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Tag: Robert Twigger

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Be Interested

To tag on from a previous entry: something I find immensely rewarding is doing work that’s interesting. When you write a travel book, as I have spent the last ten years or more doing, it takes about two years from the conception to publication. That’s a long time, and you have to spend hundreds of hours researching, writing, editing and proofing the text. The only way I can get through the thing is if it tantalizes me in the most enchanting and base way. For example, with my book House of the Tiger King, I still don’t know whether Pancho, our Machiguinga guide, really knew where the ruins of the lost city of Paititi were or not. I love that sense of unknown. It keeps me thinking as I toss and turn to sleep at night.This sense of mystery is so important, and when you don’t have it, things can go badly wrong. Take this example: I have a great friend, Robert Twigger, who was commissioned to write a book about a species of deer caught up in the Boxer Rebellion. It wasn’t his idea, but his agent’s, and he took it on because he needed the cash. Of course he needed the cash: he was a struggling author. But even with the solid advance, he found he had no interest in the idea and it had been dreamed up by an agent who was totally clueless about good ideas. So he agonized for months, many many months. The book that was finally created, The Extinction Club, is probably Twigger’s finest. I’d say it’s a work of genius… because he found interest in the subject by exposing his mercenary tactics.



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Finish It

The hardest thing to do if you have never written a book, is to finish it. And the easiest thing to do if you have never written a book, is to talk about it. The more you talk, the more you are venting energy which would be better served being spewed through your typing fingers. I have written about this before: people keep trying to show me bits of book they are creating. I don’t want to see them. I wish i had a soap crate because I’d get on it and stand in the middle of the street, and yell — ‘I don’t want to see anything that’s not finished!!!’ I get really worked up about that. You have no idea. I think it’s because I always read stuff through endlessly, and even get it professionally edited at my expense, before i show it to anyone at all. And the very last thing I’d ever do would be to show a fragment. It’s like an artist showing the bottom right hand corner of a painting he’s planning on painting. The reason (as I have ranted before) is that would-be writers want praise. And nothing else.



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Ritual

The best thing for achieving a distant goal is ritual. It’s the drip, drip, drip approach that works miracles. Do a little bit each day, but every day, and have little rituals. For example, when I am writing a book, which tends to take about thirty days, I have all sorts of rituals. I make sure the layout of my desk is a certain way, that my dictionary is square, that the three pens are lined up, and the pile of notes are exactly where I always have them. I know a writer, he’s a close friend, who walks around his desk three times clockwise and then three times counter-clockwise, before sitting down. It’s calming, he says, and seems to soothe a primitive part of his mind that needs soothing before he engages in the challenging hours of creativity. Beyond that, never overdo it. I write about 3000 words a day, every day, for a month. I could write more or on some days less, but I don’t. I keep it to the same output, with no excuses. There’s something wonderful about that discipline. It’s a feature of life that most of us have lost since our days at school, but one which would help us all in our adult life if only we could relearn it.



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Write, write, write

Something that drives me CRAZY is that publishers don’t want an author to write much. They try and curb your output to levels. It’s like telling a painter to stop doing what they do. I’ve often suggested two books at once and offered to submit them both within a few months. After all, most people who read books are capable of reading two books within a few months. Do that and (cue posh English accent) you get the standard response: ‘Steady on old boy, don’t want to give your readers too much of a good thing!’ I believe that if you are a writer, then you are writing because you like doing it… that by writing you are venting an energy that would otherwise be building up. And I have no qualms at moving publishers or agents, because the key point about being a writer is that you have to write first for yourself, and second for anyone else. I like it if people bother to read my stuff, but in a way I don’t give a damn if they don’t. We have an old family friend, who won the Nobel a year and a bit ago, Doris Lessing. She told me once that she has to write and she doesn’t know why, but that by writing she stays on an even keel. She’s been the greatest inspiration to me, and what I love about her is that she’s not writing for anyone except herself.



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The Craft

OK. I’m going to state the obvious but please give me a break. If you want to get good at something — just about anything — you have to work at it. And it goes for writing more than just about anything I know. Here’s a trick that I learned. You give yourself half an hour. Put a clock on the table if necessary. And write a short paragraph. Describe something. Anything — just a jug of flowers on the window ledge, or your favourite painting, or a person you know. When you have written it, turn the paper over, or away from the computer screen for three minutes. Then read what you’ve written. Can you add to it? Can you make it flow a little better. Does it need chopping about? If so, work on it. Then turn away for another three minutes and, again, read through and rework. When I have written something (except this blog, so forgive me for that), I constantly re-read and rework. I substitute words, tenses, and lots of little things with the aim of creating a product that’s easy to read. In my opinion, it’s far better to write a paragraph that’s blindingly clean than pages of stuff which are full of mistakes.



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Tingling Spine

When I’ve written something, I read it through endlessly, making little tweaks. Then, if possible, I sleep on it, and read it through the next morning. It’s then that you have some distance, and distance is an important thing when you are creating anything. What you think of as fabulous one minute, you can feel is unadulterated garbage the next. But the thing that I am always aiming for is that tingle down the spine. If you have that, then you know there’s something magical there. And the more times you have read it, the better. Because, if you get the tingling spine after reading it through twenty times, you know the magic’s all the stronger.



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Meeting

Another great way to meet book business people is by joining societies and other associations. In the UK there is the brilliant Society of Authors, which champions authors, although there’s quite a steep annual fee. The benefits are The Society makes available free brochures on specific author-related information to members, as well as reading through contracts and answers technical questions. It’s likely that such a society would be able to help make introductions to agents and so forth. There’s also (in the UK) The Royal Society of Literature, which is extremely affordable to join, and is a great forum at which to meet writers, publishers and specialists in the book business. There are similar societies in the US and across the world.

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Reviewing

To get published, a really key thing is to get to know people in the book business. The more people you know in the field, the more your chances increase at finding an agent, a publisher, or a line to get your foot in the door. I have a found that reviewing books is a really good way at meeting editors. The important point here is that all book editors read book reviews, especially of the books they have edited. If you review, and if possibly give favourable reviews, those reviews will be read by the editors you are hoping to meet. They will read your byline, and get a sense that you can write. Just about anyone can write reviews, and it’s pretty easy to pitch to reviewers, partly because they don’t pay well normally, so they want text. And they love it if you are an ‘expert’ in the field of the book. You can also review books on your blogs online. An author will often get sent links to such blogs, and it’s a good way to communicate with writers. If you tell me that you tried to break in to book reviewing and failed, then it’s simple – you didn’t try hard enough.



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Giving Up

It was Winston Churchill who said: Never ever ever give up. And, God, was he right. Remember that the difference between massive success and total failure is no wider than the thickness of a hair. I must have said it before. And I’ll say it again, because it’s the slogan the has taught me more than just about anything else. As you struggle to break in to publishing, or anything, most people are also struggling, and they tend to drop out. Why? Because it’s easier to get an office job or to wait tables instead. With every person who drops out, you are closer to the summit. Never forget that. When you are in the long dark days of drudgery, strain yourself away from the anguish and look at the horizon. Success is there, and it’s really not far. But to reach it you must keep that horizon in your sights.



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Detail

It’s all about detail. Look around you and if you’re lucky you’ll see it. Yet most of the time we’re blind to it. Look at the coffee cup that’s sitting on your desk. You hardly realize it’s there because it’s always there. There’s a few drops of dried coffee on the rim, a hairline crack near the base, a scratch on the inside where a teaspoon was stirred a little too hard. Lift it up and there’s a patch of condensation on the desk, because you forgot to use a coaster, miniature droplets of moist. And on the bottom of the cup there’s the monogram of the company, and a chip almost too insignificant to see. I’m obsessed by detail, and often find myself ruled by it. I have a problem sometimes at seeing the bigger picture, but I value a level of detail that many people miss altogether. A great trick when you are writing is to take a bus ride, and keep a notebook in your lap. Look at the people who come on and off. Study their faces and see how the details of their appearance, their manners, all sync up with the full impression. The first five people who step onto a bus, any bus, are the characters for your novel. 



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