The first shaft of morning light slices between the curtains, spilling time across the floor in expanding pools of gold. Your eyes are bleary and full of sleep. You groan and stretch, check the time, sigh. Another day is here. Another chance to turn it all around, to prove to the haters that your not a fake, a wannabe, a pretender to pen and page. You’re a bona fide writer, dagnamit, and today you’re fricken Dickens. But how do you go about it? How do you approach the business of writing and thus dispel the illusion that you’re actually just a lowly accounts clerk dreaming of being a writer?
It’s all in the Approach
Everyone has their methods, their rituals, their compulsions when it comes to writing. No two writers are the same, or so I’m told. Some like to write first thing in the morning. Some like to write in the middle of the night. Many start their writing with a coffee, a few like to tee off with something a little stronger. Some can’t be within five feet of a laptop without their lucky pants tied firmly around their head (just me? Okay then). Planner, pantser, seasoned veteran, fresh-faced newbie, potay-to, potah-to. Each to their own and all that. There are, I’m sure, a thousand and one methods of approaching this thing and not one of them will be correct. So how do I get my groove on? How do I butter up my literary muse in the hopes of a glimpse of something saucy? It’s simple really. I take my pants off and start planning.
To Plan or to Pants? That is the Question
I always have to know where a particular plotline is heading but I prefer to discover my characters as I write so I guess I’m both a planner and a pantser. I’m toying with the social norms, I know. The thing is though, I have to know that those clever little plot threads I’m spinning are knotting in the right places and that, my good friends, takes meticulous planning. The tapestry has to mirror the design, so to speak. I’ve tried writing stories without planning them first but when I do, I tend to break out in hives. My characters, on the other hand, seem much more real, much more human, when I let them mature on the page. Other than a name, a few vital statistics, and a general sense of who they are, I basically leave them to their own devices. I mean, sure, sometimes they get up to all sorts of mischief and I end up having to either redesign my tapestry or murder a few of my darlings but that’s part of the fun of writing, isn’t it? Creating worlds and people that don’t actually exist and pitting them against each other then sitting back to watch the fireworks. Whenever I’ve tried to plan a character to fit a particular role, they’ve always come across as stiff and two-dimensional like cardboard cut-outs on a vacant stage. It just doesn’t work. Oh, and I tend to break out in hives.
Wherefore Art Thou, Muse?
I always begin my writing session with a quick browse of Google Images and a ruddy good brainstorm. Pictures are the most effective tools for generating story ideas, I find. What I’m looking for when I’m browsing is an image that plucks my imagination like a violin string and resonates long after it’s gone. The image can be of anything or anyone: a misty mountaintop or a grizzled old granny – or a grizzled old granny on a misty mountain top, eating ice cream and howling at the moon. Now there’s an idea for a story! I also find that ‘the more the merrier’ rings true here. Taking not just one but a handful of images (say four or five or, heck, sometimes I’ll go crazy and pick six) from varying subjects and sources is the best way to find unique characters and settings as well as original, thought provoking plotlines. Plotting in this way is rather like joining the dots in a huge, multi-dimensional picture book. As the story unfolds dot by dot, image by image, plot-point by plot-point, I see it gaining shape and structure before my very eyes. It can be nerve-wracking in the beginning, when I’m not sure what the picture’s going to be, but once I’ve traced that initial outline, all I need to do is fill in the gaps. Some of my most original work has come about in this way. Sure, not all of it makes sense and some of it’s just plain weird but it’s an incredibly satisfying process and I always have fun doing it, which is kind of the point anyway.
Thou shalt go Forth and Build an Arc-itechtural Haven
I’ve touched on this before, I know, but just to recap, I write in a hole at the bottom of my garden. Okay, okay, it’s not a hole per se, more a shed really. Actually it is a shed. Roald Dahl wrote some of his best stuff in a shed so I figured what the hell? I used to write in the sitting room, in the kitchen, even the bedroom – anywhere I could capture that elusive golden moment (in my head, it kind of looks like a snitch from Harry Potter). When that peace was repeatedly interrupted by kids and pets and partners (and jobs and chores and in-laws), I migrated to the attic where I gathered my words amid mountains of abandoned toys, charity bags full of old clothes, and umpteen offcuts of carpet (not to mention various eight-legged literary critics with a penchant for frightening would-be writers when they’re at their most vulnerable). My shed though, now that’s something else. It’s my little haven in the storm. My hideaway. My place to let loose and let the creative juices flow. It’s modest, sure, but I love it. When I’m in my shed nothing seems out of reach. The world is my clamshell, so to speak, and anything goes when I’m safely within those pine-panelled walls. It’s vital that we writers have a place that’s ours, a place where we can be at one with our wordsmithery and transcend reality for a time. I don’t know about you but it’s the only thing that keeps me sane.
Will They Love me in the Morning?
My writing career (such as it is) is built on sacrifice. I sacrifice time with my kids, my partner, my family and my friends in order to shape stories that may never be read by another human being, let alone get published. I have to make peace with that truth every time I head out to my little shed at the bottom of the garden. Am I wasting my time? Am I damaging my most precious and intimate relationships in the pursuit of something as transient and incorporeal as a dream? I know how slippery that dream can be. The process of writing, for me, is like grasping at eels in a bucket. It’s frustrating, time consuming, and in order to be in with a chance of success, you have to get your hands dirty. You have to put the time in. The trick to this thing is compromise (and a lot of planning). I schedule my writing time (two hours every day) and I adhere to it come hell or high water. Everyone knows when mum’s in her shed, she’s not to be disturbed. Period. Unless, of course, it’s snowing or someone famous has died. However, when that shed door swings open and she steps, bleary eyed and blinking, into the afternoon sunshine, they know that writing time is over and mum is back. From then on my time belongs to my family. I embrace them with my full and unwavering attention and for the remainder of the day I am theirs and no-one else’s. That, my friends, is how I spend my days – sacrificing one happiness for another.
Writing is a selfish pursuit. Writers are a different breed of animal. To do what we do takes commitment, perseverance and dogged determination. Writing is a solitary endeavour but that doesn’t make us solitary creatures. We need to interact with others. We need to experience the world in order to write about it. So get out there, boys and girls, go chase those dreams because they sure-as-shit aint gonna chase you.