Do Or Do Not II: More on Process

I write in the early morning.

I write this way only because it suits me. Since I work from home, and get up at 5:40 to make coffee for my wife who suffers the harsh business of commuting to work every day, I can get a good couple of hours of writing done riding a strong caffeine buzz and, more importantly, before my head gets filled with rubbish words from the world around me. (And our air is thick with rubbish words; they come at us from everywhere, from the roil and rattle of the news and the lies of politicians to the poison of advertisers and people’s depressed or outraged Facebook postings. But I digress…)

I write in the early morning because it works for me. But I don’t have children, or have to beat the rush on a long commute. If I had a commute, a train one, I might choose to write then. A train, like a coffee shop, can be a productive place to work, its bustle and familiarity providing just that kind of white noise that some people need to focus inward.

Enabling and training this ability to focus inward is one of the most important things a writer can do, and there’s no right way other than the way that works for you. In fact, a good deal of any writer’s work—and this is the hardest part for those around us to deal with—involves staring into space and letting the mind roam, sometimes for long periods. Some writers take this to extremes. Douglas Adams’s process was apparently to build the entire book in his head. He would procrastinate as long as humanly possible (“I love deadlines. I love that whooshing sound they make as they fly by”), spending long periods in the bathtub, until finally, when circumstances forced him to it, he’d sit down and bang out a draft in a matter in of days; Alfred Bester’s process was somewhat similar, composing in his head till there was nothing left to do but “grab my hat and run for the typewriter”.

Well, these guys were geniuses. I can’t hold a whole book in my head, and likely you can’t either. So we must work in more pedestrian ways, thinking and taking notes, outlining, and then steady, daily accretion as we build our first draft.

What I’ve come to, and which seems to be working well for me with my current novel, is this.

At the beginning, it’s only in my head. A situation arises, a character comes knocking, and I’m intrigued. I test the idea to make sure that it’s more than just an idea, that there’s a story there. It took me a long time and a good many stalled stories to realize that an idea and a story are two very different things. A tornado that rips a house off its foundations and dumps it and its young female occupant down in another land is an idea (or a situation); the girl’s struggle to return home, and the challenges she must overcome in order to so, are the story. You can test the idea by asking yourself whose story this is, what their goal is, (and why), and what’s standing in their way.

If there’s a story, and chemistry between characters and author, I begin taking notes in longhand (longhand feels so much more forgiving and playful), mostly on my characters. Then I look for the ending, and maybe a few waypoints, just to have a rough outline or framework.

After a few days or weeks of note taking, I can start writing. I go for a thousand words a day, and can usually hit that in couple of hours. This is a pretty leisurely pace, but the upside is that my first draft comes out fairly clean. I used to be even slower, polishing my prose obsessively as I went. This was great in terms of syntax, but deadly to the dynamic; I’m coming to believe that when you write very slowly your narrative loses energy and drive. But like most things in writing, there are no hard and fast rules. A very few great writers revise little or not at all; the amazing part of that—to me—is that they get the structure right the first time round. We ordinary mortals should be so lucky.

Still, even a thousand words a day will result in a standard length novel in three months or so. The important thing is regularity. Again, it’s easy for me, working alone at home in a serene atmosphere; those with children or incredibly busy lives face challenges I can barely imagine, and must steal time where they can. But I strongly believe that habit and discipline are the two things that give a writer, especially a beginning one, the best shot at successful producing good work. It doesn’t matter if you write in the morning or at night, in your lunch break or on the train; it doesn’t matter if you write your draft in a mad, unpunctuated stream of consciousness or in measured, grammatically and syntactically perfect paragraphs; but it is, I believe, important to write daily, and have a target which you hit or exceed as often as you can. By doing this you’ll not only train yourself but also—hopefully—train those around you by establishing a regular writing time and place. It may be hard, and sometimes everything will conspire against you. But if you want to be a writer, you’ll make the hard choices and not only carve out the time but also ensure, by whatever means necessary, that your writing time and space is respected and remains free of interruptions.

I strongly recommend working on a computer that’s not connected to the internet. When you find yourself slowing down, or think something needs researching, it’s far too easy to go online and start checking email or reading Wikipedia. I have a very old laptop that’s not wireless-enabled, and I work on that, at the dining table rather than my office where the desktop and internet are. Another strategy would be to just turn off your modem when you’re writing, or grab software like Freedom (www.macfreedom.com) that allows you to disable your Internet for a preset period of time. And turn off your cellphone while you’re at it, too.

Interruptions are deadly to the writer. If you’re going to write, you must take steps to ensure that others don’t interrupt you and (hardest of all) that you don’t interrupt yourself. We like to think we’re indispensable, and that we have at all costs to stay connected and be available, but the truth is that the world will quickly learn to get on without you. Stories and books don’t write themselves, you have to get your butt on that chair and keep it there.

You could also resort to a typewriter or longhand for that first draft, especially if you tend to edit obsessively as you write. I’ve got a lot better in that area. Now if I can’t think of a word or I need to research something, I just type XXX to flag that item for the revision stage. If I’m stuck for description, I just XXX and then go into the dialogue. If I’m having trouble with the dialogue, I’ll type something like, ‘XXX (explains why he murdered his editor and dumped the body in the East River)’.

I’d also strongly recommend keeping your first draft strictly private. Some writers are okay with critique-in-progress, but for me it’s the kiss of death. The story is fragile in draft stage, an infant in swaddling clothes and colicky, and likely to sicken and die if prematurely exposed to the cold outdoors. Like the One Ring, keep it safe and keep it secret.

It takes willpower to write. You have to give things up (TV should be first); you have to prioritise. For many, making a regular time each day may be impossible. If you can’t manage the same time each day, you might make up a little ritual to get you into a writing frame of mind, something as simple as making yourself a cup of tea or reciting a little mantra. The important thing is regularity.

Because once you do that, after even a week or two of writing daily, or Monday through Friday, or every second day, and regularly hitting your wordcount, something magical starts to happen: you find yourself coming to the task with the story and words bubbling in your mind and eager to get onto the page. I often wake up a half-hour or an hour before the alarm with the day’s writing forming and playing in my head, or a solution to the story problem that plagued me yesterday. This, my friends, is the Muse, and as Stephen King assures us, she (he, in King’s case), brings along pure magic. Your job is to be there and be available, and to get the words down until the story’s finished.

 

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Do Or Do Not II: More on Process

  1. Much of this echoed the way I write although perhaps not all as I’m not as self-disciplined or self-motivated. (Perhaps it depends on whether my MS is fighting me or whether it’s having a quiet day). At least you gave me more valuable food for thought.

    However I totally agree with trying to get a regular pattern because when I get in that mode I know I can produce the wordcount. Last year I completed the first draft of a novel in one month – one good month. And in November I did NaNoWriMo and produced over 50k in November ensuring that it was not all total rubbish. Normally a first draft takes 3 months.

    But then when I get out of the habit of writing every day, as when I’m editing, it gets harder.

    • Roland, thanks for commenting. Yeah, I’m the same in that I find regularity hard at the rewrite stage. Editing I can breeze through but I don’t like rewriting much, and often there are structural problems that take a while to work out and don’t allow a frontal approach. I suspect though that these also are amenable to habit… I’m just not there yet with rewrites.

      Kudos to you on the NaNoWriMo success. I’ve never done it, mostly because I don’t want to write at a pace that will leave me with a really rough first draft LOL. I have had days when I’ve hit 2,500 and 3k words, but 1k – 1.2k seems my natural pace 🙂

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