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Knowing Your Process – How

July 5, 2010

A fortnight ago I looked at the “what” of the writing process in the second of a five part series of getting to know your individual writing process. This week I look at “how” looking at how to approach the blank page, justifying not writing, finding the time, being available and storing ideas, word count and staying creatively topped up.

The Blank Page

Knowing how you think of the blank page is the first step to dealing with it. Is it scary? Intimidating? A call to escape? Truly tabla rasa? To me it is like being handed an around the world ticket. But like any airline – the ticket comes with some conditions in fine print.

I can’t show up without an idea (how many people simply rock up at an airport with the intention to just go ‘somewhere’?) At absolute least I need a dilemma-ed character or some dialogue. My story ‘She-Hero’ came from a snippet of dialogue which was like an audio dump as I got out of the shower. I cannot, read CANNOT just rock up to the blank page and expect something will happen. I know it won’t.

Getting to know your Inner Censor/Editor is a good idea and understand how this presence interacts with your approach to the blank page. The wonderfully talented Emma Newman, whose debut novel 20 Years Later is released in October this year, says she gives herself permission to write badly. This frees her from the ever-present Inner Censor and the potential interference of this malevolent force.

Having a ritual helps (if we think of ritual as routine with meaning and depth). Mine involves a cup of tea, stating an intention and lighting a candle. If I know it is going to be a bit of a struggle getting into the story I burn essential oils or I take myself out of the house to a distraction-neutral location and treat myself to something lovely to eat as I bash the words out. The other way, to avoid the blank computer screen is to scribble on a piece of paper (but yeah I know – it too is blank!)

Justify Not Writing

For the longest time I told myself I couldn’t write because I didn’t have a computer. Then it was I didn’t have a lap top.  If I was still caught in the same thought patterns I’d put my writing on hold, again, because I ‘need’ a Mac and Scrivener. Phooey to that. While I’d love a Mac, not having one isn’t a reason to not write. Why the difference? Back then I was scared to write, when I had taken on board and was living the criticism unfairly dished out to me, I needed to latch onto the excuses not to write. I’m not scared any longer.

It is easy to be too busy and too tired, too stressed or too happy (if you want to buy into the tortured artist crappola). If writing is important to you, then make it happen. I’m happier having skipped out on sleep if I’ve written. No day is too busy that I can’t find half an hour to write. And writing is the best stress relief I know. Remember how great you feel when you write and then tell yourself you can’t!

How much is “perfect” important to you? If you’re wrapped up in the notion of needing “perfect” [insert place, time, attitude, story etc] to write – let it go. It is the best justification for not writing. And I’ll let you in on a secret – when the “perfect” xyz arises, it won’t help you write. If anything – it will hinder the process. Love the imperfection of being a writer and the life you live in as one.

Finding the Time

When something is important, or in the case of most writers, so essential to your fundamental functioning and happiness as a person… you make the time. You reprioritise your life. You weed out the truly unimportant bits. You see the TV for what it is and give yourself an extra five hours a week by not mindlessly sitting infront of it every night. You say no to friends you don’t really want to hangout with. You spend part of your lunch break or commute to work with a note book. You stop drinking and start walking. Most of all – you stop using time as an excuse.

Becoming genuinely “time poor” for the first time in my life, was the best thing to happen to my writing career. It forced me into my head to write. When I’m washing the dishes, or hanging out washing or driving my son I’m teasing out stories – getting to know characters, hearing snippets of dialogue, which I store away until I have the chance to physically get the story down.

Thinking/daydreaming is essential to my process and coming to understand and see this as a respectable part of the writing process this has enabled me to embrace it. It also has meant I can reconceptualise the way I consider time. No matter how busy I am, I never call myself time poor. There is always time to “write” – it might just be chasing characters through the creative mire of the innerscape rather than putting physical words down.

Participating in any of the various weekly writing aggregations (such as our [Fiction] Friday or #fridayflash) provides a deadline each week. I’ve found committing to a deadline gets stories written.  Many of the writers I know also say they also need a deadline. It puts writing on your weekly timeline and you make it fit.

The Ins and Outs

Pen and paper? Laptop? Typewriter? Dictaphone? Smart phone?

My first two novels written as a teenager come into the world the hard way – ink, paper and a lot of physical effort (in fact I completed the second one during my final year of high school while suffering carpal tunnel syndrome (RSI) and really should not have been doing any writing at all – it literally was agony to put every word down!) In those days that was it.

I had a type writer for a time, especially bought for my 15th birthday to serve my writing, but I found worrying about my typing a distraction, rather than just allowing myself to scribble away. I also spent a lot of time writing at the beach with the dog – and my electric type writer wasn’t suited for that. When I finally started using a computer to write it was a long transition period, and while I translate stories via typing easily enough now, there is still a time and place for writing long hand. When a story is slow to come the old path is best suited to tease it out. I know lots of writers who still write long hand who have no intention of changing.

I write in short often explosive bursts – so much so that I often think I vomit a story out onto the page. I type fast and I generally can keep my fingers apace of my thoughts – this is where my lap top comes into its own as part of my process. I know other writers who have a slower, more methodical approach. Knowing I can throw a story onto the page means I often leave it to the last moment to get something down, rather than take the time it probably needs. And I often write because I can’t get something out of my head (or as per below – I’m scared I will lose it.) This can be particularly annoying at 1am in the morning as I’m trying to sleep or at 5am on a Sunday. It is almost like my characters are well versed with how best to get my attention.

Writers will often say the actual physical act of putting words down on the page is but the tip of the iceberg. Remember the time spent day dreaming and lost in thoughts – just as much as typing or writing the words down long hand. Honour this… and enjoy it!

Be Available, Be Present

Knowing how to be available to stories has become an important part of my writing process. What the hell am I talking about? Understanding I needed an external prompt was pivotal in going from writer’s waste land to writer’s paradise, but often an external prompt is just a jump start. I need to spend time cultivating the prompt into a story. How do I do that?

Over time I’ve whittled down a number of activities which allow stories and characters to come to me. They are all relatively mindless activities and are gratefully tasks I have to do as part of my every day life – washing dishes, cooking, hanging out washing, showering, driving and walking. The payoff is – my household runs smoother and when I sit down I have something to regurgitate (it can often feel that way if I have been carrying it in my head for days) onto the page.

Hold That Idea

Every writer needs some type of a filing system for their ideas. Dale spoke about the little books writers are frequently associated with and the emergency stop over of the borrowed pen and paper napkin. I know other writers who record their ideas onto a voice recorder.

I don’t use a note book or a recorder (and try to avoid the napkins too). I keep every story idea in my head until I have a chance to physically put the idea down as a story. I’m the first to admit it is a dodgey set up, but there is little I seem to be able to do about it –thus I tend to be a bit frantic about getting stories down.

Why do I behave like this? I once read that a story can only be told once and it seems my creative process has taken this to the extreme. If I write down an idea it is gone – lost forever, the story having been “told” – not very well, or very expansively, but “told” none the less. Welcome to my chaotic mental filing system. I’m grateful for realising this because I lose far fewer stories now.

I have long joked there is a space in my head which is a “green room” where all my characters hang out until they’re pulled out. And it seems they come and go as parts of their story are told and the rest remain locked away. Gratefully most of my characters are very patient beings and try their hardest to be quiet and non-obtrusive whilst in mothballs.

Creatively Topped-Up?

Please don’t shoot me, but writing is not the be-all-and-end-all of a writer’s creative life. In fact time away from the page is important to recharge, to stay fresh and vital… to keep the well of creativity topped up – so to speak. I have friends who in addition to writing quilt, draw, paint, photograph, sew and cook up gastronomic feasts. They run, walk, swim, do karate, hip-hop and archery. They have a wide range of interest from heraldry to political activism to music. All this also makes for far more interesting writing and story telling.

Understanding your process allows you to get a best fit for you creative top ups. Because I get so mentally cluttered… my creative top ups need to have a strong element of quiet. I love going to the movies, wandering through art galleries, going somewhere I’ve never been before, being involved in ritual, walking and taking long hot baths with a book (something I missed while we were on strict water restrictions.) And as much as I yearn quiet time, I also love sitting around talking and eating – enjoying the company of others. These are all activities I need to make time for and when I make time and space for them, I’m creatively charged to write.

Word Count

When I sent off a manuscript to a Random House as part of a communications project in my final year of high school, a letter came back from an editor suggesting I should focus on writing short stories. I was mortified at the idea. Who the hell wrote short stories? All the glory was in writing a best selling book!

In the old days they told you to write short fiction and then move onto longer pieces of work. Writers such as Stephen King cut their teeth this way. These days the advice seems to be focus on what you want to write and forget other forms of writing.

But what if you’re not really sure? What if you find the idea of teasing a story out to 60,000 words daunting?

I believe the short form has a lot to offer – especially for writers who are venturing into writing for the first time. It certainly requires a far shorter investment of time, the opportunity to hone your writing skills and gain some confidence in your abilities. Plus there is nothing like actually finishing something.

Short stories can often be productive springboards into something longer. Many short stories writers I know are adapting and creating webserials as a stop gap between short fiction and novels.

For me short stories have allowed me the freedom of trial and error that working on longer pieces doesn’t afford. And I need that. Despite three successful NaNo campaigns I’m still not feeling confident enough to attack a book. And to be honest – I really do love writing short stories. I like the short time span, the variety and the fact they fit into a busy work schedule. Plus they’re quick and painless to read.

Different writers have different comfort zones for length. I truly admire those who can punch out a story in 500 words or less. I’m too talky to be able to distil a story down that far. Other writers feel they’re padding out the story if they add more words.

Knowing your comfort zone in length will help you in three ways.

Firstly it will help you research a market for publication. If you are drawn to shorter styles of novels honour this length and find a good fit for publishing success (YA particularly is geared towards much shorter novels).

Secondly, it will allow you to be honest about your writing. One of the writers I’m working with on Chinese Whisperings was up front about the fact he was challenged by the 3500 word limit – given he worked best up to about 2500 and then over 7000, but still wanted to be part of the project.

Lastly it will give you an insight into how to push yourself out of your comfort zone. One of the hardest things I’ve ever done is write sci-fi in 1000 words but my writing has certainly improved from the experience of doing this.


Next week I’ll explore the “where’s” of writing… possibly from my favourite café with an arctic fire tea at hand or maybe in the middle of no where? Let’ wait and see.

Jodi Cleghorn is back in the saddle again but feels more saddle sore than she really should for one article! Speeding into the second week of the school holidays Jodi is longing for peace, quite and headspace. It’s a little too imperfect around here. You can find more of Jodi’s musings at Writing in Black and White or audioBoo.
  1. July 5, 2010 8:28 am

    Talk about timing — I just blogged about my process last night!

    I love the idea of a Green Room in your head. There’s no way I could do that though. If I don’t write my thoughts down right away, they become like dreams: the longer I wait between dreaming them up and writing them down, the more they fade until I can’t remember them at all. I understand what you’re saying about not telling the story more than once though. That pretty much sums up how I feel about outlining.

    Thanks for the great article! I’m looking forward to the “where” article. That’s something I occasionally struggle with.

  2. July 5, 2010 10:50 am

    Yep, I’m definitely one of those writers who feels I’m padding. Smaller word counts definitely suit me better, but it makes writing an novel feel incredibly hard work. My first one comes in at 52,000 words and I KNOW it needs to be longer. That’s probably why I’m putting off the first big rewrite…

  3. July 5, 2010 2:28 pm

    I had to respond – I’ve been justifying and not writing. Guilty as charged. You know, suddenly everything else is more important and yes, I’ll do it tomorrow. Once you get out the swimming in the sea, it’s harder to get back in. It’s been 2 days excluding the weekend break.

    Anthony Robbins said or quoted someone saying something on the lines of ‘you should always write for the waste basket’ and that’s what I do. If I write on paper, I don’t write on a leather-bound pretty book because I’m too scared to write anything on it in case it’s bad so I write on the back of old printed scripts A4 paper.

    Still, when you’re typing you can’t help thinking ‘this is c£$%%’ but you keep writing. You have to. Like someone said once, I can’t remember who, at least you can work with it than a blank page.

    Thanks Jodi for the post. I will write today – thanks.

  4. adampb permalink
    July 5, 2010 5:21 pm

    I have a suggestion: write on toilet paper. That way, if it is merely scatological, then the irony won’t be lost when the paper is recycled.
    In terms of the “how,” I like the brevity that a short story offers, but I am looking at writing a web serial to push myself further to develop a character that lives beyond the confines of 1000 words. I “justify” not doing a novel by thinking that it’s too much work to plan, plot, write and edit.
    I’m still sorting out what form I want to write. The short story fits into my current work and family schedules and is good development and honing of skills. I would like to write a novel, but the idea is a little daunting at the moment. I also like microfiction, writing stuff for 6Sentences. Keeps the ideas very focused. And it’s a challenge to convey a story, rather than a descriptive paragraph, in a specified format.
    I do carry around a pen and geek stick (pen) and tend to write down ideas when I remember them, but tend to hit the keyboard to record lines as I like to see how the idea progresses.
    Now where’s that roll of toilet paper?

  5. July 5, 2010 7:25 pm

    I can relate to a lot of what you’ve said. Especially short stories and the “green room”. Having actually finished a couple of short stories (as opposed to the number of novels I’ve started but never finished) I am realising short stories are the way to go for me to develop myself as a writer. I have been a non-fiction/academic writer for a long time and find fiction so much harder, but love it! And yes what you said about writing something down resonates with me, I find if I write too much detail about the storyline or characters (planning) then I lose motivation to continue the story. I might explore the idea of a serial… can a serial have an ending though?

  6. July 6, 2010 11:29 am

    Stacey – a serial can have a multiple of endings… good serials leave you with some kind of cliff hanging or hook to compel you into reading the next installment. And yes – it ultimately can have an end. *says she going red admitting her serial novella is still unfinished*

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