Saturday, September 15, 2012

How to avoid the 50-page Burn-out.

I’ve spoken to hundreds of people over the course of the years, all of whom had one thing in common. OK, two – they were all frustrated and they all classed themselves as ‘aspiring’ writer. Why aspiring? I would ask. Those of you who read my occasional blogs know that my position on this is either you write or you don’t. I think it was the Bengali philosopher and poet Rabindranath Tagore who said “You can't cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water.”

Palmeira, Galicia, Spain - a first step

Their confusion with my posture is that they confuse ‘aspiring writer’ with ‘published writer’ or ‘famous author’. Hey, wake up! While they’ve be lamenting their lack of writing success, the World has moved on. This is a different paradigm. Many of the ‘traditional’ obstacles in ‘Traditional Publishing’ have ‘traditioned’ themselves out of the game.

But wait; this is not yet another rant against the Old Way of publishing. No, today I want to provide you with a tip. Before I expound on this, remember my often-quoted martial art Master’s words: “use what is useful, throw away the rest.” So if what I’m going to tell you helps, then go for it; if not, then you’ve lost nothing by reading this blog other than a few minutes.

The above mentioned ‘aspirers’ usually have great ideas for a novel, sit down at their keyboards and peck away furiously as they race to force their creativity onto the page before the well runs dry. But then, about the 50-page mark usually, the tale they are writing just fizzles out.

Writers’ Block, they say! It happens to all of us, they say. But this isn’t writers’ block, my friends. It’s something far more insidious. I call it the 50-page Burn-out.

Hello, my name is Eric and I have always had the 50-page Burn-out.

What! you say. You write 90,000 word thrillers. That’s one hell of a lot more than 50 pages!

Yes, I respond, but I found the answer.

Over my strange and rather unconventional life I’ve done quite a lot of training in survival techniques and put much of it into practice. One basic technique for survival in any environment is that you need to have your priorities clear at all times. Is it shelter, fire, water, food etc.? But from a psychological standpoint you always need to have an objective! Always! And just getting through the day isn’t it. That gets you ‘aspiring’.

The objective is a medium to long-term goal that you need to make steps toward every single day, whilst you are ‘surviving’ (or writing). The survival tricks then have a context and a purpose.

Back to my ‘aspiring’ friends. How do I usually respond when they manifest their 50-day fizzle? I usually ask them one simple question: how does your tale end? I’m not looking for a generic answer either. I want to know if they could write the final chapter NOW. Okay, it will be a draft, and will almost certainly evolve, change, mutate as the preceding pages are produced. But that’s not the point. Are they just going to make a primitive home in the jungle, somewhere to stay until the water runs out and they die? Or… is the plan to find a way out of the dense vegetation, venomous snakes, crocodiles, wild pigs and whatever and back to ‘civilization’?

This is how I write my 90,000 word thrillers: I start at the end!

The King of Hearts in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ is often referred to, by me, as the World’s first computer programmer. Why? Do you remember his advice to Alice when she was asked to testify in the trial scene? “Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” While this may be great advice for a witness, and a computer programmer, it is useless for most writers: it will lead to the 50-page Burn-out as sure as Hatters are mad! (Note: the mad hatters are an historical fact – they used lead-based glue in the manufacture of their headwear and this resulted in poisoning which produced their occupational hazard – so if you’ve stuck with this blog up to here, you’ve learnt two new things! Don’t say I don’t give value for money!)

Alright, so you now have an ending. Should you now do a Cheshire Cat and start disappearing at the tail to end with just an incorporeal smile? My answer is yes and no.

Once I can write the ending, I figure out the beginning (forget the feline form in between for the moment). I write thrillers and I firmly believe these should start more with a bang than a whimper. They need to grab the attention of a potential reader whilst raising questions, creating intrigue and laying hooks so they will keep reading. That gives me the broad parameters for the start. The content must always have something to do with the main storyline; otherwise you are cheating your readers. Okay, it may not be evident initially – for the novel I’m working on now, ‘the CULL’, many who have read its opening chapters have commented that the first chapter is written using a style and tone that contrasts sharply with the following chapters, which are more fast-paced; it’s almost as if the first chapter came from a different book. Why did I do this? The opening chapter is about the main story line – exclusively. In the following chapters there are no other references to that story line because we shift to follow what happens to one of the protagonists, but not the one featured, albeit very briefly, at the start, and her first bloody encounter with the novel’s prime antagonist. (I should have yelled SPOILER WARNING – I’ve just given away one of the novel’s early secrets). I wanted to make the first chapter the ‘Intrigue’ chapter – Who the hell is this? What’s going on here? Who’s that under the bed and why? Plus, I couldn’t resist including a ‘Wink’ (my name for the hidden secrets in my novels) right on the first page this time. [What’s the Wink about? Sorry, you’ll have to wait to read the explanation on my web when the novel’s published. (More intrigue!).] To highlight this brief opening, it’s a little more than half a page on my word processor screen, I used a marked style/tone change so the reader won’t forget it. But if all you are reading is an extract, it does look strange, that I will admit. So, put yourself out of your misery and buy the novel when it’s published in December.

But the important issue is that I had the opening clear, shortly after having the way it’s all going to end equally defined.

Now you have a start and a finish. Filling in the middle depends on your genre, your story arcs, your tale structure, the message you want to convey. But the good news is, as though by magical artifice, the 50-page Burn-out problem has disappeared. You are no longer surviving from day to day but now you have a clear objective: write that last scene or a version of it, at least.

It’s a simple trick, as most good tips are. It works for me and has done so for many years. I’ve applied this trick not just to my fictional output, but to the innumerable presentations, seminars, articles etc. that I’ve written in the last thirty-five years.

So as Tagore says, don’t aspire to cross the sea, imagine what you’ll do on the other side and stick your foot firmly in the water!

More tips on my website.
Eric @