How to beat writer’s block into submission


How to beat writer’s block into submission

Books editor DEBORAH STEINMAIR thinks authors sometimes lower the bar or carefully follow a recipe to keep writing (and selling). The product is like candyfloss: light, sweet and fleeting.


SOMETIMES writers' words dry up. Writer's block. It's a problem that is unique to people. Bots never get writer's block. I read that artificial intelligence (“machine-generated drivel") accounts for up to 10% of Google search results.

I read a wonderfully entertaining article on LitHub which I can sum up like this: writers get blocked because they feel an elevated calling, they feel they have an important message to bring to humanity, one that no one else can articulate. It's a huge responsibility that rests heavily on their shoulders. The writer's advice: forget it. You're not the Messiah. Lower the bar. Just write. Writers also sometimes feel guilty because they realise they are writing in order to be seen, accepted and loved. It's perfectly okay, he says, don't pathologise this motivation — it's an engine that drives creativity. Just write.

Sometimes I pick up a book and notice: the author tried too hard to write according to a certain winning recipe. It's too contrived and hits all the right chords. Sometimes I read a book where I can see: the author's words dried up but they kept writing, lowering the bar.

I'm going to tell you about three thrillers I've read. In these days of politicking, wars, natural disasters, mass murder and water scarcity, I like to escape into fictional predicaments. If I don't talk about these three books soon, I'm not going to remember anything about them. It is often like this with thrillers. They convey no great and lofty message to humanity, one devours them for instant gratification, like chocolates and chips.

Lees hierdie artikel in Afrikaans:

Boarding school blues

The Four by Ellie Keel makes me wonder if I've become too old for school and boarding school stories. But no, we still read about Harry Potter and Holden Caulfield, after all.

This book paints a bleak picture of a fancy school, private, exclusive, with grounds reminiscent of Oxford and Cambridge colleges. Four brilliant, underprivileged children won scholarships to go there and live in the boarding house. Of course, they are isolated and mercilessly bullied by the snobbish, privileged, spoilt brats. The four of them form a close friendship. One child in particular is truly eccentric and her life story reads like a thriller, almost as bad as Jude's in A Little Life. Pupils die on the school grounds and things start to get ugly.

All sorts of old secrets and mischiefs covered up for the sake of the school's good name tumble from the closet. It's entertaining and tense and you'll forget it as soon as you finish it. But it offers welcome escape.

The Four by Ellie Keel was published by HarperCollins and costs R400 at Exclusive Books.

Twisted triangle

This is a gripping thriller in the domestic noir category. Ann is kind of a loser, or rather, life has passed her by. She went to university and was focused on her profession when her mother fell ill and her two married sisters decided that as a single person she should go to live with her mother and take care of her. She really loved her mother and sacrificed everything to assist her. After her mother's death, she is lost. Moreover, her sisters decide to sell the mother's house, leaving her homeless. Fortunately, she meets Justin: a slightly older, deadly handsome and wealthy man. Hormones and pheromones dance a jig and they start a relationship.

Justin sadly neglected to tell her that he has a wife who has a mysterious illness and has been in a coma for two years. The doctors do not give her any chance of recovery. Well, life goes on. Ann and Justin start a relationship and he takes care of her financially. She soon moves into his mansion under the pretext that she is the nanny. She forms a strong bond with his little daughter and everything looks like a fairy tale. Until his wife, Deborah (ouch), responds to new, expensive medication, wakes up and recovers. Fully. She's coming home.

What puzzles me is that Ann stays on in the house (okay, she's flat broke) and watches as the love between Justin and Deborah begins to blossom again. Of course, he still has his way with Ann in the attic room, too. He convinces her that he and Deborah have no physical relationship, until Deb becomes pregnant. Suddenly, the cracks in Justin's personality begin to show. But where will poor Ann go?

In addition, she and Deborah become confidantes and close friends. Upon reading about such a precarious, impossibly convoluted situation, my own life seems simple, clean and carefree. Read it for yourself to see what happens.

In Her Place by Edel Coffey was published by Little, Brown and costs R412 at Exclusive Books.

Overstaying her welcome

The last book is by one of the stars on the domestic noir scene: BA Paris. This one I found contrived. Remember, there is the tradition of the unreliable narrator but I sometimes wonder if there shouldn't be limits.

Iris and Gabriel's marriage has been in trouble ever since he came across a dying young man in a quarry. Charlie Ingram was well known to the family. He went riding his bike and fell in. Gabriel, a doctor, can't do anything for him, holds his hand and hears his dying words. He decides not to reveal the words, telling police Charlie said, “Tell Mom I love her." What he said is more or less the opposite of that.

Gabriel is now guilt-ridden and he clams up, withdrawing from everyone, including Iris. They go on holiday to reconcile, to no avail. Arriving home, they find an old friend from France has moved into their home. Like Goldilocks, she sleeps in their bed, wears Iris's clothes and moves their furniture. Her heart was broken when her husband, their close friend Pierre, revealed that he had a daughter with another woman. She's clingy and emotionally needy and she exhausts them. She stays for months. Such a lingering is a waking nightmare.

Then two murders happen, or three, and ugly secrets from the past crawl out from under the rug. It's like a train crash that you can't look away from. Warning: the ending didn't convince me. But it's fascinating reading.

The Guest by BA Paris was published by Hodder & Stoughton and costs R430 at Exclusive Books.

I salute these writers who kicked writer's block in the chin and kept going. I have never managed to write a book that readers find irresistible, but I am paying attention and one day I will try again.

What are we listening to?

Roberta Flack sings Killing Me Softly With His Song:

♦ VWB ♦

BE PART OF THE CONVERSATION: Go to the bottom of this page to share your opinion. We look forward to hearing from you.

Speech Bubbles

To comment on this article, register (it's fast and free) or log in.

First read Vrye Weekblad's Comment Policy before commenting.