Unlikely writing techniques 5: write whatever the hell you like

This is not exactly a new idea. I have heard it expressed thus:

Write drunk. Edit sober.

Google tells me that Hemingway didn’t say that. I don’t write drunk myself, because if I’m drunk I’m either in company or about to fall asleep. None the less, it points towards a helpful concept.

Or – which perhaps gets closer to the point that Hemingway might have been trying to make, assuming he’d said anything like, Write drunk, edit sober:

Begin by putting in everything you like. Finish by taking out everything you can.

I don’t know who said that, but I owe them a lot. Do you know? Google’s no help at all; it’s just sending me to sanctimonious anti-procrastination blogs.

Here are some important principles:

  1. Nothing is going to be perfect on a first attempt.
  2. If something is not fun, people are less likely to do it.
  3. There is nothing wrong with making it fun.

There is a lot of suspicion about this kind of thinking. Received wisdom says If It’s Not Difficult, It’s Not Worthwhile, and No Pain, No Gain, and other upright, joyless maxims.

To all of which I say, well, maybe. But I feel very strongly that the reverse does not hold true. The fact that a writer made themselves absolutely miserable during the writing process does not automatically make the finished project readable. In fact, it makes it very likely that there will never be a finished project.

What writing whatever the hell you like looks like will vary. Here are some examples.

Skipping the difficult bits

I’ll say more about this another day, because I suspect it’s of limited application, but I am living proof that there are more ways to approach writing than –

Begin at the beginning, and go on until you get to the end, and then stop.

If what’s in my head at the moment is the climactic battle scene, then I write the climactic battle scene and trust that the rest will follow. Personally, I find it very useful to have something to aim at.

You might not want to skip straight to the climactic battle scene, but if you’re having trouble working out how your antagonists meet in the first place, it’s worth beginning with the very vivid picture that you’ve had in your head for weeks, with one of them hiding up a tree and the other eating a picnic underneath it. Or whatever it is.

But really, when the entire internet is banging on about how important it is to nail the first line, is it surprising that many writers never get to the second line? Skip the first line. It’ll come in its own good time.

Writing ‘unpopular’ themes

Anyone who’s interested in being published conventionally by somebody else should probably skip this section, because I’m writing this from a place where I don’t give a damn about pleasing anybody else, and I’ve never worked out how to please a publisher.

Nobody this side of the Pond wants to publish a book about an evangelical Christian lesbian at university, with bonus internecine student politics. But I wanted to write it, and it turned out that a fair few other people wanted to read it. And it may sound like a statement of the obvious, but if I hadn’t been writing what I wanted, I doubt I’d have been able to finish it.

If all of us stuck to writing what publishers thought would sell, fiction would be very pale, male and stale. The #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag exists for a reason, and if you have more patience than me and are prepared to persuade a  mainstream publisher to pick up a story that looks a bit different from everything else on the shelves then I wish you the very best of luck.

And, not to seem too serious, if you want to write about Romans when conventional wisdom says it’s going to be Vikings for the next five years, then go with the Romans.

Writing ‘unnecessary’ things

I also put in all sorts of self-indulgent in-jokes, trying-too-hard symbolism, author filibusters, and mots d’escalier, because it amuses me to do so. Sometimes ‘what I’d have said to Mrs Smith about my missing homework if only I’d thought of it in time’ becomes a piece of sparkling dialogue. Once, writing under a different name, I gave the heroine a Cousin Teresa in a nod to the Saki story, and Cousin Teresa ended up a very important character. There’s a bit in Speak Its Name that got there purely because I’d been dealing with too many standing orders committees and wanted to relieve my feelings by writing a truly incompetent motion.

Sometimes… Well, that’s where we get to:

The second half

You will have noticed that I’ve talked a lot about the ‘putting in’, the ‘drunk writing’, and not much about the ‘sober editing’, the ‘taking out’. That’s partly because you may end up taking out less than you expect of what you put in when you were writing what the hell you felt like. Or you may not. I don’t know. Rory’s dreadful motion to the Students’ Union stayed in; Peter’s thoughts on Bristol VRs didn’t. Nor did quite a lot of stuff that seemed very necessary and worthy when I wrote it.

But it’s mostly because my main point today is about having fun, and giving oneself permission to have fun. I might talk more about editing another time, but in the meantime I’m going to refer you to Joanne Harris, who talks more sense about writing than pretty much anyone else on Twitter.

None of which is to say that editing cannot be fun, or at the very least satisfying. I rather enjoy it, myself (and don’t think I don’t know about cutting huge chunks that I really loved writing); I understand that for others it can feel like cutting off one’s own arm. In which case, changing the metaphor may help.

I try to think of it like this: collecting a hundred thousand words was like quarrying a block of marble out of a hillside, and the editing is removing everything that doesn’t look like a story.


Talk of the Town


2 thoughts on “Unlikely writing techniques 5: write whatever the hell you like”

  1. Great post.
    “If all of us stuck to writing what publishers thought would sell, fiction would be very pale, male and stale” is my new favourite quote..
    Totally agree writing should be fun – not sure it always is lol.
    I’m always super pleased when I get the first draft finished. I don’t mind editing and, if I get fed up, I always have the option to say ‘finished’ lol.


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