It’s hard work, this writing lark. That’s what we hacks would like everyone to believe. We don’t want our readers to think that we can spend our days reclining in opulent decadence on a chaise longue in the morning room with a drink in one hand before spending an hour or so each day dictating out a chapter or two to a prim and efficient secretary, and then going on to shadowy jazz clubs, surrounded until the early hours by sharp-suited gangsters and painted ladies of ill repute. I wish.
We’re all different. To some of us it comes easily, those lucky few who can sit down and rattle out the old deathless prose without breaking a sweat, polishing off a quick bestseller in the course of a few wet Wednesday afternoons. Others of us sweat blood and agonise over every painful paragraph. Me, I reckon I’m somewhere in the middle. Sometimes it just flows. Those are the good days. Sometimes it’s like wading through treacle while wearing lead diving boots. Those are the not-so-good days when I’ve been known to let fall the occasional nautical expletive.
Sometimes I know I’m producing dross that will only get deleted later, but it’s a stage that has to be gone through. Activity sparks ideas and those ideas generate further activity and more ideas. You have to graft through the dross to get to the decent stuff, and anyone who thinks that you can stare moodily through the smoke of an untipped Gitane until inspiration strikes is going to spend a hell of a long time in a very smoky room.
On the other hand, inspiration can strike at odd moments, although it tends to be solutions to problems that have been stored away at the back of the mind for a good long while, belligerently demanding attention. The inspiration for this very article, however, came from an acquaintance; one of those friends-of-a-friend who airily said, yes, he was sure he could easily write a novel one day if only he had the time. Good luck.
The old adage about it being inspiration plus endless perspiration isn’t far from the truth. It is hard work and there’s no getting away from it. By hard work, I mean perseverance. I’m intimately acquainted with proper hard work, thanks very much, and have no desire whatever to return to manual labour at my time of life. In the context of writing, by hard work I mean discipline, and this is where the problem lies. All of us these days work on these wonderful magical machines that serve as calendars, telephone exchanges, encyclopaedias and carrier pigeons, all at the click of a button, as well as being glorified typewriters.
It’s sticking to typewriter mode that’s the hard part when distraction is just begging for attention. Where was that industrial estate just outside Reykjavík? I’ll just look it up… It doesn’t help that street view has now come to Iceland, and an hour and visits to Google, Facebook and Twitter later, that’s an hour of your life you’ll never get back.
‘What did you do when you were young, Grandad?’
‘Well, let me tell you, boy. I never went very far or did much, but I had two thousand Facebook friends and twenty thousand followers on Twitter…’
That #amwriting hashtag always cracks me up. Of course you’re not writing, you’re farting about on Twitter, pretending you’re doing something useful. Go on, quit Firefox, Safari or whatever, shut down your email. Unplug the router, even. Go and sit on a park bench, anywhere the internet won’t reach you while you bang out the words, because that’s what’s important. We all work in our own way and what works for me won’t necessarily suit another writer. But I can tell you that browsing the internet is not going to get you anywhere. Clicked links butter no parsnips, or something like that.
It’s deeply ironic that the very machine that makes our working lives so easy by making it possible to knock out blocks of text and edits them endlessly, is also the same magic box that houses a world of distracting delights.
That same friend-of-a-friend mentioned up there was very interested in the tools. What type of computer? Is a 17” monitor best, or is it better to use a 20” version? How about the chair I sit in, where did I buy it? What software do I use? Word? What do I think of Scrivener?
I do use Scrivener, and admit that I would struggle without it, although I have never bothered to use any of the many bells and whistles it comes with, and I write on the latest of a succession of battered laptops bought second-hand and generally discarded after a year or two of heavy use.
But apart from that, my clearly disappointing key item of advice, which will undoubtedly be completely ignored, was to work on a computer that has a blank wall behind it. The whole thing should be kept as far, far from wifi and the internet for as long as possible.
In fact, considering the ease of use of its wifi, the down-at-heel French hotel where I’m writing this would make it a perfect writer’s retreat, only improved by the TV being full of nothing but wrist-slashingly dire game shows and the bar closing at eight. This place clearly isn’t marketing itself to the right people.