Getting Lost in Your Book
I am told I have an unusual process for writing books and as I am in the middle of my fourth, it seemed good to share what I have learnt so far.
My first book was written long hand on A3 paper using coloured pens and involved full visual layouts. It only took a couple of weeks as I had 10 years of thinking desperate to get out, however, it was a rather arduous journey and took a lot out of me.
My second book got faster as I changed my creative process. With both books I rented a remote cottage, where nobody could get me: I found having a single focus was key to make it happen. On the first I fasted and rarely left the house; it was mid January near Blakeney Point. The second involved a pint in the local pub every night to reconnect with humanity! But most importantly I discovered DragonDictate, which suited my thinking style down to a tee. A simple way of getting my thoughts onto paper quickly.
By my third, I managed to achieve just shy of 40,000 words in six days of writing. When I have shared that with academics and researchers their first reaction is that it must be a crap book. I confess, they are not works of literature taking years of development and painful rewrites. But I am not Proust or indeed a poet, I am a writer.
However, there are some things that I have learnt along the way that mean those six days are way more effective.
Plan. Spend a long time iterating your book proposal so you are totally clear on the book and excited to write it. Not only is it useful for getting your energy right; it is absolutely key in getting your agent and publisher pumped by the idea.
Research. Do this extensively before you sit down to write and then take the research to develop a clear structure. I love this stage as it involves lots of coloured paper, post-its and a fair old ponder.
Deadlines. Ensure you have clear targets on delivering the manuscript. Most publishers like to spend their time applying pressure to the author to deliver the words and then spend elongated periods editing and designing it. It is not uncommon for them to want the manuscript 12 months prior to launch.
Own It. Take control of the process so that they can feedback on early work rather than on the whole book and then the iterations will make it better. Equally, get them working on design as soon as you’ve done the first chapter; then there isn’t a massive rush to do it at the end.
Know your rhythm. I cannot write for one hour a day and do good work. For me it needs to be totally immersive. I therefore tend to work for a block of time doing nothing else but writing. Like many writers, I write best between 6 AM and 1 PM and therefore that is my working day. The rest of the day is spent walking the dogs, catching up on simple non-taxing work, reading a little and exercising so I’m in the right place for the next splurge.
What works for you? Use a medium that suits your style. Dictation suits me because I think as I speak and it saves a whole lot of time later on, but it does need more editing. I use a massive screen so that everything is easy for me to see and move around and be totally involved with. If I’m squinting, I write poorly.
The edit is everything. I remember sharing a glass of wine with Edward De Bono just after finishing my first book. He offered me this advice: “don’t let the editors rewrite your work so that it sounds better. You wrote it, so it’s not to be changed unless for clearer understanding”. Truth is, when he explained it there were some more colourful words involved! But his point landed well. De Bono had just written another book which put his total to 50-odd volumes and therefore I believe his experience sets him apart somewhat from myself as did his success. Being newer to the scene, I love what a good editor can do. I see my structure as useful but certainly not concrete. I see what I write as stimulus to craft the next iteration but never final. Usually about three chapters in I find that I have written something that I really like. When I’ve written two more pieces like that I look for what it was about the tone of voice and style that resonated with me and then I make it show up everywhere I can in the book. If your editor can do that whilst making you clear, eloquent and distinct, then they are your best buddy and deserve a large martini on completion.
Marketing. Never expect your poor publisher to make your book famous. They will sell it hard and get it on the shelf but these days most of the marketing comes from you so be prepared for that and line things up as you write the book.
Enjoy the process. Very rarely do books make money. If you do it purely for return then you’ve missed the joy of the creative process. Often writers don’t know what they know until they write it. Those moments of genius that pop out are a surprising to them as they are to the readers. That’s the fun of it.
How’s Your Energy? Lastly, for me the most important aspect of writing is being in-state. If my energy is wrong, I write terribly. If my energy is good it feels as if I am not writing at all but am channeling the words.
When it feels like work, stop. When you are wrestling in your head, take a break. When it feels like you are surfing the wave, keep going, because inevitably at some point it stops.
But if you feel it’s in you, get it out. Its worth the sweat, the critiques and all the self doubt.
It is pure self expression, and we need more of it in this world.