Today on the blog as part of the Lockwood & Co Blog Tour I have Jonathan Stroud talking about how he writes. His latest book is completely awesome so I was thrilled to be part of the this tour.
Best job in the world, writing. That’s how it feels when it’s going well. There’s that sensation of gentle amazement (mixed with exultation) you get at the end of the day, when you pick up those few neatly typed pages of writing that didn’t exist that morning and skim-read the scenes. Places that have sprung out of nowhere, characters that have bustled into life and begun new conversations, dramas and incidents that you’ve brought into being, in between yawning and scratching and staring out the window or checking the latest cricket scores online.
But when things aren’t going so smoothly – on those days when fresh words are rare as winter butterflies – it’s amazing how intractable a process writing seems. How hard to fathom, how complex and unnatural, how rock-bottom impossible to do. On days like that I sit and wonder how it is that I ever get anything started, let alone finished. On days like that I while away the hours thinking about how the process of writing actually works, for me, on the days that it chooses to work at all.
And I reckon that the first essential ingredient is time, and the second essential ingredient is persistence. Combining the two basically means planting your backside in a chair, staying put, and writing. Sometimes it’ll be productive; sometimes it’ll seem like hell. But it’s my experience that the really bad days (the ones where truly nothing gets done) are very infrequent. Almost always good stuff does result – or at least passable stuff, or stuff that shows you what not to do, or weird experimentations that prepare you for better ideas to come.
The other two ingredients that are more or less balanced in me are improvisation and rational analysis. On any one day, one or other of them is probably in charge. Success comes from recognising which is in the ascendancy and going with it. The improvisational side is the creative hothouse, where the sparks are generated. It works best just sitting at the computer and seeing what comes out. Taking an idea and running with it. Putting two characters into a scene and getting them to talk. Getting surprised by where the story takes you. All my books start with this side in firm control. I just write lots and lots, jumping from scene to scene, breaking off when I run out of conviction, hopping to another. All sorts of avenues are opened up – and it’s the job of the rational side, whenever it takes over, to figure out which are cul-de-sacs, and which are proper onward roads.
Sooner or later, though, the rational side has to kick in and deal with the chaos of possibilities that all this improvising has created. These are the days for devising cunning structures and chapter plans, trying to figure out how a coherent plot point might develop from that really cool scene involving a headless ghost, or how best to insert a crucial bit of character development in the middle of that sequence where they’re all running away. Inevitably, the plans that I construct (lots of boxes joined together with coloured lines) don’t work at first, but I can only prove this by going ahead and beginning to write them – then the improvisational side jumps back into play and carries me off down unsuspected routes, and I have to revise the plans again. So it goes, bouncing from one side to the other, each facet ultimately relying on its opposite. I never really find a comfortable middle ground, and I suspect that every writer (every creative artist?) has the same basic challenge whenever they set to work. Reconciling opposites: that’s the endless battle going on inside every decent book. At least, that’s what I surmise on those bad days when I’m just sitting around analysing.