Image of a modern fountain pen writing in curs...

Image of a modern fountain pen writing in cursive script. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Based, in part, on my discussions with a respected and prolific South African author.

It is best not to be too conscious about the process.  Don’t cripple yourself.  Don’t break your own mirror.

The writing of books is like a journey and, sometimes, you reach the end.

Go with the flow.  Let it come from the unconscious.

Don’t get diverted by interesting facts or ideas that are only indirectly related to the task at hand.  Don’t waste time.

Historical novels leave room for details, for example the way servants might kneel at the hearth in 18th century Dutch South Africa would be reasonable for an historical novel.  Such portraits from daily life add to the texture of a fiction or a description of the past.  They do not necessarily fit into a standard historical narrative.  On the other hand, a ‘standard’ historical narrative need not be embellished.

Read classics.

Be mindful of mistakes when reading languages that are not your first language.  You will avoid embarrassment and (possibly severe) criticism.  You will earn the respect of those proficient in those languages.

Get feedback from other writers, friends, acquaintances, the man in the street.

For historical novels, familiarize yourself with the historical setting.  Visit museums, historical places, look at books on costumes etc.  Speak to experts on the field.

Write with a pen or pencil or fountain pen.  Write on paper.  Computers tend to give writing a cut-and-paste effect.


‘Look – here’s a table covered with a red cloth.  On it is a cage the size of a small fish aquarium.  In the cage is a white rabbit with a pink nose and pink-rimmed eyes.  In its front paws is a carrot-stub upon which it is contentedly munching.  On its back, clearly marked in blue ink, is the numeral 8.

Do we see the same thing?  We’d have to get together and compare notes to make absolutely sure, but I think we do.  There will be necessary variations, of course:  some receivers will see a cloth which is turkey red, some will see one that’s scarlet, while others may see still other shades.  (To color-blind receivers, the red tablecloth is the dark gray of cigar ashes.)  Some may see scalloped edges, some may see straight ones.  Decorative souls may add a little lace, and welcome – my tablecloth is your tablecloth, knock yourself out.

Likewise, the matter of the cage leaves quite a lot of room for individual interpretation.  For one thing, it is described in terms of rough comparison, which is useful only if you and I see the world and measure the things in it with similar eyes.  It’s easy to become careless when making rough comparisons, but the alternative is a prissy attention to detail that takes all the fun out of writing.  What am I going to say, “on the table is a cage three feet, six inches in length, two feet in width, and fourteen inches high”?  That’s not prose, that’s an instruction manual.  The paragraph also doesn’t tell us what sort of material the cage is made of – wire mesh?  steel rods?  glass? – but does it really matter?  We all understand the cage is a see-through medium; beyond that, we don’t care.  The most interesting thing here isn’t even the carrot-munching rabbit in the cage, but the number on its back.  Not a six, not a four, not nineteen-point-five.  It’s an eight.  This is what we’re looking at, and we all see it.  I didn’t tell you.  You didn’t ask me.  I never opened my mouth and you never opened yours.  We’re not even in the same year together, let alone the same room…except we are together.  We’re close.

We’re having a meeting of the minds.

I sent you a table with a red cloth on it, a cage, a rabbit, and the number eight in blue ink.  You got them all, especially that blue ink.  We’ve engaged in an act of telepathy.  No mythy-mountain shit;  real telepathy.  I’m not going to belabour the point, but before we go any further you have to understand that I’m not trying to be cute; there is a point to be made‘ – Stephen King, On Writing, p.97-98

‘I am not well read, but when I do read, I read well’   (Kurdt Cobain, Notebooks)                                                         

‘I saw plainly that I could no longer write without a clearly defined plan, that I must first of all explain to myself the purpose of my work, its absolute usefulness and necessity, as a result of which the author himself would be filled with a genuine and powerful love for it’

Russian author Nikolai Gogol on the writing of Dead Souls