I’ve been asked this question often: ‘Gerry, how do you write?’ Stephen King’s sarcastic answer of “one word at a time” is a great temptation. Although true, I know this is not the answer many people want to hear, and not quite helpful. “One word at a time” is the dickhead’s answer to this question. Let me tell you how I do it.
Your mileage may vary.
This is tell everyone who asks me: just get the fluffing story out!
This is true for writing. Never edit while you write. Made a mistake? Realised an even should have happened earlier, or not happened at all? Write it down and get back to it later: you are not editing, you are writing. Step one is to figure out the story, shake it loose, get to know your people and your characters. Snow-plough your way through the thing, and who cares about the lamp-posts and Vespas you take out. This step is not about subtlety, elegance of beauty. This step is about getting it done. This is chainsaw work. Scalpels come later.
That’s why I call it “word vomit”. It’s an unsightly and distasteful mess that just comes without control. One cannot puke with grace an elegance, and the first-draft spew is the same.
Full of ideals that you will never rewrite? Dream on… Personally, I love rewriting. First of all, I rewrite for continuity. That thing on page 53 that should’ve been on page 12? Do it now. Chekov’s Gun comes into play here. This is where I put pistols on mantlepieces. Or take them away.
Second rewrite is for character. During the vomit, the characters would have revealed themselves. All characters start out as me. Gerry is everyone. (Even the pretty girl with the blonde braids). As the story progresses, they become less me, and more them. Second rewrite is where I make the character true to themselves. Does the lady say “Yeah, mate, alright then!” or does she say “Yes, dear, I agree.”? This is arguably my favourite part. Getting a character’s voice and speech patterns consistent. This is important, so they do not all sound like clones of the writer.
Third rewrite I got for ‘Speller and Gramming’ (sic). I look for verb tenses. I search for passive voice that could be passive voice. I slice off reams of text that were fun to write, but do not drive the story. This is the part which you have to ‘kill your darlings’. I’ve wept while cutting out great sentences and pieces of prose which just do not drive the story or character development forward. It's difficult, but necessary. My go-to tool here is ProWritingAid, and I simply cannot recommend it enough. If you are serious about writing, this is a must-have tool.
And then I rewrite as many times as it takes until the story flows. A process I’m vastly inept in.
Oh, in all of this, I have a small circle of beta readers who read my work on the fly, and who have full permission to kick my ass on anything. It’s embarrassing how much this helps.
“But Gerry,” I hear you say, “I don’t need an editor. My word processor has…” Erm, yeah. Do you have any idea how many fingers I’ve burnt because of that attitude? That ignorance?
Even Stephen King and JK Rowling have editors. If the best in the world needs to have them, so do the likes of you and me. Trust me: you cannot do without an editor.
Once it has been through an editor, and you have picked your weeping self off the floor, then you get a proof-reader in. Trust me: you never spot your own mistakes. You know what you wanted to say, your brain will read what it knew it wanted to read, and ‘own’ passes into the manuscript as ‘won’. Yes, I made that mistake.
Trust me: get someone else to edit and proofread. It may cost money, but it will save embarrassment.
I’ll cry without my laptop, but I’m lost without a pen and paper. My main tool is Microsoft Word… But my most essential tools are my set of Lamy fountain pens and my Moleskin notebooks. The brands are not important, but the fountain pen is. Fountain pens force me to slow down so my thoughts are clearer. And they have the bonus of being available everywhere. Plane trips, holiday trips, ayahuasca trips…
You’ve seen it in every cop show: A wall covered with photographs and notes and stubs and all kinds of wotnot as the cops try to figure out who the killer is. Yeah, that wall. I’ve one of those for every manuscript. This is essential. Maps. Actor and actress photos which represent my main characters. Calendar print-outs so I can keep track of order of events… gads, it’s a mess! The corkboard is my friend.
Does it matter to you if your character's eye colour remains constant? If so... Keeping track of character traits is vital. Mine started off as an excel spreadsheet, but it has grown into a computer program I’ve written myself that tells me all I need to know about a character. Date of birth, hair, eyes, what car(s) they drive, where they live, parent’s names, if (and what) they drink and/or smoke, whether they have any siblings… You never know when you need to know if that random guy on page 112 actually was the same guy who witnessed the murder on page 4.
There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.