How I Write

Let’s spare ourselves the embarrassment of describing how I write as a process. I write like a cowboy builder: lazily, dangerously and chaotically. I go through phases of keeping a journal. The resulting entries are scattered across any number of pads, computers, phones and blogs. The concept of having just one notebook to record my thoughts would seem to be a simple one, but is as far beyond my grasp as the moon.

Writing a novel involves casting about in those old notebooks, computers and phones for things I’ve written at some point and have incorrectly remembered as absolute gold dust and then forcing myself to sit in my office for long months to think. When I eventually have some kind of an idea mapped out, I write a rough list of all the scenes needed to tell the story. This list grows and shifts but it remains my basic story board. Then I work my way through the list based purely on whim. Each day I sit and write whichever scene I fancy writing, or more truthfully, can bear to write. The end result, unsurprisingly, is a hideous mess of gaps and continuity errors that takes forever to patch into any kind of coherent narrative.

By the time I came to my third novel I decided enough was enough. I was going to write this one in the right order, starting at the beginning and progressing in a masterly, authorial manner to the end. I would tame my process. I would evolve.

So I did what proper writers do and rented an office – a six square foot unit in a ramshackle block. The walls were thin. On one side was the gents’ toilet on the other a man who made lots of phone calls in a language I didn’t understand. I liked the idea of us working side by side, ploughing our respective furrows. Soon I told myself I would be immersed in my own richly imagined fictional world and lose all consciousness of the four walls around me and whatever or whoever lay beyond. Chapter one was written in a day.

Two months and almost sixty drafts of chapter one later things weren’t going so well. The man next door absorbed every inch of my mental space. First it was the endless phone calls: who was he talking to? What was he saying? Why did it take so long to say it? Then the trips to the toilet: how could he need to go so often? When did he even have time to drink? And then finally, his breathing: why was it so loud? Why wouldn’t it stop?

The murderous thoughts; the endless torture of Chapter One; the general descent into full-blown Jack-Torrance-in-the-Overlook-Hotel-mode continued for some months. The man next door became the physical embodiment of Chapter Two. Always there, hovering, but never visible. Always talking in my ear, but never comprehensible. Always going to the toilet but never…ok the analogy falls apart there.

Finally I couldn’t take it anymore. I cracked and did what I swore I wouldn’t do. I went ahead and wrote a scene towards the end of the novel. Then I wrote another and another. I was on a roll. The first draft was finished a month later. Yes, it was a mess to tidy it all up at the end, yes, it was a stupid way to write, but it was my stupid way and it was unarguably and eternally the boss of me.

Catherine O’Flynn 2019

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