I usually write at home, sitting in a comfortable faux-leather swivel chair at a desk, using a desktop PC. I’m lucky enough to have my own space that can be sealed off from the rest of the house simply by closing a door. This space contains books – lots of books on a very wide range of subjects, in stacks, on shelves and in book cases – a stereo/radio, a landline telephone and a wireless router, a few plants and (usually) a couple of cats. The window overlooks my back garden and those of neighbouring homes. I have a fan for when the weather’s warm, a blue Venetian blind to control incoming light. It’s a good room for writing.
The walls are white, with small blue floral motifs stencilled here and there. On them hang a couple of paintings by a friend who’s now dead; an assortment of other artworks, including a poster of Max Ernst’s The Robing of the Bride, a bronze Buriat ongon from my long-ago trip to Siberia, an African mask of unknown provenance, a Mexican lacquered wooden carving of Quetzelcoatl, a 2015 calendar that is always a month behind the times, and a clock made of plaster painted to look like ancient stone.
The desk is black, with a sliding compartment in which I keep a scanner and other useful items; a desktop space on the left for the PC, monitor and keyboard; compartments for paper and another for pens, USB drives and my prized electric stapler, other stationery and electronic bits and pieces, data discs, an old copy of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary; and a shelf on top for whatever reference books I’m working with at any given time. I smoke, so there’s an ashtray, brass with an age-obscured pattern, on one side of the monitor. On the other side is an orange Dead Fred coaster with a half-full mug of coffee resting on it in between sips. To my right, there’s a drawer with suspension files filled with personal papers, plastic wallets, notepads, wrapping paper and so on. By the side of the desk are a shredder and a waste paper basket. Beneath the desk is a forbidding nest of plugs, sockets and tangled cables. The computer is as black as the desk. On the tower unit there are a couple of external hard drives, and external DVD-RW, and a tiger beanbag that allegedly doubles as a screen cleaner, though it’s never been used for that.
To my left there’s a shelf above a radiator, a kind of personal cluttered shrine to oddness. I’m an eclectic atheist. It holds a sandalwood carving of Ganesha, a brass statuette of Shiva and Parvati, a Japanese water pipe, a brass bell, three Egyptian-style cats, a jade Buddha and a polished orb of another green stone, two Chinese ‘lucky money’ frogs and a pair of so-called Foo Dogs, an ammonite and a trilobite, a cinnamon and mandarin scented candle, a small orange piggy-bank, a carved dodo, a tiny Australian Aboriginal painting of an emu on slate, a miniature painting of a black cat, a little Easter Island moai, a pine cone, a glitter-painted pebble with my name on, a Chinese geomancer’s compass, a set of dowsing rods, a rock fragment from the walls of Troy, two sets of Japanese chopsticks, incense sticks and holders, boxes of paperclips and drawing pins, postcards of a painting by Leonora Carrington and the famous ‘Black Power’ salute at the 1968 Olympic games, a terracotta angel, and a translucent purple plastic cone whose function I have never been able to determine. Another postcard bears the legend SHIT HAPPENS, and it usually does.
The stippled ceiling is as white as the walls. From it hang a two-tier macramé hanging basket holding a cactus and a succulent; and a mobile, three flying owls made in Africa from discarded Coca Cola cans, which is much more attractive than it sounds. The dangling light bulb is concealed within a cheap, spherical paper shade.
On the blue windowsill, almost hidden behind the blind, there are more plants, a brass pig, a wooden cat and often at least one real felid. A cheese plant squats in a large pot beneath the window. The window is double glazed but openable. It’s very pleasant here, whatever the weather.
The room has other things – two small filing cabinets, a printer on one and the stereo on the other; a red rug with a design after Joan Míro on the otherwise bare varnished floorboards; a black bag containing a laptop computer; box files filled with magazines, cardboard boxes in which I keep printer cartridges and yet more books.
The room’s a bit dusty, and the desk around the keyboard and monitor is invariably dotted with cigarette ash and the occasional coffee or tea spillage. There are cat hairs and claw husks on the rug, and although I like to keep the place tidy there are always things I haven’t quite got round to putting away – a tub of screen wipes, pens, Post-It notes, stray books, the CDs by the stereo that really ought to be returned before I bring more aural nourishment from downstairs. And the waste bin always seems to need emptying. I try to keep it tidy but to be honest I’m either too busy or too tired. It’s a well-used, lived-in sort of room. I spend a lot of time and do a great deal of work here, and it shows.
If it wasn’t a comfortable room, a useful room, I wouldn’t be here. And without me, the room would be a different place. It wouldn’t be mine, and perhaps nothing would be written here.
Being a Writer
There’s a lot of talk about what makes someone a writer. Some will even tell you their routine is how a writer should work. It’s all rubbish. Yes, it’s true that many writers work at set times and/or have self-imposed targets of so many words per diem. Stephen King reckons you have to knock out a minimum two thousand words a day before you can call yourself a writer. The young Michael Moorcock wrote to office hours – start at nine in the morning, take a lunch break, carry on until five o’clock, go to the pub or wherever. Douglas Adams used to avoid writing whenever possible yet still managed to produce around a dozen books, some short stories, and some radio and television scripts. The simple truth is that to be a writer you only have to write, and you have to do a fair bit of it.
Stephen King has also pointed out that you need to read a lot, and that is absolutely true. The more you read, the more you will learn about structure, style, plotting, description, characterisation and language – and how much of each you need to write a story of any length. Even if you don’t consciously read to acquire tips and tricks of the trade, you will absorb those. But whatever you do, don’t read with the intention of learning how to write like your favourite author; and don’t follow your hero’s rules on how to write, if they’ve been tempted to publish them. George Orwell’s famous rules on writing will help you be a good journalist, but they won’t help with writing fiction. Elmore Leonard’s rules will help you construct an Elmore Leonard story but will not help you write your own. Nothing is forbidden in storytelling, and nothing is mandatory. Experiment. Diversify. Make up your own rules and break them as and when and if you feel like it. Write your own stories in your own way. That goes as much for your writing environment as what you put on the page.
Some writers demand isolation, minimal furnishings and total silence. Others write with the radio tuned to a classical music station with the volume turned down low . It’s different strokes for different folks, and what works for one person will smother creativity in another. I don’t need total isolation (though I don’t take interruption lightly) and nearly always have my particular taste in music playing at a modestly loud volume. I also have a phone and internet access, people and cats. No sound-proofed rooms or remote, primitive cottages for me – I’m a man of my time and wasn’t cut out for the monastic life. If, as one famous author claims, being connected to the internet is fatal to writing, then I would suggest that there is an underlying problem with commitment and focus that needs to be addressed. There are distractions in all walks of life. Eating and going to the lavatory are distractions but I’ve yet to hear of a writer able to suspend their nutrional needs and digestive processes for the time it takes to write a book. And we are social animals that need to co-exist and interact with other people, and we need to live our lives. Get over it and stop being so bloody precious.
For me, being a writer is about having ideas for stories and running with them as far as they need to go. You have to be willing to sacrifice a few nights out, spend a lot of time alone with only your internal angels and demons for company, eschew the empty, mind-rotting shit on the telly, or forgo some of that pointless posting on Facebook. The stuff doesn’t write itself and you have to be there to do it. It takes time, commitment and hard work. That’s the one unarguable fact.
So forget other writers’ rules on how and where to work, and how much to produce. There’s no right or wrong way, just whatever suits the individual; and you write as much as you can when you can, and work on it as hard as you can, full stop.
Planning a Story
Many writers nowadays construct elaborate written plans and schematics for novels or short stories before they dare to make the first mark on their manuscript or press the first key in earnest. I know of writers who build up vast sets of obsessively detailed index cards and suchlike with maps, genealogies, sociograms, biographies, and sketches for characters and places. I had a friend who did so much of it that he hardly ever got round to actually doing the writing.
Of course you must plan. If you don’t know what the story is, who is in it and what’s going to happen, all you’ll do is meander aimlessly through an ocean of words and eventually wind up becalmed on the Sea of Getting Nowhere Fast.
But there’s no reason for doing what doesn’t need to be done. A written plan is fine if you need it, a needless waste of time and effort if you don’t. And if you’re lucky enough to have a pretty good memory and can hold all the plot and character details in your head, along with a lot of ancillary material, then you don’t need to spend valuable writing time working on what would be effectively nothing more than a comfort blanket. I’m frankly baffled by some writers’ insistence that a visual plan is an absolute necessity. It’s not a professional requirement, not like it would be if you were building a house or designing a nuclear reactor or a train, because nobody but you will ever need it and no one is going to die if your novel isn’t properly put together – except perhaps you, of shame.
Having said that, of course it’s essential to maintain direction and consistency, to keep track of where the plot is going and who the characters are and what they’re like, what they’re supposed to do and say, how they think and feel. It’s just as important to know all the background stuff, details of places, historical background, story-specific technical knowledge, and so on – the things that help make a story feel real, that give it texture and depth. How you do that depends on you. You will almost certainly need to keep a few notes handy. But if you have a memory good enough to render a written plan and a substantial textual cache of all that background information unnecessary, then it is unnecessary so don’t feel guilty if you don’t have one. If you don’t have that kind of memory, you’d better get planning…
And now I hear the cynical heckler calling from the shadows at the back of the room. ‘How about you, Mr Bigmouth Alby Stone? Do you plan your stories out or not? And is it on paper or in your head?’ Well, to tell you the truth, I [FATAL ERROR WARNING. SYSTEM FAILURE. ALL DATA LOST. PLEASE REBOOT.] So there you have it.
Writing, Imagination and Creativity
Fiction is another word for creative writing, making up stories and writing them down in (hopefully) an entertaining and affecting way. So how do you actually do creative writing? Is it a skill that can be taught and learned? Is it something that can be turned on and off, like a tap? Can anyone do it? Do we all really have a book in us?
Creative writing courses are increasingly popular. Recreational ones are available at many adult education establishments, and one may take a BA, MA or even a PhD in creative writing. I know people that have taken or are undertaking such courses at all levels. The nearest I’ve been to that sort of thing was belatedly studying for an O-Level in English Literature when I was in my early twenties. By then my personal literary drought was well underway and although I enjoyed reading the set texts, writing the essays and discussing what was read, it didn’t inspire me to write. In the same way, no matter how good a teacher you have, how advanced the course and how diligently you study, if you don’t have ideas or are unable to write them, you don’t have stories.
If you do have ideas, creative writing courses can teach you a lot about technique, style, characterisation, description and plot structure. But they won’t teach you your own. They’ll be those of other writers, and there will naturally and unavoidably be a bias toward those favoured by whoever is doing the teaching. But how did the teacher learn? Unless it’s someone who came up through the ranks of those taking creative writing courses that began in the 1970s, they probably learned the same way I did. I learned how to write stories by reading a lot of books and watching films, then evolving my own style. But at a more basic level I already had an intuitive grasp of narrative and plot. So does everyone else. It’s hard-wired into our minds. We communicate by telling stories, by gossiping. No matter how trivial an event is, we all turn our own and others’ experiences into stories, elaborating and refining them with each telling. Most of us have that facility. Gossip and storytelling are part of human social exchange, reinforcing ties and status, a procedure of the same order as chimps picking fleas off each other; and they are also ways of remembering and passing on information. In evolutionary terms, telling stories is advantageous.
So let’s say you have an idea. How do you turn that into a written story? What do you need in order to be able to do it? Obviously, you need something to write with or on; you need an environment in which you feel comfortable enough to write; you need time and energy; you need a degree of mastery of the written language of your upbringing; and it helps if you can spell and are reasonably proficient in the use of grammar. But those are all tools to do the job. You still need materials – ideas, a plot – and something that is elusive and sometimes defies description: imagination.
The imagination needed to write stories is something you either have or you don’t. Most of us are imaginative to some degree. And we all have that inborn narrative faculty. But to make a narrative into a written story – be it a novel, short story, play or film/television script – you need a spark. How do you generate an idea that will evolve into a plot while at the same time developing characters, locations, scenes and all the other things that make a good story?
It all depends what you want to do with the story. If you want to make your characters believable and real, to yourself if no-one else, then you need empathy. Again, it’s something almost everyone has to some degree, except for that small percentage of the population that get their kicks by hurting other people. It grows from another thing that’s hard-wired, ‘theory of mind’ – that recognition that other people have minds and emotions just like you do. Empathy takes that a step further, by enabling us to feel how others do, to put ourselves in their place. It’s a part of the psychological toolkit that facilitates social interaction; it also allows us to imagine being other people – and enables writers (and actors) to create characters. It isn’t any easy process: to develop convincing characters, to a greater or lesser extent you have to let yourself feel what they feel. It can be rewarding, both emotionally and intellectually; and it can be harrowing.
Essentially, both theory of mind and empathy are ways of engaging with other people at a fundamental level, by identifying with them. Again, it’s an evolutionary advantage. The people you believe other people to be are, to a degree and certainly in the early stages of acquaintance, based on yourself. This raises a whole raft of questions about how well it is possible to know another person. The answer is: quite well, actually. I realise that goes against accepted wisdom, but just stop and think about it. While theory of mind allows you to recognise ‘yourself’ in others, empathy allows you to recognise other people in yourself. You may not know exactly what your family or friends are thinking – but you can always get a shrewd idea from the way they’re behaving, and you can certainly understand how they are probably feeling in any given situation, especially if you’ve been there yourself. Creating characters works in a similar way, except you can of course fill in the blanks – the author knows what the characters are thinking – and you can predict how they will react to certain events, their emotional and intellectual responses. This process involves modifying one thing to make another. In short, you make characters out of yourself, your own thoughts, feelings and worldview; and you can use one character as the basis for another, and so on until you have a whole army of them. It isn’t necessarily a conscious process but that’s how it operates. The more practice you get, the better at it you become. Obviously, you don’t create all your characters at once, but in a very real sense they’re all inside you, ready and waiting to be called into action when needed. They’re all basically you, after all.
The big question is, can imagination be learned or taught? And it is a big question, a very complex one that educationalists have been arguing about for donkey’s years. Some say yea, others say nay. As someone who has studied educational theory and developmental psychology in a former life, I would dearly love to align myself with the affirmative camp. But I think the negative is probably true. Steiner and Montessori schools, for instance, both claim methods that encourage creativity. And they do. But there is a big difference between allowing creativity and encouraging the use of imagination, and actually making someone more imaginative. Imagination cannot be taught, but it is possible to bring out and develop what is already there.
Can creativity be taught? That’s another complicated question, though to me the answer is simple. I know plenty of people who are imaginative but not creative. They either don’t know how or just can’t be arsed. Like imagination, creativity – making or doing things that are not necesarily wholly utilitarian – can be encouraged and developed but not necessarily taught. Personal qualities come into play. Creativity is not simply a matter of having ideas. It requires work, knowledge, motivation and usually a degree of technique. You can be taught the technical skills required for a painter, or a writer, or a film-maker; but you still need the urge and commitment to do it. And you need the other, equally vital sparks – ideas and imagination.