Writer’s Block — Does it Actually Exist?

Writer's blockI’ll get straight to the point: No, it doesn’t.

At least, not in the way in which people think it does. In my opinion, the theory that writers sometimes sit in front of a blank screen and are unable to have any words come to them through seemingly sheer randomness is a fallacy.

But that’s wrong! I hear you say. I’ve had writer’s block loads of times! No, you haven’t. You’ve had a problem with your book. Let me explain.

Writer’s block, as a specific concept, is described by Wikipedia as a condition “in which an author loses the ability to produce new work”. This concept, on its own, just does not exist as far as I can see. Rather, I’d suggest that the inability to start, continue with or complete a writing project is actually due to a number of different problems. Writer’s block is not the problem; it’s a symptom of the real underlying problem.

So what are these underlying problems?

1. Poor planning
Many writers pride themselves in being ‘pantsers’ — that is, they don’t plan and instead like to fly by the seat of their pants, writing freely. If you often get stuck and find yourself unable to complete a piece of work while writing in this style, I’ve got news for you: you’re not a pantser. That’s absolutely fine; I’m not either. That’s why I write murder mysteries, which require an awful lot of planning.

A number of times I’ve got stuck halfway through books because I’ve not planned carefully enough. Whether you choose to use the snowflake method, beats or any other form of planning, try to plan your novel by starting first with a one-sentence description, then build it out to a synopsis of one or two A4 pages. After this, flesh it out into chapters, scenes and beats. By the time this is done, you’ll have your complete novel and will only need to write the prose.

2. Procrastination
If you’re still stuck, your problem might be procrastination. Again, that’s fine; I’m a procrastinator at heart too. Writing a novel (or even a chapter) can seem like a daunting process, which is why the process of breaking it down into small, manageable chunks can be hugely beneficial. Set yourself achievable daily targets and you’ll find that you’re soon well on your way to a finished novel.

Story gone dry3. The story’s gone dry
If you insist on pantsing and still get stuck, or if you’ve planned all your beats and find them difficult to write, you’ve probably let the story go dry. In short, it’s not interesting enough. This is your story, and if you’re bored with it you can be sure as hell that an anonymous reader is going to be pretty damn fed up by this point. For a reader to even take to your story, it’s got to really get your adrenaline going as its writer.

4. Lack of ideas
This is not strictly the same thing as the concept of writer’s block, but is another underlying cause of that symptom. Fortunately, ideas come to me very easily and I have notebooks stacked full of them, most of which will be potential novels (yes, my problem is procrastination) but for many people this isn’t the case.

Watch more television and films, read more books, play more computer games. I’m not suggesting you steal plots from anywhere else but I’ve personally found that the smallest little aspect of a film, TV show or book can spark something in my own mind, whether it be a particular character trait, location or perhaps your own personal theory as to whodunnit (as long as you were wrong, of course, as otherwise you’d just be copying the original).

So next time you’re sure you’ve got writer’s block, take a look at the four classic underlying causes and ask yourself which of them it really is. Once you’ve got that sorted, you’ll be well on your way to productive writing once again.

Guest Post by Gilli Allan — Why I Make My Life Difficult

It’s always a pleasure to hand my blog over to a guest for the day to write about their writing process or something connected with their work. More than anything, it saves me from having to do much at all… Today I hand over to Gilli Allan.

Gilli AllanGilli Allan started to write in childhood, a hobby only abandoned when real life supplanted the fiction. Gilli didn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge but, after just enough exam passes to squeak in, she attended Croydon Art College.

She didn’t work on any of the broadsheets, in publishing or television. Instead she was a shop assistant, a beauty consultant and a barmaid before landing her dream job as an illustrator in advertising. It was only when she was at home with her young son that Gilli began writing seriously. Her first two novels were quickly published but when her publisher ceased to trade, Gilli went independent.

Over the years, Gilli has been a school governor, a contributor to local newspapers, and a driving force behind the community shop in her Gloucestershire village.  Still a keen artist, she designs Christmas cards and has begun book illustration. Gilli is particularly delighted to have recently gained a new mainstream publisher – Accent Press. TORN is the first book to be published in the three book deal.


Or, why do I insist on ripping away the rose-tinted glasses?

Well, I blame my parents – they’re always in the firing line when trying to rationalise failings or problems in life, aren’t they?  But I also blame Dostoevsky.

My parents were both artists – father in advertising, mother an amateur painter – and I inherited a facility for art. When I was growing up, despite my main hobby being writing, I knew where I was headed. My writing wasn’t discouraged, but it was disregarded.

Romances, and in particular teenage girls’ comics, were looked down on in my family. They weren’t forbidden, and I did occasionally buy and read one, but not often and I didn’t flaunt them. I’d received the very strong impression that I should be above ‘that sort of thing’, so they remained a secret but rather guilty pleasure. And if proper published romance was silly – however enjoyable – then whatever I wrote as an adolescent, had to be the ultimate in soppy and juvenile.

My older sister was devoted to Georgette Heyer. She even tried to write her own. Her route to Regency Romance was via Jane Austen; consequently it was an acceptable habit. I read them all, of course, and I also read Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre, but although I enjoyed them, I was never driven to emulate the classic historical romance.  Nor did I want to write a category romance of the time, in which heroes were always rich and powerful (and a touch arrogant), heroines always virginal and beautiful (and a bit sappy), and sex had no consequences.

When I was 15, I read Crime & Punishment and fell in love with Dostoevsky’s ‘hero’, the impoverished student, Rodion Raskolnikov. This was not entirely the start, but it certainly confirmed me in my growing obsession with the flawed and suffering hero. And what greater flaw can a hero have than a Napoleon Complex which drives him to murder two old ladies with a chopper? And following the deed, Raskolnikov certainly suffers – as he should. My own stories were not about murder, but they did depart quite dramatically from the romance clichés of the time, introducing darker themes and more angst-ridden protagonists.

I stopped writing when real life started happening – i.e. Art College, boyfriends, job as an illustrator and marriage. With the birth of my son I began to debate what I could do from home.  I lit on the idea of writing a Mills & Boon.  I confess and apologise that I still retained that slight prejudice I’d been brought up with; I’d read only a few over the years, and thought it would be easy. It’s not easy. I admire the authors who can do it. But my intention to write a conventional romance was subverted from the first page. Had the experience been less enjoyable I might have tried harder to drag the plot back onto the straight and narrow. Apart from introducing a few ‘piercing glances’,  and ‘melting’ moments my first complete novel went its own way.  That book was published and the die was cast.

I don’t think it’s possible to be narrow-minded if you’re a writer because you’re always looking for the reasons behind the behaviour. I don’t mean justifying it, just observing and wondering why. I may always have a love story at the heart of my books, but the protagonists are not necessarily drop-dead gorgeous paragons. They are ordinary people with faults and failings, who carry the burden of past mistakes.  Modern life can be messy and there are temptations and booby-traps lying in wait for most of us. For me, it’s the mistakes, trip-ups and falling short of your own or others’ expectations, which make the story.

I wish, in a way, that I could write what I’m told the public wants. I’d sell a lot more books.  It’s indisputable – light, frothy, amusing, predictable romantic fiction is what is bought and read more than almost anything else. But there’s a bug in me that needs to rip away those rose-tinted glasses.

Unconventional, contemporary fiction, with a grown-up love story at its heart, Gilli’s latest book, TORN, is published by Accent Press and is available on Amazon here.

Jess has made a series of bad life choices and all have let her down.

Escaping London, she sets out to recreate herself in the idyllic countryside, and this time she wants to get it right! She wants to lead a responsible, tranquil life with her young son Rory, but soon discovers stresses which pull her in opposing directions – conflict over a new bypass, between friends, and worst of all, between lovers.

Educated, experienced, and pragmatic, James is a widowed farmer whose opinions  differ from, and enrage, Jess. His young shepherd, Danny, is an uneducated and inexperienced idealist. Jess is attracted to them both, and realizes if she wants her idyllic countryside life to survive, she must choose her Mr Right.

To connect with Gilli Allan:

http://twitter.com/gilliallan  (@gilliallan)



The 10 Commandments of Detective Fiction

Back in 1929, Ronald Knox created the Decalogue or Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction, which authors of the Golden Age such as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Ngaio Marsh largely adhered to. Although many of the rules are logical, some of them seem plain bizarre in 2015. So, are the Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction still relevant today?

1. The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.

This is a rule which has been broken by Queen of Crime Agatha Christie amongst others and frankly it’s not getting the Ten Commandments off to a good start. If handled carefully, this is a device which can work extremely well.

Having an unreliable narrator is not the cop-out many would claim. There are a number of very viable reasons for using the device, including the narrator suffering from severe mental illness such as post-traumatic stress disorder, the narrator using the narration as a device (a nice twist on the concept) or plain obfuscation by the narrator. The latter is the least credible, but again it depends on the narrator’s reasons for doing so.

2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.

I personally lean towards agreeing with this, although I do often like to throw a paranormal aspect into my books (or, rather, my character Ellis Flint does as he’s often tempted by the lazy paranormal explanation when things are seemingly unexplainable).

The issue here is that by allowing the paranormal to be a viable explanation the author runs the risk of straying into deus ex machina territory, which in the world of detective fiction is pure laziness.

3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.

This is a very odd rule. Secret anythings are risky, particularly if they’re held back right until the end when the mystery is revealed. I’m a fan of trickling all the information through to the reader so that when the mystery is revealed they could have quite easily figured it out for themselves — but, of course, I try to ensure that they don’t.

So should there be a limit on secret rooms or passages? No, of course not. Once they’re revealed they’re no longer secret and whilst they’re secret they should fall under the same rules of withholding clues that anything else would.

4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.

The unwieldy scientific explanation is sure to bore the reader, particularly if it means they wouldn’t have been able to work it out for themselves without a PhD in Chemistry. Inventing your own poisons is also a bit of a con as far as I’m concerned, and again strays into deus ex machina territory.

5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.

I’m fairly sure I don’t need to explain why this rule is severely outdated.

6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.

This is another rule I’m unsure of. Accidents can certainly be used, again as long as they don’t stray into deus ex machina territory. An abstract accident (one which doesn’t actually reveal the solution to the detective but instead leads him or her to some form of lateral thinking) is certainly permissible as far as I’m concerned.

As for intuition, Kempston Hardwick is certainly a man of intuition but I never let this stand alone. He might well often have inklings which lead him to investigate a certain area/person/aspect of the crime but this should not be a bad thing. After all, it’s how real detectives work and how real human beings operate.

7. The detective himself must not commit the crime.

This ties in heavily to rule 1 and is effectively built upon the bedrock of the device known as the unreliable narrator. Handled carefully (in the same manner as the general unreliable narrator device), this device is perfectly permissible and has been used to great effect by some of detective fiction’s biggest names.

8. The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.

This is quite vague and ambiguous, but in general I’d tend to agree in terms of not withholding things from the reader (unless there’s a very good reason to do so and it’s handled very carefully. See Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl for a masterclass in this).

9. The “sidekick” of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.

Two quite distinct rules here, I think. Firstly, the sidekick isn’t even necessary but is certainly very handy for a number of reasons (that’s a blog post for another day). In terms of withholding thoughts, I’d refer to rule 8.

With regards to the intelligence of the sidekick, there’s a very good psychological reason for having the detective’s intelligence being higher than average and the sidekick’s slightly lower. But how do you know the intelligence of your reader? Affinity with characters is the most important thing, and a lovable fool (like Ellis Flint) can add wonderful depth as a sidekick.

10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

‘Unless we have been duly prepared for them’ is the key here. Simply unveiling the twin/double line at the end without having set up the possibility beforehand strays into deus ex machina territory.

It’s a device I’ve used in one of my books before but the possibility and a big clue was firmly planted early on in the book, meaning that the reader could easily have formed the theory themselves, had they spotted the clue.

The Murder Mystery Writing Process: How Do Writers Do It?

As a murder mystery writer myself, I’ve long been fascinated by the ways in which different writers create their mysteries and plots.

Lesley CookmanI’ve read and re-read John Curran’s books which explore and analyse Agatha Christie’s notebooks and have read a lot about how other famous mystery writers constructed their plots and characters and have long wanted to do a bit more digging into the psyche of the modern-day mystery writer.

So, starting today, here’s the first of a series of ongoing interviews with some of the finest mystery writers of our generation, telling us all about how they go about crafting their work.

First up is Lesley Cookman, a British mystery writer best known for her Libby Serjeant series of books, which I can highly recommend.

How do ideas for stories come to you? What’s your usual starting point and how does that process become a first draft?

Sometimes something I’ve experienced personally, heard on the radio or seen on television, and more frequently these days, my eldest son will tell me of a scenario he has come across which mught be a good starting point. He’s a great ideas man!

Then it’s a question of trying to shoehorn the idea into a story for my regular set of characters. Usually the basic idea has to be given a “Murder” title and left to stew while I get on with the current one, as I work in three book contracts.

What about your initial draft? Do you have a set structure or are you less organised?

Each book has just one Word document.

And how much planning do you do before you write the first words? Do you have all of your beats and the story arc in place or do you start writing and see where you go? Is this in a linear fashion or do you write endings/middles first?

I have to write the beginning of the next book at the end of the current one, which means it’s more-or-less set in stone, but then it’s just plunge in and see what happens. Always, linear, though.

How rigidly do you stick to the initial plan, if you have one at all?

I don’t!

So do you usually know who whodunnit beforehand or do you leave this unplanned?

I have been known to change the murderer at the last minute, so it always makes me hoot when a reader tells me they spotted him/her right at the beginning!

What effects does that have on editing? If you don’t plan who the killer is or have to change it, does this leave you with lots of loose ends to tie up? 

No, it all seems to tie itself up — at least until my editor has a go at it.

How long does each stage of writing a book tend to take you?

I write two books a year, with occasional other bits and pieces, so a book takes about six months to write.

And finally, what’s your typical writing day like? Is there one?

Not really, although I tend to do emails, social media, and guest posts like this one in the morning, along with any household chores I simply can’t get out of, then spend the afternoon writing. As the deadline gets nearer I’ll spend longer each day — panicking, mostly.

Huge thanks go to Lesley for agreeing to reveal her writing process and habits with us. Please do check out her books and watch this space for further insights into the minds of murder mystery writers…


5 Mistakes to Avoid When Writing a Murder Mystery

5ee8ed9b31afa69196184793_640Writing a murder mystery is a tricky business. It’s unlike writing most other genres of book in that it generally either requires a lot of careful planning and plotting or one hell of an editing process. I tend to prefer the former.

The rules with regards to writing murder mysteries are well publicised (and I have my own thoughts and views on these, which I’ll come to in a later post) but very few murder mystery novels are ruined through omission. On the contrary, including a real humdinger of an error can throw an entire novel out of kilter (and, more often than not, into the bin). Here are 5 mistakes to avoid when writing  your next murder mystery…

1. Ensure your killer isn’t guessable
This might sound blindingly obvious, but you’d be amazed at how many writers forget this. They go in for plot twists and building suspense and believe that the action will save them from the fact that their killer is easy to guess. I know. I’ve been there myself. But if that’s the case, you’ve got to admit that you’re not writing a murder mystery; you’re writing a thriller.

A good rule of thumb is to make sure that everyone could’ve done it. Either that or as many people as possible. Blast open the avenues of suspicion and ensure that every character either has a motive, means or opportunity. Create marks of suspicion, as I like to call them, ensuring that no character is completely innocent. If any character should seem completely innocent, it should probably be your killer.

When you give your book to your alpha/beta readers (which you should always do), omit the section where the killer is unveiled and ask them to guess who the killer is or to order the suspects by their likelihood of having done it. If your killer’s near the top of this list, you’ve got some work to do. Leaving three or four viable killers at the end means you can easily change this if you need to.

2. Don’t crowd us with suspects
There’s a fine line between having enough viable suspects to make it difficult to guess the killer and flooding us with names and characters simply to hide poor mystery plotting.

Some mystery writers introduce so many new characters in the first chapter that readers have trouble keeping up. Make sure your characters are distinct, speak differently and act differently. Also ensure their names are different in order to help readers differentiate between them. Don’t forget: even though you may know your characters inside out, this is the first time we’ve met them. It’s akin to being thrown into a huge party where you know nobody.

A good rule of thumb is to write out the alphabet from A-Z and every time you name a character, write their name next to the letter it begins with. That letter’s now taken, so if you name a character John and later want to introduce a Joanne, you’d better just call her Emma or Brenda.

3. Tie up EVERY loose end. No dead-end red herrings!
The concept of the red herring is grossly misunderstood by many new mystery writers. It’s not simply a dud plot line or device you can chuck in to throw the reader off their scent. If a character regularly visits the grave of a murder victim, disappeared from home in the dead of night at the time of the murder or did a runner and skipped the country shortly after, make sure you can explain why.

Tie up all these loose ends and either ensure that every clue is either directly linked to the murder or has a logical explanation which ties in to the resolution. Keep it plausible and explain everything. Dead-end red herrings can infuriate a reader more than most other things in a murder mystery.

4. Make sure we know the killer
The revelation of the killer will mean absolutely nothing if it’s someone we haven’t been introduced to earlier. We should meet the killer early in the book and at least have a passing familiarity with him or her in order to be surprised when they’re revealed.

Think of the murder stories you read about in the newspaper. If you read that a man you’ve never heard of has been arrested for a murder, would you be at all interested or surprised? Not much, probably. But what if it was your friend Mark or the bloke who runs the local chippy? Or the guy who works in your local pub who you vaguely recognise? Even this sort of passing familiarity with a person can blow the effect of the reveal of the killer into epic proportions.

5. Never underestimate your reader
There will always be readers who guess the killer. Even if you’ve got 20 real suspects (and that’s quite a few), you’d only need 20 people to read the book and by law of averages someone will have guessed who the killer was.

This is why you need to be extra careful to mask your murderer and throw a spanner into the works which means they could not possibly have done it. Of course, this will need to be explained at the end as, naturally, all will not have been as it seems.

Agatha Christie was an absolute master of this type of deception. If you haven’t already done so, read And Then There Were None. This is a masterclass in showing you how the impossible killer can become very, very possible indeed.