As I mentioned last week, each month, myself and six other Perth-based writers will be answering questions about the writing life for a series called Writers Ask Writers. This week we’re talking about writing process. Scroll down for links to articles by Dawn Barker, Emma Chapman, Amanda Curtin, Sara Foster and Natasha Lester.
The pen vs the keyboard
It’s hard to imagine now, but when I began writing my first novel, A New Map of the Universe, in 1999, I didn’t have a computer. I wrote longhand, in pencil, on scrap paper, carefully crafting one sentence at a time. I never wrote a second sentence until the first sentence felt right. I often worked with a thesaurus, sifting words until I found the one that fit the image, the mood, the voice that I was attempting to create. Sometimes I rewrote a sentence six or seven times before moving on. When I had written a whole paragraph in this slow and sometimes painful way, I went back and reviewed each sentence again, reconsidering it in the context of the other sentences it sat beside, making further changes. At the end of a scene and the end of a chapter I reviewed again.
By then I might have a dozen pages in longhand, covered in crossings out and inserts in minute writing, and phrases circled and marked ‘stet’ and sentences numbered for re-ordering. At this point my notes had often become confusing and then I would type them up, making impromptu edits as I did so, and finally printing them out so I could see the shape of the piece clearly, editing again as I read through.
It wasn’t until halfway through writing my second novel, Whisky Charlie Foxtrot, that I got a computer of my own, and even then I maintained the same writing process. My process changed with my third novel, The Ark, because the story was told in the form of digital documents – such as emails, blog posts and text messages – and it seemed counterintuitive to write those on paper and then transcribe them, so, for the first time, I wrote directly on the computer.
For my new novel, Ciudad, I seem to be using a mixture of the two processes – sometimes using longhand and sometimes typing straight onto the computer. Writing longhand feels like a better match for the pace of my thoughts when I’m crafting a piece of prose. Typing is so much faster, it sometimes feels like my fingers are waiting impatiently while my brain fumbles for a word or phrase. On the other hand, typing feels more efficient, and I love seeing the word count rise!
What happens next?
I am not a plotter. I carry lots of ideas around in my head and occasionally two of these ideas collide and sparks fly; that’s when I know I’ve got the seed for a book. I may begin with a single scene in mind, a setting, a character. I don’t research, or make notes, or even spend time imagining. I simply sit down and begin writing and see where the story leads.
When I’m around 10,000 or 20,000 words into a first draft, some questions emerge. The need to answer those questions drives the writing but I tend to rely on my subconscious to find the answers. Sometimes I know where I want the scene I’m writing to go, but I very rarely know what will happen in the next scene, or the one after that.
AS EL Doctorow said:
Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.
Read how my process compares to other writers’ by clicking the links below:
Getting stuck is usually a signal to me that the story has gone off track. Writing became a lot easier when I realized I didn’t have to fear these moments, because writing the wrong words might ultimately point me in the right direction. Read more from Sara Foster
I’m usually a chaotic writer. The story unfolds to me the same way it does to a reader, page by page. I have a general theme or idea in mind when I begin writing, I toss in a character and hope that a story is the end result. Read more from Natasha Lester.
You are probably thinking I must be crazy to make things so difficult for myself. But this is what I love about writing: the challenge of imagining I am someone else, who has had wildly different experiences. Read more from Emma Chapman.
Research is a truly spidery activity: throwing spinnerets far into the breeze, following them as far as they’ll go, or as far as you want to take them, seeing what sticks, and where, finding bridges between strands, filling in, unpicking, abandoning, rebuilding. Read more from Amanda Curtin.
Writing a novel to me sometimes feels haphazard and disorganized, but on reflection, underneath all the snatched moments at the computer and the scribbles on pieces of paper, there is some sort of order. Read more from Dawn Barker.
Your turn: Does your creative process have anything in common with mine or the other writers here? How is it similar or different?