Newton’s first law of writing…
You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club.
It is Sunday morning, 8am. I’m sitting up in bed, my wife beside me flicking through the weekend papers. I’m staring at my laptop, a fresh window open, waiting for me to set out this week’s article, an article I’m aware ought to have appeared on the site two hours ago. The deadline, 20 June, is no surprise to me. It didn’t just sneak up. It, like every other Sunday, is marked in my calendar as the day my article is due. I’ve had a week, in truth I’ve had over a week, to write the article.
But here I sit, stuck. Because the truth is of late I’ve suffered from a poverty of ideas. I can write, but I don’t know what to write about. Not so much writer’s block as inspiration block.
Fortunately, The Publicity Hound’s Blog comes to my rescue with a list of 19 topics for fiction authors to blog about. And ironically, given the difficulty in coming up with topics for an article, the first topic is what writing problems do you struggle with, and how do you solve them?
Perhaps not my first problem, but my most pressing problem, is a lack of ideas. This affects my non-fiction writing more than my fiction, but the solutions for one are applicable to the other.
When I lack ideas for a story I look at the news—perhaps the headlines, perhaps the more human interest stories—regardless there is usually something interesting there, the germ of an idea to work with. The next step is to give it a twist, that unique slant that turns it from an idea to a compelling story.
Past experiences, your own or those of family and friends are also a rich seem to be mined, particularly when writing human drama, rather than action, crime, SF etc.
So for non-fiction often I’ll draw on ideas from blogposts or news articles I’ve encountered about writing or publishing, either taking them as the jumping off point for tangential thought, or providing my own commentary on them. An example would be based on a piece from The Times, or when I drew on my own family experience to write about the first book that I remember reading.
Of course the most useful tip I can give is to have your very own muse. As I said before, it’s not that I can’t write. Once I get the bit between my teeth, the words seem to flow. It’s getting the idea. And for that, I can very often rely on my wife, who on a Saturday evening will ask “have you done your Sunday article?”. If by the mournful shake of my head she sees that no, I haven’t, she’ll sit and think for a few moments, then say “How about writing about…” and more often than not I’ll have my article. At a conservative estimate Julia is responsible for about one-third of the topics for the articles. If I could bottle her influence and sell it to writers, I’d be a rich man.
My other great problem is knowing when to stop. This is a tricky one to deal with. When writing articles, when the ideas are flowing, it’s very easy to pile example on example, to give every thought space to be heard. Sometimes thoughts can crowd your head, pouring out of your fingers so fast you struggle to capture them all as you type. You become so enamoured with the descriptive beauty of a paragraph, you fail to see that it has rambled on and on for several pages.
Less is more. Wordy, flowery, overwritten work is not good writing, and however in love you are with language, it comes across more as being in love with your own (authorial) voice.
Julia describes my dual problems as a sort of literary inertia. Once I get going, I’m fine, but you have the devil of a time getting me started, or trying to stop me.
Endings are tricky things. Even if you keep going until you run out of steam, you don’t necessarily have “an ending”, merely a “halt”. Endings tie everything up, draw it to a close, sum it all up. Simply stopping makes it sound like you’ve run into Candlejack.
Write until you’ve got nothing more to give. Then go back and trim the fat. Find your point in each paragraph, and strip out anything that either isn’t the point, or is extraneous detail. Then return to the point you finished, and sum up your ideas, or draw the writing to a close with something thematic, maybe a phrase from someone you consider more expert than you. As Billy Joel once said when interviewed about the structure of one of his songs, “just give it an end”.
And on that note, I should take my own advice.