Writer’s Desk: Start a Diary

Michael Palin, of Monty Python and travel-writing fame, has been writing in his diary since 1969. Even when nothing much is happening. Palin is a special case, because he can look back and read about that time he was with David Frost or John Cleese or at some little café in Tangier.

Still, for a writer a diary can be something of a gold mine. This is especially the case if you have a gift for description and observation. Several years’ worth of tracking what is happening around you can come in handy when looking for material later on.

But one doesn’t want to slap just anything down. Even if it is just your diary. Palin has some handy don’ts:

  • “Don’t be too obscure. British upper-class diaries are prime examples of this fault, as in Sir Arthur Fforbes-Ffinch’s account of London life in the 1920s: “January 4th: Bo-Bo, Tiggy, Spaff, Flatto, Gin-Gin, Mobbles, and Goofy came round and we all drank Brown Monkeys and played Sham-Sham until we’d crocked Bonzie’s and had to rumble.” Completely inexplicable if you didn’t know it was a Cabinet meeting.”
  • “Don’t try and make your life interesting when it isn’t. Diaries must be brutally honest. If you had only one egg for breakfast, write “Had egg for breakfast.” Don’t feel you have to have had 12 eggs for breakfast just to get in the diary.”

Also, one very helpful to-do:

  • “Write every day. Diaries are all about habit. They should become a regular part of your day, like cleaning your teeth or going to the lavatory. And, if possible, just as interesting.”

Writer’s Desk: Leave Some Room

Anthony Doerr writes large books with an epic sweep. They feature dramatic action but also layered descriptions with particularly sparkling language. Per The Writer, Doerr knows this can be a lot for some readers. In a 530-page novel like All the Light We Cannot See, he keeps many of the chapters to just a page or two:

Because I’m a fairly lyrical and dense writer, I felt like it would be nice to give the reader these white spaces, these bursts of recovery time … Like a little bit of oxygen before diving back in again

Writer’s Desk: Pare It Down

There’s a Mike Birbiglia joke about how some quotes attributed to famous people are really just sayings that predated that person but they were the one who everyone remembered saying it (funny in his original version). It’s hard not to think of that when reading this piece of advice from ace science-fiction writer and editor Frederik Pohl:

Students of playwriting at the University of Texas (so one of them told me long ago, leaving an indelible impression on my mind) used to be told that there were only three reasons for including any given line in a play: To show character; to advance the action; or to get a laugh…

Clearly that advice was around before Pohl, and likely before whichever teacher delivered it to those students. But it’s grand wisdom nonetheless and if you have ever read any of Pohl’s witty, page-turning science fiction, you know that he followed the lesson to a tee.

So for the sake of convenience and giving a somewhat overlooked writer his due, let’s credit Pohl with this one.

Literary Birthday: Terry Pratchett

Even though his most popular series began as something of a spoof on the genre, Terry Pratchett (born today in 1948) nevertheless became one of the most famous fantasy authors of all time thanks to his Discworld series. Set on a flat world that whirled through the ether on the back of a massive turtle (itself resting on some elephants and who knows what else), Discworld was a palimpsest on which Pratchett could satirically riff on everything from the hidebound traditions of post-Tolkien fantasy to more modern topics ranging from the Balkan Wars to the privatization of public institutions.

He also conjured up many memorable characters, particularly that of Death himself. A thoughtful chap who spoke quietly in ALL CAPS, Death was there to greet Pratchett when he passed away at 68. According to an entry that day from the author’s Twitter account, Death said, “AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER.”

Writer’s Desk: The Best Things Are the True Things

When George Huang was writing the screenplay for Swimming the Sharks, he based much of it on his experience as an assistant working for hot-tempered producers like Joel Silver. He noticed, though, that whenever he and other assistants traded war stories, there was a catch:

Consistently, my friends who worked for Scott Rudin would always win. Some of the stories they told were almost too absurd to be true. If I put it in the movie, no one would’ve believed it.

In a twist that is either ironic or simply flat-out disturbing, the 1994 movie ended up starring Kevin Spacey, who would later be accused of horrific abuse, embodying many of those anecdotes. Still, Huang remembers that he was convinced to not go all the way, specifically with the stories about Rubin, now facing potentially career-ending charges himself:

I remember trying to put the stories in an early draft, and when [other producers] read it, it was like, ‘Yeah, this is way, way over the top. This would’ve never happened,’” Huang recalled. “I’d go, ‘Oh, but it does.

Huang was a first-time director and ultimately likely did not have the power to have his way on everything. But his experience serves as a good reminder: If it is true, no matter what people think, fight to leave it in.

Writer’s Desk: Know When to Move On

Every writer has had those sections that give them problems. They will be moving right along and then there is this part that just refuses to fit. They know it needs to be there. Otherwise the plot will not make sense or readers will not appreciate the argument being made or that one line of crystalline description will be orphaned.

John Steinbeck knew what to do in that situation. Take this item from a 1962 letter:

If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there…

Writers are always told to cut out the troublesome bits. But that does not always feel right at first. Sometimes you need to let it sit for awhile before you are able to put it out of its misery.

(h/t: Brain Pickings)

Writer’s Desk: Amuse Yourself

In her 1966 primer, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley) had some choice advice for what writers should do. Above all, she said:

The first person you should think of pleasing, in writing a book, is yourself. If you can amuse yourself for the length of time it takes to write a book, the publishers and the readers can and will come later.

This should probably not be taken to mean that if you hit a rough patch in your writing to immediately abandon ship. But if you have difficulty sustaining interest in your topic, it is almost certain readers will do the same.

Writer’s Desk: Nothing Wrong with Imitation

You could spend a good part of your life just trying to catch up with the output of Larry McMurty, who passed away this week. Screenplays (Brokeback Mountain), essays, nonfiction, and novels galore (The Last Picture Show, Lonesome Dove). He was also one of the country’s great used book merchants.

He once gave Texas Monthly some very straightforward advice for what he would tell young writers to do:

The most important preparation for writing is reading. Certainly for me and most people I know. Trying to imitate the writers that we love to read. That’s what got us all started…. It doesn’t hurt you to read a lot. In fact, it’s better that you read a lot. You’ll find the right ones.

So if anybody reads what you have done and says that it reminds them of another writer, own up to it. Say McMurty told you to do it.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Worry About Grammar

People make assumptions about writers. That we have some magical talent bestowed by the muses. That we have read everything under the sun. That we really want to take a look at their sheaf of poems or 30-page memoir about their “quite interesting” life and murmur encouraging things.

Assumptions are also made about our mastery of the job’s more technical aspects. They may not understand that many (alright, some; alright, myself) are often getting by more on instinct. We know what sounds correct and pleasing. But please do not ask us to explain ourselves.

Joan Didion had a lot to say about this very specific kind of imposter syndrome. She once wrote:

Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know about grammar is its infinite power. 

Which brings to mind a memory from a first-year college English class. Handing back a paper slashed to ribbons with red ink, my professor asked in a tone of baffled incredulity, “Have you ever heard of a comma splice?”

My blank expression was answer enough. I was used to playing by ear. I continue to do so today.

Writer’s Desk: Let It Rip

In his “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose,” Jack Kerouac had some ideas for how to get things down on paper. Jack being Jack, most of those ideas pivoted around identifying the smoldering ember of creativity and using that to set the kindling of your prose ablaze. Some fragments of dharma:

  • “Time being of the essence in the purity of speech, sketching language is undisturbed flow from the mind of personal secret idea-words, blowing (as per jazz musician) on subject of image.”
  • “Begin not from preconceived idea of what to say about image but from jewel center of interest in subject of image at moment of writing, and write outwards swimming in sea of language to peripheral release and exhaustion.”
  • “If possible write “without consciousness” in semi-trance.”

In short, as Dean Moriarty would say, “Blow, man! Blow!”

Writer’s Desk: Edit After You Write

In “How to Practice,” Ann Patchett writes about what she learned when helping a childhood friend clean out her late father’s apartment, and how it reminded her of writing. In short, she says you cannot do two things at once:

I made the decision to wait until we’d finished with the entire house before trying to find a place for the things we were getting rid of. This was a lesson I’d picked up from my work: writing must be separate from editing, and if you try to do both at the same time nothing will get done.

Compare this to filmmakers, some of whom (Spielberg, Soderbergh) are known for editing as they go to save on unnecessary filming. To some degree, writers must do the same, since if you put down everything, you will never finish. Still, Patchett has a point. When you are writing, write. Let it pour out, and worry about editing later.

Within reason, of course.

Writer’s Desk: One Idea per Sentence

Though Bill Bryson takes on large subjects, including but not limited to the history of everything, he tries to keep things simple. In his Dictionary of Troublesome Words, he gave some particularly specific advice:

There is no quota on periods. When an idea is complicated, break it up and present it in digestible chunks. One idea to a sentence is still the best advice that anyone has ever given on writing.

Writer’s Desk: Create Something New

The late James Gunn, the Hugo-winning science fiction novelist and editor who passed away in December, had this to say in a 2017 interview about connecting writing with purpose:

I feel I earn my place here on Earth each day when I am able to create something that wasn’t there before, and, in turn, some of these things enter stories that influence people…

(h/t: Shelf Awareness)

Writer’s Desk: Care About the Right Things

Paul Beatty, author of the incredible novel The Sellout, wrote about some things he wished he had known when he was starting out:

I felt a bit of pressure that if I wanted to be an author, I’d have be relatable, tell people what they wanted to hear, what they believed to be true about themselves, if not the world around them. Be like one to those corny Netflix stand-up comedians who win the (always overwhelmingly white) audience over by pillorying the easy target, pretending we’re all in this together, cultivating what Jerry Seinfeld calls the “we agree applause”.

He realized that worrying about everything outside the actual words on the page is mostly wasted effort:

I can’t say I’ve ever stopped worrying about becoming an author, and it’s not that I ever actively tried to become one, but I did stop thinking about trying. Reading WG Sebald’s Austerlitz and Percival Everett’s Erasure, listening to Bernadette Mayer and Rebecca Solnit talk about their forthcoming projects Helens of Troy and Infinite City, respectively, helped to remind me that the work is about the work…