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Don’t Get It Right

I’ve been following, with many a wince of sympathy, the comments on Marsha’s blog about what to do when you hit the metaphorical brick wall. We all suffer from it, though in my case it stems more often from succumbing far too easily to distraction – the lure of a packet of Maltesers, a sale in the Debenhams coat department, or even a sardonically raised eyebrow on a brown-eyed man.

My symptoms are a little different for two reasons: first, I plot, plot, plot, plot, plot to the nth degree so I don’t write so much as a chapter heading without knowing exactly what will happen in each scene, all the way until the end. I do this partly because I hate surprises and partly because a large chunk of what I do for a living involves creating storylines for other people to write out in full, so it stands to reason that the more detail I put in at synopsis stage, the closer the finished product will be to what the publisher is looking for. As a rough guide, my storylines extend to around 10,000 words for books up to 35,000, while Warriors synopses can ramble on to 25,000 words for a 75,000 word script.

I have clearly become storyline-dependent because I do the same for my own novels and spend weeks muttering darkly to myself about how Character A will get from Location B to Emotional Crisis C, all before I have a document open in front of me. By the time I start writing, the aim is to be able to rattle through 4-8,000 words a day, as if I were describing a movie playing out in my head, with my trusty synopsis printed out at my side so if I get remotely stuck I just have to look at the page and say, What happens next? Oh yes, Helena comes out of the stable having been bitten by Oriel and Jamie sympathizes but says she was a bit dumb to go in with the stallion in the first place… The very idea of writing a book without knowing what happens at the beginning, middle and end of every single chapter brings me out in hives. I am in awe of people who talk of setting off on an adventure with their characters, and letting the story wend where it will. Am I a control freak? Scared of taking risks? Weirdly scientific about my approach to random acts of creativity? Maybe a little bit of all of the above.

In theory, this means writer’s block happens for me at storyline stage, when I frown at my keyboard and wonder what on earth those melodramatic feral cats can do next. Or when I know that my heroine’s brother must be dramatically unmasked as an impostor, but I’m not sure how that can be done without the accompaniment of soaring strings and a tragic bassoon to prompt readers to feel aghast NOW. The ways I tackle The Block are connected with the second reason that my symptoms are a little different than most; quite simply, I don’t have time for writer’s block because I am always working to a publisher’s stone-set schedule, so if the dread mist descends, I have to do something fast to get my story back again. I allow myself three days for a long storyline, one day for shorter books, so if the action stops flowing and I just don’t know what happens next, I turn to a few swift-impact solutions…

1:  Shout for help to my nearest colleague, who preferably knows nothing about the book or series in question and invariably comes up with something utterly brilliant – unboxed thinking in its purest form. (With special thanks to Guy Macdonald, creative editor extraordinaire, who currently sits closest to me and suggested such an awesome dream sequence for the latest Warriors title that I was inspired to carry on for another 5,000 words in a single sitting.) Unfortunately, this doesn’t work at home, although I have tried hollering at my dog and my lovely housemate Joe on numerous occasions.

2:  Stand up, walk around the office, and chat to colleagues feeling like a schoolgirl playing truant until sheer guilt – and the knowledge that a writer is biting their nails to the quick waiting for this synopsis – drives me back to my desk to get on with it. Even if what I come up with is useless in the long-term, I’ll have another chance to put it right and hopefully once I get past the tricky point I’ll come up with a few more worthwhile scenes.

3:  When I really can’t think of another thing for a Clan of feral cats to do, I switch to something completely different. This week, I’m working on storylines for a long-distant Warriors title; the first title in the brand new Erin Hunter project which doesn’t feature cats, joy of joys; the 2007 Animal Ark Christmas special called Tabby under the Tree (let’s face it, once you have an AA title, the story practically writes itself); and the final part of a sword-and-sorcery trilogy called The Darkest Age which needs me to conjure up dragons and children with eerie skills and fabulous mountainous landscapes. It’s a fairly quiet week for me, actually. I refuse to believe I can get stuck on every single storyline at the same time, so much as I’d prefer to get all the way to the end of one before turning my thoughts to a completely different genre/age range/time period, dipping in and out of several stories like a deranged hummingbird can sometimes jumpstart the muse. I live in fear of dragons appearing at Mandy Hope’s veterinary surgery, though…

4: Finally, I have two mantras that are particularly useful when it comes to motivating myself when I’m at home on my own.  The first, rather downbeat chant is, It’s going to get done some day so it may as well be now. Hey, it works. And the other is the second part of the heading for this blog entry: Don’t get it right, get it written. Say it out loud for maximum impact, then just bash out what you’re trying to say and promise yourself that you’ll come back later to polish it to perfect brilliance. Nine times out of ten, you won’t have to.

About Victoria Holmes [1]