Mastodon The Writing Desk: March 2011

31 March 2011

Writing habits: Stephen King

Stephen King
Stephen King was one of my favourite authors when I was younger. I recently found his book of short stories Just After Sunset  and was reminded why. 

In the introduction he describes his early career, when he was teaching English and working in an industrial laundry at nights. He was earning just enough to support his habits of buying books, beer and cigarettes (in that order).

Stephen was also writing short stories for magazines and says he wrote them fast and hard in the laundry room on his wife’s little Olivetti portable.  There was no time to think about structure or character development so he was just ‘flying by the seat of his pants’. 

The interesting thing for me was that he goes on to say how, even for him, short story writing is a ‘fragile craft’ easily forgotten if not used constantly.

Stephen King’s rigorous writing schedule

In his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft  Stephen King suggests working to a rigorous writing schedule and explains that he writes ten pages a day, six days a week, even on holidays. That is about a thousand words a day – half my target but when I think about it my average output is probably less once I take into account the days when I don’t write anything. 

The importance of reading

King also stresses the importance of reading other people’s work and says ‘If you want to write, you must read a lot and write a lot.’  It may seem obvious but are you reading as much as you used to?  As well as introducing you to new styles and plot structures, regular reading helps you to develop what he calls an ‘intimacy with the process of writing’.  If you read a lot and often it will help you to understand what works - and what doesn’t.

I always thought of myself as a voracious reader and would routinely get through my limit five library books every two weeks.  I would also get through various paperbacks and of course my own collection of books, which I would re-read often.   Looking back I realised that television and my lifestyle changed all this without me realising it. 

I remembered a quote from Joanna Penn that “TV was banished from our house and since then I have written four books.”  I’m not sure I am ready for such a big step but I took the television out of the bedroom and immediately found that I am reading more again – Stephen King would definitely approve.

Other posts about the habits of famous writers:

22 March 2011

Life in a Love ~ Robert Browning

Escape me?
While I am I, and you are you,
So long as the world contains us both,
Me the loving and you the loth,
While the one eludes, must the other pursue.
My life is a fault at last, I fear—
It seems too much like a fate, indeed!
Though I do my best I shall scarce succeed—

But what if I fail of my purpose here?
It is but to keep the nerves at strain,
To dry one's eyes and laugh at a fall,
And baffled, get up to begin again,—
So the chase takes up one's life, that's all.
While, look but once from your farthest bound,
At me so deep in the dust and dark,
No sooner the old hope drops to ground
Than a new one, straight to the selfsame mark,
I shape me—

19 March 2011

A writer’s week on twitter – quotes

The 140 character limit of twitter is well suited to quotes - and there are plenty around to interest writers.  Some people seem quite happy tweeting little else, but for me the best are the rare little gems that people like so much they want to share them. 

Every now and then you come across one that stands out from all the other tweets and makes you think, or smile, or wonder about life. 

I started ‘favouriting’ some that stood out for me and here are my top 10 of the week:

If you're not failing every now and again, it's a sign you're not doing anything very innovative ~Woody Allen @LEED_Resource

Never underestimate the importance of having a person in your life who can always make you smile.  @byPetaL

To give without any reward, or any notice, has a special quality of its own ~ Anne Morrow Lindbergh  @ShareAwakening

It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see ~ Henry David Thoreau  @JeromeShaw

Art is magic delivered from the lie of being truth ~ Theodor Adorno  @VanAntwerpArt

Being a good writer is 3% talent, 97% not being distracted by the internet ~ Anon  @AdviceToWriters

He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has ~ Epictetus  @KellyAMeerbott

Follow what you are genuinely passionate about and let that guide you to your destination ~ Diane Sawyer  @Zen_Moments

Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you'd have preferred to talk ~ Doug Larson @Vincent_Ang

We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give ~ Norman MacEswan @Ravi_Matah

18 March 2011

Writing habits: Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy
Thomas Hardy was born in 1840 in the tiny hamlet of Higher Bockhampton, Dorset. His father was a bricklayer and it was his mother who was well educated and encouraged his interest in literature. One of my favourite novels of all time is Tess of the d'Urbervilles, which Hardy wrote when he was about the same age as I am now, so as a new novelist I am very interested in how he wrote. 

Hardy’s daily writing routine

Each morning at about nine Hardy would have a cup of tea and a breakfast of bacon with brown sugar sprinkled over it.  Then he would read The Times newspaper and go for a short walk.

At almost exactly ten in the morning he would sit at the simple desk in his study and write.  His study was at the back of the house and rarely cleaned, as he would not let his cleaner touch his papers.   He used a dipping pen with an inkwell and had on his desk a calendar that was always showing Monday 7 March – the date he met his first wife Emma, who died in 1912.

He would continue to work through the day and was quoted as saying his best work was done before he had his dinner.

Dorset writing trousers

Thomas Hardy always wore an old pair of trousers when he wrote, that eventually became so worn that he repaired them with string. In the colder weather he wore an old shawl over his shoulders.  His study had a coal fire for heating but was usually warm as it was over the kitchen - but his cottage never had gas or electricity or even a telephone to distract him.

Hardy’s notebook sketches

In the same way that artists make sketches, capturing details of light and colour for future reference, Hardy’s surviving notebooks show he recorded in great detail the things he saw around him, the sound and sensations of a thunderstorm, the colours of a Dorset sunset. 

He has always wanted to be a poet and his notes suggesst this influenced his observation of the world. He also wrote about particular details of his life.  For example, he wrote several pages of notes on the mail coach guard from London to Dorchester, including as much detail as he could about the man’s uniform and his life.

Working with an Editor

As he developed as a writer, Hardy would send each section of writing he completed to his editor, Leslie Stephen, for comment and review.  Stephen was the editor of the influential Victorian Cornhill literary magazine and extremely well connected in the Victorian literary world. He did however encourage Hardy to spend less time describing Dorset life and encouraged him to get to the action more quickly!

Failure and success

In 1867 Hardy’s first novel The Poor Man and the Lady, was rejected by publishers and he was so discouraged he went back to working as an architect. His first attempt at a novel was harshly described as a ‘story with no plot' so he re-wrote it as Desperate Remedies, which was in turn criticised for being all plot - a ‘series of accidents, coincidences and improbabilities’.

Desperate Remedies was published, but the publisher William Tinsley demanded Hardy pay £75 (a small fortune at the time) to be repaid out of any profits.  Hardy lost his money as his subjects were considered too controversial for Victorian sensitivities.

Tess was commissioned in 1889 by Tillotson’s Fiction Bureau who then rejected it, describing the book as 'blasphemous and obscene'. Hardy did his best to interest other publishers but was rejected by them all. 

It wasn’t until Tess of the d’Urbervilles was serialised in the Graphic illustrated magazine that he finally saw success.  Even then, the editor of the Graphic, Arthur Locker, demanded that the seduction of Tess and other scenes considered unsuitable for his readers were removed.

Lessons for new authors?

This is the briefest account of how Thomas Hardy worked but there are clear lessons that remain very true today about persevering in the face of rejection.  Time to put on my writing trousers!

Tony Riches

Other posts about the habits of famous writers:

Stephen King's Writing Habits 

13 March 2011

A writer’s week on twitter – blogs that inspire

Inspiration is a very personal thing - and for me it can change from one day to the next depending on my mood and how well the writing is flowing. 

I enjoy the random links to blogs you can only really get from twitter, as you never know what you are going to discover. 

Best of all is when you find a blog that really gets you thinking – so here are a few that ‘inspired’ me this week:   

An Original Impulse

Denver based author Cynthia Morris (@originalimpulsecoaches people who want to write and create and says her aim is to help women make their dreams of writing into a reality.  She does also help men though and says writing is her lifelong passion – have a look at her Original Impulse  blog. 

I was inspired by her article ‘Ten ways to improve your writing’, where she says  Writing, like life, is in the moments, and in the moments are the details. Your story should create a picture in the reader’s mind. Create a world for us and let us live there for awhile. Close your eyes and imagine your story as if it existed in another realm. What are the smells, sounds, tastes of this world? Give them all to us.”

Terri Treasures

Florida based Terri Tiffany (@territiffany1is on her fifth novel and is happy to be called an inspirational writer.  I enjoy her Terri Treasures blog and really like her honesty about writing and giving advice.

Terri says  When it comes to my blog, I try to share the mistakes I’ve made along the way and those I learned from. They won’t be the same as yours. You also won’t see me giving out a lot of technical writing advice like plot and structure because I know the books out there can do a much better job than I can. And besides that, I’m still learning.”

The Creative Penn

It was Brisbane based Joanna Penn (@thecreativepennwho started me off with blogging, as I had never thought of it before last month and now I have four on the go.   If you haven’t already seen it make the time to have a look at her blog The Creative Penn.  

In particular, I was inspired by Joanna’s blog post that gave a break down of the launch process for her latest book Pentecost.  Joanna said in her post  Blogging takes a whole lot of time but very little setup cost. I also love it and blog as a hobby anyway. Totally worth every moment I spend on it.” 


A big thank you to writer and book publicist Emlyn Chand (@emlynchandwho kindly found the time to review this blog and made 23 (!) recommendations on how to improve it.  I have made quite a few (can you tell what they are?) and am still trying to work out how to do the rest J  

12 March 2011

Williiam Shakespeare ~ Sonnet 148

O me! what eyes hath Love put in my head,
Which have no correspondence with true sight;
Or, if they have, where is my judgment fled,
That censures falsely what they see aright?
If that be fair whereon my false eyes dote,
What means the world to say it is not so?
If it be not, then love doth well denote
Love's eye is not so true as all men's: no,
How can it? O! how can Love's eye be true,
That is so vexed with watching and with tears?
No marvel then, though I mistake my view;
The sun itself sees not, till heaven clears.
O cunning Love! with tears thou keep'st me blind,
Lest eyes well-seeing thy foul faults should find

8 March 2011

Guest Post by Laura Drake: A Million Ways Not to Write a Book

Laura Drake
This novel writing is very hard stuff.  Trying to learn craft while balancing plot, ideas, genre, and market. How anyone finishes a novel amazes me.  Sometimes it feels like I’m golfing and juggling . . . at the same time.

We all have our own ways not to write. You know what I mean – the conscious or unconscious things you do to avoid writing the damn book. Mine is the “I can’t write because I don’t know what happens next,” model.  It even sounds legitimate, until the quandary stretches out two weeks, and I’m forced to face the fact that I’m avoiding.
It wasn’t until I joined a writer’s group though, that I found that everyone has their own way of not writing a book. The below are a few of the categories I’ve noticed: 
  • Too busy; life is too disorganized. I’ll get back to it when . . . fill in the blank.
  • I’m blocked. 
  • I have to do more research. I need to take more classes. When I know more, then I can write.
  • I have so many ideas swimming around in my head that I can’t decide which one to write about.
  • I start a story, but when I get to the middle, it peters out, and I move on to a new idea.
  • I’ve completed the novel, but it’s not ready. Years of revision – it’s never ready.
  • I’ve finished the story and edited it, but I never get around to sending it out.
  • I’ve written the first six chapters, polished it, and entered every contest known to man. It’s even placed in contests. I just never finish the book.
  • I have this wonderful idea. No really, no one has ever thought to do a book on this fascinating subject. Why don’t you write it, and we’ll both share in the riches we’ll get from it?
  • I’m afraid the person (family member) I wrote about in a novel (and disguised) is going to recognize themselves. My family will implode.
  • I don’t understand the character well enough. I need to do character studies, interviews, horoscopes on them to be able to write.
  • And mine; how can I write on, when I don’t know what happens next?

I may have missed a few, but you get the idea. Please, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not being critical. I am right there in the mix, and I believe every author, from Plato to Stephen King, has their own way of not writing the book.

BUT. One of the most important things that separates the successful published author from one who never finished the book is that they plowed through the above. One of my favorite quotes is from Randy Pausch:

“Brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want something badly enough. They are there to keep out the other people"

Those reasons are just roadblocks our brain throws up to cover up the fact that we’re scared. You can’t live with the thought that you’re too afraid of failure to reach for your dreams, so you use a perfectly legitimate excuse. I do it too.

But you know what I’ve found? When I ignore the fact that I don’t know what comes next, and sit down and type, something comes out. Sometimes what comes out is better than I imagined.

All the reasons above are perfectly legitimate.  They’re all true.  The question is: are you going to let them keep you from holding that published book in your hand, and opening it for the first time? From your dream of seeing someone in a coffee shop somewhere, reading your book? I’m not. I’m going now to write the next part, in spite of the fact that I don’t know what it is.

Laura Drake March 2011 

Laura has been writing romance and women’s fiction for over ten years and is currently editing her third novel. Based in Southern California, Laura is a corporate CFO during the day and a wife, grandmother, writer - and biker chick in the remaining waking hours!

6 March 2011

A writer's week on twitter - travel writing

This week I’ve been looking at the world of travel writing.  There is definitely something different about visiting somewhere or going on a journey when you know you are going to be writing about it afterwards. 

It must also be true that travel can broaden your mind as a writer.  I know growing up in Africa has given me a very different perspective from people I know who have lived all their lives in Wales.

Wild Junkets

Nellie Huang (@WildJunket) is a freelance travel writer and adventure-seeker who describes herself as a ‘modern day nomad.”  Nellie’s blog Wild Junket has the subtitle ‘A rollercoaster ride of wild adventures around the world’ and is a great place to start if you want to see some great travel writing.  Nellie has also brought together one of the best pages of travel links you will find anywhere  - definitely worth exploring!

Quirky Traveller

Cumbria based Zoë Dawes (@quirkytraveller) offers something a bit different in her blog The Quirky TravellerI should declare an interest, I suppose, in that Cumbria is one of my favourite places in the world (see the English Lakes blog linked to from Zoë’s site)    Zoë  says “Quirky is about seeing life from a different angle, looking at things from all sides, finding the unusual, the interesting, the fascinating. It’s about quality combined with reality, it’s about being curious about everything and wanting to know more.”

Conn Voyage

Finally I'd like to introduce one of the nicest, most modest people I have met on twitter, Honk Kong based Connie Hum (@conniehum).  

Connie’s understated blog Connvoyage has a refreshing honesty - I’ll leave it to Connie to explain:

Traveling with only my wits, backpack, ukulele and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certification, I will engage in a variety of environmental and humanitarian projects and through Connvoyage, share with you the places I will see and live, the things I will discover and learn, the people I will encounter and befriend.

I want you to experience it with me! On this amazing voyage, I invite you, friends and family, avid travelers, adventure seekers, and other sufferers of wanderlust to be my CONNvoy around the world, to lend me support, offer me guidance and join me in whatever capacity you can as I navigate through the wonders of this beautiful place called Earth.

4 March 2011

Visit to Charles Kingsley’s House in Clovelly

Charles Kingsley
The Reverend Charles Kingsley was a Victorian author and friend of John Ruskin and Charles Dickens. He is best known for being one of the first prominent Victorians to publicly recognise the importance of Origin of the Species, having been sent an advance copy for review by Charles Darwin.

The Water Babies

Kingsley was a prolific poet and author but for me it was his moral tale The Water Babies that leaves a lasting memory.  It was one of the first allegorical works I read as a child, full of Victorian values (and prejudices) and profound ideas, like that no one can say that something they have never seen, such as a human soul - or a water baby – can not exist.  A founder of Christian Socialism, Kingsley used The Water Babies to successfully draw public attention to the scandal of child labour.

Arriving at Clovelly

Charles Kinsley lived in the North Devon coastal village of Clovelly, where his father was the curate. We arrived by sea, and found the tiny fourteenth century harbour was too small for our yacht so we anchored in the bay and rowed ashore, as most visitors would have done in the past. 

The main street in Clovelly is a steep cobbled path which is famous for the donkeys which haul everything up the hill on special wooden sledges.  We found Charles Kingsley’s house about half way up the hill.  As with most of the houses in Clovelly, it was very small but well preserved.

Animatronic Charles Kingsley?

Tourism has been important to Closely since Victorian times but it remains largely uncommercialised and the interpretation of Kinsgley’s house is quaintly well intended. There is a small museum, with an odd animated display of Charles Kingsley working in his study and a loud recital of his famous poem ‘The Three Fishers’ running in the background.  

Despite this it was easy to visualise Kingsley at his desk writing Westward Ho! in 1855 and sending long letters to his influential friends campaigning on behalf of the poor.

I shall leave the last word on the village to Charles Kinsgley:

"Suddenly a hot gleam of sunlight fell upon the white cottages, with their grey steaming roofs and little scraps of garden courtyard, and lighting up the wings of the gorgeous butterflies which fluttered from the woodland down to the garden."