I’ve talked about why I write, but I haven’t yet mentioned how I write. So, for those of you who might be interested, here’s an insight into my writing routine, and specifically how I came to write Tales of the Edge.
I am always a bit embarrassed when people ask me about my writing routine, because I have none. I wish I could tell you I get up at 6am every morning to write before going to work, but I actually get up around 9ish and tend to walk the dog before getting anything done.
Recently, I found a term I liked: my writing routine is opportunistic.
I’ve nearly always written. I started my first novel when I was twelve – I remember writing before that, bits and pieces of unfinished, derivative stories – but this was the first novel I finished. It took me two years of dabbling at it before and after school, during summer holidays, on weekends. I slaved away at the family computer, a big, hulking grey cube which took up a good third of the desk it was on.
And, by the by, I finished it. It wasn’t much good, but it was done.
My writing routine through school, then university, then in my work environment, and now as I’m travelling, hasn’t much changed: I write when I can. Before work if I have the time, during if I have a long enough break, after if I finish early enough.
Whenever, wherever – on my computer, in my draft emails if I’m not on my laptop, in my notebooks if I don’t have access to a computer. It’s messy, bitsy, and I notably remember I once had a terrible time merging three separate documents which partially (but, crucially, not completely) overlapped, trying to work out which scenes, in which document, were the most recent one. Most of The Game Weavers I wrote when I was a tour guide at the Manchester United Football Stadium, in the staff room, between each tour. It’s no wonder the book is such snappy, short chapters, flitting between points-of-view, seeing the context in which it was written.
I don’t suffer much from writer’s block, in part because I’ve found ways around it – I can trick myself out of it. What works for me is to have periods of focus on one project, and fallow periods, during which I let my mind and writing wander. I have a tendency to let the muse guide me. When I feel like writing a scene, an idea, a bit of dialogue, I do so. Whether it’s linked to a project I’m currently working on or not. I scribble down what comes to mind. I have a hundred in-progress documents on my laptop, varying from a hundred words to a couple of thousand. In my case, writer’s block is often not about not-writing, it's about not writing this. The solution is, when one idea stalls, to write something else.
This being said, it’s easy to fall in love with one idea after the next and never commit to finishing one book. Starting stories is much more fun than finishing them. So, from time to time, I pick one story and decide to finish it. When I do so, I’ll work on that story every day until it’s done, and other ideas, however enticing, do not get penned to paper unless I’ve done a few hours on the main work. (Which, in a world with work and friends and family, sometimes means nothing else gets done until the manuscript is finished.) This strikes a balance, I hope, between not forcing creativity, and yet committing to a project.
Generally, I leave a few months between books. When I’m not working on a project, I flit through the bigger word documents, trying to work out which one seems ripe. Generally, I don’t commit to writing a novel until I already have a good chunk of words.
I never write chronologically. I write the bits I like first. I start with the fun scenes, the scenes with my favourite POV character, or favourite villain. I very often write the end in the early stages, because I like to know where I’m going. Endings – the big climax scene – are often good fun, and so they get done first. Big fights between characters, or duels (I have found I have a weakness for duels), or generally conflict, tends to get done first as well, because it’s fun to do. At one point, I reach a drafty draft, full of holes, which needs sewing together. Then it’s just a question of building the bridges.
When I sat down to write The Collarbound, I had 30k words, expected to be done when I reached 100k, and tentatively called it: The Collarbound and the Eyas. After six months of writing and 150k words, I realised I had a trilogy. I actually wrote the first two books together, cutting the huge behemoth of words I had into two manageable novels. Then I set to writing the third book
Once I finished it, I let myself enjoy a few months of floating, of dabbling, of playing with ideas. I’m convinced this is essential to writers, as it is to a piece of land: letting what has been harvested regrow. Otherwise we’re at risk of rewriting the same book, over and over again, by rushing rather than thinking. The break also helps with editing: after a six-month break, Volume 3, The Lightborn, looked very different to me than it had before, and I found myself rewriting it.
I edit a lot. I like it. It takes the pressure off writing, I find, to know that what I’m doing isn’t the final version. I don’t like it? It can change! Structural editing, especially, is fun: I have a full book. I have all the chapters and key moments and the shape of the story.
So what happens if I swap these two chapters? Change the POV character in this scene? I like to follow through one character arc from beginning to end, checking it works as one thread – for example, with The Hawkling, I remember reworking all the scenes in which Isha and Ka appear, discussing kher culture, to make sure their relationship felt coherent and evolved at the right pace. It’s something I do naturally when reading: I imagine what would happen if I played with another book’s chronology, POVs, themes. It’s playful, when reading someone else – it’s useful, when applied to my own work.
And, last but not least, I rely on a group of peers, writer friends whose advice is invaluable. They often read scenes which I feel aren’t quite doing what I want them to do, or the full book, giving me general advice on shape and plot. It goes from the small things – a friend of mind recommended The Coop as a name for the tavern, on the basis that it is a smaller, grimier version of The Nest – to the big things, like checking Tatters’ way of interacting with the khers isn’t exotifying/othering, or making sure we can clearly picture what’s happening during a mindbrawl.
As far as I’m concerned, this is the key to writing: doing the fun bits first. Not being afraid to let the muse guide me from idea to idea. Not being afraid of editing, either, and enjoying it for what it is: a chance to make the book better. Going through the slog – because there will be slog, bits that are hard work – when need be. Listening to critique.
And being opportunistic. At this moment, I’m in a train, rain lashing the window panes outside. Writing, always.
28 March 23