Do you ever get writer’s block? No, but I do get stopped dead.
Writer’s block. It’s one of those questions we all get asked, those of us sitting up at the front on panels at conventions, libraries and literary festivals.
To be honest, no, I just don’t have time. With two teenage sons at school and college and a husband whose (very) full-time job keeps us all fed and sheltered, holding up my end of the family deal by running this household means my writing time is precious and I’m not about to waste any of it. Okay, there are days when the writing goes more smoothly than others but that’s different.
But some things stop me dead in my writing. Death. Real world death. There’s the personal. Last year my father in law died. In this past month two friends have died. Other years saw other losses. There will be more to come. I have learned that trying to set such things aside and apply myself to the book in progress simply doesn’t work. Sod the mandatory daily word count. I need to take the time to look squarely at such loss, to pay tribute to the departed through the rituals of such occurrences and with private recollection and appreciation of the part they played in my life. Then I can move on, knowing that I have given them their due.
Then there’s the kind of death that makes global headlines. Specifically the death wrought by human malice. Famine in Africa, the ongoing plagues of malaria and HIV, multiple fatalities in a Chinese train crash. These all give me pause for thought, and prompt donations to appeals as appropriate but they don’t stop me writing.
The Norway bomb and shootings stop me. The July 7th 2005 attacks in London. The Madrid train bombings 2004. The World Trade Centre 2001. The Admiral Duncan nail bombing 1999. Oklahoma City 1995. No, that’s not a comprehensive list but you know what I mean.
It’s not grief that stops me writing. Thanks to all the powers that be, I lost no one in any of these atrocities, though a couple of pals came frighteningly close. So claiming any sort of personal anguish is wholly inappropriate and frankly, in my opinion, insulting to those so appallingly bereaved and whose lives are truly changed. Those of us beyond the immediate impact can only offer sincere and honest condolence.
But every time, I have to stop and look at what has happened and then stop and look at my writing. Because I write about people killing each other, whether with swords or sorcery. Sometimes it’s up close and personal with a dagger or a wizardly duel. Then there’s the big-picture stuff when I sit down and draw up an order of battle, work out what twists deliver the outcome which I want and then calculate the losses on each side for the effect on the ongoing plot. Yes, really. I have the casualty numbers (killed/wounded) for every battle in ‘Blood in the Water,’ the second of the Lescari Revolution books. I’m currently looking at forthcoming events in ‘Darkening Skies,’ second of the Hadrumal Crisis trilogy, and working out who will die amid the sort of violent magic which would blow a summer blockbuster movie’s sfx budget. Even Harry Potter.*
And I’m doing all that for the sake of entertainment. I’m killing fictional people off, right, left and centre, in the service of a thrilling story. But real world death isn’t thrilling or entertaining. It’s heart-breaking, infuriating, frightening. It has real world implications for our security, our laws, our freedoms, for the abuse of ‘others’ by the prejudiced and the opportunist in this age of global media and social networking. This stuff matters.
So I need to know that my writing matters. I need to be certain that my characters suffer loss in a way that doesn’t belittle a real bereavement. That the effects persist as they do in real life – or if they don’t, I need to be clear why that might be. When high heroic deeds deliver triumphant outcomes, I must always make sure that I acknowledge the cost to those who had no choice or chance to opt out. Not to the detriment of the story overall but just using enough light and shade to paint a realistic picture.
When I’m creating a villain, whether a loner or a leader, I must know and I must show what drives a man or woman to such corrosive spite, treachery, brutality or murder. In the context of my story at least. I cannot hope to uncover any universal truths of the human psyche that might explain such headline-grabbing carnage.
Then maybe, just maybe, I can leave my readers with something to think on, once they’ve closed the book? Something to help their own understanding of entitlement, arrogance, hatred, bigotry, the myriad impulses and experiences that result in a mindset that sees violence as some sort of valid solution? Something to help inform their opinions and their actions when politicians and special interests try to use these abominations to advance their own agenda?
To help to show, to quote Jens Stoltenberg, the Norwegian Prime Minister “... that the answer to violence is even more democracy, even more humanity, but never naïveté. That is what we owe to the victims and to those they hold dear.”
Then I can start writing again.
Juliet E McKenna
*This may or may not turn out to be true. I’m still writing the book.
Living in Oxfordshire with her teenage sons and husband, she fits in her writing around her family and vice versa. Her fourth fantasy series, The Hadrumal Crisis, is published by Solaris in the UK and the US beginning with Dangerous Waters in July 2011.