Maybe the most unanswerable question people like me are asked—other than “where do you get your ideas?” which is an eternal mystery everyone, not just writers, should be familiar with—is any version of:
Okay, but how do I actually do it?
How do I put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, and make words happen? How many words a day should I write? How many hours a day or a week or a month or a year should I spend writing? How many drafts should I write? How do I know when I’m done? When do I stop writing and start revising? Can I write and revise at the same time? Do I need a desk? Do I need to have a dedicated office or writing nook or shed or something? Can I write longhand?
The questions go on and on, but let’s call these process questions, and start with what a few authors you may have heard of have said on the matter…
Kazuo Ishiguro on Can I write and revise at the same time? and Can I write longhand?
I prefer to work by pen on my writing slope for the initial drafts. I want it to be more or less illegible to anyone apart from myself. The rough draft is a big mess. I pay no attention to anything to do with style or coherence. I just need to get everything down on paper. If I’m suddenly struck by a new idea that doesn’t fit with what’s gone before, I’ll still put it in. I just make a note to go back and sort it all out later. Then I plan the whole thing out from that. I number sections and move them around. By the time I write my next draft, I have a clearer idea of where I’m going. This time round, I write much more carefully.
Italo Calvino also answers Can I write longhand? and When do I stop writing and start revising?
I write by hand, making many, many corrections. I would say I cross out more than I write. I have to hunt for words when I speak, and I have the same difficulty when writing. Then I make a number of additions, interpolations, that I write in a very tiny hand. There comes a moment when I myself can’t read my handwriting, so I use a magnifying glass to figure out what I’ve written. I have two different handwritings. One is large with fairly big letters—the os and as have a big hole in the center. This is the hand I use when I’m copying or when I’m rather sure of what I’m writing. My other hand corresponds to a less confident mental state and is very small—the os are like dots. This is very hard to decipher, even for me.
My pages are always covered with canceling lines and revisions. There was a time when I made a number of handwritten drafts. Now, after the first draft, written by hand and completely scrawled over, I start typing it out, deciphering as I go. When I finally reread the typescript, I discover an entirely different text that I often revise further. Then I make more corrections. On each page I try first to make my corrections with a typewriter; I then correct some more by hand. Often the page becomes so unreadable that I type it over a second time. I envy those writers who can proceed without correcting.
D.Z. Stone answers Do I need a desk? Do I need to have a dedicated office or writing nook or shed or something?
It took me years to realize that to create and craft a publishable piece of fiction, you don’t need peer approval or criticism, or for that matter a fancy room where you can feel writerly. What you need is to be honest with yourself.
Grace Paley, on How many drafts should I write?
I never understand what people mean when they say they’ve done twenty drafts or something. Does that mean they’ve typed it twenty times, or what? I’m always changing things as I go. It’s always substantially different by the time I’ve finished. I do it till it’s done.
Haruki Murakami helps with How do I put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, and make words happen?
[Killing Commendatore is] a big book, you know, and it took a year and half or so for me to write, but it started with just one or two paragraphs. I wrote those paragraphs down and put them in the drawer of my desk and forgot about them. Then, maybe three months or six months later, I got the idea that I could turn those one or two paragraphs into a novel, and I started to write. I had no plans, I had no schedule, I had no story line: I just started from that paragraph or two and kept on writing. The story led me to the end. If you have a plan—if you know the end when you start—it’s no fun to write that novel. You know, a painter may draw sketches before he starts painting, but I don’t. There is a white canvas, I have this paintbrush, and I just paint the picture.
Jack Kerouac was a bit more, shall we say, “blue collar” on the whole series of questions…
You think out what actually happened, you tell friends long stories about it, you mull it over in your mind, you connect it together at leisure, then when the time comes to pay the rent again you force yourself to sit at the typewriter, or at the writing notebook, and get it over with as fast as you can… and there’s no harm in that because you’ve got the whole story lined up.
I really hate to write. I get no fun out of it because I can’t get up and say I’m working, close my door, have coffee brought to me, and sit there camping like a “man of letters” “doing his eight hour day of work” and thereby incidentally filling the printing world with a lot of dreary self-imposed cant and bombast, bombast being Scottish for pillow stuffing. Haven’t you heard a politician use fifteen hundred words to say something he could have said in exactly three words? So I get it out of the way so as not to bore myself either.
It should come as no surprise that Hunter S. Thompson had a similar outlook…
My theory for years has been to write fast and get through it. I usually write five pages a night and leave them out for my assistant to type in the morning.
Susan Sontag is simultaneously a bit more methodical and more than a bit more unsure of her own process.
I write chapter by chapter and I don’t go on to the next chapter until the one I’m working on is in final form. That was frustrating at first because from the beginning I knew much of what I wanted the characters to say in the final monologues, but I feared that if I wrote them early on I wouldn’t be able to go back to the middle. I was also afraid that maybe by the time I got to it I would have forgotten some of the ideas or no longer be connected to those feelings. The first chapter [of The Volcano Lover], which is about fourteen typewritten pages, took me four months to write. The last five chapters, some one hundred typewritten pages, took me two weeks.
…found it possible to write almost anywhere I’ve happened to try. I like it at home better because it’s much more convenient for an early riser, which I am. And it’s the only place where you can really promise yourself time and keep out interruptions. My ideal way to write a short story is to write the whole first draft through in one sitting, then work as long as it takes on revisions, and then write the final version all in one, so that in the end the whole thing amounts to one long sustained effort. That’s not possible anywhere, but it comes nearest to being possible in your own home.
Kenzaburo Oe described himself as…
…the kind of writer who rewrites and rewrites. I am very eager to correct everything. If you look at one of my manuscripts, you can see I make many changes. So one of my main literary methods is “repetition with difference.” I begin a new work by first attempting a new approach toward a work that I’ve already written—I try to fight the same opponent one more time. Then I take the resulting draft and continue to elaborate upon it, and as I do so the traces of the old work disappear. I consider my literary work to be a totality of differences within repetition.
George Saunders advises us to just, maybe, try to calm down.
…a rough patch in a story is not an error or a defect or evidence of our lack of talent or proof that we are imposters, missing some essential frequency being broadcast from Story Central. It’s an indicator that our heroic, brilliant subconscious is working out a problem as it stumbles towards beauty, and is asking for our help, and what it needs for us to do, just now, is have faith. And wait. And, while we’re waiting (as an active form of waiting), keep revising (revising that bit and everything around it). Be O.K., for now, with its apparent imperfection (which is actually just a momentary lagging behind). Keep coming back to that place, with affection and hope, until it relents and pops into clarity.
And then in the end, the impossible question, Is it good enough? Said John Cheever…
I have never completed anything in my life to my absolute and lasting satisfaction.
Maybe some parts of some parts of these words of wisdom will help you at least feel better about your lack of a clear sense of the writing process—if that’s even something you’re struggling with. If you’re satisfied with the words you’re writing, however you got there is the ideal process—for you—for now. If you’re struggling, try stuff. Change where and when and how you write. Revise as you go if you haven’t been, or stop revising and keep writing if, like Susan Sontag, you’re caught in a Chapter One death spiral. If these disparate quotes tell us anything it’s this:
There is no one way to write, and there is no best way to write. The writing is the thing.
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Editor and author Philip Athans offers hands on advice for authors of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and fiction in general in this collection of 58 revised and expanded essays from the first five years of the long-running weekly blog you’re reading right now.