Sunday, 25 March 2012

Five Ways to Cure Writer's Block (and cross the desert)

Sorry for the long silence. I'm trekking through the Great Rewrite, aka the waste howling wilderness (Deuteronomy, 32:10).
I'm also reading the King James Bible. Hence the Deuteronomy reference. I missed out on the Bible when I was younger, but it's a strangely comforting read now that I'm wandering about in a 130,000-word desert. I particularly like the idea of being guided by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Exodus, 13:21-22).

In case you're similarly lost - or worse, completely stuck - here are five methods that I find helpful when I'm feeling like a spring shut up, a fountain sealed; when the words just won't drop as the honeycomb (Song of Solomon, 3:11-12):

1. Make them drop as the honeycomb (for 25 minutes)
Forget about writing well. Just write. No one is going to see this; no one is going to judge it. Use a prompt: a line from your manuscript, a scrap of dialogue, or even a line from some completely unrelated text - a poem, a quote from your favourite author. Set a kitchen timer, or a 25-minute Pomodoro, and write until the bell rings. Writing for 25 minutes is a lot less daunting than writing into the great unknown.

2. Create Boundaries
The human brain finds it really hard to cope with unlimited freedom. "Where do I start?" asks the unfettered mind. "Ok, let's write a short story... or maybe water the plants first?"

I've noticed this particularly when working with children. Ask them to write a story and they'll sit there for half an hour, chewing their pencils. Followed by a sigh of despair: but... I don't know what to write!
However, give them an extremely restrictive format and a list of words they must use, and I promise you they'll be working away like my late Grandma at her crossword (that's why haikus are so popular with teachers).

So fence yourself in. Re-set the timer you used for exercise #1 or give yourself a clear target (500 words before lunch). This leaves you with a measurable goal. Once you've reached that goal, you'll experience a sense of satisfaction. Once you've experienced that satisfaction, you'll feel less frustrated/blocked.

3. Let your Qi circulate
Yep! We've reached the bonkers part of this post. So, my acupuncturist says that sometimes Qi, or life-energy, gets trapped in the head. That's when you start having those spiralling thoughts about some incident that happened five years ago, and the minutes are ticking by, and then it's lunchtime and you've written precisely zero words.
Get your Qi circulating again and your words will drop as the honeycomb. How? If you can't face the thought of acupuncture, try going for a run every morning (focus on your toes and feet as you run) and drink lots of hot water. Ask any Chinese granny and she'll tell you this is true. Especially the bit about the hot water.

4. Go for a Long Walk
If all else fails, head for the hills. Yesterday, my friend Sophie T. and I walked the South Downs way from Seaford to Eastbourne (lovely 7-hour walk along the cliffs). Today I wrote, well, more words than on Friday.
Long walks and long-distance running give you a sense of freedom as well as improving your stamina and helping you move that Qi (the one that got trapped in your head). Lots of writers swear by this method (eg Murakami, who runs ultra-marathons).

5. Take a step back
This is for those of you who are simply lost. Not blocked, not paralysed by your inner editor, but simply lost. You've written a few chapters, your characters are well on their way, but somehow... they've run out of steam. They're standing in the waste howling wilderness, looking at a map of Prague.
In that case, writing prompts aren't going to help. What you need is a pillar of fire. Put your chapters to one side, open a new document and write a story plan. Or if you've already got a story plan, look at it and try to figure out where and why it snagged. Is there a narrative arc?
A beginning, a middle, an end?
A starter, a main dish, a pudding?
Try dumbing down your story: who's the hero, what's their problem, how are they going to solve it? Draw that arc on a piece of paper. Don't worry about making it too Hollywood-y. This is about clarity; about a sense of direction.
"But I don't want my story to follow a traditional arc," I hear you say. "I want it to be more like Kafka."
Well, Kafka's stories actually tend to follow a very traditional pattern. Problem-climax-resolution. Eg, young man has to leave his country because of a scandal; arrives in strange place full of bandits; joins wonderful theatre of Oklahoma (Amerika). Not to mention: man wakes up as giant insect; undergoes trials and tribulations; dies.
A solid story plan can also act as a useful boundary, see #2.

That's it for now. Having compiled this useful list, I'd better get back to work. Which, by the way, is the sixth way to cure writer's block: get back to work.

Oh... and do let me know if you have any other ideas/tricks/magic potions.
Thank you.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Aristotle and Puddings

"A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end... A well constructed plot, therefore, must neither begin nor end at haphazard, but conform to these principles." 
(Aristotle, 350 BC)

Beginning, middle, end. Exposition, climax, resolution. It's a pretty obvious formula, but when it's lacking, a story tends to feel vague and strangely frustrating. 
The other day, I found two great illustrations of this: The Moro cookbook and Yotam Ottolenghi's cookbook, Plenty. I actually prefer Ottolenghi's recipes and use his book a lot more (and no, he's not sponsoring this post). But there's something that always frustrates me about his cookbook, and I've found out what it is: he doesn't do puddings.
Puddings are to cookbooks what endings are to novels. One must have puddings. Beginning, middle, end. Starters, main courses, puddings. 
It's the most satisfying structure: you flick to the final section, and there they are, sweet and fatty, the ideal way to end a meal, or a cookbook.
The Moro cookbook respects this fact in a positively Aristotelian fashion, with a nod to the more modern five-act structure. "Soups" (= exposition); "Fish/meat starters" (= rising action); "Fish/meat main courses" (= climax/turning point); "Vegetables" (= falling action); PUDDINGS (= resolution, happy ending).
Ottolenghi's cookbook, on the other hand, is like an anthology, or a post-modern arrangement of scattered vignettes. "Funny Onions" reads one category, "Mushrooms" the next, "Green Things" another. The recipes themselves are original and tempting, but they might as well be written on a deck of cards. As my friend the scriptwriter would say: where's the journey? Where's the quest?
Right at the end, Ottolenghi seems to realise that something is missing. So he shoves in a final category: "Fruit with Cheese.
That's like a romantic novel that ends with: "And then they became good friends." 
Here's a word of advice to all writers, including myself: respect your starters, respect your main courses. And never, ever cheat your readers out of their puddings.*

*Unless they don't like puddings. This option just occurred to me and completely destroys my menu-based structure. Any suggestions for alternatives?
** PPS: the photo shows a giant block of tofu. Whatever you do, don't structure your story like a giant block of tofu.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

"Revenge of the Wandering Whore" and other top titles

While I'm still struggling to find a name for novel number two, German TV broadcasts a series with this title-to-beat-all-titles: "Revenge of the Wandering Whore" ("Die Rache der Wanderhure"). 
It's a medieval romp starring... a wandering whore.

This got me thinking about titles. Especially foreign titles. I'm a bit obsessed with titles: I love it when they contain a bit of a surprise, a bit of contradiction, a bit of "ooh, I wonder what this wandering whore might be up to."

So in the interest of diversity and multi-culturalism, I thought I'd list my top ten foreign book/film titles. Some are lovely, some are clever, some are downright silly. Here we go:

1. Ok, it has to be Revenge of the Wandering Whore. ("Marie, a wandering whore in the Middle Ages, is on a quest to find her lost husband...")

 2. My Father is a Cleaning Lady (Mon pere est femme de menage), a novel by Saphia Azzeddine about a boy growing up in a gritty French suburb. This is the sort of witty and melodic title that makes me go green with envy.

3. Love in the Time of Cholera (El amor en los tiempos del colera)... and almost every other Garcia Marquez title: "The Autumn of the Patriarch", "A Hundred Years of Solitude"...

4. Life is not a Cucumber Sandwich (Das Leben ist kein Gurkensandwich). The German title of my friend Ceri Radford's brilliant, funny debut, "A Surrey State of Affairs." The original title is nice, but I just love Life is not a Cucumber Sandwich. It's so... quotable.
5. Coffee... with the scent of a woman. (Cafe, con aroma de mujer). Another glorious soap title from Colombia, the country that brought you Yo Soy Betty, la fea (why did they opt for "Ugly Betty" in the U.S.? I am... has so much more bite)

6. Amerika (Amerika) by Franz Kafka. This is a new translation and they kept the "K"of the original - quite cleverly, I think, given that it's the story of a German immigrant in America.

7. Some Prefer Nettles (Tade kuu mushi) by Junichiro Tanizaki. Apparently the title refers to a Japanese proverb: "There's even an insect that likes to eat knotweed [nettles]" ("Tade kuu mushi mo suki-zuki"), ie, there's no accounting for taste.

8. The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Religious writing often has that special something. See also: The Apocalypse, City of God, The Song of Songs.

9. Czech titles, eg "Whatever happened to Wenceslas?", "Badly timed emigre", and of course "The Unbearable Lightness of Being." Czech writers have a way with titles. Also, just out of interest: whatever happened to Wenceslas? 

10. You decide! Thai and Egyptian soap operas look quite promising but I can't understand the titles. I almost went for "When A Woman Doesn't Understand, She Falls In Love" ("La donna quando non capisce si innamora"), but it's a bit too tediously sexist... not that Wandering Whore is a feminist manifesto...