Emerging Writer's Festival

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Today, I was on a panel at my very first literary festival, and I was absolutely, totally consumed with nerves beforehand but it all worked out fine, everyone was lovely, Melbourne Town Hall was a gorgeous venue, everyone laughed at the right points in my speech and I didn't stammer too much during the Q&A. So it was ace.
The panel was called A short note on process, and it was part of the Town Hall program at the Emerging Writers Festival. Even though I didn't get to see much of it, I thought EWF was awesome, and I was absolutely delighted to be a part of it!

This was what the panel was about: Early mornings Vs late nights Vs quit your day job and just go at it. Are post it notes essential, should first drafts be longhand, and must a writer write daily? These writers talk about their creative processes: how and when they write, and what routines they have in place for working.

It was hosted by Tiggy Johnson, writer, and editor of Page Seventeen, who was lovely (I always worry when I say how nice people are on my blog that they'll get all embarrassed. I know when other people say I'm nice anywhere, I blush and get all uncomfortable but I am a remarkably shy person so maybe other people aren't like that? So hopefully no one gets embarrassed). The other panellists were Mischa Merz, journalist and author of Bruising (which I really want to read now...), Chris Downes, cartoonist, and Myke Bartlett, author of a series of podcasted novels. So it was obviously very interesting and varied, and everyone spoke wonderfully.

For those of you who didn't make it to see my panel at EWF, here's my speech (be aware that I write speeches in the same way that I talk normally so it sounds more natural when I read it, though written it's very gramatically-incorrect - if you are a grammar-phile this may annoy you):
The trouble with me talking about my writing process is that I don’t think I’ve really written enough to actually have a specific process yet, and besides I’m not sure whether I believe any author who says that they always write in the same way. In my mind, it varies from book to book. There’s no right way to write a book and there’s no wrong way to write a book. But what I can talk about is my process as a writer before I got a book deal and then after.

For me, beforehand, writing was like a vice. And you know I think it’s like that for a lot of people, especially people who have day jobs and families and other bigger responsibilities. It’s not that it’s something to be ashamed of or anything, but it’s something that people who don’t write don’t necessarily understand. And since other people only really see it as a hobby, even if it means the world to you, it’s something that takes lower priority than everything else and it ends up being the type of the thing that you steal little snippets of. You have ten
minutes here and an hour before you go to bed or something like that.

Writing to me is this thing that you do under the cover of darkness. Even though it’s just making stuff up and writing it down, it has this magic to it. And when I was writing this novel, I was pouring my heart and soul into it. I know I said there’s no right way to write a novel, but I think really putting yourself in and really investing yourself in your work makes for a better novel than something you’ve just whipped that’s intentionally commercial.

Other people didn’t really understand why I’d voluntarily spend so much time on my own, and when they asked me what my novel was about, people who knew I was writing one, I didn’t want to talk about it. I found that an important part of my writing process was that glorious stage when I was writing the first draft and I hadn’t planned ahead, I didn’t know where I was going with it, and no one else knew what the book was about. And it was like this secret between me and a bunch of fictional characters.

So there wasn’t a specific process then. There were times when I was up late and couldn’t stop writing and everything seemed so profound, but then in the morning it was just rubbish. Then there were times when I knew I should write, I have to finish this book – because I have an issue with unfinished things – but I kept making excuses as to why I couldn’t write. Like, I needed to have a cup of tea, and a piece of toast, and a dedicated soundtrack for the book and I could not write without it. So there were the magic times when I felt like a higher life-form, oh my God this book is awesome, and the times when I thought there’s really no point to this.

Eventually I managed to finish it, after I had a cup of tea, of course, and I had this novel. And for me, and I don’t know whether it was just that book or whether it’s a feeling I’ll always have, but I didn’t feel as if the writing process really ended. Obviously, I’ve done a lot of work on it since with my agent and editor, but when I decided I’d finished with the novel, it wasn’t so much that I felt I’d completed the process with it, but that I just had to abandon it, send it out into the world. Hopefully when my book is published, I’ll feel that sense of the process being completed, but from what other writers have told me there’s always that feeling that you could tweak the novel just a bit more. Then it’d be perfect.

When I got an agent and a book contract, my writing process changed a lot. Not because my writing was particularly different, I mean I was still working on the same book I’d been working on before I had an agent, nor was it because I had a whole lot of pressure from outside forces – the pressure I felt wasn't necessarily that which other people were placing on me – but because my attitude changed. The way I felt about writing, the way I felt about my own, other people’s books, my publisher, the idea of being published, having an editor, the expectations I imagined other people would have of me. How I felt about it all totally changed. I couldn’t go back to the process I’d had before, because I hadn’t been worrying about all these things before. And now people are counting on me.

It’s not that it’s become a job, it’s that there’s a lot more thinking, more structure, involved. I’m glad that I’ll be having deadlines into the future that aren’t self-imposed, because it makes it a whole lot easier to sit down and write and go, I have to do this, without tea breaks.

One major change between my writing process before and after is that editing is actually a huge part now. I think, beforehand, I didn’t really know what editing was. I knew it was a little more than running a spell check, but I don’t think I really understood the magnitude of it. It’s a good thing, because I’m much better at refining my own work now, but it’s also a bad thing because when I’m working on that first draft I can’t help but have this constant self-editor commentating in my head going, God, that’s cliché, you need to rewrite that, some author you are.

I like to imagine creativity as like the health bar in a video game, you know, measuring how much life you have left. And it’s always filling up. And it’s harder to tap into it when the levels are low, and you might be the type of person who doesn’t like to write every day, but you do anyway because you think you should, because some best-selling author does. So you’re using a little bit of this creativity every day, forcing yourself to, and the levels stay low. For me, if I don’t write for a few days or a week, the bar totally fills up and my story or whatever I’m working on is all that’s in my head and if I don’t write something I feel as if I might burst with all these ideas and this inspiration filling me up. And those times, when I stop myself from writing and my book is the only thing on my mind, I forget about the Jiminy Cricket self-editor, and all the people who expect this work to measure up to the last one, and I have back that magic that I had before, when I was working on the first draft of the
last book.

As much as I like to organise myself and make my process this scheduled, thought-out thing – where I write this many words at this time of day every day and then I edit it and it’s all very disciplined – it’s fantastic to just have that wave of inspiration. Sometimes I need to do that to keep myself sane. Writing is no longer a vice for me because I’m meant to be a legitimate writer now, but it’s still a bit of an addiction. It’s something that drives me crazy but I can’t tear myself away from it because I’m worse off without it. I always end up coming back.

So my process can be organised and it can be a mess and I might meet my word-count goals or I might not. Before I got a book deal I had this crazy idea in my head that once I was published writing would become this divine thing, and stories would come to me and I’d be like a prophet or something. Well, obviously that didn’t happen. I’m still hoping it’ll happen.

One thing that remains the same about my writing process – from when I was typing out stories as a seven-year-old on a 286 with a 40MB hard drive until now – is that I don’t outline. As long as I have the beginning, the ending and the main characters in my head, I can start writing a novel. I love how organic writing is, and how I can incorporate every idea in my head and go off on tangents. I like to be fearless in my writing, and for me, outlines are a bit of a safety net and I don’t want a safety net.

I had my photo taken and I had a little article about me in my local paper last week, and they made out like I was going to reveal all my secrets to writerly success. But I can’t do that. Those secrets are so secret that I had to sign a declaration at the Secret Society of Authors never to tell them. Well, not really. I don’t have any secrets, especially not writing ones. I don’t know whether anyone wants advice from a sixteen-year-old here, but I’m going to give you some anyway. If you’re an aspiring writer, know that there aren’t any divine secrets to writing a great novel. There’s no magic pill and it’s definitely not one-size-fits-all. Do what works for you. If you want to write a novel longhand, or on a PC, or on your mobile phone, go ahead. You can write every day or once a week or whenever you want. I find that setting word-count goals works for me, and I do write predominantly on my laptop on weeknights, but that might not work for you. The most important thing – the number one trait of highly successful writers – is that you write. It doesn’t really matter how you go about it as long as it works for you.
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