reflective

Ian Fleming explains how to become a wildly successful thriller author

It’s tough taking advice from successful authors whose success happened even a decade ago, since the publishing world is morphing at an unprecedented rate and “tried and true methods” don’t mean much anymore. Ian Fleming (author and creator of the whole Bond universe) wrote this essay in 1963, which is practically a forgotten age in the publishing world, now. And there is no doubt he had some unique advantages in his station that gave him a big push on his way to wild success.

But Neil Gaiman recently linked to it on his tumblr account, I think some of what he says holds value even now — especially how to finish the damn book.

I can recommend hotel bedrooms as far removed from your usual “life” as possible. Your anonymity in these drab surroundings and your lack of friends and distractions will create a vacuum which should force you into a writing mood and, if your pocket is shallow, into a mood which will also make you write fast and with application. I do it all on the typewriter, using six fingers. The act of typing is far less exhausting than the act of writing, and you end up with a more or less clean manuscript The next essential is to keep strictly to a routine.

I write for about three hours in the morning – from about 9:30 till 12:30 and I do another hour’s work between six and seven in the evening. At the end of this I reward myself by numbering the pages and putting them away in a spring-back folder. The whole of this four hours of daily work is devoted to writing narrative.

I never correct anything and I never go back to what I have written, except to the foot of the last page to see where I have got to. If you once look back, you are lost. How could you have written this drivel? How could you have used “terrible” six times on one page? And so forth. If you interrupt the writing of fast narrative with too much introspection and self-criticism, you will be lucky if you write 500 words a day and you will be disgusted with them into the bargain. By following my formula, you write 2,000 words a day and you aren’t disgusted with them until the book is finished, which will be in about six weeks.

I don’t even pause from writing to choose the right word or to verify spelling or a fact. All this can be done when your book is finished.

When my book is completed I spend about a week going through it and correcting the most glaring errors and rewriting passages. I then have it properly typed with chapter headings and all the rest of the trimmings. I then go through it again, have the worst pages retyped and send it off to my publisher.

They are a sharp-eyed bunch at Jonathan Cape and, apart from commenting on the book as a whole, they make detailed suggestions which I either embody or discard. Then the final typescript goes to the printer and in due course the galley or page proofs are there and you can go over them with a fresh eye. Then the book is published and you start getting letters from people saying that Vent Vert is made by Balmain and not by Dior, that the Orient Express has vacuum and not hydraulic brakes, and that you have mousseline sauce and not Bearnaise with asparagus.

Such mistakes are really nobody’s fault except the author’s, and they make him blush furiously when he sees them in print. But the majority of the public does not mind them or, worse, does not even notice them, and it is a dig at the author’s vanity to realise how quickly the reader’s eye skips across the words which it has taken him so many months to try to arrange in the right sequence.

But what, after all these labours, are the rewards of writing and, in my case, of writing thrillers?

First of all, they are financial. You don’t make a great deal of money from royalties and translation rights and so forth and, unless you are very industrious and successful, you could only just about live on these profits, but if you sell the serial rights and the film rights, you do very well. Above all, being a successful writer is a good life. You don’t have to work at it all the time and you carry your office around in your head. And you are far more aware of the world around you.

Writing makes you more alive to your surroundings and, since the main ingredient of living, though you might not think so to look at most human beings, is to be alive, this is quite a worthwhile by-product of writing.

Like with the idea of writers’ retreats, I’m dismissive of the notion of relying on hotel rooms, because if I can’t learn to write at home, I’m never going to succeed.

However, I can’t agree more with the idea of setting such a goal as 2,000 words a day, go, DON’T LOOK BACK. Not until it’s done. Otherwise — like Ian Fleming — you will sink in a quagmire of doubts and self-loathing, and you’ll toss the manuscript into the fire so you never have to look at it again.

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