How Writers Write: Anne Charnock

How Writers Write is a monthly series of guest posts where established writers invite you into their workspaces, reveal their work habits and share their experience.

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I met Anne in a bar in Helsinki at Worldcon 75.  We got chatting right away…

What do you use to write?

I handwrite only when I’m limbering up. As a first stab at a new writing project, I take a sheet of A2 paper and draw bubbles of characters/themes/plot. Next, I open a new hardback notebook and jot down my initial ideas, pose questions to myself so that I hone the central premise and my overall aims. At this early stage, I consider the connections between characters, draw approximate timelines and so on. None of this preliminary work is detailed. My outlines are minimal.

Before I draft a chapter, I dash off a few handwritten notes to set the scene. But I’m as likely to ignore these notes as I am to adhere to them.

As for hardware, I work with a MacBook Air linked to a widescreen monitor and a full-size keyboard. I’ve used Macs since they were first launched and I’m not going to switch now!

I draft my novels in Scrivener, which is especially helpful for a story based on masses of research. Scrivener allows me to assemble my research into a set of folders. While I’m drafting my story, I can dip into the research material without opening other applications. Scrivener is also ideal for novels with a complex structure. I can re-order the chapters by click and drag, or temporarily reorder the chapters to check the flow of a particular storyline or character arc.

Once I begin the first draft, I create two Excel spreadsheets. (I love a good spreadsheet, with lots of colour coding). One is a simple log: dates in the left column and chapter titles in the top row. This allows me to record whether each working day is a drafting or editing day and which chapter I’m working on. If it’s a drafting day, I record my daily word count.

The second spreadsheet is more complex and this is the reason I have a widescreen monitor. It’s an on-the-go summary of the developing novel. I set up columns from left to right: chapter number/title, character list, point-of-view character, tense, settings, main plot points in that chapter, and a column in which I note how the chapter connects with the story’s overall themes, and finally a column for the chapter’s word count. In the midst of writing, if I suddenly realise that an edit or addition is needed in an earlier chapter, I’ll add a note in green type to the spreadsheet. It’s always open on my computer desktop.

For my second novel, Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, I needed an additional monster spreadsheet to record, chapter-by-chapter, the occurrence of repeating motifs and themes. The printout stretched the length of my kitchen.

When I’m ready to send a manuscript to beta-readers, I ‘compile’ my Scrivener chapters as a Word document. From that point on, through to final draft, development edit and copy edit, I work in Word.

When do you write?

With my first novel, A Calculated Life, I wrote whenever I had time — over a period of several years. It was frustrating; I had to set aside the manuscript for as long as six months at a time. You know how it is, life intervenes. So I had no idea how long that novel took to write in terms of days/weeks/months. That’s why I now keep a daily log.

I’m fortunate that I’m writing full time and when I’m in a writing phase it’s pretty full on, especially if there’s a deadline. I’m definitely not an early morning person. I’m content to start about 9.30 or 10 am and work through until 6-ish with breaks for tea/coffee/lunch/tea and cake. Sometimes I’ll set a stopwatch and do a writing sprint for twenty five minutes, for variety! However, I do find that when I write quickly, I spend more time re-writing and editing. So I don’t beat myself up if my word count looks meagre.

Where do you write?

I kinda work in a white cube. White walls, white semi-transparent blinds (invariably closed) and a desk with a near-white formica top. The desk is a lovely 1950s Hans Gugelot desk, my pride and joy. This small room is built onto the end of our garage. It’s brilliant to have this space separate from the house. I’m not disturbed by anyone knocking on the door, or by unsolicited phone calls.

Where do you go for inspiration?

I look beyond literature. I go to exhibitions, take a cycle ride, travel to new places. Or I walk around the local playing field to catch the sunset. I’m not sure I’m ‘looking’ for inspiration. Basically, I’m switching off my writer’s brain and opening up to new experiences or living in the moment, as with travel and cycle rides. I try to get away with my husband in our campervan for a change of scene. Sometimes I write while we’re away — I sit under the van’s awning, write in the shade.

How do you write?

No music. I don’t understand how anyone can write with music in the background. Each to their own! I live in a rural area but that doesn’t mean it’s peaceful — raucous birdsong (magpies are the worst), hedge cutters, chainsaws. I keep noise-cancelling headphones on my desk, and I wear them by default.

First Person, Third person, present tense, past?

For my first novel, I wrote in third person limited (free indirect style) and past tense except for two epilogues, which I wrote in present tense. I’m not sure how many readers noticed the change in tense, but I believe it shifted the tone, the atmosphere. Third person limited was essential for this novel because I wanted the reader to see the world through only the main character’s eyes — to witness the world from her limited, almost innocent, perspective.

I now prefer present tense and I think this preference reflects the fact that I don’t outline my chapters in any detail. Therefore I’m discovering the story alongside my characters. It feels more natural. I dislike the contrivance of an omniscient narrator. I don’t think I could attempt that.

My latest novel, Dreams Before the Start of Time, comprises 19 chapters and each has a single POV character: 19 chapters, 16 points of view in total, 16 chapters in third person, 3 in first person. A series of linked vignettes, if you like.

I’ve developed a real liking for first person. But the story always determines my choice. So, for my novella The Enclave I felt two different points of view would be perfect, each written in first person, giving room for the reader to make inferences concerning the gaps between the two characters’ stories.

Follow the plot or the character or just go with it?

Characters come first for me. I often discover their personalities in the process of writing their dialogue.

When the first draft is done…

After working for many years in journalism, I can’t bring myself to blast through a first draft. I edit as I go along — editing as I draft a paragraph, editing the previous day’s work, editing at the end of a chapter, re-editing several chapters at the end of a section, and so on. As a result, the first draft represents an almost-complete novel. I feel I’m almost there. Of course, I may well decide to add a chapter, move a scene, refine a character’s voice, etc. I address all the notes/reminders I’ve made in green text on my summary spreadsheet. Then I embark on the line-edits, fact checking and proofing.

For my latest novel I corralled five beta-readers: three family members and two writers. I’m fortunate that my family readers are pretty damn good, each in his own way (Yes, my family readers are all men!)

For me, it’s hard to let go of a manuscript. I like to be involved up until to the last moment, until the pages are printed.

Lastly, self promotion:

I describe myself as a writer of near-future science fiction or speculative fiction. To be honest that doesn’t feel complete because I’ve also incorporated historical and contemporary fiction in my work. I haven’t totally abandoned my fine art practice — I’m exhibiting a piece of text-art this autumn in a public installation curated by Andrew Bracey. I still gravitate towards journalistic and non-fiction opportunities. For example, I’ve had a feature published this summer on the UK feminist website, The F-Word — Time to Cut the Cord with The Stone Age? — and I’ve been given the somewhat splendid title of ‘interviewer in residence’ for a collaboration between The Arthur C Clarke Award and Ada Lovelace Day. To date the main result of this collaboration is the “Ada Lovelace Conversations” with women science fiction writers. Quick links on my bio page on my website. More conversations are in the pipeline. These have been immense fun and a great learning experience in terms of discovering other writers’ approach to their craft.

I’m currently developing two writing projects, one is underway, the other is still in outline. I can’t talk about either; it’s simply too early.