Writer’s Desk: Whatever Works


Successful writers have their preferred tools. A kind of pencil. Style of desk. The best music to run in the background.

Some writers looking for ways to get ahead in the game often go looking for answers in those habits. They will be frustrated, because whatever works for one writer likely will be dead on delivery for another. Take word processing.

According to the New Republic‘s Joseph Livingstone, word processing was a nascent technology through the 1970s into the early 1980s. By 1984, many writers (Anne Rice, Michael Chabon) had switched to using the new program WordStar. A pre-DOS application, its basic text look appears downright Paleolithic today.

Nevertheless, a number of authors in the genre field continue to use WordStar today. Why? Because they like writing on it. Consider George R. R. Martin. He uses the no-frills WordStar to write all his fantasy doorstoppers.

If something helps you write, stick with it. Even if that means giving up on spellcheck.

Screening Room: ‘Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin’

My review of the new documentary Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin was published at PopMatters:

Hard times are coming,” author Ursula K. Le Guin said in her fiery 2014 speech accepting the National Book Foundation award. Her tone was somehow somber, yet also chipper, as though she had already acknowledged the worst and now was girding for battle. She was fixing her bayonet in bright spirits and about to go over the top…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Be Nice to Your Editor

Your editor’s desk may look like this. Be nice to him.

Matt Zoller Seitz is one of our greatest critics. That means he doesn’t just have a vivid viewpoint on movies but that he’s first and foremost a lucid, enjoyable, and thoughtful writer.

In a piece he published on RogerEbert.com a few years back that listed some great advice for young critics just starting out—including “Just write, damn it”—this point stood out:

Always make your editor’s life easier, not harder. This is a job, not just a pursuit. Your bosses do not exist to make you feel good about yourself. They have to crank shit out, and a lot of them don’t care how brilliant it is if it comes in late or has accuracy or structural problems that they have to solve. Journalism isn’t filled with just-OK writers because that’s what editors want. It’s filled with just-OK writers because editors don’t want to have to put out fires after regular office hours unless there’s a damned good reason. So hit your deadlines. Turn in copy that’s as smart and clean and exciting as can be under the circumstances. Take responsibility for your words…

It’s almost impossible to say how important this is. Unless you’re out there blogging or self-publishing on your own with nobody looking over your shoulder, we all have editors. And we should. They’re the helpful folks who keep us writers from making fools out of ourselves with sloppy spelling, errors of speed (“its” when you mean “it’s”), and so on.

Be nice to your editors so that they can focus on making your writing better, not just cleaning up mistakes. Writing is a solitary activity that must turn into a team sport if you’re going to go anywhere with it.

Hit those deadlines. Be responsible.

Department of Lists: 2018 Edition

(image by KangZeLiu)

Since it’s the end of the year, and there’s only so much champagne one can drink while watching Andy Cohen/Anderson Cooper and hoping that 2019 will show 2018 how things should have gone, it’s time to look back at some of the best that the year that was had to offer.

To that end, I contributed some pieces to a few different publications who make a point of cataloging this sort of thing:

Now you’ll have something to do this January besides catch up on new TV shows and ignore your dieting pledges.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Work

In his novel Hollywood, a not-so-thinly-veiled account of working on the movie Barfly, Charles Bukowski wrote this:

Writing was never work for me. It had been the same for as long as I could remember: turn on the radio to a classical music station, light a cigarette or cigar, open the bottle. The typer did the rest…

Open the bottle, turn on the radio, have a smoke. Or find your own routine. Do what you need to do to let the words flow.

As they say, if you love your work, you never have to work a day in your life.

Writer’s Desk: Pay Attention, Be Free

The best writers make it look easy. Not just that, they make it seem as though the words just flowed out of them. We know that that is not, can not, be true. Even the fastest writers are masters of control. Their speed is in part the result of careful planning and diligent editing as they go.

In her classic The Writing Life, the great Annie Dillard put it thus:

Putting a book together is interesting and exhilarating. It is sufficiently difficult and complex that it engages all your intelligence. It is life at its most free. Your freedom as a writer is not freedom of expression in the sense of wild blurting; you may not let rip. It is life at its most free, if you are fortunate enough to be able to try it, because you select your materials, invent your task, and pace yourself…

Most people focus on her command, “You may not let rip.” For good reason. Letting rip often just means a loss of control. It may feel good in the moment, but your readers will notice.

Follow Dillard. When writing, freedom means giving vent to your inner voice. It also paying close attention to everything you put down on a page. That way, your voice will have a voice.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Bother Competing

By any definition of the term, Rachel Kushner is a successful writer. Each of her three books—Telex from Cuba, The Flamethrowers, and The Mars Room—have been praised to the skies. At least one of them (The Flamethrowers) is arguably one of the great American novels of the last twenty years.

Nevertheless, she doesn’t believe that she’s in competition with anybody else in the current literary landscape. At least that’s what she told the Times Literary Supplement, when they asked what was the best writing advice she ever received:

To consider myself a destiny. Nietzsche told me it. And from the guy I live with: “Compete with dead authors, not living ones”. (i.e., let history do the sifting work.)

Assume that you’ll succeed in the present. Hope that at some point others agree. Write accordingly.