Tuesday, April 29, 2014

My Writing Process

By Jay Stringer

I'm not usually the guy who does these posts. People tend not to ask me, because they know I'll either turn it into a joke or go on a rant about writing advice and turning craft into a fetish. When Weddle punched me in the ribs and said "do the writing process thing, fool,*" I reached for my standard defence mechanism. I though, sure, I'll put up a whole blog page, with the heading "My writing Process," and underneath all it will say is "I write."

But I thought about if for a couple of seconds longer and thought, I'm in. Why? Partly because It's the opposite of what I would expect myself to do. Partly because my writing process has genuinely changed lately, and mostly because it's Tuesday and I have no other ideas.

But first, one of my quick rants about writing advice and craft talk....

0) Advice, Craft, Carts and Horses.

There are many things that we talk about online. Plotting, character, research, world building, ice cream, cats. There are a great many people who will dish out writing advice and also a great many people who will spend a lot of time talking about their writing process.

All I say at this point is, always be honest with yourself. Which are you putting first, the horse or the cart? Talking about craft and advice and process if fine if you are doing the writing. If you're doing it as a way of putting off writing...well I'd suggest a rethink.

Take world-building. It's a thing we all do. Every writer, in every genre, with every style, does world-building in one form or another. But it's an organic, evolving, powerful thing that you do as you work. If you're ever in a conversation with someone who is telling you how they will write an epic seven book series once they've found the time to do the world-building, I suggest you back quietly away.

Here's the key to the best writing process - Whatever gets you to the end of the story.

Here's the only advice (in my opinion) that you need before you write- Start writing. 

The rest? It works itself out. Start a story, finish the story, rewrite the story.

1) What Are You Working On?

I'm writing a book that has the working title Criminals and it's about a bunch of criminals. It's set back in the West Midlands, in the same stomping ground as the Eoin Miller trilogy -I wrote a book between them that's set in Glasgow- and it gives us a mostly new cast of characters. Fuller is a recovering addict who goes home after eight years away. He finds his hometown has fallen apart, recession after recession, corruption after failure, there's nothing left. What is a criminal to do when all the good shit has already been taken?

Fuller meets up with his old best friend, a con man named Fry, and with Fry's old flame, a transsexual car thief named Rabbit. It's a book in which I hope to tell a story that is uniquely me, more so than the Miller books that were always filtered through Miller's own voice. I started to think about a modern Robin Hood story. I realised that we need a few Robin Hoods right now, and also that, in the modern day, Robin Hood and his merry men would be a bunch of criminals.

2) How Does Your Work Differ From Other Works Of It's Genre?

Mostly I think it's the jokes about colostomy bags.

3) Why Do You Write What You Do?

Mostly to tell jokes about colostomy bags.

But also, if you must know, because I think that writing is the single most powerful and enduring way of protesting about what is wrong in the world, and the best love letter to what is right. Plus I like to lie, fantasise and make shit up, and if you're not an author or a politician, that kind of behaviour gets you locked up.

4) How Does Your Writing Process Work?

I always have the ending in my head when I start. Actually, that's not true. There are times when I start without an ending in mind, but those stories never get finished. Such a large part of story-telling, for me, is sticking the landing. So I have a last scene, a last image, or a last line of dialogue, and I write towards that point, making shit up as I go. I also need to have a character that I want to write about, but I've learned enough from previous books that I can start off without one and find him or her in the first five thousand words. I like to have an issue that I'm pissed off about, something I can explore or digest for 80,000 words. In truth, I like to have arguments with myself through my writing.

There's a long-running debate online between "plotters" and "pantsers" when it comes to writing. Those who say they plot out their books, and those who say they make it all up as I go. To be honest, I don't think we're all as different as we like to say. Pantsers will have a part of their brain that's figuring things out in advance, and plotters will be finding ways to free themselves from the road map and inject some freshness into the story.

I was a late developer as a reader. I came to prose very late. But I was an avid reader of comic books and I loved movies. I loved the best movies. I was a kid with taste. So long before I got to grips with prose, I already had a firm handle on narrative and structure. As such, even though I've always said I'm a pantser, I've been doing it with a working plan in my head of where in the structure I am. I write with act breaks. I write with reveals and cliff hangers and turning points. The dirty dark secret of Old Gold was that the book closes with the end of the second act, because I got to that point and thought, forget act 3, this is where the story needs to stop.

So for Criminals -and to an extent with the book I wrote last autumn called Ways To Die In Glasgow-I've been admitting that I write with a hybrid system. I know the ending of the book, right down to the last line of dialogue in the final scene. I know the beginning. And, given the experience I've picked up from the books I've written so far, I wrote down a note that said roughly how many pages should be in each act, and whereabouts I would expect the turning points and the emotional beats to come.

So I'd say I still don't write with a roadmap guiding me, but I have a list of local landmarks along the route.

As for any of the other things that people discuss when it comes to process? Word counts? Times? Software? Notebooks? Cuddly Toys? Sod it, whatever gets me there is the process I'm going with. Right now I just try to move the curser to the right of the page every day. After a while, it's moved enough times to be a book. Then I start again from the beginning.

*Actual quote.

1 comment:

Dana King said...

"Whatever gets you there."

Best writing advice I've read in a long time.

I was at a book signing by my writers group once and, during a discussion about process that was devolving into how many angels can dance on the nib of a fountain pen, I spoke up and said I had done a thorough study of literature and had found the secret, the one thing that Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Steinbeck, O'Connor, Chandler, Dickens you name him or her, had in common: they finished. Nobody cares about what you wrote until you finish.

the other writers looked at me like I was an asshole. They were right, but not because of that.