15 Nov 2014
Sixteen agency authors describe their writing habits.
There comes a point in the cycle of writing a book when you have to draw a line and say: ‘I cannot afford to do any more research because I have a deadline to meet and I need to start writing now’. I know some writers work on a chapter by chapter basis, researching and then writing up before moving on to the next chapter. I’ve never been able to work like that – or to employ others to do my research for me. The best part of a book for me is always the research: exploring, investigating, putting the jigsaw together in ways that usually confound my own preconceptions. I need the overview of the whole subject before I can start writing and to get a coherent overview I have to do my own research: if not, I would miss the nuances, the connections, which create the bigger picture.
Getting the right opening sentence is always difficult and I’ll have been thinking about it for weeks, if not months, before I begin writing: without it I find it impossible to start. A looming deadline does much to focus the mind but I always try to leave a year to write up research which has taken two or three times that length of time to do. I begin by operating normal office hours but, as I work better in the morning and the deadline gets closer, I get up earlier and earlier till I’m working from 4am till the point of collapse in the evening – and that’s seven days a week till it’s done.
The two essential things I need to be able to write are an unspoilt rural view from my window (to contemplate when things are going slowly) and a complete absence of man-made sound: no cars, no machinery, no people, just birdsong and the bleating of sheep in the fields across the dale. It’s not just that such things make me happy but that it’s easier to immerse myself in the past I’m writing about without the intrusions of modern life.
When I write, I write fast. This is just a well, because I’ve written both my books while working in very demanding, more than full-time jobs. It’s also a good thing because I don’t get going on writing early enough. Annoyingly, I just seem to focus better when staring down the barrel of a deadline. This is true of most aspects of my working life and it drives me crazy, but my attempts to change it have all withered and died.
I also write fast because of the way I research the content beforehand. Total immersion in the broad topic, followed by targeted reading on specific areas, with copious mind-mapping and structural planning. As a working scientist you often get surprisingly little time to read scientific papers in the day job, so this research stage is really enjoyable. But what I love most about it is that I can indulge my stationery fetish. Moleskine cahiers? Of course. Stupidly lovely matching Pelikan fountain pen and automatic pencil? Check. Stabilo 66 and 88 coloured pens? Naturally. And you should see my selections of Post-It notes.
Back to the writing itself. I have to start with a tidy desk even if I don’t finish that way, and I always write direct onto a laptop. I don’t have any music or other distractions unless there has been a mouse in the house recently. Rather than jumping at every imagined rustle, I will play a compilation CD of classical music. For me, that isn’t really music, it’s just something that isn’t silence, so I can work with it playing in the background. Unless a soprano begins singing, in which case I lunge for the off switch. If I am to be distracted by high-pitched squeaking that hurts my ears, I choose the mice every time.
A long, featureless day stretching out ahead of me is what I want when I am writing. No meetings, no other tasks on the ‘must do today’ list, and definitely no children arriving home at 3.30. Ideally, no human beings at all. This way, a couple of duff hours don’t matter: I know that at some point in my day, better ones will come. And - as important - I know that when they do, I won’t need to stop for an appointment, or lunch, or to kiss my children. I can just keep going as long as the flow does. Word count etc? I start by marshalling all my material, and planning out the chapter, which I have to do by hand. Then I switch to the laptop and aim for 500 words an hour for the rest of the day. The word count game (clicking to see whether I’m behind target or ahead of it) is the only distraction allowed, and a great motivator. By the end of the day I should have a chapter’s worth of first draft. Editing - which I find much more painful - comes later.
Don’t ask me where I like to write unless you have a spare fifteen minutes. I am a little bit obsessed with this question. I can write anywhere. Well, anywhere that has a desk, a chair, a kettle, a toilet, electricity, wifi, a phone signal, decent security and zero requirement to interact with anyone to access any of it. So, working from home is out. (See above: I would have to interact with my children.) Cafés are no good either. I might see someone I know and have to talk to them. Also, no power. Also, I feel compelled to pack up my stuff every time I go to the toilet. The British Library sounds glamorous but makes me feel like I’ve been hermetically sealed all day. At the moment, I am time-sharing my brother’s flat. He lives there from 6 in the evening until 8.30 in the morning, and I am allowed to work there most of the rest of the time. It’s the best solution so far, but I long for a shed of my own
Considering that writing is one of my great loves, I procrastinate terribly about it. Once I get drawn into a flow, I enjoy it, but until I reach those rare moments, it’s more of a forced occupation and my mind would much rather be doing something less strenuous, like watching Facebook videos. I’m not one of these earthy writers who rise at dawn, or tap away through the night. On the contrary, I need to feel fresh and have all my chores done. That includes a morning workout, a good breakfast, a scan of at least one newspaper, a clean kitchen and only then can I contemplate concentration. Then, I need a strong soya cappuccino to get started. It focuses my mind – for around an hour or two anyway. By then it’s usually 11 or 12. But, I assure myself, a five or six hour day is what most people in any office do, if you take away all the extraneous meetings and politics!
Being a freelance journalist and author I am home-based but I work best when I’m outside of my home. I have favourite cafes I use in east London, where I live. I cycle down the canal with my laptop in a backpack or I work from my gym, which has a lounge overlooking the river. Although I don’t like being talked to, I like to have noise and people around me. If I do work from home, I need tear-jerking music like Enya or suicidal love songs to write. My playlists are truly embarrassing and I don’t show them to anyone. I don’t write to a plan. With both my published books - and a third I’m now working on - I didn’t know what I was actually writing when I started. I just knew there was an idea with development potential and trusted that the format or angle would become obvious as I progressed. First, I get everything down in note form, in diary form, it doesn’t matter. I’m not aiming for respectable prose, I just need everything in front of me. Only when I have all the bits can I decide on how to structure it. It’s a bit like how I’d tidy a cupboard – haul everything out into a big heap and then sort it all out into piles. Very little of what I first write gets used. Once I have the ingredients to work with, I can keep going through passages, polishing them up a little bit more each time, and experimenting with different sequences. I probably go through each passage about a hundred times by the time I’m done. I wouldn’t call it a strategy, I’d say it is more instinct.
I lead a second life as an architect, so writing happens in gaps: weekends, holidays, early mornings. Routine helps. On holiday I disappear after breakfast and work until lunch. I write straight to screen, and fast. Hemingway said, “If it’s going well, stop.” That isn’t true for me. Get a strong rhythm going as you write and it will still be there on the page for readers. In a couple of hours I can write two thousand words or more, if it’s really flowing.
That doesn’t mean it’s any good, though. The first draft is only the start. Editing, tidying, tightening are just as important, for me: I believe more and more in the craftsmanship of writing. As a rule, ten thousand words seem to boil down to six or seven in final draft. Somewhere along the way I need to print it all out as a way of getting some distance from the screen, and at some point I put it to one side as well. It’s frustrating to add time into an already long process, but four weeks away from a script let me see it afresh. Then comes editorial comment, whether from Andrew or David, or from publishers. Every book I’ve written has been improved by good editing. A second eye sees flaws I never can. All that work is wasted, though, if the initial draft doesn’t flow. We can shape, polish and improve all we like. But no one can bring a script to life if it doesn’t have that spark in the first place.
I’m a deviant, apparently. I don’t do any of the things that proper writers are supposed to do. I don’t have a dedicated room to write in; neither do I own a special chair, soiled with the arse-wear of a thousand difficult drafts; I have no inspirational talismans and no magic rituals. I just sit on the sofa in my living room with a laptop and my dog curled up beside me – and write. If I’m writing well, I’m absolutely zoned-in, immersed, and the words will flow whether I’m in a silent room or a crowded coffee shop. Conversely, if I’m stalled or blocked, moaning and kicking the furniture is an equally effective coping strategy anywhere (though ideally not in crowded coffee shops).
Neither do I write multiple drafts. When I begin a book – especially if it’s a biography – I usually have its shape worked out in my head; I know the heart and soul of the story, and have figured out how it should be told; I’ve worked out the narrative arc, understand the characters and have a feel for the keynote atmosphere. I polish and adjust individual chapters as I go along, but as soon as the last page is written, the script is ready to go off to the publisher.
The only methody thing I do is compiling soundtracks. My approach to writing is cinematic, visual, so atmosphere is important, and for each book I have a playlist of appropriate music to help me get it right. When I wrote Beyond the Call (a true story about a WW2 American bomber pilot on a secret mission to rescue POWs on the Eastern Front) I had a selection of Forties tunes – Glen Miller, Benny Goodman, the Mills Brothers and so on. When working on the biography of Moura Budberg, a Revolution-era Russian spy, I listened to a lot of Borodin, Prokoviev and other dramatic Russians. Recently I’ve been writing a book set partly in 1930s Paris and New York, and Gershwin has seen some heavy rotation. I rarely listen while I’m writing – the music is mostly important during the thinking times, when I’m adjusting to the book’s place and period. It’s astonishing how effective and inspirational the right music can be.
And that’s how I write. If you want to know more, you’d have to ask my dog, although he wisely sleeps through most of it.
I usually write late at night at the desk in my bedroom or at the dining room table – in reach of the piles of books and papers I require (I have recently completed a book on racist ‘science’, ‘Black Brain, White Brain). That’s usual, but I often write at other hours – sometimes squeezing in 15 minutes or so for a quick edit. There’s nothing precious about it and I don’t need to be in a particular mood, and I have no problems cutting out background noise (right now, for example, fireworks are going off in the park and Pedro, my terrified Labrador, is panting, whining and pawing me). However, my writing requires a great deal of Internet research, which has its drawbacks because it’s easy to get diverted – to read the latest news or dip into Facebook. The only time I never write is early in the morning, when I am useless, unable to manage anything more than eat breakfast and walk Pedro. I often plan the chapters while cycling to and from work (as a lecturer) and when going for a run, which I do most days, sometimes talking to myself (aloud) as I compose arguments, which attracts worried looks. Running, in particular, is wonderful for thinking, which is one reason why I never run with my iPod. If I come up with what feels like a fine idea, I try to get it down as quickly as possible, sometimes in a notebook I take to work with me.
My writing schedule has been the same now for many years. I rise daily at 6.45am to tend to breakfasts and the frenetic school run. Then I take a walk of several miles, always with my wife, and often discuss projects and thrash out ideas. Once my body and brain is fully awake I climb the stairs to my study. For the past twelve years I’ve written lodged in a glorified closet, at the dining room table, in the library or on a tiny desk in the corner of our master bedroom.
But having just moved back from China, I finally have the luxury of a room of my own, a special place that is quite separate from the rest of the house. My room is reached up its own little staircase that branches off the main landing, leading to my repeated wisecracks about ‘the West Wing’ and other inanities that cause my wife to either roll her eyes or threaten to have more children, which would of course force the immediate surrender of said ‘study’. It’s snug and the window looks out on to the garden and allotments beyond, a vista of green trees and large East Anglian sky that is indescribably beautiful after years spent looking at Shanghai’s polluted concrete sprawl.
I’m at my desk by 9.30am each day, a single daily cup of black coffee at my elbow. I always write the first draft on paper using an old-fashioned fountain pen. Second, third and subsequent drafts of up to about seven are written on the computer. Depending on the project and its stage of gestation, I’ll write between 1,500 and 2,500 words a day, five days a week. I normally do more research at the weekends in between the usual family routines. Noise distracts me, so I have no music on when I’m writing. I normally work through to about 4pm when my son comes home from school.
Typically, I’m working on multiple projects simultaneously. An average week will find me working on a contracted book, doing research for the next one, and perhaps writing a synopsis, review or a magazine article. I like to cut between different projects during the day’s writing time, helping to keep things fresh. I also tend to work in bursts of concentrated energy, interspersed with many cups of tea and quick strolls around the garden for restorative fresh air or for mulling purposes
Like most writers, I am quite particular about my surroundings. I always work in a separate office or study and I hate background noise – other people chatting in a nearby room or the washing machine whirring are verboten. But I find that listening to music really helps. I tend to play the same selection of songs over and over again, so that it’s almost like I’m not hearing the words anymore. There’s something about the rhythm that helps me to tap away better.
It’s also very helpful to be a in a familiar room, which for the period in which I’m writing a book becomes the place where I can focus. In my old flat, I had a brick air raid shelter in the back of my garden which I converted into a small office and that was a great place to concentrate. It had no windows and completely removed me from the outside world. Now I have a study and I work there, although for some reason, even though I have two large computer screens, I prefer using my laptop.
I tend to write in burst of four or five hours at a time. It can be at any time, although evenings are usually best. During the day, there are too many distractions or excuses to think about something else for a minute or two. Oddly enough, once it hits 9pm there is something that really kicks in and I move up a gear, so some of my best writing sessions have continued late into the night. I try not to go past 1am, but often in the time period when I should be watching Newsnight or going to bed I can produce a few thousand words without too much effort, when at other times I can spend a day slaving away and barely jot down anything coherent.
I find that I always work really well when I’m abroad, preferably somewhere hot. In the final stages of my last book, I was lucky enough to stay with a friend who lived in a huge house in Yangon and who had a cook who made me my meals during the day. I rotated between the swimming pool and my desk and got more done in a day than I have ever done elsewhere. I’m hoping to be asked back.
Writing is a bit like bobsleighing. The hardest part is getting started. Like many authors I can prevaricate with the best of them. Looming deadlines or impending penury are both great motivators. Without them I’d sooner find other things to do. When I am motivated, then I find a project takes on momentum, and it gets easier as you go along. For instance, my latest book Bannockburn (published by Aurum) was written over the space of about three weeks. That works out at around 3,000 words a day. In theory that’s achievable, but it wasn’t as simple as that. Having prevaricated (“researched”) until the 11th hour, I then found the daily word count started off fairly low – say 1,000 or 1,500. I then gathered pace, so a chapter was polished off in a day. Towards the end, like a crazed bobsleigh team I was clocking 5,000 words. I shot past the finish line a day ahead of the deadline. I then spent a few days coming down from what was akin to an adrenaline rush. The strange thing is, this sort of intensive writing means that while you spend 13-14 hours a day at the computer, you’re also completely immersed in the task. For those three weeks I was living, breathing and sleeping my subject. All my sources were fresh in my mind, the synapses were clicking away thinking up quotes and links, and everything flowed onto the page. This also helped during the subsequent editing stage – as all the facts had been at my fingertips while writing, there weren’t too many corrections. Now, I wouldn’t recommend this approach to writing to everyone – but strangely it works for me!
How do I write? When everything else that I can possibly justify as a legitimate distraction has been attended to first, of course – and even then there are emails to look at, and Facebook, and definitely ebay… When I’m feeling particularly guilty about this – my wife has to go out to a proper job, after all – I rationalise it by claiming that it is all part of the ritual of focussing my mind, and in truth there is something to that. When I was younger I used to just be able to get on with it; now the whole process is much harder, and I’ve come to realise that the long hours – or days, or weeks, or, when it’s particularly bad, even months – spent fidgeting in front of the screen are actually as much a part of writing as putting words on the screen, an almost unconscious sifting and sorting out of ideas and themes.
Even when writing history, as I do, a story still needs to be told in a satisfying way, and for me much of it is about the beginning; by the time I’m ready to start, I generally have some idea of the wider narrative arc, of where those first words (of a book, of a page, or just of a paragraph) are going to ultimately take me. Most of my writing career was spent in a requisitioned family bedroom here at home, and that made me more than ever prone to family distractions, but we’ve recently had a room built over our garage to serve me as a purpose-built study.
Since I mostly write about Africa – and my great passion, Zulu history – one of the long walls is festooned with spears and shields, and my library sits on shelves down the other. My desk is at the end furthest away from the door, and just beyond it is a window – I quite like the idea of the odd reflective pause to watch people coming and going in the street but, as we are at the end of a residential cul-de-sac, there isn’t too much of that, and since I’ve also found the mid-day sun shines straight onto my books I generally have the blinds down so as not to fade the spines. This rather forces my attention back on the matter in hand good! - and on a good day I can self-consciously draw inspiration from the atmosphere around me.
It still depends on that start though; sometimes I do just a few hundred words, blundering about just to get something down, only to delete it and start again the next morning. If I’m lucky after a while it will start to take some jagged shape, and the new-stuff outweigh the time spent polishing the old - and still occasionally there are brief spurts where it all pours out, apparently with a life of its own. When I was younger and hungrier I could sometimes manage the dizzy heights of 4000 words a day – now I consider 2000 words a day particularly well spent, and a thousand passable. After all, while I’ve been doing that, something exciting might have happened which requires me to check my emails again…
I once worked for an old-school editor on a rural newspaper in Australia. A large, charismatic man with a big moustache, he was hardly ever seen out of a pinstripe suit or without a cigar in one corner of his mouth. He liked to write. And he was good at it. Throughout the day the keyboard clatter from his office rarely slackened.
The keys belonged to an old Olivetti Lettera 22 portable typewriter dating from the 1950s. Jim’s huge hands pounded the small keyboard at a phenomenal rate, the typewriter sliding erratically across the desk under the onslaught even as he looked up to hand out advice or bark orders to his small staff. Every few minutes, just before the Olivetti tumbled onto the floor, he would mechanically reach out and drag it back from the brink by the carriage return lever and start the process again.
When I asked why he didn’t get a larger IBM electric typewriter or one of those new computers, he frowned at me, then pointed at the battered portable with his fat cigar and said: “Because this is where I bloody write!”
It was my first encounter with the foibles that seem to be inseparable from writing. And over the years I’ve certainly had my share. I’m writing this on a Mac laptop; the desk is an old piece of wood left over from recent house renovations held up by two knocked about carpenter’s trestles; it’s in a large room where everything happens, including the dog trying to sit in my lap.
But thirty years ago that would never have done. Before any word could possibly appear on paper, I needed to find the perfect desk, the best chair to match and a space in which to put them that allowed the ideal juxtaposition to door and window. Once that was fixed there was sure to be another task that just ‘had’ to be done.
Over the years I’ve left ‘perfect desks’ in a succession of countries. Each time they were a little less grand until it finally dawned on me that it was nothing but fearful procrastination. Searching for yet another desk with each move to a new place was just one manifestation of the apprehension I felt whenever I had to start writing, especially in new surroundings.
It took a long time, but I finally understood my old editor’s portable typewriter. As long as I have a keyboard I can write. A dedicated room is a luxury, a window with a view an option but a door to get away from the fear of failure at the end of the day’s 500 words an absolute must, especially if it leads to a fridge.
For many years my biggest problem with how I write was it was not how I wanted to write. It was nothing to do with the environment, although I didn’t much care for the freezing cold, dark, study at the far end of our crumbling Medieval farmhouse. Or that the word ‘study’ rather over- sold what was essentially a cut-through for various members of the family, who would then, (infuriatingly) carelessly toss something onto my desk for me to deal with, or settle down at my computer to surf the Net. No, it was to do with timing.
No one, not even my best friend, would accuse me of being a ‘morning person’. I can barely speak before 8am, let alone string an entire sentence together in a coherent order. I’m just not made that way. Get me after midday, or even better after 6pm and I am off. You can’t shut me up. Words flood into my brain and spill out of my mouth at an alarming rate. And, although I do say so myself, I can be quite eloquent too.
So, what is, or rather was, my problem? It is rather boring, but when I first gave up the day job to become a full-time ghost writer, I steadfastly stuck to my usual working hours. I’d sit down at 8.30/9am and work through until 6pm. A good deal of the reason for this regime was down why I gave up the day-job in the first place: kids. I fitted my hours around nannies and then school. It took me rather a long time to realise this was a bit of a waste of time. I could stare at the screen for ages before midday and, even then, my best record ever was a few hundred pretty mediocre words (in no particular order). Invariably, I would press the delete button after lunch and start again. Then, by ‘home time’ I’d be flying, literally running back to my keyboard after snapping off the light for the day.
Eventually, I decided enough was enough and adopted a different routine. I use the morning hours for admin and research and don’t start writing until midday. If I am on a roll, I carry on into the night, long after the family has gone to bed.
My pleasure at recognising, and getting into, my own writing rhythm is now even greater because I have now also left my original study/corridor and moved into my very own office. It is a converted stable in the grounds of our farmhouse. When I moved in this autumn, I had a feeling very similar to one I had when I was 9-years old and was given my own room for the first time. It is my space and I have filled it with all my nick nacks that have long been hidden away, waiting for just this moment. It has a wonderful view across a wide field and watching the wildlife scuttling around is a privilege I am sure I will never tire of. Strangely, my ‘productivity’ has risen too in this new, dedicated environment and I have even begun penning the odd word or two in the morning.
As a journalist, I have become adept at blanking out the white noise of the newsroom while writing or editing; the loudly conducted phonecalls, TVs blaring and persistent, high decibel chatter. My mind is wired to the short-term deadlines of news agency journalism: I find it hard to start anything before I know precisely when it must be ‘handed in’, allowing me to subconsciously plan a race to the wire, generating that last minute adrenaline rush and – with luck – a burst of creativity.
So when it came to writing my book, sitting alone in the quiet of the kitchen with an empty computer screen and a nebulous deadline months away, I found it hard to concentrate. The mouse seemed to stray to Google for some crucial research - half an hour later I would still be reading something completely irrelevant on the Internet. I would stare blankly out of the window, make lists or find urgent domestic tasks to complete.
My salvation came in two forms: a recommendation of the reading rooms at the British Library and the discovery of the software ‘Freedom’. The hushed, scholarly atmosphere of the library, with its green leather blotters and reading lamps, is both intimidating and inspiring. Next to me could be a musician writing a score, a student researching 19th century Persian theatre, an academic wearing cotton gloves to examine an ancient manuscript. This is a great motivation to look like a serious person, and not just someone taking advantage of the free wi-fi.
I banish all distraction with the use of Freedom – software that cuts you off from the Internet for whatever length of time you specify. Eighty minutes seems to work best for me – at the end a little message pops up to rouse you from an intense period of concentration. Time for a break, if possible avoiding the temptations of the overpriced Peyton and Byrne café. I aim for three of these sessions a day, producing about 900 words. Not much, but not bad without a deadline.
Two acquisitions are crucial to my writing life. The first is a second computer screen; the other, a commercial espresso machine.
I began writing, as a cub reporter, close to 40 years ago. My technology then was an ancient typewriter: steam-driven, as we then called them to distinguish our battered beasts from the fancy electric machines used by the bosses’ secretaries along the exclusive management corridors known as “carpet kingdom”.
To celebrate my first book commission I bought an early model computer and learned the art of juggling between the 5” floppy discs containing word processing software and the ones holding a couple of precious chapters each.
Now, 12 books later, I can no more write longhand than I can understand quantum theory: I need the feel of a keyboard under my fingers for my brain to produce anything coherent.
Is this a right brain, left brain thing ? Dunno: but right screen, left screen is unquestionably key. My books are research-heavy and the left-hand monitor is crowded jumble of open files and images. The right hand screen, however, is an oasis of calm: the sole preserve of my manuscript.
But I suspect that, if forced, I’d sacrifice all the computer technology for my espresso machine. I eke out my ration of six to eight cups of thick, creamy strong coffee from early morning to the close of writing. They are both fuel and reward: completing a strong or pleasing section earns me a five minute fix of caffeine and tobacco.
I set no daily targets for word or chapter counts: writing, for me, is too organic a process to constrain it with artificial demands. I do, though, treat it as work and put in a solid eight hours. But even this is not a deliberate attempt to mimic the routines of a ‘real job’: it’s simply that there is no greater pleasures than the feeling of words being born, sentences coalescing and shape-shifting, as my clumsy fingers hammer life into (and from) this keyboard.
Except for coffee. Obviously.
I write in an upstairs room looking out across open fields to a farm, faraway houses and a glimpse of the road through the village. Out of sight beyond the hill is the sea. I positioned the computer so that I have only to look away from the monitor to see all this: the changing light and weather and the changing seasons. This shift in focus is important to me, both literally and in other ways. Writing is a solitary business and it’s stimulating to have that contact with the world outside. But the view is my only (intended) distraction; when I’m writing I prefer silence to music. I start in the early morning but actually beginning to write is an effort; it’s all too easy to be drawn into something – anything – else. The internet is a wonderful research tool but it’s also a procrastinator’s playground.
Because I write history everything begins with research. At some point the resulting soup of facts, quotations and questions, will start to form patterns in my mind. Something will emerge as a good starting point: I never know when this will happen but it always does, and when it does I can begin to write. I try to work through the day, constantly re-reading and revising. If things are going well I’ll carry on until late and leave myself notes to pick up the next day. If the words won’t come it helps to stop, go for a walk, do some gardening or jobs round the house: anything that requires movement rather than thought. A lot of my best writing happens when I’m not at the computer at all.