In my introductory Q&A I gave an abbreviated account of how I write, and in particular how I wrote my first novel. I always find other writers’ processes interesting, so I thought I’d talk about my approach, the tools I use and what keeps me going in case it’s helpful for someone else out there.
Find your own pace and rhythm.
For many years, I believed writing a book was out of reach for me because I didn’t have the discipline or the stamina (or the time) to write thousands of words a day every day. I thought that was how other successful authors worked, and therefore I had to work that way too. I learned over time that I did better work if I worked at my own speed, attuned to my own capabilities, and to aim for consistency and quality instead of just throwing down words on the page. Some people do indeed write that way, and clean it all up in rewrites. And that works wonderfully for them. I’m not that person, and it’s good for me to know that.
Make your goals achievable.
I have already mentioned my personal formula, which is 250 words per session, 1000 words per week, and 50,000 words or so over a year. I set a low bar for myself because I wanted to make things easy for myself on one level—the word count—so that I could focus my energies on all the other more difficult things. Even with that, there are some days where I only get 50 words down, or 20. That’s fine, I don't beat myself up, I’ll come back the next session and try to make up the shortfall. If I’m still down at the end of the week, then I book a make-up session on the weekend to try to get things back on track. The goal is to create and reinforce good habits and positive outcomes, not to be feel like a failure and punish myself. That just makes getting back to the keyboard even harder. (I will admit—I used to bribe myself with breaks, food and presents for completing projects and meeting milestones; it worked for a while, but it became somewhat fattening and very expensive. Do not recommend.)
Push against your comfort zones.
There is something to be said for ‘writing what you know’ and ‘picking the low hanging fruit’, focusing on subject matter that you’re familiar with, writing characters that are just like yourself and the people you know, setting your work in the places and time periods you’ve experienced first-hand. But I’ve found for myself that if I do that too much, my work starts to feel like it’s being written on autopilot. I become less engaged, and less invested, and the reader does too. Changing even one of those things can heighten the stakes and help make the work come alive.
Read/watch/listen in your field and broadly beyond.
It’s important to remain apprised of trends and tastes within your chosen genre, as well as within your medium overall—whether that be film, television, fiction, nonfiction, short stories, long features, whatever. Though I tend to reduce my reading and watching when I’m working on a project (research aside), I find it’s vital to sample a wide selection of work, classic and contemporary, during my downtime so that I know where my work fits in with that of my peers and within the larger cultural context. I also find it helpful to read and watch works that are well outside my wheelhouse. It’s good to give your writing mind frequent opportunities to make unexpected connections and associations. You never know where and how inspiration will strike.
Be mindful of a diverse readership—and an inequitable world.
Many writers are feeling anxious about the recent increased emphasis on writing responsibly and accurately about gender, race, class, ability, belief, sexuality and orientation, and about the limitations of imagination when it comes to writing about someone else’s lived experience. The sad reality is that some writers will put more effort into writing a British 1870s merchant seaman than into a Black 1950s housewife, and it shows. It shows, and it matters. I’m not only writing for myself, not only for people just like me, not just for people living in my moment. I am writing for strangers, now and in the future, many of whom are well equipped to evaluate the truthfulness of the worlds I create and the characters that populate them. The key, I have found, is to approach these characters and subjects with judicious research and consultation with people who reflect the backgrounds of the characters I write about, to check my own privilege and assumptions, to be accountable for the choices I make, and to recognize that some stories (or some aspects of these stories) are not mine to write.
Try different tools, techniques and exercises to support your writing style and to break through blocks.
I write a surprising amount of my work, and especially my earliest drafts, in simple programs and apps like Wordpad (Windows) and TextEdit (OSX), and then import into the word processor of choice—usually Microsoft Word. I've tried some of the 'distraction-free' apps and programs, and they have their merits, but for me there's something informal and comforting about these ubiquitous little utilities. When I use them, I'm not really writing, am I? I'm just putting words down. (I've also tried Scrivener, and it's a great program, but I think I may need to take a course.)
When things are going slowly or when I’m stymied by one thing or another, I have a variety of block-breaking exercises that I try. (One of my favourites is to start a page with the words “What I’m trying to say is this:” and then just keep going.) Googling “writers block exercises” will bring up a slew of books and sites with assorted activities designed to push through whatever obstacles are presenting themselves. I also find that getting away from the keyboard and sitting down with a smooth-writing pen and a pad of paper or a grade-school scribbler can help free my mind and get the words flowing. I have an alarming number of fountain pens and inks that I’ve acquired specifically for this purpose.
Cultivate a few non-verbal hobbies and activities.
Breaks are important, so take them. When I need to truly give my writing mind a rest, I switch to activities that rely less on words and more on the visual and tactile: I knit, I play video games, I go for neighbourhood walks, I listen to instrumental music or music with wordless vocals, I wash dishes, I vacuum, I play with Lego, I shower. Generally not in that order.
Note to self: Social media is not a break, and is not a non-verbal activity.
Focus on constructive criticism and positive rewards.
It is very easy to get caught up in what random readers think about your work, and what other writers are doing that you are not. When you’re in the wrong frame of mind, this can quickly take a dark turn. I try very hard to avoid reading and ruminating over reader reviews, particularly negative ones, and particularly on sites like—ahem—Goodreads. And I try not to spend too much time on Facebook or Instagram observing that other writers are giving readings and going to conferences and winning awards and having stories picked up for anthologies and taking sunny vacations, while I am taking yet another run at the opening pages of a new chapter. I have had my turn at all of these, and I will once again. I try to keep my attention on the work at hand, on the feedback I get from the people I trust, and on my own goals, achievements and successes. I don't always succeed, but I try.
Find your people.
This is a hard one for those writers (like me) who by their nature are inclined to be solitary workers beavering away in their dimly lit hovels. It really does help to get out and find the people who will have your back when you are working your hardest and feeling like things are going nowhere. There is no substitute for supportive friends and family, an insightful primary reader, a thoughtful and constructive writers’ group if that works for you, publishers and editors and mentors (and eventually possibly an agent) who you respect and admire and who feel a connection to you and your writing—and, above all, peers who champion your work and celebrate your achievements, and who you celebrate and champion in return. You won’t find them overnight, and you may never find some of them, but even one such person can make a huge difference in your life and your career.
Put your work out there.
I have had a few friends over the years who were very fine writers (some who still are) who have no great interest in publishing their work. They write only for themselves, or for a small circle of family and friends, in the same way that some people are very fine painters but have no interest in displaying or selling their canvases. It may be more than an avocation for them, but it’s not a profession. It’s a kind of meditation or creative outlet or self-exploration, and I respect it greatly. For the rest of us, though, there is the issue of getting our work read and getting it rejected and getting it accepted and getting it published. It is always a challenge, and sometimes a demoralizing one, but it is necessary to move forward and grow as a professional. Writing is an act of communication, and that act is essentially incomplete if the work doesn’t reach its audience. So keep writing, keep submitting, keep going to festivals and launches and conventions and panels and workshops, keep meeting publishers and editors and other writers, keep reading and writing and submitting and writing some more.
Live in the world.
Here’s another hard thing: Don’t quit your day job. I mean, if you can, sure, go ahead—if you’re independently wealthy or retired or you’ve had a sudden windfall. Hurray for you! But apart from that, keep some structure in your life, have a reason to get out of bed and get dressed and push yourself out your front door every day (or most days), try to make and save some money, and keep other people in your life. Emily Dickinson wrote some beautiful poetry from her room, just staring out her window, imagining life and the world outside—and if that’s what you need to do, then that’s what you should do. But. I find for myself that, to write for the world, I need to live in the world—however demanding and draining and frustrating and anxiety-provoking that can be. It does make it harder to carve out time to write (and, for me, that can mean some late nights and some ugly mornings) but I think the writing I do is better for it.
Confession: I have gone on a few writers' retreats (including self-created ones) and I once took a year off to write. I found the retreats useful for rewriting and restructuring, but the year off was no more productive than if I had worked the whole time. And I was left a whole lot poorer.
And now, some of my favourite writing books: The Writing Life by Annie Dillard, On Writing by Stephen King, Hooked by Les Edgerton, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo (sample essay here), Story Genius by Lisa Cron, Steering the Craft by Ursula LeGuin, Monkeys With Typewriters by Scarlett Thomas, About Writing by Samuel Delany, the notebook I keep with a pen on the bedside table. And while it's not a writing guide per se, Experimental Film by Gemma Files is a master class in creeping slow-burn horror and a source of inspiration for me. I keep it nearby always.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
David Demchuk was born and raised in Winnipeg and now lives in Toronto. He has been writing for theatre, film, television, radio, and other media for more than thirty years. His publications include the short-fiction cycle Seven Dreams, and the Lewis Carroll adaptation Alice in Cyberspace, and appearances in the anthologies Making, Out!, Outspoken, and Canadian Brash. His reviews, essays, interviews, and columns have appeared in such magazines as Toronto Life, Xtra, What! Magazine, and Prairie Fire, as well as the Toronto Star. Most recently, he has been a contributing writer for the digital magazine Torontoist. The Bone Mother is his first novel. It was recently long-listed for the prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize.