“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”
-E.B. White (author of Charlotte’s Web)
Recently, George R. R. Martin (A Song of Ice and Fire series, The Hedge Knight, Fevre Dream) and Stephen King (The Shining, Carrie, The Dark Tower series) sat down to talk about the different kinds of evil, their beginnings in story-writing, and their writing habits.
Warning for bad language: I can’t control George R R Martin. I’ve set the video to start about 50 minutes in, when they’re talking about writing habits, but the rest of the video is great too.
Stephen King is known for the incredible speed at which he writes books: just look at this list to see how many he’s written. So how does he do it, George R. R. Martin wanted to know?
Stephen King replied:
“When I’m working, I work every day [for] three, four hours, and I try to get six pages, and I try to get them fairly clean. So if the manuscript is, say, 360 pages long, that’s basically two months’ work. It’s concentrated.”
George R. R. Martin (who pretty much sums up what I would describe as one of my bad writing days) then asked:
“You don’t ever have a day when you sit down there, and it’s like constipation, and you write a sentence and you hate the sentence, and you check your email, and you wonder if you have any talent after all? And [that] maybe you should have been a plumber?”
To which Stephen King simply said:
“No… Life happens… [But] mostly I get the six pages in.”
My suspicions have been confirmed. Stephen King is a superhuman, an unstoppable writing-machine.
George R. R. Martin, however, is a different breed of writer entirely (but arguably, also a superhuman). In an interview with BBC Radio two years ago, George R. R. Martin described his own much less regimented writing habits:
“I go over in the morning and sit down, I usually reread what I’ve done the day before to try to build up a little momentum. Sometimes if what I wrote the day before is not very good I spend the whole day rewriting what I did the day before. But hopefully I just rewrite a little and I’m sort of in the groove and then I go on and I write another scene or two.”
“There are good days where I just kind of fall through the computer screen and I look up and I’ve written five or six pages, that’s a great day. But those days don’t come very often, I wish they came more often. A lot of days it’s kind of struggling, you know?”
This statement, this struggling, is something most writers know. Similarly, most of us know that getting into a regular routine of writing a certain amount every day, like Stephen King, is the way to get a book finished. But sometimes you feel like George R R. Martin described: you’re not inspired, you’re full of self-doubt, and you just want to go back and re-write everything you’ve written before.
So what do we do on those days when you’re not feeling inspired, and can’t help but think that everything you write sucks?
On those days, you write anyway. You “write for the trash”, and spill your thoughts onto the paper, not caring that they’re awful, and you don’t stop until you find some gold amongst the trash. You write a “puke draft”, which according to Amy Berg is when you write without thinking, just “puke” your words onto the page as they come. You don’t worry about foreshadowing or precise language. You make it pretty later.
My own writing habits lean very heavily on the idea of a “puke draft”. Unlike Stephen King, I rarely end up with six “fairly clean” pages at the end of the day, but unlike George R. R. Martin, I try not to get too wrapped up in revising yesterday’s work. (There’s also another serious difference between myself and both Stephen King and George R. R. Martin, but we’ll glaze over that for the sake of my self-esteem.) Because I know that if I do, I’ll get trapped in a cycle of perfectionism and I’ll never get past page 10. So instead, I write my “puke draft”, and it will be rough. It’s later that I add the (hopefully) jazzy bits: the foreshadowing, the subtle hints, the precise language that gives each character a voice. And that’s when everything starts coming together.
Maybe Stephen King doesn’t need to write “puke drafts” like I do. Maybe he’s a superhuman who never doubts his writing abilities, and he never has any trouble creating those six fairly clean pages (though I find this hard to believe). But even George R. R. Martin, arguably the biggest name in the world of epic fantasy right now, has trouble keeping a writing habit. In fact, he’s famous for it. The moral of the tale is that there’s no “one-size-fits-all” approach to writing. If there was, everyone would be doing it. If George R. R. Martin could sit down every day and write six “fairly clean” pages, I’m sure he would. But it’s not that simple. It’s never that simple. More than anything, it’s about tenacity, whether that’s the tenacity to create those six pages, to revise yesterday’s work, or just to get that very first rough draft done. That’s the real writing habit.
If you struggle with writer’s block, check out this blog post.
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