<back to index
How can one get started writing and then sustain the
effort over a long enough period to build up a body of work
. . . especially something as huge as a novel?
Every published writer has had the following
You’re at a party. You’re introduced to someone
and the person learns, usually not through you volunteering
the shameful fact, that you’re a writer by trade. Usually
within the first five minutes you hear the following two things
– 1) The other person plans to write something someday,
probably a book, but can’t do it now because they have
a real job and 2) They do have this astounding idea, almost
certainly a bestseller idea, and wouldn’t mind sharing
it with you for . . . oh . . . 50% of the advance and royalties.
“I’ll give you the idea and you fill in the words
and so forth,” is the usual proffered deal.
How do you break it to someone that ideas are a dime a dozen?
That every writer has more ideas than he or she will be able
to write about in a long lifetime? And, finally, that their
idea (almost certainly) has not only been explored in fiction
about 10,000 times, but, by itself, couldn’t fuel a
vignette, a word-sketch exercise, much less a short story
Except for “gimmick” SF stories back during the
reign of magazine editor John W. Campbell decades ago, or
the occasional “high-concept” gimmick novel such
as The Da Vinci Code (which actually consists of
scores of “ideas” purloined from other books,
loosely stitched together like Frankenstein’s monster),
short stories and novels really aren’t driven by “ideas.”
In Hollywood, most films are sold on a “pitch”
– i.e. the story idea being condensed into half a dozen
sentences or fewer. The really high-concept ideas can be expressed
in one sentence – i.e. “Predator will
be Rambo meets Alien.” Enough said!
Draw up the standard rich and famous contract and set a budget
of . . . oh . . . $30 million (in 1980’s dollars) for
But decent novels and short stories really don’t work
that way. What’s the “idea” behind, say,
Ernest Hemingway’s brilliant short story “Hills
Like White Elephants?” We’re in the viewpoint
of someone – an invisible someone – sitting in
a café at a railway station listening to a young couple
listlessly talk about something that seems sad, something
that is breaking them up despite their words, but something
never directly mentioned. Eventually we realize that the young
man, while professing his love, is really trying to talk the
girl into getting an abortion. And it’s also apparent
that he’s doing so out of his own selfishness, not out
of concern for her.
Is this an “idea story?” Not at all. It’s
a tiny bit of overheard conversation that takes on staggering
weight in the proper fictional context.
But how to find that fictional context, how to create it,
and how to know when to write about it?
I’m one of the few writers I know or have heard of
who suggests that one sign of the unready amateur writer is
in starting too soon. That is, not only on their
attempts to get published – I suggest that a long apprenticeship
is usually needed – but on trying to convert an “idea”
into a story or novel. Once again, I wish I had a dollar for
every time, at a party or elsewhere, I’ve heard some
would-be but still-unpublished “writer” say that
he’s starting work on his novel, often a fantasy with
a title such as “The Singing Sword of Sha-na-nah,”
which he says will be Book One of the Sha-Na-Nah Chronicles,
probably six books, maybe ten.
Mother of God! What hubris. What staggering arrogance. Here’s
a pup who’s never published a short story and he’s
already sending his minions out to fell entire forests to
feed his fantasy (in more ways than one) infinology.
Usually their thinking about these “six books, maybe
ten” – their gathering of plot, characters, ideas,
themes, and style, other than a vague plan of imitating George
R. R. Martin or Robert Jordan or somesuch -- wouldn’t
provide enough fuel to power a short, short story.
Real writers usually mulch over ideas for quite a while,
knowing that mere glimpses of ideas, plots, or characters,
do not a story or book make. They allow things to gestate.
Even while knowing that the tale will grow organically with
its telling, they have enough wisdom and experience not to
go off half-cocked. (Early muskets and pistols, as you may
know, had two settings for the cocking lever – half-cocked
and fully cocked. Accidentally pull the trigger at half-cock
and the powder is not ignited, the ball not fired. Very embarrassing
if your enemy is bearing down on you. Going off half-cocked
with a story or novel is equally embarrassing, but would-be
writers often don’t even notice that they’ve misfired.)
Harlan Ellison once described to me his idea for the gestation
period for a story – or any piece of writing: Harlan
suggests that it’s like having this little motor, flashing-light
thingee that you’ve created, but rather than putting
it on show, you just pitch it into the swamp of the unconscious
that every real writer depends upon. Down there under the
algae scum in that swamp, the little idea-machine –
useless by itself – begins to connect to other things
already already lying in the dark. Writers are the ultimate
scavengers. As Henry James (a friend of Harlan’s from
the old days, I think) once said – “A writer is
a man on whom nothing is lost.” Walking along the boggy
shore, the writer finds new things to toss in – a human
skeleton, a 1948 Buick V-8 engine, a worn Stetson, a 3-gallon
vat of carbolic acid, part of the wooden case for a 1932 Philco
floor console radio, some used junkie hypodermics, a chewed-red
deer’s leg separated from the carcass, iPod earbuds
– and all the time your original flashing, blinking
thingee-idea is down there melding, joining, connecting, growing.
Finally, often when you least expect it, this . . . THING
. . . pulls itself up out of the swamp scum and comes lurching
and dragging its parts and killing blades through the primordial
ooze and onto dry land.
That’s when you can start writing about it.
The beginning writer, on the other hand, not even knowing
he’s going off half-cocked, throws himself into writing
about his little dime-store flashing, blinking thingee-idea
and then wonders why no one wants to read about it.
One of the problems of today’s crop of would-be writers
is that the great majority of them want to go straight to
writing novels (or long sequences of novels, the dreaded Chronicles
of Sha-na-nah) without ever mastering, or perhaps even
writing, a short story. While it’s certainly true that
some writers are novelists at heart rather than short-story
writers (I found out that this was true of me), just skipping
the short-story form is too much like a young would-be filmmaker
announcing that he or she is ready to be paid to do a big-budget
major motion picture even though he or she has never picked
up a movie camera.
Ernest Hemingway’s “simple style” is illusory,
as we’ll see in a later of installment of Writing Well.
He honed that apparent simplicity – actually a complex
use of language, notable for what he leaves out even more
than for what he puts in -- for years before writing the short
stories that made him famous. Beyond making him famous, the
style in those short stories changed the direction of most
of the literature in the 20th Century.
Have you read Hemingway’s short fiction? Have you analyzed
the subtle prose-poem beauties of such pieces as “Cross
Country Snow” or “A Clean, Well-lighted Place”
(a good definition of Hemingway’s style there) or “The
Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber” or “The
Big Two-Hearted River”? Even if you don’t choose
to write in such a simple style – and it would be foolish
to do so, since imitation of Hemingway, even by the older
Hemingway, is a sad and obvious thing – a close reading
and careful study of such deliberate technique is the kind
of apprenticeship beginning writers need. In some ways, Hemingway’s
short stories became the 20th Century apotheosis of quality
short fiction. His first widely read novel – The
Sun Also Rises – was, like Twain’s The
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a Rubicon in American
literature: that is, once crossed, once published and read,
there was no going back. A new voice and style in it inspired
generations of future American writers.
So what does Hemingway say about ways to get started writing,
to keep writing, and to write well?
HEMINGWAY’S BASIC PRINCIPLES OF WRITING
(As derived from biographies
and original essays by EH)
1) Study the best literary models.
2) Master your subject through
experience and reading.
3) Work in disciplined isolation.
4) Begin early in the morning
and concentrate for several hours each day.
5) Begin by reading everything
you have written from the start or, if engaged
on a long book, from the last chapter.
6) Write slowly and deliberately.
7) Stop writing when things are
going well and you know what will happen next
so that you have sufficient momentum to continue
the next day.
8) Do not discuss the material
while writing about it.
9) Do not think about writing
when you are finished for the day but allow your
subconscious mind to ponder it.
10) Work continuously on a project
once you start it.
11) Keep a record of your daily
12) Make a list of titles
after you have completed the work.
Dan Simmons’s commentary on Ernest
Hemingway’s Basic Principles of Writing:
Before starting my commentary here, I should note that I
am not an unalloyed fan of Hemingway. But my involvement with
him has been intense at times. Over a decade ago, I wrote
a novel – The Crook Factory – in which
Hemingway was the primary character. The book was based on
a little-known, biographically speaking, era in EH’s
life from 1942-44 when he started and ran a counterespionage
group on the island of Cuba (the eponymous “Crook Factory”
as he called it) while at the same time outfitted his 38-foot
fishing boat, the Pilar, as a sort of Q-boat in which
he hoped to flush a German U-boat to the surface and capture
For almost four years, I was deep in Hemingway research –
reading almost every letter he ever wrote, devouring biographies
and other books about him, pouring over nautical charts and
diaries and manuscripts of his that were never published,
even going so far as to unearth FBI files and dossiers on
the man that had been classified until 1990, almost 30 years
after his suicide. There were aspects of Hemingway that I
detested – his bullying, his need always to be the center
of attention, his later self-indulgences with his fiction
and his life, his betrayal of friends and lovers – and
there were other habits of his that were merely annoying (for
instance, his inability to learn the simple rule of dropping
“e” before adding “ing” as in “haveing,”
a mild annoyance if one reads three of his personal letters
or manuscripts, but enough to drive one crazy when reading
hundreds of such original documents.) But overall, my respect
for Hemingway as a writer grew exponentially. He was as deliberate
in his writing as he was determined to live his life to the
full. No other writer in the 20th Century, I believe, succeeded
so well in both arenas.
So what about this Principle # 1 of “Studying the best
Hemingway did. He was self-taught in the sense that he did
not study writing in college – his “school”
consisted of driving ambulances in WWI – but Hemingway
was, at heart, a bookish and even scholarly man. He read the
best writers in the history of literature and absorbed what
he could from them, all the while planning and preparing to
develop a distinctive style of his own.
Were Hemingway a young man today, he wouldn’t be studying
Dan Simmons or Stephen King or George R.R. Martin as his literary
models; just as he did early in the last century, he’d
be reading Tolstoy and Turgenev and Twain and Jane Austen
and Shakespeare and the Bible and Dostoevsky and Conrad and
Joyce and others. For decades, in his private correspondence,
Hemingway would use boxing metaphors to describe which of
his private greats he was sparring with in whatever novel
or story he was working on. (“I went six rounds with
Tolstoy today,” he’d brag to Scott Fitzgerald
or others.) This is precisely the agon of which Harold
Bloom and other literary critics write – “the
anxiety of influence” in the sense of seeking out one’s
literary antecedents and trying to compete with them, usurp
them – and the endless need to sort one’s work
out in terms of equal to, greater than, or less than.
We may not really be what we eat, as the saying
goes, but – as writers – we are, always, inescapably,
what we read. Read mediocre work and make it your literary
model, and someday your writing may rise to the dubious level
of mediocrity. Study the best literary models and –
while you may never equal them and even if you can just stay
in the ring for one or two rounds with them -- your own writing
will benefit immeasurably from it.
“Master your subject through experience and reading.”
Note here that the author most famous for changing the
image of authors – from long-haired, ivory towered,
tweed-jacket-with-pipe types to the Hemingway image of safari
hunting, deep-sea-fishing, bullfight afficianado hairy-chested
brawler – puts “reading” on an equal basis
“Work in disciplined isolation.” Recently
I was having lunch in a brew pub and my dining partner brought
to my attention a young man at a nearby table – he was
there when we arrived – working earnestly on a laptop
computer. My first thought was that he was using a wi-fi connection
to catch up on e-mail, but a closer look showed his screen
full of dialogue and thick paragraphs of description. And
he kept scrolling back and forth, rewriting the dialogue.
Is sitting in a public restaurant an example of “disciplined
isolation?” It could be. Most writers have the ability
to write almost anywhere. And all of us like a clean, well-lighted
place in which to work. But why choose such a public place?
It runs the risk of shouting “Hey! Look at me! I’m
a writer!” Coffeehouse poets, scrawling endlessly in
their spiral-bound notebooks – always about themselves,
I’ve discovered – tend to be a dime a dozen.
Did Hemingway practice what he preaches about disciplined
isolation? When he was a young man in Paris with first wife
Hadley and baby boy Bumby, he did indeed. He used some of
the very little money he had to rent a room – cold,
bare, empty except for a wooden table and a chair –
where he would write for hours each day, putting in the time
as surely as if he were a stockbroker in his office. As he
grew older and acquired fame and possessions (and more wives),
the surroundings changed, but the need for disciplined isolation
was always there. When he lived in Key West with his second
wife, Pauline, and had become a celebrity, he took the Pilar
over to Cuba, checked into the Ambros Mundos Hotel, and
sat in a similarly bare room to work on his novel. When he
eventually moved to Cuba – to the Finca Vigia above
the city where he would live with his third wife Martha Gellhorn
and then his fourth and final wife Mary – he typed while
standing at a dresser or sitting at his desk in an open office
off the Finca’s living room.
In 1947, his new wife, Mary, surprised Hemingway –
who had been away on an extended trip – by having a
“writing tower” built for him next to the old
Finca (farmhouse). There, she explained, Hem could write in
all the disciplined isolation he wanted.
It was too much for the aging writer. He felt isolated up
there in his tower, even though it commanded a wonderful view.
Within a couple of weeks, Hemingway was back working in his
office off the living room, able to talk out the open window
with the gardeners when he wanted to, close to his booze (kept
on a table near his favorite easy chair in the next room),
and ready to leap out of his “disciplined isolation”
as soon as someone showed up to play.
A few years later, on his 50th birthday, Hemingway sent out
the following in his letters. To a would-be biographer –
“I fucked three times today, shot ten straight at pigeons
(very fast ones) at the club, drank with five friends a case
of Piper Heidsick Brut and looked at the ocean for big fish
all afternoon. There was nothing although the current was
very dark.” To his publisher-editor at Scribner’s,
who had just published James Jones’s bestselling war
novel From Here to Eternity –“I hope
he kills himself as soon as it does not damage his or your
sales. If you give him a literary tea you might ask him to
drain a bucket of snot and then suck the puss out of a dead
nigger’s ear.” (When I wanted my character of
Ernest Hemingway to insult my fictional character, undercover
FBI killer Joe Lucas, in The Crook Factory, I chose
to transplant this last vicious obscenity.) And to Cardinal
Spellman “In every picture I see of you there is more
mealy mouthed arrogance, fatness and overconfidence . . .
You will never be Pope as long as I am alive.” And to
Senator Joseph McCarthy – “You can come down here
and fight for free, without any publicity, with an old character
like me who is fifty years old and weighs 209 and thinks you
are a shit, Senator, and would knock you on your ass the best
day your have ever lived.”
We hear the bottle speaking in much of this. It’s bully
stuff, a prematurely old man’s bragging, bigoted and
impotent denial of his own failing powers. But at about the
same time that Hemingway was sending off these diatribes,
he was writing in Green Hills of Africa:
“And I thought about Tolstoy and about what a great
advantage an experience of war was to a writer. It was one
of the major subjects and certainly one of the hardest to
write truly and those writers who had not seen it were always
very jealous and tried to make it seem unimportant or abnormal,
or a disease as a subject, while really, it was just something
quite irreplaceable that they had missed.”
Here is the older but still-observant writer commenting on
experience versus reading, but it is also – as comes
through in his jealous rant against WWII veteran James Jones
– the plaint of the aging would-be warrior who has just
seen another war as a correspondent while younger men fought
it and felt it directly and were now writing about it.
“Begin early in the morning . . .” Many
writers are early morning people, but some of us prefer to
begin later in the morning and to work deep into the night.
I don’t personally prefer the night for writing, but
in an age of too many telephone calls, faxes, and especially
e-mails from agents, editors, and others from both coasts
– often business one has to deal with – the late
night is quiet. The key to Hemingway’s advice here is
“for several hours each day.”
“Begin by reading everything you have written .
. .” What Hemingway is advising us on here is a
phenomenon that is almost universal among writers but which
I rarely hear them speak of. That is, getting in the groove.
Almost all writers have some pre-writing ritual that will
help put them in the kind of waking trance – deeper
even than the similar catatonic trance one enters for serious
reading – which they must attain before beginning work.
(The town where I live in Colorado is the site of the Federal
Aviation Administration’s several-state air traffic
control center for this region of the nation. I’ve known
several controllers, military and civilian, and they all say
they go in about thirty minutes before their actual shift
begins to stand behind a working controller and to “get
in the zone.” That is, not only get acquainted with
the traffic in the air at the time, but to let the real world
and its preoccupations drain away until only the screen and
the blips and data on it fill their minds. All writers have
some similar way to get in the zone.)
Reading everything you’ve written up through the previous
day’s or week’s efforts is a good way to get in
that zone. Every story or novel, even every chapter, tends
to have its own idioscynrasies in style, tone of dialogue,
distinctive energy or whatever, and re-reading the last chapter
before typing a single new word is the best way to regain
the cadence and mindset. In my case, I write deep into the
night, go over the pages on the screen in the morning –
making changes – print those out, make more revisions
on hard copy by hand, type those in the previous day’s
work on the screen, and only then begin the new section.
“Write slowly and deliberately.”
You’ll do this at some point, even if only during multiple
revisions. Some writers – Hemingway was one (I hope
I’m another) – do it on the first pass, writing
and rewriting a sentence, passage or page until it feels right
before going on, and not just to guard against the sloppiness
of fevered composition. Hemingway, for much of his career,
was a novelist rather than short-story writer and novelists
– all of them – are marathon runners as opposed
to the 100-meter sprinters of short fiction. All learn to
pace themselves . . . in their writing and their careers.
Besides, as Flaubert warns us –
“We must be on our guard against that feverish
state called inspiration, which is often a matter of nerves
rather than muscle. Everything should be done coldly, with
I don’t know if Hemingway ever read this particular
passage – he certainly was very familiar with Flaubert’s
work – but it resonates well in Hemingway’s famous
(and perhaps definitive) definition of courage – “Grace
Hemingway’s 7th Rule or piece of advice –
“Stop writing when things are going well . . .”
sounds odd but is gold, as writing advice goes. It’s
terribly hard to make yourself stop in the middle of . . .
say . . . a scene where your major character is being chased
across the ice by some huge beast in the night that may or
may not be a polar bear, but . . . stop. Sometimes you have
to keep writing, put in the extra hour or two to complete
the scene, but the best advice, for most of the time, is .
. . stop. Your subconscious, as Hemingway explains below,
will continue writing the scene for you and will, in its careful
way compared to your feverish haste, find details to put in
(or possibly to exclude) that you will miss while writing
in your “feverish state called inspiration.” Besides,
your own eagerness to see – to read – what happens
next, will get you started the next morning. That getting-started-each-day
becomes a more serious issue as the years of writing pass.
Sustaining momentum is the key to completing anything
so absurd in its length and difficulty as a novel.
“Do not discuss the material while writing about
Once again, Hemingway is giving you advice that separates
the sheep from the goats, the would-be never-will-be writers
from the pros. Very few professional writers talk about what
they’re working on – certainly not in any great
detail. This is just a fact. Too many amateurs do yack about
their day’s work. In a real sense, they’re pissing
away the energy that the subconscious requires to continue
the writing while your body and mind are technically off writing
Our friend Flaubert discussed this tendency to overplan and
then talk about your writing in a letter he wrote to Louis
Bouilhet. The terms are quite deliberately sexual –
“It seems to me, alas, that if you can so thoroughly
dissect your children who are still to be born, you don’t
get horny enough actually to father them.”
Hemingway echoes his own advice and Flaubert’s in his
9th Basic Principle – “Do not think about
writing when you are finished for the day but allow your subconscious
mind to ponder it.”
Think in terms of Harlan Ellison’s swamp of the subconscious
with that ’48 Buick engine down there waiting for something
to connect to. You can’t will into being most
of the finer connections your subconscious provides for a
novel-in-progress, but you can train your subconscious to
be hungry for such serendipitous leaps and then find ways
to optimize the odds for it to make those surprising connections
. Once again, the quality of your education – in facts,
in experience, in details gleaned through careful observation,
in sensitivity to the nuances of language, in subtleties learned
through the quality and breadth of your reading – becomes
the paramount factor in enabling the subconscious.
“Work continuously on a project once you start
This is absolutely necessary for me. Once I’ve begun
a novel, I have to stick with it – burrowing like a
mole until I see sunlight again, perhaps months or even years
later – and I don’t do other writing projects,
other than proofreading, while writing the book. If I must
do something else, such as produce a short story I’ve
contracted for, I set the book aside for that period so that
I’m working on just one thing and giving it my full
attention. But the project set aside almost always suffers.
Novelist John Gardner (The Sunlight Dialogues Gardner,
not the suspense writer who did some James Bond books) defined
a novel as “A vivid and sustained dream.” That’s
true for the reader and it must be true for the author. To
be vivid, the dream that is your story or novel almost always
has to be sustained.
“Keep a record of your daily progress.”
Hemingway was big on keeping records. Visit his Finca Vigia,
moldering and rotting away down in Cuba, and peer into his
bathroom and you’ll find scribbles all over the walls:
daily records of his weight and blood pressure.
With writing and word count, the record keeping had multiple
purposes, but one purpose makes wonderful sense: Hemingway
would set a word count for each day, say 1,000 words, and
when he reached that quota he was out the door and having
fun – fishing in the Gulf on his beloved Pilar or
shooting skeet at the club with his pals or off to jai-alai
games or perhaps trying to capture German spies and U-boats.
Start early enough in the morning, write well, and much of
the day can be yours to play in without feeling guilty.
“Make a list of your titles after you have completed
This isn’t a hard and fast rule, of course; many writers
have the title of their book or story clearly in mind before
beginning work on it. (Indeed, some odd titles – say
Ilium – tend to dictate what the novel will
be about.) But Hemingway’s suggestion here makes wonderful
sense, especially for the long form of the novel which –
if you write it correctly – will be filled with surprises
and themes and events that you never imagined before setting
to work on it. Hemingway, when he was finished with a long
work that usually had its own working title in his mind –
say, The Fish Book – would often go through
the Bible or through an Oxford book of quotations to find
a suitably resonant phrase that would sum up the feeling of
his novel. Thus The Sun Also Rises from the Bible
and John Donne’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and
even a quote of the last words of Stonewall Jackson in Across
the River and Into the Trees (one of Hemingway’s
best titles and worst books, but still containing the best
hunting scene in the history of literature.)
In the next installment of Writing Well, we’ll look
at Hemingway again – or at least begin with him –
in our effort to answer one of the most difficult questions
about writing: What is style and how the hell do I get
some of my own?
(Note: Between installments of WRITING WELL, visitors to
this web site interested in discussing writing issues can
talk to each other and to me on the new ON WRITING WELL strand
in the Dan Simmons Forum. While I will answer questions there
from time to time, my hope is that these Writing Well installments
might serve – at least partially – as a template
for discussion so that we can move more slowly toward the
usual huge questions of “How do I write a masterpiece
and where can I get it published?”)
here to go to the Forum and On Writing Well thread