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How do you write?

Mar 10,2013
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I attend quite a few talks by writers, mainly to steal tips. These talks usually last an hour and, at the end, there's 15 minutes or so of questions from the audience. (Once, I went to an interview with a very famous author where the interviewer managed to get this back-to-front, meaning the author spoke for 15 minutes and the audience quizzed him for 45. Terrible.) Without fail, there are two questions that are always asked. Both are questions that authors don't really like to answer.

The first is simple β€” where do your ideas come from? I've heard this asked in every possible iteration. (How do you deal with writers' block? Where do you look for inspiration? Is there an online generator for book ideas?)

Writers don't like to answer this question because writers are deeply superstitious people. The fact is, we don't quite know where ideas come from and, really, we don't want to probe too deeply into this mystery, in case the ideas suddenly stop arriving.

The second question is no less simple β€” how do you write? This is known as the "process" question. The answer to this question is one that usually interests me, because I like to hear about the various quirks and idiosyncrasies of other writers. (My favourite writing routine belongs to Ian Fleming. Four and a half hours a day! Swimming! A book in six weeks!)

Most of the time, however, what the audience member is really asking is: how can I start writing? What is the trick? How do you find the time?

Of course, there is no trick. If you want to be a writer, you've probably already made the time. You're probably making sacrifices. Your friends probably don't see you as often as they might like. You probably don't spend too much time doing all those things non-writer people do with their time. (I don't even know what those things might be.)

Still, since I spent last week thinking about the things that made me a writer, I thought this week I might think a bit about how this writing thing works. I can only talk about how it works for me, of course.

Today, I'll start by answering the second of those killer questions.

I'm pretty disciplined when it comes to a routine. For the last three years, I've treated writing like a 9 to 5 job. I sit down first thing in the morning, break for lunch (when I remember), then get up from my desk in the evening and take the dog for a walk. I have a desk in a quiet room, on my own. The dog usually keeps me company. I don't listen to music, unless it's instrumental or classical. Pop and rock is too distracting.

I'm not writing fiction the whole time, of course. Most of the time, I'm writing articles about music or films or television for magazines. When I was writing Fire In The Sea, I got up a bit earlier and wrote that between 7 and 9 (or 7 and 10, sometimes 7 to 12, occasionally 7 to 6.)

Some days it was easier to write than others. If I ever felt stuck writing Fire, I'd go back and rewrite the previous chapter. By the time that was done, I was usually ready to continue. I never sat around and waited for inspiration. I could have been waiting a long time. I'd rather have some broken words I could fix later than some immaculate words I never got around to writing down.

The other thing that I tend to do is write two things at once. On a day-to-day level, this means when I hit an impasse on one project, I don't have a wasted writing day. 

When I start working on a new project, I usually run it against another project to see which of them takes flight first. It's not necessarily the best idea that wins, more the project that is right for me at that moment. The project that excites me.

As I said the other day, there's at least four half-written YA novels on my computer. One is the sequel to Fire in the Sea, one is Lost Things (the Jasper story), one is an adventure story for boys about time-travelling detectives, and one is a somewhat dark New Adult urban fantasy. I spent a fair bit of time planning the last of these while I was working on Fire. It gave me something to look forward to when I finished. 

Yes, I was looking forward to finishing writing one book so I could start another. Is that weird?

Of course, there comes a time when you need to put aside other projects and knuckle down to the task at hand. That's what I'm currently doing with the Fire in the Sea sequel. But I can still hear those other works calling my name. They constantly throw exciting ideas and tidbits in my direction. Wouldn't you rather be writing one of us?

Be strong Myke, be strong.

I actually stopped working on Fire in the Sea for about three months. I'd written up to the end of Act I. I had quite a good feeling about the book and, in some ways, was reluctant to keep going, in case I wrecked it. From December 2010 through to February 2011, I put it aside and worked on other things. Then, of course, I remembered the Text Prize deadline and had two months to write the rest of the novel.

Having a deadline is pretty much the best thing a writer could wish for. Famously lazy writer Douglas Adams once said the thing he loved most about deadlines was the whooshing noise they made as they passed, unmet. I don't think I'd ever finish anything without one. If I hadn't been writing Fire in the Sea with the express intent of winning the Text Prize, Jake and Sadie would still be stuck at the end of Act I, wondering what happens next.

I'm giving myself until May to finish the sequel. This time, I'm having to be more creative with my schedule. This is partly because I now have a young daughter, who has thoughtlessly stolen those hours between 7 and 9. Instead, I'm grabbing every spare moment I stumble across and dedicating one day a week to fiction. Or trying to, at least. 

What about you? Do you find it easy to be disciplined? When do you write? How do you find time β€” and what do you sacrifice to make time?

PS. The Text Prize is currently open to submissions for 2013.


Mar 11,2013

That cartoon does feel worryingly familiar, ambivalence. I think the internet is most dangerous in terms of being a time killer as it allows you to kid yourself you are being productive, just because you're sat at your computer. It's a constant distraction, leading your mind away down digital dead ends. Some writers have the wifi card removed from their computers. I just switch of my wifi, if I'm feeling too easily distracted.

NaNoWriMo is a great way to start writing a book, I think! One of my podcasted novels began as part of NanoWriBlogMo, where folk tried blogging inside a month. I didn't finish in a month, but I did finish.

Daydreamer, I too understand why people ask those questions, particularly the second one. Really, they're the two "mystical" areas of writing -- areas that don't make any sense to non-writers.

Don't feel bad because you're short of time at the moment. Life gets like that sometimes. Thanks to travel, a festival and work commitments, I haven't written any fiction in about three weeks. If this goes on much longer, I'm liable to get a bit tetchy!

Thanks for the Roald Dahl quote, it's a great one! I saw him talk once when I was very young and suspect that inspired me to chase writing as a career.

(The dog is pretty cute, isn't she?)

Mar 11,2013

I understand why people ask those questions. It's like wanting a magic solution to the problem, even though you know there isn't an easy way, you still hope there is some small detail that, if you follow, success is guaranteed.

And agreed about the music. :) Instrumental and classical are my friends when I'm slaving over my homework. As for finding time for writing, I don't really. School has gotten demanding, and even though I could still find time here and there, I prefer to write when I'm at ease than to do it and irrationally feel guilty for it later because I feel like I should be studying for some upcoming test.

Reading this reminded me of the quote by Roald Dahl: β€œThe life of a writer is absolute hell compared to the life of a businessman. The writer has to force himself to work. He has to make his own hours and if he doesn't go to his desk at all there is nobody to scold him..A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom. He has no master except his own soul, and that, I am sure, is why he does it."

(Your dog is so cute! :D )

Mar 11,2013

To write... this is what it reminds me of:

^_^ I donno, sometimes I have some Great Idea and I run away with it and write for ages and ages... and I'll run out of steam, but I'll get another idea, and do what you do... finish it in order to start the other one. And like, NaNo kind of works for me. I can make myself write. But sometimes I wish I had deadlines or some big Bully behind me for stories I do just for fun, because when I do it for fun, there's no obligation to be dedicated, right? Though I also remember, when I used to post my Big Stories on that storywriting site I mentioned,  that also helped me write.. because people (however few readers there were) wanted to know how it ended. So they put pressure... that helped.

As for the whens, I guess at this point it's just whenever I can, and whenever I actually have inspiration. Just this year, I admit to putting school first, but in due time, I'd probably set myself not TIMES, but goals. A certain word count a day, as the minimum...

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