Another previous post, which seemed right to put out again after the last one on Ray Bradbury’s book Fahrenheit 451. This post concentrates on the writing of the original story from which the book developed.
Okay, so Ray Bradbury didn’t say directly to ‘write like the Mechanical Hound is after you’, but I am sure that is what he meant.
In 2006, he wrote a letter to Shauna Thorup, the Assistant Director of Fayetteville Public Library, with details of how he had produced the first draft of what would become Fahrenheit 451.
Bradbury explained that one day he was wandering around the library of UCLA, when he discovered a bank of typewriters down in the basement. These could be ‘hired’ for thirty minutes at a time, by inserting a dime into a timer.
Nine days later, $9.80 produced 25,000 words, which constituted the ‘The Fireman’.
Time and money were literally ticking away.
So he wrote fast.
Constantly aware that the ‘Mechanical Hound’ was getting closer and closer, only to be held at bay by throwing more dimes, like toffees, to keep the jaws preoccupied.
For the next thirty minutes, at least.
So, grab yourself some loose change and start the timer. (Check out my own experiences of using a timer here.)
25,000 words in $9.80, anyone?
If my calculations are correct then the rate of words per hour is 510, which doesn’t seem like much, but let’s give credit for working on a type writer rather than a modern keyboard.
Why not try it?
Ninety-eight lots of thirty minutes and see what you’ve got?
You may have to ignore the limit of nine days Bradbury took, if you are not a full time writer.
And ‘no pressure’ to end up with a story which you will then need to develop into a novel which won all of the awards which Fahrenhiet 451 went on to!
I was looking back through some of the older posts and I thought that this one was worthy of dusting off. I’ve altered a few little bits to update it, but it is mostly what I originally wrote. I hope you enjoy it.
Recently I revisited one of my favourite Ray Bradbury novels in Fahrenheit 451, with a great audio version narrated by Tim Robbins.
One of the many things which struck me this time around was just how quickly Bradbury gets the story moving.
After a quick page or so of describing the Fireman Guy Montag doing his job and returning to the Fire Station we – along with the protagonist – are confronted with young woman Clarisse McClellan.
I wondered if this was where Thomas Harris got his inspiration for Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs.
I also couldn’t shift the image of Julie Christie as Clarisse in Truffaut’s cinematic version from 1966.
But back to the novel and Clarisse starts to question Guy Montag about his profession as a Fireman, musing on the possibility that Firemen used to put out fires not start them.
Bradbury moves so fast here.
How did she pick him out? Was she waiting for him? What made her think that he was different?
The strong opening imagery of Montag and his profession are now confronted with an alternative possibility in only six pages.
Montag returns home to find his wife has attempted suicide and we become aware that his life, and the life of the society we have been dropped into, is not positive or healthy.
Like Hamlet we realise that something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
Is Montag mad?
Suffering from a disease spread by the very things he burns?
Or like Hamlet, is he the only sane person in a cast of the mad or those who do not even realise they are just as trapped as he is?
Within fourteen pages, pretty much everything is set for the rest of the story.
Within a further nine pages we have met the Mechanical Hound, which Montag is convinced doesn’t like him. We meet his boss, Captain Beatty, who explains that the Hound is a machine. It doesn’t doesn’t think anything that ‘they’ don’t want it too.
Apart from a bookish mentor later on in the story, we have the cast of characters and the conflict which we will see play out.
We learn more about this futuristic society as we turn through the pages, but it is often only like the passing of the countryside looked at from the window of a car. If you concentrate on the outside though, there is plenty to see and learn from.
Farenheit 451 and Something Wicked This Way Comes are the two novels I read over and over again in my teens. I have read each over a hundred times.
Part of Bradbury’s short story genius comes through both of these novels. You don’t need lots of exposition to get a story going. Plunge your reader straight into the action and blend in more necessary information as we follow the characters through their conflict.
To begin at the beginning, this is not an exhaustive comparison of Connelly and Grisham. There will be plenty of writers/journalists out there who have already done this better than I can.
These are my thoughts and notes from a great interview with the two authors by the bookseller Waterstones, earlier this evening.
Connelly and Grisham have been writing for a similar length of time, around the thirty year mark. Both are bestseller authors.
Connelly writes novels with a number of repeating characters. Detective Harry Bosch is his mainstay, but then there is the Lincoln Lawyer Mickey Haller, journalist James McAvoy, and his latest detective Renee Ballard.
The majority of Grisham’s novels are stand alone, with only the recent ‘Camino’ stories being based on the same protagonist.
So, should you write serial characters as a new writer, or have a constantly refreshed cast? The success of both authors would seem to suggest its a tie on that score.
Connelly and Grisham both have work schedules which begin on January 1st.
They are both full-time writers and their writing habits reflect this.
Newer writers may have to work their writing in around other jobs, but there is a key point which is be disciplined. Whether you have all the time to write or practically no time, you have to sit down and write.
Connelly and Grisham both write in areas that they are very familiar with.
Connelly’s stories are very much based in Los Angeles and his previous career as a journalist covering crime clearly still has an influence on his work.
Grisham was a lawyer and most of his books are legal thrillers, with his latest ‘Camino’ books straying from that to a roguish bookseller.
I’m not a fan of the old adage ‘write what you know’, but both authors very much are of the opinion that you should write in areas which you are knowledgable.
What you know the best might not be your current career area. Your interest in sports or politics, cars or mental health, may be what you know best?
Whatever your key area of interest, make sure you keep up to date, read and watch everything you can find and look out for those story ideas.
Ploter or Pantser?
Connelly and Grisham both know what the end scenes are before they begin writing the first scene.
Grisham tends to be more heavily plotted than Connelly.
For you as a writer, plot or pants, but make sure you know where the end is before you start at the beginning.
Connelly and Grisham generally stay within their ‘genre’. Success probably has a part to play here, but they know the lay of the land and they find plenty of stories there.
Grisham has written non-fiction and sport-based stories.
As a writer you can jump around the genres but you will probably find more success in those areas of your knowledge and expertise.
Connelly and Grisham are both fans of Ian Rankin.
Connelly has had his Bosch stories made into a very successful Amazon TV series and a movie made of The Lincoln Lawyer.
Grisham has had a number of his books made into big movies, such as The Pelican Brief, A Time to Kill, and The Firm.
Both writers still see themselves as novelists and TV/Film are interesting side-tracks.
So what’s keeping you – get writing!
Connelly and Grisham could do with some competition!
It is difficult in these days of movies and tv series not to associate actors with the fictional people they portray.
Or is it the other way around?
An honest actor will tell you that if the writing is good then they just say the lines. Which is them being very generous. Their art is a truly skilful one.
But, if the lines of their characters are true to their part within the story, then they may ‘play’ the role rather than having to ‘invent’ the role.
I’ve been concentrating on character within my own stories a lot more recently.
I tend write and reveal character through dialogue. Which, for me, is fine; mostly due to the fact that these characters have been hanging out with me and following me around, talking non-stop to me.
I’ve started to think much more about how much I am actually revealing about these characters. I think I might not be doing as good a job as I think.
One of the articles I came across whilst deliberating this issue offered ‘five ways to improving your characters’.
In my notebook, I neglected to write down where the article was from . . . but when I track it down again, I will attribute it properly so you can check the whole thing out.
Until then I offer you the notes I made.
Get in touch with your character on a personal level – If you were describing having met this person to a friend of yours, what would you tell them? Your reader probably should know that much too.
Understand their backstory deeply – You probably will not tell this story in your novel/script but all of the things that have happened to them up to this point, will effect their decision making within your story.
Drive your story with your characters – Plot is obviously important, but how your main characters get to that end point, might be different if you let them find their way there, rather than driving them there yourself.
Study how character change impacts plot – Back to school! – pick up those books/articles, listen/watch those interviews with your favourite authors. Keep learning your craft!
Be persistent – Unless you want your characters to give up, don’t you give up learning and understanding them, so together you build the best story you can.
One of my favourite movies is Lethal Weapon and the introduction to the characters of Riggs and Murtaugh is one of the best there is.
We discover that Riggs has nothing left to live for and wants to die. We discover that Murtaugh has a family he wants to live for and worries that he might die if he isn’t careful.
The tension between these two characters and their motivations are what we watch. The plot line almost becomes something that just moves them from one place to another.
We see them rubbing the edges off each other.
They will only survive to the end of the story by doing it together. Murtaugh has to take chances and Riggs has to have something to live for.
Just writing those last couple of paragraphs reminds me I need to keep going back to point 4!
Let me know how your characters are going and what you have done to improve them.
You hit a wall. You lose the thread. A character doesn’t follow the plot line you have carefully constructed for them.
I’m sure it happens to artists and musicians also.
As a writer you normally do two things.
First, you give up; thus proving that you probably aren’t really good enough to be a writer after all. Second, you become belligerent and try and force the character, or plot, into fitting into the shape you created for it.
I’ve done both.
But, more recently, I’ve been learning there is a third way.
And it is easier than the other two.
You just close the notebook or electronic file and open up a new one.
Then, every now and again, let your creative mind wander back to the project and see if anything new occurs to you.
Let me give you an example.
I will call the project White Ladder.
White Ladder started with an image of two old men talking in a room one evening. They see a news clip of a new movie actress wowing audiences. It turns out that one of the men knew her mother.
That image and about 400 words, of mostly dialogue, was over 20 years ago.
It just never got past that initial stage.
A couple of years ago I heard a radio programme which focused on particular musicians and their defining albums. They played some of the songs and talked about the inspirations and processes of making the albums.
The one I listened to was David Gray, talking about his album White Ladder.
Suddenly that image of the two men talking came back to me and a variation on the theme started to form, energised by the words and mood of David Gray’s album.
The plot line was now dictated by the titles of each of the tracks on the album and the mood set by, often, just one line of the lyrics.
I don’t usually plan. I am a pantser by trade.
A couple of weeks of looking back at the plot line then led me to open up a project on Scrivener and start putting words on the page.
74,428 words later I stalled. I was at the three-quarters finished stage.
The two main characters had not followed the plot line and were all out refusing to do so.
I huffed and puffed and threatened to delete them, but they knew I was bluffing. So I gave them the cold shoulder for about six weeks. It turned out they were more patient than me.
So I took a key idea from within the project and tried to write the story from that perspective instead.
That was good for 34,149 words. Then the plot line decided not to follow the original plot I had carefully conceived. The two main characters waited patiently on the street they were walking, looking at me, waiting for me to make a decision.
I now had the word count of a full length novel, but three-quarters and one-quarter of the same story in two versions.
Dust gathered on both versions. Apart from reworking the whole plot into a series of ten short stories, telling the story from the perspectives of different characters.
I think I got that idea from Patrick Gale and his fantastic book Notes from an Exhibition.
Dust still gathers.
I know this story will be finished, because it keeps tapping on the door of my creative studio, reminding me that it is still there.
But in not finishing White Ladder (yet!) I have learnt a lot.
I have learnt that one simple scene will eventually become a full story if you wait long enough.
I have devised a story plot three different ways.
I have 108,000+ words of writing practice, which will eventually be a finished novel.
I have learnt to be patient with myself.
I haven’t failed because the book isn’t completed.
Choose twenty books about being creative and they will tell you to produce!
They aren’t wrong.
If you are a creative then create.
I think it was Seth Godin who said, real artists ship.
I am not arguing with him.
If I am a writer, then I need to stand at my desk and write. I need to complete that novel.
Recently though, I’ve become more persuaded that productivity isn’t just the end product.
If I write with a fountain pen, at some point I need to load it with ink. Without that ink, the words on the page will be invisible.
The ink is the books I’ve read, the drafts which have drifted towards the electronic storeroom or the recycling bin, the interviews I’ve heard or seen with authors, the ideas sparked by the movies and tv series I’ve watched, the conversations I’ve overheard, waking up in the middle of the night with words like a whisper in my ear . . .
Being creative is your way of life. It is you being productive.
Don’t always judge yourself by the final product.
If I write 200 words less than my target, I can easily judge myself a failure, but the interview I heard with John Le Carre, or Ian Rankin, could fuel my next two books.
Don’t stop shipping, but don’t begrudge stocktaking either.
So yesterday I suggested that relatives could take inspiration/lessons from sports and hopefully I will convince you today.
Bill Belichick is the most successful NFL coach ever because:
He stays focused on the overall goal and works hard to achieve it
He never goes through the motions and always trains with purpose
He makes sure that he puts the right players on the pitch at the right time
He doesn’t panic if things don’t seem to be working early on in the season and understands the importance of late on in the game and the season
He doesn’t waste time talking about the game
So how does this translate into being creative?
Be really clear about what you are trying to achieve.
Belichick knows the season is about winning the Super Bowl and so is the pre-season and the post-season. If you want to write a novel then that is the goal, nothing else. Prepare. Execute. Analyse to make next year’s performance better. It is hard work so put in the hours. Be focused and cut out distractions. Commit and achieve.
Practise with purpose and put what you learn into action.
A very underestimated part of what Belichick does is the practice field. The Patriots train with crowd noise. They train with old and scuffed up balls, removing as much of the grip as they can. They try to recreate conditions similar to the ones they will play in. All practice is purposeful.
It can be hard if you are time pressed for your creative pursuit but you need to practice. If you are a writer then try and find an extra couple of hundred words which are based on what you are writing, or will write in the next chapter. It might be character descriptions, or scene setting, or dialogue. If you are an artist you might need to experiment with colour, or sketch certain body parts, or try different techniques for applying the paint.
Use the creativity you need for that particular moment.
Don’t get distracted or show off. Use the skills to produce the elements you need to make that particular chapter, or picture, or composition, exactly as you need it. Be prepared and execute. If the scene is your chapter is heavy on dialogue, then make sure you have been practicing that element. Listen to good movies or tv, listen to or read good scenes from books and plays.
Sometimes, particularly in the early stages, things might not go quite the way you had planned. It happens. Work out why and fix the issue. Sometimes there might not be a specific problem, you just didn’t execute well enough, so make sure you do the next time. Keep pressing on and know everything will come together late on in the season when it really matters. You may have zigged when you wanted to zag but keep the process going and remain focused on the end result.
Don’t waste time and energy.
Monosyllabic answers and repetitive phrases at press conferences are communicating that this isn’t where we win championships and Super Bowls.
As creatives we have platforms which can really boost the audience for our creativity in ways which no other writers/artists have had before, but it can also be a massive distraction. Social Media is the press conference. Learn from Bill. Don’t waste your energy and know it is taking time away from your main job. It is necessary, which why even he does them, but his conduct tells you that he knows what is important. The end result.
So Create Like Bill! And I hope to see you all in the Hall of Fame! (But don’t be surprised if Bill doesn’t speak with us!)
Basically, I’ve got rid of more stuff I had forgotten I even had, or had kept because it might be useful at some point. I decided that some point had been reached and that the stuff wasn’t useful after all.
A family desk taken by my eldest son, freed up space for an armchair I’ve been looking at with fondness for a while now. I write at a standing desk, but I was hankering after a seat to muse, imagine, read, in.
I thoroughly recommend a standing desk if you don’t usually use one. Some are very pricey but mine is about the size of your laptop and does the job perfectly.
Revamping and tidying up are often necessary but also serve as perfect actions for not writing.
I sway between being really frustrated when I don’t write and just accepting that sometimes my brain needs a pause to fix something in a story, or make the necessary links to the next stage of the story.
I’ve probably mentioned this before but I don’t plot/plan in a James Patterson kind of way. Once the plot is down on paper then I know the story and my brain is off to the next one. The discipline to then take an extended plot and write it up into the finished novel eludes me. Be honest though, James Patterson probably feels the same way, which is why he has all of those co-authors.
I plan more like Lee Childs. I turn up, like Jack Reacher (okay – like a Jack Reacher who has been placed on too warm a wash cycle than the label directs!), meet a couple of people – good or bad – and the rest happens from there.
I am currently writing something new and it is requiring a little more thinking than I am used to. I think? Or I am doing a good job of pulling the wool over my own eyes. Sometimes, kicking back into the habit of hitting a word count each day, no matter what, really does get the job done.
I confess that all my normal habits have gone a bit wayward, with the only one remaining intact is the one where I listen to a new album everyday. Writing 1000 words a day has become disjointed. French language learning hasn’t been learnt for almost three weeks now. Exercise has not been what it should be. I have read more, and listened to podcasts and audio books more frequently.
My cotton-wash-when-it-should-have-been-a-wool-wash Reacher gives a Gallic shrug (as he can’t remember the phrase he was looking for) and wanders off into the night to regain his writing habit and his credibility . . .