Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Writers' Wednesday - Writer's Block

This week Kate Walker takes her courage in both hands and faces up to one of the things a writer dreads most - the attack of the Crows of Doubt that leads to the horrors of Writer's Block.

Last week I had an interview on Radio Lincolnshire and one of the questions that came up – as it always seems to do – was ‘What about writers’ block?’ Along with the old chestnuts ‘Where do you get your ideas from’ and ‘How long does it take to write a book? (How long is a piece of string?), the dreaded block seems to be the thing about writing that intrigues people most.

I think a lot of people have an image of a novelist, particularly a romance novelist, sitting about on a satin covered chaise longue and dictating stories at a fast rate. This probably comes from the idea of Dame Barbara Cartland or the wicked mickey-taking Little Britain’s Dame Sally Markham

If only it was as easy as this. And that’s another thing that amazes people – the fact that, after 50 something titles I can still suffer the pecks and claws of those dreaded Crows of Doubt, the struggle to get the words right – and sometimes, not even right – just to get the words out and down on the screen.

But you’re published they say. You’ve written so many books. It must be easy now. You can just ‘churn them out’. Again, if only. I know that so many times I have to struggle with a book, with recalcitrant characters, with a plot that just won’t go the way I thought it would. The problem is that when a book appears in the shops it’s there in its finished form. There is no sign of the numbers of different versions it has already been through, edited , rewritten. The pages of a lovely new paperback don’t show the blood sweat and tears that have gone into creating it. If they did no one would want to buy the nasty soggy dripping things.

And it’s not just me. When I knew I was going to write this post, I did a quick survey amongst writing friends, all successful, multi-published. And the one thing that became clear as the replies started coming in is that, for none of them, did this crazy job of writing stories for a living get any easier the more we did it – in fact, in many ways, it seems to get harder. We all had different ways of approaching the problem of a difficult book, of making ourselves move on with the writing when it seems to have ground to a halt.

Here’s what Annie West – whose latest book, The Desert King's Pregnant Bride is out as a Presents Extra in mid April.

Because I often embark on a story without knowing all the details of the plot (but at least I know the back story), I often find myself lost and wondering or perhaps wandering. At times the words just won't come no matter how hard I try. Things I've found that help me have varied from the minor to the large scale. Sometimes a good break away from a story can help. A couple of days doing something completely different. Especially if that involves getting outside, walking or in the garden. Fresh air helps stem the panic of a block! Walks by the lake are good too (I think there's something about water that really does spark the creative juices). Knowing that blocks are often part of the process can help, though they're still scary. One of the best things of all for me is talking to other writers, perhaps about the plot and why it's not going where it should, or even just about writing or life in general. Sharing with people who understand the difficulties really does make a difference. Often they'll suggest ideas that won't necessarily work in my story, but they spark new lines of thought I can pursue.

Often I find that a block comes because there's something not quite right in the story I've mapped so far. Putting my finger on what's really at the root of the problem can solve so much. But that's easier said than done.

Sometimes I’ll try to write through the block. Often I know it's not good, and I might have to scrap most of what I've written because I'm writing in circles. But sometimes that process of getting words down, however off track, can really help me decide what's not working and redirect me towards a better solution.

Another Australian writer, Trish Morey knows all about those dreaded Crows of Doubt

There's always this horrible feeling at the start of every book that you can't do it again, and no matter what number of book this is and how many times you've done this before, that you've lost whatever it is that turns an idea into a book. Sometimes that feeling dissolves as you get involved in the world of your characters and sometimes it stops you in your tracks. In my current manuscript, I couldn't get the story past the premise. I spent ages going around and around in circles, trying to make it work, desperate to get past page 12. I rewrote that start three times. I despaired that time was running out, and the more I despaired, the more it felt like inspiration eluded me. I felt totally blocked.

I don't know what shifted, whether it was the stars in the sky or the clog in my brain, but suddenly I could see the story and I knew instinctively how to make that premise work. Suddenly I had all sorts of scene ideas running through my head that I'd never seen before. Finally I was in the book!

The one thing that kept me returning to the computer through that bleak time was knowing that it would come good, that the words and the scenes would come and the book would get written. It's hugely frustrating when you want to get on with a project, but sometimes it's about trusting the process, and knowing it will come good, and be all the better for the forced down time.
Trish’s Current April title out in Presents and M&B Modern is Forced Wife - Royal Love-Child

You see – we’ve all been there. And often the writers you’d think were least likely to have a problem with doubts or being blocked are the ones who in the privacy of their own workrooms have suffered the worst. Writers like Liz Fielding whose clear, fresh prose and great characters always seems to be so wonderfully effortless. But Liz too knows what it’s like to go through the horrible times when the words won’t come:

When I'm blocked I tend to sit and stare at the screen like a frightened rabbit. The only cure for me is getting words down. One at a time. A sentence at a time. A paragraph. A page. Counting words. Refusing to leave the screen until I've written 1,000 in a day. It's painful, but taking walks, going shopping, a break doesn't work for me. I just feel guilty. I've had three of those books in a row, all rather angsty stories. I'm hoping that by going for a romcom with the present book I'll break the jinx!

Liz ‘s next book is Secret Baby, Surprise Parents coming in April

For me, one of the main causes of the dreaded block is those awful people, my characters. I spend ages thinking of their personalities, their situations, the confl;ict. And then they flat out refuse to go the way I want them to. They sit down on the page, fold their arms and refuse to move, rather like stubborn children who just won’t do as they’re told.
Anne McAllister knows all about this situation:

There are as many kinds of "writer's blocks" as there are writers to experience it. Sometimes it is a result of fearing failure. Other times it's because of fearing success. Go figure. Still others it's something particular to the book of the moment. Whatever it is, sitting down with it and figuring out what the problem is may help. If you can eliminate problems, that's all to the good. Less things to worry about. The bulk of my experience is with the "brick wall" sort of writer's block that means I need to go back and rethink my story, get to my characters' deeper motivations. It's almost always due to them not telling me something vital. The solution is not to give up but to spend more time with them, irritating people though they are!

Anne McAllister's Savas’ Defiant Mistress is published in Harlequin Presents in April and Mills & Boon Modern in May.

So what do you do when you’re ‘blocked’? When the words won’t come or if the words that do come sound so silly and unoriginal that you’re sure they’ll bore your reader to tears. Well, the one thing you need to do is to give yourself, permission to write that rubbish, to allow yourself, as Julie Cohen is always saying ‘to write crap.’ Because in the classic comment by Nora Roberts, you can always edit a bad page; you can’t edit an empty one. And Nora should know.

A walk outside, as Annie West suggest can help. My neighbors generally get a good idea of how my work is going by seeing whether I’m out in my garden. Weeding a flowerbed and letting my mind wander can often give me the inspiration I need. Another alternative, if the weather’s not so good, is doing the ironing. Mindless, mechanical tasks that leave my mind free to drift. Music can help. I don’t have a soundtrack to my books but sometimes a particular song can spark an idea with a line, a feeling.
My husband, who teaches Creative Writing on a university degree course has a wonderful little book called The Writer’s Block. It’s full of ideas that are meant to spark of writing exercises. But you can also use them to spark ideas about your latest story – suggestions like “take a character from your story and describe what might happen to him or her in your vision of the afterlife.” It might not have anything to do with just what my current hero Nikos feels or thinks about his heroine Sadie, but it can set off a whole new train of thought that means I get to know him so much better- and hopefully can start writing from a newly creative angle.

Because, in the end, the only way through these times of doubt is to write – to write through them. And Michelle Reid thinks just that:

It sounds a really stupid thing to say when the problem is that you can’t do it, but my advice is to write. Write anything – even when you think you’re writing rubbish. No one else has to see it. All that matters is getting those creative juices flowing again by whatever means possible.

And one other thing that helps, something that was reinforced by all the responses to my questions – and that is that everyone goes through it. No one is immune to those dreadful ploughing through muddy treacle moments when every word you write is the literary equivalent of pulling teeth.
No, it doesn’t get any easier with each book you write. There’s just one thing that writing a lot of books helps with and that’s knowing that even if it feels like hell this time, you’ve been here before and you probably will be here again. But experience teaches you that no matter how horrible it feels, you will get through it. You will write that book. And when you finally hold it in your hands it will all be worth it – you just have to wipe off the blood sweat and tears first. But you are the only one who’ll see them.
No one else will even realise they were there.
Kate's latest Mills & Boon Modern Romance Cordero's Forced Bride is out now. The Presents edition is still available on eHarlequin and
Pink Heart Society Reviews described the book as :
" . . . intense, explosive and the passion leaps off the pages. It’s one of those books that once you begin you’ll literally stay up all night reading.

Cordero’s Force Bride is part of the Bedded by Blackmail series and a wonderful addition especially with this year being Harlequin’s Diamond Anniversary, celebrating sixty years. It’s a beautiful sensual and passionate love story and one you definitely won’t want to miss."

You can find out more about Kate and her books on her website or for the most up to date news, visit her blog.


  1. Kate, again, what a fantastic, informative and supportive post.

    It just so happens that I've had the biggest nightmare of a book on my hands ever these last few months. At least I think that's the case because of course I completely forget what terrible angst I had with all the others.

    My doubt, my panic, my characters complete refusal to speak to me or do what I wanted has been agonising.

    Yesterday I had a bit of a nirvana moment though, when I decided not to go straight back to my desk after the school drop-off but have coffee with one of the other mums. We chatted about my story (the middle of which I've now rewritten about a billion times) and she said 'Um, why don't you just finish it then you can go back and make the middle work when you know where you're going to end up.' Now, she's not a writer but... Duh!

    I went straight back to my desk and wrote two whole chapters. The middle still sucks but at least I'm not panicking about it anymore...

    And now your post has given me lots of other ideas to keep going. So thanks.

  2. Kate,

    So glad you decided to post on this topic. Contributing to it was really useful for me as those 'crows of doubt' as you so aptly name them coming visiting here too often and it was great to think through strategies against them. More than that though, I've really enjoyed reading about other people's experiences. Thanks everyone for sharing.

    And Heidi, congratulations on the two chapters! Yay!


  3. Thanks, Kate - another informative and inspirational post. It's such a relief to know that even the most respected names in romance run up against blocks now and again, and can manage to work through them so well.

  4. Kate already knows what I do when I get stuck - I send panicked, whining e-mails to my writer friends.

    Mostly though I just try to write through it, because a lot of the time I have to get past a tricky spot and know where I'm going to be able to see where I've been clearly - and fix it. Like Heidi said.

    It helps that I have a critique partner that is very good at holding hands and/or getting out the bullwhip to get me going. :-)

    Great post as usual!

  5. And when you DO finally get it done, you have to hope that you don't have this kind of chat with your editor....

    Love Nicolette xx

  6. Hi Kate:

    I worked under killer daily advertising deadlines for over a decade. The pressure to create was so fierce, I would look forward to spending two hours at the dentist having dental work done just to get away from the job. (It’s not easy writing your fiftieth full page recliner ad and making it fresh and exciting with lots of sell.) I quickly came to understand what was meant by the pharse,‘tyranny of the blank page’.

    My boss would say, “We don’t have time for writer’s block around here. Just write anything but write.”

    So I would type, “The boss is a big idiot who doesn’t know anything etc. etc. etc.”

    I’d be typing and he would come by and say, “If this job were easy, anyone could do it.” And since he liked to quote Churchill, he would say, “Remember it’s: blood, toil, tears, and sweat. Don’t forget the ‘toil’ part. Grind it out. Grind it out.”

    The funny part is that after writing nonsense for ten minutes, my muse would get jealous and want back in the game. Soon the block would be broken and I’d meet my deadline once again.

    I don’t know if this would work for fiction writers but I found that this type of ‘free association’ writing worked better than just writing advertising rubbish.

    Make your muse jealous. Pretend you are having a wonderful time writing anything that comes into your head. This has always worked for me.

    By the way, my boss was the creative director and worked harder and did more work than I did: so I could never complain.


    P.S. Kate: I still think you’ve written the best book on how to write romances. “Kate Walker's 12 Point Guide to Writing Romance” – and I’ve read two more very good books since yours.

  7. Great advice, Kate. Thanks for asking me to contribute. Writing has so many variables that what works for one writer may or may not work for another. But we've all had moments where we want to bang our head against the wall as opposed to staring at an unhelpful screen one second longer. It's nice to know we're not alone. And always nice to know things that may work. I'm talking about to listen or not to listen on the blog here tomorrow. That's another 'what works for one doesn't always work for another' experience.

  8. Hi Kate - another great post. It's good to know that we all suffer the "crows". Wise words of wisdom follows... "there are three things you need to know when writing a great book - and when I find out what they are I'll let you know..."

  9. Kate, wow, what a great post. And what a stellar line-up of contributors you drew together for this! I love the phrase 'crows of doubt'. It's true, isn't it? And they're big and black and they scratch with their razor-sharp claws and they peck you with that bayonet of a beak. Nasty things! I think all the advice is great - and my experience so far is that it DOES get harder rather than easier. Sigh.

    Hey, congratulations on the release of Cordero's Forced Bride!

  10. Heidi - Thank you! I'm so glad the post helped. I know all about nightmare books so I wish you every good luck withg your current nightmate.

    And, just like childbirth, I think we do forget about how hard things were to get right once they're done.

  11. Annie - thank you for your contribution. I knew I was on the right track with this when everyone I asked said they experienced the same sort of thing. And yes, reading the other contributions also helped me

  12. Hi Christina - I really think that anyone, no matter how many years they have been writ65ing or books they've written who doesn't admit that they have moments like these is not telling the truth.

    Writing is - what is they say - 10% inspiration, 90% perspiration. So true

  13. Donna - you don't whine! But we all need someone to turn to. And being able to talk things throiugh with an understanding fellow writer does help.

  14. Nicolette - I love that sketch! Thank you for posting the reminder.

  15. Hello Vince! How good to see you here. I've been so busy I've barely had a moment to be on eHarlequin.

    I think your technique is one that has worked for me in the past - I do the 'grind it out' bit and push myself through the mud and then, perhaps because the ideas or the characters finally come to light in my mind, suddenly , as you say, my muse will want to get back into the action. It's like she's there all the time but burried under some layers of rubbish that I have to mine out first.

    And thank you again for your compliments on the 12 Point Guide - I posted your wonderful rreview on my web site. I've never had such a detailed (and complimentary) analysis of the book and I really appreciated it.

  16. Anne - you know how I value your contributions to these posts. No one understands like a good writer and no one can express that understanding like a good friend. I'm looking forward to readign your post

  17. Caroline - I'm glad that the post helps. And yes, I've heard those 'three rules;' too! ;o) If there were really 'rules' then each book would be just the same and that would be so boring.

  18. Anna - I was lucky - I sent out a request post and all these wonderful writers responded. That's one fo the great things about the romance writing community - always ready to help.

    And yes, those crows are the perfect sort of birds to be the harbingers of doubt - nasty, dark, always circling. . . .

    And don't you just wish it DID get easier . . .I wish!

  19. I'm terrified of crows - must be something to do with that Alfred Hitchcock movie - so this analogy is really good for me!

    Thanks for a great post!