Category Archives: Writing

Three lessons from writing

Right, one more post about writing before you all get bored (too late! – Ed.) and I go back to normal things.

While writing most recently, I think I have gleaned three lessons.

1) You can’t write a concerto because you can hum

You can hum, you can probably sing to some degree, you could even – if stretched – come up with a tune that you’re pretty sure is original. But you wouldn’t expect to sit down at a piano and write a whole concerto without stopping and going back. You probably can’t even visualise which keys play which notes on the piano – I don’t remember. You have an idea of what the song is, but as you press the keys you are hearing a dum, dah, dam, blunk. And then you find the correct note and you go on. But you couldn’t expect to write a whole song like this. You couldn’t work it out at the piano as you went along. It would be much better to hum the tune into a tape recorder, then later work out what each of the notes you hummed were, and finally figure out how to play your tune. If you kept stopping all the time you’d lose all of your rhythm. So stop imagining that when you start writing what will come flowing out of you will be ready for print. Stop thinking that it’s a good idea to pause every five seconds and correct yourself. You have a creative brain and an ordered brain and they don’t work well at the same time. Write then edit. Don’t do both at the same time or you will be so discouraged you will stop.

2) What to do when you see all those rubbish books out there and think if they can do it, why can’t I?

They don’t know what good writing is – do they? Of course they don’t! So how did they get a novel published when you’ve been so sorely overlooked?

Well, for a start, they wrote one.

It’s actually easier if you don’t know what good writing is, because you aren’t constantly stopping yourself from writing a sentence, just because it might not be in the correct tense. Separating the writing from the editing is crucial. It is the law. Do it!

3) If it was fun, easy and didn’t take long it wouldn’t be something you’d want to do

The good news is that it’s really, really hard. I can’t imagine, or presume to know, how hard it is to do well. I’m not there – yet. It must be close to impossible.

And that’s great because a big part of wanting to do it, is because you want to be able to say you’ve done it. And the only reason you think it’s a good thing to say that you’ve done, is because it’s a rare and hard thing to do. The good news is, it is hard. Because otherwise, it wouldn’t be something worth doing.

4) I thought there wasn’t supposed to be a 4?

So start? Please. The most clichéd thing in the world is to say, “what’s your five-year plan for this”? People have a beer and talk to a friend, or they chat over dinner with their partners, and they talk about what it is they hope to be doing in five years’ time. But you know why those things are things you hope to happen in five years and not… like… tomorrow? It’s because you can’t do them in a single day. So if you don’t work on them during the five years, you won’t ever get there.

Ten years ago I wanted to be a novelist in five years. It was only nine years later that I started actually really working on my novel in a way that would mean I would ever finish it. If anything of this is ringing true – and you actually want to get to that place. Please, please, just start.

Writing Diary: Day 5

So you know that thing about Sunday being a day of rest for certain people? That pretty much was what happened to me. I just couldn’t apply myself at all. In the whole day I wrote 1 page! That’s it. And boy did I feel all the better for it.

So in the end I didn’t do 10 pages a day on a running total. Which is a shame but I know that if I had been more realistic at the beginning of the week and said 5 pages a day I might still have not made it.

Weirdly when something is fun, like writing is most of the time then it fits into a set of fun options I have. Going out with friends, reading, movies, tv, Internet etc. It slots in as one of the options to chose from and it is more effort than the rest.

But when it was work like it was this week it was easier to do it to the exclusion of all else.

But on Sunday I had had enough of being alone. So I called Nick. I went out for beers with another friend. I sang a song and had it broadcast on the Internet while taking part in a comedy quiz show about Formula 1. And then Katherine came back.

I had a people day today. And if you’ve ever read writing by anti- social writers I think you can tell. They are the ones who never seem to know why anyone does anything. They are the ones whose dialogs sounds clunky. They are the ones I never want to be.

Remember one of the rules was don’t despair. I beat all of my own real expectations. And that’s the main thing. 20,000 words is not to be sniffed at. You try it some time if you don’t believe me.

Roll on the theater diary.

Writing Diary: Day 4

So I woke up on Saturday feeling rotten. My brain hurt a lot and I just couldn’t face anything at all. Certainly not writing.

I decided that I needed some food and so I went out to get some breakfast from the place we call the greasy receipt. It is a non-greasy spoon which has a strange habit of having grease only on the receipt. Unfortunately it wasn’t very appealing so I didn’t finish it and I went home.

It was such a nice day yesterday that I really wanted to enjoy it, but felt I couldn’t partly because I needed to write, and also because of the brain hurting that had continued all of the way through breakfast.

I bought some papers so I decided to go and read them outside somewhere. I thought of The Park, (this is actually a pub on the park). I wondered down there, had a pint read the papers and had a bit of a rest.

Afterwards I came back and decided that I really better had get some writing done. I wrote six pages. At the point that I stopped I had reached a milestone. I had written 20,000 words since I had started on Wednesday. That seems quite a lot to me. And try as I might that was the end of the writing. It was about five thirty and I just had to stop.

I watched The Comedian (the Jerry Seinfeld documentary) and Burn After Reading. And then, I just went to bed.

There was a moment in The Comedian which was really arresting to me. Jerry is talking about what it was like when he started out being a comedian. He’s explaining that he used to only write on a couple of days a week, and how one day after lunch he saw a team of construction workers trudging back to work. They didn’t want to go back to work after lunch, and their job was far less fun than the one he was going to do. So why didn’t he want to work? He said he never looked back after this revelation.

I think a lot of creative people are like this. They want to be a writer, but they don’t actually want to do the work. The only reason I’m so tired I think is that if I was keeping up this rate of output I’d be putting out a novel every three weeks. That probably seems a tad rapid.

At least I’m still up on my daily amount even if I slipped today. I’m still 2 pages ahead of my target for the week. And if I just write 6 more I’ll hit the half way mark in the novel.

I just hope I don’t still feel as tired as this when I wake up tomorrow. I have to go back to work next week, and see a play every night Monday to Saturday (oh yeah I forgot to mention that).

Writing Diary: Day 3

My good friend Nick Ollivère once told me the greatest piece of advice a writer can ever hear: “If it’s boring to write, it will be boring to read.”

I have tried to live by that ever since. You want to keep yourself interested in your own project. But at the same time there are several competing aspects. Some things in your writing are, by their nature harder to do than others. I love writing dialogue. I could write dialogue until the cows come home. But I’m writing a novel, not a play. It’s supposed to be difficult. It is supposed to be challenging. And luckily it is. That’s the good news. But sometimes you get to a bit which is hard. It isn’t boring, it’s hard. I was faced with this yesterday afternoon. In the morning I had written 6 pages and while writing at all was starting to hurt my brain after this intensity it came reasonably easily. I didn’t feel any big desire to get away from the computer. After lunch I came back to it and almost immediately I hit a scene that was difficult.

The thing is that it wasn’t boring, I wanted to know what was going to happen to my hero as much as I hope you do. I wanted to know how they deal with the situation. It’s easy with boring because of Nick’s rule. I think to myself, “Well lets just try without the scene”. It invariably works. It’s a kind of magic golden rule. If you don’t obey it when you’re writing you’ll as sure as hell obey it when you come to editing.

But with difficult it’s quite different. I have thought about skipping scenes like this for a bit. Coming back to them later, but I’m really not sure. I read the magazine Private Eye and I really love it. Some other people I know love it but only read the cartoons. They get the magazine and then they read all the cartoons and then after that they never quite have time to read the content. I have a rule, I only turn the page when I’ve read the content. And that means that I save the cartoons until I get to that page. I read them first in one big sweep across the page. But before I can have more I have to read the content. It’s crazy really because I love the content. But I know that I’m lazy. If I didn’t have the rule then it wouldn’t happen. I’d read the cartoons and pretend I’d read the content.

So I can’t really skip forward. If I skip forward. then I’ll have a period at some point where I don’t want to face going back to the novel because all I have is the hard bits. The problem was that I had the hard bits on an afternoon when I didn’t have much time. I was going out too see a friend so I needed to get on with it.

Time is the most crucial thing it would seem. On Wednesday when I started I was constrained because I had to travel up to London and back, and I had to have dinner at a certain time and so on. Thursday was a horrible day for writing I felt, but it was easier because I could move everything around. I had no constraint. I wrote the last two pages in the last hour before midnight. But yesterday (Friday) was harder. I had to stop at five thirty in the afternoon. At quarter to five I had written 9 pages. Now of course writing 10 pages didn’t seem enough. I felt that I needed to write 13. I wanted to beat a full day of writing on a part day.

At five thirty I hadn’t quite finished, I pushed on, knowing that I would be late for my friend. By six o’clock I knew I had to start getting ready to leave. I had written 12 and three quarter pages. Close but no cigar.

I left the house and I could feel that my mind was mush. I spent the evening feeling very confused and strange. My brain was just exhausted.

On my way home I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to get home and finish that page. It was hanging over me. I arrived home at ten minutes past eleven and sat down at the computer. Only a quarter of a page to write.

And it was done. 13 pages. But I have no idea if I’ll be able to do anything today.

Writing Diary: Day 2

So day 2 is over now.

If you haven’t a clue what’s going on you may want to check out: The introduction and Day 1.

Yesterday was very tricky. I think I had tired out my brain with the writing that I had done on day 1. And as we all know a tired brain is a non-productive brain.

The morning was pretty hopeless as Katherine had to get up early to go to the airport and so I had to get up early too. And we had gone to bed late because of the packing that needed doing. So I found myself feeling very tired in the morning. I did not, as at least one person suggested and as many more were probably thinking have a hangover.

I wrote two pages and then at around 10am I went back to sleep for an hour. This is a real oddity for me. I think I can count on one hand the times I’ve gone back to sleep in the daytime in the last 10 years. I don’t like doing it as it makes me feel very strange – actually almost like I have a hangover. But this is a writing holiday and I was seemingly too tired to write so I figured I better do whatever it takes. So I slept. There was an added strangeness to it in that just before I had decided to go back to sleep my previous attempt to wake myself up had been to shower. So yesterday I woke up, had a pot of coffee, showered and then went back to bed. No wonder it was so very confusing.

I slept for about an hour. Which wasn’t enough to stop me feeling tired, but was enough to have added the weird strange almost like a hangover feeling. I showered again, dressed and then wrote another two pages and then it was one o’clock and I’d only written 4 pages.

This was not really very good. I figured that as the day progressed I would get more tired and therefore less productive. That’s what usually happens anyway, so I was quite despondent.

Although at least on the positive side that fourth page was page number 67 which meant that I had crossed the third way mark (I am guessing the whole thing is going to be around 200 pages based on the current pacing of the already written chapters and the structure I’ve planned).

The afternoon went better, but it was still hard going. At one point I accidentally deleted 3 pages as well. Luckily undo worked in the way it was supposed to. It was quite confusing as I’d seemingly managed to delete some, not notice and then write some more so I had to copy the new stuff and then undo back to the deletion and then add the new stuff back in afterwards.

I wrote the six pages that I needed to do to make my 10 for the day, but it was like pulling teeth. From looking at the statistics I wrote around 10.1 words per minute. That. Is. Slow. And I was writing for most of that time sadly. I was writing a sentence – and then thinking… Um… ah… What happens next? Um… ah? Um… Oh. Another sentence. And so on… for six hours. That statistic another way is 6 seconds between each word.

So after I made my 10 pages I decided to have a break and watch a movie. I watched Goodfellas. A total classic movie which I have seen many times before. The idea with these things is to provide a distraction by a known amount. I didn’t want to get too interested in a movie that I wouldn’t be able to sleep – or more importantly that I not write.

So after the movie finished I wrote 2 pages in 45 minutes. Now that’s more like it.

So yes if you’ve been keeping a running total that’s 12 pages. One more than Day 1 and two more than the target. That does make it sound like it is going to be 13 today, but I’m not sure.

Today is going to be more tricky as I am going out tonight to see a friend. This is my one scheduled outing of the 5 days, so I better attack the writing with relish:

Writing Diary: Day 1

So day 1 is complete. Don’t worry about all the flannel how many pages did I write?

I wrote 11 pages.

So 1 more than target.

Writing 11 pages was tough. I mean it wasn’t fighting in Iraq tough. But it was difficult to achieve. And I worry that doing another 10 today might be harder.

However Katherine left pretty early this morning. And that might make things easier or harder. It’s difficult to say. Yesterday afternoon I had agreed to be out of the house because Katherine was packing. And so I had…

stop snickering at the back…

I had to spend the afternoon with my laptop in the pub.

And the pub I chose happened to be the Lowlander in Covent Garden.

Here are some pictures:

Hey… I got my writing done didn’t I?

So the question is could I have done more if I had spend less time in the pub? Or did the pub loosen things up enabling more writing to get done?

And most crucially, has writing 11 pages yesterday made writing 10 pages today harder or easier?

I’ll tell you one thing though… There was zero correlation between how many pages I hoped to write and how many I did. I didn’t write 11 just because I planned to do 10. I hoped, secretly, to do 20. And wrote as many as I could get out of myself without being silly.

Anyway… Will I write 10 today? There’s only one way to find out… Check back tomorrow.

PS. Thanks to all of those who wished me well by the way, your thoughts have been much appreciated.

A writing holiday

So. Writing eh? What larks, what fun!

Over the next few days I’m going to have my first ever writing holiday. Not a holiday from writing, but rather a holiday to write.

Katherine is off to Turkey to do some belly dancing* and so I’m going to attempt to get some writing done. I have five days off starting on Wednesday and ending on Sunday. And I am going to tell you how much writing I have done in a brief post on Gamboling each day so you can see my progress. And mainly so I can’t skive.

I am currently a quarter of the way through the current novel – yes I know that’s where I was last time I did an update. It’s bad isn’t it? I have written 52 pages and the novel should be about 200.

So obviously the answer is to write 30 pages a day and then I’ll be finished. But 30 pages of A4 is quite a lot to fill. You’re talking 15,000 words a day. And I’m not sure I’m up to that. My most recent speed has been 1,000 words in a month. I’d rather set myself a target that’s do-able and meet it than set something impossible and miss it.

So I’m going to go for 10 pages a day. That would take me to half way. That’s an achievable goal – I hope.

So, the rules:

  • No Internet until Sunday evening except for these Gamboling articles
    and comments
  • Katherine doesn’t go until Thursday morning so I’m not to get
    disheartened if the first day doesn’t work very well
  • I’m not to get disheartened
  • I will, on the morning after, tell you how many pages I wrote
  • I will not try and catch up before I write that post.
  • [and I can nag you from Istanbul! – Ed]

And so that’s it I think. Knowing that you are going to be reading this should make me hit my targets – I hope.

* Really. It’s for a hen do.

Spare me a quarter

It’s January and I am a quarter of the way through the first draft of my new novel. That sounds really a lot better than it should. I conjures up ideas that make it seem like I might be finishing said draft by the end of April. No, it’s taken most of 2008 to get a quarter of the way through the novel, which is a bit of a long time. The problem is application of course. It takes an awful lot of time to write a novel and time is something that I don’t seem to have an awful lot of.

My work day is 8am to 6pm which rules out quite a large chunk of the day. Especially as my commute is another hour and a quarter on top. Writing in the night is difficult. I agree with Gunter Grass who said, “I don’t believe in writing at night because it comes too easily. When I read it in the morning it’s not good.” So I must write in the morning for an hour before I go to work. That means I get up at 5:30. Start writing at 6am and then leave the house at seven. Normally I get home again around eight because leaving work is harder than it should be, which means I have about an hour or two before going back to bed. And because that plan is so crazy, it has tended not to work as well as it might. I could try a different plan. That’s possible, normally when something doesn’t work, it’s best to go back to the beginning and try a different tack. But I just don’t see how I can. So this plan is it. Perhaps the next quarter will be faster?

When I ever mention that I am a certain distance through a novel or a piece of work I am often asked how I know. Well the simple answer is that I don’t really know of course. A page might take a week to write in first draft or it might take 10 minutes. And that page that took you ten minutes to write might change the course of the novel and add another chapter or subtract one. It is an imprecise measure. I haven’t done as some have and tried to come up with a number of words for a novel and then fit that. I think that doesn’t really work because every novel has a different pace and speed. I know it will be roughly a novel-length story, which is, I suppose, somewhere between 65,000 – 150,000 words. But that is a pretty big somewhere. The safest way I know is that I have an idea of all of the scenes and moments that I want in the novel. I have a list of them and to try and keep myself on track I have marked them as short, medium and long. This helps with the pacing while I’m in the trenches. Do I need to make this a fast punchy bit to get somewhere else or should it be slow and relaxed so that an emotion can be drawn out? Once I had the first few versions of those short, medium and long scenes done for this book, and I know how many of them there are I can tell how far I am through the book. That’s my method. Your mileage may vary.

The second thing that people ask me is always, “what is it about”? And the answer is, “I’m not telling.” I have to keep it a secret so that people don’t accidentally influence it. It’s hard enough second-guessing my own brain, let alone all of yours. Imagine I told you the book was about fish. And you said, “Oooh, I like books about fish, I always like it when books about fish have bits in them about the swim bladder”. That sounds like a perfectly natural thing for you to say (well, maybe not quite). The problem is that while I’m writing I’m always going to be trying to get that dang swim bladder into the story, even if the story would be much better without it. And even worse, the other way around you might say, “I don’t like books about fish.” And that doesn’t help at all.

So a secret it must be. But I feel like by telling you that it’s being worked on, I might keep the pressure on me to finish it. I’ll let you know when I’m half way.