Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Mistakes, I've made a few

Mistakes. Trial and error. Frustration. When you first start out, they're all part of discovering how you write, and working out what it is YOU need to do in order to get the words down on the page.

There are so many different ways to approach the writing of a novel; it can be quite daunting to work out how to start when you're a newbie writer. What helped me figure out the "how" that works for me was to search out other writers' (published and unpublished) accounts of how they wrote, and stow away whatever tips they gave out, shiny new tools for my writer's tool box.

Now I've reached the stage where, after much trial and error, I know how I write; and in the spirit of repaying all those writers for revealing their secrets, this is my little manual of how I write. No "rules"; just what works for me.

A Space to Call My Own

This is where I write. Excuse the mess - but it's my mess, on my desk, in the only corner of the house that is mine, all mine!! I'm free to gunk it up with my research books and the snowdrift of notes I make to myself and my half-drunk cups of tea, with no one to complain. It's also a psychological thing - once I'm at this desk, I am WRITING. Nothing else.

Oh, and meet my supervisor:

Tex the cat, who spends his days following the sun patches around the study while I write (and yes, he has no whiskers; they were gnawed off by his sister when they were kittens and they never grew back. He's a bit of a freak, but we love him ... except when he insists on sitting on my lap while I write. Not good for the neck, that.)

A Straight Line

Unlike Jen and Kristen, the confirmed chunksters, I now know I can only write in a straight line. No chunking for this little black duck. I move from scene to scene, in sequential order, because that's how I see them, that's how they come to me. That said, I do occasionally get flashes of inspiration for scenes further down the track; when that happens, I write a quick and dirty sketch of what I see, save it, and get back to business. I know others are bored knowing what comes next; I find it exciting to know there's a really great scene coming up, just waiting for me to write it - it's like dangling a carrot!

And while I sometimes think the genre I write - suspense - is what makes me write in a straight line (you just have to have your clues and misdirections meticulously lined up so it all works) honestly, it's just how my brain is wired.

A Map

An outline, in other words. I tried launching into my book by merrily writing whatever came to me - and ended up writing 70,000 words of back story that will never see the light of day. But I don't regret it; trial and error is then name of the game when you're working out how you write (though it would have been nice if I'd worked this out a little sooner!) So, once I'd nuked my 70k, I sat down and wrote an outline, and now it's full steam ahead. I find that having a general idea of where I'm going helps to keep the plot straight in my head, as well as the development of my characters. But I DO NOT stick to my outline like glue; just this week I discovered one of my characters has a certain secret which has sent my story off on a very different path to what I'd outlined. C'est la vie!

Make Windows

For me, this has been the most important thing I've learned. I have to make widows - of time, that is.

Like everyone, I'm busy. Three kids, a husband, a cat, a house, will do that to a person. I used to think I needed big chunks of uninterrupted time in order to write, and would get steaming mad when I couldn't find it. Then I realised I was wrong - I didn't need to find the time, I had to make the time. If I didn't make the time, this book would never get written.

Once I worked this out, I suddenly found loads of time - all be it in short snatches of five minutes, ten minutes, half an hour here and there, but still, it was time. When my youngest kid still napped during the day, I'd dash up to the study and start pounding the keyboard as soon as her head hit the pillow, not stopping for anything until she woke up. She also slept well in the car, so I'd leave early to pick up my sons from school, find a park beneath a shady tree and grab half an hour's writing time while she napped in her car seat. These days, with all the kids at school, I do have more time, but still, I stick to what I've learned - when it's time to write I ignore the housework, I screen my calls, I ignore the door bell, I unplug the modem and the distraction of the internet ... all these little steps are vital if I am to make - and protect - those windows of time where I do nothing but glue my butt to my chair and just write.

So, there you have it. That's how I write.

And, because I'll always be curious about how others churn out the words, what has your own journey taught you about how you write?


  1. Hey Rach! I love your office (and the cat!). Although it is now confirmed: you are a total Francophile! (g) And I think you're right, our approaches to writing are definitely tied into the way our brains are wired. For me, I think I have ADD -my brain wanders way too much to write in a straight line. But if you have a very organized thought process, you're going to prefer a straight line method.

    Oh, and how funny is it that you used a map of Chislehurst for your example! The caves that Archer and Miri go to in WCM were based on the Chislehurst Caves. :)

  2. Rachel,

    I am LOVING that cat! I miss mine so much, even though I have two most excellent dog companions, a bird, and a bearded dragon. Where I live in Colorado there are cougars and such who find cats quite tasty, so no kitties for me right now.

    Great writing post as well!


  3. Rachel,

    I agree...your office looks very cozy and productive-making. :) I have a nice little office....loads of bookshelves, a desk...all set up for me to use. Problem? THE NEIGHBORS. lol. Their bedroom is right below me and I seriously think they never leave it. If I want to write in my office, I have to listen to the steady drone of voices. Very annoying because I find I work best in complete silence. Sometimes very low music is okay, orchestral mostly, but silence is always best. (And they've awoken finally -- yes, I can hear them talking already. Sigh.)

    I do envy an outliner. I tend to waste a lot of words meandering around. But alas, writing an outline just tends to drain my energy and leave me at the point I don't want to write the book anymore. (g) In theory, I'd like to be a little more organized, but just WHO do I think I'm kidding? That is SO not me. LOL.

    Love the kitty -- miss having one. I have a SunDog tho...does the exact same thing with the sunspots. Can usually find her blinking up at me from there at any given time of the day.

    OH...and yanno, the time I was most productive was when I would take small snatches of time here and there. Weird how that works because now I'm completely convinced if I don't have at least a five hour chunk of time, and sometimes even that isn't enough in my mind, I won't accomplish anything. When I wrote the original version of FI, I was working two jobs and would literally steal away from the computer or my tables (when I was serving at a restaurant) to scribble down a few lines. Most times I didn't have more than 5 minutes in each little aside, and somehow I would end up writing a good thousand words or more a day in the process. Then, when I got home I'd take twenty minutes to type it out...and expand on it for a good hour or so. Wrote on average, 30K a month, if not more. CRAZY. MISS THAT. Must retrain myself.

    Great post!

  4. Love the office and the cat! When I was off sick on Wednesday I had the laptop on one side of the sofa and me on the other (no office, and I doubt I could sit at a desk anyway. I like the cosiness of the sofa), and both cats came over periodically to try to figure out what I was up to. I'd left no room for them either, so eventually, after an hour or so of draping himself across the back of the sofa, the youngest one (the chubby one) slowly squeezed, wedged, prodded himself into the gap between the back of the computer and the arm of the sofa. I relented and took the laptop onto my lap :-)
    Wednesday worked out okay cos DH was also busy on his computer, but normally I can't write when he's around - he turns on the tv or prefers complete silence, and I can't take that at all; must have music! I do tend to write more when I'm working longhand and steal snatches here and there. Otherwise, accountability :-) works best for me, since I don't seem to very self-disciplined once the initial creative/intuitive rush is over.
    I agree with you Jen - the times when one's the busiest seem to be the times when we find we get the most writing done. Huge chunks of free time seem to lead to laziness, at least for me. Look at today - dark and rainy all day and what did I do? Get up early and write for hours and hours? Clean the house? Cook interesting things? Reply to a gazillion emails?
    No, I read a Cecilia Ahern book! (Where Rainbows End) It was lots of fun, mind you, she's got such a cute lovely way of writing, and boy does she do dialogue ten times better than me! (Than I?)

  5. How come cats and dogs will happily lie on the office floor in the sun, and yet babies persist in chewing on the power cords and pulling books out of the shelves? Remind me again why I became a parent?


    You and I are just exactly alike in our thought processes. I need to write in an outlined, linear way to keep my ducks in a row. If I start chunking it, the ducks get away from me and I lose them all over the place.

    My problem is this: I'm telling a story that has a few components. Each component is linear, but I'm putting them together with flashback chapters and so on. I'm *still* struggling to decide how best to approach that- do I write each linear component, then sew them together? This has not worked in the past. Or do I get ultra-pedantic and outline the whole book as it's going to appear, and then write from point A to point B? I'm at a point now where I get to make that choice again, and I must say the second option is appealing to me more than I expected.

    Time shall tell, I guess.

  6. Sorry for responding to everyone's comments soooo late. Life got busy - and I ran outta windows. (g)

    Kristen - Organised brain? Moi? I think it's more like there's some kind of method in my madness. (g)

    Stephanie - Thanks for stopping by! Cats make the best writing buddies, IMO, but good grief - I wouldn't be keeping one either if there were cat-chomping cougars on the loose! Dog, birds and lizards are a fine alternative. Oh, and I stopped by your blog - I LOVE your photos, especially the snow on the railing. Just gorgeous!

    Jen - Gah, the noisy neighbours! Sorry to say, but I think that's how we're referred to in my street, especially when the kids get out on the trampoline and conduct screaming competitions. (vbg) My DH travels a lot for work, and he swears by these sound deadening headphones he wears to block out the noise and concentrate on his work while in transit. Personally, I think he must look like a right goober, but if it's only your SunDog to see you, it may be an option. And I totally agree; I am way more productive if I think I only have a small window of time to get the words down. Go figure!

    Deniz - LOL at your cat's attention-seeking antics! They are persistent little buggers, aren't they? And I'm exactly the same when I have big chunks of time; I'll fritter them away on inanities unless I give myself a good talking to: "SIT DOWN, madam, and WRITE. You wanted loads of time? Well here it is! Go use it to write before I slap you upside the head ..." Um, doesn't everyone talk to themselves like that?

    Claire - Oh, babies. Worse than monkeys, IMO (monkeys can at least peel their own bananas.) (g) I think your second option is the way to go. It's like you need a satellite picture of your story, so that in a glance you see where you're going and how to get there, without being sidetracked by all the purty scenery along the way. But then again ... what do I know? (g)