I’ve mentioned a couple of times this year that I am writing a new book. Three new books, to be precise. (four really, but that’s a secret, shh!)
Most people, when I meet them for the first time, stare at my silver hair and ask if I still work, or am I retired? And I tentatively tell them I write novels – ‘Just cosy murder mysteries, a teeny bit like Agatha Christie,’ I say. Usually their response is, ‘I’ve often thought about writing a book.’
Sometimes people who are nosy, bored or just desperate to make conversation, ask me how I do the actual writing, do I have a system, use special software, and so forth. I’m not sure my very simple, low-tech approach could be called a ‘method’ or a ‘system’ as such. But my ‘system’ is very simple, straightforward, and I always do things more or less the same way. And anyone can do this, it’s not a natural gift, I don’t believe. You can learn how to write.
This is what I do in eight easy steps:
- I love books, and stories and I read a lot, and have done so since I was very young. This makes me imagine stuff, and create ideas and more importantly, plot ideas, in my head. I spend a LOT of time staring into space or doing sudoku etc as I mull stuff over in my mind. That’s stage 1, if you like.
- I make a few notes in a notebook. Mine are actual paper notebooks, but other people use virtual notebooks on their computer, laptops, kindles or phones, or on the back of cigarette packets, till receipts or loo roll. Later I transfer these to a Word doc on my computer (see below, point 4) by tedious typing or even more tedious dictating.
- Then, at some point (between a week to twenty years later), I get a set of matching (this is very important) (not really, I’m kidding!) notebooks, and I
start writing my story. Longhand. It’s like, sooo old-fashioned it’s not true. Actually writing with a real life pen on actual paper: for me, this very physical or manual sensory experience is what helps my creativity. This is the first draft.
- Once I reach the ‘messy’ stage–where I can no longer remember what I’ve written, who the characters are, or I’ve lost track of the timeline, I then type or dictate these into Word docs on my computer. I set up 54 documents per book: one for ‘the whole thing’ which is my second draft master document, then: one for characters, one for notes inc research and ideas, one for useful ‘of the era’ stuff, eg for my 1960s books, I have lists of top ten pop songs, most recent TV shows, movies, movie stars, that kind of background detail. Then finally, I have 50 Word docs numbered 1 to 50, and these are where I type up my handwritten first draft scenes.
- I know this sounds like a tedious process, but as I am doing all that typing up, it is giving me a chance to a) reacquaint myself with my story and what I’ve written so far and who everyone is, and b) I can amend dodgy phrases or waffley bits as I go, resulting in a better, second, draft which usually contains lots of questions to myself listing things to check up on or to remember later, and c) I can see what’s missing, duplicated or just plain not working or not necessary.
- I then copy each of these 50 docs into the master ‘whole thing’ document, and ta-da! I’ve got a full second draft, ready for revising and rewriting.
- Then, ‘all’ that’s left to do is: first, go through and check for typos and inconsistencies. Second, to go through and answer all my own questions, double-check all my ‘don’t forgets’, and delete those all from the master copy. Third, reread, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite until it’s as smooth and gorgeous as I can possibly imagine it. Then, when I’m at the point I feel like throwing it out of the window and running away to join the Foreign Legion (I’m 62 and creaky, so they wouldn’t take me, anyway) I rewrite it again.
- Then it’s time for editing. Eventually I will give a last proofread, kiss it goodbye, and upload it to You-Know-Where, amongst other platforms. See? Easy!
Putting it like this on the page or screen, it certainly sounds fiddly/dull but hopefully you can see that it’s not hard. The idea of writing a book, in and of itself, is not the hard bit. The bit people often struggle with, especially if they are one of the people who say ‘I’ve often thought about writing a book’, is the persistence: keeping on with it past the time when it is fun and exciting, past the self-doubt, the ‘why am I doing this?’, past the angry, resentful, and anxious, ‘Who do I think I am, thinking I am good enough to write a book?’, past the ‘but I’d rather watch TV or smooch with my OH’, and on into the calm, resigned waters of ‘Well, it’s too late for regrets, I’ve done it.’ And finally you emerge into the ‘OMG, I did it’ sense of achievement that comes way, way after all the difficult bit is over.
Persistence is what you need. That is actually the tricky bit. Overcome your mind and you can do anything.