The many ways to write



(Originally posted on the Ink Jerkers blog on 13 August 2017.)

Go out looking for advice on how to write, and you'll quickly collect a lot of very strict rules. Write this many words a day, without fail. No, that many. Write as fast as you can, and only edit after. Make an outline first.

Going back, you'll find stereotypes like the idea that writers only write at night, fueled by copious amounts of coffee, and Hemingway (I think) famously quipped: "write drunk, edit sober". Which is at least funny.

To the rest I say, bollocks. Sure, you need a little discipline, but when it's not going, it's not going. Always put your own well-being before your art! And in my experience, writing as fast as you can only results in prose with a frightening proportion of typos, that no amount of proofreading will clean up well enough. I'm a lot more careful than that, and still find typos in my stories after many years. As for outlines, suffice to say you should never put events in your stories just because you think they're supposed to be there. That only results in what I term "checklist-based writing", where nothing follows logically from one step to the next.

How do I write, then? Usually, from beginning to end, like the King of Hearts advises the Mad Hatter at the trial. At the start, I know roughly which direction to go, but not what path to follow, or where exactly it will lead. All of that becomes clearer along the way, and by the halfway point it's usually obvious how the story should end. Which, by extension, is how I know that's the halfway point.

Other stories coalesce around one key scene that I write first, then add layers around it like an onion, showing what led to it and what it led to in turn, and so on until there's enough story. Or I can start in the middle of a dramatic opening scene, then go back and write the very beginning before the next one. And once, after a brief first paragraph, I found it necessary to continue with a sizable flashback before resuming from where it had left off. And yes, one of my non-fiction books had its list of chapters written first... only to change considerably before it was half done.

So write in whatever way works best for you and your current project. Try out different things, because no two days are alike, and no two stories either. And let your story tell you when it wants to end, because if it doesn't come to life enough to do that by itself, it's not going to work out at all.

Speaking of which: do know your characters well. See the world through their eyes. Learn why it's worth saving, so you can tell your readers; the "how" is a detail.

Most of all, have fun writing, or at least get a weight off your chest. Otherwise, why bother making art in the first place?


Tags: writing, philosophy