Writing is taking place constantly when you’re immersed in a book project. Hardly any of that writing is time spent typing or scratching a pencil on a paper. So, what is this mysterious thing?
The time spent not actually writing is where the creativity takes place. That’s my theory anyways. Since this is not a book about creativity or the content and style of your writing, I’m only going to talk about the creative machine, aka the subconscious. When I sit down to write I’m tapping into the thinking I’ve been doing since my last session and the generally bigger picture thinking I’ve been doing since the book first emerged as the germ of an idea. I’m not a person who charts out plots, writes backstories for characters or designs intricate puzzles for the reader, in advance of writing the story. I’m sure there some writers who do this, including mystery writers where they need to make loose ends come together. But in my reading about process, I’ve found that most, if not all, of the writers I admire do not consciously do these things. Yet when I finished my first book, The Rememberers, and read through it from beginning to end, I found a plot, characters with history, a certain amount of foreshadowing of things the reader must figure out, even a mystery or two. But I had not consciously worked these things out in advance. So where did they come from?
I am a voracious reader and have been since I learned to read at age three. Given that I’m 58 as I write this, that adds up to thousands of books read over time. One thing most writers agree about is that reading is essential to being a good writer. I would add to that that the reading should cover a lot of territory to avoid writing imitations of favorites. If you write sci-fi, for example, don’t just read sci-fi. Otherwise you won’t learn great character development, interesting ways to describe things etc., that are done well in other genres.
Reading trains the subconscious to write and I respect that. So I let it do the plotting, find characters and throw in twists and turns. They will come out in your writing, particularly if you are a good reader. I’d also like to add in that you should challenge yourself as a reader, to become a better writer.
My sister is a librarian and brings my mother stacks of books, mainly mysteries. I call them ‘A something something mystery’ books because their subtitles usually have some variant of that chestnut on them. Like most things, 90% of them are terrible and formulaic. I think it is because the writers only read in their own genre, so their creative subconscious has limited resources to work with. As I said earlier, this is a theory and likely unprovable.
So how, besides reading, do you feed this beast? In my case, I do a lot of walking. I also work out and meditate (I’m a Buddhist, its a training regimen, not a religion). The walking seems to be the place where solutions to situations I’m writing about come to the surface. I’ll be walking along, not thinking about my book, and something will trigger an idea that fits like a puzzle piece into whatever I’m working on. I love these moments and I’ve learned to let them happen.
One example for me was writing the ending of The Rememberers. I knew it was near but I could find my way to it. It seemed so complex to account for various loose ends I had out there in the story. But the subconscious finally told me to sit down and write and suddenly I wrote a sentence that I knew was the last sentence. What I learned is that in life we never get to tie up the loose ends, so why should we in fiction? It’s not like time stops in their world and everyone lives happily ever after.
That lesson about endings came after several weeks of being as close to blocked as I get, given that I do not believe in writer’s block (more about that later!). As soon as I trusted my subconscious and let it do its thing, the ending ceased to be a problem.
Another thing about not writing as a part of the writing process: Fuck inspiration. I used to wait for it and that created a problem. I might wait and wait and then start composing in my head, when I was away from my desk. This was useless. I needed to train my subconscious that the writing took place when I sat down at the desk, not in the middle of the night or on a bus. This is done by simply sitting down and writing around the same time each day (generally mid-afternoon for me, but lots of different times for others) and staying at your comfortable word count. After a few weeks of this you’ll have trained yourself to save up the good stuff for these timeslots when you can capture it and do it justice.
By the way, this is another reason why you should just sit down and write, regardless of how good it is or is not. The writing will get better as your discipline gets better.