Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Author H.M. Forester on the writing process

Phase 1: Pantser

When I first started out writing in my pre-teens, in the late 1960s, I didn't plan at all. I just wrote down the first thing that popped into my head ("wrote by the seat of my pants"), or pretty much copied whatever I'd read or seen on television. I guess that's how we begin to learn things: by imitation? Five decades later, I look back and cringe, and yet for all its deficiencies, I'm thankful that I found an early interest in writing, and I'm immensely grateful to my junior school teacher, Gordon Sharpe, for actively promoting this interest, not just in me but for the whole class.

Phase 2: Planner

Fast forward a couple of decades to the early 1980s, when I was by then working in science education, and I found myself increasingly and meticulously planning my writing. I'd surround myself with a barricade of reference books and spend half my time checking spellings and meanings and hunting for apt quotations. I guess that there were five elements at work here: at that time, I was unsure of myself; words did not come easily for me; I still hadn't found my own voice as a writer; I felt that other writers expressed their ideas much better than I could; and, probably due to my technical education and work, I was what we once incorrectly termed "left brained", that is logical, linear and methodical rather than lateral thinking, intuitive or inspirational.

Working in education, there was quite a relaxed environment and I could at times rest on my laurels. However, when I next came to work in industry, I encountered a game-changing culture shock. Here I found that I was only as good as my last customer helpline call; I had to multitask; and I had to do everything on the hoof, with a steep and often frantic learning curve. This, too, probably contributed to a dramatic change in my writing style from long, spoon-fed descriptive passages to fluent dialogue and action, often leaving the reader to exercise their own imagination.

Phase 3: Back to pantser again

Again, fast forward another two decades and I would say that I am now a "pantser". That is, I write by the seat of my pants, allowing the characters to take the reins. I might go for weeks, or even months, without a clue as to what I might write about next. Or else there could be 1,001 subjects I might write about, but don't feel that I want to write about. Then an idea for a book will suddenly pop up as if from out of nowhere, and I may spend another few days or weeks staring at the proverbial blank sheet of paper, with little idea about how I could translate that basic story idea into prose. I rather suspect that there actually are things going on deep inside me at this point, however, because again there comes a time when the first ideas begin to flow. Perhaps a scene in the book, any scene, might suggest itself and at that point I start typing away, not at all knowing where this might lead me in the plot. And yet, increasingly, experience is teaching me that ideas will come and that these will indeed lead to further ideas, and the story will gradually take shape. I say that I'm a pantser, but every now and again as well as attending to the details, I will try to oversee the story as a whole, and plan out the storyline as it begins to become clearer in my mind.

I guess that the planning is still there, but like a lot of the editing, it's become interiorized.

Nowadays, I seldom resort to rigorous devices such as flow diagrams or timelines. However, in the early stages of writing I may sketch out a few ideas using a mind map where you write a few words to describe ideas and use lines to join up these idea nodes; and I may also jot down facts for future reference using software that is a cross between a wiki and a notepad.

Getting into the flow

When I'm drafting, whereas I used to write in longhand with a pen, these days I type directly into a LibreOffice or Word document. Ideas will often come thick and fast, and I sometimes have to race to commit these ideas to the page before I lose them. I often find that an idea or a line of dialogue will come to me suddenly, often at an inconvenient moment, so I keep paper and pens dotted around the house: in the kitchen, the bedroom and my office/living room, and I take paper and a pen with me when I leave the house.

Again, when I'm drafting, I don't worry much about typos or editing, as I find that these things disrupt the flow. So if a new character pops up, I might just call them X for now, rather than grind to a halt while I come up with a name. Maybe I'll be temporarily stuck or come to the end of a chapter, and so then I'll run through the previous chapter and edit it a little, maybe filling in a few blanks. I also find that it's best not to ponder over description in the middle of dialogues: I write out the dialogues and then come back and add more layers later on, so that I don't disrupt my work flow or the flow of the conversation. One downside of this, however, is that it can sometimes be difficult to find places in the middle of dialogue to add description. You can't get a word in edgeways, you might say.

Work rate and distractions

Working a ten to fourteen hour shift, when I'm really in the flow I can produce maybe 10,000 words a day; though this will drop off to maybe 5,000 when the writing becomes problematic, or far less when it comes to editing the drafts. When I'm drafting, I try to keep distractions to a minimum, so I may go for days without watching the television and with minimal human contact. Sometimes I work on an ancient Windows 98 laptop, too, so that I'm not distracted by social media. The only downside of that is that the old versions of Wordpad and AbiWord do not have fancy, curly quotation marks.

It's also worth mentioning that when I'm writing, I frequently backup my work to a second hard drive on my PC, to an external USB hard drive and also to a USB flash memory stick. Don't rely solely on flash sticks, though: it's very easy to corrupt their contents if you nudge the stick or remove the stick without safely ejecting the hardware, and they do fail after maybe ten years of use. I am careful not to mess up the latest version of the text and mistakenly copy it over all the old good copies, and I never leave all the backups at home when I go out. You might like to look at version-controlled cloud storage, too.

Finding inspiration: More psi- with your -fi

When I first started out writing, I'd spend ages pondering over the wording of each sentence, but several decades later, I now find that the writing comes largely pre-edited and though it requires careful proofreading, it doesn't take much copy editing. I guess that like a chess player, we start out pondering over individual moves and later we begin to look ahead and to recognize, retrieve and more easily use pre-constructed patterns from a data bank of games that have been played in the past. I find the same kind of processes at work when I write computer programs or web scripts these days, and you might liken it to learning how to ride a bike or play a violin.

In the editing, I find the most common errors to watch out for are clumsy sentences; things that spell checkers don't pick up on like "He couldn't bare to eat"; repetitions of the same word; the balanced use of a person's name and "he" or "she" ... and further errors that are introduced in the copy editing stage itself. I sometimes find, for example, that I come up with a great new turn of phrase, only to find that I had the same idea in a previous edit, just a little further down the page. So it's very important to double or triple check these later edits.

These days, I find myself more and more "inspired" when I write. I very much understand where C.S. Lewis was coming from when he wrote: "I never exactly made a book. It's rather like taking dictation. I was given things to say", and with the writer, thinker and Sufi mystical teacher Idries Shah who wrote: "A book like this designs itself in a Sufistic manner."

In one of my own books, The Lucian Uprising, the writer Winifred Rawlings explains the same phenomenon: "You could say, in a way, that I'm not actually a writer, though perhaps I might be called a recorder? And when I come to edit the work afterwards, it's not so much the writing which I correct as the faults in this recording. Or perhaps I'm merely an actor reciting her lines? Some have asked whether I'm a medium, but that's not a term I care to use: it has so many unfitting and bizarre metaphysical connotations. So I call myself a recorder. I just happen to be one of those holding the pen, that's all."

Developing inspiration

As for seeking and using inspiration, Coleman Barks interprets the Sufi poet Rumi thus: "There is a fountain inside you. Don't walk around with an empty bucket."

Again, in my own book Time and Time Again, the literary agent Rosalie Muller explains: "Someone once said that if you only go out with a bucket to collect water when it's raining, sometimes you'll get water. But if you go out with your bucket every day, even when it's not raining, sometimes you'll catch unexpected rain. And also, a strange thing may happen: that the very act of going out with your bucket may actually provoke such rain."

Stick at it!

So if you have problems in this area, I would suggest that you write regularly and keep on writing. Write something -- anything at all -- even when you don't feel like writing or can't think of anything to write. You never know where that writing might lead you. Keep a book in which to jot down ideas, too. Or do what the travel writer and novelist Tahir Shah does: plaster your wall with Post-It notes.

And above all else -- unless you've given it your best shots and finally decided that you're really, really, really not cut out for writing -- don't give in to the writers' demon AITSE (Abandon It, Try Something Else). Stick at the craft, and then stick at it a whole lot longer, and eventually all your hard work will begin to pay dividends.

Mysticism and meditation put to good use

I'm grateful, too, to Idries Shah for helping me with the preliminary task of "learning how to learn", which has had a profound effect not only on my writing but my life in general; and grateful, too, for the simple practise of Zen meditation or zazen which is bringing calm and balance and fresh openings into my life.

At first glance, you might think that mysticism and meditation are otherworldly, and yet they are as relevant today as they ever were. They are immensely practical when dealing with what we might call "technical impediments" to real progress: things we could all do without, like ignorance, unexamined assumptions, confined thinking, impatience, anxiety, anger, vanity, pride, hypocrisy and such like. As both the Sufis and Zen masters would say, you can't put anything into a full pot. It has to be emptied first if you want something better and more worthwhile to fill it with.

Anyhow, in your own life and writing, may your bucket never be short of rain!

H.M. Forester's latest work is Game of Aeons: A short novel.

• By Etienne de L'Amour ~ Google+

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