Monday 22 February 2016

Making things up: writing all the right words – but not necessarily in the right order

a.k.a. The Eric and Ern Guide to Writing
a.k.a. Conquering the Crap Mountain

by Teri Terry
Part 3 in Making Things up: a blog series about the creative process.  

So, you're a writer, and you've decided to take it seriously (part 1). 

You've got an idea, and you've got started (part 2). 

How do you keep going when the going gets tough?

Don't we all live for the days when inspiration hits and words flow? Actually, saying 'days'
is misleading. So would be hours. How about...minutes? 

Let's face it: for me, anyhow, moments of pure joy and inspiration and muse love are rare. How do you keep going when the rest of the time it feels more like pulling your finger nails off slowly with pliers? On days when you'd rather hang from a tower in a cage like this unfortunate chap than face another blank page?

We're supposed to love writing. We're doing it because we want to, right? So why does it feel this way sometimes? Maybe this is it:

Does your internal critic rate your work according to a crap mountain? 

If the best you can hope for is ‘getting closer, but still crap’ – and only a tiny percentage of your work can scale this dizzying height – why would you go on? I wouldn’t. I’d develop ever more creative modes of procrastination (duck polishing, anyone?), and look for chocolate.

This is something I have to remind myself of over and over again:
The first draft of everything is shite. Hemingway
If Hemingway's first drafts were shite, I'm guessing it's OK if mine are, too.

Do you remember this Eric & Ern moment of comedy gold history? Eric Morecambe’s line in answer to the complaints of Conductor Previn about his piano playing:

‘I’m playing all the right notes – but not necessarily in the right order.’ 

And that is what a first draft is all about. Getting the words out, in whatever form they may take. 

Whether your critics are external, like Ern's, or internal, like mine usually are, if you’re frozen by fear – fear of not being good enough, of what you’re writing on the page not measuring up to what is in your head, and what you are writing and what is in your head not measuring up to some perceived standard you want to attain or you feel others want or expect you to attain – well. Nothing you can put on paper will ever be good enough if you feel that way. 

Even if your internal critic is more reasonable, you still need to shut them up to get on with things. I’d suggest a crap mountain Hill of Hoorays that is more like this:

When things seem beyond impossible, some days it is enough to get words on the page - making the words the goal in and of themselves. They can be as messy and convoluted and misspelled and disordered as the worst writing in the history of the world, but that’s ok. Because they’ve better than crap. You can rewrite them, delete them, rewrite them and delete them again and again, but that’s still ok. They’re still better than crap.

It’s a modest goal, but one that helps keep me go on the rough days.

A few specifics that I find also help:

1. Keep your story warm. Even when you're insanely busy, even if you only tinker with a few lines for a few minutes on crazy days, it helps. The longer it has been since you've dived in, the harder the diving gets. The colder the water and you just don't want to get in there, and if it has frozen over completely...well. That's a nightmare.
Brrrr...a total head cracker
Lovely! Warm! Your toes so *want* to dip in, and the rest to follow

2. Know where to stop. Say you've just finished a scene you're really happy with, and you're knackered and deserve some nice treats, maybe a glass of wine and half a bar of chocolate and some mindless TV, and that is quite enough for today...DON'T STOP THERE. 
Don't stop at the end of a scene, the end of a chapter. Even if you only make a few notes or write a paragraph, start the next bit. It makes starting the next day SO much easier. Even better is to stop when you're in the middle of whatever it is you love to write, so you're desperate to start again - with me, that's usually dialogue or action. If I'm half way through an action scene the next day begins like a dream.
Likewise, if you're writing a series and you've just finished book 1 and sent it off to your editor and deserve the holiday of a lifetime, right now....DON'T let anyone sleep on your laptop just yet, no matter how cute.
While it is all in your head, write just a little of book 2 - a few chapters, some notes. Otherwise by the time you get edits back on book 1 and deal with those, starting book 2 will become a Thing. Like Things that live under the bed or the stairs, and only come out in nightmares. Or so you hope...

3. Do other things with the story without actually writing it. OK, that might sound a bit wrong when you're trying to get going with your writing...but sometimes I find editing a bit I've already written or drawing some nice plot flow charts or filling in a bit of a plot summary is a good way of sneaking up on what I have to do. It gets my mind in the story, and then it is easier to get going. Plus it takes the pressure off thinking I have to start writing as soon as I open my laptop.

The bottom middle notebook is the one for my current WIP.
4. Pen and Paper. I'm really happy writing direct on my laptop most of the time, but sometimes having that physical feel of a pen in my hand, running across paper, really helps the words come. Of course, it is vitally important to regularly update your stationery supplies so you're ready for these emergencies.

5. Deadlines. Like 'em or loathe 'em, sometimes they help to focus the mind. Even if you don't have an agent or an editor waiting for you to get on with it, setting deadlines and targets can really help. Also try mini deadlines along the way - say, to hit a certain page number or word count by a certain date. This is especially helpful if the big overall Book Must Be Done By Date is too scary to contemplate. Only make sure they are reasonably achievable, or it's just another crap mountain.

Self control App - and large mug of tea - in action
6. Get Self Control. The app, I mean. There are lots of versions of internet blocking apps that let you get on with it without being led astray by interesting blogs, shopping for notebooks or hearing the latest on FaceTwit. This is my favourite one; it only blocks what you want it to block, so you can block your distractions but still be able to do bits of research if you need to. You set it for whatever time period you want. I usually do 45 minute blocks. That's about as long as I can go without FaceTwit.

6. Keep the Faith.
Keep the faith: the right words will be there, somewhere in the mess.You can put them in the right order when the editing begins.

7. And if all else fails...? 
I have a post-it note for these moments.
A weird thing I've found out about writing as I've gone along is that what works when you are writing one story won't necessarily work when you are writing another one. 
Sometimes you just have to find your way as you go.

Now...for ANYONE WHO DOESN'T KNOW WHO ERIC AND ERN ARE  *shocked voice* (and I mean you, Candy), here is a snippet! All worth watching, but the famous line is at about 2:25.

A few last words confessions
Just in case you were thinking my Hill of Hoorays and helpful hints and deadline and faith keeping and Eric and Ern and all that have me all sorted out....well...

I did the right thing; I started book 2 before I edited book 1; I even like the started bit, and it even doesn't need to change after editing book 1. I've made lots of notes by hand and drawn things with arrows and made some tables. But oh my: it is so, so COLD, even looking sidewise at the file minimised at the bottom of the computer screen is giving me chills. I love the story, I want to write it, I can write it, I've got faith in all these things...but it's going to take an ice pick at least. 
It is Weds 17 Feb right now and this blog post is going up on Monday 22 Feb. I've been trying to start for days, and getting nowhere.
So here is my mini deadline: I WILL break through the ice before then, and report back in the comments.
Now: where's the chocolate?

Addendum - added 26 Feb 16: 
Sometimes the problem is...that I haven't a clue what the problem is. Isn't writing like that?
In this case I was near the beginning of book 2 and starting a new POV character - a character who has been in the story all through book 1, who I thought I knew inside and out (and I do, pretty much). So what's the problem?? Why couldn't I write the first chapter that was to be from his POV? 
The answer, Einstein (I'm a bit slow sometimes), is it didn't matter how well I knew him - I didn't have his voice.
I've found it now, and all is good with the muse.

About the Author
Teri Terry is the author of the Slated trilogy, Mind Games, and Dangerous Games. She should be writing book 2 of the Dark Matter trilogy (coming in 2017) right now, but was hoping writing a blog post about keeping going would give her the kick to, you know, actually get on with it. Until then, here is one she prepared earlier: Book of Lies, out on 24th March.

p.s. sorry about the gratuitous kittens - I couldn't help myself.


  1. One thing I'm finding very, very useful is write togethers: writing in a group setting in silence on your own project. The atmosphere is focused and writerly, there's nowhere to go but the screen and you get to report back at the end. Are you through the ice and how much chocolate did it take?

    1. Hi Ana! I've tried write ins, but it usually doesn't work for me - I really like solitude. Though I like retreats, where there are other writers about to chat with at dinner but I can squirrel away working somewhere on my own.
      I have written a little as of yesterday: 646 words. It's a start! But I'm not properly in.

    2. p.s. I very luckily was given a box of chocolates last week - perfect timing! The box is now empty. But the Man did help.

  2. Nice ... and really strikes a chord with me now. When you wrote " if you’re frozen by fear – fear of not being good enough, of what you’re writing on the page not measuring up to what is in your head, and what you are writing and what is in your head not measuring up to some perceived standard you want to attain or you feel others want or expect you to attain ..." That is how I feel every morning when I start writing. It gets better once I'm immersed, but the stress of starting! I read somewhere about an actor who used hypnosis to make sure he was in a relaxed, optimistic state before every show. How do I trick myself into this state?

    1. This may sound funny, but...don't wake up? I'm sure that is a large part of the reason that my best writing time is first thing in the morning. When things are going well I literally do nothing before beginning, besides making a cup of tea. Maybe the internal critic likes to sleep in, but he's not usually around just then

    2. This is such a helpful piece, Teri, and really strikes a chord with me, too - the exact same piece Candy quoted especially. And like you, Teri, I also find that first thing in the morning, before dong anything except making a coffee, is the most productive time for me. My head hasn't got anything else in it yet, no-one is emailing or phoning, and I'm focused because I know t's only a matter of time before my children wake up and start demanding unreasonable things like breakfast.

    3. you mean...they actually expect to be fed?
      I'm sure there should be a get-out clause on that for when the muse is in residence

  3. Ah - so good! Especially the bit about kittens on your keyboard. Actually I also have those panicky moments when self-belief plummets and that's when I just let the kittens have their way. I love the advice about not stopping when you reach an end but just setting yourself up the next bit - crucial.

    1. ...but not always easy to do.
      Another thing I find helps is not editing up what I'd written that day. If it is a real mess, sorting it out seems to help get me in the zone. I think that is part of the problem I've been having lately: they start of the novel I had in place was too neat and contained. Breaking my clumsy way in feels like trespassing and vandalism

  4. Really useful post, especially the inner critic bit which certainly struck a chord! And I've always loved that Eric and Ern sketch - total genius :) I write best first thing too, while I'm still half asleep, before all the chaos starts. All I need now is for the kids to stay well and my youngest to sleep through - is there an App for that? ;)

    1. If only..! Hope all stay well (and/or asleep)

  5. Love the bit about keeping your story warm - it does take a long time to get back into it if not.

    1. I do find that is one of the most important things for me. Even if I'm not making significant progress when I'm really busy, just having a poke at it with a stick now and then really helps.

    2. Love this post - particularly the 'wing it' post it will definitely nick that idea x thanks and that is a cracking cover for the new book - best of luck, Lucy


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