Writers are often asked where they find their inspiration. ‘How on earth did you come up with that idea? I wouldn’t know where to start!’
For me, the ideas don’t flow until I begin writing, one thought then leading to another. I don’t know everything before I start, how could I? And would I still want to write the book if I did? Part of the fun, and the magic, is finding out what might happen as I get to know my characters, the possibilities seemingly endless. And perhaps that’s the writer’s main job, sifting the good from the bad to decide what should end up on the page, a series of decisions that refine and hone, taming the unwieldy beast.
Every writer has their own process, but mine often begins with a story told to me by someone I know. I don’t ever use the tale in its entirety, but will retain an element that’s captured my imagination and stays with me, ideas turning in my head for months, even years. A useful barometer of a story’s weight is whether there’s a killer hook, a one or two sentence pitch that will entice readers and make them desperate to read my book.
In Close To Me, my debut psychological suspense published in April 2017 by Wildfire (a new imprint of Headline Publishing), the question is ‘What if you lost your memory of the last year and those closest to you were not telling you the truth about what happened?’ The hook is so important, not only to readers, but also to me as I write. It focuses my mind on the central issue and the themes I hope to explore, ensuring the book remains on-track, a safety net when I’m in danger of losing my way. Writing a hundred thousand words requires determination and focus, so a killer hook is my first step in planning that epic journey.
Whether I allow inspiration to take the lead, or decide to map out the main plot arcs before I begin, there will invariably come a point when I doubt the story, or my ability to write it, or both. Is it good enough? Will I have enough to say? Will anyone care? Writing is such a huge leap of faith and as writers we tend to be that strange and sometimes toxic mix of confidence and fragility, at least I am. I begin with hope, if not expectation, one word at a time.
Sometimes the words will flow freely, fingers nimble across the keyboard, the hours dissolving into one another as the daylight seeps away, loved ones neglected, myself too. Other days the process is laborious, the self-doubt a looming presence that slows my brain and those previously industrious fingers. The idea is no longer good enough, the shine it once exuded dulled to an unattractive opaqueness, illusive and worn out, the passion of that early honeymoon period extinguished on reaching the thirty-thousand-word mark, or sometimes sooner.
I find it helpful in the slumps to remember that it is all part of the process, a process I have now proved to myself does eventually work. Finishing a first draft is key, if I can do that then I can start to edit and improve, but without a completed draft it’s impossible to know what it was I was trying to say and whether I’ve begun to achieve that.
There are lots practical things a writer can employ to help themselves out of a writing slump, the most obvious, and perhaps most helpful suggestion, although it may feel counterintuitive, is to take a break. It’s all well and good to have a strong work ethic, maybe a target word count each day, or an expectation of how much time you should be in-touch with your work-in-progress, but efficient working is about more than words produced or the number of hours spent welded to your desk chair.
I try to get out under the sky, walking my two dogs every day. It’s amazing how the subconscious works out a knotty bit of plot when you allow it to take control for an hour or two, and often when you have no means to write the clever solution down! Displacement or complementary activities, such as reading, also feed the brain, and inspiration is often found in the work of others. Reading The Great Gatsby again, or anything by Kate Atkinson, always stirs me to up my game.
A writer friend and I once discussed these periods of so-called procrastination and decided they are a necessary part of the process. Writing happens even when words are not being committed to the page. It’s important, even in the feverish period of early activity, to live a life beyond the manuscript, because every experience will add something to the work-in-progress. So, if an invitation comes my way, I try to take it, because one day I will almost certainly write about it, and then someone will ask where my ideas come from and I will have an interesting anecdote to share.
Amanda Reynolds lives in the Cotswolds with her husband. They have two grown-up children and two dogs. In the spaces between writing novels she teaches creative writing classes and runs writing retreats. Her debut novel, a psychological suspense entitled Close To Me, will be published in April 2017 by Headline’s newest imprint Wildfire, with a second book to follow in 2018.
Follow her on Twitter @amandareynoldsj