouldn't even have to DO anything. It just... worked that way.
My subconscious was a bloody genius.
Despite the several days delay while I worked all this out, I'm now back on target with my wordcount and, more importantly, having whizzbang fun writing the current section of the story with a twist that I had never envisaged at the planning stage. And what does all this come down to? That sometimes when you get blocked, it's for a reason. It could be for the reasons I mentioned before - gaps in planning or knowledge or because of external factors - but sometimes it's just that you need a couple of days to work out a different way, an unexpected way, a better way, for the story to play out.
Yes, I could probably, with great effort, have BICed my way through this crisis. I could have forced myself to put words down on the page. But those words wouldn't have been the right words. They'd have been perfectly fine words, no doubt, and it's not like the entire story would have failed if I hadn't come up with this nifty alternate way of working this section. But it would have been less than it could have been. Less interesting, less fun, just less good.
So although you do need to give yourself permission to suck sometimes, and you do need to remember that you can't fix a blank page, and first drafts aren't meant to be perfect... there are times when you also need to listen to the little voice blowing raspberries in your back brain and admit that your first, unthinking ideas on how to execute something might not be the only or the best way. And then let your subconscious have its say. Something to think about.
And now... SURPRISE MUSIC RECOMMENDATIONS NO-JUTSU!