As someone who has been writing long – some say interminable – historical novels for years now, I’m fielding a lot of questions these days. It seems that many of my friends and family members are planning to use this enforced quarantine to write, finally, that novel that has been long aborning, aching to be released. A few months from now, we may expect to see a bumper crop of new books. So let me offer some insights into how exactly we professional novelists pull it off.
First of all – and this is key — wake up as late as possible. There are only so many hours of real creativity available to you in any one day, and I never fail to be amazed, on those occasions when I crawl out of bed before eleven, how long an ordinary day is. What do regular people do with all that time? To me it presents a landscape as vast and forbidding as the Empty Quarter of the Sahara desert. Best to minimize it right from the start.
Okay, once fully awake, I, like many another novelist, spend an hour or two surfing the internet, a habit for which I hold myself in utter contempt. (That self-contempt, by the way, is a hallmark of this profession.) Did I really need to progress through thirty-six screen prompts to see the abused puppy catch its first glimpse of the ocean? Apparently, I did.
Then it’s time to upload the manuscript from the day before. It is always annoying to me to see that no helpful little gremlin has supplied the next plot twist, or even a simple line of dialogue. Nothing has budged. After reading over the preceding few paragraphs for typos, it’s time to put in maybe a good half hour of solid work, punctuated only by several trips to the kitchen for more coffee, and a couple of furtive glances at your email.
Lunch break comes next. (Breakfast is for grinds.) How much time can you kill opening a can of tuna and slathering it into a stale tortilla? You’d be surprised.
Then, just as soon as you’ve finished with other pressing business, like rolling all your socks or flossing the dog’s teeth, it’s back to the desk, for some more sustained writing time. Try not to look back at what you’ve written—go forward. You can always despise what you’ve already done later on. (And you will.)
After anywhere from twenty minutes to a half hour, sit back and let yourself indulge in a much-needed work break. Use this time productively; I spend most of mine in bitter recrimination – why did I let my ex-wife move me to California? how come I can’t figure out how to cancel my Match.com membership? what was I thinking when I let that salesman at Men’s Wearhouse talk me into buying that fake suede sport coat?
Depending on your mood, you might then want to segue into another fifteen or twenty minutes of erotic reveries. My memories are so shopworn at this point that they appear in black-and-white. But do not under any circumstances go to any porn site—your healthy self-contempt may spill over into such outright self-loathing that you can’t stand to sit in the same chair as yourself any longer.
Either way, it’s time for a nap, the better to access all that great stuff still brewing in your subconscious. Done properly, a nap must be taken in a chair, on a couch, or on any horizontal surface that is not a bed. If there’s a bed or a blanket involved, it’s sleeping, and that’s cheating. For warmth, a newspaper, as well as a cat or a sofa cushion, may be spread across the chest. Duration? No more than an hour. (See, Sleep, cheating.)
When you awake, you may have another solid half-hour of writing in you. Writer’s tip: Hemingway, as a way of jump-starting the next day’s work, always liked to stop in the middle of a scene where he knew where it was going. So, as soon as you feel the flow, stop dead. The next day, you’ll have the fun of wondering why on earth you ever thought you knew where that scene was going and cursing yourself for not being Hemingway.
Check the clock and if you’re not at Happy Hour yet, then you got up way too early. See what I mean? Count the words you’ve added to your manuscript that day (we all do) and if they enter three figures, give yourself a pat on the back and close up shop. Tomorrow, repeat all the steps above. And then do it again the next day, and the next, and the next, until whatever job you previously held – mortuary assistant, toll-booth attendant, meter maid — begins to look a lot like heaven. Now, my friend – and no, don’t thank me — you are a novelist.
Thank you Robert, for your story! “Inside Our Time” digital series: