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How to Write and Get Published

I've been writing since I was sixteen- poetry first, then plays, prose, film scripts, novels, and non-fiction. I've had books published by top US and UK houses such as Penguin, Harper Collins, Picador and Hachette. I've won writing awards such as the Somerset Maugham and the William Hill sports book of the year (for something I hardly even thought was a sportsbook when I was writing it). This book, Angry White Pyjamas later went on to be voted by 5000 booksellers as the best sportsbook of the last 25 years. I've had several agents both in the UK and the US and I've published seven non-fiction titles and one novel- with a further novel coming out next year. I've sold a script to Miramax on a pitch and I still write poetry. So I've been around the block. This section of the site is all about providing you with real information gleaned over 15 years involvement with professional writing and publishing.

 

Monday
Jun032013

more on novel writing methods

 

Make it very simple. Make the base idea impregnable. Look at it as the capstone of a pyramid and writing the  novel as descending the pyramid, building it in reverse so to speak; as you descend what is above becomes set in stone. You absolutely don't want to be making small changes that have huge effects on structure at a late stage: you want your structure nailed early on and set in stone. In every decision chose the simpler and stronger of each option. Keep making it simpler. Life complicates- it needs a simplifying shove at each stage. OK, so much for general comments, what follows is my method for novel writing, more or less. I have to say it works for me- maybe it will work for you too.

1.   Get a good location that gives you a buzz. This is absolutely the single most important decision the novelist can make. NOT character, NOT story but LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION that’s what calls the shots and sets up the key parameters of story and character. Of course a character and a location may suggest themselves at the same time, but never lose sight of the need to nail down the location soundly. There’s a reason why Hardy country still exists.

      The exception-  there always is one at least- is when the location gives you a character who can travel. A series character perhaps.

2.   Get a good story/situation that gives you a buzz. A story/situation is simply something interesting or potentially interesting in your chosen location. This is your PLATFORM. This Platform forms the storehouse for the novel- which serves to unpack what is implict in the platform. Example: location- Florida swamps, platform- a deserted house where a drug smuggler has told his straight brother to recover some hidden money. You can see the possibilities. Half or more of the battle is in having a good platform. Give up if yours isn't. start again.

3.   Get good character names. With the right names the right characters will follow. Model characters that don’t ‘live’ on someone you know. Be shameless in copying. Use opposites to generate life: a bodybuilder who is studying Balzac, a policeman who loves bonsai trees. Exagerate their main characteristic. Easier to tone down exxageration than to 'tone up' a dull character. 

4.   Flesh out some dramatic scenes. Make sure you include a disgusting scene, a very funny scene and a scene that sends a chill down your spine- for whatever reason. Just thinking in this way should get you generating ideas.

      Never explain why someone falls in love, or is obsessed by something- they just are. we always accept it when someone tells us they have fallen in love- with the most absurd things/people. 

5.   Make a list of scenes that broadly connect. Keep reusing stuff from the platform in an inventive way. WE love to see earlier material pop up again and affect the story. Toy Story is a great example of this. Don't worry too much about making it all watertight at this stage.

6.   Refer to the card system outlined in my previous post on novel writing.

7.   Start first draft

8.   Finish and print first draft

9.   Read first draft and make notes on it

10.                 make a list of bits that need doing

11.                 Do the easiest or the one that most attracts first. This is KEY. If you attack hardest first you’ll lose momentum and give up. The secret is to GAIN momentum by knocking off the easy stuff first.

12.                 Work through list gaining momentum

13.                 Write new list for the next day

14.                 When list is done print off whole book

15.                 Read and mark up print off

16.                 Make new list etc

17.                 Continue until satisfied

18.                 Send book to key readers

19.                 Read their notes

20.                 Make a new list etc

21.                 Continue until satisfied.

 

Wednesday
May292013

novel writing equipment

You can write a book any old way you like but a system helps when things look blank and scary. Over the years I have very slowly evolved mine to one that works, mostly. I use big 6x9 cards, smaller 6x4s (rough measurements in inches here), yellow legal pads (usually A4 but sometimes if I'm lucky old foolscap size ones)- these must have a red margin line not blue- I'm picky! I have a little notebook for word count and odd ideas that occur when I walking about. When I have an idea I sometimes just start writing on to the computer. After a day or so I'll either ditch it or if I am sure this is what I want to do I'll rough out some stuff on the legal pad. Being pretty wasteful with the paper at this stage. Then I gradually note ideas down onto the smaller cards. If I can get a stack of more than 40 I know I've got something. These I then shuffle into some kind of order- and that will suggest more cards. Of, I forgot, the A2 yellow paper map! I get a big piece of yellow A2 and draw a map of the story- because what I write usually has a journey of some kind a map is always useful. I add stuff and rub stuff out- I use a 2B pencil here. Gradually I get a pretty good map going, with people and little houses and trees drawn on it for added time wasting potential - but also to keep the momentum going. I then take stuff off the map onto the small cards and then vice versa, building up both resources, increasing the reality feel of the whole project. Then I go back to the legal pad and write a chapter list and see if I can make one that seems to make sense. Sometimes it's enough to just have the stack of cards all numbered next to me. When I need to write a new chapter or chapterette I use a big 6x9 card to expand the small card (which will just have a quick direction on it); I then on the big card pile on all I need to give me courage to start on that chapter. I also use the bigcards for each character, adding info as I go. The whole point of this is to always have something to do, following my favourite writing dictat: "always keep going even if it means moving sideways like a crab".

Saturday
Aug062011

how I write - Alan Sillitoe

 

I've been sporadically posting up stuff

about the way writer's write — always

fascinating. This 1971 piece by Ramsay Wood 

gives a great insight into Alan Sillitoe's 

method. Ramsay is the author of •Kalila and

Dimna: Fables of Friendship and Betrayal• 

(Kindle download @ 86p/99¢) and its sequel

(Vol 2) •Fables of Conflict and Intrigue• 

(50 page free extract from 

ramsaywood.com/books.html), Medina 

paperback to be published in November 2011.

 

Ramsay Wood meets and talks with Alan Silitoe

Several years ago Alan Sillitoe said, “One has to transcend class.”  He was growing tired of being labelled “a working-class novelist.”  But it seems few people listened.  The picturesque story of a boy from the slums of Nottingham who started work in a bicycle factory at 14 and rose to become a best-selling novelist at 30 was too striking an image to ignore.  All the ingredients for an instant literary legend were ready for easy public consumption: how, after contracting tuberculosis in Malaya as an R.A.F. wireless operator, he spent 18 months in hospital reading a selection of books that would normally take ten years to finish: how he met his wife, the American poet Ruth Fainlight, and left England to spend six years around the Mediterranean living on a tiny disability pension while they struggled through what they now call their “apprenticeships”; how Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was rejected three times and almost never published.  But now, a dozen years since that first success, and after five more novels, three collections of short stories, two very successful film adaptations (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner), three volumes of poetry and a travel book, maybe it’s possible to consider that Alan Sillitoe wasn’t joking as a creative writer when he said that “one has to transcend class.”

The events in Sillitoe’s later novels – The Death of William Posters (1965) and A Tree on Fire (1967), the first two instalments of a trilogy – spread themselves far beyond themes that can be interpreted as the mere considerations of class-consciousness.  The two main characters of A Tree on Fire are Frank Dowley – a dropout working man from a Nottingham factory who seeks his life’s meaning and purpose as a volunteer guerrilla for the F.L.N. in the Algerian War – and Albert Handley, a zany and rip-roaring painter from Lancashire who is suddenly “discovered” by the artistic market of London and becomes rich.  Although Sillitoe has also said, “I will always carry around a bit of Nottingham in my boots.” At 42 he has been writing for 22 years of his life, and feels that the record should speak for itself.  Whereas his earlier books usually deal with characters who pursued lusty lives under conditions of English poverty, the later novels follow the progress of working class characters who leave their backgrounds to search for a meaning to life in a bigger world.  In his latest book, A Start in Life,  Sillitoe deals with what he calls “a wider field of characters.”  Because the scope of his talent is obviously much greater, perhaps we can now anticipate that the “working class novelist” label will peel completely off him.

After many years of mobility through several countries, Alan Sillitoe and Ruth Fainlight settled down in 1969 when they fixed up and moved into a converted rectory in the village of Wittersham, Kent.  If quiet surroundings are any prerequisite for creative writers, then the Silllitoes have realized an ideal.  The front of the house is screened from the public road by a line of trees; the back garden is expansive and comfortable.  There is an overgrown fishpond which they speculate on converting into a small swimming pool for their son David and his adopted sister Susan.

When I met the Sillitoes they had just returned from giving a poetry reading at Hereford Teachers’ Training College, and our conversation began by discussing this break in their normal routine.  “It took four days to do a one-hour poetry reading,” remarked Sillitoe.  “One day preparing for it, one day travelling there, one day travelling back, and now day recovering.”  But it was apparent that they had enjoyed the trip.  Ruth Fainlight had written a poem on the return train ride, and they both joked about the phenomenon of a training college where the population was nine women for every man.  Although I had been warned that Alan Sillitoe was noted for his personal reticence, I found him quite willing to talk about his writing.

“To be a writer,” he said, “is to have a sort of lingering disease of spiritual consumption that you hope will take all your life to kill you.  You go on spending yourself – spend, spend, spend – and you’re getting spiritually more fine all the time.  I think writers are some of the toughest people on earth.  It’s not the effort, but a backbone thing of being gnawed at, each blow coming out of your spirit.  I’m in a state of semi-exhilaration when writing, but meanwhile it’s wearing me to the bone.  People would laugh at the actual amount of work – maybe six hours in one day.”

“Production is a word that describes what is happening, but it doesn’t tell you what is making it happen,” says Sillitoe.  His wife adds: “You sit down and hope you can get into a state of grace.  One has a compulsion to bear witness, as if one didn’t, life wouldn’t be worth anything.”  One of her poems is entitled “A Desperate Measure,” and goes:

Tell me what you think, and I

Shall tell you who you are.

 

But how articulate my thoughts

Until I can be sure just who

Speaks through me when I’m questioned?

 

Then tell me who you think you are.

 

Be silent, do not speak, I shall

Identify myself in action.

There is identifiable action in the Sillitoe home.  He finished A Start in Life  before the end of 1969 and it ran to over 350 pages.  (“I didn’t plan it that long; it just happened that way.”)  Early last year he gave away a play – the first one he’d written – to the Contemporary Theatre, a young and almost unknown group of actors specializing in community and experimental drama.  The play, entitled  This Foreign Field, had its world premiere at the Roundhouse in London in March 1970, but did not enjoy favourable reviews.  He has finished the script for an American-backed film on his story “The Ragman’s Daughter” which will go into production in late 1971.  Meanwhile he is 200 pages into the final book of his trilogy, the sequel to Tree on Fire. Ruth Fainlight has been writing poems and completing the final draft of her first volume of short stories.

Two resident writers pose scheduling problems for the day-to-day affairs of the household, but the Sillitoes manage an efficient sharing of duties in order that they both end up with equal creative time.  They each have individual rooms for their writing.  On the first floor the door of another room is soundproofed on the inside with a triple thickness of old blankets sewn together.  In it the family typist pounds her keyboard six to eight hours a day, five days a week, busily churning out various drafts of Sillitoe and  Fainlight manuscripts.  “There’s an invisible flag flying over this house that says ‘Art’ or ‘Writing,’ on it,” says Alan Sillitoe.  But writing itself is not really considered to be work.

“To talk pompously of ‘my work’,” he says, “when you know very well there are some 25 million people crawling out of their beds every morning and doing an eight or nine hour shift, often in conditions of semi-misery – well, one can’t be too pompous.  One takes oneself seriously, but I think one can’t call writing work.  If you have talent, then you don’t work.  That’s really what it boils down to.

“A writer, if he manages to earn a living at what he’s doing – even if it’s a very poor living, acquires some of the attributes of the old-fashioned gentleman (if I can be so silly).  Or a man with a private income, which is what it feels like.  It used to feel like it to me when I was earning nothing; I wasn’t working in a factory and I was living in Majorca on a very small amount of money, but it seemed as if I had a private income.  And it still seems like that, and that I don’t work.  I churn out a novel now an again, and I’m lucky enough for it to bring in enough money so that I still  don’t have to work.  I’ve been at it for more than twenty years now, without what I would call working.   My life has completely changed and time has rubbed out that initial dream-like experience of misery in childhood and then the youth working in a factory.  It’s vivid to me as well, but it’s rubbed out as far as assessing what I’m doing at the moment is concerned.”

If any eventual shattering of the pre-digested “working class novelist” image does occur, it will in fact be no sudden revelation.  More than ten years ago Sillitoe’s second novel, The General, was published and considerably puzzled some literary critics.  It was a tale of the future, an allegorical fantasy which Sillitoe described as “an image of a man in society, of the writer.”  The Oxford Times of June 3rd, 1960, concluded its review of The General with an honest admission of confusion between the writer and his popular image:

"It is not so much that it is a bad book – Mr. Sillitoe probably cannot easily write a bad book – but it is not really the sort of book one expects of him."

In retrospect it might well be said that Alan Sillitoe’s progress as a writer is dependent upon his capacity to create books that are not the sort “one expects of him”.

Sillitoe shrinks from labels. He feels that facile cataloguing of people strips the individual of his uniqueness and encourages people to think of each other in a superficial manner. “I can’t classify any two people – that’s my trouble sometimes,” he says.  “Everyone’s different.”  Thus he has consistently rejected the convenient literary pigeonholes into which some critics have attempted to slot him.  “I do not consider myself a Kitchen Sink school of writer,” he said in an interview once.  “I don’t think anyone can speak of a ‘school of writing’ until thirty years after it’s written.”

Sillitoe’s novels and stories frequently explore forms of rebellion; his characters often pursue a relentless struggle against the stultifying forces in society that would render life narrow, predictable, banal, and a living death. The often quoted thoughts of Albert Seaton in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning:

"Once a rebel, always a rebel. You can’t help being one. You can’t deny that.  And it’s best to be a rebel so as to show ‘em it don’t try to get you down."

were first published during the heyday of the so-called Angry Young Men (another literary label that seems as facilely inaccurate as it was speedily applied to a varied group of writers).  Although these writers were Sillitoe’s contemporaries, somehow he survived the glare and ballyhoo of success and nurtured a private integrity that would not be compromised.  When the film of  Saturday Night and Sunday Morning opened in London in 1961, Sillitoe fled to live in Morocco for four months.  “I wanted to write a book,” he said in an interview with Kenneth Allsop in Tangiers.  “In London one is too accessible.  Here there isn’t even a telephone.  I am not a telly personality, a lecturer or a partygoer. I’m a writer.”

While middle age brings a shift in the orientation of some successful writers, the fierce opinions of youth mellowing into a more tolerant season of veteranhood, Sillitoe claims he has hardly changed.  He still experiences an intense love-hate for England, feeling that’s its writers have neglected the habit of travel and thus risk a terrible stagnation:  “England can become so deadly insular.  There’s atrocious inequality on the right little, tight little island.  It’s a horrible place to come back to.  I’ve always had this feeling that English writers are too parochial.  They never leave England practically.  You get Kingsly Amis’s book called I Like it Here.  Well, to me this is the sort of blackest dead end that any writing fraternity can ever enter into.  I think that one has to get out of this country, you see, in order to gain some bigger perspective regarding the world.  I just can’t see how these people can go on writing and just stick on this little island.  I think it’s about time the Channel was filled in.  Take all the rubble in France and England, and you do it easily.  I think it’s grim, you know.  I’d like to have a bridge out there; you could drive across it in twenty minutes or so.  I think it’s dreadful, this sort of I-like-it-here complex which has stricken English writers since the end of the last war, I suppose.  Before that they seemed to go about quite a bit.  I don’t go far afield, but at least I’ve been plenty of times around various places.”

Sillitoe loves maps.  He regards them the way some people regard beautiful paintings.  A huge map of Russia dominates one wall of his writing room; on a table lies a foot-high stack of opened maps from other parts of the world, and packed on a shelf above are innumerable road and street maps from Spain, France, England, Morocco, Russia, Algeria, to name but a few.  Between stints of writing he will pore over these personal icons to recharge his creative batteries or to check specific points of topology he may be writing about.  “Maps give ideas; that’s why I like them,” he says.

He and his eight-year-old son David spend months drawing what they call “map poems,” and intricate entertainment of visualizing imaginary countries or towns.  Their cartographic habit appears unbelievably detailed, an exercise in total urban or rural planning.  In David’s bedroom there hangs a framed early map poem entitled “Astronautic Research Centre” at the top and captioned “Special Syldavian Survey Sheet Seven: Sillitoes” at the bottom.  Cities, towns, villages, airports, swamps, roads and train lines are accounted for in this bird’s-eye view around an imaginary launch pad.

Sillitoe’s emphasis on geographical accuracy comes through clearly in his books; scenery is always vividly described, and one has the sense that his characters act within a living ecology, not a dead landscape of the intellect.  An extension of his love of maps is a keen interest in the martial arts.  Strategy, tactics, and military history – these are subjects Sillitoe has studied since long before he was published.  Frank Dawley in Tree on Fire fights in the Algerian War on the side of the F.L.N.  The desperate struggles for survival of Dawley and his band of guerrilla comrades take place in the harsh climate of the Sahara and under battle conditions that are portrayed with a blend of brutal realism and poetic imagery:

They ambled like dead men, seeking refuge from the stony midday sun, no longer knowing that they walked. Land was like alcohol; he walked and walking was like drinking.  He drank it on walking and went all day from sundown to blackout wallowing in it until he dropped from exhaustion and total inebriation, happy and not caring if he ever woke again.  Trudging all day over the flat stale beer of the stony plain, brandy of hills, mouth shut tight because it seeped in continually through eyes, ears, nose and anus, the drink of land and the never-ending gutter bout of topography, a blinding weekend of land booze that went on for months.  Such drink killed one with thirst, that was the only trouble, but it gave you the required lift, the lighting-up time of the brain in the flaring magnetic day flash of the desert.

“I think every so-called man – self-made and otherwise – has to know military history and something of the military art,” says Sillitoe.  “A writer is always the potential victim of any state; it’s as well to know something about the basic organization necessary to initiate or take part in any guerrilla warfare.  And in order to study guerrilla warfare you have to go right back through every campaign as far as Alexander the Great.  You’ve got to start right at the bottom of the ocean and come up to the surface.  You can’t just  study guerrilla warfare; I mean you can but on its own it won’t fit so easily into the overall pattern.  If one is sort of a Renaissance man; you’ve got to know about military art, or science – as some would have it.

"It’s very necessary to know how to fire a gun.  I don’t mean one just sits reading about tactics and studying maps.  One has to go for a fifteen-mile bicycle ride or an eight-mile walk.  Already, of course, from years ago I can fire a machine gun, throw a grenade, and all the rest of it.  I’ve got no practice, but at least you know what a rifle can do.  You know where to set up machine guns to control five miles of country.  I never walk around any countryside without thinking how it can be defended or what dispositions I’d made to attack it.  This is just natural to me.  First of all I think how beautiful the country is and how I would describe it, and then – as a natural corollary – how I would destroy it.”

He is sitting at his desk as he says the above, speaking gently despite the overt pugnacity of his talk.  He puffs on a pipe and doodles away on a writing pad in front of him as we talk.  David bursts into the room just back from school, and after greetings climbs into his lap.

“What’s this, Alan,” he asks pointing to the doodle which had been developing from way before we began speaking of the martial arts.

“It’s a machine gun position: how to place machine guns on this hill when people are trying to cross a river.  You point one that way and one that way – that’s called enfilading.  In that case nobody can pass that river within half a mile.  It’s impossible.  If you enfilade – one that way and one that way; you have to get a compass to sight the angles.”  They proceed to a discussion and drawing test of the conventional signs for depicting tanks, artillery infantry and the other elements of a battle plan.  An informal but extended map-poem begins to blossom.

A clue to Sillitoe’s themes may be found in one of the ways he has described visualizing his characters: “My stories, if they are any success, are the misty and occasionally musty vision of a face whose features are involved in some form of emotion, suffering in particular circumstances.”  He says this is a literal and not a poetic account of how he works.  The face may be half-remembered from his past, someone he once knew but hasn’t thought of for years, or it may be a totally new face, someone he never knew but somehow can identify.  It is a psychological facility he has always had, as far as he can tell.  But the key words in this description are “emotion” and “suffering.”  The face is always vague and hazy, its features indistinct; what matters to Sillitoe and the ingredients that distinguish the main quality of his stories, is the force of emotion and suffering that propels the face into his consciousness.  It is the accuracy with which he matches the face and its motivation that makes his characters so vibrant.  The events of his stories are usually invention, but there is no doubt that his characters are alive, struggling, suffering, and fighting to achieve some kind of meaning and understanding in their lives.  It is not insignificant that he mentions Dostoevski and Camus as being big personal influences on his writing.

Another valuable suggestion Alan Sillitoe has made concerns his attitude towards reading: “It is very important that a man should read, especially modern works in which he recognizes himself, and understands himself. This is a way of killing loneliness.”

If reading can kill loneliness, its gains its victory through communication.  It is communication which enables the individual to recognize and understand himself and thus thwarts a sense of social isolation.  This sounds like a cliché, but Sillitoe makes a fundamental distinction between communication and persuasion, feeling that they are often vitally confused in our society.

Persuasion is any use of language which vitiates the individual by manipulating his free will and choice.  All forms of persuasion are factors of “them,” a power-group working to force the individual into the mass mould and make us think like one dull, collective group.  The word  communication has been pre-empted and contaminated by usage among groups whose basic function is to persuade.  Chiefly these groups are involved in one form or another of the so-called "communications industry" – journalism, public relations, television and advertising.  Advertising is the most blatant use of word and image to create a specific effect in people; information may be exchanged for the benefit of the overall economic system (mass needs or predispositions are set in motion), but the individual is persuaded or unpersuaded; he is not communicated with.  He reacts, but he does not necessarily understand.  Communication works on a deeper level than simple information exchange or dominance over the individual or dominance over the individual by one group or another; communication is a different kind of nutrition.

Sillitoe insists that communication touches in a mysterious manner something in the human being (call it the spirit or the soul) “killing loneliness” and helping the individual to recognize and perhaps understand himself.  Understanding is an experience of the individual within himself, and not a persuasion situation of one individual or group putting its message over on another.  A conversion syndrome, however righteously inspired, is not an example of communication.  “I don’t write to persuade people to come to me and ask me what to do or what my opinions are,” says Sillitoe.  “I write so people can read and maybe understand.  But I’m not a teacher.”

Thus Sillitoe has said that he does not write with the intention of communicating with  anyone except himself: “….my only desire is to communicate the language and idea of a story on to paper, to fix the muddled cloudiness of the incident by pen and ink so that it becomes clear, set down in plain English for me to read and re-read, and with luck, for others to read later on when it gets put into print and bound into a magazine or book.”

If there is one working class trait that Sillitoe has not lost, it is a spirited stubbornness in refusing to compromise his aims as a writer.  In an age when some publishers employ market researchers to plot the subject and treatment of their next potential best sellers Sillitoe resists having his integrity qualified by any vision except his own.  If his books are lucky enough to sell well, he feels it is a function of his honesty.  “One keeps honest by staying strictly within one’s intentions.  As a writer, you write.  Success does not change you; you are still a writer.”

 This piece originally titled: "Alan Sillitoe: The Image Shedding the Author" by Ramsay Wood

(first published in Four Quarters, La Salle College, Philadelphia, 1971)

 

Wednesday
Jul062011

sebastian snow

My favourite writer right now is Sebastian Snow. Read Rucksack Man and Half a Dozen of the other for two great books- he can't write a dull sentence.

Wednesday
Dec222010

how I write #5: Warwick Cairns

Warwick Cairns is the brilliantly funny author of How to Live Dangerously and About the Size of it. His latest title is In praise of Savagery.

"If I had to say what it’s most like, writing, then I’d say that what it’s most like is playing a sport. Maybe there’s a reason I put it this way: I’ve got a couple of sports I quite like doing, to the extent that I’ve been doing them more or less every day for the past 35 years or so, and I spend a lot of time thinking about them when I’m not doing them. Maybe that’s why I jump so quickly to a sporting metaphor, but it holds nevertheless, I think: it holds.

With writing, as with a sport, it helps if you start off with at least a little natural talent, but beyond that it all comes down to pleasure and practice.

If you enjoy doing it so much that you keep on doing it; if it gives you a ‘buzz’ when you finally manage to turn out performances whose grace and ease surprise you; if you find yourself constantly seeking tricks and tips in the performances of others; and if you keep on at it, keep on doing it for day after day and for year after year because it’s what you do, then unless there’s something seriously wrong with you, you’re going to end up being quite good at it.

The more you do it, the more you build up your own way of going about it, and the more you discover what works for you and what doesn’t.

So this is my way of doing it, the way that fits with my character and my situation.

My situation is that I have a ‘day job,’ and I have a wife and two children and two dogs, and they all need my time and, at times, my undivided attention. I don’t have the time or the inclination to spend all day, or most of the day, hunched over a computer being a writer.

My character is such that when I do get the time to write I far prefer doing the writing itself to sitting there thinking about what to write and how to write it. Conscious thinking seems too much like hard work to me, sometimes. I don’t like ‘brain-teasers’ or logic-puzzles either, or crosswords: so make of that what you will.

The way of writing that I’ve ended up with takes these things into account, and involves breaking the job of writing into two parts, at different parts of the day.

The morning is about warming-up and easing into it. I’ll spend half an hour on the train or wherever I happen to be, doing easy, no-pressure writing. I’ll open my computer (about which I’ll talk a little more in a moment) and take a look at what I wrote the previous day. I’ll start by tidying it up: things like words, phrasing, punctuation, the sound and the flow of it as I hear the words spoken in my head. My aim is not to come up with anything new, and not to come up with anything clever: it’s just to make what I’ve already written read better. However, as the half-hour goes on I often end up making quite substantial changes: I’ll delete parts that aren’t working. I’ll re-order other parts. Some parts I’ll rewrite altogether. And in all of this there gradually begins to emerge a sense of where I’m going to be going next. Sometimes it will come as a flash of inspiration: at others just a gradual and growing sense of purpose and direction. I might have events in mind that I want to write down, or particular words and phrases. But at this point my train journey (or whatever) comes to an end.

What I do then is put the whole lot of it out of my mind for the rest of the day. Or rather, the intention is that I put it all out of my mind but I find that it pops up again and again at various points throughout the day, and if something particularly good or interesting pops up I’ll jot down a sentence or two, and then put it out of my mind again and get back on with what I was doing.

Then I’ll get home from work and have my dinner, and I’ll do whatever else needs to be done, and at some point in the middle of the evening I’ll go and sit down for an hour or so to write down all of the things that have been turning over at the back of my mind throughout the day.

I’ll write fast, then, setting down all of the things that, through the course of the day, have formed themselves or half-formed themselves, ready to be written. Sometimes it feels like taking dictation; at other times it needs a little more effort; but generally it comes, and it feels, most of the time, like the completion of a process that’s been going on all day, rather than the starting-up of the motor from cold.

By the end of the hour or so I aim to have written enough so that, combined with any increase in the length of my book from the morning session, I end up a thousand words further on. On a good day I’ll write more, and on a bad day less, but by the end of the week I aim to have written 7,000 words.

So that’s what I do.

I mentioned computers.

I always write the first drafts of my books on an obsolete piece of technology called the Psion Netbook. These things were launched in the late Nineties, as I recall, and were discontinued a couple of years later. They still come up from time to time on Ebay, which is where I got mine. But if I were asked to design a writer’s tool, from scratch, it would be pretty close to the Psion. It’s super-portable, being about the size of a slim hardback book, but it also has a usably-large touchscreen (7.7”) and a near-full-sized keyboard. It has a battery life of between 10 and 18 hours. It turns on and off instantly, without any delay for starting up or opening programmes: you open the lid and slide the ‘on’ button and whatever you wrote the previous day is right there in front of you. You can grab it, switch it on, add a sentence, and switch it off again in a couple of seconds. And it doesn’t have any games on it and it doesn’t connect to the bloody internet, either (or at least, the way I have it set up it doesn’t), and this means no emails, no Facebook, no web-surfing for ‘research’ purposes or any other time-wasting temptations. All you can do on it, pretty much, is write; and so that’s what you end up doing on it. You can write on it when and where you please, without having to carry a laptop-sized bag with you and without having to search for a power-supply.

And that, in a nutshell, is how I write."

Warwick Cairns latest book In Praise of Savagery is experimentally available as a download- for FREE- and as a conventional book.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/s?_encoding=UTF8&search-alias=books-uk&field-author=Warwick%20Cairns

He can be found at www.warwickcairns.com

 

Monday
Dec132010

how I write #4: Jason Webster

Jason Webster is the acclaimed author of Duende, Sacred Sierra and Guerra. His brilliant (I've read it already) new detective novel about Valencia featuring an anarchisticly inclined police detective is out early next year and called "Or the Bull kills you", published by Random House- check here for more:- http://www.jasonwebster.net/.

This is how he writes: 

"I try to be as disciplined as possible when actually in the process of writing a book. Coming up with original ideas, feeling your way through the book - all that comes before, and can be quite unstructured. But the process of putting words down has to be determined and unwavering. I set myself a target of 2,000 words per day, and simply don't get up out of my chair until that's completed. Sometimes it might take an entire working day - 8 hours, say. Once I get about half-way through the book, however, things tend to start flowing better, and I can do my words in just over 2 hours. As a 'prize' I get the rest of the day off. Not that I do very much during those free hours. Much of the rest of my life shuts down when I'm 'in production'. There isn't much space left in my head for anything else. So even simple things like paying bills, meeting with friends or answering emails get put to one side for weeks or months at a stretch. It's the only way I can make sure I get to the end. Certain 'rules' have worked very well for me: Never edit when you're writing - I don't reread a single line of a book until the first draft is finished. Watch what you read - Some will tell you that any reading is good for your writing. I haven't found that to be the case. Certain books can infect or contaminate you, others can inspire. You have to work out which is which. But if I sense a writer's voice is starting to get inside my own, I drop the book immediately. As a rule of thumb, novels are pretty much out, particularly if you're writing fiction. They're largely the end process of someone else's reading. Books that give you real information or insights are far better and help feed into your own 'uniqueness' - something that's important, but which may take a fair amount of time to understand and mature. Think about myths - At a late stage in the structuring of a book, thinking about classic folk stories, legends or myths can help find the final 'key' to unlocking what it is you're actually trying to do. It can't be done too soon, however. The book has to be pretty much clear in my head before I try this, but it's a useful exercise and can bring greater clarity. My book GUERRA, for example, is very loosely structured around the story of Orpheus in the Underworld. When I saw that, writing the book became much easier. Be poor - In all senses. Having no money, or the prospect of no money over your head, is an excellent motivator. I'm naturally pretty lazy, but financial constraints have forced me to be disciplined and get books finished. If I'd had more money I doubt I would have written the number of books I have (six in 12 years, which is OK, but not that amazing). But being poor in terms of ego is no bad thing, either. Writing can be a major ego trip - "Thousands of people will read MY words...". But that kind of thinking tends to get in the way of actual writing. It can help to think of yourself as less of a broadcaster and more as a retransmission aerial: ideas come and you help transmit them. But just because ideas - even good  ones - float through your mind doesn't mean they're actually 'yours'. Better to think that they're coming from a muse, the angels, the atmosphere, your duende... whatever. Anything but from 'you'."

 

 

Saturday
Dec042010

can't get in the mood to write

As Anthony Burgess wrote, "I only write when I'm inspired- and I'm inspired every day at 9.00am". Except you often aren't, despite perhaps going through your little pre-writing routine of coffee and reading the paper. If the prospect of three hours of blank time ahead is overwhelming chop it up into bits. Decide to only do two hours or one hour, then, once you have momentum, keep on going. If you are on a word deadline I've done the following before: write 100 words as soon as you sit down- then take a break, have a coffee, do some press-ups- whatever signifies 'not writing' to you- then sit down again and write 200 words. Take another break. Then 400 words. Final break, then 800 words. This method works even when writing seems like getting blood out of a stone. And I've often noticed around the 200-400 mark you suddenly get into step again and you don't need the final break.

Tuesday
Nov302010

maps as an aid to writing

Maps really help the writing process. Robert Louis Stevenson famously doodled a map of Treasure Island before he wrote the book. Crime novelists sometimes even include maps as part of the story- I’m thinking Jeffrey Deaver here- but that isn’t where the real utility of map drawing lies.

When you have a single location where a lot will happen- say a large house or a small town it’s great to have a map so that you can get everything clear before you write. You can even add photos to the map if it’s of a real place, but the map itself should be hand drawn so that you can include all the details that will make your world come alive.

Writing is about creating worlds and a map is a blueprint for such a world. I used a map, or plan, of the bunker complex the hero was trapped in, in my novel Dr Ragab’s Universal Language. The bunker was quite simple but a lot went on there and it really helped clarify – and make real- the story when I had the plan in front of me. It also helped when I had to describe the bunker in modern times as well as the 1930s.

The map can be huge- with photos stuck on as I said- though I find a single A4 is usually good enough for my purposes. I go through a few drafts to get my map correct and add things to it as I go on. Maps are good aids to plotting because you can map a journey and see if it makes sense timewise. You can mark where people are at any one point and see if your plot moves work. The other big benefit is by looking at the map you can bring in elements to the story you might have overlooked- that great oak in the corner of the field, or the disused bomb shelter at the bottom of the garden.

Nabokov suggested that a keen reader should try and draw a map while reading a great book. He gives examples of maps he drew based on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It certainly breathes some air into the reading process. It also gives you an idea of what kind of detail you should put on your map before you start writing. It’s similar to getting an idea of what an outline should look like by making one of a favourite book you’ve read.

Sunday
Nov282010

avoiding the flat style with 'tilt'

Raymond Chandler wrote “American is an ill at ease language, without manner or self control. It has too great a fondness for the faux naïf, by which I mean the use of a style such as might be spoken by a very limited sort of mind. In the hands of a genius like Hemingway this may be effective…When not used by a genius it is as flat as a Rotarian speech.”

I know exactly what he means. English as it used to be written- the Mandarin variant or its modern version mandarin flexibly meshed with precise use of the vernacular- Isherwood and Kingsley Amis both very good at that- has now through exposure to the American way become in danger of achieving Rotarian qualities. Chandler’s way out was the sprightly use of crazy metaphors, you have to do something to jazz up flat footed prose, prose without any sense of inner spring. 

Another way is to infuse the flat style with humour and a healthy dose of irony, another method, used by Will Self is the self- conscious use of difficult words- good one that.

Thinking about style and 'voice' often leads nowhere good though. Better to concentrate on subject matter, which, as John Fante rightly observed, "called all the shots". Once you have your subject matter you then need some sort of angle of attack or emotion or focusing image. Writer Lloyd Evans, who is the Spectator's hilarious theatre critic, calls it giving the piece 'tilt'. It's very very easy to lose sight of the need for tilt, for something that will give a unifying emotion or feel to the piece. It is somewhat mysterious too. Whilst it is not so difficult to maintain one emotional slant or window for a poem or short story, its much harder for a novel or a longer narrative. One way is for the narrative view to be infused with an unresolvable contradiction, something that will also generate plot. "When Gregor Samsa awoke he found he had changed into a beetle." Plenty of tilt in that. Tilt then could be called narrative necessity. Ask yourself WHY am I telling this story. "It just has to be told" is a very good reason and usually means it's a story with plenty of narrative necessity, that is, once you start people want to hear the whole thing.

Tilt is a strange mix of an emotion running through something and a way of looking at the subject matter. A new or novel POV creates more tilt- without the Indian narrator one flew over the cuckoo's nest would have been much less interesting. Perhaps it is the emotional feel of a piece generated by the way it is viewed. By skewing the viewpoint one increases focus on the subject and therefore interest and excitement. 

Just as many people only become eloquent when angry, so tilt creates a viewpoint that generates enough emotion to make the writer eloquent.

 

Thursday
Nov252010

inner game of writing

Without reflection we say we learn from experience, by doing. Actually we practise through doing, we gain mastery through doing. But we learn by watching.

This was the great insight of Timothy Gallwey’s book the ‘Inner game of tennis’. In fact he was rediscovering what has been known in Japan and other countries for millennia: that by increasing awareness of what you do and what others do leads to learning. By watching others and having a method of watching yourself you learn. Automatically. We have this funny idea, no doubt a product of school, that we need a verbal instruction to prompt us to learn anything. Totally wrong. We learn silently and immediately by watching. I saw one of my godsons doing cartwheels in the small gardenless apartment he lives in. I asked his mother, "who taught him.“ Sh said, "he taught himself- by watching video games.”.

What has this to do with writing?

I think we learn by watching how others write. By reading you mean?

Nope. I think reading is a pretty poor way of learning to write. If it wasn’t wouldn’t all those eggheads who study literature be great writers?

I think we watch other writers by simply COPYING paragraphs/stories/chapters/entire books. Evidence: Robert Louis Stevenson, Raymond Chandler and Hunter S. Thompson. Stevenson copied out work by Walter Scott. Chandler copied dialogue and paragraphs from crime writers he admired. Thompson typed out the whole of Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby and the whole of The Sun also Rises by Hemingway.

My only copying was limited to some paragraphs from Evelyn Waugh’s travel books. But what I did do at an early age was act as the copyist for poet and writer Steve Micalef, the founder of Punk Fanzine Sniffin’ Glue. He’d dictate a story and I’d write it down. I learnt more in a few days doing this than in years of reading and scribbling on my own. I have also taken a book I enjoy and writen an outline for it – to see what an outline for a great book looks like and to see how the author achieved his effects.

How useful are a bunch of tips? Well I find they can be very useful indeed at getting you back on track, stimulating a new idea, helping a new approach. The tip of always exaggerating characters has been a great help to me when I’ve been stuck with dialogue or a good scene. But tips won’t get you all the way. I think the inner game can.

So after you’ve read a book you admire just copy out a favourite paragraph or two. Maybe an entire story. You’ll be surprised that some of the writer’s DNA will enter into you. You’ll feel that you own his style in some way.

How else can you learn by watching others write? I once was able to read (and photocopy) a handwritten essay by Bruce Chatwin- with all his corrections. It showed me a first draft by a famous writer was just as rough as mine were. This was a great boost. I think if you can meet writers and observe them doing ordinary stuff- literary festivals are good for this- just sneak into the hospitality tent as 'press'- if you can you'll think 'if they can do that so can I'. The single best way to get published is to befriend people already published. It becomes your normal frame of reference then.