Wednesday, 1 February 2017


     I don't suppose there's anyone who seriously believes the romantic notion that an author is someone who only writes when he/she is 'inspired' to do so. Conversely, I hope no-one takes seriously the concept of 'writer's block'. I was once at a conference at which Bernard Cornwell was speaking. In the question time afterwards a young lady asked him, 'Do you ever get writer's block'? He countered with a question of his own. 'What do you do for a living?' he asked. 'I'm a nurse,' she replied. 'So, tell me,' he said, 'do you ever get nurse's block?' His point was that writing is a job and, like any job, it has its good days and bad days; days when the words flow and days when you write the same paragraph over and over again and still can't get it right.
     So, how do you cope with the bad days and how do you keep them to a minimum? The answer in a word is 'discipline'. If you were working for a boss you would, reasonably, be expected to devote a certain number of hours a week and diligently perform the tasks assigned to you. Well, you are working for a boss - your public. They have every right to expect your best efforts. The trouble is, there's no boss looking over your shoulder, or checking your research or timing your coffee breaks. It's all down to you. And it's not easy. When my mind is drifting away from the task in hand I can think of a dozen other things I ought to be doing. That creaking garden gate really must be fixed. This might be a good time to phone my agent for a chat. Then, of course, there's that time waster extraordinaire - the internet. Perhaps I ought to check for the tenth time this hour to see if anyone's tweeted me. All authors face their problems. Here are a few tips I've discovered myself or picked up from others:
Location, location, location: Roald Dahl used to work in a shed in the garden. Some writers actually hire an office and, literally, 'go to work'. In a specially arranged creative spare you can avoid most domestic distractions.
Time management: I hate routine (particularly when imposed by someone else) but I've had to evolve my fixed working hours. They have varied over the years but have currently settled to my present schedule. I'm at my desk, apart from meal breaks, 9.0 am to 5.0 pm. Of course, this can't be absolutely rigid; the phone must be answered and one can't do much gardening at night! But, as far as possible, I keep correspondence, exercise, reading for pleasure, socialising, etc out of 'office hours'.
Variety: It often helps to have a couple of projects on the go at the same time. Different tasks involve different kinds of brain activity. A detailed non-fiction book requiring lots of note-taking needs a different kind of concentration than the next chapter of the current novel or collecting the illustrations for a magazine article or roughing out a lecture. If I'm stuck on one project, it often helps to switch to another. 
Sleep: Time was, when the juices were flowing, I could work half way through the night. Now I'm lost without my eight hours. Getting the amount of sleep we need is simple common sense. I make sure that when the light is switched off, so is the brain. I don't take my creative problems into the world of dreams. BUT, of course, they are there in the unconscious mind, which often does its work independently of my own cerebral effort. Frequently I find that a problem that seemed intractable the night before has solved itself by the morning.
Holidays: Whatever jobs we do, a seven-day-week doesn't make any sense. Everyone needs a break, a change of scene, the stimulus of a different environment. Our sanity needs it. Our work needs it. But, then, does the writer ever stop working? All experience is grist to the mill, whether absorbed consciously or unconsciously. My pockets are stuffed with bits of paper on which I've jotted down observations, ideas, comments. I really ought to keep a notebook but I've never got around to being that organised.
Filing: Some authors are very methodical. They keep card indexes or whatever the internet equivalent is. I expect it's a good idea. Perhaps, one day, when I have time ... At the moment it's one area where my self-discipline breaks down.
Privilege: When I'm tempted to settle for second best; when my mind recoils from yet another rewrite of a difficult chapter; when I can't bring myself to cross out a particularly juicy bit of prose; I try to remind myself how privileged I am to spend my working hours doing something I enjoy - something thousands of other people make possible by buying my books. I owe it to them to carry on doing the best I possibly can. They have a right to expect me to be disciplined.
   That really leads on to being involved in other people's lives. E is for Empathy.

No comments:

Post a Comment