Find a Quiet Place to Write

In our world of cell phones and text messaging, the idea of sitting down in the same chair to write every day may seem quaint. If you can write no matter where you find yourself at your chosen time in the day, all the power to you. Over the years, though, I have learned that I feel adrift when I attempt to write in a strange place. Since I try to write every day, inevitably I have ended up in a relative’s bedroom or a hotel room armed with my laptop. Sometimes I do make decent progress. Yet the duration when I’m immersed in the creative flow tends to be shorter, and many days the sludge in my head simply refuses to budge. So I would advise that you find what Virginia Woolf refers to as “a room of one’s own.” As with other aspects of making a commitment to yourself as a writer, choosing a single space in your apartment or house means that you want to use a central spot where you can regularly expect the magic to flow.

The more private the space, the less interruptions you will have. My office is the library, so I have a wall of books to inspire me. Yet in younger, poorer days, I wrote at the kitchen table, in a walk-on closet, in the dining room. In other words, as long as you aren’t disturbed, you can choose anywhere. I prefer an antique desk these days, but I’ve written on a wide board stretched across three tall plastic crates.

I am a territorial animal, so I like to mark off my space. You might want to buy a bulletin board and tack up favorite sayings or writing that you plan to edit the next day. I like art, so I have rice paper bodhisattvas and Klee and Wyeth reproductions and pictures drawn by my children lining the walls. Some writers thrive on clutter. Russell Hoban says his “room is composed of tottering stacks and shaky heaps of DVDs and videos, bulging shelves of books, slithery carpets of undiscarded draft pages, and delicately balanced objects of various weight and fragility poised to fall on my head.” Yet the Bronte sisters used the family dining room to write, and when Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte's biographer, first visited her, she was struck by its exquisite cleanliness and neatness.

The space doesn’t even need to be in your domicile. In many cities and towns you can rent out a writer’s space. Despite the expense and travel, the same practice applies in this venue. You’ve chosen a place to write. You make a daily  appointment with yourself to write. If it helps, pack a few personal items in your bag and place them on your rented desk.

Whatever space you make your own, it becomes a type of shrine—devoted to the Muse. You are the penitent, making the daily pilgrimage in the hope that today you’re going to write something really good.

“There is no private life which has not been determined by a wider public life.”

—George Eliot

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


The Daily Grind

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told, “I’m writing a novel.” To be polite, I’ll ask what it’s about, and often I’m delighted by how original the concept is. Yet somewhere along the line I always ask one key question: How often do you write? The most common answer is: “When I feel inspired.”

I would like to think that I dwell in an exalted precinct where its denizens tap into inspiration with great frequency.  After all, I am either writing or editing books every single day of my life. I am well aware, though, that true inspiration is a fleeting, elusive minx. I wake up many a morning feeling tired, fog-encrusted, knowing that I am as far away from being creative as the benighted soul composing the daily stock index. In fact, to put a number on it, I think I average two days out of five when I can genuinely say that the Muse is making my hand flow.

How does a fledgling author fight these odds? If you write only two days a week—that is, when you feel inspired—that novel is going to be decades in the making. More likely, you will give up entirely because you are so seldom connected to that pulse of creativity. Make no mistake: life wants to intervene. Writing is hard work, and many days you may not feel adequate to the task. When you’re stumped, when the words just won’t come, you can be easily distracted. If little Harry pops his head in the door and asks if you’d sit with him and watch Sesame Street, you may very well greet him like a conquering savior. “Are you kidding? I’d love to!”

What the first rule of writing? Keep your hand close to the pen. If you’re not having a great day, remember that you must go through the sloughs in order to scale the peaks. Great thoughts about your book will come to you, with great frequency, if you keep the book’s myriad subjects revolving in your mind. Yet when you are not thinking about it, the pipeline to that creative fountain is dead. You may have a stray thought here and there, but if you added up all those sporadic eureka moments, you probably wouldn’t fill two pages. You can encourage the Muse to come visit by staying in touch with her. The cream of the crop means you have a crop you tend to every day.

“Work every day. No matter what has happened the day or night before, get up and bite on the nail.”
—Ernest Hemingway

Copyright @ John Paine, 2018


Judging an Evaluation

In the previous post I discussed the difficulty that an author experiences when trying to hire the right editor. I started with the first step in a multi-phase edit, pointing out what to look for in an editorial letter. If the edit is to consist of only the letter, however, that requires a different set of considerations.

This type of edit is commonly known as an evaluation. In it, the large-scale suggestions in the editorial letter are supplemented by page-by-page notes the editor takes while reading. That is the evaluation’s advantage, because an author can see exactly where the editor thinks the manuscript needs improvement. Unfortunately, the page-by-page notes are only as good as the eye of the editor. Here are a few guidelines.

The first is: how well do these smaller notes support the overall concerns raised in the editorial letter? If one of the topics in the letter is the book’s slow pacing in certain stretches, for example, you should receive specific examples of where it sags. Or, if the editor wrote a half page about not liking the protagonist, there should be successive examples where violations against the reader’s moral sense are committed, including when the editor started to give up on the character.

Second, how weighty are the suggestions? If the evaluation is filled with remarks such as not liking a character’s hair color, or dress choices that seem to contradict her personality, how useful are they to you? Such suggestions are essentially minutia. The same holds for a story’s crucial questions such as plausibility. If the editor doubts that a character would decide to investigate a crime, that’s a big deal. The entire course of the book hangs on swallowing that premise. If the suggestion points out the unbelievability of a character submerging a car in a pond, that’s an easy fix—if you decide you want to fix it at all.

While on the subject of the picayune, I’m not even talking about the lowest level: pointing out grammar or spelling corrections. You can hire a copy editor to correct your grammar for a fraction of the cost. I stress this point because many so-called editors are really just jumped-up copy editors. I suspect, from the material they post, that a significant proportion of them don’t know the difference between the two types of editors. Don’t pay for the one if you’re expecting the other.

Returning to the evaluation, a final guideline is: how many large-scale suggestions are offered as opposed to the specific ones? You still should be receiving a broad picture of how the novel is progressing. If the letter is two pages long and the page-by-page list is seven pages, you know that the editor is not seeing the forest for the trees. That’s the hard part of an editor’s job, and it provides the most benefit.

“Writers have to put up with this editor thing; it is ageless and eternal and wrong.”
—Charles Bukowski

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.