Writing advice from Ian Fleming

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Literary snobs will argue Ian Fleming’s Bond novels are nothing more than pulp fiction: tawdry sex and violent action slapped around a sketchy plot. Unto them I say, go bury yourself in [select literary title of your choice and place it here] and end your high-brow prattling. Like Sherlock Holmes, James Bond has moved far beyond any genre to become an icon. More than fifty years after the publication of Bond’s first adventure, Casino Royale, the books are still being read and enjoyed. I’ll argue a work has literary merit if it can stand the test of time and continue to entertain decades after its release.

Today is Ian Fleming’s birthday (he was born in 1908). A lifetime of heavy smoking and drinking did him at the age of fifty-six. In between nicotine and alcohol, there was plenty of sadomasochistic sex. He was a man who lived life on his own terms—and although he died young, he had a good time getting there. When I discovered the Fleming novels in my early teens, I was instantly hooked. The drinking, smoking, women, exotic locales, sex, and violence filtered through the prism of the 1950s and 1960s made for an entertaining cocktail. I’ve been a fan of Fleming ever since. The aforementioned literary elitists will dismiss Fleming as a hack, but I consider him a great stylist. He never wasted a word.

His opening to Casino Royale remains a favorite:

The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high-gambling – a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension – becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it. James Bond suddenly knew that he was tired. He always knew when his body or his mind had had enough and he always acted on the knowledge. This helped him to avoid staleness and the sensual bluntness that breeds mistakes.

Before becoming a novelist, Fleming honed his writing chops as a correspondent for Reuters. He applied his journalist’s eye for detail and ability to work under tight deadline pressure to his books, usually producing a first draft in about six weeks at his Jamaican home, Goldeneye. Fleming’s biographer, Andrew Lycett, describes Fleming’s writing routine in Ian Fleming: The Man Behind James Bond:

He was not a man to tackle such projects half-heartedly. Every morning after a swim on the reef, he breakfasted with Ann [his wife] 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 at his twenty-year-old Imperial portable typewriter. At noon he emerged from the cool of his retreat and stood blinking in the heat of 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 regime, now established, continued for the next dozen years, whenever he was at Goldeneye.

To a friend, who was attempting to write his memoirs, Fleming offered the following advice:

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 that 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 . . . Don’t let anyone see the manuscript until you are very well on with it and above all don’t allow anything to interfere with your routine. Don’t worry about what you put in, it can always be cut on re-reading.

Sound advice, methinks.

Writers and doubt

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Every writer struggles with doubt. It’s a terrible moment to read something you’ve put down on paper only to realize there’s a total wreck on the page. Of course, it’s not always that bad—hopefully. The next time you’re fretting over the quality of your work, consider this letter penned by a first-time author to a friend:

I had the idea that one could write a thriller with half one’s mind, and I simply wrote 2,000 words a day to show myself that I could. I didn’t read it through as I wrote it, and when I returned to England and did so I really was appalled.

The dialogue, a lot of the descriptions and the main characters are dreadfully banal and three-quarters of the writing is informed with what I can only describe as vulgarity. Such good action moments as there are in the story have been more or less thrown away and so far as I can see the element of suspense is completely absent.

After riffling through this muck you will probably never speak to me again, but I have got to take that chance. For God’s sake don’t mention this dreadful oafish opus to anyone else, and for heaven’s sake believe, as I am sure you will after you have read a few pages, that this is not mock humility.

The author goes on for another couple of paragraphs and rips his work to shreds. Long story short, the manuscript wound up in the hands of UK publisher Jonathan Cape, who thought highly of the story and the writing. So it was, on April 13, 1953, Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, made its debut.