Compton Mackenzie is not a writer who raises much interest among readers nowadays. Few literary people today could name more than two of his many novels, the most famous of which, Whiskey Galore, was made into a hit film. However, back in the early fifties, readers of his article, Tricks of the Trade ‘, which appeared in the January 1953 issue of The Writer, would have lapped up this very frank account of his daily writing routine, which retains its interest today.
Mackenzie begins his account by declaring that due to the loss of one eye, he may soon face the possibility of having to dictate his words, something he dislikes. For the moment, however, he still writes ‘every word’. He then reveals some surprises:
‘ I wake about noon…drink a cup of coffee and read my letters…I answer about 4,000 a year, which if you figure it out, means at least six weeks of eight-hour days. Too much! After the letters come the papers, but there’s not a great deal on which to waste time there. I get up about one, and if it’s fine take a stroll round the orchard with a glass of milk at the end of it. Then I dictate answers to those letters and with luck settle down by 3 p.m. to work at whatever book I’m writing. I always have to work in chairs because for over forty years I have had to fight with sciatica. A break of a quarter of an hour for tea, and then work goes on until nine, sometimes later. At 9p.m.a very light meal, and then, in a different chair from the one in which I have been writing my book, I write any article or broadcast I have rashly promised to do. Music on gramophone or wireless until midnight, and then sometimes under pressure I work on without music until one or one-thirty. As soon as I’m in bed I enjoy the longed for recreation of doing The Times crossword puzzle. If I do it in under an hour I win: if I’m longer The Times wins. If I’ve failed to finish in an hour The Times is allowed a walk-over and I put the puzzle aside. Then I read until 4 or 5 a.m., sustained by a bar of chocolate and a glass of milk.’
Mackenzie then reveals that he writes using a ‘ very thick Swan pen with a very broad nib ‘ and that he avoids writers’ cramp and developing a large corn on the middle finger by holding the pen ‘ very lightly ‘. He is very particular (one might argue, rather obsessive) about the paper he uses and how he creates the physical book.
‘I use unruled paper, and this is folded to make folios of twenty pages. The folios are numbered A1 – 20, B21 – 40, etc., and by using IJ for 161 -180 I get an exact 500 pages for the alphabet, and then begin again, AA501 – 520, and so on. I have followed this method of numbering a manuscript for many years and I find it a great help in the construction of a book. Through long familiarity, the letters of the alphabet have acquired a kind of monitory significance, so that whether I be telling a story of fancy or fact I know whereabouts I ought to be when I come to any letter, and am able without the aid of more than half a sheet of notepaper to construct a book of 300,000 words without being more than 5000 words out either way when it has been written. The only snag is that in a long book I tend to write more words to the page as it goes on. A will have about 275 words to the page, Z will run to over 400. The alphabetical folios provide a check on this habit. I write on a rough average only about 300 words in an hour…’
I do not have a notebook: the only notes I keep are of possible titles, and these I write at the end of The Concise Oxford Dictionary, which is always at my side. I have worn out two copies…I am lucky in having a very good visual memory for figures, and I dread most of all the loss of that aid on account of my eyes’ misbehaviour. I never allow myself to be in no mood for writing, once I have started on a book. I find that the brain requires as strict a discipline as the stomach, and if my brain refuses to work it just has to go on trying until the hour of release arrives. I find that after being given such a lesson it always works better than ever the next day…’
I never had less than about twenty novels I wanted to write in the future; at this moment I have twenty-three, but with the quantity of other writing I do I can hardly expect to live long enough to write them all…In writing dialogue I seldom change a word, but description is for me a fearful grind. Therefore I use dialogue as much as possible.
The novel I wrote in the shortest time was Figure of Eight, which is over 100,000 words, and that was ready for the printers exactly a month after I wrote the first sentence. Fairy Gold, which was published first as a serial in the Evening Standard, I never had as much as a week in hand for the next instalment…
My last word to young authors. Learn to write with professional accomplishment and become the partner of your publisher in a joint enterprise.
Many good authors are an unnecessary expense to publishers because they have never condescended to learn punctuation, to correct a typescript before it is sent to the printer, or even to handle proofs with intelligence.’