Most people know James Bond, but fewer people know Ian Fleming who wrote the Bond novels, and even fewer know the leisurely, yet effective, habits he followed when writing the novels about the secret agent.
Ian Fleming didn’t start writing until he was in his forties. Before his novelist occupation he had an admirable career in the British Naval Intelligence. During World War II he planned “Operation Goldeneye”, which was the contingency plan for how the British would defend Gibraltar, if the Germans had attacked it through Spain. He was also involved in “Operation Mincemeat”, which was a deception manoeuvre that misled the Germans into thinking that the Allied forces in Africa would invade Southern Europe through Greece, rather than Sicily where it actually happened. And after the D-Day, he helped selecting targets for T-Force, which was a special military unit that captured high-value targets (e.g. individual scientists, nuclear research, rocket technology) before the Russians got them.
After the war he stopped in the Naval Intelligence with the rank of Commander and decided that his new objective in life would be the pursuit of pleasure. He secured a job as Foreign Manager at Kemsley Newspapers where his contract included 8 weeks of holiday per year, so that he could spend January and February in the Caribbean, rather than live through the cold winter in London.
He bought a piece of land on Jamaica (then, a British Colony) with a private beach and reef, and got a local contractor to build a simple house with a great view of the Caribbean Sea. He christened the house Goldeneye.
Goldeneye would always be the destination for Fleming’s long winter holiday, and he used these winter months in Jamaica for sunbathing on the beach, sailing out to the reef to swim with a mask and a spear, catch lobsters for dinner and entertain visitors from near and far.
This easy and pleasurable life lasted rather uninterruptedly till 1952. Ian had been the most professional bachelor and had never established any deep emotional connections with any of his many girlfriends. However, at the age of forty-three he had finally ended up marrying his long-term mistress, Lady Anne Rothermere (later, Ann Fleming) as he had made her pregnant and her husband therefore wanted to divorce her.
That winter due to the pressure caused by the pending divorce, there weren’t many visitors to Goldeneye. There were many different worries that haunted Fleming. Would he manage to take care of a family at this age? Would it change his life? Would he be able to provide Ann with the same stability as her former and much wealthier husband, Lord Rothermere? All those questions kept circling around in his head, but remained unanswered…
Ann kept herself occupied by sitting in the garden wearing her large straw hat and painting flowers. Ian didn’t find any pleasure in painting, so Ann suggested that he should start writing something to distract his thoughts.
So to “take my mind of the shock at getting married at the age of forty-three” as he later said, he decided to write the spy novel to end all spy novels, and gave it the title “Casino Royale”.
Ian was a man with a boyish enthusiasm, so when he started such a project, he poured all his energy into it. He was also a man of habits, so he integrated writing into his daily routine, which he would follow day in and day out without exceptions.
His Daily Routine
He started his day with a morning swim in the Caribbean Sea followed by a breakfast with Ann. The breakfast always consisted of scrambled eggs, bacon and black coffee as he insisted that tea tasted like mud and was the reason behind the decline of the British Empire.
At 9am, he would give Ann a kiss, leave the breakfast table and go inside into the main living room in Goldeneye. He would close the jalousied windows to create a cool and shady room with a hint of a tropical breeze. Then he would take out his old Imperial portable typewriter and type for the next three hours.
He used his wartime experiences as a starting point for activating his imagination and created the world of James Bond. He would write non-stop and wouldn’t worry about what he would put in as he could always edit it later.
At noon, he would stop writing and go outside in the warm Jamaican sun. Together with Ann he would go down to the beach to sunbathe and swim before lunch. After lunch, he would sleep for an hour or two.
Around 5pm, he would be ready to continue his work. He would go into the main living room again, and use an hour or so to read through what he had written during the day and make the necessary corrections. After he finished the corrections, he would take the papers and place them in a drawer and thereby end his workday. And by 6:30, he was ready for his first drink of the day and to enjoy the evening without worrying about his work.
Six weeks after Ian had started writing for the first time, he completed “Casino Royale”. The novel was a tour through a world of gambling, violence, betrayal, torture and sex. By the end of the tour, Le Chiffre (the bad guy) had been annihilated, and so had Vesper Lynd (the girl), while Bond had completed his first mission.
And for the next many years, Ian would continue to follow this elaborate, yet simple, writing schedule and complete a new Bond novel at Goldeneye each winter.
Why Did He Follow a Routine?
His writing habits raise some interesting questions. The first is why would a man of creativity and imagination, like Ian Fleming, follow such a strict regime, rather than just write whenever he felt like it? Obviously it served as a reliable safeguard against abandoning a project when feeling moody or unmotivated. He would later advise another writer that you should always follow your routine, because that will keep you going even when you feel that your writing is nonsense and nobody will ever read it.
Another interesting question is how he managed to be so productive when only putting in 4 hours of actual work per day? The reason must be that he was much more effective during those hours than an average person. He had the luxury of not being interrupted and did not engage in any activities that were not related to the task at hand. He completely focused on the single task of writing this particular novel what probably helped him enter a flow mode where he was extremely productive.
Another reason could be that writing was his true vocation in life, which is why once started, it went so effortlessly that he only needed to spend only a few hours per day and yet remain efficient. He was undoubtedly gifted with an extraordinary imagination and ability to generate ideas (which had also served him good in his previous occupation), but he was also able to create an environment where these talents were expressed most effectively. Fleming certainly had talents, but he was also able to use them to their outmost when writing his novels, which was for the overall benefit — of his own and of his grateful readers.
There are some important lessons to be learned from Ian Fleming’s writing habits. The first is that a single-minded focus on a specific task for three hours in a row without any risk of interruptions enables you to enter a flow mode where you can enjoy a much higher productivity and creativity. The second is that forcing yourself to take daily actions, regardless of the mood, will eventually lead to success. But was Fleming successful? I would say so. His Bond novels have sold more than 100,000,000 copies, which seems like a fair amount for a project that just aimed at distracting him from the fact that he was getting married a little late.