How I write

12 August 2017

9:00 AM

12 August 2017

9:00 AM

How do they do it? Among writers, the earnest audience member at a literary festival who asks, ‘Do you write by hand or on a computer?’ is a sort of running joke; an occasion for the rolling of eyes. And yet, let’s enter a note in defence of that audience member: how novelists and the authors of literary nonfiction go about their work is interesting. If, as Kingsley Amis argued, most of a writer’s work is the application of the seat of one’s trousers to the seat of the chair, it’s legitimate to ask: what trousers, what chair, sexuality where and when? In my experience the answers are wildly different from writer to writer; an experience borne out by our sampling — 400 words a day, or 15,000? A bath for inspiration, or exercise? Endless redrafting or first thought, best thought?

Sam Leith, literary editor


If you are a writer of my disposition you tend to grasp any opportunity for self–sabotage and distraction. So here’s my shabby, rapidly declining two bob’s worth.

The process to me is generally an ideal I am working towards or aspiring to, like drinking less or going to the gym more. Whenever I pompously declare ‘I’m at my desk every morning by 7 a.m.’ a cynical voice in my head screams ‘You wish!’ But the good news is that it’s easier to stop a teenager from masturbating than a real writer from writing.

The ideal I aspire to is rising at 6 a.m., having a light breakfast, being at my desk till 10.30, and hammering out words, lots and lots of them, with an utter disregard for quality or structure, while music blares in the background. Then I’ll pack up and go to the boxing club for a workout — either a circuit, sparring on the pads, or some weights and cardio. This takes you away from the writing and, paradoxically, forgetting about it for a while allows the subconscious to do the heavy lifting.

Spending a lot of time obsessing about something the rest of the world has no connection with or window into is probably not a recipe for healthy relationships. I’ve learned a lot of de-roling techniques from actors; they have helped me considerably in reorienting myself back into the real world. But even they don’t work when you are in that crazy place — the home straight, where you just have to batter those keys until you break the book or it breaks you. That’s when your music goes off, your partner heads to her sister’s and your cat loses weight.

Is it worth it? Well that’s a question you can’t even consider if you’re a real writer, because it’s just what you do and you are not going to stop until you drop.

Irvine Welsh’s The Blade Artist is out now.


Of course I began with pen and ink and paper, and paper was expensive in terms of pocket money, so I asked for W.H. Smith tokens for Christmas. Then a neighbour brought up a stash of assorted old office notebooks from hiding somewhere, so the first novel was written in ‘Ledger’ and ‘Salaries’.

I wrote by hand, on A4 ruled with feint and margin, for the next 20 years, making notes in whatever was to hand, often those red shiny Silvine ones from Woolworths. Those notebooks and MSs are now safely housed in handsome red boxes in Eton College library.

When the books were finished I typed them up on my father’s old Remington. I could never write directly on to it; too much clatter, too much metal coming between me and the words.

And so it continued until my first laptop, which changed everything. Laptops — close to you, quiet, instinctive, smooth to use. I can think on to a laptop. But I still make notes in notebooks, and write by hand if I need to hear what I am writing, think slowly and carefully. Keyboards run away with you.

I shock creative writing students, their tutors even more, when I say I only ever write one draft. But it’s true. It just comes out of my head through my ears on to the page. I finish, correct and tidy up, and that’s it. If I get stuck, or reach the end knowing this one just doesn’t work, I throw it away. There’s always another idea or three waiting in the wings, or the notebook.

I think for a long time — books stew for months — make a few notes, then go. No creative writing course would accept me, but I am too old to change my ways and in any case, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Susan Hill’s Jacob’s Room Is Full Of Books is out in October.


In the sixth form we’d get assigned essays to be written over the Christmas holidays. I always did these right away, either on Friday night or Saturday morning. Not because I liked writing but because the homework cast such a blight over the holiday that it was best to get it over with. I look back on that period as a precocious summit of self-discipline.

I’d love to recapture that iron resolve now, more than 40 years later, when it takes longer and longer to settle down to things, to fight off the dread of having to concentrate, when it seems likely that the only parole from this life sentence of homework will come with dementia or death. On the other hand, when I was younger, there were more things to tempt me out of the house, so it’s actually easier to stay put, girding my loins in front of the computer.

My greatest achievement as a writer is undoubtedly the highly refined autocorrect settings on my laptop. Hundreds of words emerge fully formed from a few abbreviations. Sometimes these represent a saving of only a character or two — ‘mtn’ instantly becomes ‘mountain’ — but you put all these little savings together, over the course of a lifetime of writing and you’ve (‘uve’) probably (‘probly’) gained a couple of years even if thinking up, implementing and occasionally withdrawing shortcuts (‘ben’ becoming ‘been’ was great until Ben Webster turned into ‘Been’) will have taken far longer.

It is entirely in keeping with the vagaries of my nature that I fritter away my time fretting over things like this rather than making more meaningful programmes. (That was meant to come out as ‘progress’.)

Geoff Dyer’s latest novel is White Sands.


For years I tried to avoid building up ‘writing habits’. They quickly become writing tics that get in the way of just sitting down and getting on with putting words on a page. When working on my first novel, I wrote in the daytime as well as the night, wrote by longhand as well as on my computer, wrote in one continent or another, just so long as I had a quiet space.

But at a certain point, habits creep in. Sometimes for your own good: though I’m nocturnal I force myself to write during the day, so that I can be done by the evening. Sometimes for the sake of convenience: it’s been years since I wrote longhand — editing is so much easier on a laptop. Sometimes for no good reason except that every writer needs to have something to be irrational about: while I can still shift from one continent to the next as I write, I can no longer — as I did with my first three novels — write while looking at a wall. I need a window to look out of, or better yet, a table and chair outdoors so I’m unenclosed.

I could pretend that lack of enclosure is necessary for the imagination to feel unbound, or some such hooey. Truth is, I let down my guard, I allowed in a tic, and now it’s taken up residence and won’t be shifted.

Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire was longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize and will be released on 15 August.


I establish rules (ear defenders, Apple laptop, not online, particular font for a particular novel, dedication up front, always hunched over my desk, etc etc) and then break them without the slightest qualm. Each book has its own way of defining what its wants and needs are.

What I do know is that Art is Innocent. This is my mantra. And Ambition Corrodes the Soul.

The work likes to be fluid. Fluidity is joyful — if you are having fun you throw things at the page willy-nilly. Having said that, I generally write something, reread it, read it again, reread, read it out loud, read, reread, congratulate myself, castigate myself. Back and forth x 1,000. Phew. The first paragraph.

I never write about what I know — so the whole world is my oyster (because I know so little!)

I don’t take myself seriously. I do take the work seriously. I still don’t really consider myself ‘a writer’, just someone who enjoys writing.

I am unashamedly agenda-driven, even though I often don’t have a clue about what my agenda is.

Never mollycoddle the reader. Heaven forbid! They deserve so much better.

Nicola Barker’s latest novel is H(A)PPY.


I have a beautifully quiet workroom at home, but somehow the expectant hush in there raises the stakes intolerably, and I only use it in an emergency. Instead I put my laptop in my bag and make my way to a café which meets my needs for a steady background murmur of other people’s conversation, and decent coffee. Also, for tolerance of a gurning, teeth-picking, hair-twiddling, head-scratching man in the corner who sits for hours at a time, only buying Americanos. If anything, my present café is a little bit too white and bright and hipster-aspirational. There used to be one nearby that almost perfectly embodied my ideal of shabbiness and decay: but then it exceeded it, lost all its remaining clients, and closed.

So now I’m ensconced among coders and bike messengers and new mothers venturing out to meet their friends with tiny, tiny babies in slings. If I were a better human being, I expect I would be tempted to eavesdrop, but luckily my solipsism is great enough that I can treat the talk as a bath of lovely white noise, in which (I don’t know why) I can usually find the thread of whatever I am thinking about. 400 or 500 words is an OK day, 700 or 800 words is a good day, and anything over 1,000 words is an astonishing, greased-lightning, festal superfluke of a day.

Francis Spufford’s first novel Golden Hill won the 2016 Costa Prize for a debut novel.


I don’t have many fixed habits except this — read anything relevant for a long time, maybe for 18 months, hungrily, anywhere it can be found; make notes, most of them on the pages of the books I am reading, and few of which get looked at again; keep a dictaphone in the car for fugitive phrases; then write the thing, very fast, 2,000 or 3,000 words a day every day for a couple of months, then stop and show it to someone. It is undoubtedly in bad shape. Susan Watt, who was my editor for many years, usually said at this stage, ‘I think you’d better take another year.’ A few months later, by which time a viable structure will hopefully have made itself clear, I write it again, fast enough, quarry-ing the first version, dumping the rubbish. This is best done alone in a very quiet place, with an excellent hot water system, as a bath is the only place to untangle the knots. Never more than four baths a day. Meanwhile: love the reader.

Adam Nicolson’s The Seabird’s Cry: The Life and Loves of Puffins, Gannets and Other Ocean Voyagers is available now. 


I learned to write professionally by working for IPC comics and magazines. You were trained to make every element of the story (continuity, picture, speech balloons, characters etc) drive the plot and reveal the elements in properly paced scenes. No deus ex machina allowed. Introduction. Development. Resolution. Every manuscript I produced in my early days had exactly the same number of pages. I created a series of formulas which proved useful in writing the fantasy novels I produced in my late teens and twenties. Because I was a very fast typist, I could produce a novel in three days. Knowing precisely what element is needed as you go helps considerably.

I’d get up, make the wife a cuppa, get the kids to school, start work and have an hour off for lunch, finishing around 6 p.m. — 15,000 words a day. However, as my literary skills and ambitions grew, I became a prisoner of those formulas, knowing too many narrative tricks; so I had to rid myself of conventions I had created. I developed what I hoped was a different structure for every novel or novel sequence.

Mother London was like a wheel and the Pyat sequence essentially linear. I had written Gloriana as a simple allegory divided into four parts conforming to the seasons and offering a kind of argument to Spenser. By the time I wrote my War Amongst the Angels books, I was using a consciously musical structure and making them seem as loose and lyrical as possible. With every book I set the goals higher and made them more difficult, believing that a certain tension is added to a story which means it doesn’t get stale to the reader.

I’m slower these days and have no kids to consider but knowing what elements I need for structure still helps me work pretty quickly, though I now take three years rather than three days to finish a book.

Michael Moorcock’s Legends of the Multiverse is published by Hollywood Comics.


I write in bed next to a coffee machine.

Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story won the 2010 Salon Book Award.

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