Sunday, November 8, 2009

Writing Without a Net

by Mike Knowles

I don’t know how a lot of other people write. I know some sit in front of a laptop and type their books while they sit at Starbucks. I know others write in the middle of the night while their kids are KOed. I myself do the first draft of anything I write whenever, and wherever, I can on paper in a blue notebook. I bought ten blue notebooks from Walmart and I have filled five of them so far. It’s not OCD or anything, I’m just prepared in case it turns out that it’s the blue notebook doing all the work. When I finish writing a book by hand, I move on to typing and editing. The process works for me and it has been successful enough so far. What I don’t really do is plan. I have an idea about what I want to write and I know generally where the story is going, but most of the time I am working without a net. My pen starts moving and whatever comes out at the time hits the page. This system, in my opinion, has benefits. I’d like to think that working without a definite plan often creates writing that is different. I don’t nail myself down to a formula and as a result my books are usually not like others on the shelves in the same section of the bookstore. I think writing something different is hugely important, especially in crime writing, because there are plenty of times I have picked up a new book and felt like I had been there before.

There is, however, one drawback to writing without a net. I have written myself into some serious corners. I have created scenarios on the fly without a thought as to how the protagonist could possibly survive. There have been many nights where I have sat in my office staring at the empty page running scenarios in my head like some sort of low-grade computer. Nine times out of ten, I never solve the problems in the office. I usually figure things out in the shower, or when I’m walking the dog. My mind will be wandering and all of a sudden, I’ll be struck with an out, something that will keep the book going. It seems I always figure out how to keep writing when I’m not thinking about writing at all.

There is some science behind this occurrence. A university of British Columbia study found that the human brain is surprisingly active during daydreaming. “Findings suggest that daydreaming – which can occupy as much as one third of our waking lives – is an important cognitive state where we may unconsciously turn our attention from immediate tasks to sort through important problems in our lives.” (Science Daily)

Someone might not think that a chapter in a novel is not an important problem, but writing yourself into a corner can feel like a splinter in your brain. You just keep picking at it and picking at it thinking it will come out if you just keep trying. Reading the study from UBC just confirmed what I had figured out a few years ago. It’s possible to set your brain on auto-pilot.

I’ve learned to accept being stuck. I might take a break for a day or two, or I might move onto another chapter knowing I can always come back to what I was working on eventually. Every time, without a doubt, my brain has come through and given me something I can use. There are a few exceptions that took longer than the day or two I mentioned. Something I recently finished came together over the course of a year. I was thinking the story out in my head while I walked the dog. Imagining each scene bit by bit. There were months where the story was just on loop and I imagined the same things over and over again. But after a while, my sub-conscious would eventually come up with something and the story would continue. After a year or so, the story went to paper and then to my agent the beautiful Al Guthrie.

Trying to force your brain to be creative is like trying to force yourself to pee in a crowded room. Try as you might it’s not going to happen. But, if you let your mind wander, you can go anywhere.


Jay Stringer said...

I agree with everything. Except the thing about the blue notebooks. That's totally OCD.

Jay Stringer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve Weddle said...

I think someone should invent a waterproof board for writers to keep in the shower.

Mike Knowles said...

The notebooks aren't OCD. OCD is how I have to wash my hands exactly ten times in a row counter clockwise after I go to the washroom... maybe I have said too much.

A waterproof board in the shower would be amazing except for my wife who has to shower after me. I don't think anyone wants to wake up to the kind of stuff I write.

John McFetridge said...

I think you owe your dog big-time. For the walks, of course, but also for the dog-toy as weapon - it really is inspired.

If people haven't read Grinder, it's really good. Plenty of corners written into - and out of.

Mike Dennis said...

I think this is something all writers go through, Mike. But I want to ask, have you ever run into a brick wall so high it couldn't be surmounted, then wound up abandoning the book after you were well into it? Or have you always, every single time, finished every book you've started?

I had the disturbing experience of walking away from a book some fifteen years ago, because I couldn't get the next scene onto paper. And i was over 100 pages in! Then, about a week ago, I was working on my current novel-in-progress and hit a similar wall. I thrashed around for ideas until one morning, as I awoke, while I was still in bed, it hit me to incorporate the general gist of the 15-year-old project into my current novel. And the two are a perfect fit!

Say hallelujah!!

Barbara Martin said...

I write the same way you do including the blue notebooks (well mine have blue on them with a couple of other colours).

Nice to know my daydreaming is now considered normal and productive, too.

Mike Knowles said...


I've never run into a corner that hasn't resolved itself in some way or another. The thing is, and I think you hit it on the nose, is there is no time frame you can put on writing. I've had an idea for a book that has been hatching bit by bit. I just can't get a bead on how to write the main character. I think it will end up something like your book ideas that suddenly fit into something else after 15 years. I know I will fit it somewhere and I hope I can just be patient enough to let it happen.

Mike Knowles said...


Inspired is thinking of Russel Peters for Vince. Nice one.

Scott D. Parker said...

I love writing longhand. For me, it's the black-and-white marbled composition books, college ruled. I do use Pilot Precise Grip pens with blue ink and a 0.5mm point. Like you, when I transcribe the text, it's my first editing pass. I'm writing with Scrivener this month for NNWM but, if push came to shove, I'd write longhand for everything.

As for getting heroes into holes too deep for them to get out, I'll let you know at the end of this month.

Anonymous said...

In regards to writing in the shower. It is entirely possible.

I use a fisher space pen (other waterproof pens will work too) and a Rite in the Rain notebook to write in whenever I have a good idea or just want to journal.

As long as you don't get too much water directly on the notebook (which is designed as a field notebook for outdoorsy types), it will hold up. If it gets saturated then it can start to disintegrate around the edges a little but so far everything I have written in there is still very clear.

My strategy when it comes to writing is very similar to yours, always be ready when inspiration strikes. Always.

Fisher Space Pen-
Rite in the Rain-