How Long Does It Take?

Many, many decades – The esteemed Elizabeth Bishop, on one line of poetry, the comma moved back and forth.

25 years – Steven Spielberg, on his latest film “Red Tails.”

30 years – Frank McCourt on Angela’s Ashes.

2 months – Richard Paul Evans, author of eleven New York Times best-sellers, including Finding Noel and The Christmas Box.  Average number of revisions once the first draft was done: 800 per book.

6 weeks, or 4 years, depending upon the source – Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol.

10 days – George Simenon, lunch delivered on a tray to his closed office door, no interruptions tolerated. Creator of Inspector Maigret. Author of 200 novels, 210 novellas, several autobiographical works, dozens of articles, and scores of pulp fiction written under twelve pseudonyms.

5 days – Dame Barbara Cartland, resulting in some 623 best-sellers in her lifetime.

4 days – Samuel Johnson, Rasselas: Prince of Abyssinia

A single 12-hour transatlantic flight – Dr. Richard Carlson’s wildly popular Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff.

Are you glacial? Or do you like your latté hot, so make it quick!

Make peace with yourself. That’s how the best work happens.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo by K’vitsh.

9 Really Useful Tips

Want to improve your writing?  Try these suggestions culled from my decades at the craft:

1. With few exceptions, stay in the moment. Use your chronology and don’t get ahead of it.

2. Don’t save anything for later. Bring whatever you have right here, right now.

3. Each time a character appears on-stage, some aspect must deepen. Characters develop vertically.

4. Every chapter, every paragraph must relate to the theme. The theme is what the story is about: love, war, jealousy, revenge . . .

5. Every chapter, every paragraph must move the action forward.  You need a firm command of where the story is going so you can arrange the pieces in a way that allows the reader to discover things for himself.  Don’t tell the reader anything. Just set him on your shoulder and off you go, the story unfolding before you.

6. All meaning must be imbedded in action. Don’t deliver any lectures or philosophy lessons telling the reader what you want him to know. He has to discover this through the action. Similarly, don’t weight the story down with description.

7. Use all your senses. Taste it. Smell it. Hear it. See it. Touch it.

8. Tell it straight, as if talking to a five-year-old.

9. Finally, if something is really not going well, walk away. And don’t come back until you’re ready to see the thing with new eyes: reset, reinvent, reappraise.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credit:

The Value of Routine

Almost everyone has his or her own version of what it takes to get to work.

Do you start fitfully like Michael Lewis?

Do you stay in bed for a while and have your papers brought to you on a silver tray like Lady Antonia Fraser?

Though you may not see another soul all day, do you need to wear a coat and tie to remind yourself that you are going to work as did Robert Caro?

Do you need amphetamines (W.H. Auden), prefer to write all night (Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith), rely on a weak whiskey and soda to get going (Churchill), or prefer to be horizontal (Truman Capote)?

No matter the quirky specifics, the common denominator is this: most serious writers need a routine to get the writing done.

And if perhaps this seems paradoxical—the idea that the most amazing, creative things can emerge from people working in accordance with predictable daily routines—just the opposite is true.

A routine should be predictable and ordinary if it’s going to work. Even better, it should be soothing. A writer surely will experience struggles, but getting to work should not be one of them.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits: the Sunday breakfast routine and open magazine is by joeywan; the police eating ice cream routine is by filmbuffhowsy at The

The Fear of Failure

We all know the feeling, and we know too that our fears can compromise if not shut down an otherwise perfectly good writing day. Fear may not just precipitate the failure; it may be the primary reason for it.

Is there an antidote to its crippling effects?

Some writers talk about the need to muster one’s courage, or dig deep for a sense of dignity, or consider your lost opportunities if you never take a risk, or buck up and write through and past the fear. These are all reasonable strategies . . .

And then there’s the artist Maurizio Cattelan, who favors a more extreme response.

The Italian-born artist has a massive piece right now, which fills the central atrium of the Guggenheim Museum, and yet we learn from the curator notes that the fear of failure is a central issue in the artist’s life. So, how can be he plagued in this way and still produce so much?

The artist made his fear work for him:

“Since his first solo show in 1989, in which he hung a sign saying ‘Be right back’ on a locked gallery door, Cattelan’s preoccupation of failure has led him to concoct a series of ingenious ways to complicate access to his creative output. Subsequent strategies of evasion have included presenting an authentic police report documenting the fictional theft of an invisible artwork; creating an exact replica of another artist’s show at a nearby gallery; and dressing his gallerists in absurd costumes that transformed them into living artworks.”

Want to manage your demon Fear?

If more typical strategies seem toothless, why not take a tip from Cattelan and use the fear, exploit it even, and make it a central element of the work.

Yo—fear! In your face!

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. The photo, by zio Paolino, is of another of Maurizio Cattelan’s works, his extended finger, positioned outside the Italian stock exchange, in Milan. Don’t neglect to click on the “central atrium” link above to see a cool video of the installation going up–an engineering marvel.