How I write

I’m getting this down so that I can look back at it a year from now, or 5 years from now, or maybe next week, and see how much anything has changed. If someone else comes across this blog post and finds it vaguely interesting, that’s a bonus.

I generally write during a short (1-2 hours) period in the evening, every day, between 20:45 and 22:15. This is through necessity, not choice. I would write for longer if I had the time. On a good day, I can produce over 1000 words in under 2 hours, but it’s usually not that many.

I don’t force myself to write; I write for enjoyment.

Technical stuff: I write in Word 2007 on a desktop PC. I use Notepad to write plans, outlines, character bios, and other background notes. I regularly convert my work-in-progress Word documents into mobi files and transfer them to my phone or tablet so that I can do some proof-reading and editing as and when I get time while I’m out of the house.

I use a mechanical keyboard, specifically a Das Model S Professional. I don’t know exactly how many first-draft typos it has prevented, or how much it has actually improved my typing speed, but it looks great and it is just excellent to work on.

I plan books before I write them. I also plan individual scenes and choreograph the details of sequences where that sort of thing is necessary or useful.

I spend a lot of time naming characters, then I get people telling me I named a character after them or someone they know. I didn’t do this. Or, if I did, it wasn’t you or anyone that you know. Just so we’re crystal clear on that. Again.

I write each book as a single Word document. The first full length book I wrote, I created individual documents for each chapter. Terrible idea. It makes everything much more complicated and tiresome than it needs to be, particularly if you want to search for a particular word, or rename a character.

There are thousands of tips on how to write, in hundreds of books and even more websites. Some of the tips are very good, some of them don’t apply too readily to the way that I work.

For example, everyone seems to have a tip for breaking through “writer’s block”. I don’t get it. I actually don’t get writer’s block, whatever that is. Maybe it’s because I only have an hour or so each evening, and I’m constantly excited about filling that small window of opportunity with creativity and entertainment. Perhaps I’m just lucky, although that’s a bit of a stretch.

Another tip that I don’t agree with is to write your novel in a random order, maybe starting with a scene that you really want to write that happens near the end, or in the middle. I can’t see how that can be anything but utterly counter-productive, and it makes me wonder if that is the cause of all these people with writer’s block. It seems fairly obvious to me that if I planned out a novel, identified half a dozen really exciting scenes and wrote them first, the rest of the novel would end up feeling like a chore to write, filling in lengthy gaps between the few scenes that were actually fun to write.

I start at the beginning and write the whole novel in the sequence it’s going to be read. I look forward to writing the fun scenes, and I plan them before writing them, but I also enjoy writing the book as a whole. If I don’t enjoy writing the whole thing, how can I expect anyone to enjoy reading it?

I’ll list a few tips that I consider essential:

Get the grammar, spelling and punctuation right. You’re not James Joyce and I’m not Cormac McCarthy. If the first page of a Kindle sample of one of my books is full of spelling mistakes, grammatical foul-ups, and poor punctuation, I’m not going to assume anyone will be interested in reading more.

I’ll fully credit this next one to Elmore Leonard, as he says it most succinctly when listing his ten rules for writing novels: “Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.” If you create strong scenes and give your characters good dialogue, you don’t need anything else. And don’t use adverbs to modify “said”.

No clichés. And I mean clichéd situations as well as using worn-out phrases. If any slip through the cracks in my first draft, I strip them out with extreme prejudice during the editing phases. While you’re busy eliminating clichés, take out any uses of the word “suddenly” and rewrite the sentences so that the suddenness is apparent without the word.

Don’t describe characters, places, or objects in extreme detail. I’ve been guilty of doing this, but I’m working on it.

Mirrors. Don’t have a character look into a mirror as a mechanism for describing that character, particularly when writing first-person. I looked at my reflection and checked that my hooded eyes, chiselled jaw and jet black hair complemented the neatly pressed shirt and grey Armani suit that I was wearing for the annual Billionaires’ Ball. That sort of thing. It’s everywhere.

Read it all aloud. The whole thing. This will highlight clunky sentences, overused words and bits where it just doesn’t work. It is really useful and should not be avoided.

Edit with a chainsaw. If you can’t afford to pay an editor, do it yourself and be absolutely brutal. I look forward to editing my own writing, almost as if it was written by someone I don’t particularly like and I go in wanting to find lots to change, rewrite completely or just rip out and throw away. I’ve got a document called “Deleted parts of Kissing The Scorpion” that is over 6000 words. Those are just the parts I ripped out; I changed a lot more. Subsequent books have required less wholesale butchery because I am learning as I go and not repeating my mistakes. In theory.

Get someone (more people if possible) who will give you honest, useful criticism and feedback, to proof-read or test-read your books. It’s invaluable.

That’s just over 1000 words. I’m not going to claim those as today’s 1000 because that would be cheating.

If you enjoyed that post, or if you think it’s rubbish, please let me know.