Back in the days of studentdom, I did a module about the writing process. What this module was supposed to teach us, I’m not really sure, because the writing process is a bit like a Creme Egg – everyone approaches it differently.
How I approach writing and how I told my tutors I approached writing were two very different things as well. I padded out about 200 words of content to the lower word limit by wittering on about canal boats and the relative merits of putting pen to paper vs typing straight into a computer. It was all rubbish. I didn’t want my tutors to know the truth, which was I wrote when I felt like it, and if I knew I had to. The idea of having a ‘process’ was completely bizarre to me.
Now I’ve spent three years seriously writing, I have established a process, and like most writers that I know of, it entails more than just sitting in front of a computer bashing out words. While I never really understood the merit of the Writing Process module when I took it, I do now I have a process. Consciously knowing how you write best is hugely beneficial. It means when you get stuck, you know what you have to do to solve the problem.
My Writing Process
1. Always Carry (the right) Notebook
I tried for a while carrying a little shopping list notebook in my handbag, but found I used this only for playing noughts and crosses in particularly dull lectures, or for what it was intended – shopping lists. I moved on to a Moleskein, but where most writers adore them, I didn’t get along. It was too beautiful. I felt like I should have been writing a great novel in there, not scribbling down my musings, things I noticed or random plot ideas. I shelved it to write more firm notes in and replaced it with a Pringles notebook my other half got for free from a Pringles Rep. It was a bit too big for the handbag, but it was big enough to write proper sentences in. And it was free, so I had no qualms about scribbling rubbish in it.
It was so successful that I have since filled it up and it is now merrily disintegrating on my desk as I pull out the pages I no longer need. I’ve replaced it with a notebook from Smiths that cost me less than a fiver. Ideal. Now I just need to purchase a bigger handbag…
Dreams are a massive source of inspiration for me. Well, I say dreams, I think there’s a bit more to it than that. A particularly interesting lecturer at Uni spoke about how ‘inspiration’ striking is often the culmination of a number of ideas, apparently unrelated, that suddenly connect in the brain and form something worth writing. I’ve never had one of these moments whilst awake, but I quite often wake up to find the disparate threads of several stories have merged together into something I can get excited about. The subconscious has a wonderful way of figuring things out for you. I owe a lot of story ideas to mine.
3. Making Notes
Once I have an idea, I usually know how it starts and how it ends (or at least have a vague idea that may or may not change as the idea is written down) but only have a vague inkling of a few scenes somewhere in the middle. Because the inner fangirl in me really wants to write the scenes where characters get together, or where a really interesting battle happens, or whatever the book might include, I usually write these scenes, very briefly, in the aforementioned notebook. This satisfies the urge to skip ahead and lets me get on with the rest of the writing. I don’t write the scenes in any detail, and I don’t edit. That way it doesn’t take the excitement out of writing the rest of the book – I still want to reach those scenes in order to write them properly.
4. Sitting at my Desk
For ages after I left my Uni house and moved in with my boyfriend, I didn’t have a desk. This was very detrimental to my writing, as it was too easy to sit in the living room with my computer on my lap and watch television whilst pretending I was working. I have to have a work space, a place where I go to sit and do serious work. Okay, the distractions are still there – I can’t erase Facebook from the internet – but the mindset is better. This is serious now, I’m sitting at my desk!
Most of the time, I’ll use writing as an excuse not to do the chores. However, when I’m particularly stuck on a scene, or need to think around a particular plot detail that isn’t quite working out, I love to do household chores. Washing up, ironing, folding clothes, hoovering – they really help me think things through. Menial tasks keep the body busy but not the mind. You can’t be distracted by a game or a TV program which occupies your mind, so you are free to just think. Journeys are great too, particularly if I’m not driving, which if I go anywhere with the other half, I’m not. It gives you time to stare into space and just mull over those characters and how they are going to get from A to B, or how the lead female is ever going to forgive the lead male his indiscretions. I almost miss my job as a checkout operater sometimes. The amount of thinking over plotlines I got done while stuck in a supermarket for eight hours a day!
6. Knowing When to Leave Something
By this I don’t mean leave altogether, but knowing when to leave something for a few hours. Sleep on it. Put it in the back of the mind. Sometimes I have to rely on the old subconscious to sort things out, because sometimes I try so hard to find a solution, I can’t see for looking. Knowing when to trust the subconcious mind and forget about the current sentence that’s doing your head in is an invaluable part of the process. I just have to remind myself: my subconscious was good enough to put the threads together, I’m sure it can untangle the mess I’ve got them in.
7. Talking to Friends
This one can be damaging as well as helpful. I read somewhere, can’t remember where, that you should never talk to friends about the end of a story, because it takes the fun out of writing it. I kind of understand where whoever it was who said it was coming from. Somehow, revealing the details makes it feel like the story is told. But I wouldn’t say it takes the excitement out. Not if you moderate what details you reveal. Generally I tell my friends and family the general details. Things that I would tell a publisher if I was trying to sell the book. It’s a story about Character X who is trying to get to/achieve Y. I might include a few prominent plot details, but the subplots, the little things that give a story a rich background presence, I tend to keep to myself. With the first novel I wrote fully, which I’m still in the process of editing, I reached a stage where I was writing it faster than I could tell anyone about it anyway. I haven’t yet reached that point with my current project, if I ever will.
I’ve already mentioned my habits regarding music and writing. But I also have one other outlet. I play the piano to a reasonable standard. When I was a teenager and full of angst, I used to play the piano when I was cross or feeling particularly against the rest of the world. I’ve grown out of the melodrama, but the habit of playing the piano to enhance or defuse my emotions has remained with me. If I’m struggling with an emotional scene, I’ll find a piece of music that suits it and play for a while. Concentrating on something else for a while not only relieves the frustration, but can help the subconscious come up with the solution.
9. Write a Little Every Day
It was easier when I was at Uni to write every day. I used to stay up til two in the morning most nights, just plodding away with my novel. I like writing at night – people don’t ring you, there are less people about on the internet to distract you, it’s dark so you aren’t wishing you were outside sunbathing. Unfortunately, when you have to get up at half six to get to work on time, the two in the morning thing isn’t so practical. However, I do try to write a little bit every day, even if it’s just a sentence, or a blog post, or something else entirely unrelated to my current project. Writing is like any other skill – the more you practice the better you get. Leave it for a while and it goes rusty. Due to work commitments I’ve not been able to write nearly as much as I want to on my novel, but with a nice long holiday coming up, I know I’ll be able to make good headway once agan. I’m confident about this because I’ve kept my writing muscles working.
So that’s how I operate. At my most productive I can get about 3000 words done in a day. One time at Uni while working on a particularly important and emotional scene I wrote solidly from about 3 in the afternoon until 2 in the morning, completely skipping dinner quite by accident. I got about 7000 words done. Most days now I’m doing less than 500, but that will change come the holidays.
Use of the imperative ‘will’, notice. I can only hope my confidence is backed up by some evidence when the hols come around!