How to write when you can’t

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You’ve been there before. Sitting and screen-staring. Trawling the internet for everything else. The ‘pro’ in procrastination. Running your brain through a washing mangle for every last drip of idea juice, when it just ain’t happening. ‘What the hell am I trying to write?’ you may growl at yourself. ‘Should I even be doing this?’

Working on novels when you want to is easy. But writing when you don’t want to, or the ideas aren’t coming to you, and going straight at it anyway… that’s the real prize.

When you experience that resistance, see it like a whetstone or a grinding wheel. When you feel that hard fatigue pushing back at you, and it’s rough, and you’re doubting yourself completely – good. Use it. When you push yourself right back against it, that’s when the sparks fly. That’s when the practise really starts working, and your writing tools get sharp as hell.

You do not have permission to quit on your writing. I won’t let you. It’s your life ambition, and you’re going to make a living out of it, and any doubters or detractors in your life can fuck right off. I’m fighting in your corner. The world needs fewer consumers, and many more creators. Otherwise… all of this incredible potential we’re all born with just gets reduced to worshipping a few fucking brands.

Whether it’s work, writing, or life in general: when it’s tough and you’ve got nothing but doubt, that’s when you show some grit.

The ideas will come when you work around it, if you keep working at it. Get away from the screen and work on paper. Change your approach. Ask yourself what you want this novel to achieve for your readers; what you want it to feel like for them. Characters, dialogue, scenes, objects… jot down every loose floating thought in your head. Collide all of your favourite books, films, games, artworks… anything that stokes up the fire in you.

If you’re a visual thinker, definitely sketch it out. You could concept a character or location; the book cover; or even choreograph a scene to give yourself a blueprint for writing it. (This works especially well for fight scenes.) It’s often easier to throw all your ideas at blank paper, rather than a keyboard and screen – and much easier to start typing when you’re really just copying notes.

But crucially, don’t be tempted to slip into doing “research”. That ain’t parking your behind in a chair and writing. It’s watching YouTube videos in a stream of consciousness that quickly descends from fact-finding into news, then comedy, then the troubles of the world… and then cats. And then it’s too late to start writing anyway. No rush. Plenty of time tomorrow. That thinking, right there, is the writer’s graveyard. It’s why Brian Griffin’s still “working on his novel”.

So. How to write when you can’t. Get offline and grab a steaming cup of crushed-bean jungle juice. Maybe play a recording of your favourite vocal calls. Then find a good old slice of bleached dead tree. Take your preferred pointed tube of solvent and petrochemical pigments. Cover the tree meat in mysterious runes and markings, which somehow miraculously correspond to a webbed galaxy of nerve endings firing inside your head, to represent endless phantom images you can conjure up from nothing. Then, type it all down.

Repeat this process, every day, until a book happens. You’ll be a better writer on the far side of it, but even more importantly – you’ll have that much more grit and determination to write the next book too.

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