Twelve things I’ve learned about writing this year

1. I need to let my brain run.

It’s an annoying hyperactive shit, my brain, and left to its own devices it will bang on in a ceaseless stream of commentary like autonomy autonomy autonomy funny-sounding word isn’t it wonder what happens if you say it with music notes maybe that ad jingle you know the one AUUU-TOOO-NOOO-MEEE (au-to-no-mee) the paint’s chipped just there look also ring Dan HOLY SHIT DID YOU PAY THE MILKMAN no no need to shout just thought I would AUUU-TO-NO-MEEE oh my God remember that awful thing off the news yesterday BRUTAL it was BRUTAL let me replay you some horrible details did you call Dan also there’s no bread do you think the world’s going to end? This is why I like to distract it regularly with books, TV, podcasts and conversations with real people, because otherwise I end up standing in the middle of the living room saying ‘SHUT UP’ out loud, like a madwoman. But the thing it does really well, if fed the right information and not diverted, is create stories. On writing days, I don’t divert it. I let my brain get up to fifth gear and then I feed it work. I cannot expect it to work at a moment’ notice, after it’s been dulled by an hour-long podcast on how the Freedom of Information Act works. It needs to be fresh. So I start working days by gently prompting it – often as I’m still lying in bed – then leaving it alone for an hour or so. By the time I get in front of a screen it’s got five good suggestions about how to deal with that tricky midpoint plot twist.

2. The more I work, the more it works.

I used to read posts on Twitter where writers talked about their characters haunting them, or about constantly thinking about their novel, and I’d do this eye-roll-but-secretly-a-bit-worried-it-wasn’t-happening-for-me thing. That was before I started writing a book that was working. Now I have a book that is working, and last night I dreamed about it. The story is like a fever, or early love – constantly there, a preoccupation that has moved in like a possession and developed a life of its own. The more I let my brain run, the more I work on the novel, expand it and give it depth and tangle its characters together, the more it seems to happen by itself, and the easier it is to pick it up and work on it.

3. Earworms are an occupational hazard

Something about the intense focus and creativity of writing mode breeds spectacular earworms. It’s especially bad when you have kids, and kids’ TV is in your life. I fantasise about taking revenge on whoever came up with the new Thomas And Friends theme. It runs circuits of my head like a leaf stuck to a bike wheel.

4. Reading at the same time as writing is essential

I used to think that I should avoid reading when I was working on new material, because the other writer’s voice would end up leaching into my work and altering it. I don’t know whether I’m more secure in my own voice now, or whether I was just wrong all along. Anyway, reading whilst writing is a very good thing. It shows me ways that other people have dealt with all the things I need to deal with, like plotting and character development and awkward timelines, in a way that I wouldn’t remember if I just sat and thought ‘Hmm, how have books I’ve read in the past sorted out X issue?’

5. Make it up if you have to

Research is great, but sometimes you just can’t access the right people and there are no books telling you what that particular thing is like. One of my characters is a luxury goods broker. I’m not even really sure it’s a thing. I sure as hell don’t know any. No-one’s written a non-fic book called ‘Inside Luxury Goods Brokering’. I just needed a job in which my character could be a bit of a materialistic douche and earn big bonuses whilst working for a small family firm. So I made it up. Nae worries.

6. Then again, research is essential

It’s not so much facts that are the problem. It’s OK to make up facts. If, in the event of this book’s publication, an annoyed luxury goods broker writes to me and complains about my inaccurate portrayal of luxury goods brokering I’ll be all right with it. I’d rather have got it right, but eh. It’s the people who matter. I care if I write a crappy, stereotypical portrayal of mental illness. I care if I write cartoon minority characters. That’s where I can’t just make it up. The inside of my head is not enough. I have to do research, and sometimes that changes how the story works, but it always makes it better.

7. Titles are hard

Short story titles are easy. Short stories tend to have one theme and only a very small cast of characters, so you can pluck out some pleasingly symbolic collection of words pretty easily. Not so novels. The book has been called The Book since its inception. Now I have to think of a title because I’m submitting it to a first novel competition. It was called Fortune for a bit, before I decided that luck wasn’t actually the overriding theme, and also it sounded too much like a Jeffrey Archer novel. It was Fathom Five for about 6 hours before I realised that was way wanky. Now it’s The Book again. If inspiration doesn’t occur before the end of the month it’s just gonna be called the protagonist’s name because this is haaaaaaard.

8. It’s OK to not know where it’s going. To a certain extent.

There’s an E.L. Doctorow quote: ‘Writing is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ I know who my book’s protagonist is, and I know where he starts and ends up. I know how he changes. If I didn’t know that, I wouldn’t be able to write the book. But as for the details, I can see as far as the headlights. And that works great for me. Letting the book grow inside my head as I go along keeps it fresh and interesting and weird. For me, sitting down with a detailed outline wouldn’t work. I don’t think I’d write the thing if it was only a question of labour.

9. Just Do It

That’s it really. Write this bit, because then you can write the next bit. If I hang around hesitating because I don’t know what a luxury goods broker’s office would look like and also I’m not 100% sure whether the drink driving scene should be someone’s fault or kind of an accident, it stalls the work. Sometimes a bit of breathing space is good, but sometimes it’s time to get in there and do something. I can always change it later.

10. Sometimes family life helps rather than hinders

I complain about the demands of childcare and the way they impact on my work time, but there’s an upside (and not just the obvious one, i.e. having a lovely family). I’m asleep by 9:30 every night. I barely drink. I take my vitamins. I zealously avoid doing anything I don’t really want or really need to. I am aware so much more of my time limits. I have never been more productive than I am now, despite also being under more pressure of time than ever. I’m efficient in a way that I wasn’t at twenty-five, or even at thirty.

11. It doesn’t have to be perfect

I’ve been listening to the Worried Writer podcast, on which a writer interviews published authors about their process in a wholly unpretentious way. It’s so reassuring. One thing people talk a lot about is rewrites. How many of them there are, how tough they are. That’s after the book’s been accepted for publication. There’s a whole polishing phase that goes on after your draft is done, if it makes it. It does need to be as good as it can be to have a chance of being accepted at all, but it doesn’t need to be as perfect and polished as the book you pick up off your shelf. That’s the result of a team of professionals. It’s OK to think your book’s not perfect, as long as you carry on writing and editing it, get it to the best standard you can and then send it out.

12. Be brave

I used to have a needle phobia. To get rid of it, I became a blood donor. The first few times were horrible; horrible enough that the nurses asked me if I really wanted to do it. The next few times were OK. Now I just get slightly clammy palms. The thing I learned was that the moment of puncture, the bit where the pointy metal went in my skin, was never anywhere near as bad as the fear. Every time it happened I was like ‘Oh hey, that was fine really,’ and then I’d feel awesome about having done it. Sending out work for review is similar. It feels bad and scary, but press ‘Send’ or ‘Post’, and it’s over. Then you get feedback and it’s helpful, and it’s never as bad as you fear. And you can feel awesome about yourself and your work. Never sending it out just makes things worse, and makes any rejection sting more when you are forced to do it. 2018 is going to be the year of going for it. Cheers, and Merry Christmas all.


Author: Alex Clark

Short story writer, poet & novelist. Now running writers' retreats in Cheltenham for Writers' HQ.

6 thoughts on “Twelve things I’ve learned about writing this year”

  1. This is a great post – it’s so refreshing to read something about writing that’s realistic, and not pretentious and airy-fairy. I am wary of listening to writers talk about their process but I’m about to look up that podcast!


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