Writing Tips: Surviving the Skill Plateau

A remarkable thing happened while working on my latest novel, Grand Theft Octo. I wrote about 500 words that needed almost no editing whatsoever. Although I didn’t splurge them out in a carefree frenzy, I didn’t write them especially slowly either. They took about an hour. There were a few places where I had to ponder and a couple of lines that tripped me up but somehow I managed to write about 500 words that required almost no editing whatsoever in an hour. If you’re not a writer yourself, you might wonder why that’s a big deal, but for me it was a miracle. Let me tell you why.

Writing is Rewriting

People say writing is rewriting. Writing is the fun part whereas the real skill and effort comes during editing and rewriting. A lot of this depends on the way someone writes. Some people edit as they go whereas others bash out a first draft before editing it later. Either way, editing and rewriting is the largest factor in the quality of prose. Most first drafts are full of clichés and humdrum phrasing. They almost never shine. Although you’ll occasionally get lucky and come up with a great line on the fly, most of the real gems come later.

Welcome to the Skill Plateau

You wouldn’t want to live there

Editing is a skill you hone, a muscle you develop. There are books to help you on the way but for most authors it’s self-taught. When I first started writing as a child, I thought everything I wrote was a masterpiece. Even if I re-read a story, I couldn’t spot a single thing to change. Criticisms from my teachers seemed absurd. I assumed they were biased or too stuffy to recognise my dazzling skill. The more I wrote, however, the fussier I became. I’d take more time with my sentences and ponder over the story instead of splurging it out. Nevertheless, writing was a joy. Each story I wrote was like an adventure. I’d polish them the best I could and looked forward to my future as a world-famous author.

Welcome to the Skill Plateau

When I was a teenager, after two abandoned novels, I started on another. That’s when I hit the plateau. I scrutinised every single word, trying to make each sentence perfect. I tried to inject subtext, metaphors and hidden meanings to subconsciously influence the reader. I wanted every description to paint a picture so vivid that the reader would see a realer world than the one outside their window. I avoided every cliché, I ran from every trope. And at this pace, I managed to write a sentence an hour. That’s not an exaggeration. The first (and only) chapter of my third (abandoned) book took six months to write. I re-read it not long ago and although it has some inventive language, it’s clearly over-laboured and bordering on pretentious.

For my next book, I tried to limber up. I didn’t want to make the same mistake. The problem is, I’m a perfectionist. Only the best would do. Although I managed to work quicker, my next book took three years to write. I only managed to get it finished by drinking 4 litres of Diet Coke every day and staying up to 6am. With that book, I’d bash out a chapter in a couple of days and then spend a month or two editing it. Tricky paragraphs could take whole days. I’d read and re-read them over and over, changing words and tweaking commas while ruining my kidneys with Diet Coke and testing the patience of my long-suffering girlfriend (thankfully now my wife and the mother of my children).

Taylor Swift Enjoying a Diet Coke

I didn’t look this elegant

Sit at Your Chair and Bleed

My next book was even harder. I wrote the first draft in a couple of weeks and then spent four years rewriting it. One particular chapter took an entire year. Nevertheless, I kept my head down and finally finished the damned thing. Then I was struck by an awful realisation: the better I got at writing, the harder it became. This is something the narrator of my novel, Mervyn vs. Dennis, discusses:

Writing works backwards. The better you get, the harder it is. I missed how I wrote when I was eight. I’d sit down and splurge and love every word, absurd little stories that made little sense. Now I spent half my time sweating about passive voice and dangling participles. I’d fret and I’d fuss over each precious word then come along a month later and bin the whole chapter. I knew this was the graft to make fiction flow but sometimes it felt like the wrong way around.

I was terrified about the future. If I kept getting better, writing would keep getting harder. It would get to the point where writing became so hard that I’d never be able to write at all.

Sit and bleed

Bleed, dear boy, bleed!

Escaping the Skill Plateau

At the time, I didn’t know there was a skill plateau. I honestly thought I was doomed. My own standards had become so cripplingly high and writing itself had become so hard that a lot of the pleasure of writing was lost. I’d put so many years into writing, at the expense or learning other skills, that I couldn’t simply give up on the only thing I seemed half-decent at. But the prospect of writing another book was so daunting that I couldn’t face it. Having just written a dark, complex thriller, I decided to write something light and easy. That’s where Mervyn vs. Dennis came from. Although it has many dark moments, it was a genuine pleasure to write, and much easier than my previous book. This time, I edited as I wrote, managing a steady 500 words per day. I finished the book in 9 months.

Despite being easier to write, I still spent a lot of time rewriting and editing. Those chunks of 500 words that I wrote and edited every day were several hours of work each. Nevertheless, I wrote an entire novel in under a year compared to writing a single chapter in a year. Having said that, I never had a moment like I did recently while writing Grand Theft Octo. I have never had a moment where I managed to write 500 words that required almost no editing whatsoever. So what has happened to me? Why am I finally able to write at a reasonable pace without feeling like I’m bashing my head against a wall? It’s something I’ve thought a lot about lately, and I have a few possible answers.

Beyond the Skill Plateau

The cynical answer is that my standards have slipped. I used to labour over my craft and now I churn out books without quality control. The problem with that theory is I think my writing is better than ever. I’m currently working on a dark fantasy novel and it’s the best stuff I’ve ever written. So if my standards haven’t slipped then what on earth is going on? I think, after countless years of toil and suffering, I’ve finally escaped the skill plateau. I’m not saying that I’ve mastered writing. I want to keep improving. But now I can write and edit much more efficiently. I’m no longer wandering in the dark. I know much better now what works and what doesn’t.

There are, of course, still moments when I bash my head against the wall. In that past, I would have been stuck for weeks but now all it takes is a contemplative walk or pensive shower. I now see 500 edited words per day as my absolute minimum. If I don’t have any freelance work from my day job, I can manage 1000 words. Once upon a time, that was unthinkable. Right now, not only do my first drafts need less work than they used do, but my editing process is so much more focused and efficient that it no longer feels like an uphill struggle. That allows me to look beyond the minutiae of the words themselves and focus even more on storytelling and character.

Never Give Up Hope

If you’re suffering in a skill plateau of your own, I have one message for you: there is hope. It won’t last forever. What you’re doing right now is improving. It might feel like a never-ending struggle but what’s really happening is that you’re becoming a better writer. All those hours you spend contemplating a tricky sentence aren’t wasted at all. They’re all part of your journey to improve your craft. So, keep on suffering, but always remember that it won’t last forever. There’s a chance, of course, that another skill plateau is heading my way. If that happens, hopefully I’ll be able to follow my own advice.

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Marc Crepeaux’s Video Review of Mervyn vs. Dennis

Video Review of Mervyn vs. Dennis by Niels Saunders

I’ve been a been a bad father lately. I’ve neglected my firstborn in favour of my latest offspring. Before you call child services, hear me out a second. I’m not talking about my daughters, but the other children in my life: my books, of course. I published my debut novel Mervyn vs. Dennis in 2016. Since then, a sapient talking Wotsit has moved into the White House and the United Kingdom has had a nervous breakdown. Undeterred by the apparent unravelling of civilised life as we know it, earlier this year I published my second novel, a satire about the world’s most unusual businessman entitled Grand Theft Octo. It’s already getting some great reviews and people seem to enjoy the mix of satire, surreal professions and invertebrate-based violence.

I’ve been busy promoting Grand Theft Octo, editing my upcoming thriller The Papyrus Empire and also writing a dark fantasy about a macaque in mythological Japan. As such, Mervyn vs. Dennis has been feeling rather neglected lately. His new siblings are getting all the limelight, and he’s wondering why he’s not the apple of my eye anymore. That’s one of the many reasons why Marc D. Crepeaux‘s hilarious video review of Mervyn vs. Dennis is so utterly delightful. Inspired by a mysterious subplot in the novel, it starts with him fleeing for his life with a pineapple under his arm. From there, he gives his witty and insightful views on the book itself along with an uproarious discussion on the alleged differences between British and American refrigerators.  Here it is, in all it’s glory:

Rather delightfully, he applauds the covers of my books and says I should pay my designer more. As they’re all designed by me, I guess I’ll have to treat myself to a nice bottle of pinot noir for breakfast. When I first wrote Mervyn vs. Dennis, I always hoped it might inspire reactions and interpretations such as Marc’s, so this video review means a lot to me. Seeing him summarise the plot while chuckling about the moments he found particularly amusing is truly delightful. Please be sure to like his video and subscribe to his YouTube channel for lots of other great reviews.

Marc has also taken the time to pen an excellent accompanying written review which you can read here.  His books are available to buy on Amazon and be sure to check out and follow his blog.

Overcoming Writer’s Block: Which Type Do You Have?

How to deal with writer's block

The first step in overcoming writer’s block is knowing what type you’re suffering from. That’s right: there are many kinds of writer’s block and they all need different remedies. The classic image of an author scowling at their typewriter with a blank sheet of paper is a common enough problem but writers are just as likely to get blocked in the middle of a story as they are at the beginning. So let’s go over all the different types and how to overcome them.

Starting a New Chapter

This one can be a real pain. It might be the very first scene in a book, a chapter from the middle or even the epilogue. You know what’s meant to happen but, for some maddening reason, you can’t start the chapter. So you try to write regardless but it feels awkward and trite. Then you start to wonder if you’ve got the whole story wrong. Self-doubt overwhelms you and you question why the hell you chose to write a novel in the first place. Don’t give in to despair, though. When you’re suffering from writer’s block at the start of the chapter, it’s not the story that’s the problem but the storytelling.

The chances are you’ve started the scene at the wrong point in time. Your location and choice of characters are probably already spot on, you’ve just picked the wrong moment to get the action going. My advice: arrive late. If you’re having trouble, try starting the chapter in the middle of the action. You can easily explain how you got there through exposition or even a mini flashback. In all the times I’ve had writer’s block at the start of a chapter, I’ve never once resolved it by starting the scene earlier.

I actually used this technique in Mervyn vs. Dennis. The narrative begins in the middle of an awkward job interview. I could’ve started much earlier, when Mervyn (our narrator) was eating his breakfast or printing out his CV. This would’ve been effective to build anticipation before the interview began and to also get a clearer first impression of Dennis. Instead, I followed my instincts. This is simply how the story wanted to be told. Although the reader is thrown in the deep end, it’s into a scene that anyone can relate to. We’ve all endured job interviews. They’re easy to imagine and the reader understands the power dynamic without any explanation.

One word of warning with this method. If you arrive too late in a scene, especially in the first chapter where none of your characters are established, you might end up resorting to an infodump to explain how you got there. Infodumps, by their nature, are more interesting later in a novel when the reader is already invested in a character and wants to learn more about their history. Just think about Snape’s massive infodump in the final Harry Potter. Rowling actually paused the climactic battle to have an infodump flashback and completely got away with it. They can work in the first chapter but they have to be entertaining. Faulkner’s great at infodumps simply because his characters’ histories are so fascinating that you want to know as much about them as possible.

William Faulkner, Master of the Infodump

William Cuthbert Faulkner – Master of the Infodump

Stuck in the Middle

I’ve suffered from this form of writer’s block too many times to count. It happens when you’re in the middle of a story or novel and suddenly the words dry up. Everything you write feels clichéd, futile and wrong. For me it tends to manifest as encroaching despair. I dread the thought of writing and, when I’m working on the scene in question, I’m overwhelmed with pointlessness. I used to misinterpret it as self-doubt but I eventually realised it was my mind’s indirect way of telling me I’d done something wrong in the story.

My most common mistake is forcing a character to do something they don’t want to. That makes them sound petulant. And in a way, they are. Characters have free will (to an extent) and they don’t take kindly to being ordered about. That’s exactly why everything you write feels pointless when you’re suffering from writer’s block. The characters are no longer authentic–they’re doing what you want, not what they want.

This is both a good and bad thing. If you’ve carefully planned your narrative and suddenly a character no longer wants to follow it, what the hell’s going to happen to the rest of the story? In my experience, however, they rarely wander far astray. And the greatest thing of all is this: if you let them choose their own direction, they always take you somewhere much more interesting than where you’d already planned. In a way, they’re helping you discover what your narrative is really meant to be. Often, your characters understand your own story better than you do.

Finding a Solution

So how do you figure out the problem? To be honest, it’s tricky. The first thing you have to do is pinpoint where the writing starts to feel wrong. You may have to backtrack 100, 1000 or even 10,000 words. Find the last place in your text that you’re completely happy with. The chances are that your mistake is somewhere around there. Once you’ve figured out the area, it’s time to work out what’s wrong. This is the hardest part of all. In the past I’ve spent entire weeks mulling over a certain scene that felt off. They’ve typically been solved by light bulb moments just before I fall asleep or while I’m taking a dump shower. The best thing to do is imagine the scene in your mind. Play it over and over and experiment. Try as many variations as you can. Think about what’s happening from your characters’ perspectives, even those that have no narrative viewpoint in your story. Imagine what they’re thinking and feeling and how they could react.

These problems often arise when characters are being reticent. In one scene from The Papyrus Empire, two characters are trying to get information off each other while pretending not to. They both know too much and are trying to drop hints without fully showing their hands. It was an utter nightmare to write and I got seriously blocked several times in a row. Because the characters were being so evasive and ironic, it was difficult to imagine what exactly they should say and do. In the end it just took time and experimentation. If you want to make things easy on yourself, you can always just have straightforward characters who always speak their mind.

Over-complicating

Because we know our characters so well, it’s easy to get caught up in the minutiae of their feelings and motivations. As such, you’ll sometimes find yourself utterly overwhelmed by the scale of the task in hand. This can paralyse you and lead to a writer’s block it’s hard to escape from. When I say complicated, I don’t mean the labyrinthine plot of a neo-noir mystery. The emotions of a married couple can be just as complex as a twisty-turny thriller. If you know your characters well enough, and you’re prepared to look deep into their hearts, you’ll know exactly what makes them tick, both consciously and unconsciously. All this is great for building believable and interesting characters, but bearing so much information in mind can be a burden for the writer.

How best to resolve it? In short: simplify. If you’re ever tangled up in knots, you don’t have to explain your way out with clunky exposition. There’s always a simple solution if you’re prepared to look. Don’t settle for deus ex machinas–your reader might not forgive you. The trick is to find the easy solution while also avoiding plotholes. In Mervyn vs. Dennis, I always knew I wanted Dennis to gatecrash Mervyn’s party. That alone would’ve been easy enough but I needed Dennis to arrive at a certain time. No matter how hard I thought, I couldn’t come up with a believable way that Dennis would arrive on cue. The more I tried to explain his lateness, the more it sounded like I was trying to dig myself out of a plothole.

But then I had a brainwave. I was thinking too much about Dennis. The answer, in fact, was in the secondary characters. Suffering from the fear, Mervyn’s brother Cecil invites Dennis’s ‘sister’ Glenda to cheer himself up. Being the busybody that he is, Dennis intercepts the message and arrives in her place. This way, everyone acts naturally. Additionally, we learn that Dennis sleeps in the same bed as Glenda, giving the reader an extra glimpse into his creepy private life. It’s natural to focus on your main characters but if you ever get caught up in over-complications, think about your secondary characters and how they might be able to help.

A Lack of Ideas

Thankfully, this is one form of writer’s block I’ve almost never struggled with. Right now, I’ve got at least five novels planned out that I could be working on. I’ve never suffered from a lack of ideas, just a lack of time. But if you’re sitting at your computer sighing at that blinking cursor, the best thing you can do is something else. Writers have their own way of looking at the world. We tend to notice things that other people don’t. So if you’ve run out of ideas, it’s time to go out and get noticing. You don’t have to go skydiving or visit a gallery. Even a trip to the supermarket is a potential goldmine of ideas. The most important thing is to look. Steal ideas from the world. You might even have some fun!

It’s easy to blame mobile phones. All in all, I think they’re rather useful, but they’ve also stopped us from having contemplative moments. These days, when people are waiting for the bus, they no longer stare into space. Instead, they whip out their mobile and check Facebook or Twitter for ten minutes. Although waiting for the bus is tedious and painful, those quiet moments when you’re alone with your thoughts are invaluable for solving writing problems. It’s why so many people have great ideas in the shower. It’s a form of meditation where your body acts out a routine, allowing your mind to wander, contemplate life’s disappointments and invent bestselling consumer products.

Instead of sitting down and trying to write a scene from scratch, a great way to come up with ideas is to make up synopses. It’s a challenge I set myself after I finished The Papyrus Empire: writing the synopses for five entirely new novels. They were super cheesy blurbs, full of portentous clichés and dramatic tropes, but one of them ended up becoming Mervyn vs. Dennis. A couple of the others aren’t so bad as well and might even blossom into real novels one day.

Other Writer’s Block Solutions

If you’re suffering from writer’s block and none of my suggestions have helped, it’s not time to abandon all hope just yet. When I’m faced with a baffling scene where nothing seems to work, I print out the section and rewrite it in pen onto a fresh sheet of paper. It’s amazing how often this works. Word processors are great because you can write so quickly–almost at the speed your mind is working at–but sometimes your mind works better when it takes its time. The slower and more deliberate technique of writing by hand allows you to consider each word carefully. Through writing by hand, you’re more connected to the words in a tactile way. Away from the constant distractions and reminders of a computer, all you’ve got is your pen and your mind. It’s you vs. the words, and it works better than you’d think.

Do you have someone to talk to? Even if they don’t understand the details of your story, often just by explaining the scene to someone else, you’ll see it from another angle and realise what the problem is. Thinking to yourself too long can become an echo chamber. All you hear are your own thoughts and anxieties repeated back. By explaining the situation to somebody else, however, you have to reword it in a way so they can get a handle on the plot and the scene. This summarising allows you to see its component parts and spot the weak link.

Other people might tell you to go and write something else. If that words for you, then great. For me, though, it’s impossible. Once I’ve started writing something, I can’t work on something else (unless it’s just editing). They might also tell you to go and take a break. There’s truth in this, of course, but you have to make sure you’ve taking the right kind of break. Try to immerse yourself in as much culture as possible. Highbrow or lowbrow, it doesn’t matter. Your mind will make connections no matter what its consuming. You’re just as likely to find your answer by watching a game show as you are at the opera.

Overcoming Writer’s Block

While some authors never get writer’s block at all, others suffer from it pathologically. In my opinion, the more you care about a story and the characters, the more likely you are to experience writer’s block. If you’re in the business of churning out cheesy thrillers full of plotholes and cardboard characters, writer’s block won’t even slow you down. If you’re suffering from writer’s block, quite simply it means you care. You want to write something exceptional that makes perfect sense, both in terms of emotion and the narrative. Good for you!

Do you have any tips for dealing with writer’s block? Has this blog helped you to overcome a problem? Let me know in the comments below.

George R R Martin Writer's Block

Good luck with The Winds of Winter, George. Take all the time you need!

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Self-Publishing First Steps

Peanut Butter Label for Mervyn vs. Dennis by Niels Saunders

I have no idea what I’m doing. If I wanted to be portentous, I’d write, ‘And so it begins…’ I’ve just released my comic novel, Mervyn vs. Dennis, as an e-book on Amazon. This isn’t what I’d planned. I doubt if self-publishing is the first choice of any serious writer. Even so, I’m trying to make the most of what I’ve got. So what exactly do I have? A book. Actually, I’ve got three, but Mervyn vs. Dennis is my most recent one. It’s a fun and enthralling story with a dark, satirical edge. And it only costs £1.99!

Getting Started With Self Publishing

I always believe what the internet tells me. The other day, it said the most important thing about self-publishing is promotion. As I won’t have an amazing literary agent or a great big strapping publisher to shout my name from the rooftops, I’ll have to make myself heard amid the clamour of the internet through this humble blog. Harassing random people on Twitter doesn’t really appeal so I’m hoping passers-by will stumble upon these very words you’re reading and learn a little bit about me and my novel. If you’re not a friend or a member of my family, then hello! Thanks for stopping by!

So what am I confused about? As a man who’s been good with computers throughout most of his life, I’m finally feeling technology catch up with me. I can (just about) handle WordPress but I’ve never been a massive fan of social media. I barely use Facebook anymore (too much humblebragging) and only check Twitter when I’m bored. Faced with the prospect of promoting myself through social media channels, I feel utterly geriatric. I’ve read all the usual dos and don’ts and tried not to ignore the ones that seem like too much hard work.

What to expect from this blog? It won’t all be about me. As someone who’s been writing seriously for two decades, I’ve got a lot to say about the craft of writing itself. As I’ve never managed to get a novel published, I’m not the most qualified man in the world to be imparting wisdom, but all my hard-earned knowledge is bound to help somebody. The internet, it seems, is full of struggling writers. There’s listicles all over the shop about common writing mistakes. While most of them are informative and doubtlessly helpful, they do all tend to cover the same ground as each other, and I’m looking forward to contributing my own.

So why am I doing this now? Self-publishing’s always been my last resort. After twenty years of slogging, I feel I’ve exhausted every possibility. I could write another book (I’ve got plenty of ideas) and try literary agents again, but after my lack of success with Mervyn vs. Dennis, I’m convinced that I’ll be wasting my time. Even if I sell a hundred books on Amazon, that’s a hundred more than I would’ve sold with my novel squatting mournfully in my hard drive. I’d always been determined to get an agent and a publisher but now I’ve finally accepted that’s never going to happen.

Is There a Market for Comic Fiction?

My book is great. I know that. I love it with all my heart. So why hasn’t an agent snatched me up? Who’s deluded–me or them? All I know is what they’ve told me: comic fiction doesn’t sell. Unless you’re an established comedian, your chances are slim to none. I’m sure they’re correct in mass market terms but I know there’s a readership for books that make you laugh. Not that I’m conceited enough to rank myself among them, but some of the most beloved authors of all time wrote hilarious novels: Kingsley Amis, Evelyn Waugh, Jerome K Jerome, Douglas Adams, PG Wodehouse, John Kennedy Toole, Oscar Wilde, Hunter S Thompson…

Typing out that list, I realised: everybody’s dead. The greatest comic novels of all time were written by a bunch of stiffs. And in this way, I suppose, the agents are right. There isn’t the same audience for humorous books as there is for high-concept thrillers. But why not? Everybody likes to laugh. Just look at how successful stand-up comedy is right now. A book that makes you laugh is rare, and something to be treasured. Having said that, a good comic novel isn’t just about the comedy. There’s nothing worse than something relentlessly whacky and glib. Comic novels can be sad, dark, exciting and mysterious. The greatest thing about them is that they can be anything. And that’s one of the many reasons why you’ll absolutely love my book.

Comic novels can flit between genres. Comic novels can shock and surprise you. As long as they keep making you laugh, they can do whatever they want. Mervyn vs. Dennis is a comic novel but it also tackles grim and serious issues such as racism, homophobia, mental illness and abuse. It’s even rather timely in our post-Brexit Britain. Sometimes the story is lighthearted, sometimes it’s disturbing. Sometimes the humour is slapstick and fun, sometimes it’s bleak and awkward. The central narrative is a conflict with a clear protagonist and antagonist. Organically around that conflict, mystery and suspense emerge, and some sections of the climax could be lifted from a psychological thriller. By self-publishing my book, I’m not setting out to prove the agents wrong, but to prove myself right. There might not be a mass market for my novel at the moment, but who knows? There might be soon. And you could be one of the first!