Tuesday, 6 April 2010

The Lonely Writer

A nostalgic hearkening back to another stereotype: that of the isolated, lonely writer. On a more serious note, though, there's a little bit of merit to that stereotype. I know I said that if writers were isolated all the time, they'd never get great ideas. But the truth is, that's the inspiration part. When the actually work begins, writers almost always work alone. It's hard to get chapters written and dialogue to flow when you have distractions coming at you from every angle. As promised, this is a sort-of follow-up to my post about editing a novel. This is how I write.

This process varies from book to book, but as someone who has written several novels that never got anywhere and started several others, this is generally how it goes.

  • An idea slips in, insidiously. They're sneaky things, ideas. Sometimes you're inspired by something you've seen or read or heard. Sometimes you have a dream and snag on to one delicious element of that dream. Sometimes you just have the idea and for the life of you, you can't tell where it came from. Sneaky. See?
  • The idea stews for a while. The core idea for ECHOES stewed for all of a few hours before I got writing, but, it must be said, I'd had similar ideas and started a book with a vaguely similar premise a few months before. So maybe that's why I got writing so quick. Some details were already fleshed out. With HALF, the idea stewed for months before I got writing properly.
  • The writing begins. Cue frustration, tears, despair, excitement, pride and the nearly irresistible temptation to tear out your hair. Cue long wanderings off to your friends'/parents' bedroom to have a chat, just to procrastinate writing a dreaded scene. Cue long days where you do little but write, and your friends call you an antisocial git. Cue more frustration, tears.
  • I send chapters to a close friend or to Steve as I finish them. Sometimes they have good things to say. Sometimes they're lukewarm. They often have suggestions. This not only helps me fix mistakes, it also provides the encouragement some writers need to keep going on bad days.
  • While writing, I keep going back over what I wrote the previous day, or week. I compulsively reread, tweak, edit. I find that I can't just write a full first draft without stopping and editing as I go along. It hurts me physically to think that the previous scenes might not be what I want them to be, so I have to fix them before I can move on.
  • My OCD kicks in, and I change the font about six times, desperate to find one in which every letter, speech mark and italic looks good. [Note: they never do. There is no perfect font. Fellow OCD-ers, cry.]
  • I hit a roadblock. It always happens, whatever book I write. I give up. I decide I'm rubbish, the book isn't good, and it's useless pursuing it. I close the file and turn away, angry.
  • I find that I can't stop thinking about the characters, or imagining a wonderful scene that I was going to write for the end of the novel. I find that when it's quiet or I'm trying to get to sleep at night, I can hear my characters having conversations. Sometimes, they refer rudely to me as the 'giver-upper'.
  • To shut them up, I go back to writing. Sometimes, if I'm lucky and the story simply has to be written, like ECHOES insisted on being, I'll finish the first draft. I'll collapse back in my chair after writing the last sentence, and feel rather weak and drained and stunned. Did this really happen? Did I finish a book?  
  • At this point, I celebrate. Usually by eating, sleeping, and rather guiltily returning to the university essays and dissertation I've neglected for weeks. Sometimes if I'm lucky, I get to celebrate with a drink or dinner out. Not often, though. The one stereotype I do fall completely into is that of the struggling, penniless artiste. Tragic.
And that's the first draft. Or, in my case, the 'sort of first draft', because I do a lot of tweaking as I go along, which no doubt slows the process down, but it's what works for me. I know of writers who rattle out their first draft without ever looking back at a single page, and then go into editing full-throttle.

The time frame: anywhere from a month to about six. The 'sort of first draft' of ECHOES took me four months to write and complete. I started late September and finished mid-February, but I'm taking into account a few weeks in this time frame where I wrote nothing whatsoever.

And then, I edit. Properly. Compulsively. Painfully. But that's another post, because otherwise this one will get exceedingly long, and I'll be guilty of neglecting my dissertation yet again.

Finally, an exciting bit of news: I've just had another request for a partial of ECHOES. I just sent off the first fifty(ish) pages to the agent in question, and I'm very excited to see how she responds to them.

Picture above photographed by Simon Howden. One day, I'll take a picture of my own desk. It's not nearly so tidy.


  1. well done sangu!!!

    and you're not antisocial! at least not with me. i don't doubt that the characters talk to you though.

    Mina Ma: "Do some work"
    Lekha: "You're such a procreator"

  2. Hahaha LOVE the Lekha quote. Yep. That's probably what she'd say. You know them almost as well as I do.

  3. Although I hated it at first, now I write everything in Courier New. It's evenly spaced, easy to read, and nice and boxy, but has the feet most professionals seem to like. (Left to my own devices, I'd go sans-serif every time, but I adjusted.)

    Font wasn't anywhere near the most important thing you talked about in here, but I can relate! I submitted my finished novel to an ePub the other day, and they specified that wanted the ms in Ariel, 12 pt. Ariel! Ick! It was all narrow and squishy and ... sigh. I did it, but I didn't like it!

  4. India: Oh, lord, don't I know it. The battles I've waged with font (Ariel = sucks, Times New Roman = crinkly, and so forth) are legendary. Sometimes it stops me writing for days. Awful. But I've just discovered Two Cen MT Condensed, and while it's not perfect, I've been able to live with it thus far. *fingers crossed*