When the well is dry…
When the well is dry where do you go for water?
You know I have spent many years mishearing songs and making up what I thought were the lyrics. Sometimes they’re a great deal more meaningful than the real thing – or at least to me.
I heard Peter Sarsted’s ‘Where do you go to my lovely’ as ‘where do you go to my lovely, when you’re alone in your head’ (not bed)…
To me, anyway, as writer who tells himself stories, whether he intends to or not, with the different characters speaking their dialogue and thinking their thoughts… being alone in my head is a very frightening thing.
Where did they all go? Why did they leave me behind? Was it something I said?
Or was it something they said, and I forgot to write down?
Look jokes aside, this ‘empty well’ is something that hits all of us – yes me too, from time to time. Crisis, unhappiness, fear, stress … I recall some of my Left wing acquaintances and friends bemoaning that they couldn’t write after the last elections (they got over it, mostly it seems by writing forms of the Handmaiden’s Tale, featuring a lead villain with an orange squirrel on his head. The problem now seems to be finding customers.) I came home after dealing with a fairly tragic Ambo case (no one died, it was just tragic and avoidable) and being unable to get it out of my head to make space for the characters for days – I kept going back to it. Barbs or my kids being sick hurt or in danger does the same.
It doesn’t have to be anything important or deep or profound, though. Several authors – myself, Sarah, and other friends, have found ourselves at ‘battle fatigue’: you’ve worked your guts out for years and years, jumped through every hoop the industry sets you, coped with zero support, non-existent publicity and marketing by sheer effort, written at least as good (if not better) books than have got their authors plaudits and, more importantly, real rewards… and got a royalty check riddled with errors, late, and for a derisory sum – man, it’s not that there’s no water in the well, it’s just some bastard stole the bucket, and you’re dipping the end of the rope in, hauling it up and sucking it.
But… well, if this is your career – you have to find that water, or watch your career die. Now, there is no one easy answer. The problems causing this drying up are varied, so the solutions are too.
Not all of them work for me all the time, and I very much doubt that any two people have precisely the same ‘cures’. I suspect, however, that all of them START in the same place: in the head. That’s where the story come from, that’s where the characters talk. For me, anyway, that’s a very small brain, and that means it only has space for one primary focus. When I start calling my wife by the heroine’s name (because if you’re a heterosexual male and you aren’t at least a little in love with your heroine… you’re not doing this right) I might be in trouble (not as deep as if it was the villainess’s name) but I’ve got my bucket right down into the well and its full. I will probably have it poured over my head, shortly, but that goes with the territory.
When I forget a character’s name… I should write something else. Or go back to the start. But that’s a tangent, merely a symptom… what I need to do is clear the head-space. This may vary for you, but if something is really preying on my mind only either sorting it out or purge-distraction (something that takes ALL my concentration. Diving. Climbing. Shooting – for me. I can imagine skydiving or surfing or driving really fast might work for someone else.)
Inbetwixt… I find a good book, preferably something my conscience can call research, but sometimes just a straight comfort read is a good move. A walk or a defined period of gardening (defined, with alarm – or it could just go all day) both work if I am stuck, but not dry. I noodle away at the story during that down time. But if my mind is too pre-occupied… it spends that time thinking about something other than the book.
If it is something minor (FAR more often the case. I am too easily distracted) I have a simple ‘zone’ ritual. One game of freecell in a fixed time – the time it takes my chosen ‘book-song’ to play – about 3 minutes in general. As fast as possible is the target. It’s a stupid ritual – but it works for me… provided I follow through with step 2.
Step 2: As soon as humanly possible, read the last page, and start typing – even if that means skipping ahead to a scene which I planned for later. Getting rolling, getting back into the story is what counts. That’s – for me – easier if it is an action scene, or repartee. Action works well… but repartee- fast moving dialogue – gets the characters talking in my head.
That’s about it. The water IS there. Sometimes reading something I enjoy brings it bubbling to the surface.
Of course there is always the issue of ‘dealing with it’ – especially if it’s frustration with the industry, or your own ability that is worrying you. I tend to stay away from Amazon reviews (although mine seem to be generally positive) and the money side can seriously disheartening. Some of the accounting practices are… interesting, and it is quite hard to assess – and if you bust your publisher (who could well be being done over by the distributor)… you may get the money, but you probably won’t sell to them again. What I do do is put the books in big glass front cupboard in my office. That is part of my ‘motivation’ – because it is something solid and tangible. I did that. I can do it again. Going Indy – and seeing sales has also helped. And so has… well, anger. Because sometimes the only way to find that water is the sheer determination to prove the bastards trying grind you down…
Wrong. Nil carborundum illigitimi!
So: what works for you? Dowsing twigs? Tantric sex? Whippings with a liquorice bootlace?