Over the past couple of months, I’ve been thinking a bit about my writing process. There’s no point, but I have. I get asked about it every now and then. Sometimes by email; other times in interviews. And when I did the interviews in Amsterdam at the end of last year, the question came up a few times: “what’s your writing day like?”
I wish I had a writing day.
I wish I had any process at all, in fact, as it would make things a lot easier (or maybe not; maybe the safety net of a tried-and-trusted schedule is the last thing you need; and these maybes are examples of my overall problem). Whatever, I’m working on my sixth book now, and the fact remains that each one has been written in a different way. I know the first one – The Third Person – was the easiest, but only because I wasn’t published, there was no deadline and I was on my own time. I guess the same problems and difficulties were there, but I can’t remember exactly. I came up with the ending (which would eventually be changed totally after acceptance) while sitting on the back-step of a house that’s now four homes behind me and part of a life so distant it’s uncanny to imagine it was ever mine at all.
Possibly because I’ve never settled on a process, I tend to think the whole idea is bullshit: talismanic and self-deceptive, like the academic I used to know, a Leeds fan, who parked his car in the same spot by Elland Road before every match. Or at least so individual that there’s no point asking. But people are often interested, and I remain no different. I like knowing what other writers do. I keep thinking there might be something I’m missing.
Anyway, there are two things I think I understand. The first, I’ve thought for a while; the second, I’ve just figured out, and although I know it applies to my writing, maybe it applies to everyone else’s too. Neither are all that helpful, but here goes.
The first is about that whole planning/writing business. You often see this discussion: are you a ‘planner’ or are you ‘driving with headlights through the fog’? At one extreme, you have a guy like Jeffery Deaver, who plans his books out meticulously, down to the paragraph level. At the other, you have someone like … I don’t know – someone who just sets off writing and sees where it takes them. My theory is: it doesn’t matter which you do or whether, like most of us, you’re somewhere in between, you’ll end up doing the same proportions of both. Writing involves getting the paragraphs in the correct order; the most extreme planner still spends time doing this. The planner spends time getting the plot right in advance; the extreme writer has to address this further down the … lines (cough). Basically, the same questions are being asked and answered, and each takes the time it takes. I think books emerge for every individual author with – basically – the same amount of each activity, however you tackle it.
(Occasionally, you encounter a writer who claims to plan nothing, sit down and write and not change a word. These people, in my opinion, are vicious liars: one step up from the kid in school who assured me the three utilities problem could be solved and I should try harder. However: even after I knew it was impossible, I still kept trying, and I solved it in a dream once, so the joke’s on him).
The second thing I’ve realised is, like I said, personal to me. And I hate it, but it’s true. I haven’t worked out the exact percentages, because that would be silly, but it goes roughly like this. In the days spent writing a book, 50% will be ‘okay’ days. Not good, not bad. Just plodding along. 10% will be ‘good’ days: that fabled kind where everying feels natural, the words flow and the book comes alive. And 40% will be utterly shit days, where I sit at the computer and nothing happens. There’ll probably be a poor word count, but, regardless, whatever is there will be dreadful. I’ll hate the book. I’ll wonder what I’m doing with my life. I’ll speculate on how, when this one is published, I’ll finally be found out.
Those percentages are rough – in every sense – but more-or-less correct for me. Every book I can remember, the writing can be divided up like that. That’s my actual writing process, no matter how I divvy up the planning, writing and editing. And the unfortunate thing is that I have to go through that 40% of shit days one by one. If I don’t have it today, it’ll still be there tomorrow. Which is why the only piece of writing advice I’ve ever felt confident enough to give is “get your arse on the chair and fucking write something”.
The lack of a universal process makes sense to me. The way I see it, a finished novel – the text in a book – is an instruction manual for understanding a story. The story itself might – shock! horror! – even be an instruction manual for understanding something else: themes; ideas; emotions; a sense of wonder. But whatever, you’ve got so many levels to work out, it makes sense that it takes time and feels difficult. It needs to be figured out. That’s encouraging; it would be weird and unrewarding for everyone if it was any other way. An easy solution – a schedule; a typical writing day; a formula; a process – makes a nonsense of the whole enterprise. Reduces it to data-entry.
Nietzsche said “one must still have chaos inside oneself to give birth to a dancing star”. I like that. And I guess that’s my definition of a writing process – at the keyboard and away from it.