Establish a Routine
I found that the biggest challenge to writing was maintaining focus over long periods of time and trying to eliminate unnecessary distractions. That’s when I discovered the hidden power of routine. When I first started writing, I would begin each morning by deciding where I would work that day. I had three options: stay home and work from my kitchen; walk to a local café (when it was still safe to do that); or go to a small office that I rent in central Prague. Each option had its own advantages and disadvantages. Initially, I would alternate between the three, depending on my mood. That turned out to be a big mistake. The mere process of making that decision each day was in itself a distraction.
About halfway into the book, I began the habit of walking to my office each morning, and that’s the solution that worked best. I would leave my apartment at precisely the same time every day and stop at the same place (a Starbucks in Malá Strana) and order exactly the same type of coffee. Nothing was left to chance. It sounds terribly boring (and it was), but it was liberating as well. The routine helped me to realize that my most productive hours were from 10am to about 4pm (some days until 7pm or 8pm). My office is relatively isolated and I was initially afraid that I would fall into some bad computer habits, like spending too much time on Facebook or Twitter. The isolation, though, offered advantages as well. With no one to talk to and nothing to look at – and after practicing a little self-discipline for avoiding mindless web-surfing – I was able to force myself to focus only on what I had to write that day. This eventually became a habit in its own right.
Be a 'Stenographer' of Your Thoughts
When I first planned the book, I wrote out an outline of chapters and then a list of ideas for what I wanted to cover in each chapter. This was, of course, a necessary step for giving the book some structure. Not long into the process, though, I found that this imposed structure was also somehow an impediment to creative thought. Each day, I would open up the file for the chapter that I wanted to work on and then struggle for how best to start writing.
At some point, I discovered the knack of simply ignoring the structure and writing about whatever it was that day I wanted to write about. This might be a particular event, memory or person, or even just a few lines of descriptive text – whatever happened to be burning in my mind at that moment. I tried not to worry about how, or even whether, what I was writing might fit in into the overall narrative. The brain has its own built-in capacity for organizing, and I found (for me at least) it was sometimes best to get out of the way of my own head and become simply a stenographer of my thoughts.
A brief example of what I mean here came as I was considering what to write for the book’s introduction. The point of the intro was to tell readers what to expect in the book and what I wanted to say with it. I had a terrible case of writer’s block as I tried to compose sentences that didn’t sound overly formulaic or clichéd: "With this book, I hope to ..."
As I panicked over what to write, I couldn’t stop thinking about a recent experience I'd had on an ordinary walk through the Prague neighborhood of Vršovice (though it initially appeared to have nothing at all to do with the introduction). During the walk, I noticed a rainbow-colored building in the distance (see top photo). As I admired the façade, it dawned on me that I had actually been inside the building once before in my life, before the 1989 Velvet Revolution. The building, without the bright colors, previously housed a communist-era trading company called Chemapol. In early-1989, one of Chemapol's directors invited me over for coffee to ask if I could write about the company to give it some publicity. In the end, I decided not to write the article, and the manager was extremely angry. He later sent a telex to my office in Vienna to let me know that he could make my future trips to Prague “very difficult.” I took the threat seriously at the time.
I had no idea if I could find a place in the book for this story, but I recognized how much it energized my brain. I had to write it down. Only later, did I realize I could use the story as part of the introduction. It was precisely those stark contrasts between Prague’s colorful present and its gray past that had sparked my interest in writing the book in the first place. From there, I got to the theme of “ghosts” and to this paragraph in the introduction:
“This book began life as an effort to reclaim memory. As I would walk through the streets of present-day Prague or travel to cities around the country or region, I found that everywhere I went, I would see “ghosts.” These ghosts weren’t apparitions, like the golems and imaginary figures that are said to haunt the back streets of Prague’s Old Town. They appeared to me more as fragments of memory, as fleeting impressions of people and places from times that date back only a generation by the calendar, but which are no longer with us today.”
I’ll leave it to readers to determine whether the introduction works, but at the very least the story freed me from having to dwell on it any longer and helped me put into words my own motivations for writing the book.
Break Things Into Bite-Sized Bits
Even as I was signing the contract, at the start of the process, I was dreading the prospect of filling 250 empty pages of a full-length book. I wasn’t sure that I had 250 pages worth of things to say -- let alone whether I could plot a cohesive story arc that would cover so much ground. Dividing the book into 12 chapters made the project more manageable, but, even then, the thought of filling a 20-page chapter was intimidating.
Not long into writing the book, I decided to borrow from a technique I first developed (out of necessity) in writing this blog. My WordPress design divides each post into four discrete sections (separated by blocks of photos). The design pushed me into a specific writing style of breaking down each post into four separate parts. I wasn’t sure this style would translate directly into writing a book, but I decided to give it a try. As I wrote each chapter, instead of thinking in terms of long story arcs, I focused simply on telling one story or anecdote at a time. Once I was satisfied I had written the story to its proper length, I would drop in a section divider and start a new story.
The strength of any one chapter – or indeed of an entire book – depends, of course, on how well the stories tie back to and reinforce common themes. I found it was easier, though, to recognize those tie-ins and add them in later once I composed the stories that would make up each chapter. It’s hard to express here in a few words exactly what I mean. The larger point is to think of books as strings of discrete stories. This realization alone is enough to make the process appear much more manageable.
Writing Is (Really) Re-Writing
Filling a chapter with stories and then recognizing how they relate to one another across a common theme is just a first step. The next 10 steps involve re-reading, re-0rganizing, re-writing and re-editing the same words over and over and over again. The first re-writes might involve moving around big chunks of narrative text in order to make them flow more naturally. Subsequent re-writes then zero in on particular sections or paragraphs to try to unknot the thoughts and ensure the sentences all flow in the same direction. Later re-reads and re-writes root out problems like repetitive phrasing, inconsistent verb tenses and grammar errors.
Even after dozens of re-reads over a span of days and weeks, I would often find lingering rough spots in the text. I started to think of the process as similar to how a potter might look at an unformed bowl or vase. No matter how many times the potter whirls the clay around the wheel, he or she still finds bumps to smooth out. At some point, though, I simply had to call it quits, send the chapter to my editor, and move on to another part of the book. Here too, though, I learned something worth passing on: never email a chapter in the evening after a long day of work. Instead, fight the temptation and give the text one last, fresh read in the morning.
This re-writing process can't be rushed. Like a cake in the oven, you can't speed it up. Toward the end of last year, while I was still in the middle of the project, my editor told me that if I could finish the book by the Christmas holiday, the publisher would consider it (depending on how well it read) for an in-house promotion program called "Bestsellers." Even though the program would help sales, my first reaction was to tamp down any inflated expectations. As tantalizing as the promotion sounded, I knew I wouldn't be able to make the shortened deadline. I still had three or four chapters left to finish and there was simply no way I could artificially accelerate the process.