Those of you that know me or have been following my progress over the last few years, since way back when I was working on my first novel, The Camel Trail, will know my Achilles’ heel has always been (and likely always will be) the dreaded Chapter Six.
Regardless of how long my chapters are, or how many words I have written of the first draft of a novel, as soon as I hit chapter six, I flail around a bit and flounder under the weight of my own words.
Every writer will experience these questions at some point in their lives:
- What the hell am I writing?
- How do I fill the bit between chapter X and chapter Z?
- Who the fuck stole my imagination?
I’m sure it’s psychosomatic. Maybe I just had one bad experience with a sixth chapter many years ago and it has now become something more than it is… I can’t be certain. What I do know, is that chapter six is always the hardest chapter to write for me. I can know exactly where the story is going and I still get stuck on chapter six.
Like a lot writers, I ‘self-edit’ as I write my first draft. I have agonised over many a sentence for hours at a time – calling up my editor and running this version or that version of one particular sentence by her, to the point where we spend an hour or more debating the pros and cons of one verb over another before coming to a mutual agreement.
She knows as well as I do that chapter six is my wall. If I can push through chapter six and come out the other side, I’ll be okay (my computer is littered with hundreds of incomplete novels that never got passed chapter five).
And I’m pleased to say, even though it has taken me two months to do so, I have now completed chapter six of the work-in-progress. I feel like Attila after the Battle of the Utus, or like Britney after 2007.
What did I do? I don’t have a definitive answer, but these things help from time to time:
- Write something else
Take your mind off the problem piece and, a lot of the time, it comes to you when you’re not thinking about it. Many of the unfinished novels on my hard-drive were started during bouts of writers’ block. And for that reason, I don’t mind that they’re unfinished; they served their purpose at the time.
I’m not kidding you; the best thing I can do when stuck in writers’ block is to deep-clean the bathroom. You could eat your dinner off my toilet lid. Somehow, working my body’s muscles frees up the grey muscle to wander off on its own and find the words I need to start writing again.
- Talk to someone about it
Someone whose opinion you trust, of course. I trust my editor and my primary beta reader for their opinions when I’m floundering in writers’ block. Starting a conversation with “My character ignores me when I want him to do this thing” usually sparks an ideas session that results in a plan of action to battle through the problem.
- Go for a walk
I guess what I’m trying to get at with most of these bullet points is, do something other than stare at the blinking cursor on your screen. Taking your mind off the problem at hand will often result in an unexpected resolution popping into your head when you weren’t even prepared for it.
- Write about Writers’ Block
A cop out, sure. You got me. But hey, I’m writing, okay? In the words of Bukowski, “Writing about writers’ block is better than not writing at all.”
- Write that useless thought anyway
That thought you have in your head for the passage you’re stuck on? Write it anyway. What does it matter? It’s just a draft, right? You can always go back and change it later. If you can write it down and move on to the next exciting chapter, all’s well. This one sticks with me more than the others. Even if you think it’s drivel, write it anyway. You have other people to tell you how bad it is later (preferably before publication!) and give you time to amend it.
I broke the wall on my work-in-progress and got through my writers’ block. And that’s a good thing. The tough bit is over. Now I just have to keep up the momentum and get the rest of the first draft finished in time to keep my editor happy.
As Niall Williams so eloquently puts it, “Writing is a sickness only cured by writing.”
If you’re a writer, what or where is your wall?