In the last week or so I came across Henry Miller’s Eleven Commandments of Writing, thanks to Brain Pickings. I’ve had some recent successes with a new to do list scheme, and have been writing more, if still not nearly enough in the first almost-half of 2017, but any good advice is always appreciated.

This morning, though, I woke up a bit out of sorts. I took the long holiday weekend off—did a little work around the house (some much-needed spring cleaning, especially in the garage) and spent more hours than I planned just kinda hanging out. Then it got to be Monday night and I knew I was going to wake up to a to do list already a full day behind. Maybe for that reason I ended up with a restless night of sleep plagued by weird and upsetting dreams. I fell asleep at about 9:30 last night, woke in an agitated state of mind at a little after 1:00 am then got a bit more nightmare-plagued sleep from about 3:30-5:30 am—not exactly the healthy seven hours it might add up to.

Now it’s Tuesday—blog post day and already a day “behind”—and Henry Miller comes to mind. First off, here are his eleven commandments:

1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.


2. Start no more new books, add no more new material to Black Spring.


3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.


4. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!


5. When you can’t create you can work.


6.Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.


7. Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.


8. Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.


9. Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.


10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.


11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

Most of that really feels like solid, even basic advice, and in some cases matches up with a lot of things I’ve talked about before like writing quickly (recklessly), or writing in ecstasy (joyously), but there’s more in here—a lot more—and it’s worth a deeper look.

Why don’t we try taking these one at a time . . .

1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.

This used to be me, but hasn’t been me in a while, but maybe should go back to being me.

I used to only ever write one thing at a time. When I was writing a short story, I would work on that short story till it was done. When I was working on a novel, I would work on that novel until it was done. When I worked on a book like Writing Monsters, I worked on that until it was done, to the exclusion of fiction, etc.

But then I started to think, hey, I’ve started reading as many as half a dozen books at a time (not including books I’m editing), switching off as mood strikes. That’s got me reading more and reading a greater variety of stuff. So what if I start writing multiple things at one time, switching off from one book to another and another as the mood strikes  so I write more and write a greater variety of things?

But . . .

More than one novel at one time is one novel too many. If you’ve proven that last statement wrong, well . . . more power to you, but I know for sure that though I can have dozens (literally) of ideas for novels in my head at any one time, the concentration required to write one requires too much of my up-front, conscious brain to try to tackle two at the same time.

But . . .

I have found that I can work on a novel while also shooting out the occasional poem (like “Kaiju Sonnet No. 1” in the current issue of Bloodbond), short story (especially very short stories/flash fiction as with “Just Exactly Like” in the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of Word Fountain), and hey, I write a full article on writing once a week, too! You know, you’re reading one right now!

But . . .

Though I’ve got a bunch of poems and stories in circulation, and that’s great—actual work on the novel is not being done. A bit of a scene here; another bit of a scene there; some thinking and notes; an idea for a better way to outline it, which you’ll see in a future post here . . . but it’s not really being written—in ecstasy or otherwise.

Is Henry Miller right? Should I finish the jungle pulp story I owe Pro Se then set aside other stuff for now and concentrate on the novel?

But . . .

I also have a couple of ghostwriting gigs happening at the same time that I can’t talk about and will never talk about, but they’re happening—and edits—and Fantasy Author’s Handbook. This is my “day job,” and yeah, it’s an awesome day job. It’s what pays this month’s bills and I just can’t take the next few months off to write a novel to the exclusion of all else. I need to juggle multiple projects.

And . . .

I have! I wrote all those Forgotten Realms novels while holding down a full time job editing Forgotten Realms (and other) novels. I wrote The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction and Writing Monsters while paying the bills with edits, articles, ghostwriting, coaching, teaching . . .

I’m not a full time author and very likely never will be, so is Henry Miller’s first commandment applicable to me? Is it possible to follow this?

What if I edited that commandment to read:

1. Work on one novel at a time until finished, while also writing the occasional poem, short story, article, and weekly blog post.

I bet Henry Miller probably did the same, no?

That’s only the first of eleven commandments . . . looks like another series of posts!


—Philip Athans

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Pingback: AS HENRY MILLER COMMANDS, PART 2: START NO MORE NEW BOOKS | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  2. jmwwriting says:

    I also disagree with the idea that you should only work on one project at a time. Maybe it is good to restrict yourself to one book-length work at a time, but you can do other things like short stories and articles while you work on the book. Sometimes you just get a block with the book content and doing something else can open it up. Also, you should (according to Stephen King and others) take a break between the drafts and revisions of your book. I like to give myself a couple weeks, at least. This is a perfect time to write a couple shorts. I also like to do planning for other books, even if I am currently working on another long project. I think the most important thing is to capture the ideas when they come to you, otherwise you will lose them.

  3. Pingback: AS HENRY MILLER COMMANDS, PART 3: DON’T BE NERVOUS | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  4. Pingback: AS HENRY MILLER COMMANDS, PART 4: WORK ACCORDING TO PROGRAM | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  5. Pingback: AS HENRY MILLER COMMANDS, PART 5: CREATE vs. WORK | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  6. Pingback: AS HENRY MILLER COMMANDS, PART 5: CREATE vs. WORK | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  7. Pingback: AS HENRY MILLER COMMANDS, PART 6: CEMENT A LITTLE EVERY DAY | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  8. Pingback: AS HENRY MILLER COMMANDS, PART 7: KEEP HUMAN! | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  9. Pingback: AS HENRY MILLER COMMANDS, PART 8: DON’T BE A DRAUGHT HORSE | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  10. Pingback: AS HENRY MILLER COMMANDS, PART 9: DISCARD THE PROGRAM | Fantasy Author's Handbook


  12. Pingback: AS HENRY MILLER COMMANDS, PART 11: WRITE FIRST AND ALWAYS | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  13. Pingback: COMMANDER, COMMAND THYSELF | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  14. Pingback: COMMANDER, COMMAND THYSELF… PART 2 | Fantasy Author's Handbook

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