About The Columnist
December 1, 2015
March 27, 2013
May 21, 2010
I’m often asked by hopeful writers what they need to do to prepare to write a book.
Beyond making yourself a pot of tea and kicking the cat off your office chair, nothing. The urge to write is a sacred call from the gods that must be heeded without fail. What usually follows immediately afterward, the urge to prepare to write, is the first sign of procrastination kicking in.
|“The only thing you need to do in order to write fiction is to write fiction.”
You may think, “But I need to make notes, or do research.” If you choose to do that, fine. But we’re talking about fiction here, and you don’t need to do that in order to write a work of fiction. The only thing you need to do in order to write fiction is to write fiction. Everything else is… not writing.
This is why I am so little impressed by people who announce that they are writing something. No, you’re not writing something, I want to point out. You’re standing here telling me that you’re writing something. People love to talk about their writing because it’s self-indulgent and it makes them sound important, and because it’s easier than actually writing. I detest this kind of person. If you are a writer and you want to impress me, quietly place a finished book in front of me with your name on it and then leave the room. Then it’s unnecessary for you to declaim, with a cocktail in your hand, “Yas, I’m doing a bit of writing myself, and it’s going very well, I must say.” If I feel the slightest interest in your writing, I won’t want to hear about it. I’ll just want to read it.
|“I spend a great deal of my writing time not writing. I often stare at the wall for many minutes at a time, not really thinking about anything.”
Lest this sound unnecessarily drill-masterish, I should say that I spend a great deal of my writing time not writing. I often stare at the wall for many minutes at a time, not really thinking about anything. Sometimes I will not write for days, or even weeks, as I work through a particularly difficult story situation, or as I try to get into the head of a character who is so far removed from my own life that the journey there and back is very long. Sometimes I even get sick of the book I’m working on. I have walked away from works in progress for as long as six months. During that time, I would not write a word. I have even been known to swear that I will never write again. I said that just a few months ago, in fact. And now look at me!
I still claim this as writing time. A creative writer is not a machine. She cannot be expected to produce a certain amount of product in a certain amount of time on a regular basis. It may happen that way one day, or perhaps even for several days in a row, but as soon as expectations of results creep in, the whole process changes, and the assembly line comes screeching to a halt. This kind of corporate, production oriented thinking is totally inappropriate for creative writers. In fact, it may be inappropriate for human beings in general, but that’s a separate conversation.
Here’s another contradiction for you: because writing a novel is hard work, it should be pursued on a regular and disciplined basis. The reason for this is simple. Writing a book takes a long time, and like all long projects, you’re never going to finish it unless you plug away at it. You don’t do it all at once. You do it little by little, learning and growing as you go. It’s no different than stacking a huge pile of firewood, or walking a long distance. Each day, as you gain a bit more writing experience, you are that much closer to ‘mastering’ your craft. My old karate teacher, Dr. Jorge Aigla, used to say that when you have thrown the same punch a thousand times, you have begun to learn how to punch. When you’ve done it ten thousand times, you are an expert. And an expert, he used to say, is nothing more than someone who fully understands the basics. That’s how I write–practicing the basic techniques over and over, refining them in my endless quest for mastery.
But what about research? Maybe some is necessary for your book. I can only talk about my own experience here. When I was younger, I often made a great fuss over research. Mainly, I interviewed people who had experience of the setting or the action of my story. I thought of penetrating questions, and I delved deep into their psyches, and in the end either I used none of it, or the material I gained was so minimal that it really only formed a minor part of the background. It didn’t really make my stories any better. It just made me feel important.
|“I’m a tourist in the world of reality. My best fiction is rooted in my own experience.”
These days, the only kind of research I do is passive research. I simply read about the things that interest me, and I talk to the people I happen to bump into. I allow my natural intellectual curiosity to take me down this or that path of learning, for no other reason than that it pleases me to do so. I am not making notes as I go, getting everything lined up to write a book about it. Maybe if I was a non-fiction writer, that’s what I would do. But I’m not. I’m a novelist. I’m a tourist in the world of reality. My best fiction is rooted in my own experience. This is the source of the old adage, “Write what you know.”
So, you don’t need to get ready to write. You can just start.