Thursday, 2 September 2010

How to solve a writing problem

I need to write a blog today because tomorrow I’m off to Glasgow to baby-sit for the weekend and I’ll be enjoying being with my 2 grandsons so won’t have time for web stuff. But the question immediately arises (as it has with most of these postings) what can I say? The popular blogs are about significant things, express political or religious attitudes, bare the bloggers’ souls, share extreme griefs, or just happen to be written by somebody famous. I don’t think I do any of these things, and yet the feeling as I write is always that it’s either some sort of confessional thing or an attempt to produce a laugh or provoke a thought.

Maybe it’s that last one that I want to do most (after persuading anyone who visits here to read one or more of my books, of course). That’s the way I always treated lectures and the way I treat workshops now. OK, I have a few experiences I can share, but rather than base what I say at these workshops on my stuff, I like to find out what the people there expect and develop something connected with that. Apart from anything else, it opens up my mind to things that might not have occurred to me.

The one wee lesson I could pass on is that the way to solve writing problems is to write. That’s not supposed to be an aphorism, or even a joke (it’d be a pretty crap one if it was). I say it because, since I finished the drafts of the two books on essays and dissertations, I’ve been ‘tidying things up’, ‘organising things’, ‘preparing things’ – in other words, doing bugger-all.

And yet, as I explained in my ‘Back to fiction and Percy Briggle’ posting over two weeks ago, there are two clear projects I need to tackle – the fantasy stories and the sequel to The Figurehead. A publisher has said encouraging things about the former so I really do need to get on with it before her interest dies. My problem is that I wrote the stories (about 20 of them) as separate, unconnected items and the challenge is to create a narrative framework around them which draws them together to form a coherent, cohesive unity. At present, they run to 31,000 words, which is enough for an ebook, but I need at least 40,000 for a paperback version.

And I’ve been trying to think of how to do it (honest). But, for two weeks, nothing’s occurred – no muse, no inspiration, no newspaper items (which are often great sources of ideas) – nothing. So yesterday, in the end, I forced myself just to start writing. I had a vague idea about who one of the people I introduced was but beyond that, zilch. So I started a dialogue between him and his friend. It went OK. There were a couple of gags that (I thought) worked, but I still didn’t know where it was going. Then, suddenly, I knew I had to look something up, just to get some statistics to back up something my main man had said. I did that and there, all of a sudden was the solution. The character had taken me in the right direction and the collection of stories made sense, I used the StoryLines software to spread them out, group them, put generalising labels on the groups and there was a structure and a progression. And it liberated me.

So now, instead of sitting here and putting off the idea of writing, I know where I finished and where I need to go for the next bit. The baby-sitting will be fun but I know I’ll be keen to get back and find out what happens in what I’m calling an ‘Alternative Dimension’ (which is where most of the stories take place).

So, if you’re stuck or have some writing problem to solve, just write. Trust your characters and yourself.

By the way, the picture is of a page of Flaubert’s manuscript for The Sentimental Education. No software for him. God knows how his editors deciphered it all.


  1. I totally am stuck, so I loved reading this. will have a go. :) Just need to solve another problem- when?

  2. Can't agree more with the importance of "keep on writing". If only I took my own advice.

    I love the picture of the MS.

  3. When? Good question, Scary. No point starting unless you can guarantee a couple of hours, at least. Then, once the flow starts, you'll find it easy (no, essential) to make time.

    Gary, you're a model of professional, conscientious application. I hope Pericles is selling well.

  4. Bill, I couldn't agree more: just write.

    I have a friend who is a national public speaker who survived a serious brain injury in a car accident. She has been trying to write for years and claims to have several books in her but, because of her limits with respect to concentration and other things, she keeps putting off the writing.

    After listening to yet another round of excuses, I weighed my options: Continue listening to her talk about how bad she wants to write or force her to put her money where her mouth is -- and risk the friendship?

    Being the brave (er, tactless) person I am, I said, "Lois. Writers write. Wannabe writers talk about writing."

    Then I held my breath. She nodded and we talked about that. After I listend to a repeat of all the excuses I'd heard before, I told her to spend the first 15 minutes of each day writing: before she does anything else, but after coffee, when her brain is at its freshest.

    In the past two weeks, she's completely outlined her first book--spending 20-30 minutes each morning. Now that she's in a routine, she's able to spend twice the time she thought she could!

    And she confided that when a fellow we both know (he went on sabbatical from his job so he could write a book and didn't finish the book in the year he wasn't working) told her how he's having such difficulties finding the time to write, she told him, "Robert. Writers write. Wannabe writers talk about writing."

  5. Great comment, Linda. Thanks so much for sharing that. I was only offering the 'advice' from a personal perspective; your anecdote(s) give it a much sounder base. (And I'll probably steal your writers and wannabes line in future.)

  6. Linda's comment reminded me of a writer I interviewed years ago who was paralyzed with polio from the neck down. She used a mouth wand to peck each key on her typewriter--placed on a table just below her chin--to write her stories and books. She was such an inspiration and I think of her often when I'm stuck and feel I can't finish a project.

  7. It's humbling when we come across such people, isn't it, Jean? There seem to be so many ways to describe why we write: in your writer's case it was obviously a compulsion. It puts Linda's comment about wannabes into an even clearer perspective.