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Friday, July 27, 2007


Writing method: hope for the best

Well hello.

Several interesting questions were asked at the last post, so I'll be answering them in the order they were asked. First on the list: my writing methods.

Here's the thing. Whenever anyone asks me about my writing process, I tend to feel like a kid who's cheated on her exams being asked about my revision methods. How-to-write books are full of suggestions for mapping out plot, planning themes, creating character sheets, concordances, what have you. They also involve having worked-out schedules: rise at 7.03, eat an eleven-minute breakfast, spend the next four and three-quarter hours writing in the shed at the bottom of the garden, so on and so on.

The embarrassing fact is, I don't do any of that.

When it comes to writing, as I think BuffySquirrel has remarked earlier on this blog, there are planners and there are instinctual writers, and I'm very much of the latter. There are several things that go towards making this up...

I first started writing, not at writing workshops or having read a here's-how-to-plan-it self-help book. I started at meditation workshops that happened to include some arts work. To begin with, I did automatic writing, sitting curled on the floor scratching away non-stop: the principle of automatic writing is that you don't stop writing even if you can't think of anything to say, instead writing 'I'm stuck I'm stuck bananas bananas and while I'm thinking about bananas I saw a chimpanzee in my dreams last night and it laughed at my feet...'. Words build on words until they eventually create something, which you can either use or discard.

I don't write quite that way nowadays, but it's a lesson I continue to profit from. I don't plan scenes except in the vaguest way - 'X has to have happened by the end of this scene' - and I don't write at my best at all when I've planned too much plot in advance. It makes the process too conscious, and I write at my best when I'm letting my subconscious mind have a say, stringing words along as if I was improvising a tune, letting each sentence be suggested by the previous one. You can't, in my experience, write the most vivid prose by conscious technique: if it's going to echo in the mind of the reader, it has to echo in your own mind, and that means writing is a kind of incantation, a working-up of mood in myself until I'm in a kind of terrified trance, frantically writing down everything I can before it goes away and I have to rest.

The disadvantage of this technique, which is why I tend to feel a bit embarrassed talking about it, is that you have to beat the drum to work the mood, and sometimes the mood just doesn't work. And when it doesn't work, I write much, much worse; y'all don' t get to see the stuff that doesn't work, but take my word for this. The analogy I find most apt, awkwardly enough, is sexual: it's like trying to have an orgasm if you're a woman, or trying to maintain an erection if you're a man. You need to be entranced, in the mood, and the more you worry about keeping the mood, the less likely you are to achieve and sustain it. Hence, I have good days and bad days, which is an embarrassing thing to admit when you're supposed to be a professional.

The final reason why this is embarrassing to admit is that I've seen internet examples of people getting cross when a writer they like writes a book they don't, and use comments that the writer has made about his or her methods as a means of attack. Hence, telling you all this is taking a bit of a risk, as if anyone doesn't like my next book, I will have given them plenty of ammunition for speculation and personal remarks. However, I can't be the only person who feels like this about writing, and I've still somehow managed to write a book, so I'm putting it on record in the hopes that everyone else out there who feels all wrong about the standard get-a-whiteboard-and-plan-your-scenes advice will take heart in the knowledge that they're not the only one. As BuffySquirrel remarked, it's easier to write books advising people who thrive on details plans, which is probably why so many books for the systematics and so few for the chaos-wranglers. Natalie Goldberg is the only advice I ever benefitted from following; again, I don't follow her advice to the letter but I'd certainly recommend her for beginners.

Other methods? Well, I'm not exactly a synaesthesiac, but I tend to describe them in aural or tactile terms.

Plot I experience as a shape in my mind rather than as a schematic plan, and I tend not to write plots down, except to note a few pointers in case I forget them. It's more like putting something together with your eyes closed: you feel the structure with your fingers, work out what shape needs to be added next, and then try to fashion something that feels like the right shape.

Characters I create with a method my friend refers to as 'a rag, a bone and a hank of hair', which I've talked about in a much earlier post; if I have one sentence they've spoken that feels absolutely right for them, or see them making a particular gesture, or otherwise have something like a sense of them in action, then I can make everything else harmonise with it. Recently I went for a walk with my boyfriend, for instance, where he quizzed me about a character I was working on; because I had a feeling for how she moved, I was able to answer questions involving her childhood, how she ate, her sexual tastes, her family relationships, and more or less anything else. I didn't already know the answers, but I could work them out. If they don't move, they aren't alive, but once they're moving, I can keep them going.

Style I either experience as sound or as weight. One way I have of describing art is to say that if it's good, it'll go ding if you tap it, and if not, it'll go clunk. What I don't do is tinker with sentences word by word. I write a sentence, see if I like it, and if I don't, get rid of it and write another one. Sentences tend to be complete; it's unusual for me to go back and fiddle with a single word, because I can't see words in isolation: for me, both as a writer and a reader, I process words phrase-by-phrase. Each sentence has its own mass, like objects of different weight dropping into my hand one at a time. I find it quite hard to read ill-balanced prose; I continually trip over it. (Hands, feet, weighty objects, tripping over ... Mixed metaphors, I snack upon them.) When I'm writing a sentence, the best description is that it's like being a knife-thrower, hefting the knife in my hand to feel the weight and balance, and then if it's right, hurling it in a single movement at the target.

Outlines, I hate writing. Plot always changes as I write it, and it feels like I'm lying if I say I know what's going to happen next; I can do it, but it makes me feel scared and guilty. (In justice to my publishers, they are perfectly aware that outlines are provisional; it's just my conscience.) This isn't because my characters 'write themselves' or anything like that: my characters aren't real, and I have to get behind them and push. But there's a chaos effect in writing a plot: each scene always comes out slightly different from how I would have guessed at the beginning, because every sentence is suggested by its predecessor rather than chosen according to an over-reaching plan, and if I don't know where I'm going to be a thousand words from now, I don't know where the heck I'm going to be fifty thousand words from now.

In general, for me, writing is like trekking through a marshy field in a mist, finding good sound earth and potholes and sinks and slopes, working towards a glowing light in the distance, which is the final idea. I don't know how I'm going to get there or what I'm going to look like by the time I do, but I get there in the end.

And I don't work regular hours. I have a minimum word count I aim for each day, but for me, working up to writing is part of the process; when I don't have time to procrastinate, the quality of what I put on the page drops. This ties back, I think, to the sense that there's something meditational about writing: I can't switch tracks instantaneously, I need to do mental preparation - and I'm often a bit shaky after writing as well.

All of which is much less easy to justify than the methods the books recommend, because, my dear Watson, my methods are not very methodical. But I have the suspicion, backed up by some experience, that if I tried to be more methodical, I'd write worse. If anyone else writes this way or feels that the books aren't very helpful: take heart, you're not the only one. The worst advice anyone can take is to try and follow another writer's methods; you have to feel out what works for you.

I've been dwelling on how embarrassing it all is, but it's also a philosophy of art. Other writers may differ, but I firmly believe that good art works upon the mind in ways that bypass conscious thought, and that it must necessarily take more than conscious thought to produce it. Such methods are hard to explain, and can only be judged by the final product - but as the final product is the only the that matters anyway, I think I'll stick with them.

Later note added: Naomi adds in the comments that she feels the same way, which gives me to consider ... On reflection, I have the suspicion that there are a lot of us out there, but we're all to embarrassed to come out. Maybe we should have some kind of Scatty Writers Pride parade. We can all turn up when the spirit moves us and go home when we've run out of enthusiasm for it; you guys make the banners saying 'What time is it? It can't be that late!', I'll wander down the street looking confused, the standard-bearers can make little notes on the back of the placards at random intervals, everyone can chant 'What do we want? We can't really explain it!', and we can have a few people sitting down to write a scene in the middle of the march. It'll be so impressive!

Really enjoying your blog a great deal! Thank you!
Why, thank you for the compliment! Nice to meet you.
That sounds a lot like my writing method. I used to worry at uni that I was some sort of hack for not meticulously planning out every scene in my stories. It's always nice to find out otherwise ;)
How funny that you feel "scared and guilty" if you write an outline. I feel scared and guilty if I try to write without one!

We writers are a varied tribe, are we not?
Indeed we are. You'd better come to the Pride parade as well; you can wave a placard saying 'It doesn't work the same for everyone you know!'
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