Weird folks and writing rituals


Lipstick and green powder

We writers are a strange lot. Or at least we like to think so though there cannot be anything much more weird than the things some other folks get up to. Like having yourself buried in a coffin for 150 days, knitting covers for trees and phone boxes or creating a museum of burnt food. Compared to all that Truman Capote’s habit of only writing when he was lying down or T.S. Eliot’s  need to wear green powder and lipstick may not seem so odd.

A strange use for a fridge

Be that as it may, we all have our own writing rituals. Nabokov loved index cards – but he was very specific as to the type. They had to be lined 3 x 5 inch cards, which he paper clipped together and stored in slim boxes. He used medium pencils, the sort with erasers at the end. Thomas Wolfe wrote Look Homeward Angel leaning on a fridge. As he finished each page he would toss it in a box and the whole lot would be brought to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, to sort out.

What would Maxwell have to say?

I don’t use index cards. Nor do I lean on a fridge to write. As to throwing everything in a box for an editor to sort out – these days many publishing houses don’t even have in-house editors. If they do exist said editors now have to take on so many other roles they don’t have the luxury of nurturing an author as before. The days of Maxwell Perkins and Charles Monteith are long gone.

Cheerful colours

So what are my particular rituals? I begin with notebooks where I try out ideas and then work out the plot details. The notebooks have to be Ryman’s Europa spiral bound, ruled A4 Notemakers. The covers come in cheerful colours – deep pink, egg yolk yellow, soft green and also in darker bright shades of blue, green, purple and red.

Write on the left side of the paper only

I write only on the left page initially, leaving the right hand page for jotting down new thoughts or ideas that come to me while I’m working things out. That way I don’t lose anything, though I have to say that the pages end up with lines and arrows crisscrossing from one side to the other, like a web created by a demented spider. When I have a fairly solid idea of the plot, I start to write.

Screen or paper or both?

But then the story takes over and often leads me in a totally different direction to the one I envisaged. However, the outline in the notebooks gives me a framework I can go back to. Like many writers these days I write directly onto the screen – it makes it so easy to move lines and paragraphs around. I also find it helpful to copy and paste a paragraph that I want to work on. That way I have two versions on the page in front of me; if I screw up I still have the original. (If a passage is particularly tricky I will print it out and edit it in pencil. I find I have more control with a pencil – and you can rub it out. And, somehow, the physical connection of my hand with the paper via the pencil seems to create some sort of alchemy.)

Keeping track

Just as I have more than one paragraph on the page I also have more than one document in the folder. If I’m about to do something drastic I save the document with a new name and work on that, keeping the earlier version – or versions as there are often several. That way I can always go back to it if I need to. It works in theory. In practice I end up with a whole load of similar documents carefully labelled, but still confusing when you come back to them months or even years later. In general I don’t need to but I still find them essential – like a sort of security blanket.

P1000697What are your processes and rituals? Please do share them. Do you have a special pen, prefer a particular coloured paper or have strange writing habits – like only being able to write with a cat or dog in the room? (Not so strange in my book. Animals are total timewasters but immensely comforting to have around. Even if they do insist on lying on the keyboard or batting your pencil behind the radiator.)


“One of the signs of Napoleon’s greatness is the fact that he once had a publisher shot.”


The quote comes from Siegfried Unseld; I don’t know what the publisher in question did to annoy Bonaparte. And I’m not suggesting we go that far. But to any writer who’s received a rejection – especially of the dismissive and unhelpful ‘not right for our lists’ variety – will perhaps feel a twitch of sympathy. Rejections are the warp and weft of a writer’s life. You have to deal with them; no matter how ill judged or unfair you believe them to be. Nevertheless, I’m sure I’m not the only one who cannot hide my pleasure when publishers get it so wrong.

J.G. Ballard, whose distinctive novels and short stories spanned over two decades, certainly made an impression on one publisher. But not in a good way. Commenting on the manuscript of Crash, Ballard’s iconic and controversial novel, one publisher wrote ‘the author of this book is beyond psychiatric help.’ Max Beerbohm, submitting the manuscript for his classic Zuleika Dobson, was damned for being too fond of himself although he ‘has never reached any high standard in his literary work.’

The characters in another classic, Arnold Bennett’s Old Wives’ Tale, were found to be ‘so deadly and monotonously dull … so depressing … that they make a most fatuous assembly to find between the covers of a book.’ Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray was turned down as it ‘contains unpleasant elements.’ H.G. Wells War of the Worlds was refused on the basis that it was ‘an endless nightmare.’ George Orwell’s Animal Farm was rejected, for a variety of reasons, by several publishers. One was afraid of that the choice of pigs as the ruling class would upset the Russians. Another, missing the point entirely, said that ‘it is impossible to sell animal stories in the U.S.A.’

Of course cultural attitudes played a part in some infamous rejections, so one does have to allow for that. When D.H. Lawrence submitted the manuscript of Lady Chatterley’s Lover he was urged not to publish ‘for your own good.’ Indeed its first edition was published privately in Italy in 1928. When the full unexpurgated version was finally published in the U.K., in 1960, Penguin Books were immediately put on trial under the new obscenity laws. The publisher won this infamous case by successfully proving the book to be a work of literary merit.

Cultural and historic considerations aside, many extraordinary works of fiction have fallen foul of publishers down the years. War and Peace, To Kill a Mockingbird, Watership Down, Lolita, Moby Dick, Catch 22, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The Ipcress File – the list goes on and on and on. Many illustrious authors – among them Kipling, Agatha Christie, Charlotte Bronte, Henry James and F.Scott Fitzgerald have all been recipients of excoriating criticism. Luckily for us they persisted and found publishers who had a greater vision.

We’ll all get rejections, some of us more than others. Writers whose first novels are welcomed with open arms are rarer than hens’ teeth. Nevertheless, seasoned and proven writers still receive their fair share of setbacks. The only thing a writer can do is just go on. Persevere. Don’t’ give up and, next time you get that unwelcome letter, just remember that you are in good company. If you can, try to get hold of a copy of Rotten Rejections edited by Andre Bernard. It’s this book that I relied on to write this post. I cherish my copy, especially since to buy it brand new could cost nearly £60. However, second had copies are still available, for pennies.