In the fourth instalment of our blog series of Creative Writing exercises, Creative Writing BA (Hons) Course Leader Dr Jack McGowan talks to us about creating ‘Paratext’ and its ability to help us overcome writer’s block.
This session produces introduces Paratext: all the elements of publication that exist alongside the main body of the text that can have an impact on the way it is interpreted by the reader.
It is well understood that writing a novel is no stroll in the park. It's something that takes time, patience, and commitment and there can often be points in the process where you feel like giving up.
Writer's block is defined by Mike Rose in Writer's Block: The Cognitive Dimensions as “an inability to begin or continue writing for reasons other than a lack of basic skill or commitment.” It’s not that you're not good enough to write a novel, though it very often feels that way. It’s a much more complicated part of the writing process and it can often be a sign that you need to make a change to the story or take the novel in a different direction to inspire you and motivate you to continue.
Whatever is the root cause, writer’s block is not something to be worried about. In The Essays of Three Decades the writer Thomas Mann suggests that: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” So, if you're finding the writing process difficult, don't worry - it IS difficult - and struggling with it just means that you're engaging with your writing.
There are lots of strategies for breaking through writer's block and a good place to start is to think about what your novel offers the reader beyond the main text. Paratext is defined by the literary theorist Gérard Genette as: “a fringe of the printed text which in reality controls one's whole reading of the text.” It's everything outside of the actual story (the main body of writing) that contributes to how a reader will perceive your novel and could include:
- The front cover
- The preface or introduction
- Chapter titles
- A list of characters
- Any other elements that in some way add to the reading experience
If you're stuck mid-way through a longer narrative and you can't work out what comes next, it can be refreshing to take a step back and think about all the things that might contribute to the finished book. Drawing a map of your fictional world can be an excellent way to stretch your world-building skills. It might be that you discover there's actually a mountain range your heroes must cross to reach their destination, which gives you the content you need for your next chapter. Maybe, you just can't work out how two characters are meant to fit together until you sketch out a rough timeline or family tree and you discover that they could be long-lost relatives. Thinking about your novel in a three-dimensional way can help you overcome tricky moments and get your writing moving again.
Another significant element of paratext is the blurb or the book’s jacket copy. This is the short description usually found on the back of the book that helps to get readers excited about reading it. Along with other paratexts, such as the front cover, the blurb is a marketing tool that will help to sell the book, and is often written with a particular audience or demographic in mind.
The Writing Exercise
- Try writing your own blurb for an imagined novel or for a real project that you're currently working on.
- Aim for one to two hundred words - some books will have longer blurbs and some will have shorter ones.
- You have to think carefully about what you need to communicate about your story in order to attract your reader's attention and then balance this against the amount of space you have on the back of the book.
- Try to sum up what's exciting about your story, and why you think it might appeal to your reader, or offer hints and clues about the mysteries contained in the pages.
- It’s worth noting that a lot of publishers will have influence over the direction of your paratext, and you may well find that, eventually, your publisher or editor will want to write a blurb themselves.
It’s still a worthwhile exercise for you to try even if you don't end up writing the finished jacket copy. You'll need to be able to communicate what's exciting about your book in a brief and enticing way in order to secure the interest of a publisher or agent in the first place. Getting into the practice of writing blurbs will enable you to sharpen up these skills. It can also help you get back in touch with the intrigue that's driving the story and help you overcome any writer's block you may be experiencing.
Here is an example of the blurb from Noughts and Crosses (2001) by Malorie Blackman for some inspiration:
“Callum is a nought – a second class citizen in a world run by the ruling Crosses…Sephy is a Cross, a daughter of one of the most powerful men in the country…In their world, noughts and Crosses simply don’t mix. And as hostility turns into violence, can Callum and Sephy possibly find a way to be together? They are determined to try. And then the bomb explodes…”
Writing a blurb may only be a small part of the overall process of writing a novel, but it can be an important one. When studying Creative Writing at the University of Worcester we teach you that it’s not just about improving your writing skills, we also focus on introducing you to all the aspects involved with professional writing. This should help you to think about all the different things that go into producing a publication that you're proud of and best represent who you are as a writer.
This is the fourth part in our Creative Writing Exercises blog series to help you improve your writing and to act as inspiration. Want to try the previous exercise? Learn how the The Beautiful In-Law technique can lead your writing to new and exciting places.
All views expressed in this blog are the Academic’s own and do not represent the views, policies or opinions of the University of Worcester or any of its partners.