There are questions authors get asked constantly. Is that your real name? Where do ideas come from? Do you really make a living from this? Will you blurb my book/mentor me/fix me up with an agent/publisher/deal?
The one you never get asked is probably the most important of all: given that most of us, professional writers like me included, are desperately short of time to work… how do you make the process of developing, creating and editing a book less hard?
Note: I choose my words carefully there. I didn’t say ‘easy’. Because writing a book’s never going to be easy. And if it feels that way it’s a pretty good sign something’s wrong.
But the truth is that we’ve made writing a lot more difficult than it should be, and technology’s got a lot to blame. Proof: George RR Martin creates the complex (some might say over-complex) universe of Game of Thrones using nothing more than an ancient Wordstar DOS programme and a bunch of Rolodex cards.
Over the last twenty years I’ve written somewhere around thirty books, lots of scripts and other stuff too. I do this for a living. I can’t afford to faff around wasting time on blind alleys and projects that go nowhere. Since lots of people out there are trying to hammer out thousand upon thousand of fictional words as part of Nanowrimo right now let me try and offer a bit of advice from the point of view of an old hand in this business.
1. Don’t fall for the snake oil
Ever since personal computers came along we’ve been subject to the idea that technology can somehow liberate creativity. Don’t be fooled. Computers and software are just tools. But you could put the best paint brushes and artist’s palette in the world in my hands and I still wouldn’t be able to paint.
At its best technology is fantastic at upping your productivity. In other words you should be able to achieve more in the same period of time than you would without the computer and writing app. I’m old enough to be able to remember typewriters. When I finished the first ever (thank-god-unpublished) book I turned out I decided I needed to change a character’s name. Today that’s just a simple search and replace. Can you even imagine how you’d do it in a physical typewritten manuscript without having the whole thing typed again? No, me neither.
But productivity’s a double-edged sword. The truth is a lot of the time writing apps have the opposite effect. I’ve met people who outline whole books in Microsoft Excel, plan stories down the last scene in dedicated timeline apps, use databases to keep character profiles, and then, to cap it all, become obsessed with extraordinarily tedious keywording, tagging and note-taking inside an actual manuscript itself.
There’s a learn-fast package for one popular writing app out there that starts off with a ‘basic module’ with thirty two — thirty two — videos. And that’s just the beginning. Do you need this? Shouldn’t you be spending your time writing not learning software?
Declaration of interest here: I’m a dedicated user of the OSX app Ulysses these days and one reason is it’s effectively a clever digital typewriter, something most people should be able to get to grips with pretty quickly and then forget about while they do the hard stuff: writing.
You know you’re using the right stuff when you don’t have to think about it. If you’re focusing on anything that doesn’t show in the final manuscript — the pages your reader will see — you’re probably wasting your time.
2. Avoid complexity in the narrative unless you really want it
It’s not just the process that can veer off into unnecessary convolution. Book narratives have a habit of wandering there when writers find themselves up against a wall and trying to think of a way to take a story forward.
Here is a sentence to print out and keep:
Simplicity is always harder than complexity.
By this I mean it’s much more difficult to tell an inventive, compelling story in a direct, linear fashion using plain, easily-understood language than it is to put together a prolix ‘intellectual’ piece of so-called literature that’s deliberately aimed at a narrow audience deemed fit to understand it.
Being original, intelligent and popular all at the same time is extraordinarily challenging. The flip side of this is that we can sometimes reach for complexity in a misguided effort to dig ourselves out of a narrative hole.
Here are some signs this is happening in a work in progress.
- You’ve just decided part way through this is actually a two-era story, part of which will take place in the modern day and the rest in Regency England featuring a mirror cast.
- It’s become clear that having three different storylines in your piece isn’t enough and you need to introduce a couple more to stir the pot.
- You’re obsessing over which rock lyrics to use to preface the chapters or searching quotation sites to find something else to use as the occasional epigraph.
- People have started to talk in foreign tongues. This is particularly bad when they begin to do so using alphabets — such as Greek — which most of your audience can’t even read.
- You’re starting to be tempted to insert in-references, quotes, allusions, sneaky little things that people will only understand if they’ve read something else. Trouble is they probably haven’t.
3. Make use of your time
Back in my typewriter days I could only work properly when that machine was in front of me or I had a pen and paper nearby. Thank goodness those days are over. Every working writer I know now works constantly, all over the place: on trains and buses, in hotels and rented apartments. You can do this with your original manuscript — Ulysses runs on OSX and the iPad and magically syncs everything I write on it, this post included, to every machine I use through iCloud.
But don’t think that the task of writing is confined to putting down words. It’s also editing a draft manuscript — get a PDF out and read it on your tablet. Jotting down scene ideas and threads on a phone in Google. Photographing a location for future use or — yes, this is permissible — a stranger in a street who looks just like that bad guy you want to use.
Writing’s also sitting in a bar with a beer daydreaming about the book to come or doing that while out walking the dog. In fact anything that keeps the book alive in your head until the next time you can sit down and work on the manuscript itself.
4. Never fool yourself you can write your way out of it
Here’s a situation I’ve encountered plenty of times over the years. I’m starting to get a little nervous about a project. I’m not sure where it’s headed. So what don’t I do?
I don’t head off into the unknown, keep on writing, hoping that somewhere along the way a miracle will happen and the whole thing will come together. Maybe it will for some people. Perhaps it even has for me in the past, not that I remember it. But here’s the hard truth: the most dangerous place any writer can find him or herself is the moment you think, ‘I can find out what I want to write by writing it.’
In other words telling yourself it doesn’t matter you’ve lost the thread. All you need do is keep on ploughing down this strange and unknown road because somewhere along the way you’ll find a sign that tells you where you are and where you’re headed next.
That sign probably doesn’t exist, and if it does it’s probably been turned round the other way to point in the wrong direction.
5. Develop a pair of crap-detection antennae
We all write crap. At least once a week I come to the computer in the morning, stare at a sentence and see something that makes me want to slap myself. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this so long as you face up to the problem and deal with it. You can’t write unless you recognise bad writing when you encounter it. Your own especially.
I start every day by reading the words I wrote the session before, editing them, adding to them if necessary until I’ve got something I’m happy with. Only then do I get on with the next session. This works well in two ways. I have the smug pleasure of knowing I have removed crap from my work. It’s also reminded me where I’m headed with this particular project and, hopefully, nodded towards the next step along the way.
The next time you sit down to write ask yourself this: is what I’m about to do going to lead to words on the page? Or is really a way of avoiding the hard task of finding them, writing them, editing them, stringing them together into a convincing narrative?
Fiddling with software, running up timelines, going online to scour forums for ‘advice’ or seek peer opinions, taking writing courses… all of these things may help you in the end. But they’re not a substitute for writing, for getting words down and taking a story forward.
Authors are sometimes so often wrapped up in themselves that they fail to see a book the way a reader does. And readers, remember, are what this is all about. They will never see your reams of research, never appreciate all those hours you spent trying to understand the various takes on the three-act structure or that complex time-based outline you ran up in a special piece of software you dedicated a couple of days to master.
We’re judged by words and words alone. And rightly so. Good luck with yours.