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On Process

The Last Pilot by Ben Johncock

The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has this to say on the subject of flying: 

“There is an art, or, rather, a knack to flying. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss. All it requires is simply the ability to throw yourself forward with all your weight, and the willingness not to mind that it’s going to hurt.”

What the Guide says about flying is also true of writing novels: you have to learn to throw yourself at the ground and miss.

Most people, the Guide continues, fail to miss the ground, and if they are really trying properly, the likelihood is that they will fail to miss it fairly hard. 

This also sounds familiar.

However, if you keep throwing yourself at the ground, if you keep trying to miss - and if you can set aside how much it’s going to hurt if you do fail to miss - then you might eventually find yourself bobbing a few inches above it in a slightly foolish manner.

The point is: you only learn how to write a novel by writing lots of novels. And it’s a painful process. 

It is what psychotherapists call “experiential learning”; that is, learning through reflection on doing. But don’t overdo the reflection too early on, yeah? Here, the Guide really nails it for novelists:

“Bob and float, float and bob. Ignore all considerations of your own weight and simply let yourself waft higher. Do not listen to what anybody says to you at this point because they are unlikely to say anything helpful.”

Later, when you are swooping and gliding and diving and twirling, then you can look back and learn a little of the process that got you there.

Everyone is different. What works for one writer might not work for another. The trick is to cherry-pick the advice, the techniques, the stuff that works for you. Put it in a bag that you keep under your desk. Add to it over time. Maybe remove a few items if they stop being effective. And the best way to fill your bag is to listen to as many writers as possible talking about process. How they fly. So go to readings and talks, listen to podcasts and read interviews. Fill your bag. And, later, talk about it, so others might fill theirs.

Here’s a short insight into my process:

The first bit is, in silicon-terms, a read-only kinda thing. It’s the stuff from your formative years that resonates into adulthood - the themes, ideas, experiences that tug at some deep part of you - your make-up, if you will. These might come from childhood or adolescence or later - but I’d argue that earlier is more likely than later. You might have already found these creeping into your fiction in small ways. They’ll continue to do so, even if you try to keep them out. So don’t bother. Go with the flow. You don’t choose the story, it chooses you.

It is very important during this stage to do as little as possible.

You may face criticism for this.

Resist the urge to explain yourself. It is a fragile time.

Thoughts and ideas coalesce. It is an inefficient process. It is unlikely that you’ll be able to influence the time-frame. Try to relax. Take a long shower. Walk somewhere. Keep your mind open. Drift.

If you begin to notice your mind momentarily spark and fizz, try not to concentrate too hard. Too much attention could scare these thoughts and ideas off. They’re like fawns timidly emerging from a misty woodland vista. If you stare right at them they’ll bolt.

Instead, go to the movies. Visit a bookshop. This is a very fluid time. Mooch. Read a newspaper. DO NOT WAVE AT ANYONE. Try very hard not to do much at all.

And if you find yourself at home, reaching for books or films without really knowing why, go with it. Your subconscious has detected that there might be something of use therein. 

The same may apply to other objects: photos, clippings, bookmarks. Start a collection, like a magpie. Collate. Underline words. If you feel you want to make a note of something, jot it down. Keep a note-taking device with you at all times. Some people favour a notebook and pen. I find them too slow to access, too easy to leave behind, too much of a pain in the arse to carry around. I use Notefile for iOS and Mac. A simple, robust notes app with its own syncing solution that’s as solid as the earth, and seconds away. Jot a note on my iPhone, it’s there when I open my Mac. Paste a load of stuff in a note on my Mac, it’s right there on my iPhone when I get up and leave - or run out of battery.

There will come a time (impossible to predict) when the material output of this stage reaches some kind of critical mass, and you feel compelled to Start. DON’T WHATEVER YOU DO TELL YOURSELF THAT YOU ARE NOW STARTING. Tell yourself that you started months ago. Hell, years ago. The actual writing of prose is but another stage in the process. Aside: be mindful—it is possible to start too early, and it is possible to start too late.

Do some writing.

This stage of the process is malleable. You might go back and forth between states: writing > mooching > notes > writing > movies > writing > long showers.

Relax. Trust the process.

You’re breaking in a horse, slowly, slowly.

And, if you have no idea what you’re doing, you’re doing it right.

Or, as George Saunders said, “Try to remain permanently confused. Anything is possible.”

Trust the process.

Benjamin Johncock was born in England in 1978. His short stories have been published by The Fiction Desk and The Junket. He is the recipient of an Arts Council England grant and the American Literary Merit Award, and is a winner of Comma Press's National Short Story Day competition. He also writes for the Guardian. He lives in Norwich, England, with his wife, his daughter, and his son. The Last Pilot is his first novel. The Last Pilot will be published in the US (Picador) and the UK (Myriad) on 7 July 2015.