Cracking the whip

writer“No inspiration,” I sometimes sigh, while staring at the screen which remains enervatingly blank. And yes, inspiration is a must when it comes to writing—if nothing else as the igniting spark—but there’s another component which is just as important: discipline.
“Of course,” my very own muse, Ms Inspiration says. For the day, she’s wearing a rather scary outfit—all black & red leather—and out of nowhere a whip materialises. She smiles—one of those smiles that is all teeth no warmth. When she’s in this mode, Ms Inspiration is frankly quite frightening, and I have to suppress the urge to stand up and run, reminding myself repeatedly that Ms Inspiration is not real. She’s a figment of my imagination.

“Ouch!” I jump like half a metre when she cracks the whip over my back. For a figment, she sure has quite the hand on her.
“You have work to do,” Ms Inspiration tells me. She nods at my very long to-do list. “Get cracking.” She chuckles and cracks the whip in the air a couple of times before fading away. I have no doubt she’ll be back to plague me if I don’t comply.

That to-do list of mine is full of stuff that requires discipline rather than inspiration. Things I do once I have a first draft to work with – once that initial conflagration of inspiration has burned down a bit. After all, the first phase of any writing project IS creative, inspirational. I dive right into my escapist bubble and end up so caught up in my developing story I often forget to cook and shop, surviving on copious amounts of tea and too much chocolate. This stage is exhausting – productivity is at an all-time high and I am burning energy as if there is no tomorrow, especially as I also have a pretty demanding day-job.

Some writers love this part of the process. I do and I don’t, torn between the exhilaration of seeing my story, my characters come alive, and being uncomfortable with the way I am engulfed by my creative side. You see, in all other aspects of my life I am VERY disciplined. I write lists. I plan dinners a week at the time. I am a structural fascist. Having my brain taken over by my characters—and a loud and opinionated lot they are—is way out of my comfort zone, however exciting.

Fortunately, once the first draft is in place, I can resort to structure—which in my case results in the to-do lists. Lists with things like “double-check how many blows to the head it took before XX died” or “MANTEL, not MANTLE!!!!!” or “time from Northampton to Leicester by horse?” or “top speed for a Tesla?” (and yes, obviously these are examples from different books). This is when I rewrite and revise, when I go back to my research notes to verify my facts.

Now, historical fiction authors come in all sizes. For some, the human-interest angle overshadows everything else, and a couple of historical errors is neither here nor there. For others, the historical facts must be as correct as they can be. I belong to the latter category, and my penchant for lists and structure—discipline—comes in handy when I chase up little details such as on what day exactly was there a full moon in April of 1328. Or spend hours studying what medieval maps I can find of the various towns in which my story takes place.

metsu_writerI think this is my favourite phase of the writing process, lovely hours spent polishing my work. This is also when I discover that perfect scene in which my heroine is staring out towards the setting sun has to go as the location she’s at would not offer all that much of a view to the west. I sigh mightily at having to cut the scene—but pat myself on the back for having the fortitude to do so. After all, facts are facts.

All of this requires discipline—and an eye for details. Fact-checking, tick, plot-structure, tick, grammar & spelling (MANTEL, remember?), tick, All those ticks build the foundation of the final story. Ultimately, though, it is the inspirational bursts, the characters and their lives and loves, which add the icing to the story-telling cake. And who wants cake without an icing, hey? Not me!
“Done yet?” Ms Inspiration reappears in a swirl of red and black leather. I proudly hold up my list. Write post is now neatly ticked.
“Well done.” She peers at the list (she’s seriously myopic but is too vain to admit it). “Only nineteen items to go.”
I groan. She cracks her whip. Here we go again…

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When words won’t work

Words don’t come easy to me,” warbled 80s singer F.R. David – a lie, obviously, given the fact that he’d written the lyrics – but yes, there are times when words don’t come easy. In fact, they don’t come at all.

When I started writing seriously, I lived with the certainty that unless I wrote things down now, immediately, forthwith, the words would disappear, and the precious flash of inspiration would dissipate into useless smoke. This led to little notepads placed strategically throughout the home, pens checked constantly to ensure they worked, should the bolt of creativity strike me while in bed, cooking, cleaning the toilet. It also led to irritated family members, ongoing conversations disrupted by a “wait, wait! I just have to…” followed by me launching myself at the closest bit of paper available.

As my handwriting is not exactly at calligraphy level, there were several occasions when I couldn’t decipher the note as such, but they served as memory nudgers. “Aha: pink postit. Yes, that’s when I was making roasted pork and I had this sudden image of Alex…” or “Scribbles in the dark. Hmm. Oh, yes! The dream, that’s right – the dream!”

These days, I don’t do notes – unless it is for a bright new idea, one I haven’t explored fully and therefore need to conserve for some later day. These days, I am relatively comfortable in the knowledge that even if the precise words disappear, I’ll be able to recall what I was planning on writing about. I suppose this is due to no longer depending on inspiration to write. As a writer learns their craft, discipline and sheer slogging can replace those ephemeral and unreliable sparks of “Aha!”.

Mind you, we still need inspiration. It is inspiration that moves us to connect with our story and our characters. It is inspiration that breathes life into potential ideas. And there are still days when the words won’t come – or the words that come are WRONG.
“Crap,” I mutter, highlighting what I’ve written a bright yellow to remind myself I am NOT happy with it. Most of it will go when I next look at it, but I am confident a couple of words will survive, enough to build on, rewrite with. Or maybe not.

When things are really bad, I resort to walks. Or cleaning. For some odd reason, plot issues tend to resolve themselves just as I am washing my windows or on all four scrubbing the bathroom floor. I think it’s the repetitive work involved, a no-brainer that somehow lulls the overactive pat of my brain to sleep, thereby allowing the subconscious free rein.

Walking is different. When I walk, I pretend. Okay, so it is difficult to be a 50+ woman brandishing a length of wood while in the midst of the city, so I keep these more intense pretend sessions for when I’m out in the forest. Dog (an elderly and by now experienced 13-year-old) is given whatever role I require, and off I caper, “sword” in one hand, my phone on voice recording. I must say I have a lot of fun listening to myself afterwards – beyond concluding I am seriously out of breath after having trotted (in my head, I was “hurtling along at full speed”) up the long incline that leads to the telephone mast (in my head “the looming towers of Nottingham Castle”).

Anyway: my walks are long, I return refreshed – and with words. I think the key word here is “refreshed”. Staring at a screen while desperately scrabbling for words doesn’t work. Desperately scrabbling for a foothold on the very steep hill releases all sorts of words, the chief one being “Shit!” But hey, it works, and where before I had no idea how my honourable knight Adam de Guirande was to resolve his present conundrum, or how Sam Woolfe intends to intimidate financial analyst Helle (different books, okay? One is medieval, the other contemporary) I often return with an inkling of how to resolve the issues. And words. So many, many words.

I guess the conclusion is rather simple: All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Unless the boy is called Jack Reacher, of course. That guy doesn’t know the meaning of dull…On the other hand, he isn’t a writer is he?