I’m fascinated by how writers go about the day to day business of writing.
Over the years I’ve spoken to many fellow scribblers and read a lot about writing techniques – not so much the intellectual side of creation, but the more prosaic, practical aspect – and I’ve come to the conclusion that there are as many ways of going about the business as there are writers out there.
Thomas Wolfe wrote his sprawling narratives while standing up and using the top of his refrigerator as an impromptu desk. (He was a tall man). The SF writer Lester Del Rey sequestered himself inside the tiniest office of all, his wardrobe, rigged out with a folding chair, a light and his typewriter. Kevin J. Anderson dictates his best-selling novels while hiking across the American countryside, and many of G.K. Chesterton’s stories and novels were dictated to his secretary.
Some of us write in short bursts, others in extended periods lasting all day. Anthony Powell wrote for a couple of hours in the mornings, and took the rest of the day off. Frederik Pohl wrote all during the night. Chesterton wrote whenever the mood took him; at his desk, in bed, in the pub, and he even composed poems while walking the streets of London.
As for how much individual writers write during a ‘sitting’ or shift – well, that’s as variable as their writing methods. Famously Roald Dahl took six months to write a short story. Considering his tales are on average six thousand words long, this means he wrote a thousand words a month or, breaking it down even further, roughly thirty-three words a day. Obviously he didn’t write so little: my guess is that he’d write a few pages at one go, edit them rigorously over a period of days, then continue and revise, until after six months the story was finished. I know some writers who think nothing of bashing out ten thousand words a day, then taking another day to rewrite and revise a final draft.
The other day, while walking the dog in the rolling countryside of East Lothian where I live, I found myself describing my working methods to a friend. (I’m not in the habit of boring people with such details, but they did ask. And if you’re not at all interested, stop reading now).
I start work around nine-fifteen after walking the hound. I work on my PC, positioned low down on my desk which is an old Baird radiogramophone – a lovely piece of furniture in polished walnut, four feet long, eighteen inches high and just as deep. I sit back in a comfortable chair with the keyboard on my lap – which accounts for my bad back, according to my wife.
I have a notebook by my elbow, full of scribbles pertaining to the novel or story I’m working on – but I rarely refer to this. It’s as if the act of writing down the notes in longhand has cemented the ideas in my head.
I start tapping the keys, narrating the images in my head, and when I next look up it’s around eleven-thirty and two thousand words are in the bag. I walk the dog again; we have lunch; then around one o’clock I start the afternoon shirt, completing another two thousand words before it’s walkies time again. The writing day is then finished and I cook the evening meal.
After a month to six weeks, I have the first draft of a novel finished. I let it lie for a week or so, then print it out and go though it with a rigorous pen, cutting and rewriting. When this is done, it’s time to unleash the ms on a few unwitting friends for their expert criticism and advice.
A month later I go through it a couple of times, and finally abandon the project and call it finished.
I then move on to writing short stories, reviews and the odd non-fiction piece.
As to where the ideas come from… Well, that’s another story, one a bit more difficult to pin down, but which I’ll attempt to do here in a future piece.