WRITER’S BLOCK: THE GREAT MYTH

Connie Fischer asked this question a few weeks ago: “I have enjoyed reading your books and love how the writing always flows so smoothly and keeps my interest all the way through. For your writing to have that effect on me, I have to ask if you’ve ever had writer’s block?

This may be a bit harsh toward other writers, and of course I can only really speak for myself, but I think the whole idea of writer’s block is a big myth. There is no such thing; it is just a fancy term for lack of discipline.

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I could say yes to the question every single day when I am working on a book, and I don’t exaggerate. No matter how well the story flowed yesterday and how eager I was then for today to come so that I could continue, today, now, my mind is blank. I don’t know where to start or how to start, and the whole story is rubbish, and I hate all the characters, and I have a load of washing to put in, and I should check my Facebook page to see how many people have “liked” my newest post, and–well, I really need a cup of coffee, and while I am up…..  If I give in to any of these daily urges,I may eventually decide that it is too late to do any writing today and I need to get my thoughts in order anyway. And the loss of one day is not really catastrophic. I’ll write double my quota tomorrow. The only trouble is that tomorrow I will go through exactly the same thing. No, not the same–worse. By tomorrow my confidence in the book will have been shaken by my doubts today. And soon I will convince myself that I have writer’s block and that will be a huge consolation because that is a genuine affliction and everyone will sympathize with me.

Now what I should have done on that very first day, and what I actually do ninety-nine-and-a-half times out of a hundred, is sit there in front of my computer and work on my mind until I can focus in. Often it is incredibly difficult to do because my mind (like most other people’s) is totally scattered. It flits over everything except the task in hand. Focusing in is a sort of pre-meditation exercise. I have no secret to how to do it and no formula. It is just a discipline, I think. I force my mind to narrow down to my two main characters. If possible, I hop right in to the mind of one of them and live the particular point in the story he/she has reached. I feel their feelings. And then I start writing. I can recall someone (I can’t remember who) at a conference many years ago telling the audience that when you can’t think how to begin your writing you should write anyway. It sounds totally absurd, but it works. Writing is my natural medium (more natural than talking). When I start to write, ideas flow and words come. Each day after I have wrestled with my demons (some days are worse than others) I get on with the story until my daily quota is done. These years that is 2000 words.

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Actually getting started, though, does not always mean moving ahead with the story. If that were so, I would be able to write a complete book in 50 days–my books are 100, 000 words long and I write seven days a week. In fact, they take on average four months or 120+ days. Sometimes that feeling that the story is rubbish and the characters rotten persists to a degree that I know there is something definitely wrong with what I have already written. Or sometimes the feeling returns quite powerfully after I have labored onward with some actual writing. Experience has taught me that I must stop–but not to go put that load of wash in, etc. I turn immediately back to page 1 and read through to find the problem. Occasionally it is in the plot. Usually it is in the characters. A number of people have asked me questions about character and I intend to devote a whole blog to answering those, maybe next time. But I will say here that since my stories are all told through the eyes and minds of the hero and heroine (alternately), I have to know them to the depth I know myself. And that understanding is not easy and does not come all at once. They always have layer upon layer of secrets that they give up to me only with great reluctance. And with each new discovery I have to go back through the whole story and make the necessary adjustments. Until I know everything, the story won’t work.

Writing requires a great deal of thought, of working things out like a puzzle, of making sure everything hangs together, that every detail is consistent with the rest, that the whole thing is plausible. Writing is hard work. That does not mean it is unpleasant. Quite the contrary. But no matter how well the story seems to flow when the finished book is in a reader’s hand, the writing of it is a bit like constantly sanding a very rough board until it is smooth enough to leave no slivers and to show no sign of the constant grind of the sander. There is too much to be done to allow for such nonsense as writer’s block! Focus in. Think. Write. As one writer friend of mine is fond of saying, “Butt on chair, fingers on keyboard.” A teacher can’t just walk out of the classroom at the start of a class claiming teacher’s block (though her students might be delighted). A surgeon can’t walk out of the operating room when the patient is anesthetized, claiming surgeon’s block. A bricklayer can’t….  Well, you get the message.

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To one person who leaves a comment below before the end of April I will send a signed copy of THE PROPOSAL. The winner last time was Tai Smith. Congratulations to her and thanks to everyone who left a comment. I always love reading them.

THE AUTHOR/PUBLISHER RELATIONSHIP

Here are a few more questions you asked a few weeks ago when I solicited them:

Mary T asked: “I am curious about the time lapse between when you complete writing a book and when it is published. Is it a decision that is made between you and the publisher, or is it out of your hands entirely? For instance, I was surprised that you did not decide on what cover would be used for your books.”

Julie-ann Ford asked: “How do you and your publisher determine how long it will take to write a book? Also, what do you do when a book just won’t let you finish it?”

These days writers don’t absolutely have to have a publisher. They can e-publish their own books and have successful careers without ever going near a publisher. Some self-published books are very good. A vast number are very bad. Some of the very bad ones (not all) might be made considerably better with the help of a good editor and publisher. I am not going to debate this topic, however, though it would make for a fascinating subject for someone with more specific knowledge than I have. For me, a publisher and an editor are essential. I could not–or, rather, I would not–do without them. I write the books, but they have all the expertise to make those books as perfect and as marketable as they can be. And I am firmly of this opinion this despite the fact that I sometimes have disagreements (even bitter ones) with my publishers, especially over covers.

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I have contracts with my publishers. One thing agreed upon is deadline dates for each of the books in the contract. I set those. I know that I take on average four months to write a book. I know too that I need time between books to air out my head, to catch up on everything that has been put on hold, and to dream up an idea for the next book. I don’t like to be rushed. I have never encountered the “deadline hell” so many writers talk about. I have never (so far) been late delivering a book or even on time. I am almost always a few months early. I have never had an editor who has prodded me to get on with it or put any sort of pressure on me. I have never sent any part of a book in advance to an editor. She sees it only when I have finished it. I find this part of the relationship very stress-free. Oh, and I have never encountered a book that will not let me finish it. A story has a definite “shape” in my mind, depending upon the number of words to which I have agreed in the contract (100, 000 at present). I won’t let the story get out of my control. When it is time to start shaping it downward toward the conclusion, down it goes! Thus I avoid abrupt endings because I have run out of words. I want a story to read as if it had been smooth and effortless to write, but behind the scenes a lot of wrestling goes on.

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I think many people assume (I probably did myself before I was published) that all a publisher has to do when a book comes in is set it in some sort of type, print out multiple copies, slap a cover on it, and send it out to the bookstores. Why, then, does it almost always take nine months to a year before the book is actually on sale? The (very busy) editor has to go carefully through the manuscript and suggest any changes she thinks will improve the story. The author then has to delve back into it to make the changes or at least to discuss them with the editor. Then a copyeditor has to go through the manuscript with a fine tooth comb, looking for errors and inconsistencies, repetitions, and anything else about the actual writing   that somehow bother her. She has to note everything on the manuscript, and then the author has to go through it to make the suggested corrections or to argue for what was there originally. Then, after the corrected manuscript has been prepared for the final printing, other copyeditors and the author have to go through it one more time looking for typos. The gremlins come in after that and make a few more shocking typos, but they are spotted only when it is too late for anyone but readers to notice them.

In the meantime, the editor in association with all sorts of other people at the publishing house, has to discuss numerous other points relating to the actual publishing of the book. The title has to be agreed upon. A cover has to be designed and cover copy has to be written. If the author has cover consultation rights, there can be some haggling here and occasionally a complete change of design. The publisher has to plan its list of books to be published for months, even years, in advance. A bestselling author needs to have a good “slot.” That is, it’s not a good idea to have several top authors of similar type of books all being published in the same month. The books have to be sold in to the various accounts and they need to be promoted and advertised and be given good shelf space. So choosing the exact publication month is not a random thing. Sometimes a book is held back a month or two so that it can get a better “slot” than originally planned. My upcoming book THE ESCAPE, for example, was originally planned for February, 2014. It was then moved back to May and finally to July. That is a bit of an extreme example, and I have not been happy about it, but the plus side is that the book after that, ONLY ENCHANTING, with my new publisher, NAL, will be out in November.

There are numerous other things that go on between the turning-in of a book and its appearance in a bookstore, but this probably gives you some idea of why the time span is so long. Publication dates are not mentioned in contracts, though there are usually some safeguards for the author so that a publisher cannot keep on delaying  the publishing forever. For example, part of the advance moneys may be due when the book is published OR no later than one year after the manuscript is submitted. This is a hypothetical example, but it does mean that it is in the financial interest of the publisher not to delay too long before getting something back in sales for the investment they have made.

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I will look forward to reading your comments below. To one randomly chosen person who comments before the end of Tuesday, April 15, I will send a signed copy of the two-in-one edition of THE TEMPORARY WIFE/A PROMISE OF SPRING. The last winner was Tina (last name still unknown at the moment). Congratulations to her, and thanks to everyone who commented upon Jessica Eissfeldt’s guest blog. Many thanks to Jessica too.

 

 

SWEPT AWAY: How Historical Fiction Takes You to Another World

By Jessica Eissfeldt

Note from Mary Balogh: Knowing that I have been too busy finishing writing my newest book to post any blog pieces lately, writer friend Jessica offered to write a guest blog for me. I was delighted! I hope to be back with a blog of my own next week as the book is finished. And thank you, Jessica!

Have you ever wanted to travel back in time? I know I have. And I think that’s why historical romance is so appealing.
Because whether you’re flipping the pages of a paper novel or touching the screen of your e-reader, the experience is the same. That experience of being so immersed in the story that it feels like you’re really there: strolling along in a moonlit rose garden with a duke, or taking tea in a lady’s finely appointed drawing room.
And if you’re the adventurous type (like me), perhaps you find yourself riding on a cable car in San Francisco, or exploring the canals of Venice in a gondola.
Whatever the tale, these new experiences are just waiting to be discovered; beckoning you, enticing you, entreating you to pause, to sit down and to spend time between the pages of a good book.

Image 22Books are companions. Ones who you can visit any time of the day or night, ones who can take you on far-flung journeys through time, no matter where you are.
In fact, I can remember when I traveled in Europe I stayed in different hostels along my route. And usually at each hostel there would be a shelf or two in the common room where I’d find dog-eared paperbacks or sturdy hardcovers.
And more often than not, on those shelves, there would be a liberal sprinkling of historical romances. Ones by authors like Mary Balogh or Nora Roberts, stories that create such a strong sense of connection within the reader to the characters, times and places presented in the books.
That’s the fun and the joy of reading a new novel, isn’t it? And when I read, in those hours curled up on the couch, I feel like I get to live the experiences of the heroine — her joys are mine; her sorrows are mine; and so by the end of the story, I feel like I’ve been a part of something grand, romantic, magical, mystical or maybe even mysterious.
Of course, there are also those tried and true comfort reads, as cozy as a warm blanket on a chilly night. Those stories that, though you know the ending by heart, you still love to read over and over because they wrap around you like a hug, familiar and dear. Like a great friend.
In fact, sometimes I’ve forged such a strong connection to the world inside the book I’ve just finished that it takes a little while for me to come back to myself and my surroundings. Sometimes I wish I could have just one more waltz on that parquet dance floor or one more moment galloping through the woods on horseback.

Image 12So that’s what I do. How? Well, maybe I’ll go visit a place mentioned in the story. Perhaps I’ll buy a piece of clothing that reminds me of the heroine. Or I might even spot an attractive man on the street who, to my eye, looks like the hero of the last story I just finished reading. That way, I can live a little longer inside the world of the novel.
How about you? What’s the latest romance you’ve gotten caught up in? Have you ever visited a place from a novel, or bought a piece of clothing that reminded you of one of your favorite heroines?

About the guest blogger, Jessica Eissfeldt:

Jessica’s readers share that they are inspired by the dreamy and nostalgic feel of her fiction and love the romantic, magical imagery. Her fiction has been published in both the U.S. and Canada. She holds a degree in English literature and journalism and lives in Canada. www.jessicaeissfeldt.com

To one randomly chosen person who makes a comment below before the end of Monday, March 31, Mary Balogh will send a signed copy of her two-in-one edition of A COUNTERFEIT BETROTHAL/THE NOTORIOUS RAKE.

The Winner Is…

The winner of the signed copy of SIMPLY LOVE offered in my last blog piece is Geraldine Wentzell. Congratulations to her and thank you to all who left comments. I really enjoy reading them and just wish I could give the prize to everyone!

I have to stop blogging for a while–perhaps two or three weeks. I just don’t have time for it. Why?

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Well, actually it is not Facebook that is the problem. I can keep up with that in short bursts several times a day. But finding the time and energy to write a blog piece is too difficult at the moment, especially the energy part. I am close to finishing a book and need to concentrate on it. So–I’ll finish first and then try the blogging again.

It is Book 5 of the Survivors’ Club series that I am working on–Ralph’s story, tentatively called THE BARGAIN. Book 3, THE ESCAPE (Ben’s story), will be out in July and Book 4, ONLY ENCHANTING (Flavian’s story) in November.

WALKING A MILE IN ANOTHER’S SHOES

This was Barbara Jackson‘s question: “Your experience as an English teacher must have something to do with your ability to write such cohesive books with such interesting characters–ones that the reader can relate to as if they were real people. Therefore, my question is: Do you feel this way as well, or do you have another explanation?”

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Having been an English major and an English teacher and a lifelong reader has certainly helped me as a writer. The English language is something I love and understand can use with relative ease. I am not a speed reader. Indeed, according to an on-line test I did a few days ago, I read 13% more slowly than the average reader. I am not surprised. Although there are certainly books that grab me and have me racing for the end just so that I can find out what happens, in the main I read to savor the story and the characterization and the style and the author’s voice. As I writer, I use language and style to create all the elements that I hope will draw readers in and keep them in.

However, my main focus as a writer is always character and the development of a love story. And it is in the understanding of character and the ability to identify with all kinds of people that I believe I have been specially gifted. Perhaps it comes of being an introvert or preferring to watch people than to occupy center stage myself, but I do have the ability to put myself into other people’s skin, to understand who they are, to know what it is like to BE them. I used to assume that everyone can do this, but I know from my experiences as a teacher of literature that it is not so. I do my character creation almost entirely from imagination and very little from research. I put myself inside the character and live the story from the inside out. It is always a relief to hear from readers that I have got a particular type of character just right. I heard from a blind lady recently. She asked me how I had got the blind Vincent’s character so right in THE ARRANGEMENT. When I wrote my deaf heroine in SILENT MELODY, I did not know that my editor at the time had a deaf daughter. She was able to tell me that I had got the character right. I do not know any blind or deaf people, but I know instinctively what it must feel like. I do not look for the handicap, the disability, though. I look for the particular ability that is different from the norm.

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The secret to writing compelling characters, though, I think, is not just to get the details right, but to get deep into the soul. And to do that, once I feel I know everything there is to know about the character, I usually ask the same question: where is his/her pain? There is pain in all of us. Often finding it is the key to understanding. And once I have the key, then I can unlock all the carefully repressed secrets and set about finding a way for the character to be healed so that he/she can be whole and able both to love and to be loved–and (in many ways most important) can love him/herself.

The character understanding and development and the love story are all one and the same in my books. I LOVE that Hafiz quotation above. I love uncovering the darkness at the depth (and sometimes not so deep) of my characters and bringing them into the light of wholeness and happiness and love.

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To one person who leaves a comment below before the end of Friday, February 21, I will send a copy of SIMPLY LOVE, which has two of my most wounded characters. It will have to be the British edition of the book–I don’t have a picture of that specific cover, I’m afraid. The winner of my post two weeks ago is Kathy Gearin. Congratulations to her, and thanks to all of you who left a comment.