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The Greenhorn Novelist Blog – Post Two – Writer’s Block & Procrastination

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Philip Pullman, not a believer in writers block

Philip Pullman, not a believer in writer's block

For all the stories that are constantly rattling around and exploding inside my head, all too often actually sitting down at my desk and writing things down is bloody difficult. It’s a bizarre dilemma. Too many ideas; not enough writing.

As you may have guessed, the topic of the week is procrastination and writer’s block. Fittingly, this blog is a week late. Apologies. My book hasn’t been going that well this week, you see. I’m still stuck at the thirty thousand word mark. In fact it’s actually shrunk a bit, when I lopped off a couple of dodgy pages, and murdered a whole character. I’ve been under a lot of pressure in the day job, and then I had a midnight trip to casualty, and there’s been some good telly….

All true, but I know it’s not the main reason for the lack of progress. I suspect I’m adept in the dark art of procrastination.

I’d like to think I’m not entirely to blame. Even if it is not harder to be a writer today than in the past, I think it is easier to be a procrastinator.

I am amazed at the sheer amount of distractions available. Mobiles, email, daytime television, Facebook – so far I have resisted the siren texts of Twitter – all consume vital minutes: often not many, but enough to break into my periods of concentration. As many times as writing feels glorious and effortless, I find it feels like homework or exam revision. During these periods I will do anything to avoid my desk.

Even as technology has granted us time from manual chores, it gives us the choice to do something else. We don’t want this choice. Watching Ice Road Truckers on Discovery, or joining some bizarre collective on Facebook is far easier than actually writing. For a writer, choice of entertainment is a bad. Give us only books, paper and pen, and lock us away.

Perhaps it will be a good thing. Only those committed enough to screen out distraction will complete their books: and thus the dilettantes and chancers will be screened out themselves, never cluttering the publisher’s desk, and leaving the field free for the committed and the good. And the question that wakes me in a cold sweat at night: which one am I?

A writer needs isolation and silence. He needs to delve deep into his own head: set dilemmas, flesh out characters; have the quiet space for his own imagination to whirr and play. Like Homer in the isolation booth, only when you’ve set aside some quality time with just you and your head, will the hallucinations that form the strange stuff of stories flicker into existence.


Not the Homer referred to in the blog post but still a poetic one

But then, perhaps when you’ve actually managed to pluck up the courage to sit in front of the laptop, you feel the weight of expectation pressing down on you. You’ve read a lot of books. You know all about literary theory and the corpus of 19th century Abyssinian poets. Thus, what you write is going to be perfect – isn’t it?

This has been one of my biggest problems. I want it to be perfect. But, almost always, the words on the screen capture just a ghost of my intention. That’s not what I meant. That’s not what I meant at all. I am paralysed and I have to fight to stop myself slipping back into the embrace of impossible expectations.

But there is hope. Few great authors found the writing process easy. In fact many of them spoke of the craft with something approaching revulsion and horror, yet still managed to write, publish and be successful. Philip Pullman, answering a question on writer’s block says:

“I don’t believe in it. All writing is difficult. The most you can hope for is a day when it goes reasonably easily. Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block, and doctors don’t get doctor’s block; why should writers be the only profession that give a special name to the difficulty of working, and then expects sympathy for it?” (www.philip-pullman.com)

In practical terms there is a universe of techniques to jumpstart your writing. The most important for me is letting yourself be bad when you write. Lay down utter drivel. Just keep it private and tell yourself it’s just a rough draft. Rediscover the joy of forming sentences, paragraphs, creating characters. Create a schedule. Get up an hour early, and write in the dawn. Go walking – leave for work a half hour earlier and walk, letting your thoughts riff along the beat of your legs. Knock yourself out of regular thought patterns. Buy the Daily Mail. Get yourself worked up.

To finish on a more philosophical tack, I think that ultimately what keeps you writing is a mixture of love and fear. Love, for the special times, when writing feels like flying; and fear, of the alternative: of not writing. That is a giving-up, a little death. To write is to have a chance to live twice over, at least: firstly, you see, hear, smell and touch more intensely; and, second, when your stories are read, you yourself are multiplied. That’s worth writing for, isn’t it?

Watch Pullman talk about The Golden Compass and his writing technique below:

Discussion:
What are you guilty of when it comes to procrastination? Have you every experienced writer’s block? How did you overcome it?

Words: Richard Walsh

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9 Responses

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  1. I visited this blog for the first time, and I thought, this is quite good.

    True enough, whenever I want to write, it would be most effective to cut the internet, and bring the laptop to a proper workplace instead of the bedroom. True enough, the writing went smoothly – a lot better.

    Thanks for the nice article.

    Fiel

    February 23, 2009 at 3:05 am

  2. Discussion:
    What are you guilty of when it comes to procrastination? Have you every experienced writer’s block? How did you overcome it?

    I had noticed the discussion and would like to share my experience, if you don’t mind.

    I started writing my novel after I bought my laptop.
    It was April last year, and I was a first year student in uni. While it’s already been 10 months, I couldn’t finish my first draft. The first three months I had finish 20,000 words, then for the rest of seven months… around 10,000 words. That’s the time when I procrastinate a lot, and also experience “writer’s block”, as they say.

    Then I made a decision; to defer my study and focus on writing. So I defer one semester, as of now. I made writing a necessity by denying myself of my favorite forum, not until I finish chapter 12, out of 24 chapters. Yesterday, I’d just finish chp 11, and chapter 12 will only take me 2 days. So far I’d reach 50,000 words, and I figure it’ll take 120,000 to complete my first novel, due by March 31st this year (I set it myself). It’ll hard, as English is my 2nd Language, but I figured it will be well worth it.

    That’s it. I made it a necessity instead of…well, mere wish. I really feel like I’m the main character, while the other would move by their own will. I enjoy writing it.

    P.S: Mind my English, it’s my 2nd language.

    Fiel

    February 23, 2009 at 3:32 am

  3. Thanks for your post Fiel. Your comment about making writing a necessity rather than just a wish is especially illuminating, and I think it’s those who show that commitment are the ones who will succeed. The fact that English is your second language just makes it all the more impressive- Joseph Conrad and Vlad Nabakov did pretty well though… Keep us up to date with your progress!

    Richard Walsh

    February 23, 2009 at 10:27 pm

  4. I second that Fiel. Your efforts are absolutely admirable.

    Have you had any responses from publishers of are you going to write it first then approach the publishing houses?

    These are all things that are very interesting to me and the readers of The Scribbler.

    Are you enjoying the writing process?

    So nice to hear from you. Please do keep up the replies and comments. Keep visiting The Scribbler & enjoy.

    Dean // Editor

    Dean Samways

    February 24, 2009 at 7:54 pm

  5. Pardon me, I’m still not sure the manner of addressing others (by their first or second name?) since there’s cultural difference, where in my place, we address others by their first.

    But thank you, both of you. It’s nice to know there’s support out there. My spirit lifted whenever I read your kind words.

    I procrastinate a lot early this month, being comfortable with finishing it half-way. Though I regret to say I couldn’t meet the deadline, I’m quite impressed by how much it makes a difference. Recently I have added a writing slot at night, and its been days since I last surf the net, allocating that time to writing.

    And to answer Dean (is this address fine?)
    I’m writing it first, I’m still unsure with what publishing houses available to approach. If it takes too long I might end up publishing it myself, or delegate it to a friend of mine.
    And yes, I do indeed enjoy writing.

    I’m adding one week to the deadline. Hopefully this time, a deadline for good.

    Fiel

    March 31, 2009 at 2:42 pm

  6. Hi Fiel, Richard and I have only been addressing you this way as this is the only name that’s provided by your username.

    Apologies if we’ve offended.

    That’s a shame about the deadline but at least you’re still going for it. I love that your so enthusiastic.

    Best of luck from everyone at The Scribbler.

    It’s great to hear from you again. If you ever want to post an excerpt of your work on The Scribbler please feel free to get in touch (samwaysdean@hotmail.com). Hopefully it will receive lots of interest, maybe even publishers.

    All the best,

    Dean // Editor

    Dean Samways

    March 31, 2009 at 7:21 pm

  7. No Dean, actually I’m referring to me addressing you. Apologies if I’ve offended. Actually, I’m honored to be addressed as Fiel.

    By expert, did you mean excerpt? Nevertheless thank you for your generous offer, I’ll take it into consideration.

    Fiel

    March 31, 2009 at 11:18 pm

  8. Apologies Fiel, that is indeed what I meant. Excerpt not expert. And I call myself the editor. Doh!

    Please do take the offer into consideration.

    And yes first name addressing is the way we do it in the UK.

    May I ask, where are you from?

    Dean // Editor

    Dean Samways

    April 2, 2009 at 8:01 am

  9. I see. Of course I will. I’ll have to refine it so it won’t hurt your eyes with my British + American English.
    Where I am from? I guess it won’t hurt telling.
    I’ve send you an email answering that, with a question, hope you don’t mind.

    Fiel

    April 5, 2009 at 1:35 pm


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