Creative Writing: How, Where & When?
How, where and when do you write and, more to the point, does it matter? Many bestselling novelists, whose diverse methods and locations are described below, would chant an unequivocal ‘Yes!’ And I think I would have to agree.
WRITING IN LONG-HAND
Perhaps because my earliest stories and dramas were written when I was only a child, my first few published books naturally began life in long hand, in exercise books. There is something about forming cursive lettering with a pen on a page which seems to help the creative juices to flow. Muriel Spark is said to have been quite obsessive in her urge to fill any empty notebook she came across, and the novelist, Philip Hensher, obsesses about green Pentel pens and Black ‘n Red notebooks.
The joy of writing in long hand is that it may be done anywhere. Much of my creative writing was carried out in bed. Mind you, it was not conducive to sleep! Lying there, in the dark, the whole process of imaginary cinematic projection on my eyelids coupled so naturally with the whispered words of my narrative that it became addictive.
My bedside lamp would be on and off with such regular monotony that my husband, eventually, suggested I buy a hand-held voice-activated tape recorder. You might think that this would have proved invaluable, but it was not for me. Somehow, even with only him in earshot, it breached the solitude and secrecy which I, at least, find such a necessity for creative writing. Speaking it out kills it for me.
As does typing for others – though not for all. I read, recently, that Cormac McCarthy is selling his beloved Olivetti typewriter, on which he has typed every book he has ever written. Purchased in 1963 for a mere $59, it is expected to raise between $15,000 and $20,000 at auction, all proceeds going to a scientific research institute.
My own switch to the typewriter as a means of producing my books was forced upon me. It was circa 1982 when my first book was accepted by a publisher, who wished to make two books of the single manuscript. Naturally, the whole thing had to be re-drafted and, as I had a deadline to meet, long hand would not suffice. So for a couple of weeks I sat upstairs in my small office-bedroom typing the first draft (which I then proofed and edited in the evening) and a paid typist sat at my dining table typing the final draft which was then presented to the publisher.
CUTTING AND PASTING
Having worked as secretary to the American novelist Paul Gallico for a while in my younger days, I was well-used to this procedure. I took dictation from him in shorthand – sometimes sitting in his library-office, sometimes following him around his mimosa-scented hillside garden, and once, even from alongside his four-poster bed when he was laid low with phlebitis. I would transcribe my shorthand notes later, on a huge Imperial typewriter, and the resulting manuscript would then be heavily edited by him, and re-typed by me!
Once the switch was made with my own creative writing, I never looked back. But there was, still, the laborious business of editing. And, of course, the typos! Quite literally, I used to cut and paste, using scissors and glue, to move a bit of narrative – sometimes a whole scene – from one place to another in my manuscript. But unlike the electronic cut and paste facilities of a computer, the text surrounding the moved section and the insert neither contracted nor expanded. Even the addition of a single word might alter the pagination of an entire chapter and need, therefore, to be retyped.
COMPUTERS: THE BENEFITS & SHORTCOMINGS
It is said that Dame Beryl Bainbridge still uses an Amstrad. I remember my first foray with word processing. It was shortly after publication of my first book when the switch to typing had been made. I looked into the possibility of buying one of the first computers on the market, which were then priced at about £2,000 – way beyond my pocket. But with the proceeds of my first two books I was able to buy an Amstrad a year or two later and, soon afterwards, my first PC.
‘Cut and paste’ now made eminent sense and transformed the editing process. But the downside was that the location for writing was restricted to the length of a cable from a socket. All those semi-somnolent hours in bed now meant having to emerge from under the duvet, switch on lights and power up the computer – by which time the creative urge had dissipated beyond recall.
Speaking of which, there are those who believe that looking at a screen as you write stems the flow of creativity. It’s true that watching words appear on your monitor certainly induces left brain thinking which urges a response from the editorial faculties rather than the creative. The answer, I’m told, is to switch off the screen. I have yet to try it – but if you’ve done so and found that it works, do drop me a line: I’d love to hear from you.
In the meantime, my preferred means and method of writing are on my laptop with my feet up on the sofa in the lounge. Sounds rather like a game of Cluedo, doesn’t it? But I haven’t yet had to take the dagger or the revolver to either myself (when the writing doesn’t go well) nor to my husband when he pops in and out keeping me supplied with coffees and teas. In the end, it doesn't take an Hercule Poirot to make us realise that the only thing that matters is that wherever, whenever and by whatever means, we keep on writing!
If you’d like to receive regular reminders of new posts, click the button on the right, or read What It Means To Subscribe.
Author of a number of books, one a No 4 Bestseller, Mel Menzies is also an experienced Speaker at live events, as well as on Radio and TV. Book her here for your event.
All proceeds from Mel’s latest novel, A Painful Post Mortem, are for charities benefiting children worldwide. Buy a copy here and help raise cash for children like Rachel, who, at 13 is mother to 6 kids orphaned by AIDS, or this project, drug-proofing teenagers in the UK
» Writing & Publishing A Book