Elspeth Cooper

Purveyor of fine fantasy adventures

Category: writing (Page 1 of 19)

Photo of glasses and fountain pen on laptop keyboard

Getting out of my own way

Reading Twitter over breakfast recently*, as you do, I came across this piece of writing wisdom from Aliette de Bodard:

and it slapped me upside the head, because this happens to me with distressing regularity.

Like every writer, I have days when I’m just not feeling it, and grinding out the words can be more painful effort than pleasurable activity. But that’s the thing about this business: we might be doing what we love, but that doesn’t mean it’s always going to be easy. To borrow from Dorothy Parker, it is possible to hate writing, but love having written.

Sometimes, though, this feeling goes beyond a mere hard day in the word-mines. Sometimes a scene just will not flow, no matter what I do. I have a clear idea of what I want to achieve, but can’t seem to translate that into words. Character motivations feel off. Dialogue reads as unnatural or stilted. It’s almost as if the scene doesn’t want to be written.

Silly, right? A story isn’t sentient. It can’t defy me. My sandbox, my rules, yes?

Not so much, it turns out. Whodathunkit.

I’ve always had an unstructured, free-range sort of writing process. No real plans, just writing by the seat of my pants, in a single long document and editing as I went. Not ideal, maybe, but it worked for me.

Then I got published, and experienced a paradigm shift. I was a Proper Writer now, with a contract and everything. I started to think that maybe it’s undisciplined and amateurish to write books that way. That I needed to give more weight to My Responsibility To My Readers and how I ought to Be Professional About These Things.

When the writing is going well, I don’t think so much about what I’m doing. When I’m struggling, though, I immediately assume it is my process at fault. So I start looking closely at the nuts and bolts of the scene in question: pacing, word choice, action beats and pauses for the reader to catch their breath. I break it down and plan it all out, so nothing should go wrong.

Of course, having put so much work into the construction diagram, I then feel obliged to follow it rigidly. This results in a kind of tunnel vision. I can only see the road ahead, so I keep pushing and pushing in that direction. The longer it doesn’t give me the result I want, that I think I ought to get because I’ve planned it so carefully, the more stressed I become. Stress feeds anxiety, which feeds guilt, which kills creativity, which feeds more stress, and round and round we go.

To borrow from Dorothy Parker, it is possible to hate writing, but love having written

Eventually, something cracks. I cry/shout at the cat/snap at my spouse and in the hot, shame-filled silence that follows I hear Story!Brain clear its throat. The reason it has been such hard work, Story!Brain tells me, is not because I’m doing something technically wrong, I’m just using the Wrong Words. It’s the right sentiment in the wrong place, or I’m using the wrong framework in which to express it. Sometimes it’s just because I’ve taken a faulty approach to the whole scene. In trying to fix it, I’ve relied too much on structure and technique, and left no room for the story to breathe.

I’m not sure what Story!Brain is. It feels instinctual, but I dislike ‘instinct’ as a descriptor, because it sounds perilously like ‘inspiration’, and I don’t believe in that. Perhaps it’s a ‘feel’ for story that I’ve acquired osmotically from a lifetime of voracious reading? I honestly don’t know. The closest to an explanation that I can come is that Story!Brain is just another part of my subconscious – one that is crucially unencumbered by the chatter of what-ifs and self-doubt and imposter syndrome and sheer OMG WHAT I HAVE FORGOTTEN HOW TO WRITE that bedevil my Executive!Brain.

What I am sure of is that it’s not always rational, conscious choices that shape what I write. Something gives me this particularly felicitous turn of phrase, or that thematic element that stops me in my tracks when I’m proofreading and makes me go “I wrote that? Well, dayum.”

That’s Story!Brain at work. Often it knows better than Excutive!Brain what the story needs. I just need to listen to it more, so I don’t have to suffer the stress-spiral before I hear it, because man, that overthinking-it shit is exhausting. Costs me so much time, too, and wasted effort throwing words words words at the wall only for none of them to stick.

There’s probably a lesson in here. In times of writing difficulty I reach for structure, order, plans. Control, in other words. But for umpty-ump years I have been writing most easily and fluidly by letting go. It reminds me of Nynaeve in the Wheel of Time who needs to stop trying to wrestle the One Power to her will, and instead surrender to it. Perhaps Robert Jordan was onto something with that.

I need to work on recognising the stress-spiral before it gets a good grip. Prick the bubble, as it were. Collapse the waveform. Or Story!Brain needs to stop being so bloody British and SPEAK UP. Then I can get out of my own damn way.


*Yes, it’s taken me three weeks to get around to putting up this post. Guess what I got distracted by.

Featured image © Rido | ID 4493461 | Dreamstime Stock Photos






A vintage typewriter with the text "it starts with one WORD" written on a shee

A needful thing

So this post has been a long time coming. It needed to be written, but I kept putting it off because frankly, I didn’t know how to write it. I still don’t, but I’m going to have a go anyway. I hope you understand.

I’m not a fast writer. I have perfectionist tendencies, which mean I don’t let go of anything until I’m absolutely sure it’s the best I can possibly make it. That goes double for creative work. What it goes for for the Wild Hunt Quartet, the story I have wanted to tell for over 25 years, well. I’m not sure there are enough zeroes in the world. That’s how much it means to me.

I’m also ill, and have been so for a long time. Most of you will already know this, because although I don’t shout it from the rooftops, it’s not exactly a secret. I have multiple sclerosis. Officially, I was diagnosed in 2004, but the symptoms go back almost as far as the origins of The Wild Hunt Quartet. There’s an irony, eh?

MS has approximately the same effect on my nervous system as mice do on your house’s wiring

Anyway, for those that don’t know, MS is an auto-immune condition in which my body attacks its own nerve cells, slowly stripping them of their protective layer of myelin. Myelin works like electric cable insulation, so MS has approximately the same effect on my nervous system as mice do on your house’s wiring, only you can’t call Pest-B-Gone and hire an electrician to put it right. It’s chronic, progressive and disabling.

I’ve mostly come to terms with it, though on bad days I still get angry and bitter when I can’t do something trivial like get the top off a jar, carry a cup of tea without spilling it, or get to the bathroom in time. There’s more, and worse, but that’ll do for today.

When I was first diagnosed, the disease was relapsing-remitting. I’d have flare-ups of symptoms, like visual disturbances or numbness, then periods of no noticeable disease activity. Rinse and repeat. Over time, as the scarring built up on the nerve fibres, symptoms started to stick around. My balance and mobility have deteriorated markedly over the last few years. My fatigue has increased (and fatigue in MS is not ‘feeling a bit tired’, it’s ‘can no longer stand because after a few minutes the axial muscles just don’t work any more’). And the cognitive dysfunction has got worse.

Cognitive problems in MS patients are very common. These can range from poor concentration, difficulty making decisions and general ‘cog fog’ to mood swings, depression and memory issues. Pick one from the list and I’ve probably had it. Certainly depression. Feeling fat and useless, frustrated and foggy and exhausted is pretty much guaranteed to do a number on your mood.

An open book with ribbon marker

© Ingvald Kaldhussater | ID 514554 | Dreamstime Stock Photos

All of which brings me to THE DRAGON HOUSE. Just as a book, it has its challenges. It’s the last one, the conclusion to the series. The one I have the highest hopes and deepest fears for. It’s the culmination of every decision I’ve made heretofore in the telling, the drop-box for all the “I’ll figure that out in the next book”, the firing of Chekhov’s guns, the resolution of every scrap of foreshadowing. As a discovery writer, it’s also the book I knew least about going in.

A big ask, then. And I’m trying to write it whilst dealing with MS that is now secondary progressive. I admit, it has sometimes been overwhelming. I have suffered from creative paralysis. Decision fatigue. Rampant perfectionism and an inability to believe that anything I do will ever, ever be good enough.

If the book’s not done yet, it’s not been because of a lack of effort, believe me. Or any shortage of tears. There simply comes a point where I cannot work any harder, because I simply cannot work. But I keep trying anyway, and that exacts a price.

I will finish this book. This story is my heart-song, my dream; I cannot let these characters down by leaving their tale unfinished. They deserve an ending, and so do all the readers who have come along for the ride. I must just beg your indulgence a little longer.

This story is my heart-song, my dream; I cannot let these characters down

A final few words. I am surrounded with loving support from friends and family. My publisher and agent have been nothing but wonderful. I know I am not alone. This post is not meant to be a play for sympathy, just an explanation. I feel I owe you that. I haven’t kept the blog up to date, despite my best intentions. That’s the thing about missing a deadline; the further past it I go, the less I want to draw attention to myself by mentioning it. The more I’m struggling, the less I feel able to share. My instinct is to hide, to soldier on in isolation. To keep setting myself more deadlines, and keep failing to meet them, so I hide some more.

There are circumstances I cannot change, limitations I will always have to work within, but I will try to do less hiding, going forward.

And I WILL finish this book. You have my word on that.











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