Writer’s Desk: Money Helps

JP Donleavy died earlier this month at the age of 91. About a half-century ago he wrote The Ginger Man, another of those great racketing novels from the British Isles about charismatic and sodden rakes. It had the unusual distinction of being highly praised in print by both Dorothy Parker and Hunter S. Thompson, who knew a few things about booze and wit.

In any case, Donleavy proffered some sound advice about those pursing his craft to a magazine in the late 1970s:

Writing is turning one’s worst moments into money.

Better definitions have yet to be located.

Writer’s Desk: Listen to Your Editor

In the current publishing environment, one thing remains the same as in years past: Nearly all writers with a publishing contract have an editor. However, not all editors and not all publishers are made the same. Often, whether due to intent or time or budget (often all of the above), all that an editor can do is fix errors, make some suggestions, and generally guide the manuscript through the pipeline.

For those writers and editors who are lucky enough to be given the time and support to really work on a book together, though, the results can be revelatory. Take this essay by Thomas Ricks, in which he describes in some detail the lengthy, painful, and ultimately rewarding journey he went on with the editor on his (incredible) book Churchill and Orwell:

I asked Scott why he had been so rough on me the previous winter. ‘Sometimes my job is to be an asshole,’ he explained with equanimity. I wasn’t startled at this. At one point on an earlier book, when I told him how stressed I was feeling, he had replied, a bit airily, I thought, ‘Oh, every good book has at least one nervous breakdown in it.’

Near the end of our lunch, Scott offered one more wise observation about the writing process: ‘The first draft is for the writer. The second draft is for the editor. The last draft is for the reader.’

Negative feedback, especially from a trusted editor and/or friend, can be crushing.

But it can also save your book.

Writer’s Desk: The Costanza Rule

Occasionally, sitcoms can help. So you have all seen the Seinfeld episode “The Opposite”? (If somehow not, go here for the gist.) In short, that’s the episode where the perennially selfish, short-sighted, and self-sabotaging George Costanza realizes that his best change for success is ignoring all of his instincts and doing exactly the opposite.

In honor of Costanza’s insight, it would behoove many writers to check out the Twitter account The Worst Muse. Its “advice” is solid gold:

It’s still not too late to add a vampire.

If a character is in New York, she’s got to be either a model or a writer, right?

If your alien culture isn’t a thinly veiled allegory for contemporary politics, what’s the point?

Follow the Costanza rule with every one of these tweets and you’ll be set.

Writer’s Desk: Style and Forbearance, Young Scribe

The great dispenser of acid-laced bon mots Dorothy Parker, born on August 22 in 1893, had the occasional bit of advice for writers. To wit:

If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second-greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style.

Hard to argue with, yes? Strunk and White’s paen to simplicity is a must-have tool for any writer of any age.

But Parker went on:

The first-greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.

While people have a low tolerance for writers whingeing about the frustrations baked in to the writing life—nobody forced us to do it, after all—it’s worth pointing out to those just embarking on that path that happiness and fulfillment don’t necessarily follow.

Just writing, and writing well (preferably with a copy of Strunk and White at your side), must often be its own reward.

Writer’s Desk: Watch TV and Movies

Well, not always. But sometimes when you need inspiration, anything with imagery and people can do. Tennessee Williams liked to hunt for his characters, particularly women, in other media.

In his book Follies of God, James Grissom wrote about reaching out to Williams in the early 1980s for advice on writing. Williams told him that in his youth, the world of characters, what he called “the fog,” just came to him. Later on, it wasn’t so easy:

Writing early in the morning or deep into the night, Tenn kept his television set on, the volume set to low, a radio or a phonograph playing the music of people who had led him to fog-enshrouded stages in the past. An image would come across the screen and catch his eye, the volume would be raised, and a voice would speak to him. Tenn had notes and diagrams and plot outlines scrawled on envelopes, napkins, hotel stationery, menus from restaurants and diners and airport lounges. Once, he delicately constructed a plot outline on a paper tablecloth, which the waiter neatly folded and presented to him along with the check.

Whether Williams would have recommended public television, streaming, or reality TV for inspiration, is not known.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Stop Now


The great Walter Benjamin once postulated the 13 rules necessary for the writer to make a go of it with their craft. It’s a smart, detail-fixated, and lengthy list, which you can review in full here.

They’re not all for everybody—”Avoid haphazard writing materials. A pedantic adherence to certain papers, pens, inks is beneficial” is a tad on the fussy side—but the following items seem relevant to just about any ink-stained wretch out there:

  • “Talk about what you have written, by all means, but do not read from it while the work is in progress. Every gratification procured in this way will slacken your tempo.”
  • “Consider no work perfect over which you have not once sat from evening to broad daylight.”
  • “Never stop writing because you have run out of ideas. Literary honour requires that one break off only at an appointed moment (a mealtime, a meeting) or at the end of the work.”

It is likely that a broader belief in the concept of “literary honour” would serve the writing classes well.

Writer’s Desk: Larry McMurtry


Cowboy novels, screenplays, weepies, Larry McMurtry’s written them all.  It’s a tossup as to what’s going to lead his obituary, Lonesome Dove or Brokeback Mountain, but either one is the kind of big-hearted and deeply-felt work most writers would kill to be associated with. He also runs his own bookstore, which is the sort of thing more writers should do.

A few years back, McMurtry—whose birthday was this past Friday—gave some writing advice to The Daily Beast; herewith a few selections:

  • “If you’re going to write fiction, you should read Tolstoy and the Russians; Flaubert and the French; Dickens; George Eliot; Dreiser; Twain; and on and on.”
  • “I have never mapped out a book ahead of time. It’s important to me to leave a little space for serendipity. Most of my books start with an ending. Then I go backwards and write towards the ending.”
  • “One thing I don’t do is read fiction while writing fiction. It interferes with my imagination.”

It’s difficult to imagine not reading fiction while writing it. After all, even a short novel takes most people months. That’s a long dry spell. But, then, he wrote Lonesome Dove, so probably knows a thing or two.