Gerald Horne, a professor of history and African American studies at the University of Houston, is practicing social distancing. Five days out of seven, he goes on a walk early in the morning when there are few people outside, picks up the newspaper and some fruit, then returns home, eats the fruit, reads the paper and sits down to write his book.
Quarantine aside, Horne has been working on the book — about boxing — for a few years now, visiting archives and gathering material. For seasoned and budding writers alike who’ve been pondering their own projects, perhaps now is just the time to put pen to paper.
“Since we are housebound, it seems to me that if you think you have a good idea, you should just go for it,” says Horne.
He and other University of Houston professors who’ve authored books discuss how to tackle a writing project.
Chapter I: Inspiration
A good book starts with a good idea. Roberto Tejada, a Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished Professor who teaches creative writing at UH, says authors should be able to take the temperature of the current moment, even when they’re building fictional worlds. This is essential today, as the pandemic will likely have lasting consequences on our way of life.
“I think that some of our narratives and stories that we thought we might want to tell may not be as relevant today,” he says.
Ongoing crisis aside, it’s also important to choose a book topic you’re passionate about, stresses Irene Guenther, professor of history at UH’s Honors College.
“You never really know what the public will buy, but I don’t think that’s the point of writing a book,” she says. If you’re not writing about something that truly interests you, it won’t be a good book.
Once you have your idea, there are many resources at your disposal to start layering the narrative and characters. Any writer worth her salt will tell you that reading is a critical part of writing — they are inextricably linked. Guenther says good readers are good writers: Even subconsciously, they pick up styles they like and don’t like, and enrich their vocabulary.
Horne suggests reading journalism, too. “Journalists, generally speaking, are rather good at conveying material in a simple fashion,” he says. “They’re oftentimes very good at structuring a story.” (Oh, hey there! Click here to subscribe to the Houston Chronicle.)
“A creative writer is a detective, an anthropologist, a psychoanalyst,” says Tejada. Absorbing materials such as newspapers, archives and various corners of the internet can be useful to imagining the space in which you’ll be writing.
Chapter II: Discipline
Routine and consistency are important in any craft, especially writing. It could be like Horne’s — take walk, eat fruit, read paper, write book — or an entirely different one that works for you.
Some writers create goals for themselves, such as writing a certain number of words a day or committing to a minimum number of working hours. This can help, but it’s important not to beat yourself up about it if you fall short, warns Horne.
“It’s a cliché, but now is the time to be kind to ourselves,” says Tejada, in light of the pandemic. He adds that imposing a too-rigorous discipline “doesn’t reflect the way life actually is, which is quite messy and entangled.”
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Rather, Tejada finds it helpful to carve out a time of day in which you can be the most productive. For him, it’s the early morning, when the world is quieter.
Guenther is also skeptical about daily word quotas. Oftentimes, preparation and research take far longer than the actual writing process. She recalls a time when she took seven years to gather information about this one German soldier. Then, one day, she knew exactly what she wanted to write and the words started flowing.
Chapter III: Writer’s block
But very often, the words don’t flow. “Writing is hard,” Guenther reminds us. “There are days when it will go really quickly, and then days where you think, ‘Oh my gosh, why did I take this on? I would rather balance my checkbook or play with the dogs.”https://www.houstonchronicle.com/”
Even on a bad day when you can’t motivate yourself to write, Guenther suggests doing something — anything — with your project, such as looking over notes, redoing an outline or reading something.
“When I’ve had students with writing problems, I suggest they read some of Ernest Hemingway’s works,” says Horne. “He writes very short sentences that convey quite a bit.”
If you do manage to write, let loose a little. Early in Guenther’s career, she had a tendency of wanting every word she laid out on the page to be perfect. She says it’s better to just go ahead and write, then come back to fine-tune.
“If you’re so worried about each word on the page, you’re never going to get a page,” she says.
If all else fails, she calls one of her sisters to talk through her material. Guenther suggests using someone who’s not close to or knowledgeable about the subject. If they feel engaged by it, it will give you a boost, and help center your mind on what’s important to a potential reader (and what’s not).
Chapter IV: Revision
The editing process will largely depend on how you write.
Tejada thinks there are two kinds of writers, generally speaking: Those who can quickly produce a “very crude but extensive draft” and “sculptors, who write sentence by sentence.” If you’re the former, revisions will be more involved, a balance between subtracting information while keeping a sound structure. If you’re the latter, editing will be a lighter (and perhaps more pleasurable) lift.
When writing a first draft, Horne tends to make sure he has a good structure and that his footnotes are in pristine condition. When editing, he double-checks these, then tries to punch up the writing to make it more appealing to the reader.
Guenther always tells her students to read their work out loud, as our eyes don’t always catch every mistake, such as switching from past to present or using long-winded sentences. “It’s night and day,” she says of this practice.
Additionally, having a friend read over a draft, even if they’re not a writer by trade, will help highlight problem areas before they get in front of your future reader’s eyes.