My Writing Process: Why This World Isn’t Enough For Me

MikeachimTravel8 Comments

Chania, Crete, Greece, through a piece of glass

100_3359 Four questions. Four answers. Here’s how – and why – I write.

Why is the world so fascinated with writers writing?

I used to think it was about their final drafts, the stories they (reluctantly, tremblingly) pushed out the door towards their audience, that was what truly mattered in the long run.

That’s true in most cases – and hopefully mine too. I’ve written a fair bit about writing craft and storytelling both here and elsewhere, but my actual writing? Who really cares, beyond myself? I spend a lot of my time here at the kitchen table – or downtown, in a coffee shop. Occasionally I’ll write in a tent on a lonely hillside, on a train, or sat beside my bike on the way to Hull.

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I used to figure that those details were irrelevant, because nobody cared about how writing got done, they just wanted to get hot and sweaty over the results.

Here’s a site that proves me wrong: Brain Pickings, from Maria Popova, which devotes a considerable portion of its real estate to investigating the daily routines of famous writers, culminating in this fascinating piece of work. Maria can make anything sound interesting, but my first thought was – so Kurt Vonnegut got up at 5.30am and wrote himself into a quivering mess before breakfast. Why is the world fascinated with this?

In fact, the answer why everyone’s fascinated is the same reason I thought nobody would be: it’s that everyone writes differently. There’s no set formula. There’s no universally perfect time of the day to wring words out of yourself. Effective writers find a method that works, and then they stick to it until they’ve bled themselves dry.  Ineffective writers have to experiment until they find their secret formula. That’s basically it in terms of rules (although another one might be every day is a warzone).

Writing craft comes in a million varieties – and while in one sense that means there are few useful rules and virtually no laws, in another sense that turns writing itself into sometime unique in every single instance, special to yourself and nobody else.

I guess writing really is Art.

Last week,  my good friend Leigh Shulman tagged me in something called a writing blog hop (in which she was tagged in a post by the wonderful Lola Akinmade Åkerström) where we all answer 4 questions about how and why we write – after which we tag 3 other writers who would do the same on their blogs next week.

Since I’m unlikely to end up on Brain Pickings any day soon, I thought I’d have a crack at honestly showing what an over-ambitious lunatic I truly am. Just this once.

OK, let’s do this.


1. What Am I Working On / Writing?

I’m hammering out a lot of words to clients right now — the people I’m helping with their storytelling, in all sorts of ways. I love this work, and the more I dig into it, the more fascinating and useful it gets. I’ll be devoting a lot of my time to the e-mail list behind this free 5-part course on storytelling, and I’m following that up with my first Kindle book on the subject. Did I say how much I love this work? It’s fun.

Beyond that, I’m freelancing here and there, guest posting at various sites to spread my ideas a bit, and I’m doing all sorts of copywriting to help pay the bills. On top of all that, I’m working on a travel-related traditional (non-self-published) book proposal.

So, plenty for me to be doing right now. I’ll also be grabbing an office job for the summer because I need some cash in the bank for later in the year when all sorts of really exciting changes, accompanied by an avalanche of uncertainty, will usher in the next stage of what I’m laughingly calling a “career” at the moment. I can’t wait to talk about all that, but it’s too early, let’s not jinx it.

However – I have a secret life.

I am a literary nerd.

I grew up reading science fiction and fantasy. I grew up reading Lord Of The Rings (the first time through took me 9 months). I grew up watching Star Trek and Star Wars and Hawk The Slayer (don’t…don’t ask). I grew up playing computer games. I grew up infatuated with maps.

I grew up absolutely besotted with imaginary worlds — but also disappointed with them. I read Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath, and wondered why scifi and fantasy couldn’t ask the hard questions like that book did. I wondered why Sauron was so messed up and if anyone ever bothered to ask him. I wondered why the USS Nick Of Time always managed pop out of hyperspace to save the day, and what would have happened if it hadn’t and everyone was forced to choose between two equally dire alternatives. I wondered why it was almost always men doing stuff, and why violence solved everything, especially at the end.

And then I started reading the right authors.

Now I want to be one of them.

I want to write my own type of fantastical fiction, filled with real people struggling with real things. And I also want to write something as gloriously silly as this. These are the two writing styles that call to me (and no, I have no idea how the cross-marketing will work. Just don’t ask me that yet.)

And these guys — who are currently writing a book live in 30 days — have given me a few ideas on how to do it.

So that’s what I’m working on. And everything from this point is about finding a way to balance my commitments so I can get that work done and see if I’m cut out to be that kind of author.

2. How Does My Work Differ From Others Of Its Genre?

The storytelling consultancy work is pretty weird for the sorta-kinda niche I’m in (travel / travel blogging). Part of marketing it is explaining what it is and why everyone should care. And that’s a lot of the fun too, because once I get those ideas across to people, they light small fires behind their eyes, and they really start to get it, and they get as excited as I am. I’m never going to get bored of that.

My travel writing is apparently very “British”. I think that means I’m self-deprecating, thoughtful, interested in the fine details, and seem to get a lot of spiritual mileage from seeking out discomfort and misery (but only if it unlocks a rattling good story). I’m good with that. I can do a lot with that approach. As long as it doesn’t actually kill me, bring it on.

As for my fiction? Well, we’ll just have to find out.

Chania via Beer

 3. Why Do I Write What I Do?

Oh blimey. How do I answer this one?

Sometimes I think I’m deranged. I’ve spent the last 18 months scrabbling a living together in order to learn how to work my way up to the giddy vocational heights of actually having a normal income like normal people – and I’m still not there. Am I mad? Why on earth have I been putting myself through this so far? What got me here?

(And for the record, “here” is about the strongest place I’ve been since 2008, when I first started writing for money. I feel confident I’ve finally learned what works and now I’m putting it into action. “Here” is thrilling. But getting to “here” has been rough.)

The answer is probably obsession, probably pride, probably hope (some of it false), and initially an over-romantic view of how writers make a living. All those things. But I wouldn’t be here if it was only those things. The main reason I’m here is that I believe in this work. I believe in good travel writing, and what happens to people when they’re exposed to it. I believe in the world-transforming power of good ideas, and I know of no better way to spread those ideas than terrific storytelling. I want to understand how these things work, and I want to do them myself. If it’s obsession, it’s born of love.

I also write because I love what my writing does for me personally. It’s like emotional yoga. When I don’t write, I get creaky and cranky. I write to stay in one piece.

But mainly, I write what I write to get better at it.

Because I’m not good enough yet, and that’s annoying the crap out of me.

4. How Does My Writing Process Work?

Like a forest fire.

My daily routine is like a pile of twigs, and I sit down and assume the Writing Position, spending an hour or so trying to light them, but the wood’s damp and it’s usually a bit windy, and it’s often really frustrating.

Then I might get it smouldering a bit, but I have to keep adding the right kind of leaves (tea leaves, say – or maybe ground-up coffee beans) to keep it going, and sometimes it’ll just smoulder all day and there’ll be very little actual heat, only enough to warm the ends of my fingers, and I go to bed cursing and wishing I’d stuck to archaeology for a living.

But occasionally it’ll flare up almost instantly, and then WHUMMMPH my eyebrows are gone, and basically I have to run like hell. This is when it’s really fun and when I need to be away from people for a bit, because it looks like I’m being an ignorant jackass.

I’m not. I’m just outrunning a fire inside my head and I can’t stop to chat.


Passing The Torch

Next week, 3 extremely talented writers whose work I’m fond of will be following in my megalomaniacal footsteps (bless ’em). It’s getting late – because when I was writing this? WHUMPH – and now it’s 1am.

So I’ll come back and introduce you to them another day.

All images: Mike Sowden

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