Tips from writers on writing

typewriterJohn Cheever liked to work in his boxer shorts. Victor Hugo wore a large grey shawl, after locking away his clothes as an anti-escape tactic. And Colette liked to pick fleas from her French bulldog’s back until she was ready to write. Are living writers as quirky as the dead ones? Looks like it – at least the handful Elena Bowes interviewed.


How do you psych yourself up for writing?

Perfect storm
“Tea, universal order and no time. Once these are in alignment I can write fiction,” says Elise Valmorbida, Italian-Australian novelist, creative writing teacher and communications consultant.

Lock and key
Scott Bradfield, London-based American essayist, critic and fiction writer, locks his office door and does some new writing every day. “Occasionally I don’t get any writing done, and I am in a foul mood.” He spends a lot of time in the bath.

More locks and keys
Adam Baron, crime writer and principal lecturer in Creative Writing at Kingston University, has dream fantasies about being wrongly sent to prison. He’s locked in a cell for 23 hours at a time, his idea of writing nirvana.

Head to the café
American poet and senior researcher in Creative Writing at Kingston University, Jane Yeh confesses that her natural inclination “is to sit around all day reading books or things on the Internet while simultaneously watching TV.” So she goes to a café and leaves distractions at home. “There’s something about sitting in a café, surrounded by a moderate amount of bustle but in an earplug-induced cone of silence that aids concentration. Not to mention the easy access to coffee.”

Adam Baron, who has three children and not the tidiest of homes agrees. “I have a nice office at the top of my house, a lovely loft conversion. But I find I can’t do it there. I have to go to a café with no Internet connection. Or the British Library.”

British author and 26er Nick Barlay writes best, “anywhere but home.” And while he doesn’t have any rituals, Barlay says, “there comes a point in the morning around 11:17 when I need to walk certain routes at a certain velocity and these walks must end with an espresso and a croissant and a cigarette. “


Do you keep a notebook or journal?

Write it down before you forget it
Valmorbida is a devotee of notebooks. Her first novel Matilde Waltzing, her third book The TV President, and her current novel in progress, each have their genesis in notebook jottings. But there’s no journal as such. “I’ve never kept a diary. I’m not that interested in me. My notebook is about ideas and observations. It’s a bit like an artist’s sketchbook. I write down anything and everything that catches my attention. It’s very random. It’s not written for anyone else to read. It could be three words in a row that sound beautiful.”

Nick Barlay used to keep a journal. “Now it’s a notebook… Notebooks are for stuff. Ideas, doodles, quotes. Witty one-liners and lines that are never to be used under any circumstances all go in. They never seem to have a clear bearing on anything I’m actually writing, but always seem to get in anyway.”

Write to get in the mood
Adam Baron writes poetry as a way of connecting with his creative self. “I write poetry on trains and in cafes. In terms of making notes, if I have an idea about something I will scribble things down on a piece of paper, but I am a bit superstitious that if I (make too many notes) it’s going to murder (the idea).”

Write down ‘triggers’ for longer pieces
Before Jane Yeh was the super-diligent daily writer that she is now, she used to keep a combination of a writer’s notebook and a commonplace book. She copied out quotes from things she fancied. She also jotted down anything that might be a ‘trigger’ for future poems. Separately on her computer, Yeh stored a list of words and short phrases that appealed to her, a vocabulary bank. “Some of my poems originate from an idea for a title or first line… an initial phrase or sentence that sounds good to me.”

Scottish novelist Sara Sheridan, an obsessive list-maker, keeps lots of notebooks for research information – different ones for different projects, as well as a journal for plot development and writing more generally. And bed is best, says this 26er.


Are you a social writer or a recluse?

Writers’ groups can inspire fresh thinking
Don’t bother asking Valmorbida if she’s free on Tuesday night. She has been attending the same Tuesday night writers’ group for twenty years. “We workshop our writing, brainstorm ideas, think about plot and characters, and micro-edit. We’re there to be critical, constructive, helpful, not to be nice.” When Valmorbida shared a writing exercise (inspired by notebook jottings) with her group, they encouraged her to write more – it became the novel Matilde Waltzing.

Yeh, raised in the American workshop system of creative writing, misses being in a writers’ group. “It’s a truism that writing is a solitary act, but I’ve never minded showing draft work to other people… For me, interacting with other serious writers and analysing their poems as a group is far more inspiring than, say, the Oxbridge model of one-to-one tuition.”

Barlay says his recently published work Scattered Ghosts, a story about his Hungarian Jewish family spanning 200 years, was the most public book he’s written, given the number of people he talked to. “It felt like a shared, on-going conversation about the book, about memory as much as about the process of recording it and narrating it. At the same time, I spent long periods alone in the various middles of nowhere to research it.”

Only ask opinions of those you really trust
Meanwhile Baron treads cautiously on showing his work to others. “If I show someone something halfway through and they like it, I think ‘Oh no, all I can do is ruin it now.’ And if they don’t like it, I could have given it to the one person in the world who doesn’t like it and I’ll think, ‘what’s the point of finishing this now?’ The last novel I wrote a chapter and gave it to my wife, and she said ‘I want another chapter.’ I trust her to be brutally frank and honest.”

Sheridan is equally reticent. “Everyone has an opinion, but you need to stick to people who you know have a really good eye. My agent and my editor both read early drafts – they know their stuff.”

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