My Way is Not the Best Way but It's Mine

As you may or may not know, I do a bit of writing. What I don’t do very much is write about writing. There’s a lot of writing-about-writing about and I don’t feel the need, or in possession of the appropriate tackle, to add meaningfully to that existing canon.

These few paragraphs may be a small exception. Then again, they may not because what I’m doing today is not suggesting a way you should write but, rather, a way you don’t have to write. You can if you want to, and you’ll probably be way better off if you do, but you don’t have to.

At least, I don’t think you do. The older I get, the less stuff I seem to know for sure.


Lots of the most brilliant writers seem to have lots of brilliant ways to write. They utilise hundreds of tiny index cards and an array of large white boards and felt tip pens and truly-beautiful note pads with pens that spew ink in controlled mayhem. 

These brilliant and envied (by me, at least) writers create a detailed road map of their writing before they ever write anything at all. They may well write entire biographies for their characters such that they know their lineage back to the War of the Roses and they delve deeper into their inner psyche than Freud ever got with any real person.

When they finally come to write, the road map they have created is so clear that the writing itself is a lavender-strewn stroll down a country laneway in high summer to the virtual village pub of the final page…

A quick read back and it sounds like I might be mocking these people. I’m not – gosh, I’m ‘so’ not. I envy them quite a bit. I would love to have a road map of juggled index cards and white boards and ink-ridden moleskine jottings. I’d love to give that a successful try.

Make no mistake, ‘successful’ is the key word in that last sentence ‘cos I have tried. I’ve utilised packs of postcards and written stuff on them (mostly ‘Act 1’, ‘Act 2’ and ‘Act 3’). I’ve even bought software to organise my brain and my plotting into some coherent mass.

None of it works for me.

I get bored and distracted, I lose impetus such that I may even give up what I was trying to do and go and tidy the kitchen instead.

All I can do is write. 

‘Write it out’, that’s what I do. If I sense that I have something to write, all that I can successfully do is sit down and write it. If I ignore the nagging pulse in my arm that tells me I should be writing, if I break out the index cards and the software and the white board (I don’t even have a white board, not really) then I will lose my way and probably the initial inspiration too.

I’m not at all proud of this. In fact, this post feels more like a confession than most anything else I’ve ever written here. I long to be the consummate writing professional, plotting and planning my attack, getting to know my characters, laying the paving before I set off. But I can’t. All I can do is jump into the mire and start plodding my way through. Except that’s wrong, that last bit is all wrong. It’s never a plod or a trudge, not for me. Once I’ve got over the guilt of not doing all the plotting and planning, I sail, I skim along at a rate of knots. Ideas that never would have occurred to me while gazing at an index card pop up from nowhere. I’m sorry, it’s what works for me.

And there are many who will tell you how wrong my way actually is. Robert McKee, if I understand and paraphrase him correctly, would suggest that I will never raise myself about the linear and the obvious and even the cliché if I don’t do my groundwork first. He may be right for 99% of the people but I don’t think he’s right for me. How do I know? Simple. If I had to do all that stuff, I wouldn’t be writing. I’ll still be sitting staring at the groundwork wondering what the fuck to do next.

I reckon a large proportion of writers probably hate the ground work but they do it anyway. They do it because it makes their writing infinitely better and smarter and more original and wonderful and free. Like I said, I genuinely respect that and see the value in it. It just doesn’t work for me.

There is one crucial aspect to the silly amateur way I do things. Crucial. I have to reserve the right to hate the first and second drafts of anything I write. I have to resist any urge to settle for my first and second go at anything. The truth is, I believe I do a lot of the index card/white board stuff in my head, I’m constantly juggling and twisting stuff around as if that is my default setting. Perhaps that’s why any physical manifestation of the process alienates me so. But, no matter how much juggling I do in a first draft, there is loads still left to do. Huge swathes must be cut and chucked in the bin. What came first may now come last or somewhere in the middle. Everything is considered to be in flux until it is not. 

It’s a bit like making a jigsaw puzzle with quite a few of the pieces hammered into the wrong place just to get some idea of how it all might fit together. I think that’s okay, for me at least, but then you have to step back and see which pieces are patently wrong, prise them out, and get them right.

If there’s a point to this post. I think it’s this. I think there are lots of ways of writing and if you’re stuck staring at the notebook or the plotting software, consider letting it go for a while and just writing. Just write. See where you go and where you end up. Just don’t settle for what you write in that initial foray. 

Never settle.

Until it’s good.


Jim Murdoch said...

I too marvel at how other writers work. I think of Nabokov with his index cards and I just marvel; no other word for it. For long and weary I’ve felt like a fraud. I just start writing and follow my nose. I never know—with the exception of Milligan and Murphy (although not at first)—know how a book’s going to end or even what the point of the exercise is. I just have a compulsion to keep going and try to make sense of things. I write until I can’t think of anything else to write and then I go off and think for a while. Sometimes I have to think for a long while. Two of my novels had breaks in the writing of a couple of years. And then I read about these kids—why is everyone on the Internet so ruddy young?—rattling off novels in days it feels like! I think in that respect the Internet has been very bad for me. When I was alone—and I wrote in isolation for thirty years remember—I only knew my way. There was no one around to make me question how I wrote or why I wrote or who I was writing for. I wrote stuff, turned the words around (as Roth puts it—love that expression) and when I felt I’d done enough I let my wife read what I’d done and then I stuck it in a drawer. That was enough. And I SO wish I could go back to that.

I don’t write many articles on prose; have you noticed that? Poetry, yes. I really don’t know what to write. I know, like you, a lot of the stuff that others must do with Post-Its and whiteboards I do in my head—which is why I’m struggling so at the moment to write anything of any length (even though I have four or five pieces begun)—but I’ve never felt inclined to try and break it down into a method. Perhaps this is because I’ve come to realise—as much as it annoys me (and it really does annoy me)—that so much of the grunt work is done by my subconscious and I have no insights into how the hell he works. He lays the groundwork and I flesh everything out.

I wish there were rules. Of course there can be rules. Writing courses love to break everything down into steps and the simple fact is I can write without the aid of my subconscious but I never do very well on my own. Poetry especially. Without him the poetry is just … what was it Stephen Fry called it? … ah, yes: “arse-dribble”. Anyone can write. Not everyone can write something anyone else would want to read.

I prefer poetry to prose, to novels anyway. I have an idea for a book-length work of prose at the moment—not quite sure if what I’m thinking about could be called a novel—and although a part of me feels I ought to be working on it there’s this other part who simply does not want to have to go through it all again. I don’t do drafts—don’t understand them to be honest—but I do edit constantly and sometimes it feels as if I can’t write two sentences in a row and get them right. So most of the time I hate what I’m doing and am terrified that it’ll all be a waste of time.

The thing is I actually suspect more writers are like us than not. They just don’t talk about how horrible the whole thing is or why when it is so horrible we keep going back to it. I don’t like comparing writing to childbirth—my novels are certainly not my kids—but in one respect there is commonality: the forgetting. When I’ve finished a novel—finished-finished—everything gets forgotten and that’s when I start to get the urge, vague at first, to write another. I don’t want to write another novel but I do want to have written another novel.

I don’t like the way the work ‘amateur’ is looked down on. It should be the other way round. Professionals do stuff for the money. Amateurs do it for love. I’m not saying professionals don’t love what they do but as soon as something becomes a job of work then something is lost. Since most writers can’t afford to live off the earnings they get from their writing they still can cling to that amateur status. I feel sorry for those who have to get up in the morning and write whether they feel like it or not.

William Gallagher said...

I have lately learned a way to plan out things when I'm required to do them in a hurry and, yes, it works, it's more satisfying than I expected. But my natural route is to explore on the page.

Consequently, yep, I have written and thrown away possibly hundreds of thousands of words that I could've avoided doing with a bit of planning. But I don't think I'd have got to the pages I've kept without going through that. And they're worth it to me.

hope said...

Seems I'm on "your" writing team. :)

If there are words in my brain, usually a phrase that won't go away, I sit down and type until my brain is done for the day. At times, I feel like characters are taking me on a trip and, silly as it seems, I can be surprised at where "they" want to go.

And then I put it down for a while. When I return, there are places to fix...points where my fingers were trying desperately to keep up with my thoughts. I seem to always feel a need to get an idea down on paper before it it up is easy.

So write on, my friend. You do it so well.