Writer’s Block & Other Challenges

I’m a prolific writer! So, maybe I don’t suffer the dreaded ‘it shall not be named’. I do, though. It’s just I know how to get around it.

Writer’s block is a thing for every writer, even the biggest selling and most widely published, and I thought it might be helpful to other writers and my future self (when I hit a bad patch) to write about the dreaded BLOCK and other writerly challenges.

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I’ve already published ten books this year, some of which are novella-length, but trust me each book needs to make sense within itself and you don’t get away with half-done books, no matter what length. Some of the best novels of all time have been short in length and often a novella or short novel requires that extra bit of restraint to prevent yourself going off on a word spree/tangent.

You can imagine that after writing a few books as I have, it gets harder and harder to sound original, to achieve the same shock and awe in a reader after they’ve read a handful of your books. I don’t very often re-read my back catalogue, but I’m sure if I did, I’d discover a writer that doesn’t feel like the writer I am now. Because accepting the ever-changing thing that is life is the first rule of writing. The finished product can end up so different to how you imagined it in the beginning.

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Sometimes when I finish writing a book or series, I’ll get to the end and start to wonder how the hell I started writing this blessed/damned story in the first place. Inspirations can come from anywhere/everywhere. One of my biggest-selling series is Nightlong and I do wonder how the heck I came up with that story. Sometimes the origin harks back to a goal you wanted to achieve. With Nightlong, it was to write a femdom trilogy. Although it didn’t quite work out that Ciara was always in charge, are any of us? No matter how dominant we are, are any of us ever truly in control? Accepting there’s a lot in life we cannot control is a skill invaluable when it comes to novel-writing. Especially in overcoming the Block.

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Getting past writer’s block should be simple, right? It’s the ability to be able to recognise that we’re not always in charge. Right? Many writers will tell you the blank first page is their nightmare. That it taunts them. It represents to many that scary possibility that anything they put down might end up being absolute crap. The heightened sensitivity of a writer is what makes them so good at it but also undoes them. The blank page, empty and pale and fruitless, beckons us to fail? Or does it? What if the blank page scares us so much because it taunts the writer of the journey ahead . . . the hours you’ll spend hunched over a computer. It spells all the work you’ve yet to do . . . and humans are self-preserving creatures, after all. Every time I finish writing a novel I know I’ve done something many will never accomplish because the war against your own mind is EPIC.

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I’ve never quite been a subscriber to self-help, self-improvement, regimented living . . . I am an extreme creative who doesn’t like any rules or regulations. Some days I just don’t feel the urge to write. Other days, I’ll be typing until my fingers go numb and my eyes are about to give up on me. I don’t ever force myself to write unless there’s a pressing deadline.

Therein, lies my cure to writer’s block: don’t write according to rules. Or just wait until the urge to write comes back again, and once it does, prioritise the shit out of that over everything else. I can only liken it to this: it’s like a car with the wheels spinning out of control but the back end is still on bricks and you’re not moving anywhere. I’ve found my most productive writing sessions are after I’ve got the car off the bricks, having got to the point where the tyres are going to set on fire otherwise!

I often think back to my journalistic days when, present day, I’m faced with difficult literary hurdles. I could bash out 4,000-5,000 easily in a day back then, but that was different. That was copy designed for a customer. It was technical and regurgitative. It wasn’t me as I am now, facing the blank page, knowing it all has to come from me and nobody else can complete this singularly unique and individual task. With creative writing, anything can happen, and only in the rule-breaking can a writer achieve that thing they haven’t quite achieved yet. I also remind myself that as a journalist, I never turned up to work drunk and drink has never made me a more productive writer or more uninhibited. Over the years I’ve begun to shake my head a little when I see writers posting a picture of a bottle of scotch and the words: ‘writer fuel’. My writing is much better off for no alcohol involved, nor loud music in the background (husband differs on this). There’s meant to be all this glamour surrounding what it’s like to be a writer, but it couldn’t be different in reality. If you ever find yourself rolling up to the school run in mismatched clothes like you’re colour-blind, you’re wearing sunglasses even though it’s snowing and you have no tolerance for any other human being whatsoever, then it’s fairly safe to say you’re a writer.

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While there will always be slightly familiar patterns to my work (to be expected), I still try to find new stories. They say every story ever told derives from a handful of core plots that, over time, have been embellished to look different but are essentially the same. The mechanics are often the least important thing in the first draft – they can be sorted later – it’s the heart of the story you have to master first and foremost.

The Bad Series was published this year and it is the first series I didn’t go to town on editing. I wrote it straight through and hardly did any major re-writes. If it reads quite punchy, and light, that’s because I wanted it to come across that way – to give readers a chance to make up their own minds without the stories being too heavy on detail and the characters too fixed in place. I didn’t want anything so final about it all. The characters are incredibly real, almost to the point of exacerbation – but that’s what I wanted! I grew up on those types of stories.

The danger (or positive) of being so well written as I am is that you do tend to become extremely opinionated on the writing process and on the industry, because you’ve seen and done A LOT. What works for someone else does not always work for you – but what works for me IS LAW.

I personally don’t want to live on social media (I already give SO MUCH to my books, everything I want to say is in those). I also don’t believe social media is necessary to sell books. SM helps if people want to connect with you, it gives your readers access to the person behind the words, but what if you’re not interested in building a brand or being consistent or predictable to serve a commercial purpose? When you’re a writer who just writes and wants to reach the shy people who love to read books and don’t make an awful lot of fuss about it all (as I do), then you’re probably more likely to reach those readers through email marketing and ads that are delivered store-front.

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There have been a few stories I’ve written where I’ve felt certain only one or two people would really get it, and then I’ve been surprised, and vice versa I’ve written stories that I thought were for mass market and people didn’t like those as much. They started reading me because I’m different and they want to keep reading my work because it’s different. It is an absolute minefield out there, so what are you best off doing? You can only write what you feel you must write. If what you feel you must write is a story your publisher can get onboard with and you need sales to put food on the table, do that.

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All stories matter. I’ve written stories about some truly inexplicable people but at the end of the day, their stories mattered because they felt real to me and my readers. I don’t want to sugar-coat a story to make it seem more palatable, that would never be genuine or very writerly of me. Similarly, if you make a character too unlikeable, you might make a reader want to straight away unplug. But everyone always gets their reckoning . . . one way or another.

It’s been a rollercoaster this year for everyone out there, writers and non-writers included. My writing has felt a lot like a rollercoaster on more than one occasion. Some days I’ve been straight out of the blocks, other days I’ve just not had the impetus. During lockdown I largely buried myself in the stories, lay awake at night plotting and forming scenes before typing them up the next day. I would indulge in long lie-ins and write till late at night because the house was quiet and my mind in a more relaxed state. I’m no longer able to indulge now my husband and daughter are back at school and work. Sometimes I pine for those late nights and late mornings, while some days I am thankful for the routine of normal working hours again. While a lot of my stories are predominantly planned, I’ve also written some stuff completely by the seat of my pants. Sometimes you’ll do that and come back to it and be like WTF, other times you’ll realise you did need to pants it. It’s all about going with the flow, that’s it. It’s just that it is the damnedest thing.

I’ve often found that notebooks full of ideas haven’t always come to fruition. When you’re actually in the story, it takes you in another direction more often than not. Something in the plotting stage may have seemed like a totally great idea, but once you’re arcing and forming something more tangible, it just gets thrown out of the window and you end up writing something much more in line with the narrative. I had this terrible problem early on in my career where I really struggled to write things unless they were entirely factual and accurate (journo brain) and that took so long to shake off – to remind myself fiction is fiction and anything is possible. I also feel like the writer I am today is much more mature than the one I started out as and that, as before mentioned, some of the books I wrote seven or eight years ago would seem foreign to me now. The things that happen in our lives shape us. They can make us more tolerant or the opposite; bitter or accepting; honest or even more dishonest. Life shapes us and the writer changes. But what has always been evergreen about my stories is that the characters never needed to be reshaped. I always give them to you how they present themselves to me. Within the 40+ books I’ve written is a plethora of different people. But I never ever tried to promote my books on the diversity within. The unique stories are always what I hope people will remember. Stories are universal. The people I write about are real people, sometimes subversions of people I’ve known or know, sometimes they’re ugly people I try to make seem better, until there’s no denying they aren’t better. Strong characters can be kind or cruel, witty or dour, evil or good or plain and dark, beneath. The way they talk or treat people, love people, is the most important aspect of any heroine or hero.

Any good writer can convince themselves and others of anything. You just have to have a narrative that is watertight. But imperfections are the parts of us that allow other people in, so should that go for literature, too?

I know lockdown and everything going on in the world has made sitting down to concentrate so hard for so many people. I recognise the energy it takes for someone to sit down and really give themselves up to a story and let it take over and it’s not easy. It’s so HARD. The brain is a muscle, it needs to be exercised, but if you allow it to burn-out, what do you think is going to happen? It’s going to rebel.

The point of this blog is that, even I, Sarah Michelle, with all my techniques and tried-and-tested mantras have still found it hard this year (at times) to write. I think after I finished writing the Bad Series, I thought I might never write again. I wasn’t exhausted physically, but emotionally and mentally. I had to take a few weeks before I could even think about promoting it. It is the single most challenging piece of work I ever undertook and somehow, lockdown helped me complete it. I had somewhere to venture, to escape. I allowed myself the luxury to write when I wanted. It just seemed to work. A few months have passed and I’ve had to readjust my settings all over again – and will probably have to once more if Lockdown 2.0 happens!

All I know is that everything – and I mean everything – that has ever happened in my life has led me right up to now. To enable me to pull off a piece of work like this nine-book series. In the past I did used to force myself to write and maybe that was the best thing for me, then. If I hadn’t have forced myself, might I not have got further down the line, to the more mature, wiser and experienced writer I am now?

When I get writer’s block, what do you think I always say to myself? “This is leading somewhere, this is my journey . . . it’s taking me somewhere.”

And boy, is it . . .

Stay tuned,

S x

P.s. I won’t re-read this blog – https://sarahmichellelynch.com/2013/02/04/the-loneliness-of-the-long-distance-writer/ – but you might be interested what I said on writing years ago… and how it compares to now! 😉

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