Of all my non-fiction books, the largest category by a short head is my ‘writing techniques’ section, ie all the books that tell me how to write. A quick count puts the total at around 100. And that’ snot including several Writers’ And Artists’ Yearbooks. (Why do I keep the old ones when I get a new copy? am I thinking of going back in time to publish something? No idea.)
Of these, only a handful have ever actually helped me. many of them I have never even looked inside since getting them home. Some of them, I’ve flicked through and read snippets; others, I’ve glanced down the contents page and thought, ‘ooh that looks interesting’.
Some are references for a specific thing, such as books on poisons or weapons, so I have mainly just used them to refer to now and again, usually with a sense of horrified fascination. A bit like my husband when he looks at my browser history.
As a writer I feel the need to ‘research’ how to write. Especially when I start a new book, as I often feel I’ve forgotten how to do it since the last time. And I know I’m not the only one to ‘stock-pile’ useful information – maybe on a subconscious level I feel that just owning a certain book will enable me to absorb it’s wisdom by osmosis.
There are some I’ve read from cover to cover and even made notes on what I’ve read. there are some which offer models that I’ve diligently tried to incorporate into my writing style, technique, timetable, whatever.
I’ve even tried that thing where you get up half an hour before you go to bed and write before any conscious thought takes place to ruin the delicate subconscious state of the naked imagination (sounds like a good book title). the idea is that your dreaming thoughts pour onto the page whilst you’re in a kind of fugue state. That actually worked quite well, except for two things: 1. I often dreamt I had written something wonderful then woke up hours later to find I was still clutching the pen and the pages of the notebook were disappointingly blank; and 2. When I have successfully written – filling page upon page before feeling I was justified in going back to sleep, or getting up to get on with my life – in the cold light of day I’ve found it impossible to decipher my sleep-addled scrawl. three or four pages of precious, unparalleled intelligence and imagination and I couldn’t read a single word.
I have tried making short notes to myself during my working week then creating a full draft from these at the weekend. Half the time I couldn’t figure out what my cryptic comments meant, or profound insights turned out to be dull and shallow. Or I just couldn’t be bothered. Or I forgot. Or I went shopping or watched TV.
I tried the ‘middle way’, planning lightly and leaving myself p
lenty of ‘wiggle room’. I tried pantsing and left myself no signposts, no clues how to escape the labyrinth: that way relies on spending more time revising than the original writing, I discovered. I’ve tried the ‘begin in the middle’ technique. I’ve tried starting at the end and working backwards. I’ve got a massive sheet of paper on the wall behind me. It’s left over from when I was doing a blocking-out planning thing. Never been used.
I wrote my first full length novel more than twenty years ago. That was the first one I finished. There were plenty of half-finished novels and short stories and novellas before that, and since. Most years I’ve written one novel, sometimes I’ve written more. And this is what I’ve learned:
That every book is different. Even the ones with the same characters. And every time I have to ask myself, how did I do it before? And every time I have to find a new way to do it this time. Other people’s styles and ideas and methods and wisdom help – but that is all they do: help. It is for me as a person to create my own way, to use my own voice, my own style and to take my own path.
For man is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion.