Writers drink. Or do drinkers write? Either way we should all turn to the masters to learn our craft. As for writing, Ernest Hemingway said, “Always stop for the day while you still know what will happen next.” As for what happened next, Papa Hemingway often had a cocktail … or seven. Below is Mr. Hemingway’s recipe for the perfect bloody mary.
“To make a pitcher of Bloody Marys (any smaller amount is worthless) take a good sized pitcher and put in it as big a lump of ice as it will hold. (This to prevent too rapid melting and watering of our product.) Mix a pint of good Russian vodka and an equal amount of chilled tomato juice. Add a tablespoon full of Worcestershire sauce. Lea and Perrins is usual but you can use A1 or any good beef-steak sauce. Stirr (with two rs). Then add a jigger of fresh-squeezed lime juice. Stir. Then add small amounts of celery salt, cayenne pepper, black pepper. Keep on stirring and taste to see how it is doing. If you get it too powerful, weaken with more tomato juice. If it lacks authority add more vodka.”
A friend recently posted on social media (seemingly the only media people listen to anymore) that he had started writing a book. Good for him. He concluded his post with “I have never completed a fictional work in my life. Always gave up before I got through it.”
How many of you have done the same thing? I know I have.
After starting a couple of novels in college (and failing miserably), upon graduation I sat down and hammered out my first novel. Unfortunately, like all first-time novelists (or non-fiction writers for that matter), I had no clue what I was doing. I plopped down in front of my Mac Plus, loaded MacWrite, and typed whenever I got the whim.
Note, I said, “typed.” I don’t think I was really writing. I didn’t consider character development, setting, plot, or any of those other pesky elements of a story we’re taught in school. I fired on pure inspiration alone. And yes, I fired blindly.
About 10,000 words in I almost quit. I wanted to. I mean, I really, really wanted to because writing, contrary to what people who don’t write believe, is hard. Sure, it’s sitting in front of a computer, or typewriter, or blank pad of paper (like I did sometimes while writing that first novel, on the hood of my car, staring across a lake hoping inspiration would fall from the sky). But the act of writing, of composing entire new realities, of bringing new people to life, is nothing but hard work.
One of my favorite quotes on writing, mainly because of its accuracy, has been attributed from everyone to Ernest Hemingway to Thomas Wolfe, but it was Pulitzer Prize-winning sports columnist Red Smith who said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”
Although I did everything wrong, two years later I finished my first novel out of pure persistence. It was awful. Simply terrible writing. It’s gone now, thankfully. I had the manuscript in a box for a while, but it was lost in a move at some point, and the electronic copy is on a 3.5-inch floppy. Good riddance.
I started four more novels after that, and stopped at roughly the 10,000-word mark for not doing what I’m going to outline in these five handy bullet points:
Don’t let a good idea pass you by. Good ideas are everywhere; you just have to pay attention for them. Stephen King conjured the basic thoughts for his novel, “It,” when his footsteps on a dark, creepy bridge made him think of trolls. Danielle Sosin’s novel, “The Fate of Mercy Alban,” popped into her mind unexpectedly when touring a historic mansion. My latest work, the novella “Matriarchal Nazi Cannibals,” came to me in a dream. I woke, and told my wife who said, “You should write that story.” And I did. Thanks, honey.
The two main obstacles in writing a novel are starting it, and finishing it. Start at the beginning. No, scratch that. Don’t start at the beginning. Novice writers spend a lot of time staring at a blank page because they don’t know where to start. Don’t be that guy. Start somewhere – anywhere – which, strangely enough, is rarely the beginning of the story, but usually winds up being the opening of your novel. If you really need the beginning, or origin story, weave it throughout your work as the reason for the protagonist’s troubled soul. Start somewhere exciting, like when your hero is in trouble. Your goal is to get words on a page. This will help you do it.
Goals – set them. Novel lengths vary. A YA or romance may be as short as 50,000 words, whereas a thriller or science fiction epic could be 100,000-plus. Either way, those numbers are daunting. Your goal should not – I repeat NOT – be to finish the novel. (Yes, yes. That’s what we’re doing here. Bear with me). If finishing your novel is the goal, you’ll probably give up at 10,000 words. You need multiple goals. Your main goal should be to complete one chapter. After that’s finished, your main goal is now to complete another chapter, and so on. Relish the completion of each small goal. If your working goal is the book as a whole, you’ll quickly start begging yourself to quit. Try establishing a word count. Five hundred words a day, 1,000, 2,000, something attainable. Before you know it those chapters will add up.
Don’t edit your work until you’ve finished the entire manuscript. First-time writers who keep going back to edit almost never finish their book. There will always be something to fix. Always. Graham Greene, author of “The End of the Affair,” famously stopped mid-sentence whenever he reached his daily word count. That way he could easily pick up where he left off without having to refresh his memory.By reading what he’d already written, he would have felt compelled to edit it. You’ll have plenty of time to edit your work AFTER it’s finished. The main thing that keeps writers from becoming authors is they don’t finish the book.
It’s here. My novella, “Matriarchal Nazi Cannibals,” is available for order at Amazon.com. It is is part of a double feature from Strigidae Publishing in one volume, teamed with the novella, “The Menacing of Julia,” by Adam Millard.
From the book jacket:
MATRIARCHAL NAZI CANNIBALS
by Jason Offutt
Hölle is a cute little town of 500, nestled in the half-forgotten hills of Missouri. The only industry still floating among the cluster of buildings is the meat packing plant…well that and Gretta’s cafe. Smiles from the townspeople are a little too broad…a little too lingering…and appear just a little too hungry.
Heidi Gottschalk and her friends hit town from the university hoping to finish a film project before the semester’s over. Stranded in Hölle, the friends find out just how lively the night life can be.