HOW I WORK
by Harry Harrison

This short article was written for the book Hell's Cartographers: Some Personal Histories of Science Fiction Writers, edited by Brian W. Aldiss and Harry Harrison, and published in 1975. Twenty-five years have passed since this piece was completed, and Harrison's working practices have changed greatly during that time, but it does still provide an interesting personal account which is of historical interest.

Also included in this site is a brief autobiography The Beginning of the Affair taken from the same book.

 

Writing about writing can be a very tricky business. It seems very pretentious to talk about how one goes about the physical act of writing - yet who can deny the hideous attraction of the topic. The Paris Review series of interviews were supposed to get the reader inside the heads of the great authors, but about all I can recall of them is Hemingway saying that every good writer had an inborn automatic shit detector, and Simenon writing 5,000 words a day in a scruffy hotel and X-ing out each day boldly on the calendar until the end of the book was reached within two weeks.

With this love-hate aspect of writing in mind the writerly act has been tucked into this corner of the book. Read it if it interests you, pass it up and I shall not mind.

Writing is a fragile act. When one is pulling language, thoughts, ideas out of thin air, or the turgid subconscious, any disturbance disturbs. Harlan Ellison makes it a point to write in the middle of booming, drunken parties but, no drinker himself, I feel that what he writes there reads as though it were written in some place like a booming, drunken party. I'm sure he does his best work in the quiet of his study because I know of no serious writer who does not need his solitude, his sitting and thinking time, in addition to his writing time. Even the familiar, no matter how peaceful, can intrude. Brian, I know, goes to a cottage on the Thames when he needs that sort of quiet. Alan Nourse has an A-frame deep in the Washington woods, totally deserted. I take the camper to the beach in Mexico where I can neither talk nor be talked to. Not that any of us lack peaceful studies at home, we all have fine ones. But there are times when a bit of Walden Pond is needed by all of us.

Not that non-writing others always understand. In Mexico Joan literally beat a 'friend' away from my study door with a broom because he knew old Harry didn't mind talking to him at the time. Joan's mother, a paragon of virtues in all other ways, does not realize the basic needs of a writer or she would not have opened the door when I was writing, as she did once years ago when we were staying in her home, and say, 'Harry, since you aren't doing anything, would you go to the store for me.' A writer's family understands; my daughter knows when I have that glassy look in the eye and am staring into space that I am not to be disturbed because I am 'working'.

That is part of the working time. What is needed next is the sitting-at-typewriter time which is when the penny finally drops. During my freelance art days I found I worked best from noon to about four the following morning but, thankfully, I have changed my schedule since then. I know some who still work these kind of hours. I find that a regular daylight schedule is more productive.

In the morning, anywhere between eight and ten, I go to the studio (called that instead of study or office by reflex from the art days) and put in a day's work. When I am writing I emerge at cocktail time in need of strong drink. When I am editing I emerge at the same time in greater need since most editing is such drudgery. When I am working at a piece of fiction I stay with it for as many days as it takes. Early on, in honour of the christian work ethic, I used to work the six day week and take Sunday off. I found this broke the motion of a book so I began to work straight through on the first draft. Since I average about 2,000 words a day this means at least a month of continuous writing. That's fine. It also means weeks off at a time when others are in their offices. There are really only three advantages to the freelance life. (I) You can live wherever you wish. (2) You can work the hours you want. (3) You can wear comfortable work clothes and old shirts while on the job and save a fortune in suits and white shirts.

I work from an outline always, more or less detailed, but always an outline. Many pages for a book, just a firm idea in mind for a short story. I know writers who start a story with no idea how it will end; I would rather die first. I am a firm back-plotter and must know the ending before I begin, then expend writing energy disguising the fact that I always know what is coming next.

My study contains a long desk, formerly from a drafting room, cut down so the whole thing is at typewriter height. On this are in and out baskets for correspondence, a holder for paper and stationery, the telephone - with a switch to turn it off so it won't ring - and a calculator so I can figure how much money I am owed at any given time.

Some few years ago Joan rubbed in an awareness of a basic financial question. I had always bought cheap second-hand typewriters, and the one I had decaying at the time had cost 20 second-hand, had been made in East Germany, which meant that American repair men would not work on it (it was a commy machine), and I had written seven books on it which amortized out at $7.1428 a book (the calculator, remember?) not even counting the short stories. I was looking around for another cheap wreck when she told me that everything the family ate and drank, everything physical in our lives, came from the typewriter - so why was I being so chintzy? Buy the best. It was a good argument and I did. An IBM selectric, the writer's friend. I have never regretted this action for a moment since.

Books and books ago I found it hard to start work each day, a variation of the writer's block we have heard so much about. I discovered that if I did my correspondence first I could get the fingers flicking about and the typewriter humming. Then I would trick myself and slide in paper and try to write. It usually worked. Things are better now. Most of the time I can approach work, begin and end.

To begin I read the pages done the previous day. I give them a quick proofing but no elaborate rewriting - though I do make marginal notes like BAD! OUT! REAL CRAP! to cue myself on the second rewrite. Having reread the one day's work, but no more, I slip white paper and carbon-set into the machine, take a deep breath - then turn the machine off and think a bit. Then I write.

The carbon-set is a must. Early in life I found I needed copies of letters uncopied, carbons of manuscripts lost in the mail and such. Now a carbon goes in with anything, other than labels or envelopes, that I put in the machine.

I labour this way until the first draft is done. Less than a week for the usual short story, the mentioned month at least for the novel. If the work to hand is a book I take an extra large drink after I type those fine words THE END and lay the whole thing aside for a bit. A week usually. Joan and I take a weekend in Mexico, or some such place, and sun, water, food and drink cleanse the mind. Then I begin the rewrite, something that gets progressively harder each time through. I do try to get through the book at least five times. I write very tightly, and rarely do more than change words right on the page, punctuation, grammar, the usual thing. When this is finally done I emit what is called an intense sigh of relief. Some writers retype their mss, thereby finding a chance for more rewrite, but since I am the world's worst typist I bundle the entire thing off to my typist, the pearl-beyond-price, Mrs Fitzhamon. (First making a xerox of the rewritten ms. which differs a good deal from the carbon.) She lives near Brighton and makes no errors and finds all of mine, and if you have ever had a bad or indifferent typist you will understand just how good a superlative one can be.

That is it. By the time the typing is done I am well into the next piece of work and planning the one, two or three pieces ahead of that. At the same time earlier stories or books will be at the publisher or being published. When people ask me 'how is the book coming' I can respond only by blinking a glassy eye and muttering 'which one?' This is no act because at any given time I may have at least four or five books somewhere in the area between idea and on sale.

It may be art, but it is business too. That is why I have an agent who earns, ten times over, the ten percent for his labours.

© Harry Harrison, 1975

Addendum:
In 1984 I asked Harry Harrison about his working practices, and this is his response:

How I Work (1984)

by Harry Harrison

Writing takes up all of my time when I'm writing: I get up in the morning, have my pot of tea, get the post, and go down to work. I do this seven days a week until my first draft is done.

I use a word processor now, in fact I have seven computers right now: I'm writing computer programs have two or three little 'toy' computers. I have a Northstar here, and I have an Osborne, and I've just bought an Apricot with a 10Mb hard disc drive. I compose on a computer, write it, type it out on an NEC SpinWriter. I have a Mita copy machine for photocopies - a complete office.

After writing the book on a word processor and printing it out, I correct it and put it back into the word processor. I do a first draft pretty good and revise that two or three times, and that's that.

Re-reading this recently (July 1999) Harry Harrison confirmed "I still work this way," but his office equipment has changed somewhat: "This has all been updated: multi-GB hard drives, colour screen, scanner, laser printer, Windows 95, Word (on my portable as well)."