How Do They Do It? Writing Rituals Of Famous Authors

Once upon a time typed on an old antique typewriter

People love process. As consumers we love to hear how our favourite whiskey is matured in American white oak casks for over ten years; or how salt-marsh lamb is flavoured by the marshes and coastal pastures that are tided by the sea. It’s a very powerful marketing tool, and it’s why brands try to romance the wallet out of your pants with how something is crafted.

This love for the how extends to a fascination with the daily practices of the people we most revere: writers, artists, musicians, technological innovators, entrepreneurs, scientists – just how do they do it?

It’s the relatively hermit-like and mysterious reputation of writers that perhaps makes us want to know more about their procedural secrets. I’m not talking so much about their aptitude, or how they see the world, but simply how they get up in the morning and write.

We’ve picked some of the best to share; and as we’re prone to do at Cracked Eye we’ve featured those with a short story or two to their name…

Capote:

“I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. No, I don’t use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand.”

John Cheever:

“To publish a definitive collection of short stories in one’s late 60s seems to me, as an American writer, a traditional and a dignified occasion, eclipsed in no way by the fact that a great many of the stories in my current collection were written in my underwear.”

Faulkner:

When Faulkner was working for a bootlegger in Louisiana he met Sherwood Anderson, a short story writer and novelist himself; he recalled:

“We’d meet in the evenings, and we’d go to a drinking place and we’d sit around till one or two o’clock drinking, and still me listening and him talking. Then in the morning he would be in seclusion working, and the next time I’d see him, the same thing, we would spend the afternoon and evening together, the next morning he’d be working. And I thought then, if that was the life it took to be a writer, that was the life for me.”

Flannery O’Connor:

“I write only about two hours every day because that’s all the energy I have, but I don’t let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and the same place.”

O’Connor suffered from Lupus.

Vladimir Nobokov:

“My schedule is flexible, but I am rather particular about my instruments: lined Bristol cards and well sharpened, not too hard, pencils capped with erasers.”

Stephen King:

“There are certain things I do if I sit down to write. I have a glass of water or a cup of tea. There’s a certain time I sit down, from 8:00 to 8:30, somewhere within that half hour every morning. I have my vitamin pill and my music, sit in the same seat, and the papers are all arranged in the same places. The cumulative purpose of doing these things the same way every day seems to be a way of saying to the mind, you’re going to be dreaming soon.

It’s not any different than a bedtime routine. Do you go to bed a different way every night? Is there a certain side you sleep on? I mean I brush my teeth, I wash my hands. Why would anybody wash their hands before they go to bed? I don’t know. And the pillows are supposed to be pointed a certain way. The open side of the pillowcase is supposed to be pointed in toward the other side of the bed. I don’t know why.”

Will Self:

“First drafts as early in the morning as possible, then second, then third (retyping, I work on a manual). Once the first draft is 80% completed I start on the second, so that there’s a conveyor belt of drafts in progress: this helps me to grasp the totality of the book. I accelerate towards the end, usually because I’m on or past my deadline.”

“Rituals. Smoking–pipes, cigars, special brands, accessories, the whole bollocks. Coffee, tea, strange infusions–I have a stove on my desk. Fetishising typewriters, pens, etc. Overall, though, I have a healthy appetite for solitude. If you don’t, you have no business being a writer.”

Nathan Englander:

“Turn off your cell phone. Honestly, if you want to get work done, you’ve got to learn to unplug. No texting, no email, no Facebook, no Instagram. Whatever it is you’re doing, it needs to stop while you write. A lot of the time (and this is fully goofy to admit), I’ll write with earplugs in — even if it’s dead silent at home.”

Adam Merek:

“I write in my attic. It’s not a dusty spider-hole of an attic, but a cosy cabin high above the street. From my skylight window, I can see fields in which there are horses and crows. Greenfinches annoy me in the spring, rasping outside the window.”

Alice Munro:

“When the kids were little, my time [to write] was as soon as they left for school. So I worked very hard in those years. My husband and I owned a bookstore, and even when I was working there, I stayed at home until noon. I was supposed to be doing housework, and I would also do my writing then. Later on, when I wasn’t working everyday in the store, I would write until everybody came home for lunch and then after they went back, probably till about two-thirty, and then I would have a quick cup of coffee and start doing the housework, trying to get it all done before late afternoon.”

 

Sources:

http://www.brainpickings.org/

http://jamesclear.com/

http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews

http://www.adammarek.co.uk/

http://flavorwire.com/category/books

See http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2013/12/16/writers-wakeup-times-literary-productivity-visualization/ for an incredible visualisation of writers’ sleeping habits vs literary productivity.

 

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The Short Story: Beautiful and Brief

Boy is reading a magic book

 

The brevity of a short story is both its beauty and its challenge. Beautiful because it allows the reader to experience a story in its entirety and complete it in one go. And challenging because it forces the writer to create something worth experiencing in so few words. While a novel, through sequential pieces of narrative, can create a world, relationships, and experiences that unfold over time – a short story must do this quickly and completely. The danger is that a short story becomes a fragment of a story. Short story writer Graham Mort has said, “What prevents short stories from becoming merely fragmentary – nugatory lumps of prose – is their ability to engage the reader.”

It’s easy to say that short stories must engage the reader, but how is this done? While we can talk about everything from language, form, tense and the like, useful tools as they are, it is really down to using the concision to enrol the imagination of the reader. When every word must count, the short story cannot say it all, and nor should it, the reader needs to be allowed into the world and fill in the blanks a little. A short story then becomes more than part of a longer story. It is a story that involves the reader and need be no longer. Perhaps that is why the opening of a short story is so important in engaging the reader’s imagination and establishing what is to come; take this example from Poe’s classic, A Tell-tale Heart:

 “True! – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses – not destroyed – not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily – how calmly I can tell you the whole story.”

In these opening lines the tone is set, we learn about the insanity of the storyteller and as a reader we’re already involved, using our imagination, engaged. Or we could take a more recent example; Adam Marek’s touching and chilling short story about a father taking his son out in a storm to hide him from the storm that’s taking place at home:

“It’s so windy today. My son Jakey and I are at the window watching leylandii bow to each other, and the snails being blown across the patio like sailboats.”

In these opening lines we learn of the bond between the parent and the son, but also the sense that something is not right, there is unease, a sense that something is to come; and there we are imagining again. This isn’t to say openings aren’t important in novels – they are. But these openings highlight the significance of engaging the readers in a short story from the get go, by affording them the opportunity to imagine. When this challenge is overcome throughout the entirety of a short story, it can be both beautiful and brief.

Introducing…Cracked Eye

2013 was a great year for Lit Bits. We launched the imprint and have quickly established ourselves as a force within the wonderful world of short stories. We’ve been featured on countless websites, run the hugely successful Lit Bits Weekend Challenge and continue to commission stories from bestselling established authors and exciting emerging talent.

Our stories are read by keen readers around the world but we want more, and in 2014 we’re setting the bar higher.

This year we’re on a mission to become the leaders in short-form fiction. We’ve successfully secured more funding from angel investors to push on and create something exceptional. To do this we’re investing in commissioning more short stories, producing audio and visual versions of those short stories, novel serialisations, a new website, and finding inventive ways for people to access our content.

Because of our focus on short fiction, in whatever form that may take, we felt the name Lit Bits restricted us. We have grand plans for the imprint and we needed something fresher, something that could come to stand for inventive ways of storytelling. Lit Bits has gone through a stage of metamorphosis, and has been reborn into something bigger, bolder, and more beautiful. From now on we’ll be known as Cracked Eye – nothing will ever look the same again.

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