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Overcoming Writer’s Block by Tina Callaghan

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Article by Tina Callaghan ©.
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Let’s talk about writer’s block. Stephen King points out that plumbers don’t get plumbers block, or cardiac surgeons, surgeon’s block. The surgeon never says ‘I don’t feel like operating today. I’m going to eat junk food and scroll through social media on my phone instead. I’ll operate when the mood strikes me.’ The master of horror is right about the surgeon and the plumber, but I disagree with him (a little) on the writer’s block.

Let me tell you why. I’ve written two novels. I’m working on my third now and writing away. However, I spent months not writing book three at all, but only fretting about writing. I disagree with Stephen King, because I really was blocked.

Sorry Steve. Here’s the thing though. I was stuck because I hadn’t the right approach to the novel. When I’m stuck in the middle, I go back to the point where everything was right and scrap the work that was going in the wrong direction. But what if you’re stuck before you even write the words Chapter One?

I’m published. I’m working on book three. I know how to write a novel because I’ve already done it twice. Isn’t it like riding a bike? I can ride the bike, but suddenly I’m trying to ride it up Mount Leinster in a fog. Freewheeling is ahead, but I’ve got a lot of sweating and struggling and perhaps falling off before I get there.

The analogy comes from a friend of mine who does long distance cycling. He was happily cycling away in the middle of a field of riders, when he suddenly got a puncture he didn’t know how to fix. The others carried on, climbing higher and higher, becoming mere flashes of hi-viz orange and yellow in the distance. Support volunteers came to his aid, fixed the tyre and got him going again. He was a long way behind, but eventually he crested the mountain and swept down, gloriously freewheeling.

I can’t go to your house and fix the tyre for you but, luckily, you have your own support team. It’s you, and you have the puncture repair kit. If you have a habit of writing and an idea, but you can’t get off the line, have a think. What’s stopping you?

Is the idea right for you? Do you care about it? Does it excite you?

Is the idea too big for you right now? Maybe it needs loads of research that you don’t feel up to. Maybe the emotional context of the story is not yours, or is something that you can’t relate to, no matter how fashionable it might be.

Has someone suggested a direction for you that you feel forced into, or is the idea ruined because of unwanted input?

Find out what’s stopping you. It may be something you can get over, or fix. It may turn out that the reason is unbeatable.

Either way, the answer is work. Put in the work. You can learn what you need to know. You can talk to someone who has experienced the situation you want to write about. You can learn what’s appropriate for your story so that you are being authentic and not stealing anyone else’s life for a buck. You can find an idea that fits you better, or that you fit better.

In my own case, I restarted several times, scrapping work. (I never really scrap entirely, just cut and paste into a notes file, just in case). I moaned and complained and beat myself up. Then, because I was hurting my back in my usual writing spot, I changed my environment from the one where I had stagnated. I bought a desk and office chair and put myself next to a lovely window, instead of sitting on the recliner with the laptop on my lap.

The night before I bought my mini-office, but with the plan in mind, I walked through the room, merely passing on my way from the kitchen to the hall, when I stopped dead and thought ‘what if…’

The what if came to me because my writing subconscious was working behind the scenes, watching out for interesting nuggets. I don’t even know what the nugget was that made the idea spring to mind. That’s what happens when you accept that you are a writer and open yourself to the ideas that are all around us, waiting to be noticed.

I emailed the idea I had had to myself and as soon as the new desk was set up, I sat down and typed the idea. Then I wrote a scene from the viewpoint of a character I hadn’t met before. I let him talk to me and he explained who he was and what he had experienced in his young life and he told me about his obsession. When I reached the end of this random scene, I had discovered a brand new direction, an area of research that already interested me, and a link to the work I had already done, the work that I thought wasn’t working. I got excited.

My new character gave me the right approach to the novel, many more layers of story and characterisation, and lovely complications in relationships. I resurrected the earlier work, amended a little and spent a couple of days watching scenes coming at me on the screen in my mind. Then I began to write.

There is a reason for the block. Always. Discover what it is and get your tools into the blocked u-bend, or the clogged artery. If you want to be a writer, you won’t let anyone or anything stop you, particularly yourself.

Stephen King tells a story about being stuck in the writing of his epic apocalyptic novel The Stand. He went for a long walk and somewhere along the way, he realised that he had too many characters, all repeating the mistakes of the past. He wondered what would happen if he killed lots of them. That led him to write about an act of violence perpetrated by a character whose story up to that point made the act authentic. It killed lots of characters, opened up new directions, new inspiration, new veins of creation.

He didn’t have writer’s block. Not really. Turns out I didn’t either. We had both just got stuck at different points and were willing to figure out a solution, because we were committed to the work. If you are committed to the work, you need to do the same. More to the point, you can do the same. It’s part of the fun of writing (once you smash the obstacle and get going again!)

Get to work. There are characters waiting and after that, there are agents, publishers and, best of all, readers.

(c) Tina Callaghan

About Dark Wood Dark Water:

Something is wrong with the town of Bailey. Something dark, something dangerous. Something evil.

Josh’s brother has just drowned. He meets Kate and Gabe, who also have lost family to the river. When they seek the help of a local historian, Naylor, he tells them that there is a sinister longstanding pattern to such tragedies.

But some unknown force is trying to help Josh rid the town of its curse. Why is he dreaming of a ship s captain, a hooded monk, a dark familiar with a knife? What is being demanded of him?

Soon greater horrors than ever before are set loose. They are fighting against time, as evil has turned its baleful eye upon them.

Order your copy online here.


Tina Callaghan is a writer of speculative fiction, both for children and adults. Her stories involve elements of history, mythology and the supernatural. Her short stories have appeared alongside horror and science-fiction greats Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Ray Bradbury and Robert Bloch. Dark Wood Dark Water is her debut novel, published by Poolbeg Press.