Detective fiction writer Lawrence Block tells a wonderful story about how he was having all kinds of trouble writing a Bernie Rodenbarr novel because of the chaos at home. He rented a cabin at a writers’ retreat back East and pushed the novel out in mere weeks. Next time he had a deadline looming, he rented the cabin again and ended up, he says, pestering all the poets and writers who were there trying to work. No writing occurred. He went back to the chaos of home and wrote the book with no problem.
The moral of the tale: Not only are all writers not alike when it comes to habits and processes that work, but one writer’s working process may vary from one project to the next.
I used to have to write my stories long-hand in #2 wooden pencil on steno pads. I would photocopy the pages just in case, but I wouldn’t move to the computer until I had a significant portion of the book written. Sometimes the whole thing.
Later, I changed my modus operandi just a bit—I would work in chunks of chapters transcribing from my pencil scribbles, but outlining ahead of myself so I always knew where I was going. Then at about two thirds of the way through the book I’d switch to the computer and finish the novel there. Some short stories I drafted long-hand in pencil or pen then transcribed, others I just sat down and typed straight out of my head.
It took about four novels to realize what was happening: If I had the whole story pretty much in my head, I could write in on the computer. In fact, I had to, because I couldn’t scribble fast enough to keep up with myself. If it was still working itself out, I opted for longhand.
But Lawrence Block’s experience also points out the importance of location, location, location. I have lived in homes in which I literally could not write. I discovered that airplanes and busy cafes, on the other hand, were great places to write. Lot’s of white noise … that I didn’t have to respond to.
I used to listen to music while I wrote. Can’t do that now … I stop to listen. On the other hand if I need ideas, music is the tonic. Every song I hear makes stories happen in my head. The very first novel I wrote, I outlined by cobbling together a series of songs by performers as diverse as Rush, Styx, Pink Floyd, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, Black Sabbath and Elton John.
The one constant in my writing-verse is TEA. I love tea. Not that nasty weak or bitter American stuff that poses as tea, but real, English black tea. Tea, I am convinced, can solve most of the major problems that humans face. Indeed, I think if the world’s leaders would sit down over a truly superior pot of tea, they could end war, poverty, racism and sexism all at once.