How Do You Write?

Some writers, especially those from a journalistic background, are sufficiently articulate that they can write fair copy first draft.  Write it, read it, make some corrections – send it off. But for most of us, it’s not the writing that takes time, it’s the rewriting. Geoffrey Archer (the crime writer, not the criminal) said that before any of his books was fully complete he was “terrified of anyone seeing what I’ve written in case they find it laughable, infantile, boring, inconsequential and all the other paranoias that I guess bug most writers. Eventually there comes a moment when I decide things may not be quite as bad as I thought and I need to risk a second opinion.” He is not alone. He and I, like most writers, hug our unfinished manuscript close to our chests. We lock it away at night, out of sight.

Writing is a lengthy and essentially private business. Most people can write a letter with few if any corrections, but a book is two or three hundred times longer than a letter, and while a letter can take and even be enhanced by some clumsiness of style, poor prose in a novel is unacceptable (other than one by the other Jeffrey Archer). That grand old master J B Priestley (before your time, maybe, but bear with me) was a painstaking rewriter. He rightly said, “The easier it is to read, the harder it was to write.” We writers toil away at cramped lonely desks, honing our sentences, seeking better words and, most painful of all, cutting and cutting and murdering our darlings. It’s a messy business, it feels dreadful, but it has to be done. Like any dreadful deed, it is best done in private.

Do you think any writer will admit to writing mechanically, churning out well-worn plots and grabbing the first words that come to hand? – I ask because some ‘literary’ writers seem to think that’s how ‘genre’ writers write. Well, no. Most writers – wittingly or unwittingly – bare our souls on the page, revealing secrets and trying out on the reader our untested and vulnerable ideas. Like any child struggling for expression, we start out with blushingly gauche, ill-structured sentences. Initial attempts often sound weak and inarticulate. Often, the more deeply held the sentiment, the harder it is to express.

However tough we may appear on speaker platforms or in the bar afterwards, we writers are sensitive souls – especially as we feel our way through a tentative draft, with its fog of false trails, mis-directions and bleary images, and as we stumble towards a far-off conclusion which initially remains as unclear to us as to the eventual reader.

To help manage this long and difficult journey, some of us follow a detailed route map, a plot synopsis, while others stagger off into uncharted dark territory aided by little more than half-formed ideas and murky hopes. Either method works, but eventually each vaguely anticipated point on the journey has to be faced up to – and written out in detail. Synopses skip detail; novels can’t. Locations must be populated, plot-points resolved. Characters originally conceived as little more than “a man in the bar” or “a thug in the street” suddenly burst onto the page demanding to know who they really are: “why am I in this place; how did I get here; what makes me take any notice of your hero at all?”

Pirandello had only six characters in belligerent search of their author – but we have a whole book full. And not only characters. Which bar is this scene set in – what does it look like, and when did we last place our hero here? Which street are we in – and how did we describe it earlier? Answers sometimes contradict scenes drafted earlier in the manuscript, forcing us back through the early pages to knock them into some kind of crude coherence and consistency. The draft may not be pretty, but it should at least make sense. For myself as a writer, knowing that these significant shifts will happen but not knowing where, I see little point in polishing my first draft as I go along. Why scrub up a scene which may not survive the first cut? That can all be done later – when I’ve worked out what the book is really about.