How Writers Write: Ruth EJ Booth

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.

The series started with Keith Brooke.  last time featured Neil Williamson.  This month it’s BSFA Award winner Ruth Booth’s turn…

How would you describe yourself? 

ReadingWell, I’m an award-winning fiction writer and a poet, usually of speculative sort. From time to time, I’m a critic/reviewer – of music (alternative) and, recently, books too.

But writing isn’t all I do. I’m a live gig photographer. I sing, I’m told, though I need a new outlet for it. I’m teaching myself to play the ukulele, since a piano’s out of reach right now. There’s more besides. So how would I describe myself? Not nearly busy enough, quite frankly.

What do you use to write? 

Right now I’m typing this in Word, on my old refurb’d 17” laptop – and this is a rare case of typing up before I’ve made any handwritten notes. Mostly, ideas start out on paper first – I’m not sure what it is, but I find I think more clearly when I handwrite, rather than typing straight onto a screen. Nearly all my review/opinion pieces start life on paper – git big swirling threads of thought running all over my A4 notepad (in the margins and everything!), clauses knotted in gaps between the lines of ten-year-old’s scrawl, later trimmed and woven into something more coherent for the screen. Fiction, it depends on the project, but you can guarantee at some point, I’ll hit that sticky wall*, and I’ll have to handwrite myself free of it.

Notebook (3)There are at least two notebooks on the go at any one time – the little one for when I’m out and about (which also doubles for my to-do lists), and the A4 workbook for general Work-Things-Out projects. I’ve learned that where I have a notebook FOR ONE THING AND ONE THING ONLY, that’s a guarantee I’ll never use it. So fiction tends to vie for space with public lecture notes, review plans, career stuff, poetry and geometric doodles of stars and weird spiky things. It’s hell to archive, but it works for me.

On my laptop, I generally work in Word, with occasional bits and pieces in Notepad if I’m experimenting with a section of something. Poetry is nearly always written in Notepad first. Aside from that, there’s the memo function on my phone, a netbook in my parents’ study, but… honestly? I’ve been known to write notes on bar receipts if I’ve nothing else to hand.

When do you write?

On an ideal week, I’ll have two hours writing time a day. Times vary. Generally it’s a free hour before work, and at least one after, but I run or cycle three to four times a week, so that shifts it up to the evening. It’s not that I can’t necessarily do both first thing – oddly, I can usually solve a story problem within the first ten to fifteen minutes of a run. Still, the aim’s for two sit down hours a day every day – more, if I can manage it, on a weekend. That’s 16 – 18 hours a week, if I’m lucky.

Where do you write? 

Box Room (2)Most days I’ll pick one of three or four places to write. There are two cafés in town with mains power where I get most of the grunt work done – one for morning jaunts, one for evenings. When I’m at home, I like to use The Library at the back of the house, which is just a quiet and cosy space to work in. There’s also the box study with my lovely giant table and big flatscreen monitor, but I prefer that for non-fiction and photo editing work.

My main consideration is where’s going to have the right kind of quiet at any one time – and these days I need my comfort tea if I’m going to get some proper work done. The extent to which music’s a distraction or white noise really depends on the tunes. There are a handful of go-to bands/composers I use when the café soundtrack’s not doing the trick. More important is how I think of where I’m working – it can’t be somewhere for playing games or watching TV. If it’s not a neutral space – if it’s not somewhere where any distractions or background noise can be dismissed as not-for-me – then forget it. Work’s not going to happen.

How do you write?

Library (3)Word counts don’t work as well for me as time limits do. I’ve been using the Pomidoro method in the last few months (25 minutes on, 5 minutes off, in two hour bursts). It’s worked particularly well with this found documents story I’m working on, constructed from a series of archival pieces and audio transcripts. This way, I’ve a set period to focus on one bit, with no temptation to polish each one until I’m sick of it.

As for planning or pantsing, it’s really a question of what I’m working on. With criticism, I like to have a clear idea of my argument before I write it up, but fiction’s not so prescribed. There’s always a notebook beside me as I type – that’s more for working things out in my head than writing to plan. Unless the word count’s particularly tight, plotting’s usually something that comes along after the first draft, to work out what’s missing, where an extra beat might be needed, that sort of thing. Not so much planning, then, as restructuring.

A caveat: Since I’ve mostly written short stories so far, this might all change once I start working on novel length fiction. On the other hand, the longest thing I’ve worked on so far just poured out of me one day and didn’t stop until 18,000 words later, so we’ll see.

Questions of style. First Person, Third person, present tense, past?

Most of the time I’m writing in third person limited or first person, past or present tense – but that’s not to say I won’t one day come across a story that demands to be done in, say, second person omniscient. I’ve got to confess, I had to really think about this question, which may suggest I’m not that conscious of making those choices, at least beyond the extent to which they come with the story. Trite as it sounds, generally, there’s a voice that leads – and I follow that.

How many redrafts? – How many readers? – How easy is it to let go?

Redrafting’s a tricky thing to put a number on. Occasionally, it’s taken a complete draft of an entirely different story to get to the crux of what I find interesting about it – so the finished result ends up quite different to what I first imagined.

Easier to pinpoint is how many rounds of readers a story gets – and if all goes well, that’s generally two. Sadly, I don’t have the advantage of being part of a writers group, but I’m lucky to have a number of writer friends, who I can rely on within reason.

I’ve not been writing that long, so knowing when to let go is a discipline I’m still developing. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve two contradictory impulses when editing. The first is riddled with perfectionist zeal – but if I’ve worked on something too long, the other goes “OUT THE F**KIN WINDOW” and promptly chucks it in a huff (aka The Defenestration of Blargh method). I’m slowly working the both of them out of my system, not least for my own sanity. You’re always going to see the flaws in a finished story. But, arguably, if you did reach some mythic, mist-shrouded pinnacle of artistic perfection, wouldn’t that be a reason to stop?

What are you working on at the moment?

Award 1Let’s see… There’s the story about mining and music that’s told through a collection of audio transcripts and archival documents. There’s one about robots and rose gardens and what we leave behind. There’s another about what happens to the fictional worlds we create as children. That’s just for starters.

Recently, I’ve been writing more stories set around where I grew up in the North-East England – such as ‘Good Boy’, in January’s Far Horizons. Poetry’s been the biggest creative surprise of the last six months, which started as a whim, and grew a will of its own. Whether any of this will make it to print, we’ll see, but it’s been immense fun exploring a new way to write.

In the meantime, Fox Spirit’s Fox Pockets: The Evil Genius Guide will include a story of mine about a rather unusual college graduation. There’s also another project that I’m really excited about, one that’s quite different from anything I’ve been involved in before… but I can’t talk about that right now.

In short – everything up in the air and all to play for. Then, I wouldn’t have it any other way. That’s why writing keeps me hooked.

  • Am pretty sure the writing wall is covered in treacle. Certainly feels like you’re wading through that on the tricky days, anyhow.

More Information

Ruth Booth’s website: