I was on my fourth book, and it wasn’t going well.
There were tears. There was anxiety. And I was pretty sure there was about to be a realisation that the entire 40,000 words I’d already written were completely and utterly rubbish.
‘I think I might have writer’s block,’ I said to a friend.
‘I can’t do this writing lark any more,’ I said to another.
‘How much would it cost me to pay back the advance and go and work in a café instead?’ I said to my agent.
And then, luckily, magically, wonderfully, my incessant and probably incredibly annoying whingeing fell on the right ears. Those ears belonged to my good friend and fellow children’s author, Jen Alexander.
‘You’re not blocked; it’s just winter,’ she said.
I looked out of the window. The sun was shining and the flowers were in full bloom.
‘Err…’ I began.
‘Not actual winter, of course,’ she said patiently. ‘Just winter for this particular book.’
If you haven’t met Jen, let me explain. One of the wonderful things about her is that she has this extraordinary knack of seeing things from a new and brilliant angle. It’s as if she finds a light that you hadn’t noticed before and shines it on your problem. Once she’s done that, you suddenly see everything differently, and then you realise that the light had in fact been there all along and you never need to go back to the darkness.
So I got a cup of tea, made myself comfy and listened. Here’s what she told me, and I’m sharing it with you because it is one of the most amazing things anyone has ever told me, and it revolutionised my relationship with writing.
Each book, like each year, has its seasons. It starts with winter. This is the time when we huddle up against the cold, not enjoying it very much. We can’t see much colour, nothing’s in bloom, and we find it hard to believe things will ever be different. At this stage, it’s very easy to panic and think that nothing is happening. But this is when we need to trust. It’s there. It’s happening. We just can’t see it. Under the ground, new life is beginning. In the back of the mind, in the dark recesses we haven’t accessed yet, the idea is slowly, slowly starting to form. So this is when we need to metaphorically snuggle up in front of the fire with a bunch of DVD box sets, and stop worrying about what’s going on outside. Nature is working it all out just fine without our conscious awareness.
Next is spring. This is when tiny shoots begin to appear. A little bit of colour here. A snowdrop there. Spring is the time when the occasional idea pops up. It’s also the time when you have to be careful not to be too heavy-handed with them. You’ll have the urge to leap on every idea and delve into each one. But don’t! You’ll trample your seeds down before they’ve had a chance to fully open. Just keep a notebook handy, scribble down the ideas as they come, and then leave them alone while you go about your business admiring the new scents and sights, and not forcing anything to grow too fast.
And then, the summer. Oh boy. It’s all blooming now. Beautiful fresh flowers bursting out all around you. New scents every day. The world is suddenly ALIVE! This is when the story is flowing so fast you can hardly keep up with it. It's when your partner moans that they never see you, and when you emerge from your study at the end of each day glowing and exhausted. Enjoy!
And then it’s over. The summer has ended. Remember the book that you thought was never going to happen, back in cold December? Guess what? You’ve written it! And now it’s autumn. This is the time to let it all go. Take time out. Let the creative pool lie fallow for a bit (and maybe mix a metaphor or two while you’re at it!) You need this time to let everything lie still to restock and refill. Give yourself a break, congratulate yourself for what you’ve done, and remember to get ready to trust that it WILL all happen again…
My eighth book, A Year Without Autumn, is about to come out. Maybe it was thinking about this book, and in particular its title, that made me want to share this theory now.
Or maybe it’s the fact that it completely transformed my feelings about writing, and turned me into the happy, trusting and much more confident writer that I am today.
I don’t know which of these it was, and it doesn’t matter. What matters much more to me is simply the act of sharing it – and the hope that perhaps it might do something similar for someone else out there who is struggling in the depths of winter.
Thank you, Jen. You are as special as the first snowdrop of spring.