Writing can be intensely rewarding, but each book is also a messy, long-drawn trek. Here are five practices that may help you to navigate through these journeys:
1) Treat your writing as a job
It is of course your vocation, but if you wait for inspiration from the heavens, you’ll never get anything completed. So: set a schedule for your writing practice, even if it’s for a couple of hours a week. Then stick to it. Be ruthless with yourself and your family and friends during these hours. Sit down at your desk and stay there, even if you can’t write the next sentence. Switch off your phone. Unless it’s an emergency, turn away any summons. Ignore the siren calls of the refrigerator and the internet.
2) Set up a daily target for output
I write 400 words, and then knock off, even if I haven’t reached the end of my scheduled writing hours. 400 words leaves me feeling exhausted, while other writers I know write a thousand, or even more. By producing a little at a time, you get work done without straining yourself. Writing is a marathon, not a sprint. Do a little at a time, and one day—amazingly enough—you’ll have a complete manuscript on your hands. One of my favourite Victorian writers, Anthony Trollope, wrote from 5:30 am to 8:30 am every morning before he went off to his day job at the British post office. He tried to write 250 words every fifteen minutes. And this practice certainly paid off for him: when he died at sixty-seven, he had published 47 novels, an autobiography, two plays, short stories, travel books, articles, reviews and lectures. Of course, you don’t have to be as madly prolific as Trollope to be a writer, but his output demonstrates the value of discipline.
3) When you’re stumped by a problem, walk away from it
There are times when I’ve been unable to figure out how to move my narrative ahead, to see where it should go next. This happens particularly in the realm of plotting. When this happens, I give myself a holiday from writing—a week, maybe two weeks. Then I try not to think about the manuscript at all. I watch a lot of movies, listen to music, read for pleasure. And somehow, the solution arrives, unbidden. I suspect this is because when you are not worrying about the problem, your entire being—not just the problem-solving conscious you—is allowed to work towards answers. Creative practice, whether it’s in the arts or another domain, engages the sub- and unconscious mind as well. You write with your entire body. Solutions often come to me during long showers, when I’m calm, and I’ve heard about this from other writers as well. So, take a walk, ride your bike, dance, sweep the floor. Relax yourself into knowledge.
4) Follow your obsessions
If there’s an image that haunts you, some news story you read years ago that still hurts to think about, you need to pay attention. There’s energy there that you can draw upon in your writing practice, so investigate. Read more sources, watch documentaries, read fiction about the same subject. Curiosity is a resource you can draw upon endlessly. You need obsessiveness to fuel the writing of your book, which might take months, years, or even decades. Leverage this urgency to travel and talk to people! You’ll be amazed at how willing human beings are to tell their stories to you. So if you want to write a story set in a hospital, go talk to nurses, doctors, staff, patients, everyone who moves through that world. Often, if you ask, you’ll be allowed to shadow people as they work, and you’ll get some sense of what they actually do and feel.
The value in exploring these terrains is not only that you’ll be able to interview people, but that you’ll pick up details without even knowing you are, and these will be immensely valuable years later. For a novel about policing and crime in India, I once interviewed a young policeman in his office. I diligently took notes, but when I did write a scene set in a police station, what I actually ended up using were his very flashy high-end sneakers that were visible under his desk, which I put on one of my characters.
5) Take care of yourself emotionally and physically
Ernest Hemingway famously advised, “Write hard and clear about what hurts.” But exploring what hurts at length, instead of healing, takes its toll—as one can observe in Hemingway’s own life. To write my cops and gangsters saga, I spent nearly a decade immersing myself in violence, deceit, and murderous politics, both real and fictional. I only realized after finishing that book what a toll it had taken on me personally. And then I really understood why Frederick Busch named his excellent book about the pleasures and travails of the writing life A Dangerous Profession. So be kind to yourself. When you need help, ask for it. I like the solitude of the writing life, and I have to remind myself that I need family and friends to sustain this solitude, and that both are necessary.
Finally, a bonus tip—mistrust lists of tips. There is no magic key to the kingdom, no set of practices that will turn you overnight into the writer you want to be. Writing is an act that comes from the deepest parts of you, from a primal place that has its own unique chemistry. Habits that work for someone else will not work for you. Keep an open mind but trust your gut. Try to discover how you can be most productive, how you can write the best fiction you can. Then follow that path. You’ll never know exactly where this road will lead, but that’s why it’s worth travelling.
Vikram Chandra’s latest book is Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty. He has also written the novels Sacred Games and Red Earth and Pouring Rain and the short story collection Love and Longing in Bombay. In July 2018, Netflix released a series based on Sacred Games. In 2019, this series was included in The New York Times’ list of The 30 Best International TV Shows of the Decade. His honours include a Guggenheim fellowship, the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Eurasia), the Crossword Prize, and the Salon Book Award.
He teaches creative writing at the University of California, Berkeley. His work has been translated into nineteen languages. He is a co-founder of a software startup that is building Granthika, a next-generation writing tool for writers. Granthika seamlessly integrates the universe of your story with your manuscript and intelligently manages all story elements for you, freeing you to be even more creative.