In this Issue:
How I write…
It’s important to listen to other people talk about how they go about it, but it’s important to ignore them too
News and events
The Writers’ Lodge
How I write…
I love hearing other authors talk about how they write. How many words in a day? Every day, or do they take weekends off? Straight onto the computer, or do they handwrite first? Do they plan in meticulous detail, or just set off into the vast unknown of the story with no idea where it might take them. And where? At a desk? In an office? At the kitchen table? And how about when? Early in the morning, or late at night? Hours at a time, or is it more a few stolen moments here and there?
It’s always fascinated me, even back when the idea of me actually doing this for a living was still just a dream. And I still always ask this question of the authors kind enough to chat to us at #SJsTwitterBookClub. I think I’m obsessed with the creative process, and it isn’t just limited to writing; I can’t fall in love with a record, for example, without wanting to know which guitars were used or why it was recorded in Berlin, or what drugs the singer was on when he wrote those lyrics. I don’t want to just look at Francis Bacon’s paintings, I want to look at pictures of his studio, too. I want to hear him talk about his methods and the way he approached his work. I want to know how he did it.
But with stories, now I write them too, it’s slightly different. No longer is it just idle curiosity; now I want to learn from others, I want to pick up tips and techniques to try. I think it’s important, which is why I’m still hungry for ‘how I write’ articles and books, even now.
But there’s an important lesson to learn. I used to think I was looking for the key, the solution, the secret code. I knew there were many ways to write books, but I believed there was also one ‘best’ way that we were all searching for. I’d hear someone talk about Virginia Woolf’s day, for example. It seemed very regimented, very precise. She’d get up at the same time every day, then have breakfast, before arriving at her desk. After a few hours work she’d have lunch, then stroll into town to buy a pencil or whatever. An hour editing the morning’s work, then dinner with friends, followed by reading before bed. Day in, day out.
Ah! I’d think. It worked for her. So that’s what I need to do. Every day. I dutifully set my alarm, planned my hours. But then, consistently, I’d oversleep, or get to the desk only to find work impossible, there was nothing in the tank. Or something would come up, a meeting would need scheduling, or a book tour, or a TV show everyone was raving about would demand my attention instead of the post-dinner-pre-bedtime reading that I’d convinced myself had been the key to writing Mrs Dalloway. I’d fail to stick to the routine, then beat myself up about it and determine to try harder the next day. As an incentive, I told myself that only if I succeeded would I allow myself to watch that film I’d been looking forward to, or visit that gallery, or see that play.
It didn’t help, and the cycle continued. But then, with the help of the (frankly astonishing) career/life coach Miffa Salter, I came to realise a few things. That routine might’ve worked for Ms Woolf, but it wasn’t going to work for me. My mind doesn’t work like that. I feel hemmed in by having a strict routine. If I sit at my desk for my allotted three hours of writing and nothing comes, I panic. If I look at my schedule and see I have ‘editing’ inked in, and I don’t feel like editing, then I begin to resent my schedule, which is never conducive to doing good, creative, work. I realised I’m someone who needs a rough structure to my day, but with lots of freedom to juggle things around. I need to accept that no two days are the same and realise that creative work doesn’t come from forcing it, but from listening to my body and mind and trying to work out what I need to do, day to day, moment to moment. (And yes, as I write, I DO realise how astonishingly lucky I am to have a job in which I can do this. When I worked in the hospital I had no such luxury).
Most importantly, I realised that reading the book/visiting the gallery/watching the play or TV series shouldn’t be a reward for having done work first. Those are things that put creative fuel in the tank. It’s actually important not to neglect them, otherwise writing a book becomes like trying to run a marathon on an empty stomach, having told yourself you’ll have a meal at the finish line as a reward. It’s never going to work.
So now? I tend to do my creative work in the morning, as I find that during the afternoon my brain is better suited to admin tasks. I might have another burst of enthusiasm late afternoon, but I might not. If I do, I might write/edit some more, but if I don’t, I don’t. I try to write more than a thousand words a day, but on some days it becomes apparent very early on that that’s not going to happen. Then, I tell myself 750 is good, or 500. On some days nothing comes at all, and then I might get to 100 words and give myself the rest of the day off - but to go and do something (see an exhibition/watch something I’ve wanted to see for a while/go for a walk) that I think might be energising. I call those ‘resourcing’ days, and they give me energy for the next few days of creative work. Also, I now give myself weekends off (though I’ll often tinker with my work on the weekend, it’s just that I no longer feel I have to), and I try to remember bank holidays now, too.
All this means I spend less of my working life in a state of panic, less time beating myself up for not hitting some arbitrary target I’d set myself, or sticking to some rigid plan. But, am I advocating this approach for everyone?
No. As I hope you realise, what’s important is to work out what works for you. And it think this is true for all types of work, not just writing, not even just ‘creative’ jobs. I know with many types of work it’s difficult to make big changes— if your patient is there at 9am then you have to be too, if you work in retail and your shift starts at 10 then that’s when you have to turn up — but it can still be worthwhile spending a bit of time thinking about what your ideal day would look like, if your time was completely your own to manage how you see fit. Maybe you’ll identify some changes you could make, or maybe you’ll just stop beating yourself up for not loving something that actually was never going to be your thing.
And if you do write? By all means continue to listen to other people’s habits and techniques. I still do, after all. I’m not under any illusion that I’ve hit on the best way to write books, though I’m pretty sure I’m close to the best way I write books. But I still try new things out, just in case I find something else that works for me, or something that works better. And the best thing is, it’s fun!
News and events
I’ll be appearing with Victoria Selman at Goldsboro Books in Brighton, where we’ll be discussing writing in general and her phenomenal thriller, Truly, Darkly, Deeply. That’s on July 12, 6.30pm -8.30pm. Tickets are £5 and we’ll be signing after the event. Details here.
I’ll also be appearing at the 2022 Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, which is in Harrogate, UK, from 21- 24 July. I’m going to be interviewing the amazing Tess Gerritsen about her life, her writing, and her new book, Listen to Me. That will be on July 22, at 5 pm. Details here.
Ali has had a rough background. Raised in the care system, estranged from her sister, and scraping a living from odd jobs, when we meet her she has fallen under the thrall of scam artist Sean. Together, they drift from one holiday resort to another in search of gullible tourists with money to burn. When Ali spies Lulu sitting on the beach with her designer luggage, she thinks she’s found their next mark, good for a quick buck that’ll see them to their next destination, but nothing more. Sean has bigger ideas, however. Ideas that lead him to get greedy and make mistakes, leading to a tragedy that sends the book in an entirely unexpected and wonderfully intriguing direction.
Read my full review here.
The Writers’ Lodge
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Don’t quote me on any of this. I can’t remember if this was her actual day, and I use it more as an example…
Thanks for sharing, I think I'd prefer a daily schedule like this. I'm a pantster too so I dont have everything mapped out!
Another great post, Steve and definitely something I'm grappling with again at the moment. I've finished* one project and I'm trying to get some momentum on something new but feel like I'm forcing it a bit. I need a break, to 'go back to the well' as someone more articulate than me described it, and let the story idea properly develop. I know all that intellectually, yet still I feel guilty that I haven't been able to do any 'proper writing' for a couple of weeks. This post has reminded me to be kinder to myself and trust in the process.
*Is anything ever finished, really??