The hardest part writing is getting started.
Writing is hard. When I was young, a very wise person (my mother) told me that the hardest part of any job is getting started. Growing up in rural Scotland in the 1960s meant getting out of bed, in winter, when it was still dark, running down to the kitchen — the only heated space in the house — and remaining glued to the front of the Rayburn stove, every morning. ‘Come on,’ my mother would chivvy, ‘Get a wiggle on! Washed and dressed for school! The worst part is getting started.’
She was right. The worst part of any difficult task is getting started. That’s the same whether it be just getting out of the house on a freezing January morning, chopping up the kindling for the living-room fire when you get back from school and would far, far rather go and read — or writing.
Writing is a very hard thing to do. Most people — who never actually tried to write, or whose magnum opus is a semi-coherent string of tweets — think it’s easy. You can tell by their demeanour. ‘But you just sit there!’
In agony, albeit they have no idea.
I am a writer, a photographer and a musician. I am pretty accomplished in all three, but writing is by far the hardest. Way the hardest.
Today, after 50 years as a photographer, having served my time and becoming a Master, it is really quite difficult for me to make a bad photograph. I mean, I actually have to try, in order to do it. The whole thing is so reflexive for me now, it’s instinct.
Playing the guitar is something similar, though practise is always required. But it’s not hard. Indeed, it is a joy. Same goes for violin.
Writing is different
Writing, though, that’s different. That’s hard. And anybody who tells you it’s not hard is either lying or they have never tried. Writing is always the same, the horror of the blank sheet of paper. The terror of those unformed thoughts.
A teacher, when I was at art school, talked about Giacometti’s drawings often. He extolled them. He said that he was fascinated by the way Giacometti seemed to struggle to define the truth of what he was seeing. His drawings were a battlefield with hundreds of marks, each struggling to define reality. Nothing like the piquant economy of Picasso, the languorous line of Matisse or the loving familiarity of Rembrandt. Giacometti, my teacher said, made drawing look like bloody hard work — and it is!
The same is true of writing and more. If it’s not bloody hard work, you’re doing it wrong.
If you are setting out to write a book, then the scale of the task is daunting.
And once you have finished it, you’ll be exhausted. But if it’s for you, you’ll take a few days off, have a break, then get back to it.
I’ve written 12 books with nine so far published and hundreds of news pieces, in depth articles and short stories. It’s never easy. So I thought I’d give you a few pointers, drawing on my own experience and the words of other writers. I hope these will help you to bring your project to completion.
Writing tips from Rod Fleming
Always, always, carry a notebook. You can use the one in your phone and speak into it these days. Your phone becomes a notebook and compact camera then.
Make a schedule. Write a list of the ideas you would like to develop and prioritise them. This might be in the context of writing many articles, as I do, or focussing entirely on one book, which often seems a wonderful luxury to me! Keep your schedule up to date by adding new ideas, but be rigorous: do not add any old junk.
Finish one thing at a time. I am often criticised for not maintaining my ‘social profile’. Well, it’s a choice between that and writing. Even then it can be a struggle to juggle between longer and shorter projects, and running PlashMill Press. But projects do not get finished unless you finish them.
Time. I write or pursue writing-related tasks, for around 10 hours every day, all the time when I am in France. When I am in the Philippines I spend around 5 hours every day doing the same. Everybody writes at different speeds, so don’t knock yourself out about that; just write consistently.
Research. If you aren’t writing about direct first-hand experience, do thorough research. When I wrote The Warm Pink Jelly Express Train I spent months, over a period of years, in research, which included learning enough Spanish so that I could have intelligent online and phone conversations with people like the characters I was writing about, or who had other information I could use.
Unless you are so trained, don’t even think about doing everything. Look. I am a journalist. I am also photographer, a designer and an editor. I was trained in all these things and have practised them professionally for literally decades. If I decide to do my own cover, that’s me doing something I would ordinarily be paid to do for somebody else.
If you do not have this background then write. It’s enough to learn to do that well and to complete your projects. Get somebody else to do the other stuff. re-inventing the wheel is a false economy. It’s better to pay a professional than to risk spoiling the project — or spending years learning how to do things like typography and photography right.
Well, those are my trade secrets. What about other authors?
Ernest Hemingway: “I write every morning.”
‘When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write.
You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that.
For Hemingway, writing was an expression of his masculinity, which is clear from this quote.
Haruki Murakami: “The repetition itself becomes the important thing.”
‘When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometres or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m.
I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.’
WH Auden: “Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition”
“Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition,” Auden wrote in 1958.Auden himself was obsessive; a friend noted “He checks his watch over and over again,” a guest of Auden’s once noted. “Eating, drinking, writing, shopping, crossword puzzles, even the mailman’s arrival–all are timed to the minute and with accompanying routines.”
E.B. White author of Charlotte’s Web: “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”
‘I’m able to work fairly well among ordinary distractions. My house has a living room that is at the core of everything that goes on: it is a passageway to the cellar, to the kitchen, to the closet where the phone lives.
In consequence, the members of my household never pay the slightest attention to my being a writing man — they make all the noise and fuss they want to. If I get sick of it, I have places I can go. A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.’
“I try to get there around 7, and I work until 2 in the afternoon.”
Writer of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which made literary history as the first nonfiction best-seller by an African-American woman.
I usually get up at about 5:30, and I’m ready to have coffee by 6, usually with my husband. He goes off to his work around 6:30, and I go off to mine.
I keep a hotel room in which I do my work — a tiny, mean room with just a bed, and sometimes, if I can find it, a face basin. I keep a dictionary, a Bible, a deck of cards and a bottle of sherry in the room. I try to get there around 7, and I work until 2 in the afternoon.
If it’s going well, I’ll stay as long as it’s going well. It’s lonely, and it’s marvellous. I edit while I’m working. When I come home at 2, I read over what I’ve written that day, and then try to put it out of my mind.
Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-five
I awake at 5:30, work until 8:00, eat breakfast at home, work until 10:00, walk a few blocks into town, do errands, go to the nearby municipal swimming pool, which I have all to myself, and swim for half an hour, return home at 11:45, read the mail, eat lunch at noon. In the afternoon I do schoolwork, either teach of prepare.
When I get home from school at about 5:30, I numb my twanging intellect with several belts of Scotch and water ($5.00/fifth at the State Liquor store, the only liquor store in town. There are loads of bars, though.), cook supper, read and listen to jazz (lots of good music on the radio here), slip off to sleep at ten.
John Steinbeck, American Novelist and Nobel Prize winner
the following are some of the things I have had to do to keep from going nuts.
1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day; it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theatre, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person — a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.
4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it — bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.
5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.
6. If you are using dialogue — say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.
— From a letter to Robert Wallsten,
February, 1962February, 1962
Ray Bradbury, best known for his novel Fahrenheit 451
‘If you can write one short story a week — it doesn’t matter what the quality is to start — but at least you’re practicing and at the end of the year you have 52 short stories and I defy you to write 52 bad ones. It can’t be done.
“I’ll give you a programme to follow every night. Very simple programme. For the next thousand nights, before you go to bed every night, read one short story. That will take you ten minutes, fifteen minutes…for the next 1,000 nights.’
I write every morning, seven days a week. I write starting about eight o’clock and finish around eleven….I am so compulsive that I have a quota of pages.
“I write every weekday morning. I try to vary what I am doing, and my verse, or poetry, is a help here. Embarked on a long project, I try to stay with it even on dull days.’
Henry Miller, Writer and painter
1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.
2. Start no more new books, add no more new material to “Black Spring.”
3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
4. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
5. When you can’t create you can work.
6. Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
7. Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
8. Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.
9. Discard the Program when you feel like it — but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.
(Source: Henry Miller On Writing)
From the above, you should see the following:
Consistency; routine; and method are all crucial. Setting yourself a daily target is vital. If you are working, this can be difficult, but at least try to write 1000 words a day. That is about three typed pages of A4 at 12-point Times New Roman.
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Originally published at PlashMill Press.