Some readers maybe aware of this already, but early next week my latest novel will be available for purchase in all the popular formats: Ebook, paperback, and pirated PDF. As you can well imagine, I have spent the last month or so indulged in almost relentless self-promotion. Most of it on the internet. Unless you are Chetan Bhagat, James Patterson or… a God of some kind, digital self-promotion is pretty much your only hope of getting your little literary trifle noticed in the teeming, heaving seas of contemporary literature.
But all is not hopeless. One of the nice perks of working for a newspaper such as this one is that the organization lends a helping hand. Within limits. So an excerpt here. A (cough) letter from the editor here. Nothing particularly shameful, or shameless.
One side-effect of all this self-promotion is that one is often approached by young, budding writers eager to get some tips on how to start, plan, write and, hardest of all, finish a book. Over the last seven or eight years, ever since I first began publishing novels, I have always been asked for tips and tricks with the frequency of these queries intensifying as each launch approached. And I have generally tried to obliged. Because I have always been quite fascinated with the writer’s process myself. There was a time, not so long ago, when I spent hours and hours consuming interviews with writers, trying to pick up every little minutiae of process: from larger questions of where and when does one write, to tiny little obsessions such as what font is best for typing on a computer (Georgia. Without a doubt).
So I share everything I know when people ask. However, these tips and tricks seem to change a fair bit over time. For many reasons, tools such as laptops and apps keep getting better. And my own processes keep changing as I experiment with behaviours, tools, apps, and even various mental approaches to writing. With each book, I think, I get a little better at this writing malarkey. Not in terms of sales or even end product quality, but in terms of process efficiency.
Over the next few days and weeks, I will try to encapsulate the last two or three years worth of learning of the process of planning, researching, and writing a book into some sort of series. Perhaps a short series of brief podcasts. But it is hard to say when these will be ready.
But in the interim, I will pick out in this weekend’s editor’s note my current top ten tips and tricks, in not more than a line or two each, for making the process of writing—not just books but really anything at all—a little more productive:
1. Have a system for recording thoughts and ideas. It doesn’t matter what this system is. Software, notebooks, tattoos on your chest like Gajini. Whatever. Just make sure you have a way of recording ideas and thoughts and brainwaves with minimal waste. The brain is endlessly fecund. Don’t ever fool yourself into thinking you will remember that idea four hours later when you get back to your computer.
2. If you can, create an office of some sort. Coffee shops and restaurants and all are great for writing. But if you can create an office at home, and this has to be nothing more than a small table with a chair and a power socket nearby, you may find yourself settling into a writing routine very easily. A form of muscle memory kicks in when you return to the same place each morning or evening or midnight to write.
3. Writing routines are terribly underrated. Many people think that you are supposed to just malinger joylessly until that perfect moment of inspiration strikes. I rarely find this to be the case. On the contrary, I like to just plant myself in front of that white document and slog it out. The trick is to trust yourself to clean things up in your second draft.
4. ... Which brings us to first drafts. Please don’t make the mistake of meticulously proofreading each line as you type it out. Writing is already a Herculean task, no need to also make it Sisyphean. Just thump out those lines. And then come back to them when you are done with the whole manuscript, or when you’re done with sizeable chunks. I still struggle with this, especially given the clean-copy-obsessed nature of my day job. But if you can somehow look past those squiggly lines and and error alerts, you will find yourself saving mountains of time.
5. This is a great tip that I read somewhere recently. When you are done with a day’s work, don’t stop at the end of a chapter and then go to bed or spin a fidget spinner or whatever it is you do to wind down. Instead, start the first few words of the sentence you plan to start with in the next session. And then stop mid-sentence. I find this an immensely powerful way of getting your mind to immediately kick into gear the next morning. In addition, I also like to leave little notes to myself on what I will write the next time. Soon you will be able to carry on the great energy you end sessions with into the beginning of the next. Instead of sitting and wondering, “Wait what was I going to write next…”
6. Like listening to music when you write? Why not. But I avoid anything with lyrics that I can decipher. Because my mind tends to drift away into the song. Instead, I listen to a lot of instrumental music. For my new novel, I spent a lot of time listening to the soundtrack of tense thriller films. This helped to set the mood of the chapters themselves. Why not try matching the tone of your chapter to the tone of the music you are listening to?
7. Take care of your body. Listen to it. See if you can keep it in shape. A little work on the muscles and posture in your shoulder, neck and back can dramatically improve your writing experience. I have a very weak neck and try to account for this in the way I have set up my chair, table and monitors. The last thing you want is a crick in the neck just as you are polishing off a blockbuster scene.
8. Read a lot. Really. This is perhaps my top tip. Always keep reading. Before a book, during it, afterwards. If you, like me, are petrified of unintentional plagiarism, then try to read books from genres dissimilar to the one you are writing on. But you have to keep reading. You have to keep that mind enriched. It cannot, and should not, spend all day, day after day, only fixated on your work.
9. As you slowly develop a system—software, timings, location, computer, music—do whatever it takes to make this process as friction-free as possible. For instance, set aside a backpack that is only for book writing. It should have all your devices, your leisurely reading, headphones and so on. The last thing you want is to spend hours looking for stuff, and slowly feel that brilliant insight into a plot point fritter away in the panic. Ruthlessly eliminate all hurdles that stand in the way of a quick, clean, daily immersion.
10. It pains me to give away this tip. But might as well save my most cherished tip for last. Whenever you think you hit a block in your writing, try presenting it to an audience. Not a real one. Let me explain. When I am writing non-fiction, and hit a wall, I just get up from my chair, imagine I am standing in front of a curious but very friendly audience and recite my last chunk back at them, to the point where I am stuck. And then see how I am going to present my way past the block. Usually I know where I want the line of thinking to go. But have no idea what words will get me there. So I walk around my room, library, even cafe, just giving a TED talk to myself. If I am writing fiction, what I am presenting is not the words on the page but a plot summary. Perhaps I am at the Jaipur Literary Festival, at a session summarizing the story. What I am trying to do is, in a sense, take the process of production away from my fingertips and to the mouth. And I often find that we have an uncommon capacity to just talk our way out of trouble. At least 85% of the time the trick works. And my block withers away.
So there. While I work on a more comprehensive set of resources on writing, I hope these tips will hold you in good stead. Have a good weekend. And happy writing!
Letter From... is Mint on Sunday’s antidote to boring editor’s columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about on the weekend.
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