And it's the new WIP that's been causing me to tear my hair out. You see, two days a week I've now got access to a lovely quiet office in York from 9am until 6pm. There's light, heat, a window, a computer and the internet - not to mention my WIP notebook and the copious amounts of stationery I've ferried over there, plus ready access to coffee and the odd snack - which ought to be everything that I need to work.
Now of course, I'm there to see students and help them to improve their writing. But currently it's quiet (things pick up toward exam deadlines) so most days I have a few free periods, or even a whole free morning or afternoon in which to work in total peace, plus the time after my work day finishes but before the Student Centre closes and I need to leave my office. No dog that needs walking, no parent calling me in a panic over a leaking roof or virus-infected computer, no meals to cook (I'm staying in a hotel), no cleaning or other household chores to do. It ought to be bliss! I ought to be churning out thousands of words! I even made myself a Pacemaker schedule confidently expecting huge amounts of progress!
I haven't managed to write more than one or two awful, stilted paragraphs on any day that I've been in York.
It's baffling and infuriating. This is a book that I am super excited about. I mean, super excited. I LOVE this idea. I've been sitting bolt upright in bed in the middle of the night to scribble down ideas in my notebook, I love it so much. I've done my research. My Pinterest board is stuffed. I have a playlist on Spotify and a white noise mood track on Noisili. My agent loves it. My editor loves it. I'm ready.
And yet... no words.
What's going on?
What's going on is I'm being deeply stupid, is what.
I realised it yesterday, and it made me want to smack myself in the forehead.
When I first went full-time as a writer I used to get up early, do all my household stuff (cleaning, walking the dog, breakfast, whatever) and get myself into my study by nine... and then sit there, staring at the screen in mounting frustration, wanting to write, needing to write, but paralysed. There just weren't any words! WHERE WERE THE WORDS??
It took me weeks to work out what the problem was and work out methods around it - many of which I shared with you on the blog over the years.
Don't sit down at 9am and expect yourself to write for three or four hours straight off. It's far too intimidating and your brain freezes up. Set a timer and work for half an hour or forty minutes, as fast as you can, then break and do something else for five or ten minutes (check emails, Facebook, get a new coffee, stretch) before you look over what you've done. Forty minutes is way more manageable than three hours - and usually you've then broken the morning-blankness and can carry on in forty minute sprints until you're done for the day. But even if you can't, you'll often surprise yourself with how much you can write in a timed sprint like that - certainly more than you'd write if you stared at a white screen for an hour and then gave up.
If you get well and truly stuck, don't just sit there staring at the screen until you either cry or get a migraine, or both. Get out. Work somewhere else - the library, a coffee shop - or if you can't face that, go for a walk, get the blood pumping, think about your story and what makes it special, work through the problem in your head.
Write longhand so that you remember this is just scribbles, just noodling about with ideas, getting stuff wrong so that you can work out what to get RIGHT, not deathless prose that needs to be perfect.
Don't sit down with vague ideas like 'Today I've got to get Sarah from the bridge over the river to the Capital City'. Some days - great days - you'll be inspired and can take a boring task like that and run with it, but MOST days you'll spend ages trying to just figure out WHAT COMES NEXT because it's so non-specific and anyway what you want to write is the scene where Sarah gets to the Capital and runs into the King's Guard. Always jot down a quick plan the day before, a few bullet points that will act as a road map to what you want to achieve, the shape of the next section. For instance:
- Sarah wakes up under the bridge (covered in dew? Frogs in hair? Stiff and damp)
- Wearily washes in icy water while remembering swimming in river as a child (family memories! Better times)
- Packs up (brief descrip) and slogs down hill
- Avoids riders on the road in case it's Kings Guard, then hitches ride w/friendly farmer
- Arrives in city, smells food, feels lifting of spirits, crosses through City Gate (jostling other people, seeing Castle on the hill)...
- Bumps straight into Captain of the Guard!
Dear Readers, I know all of this. This is how I work. It's how I've worked for over six years. And yet. I've basically been rocking up to my RLF office at the uni at 8:50am every morning, logging into my OneDrive and sitting there staring at a blank page in my Word doc, waiting for words to come. That's not going to happen. I can't even describe how much it's not going to happen. I know this. AND. YET.
During my lunch break yesterday I went for that long walk. I was feeling so cross with myself, and really gloomy. I didn't even want to eat, which anyone who knows me knows is Bad Juju. But as I wandered around the leaf-strewn Minster Park - with glowering brow and slumped shoulders - I slowly, slowly felt my brain clearing.
I realised I should have gone for a walk an hour before instead of just sitting there during that free period staring at my computer and willing the monitor to burst into flames. And that reminded me of all the other things I normally do on a working day - and eventually I worked out what was going on. Finally. It was a true D'UH! moment. I had to sit down on a bench for a little bit just to comprehend it, and to sigh with relief and actually appreciate the autumn colours I'd been way too grumpy to look at before.
This is is a lesson. Stupidity can happen to anyone, and that includes professional writers. You can spend years figuring out the best methods of working for you, but when faced with a new situation it's all too easy to revert to bad habits. And even the very best methods (and mine have worked pretty well for me so far) will be useless if you don't employ them. Basically, I'd been cheerfully sabotaging myself for weeks and then wondering why I wasn't getting anywhere.
I hope no one else is self-sabotaging at the moment, but if so, and you're reading this? Knock that right off, muffins. Tell me all about it in the comments.