A couple of years ago, I was messaged by a former work colleague who congratulated me on my latest book. I was, as is any writer, flattered. ‘How do you do it?’, he asked. Feigning humility, yet high on recent publication, I gushed for a bit, only for him to ping back; ‘No – how do you actually do it? I’m thinking of writing a book and I’ve been meaning to ask you – what system do you use? Do you do lists? Spreadsheets? How long do you write for? What’s the system? The process?’.
My answer, I know, was not what he wanted. ‘You just do it’, I replied. The conversation went back and forth, more questions from him, more and varied ways of saying the same thing from me. It ended to no one’s satisfaction. He, unable to understand why I was coming across as so so non-committal, so vague; me, frustrated because I was completely unable to to convey to him that what he was trying to do was the literary equivalent of firing a tiny dart into a salmon swimming upstream.
Because, of course, what he was actually asking me was not how I did it, but how he should do it.
Obsessed with the idea of process, he simply didn’t want to hear what I was telling him – that the first rule of process is that there is no process.
To date, there’s still no book.
The Writer’s Process is something that seems to fascinate everyone who either isn’t a writer, or wants to be. It’s a recurring question – ‘Do you make notes? Do you pin lists to the wall? Do you decapitate a chicken and dance by the light of the silvery moon? How about mood boards?’.
And the answers? They vary. ‘No’. ‘Maybe’. ‘Sometimes’. ‘None of the above’. ‘All of the above – but only on Tuesdays’.
Because the truth is, that there is no such thing as a standard process.
There is only Your Process.
Some writers require a tidy desk, some write in bed in their pyjamas; some use a dedicated office outside the home like Joanne Harris and her shed, while others keep a laptop or notebook handy and write in the kitchen, the cafe, the car – wherever the mood takes them. Some write longhand, some require high tech, some low – like George RR Martin who writes on an old-fashioned word processor to avoid the distraction of the internet. Some need background music, others are stymied by the merest whisper of a mouse in the skirting.
Some know how their story will end before they even begin. To some, it’s as much of a surprise as it will be to the reader. Some research in detail, making sure of accurate facts before they even start, others make things up as they go along. Some google, some go by memory. Some writers jump back and forward in their own stories, changing as they go when they think of something that works better than what they wrote before; some can’t move forward until what they have done is precisely how they want their finished product to look. Some do both, or all, or none.
I could go on – but I think the picture is clear. Every writer does it differently.
Your process is as much part of your book as the story. It is fluid, and dauntingly evasive, but also flexible and can be fashioned and modelled to suit time and again. It is not, however, to be fixated upon. The energy should always be directed toward the ultimate goal – the writing.
If you are hung up on process, then you need to ask yourself some very hard questions.
Question – Are you afraid to get started? Fearful of getting it wrong, or not doing well enough?
Answer – Well how are you going to ever know if you don’t write something in the first place in order to change or improve it?
Question – Do you think that having a precise formula for success – as in achieving writing itself – will make it easier for you?
Answer – It won’t. Writing is messy and complicated and you have to put in the creative time and slog, regardless of spreadsheets or systems.
Question – Are you simply procrastinating? Waiting for the right time, a better time, a time when you have more time, a time when the planets are aligned?
Answer – Stop. There will never be more hours in the day, or absolutely ideal conditions. If you truly want to write, then you will see it as simply part of how you spend the time you have. But that could take years, you say. Well yes, it could. It can also take years to perfect a process. Which would you prefer to spend those years on – faffing about making a plan or actually creating something?
Question. If process has become the thing that consumes you, rather than your story or characters or facts or words then, be honest, do you actually really want to write?Are you really a writer?
Answer – well, are you?
If you are of the opinion that once you establish a process or system for yourself that words – brilliant words – all the right words in the right order – will suddenly come spilling forth, then listen carefully.
You. Are. Wrong.
Ask any writer and they will tell you that when they write, like an addict seeking a high, they hope to hit the point where ‘things start happening by themselves’. That is a wonderful thing, like an out of body experience. It is an odd rush, this bliss, this sense of being high, of being brilliant. And it only comes with writing and more writing. It feels like being a plane – taxiing slowly, then picking up speed, and then finally – gloriously – taking off. And it comes more frequently, the more frequently you write. This is what writing is all about, what creating feels like.
Your writing process is also a learning process – it’s actually a relationship between you and your work – it’s scary, rewarding, frustrating, it needs work, and commitment. And it needs you to be doing, not figuring out how to do it.
You can research how other writers do it, of course, take and leave out what you think might work for you, but ultimately, the mechanics of writing your book are all yours – yours to own – and yours to change.
Ultimately – there is only your process. Just do it.
(c) Helen Moorhouse
About Ever This Day:
Little Frances slams the doors, and runs around the upstairs floors.
She ll steal your pen or touch your hair, when you re sure there s no one there.
The nuns are meant to keep her safe, but she gets out of her own grave.
So pull your covers over your head, Little Frances isn t dead …
On a bright spring day in London, Ria Driver sees a face she never thought she d see again. Coincidence? Or her past coming back to haunt her? Suddenly, Ria is plunged back almost thirty years, to the time she spent as Supervisor at the Convent of Maria Goretti, a rural Irish boarding school. And although she has tried her best to forget, the memories come flooding back. Cold, darkness, isolation, loss … fear. Fear of the sadistic Mother Benedicta and her cruel punishments. And fear of the noises … the humming, the footsteps, the knocking …What was the cause of the sounds from the attic? And who was the child who should not have been there?
As events unfold, Ria realises that she can leave the past behind no longer, that her story needs an ending. And to find it, she must go back to where she swore she d never go again.
Order your copy online here.