We’re going to be doing just that today.
As I’ve mentioned several times before (and will no doubt mention again), getting stuff written is hard. After all, if it was easy then everyone would be slinging out books left, right and centre. I’ve heard it said that anyone who’s able to put in the work required to see a book through from start to finish, even if it’s dreadful, deserves a certain amount of credit. It follows, then, that anyone who can do all that and turn out books so popular they make a living off them is definitely worth listening to.
The first author we’re going to be taking a look at in terms of their writing techniques is the ever-unusual Mr Neil Gaiman, author of ‘American Gods’, ‘Stardust’ and ‘The Ocean At The End Of The Lane’ to name but a few of his books. Not only that, he’s found considerable success in the comic book world with work like ‘Sandman’ and ‘Marvel 1602’ and has written several screenplays for film and TV.
Or, to put it another way, the guy produces a lot of really good stuff.
Let’s take a look at how he says he does this.
HOW NEIL GAIMAN WRITES HIS NOVELS
We live in an age of computers, smart technology and software increasingly fulfilling the roles physical alternatives once occupied. The smartphone now doubles as everything from a landline to a map and even a diary. The keyboard and word processor has replaced the typewriter, to use an example closer to the theme of this blog. This technology changes and grows all the time, ostensibly offering newer and greater ways to write and produce content.
Which is why it’s so striking that Neil Gaiman, an internet-savvy author active on Twitter and the blogosphere, writes the first draft of each of his stories by hand.
This is a habit that apparently goes back to his 1999 novel ‘Stardust’:
This technique to try and evoke a particular style has evolved into a long-term writing habit, and Gaiman now writes his stories by hand (with a fancy fountain pen and everything). His explanation for doing so is what I find the most intriguing, however:
“To me, typing is like work. Writing with a pen is like playing.”
I’m quite certain that I’m not the only writer to feel the existential dread that accompanies the moment you sit down in front of your keyboard to try and add to the old word count. When you’re as easily distracted and prone to taking the easy road as I am, this can be particularly challenging: a modern PC comes with all manner of delightful and shallow distractions, from browsing the news to checking Facebook.
By cutting the chaff and placing himself in front of something good for writing and only writing (and maybe a bit of doodling), Gaiman cuts the distractions and temptations out. He claims the benefits to his work came rapidly:
“I was sparser, I would think my way through a sentence further, I would write less, in a good way. And when I typed it up, it became a very real second draft – things would vanish or change. I discovered that I enjoyed messing about with fountain pens, I even liked the scritchy noise the pen nib made on the paper.”
‘I would write less, in a good way’ is a particularly important sentence for me. When working from a word processor, the temptation to constantly check the wordcount can become overwhelming: the process becomes less about the flow of the story and the quality of the prose being written, and more about how high you can push the numbers. A Skinner Box effect develops. Before long, you’ll find yourself padding the prose just to see if you can’t make those numbers a little bit higher. (rookie numbers Meme here)
Physically writing out your work cuts this further temptation. It reduces the process of writing down to its most basic, fundamental form.
All in all, I think Neil Gaiman might be onto something here.
I’m going to find out if there’s anything we can learn from his writing process.
WHAT I’M GOING TO BE DOING
Based on what I outlined about Gaiman’s writing process above, I’m going to be doing the following for the next story I work on:
- Acquire a notebook
- Acquire a (fancy) fountain pen
- Only use technology for music when writing
- Spit out hot prose
Conveniently for me, there’s a Paperchase store on the high street not far from where I work: getting ahold of the first two items was therefore pretty damn easy.
Behold my fancy-ass notebook.
And my fancy-ass fountain pen (or as fancy as they get for under £20, not all of us can afford custom-made pens like Neil Gaiman).
Before diving in, I want to take a moment to lay out what benefits this method of writing might offer. It’ll be interesting to come back to these with my follow-up post and see how they hold up.
- Removing Distractions: Without the opportunity to tab out of my word processor to “briefly check Discord/just play one round of Enter The Gungeon”, I reduce the opportunities my brain has to chase distractions and force it to get on with the task at hand.
- Less Word Padding: As mentioned above, all too often when I’m writing digitally my focus is on the word count rather than the words itself. By cutting my ability to constantly check this artificial measurement of progress, I will keep my attention on what really matters: the story itself.
- More Enjoyment of the Process: Seriously, writing with a fountain pen is fun. There’s something deeply satisfying about the way it scratches against the paper, about the way the ink slowly dries before your eyes. When it comes to getting stuff written, even little things like this can make a huge difference in your willingness to sit down and put the time in that’s needed.
Of course, where there are pro’s there are inevitably con’s. It’s important to consider these too, so I can reflect on how much of an issue they truly were later.
- Slow Progress: My handwriting might be pretty (apparently), but this is likely because I write at a snail’s pace. A big concern I have about this methodology is that it’s going to slow my output down significantly, as I type a lot faster than I write.
- Lack of Transferability: One of the greatest benefits digital word processors offer is just how easy it is to move the content you write with it about. You can edit it, shift it between programmes, email it and post it with just a few simply clicks. In comparison, good luck trying to find software that can easily read handwriting (no really, good luck: I tried and failed). And good luck going back and changing things if you suddenly discover a gaping plot hole halfway through a story, since once it’s down on the page it isn’t going anywhere.
Overall, I find myself pretty optimistic about the potential Neil Gaiman’s writing methodology offers and I’m looking forward to seeing what the results of it will be as we go forward. Over the next few weeks I’ll be updating this series with some progress reports to let people know how the experience is working out, and once the short story I’m writing using this methodology is finished I’ll be posting a full follow-up analysing how it all went and what can be learned from it.
As ever, if you write using similar methods to this please do let me know if you have any tips and tricks to smooth the process. I’d also like to invite people to post suggestions for other authors whose methods I should take a look at in the future. Trying something new and changing up the way we write is a tried and tested method for knuckling down and getting stuff written, so I’m always keen to see how other authors ply their craft.
Who knows? I might even learn something.
That’ll be the day.