On creative writing

A few of my friends have been encouraged into creative writing recently and I promised I’d write something more substantial than a few Tweets. I’ve written more frivolously about the NaNoWriMo slog over here, but not much since people started going ‘hey this is not utter tosh so how about editing eh’ because I’ve been, er, editing.

Such that a newbie can offer deep insight into the writing process, here it is…

I’d love to say that after a decade of doing sod-all in creative writing that I just sat down and everything was effortless and perfect, but that’s not how it works. In many ways, a lot of it can boil down to this webcomic. Once you’ve got over the ‘wah I suck’ hurdle, think about what you’d like to write about and sharpen your virtual pencil.

The feature of NaNoWriMo that’s both an advantage and a drawback is that, writing an outline aside, your task is simply to get 1667 words down every day. No editing. No faffing. For someone super-OCD, this was tough. And did I know what I was writing about? Not in great detail, actually. I’d sat listening to this album, had the sudden thought ‘there needs to be more backstory here’, then reversed into a book a friend gave me and got stuck on the page with mythical creatures in Edinburgh. A few scribbled notes later and I was ready to churn out words.

Oh, but don’t make the mistake I did and try and rigidly stick to the thing you originally planned. Think of the writing process as a bit like herding a troupe of cats who’ve just ingested E numbers through the Total Wipeout course. Your idea for that scene will go one way, and your characters will gleefully go another. That nice neat scene where everyone was just going to sit about in a café and chat about advancing the main plot a bit? That shit just got hijacked by one character’s harrowing backstory. That’s cool. (Well, it wasn’t to read back, oh lordy.)

Letting characters do what they want was a big means to unplugging the words that were refusing to come. If you force them into situations or try and squish dialogue out of them, they will clam up straight away. You have to let them speak. To do that, you have to get to know them really well. Some people swear by character ‘interviews’ for this; being the thorough type, though, I did everything from…

– making a playlist which they all added stuff to (bonus points if you can guess the decade this is set in. HARD, ISN’T IT.)

– researching the political history of one character’s home country (still a bit scarred from that one, if I’m honest)

– trying to pin down one character’s dress sense via a combination of Pinterest and looking in my own wardrobe (I was not goth enough for her, alas, but I did find some long-lost black clothes. Ah well.)

– eventually being able to picture exactly how they all look and sound. Google Image Search and IDEA is where it’s at. (Don’t blame me if you fall down a rabbit hole of real people’s interesting backstories there. That’s what I did.)

Anyway, whatever works, just get down what comes out and let the plot go with that. This is a surprisingly painful process. It has to be painful. I was sent two textbooks from my editor that had some exercises to practice daily. One of them is writing things down when you’re in that hazy window between asleep and awake. This can be the contents of your dreams, a vague idea, whatever. The other suggestion is something known as free writing.

Free writing hurts. For that reason, you should do it daily. 80% of the content you will not unreasonably ditch, but you may find some ideas/metaphors/characters hiding somewhere in the other 20%. But it’s such a good way to get over apathy, writer’s block, call it whatever. My husband accidentally read some one day; I was reminded of Kris Kristofferson’s words to Joni Mitchell after she made Blue. “Joni! Keep something of yourself!” Yeah, that’s not how free writing rolls. Woodstock-y as it is, you need to let the feels out, man. (Here is where I pull away from ‘proper’ writers, who over the years have mastered the art of writing for money, as opposed to just flouncing about going ‘I have FEELS and I must EXPRESS THEM’.)

Free writing and relinquishing authorial control somewhat will feel like therapy. And here’s the big news: it basically is. Not just because letting words out is cathartic, but because writers are big narcissists at heart, your characters are basically you. Possibly in a small way, or so massively close to home you might as well slap ‘autobiographical’ on the cover now. Write about what you know and all that jazz. Let’s try the theory out with my lot.

Character 1 is a selkie. He has a rather inflated opinion of himself and a tendency to break rules if it means he can have a fun night out. He’s pampered, selfish and disdainful, and gets what he wants most of the time. Until he runs into…

Character 2, the guy from the wrong side of town. Also prone to more than a bit of rule-breaking of the illegal activities variety, he has a short temper and  sees the rest of the world as something to fight back against. If it wasn’t for some plot-related filial obligation you would probably think he was lacking in compassion. Well, until [massive spoiler].

Character 3 is a kelpie. She is a being of pure sarcasm and is permanently unimpressed at the prating man-children she’s landed with. She’s also gloomy, because she’s constrained by circumstances to not have a whole lot of freedom to do whatever she wants.

Well, I don’t know about you but those guys are nothing like me, right? Right?

Anyway, more generally, whether you’re doing the NaNo-style of writing or actually planning and writing something the normal way, don’t edit first time round. Yeah. If you start questioning whether that prose is too purple (probably) or that character swears too much (definitely), you’ll grind to a halt. But when you do edit, be ruthless. Step back from all the feelings and look at the bigger picture. Get people to read it, both close to you and otherwise. Ask the right questions about whether the plot flows or the characters are believable or if you’ve offended Stephen King with the sheer quantity of adverbs (guilty as charged!). If you’re me, develop a Track Changes obsession. Lovely red lines, preciousss. Also, if you’ve been on the NaNo model, this is your chance to really flesh out bits you might have been hurrying through. Bloat that wordcount, son! (Why yes, mine is 60k+ now, why do you ask?)

Don’t forget to sit the characters down and question them a bit. Realise during this process you’re being the therapist to aspects of your personality created through the medium of writing therapy. Welcome to the writing Matrix. Take the Fifth!

Speaking of Matrix, you will find it hard to switch off from novel mode. Partly this will be those pesky characters and sticky plot points running round your head. Partly, you might see or hear something that gives you ideas or reminds you of that bit you were going to tidy up. It’s cool to run with it, otherwise you might lose a brainwave. Don’t overdo it though.

Oh, if you’re me you’ll also see other people doing the thing that you’re doing that isn’t original because there are only ever about three ideas in the whole world ever so whatever. In my particular sphere- which I’m reliably informed is urban fantasy- just a few examples of my vague theme. It doesn’t matter though, because what you make will be unique to you. By all means go and read/watch/listen to stuff that’s all up in your patch, but not too much during writing because undue influence etc etc.

Other ways to stop the writing blockages, in no particular order:

– Carry a notebook at all times. Cannot stress this one highly enough. Not only does it give you the air of a tortured artist, but you’ll be ready when you overhear a pub conversation or see a stunning sunset and need to verbal diarrhoea into something. I left my notebook in a café in Livingston; the sheer Pseud’s Corner anguish filling the car up when I realised this caused a magnificent Chariots of Fire-style sprint by my dear husband to rescue it. GUARD IT LIKE YOUR FIRSTBORN. (Or if like me you have no firstborn, guard it like your bottle of South American rotgut writing fuel.) I’m pretty sure at least one early piece of dialogue was modified based on hearing some under-evolved idiots in a bar grumbling about something Daily Mail themed.

– Visit places and do activities that you want to write about. There’s a reason I had a Christmas itinerary for Edinburgh that took in St Giles, Craigmillar Castle and Cowgate. Take pictures. Write things down. Let those bloody characters out again.

– Have a routine. I’d love to tell you I do a solid 9-5 then relax all night. What actually happens is I’ll do more like 10-4, break for timewasting, then do some evening work, stop for quality spouse time, then realise my body is permanently stuck in NaNoWriMo ‘sleep is for the weak’ mode and write till at least 2am. Oh OK. I’m lousy at this bit of advice.

– Treat yourself. After the ill-advised eBay purchases at 10k word milestones, I now have Prog Bath Day which involves a Lush bathbomb, ill-advised bathroom iPad with whatever album guarantees the lengthiest soak, and even more ill-advised alcohol. Current favourites are Dark Side of the Moon paired with a cheeky red, Foxtrot married with a good single malt and King Crimson with a spirit so toe-curlingly fuerte my husband’s face did a perfect impression of Les Dawson gurning. WHERE IS YOUR LIVER GOD NOW.

After all that though, you should totally look at the end product and go ‘wow’, regardless of how many painful edits are ahead. It’s OK to be proud of that one bit of imagery over there. It’s OK to staple your hand to your forehead and let feelings out. It’s also OK to cringe deeply at some clunky dialogue or that bit where you inexplicably went Mervyn Peake. You must throw the metaphorical bushels off those lights and take compliments when they’re given. You also have to grow a thick-ish skin for criticisms- but always constructive, because folk like the douchecanoe of a journalist on my creative writing course who threw poo around like some literary monkey and never returned after week 2 are not worth the keyboards they slap their flaccid genitals on. You better believe it.

I’m sure someone more qualified can advise on the stuff that happens when you finally finish and polish the writing, but since I’m not there yet myself and *squints* about a quarter of the way through the second edit, I’ll get back to you on that.

Well, that got long. Any questions?

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