When I was a senior in a Florida high school we had a hippie wannabee who somehow managed to get permission from the county to teach an
elective class in World Literature. At that point he hadn’t grown long hair or
a beard yet, though I heard he eventually caught up with a vengeance on both
counts. His only open display of counter-cultural rebellion was carrying his
pack of cigarettes rolled up in the short sleeve of his T-shirt, which I thought
was pretty cool. (That’s probably all he was smoking at the time.) The class
itself was terrific, mostly because we had to read this huge 1400 page
paperback textbook in very fine print with short stories or long selections in
English from people like Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Maupassant, Akutagawa, Mishima,
and Rabindranath Tagore, to name only a few who blew me completely away. There
were also some American and English writers thrown in, mostly modern people
you’d never read in a public high school English class back then, as if
anything written after World War I simply wasn’t worth looking at.
Since I’ve always been a romantic (or a sentimental slob,
depending on how you look at it), I’ll never forget the devastating emotional
impact of Raymond Chandler’s "Red Wind." I was so completely knocked out of my
socks by the last line of William Faulkner’s "A Rose for Emily" that I wrote
several letters to friends back where I came from in West Virginia telling them
they simply had to read that story. O. Henry had nothing on either of
these guys. To this day I entertain a pleasant notion that Chandler and
Faulkner may have written those stories to prove that very point. You like
surprise endings, punk? You think O. Henry and Saki control that territory?
Well, watch this. Great writers are not above having the ego or sheer
whimsicality to take up such a challenge. The most compelling challenges after
all are often those in your own head, which is one of the reasons I decided to
write this piece.
The greatest lesson of the World Lit class, at least
in terms of its impact on my future life, came one day when our teacher talked
wistfully about how he had always aspired to be a writer himself, "but I could
never keep the seat of my pants in the chair." Well, I thought, if that’s what
it takes to be a writer, I can certainly keep my rear end in the chair. It
takes determination, though, especially for somebody as squirmy as I am.
Lots of people dream about being a writer but never get
around to it. Sometimes when people find out you write for a living, they ask
for advice, which usually boils down to the question of how to get started. I
always pass along the best counsel I’ve ever found on how to be a writer, from
a letter written by our old buddy Raymond Chandler. (I haven’t found the actual letter online, but it’s included in his published papers.) What he had to say is
directly related to the teacher’s problem of not sticking with it long enough to
get anything done.
If you’re going to be a writer, Chandler advised, you need
to set aside a block of time on a regular basis as your writing time. He
recommended doing it every day or at least five days a week, whatever you can
manage. He also advised having a particular time of day, if at all possible,
because it helps develop the habit of working. Someone once asked the prolific
Somerset Maugham if he only wrote when inspiration strikes. "Yes," he replied,
"but fortunately inspiration seems to strike every morning at nine o’clock."
When it comes to your writing time it should be sacrosanct.
Chandler’s rule was, you don’t have to write during your writing time, but you
can’t do anything else. You can’t do research, you can’t talk on the telephone,
you can’t have a conversation, you can’t engage in sexual activity, you can’t
surf the net (an addition since Chandler’s day), you can’t read a book (even
for research), you can’t write letters (or emails) because that’s not real
writing. It’s not your creative work. Otherwise, there are no hard and fast
rules except blocking out some writing time and using it for no other purpose
than writing. You can’t do anything except write or just sit there and stare
into space. Most of the time, Chandler believed, you wind up writing.
When I tell beginning or aspiring writers this, I make sure
to point out that the writing time does not have to be a huge block of time at
first. If you’re a busy person, whether at a day job or raising a family, or
whatever, you may have to start with fifteen minutes or a half hour. Even ten
minutes a day can make all the difference in the world. Back when I was a
callow youth living in New York City, it dawned on me that there were too many
massive works of great literature which sounded interesting but that I had
never read or had dipped into but never finished. I decided to devote ten
minutes a day to reading some of these classics. Among the works I read were
the King James Bible, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of
the Roman Empire
, and Francis Parkman’s multi-volume France and England in North America.
The last two took years but had the benefit of exposing me to two of the
greatest (and wittiest) stylists who ever wrote in the English language. I think I appreciated
their genius more on a certain level by taking them in small doses, though the
elegant and poetic Parkman was sometimes so compelling that I kept reading for
an hour or more. (This also happened as I got toward the end of War and Peace.)
The point is, you can get a lot accomplished by putting aside a very small
block of time, as long as you do it consistently and don’t let your mind wander
away from your purpose.
Put time aside to write, don’t give up, and eventually
you’ll start to pile up the pages. You just have to sit there. Actually, it’s
not strictly necessary to sit. If you have back problems as
Hemingway did, you can stand in front of a high desk or bookcase. Moreover, it’s
not even necessary to be in a particular place. One of the most prolific
authors around is the science fiction writer Kevin J. Anderson, who spends many
of his writing sessions taking long solitary walks or wilderness hikes while
dictating into a portable device. He keeps two full time typists busy
transcribing the material. With Dragon Naturally Speaking dictation software
and a wireless headset, you can dictate directly into your computer or portable
device while pacing up and down in your room or anywhere else. The software
eliminates the necessity of a typist. Personally I’ve always liked Sidney
‘s practice of dictating to a gorgeous secretary and then editing the
resulting file. I’ll have to try it sometime.
The biggest problem for me when I had to sit in a chair for
hours on end, especially when working on a deadline, was stress and tension,
which manifested extreme pain in my neck and shoulders. When the Writers
Guild of America, West, offered a seminar on dealing with stress, I couldn’t
get to the guild offices fast enough. The room was filled with desperate
screenwriters. I can’t remember what the medical professional/speaker did for a
living, but I’m happy to pass along his advice because it’s been very helpful
to me over the years. First of all, it’s important for anybody who works at a
desk to take a ten minute break once an hour. Stand up, walk around, hit the
john, stretch, try to relax for a bit. During the break take the opportunity to roll
your head and shoulders around until you feel some of the tension cracking
loose in your tendons and muscles. In fact you can take a moment and do that part right at
your desk if you begin to experience pain and discomfort during work. You
should also stretch and exercise your hands and fingers. Stretching is one the
best ways to deal with tension, wherever it accumulates in the body. If there
is tightness beyond the reach of stretching and conscious relaxation, the
seminar at the guild taught us to make good use of a golf ball. You lean up
against a wall or lie on the floor with the golf ball between the hard surface
and your shoulders and back. Move around as you press the golf ball against
any tight knots you find. This can hurt, but it’s
incredibly helpful.
Once a time and place to write have been established, it often helps to establish a word goal. When I got serious about
writing novels after years of screenwriting, I set it as a goal to write five
days a week and to produce 1000 words of new material each day before quitting. That’s
about four type-written double-spaced pages. Sometimes I don’t meet my goal
for the day, but I always try to make it up later in the week. Most
of the time, though, when I’m working on a first draft, I manage to get the
1000 words. If you’re writing in flow on any particular day, by all means don’t
feel you have to stop.
I chose 1000 words as the target because of a lecture by the Pulitzer
prize-winning biographer and historian David McCullough. When Mr. McCullough
was an aspiring writer in his thirties he happened to be invited to a cocktail
party somewhere in upstate New York. Knowing he wanted to write, the hostess
pointed out an older gentleman who was a novelist. The younger man became very
excited because of an incident he knew about involving President Eisenhower. The press has
always assumed that all Republicans are completely stupid and ignorant or we
wouldn’t be Republicans (or conservatives). Some snide reporter once asked Ike to name his three
favorite novelists. The President tossed off three authors without even thinking about
it, but none of the reporters recognized any of the names. McCullough knew that
Eisenhower’s favorite form of relaxation in a very stressful life was reading
paperback westerns. All three of his favorite authors were prolific writers of
these. What McCullough knew that Ike did not was that all three of his favorite
authors were actually the same person writing under pseudonyms, and that person
was now standing right in front of McCullough on the other side of the room. (I
wish I could remember the gentleman’s name, but I didn’t write it down and have
not been able to discover it on Google.) David hurried over to talk, and the
author was extremely gracious and helpful. When McCullough asked how he managed
to be so prolific, the author told him his secret: "four pages a day." And
that’s how David McCullough has written all those huge books. Four pages a day.
One thousand words.
There are plenty of writers, of course, who write more than
1000 words a day, a lot more, though they usually have enough money not to have
to work at anything else. Years ago Stephen King set a goal of 2000 new words a
day. He starts around nine in the morning and can usually finish by one in the
afternoon, though he forces himself to keep going until he reaches the magic
number. He says conditions have to be extremely dire before he’ll shut down his
computer without getting his two thousand words. Years ago he told an
interviewer that he tries to write two thousand words every single day of the
year except his birthday and Christmas. About twenty years later he sheepishly
admitted he was lying. He writes 2000 words on Christmas and his birthday too.
I hasten to add that I believe everybody needs one day in
seven to rest, but then I don’t think Stephen King considers his writing to be burdensome work–or work at all, really. To
him writing is the greatest form of fun. He’s found something in writing that a lot
of us need to discover or recover. He’s found the joy. As the great Dean Wesley Smith
often points out, what could be better or more fun than earning your living by
sitting in a room and making stuff up?
Since there are few irritants in life more unpleasant than
busybodies who hand out unsolicited advice, I should make clear that everything
I’ve written here is aimed primarily at myself. When it comes to the practical
aspects of writing, most of us need to be reminded of the basics from time to
time. I probably need the reminders more than most. It occurred to me, though,
that these self-targeted exhortations might be useful and possibly enlightening
for others as well, whatever one’s stage of development as a writer, from
beginner to old pro. They might also be interesting to people who are thinking
about writing or readers who’d like to understand those of us already bitten by
the bug. Comments are welcomed and encouraged, whether here or by email to [email protected]
AUTHOR’S NOTE: I do not pretend to be a writing guru, far
from it. In many ways I still consider myself a beginner, especially when it
comes to fiction. This piece is offered for anyone who might benefit from my
own struggles and discoveries. If you like this post, I’m thinking about doing one on story development,
dealing with how to come up with a good story from scratch, as I learned the
process from the man I consider the greatest screenwriting teacher in America,
and no, he’s not anybody you’ve ever heard of, not one of the big names who
give expensive seminars. I think he’s better than they because he deals in
practicalities instead of airy theories. His principles apply to fiction as
well as screenwriting.

My historical novel THE SECOND THANKSGIVING is available on
Amazon in both Kindle and paperback format.

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