My favorite writers have always influenced me, but none more than Ernest Hemingway. The way he was able to mix real life experiences into his fiction was brilliant. In the disposable digital era we live in, it is not as common, or accepted, to live the way he chose, and now I choose to live.
Luckily, guys like Hemingway (whose words are italicized), left clues on how to become a great writer. Here are five simple idea’s that inspire me to be the best writer I can be.
I compare my ability to write to the muscles needed to perform a physical skill. The more use those specific muscles get, the stronger they becomes. I agree with what Hemingway writes in his novel, A Moveable Feast, that, to get started, write one true sentence.
Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.
2 – All work and no play makes Sean a dull boy and the importance of not thinking about the story when you’re not working on it.
One of the things that most great authors have in common is that they lived true and challenging lives. Lives worth writing about, filled with experience, drama, love and loss. Whether it was J.D. Salinger storming the beaches of Normandy with six chapters of Catcher in the Rye tucked in his uniform, or Hemingway going on european road trips with F. Scott Fitzgerald. I wake up early, write until I am done for the day, and then go explore whatever town I am traveling in, this I also learned was Hemingway’s natural propensity as written in A Moveable Feast.
When I was writing, it was necessary for me to read after I had written. If you kept thinking about it, you would lose the thing you were writing before you could go on with it the next day. It was necessary to get exercise, to be tired in the body, and it was very good to make love with whom you loved. That was better than anything. But afterwards, when you were empty, it was necessary to read in order not to think or worry about your work until you could do it again. I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.
3 – Two steps forward and one step back.
Every writer has a personal style, but each story must be written with a consistent voice. In an Esquire article from 1935 I learned how Hemingway did this with his stories.
The best way is to read it all every day from the start, correcting as you go along, then go on from where you stopped the day before. When it gets so long that you can’t do this every day read back two or three chapters each day; then each week read it all from the start. That’s how you make it all of one piece.
4 – Describe the emotion through critical observation.
Hemingway said close observation of life is critical to good writing. It is the little things that happen in passing, the things that make you feel an emotion stir that you need to look for and write about. Once you can identify what caused the emotion you can write about it in a way that makes the reader feel the same emotion. In Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway writes about his struggle to figure this out.
I was trying to write then and I found the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel, and had been taught to feel, was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced. In writing for a newspaper you told what happened and, with one trick and another, you communicated the emotion aided by the element of timeliness which gives a certain emotion to any account of something that has happened on that day; but the real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion and which would be as valid in a year or in ten years or, with luck and if you stated it purely enough, always, was beyond me and I was working very hard to get it.
5 – Quit while your ahead.
Stop while you still know what is going to happen, I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it…The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck. That is the most valuable thing I can tell you so try to remember it.
My daily word-count quota is 1000 words, and my first book, Five Weeks in the Amazon, was 80,000 words, which means if I stay consistent, if my writing muscle keeps growing, and I follow Hemingway’s advice, my next book, I Killed a Black Dog, will be finished soon.