10-Minute Writer's Workshop: Alexander McCall Smith

Nov 25, 2015

Recently, the author of The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency series Alexander McCall Smith sat down with us in the Portsmouth Music Hall green room to talk about his writing process. The conversation is part of a series we call the 10-Minute Writer's Workshop.

Credit Sara Plourde

What's harder to write -- the first sentence or the last?

I think the first sentence is harder and is immensely important, because in a lot of cases that’s the only sentence someone is going to read. And so you have to be very powerful in your first sentence.


What is your process - sitting and then it comes to you, or it comes to you and then you sit?


I think you just have to jump into it. I don’t sit there and plan it extensively. I sit down and it comes. I think a lot of writing involves getting in touch with one’s subconscious mind and I think the subconscious mind is often the source of fiction and therefore, many of the sentences that are going to appear in the book are there, made by the subconscious mind, and you have to facilitate their expression.

Are there any habits you would encourage a new writer to pick up or avoid?


Have the courage of your convictions and write from the heart. Don’t try to write what you think other people are going to want you to write because that will mean what you produce isn’t really authentic to you. Never wait for the muse to tap you on the shoulder because the muse doesn’t do that. You’ll sit there for a long time or you’ll get up and do something else. So have a regime, write and set a target.


Do you edit as you go or do you wait until the end?


I do comparatively little editing. In my case, it comes out fully formed. I will do a certain amount of editing, probably I’ll do that when I finish a chapter. But generally speaking, it comes out in the final form.


What is your personal worst distraction for getting work done?


For most writers now, I suspect that email is the problem. In that, email is a constant way of being in touch with people and being distracted by people. And if you sit there and you think, “Well maybe I’ll just check my email,” that’s the road to run. I think what you need to do is turn your email off.