A Writing Q & A by Bill Kirton

Definitely NOT the author
I recently came across a set of answers I gave to an interviewer several years ago and was relieved to see that they still describe my approach to this writing business. (So maybe I was actually telling the truth.) Here’s how they went.

1) In order to meet a writing goal, do you write down the date you wish to have your manuscript completed?
No. Even though the word ‘deadline’ suggests a finite point (which may well be the case for some publishers or academic examiners, etc.), it’s really notional. Not notional to the extent that you can make it spread over a year or so, but in that it indicates a period towards the end of a month, say, by which you should have got the job done. Much more compelling is the impetus of the work itself. If anything provides the push to get the thing done, it’s the novel’s internal drive. Your characters insist on moving towards the resolution and, when the end is near, the euphoria of knowing that you’re about to slot the final pieces together is much more compelling than the artificial mark on the calendar.

2) If you have a publisher, do THEY dictate to you the date your manuscript will be completed?
Some do, others are still aware that the creative process isn’t an automated procedure. If you’ve promised them a draft by a particular time, your professionalism should make sure they get it, but you and they then need to recognize that second thoughts on your part and queries/suggestions from them will necessitate rewritings and a period of reflection. If you’re writing to someone else’s orders, you’re giving up control of some important parts of the process.

3) In order to meet your deadline, how often, and how long do you spend working on your writing project?
This will sound like a glib or facile answer but the truth is that it’s the project which dictates that. Whether you’re talking about a play, poem, short story, novel – each takes as long as it takes. The pleasure of being involved in creating an intrigue involving people interacting with one another is so absorbing that you lose track of time. If you’re thinking of the deadline, you’re not giving the work the attention it has to have. If progress stalls, you have to find some technique to get it going again or bring it to a conclusion. For academic exercises, of course, it’s different, since the tutors are calling the tune – but writing, in all its forms, only works properly if the writer is in charge.

4) What do you do to keep those writing juices flowing?
Look around, watch people, speculate on their motives, feel their elations and their sorrows. And trust your characters – even the nasty ones. They’ll always take you on surprising journeys. Writing is a compulsion.

6) Do you do outlines for your novels?
No. I know overall where I want to be heading before I start. There’s an issue I want to address, a character I want to explore, an anger I want to externalize, a remark I want someone to make – all sorts of things provide a starting point. So I have a notion of what the tone of the writing will be and maybe of some major turning point I intend to reach. But then, as the fiction begins to build, it’s the characters who take over to a certain extent. They lead the narrative in directions which often surprise me. They add details I hadn’t suspected were there and, in the process, they force me to adapt my original plan. It’s still the same basic drive and the purpose remains relatively unchanged, but the way in which I convey it is coloured by what my characters allow me to do.

When it comes to rewriting, I correct some of the wilder fancies they’ve had and bring them back within the scope of the book but the process from conception to delivery (sorry to use an obstetrical image but, as a man, it’s the closest I’ll ever get to having a baby – albeit without the pain) is organic, unstable.

However long the novel, until the final full stop’s been added, all it has is potential.  If I started with a rigid notion of its shape, I’d be inhibiting that. In fact, the only time I imposed a preordained structure on a piece was with a radio play. I was very keen to maintain a specific set of images, so I made the characters do exactly what was necessary to achieve that. After the broadcast, a well-known critic reviewed the play in a respectable journal. His review began ‘This is a tiresome play about tiresome people. He was right.


Chris Longmuir said…
I think we're singing from the same song sheet Bill, and as for your obstetrical imagery the varieties of pain are many and varied. Granted you'll never have the physical pain of having a baby, but the birth of a book does involve pain along the writing spectrum. And as I'm about to give birth to the new book I'm in the throes of that pain. My novel is currently undergoing treatment in an incubator, and I think the 'baby' is struggling to draw breath!
Wendy H. Jones said…
Very well put Bill. This will resonate with so many writers. I agree that creativity can be flexible and not limited to a timetable.
Jan Needle said…
When my mum held me (newly born) up to her sister Joyce, Joyce responded - he's the ugliest little bugger I've ever seen. So don't talk to ME about childbirth, Kirton!
Lynne Garner said…
I agree when being creative you can't put a time on it. However many of the publishers and packagers have and in order to get paid I have to stick to their deadlines. Unfortunately this means somethings they've got my 'forced' creativity which may or may not be as good as the creativity that is just allowed to happen.
Dennis Hamley said…
Bill, once again you've written a post which, with utmost logic and clarity, recounts a process which we can all recognise and share. I think my answers to those questions would be pretty well the same as yours, though probably expressed far less pointedly. So thank you for confirming that not only am I not odd and bizarre but that we really are al in this together.
Mari Biella said…
It's always interesting to hear about how other writers approach the writing process, Bill - and on the whole I think we have a similar approach. I do outline my novels before I start, but I treat the outline as a very loose framework indeed, something that can be altered and reworked as I go along. And I find that creativity just isn't that responsive to external deadlines, at least in my case - or maybe that's just my innate laziness speaking.
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks all.

Chris, When you’ve finished with the incubator, I may be needing it. My WIP’s nearly there but it’s taken ages.

Wendy, yes I think it actually needs to be flexible.

I used to think we had things in common, Needle, but your comments belie that. I’m the eldest of a family of six. My parents had and all my brothers and sisters have brown eyes. I alone am the blue-eyed boy. God’s in His heaven, all’s right with the world.

An interesting contrast, Lynne: forced and spontaneous creativity. And both seem to work.

At the risk of being glutinously sycophantic, Dennis, the fact that you think I’m saying something worth saying makes me feel like a writer.

Mari, your repeated attempts to claim laziness are falling on ears which are not only deaf but lazier than yours will ever be.
These are great questions. I don't outline either. I have a vague idea. I know the beginning and quite often I know the end as well. I write to find out how to get there! If I outline too much I get bored and never actually write the novel or play or whatever. It took me ages to realise this back when I had an agent and/or a radio producer and she was looking for a synopsis of some sort. I can write these (reluctantly) after the thing is finished, but not before.
Bill Kirton said…
I share your reluctance about writing synopses, Catherine. In fact, I think it calls for a different type of writing. Reducing 80,000-100,000 words to 100 or even 500 is bloody hard. Does one concentrate on the 'story'? If so, it's not really a true representation of the book. Does one try to hint at themes or some other 'artistic', 'aesthetic', 'philosophical', 'sub-textual' magic one's tried to convey? If so, it invites the reader to move on to a more sympathetic, less pretentious scribe. Etc., etc.
Umberto Tosi said…
Thought-provoking: particularly for me: having written under deadlines for decades on newspapers and magazines and later, book contracts, I luxuriate in being able to set my own, forgiving timetable. But I quickly go adrift without them imposed by paymasters. Truth is, it's more or less continual guerrilla war between the free inspirational and the structured disciplinary aspects of my creative process - when it's working at all. Thanks.
glitter noir said…
Beautifully done, Bill. A rousing testament to writing that is both organic and 100% gluten-free.
Bill Kirton said…
You've nailed it, Umberto. Finding the right balance between creativity and discipline is the key, not letting the one gallop off into chaos and incomprehension or the other stifle and restrict its imaginings.

Thanks, Reb. That's me trying hard to suppress my inner gluten.

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