Writers aren’t known for their eagerness to take advice. Some work well in collaborative environments where their text is ever being reworked by colleagues (newsrooms, say). But in the main, their tendency is resistance to outside meddling. It’s a common side effect of the stubbornness needed to sit down at that desk every day, even when the sun is shining and the last thing they want to do is grind out another couple pages of that damn novel.
It was refreshing, then, to read this in a recent profile of Kazuo Ishiguro, whose newest novel The Buried Giant is hitting stores soon. According to Ishiguro, he asked his wife to read his first pages:
“She looked at it and said, ‘This will not do,’ ” he recalled. ” ‘I don’t mean you need to tweak it; you need to start from scratch. None of this can be seen by anybody.’ “
He put the book away and didn’t go back to it for six years. It’s impossible to say, of course, whether Ishiguro’s wife was correct. But what’s almost certain is that more writers would be better off listening to that trusted confidant when they say, albeit lovingly: Don’t show this to anybody.
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.
(Library of Congress)
The winners of the 2015 Magazine Awards (the rather unfortunately named Ellies) have been announced. The New Yorker took home a few as usual, and Vogue won for publication of the year.
More interestingly, awards are also given out for best individual articles; here are some links:
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.
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.