Monday, March 10, 2014

My writing process

One of my favourite social media friends is the lovely Lisa Tenzin-Dolma, a writer, musician, singer and dog psychologist. Last week, she was asked to write a blog on her writing process as part of a blog tour. You can find her post here. Many of her books are about dog behaviour and training, but she also writes fiction as well as lyricis. Given her experience and credentials as a published author, I was very pleased and excited to be asked to take the baton of the blog tour and answer the same questions here. There are only four questions, but I had to think about them for quite a time, so read on for my mental musings on My Writing Process:

What am I working on?

Actually (says she with slight shame), I'm not writing anything right at the moment, but I plan to start a new book in the next week as the urge to take up the proverbial pen is becoming pretty irresistible. As I've just published a book, I've been in a bit of a lull, but any of you who have read my last post will be able to see the ideas that have been swirling around in my head. I'm pretty sure now that I'm going to write the Belgium memoir first because it will go easily with the thesis I am writing.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Good question! Since I write both fact and fiction, my books differ from each other anyway, but that said, I think my memoirs might differ from others because I focus on the characteristics of the people I live among and my attempts to become a part of their world. This is especially the case with Watery Ways and Harbour Ways, which tell the story of how I came to be part of a very special community of boat dwellers here in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and my efforts to integrate. I think the setting itself is what makes these books different from others of the same genre. Most other 'boat' memoirs are set in France and are about travelling the French canals. Mine are about life in a unique Dutch 'village'. As to my fiction, one is a period novel also set on the Belgian waterways and the other is a humorous look at a girl trying to be self-sufficient and is set in the wilds of Dorset.  It's hard to say what makes them different as I couldn't really classify either of them neatly as being part of a specific genre. Suffice to say, I write the sort of books I personally like to read!

Why do I write what I do?

I write the memoirs because I need an outlet for my observations and also the for funny situations I've found myself in over the years. I love to laugh and to be able to share that with my readers too. My first book, African Ways, was inspired by reading Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence. His descriptions of the lovely Freanch folk who helped him with his house renovations reminded me of the equally lovely African folk I lived with on a farm in South Africa. I've been lucky enough to move around quite a bit in my life and I've met the most amazing people, so my memoirs are really about them as much as they're about me. In fact, my fiction serves much the same purpose. The Skipper's Child is based on my partner's youth as the son of a commercial barge skipper. It is not his story, but the plot is interwoven with anecdotes he has told me about his childhood on the waterways. My other novel, How to Breed Sheep, Geese and English Eccentrics (see sidebar), was written as a way of using anecdotes and observations from my own youth when I tried my hand at smallholding in England's west country. All the incidents concerning the animals Maisie (the book's heroine) collects and keeps are true, and quite a number of the human characters are based on observations about people I knew when I was young.

How does your writing process work?

Well, firstly, I never write anything by hand. I never have, except when I was at school and university. As soon as I could work out how to use an electric typewriter, I started typing stories. Then when I got my first computer (an old DOS) at home, I started writing short stories and radio plays. I wouldn't know where to start writing long hand, I really wouldn't. I think I'd never get further than a few pages as there would be so much crossed out and moved around, I'd never figure out what I was trying to say!

Largely speaking, I chew things over in my head for a long time before I start writing, but quite often, I only have the skeleton of the idea when my fingers touch the keys. Most of the time, that's enough for me to get going. I find it quite easy to get into the situation my characters land themselves in, so the stories generally flow quite easily - for the first draft, anyway. The editing takes much, much longer, especially for my novels. I nearly always have to re-write the beginning of my books completely. I think this is because my fictional characters always change a bit as I write, so by the end, they are not really the same people as they were when I started. As for my memoirs, the beginnings are always a bit of a fumble to get the right 'voice' the first time, so they need re-working to make them consistent with the voice that has developed later.

The memoirs usually take about a year to write, edit and produce, but the novels have taken much longer. My Eccentrics took two and a half years - not a speedy process. But that doesn't bother me. I love the process of writing what I hope is a strong story, so time is not an issue. I'm always a bit sad to finish writing a book as I have so much fun with them. The novels often go off in directions I am not expecting, so both mine have been adventures for me too.  The editing and proofreading is the hard part, but even more important in a way - just not as enjoyable as the creative part!

Thanks again to Lisa for inviting me to do this, and I hope you've enjoyed this glimpse into my writing process. Next week, I'm handing the baton on to Jo Carroll, whose lovely blog Over the Hill is the window on to her beautiful lyrical travel books.

If what I've said has interested you and you'd like to get a taste of what I've written, click on the links in the side bar and have a read of the preview sections available


  1. A great post, Val - it's interesting to see how you work. You set the bar high - I'll do my best to pick up the baton!

  2. Thanks Jo! It was an interesting reflective exercise. I've only ever done this for academic work, this was more fun!

  3. I think the ability to write well in both fiction and non-fiction genres is amazing!!!

    Oh..and anybody who wants to catch Val ''breaking the law'' should visit : where she is my lovely guest

  4. A very interesting post, Val, to see how a writer works. The idea of writing a book is completely daunting to me, and I admire your skill immensely.

  5. This was a really interesting post and answered some of the questions I would have liked to ask you. I take my hat off to you ladies, I wish I could write like you. I could probably get away with a text book but nothing as interesting or creative as you produce xxx

  6. Thank you, CarolStar! I write both, but whether I write them both well is something else :)

    Patricia, thank you! But I bet you could. You are a keen blogger, so that's a start!

    Fran, likewise :-) My writing life started with compositions at school. For me, writing my first full book was a test of endurance, but once I knew I could do it, that was it. I expect it's like that for most writers. The first one is the hardest!

  7. It's great learning more about you through learning about your writing process.

  8. Thank you, Carol. That's a nice thing to say!

  9. I loved reading all about you and your processes. Thanks for sharing.


  10. I don't know how you find the time Val. writing books certainly sounds like a long process but when it's what you love you just have to do it.

  11. Hi Val - writing is always personal in some way or another .. but it's lovely that you want to bring your encounters to life ...

    Your voice is there for us all to see - and I can only wish you luck with all your future projects. They satisfy you now .. but will provide a historical perspective for future generations ...

    You have so much on your plate - your work and your writings .. enjoy ... cheers Hilary

  12. Thank you, Nas! I'm glad you liked it!

    Anne, the will is stronger than the way a lot of the time, but you know the saying :-)

    Hilary, thank you! I never thought of the historical perspective, but that's a nice thought!

  13. Thank you Val for a peak into your writing world. Very interesting.
    Thoroughly enjoyed!

  14. Thank you for the kind words, dear Grace!

  15. I enjoyed learning about your writing process. I admire your ability to write memoirs, as well as novels. Best of luck on your new endeavor!


  16. Mucho interesante! Especially as your process is very similar to mine. I find writing by hand extraordinarily hard going, too - mine is so tatty it's illegible after the first few lines. I've been typing everything for years! Also, the way in which your editing takes as long as the writing itself, and the beginning ends up completely different from the first draft! The only big difference I can see is that I love the 2nd draft the best - when it's all THERE, and my work is to improve it.

    Okay.... I'm up to the winter after you got back from Lille, in HW...!

  17. Terry, I think I only get fed up with the editing at the fifth or sixth edits :-) What I haven't said here is that when I've done my first edits, I get others to read it and make corrections and comments. Then, I re-edit, and get other readers to comment. Then I re-edit and ask my trusted proofreaders to go through it. Then I re-edit and finally read it aloud. After that I convert it for Kindle, which takes another edit… this time, I can no longer understand what I've written myself anymore, but just for certainty, I go through it again. I nearly always find something that's been overlooked! At that point, I say 'enough' :-)

    Oooh you're halfway through HW….!!


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