I live on a busy main road. Follow the road south a couple of hundred meters and you hit a junction. Turn left there and (depending on your disposition) you are walking or driving or cycling over Putney Bridge. The bridge has been closed for three months for repairs so all the traffic that needed to get across the river has been going over Wandsworth Bridge instead. As a consequence, life has been a lot quieter than usual but now the bridge has reopened, the pavements are wider, the pot holes are no more and I was walking over it the other day enjoying the Thames and the unseasonably warm weather.
In London, standing on a bridge is one of the few places where you can get a real feeling of spaciousness. The buildings are held at bay by the river banks and you have all that sky above you and the river rushing away underneath. So I stood in the middle of the bridge looking down into the murky water thinking about writer’s block or, in my case, what can be more accurately described as writer’s gremlins.
With every novel that I’ve written there are usually many moments when I have thought all or any of the following:
- You have no idea what you are doing
- This is a complete waste of time
- I have no idea what this book is about
- This is a stupid way to spend your life
- I should have stuck with law
- This whole thing (the novel, the plot, everything) has escaped me and shot down the proverbial rabbit hole
- Who are these people (my characters) and why have they stopped talking to me?
- And if it comes to that who the hell am I?
This is generally less likely to happen to me in the first 50,000 words, most likely about two-thirds in. It doesn’t happen to the same extent with the non-fiction books. The True Crime books were different because there the structure of my books was to a large extent predetermined by the facts of what actually happened. Also I was not creating characters. The people I was writing about had existed. But with novels there is nothing there until you create it. From the ground up, you are the one who is going to build it and that is one of the reasons fiction is so challenging and exciting to write.
Looking down into the water I noticed the cormorants. There are a lot of them at this end of the Thames and they gather near the arches bobbing up and down, diving for fish. Whenever I see them I always hear my mother, who knew an enormous amount of verse off by heart, reciting Christopher Isherwood’s nonsense rhyme:
“The common cormorant, or shag
Lays eggs inside a paper bag.
The reason you will see no doubt,
It is to keep the lightning out.”
On this particular day, regrettably, there were no eggs, no paper bags and no lightning. Just cormorants. A great many cormorants. At first I thought there were about six or seven but the more I watched the more there seemed to be because at any one time about half were under the water. After watching for five minutes or so I concluded there were about twenty or twenty-five of them. Then there was a moment when there wasn’t one on the surface. And that was soothing because when I am in the grip of my gremlins it is very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that there is absolutely nothing going on, that there is simply nothing there. When in fact you have no idea what may be going on in your subconscious. You have no idea (if you’ll excuse the slightly strained metaphor) how many cormorants might be diving and what they might be about to bring to the surface.
Given that you may not have your own pet cormorant to hand to produce a strained metaphor, here are some things to do when you can feel yourself adopting what I term ‘the fixed vulture’ position over your keyboard:
- Move – go for a walk, do the gardening, make something, cook, Hoover…
- Print out what you’ve written so far. For some reason it feels less elusive when you can physically see what you’ve written printed on the page. Read through it and stick the plot up on brightly coloured post-it notes. The colours should cheer you up even if what’s written on them depresses/baffles/appalls you.
- Put on 99 Red Balloons by Nena, Glory Days/Born to Run/Pay Me My Money Down by Bruce Springsteen. Insert song of your choice as long as it’s LOUD and play it SO LOUD the floor shakes.
- Have patience.
- Trust yourself.
The most important of these is probably 4. I know, I know. Easier said than done.
Here’s the end of the poem:
“But what these unobservant birds
Have failed to notice is that herds
Of wandering bears may come with buns
And steal the bags to hold the crumbs.”
I wish I could tell you that I then saw a herd of bun bearing bears tip toeing across the Thames towards the unobservant cormorants. I’m sure that would have sorted out my writer’s gremlins along with my sanity. Something rather more prosaic happened; one of the cormorants caught a tiny silver fish and a huge flock of seagulls then appeared out of nowhere and dive-bombed it. Whereupon the cormorant dived again and then I went home to my lunch.
One final point. In my opinion one of the main differences between published and unpublished writers is not talent but perseverance. If you persevere you learn to manage your mind and develop stratagems around your gremlins/blocks/doubts. If you don’t, you won’t.
What sorts out your writer’s block? Unobservant cormorants? Herds of bun bearing bears? Bruce Springsteen? 99 Red Balloons? All tips gratefully received.