Writing is a job, and like all jobs, the work can benefit from good habits. Marcel Proust needed a cork-lined room; Henry Miller wrote out a daily schedule. Hemingway liked to write standing up; Stephen Sondheim likes to write lying down. The numbers of ways to do good work are as many as there are writers.
I have my own set of parameters, as inviolate as the Ten Commandments. Before the dawn of the internet, I wrote all my drafts in longhand and in pencil, employing what was (and still is, I believe) quaintly called a ‘collegiate lined’ notebook – meaning the spaces between the lines are very small and you can fit a lot of words on a single page. These drafts needed to be assisted by a good gum eraser, and many were the times when I rubbed out entire pages, depriving posterity of the direction of my original thinking.
Once electronic manipulation entered the picture, my pencils and erasers gave way to hand-written commonplace books. This is the technique I still employ: a computer for storing drafts, and a paper notebook filled with character notes, plot outlines, bits of historical research (out of order, and starred or underlined to indicate importance).
Once the medium has been settled, it is time for me to choose the solvent. In other words: where do I write? My first novel was drafted entirely in my bedroom office, but this has proven to be the exception. Since then, it seems as if any place on earth besides home proves suitable. I’m not sure why this is so, except that perhaps in the fullness of my years I need a more neutral backdrop for word painting.
The solutions to this problem vary with my location, the time of day (or even what day of the week it is), or the weather. I like libraries (after all, I worked in one for over three decades). Shopping malls are suitable in heat waves, or when coffee is needed. For a while, I preferred hotel lobbies, a great font of anonymity and easy access to drinks or restrooms. In spring, I can write outdoors. In strange towns, I have employed museum courtyards.
One added obstacle – something Miller and Proust and Hemingway never needed to consider – is Internet access. The art of writing needs no outside influences, but checking spelling, doing research, reading maps, and verifying dates do. As most of my work is historical, this ability is critical. Many are the times I have picked out a superlative place to work only to discover the view is better than the signal strength: off I go in search of that grail-like ring of black bars.
And of course once the work is finished it has only just begun: on a computer screen, the little icon of a first draft in Microsoft Word looks pretty lonely. For me, a true sense of accomplishment arrives when the file is populated by a series of drafts, each altered for amusement’s sake not only by re-writes and corrections but also different fonts, layouts, and – occasionally – titles.
Now we reach the most important habit of all, at least for me: being habitual. Nothing is generated from a sleeping monitor. I watch my word count number carefully, and try not to stop until I’ve added at least one thousand words each outing. I add numbers like mileposts: five thousand by the end of the week, twenty-five thousand at the end of a first draft, fifty thousand before I can think of showing it to anyone.
Words are like parades: if you stand in the right place, the beginning and the end are out of sight, but whatever is in front of you changes every minute. Stand your ground and keep your eyes open, and the vista will be endless. Rain or shine, day after day, don’t stop watching the parade go by.