How I Write

May 21, 2019

Sitting at a desk in a room by myself, near a window with no view. On an electric typewriter. Occasionally I’ll test out a sentence in longhand on a lined pad, but I’ve composed on a typewriter since I was twelve.

I imagined myself as someone who writes every day, from nine to one, from two to six, regular, productive, disciplined. That’s my fantasy. For reality, take this week: Sunday I spent two hours at my desk and wrote four pages. Monday I walked around the West End with a visitor from America. Tuesday I was at the typewriter from ten until noon, from two until five, and despite many breaks for coffee or Diet Pepsi, reworked one page from Sunday and wrote seven new ones. Most of Wednesday was spent reading someone else’s novel. So far today I have written four drafts – eight pages – of this article.

When really driven, working at top speed, I may manage twenty pages in a day, but between three and ten is more usual.

A lot of those pages get thrown away. Ten years ago my first and final drafts were nearly identical, except for neatness. Today I can’t read my first drafts without feeling I should give up the hopeless attempt to write. Partly this is because my critical standards are higher now than they were when I was twenty, but objectively I think they are worse because I’ve changed my habits. I no longer have to squeeze my writing between classes or a job. Writing is all that I do, and the only proof I have of work is a pile of typed pages. So I work things out on paper which I would once have done in my head. My first drafts are full of blind alleys, failed attempts, unnecessary scenes. By the second draft I have a better idea of what I want to say.

Ideas don’t usually come at the typewriter,  but away from it. It may look like loafing, but where would the writing be without the epiphany in the bathtub, the connection made while daydreaming or watching TV? I make lists and notes, storing them up for the day when I know how to use them.

Bits and pieces come together, sometimes after years. I am startled, looking through old notebooks, to discover just how long a particular idea has been in my head. The seeds of the novel I am writing now go back to a story I wrote while I was still at school. It was a science fiction story. The novel isn’t. I’m attracted to the ideas of science fiction, but I’m not primarily a science fiction writer.

Beginning to write, the plot is uncertain, but I have the end in mind, often in precise detail. Those final sentences are, in Dorothea Brande’s words, “a raft to swim towards”. Later, when the story takes an unexpected direction,  I worry about forcing the ending, and decide to change it. But usually I don’t have to. I find when I get there, the words are right, the details just as I imagined before I understood their full significance. It no longer seems as if I made It up, but as if I managed to find my way to a place that was waiting to be discovered.

Lisa Tuttle
How I write

haunted house

October 21, 2017

Frank and Katy Matson had no sooner moved to London than they found a haunted house.

Lisa Tuttle
The Spirit Cabinet

(What a lovely opening line for a story, don’t you think, boys & girls?)