The writing life is hard. And some parts of it are harder than others. [Yes, I know. Cue violins?]
When i do talks for readers, they regularly ask me, “Where do you get your ideas from?” I answer. Of course I do. But for me — and, I suspect, for a lot of other writers — the challenge isn’t finding new ideas to write about. My challenge is turning the zillions of ideas fizzing around my brain into words on the page.
Thousands and thousands of words.
If you’ve read any great books recently, the chances are that you raced through thousands of words in a few hours. Perhaps you missed out on several hours’ sleep because you just had to keep turning the pages? That’s really pleasing for the writer. But it’s also daunting. Because you, dear reader, may well want another book by the same author.
It takes a few hours to read a great book. It takes months, or years, to write one.
Getting the words down : creating or editing?
During the long time when we’re writing the book, we keep coming up against the same familiar dilemma: creating or editing?
Readers who are not also writers may wonder what on earth I’m on about. Many (perhaps most?) authors will recognise that dilemma. Creating new words is daunting. A white page, or a blank screen — one is as scary as the other. There’s a bit of the writerly brain that tends to say “You’re writing rubbish,” or “You’ll never get this story right,” or (seductively) “You’re not going to produce good words today, so why not go off and drink coffee / do your accounts / scrub the floor. You’ll write better tomorrow.”
It’s quite something when scrubbing a floor is preferable to creating new words, isn’t it?
But there’s another seductive option: editing.
What’s the difference?
Well, no, actually. For a start, they use different bits of our brain. And therein lies part of the problem. (We look in detail at the challenges of maintaining creativity in our full-day Explorers workshop, if anyone would like to know more.)
When we create a new story, with new words and thoughts on that scary white page, we’re following our free spirit along paths that may be new to us. Into the dark forest, along the romantic sea shore, down the rabbit hole? We’re inventing, dreaming, allowing our deepest instincts to direct our thoughts. And our words.
It can be a daunting process. And it’s fragile. The mood and the vision can crumble at a single touch from the icy hand of logic. Once it’s gone, and reality has intruded, it can be very difficult to recover the creative mood. (Remember the Person from Porlock, whose mundane visit interrupted Coleridge’s creation of the poem Kubla Kahn? That poem was never finished.)
Editing is not creating
Editing is when an author goes back to the words she’s already written, objectively assesses how well they work and tries to make them work better. It’s a logical process. Like arranging letters in Scrabble to get the best score.
Editing has to be done. It may involve the addition of new words or sentences or paragraphs. It may involve radically changing the characters or the basic structure of the story. But often it’s just tiffling (as Sophie would say) — the author spending hours fiddling with words here and there while telling herself that she’s working or writing or improving the work-in-progress. (Not quite the same as procrastination, but close.)
But creating can’t be right; not in the 2+2=4 logical sense of being correct. Creating words can produce good results; even brilliant ones. But right?
No, I don’t think so. Writing is not a mathematical puzzle with a single correct answer. And getting into Editing mode too soon or too often can ruin what the writerly free spirit can create.
How to deal with the editing devil and its temptations?
Here follow some suggestions from a confirmed sinner. I’ve mentioned before that I have a PhD in Procrastination.
And I can tiffle for Britain. Olympic standard, probably 😉
Find your most creative time and place — and guard it jealously
- If you’re most creative when you’re just waking up, or still half-dreaming, try to write then. A laptop or a notebook by the bed might help. Or (if you’re alone) a dictating machine.
- If a particular place or time of day gets your creative juices flowing, use it. And don’t let anyone else do a Person from Porlock on you.
Stimulate your senses
- Immersing yourself in the delights of the senses can help you to enter the creative mood. A sofa surrounded by scented candles, maybe? A walk through a wood full of bird song? Floating in warm water? It works best if you don’t analyse, but just feel. And enjoy the sensations. If your characters join you there, you’ll understand how they feel, too. And the words will probably come by themselves.
- Darkness can help because it turns off the dominant sense of sight and helps to reduce distractions. Try lying down in the dark. Feel the fabric under your fingers. Listen to the sounds coming through the open window. Breathe the scents, whether good or bad. Immerse yourself in the story they are telling you. And let your imagination flow into the story you and your characters want to tell.
Shut down your editing brain
Creating on a computer may work for you, but it does invite the editing devil to poke its nose in. It can see the paragraph you’ve just typed and tell you it needs improving. If you yield to the temptation to tiffle, your creative mood may be lost.
Writers use tricks like these to stay in the creative zone:
- Working on the kind of keyboard and screen that doesn’t allow you to see more than a few lines, such as an Alphie. Editing is effectively impossible so you may as well keep writing new stuff.
- Dictating to your phone or a dictating machine. It doesn’t matter what you sound like or how many long silences there are. No one else will hear it, will they? And it’s too difficult to go back and edit so, once you’ve got the hang of it, you just keep talking. (You do the editing much later, when you type up your stream of consciousness. You may be surprised at how much good stuff you’ve created.)
- Writing with pen and paper. Not for everyone, this, but avoiding screen and keyboard altogether does work for some writers as a means of keeping the editing devil away.
- Writing new stuff for a set number of minutes, say, 30 or 45. Even 10 can be good. A timer helps. No editing —and no stopping! — until timer goes ping. Some writers find this approach liberating.
And I envy you.
But — whatever kind of writer you are, and whatever problems you encounter — if you have tricks and tips for getting into the creative mood and banishing the editing devil, please do share them. We can all learn from each other on this one.