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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Writing Tips: The Author as God

The Author as God by Niels Saunders

Don’t mess with Zeus

As an author, you are god to your characters. No matter their religious beliefs, when your characters pray to their own gods, they are really praying to an empty sky. You, as god, decide which prayers to answer and which to ignore. Likewise, if your characters are atheists, you choose whether to fulfil or crush their irreligious hopes and dreams. As authors, we play god, and we have to choose what kind of god we’ll be. Will we be a vengeful and interventionist Old Testament style deity? Or will we be a caring and peaceful god who loves their characters like their own children? The choice you make will make a huge impact on the style, tone and content of your story, so it’s wise to consider what kind of god you’ll be before you start writing.

Playing God by the Rules

First off, you need ground rules. In my writing, as god, I have control over luck, the weather and coincidences. This means if a character goes to a casino, it’s entirely up to me whether they win or lose. Likewise, I decide if it’s sunny or rainy. This is where John Ruskin’s pathetic fallacy comes into play. We can use the weather to mirror a character’s emotions or we can use it ironically as a contrast. It’s something of a cliché to have a broken-hearted character walk through rainy streets but it doesn’t have to be so dramatic. A depressed character, for example, is more likely to notice the grey clouds in the sky than the warm and pleasant breeze on their face.

Don’t Reveal Yourself

As god, you have a responsibility not to reveal yourself. Imagine having a character who won the lottery ten weeks in a row. Both your character and your reader wouldn’t believe it. By fixing the odds irresponsibly, you’ve broken the reader’s suspension of disbelief and also likely driven your character insane. They might, understandably, start to believe they’ve been blessed by a higher power. This would cause them to act irrationally and doubt the very order of the universe itself. This could make a good starting off point for a story but you’d have to balance all that good luck with something else to satisfy the reader’s desire for order. If a character prays, they are actually praying to you. If you choose to answer back, you’ll have to accept the consequences.

Telling a Good Story

What does a good story typically need? Conflict. As god, it’s your job to engineer situations whereby characters will find themselves entrenched in conflict. This is where it starts getting tricky to be a benevolent god. If you grant all your characters’ wishes, your story will be over. Therefore, you have to take a step back and allow your characters to achieve them on their own. Unfortunately, happiness is rarely interesting for long. To tell a compelling story, we need our characters to struggle and suffer. For the greater good of your story, you have to be cruel to be kind. As always, though, it’s a balance. Be too cruel and the reader may become so depressed they can’t even finish your book.

The Power of Free Will

As a god, you have a lot of power, but you also have your limits. Never force your characters to do things they don’t want to. It’s tempting to do this if you have a great idea and want the character to fulfil it, but I can guarantee one thing: if you allow your characters to make their own decisions, they’ll do something more interesting than what you had planned. If you force your godly will upon your characters, there’s a good chance your characters will revolt and you’ll suffer from writer’s block. Throw as many obstacles in their path as you want but never influence their will. If you want to change their mind, try doing it obliquely through metaphors and coincidences. In this way, your characters’ interaction with their god (you) may well mirror your own interaction with God (if you’re a believer).

Do You Believe in Fate?

If you’ve sketched out your story in a plan, you may have plotted the deaths of certain characters. In my experience, these rarely change. This might contradict what I said above about free will but if you’ve decided a certain character is fated to die, it’s likely you’ve foreshadowed that death and made it such an integral part of the story that they simply have to die. This is one place where, as an author, you can make death mean more than it does in real life. Whereas death in our own world often seems random, pointless and cruel, in our stories, death is a narrative device to drive or resolve conflict. Have fun killing your characters but make sure it means something.

Authors Work in Mysterious Ways

As writers we are bound to the conventions of storytelling. Readers expect mysteries to be revealed and conflicts to be resolved. As the author, it’s up to you choose if you’re a fickle god or not. Will you punish the good guy and reward the bad? Will the wishes you grant be double-edged swords? A lot of it is guided by the kind of story we want to tell, whether moralistic or nihilistic. For the sake of a good story, I tend to put my characters through the wringer. On more than one occasion, I’ve had characters directly curse me, as their god, for the situations I’ve engineered. The weird thing is, I adore them all. My characters are like my kids. Even though I love them, I want them to have compelling stories, so I make bad things happen to them (which I wouldn’t wish upon my real life kids).

What Kind of God Are You?

Are you benevolent? Malevolent? An interventionist? Do you agree that characters should have their own free will? Let me know in the comments!

Update: Here’s a great  piece of flash fiction from mythicalmusingsblog that was inspired by this post!

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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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