Many budding writers wonder how other authors find their inspiration. They also wonder about that cursed block folk talk about and how to thwart it. Well, I can’t say I suffer such blocks, I seem to have too many ideas rather than too few. However, what I do struggle with, from time to time, is my ability to get going on a thread, or to keep going with it for that matter. Most of the time, for me, that comes down to distractions.
Whenever I’ve looked such things up, I’ve read one writer or another’s view, taken from their own experiences. What I wanted to do with this blog post was find out what a range of authors do, from self-published authors trying to encourage folk to read their lovingly written début novel, to traditional published authors from the genres I love. Do they suffer from blocks? Will more than one of them comment on the same ways of finding inspiration? Will one or two have a weird or wacky way of kick-starting that lull in their writing? Well read on and find out, dear friends.
I had to laugh whilst talking to friend and fellow #SPFBO competition author G R Matthews (site link) about this very subject. The sci-fi and fantasy author (titles available here) of much loved far eastern fantasy The Stone Road came back with a swift reply when I initially asked him how he would deal with a block:
“Alcohol :)” I rolled my eyes and allowed him a chuckle from my side of the laptop screen. Thankfully, he swiftly followed it up with, “I play computer games… read and play guitar… ideas are easy, dedication is tough.”
“Ideas are easy, dedication is tough.” That struck me as true to me, too. I wanted to know if this was the case with other authors, so was glad to have some similar responses about how inspirational blocks aren’t the problem; stalling on the flow of your manuscript often is. My favourite Historical Fiction author, Conn Iggulden (titles available here), author of my current historical series read War of the Roses gave me a lot to think about:
“I don’t get blocked, not really, I just fall out of the routine – usually because I have to do something else, like go to Sweden for a literature festival. When that happens, I can’t just start where I left off. The thread has been broken. So I read the whole thing from the beginning, go through all the plans again – and then write the next scene. That happens all too often, but I never ‘block’ and I’m slightly suspicious of the concept. When I was a younger man, I wrote a sonnet in a creative fury, delighting in it. After that, as an interesting thing to do, I took the same title and crafted a different sonnet, rhyme, meter, the lot. When I finished, I read both, shrugged and put them aside, in a drawer. Months later, I found both poems again – and could not remember which was which! So the lesson I learned was that white-heat creativity is joyful stuff – but *craft* can carry you through just as well.”
“The thread has been broken.” I can totally relate to this. My problem is getting back into it. Going back and reading through it again makes perfect sense. I am constantly told to write so many words a day. I don’t. Sorry, but that’s not me. I love writing, but I have to be in the mood to write. I started to think it was just me, but I’m glad to hear that Mark Lawrence, author of the popular Broken Empire series (titles available here), only writes when he wants to:
“I’m probably the worst person to ask. I’ve never lacked ideas or thought of writing as a chore or had a deadline hanging over me. Perhaps the only relevant thing I have to add would be that I only write when I want to. You don’t need to average very many words a day to write a book a year. Also – it might be noteworthy that although I don’t do other things as a plan/ploy to help my writing, I do get a lot of ideas pop into my head when I’m doing something vacant like cycling to work or digging the garden.”
Mark writes when he wants too and the ideas flow when he is doing ‘normal’ things, things where the mind can wander. I can relate to that. Most of my ideas come at the ridiculous times when I can do little about them: driving, showering or working. Go figure. What about if you’re looking for inspiration though? What if you need to take a step back from that manuscript, that story that’s filling your head, and find a way to release it? I like to listen to music, soundtracks to epic movies usually. I’m thankfully not alone, as John Gwynne, author of The Faithful and the Fallen fantasy series (available here) will tell you:
“I’ve never suffered from writers block, but sometimes it can take me a while to get into a good flow of writing. Really my only strategy is headphones and music. There’s a lot of distractions in my home 🙂 sometimes walking through my front door can feel like stepping into a Wizard of Oz tornado!
So I have a few go-to soundtracks that always help me to focus, top of that list being Last of the Mohicans, Braveheart, Gladiator, Lord of the Rings, a handful of others. I also have a dozen or so play lists made up around whatever mood or tone I’m trying to write – battles, sinister and so on.
Once the headphones are on I’ve never felt that I can’t write, although sometimes it may still be slower, but that’s usually because I’m finding my way through a scene, rather than suffering from block.”
I love that John listens to such things to find inspiration. I messaged him straight back after he sent me the above, telling him I listened to those very soundtracks. We swapped some more after that and I’m keen to throw on one of those he mentioned to see what happens.
John said he never suffers from writers block, he’s not the only one. I was pleasantly surprised to read how many of the authors I follow and talk to don’t. But what if you do? Lucy Hounsom, author of fantasy novel Starborn (available here) had some great advice for anyone who is feeling that block.
“I find that dry feeling of staring unproductively at the blank page both frustrating and depressing. Little comes if I force myself, so instead I read. Books, articles, fiction, non-fiction – it doesn’t matter. Inspiration lies everywhere, but really it’s about taking your mind off the WIP (Work In Progress) for a while, focusing on something completely different and letting your own ideas settle out of sight. Playing the piano also helps me, as it uses a different part of the brain. However, it’s important to remember that the stagnant state which people call writer’s block can actually serve a purpose. It’s an arena in which to shape amorphous concepts of character and story, to begin to give them the forms they need to exist in a novel. Whenever I find myself stranded, it’s almost always because I’m unsure of my direction. I need to step back from the page, take time to work out where I am and where I plan to go. Otherwise I’d just be walking blindly.”
Interestingly, author of demon filled dystopian fantasy The Vagrant (available here) said something similar:
“The quick answer is that things like running, roleplaying, gaming and reading all help to fill me back up when depleted, but if I’m flagging it’s normally a sign of something else being wrong with the manuscript. It might be that I’ve used the wrong POV for a scene or that I need to rework a thread of the plot or change a character, etc. These days, I don’t see a lack of motivation as a thing to beat myself up about, I see it as a sign that there’s a problem in the manuscript that needs attention. I try to sort it myself and if that doesn’t work I’ll talk it over with Emma (author Emma Newman – titles found here). Often just talking about it out loud to another person can bring inspiration. So, in conclusion: if stuck marry Emma! (Or maybe don’t be too hard on yourself, and go back to the last time the manuscript engaged you and work out what’s changed.)”
“Go back to the last time the manuscript engaged you and work out what’s changed.” Similar to what Conn Iggulden said, about reading your manuscript back through; get into it again, or in this case find out what is holding you back. There are similarities in what is being said by authors of different genres and of different levels of ‘experience’ here, if we can call it that. Take David Benem, another fellow #SPFBO author (What Remains of Heroes available here), for example. He also likes to talk things through with folk, as well as taking his mind from the initial problem, to work on something else within the manuscript (something I do myself):
“My current series is told from multiple points of view, so I have the luxury of working on another character’s chapter when one has me stumped. I’m not a meticulous plotter and this can lead to a lot of rewriting. Nevertheless, switching into someone else’s head often gives me that needed kick in the rear. When that fails I’ll grab a beer with one of my beta-readers and talk things out or flip on a good genre TV show or movie (Conan the Barbarian with Ahhnold is a personal favorite).”
Not only does David crack open a beer and have a chat about what’s bothering him, he likes to lose himself in a good movie, much like #SPFBO vice-winner (his words, not mine. He’s a cheeky so-and-so, in the best possible way of course – and a worthy “vice-winner” by all accounts!) Ben Galley, author of The Scarlet Star trilogy (available here). I asked Ben: When/if you suffer a block or just shudder to a halt through life’s interference, do you have any preferred methods to get going again, so to speak?
“I have a couple, and which one I use depends on why I think I’m experiencing the block. So for instance, if I’m being vague with the dialogue and direction of a scene, I know I’m hesitating because I don’t know where I’m going with it. At that point it’s time to sit back, twiddle a pen, percolate some caffeine, and think about your plot.
If it’s the fact I can’t concentrate, I usually attribute it to the environment I’m writing in. My writing desk has to be clutter-free, for a start. My to-do list has to be dealt with or scheduled for later, and I need to make sure I can have peace and quiet. Or, it may be that I need to get out of the house and write somewhere new to let the juices flow again. Living by the beach is always pretty inspirational. Especially with the gale-force winds.”
I then went on to ask him this: If not the same as above, or should the above not apply, what do you do to spark that imagination of yours? Walks, gaming, music?
“I’m sadly one of these annoying people that say inspiration just strikes, but while that’s true, it usually strikes when I’m consuming other media or experiences. I try to keep what I watch, read and play quite “nutritious” – lots of fantasy fiction, epic films, and a lot of cinematic games. A certain scene, concept or even just a line can just tickle me, and I’ll start spooling an idea together. It’s usually not even connected to what I’m consuming at the time, but it’s clearly inspired by.
I also keep abreast of news, particularly science news, and also love a bit of history, Mythology is always solid for ideas and characters. Old stories and new possibilities go really well together. Music is also a huge driver of inspiration for me, and that’s why I include playlists in my books. I use music to echo the tempo of a scene, and keep me going.”
There’s that music again. G R Matthews’ guitar playing, Lucy Hounsom’s piano, John Gwynne’s movie soundtracks, we all have our ways to, well, let’s face it: relax! That relaxation of digging the garden (I may be stretching relaxation there) like Mark Lawrence, or going for a run like Peter Newman (not my idea of relaxing, but I’m sure, whilst strenuous, it is his). Linking on from the not so relaxing relaxation, check out how the sci-fi and fantasy author of gritty, brutal books such as The Iron Wolves (titles available here) finds inspiration. I am, of course, talking about Andy Remic.
“If I’m honest, it’s rare I get writer’s block. But on those rare occasions I do…. I think you’ve got to take your mind off it, doing whatever you really enjoy. Watch a good movie. Read a great book. Drink fine wine. Mountain climbing is particularly good for me, especially in winter; the icy air clears your head, the exertion pains your muscles, the lack of people with their deviated mental static allows you to think think think… yeah, climb Skiddaw, Blencathra or Helvellyn. An easier way than chucking yourself off Crib Goch is mountain biking – getting off road, away from the world and its neuroses… getting away from people.”
Now I spoke to Andy about this, in brief. I hate heights, but I have been up Blencathra in some sketchy weather conditions. I was scared stiff. In the end, with gale force winds and hail accompanying my friend and I, ropes were deployed and my friend Lee had to harness me up, just to encourage me to continue climbing. I tell you what though, despite the horrific fear at the time (I insisted at one point that an RAF Sea-King helicopter should be called), the feeling of elation at the end was incredible, as was the experience as a whole… once done with. I can totally see how it would inspire you, especially if you enjoyed it whilst it was happening! I’m not saying go out and risk your life, but if you do? Well, if you do I am sure it’ll feed some story thread now or in the future.
Failing mountain climbing with a fine wine whilst watching a great movie with one eye and reading a book with the other, all at the same time as talking it through with your guitar playing spouse or beta-reader, perhaps you could dial down the madness a little and do what another #SPFBO author friend of mine told me… mind you, this isn’t exactly what you’d call normal either, is it, Graham?
“As for getting the juices going, I have a messed up system. If I get well and truly blocked I go for a walk and talk my way through it. I AM that crazy person walking along, talking about faeries and catapults… ironically I then come back and bull through it – writing absolute crap which gets rewritten into something half-decent. The thing is, I could have done that in the first place without the staring at the screen or walking and talking to myself.”
Yes, author of The Riven Wyrde Saga (titles available here) is that guy, but it clearly seems to work for him. If you don’t fancy talking to yourself, a clear message throughout this, from various authors if not all, is to get a change of scenery. Be it from the manuscript or in general.
“I get change of scenery or read. I may also work on another project in the hope that my head will clear and I can get new thoughts generating on the first one.”
Richard A Knaak, author of countless books (titles available here) in popular series’ from Forgotten Realms to World of Warcraft and more has certainly changed his scenery with his latest novel, Black City Saint. I’m reading it at the moment and thoroughly enjoying it. It’s taken me slightly out of my normal genre reading, something I think I needed.
Whether reading or writing something knew, it’s clear that taking a step back and putting your mind to something else is what helps. I asked the questions I’d asked the above authors to another friend of mine, Laura Hughes, author of a deliciously dark story, Danse Macabre. What she sent back to me was well thought out and beautifully presented, as her writing always is. It’s interesting, to me, to read about authors at every level, from best sellers to hobby writers. This way, there’s some advice for everyone at every level.
“I can be easily distracted. Hell, it took me eight attempts just to finish writing this. There’s a ridiculous amount of stuff in our everyday lives that has been designed to distract us. But I don’t just mean video games, or TV, or social media, or household pets, or shiny things, or passing butterflies, or—where was I?
Not sure. Anyway, I’m easily distracted, and this is a serious obstacle to someone who’s trying to write a novel, i.e. wrangle hordes of protagonists and slot events correctly into overlapping timelines (which sometimes feels as though I’m playing ‘Pin the Tail on the Donkey’). Any time I reach a bit of a creative bump, I find myself heading down to the taskbar and bringing up Facebook. Or Twitter. Or email. Since this totally kills my productivity I have to set myself a realistic limit. Say . . . I’m allowed to check Facebook three more times this evening. Knowing I’ve limited myself makes me think twice about reflexively logging in when the going gets tough, and is really helping me kick the habit of floating around in a pointless cycle of procrastination.
And speaking of the ‘P’ word . . . I frequently waste hours of my life inventing convoluted family histories for obscure characters who I’ll then eliminate from the story altogether the following day. I linger over phrasing (“MUST think of the perfect adjective before I can move on with this sentence!”) and I dither over pithy details like the spelling of characters’ names (“Cailoh? Kailo? Cylo?”). Over time I’ve become much more aware of this, and am gradually forcing myself to change my habits. Can’t think of a word? That’s okay, I’ll just write ‘Something’ and continue with the sentence. Not sure what my character is actually called? Just put [???] instead of their name and come back to it later.
It hardly needs to be said that different things will work for different people. Many writers claim that going for a walk, or a run, or a workout, really helps to get their creative juices flowing. Not for me. Physical exercise just annoys me and throws me completely out of sync, as do noise and other people. On the other hand, a weekend indoors with the curtains closed and a blanket round me is a sure-fire way of helping me to focus; it was a while before I realised that coming home from work in the late afternoon and sitting straight down to type was well-intentioned, but just not working for me. More recently I’ve been setting my wake-up alarm for 5.30am (two hours early) and bashing some words out before work each day: once I’ve showered and breakfasted it’s amazing how switched on my brain is in these early hours! But as I said, the thing that helps me most is when I’m able to dedicate an entire day to just sitting down with my work in progress and taking my own sweet time with it. No deadline, no pressure: just me and my story and all the time in the world. Last weekend I wrote nearly 8,000 words . . . not because I had to, but because I wanted to.
Basically I’m saying that by treating writing as a fun, non-compulsory hobby – an activity that’s impulsive, not scheduled – I enjoy it more, and as a result I’m much more productive. All the advice you see on writing blogs says you have to “treat it like a job”, and that’s fine if you have your own publisher and actual deadlines to meet. But I tried that on more than one occasion (NaNo is a prime example), and you know what? I began to resent writing. Because it had become a chore. Something I had to do. And that, for me, is the key to overcoming writer’s block. Mind gone blank? Motivation fled? That’s fine. I’ll sit back. Close the laptop; make a nice cup of tea, maybe. Put on a fun video game, if I feel like it. And remind myself: I don’t have to write this book. I can just abandon it now, and there’ll be no repercussions whatsoever. No pressure, yeah? Yeah.
And every single time I’ll find myself back at the keyboard within the hour, because I’ve remembered that I really, really want to write it. Yes, it’s essentially using reverse psychology on my own brain. But it works.”
So there you have it, budding writers, experienced authors and interested readers alike. I’ve often found advice online about writers block and/or inspiration, but always from a single source. I wanted to offer you an insight into the authors we read and love to follow. Rather than one writer’s experience with blocks or flicking on that internal light-bulb, I wanted to offer you many. I hope it helps you as much as it has helped me, even if to reassure you that we each go about these things in our own, personal, ways, whilst sharing some common methods throughout.
Happy writing, folks, and don’t forget to check out the linked websites and books of those marvellous authors above, who took the time to inspire us all.
J P Ashman
(oh, mustn’t forget, my own titles can be found here)