How I Write

When answering questions at conventions and workshops, I’m invariably asked about my routine. People want to know how, where and when I write. Do I do it in coffee shops or at home? Do I use Scrivener or a notebook? Do I write in the mornings or evenings? To help answer those questions, and maybe give some sort of insight into my creative process, I’ve decided to write this account of a typical working day.

I rise at 6:15 am. I never sleep restfully, so I always struggle awake feeling like something washed-up on a beach. I get out of bed and go downstairs to make my wife a packed lunch. She leaves for work at 6:50 am. Then I feed the cats and make lunches for my daughters. When they leave for school at 8:00 am, I run a hot bath and spend half an hour soaking in bubbles, reading a book. This reading time is important, as it helps my brain ease into fiction mode. It gets the storytelling impulse fired-up, and I often have many of my best ideas while in the bath.

When dressed (I don’t work in my pajamas like some novelists I could mention), I’ll fix myself a light breakfast. This morning it was houmous on toast. Then I’ll make a cup of tea and be at my keyboard by 9:00 am.

My office is an extension on the back of the house. It used to be a granny flat, so it has its own toilet and shower. Bookshelves fill one wall. The window looks out at the garden. And my desk-a solid old wooden one that I’ve had since I was a teenager-rests against the other wall. I keep copies of all my published books beside the computer, to reassure me when I need it that I can write and have written. I keep my BSFA Award on the shelf above the printer for the same reason.

If I’ve had a brilliant idea in the bath, I’ll open Word and start typing immediately. If not, I’ll check my email, Twitter and Facebook first. Twitter is important to me because it helps me stay in touch with friends and the latest goings-on and gossip in the industry. It serves the same function for me as an office watercooler. I have various private lists set-up which enable me to quickly check what’s happening with industry news feeds, editors and agents, other authors, and booksellers.

The other great thing about Twitter is that it lets me interact with readers. As I work alone at home for most of the day, it’s great to get feedback on my work, even if it’s just a quick, ‘I liked your last book.’ It keeps me going on those days when I feel as if I’m shouting into a void.

Sitting at my desk, working

Tea consumed and Twitter consulted, I then open my current project in Word.

All eight of the novels I’ve so far written have been composed in Microsoft Word. It suits my way of working. Maybe because I grew up using manual and electric typewriters. I have the screen set to print layout view, so it looks as if I’m typing on a piece of paper.

I do have a copy of Scrivener, which I use when I’m working on screenplays or comic scripts-I’ve just never felt comfortable using it to write a novel. I prefer to have the whole thing in front of me and write from start to finish. When I’m working on a book, I feel as if I’m creating a thing. A whole object. Not a bunch of components that will only be compiled together at the end.

I find background sounds helpful while I’m working. Music can be good, but can also be distracting. I used to listen to Brian Eno’s ambient albums, but found them too relaxing. Now, I’ll either listen to instrumental jazz-such as the album Something Else by Cannonball Adderley, which I’m currently listening to-or background noise. There are many YouTube videos offering ambient sounds, but I tend to find coffee shop sounds particularly helpful. For some reason, they help me concentrate and focus on what I’m writing.

Figuring out where ideas come from can be tricky. As I mentioned, I get many of my best ones in the bath, or from dreams. But they don’t feel like bolts of lightning from above; it’s more like the feeling you get when you slot that final jigsaw piece into place and suddenly you can see the picture you’ve been putting together for days, weeks or months.

Starting out, I’ll know I want to write a particular type of novel – space opera, alternate history, crime thriller – and I’ll kick around a few ideas. I’ll often start with a half-formed idea. For the first Ack-Ack Macaque book, my initial idea was a murder mystery set on a city-sized airship. I wrote several plot outlines, keeping some bits and ditching others, until I had the vague shape of a story. I had the essential ingredients – the airships, the dream catcher technology, and the main character investigating the death of their ex, who was being carried around as an electronic ghost in their head.

But it was only when I realised I could slot Ack-Ack into the story that it finally came alive.

Ack-Ack Macaque: The Complete Trilogy

And that’s how I work.

At the moment, I’m trying to write a crime thriller. I’ve gone through ten different plot outlines, pruning away the parts I don’t like and keeping the parts I do, until I’ve come up with something that’s hugely removed from my initial ideas, but definitely a product of them – the same way a chihuahua is a product of a wolf. It’s an evolution. Each draft of the outline is better adapted than the one that went before. And adaptations that don’t work are left behind in favour of new ones, until at last I’ve created the perfect monster… Mwhahaha!

Sorry. Getting a bit carried away there.

But hopefully you get the gist of what I’m trying to say. For me, coming up with a novel is a two-stage process. First there’s the initial idea, then the refinement of that idea.

Ideas and characters accrue until the whole thing achieves a critical mass and sparks into life – and I know I have a story I can write.

Then I send the outline to my agent to see what he thinks, and he’ll usually come back with some points I haven’t considered. But that’s great, because it helps further refine the idea. It makes sure I have the bases covered.

Sometimes, I’ll write a few chapters before realising I need to change the outline again. Sometimes these chapters are filed in my archive file, never to see the light of day; and sometimes, I can cannabalise the best parts of them for later drafts.

As to where all these ideas and refinements actually originate… That’s the real mystery, isn’t it? I guess everything I’ve ever read, experienced or watched has been filed away in my head somewhere, and occasionally, unexpected connections or associations are made between previously unrelated thoughts.

Sometimes those connections are stupid. But sometimes, as when I absently jotted the words ‘Ack-Ack’ and ‘Macaque’ next to each other in my notebook, they lead to all sorts of unpredictable places.

Around midday, I’ll stop to fix myself some lunch. Usually some soup and cheese. I try to stay away from sandwiches, as I find carbs at lunchtime make me drowsy in the afternoon. I eat at my desk while replying to emails and checking social media, then it’s back to writing again.

Of course, when I say ‘writing’, I don’t mean I’m constantly typing. There’s a lot of thinking and research involved. An afternoon of hard thinking might look unproductive from the outside, if judged purely in terms of number of words produced, but can be vital to the overall success of the work-in-progress.

‘Writing’ can also encompass a host of secondary tasks, such as producing blog posts, responding to interviews; talking via email with my agent, Alexander; editing manuscripts; maintaining my Patreon page; writing my monthly email newsletter (you are all signed up to that, I hope!); and updating my website.

During the day, the cats provide various levels of company and distraction. One of the kittens is particularly fond of pacing back and forth across the keyboard while I’m trying to type. The older cat sleeps on the sofa in the office, and snores loudly.

Ideally, I’ll work through until the kids come home from school at around 3:40 pm. Then I switch back into parental mode and start working on an evening meal.

If I’m feeling particularly inspired, I might come back to the keyboard later in the evening, and often write from 9:00 or 10:00 pm until around midnight. Then I might read for little while before going to sleep.

I mentioned having a lot of good ideas while in the bath. Well, I also have a lot while lying in bed, on the cusp of falling asleep. That’s why I keep a notebook and pen beside my bed. I’d hate to lose a good idea because I was too sleepy to get up and write it down. With a notebook on the nightstand, all I have to do is reach out my hand and scribble a couple of sentences.

And that’s it. That’s how I spend my time. I’m not saying my routine is the best or that it might work for anyone else; if you asked a dozen authors how they spent their working days, I suspect you’d get a dozen different answers. I just hope I’ve answered your questions and given you a little glimpse behind the curtain.

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Author: Gareth L Powell