Wednesday, July 20, 2011


Most writers are interested in how other writers write. In their environments; in their habits; in their productivity. Not because they’re neurotics, worried that they’re doing it right, or working hard enough (or not only because they’re neurotics), but because writing is a private process, and a mysterious one, too. In a piece for last Saturday’s The Week In Books feature in the Guardian (which the Guardian doesn’t seem to archive online, any more, so I can’t provide a link), Philip Hensher noted that his friend Alan Hollinghurst ‘is a devotee of Ishiguro’s “crash” method. After a long period of planning and thinking, the author retreats into a cell and writes furiously for up to 12 hours a day.’ Hensher’s method, on the other hand, is slow and steady:
Writing my latest novel, King of the Badgers, I got up at 6:30, five to six days a week, and wrote until 10. I reckon to produce between 400 and 1,500 words a day, and then do a lot of crossing out.
There are other methods, of course - Vladimir Nabokov wrote sentences and paragraphs on index cards, and then assembled them into the finished work. But it seems to me that the Crash and Slow and Steady methods are at either end of a spectrum that encompasses most common variants of writing methodology. I’m of the slow and steady school, although I don’t write within a set time but try instead to produce a fixed amount each day. I’m working on a second draft at the moment - rewriting, crossing out, inserting new material - and attempting to make a quota of around 2000 words a day. Yesterday I was writing so slowly that I could have used the blood sweated from my forehead for ink. Today I finished inside two hours. So it goes. I do have a plan before I start the first draft, but it isn't in any way detailed, and I certainly don't spend months thinking about the book before I start. As far as I’m concerned writing is a process of discovery. The trick is to keep moving forward.


Anonymous talkie_tim said...

It's fascinating to us readers as well. Productivity and efficiency is a very difficult field to apply to creative work. Imposing office hours invariably fails to produce quality work.

How about where you work? I read that Joe Haldeman writes by hand in coffee shops around Florida (which he cycles too & from). Neil Gaiman has been known to write in hammocks & on porches. Max Barry wrote his first novel in a parked car during lunch breaks from his sales job. Harry Harrison writes in a spartan living room today, but moved to Mexico to write his first novel.

In double checking where Harry Harrison writes, I stumbled across "Where I Write". Which is also fascinating. Do most SF writers work surrounded by shelves of dead tree books? How many seem to have cats?

So Paul: Where do you write?

July 21, 2011 11:20 am  
Blogger Birmo said...

I recently changed my routine with stunning results. Previously a Crash devotee I decided, under multiple deadline pressures, to try something different.
Time management, rather than just taking up sword and shield and charging helter skelter at the manuscript.
I used something called the pomodoro technique (google it) which breaks your work day down into 25 min lots. You assign each 'pomodoro' to a set task, allotting them as needs be.
I found that, along with a shift to using dictation software because of a broken arm and - here's the odd one - standing while I wrote, or rather dictated, made a massive difference.
I jumped from 1500 words a day to 4000.
It has made a huge, huge difference.
Finally, Cowboy Angels. Loved it.

July 22, 2011 4:12 am  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Just to satisfy your curiosity, Tim, I mostly work at a desk in your standard book-lined room (like a university academic's office but with fewer stacks of paper and more books). There's a photo of it, somewhere in this blog. But I also work on the comfortable couch in the living room, and in the garden, and have worked on trains, in coffee shops, and so on. Once wrote half a short story in a friend's flat in Brighton, and the rest on the train between Brighton and London (it was a very short short story).

Glad to hear you've found a way to up your productivity, Birmo. I'm too undisciplined for time management, although I guess I do have an informal version - short blocks of time broken up by staring out of the window, making coffee, drinking coffee etc...

July 22, 2011 3:51 pm  

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