On Writing: Work Habits


“Genius is 2% inspiration and 98% perspiration” is a well-known adage, though like the well-known error of “Play it again, Sam”, it’s a distortion of what inventor Thomas Edison actually said, in which the proportions were one and ninety-nine.
(And what does it say about humanity that so many of our popular quotations are wrong? People will always believe that the Emperor Napoleon, on the eve of Waterloo in 1815, turned down the amorous advances of his Empress with the words, “Not tonight, Josephine”,  notwithstanding that he’d divorced her in 1810, not to mention that she’d died of pneumonia twelve months earlier.)
In writing, the ‘inspiration’ is the spark: the what it is all about that is the reason why you’re doing this in the first place. The perspiration is the physical act of writing, whether you sit at a computer screen, dictate to a secretary, type at a manual typewriter, or actually sit down with a pen and an awful lot of pads, like I used to when things first began to coalesce for me.
And writing is work, and sometimes it’s very demanding and physically exhausting work, for all that it doesn’t exactly involve manual labour. Writers who are just beginning need to take in that this process is about more than simply finding the idea that motivates you, it is about the time required to express that idea, to draw it out and develop it, to turn it into something more than just an electrical charge passing between synapses.
Howsoever you set about it, you will need to evolve a working practice, that either fits in with your existing preoccupations and commitments or – because it won’t, trust me – a working practice that you can, and will, commit to. And then follow it.
Once again, let’s go back to the Semi-Legendary Autobiographical First Novel.
At this point, it had degenerated into confusion because I had broken Cardinal Rule No. 1, and there seemed little prospect of straightening out the damage I’d done (and finding out just what was going to happen after Steve and Lesley spoke those three lines and he went fizz). Then I had a stroke of fortune.
The Solicitors firm I worked for found itself short-handed for a month at the Head Office in London. A recently-qualified Articled Clerk was leaving and there would be a gap of a month before his replacement could start. Manchester Office was asked to spare someone to work in London for that month, run down the departing guy’s caseload and give the new boy a clean start. They asked me.
It was an intriguing and entertaining month in many ways, despite the disruption to my everyday life (and it’s the only time I have ever ‘lived’ in London), but it’s relevance to this subject was that I was spending a high summer month in a strange city, ‘living above the shop’ in effect, a stranger to everyone and with no TV to distract me. Can you think of more perfect circumstances for sitting down, pulling together all the strands I had of my novel, and structuring them into a cohesive, and comprehensive set of notes, broken down chapter by chapter?
Of course, once I was back home, it was back to normal in every respect: what I did, where I went, who I met up with. So no more progress had been made in writing the actual book when, on 1st December, Whitey marched into my office with his jacket on, shut the door behind him and proceeded to tell me, with genuine regret, that I was one of two Solicitors being made redundant.
I’m not going to claim I saw it coming, because I didn’t, but given the overall lack of work for several months up to then, I instantly knew what it was about, from the jacket and the closed door.
I was resourceful enough to have an interview fixed up before I cleared out my desk, and they’d been very generous with the redundancy payment and STILL giving me a substantial Christmas bonus (actually, eleven-twelfths of what I’d have gotten if I’d been staying, the precision of which still amuses me). I wound up being out of work for six weeks over Christmas, had five interviews and three job offers, and started my new job, in Altrincham, in the second week of January 1987.
And that has a few tales to tell as a result, but not here: we are now closing in on the point of this essay.
My new employers were a very old, long-established small firm, owned by two brothers in their sixties, who were the fourth generation of their family in the firm. It was a massive contrast to the large, modern, well-staffed office I’d been part of the past three years, especially in that I was expected to share an office with the Senior Partner.
Yes, just as I had in my own Articles: the little desk in the corner of the room, the leaving the room for his clients, no dedicated secretary, just a pool who took my tapes in turn with all the other fee-earners. Clearly not a step up.
The one good aspect of this was that the Senior Partner actually divided his time between two offices, spending his morning in Poynton, every day. That meant I only had to share the office with him in the afternoon (in time, I would take it over for myself, after he retired).
Don’t ask me how it started, because I can’t remember. It may have had something to do with still having a low workload. It may have had something to do with the feelings of alienation that I had in those early months, unable to adjust emotionally to the drastic change in professional surroundings, the absence of anything in common with everybody else in the firm. But one day, I started writing the Semi-Legendary Autobiographical First Novel.
I started at the beginning (actually, because I really couldn’t get Chapter 1 off the ground, I started with Chapter Two and decided to fill-in the set-up later). I ignored everything I’d written before, just started writing it, in my solitude, in the Senior Partner’s office, in the morning. The next day, I brought the notes in with me, in my briefcase. When I finished the chapter, I filed it away at home, and brought in the next Chapter’s notes.
It was a bizarre, unusual and, so far as my contract with this firm was concerned, wholly unprofessional way of going about it, but what concerned – and amazed – me was that it worked.
It was a working routine,the first one I ever had. I’d fallen into it by accident, but once I’d got it, I clung to it determinedly. Each week began with a new, odd-numbered chapter. I would come to work with the notes for this chapter, which I would slip into a desk drawer then, after sorting out my post for the day, I would start to write. And work.
I would slip from one to the other, busily writing away on my notepad for minutes at a time, and then breaking off to dictate a letter, or a contract, or a deed, and back to another spell writing. Sometimes I had to break off my writing because the phone would ring, or someone was approaching my room (though as the Senior Partner and I were the only ones on the ground floor apart from the Receptionist, this was not too frequent to manage). But for the most part I would flick backwards and forwards from professional to personal mode, and my novel would grow.
Though I never measured it, I kept the proportions fairly evenly balanced, so that when 1.00pm, and lunch, arrived, and I put my work back in my briefcase for the day, I had done roughly two hours work and two hours writing. Needless to say, with the Senior Partner arriving before 2.00 pm there was no thought of writing after lunch.
It was the same routine on Tuesday, but by then I would be nearing the end of the chapter, so on Wednesday I would ring in two sets of notes. And when I finished my odd-numbered chapter by about the middle of the morning, that and its notes went into the briefcase, and I would move on to the even-numbered chapter.
Which would sustain me in this routine until Friday lunch-time, by when I would have two more chapters completed, and I would ignore the book all weekend.
Each week, I got two more chapters nearer to completing the story. Each week I marvelled that it was still going forward, that the spell hadn’t been broken. But it wasn’t magic: it was a fortuitous and unrepeatable, but a regular, disciplined working habit that was enabling me to translate my decade-old experiences from my comprehensive notes into a fictional embodiment.
A book is two percent inspiration and ninety-eight percent perspiration. The writer needs to give themselves a reliable, regular, disciplined frame in which to sweat their guts out in writing. Without it, not all the inspiration in the world will ever turn that book from a fiction in the silence of your own head into a story readable by means of anything except the kind of SF brain-scanning device that they still haven’t invented yet.

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