Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Feel, don't think

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On Monday night, I tweeted that I’d just written a “very satisfying” 1,000 words. One of my friends, Jennifer Goldberg, a writer and editor, promptly responded with the question, “what is the secret to writing 1,000 words on a Monday night after a full day or work?”

When I wrote back that caffeine, a clear starting point, a distraction-free environment, and a decent start time – preferably before the point in the night when my brain and body decide it’s bedtime – are my main tips, Jennifer suggested I blog about my process.

Of course, the beauty of blogging the process is I have way more than 140 characters to share my process, so here it is.

1. Pay attention to every thought

I never leave home without a notebook. When it comes to creative writing, almost every poem and story I’ve written has started with one word or one line. Just something that came to me, out of nowhere, when I wasn’t thinking about what to write next. It’s in the moments when my mind is most relaxed and quiet that interesting ideas and phrases are most likely to come to me.

You can’t make these things happen, but you can make yourself get into the habit of paying attention to them, listening to them. Which is why I write them down as soon as I can, in case I forget. Sometimes, once they’re on the page, they might look stupid, or might sound differently than they did in my head. I keep them anyway. You never know what they might grow into.

2. Write things down by hand

When I was in journalism school, one of my assignments was to meet with a journalist I admired and talk to them about their careers. My pick was the Toronto Star’s Christopher Hume, who told me he likes to take notes by hand. This was in 2004 or 2005, when everyone in my class preferred to type as often as possible.

But Hume’s reasoning was that when you write things down, even if you’re just taking notes in an interview, it binds you to the story you’re working on. Your brain has to process it differently because it’s not only hearing the words, but repeating them. Solidifying them.

Stephen King is another writer who champions old fashioned pen and paper.

Poetry is one thing I never write on a computer; I need the intimacy of a notebook in my lap.

Computers are fine for when you’re piecing it all together, but when you’re brainstorming, taking notes, plotting, and listening to those ideas that are floating up to you out of nowhere, I write them down by hand, and then start working with a screen and keyboard. When I do it this way, the words and ideas are more likely to resonate within me later on, bouncing around and showing me what should come next.

3. Make rules

When I started my novel last December, I had a loose plan to complete the first draft by late fall of this year. It’s taking me a lot longer to write than I expected, but that’s okay because it’s still getting done.

The reason it’s taking me longer is because I started editing some early chapters before getting closer to the end, so I’m okay with where things are at. What I wouldn’t be okay with is if I didn’t have much of anything to show for all the time that’s passed between the day I started and now.

When I decided that I wanted to write this book, I knew I had to have some kind of system in place to make sure I actually got things done.

When I was working on my poetry book, Amphetamine Heart, I wasn’t intending to have a collection by the end of it all, but I did want to write and publish regularly. To get there, I made a rule that I had to write one poem a week. That meant I had to make sure I could schedule some time to get it done, even if it was just a couple hours out of an afternoon.

Writing a novel is a different process for me because it’s longer than a poem, and it’s something that I have to be in touch with regularly to make sure I don’t break my moment or stray too far from my original line of thought.

The rules I set for myself are to give myself at least three writing sessions a week, usually two weeknights and one weekend morning, afternoon, or evening. If I can do more, fine, but I don’t let myself dip below three sessions.

That’s the one main rule, and a common one: carve out the time, and protect it.

The only person my accomplishments ride on is me, so I can’t blame overtime, social life, or television programming if I don’t learn how to say no.

4. Have a consistent goal

With each of those three sessions, I always aim to write at least 1,000 words in one sitting, unless I’m working on something shorter, like a poem, and then I aim to have a complete piece drafted from start to finish.

The reason I picked 1,000 words is because it works for me. When I was freelancing, the average length of the feature articles I was assigned was 1,200, and sometimes I had to write three of those a week.

Sometimes I go beyond 1,000, but if that happens, it has to be by accident. If I miss a day, I don’t try to double up because it becomes too much of a push. This is a comfortable word count that I can usually reach in two hours or less, and it means I’m adding on 3,000 new words a week to my novel, assuming all goes well, bringing me to a decent work pace.

Eventually, if I keep writing for years to come, then I will probably work my way up to a higher word count, but since this is my first novel, I’ll have to see how it all goes.

You have to go with what works for you. Ten years ago, 1,000 words might have been too much for me. I might have aimed for 500 instead, because I hadn’t built up the muscles to get to 1,000. Comfort and ability come with practice.

4. Write whenever I can

This might seem to contradict point #3, but I will explain.

I’m not talking necessarily about writing whenever I have time, but when my mind is ready. Sometimes, I’ll sit down, ready to write because I have the time, even though I know before I even start that I won’t get anywhere. These are the days when I can’t write, but I will try to do a little bit, even if it’s just one sentence or a few ideas.

There are days when I don’t have time to write, but the ideas keep coming anyway. So even if I can only find a few minutes to write a few sentences out, I grab them. Hide in a bathroom stall, blow off your co-workers at lunch, do whatever it takes to get some quiet time to capture those ideas.

5. Work without an internet connection

I have a PC and a laptop. The PC is connected to the internet, the laptop never is, and so the laptop is what I use to work on my novel. As much as I love Twitter and Facebook and YouTube and access to endless information, the downside is they are all major time suckers. They also kill my concentration by tempting me into unnecessary multitasking hell. If I do need a break during my writing time, I’ll let myself hop onto Twitter for five minutes, and then it’s back to work.

6. Feel, don’t think

I don’t think too much about what comes next in my writing. I let the idea rise up, grab it, and go. If I take even a minute to wonder if it makes sense or if it works, then it’s one minute too soon for the doubt to set in.

Same with editing. If I feel a certain paragraph or scenario or introduction needs to move higher or lower, I move it, and keep moving from there.

7. Stay sober

I can’t write when I’m drunk or even a little bit buzzed. I envy people who can, but I’m not one of them. Although a lot of my writing is helped by drinking experiences, it isn’t helped by drinking itself, in the moment. Partying is best left for downtime.

8. Use different Word docs for every session

When I’m editing something over a longer period of time, I start a new Word document for each session. Yesterday, for example, I was working on some edits to my novel, so I copied and pasted everything from the last document I worked on, pasted it into a new document, and started making changes from there. That way, I have a file called Edits August 17, Edits August 16, etc.

If I end up making a change that doesn’t work and I realize I want to back to the way it was before a certain point, I have a trail of edits and earlier versions that I can safely go back to and pull from. This is also helpful in case of any cut and paste nightmares in which whole chunks of text get accidentally deleted.

9. Keep a close reminder of the original vision

When I’ve been looking at something for too long, it’s easy to forget how or where it started, and why I ever thought it was a good idea in the first place.

Because I write down all the ideas that come to me, no matter how much time goes by since the inception of a project to its current state, I always have the original thought – that original burst of energy – written down in a notebook somewhere, so I keep that notebook right beside my laptop. Whenever I need a reminder of why I’m doing what I’m doing, I look back at my first note-to-self to get back to that first feeling of excitement.

10. Don’t outline

I know it works for some writers, but outlining for me is too much like thinking, not enough like feeling. Even when I worked on my first book, Treat Me Like Dirt, which was a sprawling mass of transcriptions and old magazine and newspaper articles, I didn’t break it down chapter by chapter. I tried, but realized I had to let the story tell itself, and when I gave up that control, it did.

I like the spontaneity of a story. I like feeling out what the characters will do next. I like having those little breakthrough moments that come after a period of feeling stuck on a certain part of a story. With outlining, I’ve found that those moments are stifled, or, that they come anyway, but in different orders and with different angles than the outline intended. If I’m too married to an outline, I would risk letting my thoughts ruin the story instead of having my intuition guide it to where it wants to go.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

Liz Worth 2011

Liz Worth is the Toronto-based author of Amphetamine Heart (Guernica Editions, 2011), Treat Me Like Dirt: An Oral History of Punk in Toronto and Beyond 1977-1981 (Bongo Beat/ECW, 2011) and Eleven: Eleven (Trainwreck Press, 2008), a shot of surreal punk fiction.

Go to Liz Worth 2011’s Author Page