This page is an effort to answer the two questions I am most often asked about my own writing habits. One of the major misconceptions about writing is that writing is a ‘talent’. I don’t know how many times I’ve had someone say to me, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to write, but I don’t have THE TALENT. Not like you.” This kind of comment always makes me irate, firstly because in one fell swoop (“You find it easy to write, because you have THE TALENT”) all the years of labour and work and sweat I’ve put into developing the skill of writing have been brushed aside, and secondly because that kind of remark is such a cop out … the person twittering on and on about how they’ve always wanted to write but they don’t have THE TALENT is merely announcing to the world that they don’t have the energy and the courage to actually do so. Writing is not a talent, no-one is born with WRITER stamped across their forehead. Individuals who write successfully have managed the feat because they have spent years developing the skill associated with the craft of writing.
There, I’ve got that off my chest! Read my pages on the craft of writing if you want to learn more about developing the skills that go some way towards making the writer.
The two things I want to discuss on this page is:
1) how do I actually write (the mechanics of sitting down each day and putting words on a page), and …
2) where do I get my ideas and inspiration from?
How do I write?
Writing for me is a job, a business, so I treat it as such. I start work at 9 a.m. and don’t stop until I have completed my appointed task (which may be a set number of pages, or a set number of chapters). I don’t allow myself days off, or ‘bad’ days. I just sit down and do it. Depending on how well I’m doing, it may take me 2 hours to complete the day’s task, or it may take me 8 (that would be a very bad day!). I generally write between 20 to 30 pages a day. I write a set number of days a week – I try to keep that down to four, but depending on deadlines it may stretch to five or even six days a week.
Having said that, my writing schedule depends on what stage I am at of the book I am working on.
First come the planning stage of a book. This is when I sit down and work out characters and plot lines (and if it is the first book of a new series, then the landscape of the world as well … see my page on creating the fantasy world). I use large file cards to write out each scene: what must be accomplished in the scene; where it is to take place; what characters are to be involved. Depending on the complexity of the overall plot, I may also use large wall charts to plot where each character (or sets of characters) are at any given point in time and space – I had to do this for The Axis Trilogy, as well for The Nameless Day. By the end of this stage, which takes a couple of weeks at the most, I have a pile of some 60-odd file cards which plot out the entire book for me.
Then I sit down and write. This is the hardest and sweatiest part of the process. I sit down by 9 a.m. each day and mutter, murmur and groan until I have done that day’s appointed task. At this stage of the production of the book I never go back over previous days’ work. I keep moving forward, forward, forward, painfully, grimly, forward, forward, forward. As you can see, I don’t find writing easy! It is hard, often depressing, and the one thing I say to myself over and over is, “Don’t look back, don’t revise, just move forward, forward, forward.” Why the emphasis on moving forward? Because the person who is constantly going back to revise their work before the first draft is complete has a 90% chance of never finishing the book – they’ll be too busy re-revising the first half over and over.
Finally comes the day when the last full stop is typed in. This is such a relief! The hardest bit is behind me, although there is still months of work ahead (it takes me about 2 months to get the first draft done). Now I can begin to really enjoy myself. What I have before me on the screen of my trusty Mac is the first draft. It is full of errors, mistakes, and bizarre plot twists and dead ends that occurred as I kept on changing my mind about plot and characters as I wrote my way through. So, before I print out a draft, I go back through, make all the corrections in plot and character, and tidy up as much as I can. This is a major revision and takes several weeks. Finally, I am ready to print out a draft.
Once I have a reasonable draft of the book in print I spend about 2 weeks going through that printed draft as minutely as I can, then spend another week typing up the corros, then going through the draft on screen again, make more corros, then decide I’ve had enough and it is time to send the ms off to my editor so that she can get her hands dirty.
Now my editor (Stephanie Smith at HarperCollins) works on the draft. If she feels there are some major revisions to be done she will send the entire thing back so I can do them. Otherwise she moves straight into her copyediting of the ms. Rewriting, making prose smoother, checking for inconsistencies in plots and character etc.
Then it comes back to me with pages and pages of Author Queries, and I have to go back to work on the mss for, oh, perhaps another 3 – 4 weeks.
Then it goes back to Stephanie and she types in all the corros. At this point, unless there is a major disaster, we are ready for …
PAGE PROOFING! Although this is exciting – to finally see the book in its final page format – it is also a blessed relief because I know the months and months of work are finally coming to a close! Page proofs come to me, to Stephanie and to an anonymous proof reader.
Once everyone has read through the ms, Stephanie and I then spend a LONG phone call going through the entire mss page by page discussing corrections – these phone calls can be between 5-6 hours long (the longest was 8 hours with a different editor). Usually at this point my task is finally completed and I can leave the final frenzy of activity to Stephanie as I take to my bed, throw the pillow over my head, and mutter over and over for hours, “Thank God … Thank God … Thank God …”
The entire process, from start to finish, takes some 8 or 9 months … about the same time as it takes to gestate a baby!
Where do I get my ideas and inspiration from?
The reason this question makes my, and other writers’, teeth grate is that it presupposes writers have access to a magical store of ‘ideas’ that ordinary mortals don’t. Bull. I get my ideas from the same place that every other human being on earth does – from the world around me, the world I encounter every day. The difference between myself (or any other writer) and the non-writer who thinks that she or he has no ideas is that I am prepared to develop the ideas that occur naturally to everyone. Inspiration and ideas never spring fully fledged; like the physical book, they are the result of months of thought and work and sweat and pain and development. Ideas are bloody hard work, like a book is.
Nevertheless, having said all that, I (and again, as many other writers) have made the process easier for myself by learning to use my subconscious. Most people never use their subconscious (at least not consciously!) in their daily lives and work. Yet people should, because the subconscious is one of the greatest tools you can ever make use of in order to move forward through life.
Specifically, I use my subconscious to solve problems that occur during the planning and writing process. And how to I do that? Easy! I take a bath!
Let me explain. Suppose I have a problem in the plot of a book that, no matter how much I think about it, I just can’t solve. At this point I decide that I’ll hand the problem over to my subconscious. For some 5 or 6 days, once or twice a day, I will clearly state the problem out loud and I will also say that I need the problem solved by a specific evening (I generally give my subconscious 4 – 6 days to work it out). Then I don’t think or worry about it any more. At the appointed time when my subconscious knows it must have the answer ready, I take a bath.
What? I take a bath. To access your subconscious you need to be warm, relaxed and generally utterly mindless. I find taking a bath works nicely for me. Other authors who use this process shower, go for long swims (lap after lap after lap), or go for a very long walk (I think Stephen King uses this … much good that has done him!). Whatever you do, you need to find a process that will totally relax you, and let your mind float free (and, no, alcohol and drugs generally won’t do the trick!). Very often water is involved. Once I am nicely relaxed in the bath, I murmur something about the problem I’ve been having, and, EUREKA! The answer is there in my head, so clear I wonder why I never thought of it earlier! Not only the answer to that particular problem, but a myriad of other plot deviations and possibilities as well. My subconscious has come through yet again …
This process takes a while to learn (or to train both your conscious and subconscious minds to do what is required), but once it is learned, then there is never a problem that can’t be solved.
©2000 Sara Douglass Enterprises