Without pain
The most human anyone can be

Letting go of the outcome

One of the things that readers ask endlessly about is the mechanics of how we write: longhand or computer? Lined yellow pads in the garden shed, or a leather notebook in Starbucks? Tea or whisky? Morning or evening? Before I was a writer I didn't understand this interest: it seemed a bit like asking someone whether the bowl they'd made the delicious pudding in was white or brown. But I think now that when readers ask these things they're touching a finger lightly on something really important about writing: that how you do it - the details of the process - makes a difference.

First, there's the voodoo. None of us really knows why sometimes writing works and sometimes it doesn't. We don't know if our brain will be working when we sit down, whether the words will happen, and if they do whether they'll be any good. Performers are notoriously superstitious, and with good reason. No matter how much you've warmed up in the dressing room, there's a moment when you're standing in the wings, and you think, 'I have absolutely no guarantee that when I open my mouth, a single squeak will come out, let alone a concert aria in tune, on the beat and full of all the thought and feeling I've been rehearsing for weeks.' Writers in a sense are performing every time they sit down and start trying to think of the first word, so a little propitiatory magic is also in order for many of us: the good paper, the favourite postcards, the mug of tea, the right music or the perfect silence. I know writers who can only work in bed with the curtains drawn, others who have to line up a row of beloved ornaments.

And second is that the materials you like to use do affect your process, and, at the risk of stating the obvious, the process is what makes the product. Did writers think longer before typing each word when a change of mind meant those awful scratchy correction rubbers that make holes in the paper, or retyping? Is the prose livelier on coffee than peppermint tea, or too nervous and distracted? Are my books more cheerful, or less profound, now my study has two big windows facing south west, instead of one small one facing north? I'll swear my serotonin levels are higher, at least.

The clearest example of this is in the longhand-or-computer debate. Do you plan and brainstorm on paper? It's easier to draw arrows linking things and people, sketch maps of how the houses relate, express how one axis of ideas runs at right angles to another. And what about your first draft? Is that brainstorming - free-flowing forwards in pen - or an attempt at something finished: neat black letters on a clean white screen? Do you need to read to and fro easily, or does that just lure you into fiddling and losing the feel for the arc of the scene? Red pen on a manuscript shows your thought processes and changes of mind and notes, as the always-perfect on-screen version doesn't. But finding a particular phrase is infinitely quicker with search-and-destroy on the computer, and so is changing characters' names when you discover you've got five which begin with 'J'.

And even when you've decided what process suits which stage of the novel, it's good to be alert to other possibilities. Like many writers I sometimes use free writing, not just as a standalone exercise, but when I'm stuck at a point in the novel. You start with an anchor word or phrase - perhaps the character's name - and write, non-stop, for, say, fifteen minutes. You don't stop, cross things out, correct spelling or worry about grammar. If your mind goes blank you just write the anchor phrase over and over again till something floats into your mind and you're off again. Around ten minutes you usually hit a wall of boredom and blankness: it's when you've written through that that the really strange and interesting things emerge. Yes, much of what you get doesn't look 'useful', but 'useful' is about product, and that's not the point. If you could produce what you thought you wanted, you wouldn't be stuck, would you? The aspiring writers I know who most resist free writing are the ones who like to be in control, who like 'rules' about how to write, and who 'research their market' thoroughly. To do something which is pure process - that has no goal or outcome in mind, but acknowledges whatever turns up on the page - is very threatening for some, and I can see why. You might have to acknowledge some things you wish weren't there.

Free writing, in a sense, is why I normally write first drafts longhand, and usually regret it if I don't. A first draft to me is about bringing out all the things I didn't know were there, so couldn't set myself to produce. Until recently I thought that free writing was the only writing you really can't do on a computer. But now I've heard of a writing teacher who suggests just that: you switch the monitor off while you type. Now that really is the ultimate in letting go of outcomes.

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