10 successful writers on writing

One of the wonderful characteristics of successful writers is their willingness to share their experience and wisdom about their craft and art with aspiring writers such as ourselves. We would be remiss not to consider applying the advice from the authors below to our own work—whether we are trying to write narrative nonfiction, periodical journalism, personal essays, private journals, memoir for possible publication or only to share with family members, short stories or novels.

Do you feel overwhelmed by your material? Take a tip from Mary Roach. Unsure whether to outline? There may be no correct answer, as Curtis Sittenfeld’s and Jay McInerney’s approaches indicate. Wonder how smooth your prose really is? Follow Nathaniel Philbrick’s example. Worried that you are losing the thrust of your story? Pay heed to Emma Straub. Not getting it done? Check in once again with FWB fave Laura Lippman, who is back talking about that timeless topic.

Nine of the 10 writers quoted here have, or are about to have, published new titles in 2016. The tenth, Sinclair Lewis, by way of Barnaby Conrad, is only a Nobel Prize for Literature honoree. The 10 know whereof they speak, and we owe them our thanks for passing their knowledge along to us.

• Sportswriter and bestselling middle-grade and young-adult novelist Mike Lupica (The Extra Yard Simon & Schuster, January 2016), in a Q&A at “Still No Cheering in the Press Box”:ExtraYard

Once you put your name on something, you are a writer that day. You have to make sure that you do your best work because you don’t know who is going to see it. . . . I can’t stress that enough, Talent gets found, but make sure you do your best work.”

• Veteran magazine editor Terry McDonell (The Accidental Life: An Editor’s Notes on Writing and Writers Knopf, coming in August 2016), from a prepublication review by “ck” at amazon.com:TMcD

“I only had three rules,”. . .McDonell writes of his career as an editor. “Force nothing. Be clear. You can always go deeper.

• Popular historian Nathaniel Philbrick (Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold and the Fate of the American Revolution Viking, May 2016) from a July 2013 interview with Ben Shattuck at The Paris Review website:NP

“I print out the whole chapter, edit it, spend a day looking it over, then reprint it, and take upstairs and read it aloud to my wife [out loud]. That is the most critical point. . . .It’s so funny—you can look at things on the screen, and it looks great. Then you read it, and you go, Oh my God. The rhythm of the prose is something I’m really trying to work on. So when I’m reading it aloud, I’ll hear the prose and go, That sucks.

“. . .When I wrote a first draft of a preface for Away Off Shore I showed it to our local bookseller, who said, This is just too academic. I was crushed. But I thought, Yeah, I don’t want to write a book like this, I want to write a book that’s accessible, yet provocative, and does not assume previous knowledge. That’s the hardest writing to do—clear, concise, integrates information from all over, yet hopefully reads like it’s a clear stream.

“. . .I had to be weaned from my own worst tendencies of trying to sound smart. The hardest thing to do is to leave that kind of pretension away. Just get to the essence. Hemingway is an author that everybody beats up on now, but, man, he takes profound experience and makes it accessible, and yet you may not fully grasp it when you first read it. You can read the page and not be intimidated. You don’t need to intimidate people.”

• From advicetowriters.com, a site visited daily by the FWB:SLewis

“I was Sinclair Lewis‘s [Nobel Prize for Literature 1930, Main Street, Babbitt, Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, et al.) secretary-chess-opponent-chauffeur-protegé back when I was 24, and he told me sternly that if I could be anything else be it, but if I HAD to be a writer, I might make it. He also said, as he threw away the first 75 expository pages of my first novel: ‘People read fiction for emotion—not information.’ ”—Barnaby Conrad

• Novelist Emma Straub (Modern Lovers Riverhead Books, May 2016) from her essay “How to Write a Novel” in Rookie magazine September 2014:27209486

Know what’s important to you. . . .Why is the story you’re writing interesting to you? If you had to boil it down to a few sentences, what would you say? And I’m not asking you to summarize the plot; I’m talking about the juice in the middle of the plot. . . .The important part of your story might change as you’re writing, but I find it useful to have that little nugget in mind from the get-go, because sometimes writing a novel can feel overwhelming, and it’s nice to be able to come back to your earliest intention.”

• Novelist Curtis Sittenfeld (Eligible Random House, April 2016) on NPR’s “The Diane Rehm Show”:Eligible

I do outline. So some novelists do and some novelists don’t. And I do because I think that it helps me not write myself into a corner. You know, it’s almost like the difference between thinking through your day and thinking what you’re going to do. And then, if you don’t, if you’re like me, it gets to be like 3:00 p.m. and you think, what did I do? What did I mean to do? Like I’ve just kind of lost control over everything. And so it just makes me feel like I have a clear view of what I’m writing toward. But my outline is subject to change.”

• Novelist Jay McInerney (Bright, Precious Days, Knopf, coming in August 2016) from a 2008 Writer’s Digest interview by Anne Bowling:JMc

“I envy those writers who outline their novels, who know where they’re going. But I find writing is a process of discovery. It’s impossible for me to imagine a story and a set of characters as being distinct from the language in which they come to life, so I don’t really believe in preexisting schema. The most interesting things that happen in my books are usually the things that arise spontaneously, the things that surprise me.”

• Popular science writer Mary Roach (Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War W.W. Norton, June 2016) from a September 2010 interview with Marissa Bell Toffoli at “Words with Writers”:Grunt

“I think of Elmore Leonard, who said, ‘I try to leave out the parts that people skip.’ Especially for nonfiction writers, when you do a lot of research, sometimes you feel compelled to put something in your book just because you worked so hard to get it. There’s a tendency to include things just because you have them, and this can bog a book down. Let it go if isn’t earning its keep.

• Memoirist Betsy Lerner, (The Bridge Ladies Harper Collins, May 2016) from her 2000 book The Forest for the Trees: A Editor’s Advice to Writers:BL

“[H]aving natural ability doesn’t seem to make writing any easier. . . .the degree of one’s perseverance is the best predictor of success. It is some combination of ability and ego, desire and discipline, that produces good work.”

• Novelist Laura Lippman, (Wilde Lake William Morrow, May 2016) from an interview at the Huffington Post by Mark Rubenstein:

As a highly successful novelist, what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned about writing?

LLip“To do it. [Laughter] To get up and write, and to do it regularly. I think people make a mistake in talking about developing discipline. Discipline is a scary word. It doesn’t sound like fun, and it’s difficult to maintain. It’s the conscious act of overcoming one’s own will—like following a diet or exercise program—which almost always fails.

“What really works for people isn’t discipline, but habit. It’s crucial to develop the habit of writing. It’s best to start small. My big mistake when I started was trying to write all weekend. It was impossible—it was exhausting and there were other things I needed or wanted to do.

“Instead, setting a goal of writing for thirty minutes a day, four times a week, is more realistic. My writing goal to this day is to write a thousand words a day. If I do that five days a week, in twenty weeks I’ll have a novel. That’s the important lesson I’ve learned—to build writing into becoming a habit.”

—Alex McNab


Laura Lippman’s four little words

You’ve read them here before.

They are my favorite four words of writing advice.

They also haunt me.

“Finish the damn book.”

Go to the website of author Laura Lippman. lauralippman The words are right there in bold type, in the “Self Help” and “Son of Self Help: The Sequel” areas, under the “Letters” menu heading. Lippman (right) is the Baltimore-based, Edgar Award-winning, New York Times-bestselling crime novelist who writes a series about private eye Tess Monaghan as well as acclaimed stand-alone titles including, most recently, And When She Was Good. On February 14, 2014, After I’m Gone, another stand-alone, will be published by William Morrow. aftergoneUS-199x300It is Lippman’s 20th book, the first of which was published in 1997.

I’ve been trying to meet Lippman’s charge for a long time.

At this point, I have written a long first draft of what I call a literary tough-guy novel. I have read most of the chapters in critique workshops over the years, and I’ve revised much of what I’ve written. That, however, isn’t the same as reimagining and rewriting the parts that need it. I still wrestle with the plot and the characters’ motivations. Also, I need to strengthen existing scenes and add missing ones in the domestic subplot, which I find hard to do. (Who would have guessed? I’m a guy, after all.) And at one point or another, I’ve fallen victim to almost every one of the following 10 reasons I’ve come up with for why aspiring fiction writers don’t finish the damn book.

1. Laziness;

2. Fear—of the book being too lousy; too self-revealing; too offensive to family, friends or an interest group; etc.;

3. Paralysis by analysis because the novice novelist studies too many craft books and feels his/her story misses too many beats of the prescribed story-structure formula;

4. Failure of imagination in coming up with an ending that meets the ideal, that it be both surprising and inevitable;

5. Losing one’s way in the story;

6. Perfectionism;

7. Inability to stop doing research;

8. Self-inflicted internet interruptions;

9. Lack of compelling need or desire to finish;

10. “Not enough time.”

At this point, while I can see a path toward the finish line, I seem to lack the confidence that I can invent what it will take to get there.

There seemed to be one thing left to do to try to overcome the dilemma: Reach out to Laura Lippman for her insight behind those four words.

When an initial email to Lippman came back as undeliverable, I contacted Joe Meyers, the Ellery Queen Award-winning book critique at the Connecticut Post, who had just seen Lippman at the Bouchercon mystery writing conference in Albany, N.Y., where the above photo of the author was shot. He suggested I contact Sharyn Rosenblum, the ace publicist at HarperCollins, of which William Morrow, Lippman’s publisher, is an imprint. Rosenblum forwarded my general query to Lippman, which I planned to follow up with a more detailed message. Before I could do that, Lippman wrote me back with answers that anticipated everything I planned ask her. Here is what she said:

“People don’t finish for a lot of reasons. Some don’t finish because a book is like a marriage or a new relationship. There’s a lot of giddy excitement in the early going, but then it requires work and patience and good habits and showing up—if not every day, pretty regularly. You can’t neglect it. Some people just don’t know what they’re getting into. It’s not hard, relative to a lot of jobs, but it’s harder than it looks.

“People also don’t finish because of fear. What if it’s not good? What if I don’t get published? What if I get published and people say it’s not good. A lot of perfectionism—the tendency to rework the same pages over and over—is a way of masking those fears. There’s a line in the musical ‘Company,’ about marriage/relationships: ‘Don’t be afraid that it won’t be perfect. Be afraid that it won’t be.’

“Every external dream we have about publishing has the nutritional value of cotton candy. I’ve been lucky enough to see some big dreams come true—prizes, making The New York Times list, having one of my books adapted for film. And that’s nice and that’s lovely and I tried to enjoy those moments, but they were moments and they didn’t really feed me.

“The work is what feeds us. So when you’re down in the dumps and trying to finish, imagining money or red carpets or even the Nobel Prize ceremony isn’t going to take you there. Because none of those things can nourish you.

“You try to make the book better. The book tries to make you better. Together, you struggle toward the finish line. Sometimes, the book will be urging you on, pacing itself. Sometimes it will be the other way around. The book wants to quit and you have to do whatever you can to keep it going. There are lots and lots of tricks. Have a character write you a letter. If you know the end of the book, start writing it and work backward, see if you can make it connect to what’s already written. Rewrite what you have until your characters do what you need them to do. (I had to rewrite a book three times or so before I could get the characters to go to Delaware for the climax.)

“The reward for finishing is finishing.”


Those six words are my new second-favorite piece of writing advice.

My thanks to Laura Lippman.—Alex McNab  

Published in: on November 17, 2013 at 10:55 pm  Comments (2)  
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Watch & Listen: Authors Online

Warning: the following may be hazardous to your writing habits.

We aspiring writers who live in Fairfield County, Connecticut, are fortunate. With the center of publishing only 50 miles away in Manhattan; with vibrant public libraries and their energetic events coordinators in almost every community; with fine chain and independent bookstores within easy driving distance; and with several universities featuring creative writing programs and commitments to cultural outreach close by, we have a steady schedule of author appearances to attend for education and inspiration. As I reported in my previous post, for example, bestselling writers Dennis Lehane and Peter Abrahams shared their wisdom with us in person less than 24 hours apart. Like Western pioneers on the Santa Fe Trail arriving at Bent’s Fort, authors on the book-tour trail find our area a welcoming stopover.

But what if you cannot get to an author talk? Or if you live in a place far from that book-tour trail? How can you sit face-to-face with a National Book Award winner, a Pulitzer Prize winner, a bestselling crime writer, a unique-voiced memoirist? That’s why the Internet and YouTube were invented, of course.

Herewith an annotated index of a baker’s dozen links to a random sampling of author talks online. And I’m not referring to someone’s latest appearance on “Today” or “Charlie Rose.”

A caveat: I have watched only a few of these. Thus, I cannot promise you they all impart ready-to-use writing advice. Nor can I promise that these are the best available videos of each writer. My purpose is simply to show that, if you are looking for inspiring sights and sounds from one of your favorites, you may be able to find it. So here’s the list, in alphabetical order, except for Ian McEwan in the anchor-leg spot, the reason for which will be apparent.

Michael Cunningham. The Pulitzer Prize winner for The Hours, from the fabled Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Louise Erdrich. The new National Book Award for Fiction winner (The Road House) on Well Read.

Elizabeth Gilbert. Her famous 2009 lecture on creativity at the TED conference.

Mary Karr. The poet and memoirist (The Liar’s Club, et al.) from the Writer’s Symposium By The Sea at Point Loma Nazarene University.

Barbara Kingsolver. Thoughts on libraries and on being a writer from the author, most recently, of Flight Behavior, from Minnesota Public Radio.

Elmore Leonard. The now-87-year-old crime master on his writing schedule and process, one of several short segments from AuthorLearningCenter. Given his lofty spot in my pantheon of writing heroes, I also recommend his recent acceptance speech at the National Book Awards (scroll down), where he received the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. (I skipped over Martin Amis’ introduction; Leonard gets his medal and takes the mic at roughly the 6:30 mark).

Laura Lippman. Her illustrated master-class lecture—on how she does it—at the Crime Fiction Academy.

Alice Munro with Diane Anthill. The short-story genius with the British novelist and editor, plus a moderator, at the International Festival of Authors in Canada. There is a much longer, biographical interview with Munro at TVO.

Richard Price. How to capture the sound of the streets in dialogue is one of several segments in this presentation at Big Think. Other writing experts at this repository of no-frills, in-their-own-words videos include, Margaret Atwood, Anne Lamott, Tom Perrotta, Salman Rushdie, The New Yorker Editor David Remnick, Robert McKee (the screenwriting guru) and Gay Talese.

Gay Talese. Take an author-guided tour of his English-basement “writing bunker” in his East Side of Manhattan brownstone via The New Yorker.

Kurt Vonnegut. Listen to him enumerate, in this clip, his famous instructions on how to write a story .

Tom Wolfe. Oscar Coral’s 72-minute documentary, “Tom Wolfe Gets Back to Blood,” on the 81-year-old white-suited wonder’s reporting and writing of his new novel. (This on-demand viewing may require registration and perhaps a fee.)

Ian McEwan. In a video produced by his publisher for the Anchor paperback release of his novel Solar in 2011, McEwan offers “Advice for Aspiring Writers.”

Now, having proffered this list, I urge you, before clicking on the Play arrow of any of the above, to read the first comment beneath the McEwan video, posted by someone named Lucian O’Rourke. It reads:

Aspiring writers: stop watching YouTube!—Alex McNab

Ulysses S. Grant’s advice for writers

You never know when you are going hear or read something unrelated to writing that gives you renewed focus on putting your story into words on the page. An odd example surfaced in a writing workshop recently.

In our Longer Projects Workshop with author Sandi Kahn Shelton the other week, my colleague Bo Huhn read a passage of dialogue from his novel-in-progress. Bo’s protagonist is talking with his son, who is a Marine on the front lines in Afghanistan. The men are discussing military strategy, and the son tells his father about a lesson Ulysses S. Grant learned the first time he led men into battle in the Civil War.

According to the character of the son in Bo’s book, Grant’s Union soldiers won their initial skirmish with the Confederates on the western shore of the Mississippi River and then began celebrating and looting. Reinforced with troops from across the river, the Confederates regrouped and counterattacked, forcing Grant and his men into retreat. The experience taught Grant—Bo’s character says—that whether one is winning or losing, there always comes a point when you have an urge to back off, but you must never give in to that impulse, even when you are doing well. Instead, in Bo’s character’s words, “pound ahead.”

Bo’s character was talking about the Battle of Belmont. It took place in Missouri in 1861. After their initial success, Grant’s troops were, in his words, “demoralized from their victory.” Later, commenting about the art of war, Grant wrote, “Strike [the enemy] as hard as you can, and keep moving on.”

For many first-time book writers, completing your story is a nearly insurmountable challenge. You can come out of a workshop session euphoric about the reception your work has received, or discouraged about how much revision you need to do to make it better. You can take satisfaction in how the pages piling are up, but remain daunted by how many remain unwritten and how the whole story is holding together. The optimism/pessimism oscillations can prove such a stubborn enemy on a long piece of writing that you just want to step away for a while.

But don’t let your wavering deter you from your ultimate objective. For Grant, the ultimate objective was winning the Civil War. For you, me and all writers hoping to one day publish first novels, mystery author Laura Lippman sums the objective up succinctly in a list of advice on her website—“Step # 1: Finish the damn book.”

When I heard Bo’s characters talking about U.S. Grant, I thought of Lippman’s advice. Put the two together and you have a simple formula for achieving your objective.

Pound ahead on your story by continuing to pound on the computer keys, and you’ll finish the damn book.—Alex McNab

Published in: on October 28, 2010 at 3:22 pm  Leave a Comment  
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