Many successful writers have a trait in common: tenacious productivity.
In the forward to Charlie Martz and Other Stories: the Unpublished Stories of Elmore Leonard, Peter Leonard recalls his renowned father’s writing routine.
This was in the time before Elmore was able to devote himself to novel-writing full-time. Rising at 5am, Elmore set a rule for himself: fill two pages of writing before going to work at his day job producing copy at a Detroit advertising agency.
Astonishingly, the writer of Rum Punch (Jackie Brown), Get Shorty, and Out of Sight – which were all adapted into screenplays – kept up this stringent quotidian routine for almost 10 years.
So disciplined was Leonard during his morning ritual that he didn’t permit himself to turn on the water for his coffee until he had filled a page with his hand-written script.
I have been thinking somewhat about writers and their routines lately.
When I started blogging earlier this year I did so with the aim of producing one post per week. Alas, I’ve fallen short of that modest aspiration.
So how do writers – real writers – do it? By what elusive alchemy, what kind of graft enables productive, successful writers to link words into phrases, paragraphs, chapters and books that touch emotions, transport, engage, or at least entertain?
With some it obviously comes very naturally. JK Rowling has no problem cranking out sentence after virtuoso sentence. (I haven’t read the Harry Potter series, but have found the Robert Galbraith books to be enormously addictive).
Other writers overcome formidable hurdles to tell their stories.
Consider the example of Jean-Dominique Bauby. The French magazine editor wrote a single, slender novel, but it’s a masterpiece.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was written after Bauby suffered a massive stroke. Following his emergence from a three-week coma, Bauby was left with “Locked-in” syndrome. Speechless, immobile and bed-ridden, the only part of his body he had control over was his left eyelid.
Yet using a convoluted and laborious system, Bauby was able to communicate with the outside world, and write his book. With the help of an assistant reciting the alphabet while taking dictation, Bauby would blink when the letter he wished to use was uttered.
Imagine the force of will required to write a sentence or paragraph – let alone a whole novel – in this style. It must have taken incredible concentration, fortitude and rigour, as well as skill, for Bauby to persist in this manner.
The result, though, is a treasure – an amazing story beautifully told, every sentence a lovely bagatelle.
Fact: I am not going to reach that standard (even with most of my faculties intact) – few do, including scribes such as Leonard, whose stock-in-trade was meticulously structured plots, well-drawn characters, and snappy dialogue.
There is a useful lesson for us workaday bob-a-job writers to keep in mind: don’t let perfection – or the pursuit of it – get in the way of tapping out a good yarn.
“If we make writing mystical, we place it out of our control, we give ourselves another reason not to do it,” says novelist Laura Lippman.
“If we hold our ideas to the standard of blinding love at first sight, then they will be few and far between.”
Ideas, she means.
It’s advice that nicely complements that given by Dr Nick Baylis, a specialist in positive psychology from Cambridge University.
Baylis says that to combat the paralysing effects of perfectionism, a powerful principle to keep in mind is that the more fully formed attempts we make at any task (not just writing), then the greater the probability of scoring a recognised success.
In basketball parlance: you miss 100 per cent of the shots you don’t take.
The idea is not so much that quantity trumps quality; it’s more that quantity could, and just might (and probably will) – inevitably, inexorably, or simply hopefully – lead to quality of some sort.
Theorising about, studying, discussing, benchmarking – these are no substitute for actually making, for doing.
Baylis quotes Dean Keith Simonton from the University of California, whose analysis of accomplished lives demonstrates that the basic rule is consistent across all disciplines, and applies at any age of life.
Simonton provides the example of William Shakespeare, who penned Hamlet one year, Troilus and Cressida the next, and close to 40 major works in all. About a quarter of these are celebrated as part of the Western Canon of great works; others have slipped into obscurity and are rarely performed.
The Bard didn’t know which of his plays would succeed and which would eventually fade, and it wasn’t a concern; productivity was king. The Globe Theatre required material, and he was the content provider. So he sat his backside down, pulled out his quill and filled parchment on demand. 1
“History shows how every high achiever relies on this same brand of tenacious productivity to eventually make progress,” Baylis says. “Their most prized accomplishments are invariably surrounded by a vast number of missed shots.”
To overcome perfectionism’s pernicious influence, we should aim to be as productive as possible, not as perfect as possible. 2
Think: by producing a lot of stuff, you might just come up with the occasional pearl.
“Productivity,” says Baylis, the author of Learning from Wonderful Lives, “brings a profound pleasure.”
One has a sense that this was certainly the case with Leonard, who according to his son, could get lost in his writing regardless of what was going on around him.
His was a writing style that evolved over time, and with considerable practice.
By the time he’d earned the title of “master crime writer” – at least a few decades into his career – Leonard had developed his famous “10 rules of writing”. 3
It took trial and error for him to hone these, and to find his self-styled voice.
When he was ready to make run into full-time novel writing, Leonard had accumulated about 7,300 hours of practice in his early-morning sessions alone.
Old “Dutch” Leonard didn’t have truck with flowery prose. He didn’t sit around waiting for the writing muses to visit; he just got it done. And in at least one major category Leonard even out-Shakespeared the Bard: 45 major works to 37.
- Interestingly, Shakespeare didn’t often get distracted by his Twitter feed, and wasn’t overly concerned with how his productions trended on Facebook. His Instagram regularly went neglected, and his LinkedIn profile was an afterthought at best.
- Perhaps there is a corollary between Baylis’s “Shakespeare principle” and Malcolm Gladwell’s assertion that success at the highest levels of anything requires 10,000 hours of practice.
- According to Leonard, writers should never start their stories with descriptions of the weather, only use the verb “said” to carry dialogue, and stay away from adverbs to modify “said”. He didn’t like exclamation marks, and advised against detailed descriptions of characters. His most important rule: If it sounded like writing, Leonard rewrote it.