Over on the Macmillan New Writers blog, Brian McGilloway has kicked off a discussion on the fundamental approaches of writing. Now, I know I’ve covered this before in the three parts of “How we do that thing that we do” – sparked off by David Isaak’s investigation into the matter, and not wishing to hog the light again I thought I'd let others, such as Tim Stretton, have their say. However, changes in my own writing regime are afoot...
One thing I discovered while writing down my experiences in “How we do that thing that we do” was that no one way of writing fits all. In fact, while jotting down my preparations and approaches over the years, I discovered that each of my books warranted a different regime.
For The Horde of Mhorrer, my writing regime changed considerably from A World of Night and The Secret War. A World of Night was written largely during my journey around Australia and New Zealand on a little palm-top during the long bus or train rides from state to state. The Secret War was written and re-written over a period of twelve years or so, a protean book if ever there was.
The Horde of Mhorrer was written under entirely different circumstances. For one, it was a sequel to a novel that at that point had not found a publisher, so I was preparing to write something that could have been a waste of time commercially.
Secondly, when I started drafting I had just learned that Macmillan wished to publish The Secret War, so I was distracted by “first-novel euphoria” - protracted for about 17 months. As publication day approached, the more excited and distracted I became. My writing was the most immediate casualty of that.
Thirdly, and probably due to the second impact, my earlier writing regime that had served me well during the drafts of The Secret War and A World of Night, i.e. writing during my lunch-breaks at work, failed me miserably during The Horde of Mhorrer’s first draft. I lost most of 2006 writing the first draft of The Horde of Mhorrer and used only 20% of what I wrote. That’s a lot of wastage for a first draft in terms of words, though optimistically I can say I’ve learned more about my writing in that year and the first six months of this year than the previous ten – which is encouraging.
New project, new approach
Due to minor revisions on The Horde of Mhorrer for Macmillan New Writing, my next project, The Isles of Sheffield, has been delayed until the New Year. I could start it in December, but it feels right to begin in 2008 rather than during the Christmas festivities. And the experiences of this year and last, have encouraged me to review my writing regime to correct the problems I faced in 2006, and this includes the whole idea of planning and drafting.
At the moment, I know what I want from The Isles of Sheffield, and I have characters in mind – but I’m going to do the minimum of planning in terms of plotting, for this one. Isles will be an exercise in character-writing rather than water-tight plotting; I want to see where the book will take me before I start "reining" it in. I have a beginning in mind, and an ending. The story will be a circular one i.e. it will end as it begins; it's about the journey and the people along the way, more than the destination.
Any planning will concentrate mainly on the setting: which parts of Sheffield are flooded; the different communities on the hills; the flooded geography around the city such as the Peak District, the Midlands, the North West etc.; which familiar aspects of life will continue, and which will not... I’ll look at the history that led to Sheffield being reduced to a series of islands, the great flood, the civil war and what happened to the rest of the world. There won’t be too much of this in the book itself, but one rule I believe in is that the author should know much more about the fictional world than the reader does by the end of the book, regardless if the world is part of series of books or a stand-alone novel.
The other part of this regime-change will involve where and when I write. My day-job is still full-time. I don’t have the luxury of taking a few days out to concentrate on writing, so I’m limited to the odd weekend, evenings, and of course my lunch-breaks. For Isles, I won’t be writing during lunch-breaks - a period of just 30 minutes a day, including the time it takes me to switch off from work and concentrate on writing in a busy office environment. In the past, people have marvelled how I’ve achieved so much by doing that; I’ve been lucky and single-minded and so, by degrees, this regime has worked.
However, it failed spectacularly during the first draft of The Horde of Mhorrer.
For Isles, I’ll be writing primarily in the evenings, 1-2 hours each night. It gets around the piece-meal approach of writing prose “a little bit here and a little bit there.” I know other writers do this, but I write best when I get into some kind of rhythm. I'll spend my lunch-breaks editing, something I don’t have to completely switch off to accomplish, but a job that will speed up the following drafts.
It’s a new regime I’ve been experimenting with on the revisions for The Horde of Mhorrer, just to see if my writing improves; and also that I don’t alienate my wife, Sarah, at the same time.
So far so good, but it’s only been two weeks since I've started, so we’ll see what happens by the end of November.
Regime of the Future
2006 and 2007 has been wholly distracting, but I’ve gotten used to being a published author. It’s easy to get carried away with publicity and the status of being published, but it doesn’t write books. I’ve become pragmatic about it, and while it’s a fun part of being an author, it’s definitely not a priority for me now. Rather than fit my regime around my work on promotion, my promoting will fit around my writing and my home-life. It will become the first casualty, no doubt, if things become hectic.
I think next year is going to be an interesting and exciting year for me. Apart from The Isles of Sheffield, it could see both a change in my family life and my working life. And the choices that I and others make may well see another regime change.
But then, that’s the beauty of writing. No one way fits all.