Yesterday I emailed back some responses to a Q&A that Flame Tree Publishing posts, apparently during the run-up to their anthology publications. One of the questions was about process, a topic I’m fascinated by and love talking and thinking about. The question was:
Can you tell us a little about your writing process? (i.e. do you always work to a particular schedule, prefer to work with particular materials/software, prefer to work in certain locations, do you write masses at once and edit later, or do small chunks at a time etc)
And my reply:
These days I’m trying to generate material “on demand” more and more, and so I keep a notebook where I have odd conversations with my “muse”. I let her ramble, and often then freewrite a bit before I try to lock it all down and apply some structure. I’m getting better at cutting and throwing away, which was difficult for me when I was younger. I write with pen and paper when I’m stuck, but on the computer I’ve recently moved back to Scrivener after a dalliance with Ulysses.
It was actually rather hard to write about it in the 75-word-vicinity they’d asked for (and I see I went over; at the time I was hastily replying in my email client, which annoyingly doesn’t provide a word count anywhere), and at the time I remember thinking I wanted to think more about my “process.”
(Yes, even here on my blog I’m using quotes around contentious phrases, things that sound like wank and set my impostor syndrome alarm bells ringing.)
But I am terribly interested in how people write, especially the ones who don’t plan everything out in minute detail.
That answer I made above was about short stories, which are easier in that you can hold a story in its entirety, in your mind.
A novel is such a difficult beastie. With that, I alternate between planning and then throwing the plan out the window when it all feels too prescribed and boring. I tell myself the story, over and over again. I write “the sentence”, which changes all the time. (Or my logline, if you prefer; the first finished thing I ever wrote was a feature-length screenplay, so in many ways I have that process still on the brain, twenty-some years later even now.) I brainstorm, I mind-map. I have a silly number of notebooks where I write things out longhand.
Over the summer I spent a week or so seeing if I could fit my novel into the seven-point story structure. I did this for each sub-plot, and then even went so far as to step out each scene, staggering the various sub-plot developments along the number of scenes I decided I had to write.
Then I went away on holiday. Came back, three weeks later, and couldn’t bear the sight of the thing. A spreadsheet — what was I thinking? Even now I look back at it and want to shake myself. It’s just too much.
Right now (for the novel) I’ve got a document that I typed up, with a list of “things that have to happen in Act 2”. Stuff is jotted in there, haphazardly, but I think I’ve got most of it. I can finish a scene, and then scan the list, and my brain can make the necessary connections to then plan out what I need to write next. I have no idea if this list will see me through to the end of the rewrite (and let’s face it, this really is a RE-write, from scratch). There will bound to be some telling and re-telling of the story to myself again at some point. (Peter Elbow style; I love his metaphor of going out to sea, and then coming back to land again…I must write about him sometime.)
I know that what I’m doing is a terrible way to write a novel. It’s hideously inefficient, and when I look at videos by people like Chris Fox (whose videos I love, BTW, especially because he looks so tired in them) who just seem to be able to rattle through their stories at a rate of knots, I wonder what on earth I am doing. But: even though this is all painfully slow, the book still insists that it be written, and so I slog away. Eventually, logic dictates, it will be finished, and then I can start fresh with something that I can take a different approach with.
But anyway, the questions. I was about to post this and realised I had been talking about process and never even answered the original questions (gah)!
do you always work to a particular schedule,
Lately, I do. After I drop Leila at school, that’s my writing time. If I’m procrastinating (and kidding myself) I sit upstairs at the dining table on my laptop and try to write. But the laptop’s powerful and basically there are all sorts of things open: tons of tab browsers, email, all the rest of it. If I want to get some actual writing done, I have to come down to the study. The Mac mini there is so weaksauce that unless I want to sit banging my head against the desk I can really only have one or two things open at once. The keyboard is awful (a cordless Mac thing that I bought in LA in 2012 when I went over for E3), a lot of the time it’s cold, and it’s cluttered (my fault), but that’s where I get my writing done.
prefer to work with particular materials/software,
This also varies. Ideas in my “lightning” notebook; and when I am stuck or slow or have to feel something out, I’ll write in longhand in a notebook. Currently I’m using a stack of Clairefontaine A4 100 sheet notebooks, but I don’t love them. They’re good though precisely because I don’t love them — I can just tear through them, and because I can use any sort of pen. There’s absolutely no reason for me not to write in them, no excuse I can wrangle up.
When I’m writing on the computer, these days I am using Scrivener, which I returned to after Ulysses returned to their subscription model, which I have seriously mixed feelings about. Buying the full versions of their Mac and iPad software, was a big deal for me as I don’t earn a lot of money. Then they turned around and announced the subscription model. I love the software but when you convert the subscription to NZ dollars it’s just something I don’t know if I can justify. Maybe after I’ve finished the book and I’ve done something with it, I’ll go back.
I’m still searching for the ideal note-taking setup as well. Bear notes was good, but again is a subscription service, and I already have money going out every year for other things. It bugged me the way I had to subscribe to Bear, just to sync my notes and export them. Essentially I want something that I can create notes with, that doesn’t require a whole lot of mouse clicking (I like keyboard shortcuts), that lets me create internal links easily (wiki style) and that I can use across my Mac, my iPhone, and my windows laptop. You’d be surprised how few apps there are that fit that bill.
prefer to work in certain locations,
Usually down in the study, though I do get a little stir-crazy down there. I get jealous from time to time of people with colleagues who work in cool offices, have work Christmas parties, regular incomes, and all the rest. I feel more and more like I’m on the fringe of things as a stay-home, part-time working, full-time mum who writes about death and undeath or short stories about girls who love swamp monsters or women whose children are birds. It’s not really a usual thing and even though I know a couple of writers and they write weird stuff too it feels sometimes like they have more normal lives and I’m pretending at doing this adult thing and somehow doing it wrong.
Anyway, sometimes I go write in cafes just to hang out with other people, even though we don’t talk or anything. Yeah, it’s lonely doing this— I can go a day without really talking to anyone except Leila, before and after school, and Steve for a few hours in the evening. But at the same time I remember how frustrated I was when I worked a “regular IT job” in an office and how much I just wanted to write, at home. No job is perfect.
do you write masses at once and edit later, or do small chunks at a time?
I’ve moved from writing all of it at once and now I find if I write up a scene and then go back and re-read it (or type it up) the next day or so, that I can find a balance between letting it all hang out and wringing the life out of it before I’ve begun. I’ve even been printing out the scenes as I go so I can sense my progress a little better and get some tactile feedback.
Anyway, there you go: another rambling post by yours truly on writing. There are other things going on, of course. I’ve started spinning wool again on my Louët, and I’m busy knitting up a Zweig sweater for myself. It’s spring, so that means it’s wet and there are loads of things blossoming. The days are getting longer and warmer. Life is pretty sweet, really.