Have you considered writing in bed? I started doing it for the first time not long ago. Silly, because one of the most tempting points for this apartment for my husband and I was that I’d have my own office space, which has lately been collecting dust. We’re heading toward winter here in Australia, so leaping out of bed first thing has become a less than exhilarating prospect, and the situation isn’t helped at all by Tim making me coffee in bed every morning. So after a binge session of Married At First Sight left the laptop by my bed overnight, I woke up one morning and decided to put some words down before hitting the shower.
And WOW. Did I ever put words down! Yes, I’m almost finished the second book in the Crimson Lake series, so for me, I always write faster and harder toward the end. But by writing in bed first thing in the morning I’m putting down 2-3k per day, about half of them in that morning session. I have some theories about why writing in bed is so good. Allow me to speculate.
Of course, I there are downsides to writing in bed. You’re going to need snacks and coffee, and you will have crumbs between the sheets – there’s no avoiding it, crumbs and sheets love each other. I do not recommend that collaborative novels be written in bed, unless of course you’re one of those weird couples who collaborate on novels. The five women who make up Alice Campion might have a difficult time. But overall, a real winner, at least for me. Try it some time! Happy snuggling everybody!
Here I am! I’m plodding happily along, putting in about a thousand words a session. I’d probably be at around this word count by this time of year anyway, but I have been held up a few times – by my own marriage, for one! – and by some editorial business. I’m at 11,000 words today on my own manuscript for the year (if you haven’t been following, I also do collaborations). I’ve been putting together detailed outlines and some mini-outlines for unmentionable projects that you’ll probably be able to guess anyway. The seductive whispers of other books have been plaguing me, as I’m only a tenth of the way in, and I could turn around without feeling so bad. I shun those voices! Be gone! You have no power here! Saucy, sexy books are a reality. Don’t give in to those sirens.
My, my, my, I certainly know what I don’t want to ever do for a living, and that’s organise weddings. Though I’m not an amazing sleeper, I’ve lost a considerable amount of sleep this month agonizing over everything that could go wrong in my wedding to the hilarious, handsome and decidedly hairy Tim Keen, fellow wordsmith extraordinaire. In the dark hours, I’ve imagined some pretty insane stuff, like ex-boyfriends/girlfriends turning up on the green and shouting that they’re still in love with me/him. The more extreme fantasies involved a relative shooting themselves in the middle of the dance floor. In daylight guessed that more likely, Tim and I were going to get something like a story frequently told about a wedding of a friend of a friend, who had a fat man with a beer walk right through the back of the ceremony wearing nothing but a pair of Speedos. While we did have our wedding in a public garden, and there were hangers-around with no idea of personal space, they tended to loiter during the photographs after the ceremony. We only had eyes for each other! Nawwwww alright I’ll stop now. Perfect, perfect day, anyway.
There are more editorial nightmares looming on the horizon, so I’m trying to trundle along on the book at a healthy pace. My crisis of confidence seems to be over – and I think that’s a mark of having thickly detailed characters who are intriguing (I hope, anyway!) in themselves/their pasts without necessarily having to rush here and there completing plot points to fill themselves out. If you’ve got a few deeply interesting people, worrying about plot is like worrying if three incredibly socially skilled strangers are going to get on with each other at dinner. They have the tools. They have the experience. They’ll make it work, even if they fumble around a bit first.
As a mark of good practice I’m attending a new boxing gym tonight, because James and my character, Harriet Blue, is a boxing enthusiast. I think it’s always good to write what you do, and do what you write – it’s a lesson I learned back in the day as a teenager, when I used to set all my books in New York. I’d never been to New York, and knew nothing about it. The books were garbage in the first sense because I was an overly emotional, melancholy teen with a bit of an over-infatuation with Anne Rice and Martin Scorsese, but in the second sense I think it didn’t help that I didn’t know what New York looked, felt and smelt like. I’ve boxed for a long time, and Harry boxes. It’s a chicken and egg thing. It’s time to get back to that, I think. Get some of the tension out so I/she can sleep.
As always, curious to know how you’re all going with your writing/submitting/editing. Keep your chins up, everyone. (No seriously it’s really bad posture looking down at your laptop. Sitting is the new smoking, for real).
So I thought it might be fun to do a series of blog posts throughout the year that track my actual activities in writing a novel, so that those who are curious about how I work can get an idea of my ‘process’. I get asked the process question a lot. Here’s the answer. I do not anticipate in any way that this might stop me getting the process question in interviews. But what the hell, huh?
Everybody has their own process. There are writers who smash the first draft out in something like National Novel Writing Month, then spend 11 months fixing it up. I know fantasy writers who spend three or four years off and on putting together dictionary-sized epics, who spend whole parts of the year plotting and drawing maps and writing nothing.
Not so here. I’ve been writing a book a year for a good long while, and they’re all about 90-110,000 words. If you’re curious as to how that actually happens – in terms of word count spread, plotting time, and the intrusion of other employment activities I need to do to survive, I’ll try to paint that for you. I’m going to attempt to tell you what I’m actually DOING throughout the year so you can get an idea of what it takes for me – and how that relates to your own work.
So we’re at Stage One: Pre-writing ideas collection.
This has been going on for a little while now, maybe four or five months. Now don’t get all ‘Well, that’s cheating because it’s not in the year!’ on me – I haven’t actually DONE anything on this novel in that time, and this year I’ll be plotting the actual DOING for you. Thinking is not doing. Doing is doing.
And that’s an important distinction. Plenty of people think about writing books, and never get past this stage.
For four or five months, I’ve basically just been playing around with ideas about this novel in my head. I’ve been keeping an eye out for crimes and perpetrators in true crime books, podcasts and docos that I think I’d like to explore, and I’ve been thinking about my protagonist herself. What sort of person is she? What’s her history? I haven’t written anything down about her, or the crime, or set in stone the structure of the book. I’ve just been thinking daydreaming about it with my mind open to new influences.
Like I said, this stage is common. Ever heard someone say ‘Oh I’ve always wanted to write a book about (blah)’. I hear it all the time. When I ask – ‘So who would be your protagonist?’ Or ‘Where would it be set?’ Or ‘What’s the genre?’ Usually I get nothing back.
Ideas collection for me is kind of like this: whether I’m in the middle of writing a book or not, I have a basket on my arm and a backpack on my back. As I’m wandering around, day to day, I might come across ideas and influences that I like the idea of. I might hear about a particular poison that works well and doesn’t leave a trace at autopsy, for example. While I don’t have a use for the name of that poison, who used it on whom and how you make it, I figure it might be useful to collect that tidbit of information for use one day in a future book. So I put it in the backpack. I’ve got all sorts of weird things in the backpack, some of it decades old. Some of it is ‘how to kill a person’ type stuff. Some of it is totally random bullshit – hairstyles I like, one-liners I heard in movies, stats about serial killers I’ve known and loved.
I might come across another bit of information that I think closer relates to the project I want to work on this year. So for example, for this book, I’m interested in pathological liars, and people who suffer from Munchausens. I was very interested in the Belle Gibson affair when that happened, and I read a book on Casey Anthony early this year that was so great. I’ve decided my killer will be a Munchausens sufferer. So if I see or hear anything about that, I put it in the basket hanging on my arm. The basket is more immediate, directly pressing, and organised than the backpack. I don’t have much room in it, so it’s important that only the best bits and pieces go in there, stuff I’m fairly sure I’ll use. I might actually seek out specific sources for stuff to put in the basket. When the book is written, I dump the basket into the backpack and start a fresh one for the next book.
So I started my basket for the novel I’ll write this year a few months ago, and as I’m looking into it now, there’s a bunch of stuff in there – but not a huge amount. It’s not necessary for me to become a world-leading expert on Munchausens before I can write a character who has it. There are other puzzle pieces in there about the character that I’ve gleaned from my imaginings over the last few months – what her hair looks like, what she sounds like, where she lives.
I like to start writing when I’m sure of a few things. Firstly, who kills who, and why. So in my basket I’ve got a bit of an idea of the victim, and the killer, and of course I know my protagonist pretty well. This year I’m writing a novel about Amy ‘Hooky’ Hooku, who appeared in my novel just released. If I’d been starting with a brand new protagonist, I’d have things in the basket I’d picked up about her. Cuttings and shavings from real or fictional women I like, pasted together to create her. This woman’s hair, that woman’s smile. This woman’s upbringing, and this one’s shitty attitude toward public transport, etc.
At this stage, I don’t really know what the first few scenes of my novel will entail, or what order they’ll be in. That will come in the next stage – First Words. Right now I’m sifting through ideas for those chapters, trying to come into the story at a hugely thrilling point, so I’ll hook my reader nice and early. If I get stuck, I can always draw from my backpack of lifelong collected ideas to see if there might be a good starting situation for a novel in there somewhere.
So right now, my word count is zero. I don’t have a word doc open, blank page blaring, cursor blinking. My list of plot points reads zero. Only one character has a name, and a face, and a history, and that’s because she’s appeared on the page before. I’m hoping to start writing on January 1, just to make things nice and neat. So tune in next time for that!
I’ve heard writers say they don’t believe in writer’s block. Either these people are extraordinary ideas-machines who twist and wriggle and slither out of every conceivable plot trap with ease or they are lying (or bad writers). I’ve heard writers say writer’s block is a symptom of an unhappy muse, that the elusive and spiritual side-kick who blesses you with his or her wisdom through whispers that appear on the page is somehow longing for lovin’, and you need to pay up, baby. I don’t believe this, either. Unless you’re suffering some compelling neurological disorder causing you to experience auditory or visual hallucinations, most writers know deep down that any phantom they have leaning over their shoulder facilitating their work is entirely self-generated. No, writer’s block exists alright, and it’s no one’s fault but your own. Let’s see if I can give you some strategies to break through it.
Any sort of biological blockage, whether it’s mental or physical, does well with a good dose of stimulant. When you’re plumbing isn’t working; you reach for the Metamucil. It’s the same with writer’s block: if you’re stuck for ideas, it’s because you’re not getting enough creative nutrition. Watch films in your genre. Read books. Talk to people about your story, and see what kind of questions they ask. Eavesdrop on people on the bus to hear their fears, desires, what makes them laugh. Plug people for their experiences. I talk to cops whenever I can, and because they usually don’t talk much I always make sure I’m straight up before they dry up. What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen? The best case you’ve ever worked on? Have you ever been injured? What happened to the last dead person you saw?
Can I play with your gun?
They never let me play with their gun. But maybe one day I’ll get lucky. I got a ride-around once just for asking for it. We made two arrests. It was great.
The best tales are out there, written in lives too mundane to make the page – instances that have no heroic journey or moral but that might, gathered together and strung along by you, make a good story. Collect people, places, things. Journal them or simply store them in tiny drawers with labels in your mind. Be a watcher. A listener. A student of everything. As I sit writing this in a cafe in Maroubra, an old couple sit near me, waiting for their tea, silently watching the sun dance between the moving cars outside, the lanky Indian waiter strolling around, filling little canisters on the tables with sugar packets. They’re not suited to what I’m writing now, these two, but they might be one time when I’m struggling to fill a cafe with people: I’ll remember her jutting sheep teeth and maud sunglasses hung with string, his pancake ears and cheap loafers. I’ll remember the things they say to each other, her fear of burning herself on the teapot as she pours, shaking, his grumbling one-sentence answers.
Collect enough people, and someone will always rescue your work.
If a new scene or a new character or the setting generation caused by colourful bystanders isn’t going to solve your problem, it might be a directional thing. You might simply have lost your way. Good writers will tell you with sorrow-heavy hearts about characters they had to kill and scenes they had to scrap and research they collated that led to nothing because no matter the love and joy and thrill you get from writing these things, sometimes they are simply too self-indulgent to be of interest to the reader. Whenever I find myself coming up against a wall, I delete the last three pages, no matter who came into the book at that time or what new roads my characters had trodden or what twists and turns the plot revealed. Because no matter how enjoyable these pages had been to write, they led me to a wall. Have faith that your new direction will be better than the glorious dead end you left behind you: It was a majestic sandpit ready to swallow your work. Those people you created and loved will come again when it’s their time, when they belong.
My final strategy for easing writer’s block, one that’s particularly helpful for timid writers, is to banish the depressing wasteland that lies beneath the blinking cursor physically and metaphorically, because the moment you begin to think about how much you haven’t written, the journey toward the end of the book, essay, article, whatever, is too far for most people, and that’s why most people aren’t writers. Scroll the page up so that you’re not looking at all that blankess, and train yourself to take small, delicious bites when you can’t write for long. A word a day, a sentence, a string of dialogue: even if you delete it tomorrow it will be something. I’ve had some sensationally bad ideas in my time. Some naive, angry, grotesque, contrived, narratively ridiculous creative wankfests. But one thing I never did was let the fear of going the wrong way, putting down an embarrassing piece, ‘wasting my time’, delay or cancel my start.
You must start. Make yourself start.
Put your fingers to the keys and type, and force yourself to stay away from the delete key. Tape a thumbtack to it, upside down, if you have to. You may begin badly. You may fire out of the gates, through the air, and into dumpster full of food scraps. You might spend a year on a thing, two years, ten, only to find out it’s literary spew. But no writing is ever wasted, no matter how bad it is. You purge the bad stuff to make way for the good. Decide to be unafraid. Nobody ever wrote anything good without taking to it with a blade a few times, and no one ever wrote anything that everybody loved. There are people out there who hate Shakespeare.
No, serious. There are.