With six weeks before Wherever You Go is released, I’ve been hard-pressed to find good chunks of writing time. Instead, I’ve been writing in the gaps of life, much like I was when I first started drafting Wherever You Go.
Sometimes those gaps are several hours; sometimes they’re half-hour blocks. But regardless of the length, these gaps have had a common problem.
Maybe not entirely wordless, because I usually get some words down, but the words that come out are disconnected and scrappy. Most of the time I think they’re useless, despite having a solid outline this time around.
And yet, the words I want to write – the words that thread a chapter, a story, a manuscript together – remain elusive. I type random sentences like ‘Bonnie sips her coffee and ponders the [insert something good here]’ and ‘Bonnie [reacts to something, add this later].’
I’m not joking. These are real examples. Probably not the worst ones either.
It’s a little bit due to a) having a massive to-do list relating to book promotion and a lot of, b) wondering how the heck I wrote a book in the first place. Because there’s absolutely no way I can do it again. I’m already pre-empting ‘the first one was better’ comments.
It’s ridiculous, I know. Wherever You Go hasn’t even been released yet so there is no need to put pressure on myself or imagine an onslaught of snarky comments.
Yes, I’m working on that overactive aspect of my imagination … and reminding myself that I have drafts of one and a half new books waiting for me to come back to them so darn it, I can definitely write another book.
But even when I give myself a) a pat on the back and b) a stern talking to … no decent words.
I am immobilised by the size of the story I want to write.
I was having a moan about it to my ever-patient husband when he said something that set light bulbs flashing in my head.
Bear in mind that he is NOT a writer and has no desire to be. He said:
‘Why don’t you just focus on writing key moments and thread them together later?’
Oh, my wordy heart. I could have kissed him (maybe I did) for two words that jumped out like the grasshoppers currently tearing apart my gerbera patch: key moments.
So there we were, having coffee and fixing my writing slump, and now all I wanted to do was ditch the coffee and get back to my desk.
I had to wait until the next day, but when the time came, here’s what I did:
1. Shape: Wrote down three key dramatic moments in one-sentence summaries. Eg Bonnie learns that her roof is leaking. In other words, outlining the “rough shape” of the key moment. No detail, just the essence or the purpose of that moment.
2. Sketch: Expanded each one-sentence summary into a rough vignette, without focusing on the texture and detail too much (a lot of it was dialogue). Think of it as sketching and use a light hand (that is, don’t get bogged down by detail or jumping down the internet rabbit hole for research).
3. Layer: Expanded each bare-bones “sketch” with more texture and sensory detail, ensuring that the conflict was clear and the POV was strong. Think of this as adding the layers and definition to the “sketch”.
This simple three-step process helped me write a rough draft chapter. Sure, the chapter needs work, but the foundation is there and I can move on to another chapter for now.
It wasn’t until later that I remembered this fantastic advice from Anne Lamott:
“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
Bird by bird. Shape, sketch, layer. It comes down to the same thing. Narrowing your focus.
Now, this is not how I write every time. Sometimes the words flow. But trying this method enabled me to move from staring at the screen and willing poetic prose to appear, to producing something I can build on.
I had to stop looking ahead to the destination and preempting obstacles, and limit my focus like this:
“E.L. Doctorow said once said that ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.”
What are your tips for getting over a block?