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Knowing Your Process: Where

July 26, 2010

This article was written from the café underneath my partner’s office, the front seat of the car while waiting for my partner and my desk at home. I’ve been writing on the hop throughout the day, squeezing this article into the gaps of an unexpected day off with my partner while our son was at school (it happens once in a blue moon!) You could say I’m rather flexible when it comes to the where of writing, but there is more to “where” than just the place you are sitting typing. It also has to do with knowing where your stories come from, the locale where your characters play out their story, where you intend to submit for publication, where to get help and knowing where to go next.

Where To Write: Home vs Café vs Somewhere Else

Turman Capote and William Thackeray wrote in hotel rooms. Thomas Mann wrote from a wicker chair overlooking the sea. Nathalie Sarraute and JK Rowling swear by café writing. Proust wrote from midnight ‘til dawn in a cork lined room. Last year Australian writer Max Barry not only wrote in a very public space but in real time as part of the Melbourne Writers festival. There are as many conceivable places to write as there are writers who write, but knowing where you write most productively can often be the difference between getting words on the page and not.

Stephen King and Virginia Woolf insist a writer needs a space of their own in which to create. I was rather ambivalent about how important my own space at home was until I was kicked out of it earlier this year. Our neighbours under took major renovations and for three months I couldn’t work at home because of the noise. Until that point I’d always traded my home, for Annie’s home or my “office” in one of a number of favourite cafes around Brisbane. I never thought of it as somewhere special –just another place to write.

But being separated from my writing space during those months took its toll. I struggled to focus, concentrate and write. For the most part I was angry, frustrated and I remember feeling lost. Well of course I was. My writing space had been stolen, by proxy, by a bunk of loud, smelly workmen.

King writes it’s not just about space of your own, but having a door.

The closed door is your way of telling the world and yourself that you mean business, you have made a serious commitment to write and intend to walk the walk as well as talk, the talk.

I’m still dreaming of a door! My creative space is an alcove adjoining the lounge room with a large window overlooking the street. My door is my earphones and my music which is always just louder than whatever is going on in the background. It is my transition from this place to the next.

When I shifted from magazine publication to fiction writing I stripped bare my little alcove and gave it a make over. Inspired by Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way I wanted my creative space to be a play space not a work space. I’m still working towards a certain ambience I’ve imagined, but at least now my space has an altar, fun pictures, all my favourite books and one day will sport funky new curtain and fairy lights. At the moment it’s a mess and I’m not always enthusiastic about creating in the space – but it is on my clutter hit list! Having a cluttered writing space is no way to honour your creativity or keep a good orderly flow of inspiration and energy.

Earlier I wrote I was ambivalent about having my own space, that’s because some of my best work has been done sitting in a café. If I’m working on something challenging I take myself to a café, get a lovely pot of tea and force myself to turn up at the page. It is my way of tricking my psyche into believe it’s being treated. Why? Well, in my first year of writing I would treat myself to a lovely brunch once a week in a café in New Farm. In those days I didn’t have a smart phone. There was absolutely no distractions. The food was awesome, the staff interested in my writing. And most importantly, there was a power-point to plug my lap top into. I always produced outstanding writing there.

I’ve also been lucky enough to share a writing space with Annie Evett over the years. Her beaten wooden table has been the site for countless episodes of Captain Juan and other stories. There is still a sense of “coming home” when I sit at her table.

Where Do Your Characters Hang Out: World Building

In late October 2008 I had a creative crisis. I wanted to write a sci-fi story for NaNoWriMo and despite my best efforts to create a world (I was lucky enough to do a world building shop with Sonny Whitelaw, who gave us an awesome guide to construct a world with and lots of food for thought) I was totally and utterly stuck. So I ditched the idea and went with an 11th hour idea. As I wrote the world came to me. I realised for me, I can’t construct a world and then invite my characters in. That’s just now how it works. Through the eyes of my character I experience the world, and from there I can build onto what I’m given. I’ve jokingly said (and I’m certain there will be those out there who are totally appalled) second drafts are the time to do world building when you know your way around better.

I’m probably a freak though. Or doing it the absolutely hardest possible way. But it is how it works for me.

Where Do Stories Come From: Crossing Over

It was via a number of intimate conversations with Annie Evett over the past three years, and one rather revealing conversation with an alternate health therapist at a Christmas party a few years back that I reconciled I’m a conduit for telling stories. I don’t make them up anymore and I rarely just “come up with something.” Now I put out a call and the characters come in. Or sometimes, they don’t.

Stories arrive in lines of dialogue which suddenly play through in my head – possibly why I’ve never had a struggle with writing dialogue. It is often just like taking dictation. Sometimes it is a feeling, or flash of a vision. But mostly it is auditory, and is paired with an existing prompt I’m carrying in my head or a piece of music.

I’m always excited when I hear another writer share a similar version of this process. Jeff Lindsay of the uber successful Dexter series of novels spoke at the Brisbane Writers Festival last year about hearing voices in his head. That’s how the stories came. He was sharing the panel with MJ Hyland who looked at him as though he’d just sprouted a second head. Hyland was appalled when Richard Fidler suggested she might also hear voices in her head. Her characters are very much under her control.

I’m glad I understand this “crossing over” now. I can just surrender to the process. My job is to simply record the story (as any good biographer does) with as much attention to detail, authenticity and readability as I can muster. The rest I leave to my characters. It also gives me a window into why perhaps I find plotting so abhorrent.

Where to Publish

Writers write because they want to be read (at some point). Maybe we started off writing for ourselves, to escape, because we needed a cathartic experience or we have a bad experience and feared showing our work. But at some point, if we write for long enough, we’re going to want someone else to read and enjoy our work.

This can range from showing friends or family your work, publishing stories on a blog, through to entering competitions and submitting your work to journals, magazine or agents. Be aware though, showing your work to friends and family will influence what you write. Lots of my writing friends mention they won’t tell or show family members a piece, especially if it has sex in it. Thus many writers become uncomfortable and completely avoid writing anything of a sexual nature, especially if they’re regularly publishing work on a blog.

Where you want to be published will influence your genre, the length, the POV, tense and whether you post any of it online during the drafting process. Even submitting a story to something such as #Fridayflash will influence what and how you write – given it is restricted to flash fiction (under 1000 words) and requires a basic amount of editing.

The plethora of opportunities for Flash Fiction both on and offline is shaping a generation of writers who produce shorter, snappier fiction than perhaps at any other time in writing history. But is writing stories under 1000 words good for you week in week out? A close writing friend confided he found during NaNo challenging because the narrative kept closing every 1000 words or so and stringing together 50,000 words under those writing conditions was tough. He put it down to writing flash fiction every week. I try to mix up the lengths I write in. My stories rally against being corralled into 1000 words but sometimes, brevity is a breathe of fresh air and a chance to try something different.

Where do you get a foot in the door in the publishing world? I’ve taken to following where my friends are getting published. One of my friends is having a charmed year of publishing, after lots of hard work, and I’m keeping pace and taking notes on where he’s being published ( Facebook and twitter make this very easy). He told me he did the same thing, so now I don’t feel so guilty for riding my research off his coat tails.

If you’re unsure, check out the publishing opportunities in your local writing magazine, ask friends for suggestions or you can go to a guide. The best known is the Duotrope Digest, a free online guide. In Australia there is the Australian Writers Marketplace Online, which you access through a yearly subscription. Knowing in advance where you want to submit work will help you tailor your story to the publications specifications during the editing and rewriting process, and ensure your work meets the guidelines when it comes to submitting.

Where To Go For Help

Regardless of where you live there is some kind of help and support close at hand. Part of taking myself seriously as a writer was joining the peak professional body here in Queensland – the Queensland Writers Centre. The Queensland Writers Centre runs workshops, courses, publishes a monthly magazine, advocates on behalf of writers and until recently also helped out with legal advice on contracts. Every state in Australia has something similar and I’m sure my overseas friends will be able to chime in with centres or groups in their parts of the world.

For those unable to access local help – there is the internet. There is also the tried and true route of writing books. I’m a particular fan of books and workshops which get you actively writing, rather than passively blathering to you.

And don’t ever forget that wonderful group of writing friends, colleagues and associates. Support and encourage those around you, and you’ll be assured, in times of creative crisis or when you need help with beta reading, you will have people there to return the support and encouragement. I am continually floored by the generosity of my writing community.

Where To Next: To Infinity and Beyond

It’s always good to take note of how far you’ve come. Even if you’ve been writing for only a few months it can seem an eternity from where you were to where you are now. Looking back allows you to appreciate your growth as a writer, and to see where you actually are now. And when you have a firm understanding of where you are, you can dream and work towards the future. It seems in the first year I just wrote. It was like getting back in the saddle. Getting the feel for it again, regaining my confidence and getting a lay of the land. The second year I discovered the hard slog of the rewrite and my feet hit the yellow brick road of publishing. This, my third year, I’m trying to focus on getting my work ‘out there’ and reconciling my creative roles as editor and writer. Next year… who knows? A novel?

When you have an idea of where you want to travel next, you can plan. This can include knowing where or what you need to research and what courses or professional development you may need to undertake.

A few questions to help recap:

  • Do you have space eked out that is yours, and yours alone to write? If no, why not?
  • Where are you, when you write most productively?
  • Is your writing space a fun space or a work space?
  • What would your ideal writing space look like? How can you emulate it in the space you do have?
  • World building – before or after? Your eyes or their eyes? Or is it important at all?
  • Where do your stories come from? Do you create them? Or are you a conduit?
  • Where do you want to be published? Why?
  • Do you allow friends and family to read your fiction? How does it influence what you write?
  • What word length do you regularly write in? When was the last time you wrote something in a dramatically different word length?
  • Do you belong to a writers association? What might/do you gain from belonging to one?
  • Where were you this time last year? What were you writing? Where are you now? What are you writing? Where do you want to be this time next year? What will you be writing?

Next week I tie up this five part series of knowing your process with the “when” of writing.

Jodi Cleghorn is counting down the days until Byron Bay Writers’ Festival and trying to contain her excitement that she’s going with two wonderful writing friends this year. But until then, there’s an anthology to finalise. No rest for the wicked! You can find more of Jodi’s musings at Writing in Black and White or audioBoo.
  1. July 26, 2010 6:11 am

    I guess I must have two heads too because, like you I find characters wandering into my head of their own volition with stories to tell. To be honest, it waqs a bit off-putting at first, but I think I’m starting to get used to it now. Maybe.

    Very informative article by the way, I really enjoyed reading it.

  2. July 26, 2010 6:12 am

    Lots of very good information/advice here, Jodi! I think about my writing space – it’s at the dining room table! There is no door to it, but I have many hours alone during the day so it isn’t too much of a necessity. I have written while waiting in cars, or in coffee shops…one has to be prepared when a line of dialogue or a scene pops into one’s head!

    I guess for me it’s a combination of making things up and being a conduit. Sometimes a title to a story comes to me and then I have to work, very hard, to figure out the story. Other moments, I see a character and then fill in story around person.

    It’s not easy for me. I haven’t – to date – been able to sit down and just write a story as the “voices” dictate. There really aren’t any voices, or any that are really loud!

    I used to be a journalist and now I only write flash, so perhaps it is time to try longer forms. This time last year, I joined Twitter. And began writing again. Next year? More, more, more…

    Thank you, Jodi, for this wonderful post. 🙂

  3. adampb permalink
    July 26, 2010 7:07 pm

    I started writing when I began submitting to Fiction Friday. It made me write, to move away from the fear of being read. I had written before, but only sporadically; Fiction Friday gave me a purpose and direction.
    I have found over the months of doing it that I have had to push myself to create stories. Reading others’ interpretations of the prompt have given me new genres and styles to think about. Now I am finding that my own ideas are easier to come by (still pumping the well of ideas sometimes to only find mud).
    However, I have evaluated what I want to do in the second half of the year and push myself to write 2 web serials (probably not concurrently). And I am now also looking at the editing and revising process to think about submitting flash pieces to online publications. But I think more of that will come next year.
    I have a space to write in the granny flat/garden shed, but the dining room table serves quite well.

  4. July 27, 2010 5:10 am

    Great and thoughtful post, Jodi. My writing space is also my dining table. I dream of having a room with a door – one day!

    I used to get all my story inspiration while washing the dishes – it’s mesmerising but methodical, so it gave my subconscious room to play (which it rarely does otherwise, as every one of my days is too full). Sadly, since I’ve been back at work (four days a week, soon to be five), my darling husband has been doing all the washing up, so my subconscious hasn’t been allowed out much lately. So I find myself stuck for story ideas. I guess that’s why the [Fiction] Friday prompts have been great for kicking me off again after a hiatus. This coming Friday’s has prompted two story ideas!

  5. July 27, 2010 5:32 am

    My answers can be found here.

  6. July 27, 2010 6:29 am

    Like you I am still dreaming of a door. My current writing space at home is a desk beside the patio doors out to the garden, all set up with a dock for my macbook and speakers and rotating lcd monitor so I can write with the screen landscape (and read digital comics on it too). This is great when the kids are at school but holiday time it is difficult to get the quiet I need for writing. That is when I take myself off to the local library, macbook under my arm and write there.

    It is quiet I need when I write, so I can submerge myself in the world of my characters. I listened to a BBC Radio 4 program about creativity recently, and artist Greyson Perry described his creative state as entering his ‘inner shed.’ I love the sound of that and can relate to it. I need to be able to move myself inwards to write so have to avoid anything that will drag me out. Probably why I like the library so much. I’m too lazy to sort an internet connection there so can’t be distracted by emails or twitter.

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