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January 2006

Writing Well

Installment Two

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 experience:

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 or novel.

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 the blockbuster.

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?


(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 progress.

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 it intact.

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 literary models?”

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 with experience.

“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 poise.”

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 under pressure.”

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 it.”

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 duty.

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 it.”

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 the work.”

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?”)

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