“Could you write something about your writing process?” my editor enquired.
Could I hell!
Probably not, is the honest answer.
So here’s the problem. When I write, I am not really aware of doing it. The experience in my memory is one of sit down… open Word… and stop when I get tired. When actually doing the scribbling bit, I am not aware of my own thoughts. There’s no pausing to go “but would that character say that?” or “how does this actually enhance the story?” The words go slurp slurp slurp, and sometimes they are bad words, and most of the time they’re perfectly average words and that’s fine. Particularly in the last thirty thousand words or so of a book, when I’ve got momentum and its all coming together and I’m ready to just get it done, I’ll sit down at the computer around 8 a.m. and approximately ten hours later get back up with a cry of “blimey, I should probably pee!” Time loses all meaning, and conscious thought kinda takes a back-burner.
As a consequence, I am comically under-qualified to write about my ‘process’. However I guess there are… quirks… I got which might vaguely qualify as being like… all about the words?
Here are a few.
- Face blindness. I am really bad at faces. I have to concentrate incredibly hard to picture someone I know well, like my Mum, and even then I usually get a wobbly snapshot with fuzzy edges that slips away as soon as I’ve caught it. Consequently, when I’m looking for faces to give to characters I’ll usually cheat and scan the internet or my local environment if I’m out and about, or flick through an album of random photos my partner printed once to use as currency at a Secret Cinema event… long story. I’m not too worried about finding the ‘right’ face, since if real life teaches us anything it’s that you can’t tell crap about how people behave in extremity from their hair. I also find looking at actual faces in all their crinkled fascination useful for avoiding the tedious clichés of cultural ‘beauty’ or stereotyping that you can fall prey to in books, where people’s features are described to render them ridiculous archetypes of ‘gorgeous’ or ‘handsome’ or ‘manic pixie dream girl’ or whatever – rather than actual humans. Skipping a physical cliché early on is incredibly helpful for skipping emotional cliché later, is my suspicion. Sometimes this isn’t true – sometimes a person’s appearance is the heart of their character – in which case I’ll take a little extra time to describe, if not the face in more detail, then the work that someone puts into it, since description should ideally be exposition too.
- Visual imagination. Conversely, while I can’t picture faces, I can picture places and stuff easily. I can physically put myself in most places I describe, however loose, and smell and usually hear them too. I don’t have to have been there, so long as I have a sense of colour, smell, temperature or moisture and can imagine how things feel when touched.
- I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I have synaesthesia – that quirk of neurology where certain things come across as colours. For example, my emotions are almost entirely in colour. I very rarely know how I feel in conventional terms – I feel ‘lilac’ or ‘magenta with yellow bits’ or on a bad day ‘blue-grey with cobalt flecks’. I also hear sounds in colour, and when I see certain colours I feel them physically inside me. If walking through a particularly vivid landscape I can’t wear headphones, otherwise I won’t hear the colours properly, and sentences and the rhythm of language have colours too. This is unfortunate for my editor, who sometimes gets the comment, “Sorry, that change is too pinkish-red,” for her sins. But it is also how I understand the way language works – not just musically, but in colour, and has an effect on how I write.
- I have a bad habit of acquiring in my daily spoken language, the style of language of whoever I’ve been predominantly writing. At the moment that’s been a woman with a lot of gripes, and my spoken language has become distinctly more bullish as a result. When I was writing 84K my sentences became littered with ‘likes’ and often just sort of…. when writing Stray Souls I wound up going even more Londoner than I already am, while Horatio Lyle sent me into a proper Victorian English nose-dive. The content may remain the same, but in literary terms I basically acquire a bad accent from whatever it is I’m currently working on.
- I am a deadly combination of a) English and b) as mentioned, prone to only feeling things in colour. As a consequence in my books you’ll have to search far and wide to find characters actually expressing what they feel out loud, at any given point. “I feel sad,” said none of my characters almost ever. Where they do express sentiment, it’s almost invariably because my editor has given me a note going “could someone please say what they feel?” and even then I tend to give the actual feeeellliiinnggggsss as an expressed idea to someone else who can say it for them. This has never struck me as a problem, to my editor’s regret, as I always figure that my characters are expressing how they feel perfectly fluently already, whether by blowing stuff up, dedicating centuries to revenge, acts of bravery or cowardice and so on. Obeying the command of ‘show don’t tell’ has always been a winner for me, even if it turns out that in quieter narrative moments there’s the odd missed opportunity for someone to say this stuff out loud.
- Writing with music. I used to do this all the time – like many writers, I preferred stuff like soundtracks for their lack of anything too distracting. These days I can write with or without, it doesn’t really bother me. Part of this is the consequence of the number of books I have written while sat in LX Op boxes or huddled in dusty corners of theatres across the UK. If you can write a novel with your feet balanced on a pile of broken parcans, you are not going to be precious about your writing environmental.
- Plotting and planning. This is something writers get asked about a lot. However, a bit like healthy eating and exercise, the question can sometimes have an air of ‘please tell me you’ve got a magic secret that makes it easy’. I don’t. No one does. Sometimes you just gotta go for that damn jog. However, like a marketable diet plan, a lot of writers will hold forth on their secrets, rituals and routines, which is awesome if it works for them, but doesn’t necessarily work for anyone else. Personally, I have four things I’ll try and do when planning a book, but none of it is essential or guaranteed, because real life just keeps happening.
- Talking the story through with a trusted friend. There are perhaps three people in the world I’d trust to natter about a book, before it was written. And damnit, they all have real lives and aren’t available on demand. The reason that number is so low is because frankly, it feels like an indulgence asking for their time and attention, but also because the standard response you can often get is: “oh, I’m not sure about that. That doesn’t make sense to me.” This is a sentence that kills you before you even get started. “Ohohohoh maybe this or what about that?!” is what you want and need to hear, and when you find those buddies who are willing to get as enthused as you about a story they are a precious, sacred treasure.
- Writing out the good bits. Often when dancing round what the key points of a story are, I’ll just write snippets of it freehand. Dialogue in particular is my friend, as there’s nothing quite like hearing a character explain or justify their actions in their own voice to help you find the ways in which a story does or does not stick.
- Postit notes on the wall. Sometimes, when there’s lots of plot to keep track of and key clues or twists that you need to lay the groundwork for, I’ll write it all down and stick it up on the only bit of spare wall in the flat – which is next to the bathroom, if you’re wondering. I don’t often consult it once it’s up, but the act of writing out key bits is usually informative in itself. And postits, unlike sheets of paper, can be moved around, destroyed and changed easily as the reality of the book unfolds.
- The first 10000 words of a book are usually the worst. You’ve got to find your characters, lay the scene and also get on with a rip-roaring adventure, all in a way which leaves the reader completely confident that you know what you’re doing. I am resigned to doing the first 4000-10000 words at least three or maybe four times, deleting and starting again. They are fodder which I treat as a plotting exercise, right up to the point where they finally stick.
… but fundamentally, all that said, I am just someone who believes heartily that there’s nothing quite like sitting down and writing the damn thing. It’s so much easier to find out what’s not working and fix it when you’ve actually got words on the page. And also, there’s editing! Do you know how many times I’ve had to go back into a book and put in red herrings or make… just… all of it work?! LOTS. Me dudes: write the thing you want to write the way you wanna write it. If that means with sweet music playing and the smell of rosemary wafting through the room, then awesome. Do your thing, your way, and it will be the most awesome it can be. That’s the only thing I’ve actually learned and genuinely believe in all these decades of scribbling.