Posts Tagged ‘Dean Koontz’
1. The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. If I were putting together an essential library of books for an aspiring writer of any kind, The Elements of Style would be first on the list. In recent years, there’s been something of a backlash against Struck and White’s perceived purism and dogmatism, but the book is still a joy to read, and provides an indispensable baseline for most good writing. It’s true that literature as a whole would be poorer if every writer slavishly followed their advice, say, to omit needless words, as Elif Batuman says in The Possessed: “As if writing were a matter of overcoming bad habits—of omitting needless words.” Yet much of creative writing does boil down to overcoming bad habits, or at least establishing a foundation of tested usage from which the writer only consciously departs. More than fifty years after it was first published, The Elements of Style is still the best foundation we have.
2. The Art of Fiction by John Gardner. I bought this book more than fifteen years ago at a used bookstore in Half Moon Bay, shortly before starting my freshman year in high school. Since then, I’ve reread it, in pieces, a dozen or more times, and I still know much of it by heart. Writing books tend to be either loftily aspirational or fixated on the nuts and bolts of craft, and Gardner’s brilliance is that he tackles both sides in a way that enriches the whole. He has plenty to say on sentence structure, vocabulary, rhythm, and point of view, but he’s equally concerned with warning young writers away from “faults of soul”—frigidity, sentimentality, and mannerism—and reminding them that their work must have interest and truth. Every element of writing, he notes, should by judged by its ability to sustain the fictional dream: the illusion, to the reader, that the events and characters described are really taking place. And everything I’ve written since then has been undertaken with Gardner’s high standards in mind.
3. Writing to Sell by Scott Meredith. I hesitated between this book and Dean Koontz’s Writing Popular Fiction, which I reread endlessly while I was teaching myself how to write, but I’ve since discovered that it cribs much of its practical material from Meredith. Scott Meredith was a legendary literary agent—his clients included Norman Mailer, Arthur C. Clarke, and P.G. Wodehouse—and his approach to writing is diametrically opposed to Gardner’s: his book is basically a practical cookbook on how to write mainstream fiction for a wide audience, with an emphasis on plot, conflict, and readability. The tone can be a little mercenary at times, but it’s all great advice, and it’s more likely than any book I know to teach an author how to write a novel that the reader will finish. (One warning: Meredith’s chapter on literary agents, and in particular his endorsement of the use of reading fees, should be approached with caution.)
4. On Directing Film by David Mamet. I’ve spoken about this book at length before, but if I seem awed by it, it’s because I encountered it a time in my life when I already thought I’d figured out how to write a novel. At that point, I’d already sold The Icon Thief and a handful of short stories, so reading Mamet’s advice for the first time was a little like a professional baseball player realizing that he could raise his batting average just by making a few minor adjustments to his stance. Mamet’s insistence that every scene be structured around a series of clear objectives for the protagonist may be common sense, but his way of laying it out—notably in a sensational class session at Columbia in which a scene is broken down beat by beat—rocked my world, and I’ve since followed his approach in everything I’ve done. At times, his philosophy of storytelling can be a little arid: any work produced using his rules needs revision, and a touch of John Gardner, to bring it to life. But my first drafts have never been better. It’s so helpful, in fact, that I sometimes hesitate before recommending it, as if I’m giving away a trade secret—but anyway, now you know.
Last week, in my post on the mirror scare, I noted that most of the conventions we see in horror movies don’t really work on the printed page: a book can’t startle us, or throw a cat at us, or use a scare chord to make us jump in our seats. When a commenter asked if I could think of any tropes that could be utilized by authors of horror fiction, I replied that they could all be found in a short scene of four pages or so in The Shining, when little Danny Torrance enters Room 217 for the first time. (It was changed to Room 237 in Kubrick’s movie, apparently at the request of the hotel where it was shot.) Looking back, this strikes me as worthy of a blog post in its own, so if you haven’t read the novel, you can at least check out the scene in question here. I’d recommend only reading it in a brightly lit room, where no one is likely to sneak up behind you. When you’re done, read it again. And if you’re at all interested in writing literary horror—which is only a highly refined and intensified version of suspense itself—I can’t imagine a more useful exercise than taking this scene apart to see how it works, once most of the gooseflesh has subsided.
Let’s consider the sequence beat by beat. The most striking thing about the chapter is how beautifully it builds. Elsewhere, I’ve spoken about the importance of cutting the beginnings and endings of scenes, and how directors like Kurosawa will intentionally omit purely transitional moments, such as shots of a character opening or closing a door. The one place where this rule can be ignored, and where it truly begs to be broken, is when there’s a monster waiting in the next room. As I’ve said before, the scariest image in the world is that of a closed door, once you’ve established what might be lurking behind it, which is why King spends so much time getting Danny into the room itself. Once he’s inside, the narrative continues to unfold slowly, with lots of homely little details, like the closet with its “clutch of hotel hangers, the kind you can’t steal,” as Danny moves inexorably toward the bathroom—and the tub. And once we have time to collect ourselves, we find that we’ve been given a perfect illustration of Orson Scott Card’s distinction between dread, terror, and horror. In the excellent collection How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy and Science Fiction, Dean Koontz says much the same thing:
Does King start the scene with Danny in the room? No way. The scene begins with Danny outside 217, the passkey in his pocket, and he takes more than two hair-raisingly tense pages just to open the door and step inside. Anticipation. King makes us sweat. But when Danny finds the dead woman in the bathtub, and when she opens her eyes and reaches for him, the rest of the scene moves like a bullet and climaxes one page later. We are given more time to dread the encounter than to experience it.
This is all perfectly true, although I should also point out that, contrary to what Koontz says, the dead woman doesn’t open her eyes at all. Her eyes are already open when Danny slides the shower curtain back, as described almost as an aside within a longer paragraph—”Her eyes were fixed on Danny’s, glassy and huge, like marbles”—which makes the image even more horrible. She’s been waiting for Danny for a long time. And that’s the kind of touch that makes King the best author the genre has ever seen. The rest of the chapter is a terrifying master class in just about every tool a horror author can use, and it’s been imitated by other writers, as well as King himself, ever since. Once the dead woman comes out of the tub, she moves slowly, which is far more terrifying than the alternative: this isn’t a monster you can outsmart or outrun. Danny spends much of the scene trying to convince himself that nothing here can hurt him, when we unfortunately know better. And once it seems that the horror is over, it’s really just getting started—at which point King cuts away, crucially, to leave us to imagine what happens after Danny turns around to stare into that dead and purple face.
King has written scarier books than The Shining—Pet Sematary is probably his greatest sustained work of this kind, even if it falters a bit near the end—but I don’t think he’s ever topped this sequence. (It’s especially scary when reading the original Signet paperback, in which the scene takes place on page 217.) I’ve written about my admiration for King before, but I may as well say again that he’s one of the few popular novelists who have only grown in my estimation over time. He’s good in ways that you can only appreciate after you’ve read the work of talented but lesser novelists working in the same genre. I recently read Koontz’s Phantoms, for instance, and while it’s a nice propulsive read, it feels two-dimensional and calculated in comparison to King’s work. In fact, I’ve often thought it would be worthwhile to go back and systematically seek out all of the books from King’s classic period—which I’d arbitrarily say stretches from Carrie through Needful Things—that I haven’t read yet. Growing up, I devoured just about everything King ever wrote, but for whatever reason, I managed to skip over The Dead Zone, Firestarter, Cujo, and the entire Dark Tower series. I’ll need to back and check them out one of these days. But I’ll make sure to turn all the lights on first.
Sometimes the best thing a writer can do is not write at all. When you’re working on a novel, especially in the latter stages, it threatens to take over your entire brain, often in very literal ways: there always comes a point in the process, usually after the third or fourth rewrite, when I’m convinced I could reconstruct the entire thing from memory. Fortunately, I’ve never had to try, but the fact that I could do it gets at an important point that every writer needs to remember. The relationship you have with your novel, at least at the moment, will be more intimate than any you’ll ever have with the greatest work of fiction written by someone else. You’ll find yourself thinking about its structure while shaving, and drifting off in the middle of a conversation, as my wife knows, to puzzle out a rough spot on page 73. In the end, you’ll see its shape more perfectly than anyone else ever will, which will allow you to make the deep structural changes necessary to make it work for a reader who is only aware of the story unfolding page by page.
Yet this can also be dangerous. When the novel sits in your head “with all the palpability of a huge elm lying uprooted in your backyard”—as Norman Mailer once said of Henry Miller’s fiction—it can be hard to see it through the eyes of a conventional reader. Most fiction, as I think Joan Didion says, is judged on the level of the paragraph. This is as true for literary fiction as for its commercial counterparts. And it means that the mindset of a novelist who knows every line forward and backward is fundamentally different from that of a reader encountering a story for the first time. It means, ultimately, that you need to read your novel on two levels at once: as the author, godlike, with perfect knowledge of what comes next and how it relates to the page before you, and as the reader, in search of a story, who only has access to the information in the pages in his or her left hand.
Getting into that headspace, without any preconceived notions about the novel’s shape, can be a tricky business. The best way is to take an extended break. Some novelists, like Dean Koontz, have argued against such breaks, saying that it’s only an excuse for a writer to begin to doubt the quality of the work, which is certainly true in some cases. Still, more writers tend to agree with Stephen King, who advises us to take some time off between drafts to regain the necessary level of detachment. King recommends six weeks, but for some of us, that isn’t possible—given my own writing schedule, I can’t justify taking off more than two weeks or so before diving back into Eternal Empire. The best solution, in that case, is to spend your break writing something else, which I intend to do now. A couple of weeks spent writing a short story does wonders when it comes to coming back to a longer project with fresh eyes.
My own plan, in this case, involves an extra level of rereading: after my two weeks are up, I’m going to sit down and read The Icon Thief and City of Exiles from cover to cover, hopefully in as close to a single sitting as possible, followed by the current draft of Eternal Empire, which is designed to conclude the story begun in the first two books. Ideally, I’ll be able to see details and moments of resonance that deserve to be fully developed in the final novel, and affinities between the books that I couldn’t have seen before, when I was knee-deep in the process of writing them in the first place. It may take years, but there always comes a moment when a novel you’ve written turns into an object with which you feel only incidentally connected, which is what The Icon Thief has finally become to me. (I certainly couldn’t reconstruct it from memory anymore.) And that’s the ultimate break, in the sense of severing or rupture: the point at which your novel, at long last, becomes just another book.
One of the buried themes of this blog over the past year has been the ongoing, and not entirely intentional, acceleration of my writing process. The Icon Thief took about two years to write, revise, and sell. Its sequel, City of Exiles, was written in less than nine months, not counting a few extra weeks at the end for revision and copy-editing. And while I tried to negotiate a little more wriggle room for The Scythian, I’m still slated to deliver it about nine months from the day I signed the contract, which, when you take other projects into account, is even less time than it sounds. I don’t necessarily mind the compressed schedule: it’s forced me to be smarter and more efficient in how I plan these books, and as a result, I’ve learned a lot as a writer. I’ve even begun to take a certain pride in my productivity, and until recently, I held on to the hope that I’d eventually be able to scale back to the comfortable pace of a novel a year.
Or so I thought. These days, however, the consensus in publishing seems to be that a novel a year is far too slow, and even a novel every nine months is nothing special. A recent article by Julie Bosman in the New York Times points out that mainstream novelists are increasingly being compelled to publish two or more books every year, both because of competition with other kinds of content and in an attempt to keep a writer’s name in the public eye. The enormous popularity of series fiction has taught publishers the importance of building an audience with successive books, rather than betting everything on one big, self-contained novel every few years. This makes a lot of sense for individual writers—and it’s certainly had a surprising influence on my own career—but when everyone is doing it, the advantage disappears. As Lee Child observes, with a nod to Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen: “It seems like we’re all running faster to stay in the same place.”
Of course, mainstream novelists have always felt pressure to work at a fast pace. Agatha Christie referred to herself as “a perfect sausage machine,” and, at her peak, she produced two novels a year with clockwork regularity. In his book Writing Popular Fiction, published in 1972, Dean Koontz casually notes that a novelist who can produce “only” one or two category novels every year will never know real financial security, and that “half a dozen novels per annum” are the minimum for a comfortable lifestyle. Koontz, in his prime, was more than capable of writing a category novel in a week, and he was so prolific that he published under multiple pen names, out of his publisher’s concern that he would saturate the market—a fear that seems positively quaint in the days of the likes of James Patterson, who turns out something like twelve books a year with an army of co-writers, forcing the rest of us to struggle to catch up.
The trouble is that once a novelist, or any artist, has begun to produce at a certain rate, it’s all but impossible to pull back, at least not without alienating readers who have grown used to the ability to buy a new book by their favorite author (or brand name) multiple times every year. And it’s ultimately impossible for a writer to maintain that kind of pace forever, at least not without outside help. It isn’t hard to imagine a publishing landscape divided between a handful of big brands, often assisted by ghostwriters, and independent authors working vainly to keep up with the endless demand for content that this environment creates—if we aren’t there already. In the short term, it’s good for business, and I don’t blame publishers for trying to maintain their financial viability by any means possible. But as a writer, and reader, I can’t help worrying about where this all ends. As the Red Queen herself says: “If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”
Sooner or later, one comes to the painful realization that most books on writing are useless. Most are either written by unknowns, whose advice obviously needs to be taken with a huge grain of salt; critics or teachers who lack practical experience; or famous novelists whose instruction is colored by the irreproducible circumstances of their own good fortune. Success in fiction hinges on so many factors, many of them out of the writer’s hands, that trusting what, say, Janet Evanovich has to say about craft is like chasing performance in investment funds: past performance is no guarantee of future results. What we really need is a book written years ago by a struggling author, in which he laid down some rules on how to write and described as honestly as possible his own methods—only to become famous and acclaimed after the book’s release by following his own advice. And as a matter of fact, this book exists.
Earlier this week, in my review of In Time, I briefly mentioned Dean Koontz’s Writing Popular Fiction, which is one of the four or five most useful books on practical storytelling I’ve ever seen. The book has many virtues, but its most interesting quality is completely accidental. Koontz wrote the book in 1972, when he was only twenty-six, and best known as a productive author of short category novels. Within a few years, he’d be famous. Part of the fascination of this book, then, is its candid snapshot of the real work habits of a writer who was about to embark upon one of the successful careers in modern popular fiction. It’s very rare for an author of writing guides to go on to genuine fame—the only other one who comes to mind is J. Michael Straczynski, who wrote a number of screenwriting manuals before creating Babylon 5—so unlike most books on writing, the advice here has been tested, in real time, in the best possible way.
So what does the book tell us? Koontz starts by laying down the basic elements of all genre fiction—a strong plot, a protagonist with believable motivation, a colorful background, and a great deal of action—and then details the requirements of specific genres. Some of the information here is badly dated, especially the chapters on Gothic romance and erotica, but the sections on science fiction and fantasy, suspense, and mystery are still among the best I’ve found. The chapter on science fiction, in particular, is crammed with useful advice, and I still think about Koontz’s section on the tools of suspense (the chase, the race against time, and the anticipation of a violent event) whenever I start a new writing project. Koontz winds up with a few chapters on practicalities, most of which lean heavily on Scott Meredith’s classic Writing to Sell, but which also provide a fascinating glimpse into the life of a category writer at the time. Whenever I feel pressured by my current schedule, which basically calls for a novel a year, I remember what Koontz says about productivity:
If you can produce only one or two category novels a year—especially science fiction, Gothics, mysteries, and fantasies—you will never know a time when the wolves are not a stone’s throw from the door—and you without a stone to throw…Even if you are prolific enough to produce and sell eight or ten novels a year, your income may hold steady at $20,000 a year, which is comfortable but by no means enough to classify you as a nouveau riche.
Obviously, things have changed a lot in the past forty years, but part of the book’s appeal lies in its evocation of a time in which category writers like Koontz, Donald Westlake, and Lawrence Block could make a good living on the midlist. Nine years later, after he became famous, Koontz addressed the changing state of publishing in How to Write Best-Selling Fiction, and while this book has its merits as well, it lacks some of the charm of the earlier work. In addition to its considerable practical value, Writing Popular Fiction is one of the best portraits we have of a young genre novelist working at an exciting, if exhausting, time, and I’ve tried to recapture some of that excitement in my own writing life. As I’ve mentioned before, I picked up my copy at a church book sale in my early teens, and it’s been a constant companion ever since. These days, you can find it online for around twenty bucks, and it’s well worth the price. If nothing else, it certainly worked for its author.
Over the past few days, I’ve invoked the example of Hitchcock more than once, and for good reason. As the likes of Truffaut and Cahiers du Cinéma understood in the fifties, and audiences across the world knew much earlier than that, the films of Alfred Hitchcock are central to our experience of the movies. His goal was as simple as possible—to play the audience like a piano—but his methods were endlessly complex. As a result, the great Hitchcock thrillers are like laboratories for the investigation of storytelling, in everything from plot construction to art direction to cinematography and editing, not to mention iconic performances from the actors he sometimes claimed to despise. And if the machinery is more visible here than it is in, say, Bergman, it’s because of the genre that Hitchcock perfected. Suspense is the most basic emotion that narrative cinema can evoke, and Hitchcock, as we all know, was its master.
What isn’t always acknowledged is how central suspense is to other forms of art, especially fiction. Years ago, in a review of Nabokov’s Glory, John Updike spoke of a novel’s “obligation to generate suspense,” and suspense remains, in some ways, the most fundamental of all genres: nine times out of ten, any good novel is, at heart, a novel of suspense, even if the suspense centers on emotion rather than external action. In his classic book Writing Popular Fiction, Dean Koontz observes that of all genres, suspense has the fewest overt requirements—simply the need to keep the reader intensely interested in what happens next—which implies that other genres can be understood as overlays on the suspense form. Science fiction is suspense in the future; mystery is suspense where the emphasis is less on stopping the killer than on figuring out who it is. And without a solid foundation of suspense, readers in any genre aren’t likely to keep turning the pages.
This is one reason why I turned to suspense when I began to write for a living, and currently find myself writing something close to pure thrillers. These weren’t necessarily the novels I read the most growing up, but for a relatively young writer still learning the tricks of the trade, it seemed like a good idea to begin with storytelling in its most general form. The lessons you learn from writing suspense—anticipation, momentum, converging structure, and especially clarity of action and motivation—can be applied to any sort of fiction you later choose to tackle. There’s simply no way to forget these things once you’ve internalized them. And while it’s often necessary to set them aside—one of the weaknesses of the suspense form, along with its underlying coldness, is the constant need for things to always be happening—they’re still the ultimate safety net, a sort of writer’s insurance policy when other tools fall short.
And they can lead you to surprising places. Back in the seventies, Koontz noted that most books marketed as mainstream fiction are really suspense novels in disguise, and that remains true today. A novelist like Ian McEwan is essentially an author of suspense, but one whose work has been elevated by intelligence and taste to the point where he can contend for a Booker Prize. Elsewhere, competition with other media has forced serious novelists to pace even ambitious literary novels like page-turners, as Jonathan Franzen says to Time: “It seems all the more imperative, nowadays, to fashion books that are compelling, because there is so much more distraction they have to resist.” I’d much rather read a big literary novel written by an author who understands suspense than one who hasn’t served the same apprenticeship, and for my part, I think it’s all but inevitable that I’ll try to make that leap one day. But not yet. Because if there’s anything I’ve learned from writing suspense, it’s that there are always more lessons to come.
In popular fiction, the ending is everything. An audience is often surprisingly tolerant of poor storytelling, at least after they’ve been engaged by the plot—either by having been hooked by a good beginning or, more prosaically, by having paid eleven dollars for the privilege of watching it—but a bad ending is something they won’t forgive. Conversely, a great ending, especially one that takes the audience by surprise, can send a story’s prospects into the stratosphere: Inception, for instance, where I was impressed by the movie but unsure of my reaction until the startling final shot. Similarly, I love the ending of The Departed, which replaces the morally ambiguous conclusion of Infernal Affairs with a simple severing of the knot. As De Niro says at the end of Casino: “And that’s that.”
Much worse, of course, is the protracted or endless ending. We’ve all experienced books or movies that drag out the story long after a natural climax has been reached, like The Return of the King, a great movie, or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, a not-so-great book. With a book, at least you have a vague sense of how many more pages remain, but at the movies, I’ve often found myself hoping for a cut to black after a particularly cathartic moment, only to find that the story still had another ten minutes or more to run. Far more unusual is a movie that ends before we were expecting, but at what, in retrospect, was just the right time—which always inspires what I can only describe as surprised relief in the audience. And fiction abides by the same rules. In his valuable, if somewhat dated, Writing Popular Fiction, Dean Koontz lays down the law:
Do not resolve the main plot problem on page 200 and continue to page 220 before typing “The End.” When the reader knows what happened, he doesn’t want to read on while the characters gab about how awful it was. If your plot contains an element of mystery, the explanations should be given throughout the climactic scene and not as an afterthought when all the action strings have been tied and cut. On the other hand, try to leave a couple of pages after the climax to let the reader settle down from that peak of emotion—a thousand words, no more.
This is good advice, although the limit of a thousand words is probably too restrictive. The two novels I’ve written have fairly similar structures: an intense climax, a short concluding chapter to tie off a few loose ends, and then a separate epilogue to set the stage for the next installment. Needless to say, I do my best to make sure that the material after the climax is as quick and concise as possible. More than one chapter of denouement, for instance, is almost certainly too much—a flaw that I’d argue applies even to that greatest of all thrillers, The Silence of the Lambs. (Thomas Harris uses a similarly long denouement for a sensational fakeout at the end of Red Dragon, which is why it’s surprising to see him play it straight in the sequel.)
As far as pushing the climax to the end is concerned, the quintessential example among thrillers is probably The Day of the Jackal. Frederick Forsyth’s debut is still the best international suspense novel ever written, thanks largely to its tight, almost mathematical pacing. The book’s three sections grow progressively compressed in length and scope: the second section is half as long as the first and covers about half as much time, while the third is even shorter, giving a sense of continuous acceleration. The main plot resolves itself on the next-to-last page, and Forsyth even saves a small surprise for the very end. It looks easy, but it isn’t: Forsyth’s subsequent novels, although some are very good, never quite manage to sustain the suspense so beautifully. And if it were easy, after all, it wouldn’t be so rare.
A lot of writers aren’t disciplined, you know. I think that’s often because they hate writing so much yet find they are driven to do it either for psychological reasons or because it’s the only thing they can do. I’m driven to write, as well, obsessed with writing, but I happen to enjoy it immensely. I’m fascinated with the infinite flexibility of the English language and with linear narrative. That makes it easier for me to sit down at the keyboard every day. Not easy, you understand. It’s never easy.
Some people have an image of the successful writer’s life that is pure fantasy. They think it’s a little noodling at the computer for two or three hours in the morning, then a leisurely lunch by the pool, followed perhaps by a nap, then a round of literary teas and parties. Mostly it’s hard work, alone in a room. If you like people, as I do, the solitary aspect of the job is the worst thing about it. We attend fewer parties than anyone I know. We go years without a vacation.
I believe it was Dean Koontz who said that there’s nothing more boring than reading about somebody else’s diet, unless it’s reading about a novelist’s writing routine. Still, since you’re going to be hearing a lot about my writing life over the next six months, as Midrash slowly inches its way toward completion, I thought it might be useful—and marginally interesting—to tell you something about my own schedule, at least as it works on an ideal day. Personally, I’ve learned a lot from reading about the routines of other writers—like the fact that Gay Talese keeps a thermos full of coffee on his desk. (Feel free to skip this post, of course, if you couldn’t care less. I’ve got some good movie stuff coming soon, I promise.)
I wake up most mornings at eight, just in time to have breakfast with my wife, who works as a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. Breakfast consists of green tea, orange and pomegranate juice, and fresh fruit. (We’re trying to eat a little healthier these days.) Then, after she heads to work, I write up the day’s blog post—like this one!—and spend twenty minutes on the Wii Fit. After reviewing my notes for that day’s chapter, which I should probably read earlier in the morning, I shower, shave, put on my suit and tie (okay, not really, although I know that some novelists have done this) and start my morning’s work around 10:30, thermos of green tea at the ready.
Most days, when I’m actually writing—as opposed to outlining, doing research, or indulging in creative procrastination—I try to have at least a shitty first draft of the target chapter done by noon, which means typing nonstop for two hours or so. I don’t worry about elegance or structure, although I do try to be grammatically correct; all I care about is getting the basic elements of the chapter, which I’ve already outlined, into some kind of coherent form. Then I’ll go back and do a rough polish of the entire thing, with a short break for lunch (granola with blueberries, spirulina, and more green tea), generally finishing up around 3:00.
At that point comes my only real break of the day, during which I either run errands, read, or take a nap (which, as Mad Men knows, is an essential part of any writer’s routine). Then around 4:30 I start again, doing yet another polish—and a fourth if I have time—before my wife gets home around seven. Then I mail a Word file of the day’s work to myself, cross it off my outline, and try to relax for the rest of the evening, aside from writing a draft of the next day’s blog post before bedtime, which is usually around 11:30. The following morning, the whole process begins again. Repeat fifty or sixty times, not counting research, outlining, or revision—because every draft I write this way needs to be massively revised—and you’ve got a novel, or something like it.
Of course, this basic routine—which, incidentally, applies only to weekdays—can vary a lot. This week, for instance, my publisher is having the cover meeting for Kamera, which meant that I had to spend some time writing up my thoughts on cover art and filling out an author’s questionnaire. (I hope to talk more about cover art soon.) As much as I’d like to have evenings and weekends for myself, I’m not sure how often this will happen, given what has turned out to be a rather tight writing schedule. (In the old days, before I got married, I’d often take a longer break in the afternoon, then work until close to midnight.) So obviously there’s room for variation. But so far, this seems to be the routine that works best for me.
Most writers, let’s face it, are less than wealthy. This profession has all kinds of rewards, but financial ones, unless the writer is especially lucky or the star of a reality television show, usually aren’t among them. This holiday season, then, you might want to treat the writer in your life to one of the following gifts, which will make his or her solitary existence a little more comfortable. (Full disclosure: I already own most of the following, but that doesn’t mean you still can’t get me this.)
1. Infusing Teapot from Hues ‘n Brews ($25). Most writers like to sip from a cup of something while they work. For me, it used to be coffee, and, in the evening, white wine—a bad habit that I’ve mostly given up. About a year ago, I switched to green tea, and it’s been great: with an infusing teapot, I can easily make tea from loose leaves, bought on the cheap from the Chinese supermarket, and steep them for two or more infusions, which is more than enough to keep me going throughout the day. After a factory fire this summer, Hues ‘n Brews teapots can be hard to find, so if you see one, grab it. And make sure you get a thermos, too—a tip that I learned from A Writer’s Life by Gay Talese—and a nice mug. (My own favorites are these sturdy little mugs from Pantone. Mine is Pantone 292, which fans of The Magnetic Fields will appreciate.)
2. Recycled hardcover journals from Ex Libris Anonymous ($13). These book journals—which are created from vintage hardcovers, with a few pages from the original book thoughtfully distributed throughout—are among the most beautiful and sensible gifts that a writer can receive. My first Ex Libris notebook, created from a copy of Thomas B. Costain’s Magnificent Century, has served me well for years now, and includes notes, mind maps, and miscellaneous scribbles for three novels, two screenplays, and a handful of short stories. Once the pages run out, I’ll be switching to a notebook made from Tatsuo Ishimoto’s Art of the Japanese Garden, which I’m hoping will last for just as long.
3. Messenger bag from Tumi ($150). Writers tend to carry a lot of stuff with them. (In addition to whatever book I’m currently reading, I’ll usually have pens, pencils, business cards for notes, Altoids, and often a larger notebook.) In cities like New York or Chicago, where the creative class tends to rely on public transportation, it’s essential to have a reliable bag. Women have this part covered, but men will probably need some kind of satchel. My favorite, from Tumi, is no longer available, but they seem to have some nice alternatives available online. I’m also fond of this one from STM, which is large enough to accommodate a laptop and some library books. (Just don’t call it a man purse.)
4. Symphony pillow from Tempur-Pedic ($99). Back pain is a chronic part of the writer’s life. I’ll be writing about this in greater detail in a future post, but suffice to say that right chair, a properly elevated workstation, and a good pillow all go a long way. If you’re in a generous mood, you might consider buying the Aeron chair mentioned above (I had to give mine up, sadly, after my move to Chicago). But, failing that, the Tempur-Pedic pillow will make your favorite writer’s neck and back a lot happier. (After six or more hours at a desk each day, that’s no laughing matter.)
5. The Writer’s Chapbook by The Paris Review ($10 or so). This wonderful book, edited by George Plimpton from the legendary author interviews conducted by The Paris Review, seems to be out of print, but it’s still widely available online. All things considered, it’s probably the single most useful and inspiring book a writer can own. (Many of my Quotes of the Day have this book as their ultimate source.) Other good books for a writer, aside from John Gardner’s essential Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist, include Writing to Sell by Scott Meredith (apparently out of print, but very useful), How Fiction Works by James Wood (infuriating, but invaluable), and How to Write Best-Selling Fiction by Dean Koontz (also out of print, but available online for a whopping $88).
Finally, if all else fails, there’s always another option. At best, writers tend to be rich in spirit and poor in cash. Most will happily accept donations toward the advancement of art.