Thursday 1 July 2010


You want to know how to write? Well, I cannot tell you. Yes, I have written more than half a million words on this blog; yes, I've had a large number of books published; and yes, I am writing a book called Write To be Published. And yes, aspiring writers ask me and other writers things such as, do you plan? Do you talk to your characters? Do you outline? Keep spreadsheets of characters? Know the end before you get there? Use Moleskine notebooks? Talk to yourself? Drink lots of coffee? And I have answers to these questions but the answers and the questions are entirely irrelevant to you.










This is because how a writer writes is entirely irrelevant to anyone but the writer. All that matters is the result: what you write, what the words sound like when you've written them, what readers think of them, whether they work.

The method, the route you take, matters zilchly. No one cares whether you plan or whether you fly by the seat of your pants. No one cares whether you interviewed your characters or spent the night dreaming of them. Well, OK, they might care, but only out of weird reader interest. If you are asking these questions in order to find out how to write yourself, you are barking up the wrong tree.

Please. Just write your book in whatever way works for you, even if that means hanging from a chandelier naked. It will be judged only on the result. Don't get hung up on method, or at least on other people's methods. You will find what works for you and that's all that matters.

Fair enough; sometimes another writer's method is worth trying, to see if it might work better for you than the one you use, and for that reason the questions are not entirely pointless. But only as long as you never get hung up on the answers, and never worry if you are doing it differently from others.

Just write, eh?

When you look gorgeous, I do not need to know how you got dressed.


Lauri said...

I agree completely especially given the fact that my method changes with every book. Mostly my advice to people who ask is 1) get on with it and 2) stick with it.

catdownunder said...

Well it is not exactly a rule but: There is just one cat hair that matters when you are writing "communicate". Ooohh I feel blog post fever coming on. There are more ways of communicating than there are cat hairs on cats.

Claire King said...

This is a brilliant post. I love, love, LOVE it. Just as much as blog posts that instruct formulaic novel writing make my hair itch. Thank you, Nicola!

Nicola Ford said...

You say " a writer writes is entirely irrelevant to anyone but the writer." And I agree. But many new writers need somewhere to begin from - before they reach the point of 'do whatever works for you' they need to be aware of what ways there are. What may seem obvious to experienced writers can be a lightbulb moment to a newbie!

So by all means emphasis that each writer works differently, but please continue to give new writers hints to finding their own way.

Sally Zigmond said...

Great post (again), Nicola.

Some writers--and especially very new writers--seek validation. Am I doing it right? Is is the right way to go about it? Am I doing it all wrong? How do YOU do it?

This is understandable, but doesn't get them writing.

Too many, however, are looking for magic dust. Fubulosa Megasella's books regularly top the best-sellers' lists. Now she wears pink pajamas and writes a biography of all her characters. Now if I just did that I'm bound to match her success.

The first is not helpful; the second is dangerous and leads to bitterness.

The only rule I follow is hard work and persistence.

Nicola Morgan said...

Lauri - mine, too. Also, what we think of as our fixed habits are only habits and can change.

Nicola - I know you are right. I just feel that sometimes writers get too hung up on how they think it should be done, because someone successful does it. I do agree that we can often learn from hearing someone else's method, and i wouldn't want anyone to stop thinking about and discovering new methods, but I also think that hearing about someone else's method can sometimes be off-putting, if we take it too seriously. I suppose I'm saying, have confidence in yourself. But I do absolutely take your point. (And I will carry on giving advice!!)

cat - but "communicate" isn't a method, I don't think. It's an aim and also a result (when it works). It's certainly a rule, but not a rule about method.

I am not suggesting there are no rules about writing, just that there are no rules about how to go about the act of writing.

Emma Darwin said...

All very true. But I do think that as an apprentice writer, it's worth asking about what craftswomen/men you admire actually do. The more doctrinaire of the how-to-write books, as with self-help books in general, peddle a snake-oil of 'This is the way to do it; do this and you'll succeed.' But digging in the Paris Review interviews or wherever, is a different thing. Somehow, it's easier to see what other writers do as a range of options, for you to try freely on for size, adopt, discard, adapt. Some of the biggest single jumps my writing made were from things senior writers said - Mary Flanagan saying that she writes all first drafts longhand, for example. She didn't tell me to do it, only that that's what she does. I tried it, and it was a huge breakthrough.

But thank you, too, for 'weird reader interest'. I'm hugely flattered that non-writers ever want to show up and ask me how my books got how they are. But at moments it still seems to me odd: why does it matter how I got there. Most people aren't interested in where the painter buys her/his paints...

Apart from anything else, as Margaret Atwood says in Negotiating with the Dead, (another brilliant writer-talks-about-how-they-do-it...sort-of) when you ask a writer on a platform what they were doing when they wrote X, or did Y, you're asking the wrong person. It's not that person who wrote the book, it was their slippery double: the one who actually commits the writing.

Ellie Garratt said...

Another great post, Nicola.

I used to feel I was a failure if another writer's method or advice didn't work for me, but now I know every writer is different.

Some writers plot their stories and novels intricately, whereas I start writing and see where my characters end up. Is either method better? No.

Having said that, I also agree with Nicola Ford - new writers do still need tips and advice, if only to show them what does or does not work in their case.

Dan Holloway said...

This is a very good extrapolation of the "quit procrastinating" theme.

I'd add 1. yes, do what works for you is fantastic - but the problem comes first when it's learly NOT working - and you need to know what now - and second when you think it's working but it isn't and you carry merrily on

2. There's a good analogy here with both sport and music where "overthinking" is sure to get you into trouble - how many times does a golfer get "the yips" or a darts player get "dartitis" because they suddenly start analysing what they've been doing "naturally" for years (it's like a tightrope walker looking donw and suddenly thinking about what they're doing). What we always need to remember with these people who do it all "naturally" and "without thinking" and who suffer when they "overthink" (or, indeed "overquotemark") is that they only do it naturally in the first place because they immersed themselves in dull technical exercises for years and years and years - I feel about my writing now (subjectively, the actual sense thingy) exactly how I did when I was 13 - but then I look at the stuff side by side and whilst what I do now may be no great shakes, it's a bigger shake than what I did then by a considerable amount - yet in both instances I felt like what I was doing was working - it was only reading endlessly both about technique and, as Emma says, interviews and things with the writers I admire that created the difference

David John Griffin said...

> "Just write your book in whatever way works for you, even if that means hanging from a chandelier naked. "

You've been spying on me, haven't you? ;-)

> "When you look gorgeous, I do not need to know how you got dressed."

Classic line of analogy; er analogy line, um, classic analogy; got there.


Mu word verification this time is "durnizat". As in "What the durnizat?" I'm in one of those moods, you can tell.

Sandra Ulbrich Almazan said...

There are nine and sixty ways
Of constructing tribal lays
And every single one of them is right.


grace said...

yes yes yes I agree so much. It is one of my pet peeves when people are like, "you MUST write every day/standing on your head/never do a prologue/etc." Everyone has a different process. I like hearing about other people's processes, especially when I'm in a rut--maybe trying something new will jolt me--but I hate directives and rules.

Dina Santorelli said...

Great post!

Laura said...

Great post! I've been suspecting this for some time, and you've explained it brilliantly. There is no one-size-fits-all in writing.

Thomas Taylor said...

But there is one universal rule:

Sit down on your bum and get on with it!

David John Griffin said...

Rereading my previous post here, it sounds a little bit weird now; I assure you I wasn't drunk (!), just in a comical and happy mood...

Rosy T said...

What a wonderful, wonderful breath of fresh air this post is!

Anonymous said...

Great post as always, Nicola.

I was giving a seminar a few weeks ago and a woman wanted to know how to go about writing her book - the process. Should she outline, storyboard, make little flash card notes, pray to the Goddess of the Red Pen Society, etc. I shrugged and suggested that she increase her BIC index {butt in chair} and simply write. Barf it out.

Her eyes got all buggy and she seemed fearful about just jumping in. I asked her what she thought she should do. She replied that perhaps a hit of Jim Beam would help.

Hard to argue with that.

Elizabeth West said...

Just write your book in whatever way works for you, even if that means hanging from a chandelier naked.

Bwaa ha ha ha ha! You made me LOL at work.

behlerblog - Re the lady who said she thought a hit of Jim Beam would help. I hope you told her "Go for it!"


Kathi Oram Peterson said...

Great advice. And I'm so glad to hear this. Maybe writers are like snowflakes, no two are alike. :)

Anonymous said...

Why do you have a tag label for rules?

Why did you make a post last year listing the rules? [and the post before it listed rules as well]

I don't get the sycophancy that appears in these comments. You are contradicting yourself. This was not a great post.

Nicola Morgan said...

Anonymous - i'm sorry you didn't like the post. The title, as with many titles, is to get your attention - the post then goes on to explain the apparent paradox, which, as you see, focuses on one type of thing that people offer as rules, wrongly in my view.

As you'll see if you read the post, I'm saying that writers should take no notice of apparent rules for HOW to write - ie methods. There are many other rules which are important to follow, which is what my label "rules" will point you towards. There are many, many rules, some more important than others, some which can be broken once you know then; but I do not believe that any of the things that people offer as rules for how to write, how to get the words onto the page, are worth calling rules.

I hope that's clearer now. F Scott Fitzgerald talks about "the ability to hold two opposing views at the same time and still retain the ability to function." We often have to do that if we want to understand something important. I'm sorry if I failed to delineate properly the two different types of rule I'm talking about.

It's also possible that you've never come across a writer desperately trying to follow these pseudo-rules - such as the one that Lynn (behlerblog) refers to. Those are the people I'm talking to in this post, trying to encourage writers to find their own way towards bashing those words out. The rules we need to follow are the ones that control those words and then the submission, not the ones that inspire us to the act of writing.

Anonymous said...

Only architects care about how a building was constructed, everyone else can simply use it and enjoy it.

When it comes to writing, I seem to be a bit of an architect.