Tuesday, 2 February 2010

How I Work

For me there are two distinct stages to the task of writing a book. The first involves developing the story in my mind. People get their inspiration in different ways. So I can only talk about what this is like for me. Sometimes I find that a huge chunk of the story arrives in my head almost by itself. Other times I get only a tiny clue, a plotline or a character, and then I have to really work at tracking the rest of the story down, as if it is a quarry I am hunting through uncharted territory. I have to be open to all kinds of possibilities at this stage, being prepared to change things dramatically if I suddenly see a better direction for the narrative.

So that’s the first part devising the story. I used to spend much less time on this than I do now, because I couldn’t wait to get writing. I’d start hammering away at the keyboard before I had really finished thinking, hoping I could work out the rest of the story as I went along. Now, however, I have learned to slow down and think it all through properly before starting to write. That wayI produce much better novels. It may sound like a kill-joy approach but there are still plenty of discoveries to be made even when you think you know the plot backwards.

The second part, the actual writing, is much less random. I sit down at my desk five days a week and write from nine to five with an hour off for lunch. I try to write a thousand words a day to start with, and two thousand words a day when I get going.

Of course I don’t keep all the words I write. It’s a pity, because if I did, I would write my novels much more quickly. But, as any writer knows, you have to throw away a lot of work. So I spend the first part of every morning going through what I wrote the previous day and cutting lots of it out. However, I never actually delete any text completely from my computer. There is always a file into which I put all the cuts, cross-referencing them to the manuscript just in case I change my mind.

Setting a daily word-limit may seem an arbitrary way to proceed but it’s a practice followed by a great many writers. I’ve been told that Graham Greene invariably stopped at one thousand words even if he was in the middle of a sentence. This may be a myth but I could easily believe it.

This disciplined approach began when I wrote my first novel. As I said in my previous post, I was working full time, we had a child who didn’t sleep very much. So I made a rule that I would work for one hour a night, and stuck to it even if I spent the entire hour just staring at a blank piece of paper. (It was paper in those days. I didn’t get a computer until my second book.)

I found that making myself work whether I wanted to or not and even if what I produced seemed like total garbage, helped my motivation. If you allow yourself to make excuses not to write once, it gets easier to do it twice. Pretty soon you find that you’re losing touch with your manuscript completely.

Word limits can also help you see the novel as a finite thing. Otherwise it can seem like a huge, never-ending task that has taken over your life. Let’s say a novel is sixty thousand words long. Now ask yourself how many significant episodes there are in the plot. Let’s say, for the sake of simplicity, that there are twenty. What’s sixty thousand divided by twenty? Three thousand. So all you have to do is write twenty chapters each of about three thousand words and you will have your novel.

Of course not everyone likes to think of it like this because it leaves out all the fun you can have along the way those moments when your characters start to come to life, when you think of clever little plot twists, or when you write a passage that you feel is the best thing you have ever produced. I don’t even like to think of it like this myself all the time. Nevertheless it helps every now and again to remind yourself that writing a novel is just a matter of mathematics.

7 comments:

Keren David said...

Now how did Graham Green know he'd reached 1000 words? No easy word count button on a typewriter..
I have to learn to slow down and think through a plot.But I'm completely with you on the daily targets - it helps so much to break it down into do-able chunks.

Brian Keaney said...

The same way that I did when I wrote my first novel on paper. One, two, three, four...Blast it's only eight hundred and six!

Lost Wanderer said...

After several attempts at "creative" writing method, I am definitely for the thinking-things-through. I am quite new at that. My last WIP was the first one that I outlined properly before writing. But with the new one I am planning to start, I am taking even longer. Sometimes I just want to start writing, but I know it isn't the right time yet.

A question for you Brian -
Do you ever work on more than one book at a time? If so how do you combine writing/plotting one, and editing the other? Do they get into each other's way?

Brian Keaney said...

Well Lost Wanderer, I try very hard to avoid writing two first drafts of two separate books simultaneously. I have done it occasionally because of publishing schedules and have found myself inadvertently giving minor characters in one book the same names as major characters in the other book and other little 'leakages'. So I really try to avoid finding myself in this position.

However, like most authors, I generally get sent the editor's comments on the manuscript of the previous book when I am in the middle of the first draft of the next book. Then I have to stop working on the new book and give my attention to its predecessor. That's okay if the editor only wants minor changes. But if they think there are substantial passages that need rewriting it can be a real pain because then you have to forget the book you're currently enjoying writing and get right back into the mindset of the previous book that you thought you was all done and dusted.

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Pink Rose said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pink Rose said...

Thanks so much for this post Brian. It has given me not only inspiration, but also a lot of encouragement and great advice for starting my own novel. Thanks for putting what seems like a never-ending task into a not-so-complicated task.

Lost Wanderer said...

Thanks for answering my question, Brian. I have found the problem of "leakage" too, so I am trying to decide whether I should focus on just editing/revising my book, and start a new one after that.