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January Writing Tips: Just write the damned book already.

You wouldn’t believe how many people I meet who tell me they’ve got a great idea for a novel . . . if only they had the time to write!

“You know,” I say, “You’re right. That’s my secret. I have all this free time.”

And if only I had the time to run for President, I’d be in the White House.

Writing is the only profession I can think of that requires no license, no certificate, no special training, and no special tools. Anyone who wants to can be a writer.

All you have to do is write.

It’s completely logical why so many people talk about writing a book (or a screenplay) and so few actually do it. It’s risky. When your novel exists only as a theoretical concept, it’s the best novel ever written. Put it down on paper (I’m a writer, I get to use figures of speech) and you risk realizing that you can’t do it. Or that you’re not good at it. Or that you really don’t enjoy doing it. You can’t fail if you don’t try, right?

Here’s my theory about the New York Times bestseller list: the most successful writers aren’t the most talented. They’re the most stubborn. We’ve all read the anecdotes about how every publisher turned down John Grisham’s The Firm or Tom Clancy’s Hunt for Red October (and the list goes on and on), but the lesson here isn’t that publishers are idiots. It’s that book publishing, like TV and Hollywood, incorporates a very real, if unintentional, Darwinian selection process. It keeps out all but the most determined. You think it’s hard to write a book? It’s even harder to get a good agent (more on that in another newsletter). And unless you get really, really lucky with your first book, it’s even harder to become a repeat bestseller.

Despite the fact that we spend a fair amount of time sitting and staring into space, every writer I know is driven. Single-minded. Obsessed. We’re driven because we love writing and want to keep doing it. Some writers even say that it’s all they could ever do.

That’s not me. There’s plenty I could have done instead, but I happen to like writing enough to keep at it, beyond the point at which most others would have given up. Even those writers who had a fairly easy time of it from the start — got an agent on their first try, got a publisher on their first submission — had to keep slugging away, writing book after book, until enough readers discovered them to make them a bestseller. It takes enormous persistence and discipline.

Maybe it’s self-delusion. Sometimes I think of my career path as being like the Wile E. Coyote Law of Cartoon Physics: in the old Roadrunner cartoons, Wile E. Coyote will run off a cliff, and he’ll keep going, but he’ll never fall until he looks down.

So I try not to look down.

If this sounds obvious to the point of uselessness, you need to know that I have a sign up in my office that says JUST WRITE IT. It’s a reminder to myself not to let that annoying critical voice inside me — the one that says, Oh, man, you can do so much better than that! — win. There’s a great Russian proverb: “The first pancake is always a lump.” Your first draft is likely to be a piece of crap — and that’s okay. You can revise it. You can “fix it in post,” as they say in Hollywood.

Anne Lamott, in her wonderful book Bird by Bird, apologizes for not having a magic word or secret formula to help her writing students get started – but offers the consolation that it’s the same way for all of us. “The good news is that some days it feels like you just have to keep getting out of your own way so that whatever wants to be written can use you to write it … the bad news is that if you’re at all like me, you’ll probably read over what you’ve written and spend the rest of the day obsessing, and praying that you do not die before you can completely rewrite or destroy what you have written…”

Rather than continue to rant, I offer up a few concrete suggestions for getting your book written this year.

1. Just write it. Fix it later. That means: don’t worry about word choice or grammar. Don’t worry about getting your facts right.

2. You do have time — if you really want to do it. You have a full-time job? A family? Carve out an hour or two early in the morning before the rest of the house gets up, or before you go to work. Or at night, if you’re not too wiped out to write. Try to make this a regular time slot — do it at the same time each day, for the same amount of time. Make it a habit. I know a number of writers who finally started making enough money from their writing to be able to quit their day jobs, only to discover that, as soon as they started writing full time, they suddenly became far less efficient. All that time stretching before them in the day — the two hours of writing per day they used to squeeze in here and there now took them eight hours. There’s something to be said for not having a lot of free time to write. It tends to make you more efficient.

3. Writing is a job. Treat it like one. I don’t work at home; I have an office, and I go there to write. If you don’t have an office, you should set aside a place that is just for you and your writing – the attic, the basement, a corner of the laundry room with a screen around it. If you treat your writing like work, your family and friends should do the same, and be more respectful of that writing time. No one thinks twice about interrupting a hobby, so make it clear that it’s not a hobby; it’s work. It’s your time.

4. Be ruthless in managing your time. This is the biggest problem most writers have. I have a big old hourglass on my desk for use on those days when I’m tempted to check my Facebook page. I upend it and don’t let myself get up until the sands of time have run out.

5. No e-mail! E-mail is truly our modern curse. It interrupts our attention span, fragments our concentration. Sign off. Do not let yourself check your e-mail or go online. Use an hourglass or a kitchen timer (if the ticking doesn’t drive you crazy) for 30 minutes or an hour, during which you may not do anything but write. In order to write you really need to get into the zone, and to get into the zone you need to be distraction-free. I love e-mail — but it’s the enemy!

6. Set interim goals. A full-length novel can be anywhere from 75,000 to 150,000 words, or even longer. If you think about having to write 75,000 words – 200 pages – you’ll freak yourself out. But if you write 1,000 words a day, you can finish the first draft of a novel in less than three months, even if you take some weekend days off.

7. Work toward a deadline. Everyone needs deadlines. Parkinson’s Law says that work expands to fill the time allotted; among my author friends, I know only one who regularly turns in manuscripts before they’re due (she was probably like that in school, too). The rest of us need deadlines. My publisher sets mine, but even before you’re published, you will find that your own life gives you natural deadlines: finish that draft before you leave for your next vacation, before you turn 40, before your next high school reunion.

8. Reward yourself. In a future newsletter, I’ll write about the challenges of getting and processing feedback – but while you’re writing, it’s not unusual for your brain to second-guess everything you’re doing. Override this by promising yourself rewards for getting work done. “When I hit 5,000 words, I’m going to the movies,” or even, “When I finish this paragraph, I can have another cup of coffee.” It worked in kindergarten and it works for me now.

Go to it, and good luck. Next time someone hears you’re writing a novel and tells you that they have a great idea for one, you can just smile and nod and think to yourself, Yeah, but I’m actually writing one . . .

Writers: The Coffee Achievers

Santa didn’t bring me what I really wanted for Christmas, but I hardly expected him to. Don’t get me wrong — I was good last year, and Santa was generous. But what I really wanted was a Clover® Brewing System, the kind they have at the Starbucks on Beacon Street, and in only a handful of other Starbucks around the country.

It was a lot to ask for, I knew, even before I found out that a Clover® machine costs $12,000. But I swear, if I found $12,000 on a sidewalk, I’d buy one.

If you don’t understand why, some part of your psyche will always be a mystery to me. I don’t get people who don’t like coffee, and I distrust writers who don’t drink it. How can anyone be a writer without coffee? Writers are the original Coffee Achievers. At the risk of dating myself, I still love this commercial:

Yes, that was David Bowie … and Cicely Tyson … and Kurt Vonnegut.

Coffee has been an essential tool of almost all the greatest modern writers, and certainly of the most prolific ones. Voltaire reportedly drank 50 cups a day (and I’ve seen estimates as high as 72 cups a day). Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote what amounted to a love letter about freshly roasted coffee. Arthur Conan Doyle and his fictional sleuth, Sherlock Holmes, loved coffee almost as much as they loved cocaine (Holmes: “A cup of coffee would clear my brain”). Anthony Trollope, admirably disciplined, rose every morning at exactly 5:00 and drank his coffee before writing for three hours, after which he went to work at the post office. Edgar Allan Poe drank coffee by the gallon (the tell-tale heart’s pounding: conscience or caffeine overdose?). Maigret’s creator, Georges Simenon, could write a detective novel in three days on the power of his bottomless coffee cup. Beethoven loved his coffee strong, and Johann Sebastian Bach dedicated a sonata (BMV 211) to the glories of coffee.

I would argue that coffee has been far more important to literature than alcohol. We think of Hemingway, for instance, as a hard drinker, but he was equally addicted to coffee, and wrote some of his best work with its help. If you ever visit Montreux, Switzerland, you can take a Hemingway walking tour that includes a visit to the railway café where he wrote A Farewell to Arms.

The master Coffee Achiever, though, is surely the great Honoré de Balzac. Balzac wrote 16 hours a day on specially-prepared Parisian coffee, and no writer was ever more obsessed with it. His essay “The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee” [link: http://www.newpartisan.com/home/balzac-the-pleasures-and-pains-of-coffee.html]
describes its power and gives advice for overcoming caffeine tolerance (ultimately, by dumping raw grounds into an empty stomach; don’t try this at home). Once coffee hits your system, Balzac wrote, “ideas quick-march into motion like the battalions of a great army.” He once claimed he drank 50,000 cups of coffee during his lifetime. Maybe that’s how he was able to turn out 100 novels by the time he died, at 51. (Or maybe that’s why he died at 51.)

Coffee has been the official American drink since 1773, when colonists revolted against King George III’s tea tax by dumping a load of British tea into Boston Harbor (to which King George III allegedly responded, “So they threw their tea in the harbor. Let them drink coffee.”) No wonder, then, that the Continental Congress declared coffee the official beverage of the Colonies.

And yes, there have always been exceptions. Henry James was, of course, a tea drinker. Henry David Thoreau railed against coffee as an expensive luxury. “[W]ater is the only drink for a wise man; wine is not so noble a liquor; and think of dashing the hopes of a morning with a cup of coffee.” I bet he didn’t get invited to many parties… and of course, that was before Starbucks took over Concord Center.

Coffee is part of my earliest memories. My parents ground their own beans, years before it became common practice; the sound of the coffee grinder used to wake me up on school mornings, and I’d come downstairs to that intoxicating smell. I didn’t start drinking it myself until college, but once I did, I quickly figured out the difference between the good stuff and the – uh – not.

When I was a student, for example, you couldn’t drink coffee in England. The first time I drank coffee in London, I spit it out. (Agatha Christie, a tea drinker, once remarked, “Coffee in England always tastes like a chemistry experiment.”) Now, though, you can get amazing coffee in England – at the Monmouth Coffee Company in Covent Garden and Flat White in Berwick Street, among other places. And there are Caffe Neros all over the place, almost as abundant as Starbucks. Lee Child, quintessential Englishman, loves coffee and drinks it black (like his hero, Jack Reacher). My British-born assistant, Claire Baldwin, drinks only coffee, not tea.

Coffee gets credit for modern civilization, in more ways than one. Both the American and the French Revolutions began in coffeehouses. My friend Malcolm Gladwell, in a piece in the New Yorker [link: http://gladwell.com/2001/2001_07_30_a_java.htm] some years ago, pointed out that coffee helped give rise to the Enlightenment: Voltaire, Robespierre, Napoleon, Victor Hugo and Rousseau gathered at coffeehouses in Paris. Coffee also fueled the American Industrial Revolution, by helping workers get up early, work long hours, and coordinate their shifts.

And what are novelists but shift workers at the fiction factory? I space my working day out in cups of coffee. It’s my reward for getting work done, and also my stimulation to do more work. I need that psychoactive alkaloid stimulant crossing my blood-brain barrier. In fact, I’m sitting here drinking a perfect espresso as I write this.

Every week I buy a couple of bags of fresh-roasted Peets coffee to make at home. At the office, though, I drink only espresso, using a Gaggia espresso maker and Starbucks pods (less mess than grinding, and fresher-tasting than the Illy pods). It’s excellent, though it doesn’t compare to the coffee produced by a machine my friend Giles McNamee recently turned me onto: the Jura Impressa Z6 [link: www.capresso.com/automatic-coffee-centers-z6.shtml].

The Z6 makes espresso even better than I’ve had in Italy … almost as good as the Clover. And at a mere $3,699, it’s a bargain in comparison. I haven’t yet sprung for it, and probably won’t – but couldn’t I call it a business expense?


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