Monthly Archives: June 2010

Have you got a bad writer’s habit?

writer's habitWriters are a curious breed. We all know that…even if we don’t openly admit it. Here are a few writer’s habits I picked up off the web.

Dan Brown keeps an hourglass on his desk when he writes and, on the hour, puts aside his manuscript to perform push-ups, sit-ups, and stretches – I think this says a lot about Dan the Da Vinci man.

Blanche D’Alpuget uses a computer, prints out a first draft, takes a deep breath and deletes the original file from the computer, then she makes herself type the whole thing again from the printouts. Personally, I quite like this one – there was a another writer who used to write his first draft and then throw it away and start again, a bit like doing a practice run through. It appeals to me because it’s brave and quite logical.

Forest McDonald apparently writes history on his rural Alabama porch – naked. Leave me out of this one, I don’t have a porch and live on the 15th floor, without a balcony.

Philip Roth works standing up, pacing around as he thinks. He claims to walk half a mile for every page he writes. Well, at least he’s fit.

All joking aside, habits are important to writers.

Some people write at a certain time of day. Some write a set number of words a day. Some need to have their desks laid out just right, others need to hammer a nail into their feet and work through the pain.

Trueman Capote used to write in bed, Hemmingway wrote 500 words a day when he was sober, while James Joyce was happy if he got two or three sentences down. P D James used to get up at 5am and write long hand for an hour before getting on with her busy life. George Simenon set his target to write one chapter a day, no matter what, and if he missed a day through illness he’d throw the novel away.

Writers need some kind of habit. And for us mere mortals, here are some you might want to adopt: Write every day. Pick a time, a target and write every day. If you’re ultra busy with other things in your life, start early or late, but choose a time when you can just concentrate and go with it. Even if you don’t know what to write, make sure you sit down and write something.

Choose the right way to write. I can touch type 50wpm but I still prefer to write first drafts in long hand. I prefer the feel of a pen in my hand I guess – it feels like I’m a writer. The point is, you should use the medium that feels most natural to you.

Visualise your writing day. Visualise yourself putting down those words. Visualise the end result of the finished novel. Visualise the publisher offering you a contract. Visualise and hear the applause as you go up to accept that book award as best newcomer. Good visualisation feeds your ego and gets you excited. Do it often and you’ll begin to believe – it will feed your writing soul and make you believe.

Read and reread the novels you wished you’d written. Pull them to pieces and hold them up to the light and examine why they are so damn great. But don’t stop there, read the bad stuff too and figure out why it’s so damn poor. Develop a critical faculty that will inform your own writing.

The more you write, the better you will become, if: YOU CAN STAND BACK AND LOOK AT YOUR OWN WRITING CRITICALLY. Be gentle with yourself, but be constructive. Take some old stuff you’ve written and look at it in a new light. Don’t be afraid. No one writes the greatest novel ever without first doling out a few failures. The point is, if you want to develop your writing you need to be honest with yourself.

Follow your own path: Every writer is different and you should celebrate that difference. We all follow a different path and come to our writing lives in different ways. Don’t try to be someone else, be you and revel in that unique writers talent.

Don’t sweat the rejections. Okay, you finish a book, send it out to twenty agents and, one by one, they trickle back with that pre-printed rejection. So what? Every writer that has ever lived has had to deal with rejection. It doesn’t mean you’re not any good. It’s just part of the process.

Discover your true writing self. Get a big sheet of paper up onto the wall and map out what sort of writer you want to be. Scribble down all those little habits that make you a writer and start living them. Don’t be afraid. Embrace the writer within – it’s nothing to be embarrassed about and you’re in good company.

Keep a lookout for good story ideas – things that will stretch and evolve your writing talent – either in the street outside, in the newspaper, online. There’s plenty out there you can write about. As Orson Scott Card says: “Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them.”

Above all, write, write, write…and then write some more.


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When an agent calls by Robert Dean

Robert Dean

When an agent agrees to read your manuscript, it’s a blessing and a curse.

You feel like you’ve climbed Everest’s first peak and the world below can hear you scream its name in full, colorful glory. Your hands tremble (overused writer word) from that initial click of the mouse when agent X says: sure I want to read the whole thing. You’re elated that someone with some taste finally, maybe sorta could be seeing the vision you’ve poured sweat, rewritten and nearly artistically died over. You feel like maybe this is it.

How could they want to read my book and NOT want to represent it?

Together, agent X and I will form a bond that will kick the writing world, no, the universe right in its ass! All of your hours spent inside looking like a disheveled hermit could finally be worth something. The idea that someone could go to bat for you and try to push your work into the capable hands of shadowy, faceless publishers is finally…not there yet, but possible.

You internally smile as you explain to the non-bookish people in your social and family circles “this is the hardest part of the whole process. Getting an agent is harder than finding a publisher. This is a big deal for me.”

Sound familiar?

When you tell your other writer friends the good news, they wring their little paws and prepare themselves to rip apart your dream as scientifically possible. Question by question they want to know what kind of voodoo you cast to get someone to actually say yes to you. Even if it’s just a reading, not a contract.

But here’s where the curse part starts.

  • Agents are notoriously slow at getting back to you.
  • Each moment you’re not busy sleeping or slaving away at the menial day job that you’re trying to escape, you’re thinking about your book sitting there.
  • You wonder how much have they read?
  • Do they like it?
  • And if not, why aren’t they saying so?
  • Are they talking to someone and comparing notes on my work? Are they researching if my topic is saleable in the market?

Every day you check the emails, you watch the phone hoping an area code that doesn’t match yours pops up. A fire burns inside of you as the seconds pass. The fire becomes an inferno as they days add up.

You wonder how you’ll accept the bad news on them passing. Will you cry? Will it feel like a one sided breakup? Will they be nice when they break your little heart?

Because why on earth would it be taking this long to read your book? The chills, the lapses in pulse as the wait continues.

You wonder if you should start rewriting the query letter while you wait? You wonder if they’re just playing a cruel trick on you to pass your manuscript around to their other agent friends to laugh at and make notes on like pictures from the office Christmas party. Only no one is making photocopies of their ass.

Nothing is funny about your suffering.

All of your hard work, the rewrites, the pulling of hair, the bottles of beer drained, the late night conversations with your lover explaining your dreams of buying that big house all from a book that you wrote. It’s what you dream of but it’s also frightening.

What people who don’t write realize is, that we’re chasing a dream in a moment in time where the printed word is evolving and we’re stuck tiptoeing on the knife blade as it makes up it’s mind where to go. We slave for our art. Our emotions are locked on those pages.

And people say, “I could write a book. I have a million ideas. One day I’ll get to it and I’ll be so rich.”

To that guy I say: keep dreaming and waiting cause here in the reality of living that dream it tends to be a scary fucking place some days. Rain or shine. Here’s to hoping we all find and destroy that Everest.

Robert Dean is a writer and journalist living in New Orleans. He writes the blog Death of the Cool.