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Archive for January, 2012|Monthly archive page

Writing advice from Ernest Hemingway

In author, writers, Writing on January 31, 2012 at 8:54 am

Last night, while reading Hemingway: A Biography by Jeffrey Meyers, I came to what I consider the best part in any literary biography: a breakdown of the subject’s writing process. Even if reading the biography of an author I don’t necessarily enjoy, I’m always fascinated by the way they work and the approach they take when hunkering down with a manuscript. Last week, I posted Ian Fleming’s advice on writing. Here, according to Meyers, is Hemingway’s strategy:

    Study the best literary models.
    Master your subject through experience and reading.
    Work in disciplined isolation.
    Begin early in the morning and concentrate for several hours each day.
    Begin by reading everything you have written from the start or, if engaged on a long book, from the last chapter.
    Write slowly and deliberately.
    Stop writing when things are going well and you know what will happen next so that you have sufficient momentum to continue the next day.
    Do not discuss the material while writing about it.
    Do not think about writing when you are finished for the day but allow your subconscious mind to ponder it.
    Work continuously on a project once you start it.
    Keep a record of your daily progress.
    Make a list of titles after you have completed the work.

An interesting list, to be sure. The one thing that struck me was his advice to stop writing when things are going well to ensure you have something to write about the next time you’re at your desk. I’ve done this from the beginning, and it serves me very well. Working in “disciplined isolation,” however, is not something I can do. With a 10-month-old baby in the house, I have to change my fair share of diapers!

As for not discussing the work in progress . . . that’s a rule I break all the time. I tend to obsess on a story once I get going on it. If I’m stuck, I complain bitterly to my wife. If things are going really well, then I’m more than happy to blather on about it. I also never read a manuscript I’m working on until I’m completely done with the first draft. I think reading what you’re putting down on paper as you go along is a terrible idea. Personally, I’m guaranteed to fall into the trap of early editing and start rewriting everything before I have the rough draft done. That, for me, is the kiss of death.

I don’t write early in the morning but late at night when the house is dark and quiet. I’ll write for several hours if I can—but if the words aren’t flowing, I won’t force it. Admittedly, I don’t write slowly or deliberately. If the idea is fully formed in my head, I frantically pound the keys to get it down on paper before it vanishes into the ether. My revisions are slow and deliberate, but my first draft is a race to get the story out.

According to Meyers, “It often took Hemingway all morning to write a single perfect paragraph.”

Wouldn’t it be nice to have that luxury of time?

The James Patterson Syndrome

In author, books, publishing, writers, Writing on January 28, 2012 at 8:02 am

Watching TV last night, I saw a commercial for the latest book churned out by the James Patterson factory. My general rule is to chat only about authors I like and not badmouth those I don’t—but Patterson drives me crazy (my apologies to the impressive number of Patterson fans out there). I tried reading Kiss the Girls several years ago when the Morgan Freeman movie hit theaters but just couldn’t get through it. The writing was pedestrian and the one-page chapters distracting. That aside, it’s not his writing that bothers me . . . it’s his approach to writing.

Those of us who write do so because we love the act itself. It’s wonderful to see your thoughts take shape on a page, and it’s an amazing feeling to finish a story and hold in your hands a completed manuscript. While I have yet to score a bestseller and certainly can’t afford to write books fulltime, I dream of the day—if it ever arrives—when I can devote myself fully to the profession. Of course, I want to make enough money doing it to sustain myself and my family, but my passion for writing is the primary motivator.

So, what does this have to do with James Patterson?

I don’t consider him a true writer. He’s more of an idea factory who leaves the writing to others. You’ll notice on most of his recent efforts, it’s his name and that of another author’s on the cover. He’s certainly not the only guy doing this these days. Tom Clancy and Clive Cussler are two others who come to mind—but Patterson seems to have taken it to a whole other level. In 2009, the Hatchette Book Group announced it had signed a deal that would see Patterson bang out 17 books through 2012 . . . that’s 17 books in three years. According to his website, Patterson already has four books due out this year: one in March, two in May, and one in July (he already released one earlier this month). Last year, he put out nine. Some may consider Stephen King a factory (personally, I’m a fan), but at least the man writes his own books.

I can only assume at this point in his career, Patterson doesn’t care about any sort of artistic integrity or quality control. He merely wants a paycheck. My feeling is that if you want to write books, then write books—don’t contract someone else out to do it. The publisher is also to blame here, as it obviously doesn’t care what’s slapped between two covers. You can’t churn out nine books in a year from one author and expect to deliver a quality product.

Ultimately, it’s the fans who are cheated.

My rant is over. I don’t know—maybe I’m just being overly critical.

The Versatile Blogger Award

In Uncategorized on January 27, 2012 at 8:23 pm

Julie, the talented scribe over at Word Flows, was kind enough to bestow upon me the Versatile Blogger Award. Thanks, Julie! The honor comes with a few conditions attached; mainly, I share seven things about myself and point readers to fifteen other blogs. Would it be okay if I cheat a little here and suggest, say, four blogs? I’d post more but am battling a miserable cold. I hope this does not condemn me to Blogosphere Purgatory!

Seven things about myself:

1. I’ve never read a book of mine after it’s been published, as I’m afraid of what I might find.
2. I once sent Phil Collins several of my books, and he responded with a very nice thank you letter. The man is legend.
3. I can quote every line in almost every Dirty Harry movie.
4. I think Daniel Craig is a better James Bond than Sean Connery.
5. The working title for my next book is The Case that Foiled Fabian.
6. When I’m in the UK next week, I plan to gorge myself on roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.
7. I wish I could write like Ian Fleming.

Now, for those blogs. Here they are in no particular order:

Photobotos
Oktopod
Ooa revo
Eat, Sleep, Television

‘The Writer’s Weirdness’

In writers, Writing on January 27, 2012 at 10:25 am

Browsing other book-related blogs this morning, I came across the following video on Wragsthinks. Always interesting to hear writers discussing their habits.

My future biographer’s great dilemma

In Random thoughts on January 26, 2012 at 8:51 am

Having recently read biographies of Ian Fleming and Roald Dahl—and currently reading one on Hemingway—I have concluded that my life is pretty dull. I have not overseen covert operations for British Naval Intelligence in a time of war (Fleming), nor have I flown with the Royal Air Force against the Luftwaffe in North Africa (Dahl). Add to this embarrassing list of confessions the fact I have not hunted big game in the Serengeti or fished for marlin off the coast of Cuba (Hemingway). What, you ask, have I done? I once met Duran Duran lead singer Simon Le Bon in the Hard Rock Casino’s gift shop in Las Vegas. All I could manage to say at the time was, “My name’s Simon, too.” He responded, “It’s a bloody good name, isn’t it?”

This apparent lack of adventure will, I’m sure, present a challenge for my future biographer—as will my mundane love life. I have not bedded a stripper named “Stormy,” nor have I had an affair with the wife of a powerful media magnate (Fleming). I did not marry a successful actress (Dahl), nor have I lusted after a nurse who tended to my war wounds (Hemingway). On that point, I’ve never gone off to war nor been wounded in battle. What will my future biographer write about? It’s hard to say, as I won’t be leaving him/her much to work with. But it’s more than just my boring life that’s going to cause problems. It’s the lack of letters.

The Fleming, Dahl, and Hemingway biographies all list as primary source material letters written to and by their subjects. Gonzo scribe Hunter S. Thompson, believing he would someday make it as an author, had the amazing foresight to keep carbon copies of every letter he ever wrote. Today, letter writing—in the traditional sense—is pretty much a dead art form. We opt instead to send e-mails, which most folks delete as soon as they’ve read them—or we send quick text messages comprised of acronyms. L.O.L. Perhaps even more egregious is the fact many folks rely on Facebook status updates to convey what’s going on in their lives. Does this mean biographers of tomorrow are S.O.L.? Where is the primary source material for tomorrow’s biographies going to come from? Are there aspiring writers and artists out there saving their texts, e-mails, status updates, and “Tweets”?

Sitting on my bookshelf waiting to be read is Speaking for Themselves, a volume of letters exchanged between Winston Churchill and his wife, Clementine, over the long course of Churchill’s years in public service. How different that book would be if it were collection of “Tweets” no more than 140 characters long.

A place to write

In creative spaces, writing rooms on January 24, 2012 at 10:19 am

As stated in a previous post last year, my wife and I use one of the bedrooms in our house as an office. Our desks are pushed against opposite walls. My side of the room is dominated by three overflowing bookshelves; her side is pretty sparse. To be honest, I’ve sort of annexed her desk and now use it as a repository for random odds and ends.

While I someday hope to have a writing room that’s completely my own, what I’d really like is a writing hut. Roald Dahl had one. Dahl’s recent biographer, Donald Sturrock, described the author’s shed in the brilliant Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl:

Roald now found that he wrote best when he was undisturbed in his hut. It was built out of a single layer of bricks, insulated with polystyrene and divided into two rooms, neither more than six feet wide. In the front room he stored his files, letters and manuscripts in two ancient wooden cabinets, on top of which were perched two tiny model aeroplanes with oak propellers and long slender wings covered in varnished silk. In the opposite corner lay a rubber exercise mat and several sets of barbells. The backroom was his writing space. There, for four hours a day, he could separate himself from the main house and cut himself off from the world of nannies, nurses, schools and shopping. Seated in a soft leather chair—which he replaced with a chair of his mother’s after her death—with his legs up and covered in a warm blanket, he created a world where his imagination could run free. It was not dissimilar to the cockpit of a plane. With the curtains drawn, and only the occasional sound of Claud’s cattle chomping the grasses outside to disturb him, his green baize writing board and yellow U.S. legal pads in front of him, his sharpened Dixon Ticonderoga in hand, and a tableful of little treasures at his side, he could escape into an alternative existence and become a “truant boy” once more.

I researched the matter this past weekend and stumbled across the following slideshow, featuring the writing huts of famous authors. And from the Scottish Book Trust, here’s how to transform that empty garden shed into your own writing retreat.

An e-book can’t preserve family memories

In books, e-books on January 23, 2012 at 7:55 pm

For Christmas, my very generous wife gave me a Kindle Fire. Her message was clear: “E-books are the future. Why clutter our house with more books, when you can download them on this incredibly nifty gizmo and free-up some much needed shelf space?” While I’m certainly not a luddite, I am one who tends to romanticize the past and have long wished I lived in the 1920s or 1940s. In the twenties, it was fashionable to smoke and drink and hang out in Paris. In the forties, it was fashionable to smoke and drink and wear a fedora. There was, of course, WW2—but seeing as I’m a geek for history, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

But, I digress . . . back to the Kindle Fire. The other night, I downloaded my first two books: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse. I plan to read both when I fly to England next week. I’ve already read the first few pages—or is it screens?—of Darkness and found it to be an okay experience. For one who loves the physical feel of a book, however, and the act of turning the page, it is slightly odd. My day job requires that I sit for eight hours and stare at a computer screen. If I’m working on a book, then I stare at a screen all evening after I get home. That being the case, I don’t really want to stare at another screen when I read for enjoyment. Don’t get me wrong: I’m willing to give the Kindle Fire a chance—and I do love the fact you can use it to stream movies. I’m just not sure it’ll ever become my preferred method of reading.

All this was driven home to me the other night as I casually browsed one of my bookshelves. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular—just looking. For no reason whatsoever, I pulled my copy of Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher from the shelf and randomly flipped through its pages. In the middle of the book, I came across four black-and-white photographs of my grandfather as a child. One picture, taken in 1920 when he was five, shows and his two sisters posting in their old-fashioned swimsuits in a Blackpool portrait studio. It was a pleasant surprise stumbling across these images I hadn’t looked at in several years. This sort of thing can’t happen with an e-book. Books (the paper variety) are great companions. Between their pages they can hold mementos of your life, whether it’s photographs, an old love letter, or a faded theater ticket. They can be reminders of friends and family and special events. Fred Vargas’s The Night’s Foul Work will always be the book I read on my honeymoon in Maui. Between its pages is the receipt for the whale-watching tour my wife and I went on.

Growing up, my parents always gave me books for my birthday and Christmas. Without exception, they always wrote something on the inside cover, saying they couldn’t wait to read my first published book. They offered nothing but encouragement, and those books are now something I treasure. You can’t do that with an e-book. You physically keep certain books with you throughout your life because of the memories attached to them. Is it possible to be that sentimental about an e-book?

I don’t think so.

Bookshelf porn

In creative spaces, Random thoughts on January 23, 2012 at 12:50 pm

I won’t lie: I fantasize about home libraries. I imagine sitting in a well-worn recliner, drink in hand, surrounded by overflowing bookshelves that tower floor to ceiling. Perhaps there’s a wetbar in the corner, where I can pour myself a gin and tonic.

Right now, I have several bookshelves (including three in my home office) in different rooms of the house. The one downstairs is used not only for books, but photographs and a couple of vases. My wife is big on decorating bookshelves with things other than books. This is a sin. I see nothing wrong in stuffing a bookshelf to full capacity and beyond with nothing but books.

To that end, fellow scribe DJ Paterson posted the following on his blog, and I feel compelled to share it here. This truly is bookshelf porn. Don’t drool.

Writing advice from Ian Fleming

In author, manuscript, writers, Writing on January 22, 2012 at 1:13 pm


I love reading biographies of my favorite authors. Among the few books I’m reading concurrently (it’s a terrible habit) is Ian Fleming: The Man Behind James Bond by Andrew Lycett, first published in 1995. If your exposure to Bond is limited to the movies, I highly suggest you check out Fleming’s novels. The only similarity between the books and the films are the titles and the names of characters. Fleming’s stories are far grittier than what you see on the silver screen. The writing is also superb.

Fleming wrote all fourteen Bond novels at his Jamaican retreat, Goldeneye. Here, as described by Lycett, is his writing routine:

Ian had finally decided to launch into the novel which had been rattling around in his head for so long. He was not a man to tackle such projects half-heartedly. Every morning after a swim on the reef, he breakfasted with Ann in the garden. When he had finished his scrambled eggs and Blue Mountain coffee, he kissed her and made his way across the small veranda into the main living-room. He shut the big doors, closed the jalousies, and opened his big roll-top desk. For three hours, he pounded the keys of his twenty-year-old Imperial portable typewriter. At noon he emerged from the cool of his retreat and stood blinking in the heat of the day. After lunch, he slept for an hour or so, and then, around five, he returned to his desk to look over what he had typed earlier in the day. When he had made his corrections, he placed his manuscript in the bottom left-hand drawer of his desk. Ian was a man of routine, and that writing regimen, now established, continued for the next dozen years, whenever he was at Goldeneye.

The book would eventually become Casino Royale. It’s interesting to note that Fleming edited the manuscript as he went along. I’ve tried doing this but find it to be the kiss of death, as I end up scrapping everything I’ve done. I generally try to get the whole thing down on paper before I take the red pen to it.

Fleming, needless to say, took his writing very seriously. Here is some advice he sent to a friend, who was struggling with a manuscript. It’s great and probably pertinent to every writer:

You will be constantly depressed by the progress of the opus and feel it is all nonsense and that nobody will be interested. Those are the moments when you must all the more obstinately stick to your schedule and do your daily stint . . . Never mind about the brilliant phrase or the golden word, once the typescript is there you can fiddle, correct and embellish as much as you please. So don’t be depressed if the first draft seems a bit raw, all first drafts do. Try and remember the weather and smells and sensations and pile in every kind of contemporary detail. Don’t let anyone see the manuscript until you are very well on with it and above all don’t let anything interfere with your routine. Don’t worry about what you put in, it can always be cut out on re-reading; it’s the total recall that matters.

Some interesting food for thought.

Happy scribbling!

7 X 7 Award

In Uncategorized on January 22, 2012 at 9:39 am

The talented and charming scribe known about these parts as “the 4 a.m. writer” (or, simply, Kate) was kind enough to bestow upon me the 7 X 7 Award. What is this, you ask? Just a nice little bit of recognition. All I have to do is share seven semi-interesting things about myself, point readers to seven previous posts I’m proud of, and suggest seven other blogs worthy of your attention. Here goes . . .

Seven things about me:

1. I’ve never shoveled snow.
2. I’ve never watched an episode of “I Love Lucy” or “Leave it to Beaver” in its entirety.
3. I’m a diehard Genesis fan and will defend that band to the very end.
4. I think a nice single-malt scotch is one of life’s greatest pleasures.
5. I’m a night owl and enjoy writing when the house is dark and still.
6. A lot of writing ideas tend to hit me in the shower.
7. I think a gin and tonic sounds pretty good right about now.

As for seven posts I’m proud of . . . I only just fired up this blog last week after being away from it for more than a year. Everything prior to last week is pretty much out of date, so I’ll just nominate everything I’ve done in the past seven or so days!

The seven blogs I suggest you check out are:

1. 4amwriter by the aforementioned Kate, a great writer happy to share her thoughts on writing and the pursuit of the craft.

2. Limebird Writers.

3. Abominations – A blog on books, art, and other civilized pursuits.

4. 1001 Scribbles.

5. Three Descriptors – A blog that deals, in part, with kids, books, and writing–three things that dominate my life.

6. Goodbye, Pert Breasts – It’s not porn . . . merely the struggles of a simple bloke coming to terms with fatherhood. Funny stuff.

7. David Francis Barker Poetry and Painting – I only discovered David’s blog this morning (after he started following mine). His paintings and poetry and moving.

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