“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
“Write while the heat is in you. … The writer who postpones the recording of his thoughts uses an iron which has cooled to burn a hole with.”
Henry David Thoreau
“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”
“Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind, is written large in his works.”“The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.”
“Writers are always selling somebody out.”
“Keep a small can of WD-40 on your desk—away from any open flames—to remind yourself that if you don’t write daily, you will get rusty.”
I am an absolute admirer of George Orwell—both as a writer and as a man. Though he is normally most associated with 1984, his memoir of fighting Fascism in Spain, HOMAGE TO CATALONIA remains one of my favorite books. Nonetheless, I don’t agree with him that: “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.”
I love the actual process of writing—perhaps because it is such a struggle. But I agree with him that it is an exhausting business—and that “One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
All true. Thank God for such demons.
Experienced professionals normally radiate confidence. Just as well. I’m not sure one would feel too good if one’s pilot paced up and down before a flight—microphone in hand, his faced creased with angst—muttering: “Can I fly this thing? I think so—but I’m not sure. Supposing I forget what to do while taking off? What then? We’ll all be killed. And how does flying work anyway? Why do we we go up? What if the engines cut out? This thing glides like a stone.”
Bring on the robots.
I don’t pace up and down before I write—unless for exercise—and I’m not consumed with self-doubt (where writing is concerned) but I am saying no more than the truth when I declare that I don’t know how I do what I do.
Well, I know how I plot a story—and I know how I structure a chapter. Such things come from technique. But I don’t understand how I actually write. Sometimes I search for a word—but normally I don’t. The things just appear and—so to speak—self assemble.
How does that all work? It’s a mystery.
I had a certain facility with words when I was at school—and won numerous prizes. All were books. I lent most of them to my sister, Desiree, for some reason—who lost them.
Dizzy was like that. Trained as a ballet dancer. Very beautiful and very ditsy. I spent a year trying to her get off drugs. Succeeded. She went to visit my mother in Spain—and went right back on them. She married a Dutch criminal who I rather liked. Not sure about her taste in men overall, but she was a lovely person. Tragically, she died from cancer a few years ago—way too young.
I miss those books. They represented that tuning point in my life when I transitioned from being a much bullied victim to having success after success. It was very strange. I even grew tall though was unaware of it for quite a time. When you have been the smallest boy in school for years (I was over three years younger than my peers initially) you tend to think you still are.
I lost that facility with words when I was in business—and virtually couldn’t write at all when I decided to give up my business career and become a writer. To make matters worse, I couldn’t type. I had a manual typewriter—which I hated—but it was a necessary prop.
So how did I fill my day? I spent a great deal of time lying in the bath thinking—I’m very fond of hot baths (with or without company)—and reading. I like reading in the bath. It combines two exceptional pleasures. Then I normally went walking for a couple of hours—maybe longer. I would then dawdle over lunch—more reading—and eventually climb the stairs to my study. There I would stare guiltily at my typewriter —before starting to read.
I had no problem with the evenings. They were normally devoted to the opposite sex. I was in love for part of that period—and in lust for the balance. Let me re-phrase: I was in lust the whole time, but I slept with the woman I loved for only part. She left me to marry someone sensible. She made a correct decision. A writer-in-waiting is no person to hook up with. Besides, I was moody in those days (much less so now). I love her still—though I have loved other women. She was, and remains, a wonderful woman.
So, in effect, I started my writing career by being unable to write. Thinking, walking (which also meant thinking), reading, and sex constituted my training. There are worse ways of learning one’s craft. Virtually no actual writing was involved—and I didn’t even read books about writing in those days. Instead, I read a great deal of fiction, a considerable amount of military history, and a range of non-fiction books covering everything from the economy to the environment to biographies. During that period, I was reading at least three books a week—excellent preparation for writing, as it happens.
I didn’t even keep a journal —and I wrote very few letters. I was a writer who didn’t write. It wasn’t even a matter of writer’s block. You can’t be blocked when you haven’t even started.
In fact, I had started, but didn’t know it at the time. Writing starts with preparing the mind. It helps greatly to have the time to think. A conventional working life is not kind in that regard. Thinking takes time—a great deal of otherwise empty time. Walking promotes thinking. Eventually, pondering a matter leads to conclusions—which somehow seem to form themselves into words. You start writing in your mind… You think you forget most of what you write but your subconscious stores it away. Later, you draw upon all this material.
Is that really how it works? No. I’m just theorizing. What I can tell you is that what seems like idle time spent walking and thinking is time well spent.
None of this might have mattered too much if it had only gone on for a few months, or even a year or two. In reality, it went on for years—with my sallying forth every now and then to carry out a consulting assignment. The work paid well. I didn’t even hate it. It’s hard to hate something you excel at. I just would have preferred to have been doing something else.
I’m actually a very good consultant. I think strategically, I’m intellectually curious, a demon researcher, observant, empathetic, intelligent, analytical, persistent, get on with people, creative, and I write well. I’m also very good at seeing matters from a customer’s point of view—and formally trained in marketing. However, I have one serious weakness. I am not political and tend to tell the truth rather than say what is expedient. Since consultancy is heavily political—one is normally brought in by someone with an agenda—such candor is a disadvantage. Still, I never found an issue I couldn’t resolve—and I tackled some fairly major assignments. In fact, in one case one of my reports not only was the lead story in one of Ireland’s Sunday papers, but got a government department closed down. I have always been particularly proud of that. How many people have bureaucratic scalps hanging from their belts? Actually, I doubt anyone lost their job. The department was closed, but I suspect the staff were just moved to another department.
Throughout this time, I never thought of myself as a consultant. I thought of myself as a writer who did consulting. If I had been interested in material rewards, I would have stayed a consultant and forgotten about writing—but it was my obsession to become a writer. Nothing else interested me. I had no serious material ambitions. I wasn’t remotely concerned with fame and fortune. I just wanted to write—to be able to convert thought into the entertaining written word.
I had plenty of thoughts. The process of converting them was a mystery to me. Being considered a good writer at school and university didn’t cut it. Now I was trying to play in the big leagues and I didn’t even know where to begin. Or so I thought. In fact, I started with my main protagonist, Hugo Fitzduane, and got to know him, his background, and his lifestyle, pretty well before I stumbled across a story that fitted. Though I didn’t know it at the time, starting a book with a character was quite a neat move. All the best stories are character driven.
Hugo was normally in my thoughts when I went walking. He is a fiction—but he was as real to me, when I was thinking about him, as if he was a friend. He still is.
Then came my discovery of a hanging during one of my morning walks—pretty much as described in GAMES OF THE HANGMAN. It was a pivotal event. Suddenly, I had the basis of a story—the beginning anyway. The ending came to me fairly quickly. The details took much longer. A few months in Switzerland helped a great deal. I came up with my villain’s Cuban background in Athens, Greece. Travel not only broadens the mind. It helps with plotting.
Structuring the book apart, it was consulting that got me back into actual words-onto-paper writing mode. Every assignment required a report and, as time went on, I found I got better and better at writing them. They were also difficult—money, politics, careers, ego, and jobs were always at stake—so gave my brain a good workout. Mine were long but comprehensive. I found I was comfortable with length. Generally speaking, my reports were conversational in style. I loathed business English and found my clients did too. They liked the way I wrote. When I write, I’m blessed with a very clear mind. Prior to that, confusion rules—but I keep that aspect to myself.
Strangely enough, a confused mind is supposed to be helpful creatively. It means ideas that one would never connect—if thinking calmly, logically, and rationally—bump into each other, and counter-intuitive connections are made. In short, an original cast of mind has its roots in chaos.
Do I really believe that? This is where I wish I knew more about cognition (the subject I intend to study when reincarnated). But, essentially I do—though I’m not sure that terms like “a confused mind” and “chaos” are correct. I think having “an open mind” may have more to do with it. In short, whereas an expert might strip away the apparently irrelevant, and zero in on the issue in question and come up with the generally accepted answer, the truly creative person will consider a much wider spread of data—even if it seems irrelevant—and then come up with a counter-intuitive answer (which he then has to justify).
It’s not easy being creative. Non-creative people often have no idea what the creative type is talking about—or they initially reject out-of-the-box thinking. Then they accept it as being blatantly obvious, so no big deal—or claim it as their own idea.
Once I got into the habit of writing again, I really never looked back. Then came computers—the start of a long love/hate relationship. Out with my hated Olympus typewriter. In with a machine which made the end result look as if I knew how to type. If computers—troublesome things though they were and are—hadn’t been invented, I’m not sure I would ever have made it as a writer.
In essence, I have learned to write by writing—and in the process seem to have drastically re-wired my mind. I think differently when I write. I can do things which seemed impossible when I started (largely because then they were). I now evaluate everything as to its potential application to my writing work—and I do mean everything.
There is no such thing as a secret to a writer. Our credo is clear: It’s all material. We may disguise a statement, an incident, and its source, in a myriad of ways—and I always do—but I will still make use of everything I know (and a great deal that I feel).
The thing which impresses me most about my writing career has not been such successes as I have had (though they are much appreciated)nor my many thousands of fan e-mails (which are particularly near and dear to my heart) but the fact that I have been able to take the long view and stick to writing regardless of the odds. By any conventional standards I should have given up on writing before I even started—and I have had enough setbacks since to justify quitting. There are many easier ways of making a living.
To be frank, I am not brave, and I do falter—and sometimes I freeze—but, regardless of the pressures, I seem to be incapable of quitting.
But that is just stubbornness. No, it’s not. It’s a combination of an absolute commitment to writing, together with a belief in my own talent. There is a great deal that I can’t do in this world, or where my handling would rightly be regarded as mediocre, but, these days, I know I can write—and better than most at that.
Does that mean I think I’m a great writer? I make no such claim—nor do I think in such a manner. I’m just vastly relieved and happy that I can finally, and in good conscience, call myself a writer. My judge, in this context, is my inner voice.
That interregnum (as I tend to think of it) during which I thought of myself as a writer, but didn’t actually write (except consultancy reports) lasted over a decade.
I then spent five years writing my first book. Since then, I have written a further nine—over 22 years (though I have done other things as well—such as spend longer than I should have on military related work—and then there was a space project…).
No, I’m not making this up. I am easily seduced by adventurous projects (and not all are women).
A book every 2.5 years isn’t particularly impressive, but I’m a believer that a book takes as long as it takes. As it happens, I’ve got faster recently, and look like hitting a book a year plus something smaller (novella, short stories, essays) while continuing to blog. I hope to write 20 books in all before I die—and to have completed the last one before keeling over. It would be tremendously frustrating to check out leaving a story unfinished—downright careless, in fact.
If nothing else, I seem to have faith and stamina. Sanity? One wonders at times.
Has it all been worth it?
Writing is better than I can describe, better than anything I can dream, and beyond value as far as I am concerned. It has been my salvation. I know, beyond any doubt, that it is my purpose in life.
It is also Paradise—with 72 sexually experienced women thrown in (Quite why Islam stipulates virgins escapes me). If virgins are the only option—what the hell!—I will endure.
And there you have it.
72 virgins! Oy vey!
But I still don’t know how I do what I do—and I am far from sure I need to. Doing it is its own reward. No, I don’t mean fucking (I think). I mean writing.