Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Craft of Writing

I've spent the past week, one way and another, very close to the technical aspects of writing. The image that most people have of 'writing' is of a frenzied outpouring of creativity, scribbling frantically or clattering away at a keyboard. There's no doubt that this is part of the process; it happens to be the most glamorous bit, and also the hardest to explain. What goes on inside a writer's head in this initial composition phase defies ready analysis (although several of us have tried over on the Macmillan New Writers' blog), where I only semi-jocularly refer to hearing voices as my core writing experience.

What we're talking about when we use these stereotypes of the creative process is really the preparation of a first draft, but there are several stages before and after this. All writers do some pre-planning before they start to work, whether it's a scene-by-scene storyboard, background research, character analysis, timelines, or any of the other techniques writers use to get themselves ready to face the blank page.

There is also, once the draft is complete, the revision and editing process. I've been spending the past week working on the edits suggested by Will, my editor at Macmillan. This is an entirely different kind of creativity--a better description would be applied evaluative judgement. Will has suggested 400-odd line edits as well as half a dozen or so areas where scenes needed to be wholly or partly rewritten. A 'brainstorming' frame of mind is not helpful to me at this stage: instead, I need to see why Will has made the suggestions, whether I agree with them, and if I do, whether his suggested fix is the best way of doing it. This is an interesting and perversely enjoyable activity, but it couldn't be further from the idea of the writer taking dictation from the Muse.

At the same time as I've been working on my edits, I was also at West Dean on Greg Mosse's "How to Write a Novel" course. It sounds banal to suggest that to be able to teach creative writing, you need to be able to write, and you need to be able to teach, but much professional tuition is deficient in at least one of these areas (more often the teaching side). Greg is a trained teacher, and his courses are relentlessly practical. The emphasis is on how you generate a workable story area, people it with believable characters and a compelling location--but most of all, it's "how do aspiring writers then stop themselves from doing it?" Having completed my NLP Practitioner training this year, I found this approach fascinating. The last couple of days were as much about the mental state we need to be in to write a sustained piece of fiction as any technical discipline. Greg's wife Kate, author of the hugely successful Labyrinth and Sepulchre, was on hand to share her thoughts on the writer's craft, as was Jason Goodwin, creator of an expanding series of detective novel set in 1830s Istanbul. By the end of the course, we all had a good sense of the mindset used by successful writers.

I still stand by my original views on the road to publication (although they do not follow the party line in every case). If I had to summarise them in a single sentence, it would be "keep at it" -- and that very much is the party line.

As well as being educational, the course was great fun, and I was privileged to spend the week with such a talented and supportive group. So a special hello to Anne, Denise, Eileen, Fiona, George, Hainey, Kirstin and Lakhraj. Sorry if I gave any of you my cold, and I'll see you all in Panama one day!


David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

I found I had to address the line items first to sort of get the housekeeping out of the way to deal with things of more substance. But I can imagine other plans of attack.

How did you go about it?

Tim Stretton said...

Exactly the same, David. Knock of the line items and then do the big stuff. That approach also eased me back into a story I stopped 'living' over a year ago before I had to tackle changes for which I needed to reimagine the characters.