"When I'm writing," says Meg Wolitzer, "I ask myself the question that a reader inevitably asks a writer: why are you telling me this? There has to be an erotic itch, a sense of book as hot object, the idea that what's contained in the book is the information you've always needed.
"If the answer to the question 'Why are you telling me this?' doesn't come quickly, if I'm writing without urgency, that's my first sign that something's amiss. When novels or stories feel like they're going nowhere, they've lost their imperative, their reason for being.
"Imperative is the kind of thing we associate with urgent, external movements -- say, with political causes. I also associate it with art. You know that something might be righted, whether its a social wrong or incomplete information. That's what art gives you: a more complete view, a view of corners you wouldn't otherwise have seen." *
But what if you've lost that imperative, gone astray in the dark forest of the creative process?
"Don't sit down in the middle of the woods," Margaret Atwood advises. "If you're lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page."
"Don't panic," says Sarah Waters. "Midway through writing a novel, I have regularly experienced moments of bowel-curdling terror, as I contemplate the drivel on the screen before me and see beyond it, in quick succession, the derisive reviews, the friends' embarrassment, the failing career, the dwindling income, the repossessed house, the divorce . . . Working doggedly on through crises like these, however, has always got me there in the end. Leaving the desk for a while can help. Talking the problem through can help me recall what I was trying to achieve before I got stuck. Going for a long walk almost always gets me thinking about my manuscript in a slightly new way. And if all else fails, there's prayer. St Francis de Sales, the patron saint of writers, has often helped me out in a crisis. If you want to spread your net more widely, you could try appealing to Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, too."
Hilary Mantel advises: "If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don't just stick there scowling at the problem. But don't make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people's words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient."
"Never stop when you are stuck," cautions Jeanette Winterson. "You may not be able to solve the problem, but turn aside and write something else. Do not stop altogether."
Helen Simpson agrees: "The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying 'Faire et se taire' (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as 'Shut up and get on with it.' "
The last word today comes from Neil Gaiman:
"The main rule of writing," he says, "is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you're allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it's definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I'm not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter."* The first quote comes from Why We Write, edited by Meredith Maran (Plume/Penguin, 2013), published in aid of the 826 National youth literacy program. Please consider ordering a copy to support this worthy cause.