My Writing Process

 

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A sense of place

Vicki Goldman, a writer and book blogger recently asked me to write a piece about my writing process, which she posted on her website. She’s read and reviewed hundreds of books, if you’re looking for your next read, you should take a look. Vicki has kindly let me post the article below. 

I’m just beginning to write my third novel, and it’s taken until now to work out if my writing process is different for each book, or what similarities there are.

What I’m only just realising is how important it is for me to have an idea of place before I start. Where do my characters live – country, area, type of house, room – I need to be able to see the space they inhabit before I can really get to grips with the story.

And it seems after two and a bit novels, I’m a big follower of the process that E.L. Doctorow talked about in his famous quote: “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.”

I’m not a planner. I have a vague shifting idea of an end point; perhaps who will live and who will die, but no idea how that life or death will happen. I start with one or two characters, drop them into a location, and see what they do. If it’s going well, by about a quarter or a third of the way through the characters take over and will sometimes refuse to do things. This isn’t anything spooky, it’s just that I know in detail the type of people they are, their habits, their likes and dislikes, and this in depth knowledge begins to help the story along. In my second novel, Swimming Lessons, I had two characters who I wanted to get together quickly, but they took chapters and chapters to do it. I’d put them in a room together and they would barely look each other in the eye. In the end I had to let them do it in their own time.

I don’t like writing. Perhaps it would be easier if I were a planner, but because sometimes I really don’t know what is going to happen next, it can be difficult. I treat it like a job; it is how I make my living, so I sit down at my desk at 9am and stop at 6pm. I do lots of other things during those hours, of course – I’m easily distracted – but that is my working day. What I do like however, is editing. Oh, to write The End on a first draft! Once I have 70,000 words or whatever, then I can have fun – cutting, moving sections, working on the structure – and then playing with the words, making sure each one is right, that sentences flow, that it all has a rhythm when I read it aloud.

However, I do edit a bit as I go along. It’s impossible for me to write without going back a short way each day and reworking. My new words are so abysmal that if I didn’t go back and edit a little bit then the writer’s doubt that we all suffer from would be too inhibiting. But I set myself some rules: Whenever I sit down to write I must also add new words to my manuscript. I’m never allowed to just edit until I’ve finished. Even if I only have ten minutes writing time, just three or so of those can be spent editing. If I have a full day available then I aim for 1,000 words (but I’m secretly happy if I get 800 down). At the end of each day I keep a tally of what my new word count is and a line of two of what I did and how it went. Very often I write something like, ‘I can’t do this, why am I doing this?’. And to keep the internal critic at bay while I’m writing I allow it a few words of its own now and again. So, in the middle of a paragraph I might write in square brackets [this is rubbish], and then carry on writing. It’s also reassuring to know that if I’m run over by a bus before the manuscript is finished no one will think that I believed it was any good.

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Our Endless Numbered Days has recently been published in paperback in the UK, and is both a Richard & Judy, and Waterstones Book Club Pick. Read Vicki’s review of Our Endless Numbered Days.

30 thoughts on “My Writing Process

  1. This is great. I’m not a planner either. I always think I’ll never write it if I know what happens because I’ll be bored but every now and again I have a hankering to have a perfect plan before I start. My theory is that it might reduce the levels of fear and general feelings of incompetence but maybe I’d have those anyway! I think to plan or not to plan is largely a matter of temperament.

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  2. Thanks a lot for this very helpful article. I have been writing for long time, mainly poems and short stories; but now, when I mas 65, I am trying to finish a novel about the farm and family where I grew up. All a bit surreal. For me, writing is a need, maybe a disease…who knows. Anyway, I have to work in another job to survive, jaja. Thanks again and have a very healthy and successful year.

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  3. I loved your first novel, and looking forward to your second … my first was published in 2013, and I’m struggling with the second. I couldn’t agree more about location and a sense of place; something I need to nail down strongly in order to proceed. I simply can’t think in terms of pure plot. But planning this second book a bit, after a tough time rewriting the first, isn’t necessarily in my writerly DNA.

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  5. I really enjoyed this, particularly as I’m the same – I much prefer the editing. Is that all you start with though – the characters, and the place – or do you have some dilemma or tricky situation that the character finds herself in?

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  7. Very interesting to read, Claire. Several things struck me:
    – the excellent Doctorow quote
    – when you stated ‘I don’t like writing’ I thought: what?? Then you clarified that it’s the editing you enjoy and I empathised with that
    – finally you said you edit as you write – and I thought: good, I’m not alone! We’re always being exhorted to keep writing to the end without pausing to edit as if it’s a rule one mustn’t break. But I have never been able to work like that. I shall no longer feel as if it’s my guilty secret!

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    • You’re right, we are often told that – just keep going. I think that’s what Stephen King says in his ‘On Writing’ and many other people. But some writers (David Vann and Zadie Smith to name two) write and edit as they go, and then when they come to the end the book is finished. Sounds like we’re somewhere in between.

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  8. This is an interesting post. I’m finding that the different novels (just beginning third) require different techniques. First was a crime that had to be solved so I had something to aim for and just jotted scenes as I thought of them. Second was character driven but a dual narrative that I felt had to be balanced so plotted that one quite meticulously, inciting incidents, mid-points, etc. This one is very character driven as well, but is more truths being peeled away as it goes. They surprise me too, so not planning much but worried that there’s not enough plot as such.
    Totally agree with the editing. Can’t wait to get there with this one, and I, too, edit a little then press on. Gives me a little momentum to grab hold of. Sorry Stephen.

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  9. This is so timely and encouraging! Thank you. I’m on 50k words and I know the end (ish) will be in grasp soon but I’ve been worrying that my character lead approach just might not get there (even though it’s got to here). Irrational, I know, but so nice to read your piece here as support.

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  10. Thank you Claire for this insight into your writing style. I’m currently in the process of writing a book. I think I overthink things as I’m editing as I go along! Maybe I just need to get my ideas onto paper and write the story, get to the nitty gritty and edit afterwards. I’m a perfectionist you see and the thought of not having it ‘right’ is annoying. I like the idea where you put prompts to go back to when editing into brackets! Great idea!

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