Unlikely writing techniques 9: a writing hat

I keep a bottle of brandy in my desk. Not to drink – I can’t write drunk, and, as it happens, it’s the Christmas pudding brandy – but because it makes me feel a bit like Raymond Chandler.

It doesn’t make me write like Raymond Chandler, but it does make me write. Playing at being a writer does result in actual, real-world, words. It’s something about ceremony and ritual, together with not taking any of it too seriously. It’s like putting on a designated writing hat, or socks with a pattern of pen-nibs; something that says to me, and to the world, ‘OK, I’m a writer now.’

It could be argued that this dressing up lark is a bit childish. To which I reply, firstly, that I don’t care; and secondly, that one of the few points with which I still agree wholeheartedly with C. S. Lewis is on childlike things.

Anyway, the brandy has to go somewhere.

Unlikely writing techniques 8: move the goalposts

For most of this year, all the time I’ve been working on the thing that’s currently entitled Wheels, I’ve had a target wordcount in my head. Eight thousand words over the course of the two weeks of each month that I spend writing. Aim for a thousand words each commuting day, not usually hitting that, but making up the difference when I type it up.

August was different. I knew that from the beginning of the month, but couldn’t quite work out why. After a while I remembered (read: was forcibly reminded) that seasonal depression always kicks in for me in August; also, I’d be spending a lot of my evenings watching the Olympics. I was glad that I’d already decided that I wasn’t going to worry too much about the wordcount. Instead, I was going to concentrate on getting my head around one of my characters, one I didn’t feel I quite knew yet. And I’m getting to know her. Slowly. A little bit faster than my narrator is.

As it happens, I ended up not too far short of that eight thousand, but that’s not the point. I needed very badly to give myself a break, and moving the goalposts helped.

To a certain extent, this is a thing that happens automatically: it’s all very well aiming to write two thousand words a day, or whatever it is (personally, I go for a thousand, and rarely make it), but after a while you have a novel’s length, or even more, and you have to start cutting things instead. You’re forced to redefine ‘a good writing day’.

But sometimes, even if you’re still on the first draft and have just got bogged down at the 25K mark, it can help to say, ‘Well, this month I am not going to worry about wordcount at all, but I am going to try to nail the scene where the main character comes to a major realisation about herself, because I have been scared of getting this wrong so I have been putting it off.’ Or, ‘I’m not particularly bothered about whether I finish chapter three this week, but I do want to get a handle on Bob’s character.’

Often, that kind of little shift can give me enough space to unstick whatever’s got stuck. Occasionally I am tempted to beat myself up about not being able to keep up my ideal rate. But this is my pitch and my game, and I put the goalposts wherever I damn well please.

Unlikely writing techniques 7: find an encouraging writing group

This is rank heresy in the church of People Who Tell You How To Write. The doctrine, as I learned it, went something like this:

Seek only criticism. If you seek encouragement, you will find only people who tell you what you want to hear. That way lies egotism, laziness and dreadful writing.

There are two reasons for ignoring this, or, at least, taking it with a giant pinch of salt.

Firstly, a lot of self-appointed critics of other people’s writing are… not very good at it. They tend to have subscribed to a rigid interpretation of supposed ‘rules’ for good writing, many of which they don’t even know how to apply properly, and the results are ridiculous.

This is what Ann Leckie says about rules:

Weigh writing advice carefully. Anything presented as a rule is not a rule. At best it’s general advice presented as a rule. At best. Half the time it’s bad advice to begin with. But always consider advice. Consider it seriously, and if you find it won’t work for the project at hand, put it aside.

Secondly, accentuating the negative is depressing. In every piece of writing there will be good things and there will be things that could do with some more work. This applies all the way from My Immortal (and I’m linking to the TVTropes entry there because it always cheers me up; very funny, very NSFW, also don’t blame me if you lose the rest of the day, you’re welcome) to War and Peace. Most writers know that their writing needs work. Some find it easy to work out what particular work it needs, and how to do it. Some don’t. Either way, random people on the internet (or, for that matter, random people in the library; this applies to offline writing groups too) aren’t necessarily the best source of advice. (See reason one, above.) And once someone has had a piece of writing ripped apart by enough people they’re much less likely to show it to anybody at all. And that way lies sticking it up unedited, and nobody wants that.

I am a member of an online writing group, and it is one of the most supportive, encouraging communities that I’ve ever been part of. People are delighted when you’ve had a good day’s writing and can report a wordcount of 2000. They commiserate when you’ve had a bad day, and written three words, or nothing, or have spent the entire day down a Wikipedia rabbit hole and aren’t even sure you can call it ‘research’. Nobody tells you that Jane Austen wrote with all her family bouncing off the walls so why can’t you. They will find something nice to say about whatever you post. And even a supportive comment can make you realise that something isn’t working. ‘You’ve really nailed the fifties atmosphere,’ for example, when the story’s set in the present day. No, sharing writing with this group doesn’t make me lazy. It makes me want to come back, and to come back with something more positive to report.

Later – much later, when I’ve got a story that’s as close to perfect as I can get it unaided – I bring out the big guns. I email the people I know I can trust to tell me what needs doing and where, and I promise them a bottle of gin apiece, and tell them to do their worst. But the cheerful, uncomplicated support of my online group in the early stages of a project is invaluable in getting the thing off the ground.


Talk of the Town


Unlikely writing techniques 6: leave it hanging

This happens for me automatically: I quite often run out of writing time before I get to the end of the scene I’m writing. I can’t, obviously, sit on the train and finish it off, or I’d end up being taken straight home again, so I have to stop. Mid-sentence, sometimes.

Also, sometimes I run out of steam at or around Finsbury Park, so I shut the notebook and look to see whether there’s an update from Lady B-, the Comfortable Courtesan as was.

On the train home, I often find that the morning’s part, which I’d thought would only take a paragraph or so to wrap up, wants to run on and on into the next scene. Or a different part of the book entirely. I’m not fussy.


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


Unlikely writing techniques 4: pick your pen up…

genuine work in progress
genuine work in progress

… that’s it.

I do most of my writing on the train. My daily rail journey is fifty-five miles each way; it takes about as many minutes. Once I’ve read the office and put my make-up on, I have about forty minutes left. It’s a regular, predictable slot of time, with reliably unreliable internet access, that I can devote to writing. I write all the way from Royston to King’s Cross.

Well, that’s the theory. In reality, of course, it’s earlier in the morning than I’d like it to be, I’m sleepy, I’d rather be in bed, I am wondering why the hell I commute into London anyway, and I am not feeling in the least inspired. I might have thought of what to write next as I cycled to the station, but I equally well might have not done so.

If I’m in that sort of mood, I make a bargain with myself. I do not have to write anything. All I have to do is get out my notebook and my pen, and find the last thing that I wrote, the next blank page.

And then I wait.

Sometimes it works instantaneously. I catch sight of the last thing I wrote the previous day, and I remember what was going to happen next. Suddenly the train’s passing Stevenage and I’m most of the way down a page.

Sometimes – less often, actually – it doesn’t. In which case I accept that it probably isn’t going to happen, read something instead, and try again on the way home.

Barbara Sher and Havi Brooks would call this an example of a CWU. Officially this stands for Complete Willingness Unit, but Havi is a great advocate of renaming boring initials, and I’m a trade unionist, so in my head there is a bunch of grumpy postmen saying, ‘Our members are prepared to take the lids off their pens, but that is as far as they will go.’

Sometimes I make it Cockatrices and Wyverns Union. But they still have postbags.

Talk of the Town


Unlikely writing techniques 3: put your pen down…


… or turn your computer off, whatever.

If I’m feeling a bit stuck, I try to get out of doors and do something that makes writing completely impractical. I go for a walk; I ride my bike; I go swimming. Sometimes I combine it with the technique described last week and walk four miles downstream to The Bridge (that’s the name of the pub) where I buy a pint of something interesting looking and sit down to talk to the book for an hour.

Quite often, I find that turning away from the blank page and the blinking cursor is enough to unstick whatever’s stuck. Words are perverse things: they hide in odd corners of my mind when I think I ‘should’ be writing, and come out when they think I can’t catch them. Sometimes whole sentences will form as I walk, or an important fact will make itself known. I don’t think I stopped dead in the middle of the path and exclaimed, ‘Oh! Gianna’s a silversmith!’ but it’s possible. It felt like sufficiently major breakthrough to justify that.

And at the very worst, even if I’m no further ahead with the current book, I tend to have realised that there is, in fact, more to life than the current book.

Talk of the Town

Unlikely writing techniques 2: take the book for a drink

The practice of buying your project a beer, like many others I’ve come to use regularly, comes from Havi Brooks’ The Fluent Self. Thoroughly recommended for feeling less like a giant disaster.

Raspberries in cream soda
What a cool drink might look like. This is not sour cherry lemonade, obviously; it’s actually cream soda with frozen raspberries in it. I didn’t take a picture of the sour cherry lemonade because my phone had run out of battery, and also I had other things on my mind.

A couple of Tuesdays ago, opening my notebook after a fortnight’s hiatus, I was conscious of a nasty suspicion of impending stuckness. I’ve written before about how stuckness scares me much less than it used to, but I was still a bit scared by this one. Apart from anything else, the idea behind the deliberate hiatus was to pre-empt the stuckness.

I was hanging around in London for an hour after work before catching the train home. I’d thought that I’d sit somewhere and have a cup of coffee and do some writing. After all, the stuckness hadn’t quite landed. Yet. I thought I had another few hundred words that I could squeeze out.

I went to a bar that came in just below my ‘not for the likes of us’ cut-off, and I sat outside under a parasol, and I ordered a sour cherry lemonade. Across the square, people were watching a big screen with the Williams sisters playing the Wimbledon doubles. I got my notebook and pen out of my handbag.

I’d meant to just work on the book itself, but instead I wrote:

The problem is, I feel I haven’t really got a handle on Polly.

I kept writing, and new possibilities emerged:

This may not actually be a problem if Ben hasn’t got a handle on her either.

Do I need to write something from Polly’s POV and be prepared to junk it?

Do I need to keep ploughing on with Ben and trust that Polly will come through his self-absorption for me as well as the reader?

Then I wrote the thing that was at the root of the stuckness:

I am afraid of running out of plot before I get anywhere near the target word count.

But I had an answer to that, too:

Does Ben have any sort of love life aside from Polly? Has he ever had one? If so, it’s going to have been a mess.

The answer, it seemed, was yes. But it only raised further questions. I knew some of the answers, but not all of them:

(Mélanie, soigneur, tracks him down – but how, why, has she left the team or something – parents tell her where he lives hoping she’ll get him back into the sport. OK, so what happens, is this before or after the middle of the book, it’s got to be after the CC debacle or it’ll anticipate the blackmail aspect, what do Polly and Vicki make of it?)

Then I ordered a vegetarian scotch egg. And very tasty it was too.

I kept writing:

So Polly’s just beginning to fall for Ben, no, not even fall for, look kindly on, and then Mélanie turns up WHILE VICKI’S AWAY WITH GIANNA. Ben neglects Polly, she gets back together with Michael

Why don’t Ben and Mélanie work?

Because the thing that they have in common is misery.

How does it end?

Ben realises that he’s happier 9-5ing than he ever was cycling, even with a team he liked

and Mélanie doesn’t get his responsibilities

nothing awful happens to Polly – in fact, Michael happened to look round so she was fine – but Ben feels awful about it – maybe a burglary?

(what is it? doesn’t go back to organise a meal? ends up staying out all night?

Mélanie doesn’t see Polly as a sexual threat. Ben finds this perversely irritating.

he’s pleased to see her – cross with his parents – painful memories

Polly’s cautiously pleased

Vicki doesn’t approve at all, thinks he should move on or at least make his mind up

maybe Mélanie secretly wants to expose Grande Fino and is looking for other

Bang. I wrote 863 words on the theme of ‘Mélanie secretly wants to expose Grande Fino and is looking for other people to help’ on the train home. By the end of those 863 words most of the rest of the braindump was out of date (Vicki wasn’t away, Polly and Michael were already an item…) but I had the makings of a creditable subplot.

I still don’t have a handle on Polly, but I expect she’ll make herself known in time. I might go out and get a drink and see if she turns up.

Talk of the Town

Unlikely writing techniques 1: not writing


I’ve participated in a lot of month-long writing events in my time. NaNoWriMo, to start with, and later a lower-pressure imitation where we set our own goals – where ‘goal’ could legitimately equal ‘something, anything at all’. This is one of the kindest, most encouraging communities I’ve ever been part of, and the absence of pressure is, perhaps counter-intuitively, a great motivator. A couple of years ago it moved from running in November only to also having sessions in June and July, and I was very happy indeed.

The more months I devoted to writing, however, the more I noticed that month-long sessions didn’t work for me. The first few days were always brilliant: I dived in and swam around in a glorious sea of words, surfing an exhilarating wave. I’d write on the train, I’d write in cafés, I’d type up what I’d written longhand, editing as I went, and find that I’d doubled it in the process.

After the first few days the ocean would become a stream. I didn’t have that sense of boundless potential any more, but I could tell that there were words queuing up, waiting to be written.

After a couple of weeks the stream would dry up. I could squeeze a hundred words or so out of the dry ground, but they were forced, and looked it. I’d still show up at the daily check-in posts. I’d still have encouraging things to say about other people’s work, but my own had hit a wall.

Last year I decided to see what would happen if I stopped fighting this pattern, and just let it play out instead. For two weeks of every month, I told myself, I wouldn’t even try to write. I wouldn’t think about the book at all. I’d read, or go swimming, or play the piano, or play Animal Crossing, or make patchwork, or read some more, the theory being that by the end of that fortnight I’d have replenished the stocks of whatever resources I’d depleted, and would be ready to move into the next stint of writing.Was it realistic, after all, to expect my mind and my body to sustain a daily writing habit on top of a full-time job? Probably not, and could I blame my writing mind for shutting off when it had had enough?

Is it working? It seems to be. I’m only eight months into it (and the first few weren’t representative, as I was preparing to launch Speak Its Name, and not actually writing) but the indications so far point to it being a sustainable way of work. At the very least, it’s working at least as well as the previous pattern, and it’s stopped me feeling guilty about the times when I’m not writing.

Would I recommend it to you? Not necessarily. You’re welcome to try it – it’s not as if I have copyright on the idea of Deliberately Not Doing Stuff – but don’t feel that you have to persevere with it if it doesn’t work for you. This works for me because it’s what my mind wants to do anyway, and I’ve no idea whether anyone else operates on the same schedule as me. I’d recommend that you look at your own existing patterns and see if you can find a way to make them work better for you. Or a way to stop feeling bad about the fact that they exist. They’ve probably got your best interests in mind.