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.

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.

Writer’s Desk: Stuff Your Ears with Money

In 1965, Saul Bellow was rich. After the publication of his novel Herzog the previous year, the ornery and erudite Chicago-born writer was lavished with attention, praise, and (strangely, for a writer, even during those more literate times) money.

According to Zachary Leader, Bellow wasn’t crazy about all the hurly-burly that his suddenly discovered was raising around him.

In my simplicity I thought the noise of Herzog would presently die down, but it seems only to get louder. I can’t pretend it’s entirely unpleasant. After all, I wanted something to happen, and if I find now that I can’t control the volume I can always stuff my ears with money.

Success isn’t likely going to come your way. You chose to be a writer, after all, not a developer of addictive and utterly unnecessary aps. But should you be so lucky as to trip over attention and wealth after hacking out a book or three, enjoy the success.
And if not, stuff your ears with money.

Writer’s Desk: Something Every Day

The poet William Stafford (1914–1993) had a fairly disciplined four-part approach to his daily writing task.
But the key element to his process is the last, where he advises this:
For this day, again, you give yourself a chance to discover worthy things. Nothing stupendous may occur… but if you do not bring yourself to this point, nothing stupendous will happen for sure… and you will spend the balance of your day in blind reaction to the imperatives of the outer world — worn down, buffeted, diminished, martyred.
Get something down on paper each and every day. Leave yourself open to something wonderful. Or terrible.
You can edit later.

Writer’s Desk: Ask the Questions

Unless you’re Karl Ove Knausgard, writing entails getting in touch with life outside of yourself. That can present problems in fiction. Why? Most writers’ lives just are not that exciting.
Lynda La Plante, the crime novelist responsible for the series Widows and Prime Suspect, has a simple solution for finding out what you need to know:
If you want to find out something you go to source. If you want to know what a man serving life for murder is like, call your nearest prison and register as a visitor … That’s what’s so exciting as a writer, if you put yourself out there, you come home with the goodies
So if you want to truly engage with your invented characters, go find their closest real-life corollaries and talk to them. That’s how you get the goodies.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Be Literary

Georges Simenon , 1965 (Dutch National Archives)

When Georges Simenon was starting out as a newspaper writer and later a factory for churning out pulp fiction in Paris in the 1920s, he had higher ambitions. So he went to ask for advice from Colette, one of the reigning doyennes of French (and world) literature.

Colette, whose early writings had been produced under her husband’s name and had to fight for every scrap of financial and critical success she ultimately won, had some tart words for the young pulpist:

She told him to stop trying to be literary, and Mr. Simenon would later say it was the best piece of writing advice he ever got.

By the time Simenon passed away in 1989, he had produced 220 novels under his own name, plus another couple hundred under pseudonyms, and over a thousand short stories.

His method was monastic when required:

When he worked he hung a “Do Not Disturb” sign on his door and often wrote round-the-clock. Once finished, Mr. Simenon put his manuscript away for a few days, then took it out, revised it briefly and sent it to his editor. He never read any of his books once they had been published.

Also, Simenon wasn’t just prolific, he was wildly successful, selling something like half a billion copies worldwide.

Sometimes refusing to worry about how your work is perceived is the best thing you can do.