Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Thoughts on writing

I wrote all three books of the trilogy on the train, travelling to and from Sydney - and it actually has me very valuable lessons about writing that can be used by anyone, not just commuters with about three hours a day to kill!
My first draft was written by hand, in a notebook. Sure that's about as old school as you can get but it is actually a really good technique.
See, if you are writing by hand, you can't go back and start messing about with it, editing words and sentences and changing things around. You can make notes for yourself in the margin, you can write future scenes with a particular character as if you had changed something important in the earlier part of the story but YOU CAN'T GO BACK. The only way is forwards.
Sounds like a recipe for more work but, in actual fact, it is a great way to write. It forces you to push on and finish your first draft, instead of getting bogged down in one particular place. Instead of wasting time trying to get something perfect, or obsessing over something that's not really working, you have to push on. Thus you are able to defeat writer's block by the simple expedient of leaving the blockage behind.
When you have a first draft in your hand, then you can REALLY get to work on improving and polishing things. A first draft is just a first draft - a book is not like an essay where you write it out once and then hand it to the teacher. You have to keep going through it, time after time, polishing it and adding layers of plot and character.
I reckon it's better to have a finished first draft, a foundation if you like, rather than a half-finished book that you've been working on for months or even years, unable to move forward because you're tinkering with Chapter Three.
Imagine it's hand-written and that you can't play with it. Make copious notes to yourself for the next draft (I always keep a notepad by my bed for this very thing) but move on. Don't look back until you've written The End.
Even when I put aside the pad and wrote books two and three exclusively on the laptop, I still wrote like that. Don't fiddle endlessly with something - just push on.
Of course you can write like that anywhere, not just on the train. But the other way a train really works well is that it removes all distraction. You can't make a cup of tea, you can't put out the washing or do the dishes, there is no escape and no way out. You have to write or listen to the person across the aisle recount their exciting weekend over the mobile phone.
The other great thing about the train, for me, is that it enables me to walk in the door, plug in the laptop to recharge, back up my day's work - and then forget about writing until the next day.
(Well, all right, my mind is sometimes buzzing, but at least I'm spending my time with the family, not physically writing).
It teaches you discipline and focus.
If you can bring those to your writing - ie set aside an hour or two where all you can do is write, then that's just as good.
You too can have the experience of writing on a train - just without the strange smell, the audible iPod doof-doof music and the early mornings.

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