Getting past the roadblock

 In Education, Lifestyle, Reviews, writing

Writers hit roadblocks like everyone else. Maybe more than most. We cruise along, writing away, following a storyline, everything going swimmingly and then, just like that, we grind to a halt.

My first reaction is denial. I push harder, trying to force the story along. I force myself to write, and sit, staring at the screen, willing myself to get the words out. I’m like a man with a kidney stone, howling with pain (inside) but unable to pass a drop. Well, maybe a drop, but not much more.

Next I try fooling myself. I’ll just write anything that comes into my head, on the principle that at least I’m writing. Sometimes I’ll write pages, and then erase the whole lot. Or file it in my “dump” folder, in the hope that it might be useful later. That hasn’t happened yet. The entire exercise is futile, as it just makes me feel inadequate, and alienates me from the process. Because I hate what I’ve written, I then hate writing, period. And then I hate myself for trying to be a writer. Hmm. Time to call a therapist?

At this point, I’ll realize that I’m engaged in a self-sabotage operation, and I’ll take a break. But it’ll be a really self-destructive type of break, perhaps involving a TV binge. Many hours staring at a screen of some kind, perhaps while lying in bed, Until my legs go numb and tingly. I might consume a lot of bad food in this phase, too. Maybe have a couple of drinks. The rationalization is that by watching 12 hours of thrillers or mysteries, I’ll be learning myself the finer points of plotting and character development. The truth is that after mainlining all three iterations of Taken and the entire first series of Broadchurch, I’m pretty much a cabbage.

At this point, if things play out as they usually do, my fevered gaze should alight on the short stack of books on the floor beside the fireplace. This is not kindling, it is my reading pile; one of two piles of books in my house. The other, much higher, but much less read, is the reference pile. The reading pile consists of books that I have bought, borrowed or snagged from the slush shelves at NPR or Marketplace. It is a treasure trove, and everything in it is something that I want to read, either because it’s been recommended, or because I liked the look and read of the jacket.

Hopefully, my mood will match one of these books. The pile is pretty varied. It includes fiction and non-fiction. There are always crime stories and thrillers, but there’s also military history and true spy stories. Occasionally there’s a self-help book.

This week, I dug out The Wicked Boy, by Kate Summerscale. It’s historical non-fiction, which is part of my usual diet, but also true crime, which is not. The subtitle is “The mystery of a Victorian child murderer”, which is accurate, but only up to a point. The book is about a whole lot more than that. The murder is meticulously researched and compellingly presented, and I tore through the first half of the book, reveling in the detail of Victorian London. But I was really captivated by the second half of the story, which is really a tale of redemption, beautifully rendered.

It took me exactly half a day to devour The Wicked Boy. I was delighted because I now have a true-crime crush – my first – and I plan to read all of Kate’s work, as soon as I can. But that’s only the first part of the good news – Kate’s writing was so good, and her conjuring of Victorian London so evocative, that I was inspired. I sat down to write this morning, and the words fairly poured out of me, not perfect, not tidy, but infinitely satisfying – similar to the feeling I got when I unblocked a gutter over the weekend and saw all that filthy fetid water flowing away down the pipe.

And isn’t draining the sewers of our minds what crime fiction writing is all about?

Definitely time to call a therapist!


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