How to Write a Book

by HAROLD NICOLSON

1

IN Sloane Square the other day I met a friend who had just been demobilized. I asked him what he meant to do now. “Well,” he answered, “as a matter of fact, I was thinking of writing a book. Tell me, since you know about these things, how does one write a book?”

I gazed across that ungainly Square towards the bright façade of Peter Jones. “Many years ago,” I said, a trifle sententiously perhaps, “I asked Somerset Maugham how one wrote a play. He gave me excellent advice.”

“And what was that advice?” my friend asked me. “He said, ‘Well, you get an idea; and then you write a p-p-p-play about it.’ ”

“Yes, I see,” my friend murmured, and thereat we went our different ways across pavements glistening in September rain.

I realized, as I walked, that I had not been helpful. I realized that having written books myself, I should have asked the man to luncheon and explained at length to him how the thing is done. I realized that on that afternoon of all afternoons I should have been in a mood of philanthropic helpfulness, since on that very morning I had typed the last words of the final chapter of a book on which I had been engaged for two years. I should have been filled with a mood of achievement and lassitude, of melancholy and delight, such as assailed Gibbon on the night of June 27, 1787, when he paced his acacia walk having just blotted the last words of the Decline and Fall.

I should have been more communicative and less selfish. I should have told him that the first essential is to know what one wishes to say; that the second essential is to decide to whom one wishes to say it. Once one has chosen the theme and selected the audience, then the book more or less should write itself. But would that have been helpful to a young officer recently demobilized? And how, after all, does one really write a book?

I am not thinking, of course, about creative writing. I am well aware that the poets and the novelists do not, as Aristotle observed, “create what they create by taking thought; but owing rather to natural temperament and in a mood of ecstasy.” I am thinking rather of those who, being gifted with average industry and certain powers of narrative, wish to record in written form either their own experiences or the experiences of others.

The creative writers stand in a class apart. They possess a special gift, such as that which enables a painter to paint or a pianist to play; they are driven by some inner daemon who afflicts them with strange spasms of intuition interspersed with long blanks of discouragement. Their days and nights are disturbed by the conflict between their sense of power and their consciousness of powerlessness; they “learn in suffering what they teach in song.”

The ordinary writer, the man who “thinks of writing a book,” lives in a more equable climate, and remains unaffected by the typhoons and the doldrums of genius; he can, with ordinary skill and attention, navigate his little ship through quiet seas. If he has a good story to tell, whether it be firsthand or secondhand, his task is almost mechanical. It is as if he were building a house. He must start with some idea of the size and proportions of the house he wants to build; he must have some conception of the relation between surfaces and decoration; he must remain constantly aware of the purposes for which the house is intended; and thereafter he must assemble his material in the right order and fit it neatly and efficiently into place.

If he starts with the intention of building a bungalow and then determines that he will turn it into a hotel, the resultant effect is likely to be confused. If he begins in lath and plaster and later decides to try a little brickwork, the ultimate impression will not be orderly. Yet with ordinary sense and prevision he should be able to avoid such discrepancies. And there are, I suppose, certain suggestions which one can make to him which may save undue wastage of energy and time.

2

THE man who sets out to “write a book” about his own experiences may imagine that the problem of proportion, the actual plan, will be determined by the chronological sequence. This is an incorrect assumption. Only those who possess an acute sense of audience realize that those passages of time which interest them personally are not necessarily the passages which will interest their readers.

Most adults, for instance, have a nostalgic affection for their own childhood which is rarely communicable to those whose associations have been different. Many autobiographical writers tend to dwell lovingly and at length on passages of time which for them are illumined by an experience which they are too reticent to relate; their readers, being ignorant of the significant event, fail to be warmed by the required glow of reminiscence.

It often occurs, moreover, that a man who is recounting his own adventures is unduly interested in the mood of anticipation which surrounded him before the adventures began; he will thus tend to devote disproportionate space to his prelude, to “ the journey out,” without realizing that the reader is becoming impatient. The purely chronological method, moreover, unless it is firmly controlled, is apt too accurately to reflect the intermittences of actual life.

It is seldom that adventure moves in a continuous curve from prelude, through climax, to solution; there is liable to occur a suspension or, what is worse, a repetition of climax. That in itself may prove an interesting theme; but it requires skill and management on the part of the writer to convince the reader that these gaps and repetitions are due to competence rather than to incompetence.

The man who writes the narrative of his own experiences should thus realize that time is measured, not by the amount of seconds it absorbs, but by the intensity of experience it contains; and that unless he can communicate to his readers an intensity of experience similar to his own, he will find that the chronological method complicates his proportions, instead of simplifying them.

On the other hand, the man who writes the story of other men’s experiences (the man, that is, who writes biography or history) is less exposed to such subjective dislocations; for him the time-sequence does in fact constitute a useful blueprint. His task is to arrange and to interpret a vast mass of material in such a manner as to provide a true and lucid narrative; and as such his difficulty is almost wholly one of preparation and arrangement. The beginner who decides to write a history or a biography should realize that his main difficulty will not be the actual writing of the narrative but the previous absorption and arrangement of his material.

I recommend, for what it is worth, the following procedure. The intending biographer or historian should first purchase a very large and, if possible, loose-leaved notebook. He should then acquire the most detailed standard work upon his subject. He should then devote much time and trouble to summarizing in his notebook the facts and comments contained in the standard work. If he does this carefully, legibly, and methodically, if he above all leaves himself a large amount of space for subsequent additions, he will then after much toil have before him the main outlines of the narrative to which he wishes to give his personal interpretation.

Thereafter he will read all available works or documents bearing on his subject, and will insert in his notebook all the additional material he acquires. He must have the energy and the patience to write out these references in full, so that in the end his notebook contains, correctly arranged, far more material than he can possibly use. He can then discard all works of reference and use his notebook as the sole quarry from which to build his house.

Had I said all this to my demobilized friend in Sloane Square should I have encouraged or discouraged him? There are other things I might have said. I might have warned him of the dark days when his book would grow stale to him as the sound of his own voice. I might have warned him that there would come moments when his material, however carefully arranged, would become disorganized and flap round him in confusion like a colony of rooks. I might have warned him that there would come a time when he would hate his characters and his narrative with a wearied loathing. And I could have told him that the morning would come when he would write the last word of the last chapter and walk elatedly thereafter upon pavements glistening in September rain.