Show Your Working is a monthly column exploring how some of our favourite writers get things done. This month, we take a peek into the writing routine of author Leah Swann, whose debut novel Sheerwater, an aching, powerful story of the heroic acts we are capable of in the name of love, is out now from HarperCollins.
Looking to kickstart your own writing practice? Check out our range of online Writers’ Workshops, with a great range of courses designed for writers across all genres and skill levels.
What does your workspace look like?
It’s a tiny room at the bottom of the house with a low ceiling and a view out to the garden. Beyond the camellia bushes I can see the dark blue mountains in the distance. I pulled up the old carpet and painted the floorboards white last year. I’d like to paint my desk white too, but then I’m always looking for more time to write, so spending time painting furniture doesn’t seem quite right!
It’s probably the quietest room in the house and because it’s downstairs my family don’t generally bother me (though they have been known to shout questions down the stairs). I like that it’s narrow, like a corridor and you enter the room from the side. It’s very contained—though at the moment it’s full of boxes of books, which makes it feel cluttered.
My study is my favourite place to write because of the quiet. For deep work, I find public spaces a bit too noisy, but I love having a coffee at a cafe to write notes.
The older I get, the neater I get. It’s a reflection of a need for clarity and emptiness—’a little space for the rose breath to fill’, as Yeats put it. When my kids were toddlers someone said to me ‘when you clean the room something new can happen in it’, and I’ve found that to be true—dusting and decluttering seem vital to a sense of clean spaciousness in my state of my being, thoughts and imagination.
Someone said to me ‘when you clean the room something new can happen in it’—dusting and decluttering seem vital to my imagination.
Are you an analog or digital writer?
A notebook is always with me. Sometimes I use Notes on an iPad, and I’ve experimented with note taking on the phone, but for me, a pen makes things flow better. But the stories or novels themselves I almost always compose at a desktop. My old computer isn’t connected to the internet—I use it like a typewriter. (I use my phone for quick research questions these days, but I didn’t used to).
I use a Microsoft Outlook calendar for my day job, and a phone calendar, and I’ve recently bought a physical diary to put everything in. Phone reminders are great, though I do wonder if I am outsourcing my memory too much to devices!
What sort of software and hardware do you use to get your work done?
People often encourage me to try different platforms but I always go back to Microsoft Word! When I’m in the flow of an idea, the last thing I want is to be interrupted by a technical difficulty—it’s familiar and easy and comfortable, like a soft pair of slippers.
I have a love-hate relationship with Track Changes; it’s a great tool for editing, but those pesky annotations keep reappearing, even when I think I’ve accepted everything!
What would your perfect work/writing setup look like?
My needs are pretty simple—what I have now works well. But if this is an invitation to fantasy, a white desk, a rug, a vintage chandelier, bookshelves with original editions all neatly catalogued, original art on the walls and lots of plants would all be lovely additions, along with space for an art table and a velvet armchair for reading.
Describe your writing practice?
When it comes to word count, I am much better in the morning. Maddeningly, the best ideas often come when I’m drifting off to sleep. Do I wake myself and write it down? Or sink into the blissful solace of sleep? Usually it’s the latter, and I’m cross with myself in the morning because I’ve forgotten that amazing book title or perfect scene!
When I have a run of time to write, I prefer to get started after some quiet reflection/meditation and some exercise, and then write until I get interrupted. I set a goal of 2000 words, though it’s often much less than that.
The joy of writing to me is the adventure…If it gets too mapped out or prescriptive it feels like work instead of play.
I rewrite and edit as I go, but I don’t let myself get stalled. Sometimes you’re so charmed by your own editing that you get distracted from the hard work of writing that next scene from scratch—I’ve lost days to this. However, bit of editing is enjoyable and helps me get back into the flow of the story.
The joy of writing to me is the adventure—of setting out to discover things in this fictional world that is being created and coming into to being as a I go. I have a loose idea of where I’m going often sketched in my notepad beforehand. If it gets too mapped out or prescriptive it feels like work instead of play.
Has your writing practice changed over the years? If so, how?
Drafting—I do much more rewriting now than I used to. Yes, it’s time consuming, but it separates mediocre work from good work. You have to get that first draft out—it’s the raw material, the clay that you’ll shape into the work. That’s how far the first draft is from the final draft.
How do you encourage inspiration to strike?
By trusting what I’m interested in and following where it leads. Libraries, galleries, performances. Reading and learning about other writers and artists and musicians. When I visited the Picasso Museum, even though he wasn’t one of my favourite artists (I thought), I was fascinated by how his artworks could be organised by his preoccupations. He would develop a passion for something, and interrogate it, exhaust it, and move on. He was moved by and obsessed with his own creativity.
Years ago I went to a writing class with Elizabeth Jolley, and she said she would often go for a walk, because the walk becomes your own unique experience.
How do you deal with writers’ block?
Often a bit of poetry reading will get me over the line—the incredible distilled language can detonate the dormant language or stuckness in myself.
If I get really stuck when I’m at the desk, I get up and do something else. Sort socks, cook dinner. The act of sorting brings orderliness and creates magic—think of those fairy tales where the young maiden is given the impossible task of sorting tiny seeds from grain. Often a fairy godmother comes to help—in the creative process, it’s the muse, or inspiration, that comes to help make it possible. We’re always sorting—good thoughts from bad, quality from rubbish.
Sheerwater is available from your local independent bookstore.