Writing Struggles, Restructuring, and Finger Exercises by Neil McGowan


I’ve recently finished a deliberate break from writing. Not just the act of putting words on paper, but editing and tweaking, even thinking about it in any great depth. The Christmas period helped (I managed to get away to Yorkshire for five days, and deliberately didn’t take a laptop or even a pen with me).

Never mind Zoom fatigue (or in my case, Teams (which is, shall we say, not the slickest piece of software I’ve ever used), I had screen fatigue. The thought of turning on my laptop after a full day of staring at a screen was demotivating to say the least. Add to that my job involves teaching all levels of clinicians and their admin staff how to use various digital systems, using both Teams and another piece of software (because Teams won’t do everything we need) and my digital energy levels were non-existent by the time I finished.

For the past few months, I’ve ploughed on, trying alternatives such as writing by hand (quite satisfying but slow, and still needed typing up) and digital dictation (didn’t like it at all, just felt odd), until I hit around 50k words in the current book.

About a week before Christmas, I was sitting listening to some music and reading through the previous day’s words when I realised there was something wrong with it. Over the next few nights, I read through what I’d written a couple of times, making notes on what was wrong.

It was the night before I went away when it hit me – the book felt tired and jumpy, pretty much like I did. That was when I decided to put it to one side and let it sit for a while before revisiting it to see if there was anything worth keeping, or if I should delete the lot; I wasn’t even sure the idea had the legs for a book at that point.

To cut a long story short, I spent the next couple of weeks barely thinking about writing at all. (At least on the surface; something was happening deep in my sub-conscious.) The last couple of days, I’ve started thinking about the manuscript and what I’ve realised is it’s trying to be the wrong book. It started out as a crime novel featuring the detective from my last adult book trying to solve a murder in the less salubrious part of Leith. What I discovered was the book isn’t about him at all, it’s about one of the (as I thought) minor characters, and is more concerned with her backstory.

The break must have done me good, as not only have I started making a plan to restructure that book (and there is some decent writing in there, more than I dared hope), I’ve also started work on my next young adult novel, and accepted a commission for a short story (the idea I have will dovetail neatly into the crime novel, I think).

I’ve been pacing myself as well, and am enjoying writing again, more than I have done for a couple of years now. I did wonder if the spark had gone but am happy to report it’s still there, it just needed some TLC.

I’ve also decided to focus more on my music this year – I’ve played guitar for years, but am finally getting around to disciplining myself and learning to play classical guitar. It’s amazing how many bad habits I’ve picked up over the years playing rock and roll guitar, but like the writing, I’m finding myself enjoying playing again (even if it is rubbish at the moment, as my children gleefully inform me – one plays piano and the other plays piano and clarinet, and much better than I do). I’ve even worked out that the two disciplines complement each other – I can write first, which loosens my fingers up for the guitar, or practise first, which seems to make my typing quicker and more accurate. At least, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it...


Ruth Leigh said…
I'm terribly impressed that in addition to working full time and parenting you're teaching yourself the guitar! I didn't open my laptop at all over Christmas (unheard of) and am now trying to write book number three. It's flowing like treacle, so I appreciate your blog. Good luck with your impressive endeavours!

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