Writer’s Desk: Be Ruthless

One of the greater speculative fiction writers of our time, China Mieville — imagine H.P. Lovecraft filtered through Kafka and Neal Stephenson with a generous dose of Marxism — talked to Clarkesworld magazine about his writing practice.

For Mieville, his productivity comes in spurts. But that doesn’t mean he is undisciplined:

I’m ruthless with early drafts, as one has to be … More and more as I get older and as I change as a writer, so what tends to happen is the first draft tends to be quite long and maybe quite flabby, then I’ll trim that down. There can be occasions when it’s very difficult because there are some sections that you really want to keep in, but, at the same time, you know that you probably ought to get rid of that bit. Sometimes, you have to be quite ruthless with yourself.

It’s good advice. After all, if a writer isn’t ruthless with themselves, it’s almost a guarantee that their readers will be.

Writer’s Corner: Go Fast

They always say to keep a notebook around. This is not only good advice, it is essential. Inspiration does not strike that often. When it comes, you need to have something to catch it with.

Take Joseph Heller. He told Rolling Stone that he got the idea for Catch-22 in the middle of the night:

It kind of burst into my mind. I was actually pacing the floor at four in the morning. I couldn’t wait to get into my office at this small advertising agency and scribble the first chapter.

He wasted no time. If he had waited, we might have lost one of the greatest books of the 20th century.

However, when answering whether writing classes are worthwhile, he digresses into how long it takes to write a book.

There was for me. None at all, I’d say, for the student who lacks talent. You can’t teach talent. And you can’t give intelligence. You can’t teach a person to be funny. A novel takes two or three years to write. By the time a student is halfway through his book, he’ll know so much more about writing and about literature, and will have experienced so much more as a person, that there’s a good chance he’ll lose interest in the book before it’s finished.

This is not much talked about but there are plenty of writers who have gotten a good distance into a long-term project and then lost any interest in finishing it. Of course by then, they’ve committed so much time (or, if they’re lucky, were paid an advance) that there is nothing for it but to press on.

So when you know what you want to write, do it. Fast.

That’s what Heller would have said. Of course, in the twenty years between his debut Catch-22 and this 1981 interview, he had only managed to produce a total of three novels. So, as in so much of life, do as the man says, not as he does.

Writer’s Desk: Be Organized

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Gustave Flaubert

We all know the stereotype of the absent-minded artist. Brilliant at illuminating the furthest reaches of the human soul but can’t remember where she put her glasses. It is a stereotype but a true one, nonetheless. Some think that artists have to be absent-minded because they have to keep space in their mind and their soul open for their art.

But at the same time, one must remember your Flaubert:

Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.

Get your act together in real life. Pour out the chaos onto new pages.

Writer’s Desk: Find a Safe Space

BlackBeautyCoverFirstEd1877.jpegThe life of a writer is usually a precarious one, for those of us who make their living solely on their wits and their pen. The lucky ones do not have to hustle all day and night from one assignment and check to the next, but are actually employed to write as part of their job. Whether or not that writing is what they want to do (and if not, there’s always the weekend and mornings to work on the novel), it’s always a relief to be employed to do what one loves.

The great journalist A. J. Liebling—who found his base of operations at the New Yorker—once compared his fellow ink-stained wretches to a certain famous fictitious horse:

The pattern of a newspaperman’s life is like the plot of Black Beauty. Sometimes he finds a kind master who gives him a dry stall and an occasional bran mash in the form of a Christmas bonus, sometimes he falls into the hands of a mean owner who drives him in spite of spavins and expects him to live on potato peelings…

Sometimes this can mean swallowing one’s pride. But if the stall is nice, frequently mucked out, and comes replete with fresh hay and the occasional apple, that comfort can leave more time for doing what you are meant to do: Write.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Just Write Your Story, Live Your Story

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(New York Public Library)

Molly Antopol, author of The UnAmericans, once said that to her writing and reading can be acts of generosity:

One of the main reasons I read—and definitely why I write—is to try to see the world through someone else’s eyes. To try to imagine what life is like for someone who’s different from myself … I’m forced into having empathy for everyone—even someone who I’d normally be upset with, or feel wronged by…

As a result, she views writing as a fully immersive experience:

The moment a character becomes real to me, and their experience becomes real to me, the writing itself almost feels like method acting. When I’m writing a story, which takes me a year or more, I can feel my character living with me—they’re responding to whatever funny, familial, or social situation I’m in, and I think about their responses constantly. This feeling of living alongside a character is one of the most gratifying things about writing, and definitely one of the reasons I do it…

Don’t just imagine your characters. Live them.

Writer’s Desk: Have No Fear

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Christopher Hitchens (Fri Tanke, 2008)

In the speech that he gave accepting the Christopher Hitchens award, George Packer noted how he and Hitch didn’t always get along and actually disagreed quite violently on the Iraq War. Hitch thought it was a noble cause, while Packer (as covered in his incredible book The Assassin’s Gate) knew from on-the-ground reporting that it was a disaster. Nevertheless, their friendship persisted:

We would say rude things about each other in print, and then we’d exchange tentatively regretful emails without yielding an inch, and then we’d meet for a drink and the whole thing would go unmentioned, and somehow there was more warmth between us than before. Exchanging barbs was a way of bonding with Christopher…

Packer went on to talk about Hitch’s bravery and freedom from fear:

Fear breeds self-censorship, and self-censorship is more insidious than the state-imposed kind, because it’s a surer way of killing the impulse to think, which requires an unfettered mind. A writer can still write while hiding from the thought police. But a writer who carries the thought police around in his head, who always feels compelled to ask: Can I say this? Do I have a right? Is my terminology correct? Will my allies get angry? Will it help my enemies? Could it get me ratioed on Twitter?—that writer’s words will soon become lifeless. A writer who’s afraid to tell people what they don’t want to hear has chosen the wrong trade…

Telling how things appear to you, and in the way that feels most right for you and your voice, is the only way to write.

A scared writer is a terrible writer.