Tag Archives: Ernest Hemingway.

Leaving Scenes Unfinished

In 1934, a 22yearold aspiring writer called Arnold Samuelson hitchhiked to Key West, Florida to seek advice from his hero Ernest Hemingway.
He recorded Hemingway’s thoughts on writing, storing the manuscript in a drawer, where it was found by his daughter after his death in 1981. She arranged for it to be published as With Hemingway: A Year In Key West and Cuba

While mentoring Samuelson, Hemingway offered an abundance of advice, including this tip:

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.

Hemingway was effectively cautioning writers not to worry about a reaching a daily word count which could become a drudge of a task, ruining their creativity.

Finishing a writing session mid-paragraph aware of where the story is going next helps momentum the next day. One’s brain works on the scene, while awake and asleep, which spurs on new ideas.

It’s a technique I’ve used many times, for after all, it’s far better to stop when things are going well than to wait until I’m stuck! I always follow Thomas Edison’s advice as part of the technique:

It’s surprising how many times sleeping on things produces great ideas.

It turns out that Hemingway’s suggestion is based on a psychological phenomenon known as the Zeigarnik Effect. Named after Bluma Wulfovna Zeigarnik, a Russian psychiatrist and psychologist, who extrapolated from an observation her professor made about waiters—that they hold a diner’s order in their minds until the food is served.

It turns out we all remember unfinished tasks better than completed goals, which provides great motivation to complete it.


This year, as I build an online author platform in preparation to launch my Cornish Detective novels as a self-published series, I’ve been working in fits and starts on a novella as therapy, but it’s rather backfired on me. Each time, I’ve stopped writing at interesting plot incidents, sometimes not returning to the story for a couple of weeks, which has turned it into a spiky Rubik’s Cube in my mind!

It’s a great sensation when you’re on a roll while writing, in the creative groove, firing on all cylinders and adding to your masterpiece, but that might be the time to pause for a few hours…

What do you think?

How to tell if you’re a Famous Writer….

First of all, forget becoming a bestseller: who cares about your sales and vast wealth? Your novel was turned into an inferior film by Hollywood, and more people watched it than have ever read your books. The publicity surrounding the movie caused a brief blip in your sales figures, as a few discerning readers sought out your back catalogue, but it didn’t last.

You’re not a household name and those that are often write inferior fiction that briefly satisfies some squalid urge. How many authors could the average dunce-in-the-street name anyway? And, most of those would be dead—classical authors they were made to read at school—putting them off reading for life.

No, what you need to happen to be really famous is to have journalists write about your sex life love life...they’ll gussy it up by pretending it’s about how your romances affected your writing, but what they really want to do is puncture your reputation as an intellectual to show you up as a lascivious beast or a repressed misanthrope or even kinky beyond imagination!

Most of these saucy tales won’t come out until you’ve been dead for a while—after all, there are libel laws—and some editors might have enough conscience left to avoid destroying a marriage or literary reputation.

Still, years later (or even as soon as you’re dead), your horizontal jogging exploits will be revealed. Books such as The Intimate Sex Lives of Famous People will include a few writers’ sexual shenanigans.


Readers will be amazed to learn that F. Scott Fitzgerald had a fetish for feet and that he agonised about the size of his penis, once whipping it out in a restroom to ask Ernest Hemingway what he thought. H.G. Wells was a satyr, rarely without a woman and many were young enough to be his daughter; he was shagging into his last year, dying at 80. James Boswell, famed as the chronicler of Dr Johnson, was always at it, often with prostitutes where he probably caught the gonorrhoea which killed him at 54. Before losing his virginity he used trees as sexual partners!

If thinking about this future exposure bothers you, remain chaste and preferably lead a reclusive lifestyle. That way, you could end up as a symbol for your country when they use your image on banknotes. Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare have all adorned British banknotes. Robert Louis Stevenson appeared on a Scottish £1 note, while James Joyce was on an Irish tenner. Denmark chose Hans Christian Anderson for its 10 Kroner note.

I wonder how long it will be before J.K. Rowling appears on a British banknote…perhaps in the next century. As for her sex life, for the moment, we can only ponder who slytherined into her gryffindor and expelliarmussed! 

When Do You Stop Writing?

I’ve gradually refined my working method, since returning to creative writing six years ago. With my first novel, I did some editing as I went along, but the bulk of it gripped me like a grizzly bear after I’d typed ‘The End’. Five months of editing saw me interacting with my story as a recalcitrant object, rather than an interesting crime novel, as I hunted down punctuation errors, repetitions and clumsy phrasing.

These days, after completing my fifth novel, I edit assiduously as I go along. Some writing experts recommend using a word processor not connected to the internet, which I understand if you’re easily distracted by emails and social media, but I prefer to research facts close to writing about them. I do tons of fact checking beforehand, two months worth for my last story, but there are still times when details need refining.

In this way, I don’t trouble myself with reaching a set word count each day. Nor do I worry about finishing a chapter. Instead, I’ve taken to leaving off writing when I reach an intriguing development that poses questions of the protagonists. This usually happens after many hours of writing, when I’m also feeling weary.

Several famous authors recommended a similar approach, including Ernest Hemingway, who stopped when he still had an idea about what might happen next but didn’t want to empty the well of his imagination. There’s a difference between dropping anchor to moor safely, and foundering on a reef.

I’ve also adopted a trick suggested by Thomas Edison: Never go to sleep without a request to your subconscious. In this way, my brain sometimes offers solutions to a predicament while I sleep, that I wouldn’t have thought of when awake.

When do you stop yourself writing?

Are you a Reporter or an Imaginer?

I’m currently reading Lawrence Block’s Spider Spin Me A Web – A Handbook For Fiction Writers. Chapter 20 is called Reporters and Imaginers.

Block’s interest in the two types of writers was raised by a colleague at a literary conference, Arno Karlen who writes largely nonfiction. He gave a lecture in which he postulated that there’s often a very thin line between fiction and nonfiction. He cites Hemingway, James Baldwin and Norman Mailer as examples of reporters in the guise of novelists.

Image result for lawrence block

This made Block wonder about how he wrote things. How much was he using experiences and people that he’d known as inspiration, and how much came purely from his imagination? He gives several amusing examples of how he found it easier sometimes to write convincingly about people and places that he didn’t know than to create an accurate impression of those that he was acquainted with.

I thought about my writing and decided that I use a mix of autobiographical experiences and made-up stuff. I definitely favour factual details, though this is done more in a write what you know about way. For instance, I give several of the characters in my novel physical and mental ailments that I’ve had—gout, Reynaud’s syndrome (cold feet), depression and Aspergillosis—a fungal infection of the lungs.

 Gout is one of the few ailments that one gets no sympathy for having—it’s always assumed that it’s your fault, through rich eating or drinking too much port and brandy. In fact, it’s more of an inherited condition (my grandfather had it) and is a form of arthritis. I’ve suffered various pains, including stabbing, being shot, poisoned (Black Widow) and broken bones, but nothing hurt as much as gout. Thankfully, I’ve only been afflicted a few times, and not for twenty years, but at the time it felt like my big toe joint was clamped in a vice that was being hit with a club hammer and heated by a blowtorch.

Ah well, it’s all grist to the mill, and I passed my agony onto the forensic pathologist in my novel, and her condition provided a turning point in the plot.

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The Gout by James Gillray, 1799

The pitfall of being a Reporter style of writer is that one could come across as giving a lecture if too much detail is given. Then again, an Imaginer really needs to describe their creation in a feasible and convincing way.
What sort of writer are you – a Reporter or Imaginer?

Doubt & The Writer

All of writing is full of doubt. We journey along a lonely trail, beaten by phantom pillows that come out of nowhere, making us agonise over such trivial things as which font to use, should there be a comma there and is that word one word or is it hyphenated or even two separate words?

When it comes to larger issues, such as deciding on the theme of your story, pondering whether that would appeal to readers, then you’re entering fortune telling territory. Apart from the blows that sap your ego, it’s easy to stray into booby trap territory. Giving yourself leeway over plots is a wise attitude to have from the outset, for, after all, there are only so many stories that can be told, but what about details you think are original? In a fit of apprehension, I checked that my protagonist detective Neil Kettle’s name hadn’t been previously used in a crime series I’d never heard of, pleased to find it was mine alone.

Mind you, with the lack of perception that sometimes envelops me, in my last novel I only noticed that I’d called one character Mungo and another Bengo 70,000 words into writing the story. Typical Cornish young men, one was a surfer, the other a scuba diver. I felt like an idiot for not noticing the similarity of their names, realising that that itself was the solution—I made them cousins—doubt evaporated!

As for finding anything certain to believe in, when it comes to the totally imponderable side of publishing that actually decides the fate of my book, it feels to me like forcing myself into a warehouse stuffed from floor to rafters, with the very pillows of doubt that have been biffing me about as I wrote the manuscript. I can’t see which way to go, and all I can do is tackle what is in front of me at the moment, eviscerating various pillows to find a load of largely irrelevant stuffing about blogging, tweeting and the best way to crawl to query a literary agent. Should I return to self-publishing, (which I first did in 2014), even though it feels like emptying a bucket of water into an ocean of other ebooks?

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The weird thing is, that even successfully published authors who’ve made a decent living from their work are still stricken with doubt. As dogmatic as ever, Ernest Hemingway said a couple of things that acknowledge his own and all of our uncertainties:

We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”

The first draft of anything is shit.”

Humourist Robert Benchley was just as honest:

“It took me fifteen years to discover I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous.”

Sylvia Plath rationalised: 

And by the way, everything in life is writeable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”

Brian Patten wrote an enchanting love poem called ‘Doubt Shall Not Make An End Of You’ whose opening lines I sometimes recall when faced with doubt about the progress of my WIP and what will happen to my Cornish Detective series:

Doubt shall not make an end of you
nor closing eyes lose your shape
when the retina’s light fades;
what dawns inside me will light you.

I console myself by remembering that I’ve got this far in my writing by determination and whatever glimmer of a talent I have; I can go further, even though I’m unsure of which direction to take. It’s up to me to illuminate my stories by using my imagination, dragging them out into the light for others to see.

Essentially, doubt is a cloud on the horizon. Sure, it may rain on you a bit, but what if it blows away to reveal the sun?

Blimey, I’ve just this moment realised that I’m channelling the spirit of 1969 era Joni Mitchell!

How do you handle doubt?

(It’s a writer’s companion, not their enemy)