Having delivered the final draft of the next novel I am now in the strange perilous no-man’s land between projects; a time when one’s imagination takes to treading water and if left too long to it’s own devices either becomes paranoid or neurotic.
It’s not that I don’t have the next projects outlined (I do) and I’m off to Glastonbury in a week to begin some research on Druids and the general mystical history of the region, but there is an exhaustion – a kind of existential draining of the creative well that hits one after such an intense period or writing – In the case of SPHINX two and half years on the one novel.
I had a conversation recently with a fellow writer (actually he was a screenwriter) about writers block, something I’ve never suffered from, and we both agreed it was far easier to experience writers block when writing on spec (in other words non-commissioned).
I’ve always made a living from my writing, and there is a practical paradigm behind the creativity. Writing knowing there is an audience waiting, or meeting a deadline gives one huge psychological incentive – however there are a few strategies one can apply to avoid that paralysing free-fall.
Firstly avoid at all costs the tyranny of the blank page. Staring at the blank screen trying to visualise a gripping opening hopefully to convince an editor at a publishing house to immediately bid on the book is both terrifying and counter productive.
Imagine that you are about to build a house – you have to have the foundations laid, the bricks, mortar and building material at hand, an architectural plan to follow and be prepared to commit hours of tedious labour.
I never sit down to a blank page. I will have character breakdowns (half a page to a page of the psychology, physicality etc of my protagonists) a treatment of my plot, and piles of research material (photos, taped interviews, historical interviews Etc) actually sitting around me on the desk.
So by the time I actually begin typing I have started a journey on which I have the map, I know who’s sitting next to me, and I have a pretty good idea about how the landscape is going to look as I pass through it.
I know this might sound unromantic and a little like a bricklayer, but having these tools does not preclude the ability to allow the imagination to elaborate or soar or sometimes take a plot detour.
The secret is to strike a balance between the original written treatment and how research can influence that original treatment.
For example in SOUL, I had the idea of the geneticist being a victim of her own genetic heritage, but after interviewing a geneticist who told me the US defence department has a huge database of genetic information that is often used by geneticists in their research, I introduced the idea that my protagonist would be commissioned by the US Defence department to genetically profiled men who didn’t suffer from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and that her own genetic heritage would involve a propensity toward violence. This in turn led to the invention of her great grandmother having possibly murdered her husband. And immediately you have suspense.
Another very importance strategy is to finish the first draft AT ALL COSTS, so that you have the whole shape of the novel/narrative outlined. This will make re-writing far more pleasurable and approachable. No one, trust me, no one, publishes their first drafts, the finished novel is often the tip of the iceberg, under the ice are many many drafts.
Many first-time novelists make the mistake of starting a book then wasting a lot of time by going back to the first paragraph/chapter and polishing and polishing it obsessively to the point that it takes so much longer to finish the whole novel. It’s vital to realise there are usually structural rewrites one can only see once one has the whole first draft written.
Another thing to avoid is showing your draft prematurely to friend/adoring parent or subjective lover. Don’t get readers in until near final draft, even then select them carefully to reflect your potential reader-ship. And if you have written about a certain subject, location, industry or era it is also good to get experts in to fact check – assuming you have done your research – There are no short cuts.