How I Write… by W. Sydney Robinson

To celebrate the official release of Speak Well of Me today, we’ve been chatting to its author, W. Sydney Robinson, about how his day-to-day life as a writer looks… it’s not all book launches and agent lunches you know!

Writers seldom discuss their working practices. The reason is simple: nothing is more unglamorous or depressing than a writer’s routine. This is not to say that authors lament their lot – far from it – but the pleasure they derive from this most dreary of pastimes will always be a minor mystery for the happy, well-rounded multitude.

The first illusion to demolish is that we spend most of our time writing. Over the past decade I have completed three biographies, but only a small fraction of this time has been devoted to the actual process of writing. What takes infinitely longer is the task of hunting down information: in libraries, archives and – most exciting of all – among the living. Only once a great deal of undigested material has been assembled does the outline of the book begin to take shape – and then one can actually begin.

W. Sydney Robinson

When I reach this stage my daily routine is unerring. I wake up as early as possible – sometimes four or five o’clock in the morning. I quickly review what I did the previous day, making any changes which seem necessary, before sketching an outline of whatever I hope to achieve that day – sometimes as much as a whole chapter. This planning stage is crucial. Out of the mass of materials, I try to link together a story, usually sticking quite rigidly to the chronology, but departing from this when a particular event or anecdote seems part of a more general theme. Wherever possible I will allow the subject of the biography to tell the story for himself, as there is nothing more tedious to the general reader than the biographer commenting upon events or documents in the manner of a narrator. They have come to hear Johnson or Nelson or ‘LBJ’ – not Boswell, Southey or Robert A. Caro. That may be an old-fashioned view, but it happens to be my own.

Once the day’s paragraphs have been sketched out, I take a short walk or, sometimes, a run. This moment contemplating the dawn of a new day is vital for me. To see the sun beaming down on empty fields, or men and women hurrying to their places of work, helps keep my self-appointed task in perspective. For nothing is more destructive to a writer’s readability than to forget that to the world at large his output very likely means nothing at all.

Having cobbled together the bare bones of the paragraphs I take myself to one of my preferred cafes to commence work. In my early days of writing I had a romantic notion that small, independent coffee houses would be the most congenial places for this. I soon learnt, however, that there is little a purveyor of delicious homemade carrot cake detests more than a writer. So instead I sip my small latte in a Costa or a Nero for several hours, and before I know it the morning is over – and most of my day’s work complete.

This is when the early start begins to pay dividends. With six or seven hundred words safely in the iCloud, it is possible to peruse other people’s books. I know that some authors swear that they never read a line not written by themselves until their task is complete, but I can envisage no way of writing that was not at least in part derivative of what has come before. To be unconscious of this would be to allow one’s style to be dictated by Steve Wright, Homes Under the Hammer, The Big Bang Theory, or whatever other scraps of culture one may pick up around the house on a normal day. For my reading I tend to stick to what I know best: the classics, as well as the innumerable books by authors I happen to have written about. Over the past four years this has entailed reading through the scores of plays, novels, biographies and histories composed by one of our greatest of living authors – Sir Ronald Harwood – but I still derive much inspiration from my previous literary subjects, especially Sir Arthur Bryant, Dean Inge and the Titanic’s most curious victim, W. T. Stead.

In the early evening I finish the last of my writing before reading it all the way through again, just as I commenced the day. This helps ensure that there is no ‘break’ or deviation in the chapter. On some days I earmark the entire new section for destruction the following morning – a writer must not be too precious about these things.

And then, if I am lucky enough to still have someone who is willing, I find a friend with whom to pass an agreeable evening discussing other things. For however large, however important and however great the subject may be, the writing of another person’s life is no substitute for a life that is lived.

Speak Well of Me is published today and is available to buy online here, in all good bookshops, and can also be ordered into your local bookshop on request. 

If you enjoyed this insight into a writer’s life, let us know, we would love to expand this blog into a mini-series, featuring more of our writers. You can also check out How to Be a Writer for more on how professional writers organise their working day. 

No regrets – a biographer’s celebration

We’re all told not to speak ill of the dead, but what about the living? When award-winning biographer and book reviewer W. Sydney Robinson began tackling a living subject for the first time in his career, he found it an altogether more lively experience! Robinson is the author of Muckraker: the scandalous life and times of WT Stead, Britain’s first investigative journalist, and The Last Victorians: a daring reassessment of four twentieth century eccentrics. He lives in Northamptonshire and teaches full-time.

“It is a truism among biographers that one must wait until a subject is ‘nice and dead’. However, when I was given the opportunity to write the authorised biography of Sir Ronald, I did not hesitate. Nor do I, at the end of the four year journey writing the book, have any regrets.

Sir Ronald Harwood in his study

I appreciate that in many ways I was extremely fortunate. Firstly, Sir Ronald could not have been more generous in his terms. As well as granting me over ten hours to interview him, he also threw open all of his papers and gave me unrestricted access to his wide circle of friends and acquaintances. Secondly, once the book was completed he did not demand any cuts or alterations that were not of a purely factual nature. When one reads the horror stories of biographers unable to publish their books because of objections of a more subjective nature, it is impossible not to feel incredibly grateful – and lucky.

W. Sydney Robinson

Yet the main reason that I am delighted to have been able to write the Life of a living subject is more personal. For a long time it has saddened me to be told by people ‘in the know’ that one must write about famous authors and journalists from years ago – one agent insisted that yet another biography of Charles Dickens was the ideal way to follow up on my first books about Victorian and post-Victorian public figures. And there are many professional biographers now combing archives and newspaper databases for material about writers of even lesser quality – when we have many great authors alive and well.

Sir Ronald Harwood’s oeuvre stretches from the dawn of the 1960s, when he wrote a novel about Civil Rights in South Africa, to 2012, when he wrote the screenplay adaptation of his poignant play Quartet. In between these impressive milestones he has done a plethora of novels, plays, films, and an excellent biography of Sir Donald Wolfit, who provided the inspiration for his most enduring work of drama, The Dresser.

If Speak Well of Me succeeds in charting these achievements and capturing the spirit of Sir Ronald’s lively and engaging personality, then I will happily endure the slings and arrows of those who remain obstinate that one can never write a satisfactory biography of a living subject. For what is a biography if it is not alive – be the subject living or dead?”

Speak Well of Me is available to order now from the Oberon Books website. For your chance to win a copy signed by both W. Sydney Robinson and Sir Ronald Harwood, email your name & postal address to info@oberonbooks.com and we’ll enter you into the prize draw.