The Writer’s Working Day:
Some time back I asked some fellow crime writers how they started their working day.
John Harvey is too prolific a writer – books, scripts, short stories – to waste time before getting down to it. He’s up at six, has coffee by six-fifteen, and is at his desk before six thirty. (He grinned and called himself a smug bastard when he told me that.) Six days a week, he said, rubbing it in – and in extremis, seven. Writing is a job, so get on with it.
Amen to that, said Ed Gorman. ‘Newspaper work and advertising copywriting teach you to be efficient with your time. I read the news on the net each morning and then get right to work.’ This is the characteristic Protestant work ethic of an ex journalist – or a Victorian, of whom one of the most often cited is Anthony Trollope. Up at five, produce three thousand words of finished prose, pause for breakfast, go out to work. ‘Of late I have become a little lenient to myself – to write with my watch before me, and to require from myself two hundred and fifty words every quarter of an hour.’ Those Victorians, eh!
Worryingly for many writers, these three, Trollope, Harvey and Gorman, are early starters all, and not only are they prolific they are fine writers too, so don’t let anyone kid you that getting on with it means writing like a hack. Far from it. John Creasey considered it a poor year when he turned out only four books – but let’s face it, he was a hack. On the other hand I’ve known writers who can spend all day creating and polishing a tiny store of gilded, perfumed words – every sentence of which is drivel.
So, back to how writers organise their working day. You have to be especially disciplined if there are two writers in the house: that gives you twice as many reasons for delay. Judith Cutler and Keith Miles (aka Edward Marston) live together and, before saying Goodbye to each other and Hello to the desk, they like to get in an early game of tennis or half a round of golf. They may even take a walk. Despite which they’re at work by 9.30. This may not compare to John Harvey or Ed Gorman – though it compares well enough to many a conventional office worker – but Judith says she often gets more work done if she doesn’t have the whole day available in which to do it. Perhaps, she says, she feels some sort of guilt because she went out shopping, or mowed the lawn or went out for lunch, and her guilt (that old motivator) stimulates the creative juices.
Now, as Dylan Thomas said, To begin at the beginning:
Plunge Straight In, or Gaze at the Pool?
Should a writer straight down to work or ease into the day? John Harvey, Ed Gorman and the Marston/Cutler duo are early starters – but is that essential for success? Ian Rankin doesn’t think so: ‘I have plenty of time-wasting strategies,’ he says. ‘The house is never tidier than when I’m starting a book. I’ll stop to check for non-existent emails. I’ll rearrange my CD collection. More than this though, if a day isn’t going well – if the scenes aren’t flowing within the first hour or so – then I’ll call a halt and do something else instead. No point being a writer if you can’t decide your own hours. I’m not a slave to a certain length of working day, never have been.’
Similarly, Natasha Cooper freely admits to procrastination. ‘I have lots of time-wasting strategies,’ she said airily. ‘Or so I’d thought until I read an authoritative article somewhere that said most people have their most creative thoughts when horizontal – which makes my long morning baths and post-lunch snoozes part of the creative process, rather than time-wasting.’ She seemed to be serious – you can’t always tell with Natasha – but I was reminded of Leslie Glaister who writes great chunks of her books lying in bed, propped up on cushions, a writing tray against her knees, and … hey, that’s the life, isn’t it? Wouldn’t you like to be a writer? Leslie insists that, just as so many of us get, or think we get, our most creative thoughts in bed, so does she. She can lie in a half dreamlike state, no distractions, nothing between her and the words: a simple conduit – brain, pencil, pad. And note the pad, the writing pad – nothing electronic and nothing, therefore, connected. Nothing to distract her, other than going back to sleep.
Plunge Straight In, or Gaze at the Pool? (continued . . . )
So far we’ve heard from a number of early risers, diligent souls who leap out of bed and get down to work. But – hadn’t you realised? –not all writers are like that. (Leslie Glaister, remember, solved the problem by writing her books in bed.) Andrew Taylor does at least get from between the sheets. ‘I could time-waste for England. Emails are particularly good for this, and ‘research’ of all types. But making coffee is always good. And jobs like doing the accounts which feel vaguely like work but aren’t.’ Peter Lovesey confesses: ‘There are other temptations. I don’t like drinking my own coffee, so I go out to one of the local coffee shops – there are about ten in Chichester – and they have newspapers, so the writing gets delayed. My first task when I get to the desk is to make space for the mouse. The entire work surface is heaped with books, pens and letters. – There may be a real mouse lurking there as well.’
But Mike Jecks, on whom adjectives like ‘diligent’, ‘serious’ and ‘industrious’ don’t appear to fit, declares: ‘I tend to get on with it when I have a book to write. It’s more difficult now we have children because there are too many break points in the day when I have to perform fatherly duties, but generally I can sit down and work in forty-five minute blocks. When I know where the story’s going, then so long as I take ten to fifteen minutes’ break, I can put down a thousand words in that time. So I can be very focussed and productive. I’ll do this for the morning or afternoon, and then keep working from half past seven through to midnight or beyond. Allowing for editing and rewriting, when I’m writing a first draft I can usually manage four to five thousand words a day like this.’ Mike’s schedule shows that a writer, like many an artist, works in bursts, not a continuous stream. If Mike can produce a thousand words in three quarters of an hour, then surely in Gradgrind’s eight hour day he can produce ten to eleven thousand words without stretching himself? Of course he can’t – even when he works evenings as well. Real life interrupts – and in real life, as Andrew Taylor reminded us, a writer is a self-employed trader who has office admin to fit in too. Not to mention the kids.
In the next blog we’ll see how real writers actually write, once they’ve got themselves started on The Writer’s Working Day.
So, How Do You Write A Crime Novel?
Writers have always looked for ways to tell stories differently. They have written as ghosts, have ‘died’ in the course of their story, have written as men, women, children, babies, cats, dogs – even as a mirror on the wall, telling the story of what passed before it. Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding wrote lengthy novels as series of letters, without a single word from an omniscient narrator. American crime readers (on DorothyL) said they liked stories about or by clever domestic animals: Lassie solves it again, Tiddles pulls it off. For some reason, these anthropomorphic horrors delighted them.
Well, fine – whatever turns you on. But allow a writer his/her indulgences. First, they first decide from whose point of view it will best be told, when it’s set, where the action takes place. There are still some readers want (or think they want) nothing to challenge them: a straightforward, old-fashioned story, comfortably related, in which men are men, and women do what they’re told (think 50 Shades of Grey) – though, if that’s what they are looking for, why do they read crime? Don’t they know that crime is shocking, dirty and unpredictable? It certainly is in real life, and it sure as hell is in books. Crime writers do not write for the bourgeoisie. Nor for sewing bees. They write about crime, and – here’s a surprise – in practically every crime book, people die. The Golden Age’s “Death in the Library” sounded cosy – but try asking the corpse. The corpse will tell you there’s nothing cosy about having your head bashed in, a dagger thrust in your back, your guts corroded with poison. That’s the reality of violent death. It’s what a character has to go through before you and I, dear reader, can settle down in our armchairs to solve the crime.
Why else read a crime book? Some people read crime for the mystery, to solve the puzzle. Others read for the frisson of watching people put through hell – people screened from them behind a protective wall of prose. Think of the terrible things that happen in fairy stories. As many before me have pointed out, fairy stories are tales of murder, blood and outrage, in which child abuse is common and villains are cruel. But since Victorian times, fairy stories have been repackaged to fit modern Health & Safety guidelines. ‘Once upon a time’ they reassuringly begin, and ‘Everyone lived happily ever after,’ they end. Fairy stories have become emasculated. Should crime stories go the same way?