Every work of fiction grows from something. A thought. An image. A conversation in the supermarket. A fact. Sometimes, simply, the indefinable yearning to write something, even if you have no grasp of what it might be, or where that yearning is coming from.
From this seed, anything might grow—the realization of which can be daunting, and feel contrary to the way in which you perhaps plan and control your work, your life. But if you open yourself up to the unpredictability of what you might create, then it can also be liberating—and one of the most important skills that a writer learns is to embrace and use the potential of the unknown. You would be unlikely to start reading a book if you already knew every little thing about it, and the experiences of reading and writing are not so very far apart. They are entwined, in fact. It is important to remember that.
There are no rules. It is important to remember that, too. Every narrative is as individual as the person writing it. One of the quiet pleasures of writing fiction is that each project spawns its own storytelling rulebook—of language and style, of point of view, of character—which nobody but the author can impose.
There are, nonetheless, certain elements of craft to discover and to practice—to reject, sometimes—but, firstly, to understand.
As much as we might enjoy hearing apocryphal stories of famous authors’ quirks—that Joyce wrote in bed in a white coat; that Joan Didion sleeps beside her manuscript so that it doesn’t leave her; that Dan Brown hangs upside down in anti-gravity boots—they make no difference to the reader’s enjoyment of that author’s book. The important thing, as an author, is to know what ritual, eccentric or not, works for you.
If this means that you do your best writing when you are naked in the bathtub is for you to discover. As is, crucially, the method by which you develop an idea into a finished piece of writing. Every writer has their own process. I have put down some of the main ways in which writers go about creating a piece of fiction. You will notice, however diverse they may at first appear, that there is a lot of crossover, and that most of them involve some kind of milling process.
The relative weight I have given to the first method is because it contains many of the basic principles, and, possibly, because it is the way in which I work myself. I should add that I work in the same way for both novels and short stories. But it is not for me to prescribe the most effective process, and you will inevitably consider some of these methods barmy; others may strike a chord, or you might take titbits from all of them. The only way for you to discover your own method is to experiment, and to write—and complete—as much as you can. And to remember, always, that there is no correct way to write but your own.
The Refinery Method
With a formative idea and a loose plan, embark on a linear first draft. Work from some semblance of a beginning—without stopping to doubt yourself, make improvements, or judge the writing—to an end. The only judgements you should make are instinctive creative ones: Is this character starting to feel more significant than I had envisaged? The storyline seems to have deviated from my plan . . . but what might happen if I go down this new path? Is the point of view serving the story I want to tell? How does it feel if I change it for a chapter or two?
Rough exploratory drafting is an antidote to the anxiety of the blank page. You are generating momentum, a rhythm to your thoughts and your accumulating scenes, even if the actual text you are producing is—or would be if this was going to be the finished manuscript—a hilarious piece of crap. Overwritten in most places, underwritten in others; a tense change halfway through; plot lines and characters abandoned, or appearing from nowhere. But, by the end of it (which will probably not be the right ending), you will have a very good idea of what works and what doesn’t, because you have learned these things through experimentation.
And this is the point at which to write it again.
The second draft begins on a clean page. Very possibly in a different place to where the first draft began, because it is quite likely that you wrote a scene partway through the first draft that suggested itself to you later as an appropriate opening. The process of redrafting is not one of simply copying out the best bits from the first-draft material (although it will sometimes involve doing that). It is a new piece of writing; one that you are commencing with a deep understanding, now, of your idea, style, characters, plot, and with at least some decent lines and scenes in the bank.
“One of the quiet pleasures of writing fiction is that each project spawns its own storytelling rulebook—of language and style, of point of view, of character—which nobody but the author can impose.”
How you make use of the first-draft material is for you to decide: whether you have written a mess of longhand that you now take a highlighter or a number of colored pens to; whether you refer to it closely, chapter by chapter, or barely refer to it at all; whether you complete two full drafts, or more, or redraft certain areas of it more than others.
Whatever way you go about it, the process does not end here. The redraft does not produce the finished piece of writing, so, still, you should not feel the pressure of it being a finished piece of writing. The final part of this method is the edit.
If you have not yet thoroughly worked out your method, then this may all feel rather painstaking to you, but it is a question of care. Ask yourself: “How much do I care about my writing?” And consider too, that the more defined your method, the more defined the final product is likely to be.
The Jigsaw Method
If you are stumped for the point at which to enter the narrative it may be helpful to forego, for now, an adherence to writing it in a linear way, from beginning to end. Instead, if you do have an idea for one or two scenes that feel pertinent, even though you don’t know where exactly they fit, then start with those. The more you write, the better you will understand the project at large. And you may, eventually, understand that the finished narrative will not be linear. It might, for example, be episodic.
So, by writing a big scene that eventually ends up at the core of the narrative, you will be growing your understanding of the fictional world and the characters who inhabit it—and this, in turn, is likely to spawn other ideas, other scenes, character through-lines, plot events. Once you free yourself from the constraint of putting it down in the right order, you may well find that before very long you have gathered enough fragments that you are beginning to get a perception of the whole.
The Nugget in the Dump Method
This is another variation on the first, and a further relinquishing of control. You cannot know for sure, before you have amassed any words, whether this thing you are writing is worthwhile. Which is why it is so tempting to plan it into an impressive shape, to convince yourself that it is. Your first draft is an exploration. During that exploration you might unearth a completely unexpected idea, character, sentence that causes you to think: actually, this is the thing that has legs.
So the first draft of one book might be what instigates the first draft of a different book.
Maybe the idea of discarding a whole draft sounds demoralizing—and so it might be, for a while—but is it as demoralizing as knowing that you have spent years writing something that is not as good, as impassioned, as the idea that you left behind?
The Spurt Method
Some writers sit at a desk for hours and work without pause until their designated time to punch the clock. I am one of these. Others, like Nick Hornby, write in spurts. A few sentences at a time, then a short break to get up and stretch their limbs before returning to it, refreshed. If you feel that you work best by keeping office hours, keep office hours, but don’t do so just to make your writing feel more legitimate.
Plenty of writers set themselves word targets, and you might find it helpful to have a number to aim for each day. However, don’t let yourself be crippled by it—either your own target, or another writer’s. Anthony Trollope made himself write 250 words every 15 minutes, timing himself with a stopwatch. Fair enough. You don’t have to. The reader is not bothered about how long it took you.
The Sessional Method
In order to create momentum, you might find it helpful to vary what you do, session by session. So, you might spend one session drafting a scene, and the next session rewriting that scene. Furthermore—and this is a useful thing to bear in mind, whatever your method—you might grease the wheels of your stopping-and-starting routine by drawing a close to your writing session at a point where you know what is going to come next on the page. As Hemingway put it: “As long as you can start, you are alright. The juice will come.”
You might, furthermore, heed Hemingway’s advice on rereading what you have done so far, to get into the flow of the material. There are, believe it or not, plenty of writers who will reread the whole draft up to the point they’ve got to, each time they sit down to write. Or, if you are Hemingway, stand.
The Perfectionist Method
At the opposite end of the spectrum from the process of generating momentum through drafting is the process of refining each individual page, over and over, before you move on to the next page. In this way, every existing page is in its final state as the narrative continues, and the end of the work really does mean the end of the work. It is a practice of constant revision, rather than redrafting. Anthony Burgess worked in this way, in part because he believed that over time the intention and technique of a writer is liable to change, with the result that the unity of the work will be affected.
The Incubation Method
Although I have been advocating getting pen to paper as early as possible, there are writers who let an idea remain in their heads for a long time. They will ruminate at length, letting the subconscious stay constantly engaged with the subject so that characters, plot and atmosphere form without any forced deliberation. In this way, seemingly incongruent observations and encounters from the author’s day-to-day life feed into the thought process.
All the while, it will be important to keep a notebook, to write down any scraps that occur to you—until, eventually, you have what is in effect a first draft in the imagination. It will be amorphous, but the putting together of all your notes (maybe even writing them down on record cards that you can then lay out on a table) will create a vague shape for you to use when you do sit down to write.
It has a resemblance, this method, to the act of reading: you immerse yourself inside a dreamed world, in which you are capable of imagining characters doing more than simply what is written down. The trick, I suppose, is knowing when to stop dreaming and get down to it.