Writer’s Desk: Find a Group

In his great literary guide and memoir On Writing—read it now, if you haven’t already—Stephen King unpacked many secrets of the scrivening trade. Among the more salient was this:

Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference.

Finding a writers’ group helps. So does suborning your friends and family to read what you’re working on. Feedback is never a waste, even if you end up ignoring it completely.

Writer’s Desk: Keep it Professional

Writing is work. You wouldn’t show up to the office in your pajamas, right? (Well, maybe you would.)

For some writers, keeping a separate office and even a separate demeanor and outfit from their home routine helps keep them in a mental space that’s good for writing. Think of it as putting on your uniform before going to work.

Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson biographer Robert Caro keeps it businesslike, even when there’s nobody around to know the difference, and for good reason:

It’s very easy to fool yourself that you’re working, you know, when you’re really not working very hard. I mean, I’m very lazy. So for me, I would always have an excuse, you know, to go – quit early, go to a museum, you know. So I do everything I can to make myself remember this is a job. I keep a schedule. People laugh at me for wearing, you know, a coat and tie to work…

Writer’s Desk: Keep Trying

There is almost no greater cliche in publishing than reminding aspiring writers that even Stephen King got rejection letters by the basketful early in his career. But it is still worth repeating.

To that end, here’s a few notable bestsellers that were originally considered unworthy of publication:

  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
  • The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Writer’s Desk: What Dickens Said

As a belated seasonal homage to A Christmas Carol, this week’s writing advice comes courtesy of Charles Dickens, who never saw a narrative trick he didn’t like.

Per William Cane’s Fiction Writing Master Class, Dickens had a motto that went thus:

Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait.

There’s fiction for you, in just nine words.

Writer’s Desk: Write About Cats

This one should speak for itself. Per the Times:

The author of the short story “Cat Person,” which became a viral phenomenon after appearing in The New Yorker this month, has received a seven-figure book deal, according to a person with knowledge of the deal.

A collection from Kristen Roupenian, whose debut story in The New Yorker became the magazine’s second most-read article of 2017 despite being published in the Dec. 11 issue, will be published by Scout Press in 2019.

Roupenian’s story hit just about every meme-worthy topic of the age: Cats, dating, creepy guys, social media, intellectual insecurity masked by blithe confidence. It’s all there.

This is what they call a teaching moment.

Writer’s Desk: Forget Money

Some writers have to do it in order to keep a roof over their heads. It beats getting a real job, of course. But you have to be careful that paying the rent doesn’t influence what you write.

Philip K. Dick (born Dec. 16, 1928) wrote to put food on the table but never just for dollars or fame. In a letter to fellow pulp author Jim McKimmey, Dick opined:

My main reason for writing is basically simple. I want to react against society; I’m after impact, not money.

Writer’s Desk: Be Specific, Above All

In 1976, Joan Didion (born December 5, 1934) lifted a title—one of the best—from Orwell when she penned the essay “Why I Write.” She had a lot to say about writing, particularly about how she doesn’t start with an idea or theme but just a mental picture or two that she is trying to explain.

She also described becoming a writer in part because she was not so great at being a student at Berkeley:

In short I tried to think. I failed. My attention veered inexorably back to the specific, to the tangible, to what was generally considered, by everyone I knew then and for that matter have known since, the peripheral. I would try to contemplate the Hegelian dialectic and would find myself concentrating instead on a flowering pear tree outside my window and the particular way the petals fell on my floor.

Writers have to learn about many things before they can put words on paper: Gardening, missile trajectories, how to steal a car. But the end result of gaining that knowledge is not the thing itself, but making one’s writing as specific as possible. As Didion explains it, a writer is:

…a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper.

No, writing isn’t some cloud-borne dream factory, but an arduous and labor-intensive search for precision and clarity. If it wasn’t, then what would be the point?