I’ve moved this blog to The Write Place and I’d love you to pop over and see what I’m up to there.
When an idea has been living in your head for a long time and you sit down to write it, but find you can’t, don’t be too quick to jump to the conclusion that you’re suffering from writer’s block.
What may be holding you back from writing might well be fear. But fear of another kind. Fear that you won’t get it right. Fear that you haven’t quite got character X’s arc down pat, or fear that your sentences won’t be as crisp on paper as they are in your head. Welcome to analysis paralysis. It’s a curse and it’s a significant reason why so many writers don’t pick up their pens or don’t finish their stories.
It’s a good idea to let the little fish of story ideas swim about in your head for a while so that they grow into bigger fish from complimentary ideas that come from rumination. But you don’t want to overthink the story ideas to such a degree that you’ve overfed them into monsters before you even get writing.
Writing is an organic process, don’t kill that little fish by over-feeding it. As soon that small fish starts swimming about in the sea of your mind, start writing. Let it swim where it will, don’t try to direct it. Think balance. Think a little bit of structure and a little bit of spontaneity, you might give the fish a tank and a few toy castles to swim through, but you can not determine whether it will suck on the sides of the tank for a week or if it will dive in and out of the bits of seaweed. Likewise, let your story grow organically.
Often when we overthink a story, it doesn’t grow into our idea of what we thought it was going to be. While it’s all good and well to know your genre, have a strong cast of characters, and an exciting plot, don’t over-plan. Sure, you want to know where you’re going, but be open to surprise. A surprise in the writer will stimulate a surprise in the reader. Readers are smart and they don’t like predictability. If they wanted predictability they’d be doing maths. They’re reading because they want to be taken on an adventure. If you don’t go on an adventure, how can you expect them to enjoy the ride.
Some writers report that they knew the beginning and the ending of their stories and the middle just happened. Other writers get heart palpitations at the very idea of not being in full control. These are the control freaks and they suffer the most from analysis paralysis. Of course you can plot out every single scene of your story, but if you don’t allow for the creative inputs that come during writing, you’re going to short change not only your readers, but yourself as a writer. Don’t be a slave to your story, instead, think of writing as taking your story’s hand and walking along the road together to discover where it is that you want to go. There is nothing more stifled or strangled than a story that’s forced in a certain direction.
There’s no place for the analytical mind in the drafting experience. In those early drafts where you just want to get the story down, it doesn’t matter if you have lapses, inconsistencies, crappy grammar, or two characters with similar names. Just allow your thoughts to put themselves on the page. Once you’ve got down a basic draft, the revision can begin, and that’s when you get to invite your analytical mind to the process. Revision is where you can deepen characters, tighten the plot, and correct your abhorrent spelling mistakes.
How can you force your analytical brain to take a step back during the creative process? If analysis paralysis stymies you during the pre-writing phase, stop trying to get it all write. Make notes of your ideas, it doesn’t matter if they’re good or bad, don’t judge them, just get them down. Research if you must, but avoid becoming so overwhelmed by information that it smothers your idea. Research shouldn’t be evident in your story, it should inform your story.
Most people claim to suffer from analysis paralysis once they start writing and get frustrated that they’re not getting all the stuff into the story, or that as soon as they put down a word they start judging themselves. Try these remedies. If you type your draft on a computer then set the font to no colour and just allow yourself to write whatever comes. Not being able to see what you’ve written allows your brain to face a blank welcoming page instead of a critical one staring back at you with errors. If you write long-hand, tuck a piece of carbon paper between two sheets and write your story with a pen that’s run out of ink so that you can’t see what you’re writing. Afterwards, when you’ve got the whole story down you can go back and revise on the carbon copy. By freeing your mind from judgement you can allow your creative mind free reign, and let your story find its natural form, and avoid analysis paralysis.
I was pacing around the garden, admiring the blooming agapanthus and sipping a cup of tea, ruminating about things and finally settled on the South African stories that I read in New Contrast and New African Writing and then I considered some of the things that I haven’t written about. I don’t mean the gender-appropriate, or race and religious related literary no-no’s – I mean the ordinary every day things that happen in our country.
Nadine Gordimer recently accused South African writers of failing to write the stories that are happening now. A common cry from South African readers is that they don’t want to read another damn story that takes place during the transition from apartheid to post-apartheid.
In fairness, many of the local novels have themes that have moved beyond apartheid; but rainbow-nation-weary readers aren’t prepared to even read the blurb. And who can blame them, when they’re faced with international novels that completely convey them to another place, another time, another life.
I tried to consider some of the contemporary issues in our country and wondered who might be interested in hearing how repatriated refugees are tasered on the flights to their countries of origin, who might be intrigued by the porn-star whose daughter attended my own daughter’s private school and was rejected by her peers because the car-park mommies didn’t want their children attending a party at a porn palace. Such stories, who’d believe them, I thought to myself.
Living in South Africa is a challenge. I doubt there is a resident of South Africa who doesn’t have a crime story to tell. In less than twenty four hours I had been told about or the following stories: The home invasion where a woman watched a thug holding a gun to her son’s head; a grandmother who had to leave her job two years before pensionable age to look after her orphaned grandchildren; a woman was ambushed while driving under the bridge situated 2km from our house, killed by the thugs who dropped a cement slab onto her windscreen.
While these stories might appear on the daily broadsheets and on TV news, they’re not the subject matter I, nor any South African reader, I imagine, want to be clutching when we get into bed at night or when we’re waiting at an appointment. No, I want subject matter that transports me from the horror stories that punctuate daily life for many South Africans.
So where do I find the stories that I write; well personally, most of the last twenty stories I’ve written have not been set in South Africa, simply because I am a travel writer and travel has provided me with an opportunity to look for stories elsewhere. I grasp this opportunity with both hands because I find that when I’m writing about another place or about the people that inhabit them, I am able to get the critical distance that I don’t achieve as easily when writing about South Africa. I’ve written short stories set in Mauritius and Thailand and a novel set in Morocco. The short story collection I’m compiling at present is set in Egypt as is the novel I will begin working on in June. The novels I plan to write after that one is set in Singapore, and the one after that in Japan.
I don’t think for a minute that there aren’t wonderful, spirit-lifting stories to be told about South Africa; I just don’t believe that, at the moment, I can emotionally detach myself from the grime of the crime to polish up the pretty.