Is there a secret sauce for being a successful writer?
Manhattan Nocturne by Colin Harrison is a compelling tale of urban intrigue and morally compromised characters, and the cynical and redoubtable New York columnist from whose perspective the story is told.
The narrator is a seasoned pro – an old hand whose fingers hurt, eyes are failing and back aches from too many days at the desk. He drives a beat-up old banger to assignments, doesn’t take notes “because the good shit sticks” and sometimes shares wisdom and observations from his life as a tabloid hack.
The best of these are some nuggets handed down by an even more wizened ink-stained mentor: “They’re not little stories; it’s all part of one big story,” and “Sometimes you have to lay brick”.
The latter phrase is a reference to the newspaper caper, where “Chronos rules” and deadlines are king. In these circumstances, scribes don’t have the luxury of having writer’s block. There is space to fill, and a column is due. Forget style and craft – when deadlines are imminent, the text just has to be there.
Writers have tools for dealing with their self-sabotaging habits, or with their perfectionist tendencies. I mentioned to my dad a while ago that I struggled with perfectionism at times – and he laughed like I hadn’t heard him laugh in years. What I meant was that in wishing to produce something of a quality, I often struggled to produce a single word. In the same way that many of my fitness regimes had struggled to secure a solid (or any) foothold, so too my writing projects had failed to escape imagination and actually reach a screen or paper.
So long as nothing is happening, perfection is still attainable.
“People delay because they think they have to be in the right mood to get something done,” says writer Andrew Santella, author of Soon, a book exploring procrastination. “They convince themselves that their mood will change in the future, so the future would be a more suitable time to act.”
Perhaps this underlines Harrison’s point: that texts, like abodes, must be constructed brick by brick. And that maybe I should be thinking “shack” rather than “mansion” in my metaphorical houses of words.
“If we make writing mystical, we place it out of our control, we give ourselves another reason not to do it,” says crime writer Laura Lippman. “If we hold our ideas to the standard of blinding love at first sight, then they will be few and far between.”
So, think prosaic and practical rather than spiritual and otherworldly.
Prolific novelist Stephen King says the scariest moment is always just before you start.
“”Don’t wait,” advises writer Napoleon Hill. “The time will never be just right.”
Author Hugh Lofting didn’t have ideal circumstances when he composed Dr Doolittle. Rather, he wrote the children’s classic in a series of illustrated letters sent home to his own children from the British trenches during the First World War.
Frank Herbert didn’t wait around for the muses to visit him before sitting down to crank out the singular world of Dune.
“I don’t worry about inspiration, or anything like that,” Herbert said of his writing practice. “Coming back and reading what I have produced, I am unable to detect the difference between what came easily and when I had to sit down and say, ‘Well now it’s writing time and now I’ll write’.”
When it was writing time, one author who seemed to have little trouble filling column inches was Charles Dickens. Fuelled by his solo peregrinations, with 32km frequently covered in walks through London, Boz, as he referred to himself, constructed veritable walls of words, phalanxes of paragraphs, canyons of chapters, and small libraries of books.
As it was for Harrison’s decrepit columnist (and, let’s face it, every writer) the clock was ineluctably ticking on Dickens. With his novels written in instalments, deadlines were a regular occurrence and challenge, but one the prolific scribbler could surmount with astonishing imagination and application. In his dextrous hands, words accumulated.
Dickens had a way of making sure word limits were reached, once describing a character having a grin that agitated his countenance from one auricular cavity to the other (from ear to ear in other words).
Fellow writer Wilkie Collins was once advised by Dickens to make his readers “laugh, cry and wait.” There was often substantial waiting as Dickens’ labyrinthine plots played out. The “waiting”, in fact, was the thing. The essence.
Another writer who used his perambulations as an intrinsic component of the creative process was poet Wallace Stevens.
For 40 years Stevens worked at an insurance company in Hartford, Connecticut. He used the 3km walk to work to compose in his head the poems that made his name. Timing words to the rhythm of his steps, he would dictate compositions to his secretary upon arrival at the office.
Other writers rely on more traditional tools of creation: their imaginations, pen, and paper.
Many years on from the books that made him famous (London Fields and The Rachel Papers), Martin Amis maintains a disciplined daily writing habit that commences mid-morning and continues to late afternoon. Beginning a new work within days of completing a book, Amis still writes seven days a week, and takes few holidays.
Interestingly, he doesn’t intricately plan out his novels in advance, but rather writes somewhat organically; the novels go where they go. Indeed, Amis is somewhat critical of novelists who do plot things out too carefully. You wonder what he would make of JK Rowling, who plotted the entire Harry Potter series out in spreadsheets.
Frances Ford Coppola has said that not knowing how to do something never stopped him from giving it a try. It’s an attitude that has served Coppola well, especially in his successful post-directorial life as a winemaker.
A surprising number of successful artists lack what might be considered skills essential to their craft.
Paul McCartney, Phil Collins and Dave Grohl can’t read music. Fashion designer Thom Browne has no sketching ability.
Restaurant reviewer AA Gill suffered so badly from dyslexia that he dictated rather than penned his columns because no one but he could understand his writing.
“The perfect,” wrote polymath Barry Jones in his recent book, “is the enemy of the good.”
Jones was talking about political policy, but the aphorism applies widely, and perhaps particularly to writing.
Another scribe has weighed in with advice for those who might follow in his steps.
“If you wish to be a writer,” said philosopher, author, and former slave Epictetus, “write.”