Nearly three years ago, my then Creative Writing course leader suggested to all of us The Art of Writing Fiction by Andrew Cowan. ‘Do a Masters in a summer’, as she described it. Written by the Director of Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia (perhaps the most prestigious creative writing university in the UK), The Art of Writing Fiction is part-textbook, part-memoir, and part kick-up-the-arse to write.

Now that it’s coming to summer, he says staring out at an oppressively gray sky, and with months before I actually start my Masters, I thought now was finally the time to grab this book off the shelf and give it a read. And, as a text that’s fit-to-burst with Creative Writing exercises, I thought I would share the results on my blog, alongside reflections which I can only imagine will start laced with self-loathing, and end filled with self-confidence. If you’d like, you could complete these exercises alongside me over the next twelve weeks.

Before the first exercise, however, a couple of takeaways from Cowan’s introduction. Firstly, he writes that ‘I don’t believe you can be a writer unless you are also a reader’: a statement echoed by almost all my contemporaries. For this reason, I’ll be posting the books I read onto Instagram (@md_wheatley), with reviews to follow on my blog when they’re finished (a while for House of Leaves, judging from the size of it). Cowan also suggests keeping a log of your reading, noting particularly impressive instances of craft or turns of phrase, so as to learn from past practitioners. The aforementioned quote is now at the top of that notebook. And, even if nothing comes from this log, it still means that I’ll become a walking repository of literature quotes which I can bust out whenever I feel like looking smart (read: pretentious).

 

Exercise One: ‘When, Where, What?’

For the first exercise of the book, Cowan describes the numerous and varied routines of literature’s most celebrated authors. These include George Orwell’s bed-ridden writing of 1984 whilst suffering from TB, to Ernest Hemmingway writing naked at a lectern. Then, he turns the attention to you, with a series of seven questions. He stresses, ‘if there’s no discernible pattern, that’s fine, for now. We’ll come back to this later’. My answers are included below, and, if you think their flowery nature suggests over-editing, I’m sad to inform you that’s genuinely how my thoughts manifest.

Where do you write?

An unclear answer to his one. I may write in my room during the day, but this is almost wholly unsuccessful. I may claim the entire dining room table at 2 o’clock in the morning, and find this much more fruitful. Or, as on this occasion, I may sit alone in the spare room.

When do you write?

The kiss-of-death answer to this question, even though I’ve yet to read ahead: ‘when the urge takes me’. Even writing it now, with its suggestion of a crack-habit only surfacing when it needs to be fed, it seems ludicrous. Waiting for inspiration is like waiting for Godot: nothing comes of it, and you miss one-thousand opportunities whilst doing so.

Which days of the week?

At least this answer provides some semblance of self-discipline: every day. At this stage, that’s the only requirement I set myself. No arbitrary word or time limits. Just write every day, and then you may dare to call yourself a writer.

What implements do you use?

A question here that exposes me as a freak: writing straight onto a laptop scares me. Despite there being literally nothing of the sort because CTRL+Z exists, in my mind the computer, the word processor, holds a degree of permanence. As such, I scribble everything with pen and paper first: pen and paper is where I draft. There, it can be as horrendous as I like (and it often is), because it’s only meant to be a draft. When I transfer it to the laptop, then I can start to revise.

What rules do you set yourself?

I don’t, although I’m sure I should. As I complete this exercise, my phone lies abandoned downstairs, which at least removes one distraction. But, at the same time, I don’t believe one can set a rule like ‘no internet’ as research should be a constant requirement. We’ll see how much that answer changes after twelve weeks.

What excuses do you make?

A wonderfully loaded question that hits the heart of any writing student. The list is frankly endless. ‘It’s not good enough’. ‘Nobody would want to read it’. ‘This isn’t a career’. Having wrote those, three is probably enough. Otherwise this will all get a little bit down.

 

Lastly, Cowan then concludes this exercise by considering all the routines he has listed. He summarises that most, but not all, successful writers would appear to write in the morning (bad news for me). He suggests two possible reasons for this; that imagination comes best when closest to slumber, to the ‘dream-state’; or that it’s simply the case that in the morning there is time to write before the demands of the day. Perhaps, then, my night-writing is excused as it fits with both.

 

Takeaways

Having completed this first exercise I can already feel myself returning to the disciplined, self-reflective headspace any writer should inhabit. As I re-read my answers to those questions, I can see multiple flaws which need ironing out. But, at the same time I feel excitement of how things may change over the next twelve weeks.

 

Tomorrow: Distractions.

Find all posts in this series here.