Approaches to Writing

I do all of my writing on my laptop, though I’ll jot down notes on scraps of card when the computer is having a rest. Some authors swear by the benefits of writing in longhand, producing a hard copy with their favourite pen, before typing it out. This may have benefits for their creativity, but it sounds exhausting to me, and I value the ease and speed of technology.

I’ve previously posted on Approaches to Editing. I’ve tried different approaches to writing, since 2013. The first was forced on me, in a way, as I sidestepped a logjam of creative ideas that had built up from twenty years stopping myself writing fiction. I used to write non-fiction articles on house renovation, classic vehicle restoration and counselling, all of which I did as paying jobs, so keeping records of what I did spun into articles that others could use.

I avoided writing novels, largely out of low self-esteem, if I’m honest…throwing myself into rebuilding stuff and helping people to cope in crisis. This sounds admirable on the surface, but I’ve noticed that a lot of repairers, carers and counsellors have deep-seated insecurities that border on masochism; they stop themselves doing anything good for their own ego.

It was reading a couple of indifferent novels that somehow had gotten published, which really set me off writing my own poetry, short stories, novellas and novels. I’d been through four years of dark depression, which was horrid, but forced me to decide what I really wanted from life. When you’re inexplicably ageing, you take tough decisions: I didn’t want to be laying on my death bed thinking “I’m really glad that I didn’t write those crime novels.”

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I should say, that I live alone with no commitments to friends or family and no regular employment, so I can choose when and how to work on my creative writing. This is a luxury, I know, and I take my hat off to those of you who cope with a full-time job, family and pets.

Anyway, these are the approaches I’ve tried so far:

* Writing as a non-stop marathon. When I returned to the keyboard, I wrote for 12-16 hours daily, seven days a week, skipping from short stories to poetry to song lyrics. I couldn’t stop thinking of ideas. It may have been the literary equivalent of an enema, but some decent work resulted, and that which got hacked away in editing taught me how to be ruthless and unprecious.

* In writing my first novel, I did three months of research first, before knuckling down to eight hour days of forming the story. I made a beginner’s mistake, unaware of the acceptable length for debut novels, so banged out 180,000 words. I did most of the editing after typing The End, which felt like the equivalent of cleaning a battleship with a toothbrush! Editing recently completed chapters shortly after I’ve written them is much easier. The whole project took about a year.

* I’d written a short story about an American Civil War veteran in 2013, which involved him being in one place under siege. For the second story, he journeyed down from the Appalachian mountains, which dictated a linear episodic form. I decided to try writing at the time of day when the next incident took place. I figured that if I have ‘kitchen thoughts’ which differ from what I think when in the bedroom, then my brain might more readily come up with varying ideas at dawn, midday, dusk and in the early hours of the night.

This proved to be the case, so I’ll use this technique again.

* After writing four crime novels in three years, last year I experimented with a more leisurely approach to Book 5. I don’t mean laziness, for I think about the story all of the time, even if it’s subconsciously or in my sleep. I wrote a couple of chapters, then stayed within them for a few days, doing any fact-checking of things that bothered me and deciding if the characters were staying true to themselves.

I wrote from 6:00-9:00 p.m.—contemplating during the day, what I was going to write, in between web surfing, answering emails and reading library books.

Anthony Trollope declared that:

‘Three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write. But he should so have trained himself that he shall be able to work continuously during those three hours – so have tutored his mind that it, shall not be necessary for him to sit nibbling his pen and gazing at the wall before him, till he shall have found the words with which he wants to express his ideas.’

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I’ve found that this relaxed, but more focused approach has added complexity to the narrative, that I’d have missed by charging ahead. Also, staying in the moment of a scene, over several days of editing, has helped me to understand my characters better, adding crucial details.

This way of working slows the daily word-count, but I’ve never been bothered by that; it’s the quality of the ride that counts, not the figure on the odometer.

What’s your approach to getting the words out of your head and onto the page?

Do you write in the evening, after you finish your day job?

Or before you leave for work?

Or while you’re travelling to work, on your smartphone?

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