Writing methods compared and contrasted

Are our writing methods like chalk and cheese?

Iain and I decided to compare our writing methods, so we devised a list of questions, and then each answered them WITHOUT peeking, just for once.
The results are interesting.
When we looked through our answers we realised that we could not have written Clovenhoof sitting side by side. We favour different environments, noise levels and company.
(We do both like to write in the mornings, before work, and fuel our endeavours with caffeine though!)
It proves what we’ve said before, that using the right technology is an enormous boost in being able to collaborate effectively. We both find our netbooks invaluable, and Dropbox keeps us bang up to date with all of the latest changes, wherever we made them.
I continue to celebrate our differences, rather than worry about them. 
I think they spark creativity and make sure that everything we’ve done has been tackled from lots of different angles.

Do let us know about your own methods!

WHERE DO YOU WRITE? – Where do you normally write? Where are you most comfortable writing?
Iain: I don’t write in my own home except when it’s absolutely necessary. The house is full of too many distractions, specifically TV and food. I am most likely to concentrate on my writing if I go out somewhere. The ideal setting is a cafe (coffee shop, greasy spoon or burger bar – it’s all good). I like to write where there are other people about. I’ve no idea why this is. I will write in pubs, libraries and on buses and trains.
Heide :  I write mostly at the desk I have in my lounge at home. It’s the most physically comfortable place, although it’s prone to distractions (see below)
WHEN DO YOU WRITE? – What time of day do you write? How long for?
Iain: There are morning people and night people. I’m a morning person. I’m usually up insanely early in the morning and like to squeeze in some writing before work. If I have the freedom of time, I will probably write for a two-hour stretch before needing to take some sort of break. If I have the enthusiasm, I can write-break-write-break through the entire working day. I don’t write in the evenings unless I’m truly possessed by something and can’t wait to get it finished.
Heide :  I have between 10 mins and 1 hour in the morning, before I get out of bed (depending on the day of the week) and I often use that time to get some writing done. It’s surprising how much you can get done in a short space of time if you’re really motivated. Otherwise, it’s after the evening meal or at weekends. A lovely piece of spare time at the moment is Monday nights, when I stay away from home for work. It’s a writing night, so I guard the time rather jealously. There was a time when I was so busy at my previous job that taking a lunch hour was almost impossible. I took my camper van to work and escaped there for lunch and got some writing done. Happily I could make a cup of tea at the same time.
WRITING EQUIPMENT – Longhand or typing? PC or netbook or what?
Iain: I write on a Toshiba netbook (the best Christmas present I’ve ever had).  I never write actual prose longhand. I’m a leftie with the handwriting of a nine-year-old and just can’t write at the same speed as my thoughts. I do jot down ideas when plotting a story and, before drawing up a writing schedule on computer, I will mind map concepts, characters and plot points.  Yes, I do that whole psychological thing of getting myself a new notebook (paper one, I mean) at the beginning of a new writing project but once the ideas are pretty much set down, it’s computer writing all the way.
Heide :  On a netbook (an Acer) or a PC. Longhand if I am desperate. Sometimes, if I feel the itch to write and I don’t have a computer, I have been known to BEG a piece of paper from someone so that I can get some ideas down. Actually, there is some perverse part of me that quite enjoys the challenge of finding writing materials and getting work done when it seems overwhelmingly unlikely.
SOFTWARE – Favourite software? Any other tools you like to have to hand?
Iain: I write in Microsoft Word. I tried Open Office but found there were certain features (can’t remember what) that didn’t work the way I wanted. I also make heavy use of Excel. I calculate chapter lengths, subdivide them into hundreds of chunks (thoughts, pieces of speech, description etc) and plan what I will need to write when to get the whole piece completed by a given deadline. I’ve also used spreadsheets to track character development in longer stories/novels. The character arc (levels of drama, crisis points, etc) is something that can be plotted on a graph and therefore calculated. I’ve subjected poor Heide to this in the planning stages of Clovenhoof.
Heide :  I use MS Word. I don’t pretend to like it though. It’s a shame it’s become so over-engineered. The tool that I wouldn’t be without now is Dropbox. Even when writing for myself, I swap between a netbook (in bed, at the Travelodge) and my main PC, and the ease with which the documents are synched is wonderful. I do like to have some crayons with me as well, for working things out if I want to scribble. Colour helps, somehow.
WRITING METHOD  – How fast do you write? Do you agonise over a sentence? Edit as you go or get the words down first?
Iain: I am a fast typist and, when the stars are right, the ideas flow straight from my brain, down my arms and onto the keyboard at a terrific rate. I particularly like writing dialogue and it seems to come easily to me. That’s luck rather than skill. I seem to edit sentences almost as I write them. I will go back over a sentence or paragraph immediately after writing it and never leave a bad sentence. I never think, “That’ll do for now. I’ll re-edit it later.” In terms of the writing at the sentence level, the things that really bother me are over-used words (e.g. “immaculate” was an over-used adjective in Clovenhoof) and speech tags. Dialogue is great when it flows and makes sense with no speech tags at all. Speech tags are a necessary evil and I maybe spend a little time putting them in and deleting them again.
Heide :  I like to write in fast bursts and keep momentum. If edits are needed, then I save them for the next time I come to the piece, so that I can remind myself where I was, exactly.
STORY IDEAS – Do your stories start with an idea or a character or a plot or an image or what?
Iain: My own short stories start with an image or concept. My most successful short stories are horror stories and it’s the gruesome reveal scene, the money-shot, that comes to me first. In novels, I find it’s the set pieces that draw me. I find myself thinking, “I want to write a story in which this scene happens.” I spend my non-writing hours daydreaming about key scenes and cool dialogue. Yeah, cool dialogue plays a big part in how stories come together.
Heide :  I’ve started with all of those different things. It just needs something that strikes a chord. It has to be a chord that you know will take you somewhere though. Sometimes a funny idea or an image pops into your head and you know it will make an amusing scene or sideshow for some other story. Other times you know it’s a whole story.
STARTING A STORY  – How do you start a story? (i.e. from the moment you get an idea, how do you approach writing it?)
Iain: I have said more than once that people who just sit down and start writing a story are mad. Of course, they’re not; they just seem mad to me. I start with plot ideas and scenes and picture a story that goes from A to B. I then mind map all the ideas, concepts and characters that ought to be appear in the story. I usually produce a sheet of ideas in bubbles with lines connecting them. I mutter things like “This has to happen before that,” and draw arrows. The mind map becomes a flow diagram. A second version follows in which the flow diagram looks less mad and more like a list. The picture list becomes a written list on the netbook and I then flesh that out with extra elements that I realise need including. I now have the entire story in list form and will assign a word count to each bit. Voila, I have a step-by-step guide to what I need to write. Control freak? Me? Perhaps.
Heide :  Sometimes I need to think for a few days to know what I want to do. Other times, I know that if I start, then I will go somewhere interesting. I have always worked in an unstructured way. I would rather throw away something that didn’t work than spend time planning. Since writing Clovenhoof with Iain, I can definitely say that some of his methods for plotting and structuring will stay with me, and will stop me wasting time on ideas with limited potential.
DISTRACTIONS – What distracts you/prevents you from writing? Why is this? How do you overcome it? Can you ignore people / television / music / crowds / the internet when you write? How?
Iain: I am easily distracted from writing. There are external distractions and then there are the distractions that come from within myself. The biggest external distraction is my own family, especially my daughters. They’re lovely but daughters – demanding, question-filled daughters – are writing killers. When writing I prefer the company of strangers. My own home is a distraction too. It’s not an active distraction; it’s just full of stuff that might seem momentarily more interesting than writing. Don’t leave me alone in a house with a TV when I’m meant to be writing. Watching trashy action flicks or crappy horror movies beats writing every time. My willpower only extends to taking myself out of the distraction-filled environment.
Heide :  I feel self-conscious if I am writing in public where people can see my screen. If I write at home, it’s definitely easier with no people around, but I don’t get too distracted by the family being there. Since we got a larger TV I find it much harder to ignore when it’s on in the same room. Especially if they put something on that makes them laugh, because then I want to see what’s funny. I liked the horrible old TV much better.
The internet is distracting. I tell myself sometimes that it’s time for a natural break, to think about the next part of what I am writing, and I might as well take a quick look. This is often a bad idea, and I can see the sense in those tools that prevent access for a specified amount of time.
WRITING FUEL – Do you eat or drink when you write? Listen to music? What music? Watch TV?
Iain: Writing fuel is a psychological thing, the trappings that keep you going. When I wrote my first (unpublished) novel at the tender age of 19, I would drink a can of Coke, eat a Cadbury’s Boost bar and take a painkiller before sitting down to write. God knows why. I’m slightly saner these days. A cup of tea, a glass of something cold and fizzy (and diet) and maybe a slice of cake or a round of toast are the food/drink requirements. The other real requirement is music. Most of the time, I write with my headphones in. I’m not going to bore you with my music choices. What’s important to me is that I’m listening to something I’m very familiar with (and like) because, if it’s familiar and pleasant, I can ignore it. For some reason though I can’t write in complete silence. Silence is something I want to fill. That probably says something about me.
Heide :  I drink enormous, unfeasible amounts of coffee, tea and herbal infusions if I am in a place where I can keep making it. I get fidgety when I haven’t got a drink. Wine is good, but I check what I’ve written afterwards! I would rather eat away from the keyboard, but it depends how desperate I am to keep going.
I sometimes listen to music, but if it’s something that I really love then it can form a distraction of its own. If the family are making a noise, or if the TV is loud, I will wear headphones as a defence. I have discovered that classical music is best, as I am less inclined to leap about or start karaokeing.
FULL TIME – If you could write full time, how would you structure your day?
Iain: Due to mismatched school holidays, I had a whole week off to myself this year. I visited nine different cafes over four days and wrote 16,000 words. I also spent too much money on tea and cake. I think I would make a terrible full-time writer. I would need to have non-writing activities to break up my week. I can’t work on two fiction projects at once. They fight in my head and fall out and destroy each other. I might spend my non-writing time blogging or editing or answering correspondence but, you know what, I reckon I would likely spend that time doing housework or applying for jobs because writing just doesn’t pay enough!
Heide :  At a recent talk at alt.fiction, author Niki Valentine said that she had taken on a day job, because she found that full time writing was no more productive than fitting it around a job. I can see a lot of sense in that. I found that during a period of unemployment last year, I wasn’t really writing any more, but I really did feel the loss of social contact.
If writing full time was an option, I would like to imagine that I would write for a couple of intense bursts during the day, and then I would feed my mind and body with some social time and some exercise. I have a strong suspicion that what would actually happen is that I would mess about on the internet all day, writing at the last minute when I realised what I was doing…
Posted in 2012, Reflections, Writing Tagged with: ,