When you’re looking for advice on writing, the masters are of course always reliable. But it might be wiser to just dive right into the ranks of those who spend their lives toiling in the fields of pulp. After all, it’s the creators of genre fiction who are more likely to have to work with brutal deadlines and for fiercely judgmental audiences.
Michael Connelly, 2013 (Brian Minkoff)
So, here’s Michael Connelly, of the Harry Bosch series of novels, as well as The Lincoln Lawyer, talking to Writer’s Digest about his three favorite bits of writing advice. They’re all gold:
The best crime novels are not how cops work on cases; it’s how cases work on cops. — Joseph Wambaugh
Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water. — Kurt Vonnegut
When you circle around a murder long enough, you get to know a city. — Richard Price
(c. 1942, Library of Congress)
Like any other type of advice, there’s writing advice you want to hear that’s not terribly helpful, and writing you don’t want to hear that’s also probably what you need to hear.
Solidly in the latter category comes this bit of second-hand advice from Nicholson Baker:
Once or twice I got a chance to work with [Atlantic editor] Bill Whitworth on a piece or two — and I was just kind of struggling to support myself and, you know, life is busy and I wasn’t writing that much. He just said very simply, “Are you writing every day?” and I said, “Ummmm,” and I sort of mumbled because I couldn’t say yes.
It was a horrible feeling, and the day after that, I started writing every day … I fudge a lot where I think, “OK, did you write anything, did you write a text? Did you write an email? Did you write just notes on a scrap of paper? Did you write something?” So that’s how I get around it sometimes, by stretching the definition.
Let’s face it, there’s almost always something more fun to do than write on any given day. I mean, those socks aren’t going to organize themselves, are they? But if you get in the every-day habit, eventually it will become hard to break.
(c. 1924, Library of Congress)
Forget plotting or sounding out your dialogue. Half the time, the greatest struggle with writing is the fight to just keep going. To that end, anything can potentially help.
Greta Gerwig, who’s adding a sideline of screenwriting to her acting career, gave this advice to the New York Times Magazine:
I have gotten into baseball recently, and whenever I have trouble writing, I think about the pace of baseball. It’s slow. You strike out a lot, even if you’re great. It’s mostly individual, but when you have to work together, it must be perfect. My desktop picture is of the Red Sox during the World Series. They aren’t winning; they’re just grinding out another play. This, for me, is very helpful to have in my mind while writing.
Keeping up spirits matters. Be your own cheer squad if need be. Whatever it takes to grind it out.
Some writers can work anywhere, in any circumstances, with any implements, on a schedule that only their muse is herself fully comprehending. The rest of us need to set goals.
Take Graham Greene. According to legend, he wrote 500 words a day, no more and no less. Take this recollection from writer and editor Michael Korda, who was introduced to Greene while cruising on a private yacht in the Antibes in 1950 (as one does):
An early riser, [Greene] appeared on deck at first light, found a seat in the shade of an awning, and took from his pocket a small black leather notebook and a black fountain pen, the top of which he unscrewed carefully. Slowly, word by word, without crossing out anything, and in neat, square handwriting, the letters so tiny and cramped that it looked as if he were attempting to write the Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin, Graham wrote, over the next hour or so, exactly five hundred words. He counted each word according to some arcane system of his own, and then screwed the cap back onto his pen, stood up and stretched, and, turning to me, said, “That’s it, then. Shall we have breakfast?”
By the way, the novel Greene was finishing in such an offhanded way was The End of the Affair.
In any case, the lesson from Greene is a good one. Once he hit his word count, he supposedly quit and went off to live his life; possibly one of the reasons his fiction is so richly imagined and deeply reported.
German soldiers march through Paris, June 1940 (German Federal Archive)
Sometimes it can just take you a while to get around to that book that everybody has been reading. Anthony Doerr’s fairly beloved novel All the Light We Cannot See has been hanging around on the bestseller lists pretty much since it was published last summer, and for good reason. It’s not just the France-during-the-occupation setting or the gorgeous language, though both of those attributes help, of course. It has a magic to it, plain and simple.
All the Light We Cannot See is available in hardcover everywhere, with a paperback edition scheduled for this December; my review is at PopMatters:
Like many great novels of the Second World War and other epic clashes of civilizations, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See is a story of the grandeur of terror. At least it begins that way. It’s August 1944 in Saint-Malo, a venerable seaside town on the northwestern coast of France. The Allies have landed and are steadily punching their way out of Normandy. The war is nearing another crescendo of death…
Sometimes you write a piece, a poem, a scribble, a book, and that’s all it is. Just the thing there, no more and no less. There is of course, absolutely nothing wrong with that. The world would be far too complex to live in if we spent our time looking for nuance in every bit of text that we came across.
But there’s writing and then there’s writing. It’s that second kind which some of us are aiming for. That’s the kind that acts like glue, or a song you can’t get out of your head, an itch under the skin.
As Neil Gaiman wrote in his introduction to Bradbury’s ode to the written word and the life of the mind, Fahrenheit 451:
If someone tells you what a story is about, they are probably right. If they tell you that that is all the story is about, they are probably wrong.
Something more that goes beyond the words on the page. That’s the key to sticking in the reader’s mind. How to do it? Aye, there’s the rub.
Roddy Doyle (photo by Jon Kay)
When an author’s resume includes such masterpieces as the Barrytown trilogy (The Commitments, The Snapper, The Van), it’s generally best to listen to what they have to say…at least when it comes to writing.
Herewith some rules for writers from the great Roddy Doyle about calming down and getting on with it when you’re blocked:
Do be kind to yourself. Fill pages as quickly as possible; double space, or write on every second line. Regard every new page as a small triumph — Until you get to Page 50. Then calm down, and start worrying about the quality. Do feel anxiety — it’s the job.