Monday, 6 February 2012

Writing through treacle

OK, I've talked about this before, but as I'm experiencing the phenomenon right now, it's worth going over the ground again. What do you do when the novel turns into hard slog?

The natural inclination is to throw oneself to the carpet and drum heels screaming all the while. That's what's going on inside, isn't it? But unlike Lady Caroline Lamb, we refrain from such demonstrations and instead carp and grumble at loved ones. At least, that's what I find myself doing.

Believe me, it doesn't help. So what does. First off, contact your writing buddies and scream argghhh at them. That's what they're there for and they will commiserate. They may also have some useful pointers. Then it's time to look at what's really going on here.

Assuming there are no external crises holding your attention, there's got to be something wrong with the story. Is it characters behaving out of character? Have you gone off at a tangent and can't get back? Is the scenario just plain boring? Let's face it, if it bores you, it's going to bore the hell off the reader.

The commonest thing I discover is that I've lost the impetus of action. Too much exposition, not enough go. In my current book, the sleuth isn't physically close enough to the action, so I keep finding her slipping out of it. The moment I get her back there, everything takes off again. So this is one to watch.

But the plain truth of the matter is, some books are like that. They don't flow well, it's all stop/start and you honestly do feel like you are wading through treacle most of the time. There really is only one solution, I'm sorry to have to tell you. Keep going.

Bite the bullet and push through. Write one sentence after another and just suffer on through it. Get to that finished first draft. Tell yourself you can fix anything in edit mode. Drink gallons of tea, stuff yourself with chocolate or whatever tickles your comfort zone, take frequent breaks. But write, write, write.

The payoff? At worst, you've got that draft and you can work it. Much more likely, it won't be nearly as bad as you think. Several of my treacle books have turned out to be among the best I've written, according to report and feedback.

The point is, just because you're finding it difficult doesn't mean your craft and talent is any worse. You still know how to write. You still write at the level you write. The reader ain't going to know whether you raced through like a demon enjoying every minute, or you went through hell and high water cursing the day you decided to be a writer.

Ergo, it doesn't matter. It matters to you at the time. I'm about to slit my wrists at the moment, I can tell you! But I know from past experience that I'll get through it and I'll have a complete book, and I'll be able to edit it into shape. Treacle? Bring it on, I can handle it.


  1. Great article, Liz! Good advice, too. I've got an external factor in that I'm caring for my mum (88 and suffering from really bad memory loss. So my writing is in fits and starts at the moment.
    Keep writing - however little - is the best way. I've also chosen to focus on novellas at the moment. Being shorter, they don't seem quite so daunting.

  2. I really empathise with this, too, Liz. My problems mostly come before I start a book. And, once I have started, those first few chapters. It's because I never know what a book is about and where it's going until I'm well into it. I've decribed this process as like carving granite with a teaspoon. My solution is not to start a new book. To do other things. But I feel sick and grouchy and cross with myself.

  3. Keep on writing, Elizabeth. You'll get there.

  4. I'm in treacle mode at the moment too, Liz. It's a horrible feeling, and although I'm sorry you're suffering, it's comforting to know everyone goes through it (except for big fat liars, that is). I'm a great believer in the Shitty First Draft too and can highly recommend Anne Lamott's article on the subject in 'Bird by Bird' if you don't know it.

    The upside of the 'b' word is all the displacement activity, which means you come across all sorts of useful blogs like this one. A silver lining to all that treacle. Good luck getting out of yours!

  5. I agree that you just have to keep going even though it does seem like writing through treacle, or, as Gilli said, carving granite with a teaspoon. I can't count the number of times I've thought, 'This story is rubbish, it's going nowhere, no-one will ever want to read it' but I force myself to plod on, and eventually find myself thinking 'Hmm, maybe it isn't too bad, after all' and even 'Yeah, it's turned out to be quite a good story after all.'

  6. It's comforting to know so many of you understand and have been there. I think all writers do go through it at some point. Yes, hooray for displacement! The worst is I thought it was a starting thing like yours, Gilli, but it's turned out to be a stop-starter even tho I'm more than halfway. One day nearly 4000 words, the next less than 1000. But I will beat this thing!

  7. Really good article. I think I spend more than half my writing life wading about in treacle. You're right - the only thing to do is plod on. After all, you can't fix an empty page. Oh, and I echo Jessica's comment about the Shitty First Draft. I'm very good at those! ;-)
    Thanks for the encouragement, Liz!

    Jane x

  8. PS - I'm passing the Liebster award to your lovely, helpful blog, Liz. pop over to my blog when you get a mo and you'll find out why. :)

    Jane x

  9. I always have several things on the go at once, so if it turns to treacle, I leave it to pull itself together and get on with something else. If I really have no choice, because I have a deadline, I wade through the treacle. And yes, it's surprising how it turns out well

    1. Yes, sometimes you do have to get to something else, I agree, Jenny.

      Jane, thanks for the award - I happened to click on your blog and there it was!