24 March 2015

When You Hit That Wall....

I received a lovely Facebook message this morning, from a reader who has just started my Pendragon's Banner Trilogy. She thanked me because she was enjoying the story and was delighted because she had gone through a phase of 'Reader's Block'.

I replied with a thank you (of course) but also I knew exactly what she meant - as a reader and a writer as I've hit that wall from both sides: the reading and the writing - and both can be pretty painful!

There have been several occasions when I just couldn't read. I couldn't find anything that interested me enough. Possibly the books I was trying to read were either not on topics I was interested in or - more likely - just poorly written. Usually when I hit these barriers I re-read something that I knew would grab me by the throat and refuse to let go - a Rosemary Sutcliff, Sharon Penman's Here Be Dragons, an Elizabeth Chadwick, or for something non-historical fiction, a Dick Francis or Anne McCaffrey. Or, one of my own. (Not being boastful, but The Kingmaking, Harold the King and Sea Witch I wrote purely because these were the books I wanted to read... but couldn't find them.
So I wrote them myself.)

The only problem with smashing through the Reader's Block Wall now is, once I get hooked into a book I can't put it down, which means I get nothing else done...

One other reason for the Readers's Block Wall recently is because I've taken over as Managing Editor for the Historical Novel Society Indie Reviews. Now I mean no disrespect to indie writers at all (heck, I'm indie myself!) but some submitted novels are ... well... um... not very good. One page in and I'm already bored.
There again the next Indie novel submitted could be absolutely brilliant, so it's Evens Stevens.

As a writer though... hmmm. 
I've not had Writer's Block these past (too many) months, but I have been finding it difficult to get on and WRITE.

Here's a list. (I assure you they are facts, not excuses...)

  • because I don't say 'no' often enough and there's always something someone wants me to do
  • because I offer to organise things - like blog hops etc 
  • because being an indie writer I have to do all my own publicity and marketing - and it takes up a lot of time!
  • because there's always so many interesting people to 'chat' to on Facebook and Twitter (and via e-mail)
  • because the view from my window here in Devon is so wonderful I keep looking at it
  • because there are jobs to do round the farm
  • because I get distracted too easily

Well Ok, some are excuses...
I am knuckling down to getting on with the fifth Sea Witch Voyage On The Account

Well I will be, as soon as I've written this blog article...

I had a severe, genuine case of writer's block while writing my Pendragon's Banner Trilogy though.

UK editions
This happened over twenty-five years ago, but the memory is very clear still.

US editions
I wrote  then (still do) because characters will not leave me alone until I've written the story: it is a bit like being pregnant. Once conceived, it has to be born.

Back in the eighties I'd had an idea to write about King Arthur. But not the Holy Grail, Knights in Armour, Lancelot and the whole chivalric caboodle. (Tell the truth, I can't stand those stories) I wanted the 'what might have really happened' view. 

I had 'discovered' that IF Arthur had been a real person he would have lived in the fifth or sixth century as a War Lord at the time between the Going of the Romans and the Coming of the Anglo Saxons. This fact intrigued me. I researched more - became even more intrigued - then wanted to read novels about this type of Arthur. Mary Stewart had started it all with The Crytstal Cave and Hollow Hills. Rosemary Sutcliff's Sword At Sunset added fuel to the lust... but there wasn't much else. 

Yes, there was Stephen Lawhead's Taliesin and Marion Zimmer Bradley's Mists of Avalon - good books, but not what I wanted, and Mists of Avalon annoyed me. Why? Because her portrayal of Guinevere was just not how I saw her!
My Gwenhwyfar was a fiesty red-head who had a sword and knew how to use it!

So I started to write my own. The book, as I said above, that I wanted to read. I
never dreamt that my scribblings would ever become real published books. That was a dream a probable never-to-be-achieved one.

The first, original, cover
I'd written much of what is now The Kingmaking  ... took me about eight years... but then, suddenly, gave up. What was the point? 
Who was ever going to read my twaddled rubbish?

I put everything away (this was the very early days of word processors and computers - I had an Acorn (LOL I now have a different Acorne given that that's my pirate's name!) 

It must have been around  September 1989. I hadn't written anything for about six months.Then I saw an advert for a Writer's Group Evening Class. It was only over the road at a local school. I went along.

Mistake (sort of). The others there were not potential novelists. They were more along the line of 'need to get the anguish out of my system' types. Broken relationships, family problems... The tutor set us an exercise: "Write what you feel, let your emotions flow and pour out of you!"

That wasn't much help to me. I wanted to write, not outpour... I sat there for a bit. Thought, "Come on Helen, you have to do something!"

But what? I had no idea what to write. Not a single word.
So I just rote down words.
Any words.
Whatever word came into my mind.

(I can't remember what they were... let's say....)
then came this word:
Arthur... and then this:

With an exhausted grunt of effort, Arthur, the Pendragon, raised his sword and with a deep intake of breath brought it down through the full force of weight and momentum into the skull of an Anglian thegn. Another battle. Arthur was four and twenty years of age, had been proclaimed Supreme King over Greater and Less Britain three years past by the army of the British – and had been fighting to keep the royal torque secure around his neck ever since.
The man crumpled, instantly dead. Arthur wrenched his blade from shattered bone and tissue with a sucking squelch, a sickening sound, one he would never grow used to. Oh, the harpers told of the glories of battle, the victory, the brave daring and skill – but they never told of the stench that assaulted your nostrils, bringing choking vomit to your throat. Nor of the screams that scalded your ears, nor the blood that clung foul and sticky and slippery to hands and fingers, or spattered face and clothing.
He turned, anxious, aware that a cavalryman was vulnerable on the ground. His stallion was somewhere to the left, a hind leg injured. The horses. Hah! No harper, no matter how skilled, could ever describe the sound of a horse screaming its death agony. There was no glory in battle, only the great relief that you were still alive when it was all over. Sword ready to strike again, Arthur found with a jolt of surprise there was no one before him, no one to fight. Eyebrows raised, breathless, he watched the final scenes of fighting with the dispassionate indifference of an uninvolved spectator. No more slopping and wading through these muddied, sucking water-meadows; the Angli were finished, beaten. The rebellion, this snatching of British land that was not theirs for the taking, was over.

The tutor asked us to stop after about ten minutes; 
"Sorry, no way!" I said, "you carry on, I've been trying to do this for six months, I'm not stopping now!"
I wrote three full A4 pages. went home and wrote several thousand more. A few months later, thanks to a recommendation by Sharon Penman, the manuscript I'd finally completed was accepted by an agent, who informed me I had a potential first two parts of a trilogy, (what?!!!) and placed it with William Heinemann

And that paragraph I reproduced above? I know it is almost, word for word, exactly what I wrote in that evening class writer's group because it became the opening chapter for book two, Pendragon's Banner.

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  1. The story came through, the tutor must have been surprised!

  2. Fun read. Thanks for this, Helen.

    1. Thanks Stephanie - and thank you for leaving a comment! :-)

  3. Very eloquent and interesting post, Helen.

  4. HI Helen
    I had never heard of readers' block but realize I've experienced it. When I'm doing a lot of historical reading for my research for my novels, I find at night I just can't read. Instead I've been known to play word games on my iPad. It's a different form of readers' block but I have to fight against it or else I miss out on the wonderful books waiting for me on my night table.

    1. Exactly Elaine - its basically an inability to concentrate on reading anything.

  5. Good morning dearie! This was such a timely post for me; having just gone through a bout of Reader's Block. No matter what I picked up, I lost interest in. My cure? Go back to an old favorite - The Three Musketeers. I'm engaged and reading daily again, which to me is the most worth while past time.......Cheers!

    1. The Old Favourites are always the best. Actually I must read the Three Musketeers again because it is (so I have been informed) one of the best books to read for authentic sword fight scenes. Thanks for the reminder....

  6. Thrilled to hear how you got started, Helen! A lovely story.
    I was intrigued by the concept of Readers' Block - never heard of it - before but it's so true sometimes. You think to yourself, with so many books around, how can that happen? And therein lies the rub - soooo many books. It's like being given an overloaded plate of food, it can feel like too much to tackle and suddenly you're not hungry!
    And I so identify with your list of things which interrupt the writing. But it's all about a balance, isn't it? You have to fit in 'life' too or we'd all get pretty one dimensional, I always think. Embrace and enjoy! ;-)

    1. You're SO right! It's lovely to go out fora slap-up meal occasionally, but sometimes cheese on toast at home is just as nice... or even better enjoying cheese on toast with a glass of homebrewed Damson Gin, feet up in front of the fire - with a good book! :-)


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