On Writing Process

At the time I’m writing this — which is not the same time I’ll be typing it out or posting it — I’m that cliche, a writer in a coffeeshop. There’s others here doing the same thing, I think, but they’re all on laptops. I’m using something a bit more retro. Pen. Paper.

It’s not that I don’t sometimes write on the computer. But the keyboard’s for quick-flowing writing, writing that’s fast and furious because I know what I’m doing at the moment. Pen on paper makes me slow down, forces me to consider things like sentence structure, allows me to look at the words and how they’re put together. Later I’ll transcribe what I’ve written, and the process of typing it in acts as a preliminary editing pass.

I write in large sketch pads, because I like the space to draw arrows and circles and make marginal notes. I used to write in Moleskin notebooks, but nowadays they just don’t seem large enough for novel-sized thinking. I save them for lecture notes, or lists, or personal journaling.

I always have liked writing with cheap fountain pens, but they’re harder to find than they used to be, and I have a bad habit of losing more expensive ones. So it’s ball-point today, which moves reasonably quickly, but lacks a fountain pen’s rapid grace.

So why am I telling you all this? Because it’s a prelude to passing along the best writing advice I ever got. Are you ready? You might want to write this down if you’re still figuring out your own process.

It’s this: what other writers do doesn’t matter. Syne Mitchell told my CW class: “Figure out what works for you. And do it. Lots.” And I’m repeating it because that is seriously good advice. You don’t need to write two thousand words a day like Stephen King. You don’t have to write in silence, or with only classical musical playing, or while sticking your head in a Victrola after downing a bottle of cheap red wine. What you need to do is experiment and find what gets you writing, and keeps you writing. If someone tells you, “X is the only way to write,” kick them in the figurative nuts and go elsewhere.

21 comments on “On Writing Process

  1. Bear says:

    i know that jeff also writes his first drafts longhand. i’m curious how did you two collaborated on “the surgeon’s tale”?

  2. Cat Rambo says:

    Jeff asked if I was interested in working with him on a story that he felt was broken. He sent me a 1500 word piece in e-mail and I fleshed it out more and brought it up to 4k or so. After that we kept sending it back and forth until both of us felt as though the story was done, which was somewhere around the 12k mark. I worked on it on the computer, dunno about Jeff. It was incredibly pleasant because there was something about the story that made it very easy to write.

  3. Good advice, as ever. I also use a Moleskine notebook for raw writing (bit of a stationery fetishist I’m afraid, though I’m better at controlling it now) and then I get it down into Scrivener (which is a truly lovely program if you are Mac-inclined) for drafting. I haven’t hit on any particular method that ‘works for me’ in a truly productive sense, but I think what you say holds true – you have to find your own way.

  4. J. T. Glover says:

    If someone tells you, “X is the only way to write,” kick them in the figurative nuts and go elsewhere.

    I do wish someone had told me this when I was 13 and read just about any book about writing I could find, so long as it had the word “how” somewhere in the title and was published by Writer’s Digest. Took me at least a decade to unlearn all those crappy dictates. These days I write some stories by hand with a fancy-schmancy fountain pin, some by computer. If I still had a typewriter, I suspect some would come out via that. I occasionally use Sound Pilot to add some typewriter-ish weight to the words.

  5. I tired writing longhand, but the result was indecipherable. Computer it is. Thank you, spellcheck, thank you.

    And I’m not ashamed to admit, the majority of my writing occurs in coffee shops. Can’t write at home. Libraries are no good. Coffee shops? Heaven.

  6. Cat Rambo says:

    Will: I just discovered Scrivener recently and it rocks my world. Switching to a Mac was worth it for that alone.

    Corey: What -is- it about coffeeshops that induces creativity? If I could figure that out and replicate it at home, I would be one happy and considerably less caffeinated camper.

    Aren’t all writers stationery fetishists to some degree? I remember going through Staples with my friends Ann and Kris and all three of us stopping to drool over the pens with unwonted glee.

  7. jere7my says:

    What -is- it about coffeeshops that induces creativity?

    Well, caffeine, for one thing. Indispensible. But more than that — for me at least — coffee shops are a way to exist in a bubble of solitude while surrounded by unexpected activity. Libraries are (or oughtta be) hushed; home is full of predictable activity or no activity at all; other public places don’t encourage long-term sitting and concentrating. But coffee shops have bustle and talk and human drama. In my coffee shop, on Monday, a 400-pound man sat down across from me — black T-shirt, black biker moustache, tattoos — and started working on a tiny circle of needlepoint no bigger than his palm.

    Oh: and the good ones (like Diesel, here in the Boston area) have squishy chairs, too.

    That said, I don’t write in coffee shops. I work things through, take notes, spark ideas, sketch out scenes, do calculations, doodle characters in my square-ruled Moleskine. Actually stringing words together into prose is an entirely separate process, and can only be done at home, on the computer, while grumbling.

  8. Bear says:

    Sadly, for lack of time, I have given up writing longhand, even the occasional notes are taken on my laptop or my Palm. Both my typewriters are exiled in the attic, since 1995. I mostly work at night, at home, with a cup of Darjeeling and a glass of tomato juice at hand and lots of cigarettes. But I am dreaming about a coffeeshop close enough to my place, where I could move in temporarily in the morning with my laptop. But not any coffeeshop would do. The closest thing I saw that would fit my ideal of a public place where I could work was a pub in Croydon, London, called The Postal Order. I’d kill to have that place somewhere around.

  9. Alan says:

    I’ve tried the writing in public thing, but I found it far too distracting, especially if I happened to be near a window with a view of the street. At least at home everything is too familiar to be diverting. Which isn’t to say I always manage to get any work done…

    But I always carry a notebook and pen when I’m out and about, and I’ll scribble notes and ideas on anything handy if I’m not at the computer.

  10. Bill Ectric says:

    I’m with Will Humphreys on the stationary thing. The way some guys like the tool aisle or the sports aisle, I can wander for days in the stationary/office supply section.

  11. Mark Teppo says:

    I do most of my writing while riding the train, and I’m starting to fear that is my comfort zone. There’s not always a train handy when I want to write. But largely why it works for me is that it creates a focused zone. There isn’t any internet, and once I have my headphones in, the rest of the world vanishes. It’s a good thing my stop is the last one or I would miss it.

  12. Kris says:

    hahahaha! The staples crawl! oh That was when I realized I wasn’t the only freak attending Clarion West that year.

    good times.

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