I’m going to concentrate on self-criticism because in my experience the most tricky part of editing is managing your mind. In this context it’s good to remember that we have two sides of the brain. Right hand side: emotional, imaginative, creative and intuitive. The left hand side: logical, analyzing, language processor, critic. If the right hand side has been largely in charge during the creative side of writing, during the editing process, the left hand side comes to the fore.

And you want it to.

You want it to see structural problems, examine patterns, assess the believability of characters, and you want it to pick up on spelling and grammar mistakes etc.

So you want to utilize it but you do not want it to destroy you.

If the left hand side of the brain is a tiger, we want it to be The Tiger Who Came to Tea, (at the beginning of the story) an urbane polite beast that will point out difficulties and illogicalities in what we’ve written and present solutions. We do not want it to be Sheer Khan in the Jungle Book. We do not want it to  look like this one below, as if it is going to pounce on us and eat us alive. We want the the tiger on our side; we do not want to be its tasty snack. Excuse me, I hear you cry, How the hell do you tame a tiger?

angry animal big carnivore

Photo by Pixabay on

The only answer to that is with practice.

A sign that the left hand side of the brain is snacking on us is if you have some of the following thoughts going through your head when you consider your book:

  • it’s rubbish
  • I’ve no idea where to begin
  • what was I thinking of
  • I’m ashamed of it
  • I’m stupid
  • no one will be interested in this stupid story
  • I’ve wasted so  much time on this rubbish
  • am I completely nuts
  • it will never be published
  • I will die in poverty

These kinds of thoughts which can have a certain taunting playground quality are I would guess very common to all writers at some time or other. Writing them down helps because it brings perspective and stops them rolling around unaddressed in your brain. So write them down, tear them up and crack on.

However, there are likely to be times when the tiger gets you and you stop and simply don’t know how to proceed. It might be helpful at this point to remind yourself that writing a novel is an incredibly difficult thing to do.  Most writers have been at this point. There’s a reason why people give up. It’s now a question of whether you are going to be one of them.

Related image

V &A’s Tipu’s Tiger

If the tiger has its jaws at your throat there are a few things you can do:

  • go for a walk. I know, I know but there’s all kinds of evidence out there that suggests this is a very good idea. For example a 2014 Stamford study suggested that walking increased a person’s creative output by an average of 60%. Twenty minutes of walking increases cerebral blood flow. etc, etc. Look at it this way, it’s free and it’s unlikely to do you any harm so why not give it a go.
  • talk to someone you trust. This is a bit like writing down the criticisms. Getting things out in the air helps reduce their power over you.
  • get someone you trust to read it. A proviso to this is that you are clear what you want and clear about time frame. For example I might say: ‘Would you mind reading through it for me. I’m not quite sure if it’s holding together and I know it’s not quite there yet. Could you tell me if my plot seems OK and if there any points where you get bored or feel it’s losing it’s way. Also if there are any things in it which are irritating/cliched/ unbelievable/repetitive… Be clear on the time frame because if you’re hoping someone will read it in a fortnight and they end up reading it in a month you might be pissed off.

Finally, a few random thoughts. At some point or other you will be confronted with the question of why you’re doing it. Why write? Why put yourself through it? Only you can answer that for yourself. It seems to me that one of the reasons is that we are story telling beings – homo fabula and stories are one way we make sense of the world.

I love this quote from Ben Okri:

“Nations and people are largely the stories they feed themselves. If they tell themselves lies they will suffer the future consequences of those lies. If they tell themselves stories that face their own truths they will free their histories for future flowerings.”

Good luck with the tiger. Mine is currently looking a bit like this because it views this post as relatively acceptable. Not tamed just resting. Now I’m going to take my own advice and go for a walk.

tiger lying on ground

Photo by Tuesday Temptation on



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:

  1. Move – go for a walk, do the gardening, make something, cook, Hoover…
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Have patience.
  5. 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.