It never hurts to get a little booster shot of advice. There are books, workshops, podcasts, interviews, columns, and blogs galore about writing — how to do it, how to make it better, how to sell it, what to do, what not to do, who to listen to — and almost anybody you ask about it will have an opinion and will be happy to share it with you. And a lot of people you don’t ask will try sharing it with you, anyway. So here I am, right on cue.
So yeah, advice is all over the place and sometimes it’s a tad overwhelming. But sometimes you’ll find an angle that gives you a little more incentive, or a little more hope, or maybe an aspect that hadn’t occurred to you and helps you understand your motivation or your plot or your characters a little better. And sometimes you just need a reminder of something you already knew was good advice but has gone a little out-of-focus, or slipped gradually out of your mind while you were distracted with that masterpiece of yours that hasn’t been behaving like you thought it would.
What’s nice is to find some thoughts on which a whole lot of writers have reached a consensus. Enter Joe Fassler. Mr. Fassler is a writer, journalist, and editor who has discussed the art of writing with a whole bucketful of writers, and condensed their best advice down to seven nuggets of wisdom in this post from Literary Hub. When you get through with his article, scout around on the Literary Hub website a little and see what else you can relate to.
I’ll have to confess that for quite some time I haven’t been attentive to that website, because they’ve been doing a considerable amount of liberal pontificating in their newsletters and material. Let me be clear…there’s absolutely nothing wrong with liberals and their thoughts. However, when subjects are almost exclusively about LGBTQ pride, militant feminism, racial equality, and hating the last President — let’s face it, LitHub — it’s a crusade and it ignores a huge percentage of the rest of the literary world. All those subjects are fine, but a constant barrage gets a bit tiresome, and they could be a little more tolerant and inclusive with the rest of the literature firmament. When they are, you can find a lot of good information there, so keep your mind open if some of it seems a little narrow-focused at first glance.
These are common rivulets running through the creative watershed of the entire literary landscape, so if you’re a writer, of any genre or category, this has to do with how you do what you do, and deserves a look-see.
I Talked to 150 Writers and Here’s the Best Advice They Had
Joe Fassler on Seven of the Most Common Writing Tips
By Joe Fassler
I once heard John Irving give a lecture on his process at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, an in-depth account of the way his novels come to be. He kicked it off by writing a single sentence on the chalkboard—the last line of Last Night in Twisted River. All his books begin with the ending, Irving explained, a capstone he works and reworks until it’s ready. From there, he’ll generate a detailed summary that ultimately builds towards the finale, like SparkNotes for a book that does not yet exist. Only when he has the synopsis and last sentence in hand will he actually start writing.
I remember being fascinated by this. The approach had clearly been successful, and made sense in theory, and yet was so unlike any creative strategy that had ever worked for me. Which is an important thing to keep in mind when trafficking in the familiar genre of writing advice: Just because John Irving does it that way doesn’t mean you should. Not only is every writer different, but each poem, each story and essay, each novel, has its own formal requirements. Advice might be a comfort in the moment, but the hard truth is that literary wisdom can be hard to systematize. There’s just no doing it the same way twice.
And yet. In the five years I’ve spent interviewing authors for The Atlantic’s “By Heart” series—the basis for a new collection, Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process—it’s been impossible to ignore the way certain ideas tend to come up again and again. Between the column and the book I’ve engaged a diverse group of more than 150 writers, a large sample size, that nonetheless has some defining traits. Here are the recurring ideas, distilled from dozens of conversations, that I think will most help you—no matter how unorthodox your process, how singular your vision.
Neglect everything else.
It starts with a simple fact: If you’re not making the time to write, no other advice can help you. Which is probably why so many of the writers I talk to seem preoccupied with time-management. “You probably have time to be a halfway decent parent and one other thing,” David Mitchell, the author of Cloud Atlas, told me. That can mean mustering the grit to let other responsibilities languish. As he put it in short: “Neglect everything else.”
Many authors need to put blinders on, finding ways to simplify their experience and reduce the number of potential distractions. That might mean consistently keeping a single two-hour window sacred, as Victor Lavalle does, morning time he safeguards against the demands of parenting and full-time teaching. For others, it means finding ways to ward off digital derailment. Mitchell does this by setting his homepage as the most boring thing he can think of: the Apple website.
Ultimately, the literary exercise is about finding ways to defend something fragile—the quiet mood in which the imagination flourishes. As Jonathan Franzen put it: “I need to make sure I still have a private self. Because the private self is where my writing comes from.”
Everyone knows that the opening line is a crucial invitation, something that can make or break a reader’s interest in a book. But far less attention has been paid to the role first lines play for writers, leading them through the work’s dark, uncertain stages like a beacon.
“The first line must convince me that it somehow embodies the entire unwritten text,” William Gibson told me, a radical, koan-like conviction that nonetheless seems to be commonplace. Stephen King described spending “weeks and months and even years” working on first sentences, each one an incantation with the power to unlock the finished book. And Michael Chabon said that, once he stumbled on the first sentence of Wonder Boys, the rest of the novel was almost like taking dictation. “The seed of the novel—who would tell the story and what it would be about—was in that first sentence, and it just arrived,” he said.
Every writer has their own idiosyncrasies that somehow seem useful when they’re trying to crank out their…whatever their product happens to be. Sometimes they’re not totally comprehensible to the normal folks, but hey…whatever works! It took me a lot of fumbling around to come up with a system, but I read somewhere that Patricia Cornwell kept journals to discuss her plots and details with herself, and I figured that must be a worth a shot if that’s what helped her sell a hundred million books. That’s what finally kept me focused — arguing with myself about why a plot point might work or not, keeping details of characters straight, trying out names of people and places and books — just about everything about the book. The notes file for my first novel was about half the length of the finished novel itself.
Of course that won’t work for everybody, but we all have our ways. I do have other rituals, but those are the ones that give me my super powers and the aliens have sworn me to secrecy.
But, great news! Other — and some quite startling — rituals that apparently lead to much greater super powers, since they’re part of the writing lives of a lot of very successful authors, are not so secret. Several of the strange habits of famous writers have been collected in a book called “Odd Type Writers” by Celia Blue Johnson. It was actually published back in 2013, so yes, I’m a little slow in discovering it but the information is timeless, so that makes me feel better. Many of those habits have been excerpted from the book in an article I recently came across by Maria Popova on her Brain Pickings website. The website always has some interesting info to peruse, and I usually get a little too distracted and spend too much time enjoying the side trips, but they’re always worth it.
Take a look! I posted a similar article a few months ago, but this one has different and more extensive tales to tell. This article may not give you that one tip that will put you on your way to immediate best-seller-ness, but it does give a fascinating glimpse into the quirks behind some of the greatest wordsmiths of the ages, and maybe you’d like to chase down that book and find out even more. Happy perusing!
The Odd Habits and Curious Customs of Famous Writers
Color-coded muses, rotten apples, self-imposed house arrest, and other creative techniques at the intersection of the superstitious and the pragmatic.
By Maria Popova
Famous authors are notorious for their daily routines — sometimes outrageous, usually obsessive, invariably peculiar. In Odd Type Writers: From Joyce and Dickens to Wharton and Welty, the Obsessive Habits and Quirky Techniques of Great Authors (public library) — the more dimensional and thoroughly researched counterpart to Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals — Brooklyn-based writer Celia Blue Johnson takes us on a guided tour of great writers’ unusual techniques, prompts, and customs of committing thought to paper, from their ambitious daily word quotas to their superstitions to their inventive procrastination and multitasking methods.
As curious as these habits are, however, Johnson reminds us that public intellectuals often engineer their own myths, which means the quirky behaviors recorded in history’s annals should be taken with a grain of Salinger salt. She offers a necessary disclaimer, enveloped in a thoughtful meta-disclaimer:
“One must always keep in mind that these writers and the people around them may have, at some point, embellished the facts. Quirks are great fodder for gossip and can morph into gross exaggeration when passed from one person to the next. There’s also no way to escape the self-mythologizing particularly when dealing with some of the greatest storytellers that ever lived. Yet even when authors stretch the truth, they reveal something about themselves, when it is the desire to project a certain image or the need to shy away from one.”
Mode and medium of writing seem to be a recurring theme of personal idiosyncrasy. Wallace Stevens composed his poetry on slips of paper while walking — an activity he, like Maira Kalman, saw as a creative stimulant — then handed them to his secretary to type up. Edgar Allan Poe, champion of marginalia, wrote his final drafts on separate pieces of paper attached into a running scroll with sealing wax. Jack Kerouac was especially partial to scrolling: In 1951, planning the book for years and amassing ample notes in his journals, he wrote On The Road in one feverish burst, letting it pour onto pages taped together into one enormously long strip of paper — a format he thought lent itself particularly well to his project, since it allowed him to maintain his rapid pace without pausing to reload the typewriter at the end of each page. When he was done, he marched into his editor Robert Giroux’s office and proudly spun out the scroll across the floor. The result, however, was equal parts comical and tragic:
“To [Kerouac’s] dismay, Giroux focused on the unusual packaging. He asked, “But Jack, how can you make corrections on a manuscript like that?” Giroux recalled saying, “Jack, you know you have to cut this up. It has to be edited.” Kerouac left the office in a rage. It took several years for Kerouac’s agent, Sterling Lord, to finally find a home for the book, at the Viking Press.”
James Joyce wrote lying on his stomach in bed, with a large blue pencil, clad in a white coat, and composed most of Finnegans Wake with crayon pieces on cardboard. But this was a matter more of pragmatism than of superstition or vain idiosyncrasy: Of the many outrageously misguided myths the celebrated author of Ulysses and wordsmith of little-known children’s books, one was actually right: he was nearly blind. His childhood myopia developed into severe eye problems by his twenties. To make matters worse, he developed rheumatic fever when he was twenty-five, which resulted in a painful eye condition called iritis. By 1930, he had undergone twenty-five eye surgeries, none of which improved his sight. The large crayons thus helped him see what he was writing, and the white coat helped reflect more light onto the page at night. (As someone partial to black bedding, not for aesthetic reasons but because I believe it provides a deeper dark at night, I can certainly relate to Joyce’s seemingly arbitrary but actually physics-driven attire choice.)