How I Write: The Trick is to Keep Writing

I wrote a blog about how I write for the Scottish Book Trust a couple of months ago. I love the sound of my own fingers typing, so I wrote way more than would ever have been useful. While I’m dumping some stuff off my desktop as part of a New Year’s spruce up, here are some of the extra bits SBT weren’t able to use.

We all have two writing lives: our fantasy writing life and our real writing life.

In my fantasy writing life, I write sitting up straight, at a desk, in an office. The office is always, always clean.

In my fantasy writing life, I write the elements of my stories down on post-its and move them around and – aha! – the whole plot is there, fully formed. I just have to join the dots.

In my fantasy writing life, I write from ‘Once upon a time’ to ‘The End’ and only have to check the spelling once before sending something out.

In my fantasy writing life, writing is easy.

In my real writing life, writing is something I do hunched over in bed, with my laptop balanced on my belly (in my real writing life, I have spent a fortune on physiotherapy).

In my real writing life, writing is something I do in-between a full-time job and a part-time job, and a social life that’s made up of haphazard coffee dates, bottles of wine and bad films.

In my real writing life, I suffer from fear of the blank page, and would do anything rather than stare at that little blinking cursor.

In my real writing life – where there is so much to do, so much to be distracted by – I hate writing.

Luckily – in my real writing life – I love having written.

Writing is re-writing. You’ve got to have something to have something to work with.

Here are a couple of things I’ve learned to get my words onto the page.

Thinking out loud

We got our first computer when I was 9, and I was on the internet soon after that, so I feel a certain affinity with the ‘digital natives’ who can’t do anything unless it’s in 1s and 0s.

That being said, I still do my best writing on paper.

For me, there’s something tactile about writing on paper: I need to be in the right space – high ceilings for writing, low ceilings for re-writing, good coffee to keep me sitting up straight – and it needs to be the right notebook.

I always buy fancy notebooks with nice covers and thick paper, and then end up writing in scrappy 3-for-2 jobs I’ve picked up in Poundland because those fancy notebooks are too nice for me to make mistakes in.

If there’s anything worse than fear of the blank page, it’s fear of the fancy blank page.

My notebooks are – to coin a phrase – where the magic happens.

For me, this process – scenes written haphazardly, out of sync, snippets of character and drawings of settings – is about thinking out loud. It’s my way of conquering that fear of the blank page by allowing myself to be messy and make mistakes and get things wrong.

Only when I’ve written something in my notebook – and gone over it a couple of times, taken bits out and put bits in and rewritten it a couple of times, this time with a drawing of one of my characters chasing another down the lefthand margin – am I able to write it up ‘in neat’.

The Snowflake Method

Once I’ve given myself time to think out loud – in my notebooks – I start writing things up ‘in neat’, which means getting everything onto my laptop. Sometimes it means going back to the drawing board, and for that, I use the Snowflake Method.

Developed by the improbably-named Randy Ingermanson, the Snowflake Method is about starting with the bare bones of your story – literally a one liner that tells us the who, what and when – and gradually building from there.

Once you’ve got the one liner, you build to a paragraph; then three paragraphs, reflecting your beginning, muddle and end.

Eventually, you end up with a detailed outline and, ultimately, you end up with a fleshed-out first draft.

That’s when the hard work begins.

Using this method, for me, helps me put all of the work I’ve done in my notebooks in order. My own process is messy and non-linear. The Snowflake Method is ordered and methodical.

Somehow, we meet in the middle.

The Pomodoro Technique

As an almost-‘digital native’, I have an app for most things: running, walking, eating, keeping track of my favourite TV shows.

When you have an app for most things, everything becomes a game.

Developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 80s, the Pomodoro technique – named after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer that Franky C used when he was a university student – is based on the idea that frequent breaks can improve mental agility.

For me, it’s about the way that work fills the amount of time you give it.

You set a timer for 20 minutes, then work like billy-oh throughout those twenty minutes. When those twenty minutes are up – no matter where you are – you stop and take a 10 minute break.

Sometimes I set myself a goal for the twenty minutes – a word count, or a scene, or a thought process – usually I don’t.

Half the battle of writing is getting words down on the page. The Pomodoro technique means I don’t stop and go back and check what I’ve done. I don’t have time.

The Pomodoro technique is something I’ve learned to use to make writing a game, where the goal is to do as many ‘turns’ as I can in a day. I always aim to do at least two ‘turns’ a day, and I haven’t broken my streak since June.

I’ve almost finished my novel.

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