One of my aims for this year is to be able to write a post entitled ‘How I Write a Novel’. However, since I should probably complete more than one before I claim to have enough experience to do this, I shall, for now, stick to the nuts-and-bolts of writing that applies to anything and everything I’ve tried so far.
One important lesson in this vein, and one I have learned the hard way, is the one about writing it the hell down.
Don’t worry, I’m not off my rocker. Not quite. I know that in order to be any kind of writer, writing stuff down is sort of a given. But what I mean is, for the love of Pete, make sure you have the means to write an idea down whenever or wherever it occurs to.
I guess I’ve always been a day dreamer, but now that I’m turning daydreams into fodder for fiction, I never completely disengage from them. Whenever I have a spare moment I’m pondering, planning, surmising. I’m a little concerned that I often have something of a glazed look. It’s entirely possible I may even drool a little as I let my mind wander off on its own. I’m thinking of investing in a t-shirt that says ‘don’t worry, I’m a writer’ in order to avoid the concerned looks that sometimes come my way on the bus.
Drool or no drool, this is one of the most fun parts of the process for me: the dreaming, the creating, the wondering. It’s the pure bit, before it has to be nailed down in black and white and glued together with technique, style and voice, all those things it takes most writers years and years to develop. But even this pure, boundless act of creating can bring pain. Oh yes. And not just the bump on the forehead from encountering a lamppost whilst planning your next plot twist.
I have all too often been struck with the lightning of inspiration when out int he wilds on some country lane, or bus stop more likely, only to get back to my eager word processor that night and have my brain become a windswept desert. One of the cold ones too, in antarctica maybe, where it’s all rock and ice and the sun never goes down.
Mental tumbleweeds are never fun, but they are even worse when tumbling their way across a void that only hours before contained a rich plethora of ideas.
I’m certain most people out there are probably less like a goldfish than I, but even if you have the mental sponginess to absorb litres of inspiration…I would still recommend writing it the hell down. Seriously. Especially as your best ideas will probably come when you are not distracted and therefore less likely to be sat in front of a word processor.
My walk to and from work is prime time for drool-enducing dialogue-planning and plot-spinning. This 3-mile round commute is when I come up with most of my ideas. And all too often have I settled down that evening, booted up the word processor file, only to stare at the cursor gradually going blurry with fury when the sodding idea won’t come home to roost.
Personally, having a smart phone has been a revolution for me. It means the second I come up with something, no matter where I am, I can write it the hell down. Even if it’s just a single sentence, I email it to myself. Then I also get a handy little notification that reminds me I have something to check later. For longer-term goals, like ideas about an ending, plots for future books or even subjects for future blog posts, I use the ‘Notes’ app. This is just how it works for me and it I have not lost an idea since I’ve had it. But either way, everyone has to find their own way.
But whatever your way is…really…write it the hell down.
If you find the trappings of modern technology more stifling than liberating, stick to the classics: carry a notebook, notepad, a diary, anything. Oh, and a pen. Forget the notebook even, just carry the pen. Write your idea on your hand, arm, thigh, any bit of exposed flesh that won’t get you arrested in a public place, but please, write it the hell down.
At university my tutors virtually never stopped extolling the virtues of having a writers’ journal. Like many of their great pieces of advice, it took my quite a while to come to understand how I could make it work for me. I have never kept a diary and I have the world’s most appalling handwriting (I’m relatively certain my English teachers in secondary school used to cry themselves to sleep at night…until I got top marks in the literature exams, anyway) so keeping an actual journal in the terms I understood was a bit of a chore. I tried anyway, as I dutifully tried everything my tutors suggested. But once again, I found the real thing I was supposed to learn was how best to make the idea work for me.
So maybe initially I took it this advice too literally. Maybe we all have writers’ journals in some form or another. And if you don’t, you should try to develop one. Not only could you use it to track and examine your progress, but it could be the instrument which you use to record those flashes of inspiration you get when on a freezing cold train platform waiting on the delayed 17:58 to Manchester, as well as to make lists of books to read, things to try, lists of publishers, anything. Anything. It can be a blog or a book or a wall chart. Write it on your cat if they stay still long enough to let you.
Coming up with your particular form of writers’ journal might take a few tries with a few different mediums, and you may even settle on a combination, smart phone and wall chart, note pad and iPad, but whatever you do, however you choose to do it, make sure you have a way to write it the hell down. I want to spare you my tooth-grinding, hair-pulling, curse-enducing but entirely avoidable tumbleweed moments.