Discovering My Writing Techniques

Posted on July 15, 2010 by

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Not long ago, Angela Meyer blogged about her observances on her own personal writing process. So I thought, Bugger it, I’ll write something about my own, and what I’m learning, and the things that work for me[1]. Maybe I’m talking our of my arse. I’ll accept that criticism. Wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been accused of it, nor would it be the first time I’ve done it.

To whit:

1. I can’t be near a WiFi connection. Or indeed any sort of Internet connection. It’s just too bloody distracting (read: I’m not disciplined enough to stay offline). This isn’t always the case; a few weeks back I went on a 3000 word binge, in one sitting, whilst in rage of a WiFi hotspot. Somehow I didn’t let it get into my writing time. Possibly because I was well into what I was writing. The fewer distractions, the better. Turn off th Net, if you can, or (as I often do) go to somewhere with no Wifi (or if they do, do not get the password).

2. Huge slabs of free time actually helps me write! Now, I’ve heard that this can be a massive impediment to many writers, because nobody procrastinates like a writer. Sometimes, when faced with a blank page, writers will do almost anything (like, even tidy up or wash the dishes!) except sit down to fill it with words. I’ve been away from my normal circumstances for nearly 4 months and not working, and it’s very easy to slip into the lazy hazy days (and nights) of Cambodia. But all I really have which acts as a benchmark for any sense of productivity is my word count. I’ve gotten to the point now where I feel I’ve wasted a day if I’ve not done at least 1000 words, and sometimes I feel that even that is a little bit light. It took a while to get there. But so long as I get 1000 words out at some point during my waking time, it doesn’t matter if I laze about beside a pool drinking mojitos and reading Henry Miller for nine hours (to use a completely random and possibly slightly non-hypothetical example). I’ve met my obligations. I’m not going to claim to be particularly disciplined, but I know that I need some structure if I’m gonna get any proper work done. So I’ve taken to referring to it as such. “I’m off to work for a while now.” It helps me give it the gravitas it’s deserved for a long time, which I’ve sadly not given it.

3. You’re allowed to fuck it up. This is a variation, a cruder one, on Mur Lafferty‘s “you’re allowed to suck” rule. The story I’m working on was relatively structured. But I came up with a better overall scenario and started writing it in rough draft as if the newly-thunk-of scenario had always been in place. I know I can go back and revise later. To read the rough draft as it stands now, it’s almost as though the characters fell through a rift in time and ended up in a parallel universe, but with no clue to the reader. So? I know what’s happening, the rough draft is for me only. Keep going. Even if you know there are continuity errors galore, keep going. Finish the rough draft, even if it’s fucked up. Then, when you’re done, go back and unfuck it.

4. Mind-altering substances don’t help. Far bloody from it, in fact. I’ve only experimented with alcohol, but I tells ya now, the stereotype of the drunken writer is either complete bullshit, or the individuals connected with said myth were so damn talented that it didn’t matter. In any case, I doubt that most of their better work was written whilst shitfaced. I think Hunter S Thompson falls squarely into the latter category, and while his writings did lose their edge towards the end of his career (and his life), the earlier stuff is rivetting, especially when you consider how many chemicals were supposedly coursing through his system at the time. Bukowski probably falls into a separate category again, as he probably needed half a case for breakfast just to be functional. But for the average regular writer, substances are bad, mmmkay.

5. I have to get out of the ivory tower. Writing comes from experience, and the more I get out and live life, the better my writing seems to be. A lot of the stuff that’s found it’s way into my current project has been inspired by some truly weird experiences that I’ve had recently. Go out, meet people, drop yourself in the deep end and just live. I think getting out of the ivory tower is a good bit of advice for life in general, but I also find that it grounds my writing in more realism.

5½. Travel. OK, this ties in with point 5, but I find that I can’t write authentically about a place unless I’ve been there. I want to set stuff in New York City, but I’ve not been, and all I have to draw on are second-hand accounts and the way that NYC is portrayed in the media. Unless it’s gonna be pure backdrop, I have to actually visit the places I set my stories. At least, that’s my justification. 🙂

6. Carry a notebook and pen. Never ever think, “Oh, that’s such an awesomely cool idea that I’ll never forget it!” You will. Guaranteed. And the awesomer the idea, the less time it will stay in your memory. If you’re out somewhere and your muse calls you up, you must beg or borrow or steal (or in extreme cases, murder for or whore yourself out for[2]) a piece of paper and a pen, and write down what your muse tells you. And then keep all these bits of paper in one place. Or better, buy a notebook and transcribe what’s on these scraps into it. Even the act of writing it down will help it stick in your mind. You may not forget it after you’ve written it down, but if you do, you still have it on paper. A more high-tech method is to get a voice recorder or get a phone that has voice memo capabilities. These steps will help prevent the crushing frustration when you wake up in the morning and realise that your brilliant idea has slipped into the ether. Though if this happens, you’re hereby granted a free single-use pass to shout an obscenity of your choice, in any language, at maximum volume, without penalty.

7. Eat first.Mangiare, mangiare, you too skinny!” I have to write on a non-empty stomach. My ritual so far as been; get up, shower, do the Internet thing for a while, go to breakfast and write in my journal. Eat, keep up with the journal thing if I need to. Then I get into my writing.

8. Use a reward system. Bribe yourself, as you would with a child. Get a certain wordcount done, mess about on a social network for a set amount of time. Finish a chapter, have a cheeseburger. Get a good amount of editing done, watch an episode of Lost on DVD, Again, whatever works. I rarely need to resort to this myself, but it can be very helpful.

9. There’s no such thing as a wasted word. Delete a sentence, no problem. Even a chapter, or an entire book. It’s not a waste, it’s all practice. Every single word you write is time well spent on honing your craft. Nobody needs to see it, but I would suggest not actually permanently deleting anything. Hoard it all. I take this approach to my photography as well, and while I get many compliments on some of my better shots, nobody sees the thousands of duds sitting on my hard drive. I keep my crap shots too so I can learn from them, just as I’d suggest keeping your rough drafts, even the 1st or 2nd or however many drafts it takes before you have something worth submitting. Which brings me to the next point:

10. Back up everything, and do it often. Not a negotiable tip. Back up everything, and do it often. I’m sure that every writer can associate with the heartbreak of losing months or years of work due to hard disk failure. Back up everything, and do it often. Keep multiple copies in a few locations, if you’re paranoid. I lost an entire book in 1995 and I’m still pissed off about it. Back up everything, and (yeah, you know the rest).

11. Read. Read even the stuff you might not normally go for. Try to read what are considered the classics. Get out of your comfort zone. This is something I try to apply even to films, because I’m interested in storytelling in all it’s forms. I sometimes deliberately seek out films I think will be shite just to see how they fuck it up. On the other hand, I’ve promised myself to one day get around to reading two ridiculously popular but (IMHO) extremely crap books just to see where their appeal lies. People who read solely for leisure say, rightly, that there’s too much good stuff out there to bother wasting time with the bad stuff. But as a writer, I feel as though I should at least try to read as much as I can, even the things that would not normally appeal to me. (Disclaimer: I know this might be heresy, but I’m not particularly enamoured with what little Hemingway I’ve read. And my attempts to read James Joyce have fallen flat too because I can’t get past his nonsensical verbiage.)

12. If these tips aren’t for you, flush ’em straight down the bog and come up with your own (except tip 10 and 11, and probably 9… and I’d recommend 5½ just for the fun of it). I won’t take offence. People are different. One person’s Dan Brown is another person’s David Foster Wallace. Some people use Windows, some use Macs, some use Linux. Some people are alittle bit country, others a little bit rock ‘n’ roll. Whatever. It’s a big diverse world. The whole idea of art is to experiment, find your own voice, your own methods. There’s too much goddamn compliance and conformity in the world these days. Shake things up. Discover your own path.

13. Just write, for fuck’s sake. End of.


[1] – May not work for you (see tip 12). One of the things that is equally fun and frustrating about writing is discovering what works for you. There is no right or wrong. Do it. If it works, keep doing it. If it doesn’t, try something else.</span

[2] – I’d never advocate murder or prostitution for any reason…though it depends on how seriously you take your writing.

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Posted in: Writing