Friday, August 29, 2014

The Writer's Blog Tour

Chris Miles, author of the hilarious new YA novel Spurt: A Balls and All Story, has tagged me in the Writer’s Blog Tour. I say it like he’s just done it, when in fact it was some time ago. Sorry Chris! Anyway, here, at last, is my contribution.

What am I working on?

Short answer: not telling!

Slightly longer answer: I’m still not telling! I avoid talking about things I am writing, or considering writing, unless that’s part of the process, eg. if I’m working with an editor.

That said, I am currently working on - or around, anyway - a couple of short stories and the early stages of a no*el. The latter is so tentative that I can’t bring myself to write the word in full.

Informative, aren’t I?

How does my work differ from others in my genre?

In terms of non-fiction - the category in which my published work to date falls - I possess much the same attributes as plenty of other writers: curiosity, a not entirely satisfactory formal education supplemented by desultory auto-didacticism, a good sense of humour (multitasking here by simultaneously drafting my online dating profile), enthusiasm, an openness to the strange and wonderful, and a disdain for the cliched and jejune. (I also possess a thesaurus.)

Fiction-wise… ask me in a few years. Having written quite a bit of fiction in my teens and early twenties, I more or less gave it up and have returned to it only recently. Hence it’s a touch premature to be asking what I bring to my genre - assuming I have one. Is “unpublished and a bit lost” a genre?

Why do I write what I do?

Compulsion. Love of language. The fun of making things up. The physical sensation of bashing away at the keyboard. To find out stuff about the world or about myself. To clarify an intellectual opinion. To challenge an artistic trope. The little dopamine hit/ego boost when somebody laughs at my work - especially when they’re meant to laugh - or finds it affecting or informative.

How does my writing process work?

I stopped writing altogether a few years ago. We don’t need to go into the unpleasant details here, but suffice it to say that stuff was happening in my life, and writing was slowly edged out by other concerns. I don’t mean to say that I didn’t have time to write, or I had “writer’s block”, or some other imaginary ailment. I mean I didn’t want to write, and even if I wanted to I couldn’t. There was no writing in me. There was, to be honest, very little of anything in me.

When I finally got my head above the mire, I felt the absence of writing as a great void. I was going through the agonising process of rebuilding myself, and I knew that writing - the creative act, and since I can’t sing, play music, dance, paint, draw, sculpt, or afford to preserve a tiger shark in formaldehyde, writing is it - was essential to my conception of who I was. But it felt beyond me, inaccessible. In that rose-tinted way all fuck-ups have of misremembering their pre-fuck-up selves, I felt this enormous disconnect between who I was and who I had become. Talk about the writing process: did I even have a process when I was younger? Surely the process was: sit down and unleash an endless torrent of words. It was so easy! But that was in the past, a sweet bird of youth that had flown into a window and broken its neck.

Such is the bullshit one spins into the wool of despair that is knitted into the cosy jumper of self-loathing. I recognised that what I needed to do was write, without fear, or at least without expectation. I’d lost my writing fitness, and what I needed was a way to build that again before I started worrying about whether I was any good.

I tried several methods. I scribbled thoughts on cards. I kept diaries. I set myself weekly targets. I made a point of writing down ideas when I had them. The going was slow. I wasn’t feeling it. Maybe I had lost interest and it was time to consign writing to the past and get on with something else.

In August last year I saw somebody on Twitter mention the website 750 Words. The idea behind the site is that it provides a space for private, sustained writing. Sure, you can do the same thing using any word processing program, but there was something appealing about the 750 Words interface. I liked the extensive range of stats on offer - as a general rule, give me stats and I’m yours - and the fun/lame idea of earning animal badges for various achievements.

So I gave it a shot. The first few days were tough: getting to 750 words was a real drag. But soon my hands loosened up, my brain started ticking over, and the words began to flow. I was writing every day, often 1000 words or more. It was pretty random stuff: memories, anecdotes, reviews, diary-type entries, stories, rants, fantasies. I wrote in the spirit of the exercise, with an emphasis on getting words down without paying much, if any, attention to quality or potential utility.

I can’t tell you how liberating this was. I became addicted to the freewheeling, brain-taxing, keyboard-pounding fun of it. Most days I was topping 1000 words, often 2000, occasionally 3000. I think I may have hit 5000 words a couple of times. In the month of November alone I wrote over 70 000 words. By the time I decided to stop using the site, I had written over 260 000 words in about 220 days, without a day’s break.

Six months on, those figures feel meaningless, even a little embarrassing, but at the time it was exactly what I needed. Whereas previously I had been edging slowly out of my shell, a few sentences here and there, now I had burst forth, shattering the shell and grinding it beneath the heels of my bespoke seven league writing boots. It was invigorating and showed me that when it comes to writing, sometimes what is needed is a new approach.

This has been a really roundabout answer this question! (How does your writing process work, Tim? Well, first I go off on a 700 word tangent…) But my experience since using 750 Words has underscored how important it is to keep myself challenged and interested. I set goals, I take notes, I use different materials. Most of the time I like writing on the computer - typing seems to me almost an extension of thinking - but I am now supplementing this with writing by hand. I use index cards (as recommended in Anne Lamott’s excellent Bird by Bird), and recently I have started keeping a notebook, which I use to write down ideas, observations, quotations, as well as to list books I want, unusual words I encounter, and whatever else doesn’t fit in with what I think of as more formal, “computer writing”.

When I write I try to get things down as fast as possible. Typing fast gets my brain going and is often the quickest way to achieve some kind of flow. Then it’s a matter of going over it until it’s as good as I can make it. Often I will print drafts and rewrite them onscreen from scratch, moving bits and pieces around. With non-fic, I usually gain momentum as I go, with each pass being an improvement on the last, until finally it is as together as it will ever be. Fiction is a different matter, and I am slowly adjusting to the different demands this form makes.

Tag time

Still with me? Now I am tasked with tagging three writer types who will then hopefully post their own Writer’s Blog Tour entries.

First is Mike Lynch, who blogs at Nannygoat Hill. Mike has a keen wit, a curious mind, and is always a joy to read on any subject.

Second is Essie, proprietor of the new blog Mama Finch, and generally awesome writer, artist, thinker, and person.

Third is Anna Ryan-Punch, author of at least three thousand published poems, YA critic, blogger, yodeller, coat-wearer, pizza-eater and soup-disliker.

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