Following the interested generated by my posts on How To Write, I thought it might be interesting to see how other writers produce their work.
How Writers Write is monthly series of guest posts where established writers invite you into their workspaces, reveal their work habits and share their experience.
First up is the incredibly talented Keith Brooke:
How would you describe yourself?
How would I describe myself? I write, I edit, I design. I work in lots of different fields, under a variety of pen-names. Much to my (now-retired) agent’s frustration, I flit about between all these things, with little in the way of a coherent career plan. And I love it.
What do you use to write?
Everyone raves about Scrivener so I keep thinking I should give it a go. I’ve even gone as far as buying a copy when it was on sale a couple of months ago. I’ve opened it, and followed a tutorial; I’ve played with creating my own templates to suit the way I work. And then I’ve gone back to Word and text files. It just suits me, particularly now that I have two monitors, so I can have lots of files open and visible at the same time.
I tend to keep notes of ideas on my phone, then transfer them to text files or Word docs every so often. When I’m in the thick of a draft, I’ll usually have a notes file on my phone just for that project, as ideas come at the most unhelpful of times. I’ll also have a Word file for that project’s notes: a short overview; notes on characters, settings and anything else that’s relevant (maybe some scientific aspect, or politics, or history). I’ll also have a more detailed outline to work from, which is very much a work in progress, modified as I go on and the real story emerges. And then there’s the actual draft itself: just one Word document, regardless of how long the story will be. That sounds awfully efficient and well-organised of me, and I guess to an extent it is: an approach refined over three decades of writing.
When do you write?
Back when I had a day job I trained myself to write at any opportunity. The first draft of The Accord was written in coffee shops, bars, at an airport, at friends’ houses, in the back of a car, in lunchbreaks at work, and probably other places that I forget now. If I could grab even as little as ten minutes, I could get a few more paragraphs down; more importantly, it meant that the next time I had a more substantial writing session the story was fresh in my head so I could hit the ground running.
I left my day job last year and now it’s more a matter of juggling different projects: as well as writing under various pen-names, I edit, run the infinity plus publishing company, and do various other design and publishing activities. One consequence of this is that each day tends to be a different mix, and it’s rare that I get a day just to write. I do, however, get more frequent and longer writing sessions than I used to manage, which is lovely.
I try hard to keep my writing and publishing activities to normal working hours, so that I get evenings and weekends for other things. It’s flexible, though: sometimes real life intrudes during the week (that’s happening a lot right now), and sometimes writing commitments mean I get up early (sometimes I’ll start at 5 or 6 in the morning) or keep working into the evenings and weekends. I do manage to keep a pretty good balance, though.
Where do you write?
The Accord was probably an extreme example of writi￼ng wherever and whenever I get the opportunity. I do sometimes take my old Netbook away on trips and write on planes, in hotel rooms, etc. Now that I write and edit full-time, though, my habits are a lot more regular. Or rather, they were, and they will be; they just aren’t at the moment.
How it used to be… Up until January, I’d set up office at one end of our dining room table, with a desktop PC, two big monitors and a comfy office chair (I started out just using one of the dining chairs, but that played havoc with my back).
How it will be… We’re in the process of converting the dining room into a work area. My wife Debbie needs cake-decorating space (https://www.facebook.com/brookesbakes), so she’ll have a work area for that on one side of the room, and I’ll have a proper desk on the other side of the room.
At the moment… It’s a building site. We’ve knocked down walls and had plastering done, we’re re-doing the kitchen at the same time, and the place is complete chaos. I’m spending a lot of my time doing all the jobs we’re not paying other people to do: emptying cupboards, moving furniture, decorating… And my work? I’m on a cranky old laptop that runs slow and often not at all, with old software and nothing where I want it (I’ve been spoilt by the shiny new desktop PC!). At the moment I tend to work on one of the living room sofas, wrecking my back again (or maybe that’s down to all the lifting – a writing life doesn’t prepare you for all that physical stuff).
How do you write?
I can work in distracting, noisy places, but I don’t choose to have music or TV on when that’s within my control. I usually have ‘net access, but that can be a big distraction, so sometimes I just switch the wireless off for half an hour or so.
My working outlines are a lot more skimpy than they were in the early days – a confidence thing, as much as anything else. As a minimum my outline will have a few key points: opening, ending, and some landmarks along the way.
I’ve taught writing to postgraduate level, and I always make the point that I’m never going to teach people the way to write; it’s all about helping them find their own way to write. Having said that, there are some basic rules that tend to help most people. Foremost among these is that once you have words down on the page you have something to work with: bad writing can usually be fixed, but polishing that fabulous idea while it’s still in your head doesn’t really get you anywhere.
So I write. Often fast, just to get those words down. And often, even when I think I’m writing rubbish, when I come back to edit I see that it’s okay: there’s always something I can work with, at least. I’m disappointed if I don’t hit 2000 words on a writing day, and my peak, fuelled by caffeine, deadlines and desperation, has been more than 10,000. Some people may see that as hacking it out – how can the quality possibly be there, when you write so fast? I see it as honed technique: when I’m working like that, I’m capturing the big picture and writing with a lot of energy and momentum; the rewriting brings refinement and adjustment until I’ve hit the right balance. But if there’s one rule of writing, then for me it’s Get Those Words Down.
Questions of style. First Person, Third person, present tense, past?
Yes, to all of those. Whatever suits the story. The Accord is my most complex in terms of viewpoint, as it’s told from first person present and past tense, third person present and past, second person present, past and future tense, and then various hybrids of multiple first and third person devised to portray the viewpoint of multiple characters and character-fragments sharing the same brain. It sounds complicated and for the first half of the first draft I didn’t even understand it myself, I just wrote each scene as seemed appropriate; and then, one day away from the computer, it all mad sense to me, the rationale for the different viewpoints and the drift for some characters from an intimate inside-the-head viewpoint to a distanced, more reportage perspective.
Viewpoint and style aren’t things I really sweat over before starting. They usually emerge while an idea is developing, so that by the time I sit down to start a draft the storytelling voice and approach are clearly established in my head. Sometimes elements of style emerge as I start to write (an angry voice, a consciously smooth style, etc), and when that happens it’s just a matter of going back and fixing the early pages – as long as you have those words down, you can fix that later, when the first draft is done
How many redrafts? – How many readers? – How easy is it to let go?
Back when I printed actual drafts, each piece would have at least three printings. I’d print the first draft and then edit it longhand until it was barely legible. Then I’d type in the changes, print a clean copy and repeat as necessary.
Nowadays I rarely print anything, so my drafts are far less easy to distinguish. I’ll often edit the early stages of a story to ease myself into writing new material for the day, so the early parts of a novel might be the equivalent of second or third draft even before the overall draft is complete.
After all the revisions, it’s off to my trusty first reader, Eric Brown. We’ve swapped drafts for something like 25 years – a trusted first reader is one of the most valuable tools in a writer’s kit, and Eric is a very good tool. I should probably rephrase that… Neither of us pulls punches when critiquing each other’s work, and we’re both prepared to ignore crits that we don’t agree with. Generally, I’ll act on about 75% of the things Eric spots; then I’ll probably mull over much of the remaining crits, wondering how he missed the point so badly. Then I’ll come back to the draft and probably act on those remaining crits, too, once I see that he’s right.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve been doing lots of work for infinity plus recently, with Garry Kilworth’s fabulous historical novel The Iron Wire published recently – this one tells the story of the men who constructed the first telegraph line across the heart of Australia in the 1870s. And Eric’s collection of ten short stories, Deep Future – it’s great to be publishing some of his books these days. My own most recent novel is the big epic fantasy, Riding the Serpent’s Back , a widescreen story of a civilisation’s end days.
Keith Brooke’s Website: http://www.keithbrooke.co.uk/