write more, fail better: 7 tips for unblocking the system

January 6, 2009


Writing, at least the hard kind, is hard. We all know that. It’s hard to keep going, but even harder to get going.

Meanwhile, that famous quote from Samuel Beckett – “Try again. Fail again. Fail better” – won’t leave me alone. It seems to be the basis for my main New Year’s Resolution: “succeed (at all costs)”. Even there, those brackets are giving me pause.

But we’re all in it together, right? Are we? If so, you might like to be reminded of some tricks help you get going.

I know a million writing tricks; I’ve read all the books. They are just like dieting tricks. All the “eat only grapefruits” in the world isn’t going to disguise the fact that in reality you have to not eat risotto and wine and ice cream. And all the exercises and regimes and randomly generated word lists in the world are not going to prevent that awful moment…

As Ernest Hemingway said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” If you want to put that moment off, you could try these:

1. Here’s a sort of Confucian exercise to trick yourself with small, manageable word counts (starting at, for the faint-hearted, two). It’s named like a card game so you can pretend you’re not really doing anything; and it looks cute on the screen, too. Before you know it you’ll have written War and Peace.

2. You could read some submission guidelines for a magazine and try to write something to order – just like that – go on. I’m trying to do that and I’m not going to tell you which publication it is in case they like yours better.

3. Keep a list of titles. When something good comes to you, write it down. Henry James did this. I don’t, and I’m a fool; I have forgotten more great titles than you’ve had hot dinners.

4. You could use the good old kitchen timer. Pick one of your titles AT RANDOM, set the timer for fifteen minutes, and write. If you are at all receptive, considering it was your title idea in the first place this should work. I might start keeping a list. I’d try and rebuild my old one if I could remember a single clever title I’ve ever thought of.

5. If you want to write a poem, you could try Robert Lee Brewer’s unstoppable torrent of suggestions over at Poetic Asides. He’s consistently motivational and creative in his suggestions. It’s more than I could be, and he has a new baby.

6. If all else has failed, dial 911 (it’s okay, it works outside America too). I love this site. It will make you smile and feel ashamed of yourself all at the same time. Then go make a cup of tea and have your own idea. Brilliant!

7. I guess it’s worth remembering that when they want to fix a blocked drain, they stick something in and pull stuff out.

And that if you unblock the pipes and just let them spew, you’ll end up with a load of spilled water. So my other resolution this year is TARGET. Focus.


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