Crime Cymru blog
Six of How I Write
Okay, so I’m cheating a bit in this blog. I’m supposed to choose one topic: perhaps an excerpt from my book, or Six of One or a description of my working space, or a discussion on how I write. But I thought I’d mix things up and put together Six of …How I Write, because when you think about it, the simple act of writing is awash with complexities.
1 Pantser or Plotter
When people ask about how I write, this is probably the question I get asked the most, particularly by other writers. Do I carefully plot, make bullet-points of all my chapter ideas, have my ducks lined up before I even type the first word…or do I fly by the seat of my pants and hope for the best?
I am most definitely a pantser at heart, but I think my brain is slowly trying to persuade my inner self to become a plotter. I write in several genres and I’ve only had one thriller published so far: a Welsh/Aussie noir called HIDE. I began it on a wing and a prayer, writing the first section quickly and painlessly with almost no idea how the story would unfold, let alone how it would end. It was exhilarating to write that way because I found I was as eager to discover what would happen to the characters as any reader could be. However, I recognise now that it was a very inefficient way to write, and I ended up back-tracking several times because I’d written myself into tight and inconvenient corners. I think I’m perhaps more savvy now, and when I’m writing I try to have in the back of my mind that I’m going to have to send a juicy synopsis, blurb and pitch with any submissions so that’s something I take into consideration before I get too far into the story. If nothing else, it provides a framework for where I’m going with the plot. I still enjoy the freedom of a no-plan novel, but I try to keep this little luxury for other genres. Thrillers, crimes, mysteries, I’ve decided, are written more effectively with a careful hand and a controlled mind. But, whatever I’m writing, I still like to slip in the odd surprise along the way: there’s nothing like giving oneself a damned good fright.
2 Music or Silence
Years ago, I listened to music whenever I wrote. In fact, if there was silence, it put me off. There were particular songs that ‘clicked’ for particular manuscripts, so I had little private playlists for each book. Just as well they were private because no one else would’ve been able to stand having the same few songs on a loop all day. Now, though, I tend to find music distracting and if it’s wrong for the scene I’m writing, it actually jars. So, at the moment, I write with only the sounds of the birds outside, and the voices of the characters inside my head.
3 Private vs Public
How does one decide when a manuscript is publisher ready? Do you rely on your gut, or do you have a team of readers who you regularly ask to read your work: and then only submit once you’ve edited and taken on board many of those suggestions? I’ve become used to the fact that I almost never feel my work is publisher-ready, or rather that my opinion changes from one day to the next. Sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised when I return to an older manuscript; at other times, I thank my lucky stars I hadn’t sent it out. I know a lot of writer-friends who approach a whole team of beta readers when they’re in their draft stages – or they have an ever-increasing circle of people whose opinions they seek out. I’m far more private. I have a very small handful of writers whose opinions I trust and whose work I admire – and those are the only people whose advice I seek before I send out. I believe, that if I sent it to a wider group or (heaven forbid!) to strangers, I would completely lose confidence if the comments were inconsistent or the opinions too diverse from each other. I fear I would start to feel that everything in the manuscript was wrong, and I would probably stop trusting my own instincts. So, in essence, at the moment, I trust my gut, and a few of my gut’s close friends.
4 Control or Chaos
We’re all different when it comes to our perfect writing spaces. Do you need every pencil to be sharpened, your laptop at a 90-degree angle to your writing pad, your desk tidied to within an inch of its wood-veneered life? I’m often shocked by the orderliness displayed on Instagram by well-organised writers – the carefully placed flowers, the colour-coded row of novels on a shelf at exactly eye-height, life-affirming quotations framed and evenly placed on a wall above the laptop…
It’s another world from the one in which I write. My new study spent approximately three minutes as a picture of calm and neatness (here’s a photo)
but I’ve had to accept I’m simply not a tidy person. Now, my laptop is squeezed onto a space between teetering piles of papers, with an ironing board behind me and a plethora of boxes around me.
However, I like to think there are advantages to being able to work this way. It means I’m able to ‘set up shop’ anywhere and turn a blind eye to the mess in my peripheral vision. It means I’m used to making-do with my workspace and if the only quiet spot for me in the house is on the armchair with the washing basket beside it, or in a kitchen of plates-to-be-put away, I can easily do it. Otherwise, I believe, the ‘waiting for a calm, neat environment’ will be the equivalent of only writing when the Muse strikes. And we all know how that works out…
Having said that, I must confess that the world beyond my desk is a very different one. My view, when I look out beyond the heinous mess on my desk, is one of lush grass, often-blue skies and huge oaks where parrots, galahs and kookaburras visit. So, I have peace and calm in my outlook, even if I’m surrounded by detritus. As with everything else, what ultimately brings one comfort and inspiration is all a matter of perspective.
5 Home or Away
Are you able to write in public spaces? Cafes, parks, libraries? I find I’m often more productive if I’m outside my usual working space…possibly due to the mess on my desk (see last section!) As they say, a change is as good as a rest so one of my favourite pastimes is to go to a café first thing in the morning, just as everything and everyone is waking up, and find a quiet corner to drink coffee and get my head into my story. And if it’s a café without Internet, even better: no checking Facebook every time I hit a snag. My favourite time to go is in the summer. Here in South Australia, it can get pretty darned hot by mid-morning so going to a café just as it’s opening means the sun is low in the sky, the warmth is only just kicking in, but there’s the promise of heat and blue skies. First thing, most people are rushing to get to the office or take kids to school so this, for me, is the golden time. And, of course, it means I can enjoy someone else’s tidiness and order, without having to organise it myself
6. By Hand or By Key
It’s a certain type of person who will write a whole manuscript by hand these days. They still exist, apparently, but you’d probably have to go a long way to find one. Now that we have the luxury of the cut-and-paste command, the highlighter, the delete button, a lot of the hard work has been taken out of writing – or out of the mechanics of writing at least. And yet, there is still something satisfyingly ponderous about creating by hand, having the ink glide across the paper and your words in your handwriting appear on the page.
I sometimes like to combine my café-writing trips with this type of activity. There’s nothing like settling down at a table with the smell of coffee, the hum of conversation, and simply being able to put ideas onto paper. I find it’s a different process, a more thoughtful one. If you can’t find the right word, you just have to wait or jot approximations, because there’s no thesaurus option. And if you read back a sentence and not like it, it still exists there, with a line through it, unlike on the computer where the idea is deleted, and swept into the ether as if it was never there.
And, if you’re like me, along with the joy of the handwritten chapter comes the added delight of choosing the perfect pen and the loveliest notebook. Yes, the laptop is definitely king when it comes to practicality, but don’t most writers also love the simple pleasure of picking up a pen and just writing?
‘How I Write’ is one of those topics that’s actually quite a complex one, and there’s certainly no method that suits everyone. Have you ever stopped to ponder, how do YOU write, and are there new, untested ideas you could try?
Sue is an Australian-based writer who writes as S. J. Morgan. Her Welsh/Aus thriller, Hide was published in 2019 by MidnightSun Publishing. You can find her lurking on social media as essjaymorgan or visit her website at https://www.sjmorgan.com.au