Over the past year, Travis Elborough and I have been putting together a collection of musings, tips and essays from some of our favourite authors about the business of writing. We pored through old diaries and interviews, read memoirs, blog posts and newspaper articles, and asked some of the writers we know to share their thoughts, insights and routines. Along the way we ended up amassing a lot of writing advice, ranging from the sternly practical to the gloriously idiosyncratic. The book is out this month and we’re excited to share it so in celebration of its publication, here are six of my favourite tips, from those who do it best:
Hemingway: stop while the going is good.
‘Always stop while you are going good and don’t worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry bout it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.’
John Steinbeck: take it a page at a time.
‘Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps.’
Miranda July: don’t worry about the bad drafts.
‘I was a lot dumber when I was writing the novel. I felt like worse of a writer…I would come home every day from my office and say, “Well, I still really like the story, I just wish it was better written.” At that point, I didn’t realize I was writing a first draft. And the first draft was the hardest part. From there, it was comparatively easy. It was like I had some Play-Doh to work with and could just keep working with it—doing a million drafts and things changing radically and characters appearing and disappearing and solving mysteries: Why is this thing here? Should I just take that away? And then realizing, no, that is there, in fact, because that is the key to this. I love that sort of detective work, keeping the faith alive until all the questions have been sleuthed out.’
F. Scott Fitzgerald: don’t write and drink.
‘It has become increasingly plain to me that the very excellent organization of a long book or the finest perceptions and judgement in time of revision do not go well with liquor. A short story can be written on the bottle, but for a novel you need the mental speed that enables you to keep the whole pattern inside your head and ruthlessly sacrifice the sideshows… I would give anything if I hadn’t written Part III of Tender is the Night entirely on stimulant.’
Zadie Smith: get offline.
‘Work on a computer that is disconnected from the Internet.’
Muriel Spark*: get a cat.
‘If you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially on some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat. Alone with the cat in the room where you work…the cat will invariably get up on your desk and settle under the desk lamp. The light from a lamp…gives the cat great satisfaction. The cat will settle down and be serene, with a serenity that passes all understanding. And the tranquillity of the cat will gradually come to affect you, sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impeded your concentration compose themselves and give your mind back the self-command it has lost. You need not watch the cat al the time. Its presence alone is enough. The effect of a cat on your concentration is remarkable, and very mysterious.’
* or rather, the character of Mrs Hawkins in A Far Cry from Kensington
To all the writers out there, good luck!
Buy the Book
Being a Writer, edited by Helen Gordon and Elborough, is out 7th September 2017, with Quarto Books