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Writing Advice

Let’s Talk About Writing Well

I wish people would stop trying to use metaphoric language and sound “writerly”. It’s wrecking many otherwise good books. I might not have read Patrick Barkham’s beautifully delivered history on badgers, BADGERLAND, had he continued with the clumsy attempt at sounding like a writer that he demonstrates in it first paragraph. Here, for example, is one of the few weak sentences in his otherwise admirable work. He writes, “The sky was mad with stars and the bare branches were bullied by the wind that blew in from the east.”


He means his view of the stars was unimpeded by clouds and that the wind was so strong he could hear branches above him. He wants us to know it was nighttime, and that he was outside on a cold March night to look for badgers. I get that. Of course, I do. And while the sky was certainly not “mad” with stars and his personification of the wind as a bully sounds like what we were asked to write back in school when we were made to list “vivid” verbs, it is not a crime to write like that. Or rather, the only crime he commits is against his own book, which is far too good to have such amateurishness on its first page.


It’s only a sentence. And Patrick Barkham doesn’t write like that, at least in the rest of the book. His work is full of fascinating history, both personal to him and general about badgers. His grandmother, Jane Ratcliffe, was a great fan of badgers. “She had a skull on her sideboard and a special badger gate in the dry-stone wall between her garden and the wood.” This is wonderful writing, not because of how the words form on the page (though this, too, matters) but because Barkham has picked out details so specific about his grandmother, so aptly demonstrating her love of badgers, that I believe him and feel that within this brief glimpse of the late Ms. Ratcliffe I’ve momentarily viewed a vital, intimate part her personality generally reserved only for those who had been close to her, who perhaps had spent their whole lives with her. In other words, I feel privileged as well as informed. I feel part of things in BADGERLAND, and sink deeper into its world.Screenshot 2016-08-28 10.49.23


If you want to know how to write well, this is it. This is it. Writing well isn’t about vivid verbs or clever adjectives. I am not opposed to metaphorical language. Imagery can describe more accurately and set into motion the completion of an idea or object or emotion for the reader, the effect being to enhance the reader’s understanding of the subject at hand, and to deepen her  thoughts about it. When Barkhan describes the badger’s face, with its two black stripes, as a “fright mask”, I understand exactly what he is talking about and think newly upon the face of the animal. I’m grateful for his artful use of language; I am enriched by it.


However, if you are stuffing your sentences full of unnecessary imagery or metaphor,  you are either burying what is worthy of telling or have nothing to tell in the first place. Writing well is about what you say and what you leave out. It is about having something worth telling in the first place and then determining to deliver that thing accurately and economically. This is what Mark Twain said, of course, when he wrote, “Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out all the wrong words.”  We laugh about this, but it is a serious point. Get rid of the garbage and write accurately. Let your subject be illuminated by the writing, not obscured by it.


I don’t want to pick on Patrick Barkham or BADGERLAND. If I wanted an example of a misguided use of metaphorical language, I could just have easily chosen a sentence or two from one of my own books.  I only mention BADGERLAND because the first paragraph really did put me off of this beautiful book. Everything that followed that first paragraph wowed me.  He is a wonderful writer who knows his subject.   If you love countryside, have an interest in British wildlife history, or just like badgers, buy this book. I loved it and I bet you will, too.


Meanwhile, in your own work, notice when you are leaning on language to carry you around and away from the thing you ought to be clarifying for the reader. Don’t fluff it. Go back and look, then look again. Feel around for the right words; discard all others.

Writing Advice

Learn to Write Flash Fiction


The novelist and short story writer, Jayne Anne Phillips, stated that flash fiction taught her how to write.


Phillips began as a poet but discovered through flash fiction what she describes as “the poem inside the paragraph.” In these “one-page fictions”, as she called likes to describe them, she unlocked the secret to the best of fiction writing: the way in which a paragraph, so common in form, so seemingly pedestrian and innocent in its undecorated form, can be “secretive and subversive.” Almost anything that a poem can do, a paragraph can do, too, without the adornment of the broken line or couplet. Short fiction is a powerful form and the shortest of it a good place to learn the might  of that power.


There has been a lot written about the distinction between flash fiction and narrative poetry. Even so, it isn’t always clear what difference is. Obviously, in fiction we see paragraphs and dialogue while poetry is all about stanzas and broken lines. Those who care to categorize the two mostly settle on the idea that the primary goal of piece of flash fiction is to tell a story while the primary goal of a poem is to explore an idea.


I am not sure I agree. Plenty of poetry tells a story. Lots of short fiction, especially post-modern fiction, is more interested in ideas that narrative. Is it important that we know that a piece is a flash as opposed to narrative poetry? To me, no. We don’t have to diagnose a piece like a medical condition. We just have to read it and decide whether it was worth that effort.


To try to teach flash fiction is to try to teach quality, itself. I don’t know why I’ve agreed to such task but next week I will arrive to Oxford and give it my best. Like all good fiction, flash begins as though you are already reading it, the flow of the story launched with such smoothness and precision that you don’t realise you are even in the story until you are already away with it.


With my own fiction I aspire to make it seem both effortless to write. I don’t want it to be work. And while longer narratives require writers to attend to boring logistics—establishing names and ages and all sorts of information—as artfully as we can, a flash piece is free from such burdens. Flash should be pure pleasure, the words entering us, as Jayne Anne Phillips describes, “…right into the vein, into the blood, so to speak, of meaning…”


John Gardner speaks beautifully of the importance of maintaining the uninterrupted dream in fiction, this idea that we writers must provide the reader with an experience that takes them out of their reality and into our work’s reality with as little disruption as possible. Anything that interrupts the dream must be culled. Awkward sentences are not “bad” because they are awkward but because a reader has to labour  in order to understand what is being said, which distracts from the fictional dream. Punctuation doesn’t matter because the teacher tells you so but because its use will contribute to the reader’s overall experience.  We all know from Lynne Truss’s book, Eat, Shoots & Leaves, that commas can transform everything. Even a misspelled word makes us remember all over again that what we are writing is fiction. Punctuation is part of the overall delivery of the story in dreamlike form—that is why it matters.


What are the tools to writing good flash fiction, other than keen perception, a facility with language, excellent judgement, a sense of timing and narrative and the story inside the story? I can’t really give students any of these tools, though I can nudge them a little until they discover them for themselves. However, I can tell them to keep a notebook. So, in this blog I will reveal the first tool to writing good flash: use a notebook and keep track of small things.


Stuart Dybek explains how important a notebook is in a piece he wrote called “Great Thoughts.” A notebook captures  “fragments of dreams, memories, which are usually only the fragments of events, and other fragments: images, lines of dialogue, quotations from books…”, a place to put all the little details we pick up that, upon closer examination, have meaning. These small fragments are so important.


I am currently reading a book called Family Life by Akhil Sharma. It is a wonderful book, has won all sorts of awards including the International Dublin Award for fiction. I’ve only just begun, but the first pages are so many of tiny fragments filled with meaning, I can’t wait to read more: how the narrator remembers his life in India in which his mother and he carefully sliced wooden matches in half to make them last longer, how they saved the cotton inside jars to make candlewicks. These details are gems, but if we look around in our ordinary lives, lives that doesn’t always feel very interesting, we can usually find something of note.


For example, as I am typing in a village cafe on this June morning, there is a blind woman in a wool coat, her labrador in a harness by her knee. She is speaking loudly to the cafeteria manager. “How did that dog get away then on the common?!” she begins. “People and their dogs! I’ll tell you it gets up my nose!” Every word is amplified, huge, as though being blind means she has to permeate a barrier with her other senses, which I guess is the case.  What else is happening around me? A middle-aged man holds his phone at different angles, trying to read messages without glasses. Outside, a guy with crowded tattoos, a roll-up between his teeth,  a coffee in his hand,  parallel parks his goods van, then chucks the roll-up, still lit, out the open window onto the sidewalk.


Write it down, write it down. Not every detail is important but get in the habit of writing it down anyway. And remember this: when you are not writing, you are often still writing. When you attend to small matters, like matchsticks and cotton balls, the meaning often magnifies on the page.

Writing Advice

How I Deal With Bad Reviews




If you are a working writer, you are going to have to deal with bad reviews. Luckily, the best reviewers don’t write 100% hateful reviews of books so there is usually something nice said about your work among all the criticism. Right off, I am going to make a suggestion that I know you won’t follow (because I can’t follow it, myself). And that is, place enormous emphasis on the good things said about the novel.  Listen to the negative criticism and acknowledge where you may have erred. pretend you are thinking of going into another profession entirely so none of the bad reviews matter. Now go watch videos of kittens or puppies.


Watching a very good movie, one that is not the adaptation of someone else’s more successful novel, may also help.


Most of the time “a bad review” isn’t completely terrible. It just leaves you with a sense that this reviewer either missed the point of your book entirely or rather reluctantly acknowledges all the powerful, admirable aspects of your work. Mixed reviews carry far more value to a reader than savage reviews, and in this way they can actually hurt more than the really nasty ones (which you may not get anyway, ever, as they reflect so badly on the reviewers themselves).


However, you may get a really nasty review. In this video, I refer to one of the worst reviews I’ve ever had, written about my novel, The Man From Saigon. I am certain who wrote the review. I can almost guarantee he’d had a few drinks when he wrote it. And the reason I know it was him was because he refers to a journalist about whom we’d often chatted back before he took it upon himself to hate me on Amazon. The journalist is Kate Webb, who died in 2007 after covering wars in Vietnam, the Gulf and Indonesia, among other places . You may not know who she is unless you happen to hold a real admiration for women war correspondents. Or you are this guy.


Sad thing is I wrote a good review of his book—because it was an excellent memoir, if a little long at 800 pages. I could take that review off Amazon but I won’t do that. I know he was cross at me at the time I published The Man From Saigon (though I still don’t understand why he was cross at me), but what kind of person takes their argument onto Amazon?


Anyway, I had a nice laugh about this guys’ review and you can see it here on my video….

Writing Advice

To Plot Or Not


I am often asked if when beginning a novel it is best to work with an outline. It sounds so logical to say that, yes, of course it is only sensible to have an idea where the story is going before deciding how best to execute the work. Blueprints are necessary in the building of any sound structure. People plan everything from dinner party seating to what to plant in flower beds. If we are going to invest a year or more writing a novel shouldn’t we have some idea of where we are going before setting out on such a monstrously long task?


I mean, think about it— there are so many questions to consider. If it is a story about an illicit love affair, who is doing the loving and who is being betrayed?  Why does this story, of all the millions of similar ones, deserve a telling? Why does anyone care who loves whom? What will be the consequences anyway? You could write four-hundred pages and decide there are no consequences, none at all. Joe loves Jan and Jan loves John. Tough luck on Joe, but maybe he’s rather partial to Suzie anyway, and so the story reduces to nothing but gossip.


Better to settle on the architecture of the plot before going up dozens of  blind alleys or plowing through thousands of words a day figuring out where you are. In her entertaining and educational book about the process of novel-writing, Write Away, the mystery writer Elizabeth George expresses her utter bewilderment for people who “write hundreds of pages in search of a plot.”


I agree with her—how could I not? There is only one problem with me telling you to take the sensible direction of Elizabeth George, map out the structure of your book, fill out file cards for each of the necessary scenes that will escort the reader through your story, and only then embark on the actual writing of the thing.


And that problem? Why I cannot pass on Elizabeth George’s sage advice? Because I never, ever do it that way. If someone told me I had to work out where my novel would go before I even began the thing I’d take up pottery. Really, I would. Because I need the freedom to invent as I spin the wheel and if I don’t have it, I don’t want to go to the trouble.


Do I waste tremendous amounts of time, “writing into” the story that I wish to tell? Yes, it takes forever. I can spend anywhere from one to four years on a single book, and a lot of that is spent trashing chapters and rewriting others because I’m not sure where I’m going or if it even makes sense to continue.


Do I ever feel lost inside my own book, not even sure this is the novel I wanted to write? Yes, at least once or twice during the writing.


Do I wish I could plot a novel and just get on with it? So much so that occasionally my envy for people whose process is simpler is overwhelming I wish to trade in my laptop for a job as a barista. In my darker moments, learning how to make pretty pictures of hearts and leaves in milk foam would be far more satisfying than trawling through my wretched books that don’t want writing.


So, why don’t I plan out the plot of the book? Even my favourite writing teacher, the late John Gardner, had students work up a novel outline before embarking on the chapters. I suppose the reason is that, in part, most plots sound very mechanical, boring, and that if my job was to move from one place to another in a novel as though on a tour bus across the country, the project would bore me before I got started. Also, one cannot decide upon such vital aspects of the novel’s overall effect all at once, or even in several sittings. By happy accident, I come upon the important aspects of my novels—the tone of the book, the uniqueness of this moment of its telling, the idiosyncrasies of its characters, by allowing myself to play with the work.


Even the notion of progress destroys the fragile nowness of what I am doing, executing story as it is freshly in my mind. But let me assure you that my grasp of narrative structure, even of plot, is not entirely primitive or without influence. I think the three-act structure has been so ingrained in my head from all the books I’ve read for the past five decades that it isn’t an absolutely necessity that I make myself consciously aware of it as I write. I now “naturally” create the rising action you can find in any page-turner in the same manner with which I tell a friend a personal anecdote.


Of course, I try to study books that have unusual methods of story-telling, unique tones or moods or manners of revealing characters. I like the idea of something different.  But the basics of most novel structures seem tattooed into my brain from all the reading I’ve done.


Sometimes, I wish I could come up with something a bit bizarre or different than I normally encounter (in fact, I just started a novel for which this is true). During these unusual bouts of mad disregard for Aristotle and his three act structure,  I have to pay a lot of attention to plot. But generally, the structure is given to me by the characters and their initial dilemma. The particulars of their situation I discover almost in the same manner as a reader discovers them, as though the things that happen are both surprising but inevitable.


Does this mean I completely ignore what is called “craft”? Not at all. Elizabeth George has a nice statement about craft. She says, “Craft is there to rescue you when the art fails to.” That’s pretty accurate. And this is part of why I envy people who draw great structures of their novels across taped pages, or work out each scene on a card and then arrange the cards in different orders. People who write out character analyses and backstories. I love all those ideas. I just never do them.


And I am not the only one. In her excellent book on writing, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott writes, “Everyone I know flails around, kvetching and growing despondent, on the way to finding a plot and structure that work. You are welcome to join the club.”  She justifies the uneconomic manner with which our club writes as being necessary due to how much we learn from our characters as we work our way through a scene.


Anne Lamott is correct, of course, and she is also correct when she says that, at times, we have to take our already-written draft of a novel and lay it out page for page, or scene for scene, in clumps upon the floor of the biggest room in our house and look at it structurally. For me, and for all of us in the club of inefficiency, this is absolutely fine because we still have the magic of that initial writing, the germ of life that grew into a giant, living thing that wove its way through the whole of the manuscript. Working on it at the revision stage, shaving off this, adding to that, re-working the structure, won’t hurt it the way that pre-ordaining its shape often does.


And you can plan a little—you don’t have to sit at the desk like a medium, waiting to hear from the dead. You plan a bit, see a little horizon with your book, and then make adjustments as you need to. The point is that it is more like being on a long walk through the woods, being able to see just up to an edge of pine, or as far down as a stream, not being able to see beyond that place but knowing, with the confidence of having walked in similar landscapes, that when you get as far as that, there will be more that you can see, and that you can reach if you just keep going.

Writing Advice

The Writing Must Astonish



Last night the poet, Hilda Sheehan, presented Kenneth Koch’s advice in The Art of Poetry to a group of writers wishing to “release” a poem to the public. A series of questions, typed out 1-10, made for a good discussion of what is worthy to be published. If you don’t stumble at the first part of number 1, you have some good chance, I imagine. The first? Is it astonishing?


Is it Astonishing? 

At first, I thought, You’re kidding, right? I only have to be astonishing?  But then, I realised Koch was exactly right. If I read a work—a poem, a story, a novel—and it doesn’t astonish me, I am mildly disappointed. I don’t condemn the work, but I don’t love it. And when it comes to the written word, I want to love it. A lot.


I didn’t used to feel this way. Back when I was first discovering books, a novel didn’t have to wow me to keep me turning pages. I was so proud I could read so many pages all bound together—a 100-page book, a 200-page book, a 300-page book. As a child and even a teenager, if I failed to finish a novel I assumed it was my fault, something wrong with me that I was insufficiently hooked by the story.


It was the same for poetry.  When I first read poems I was so proud of understanding what was on the page I didn’t ask whether the poem was any good. I was too busy evaluating my worthiness to read it in the first place. And if I didn’t understand it I wondered what was   lacking in me that caused this failure.


But these days, to be astonished by a work of fiction or poetry seems to be a perfectly reasonable criterion for establishing its worthiness to be in print to begin with. If a novel doesn’t carry me with the urgency of its story, the “inevitable consequences” that knit together its action, the depth and charm of its characters, the mild to major threat that creates suspense, the careful use of its language, I’m not going to waste much time with it.


I am not unusual. To complete a novel, the reader must invest huge amounts of personal time. Given the multitude of available distractions, competing media and endless amounts of work-related reading a person has to do in the course of their day, we had better have a good reason for a person to be reading our book come evening.


How Do I Write The Astonishing Novel?

But how do we go from being capable of writing an “okay” work of fiction to one that has the potential to astonish a reader? What moves a writer from amateur to professional,  from good to great?  We know we need hours of practice, good mentors, and a steady commitment to writing, but even these will not necessarily make us capable of writing something that fills even the first of Koch’s criteria.


Naturally, one has to have talent. Talent is a given. When Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his 2008 book Outliers that you need 10,000 hours of deliberate practice in order to achieve mastery in a given field, he made it clear that your require sufficient talent to begin with. “There is a lot of confusion about the 10,000 rule that I talk about in Outliers,” Gladwell explains, “..practice isn’t a SUFFICIENT condition for success. I could play chess for 100 years and I’ll never be a grandmaster. The point is simply that natural ability requires a huge investment of time in order to be made manifest.”


So, we know you have to have a natural ability to write, a facility for language, a sense of cadence and what sounds right, an inventiveness and playfulness, and to be a natural storyteller. We then match it to a program of deliberate practice and possibly the innate talent is able to blossom into a genius that may otherwise lay dormant.


Not everyone believes that “deliberate practice” makes any difference to success. Frans Johannson argues in The Click Moment: Seizing Opportunity in An Unpredictable World that success is far more random than we like to assume. He uses examples, like how Starbucks was a place you bought coffee by weight until its CEO, Howard Shultz, happened to drink his first latte in Milan and decided at that moment to bring the drink to America.  But here I must make it clear that by “success” Johannson is talking about commercial success, and I concede without contest that a great number of “literary” successes are astonishing, but only in their sales figures.


I’m not interested in sales figures. I’m interested in the experience of greatness I have felt while reading the true literary successes, whether they sold in vast numbers or not. I am talking about what it feels like to read Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese without knowing who she is or whether the poem is known or unknown. I’m talking about the magic I experienced reading anything from The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe to Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto to Nicole Kraus’s The History of Love to John Updike’s The Afterlife. I’m talking about reading a Galway Kinnell poem on a xeroxed page without knowing who he was or whether he mattered, and being sucked into the poem by the invisible pull of greatness. Or hearing Seamus Heaney reading Beowulf aloud. Or reading one Michael Longley‘s poems about his grandchild.


Deliberate Practice At Work

There are no standard training practices to becoming a great writer, or even a good writer. There is contradictory advice all over the place, and much of what you read on the internet may actually make you a worse writer if you follow it. Luckily, those born with the innate talent Gladwell speaks of will soon sniff out what is rotten among the worst “writing teacher” offences and disregard them.


Writing poses a particular problem when it comes to developing a routine deliberate practice.  That is, few people agree about what is good or great. We have award-winning books, and sometimes those are pretty good, but sometimes they are simply pretentious and unreadable. We have bestsellers, which may or may not be good (I write here about a website called Bad Bestsellers that makes this point), and then we have the classics, which is where a lot of good writers go to see what has proven timeless and indisputable.


The trouble with reading the literature of yesterday is that it isn’t going to help you become a better writer today. You can study what is called “great literature” and learn much from it; but you won’t learn how to make great literature for today by doing so. Don’t let that be your reason for sticking it out with Milton or Hardy. Read it if you like it, if it feeds something inside you, but don’t read it to learn how to write something for readers of today.


This leaves writers with a particular dilemma. We have few criteria to determine what is excellent other than our own taste. What astonishes me may not astonish you, and vice versa.  It feels like an insurmountable problem.


In his book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, the economist, Anders Ericsson, explains that, “if there is no agreement on what good performance is and no way to tell what changes would improve performance, then it is very difficult—often impossible—to develop effective training methods.”


This brings me back to why I was at a gathering of poets with Hilda Sheehan last night as part of the Wantage Poetry Workshop. I write poetry (a bit) but I’ve been so caught up in novels and blogs and articles for publication that I haven’t even thought about poetry for awhile. Writing poetry does something very important for me. It hones my work; it reminds me of the power of compressed language, makes me fall in love with words and ideas without feeling the need to create long narratives. Writing a poem, a tiny parcel of 200-300 words, then puzzling over it for hours of revision, is a kind of deliberate practice for me. And there is more, too:  a hypnotic place I reach while sewing this word to that one, reforming a phrase one more time, deciding where a line break should be, trying it this way, now that.


Perhaps this state of other-worldliness that we experience, however briefly, in our daily practice of writing is the energy that can transform us from a good writer to a great one, from a person capable of a good-enough novel to one capable of a novel that astonishes.


In his work, On Becoming a Novelist, John Gardner writes, “As every writer knows … there is something mysterious about the writer’s ability, on any given day, to write. When the juices are flowing, or the writer is ‘hot’, an invisible wall seems to fall away, and the writer moves easily and surely from one kind of reality to another … Every writer has experienced at least moments of this strange, magical state.”


It may be within this state that the transformation takes place. So let’s try to go there more often, even daily, and draw from its well of possibilities the greatest skill to which we can aspire.

Writing Advice

Successful Writing: The Most Important Thing



Book deals come and go. A working writer has to write through all the good and bad times. We need to develop useful habits and traits if we are going to be one of the people who “make it” in the long run, who write for the whole of their lives or as long as they wish to, anyway.


So what are these traits?


The first few are here and here within previous blogs. Today, I have this one to share:


Successful writers do not rush through their writing

I wince every time I read the advice that writers should race through their novel draft as quickly as possible in order to “get it all down on paper.” I think this is some of the worst advice anyone can give a serious writer.


I’m not saying you can’t do it, or that there is never any benefit all all. Every writer has a slightly different process and perhaps a superfast first draft is part of yours. If you are driven by a passion for the story and its characters, go as fast as you’d like. As long as it isn’t forced, you are doing well.


Or maybe you need to plow though a particular scene over which you are procrastinating. That’s okay once in awhile–do it.


As I’ve said in the blogs, counting pages or words isn’t a great idea in my opinion, but a steady commitment to writing certainly is. If you go so slow it is difficult to tell you are a working writer at all, you will lose that addictive feeling that drives you on. If you race through your whole of your manuscript, you may finish, but what is the value of an artless clump of pages? Have you robbed it of the very life force that will make it worth reading?



Excellence is not something you can infuse into a book later, but an amorphous bit of magic that threads itself through the whole concept of the book from the very beginning. You cannot go back and import excellence into a book with no life. It would be like putting make up on a corpse.



John Gardner, who was a wonderful writer himself as well as, famously the creative writing teacher of Raymond Carver when he taught at Chico State College (now California State University, Chico), warned against rushing through a manuscript. He was amazed that anyone would feel it was correct to get through the story as fast as possible as though running through a cemetery at night.


And yet, this is exactly the advice so many of us are given. Why should we rush so, when the quality of our prose depends upon precise observations, accuracy of description, a “feel” we develop for character and setting? When we rush, our characters will be “forced” into doing things that make no sense, given who they are, if indeed there has been any character development at all.


However, we feel we need to get quickly through to the end of our draft because we haven’t yet produced a book and are worried we won’t. We take the “write as fast as you can” approach because we are afraid that if we don’t, there will never be any novel at all.


And that is the point, we are afraid.


What we need to address is not our inability to finish a book, but our fear of not doing so, perhaps our fear of writing, itself. Our relationship to the blank page is the most important one we have as writers. We must see it as an opportunity, not as a threat. We must make friends with the inventiveness that allows us to create with freedom and confidence.


Considered, honest first drafts contain that kernel of brilliance that drives the whole book, the freshness that makes it so appealing and which will be enhanced in later drafts. If you rob yourself of that freshness, of that insight and private vision at the outset, your book will suffer.



Racing through a novel is like standing at a canvas and throwing paint. You are depriving yourself of the activity that defines you as a writer – that is, writing—and the only part of the process over which you have any real control. Later, you will have editors and copywriters and proofreaders and then actual readers, all of whom will have their opinions. But right now it is only you and the manuscript. Or perhaps you and the notional reader. Anyway, you are in the driver’s seat. Don’t give up the wheel to some wrong-headed, utilitarian idea.


Think about your relationship to your work. Don’t be afraid. Don’t compare where you are in your career to others. Don’t worry about what anyone else will think right now. Enjoy the one part that is truly your own, the creation of the work itself.


John Gardner has some inspiring words about what will happen if you do that. In his excellent book, On Becoming A Novelist, he says, “But the writer who sets down exactly what he sees and feels, carefully revising time after time until he fully believes it, noticing when what he’s saying is mere rhetoric or derivative vision, noticing when what he’s said is not noble or impressive but silly—that writer, insofar as the world is just, will outlast Gibraltar.”



Writing Advice

Why You Shouldn’t Write A Bestseller

One of London’s renowned literary agents, Jonny Geller, gave a TED Talk this month in Oxford called What Makes A Bestseller? I know this because we’re Facebook friends and he posted the link. I bet the talk was excellent. Jonny is an engaging, articulate, experienced agent with a lot of wisdom and charm.


The comments he received on his page were very positive. Dozens of writers, wishing their novels to climb the sales ladders and become New York Times or Sunday Times bestsellers, were full of gratitude toward Jonny, who represents a number of well-known successes, and is part of the powerful agency, Curtis Brown, which even runs a writing school for hopeful authors. I mean, if you want to be a writer, why wouldn’t you listen to the talk, sign up for the course, and do your best to “make a bestseller?”


You think you know where this is going to go, don’t you? You think I am going to lament the dreadful quality of bestsellers or sigh about the commercialisation of the noble pursuit of the creative artist. Not at all. I don’t know what books are bestsellers most of the time and I don’t think there is anything noble about being a writer. We are often solitary, self-involved people whose engagement in the world is purely for the purpose of making out own voices heard. Or is that just me on a bad day?


Anyway, I congratulated Jonny on being asked to give a TED talk—what an honour that is, for a start. I can imagine the energy he brought into the room and his excellent advice. If he speaks about writing itself, as opposed to hitting the charts, he will have imparted some good knowledge. But I am assuming he talked about what makes a bestseller, not writing well.  These things are not necessarily the same.


I am one of those odd, possibly rare authors who think that aiming for a bestseller list is the opposite of what I should be doing. The part of me that wants to make my own voice louder is not the part of me that writes beautifully. The amplification of my voice does not lend it any greater quality for all its volume. My self-involvement, which is somewhat necessary at times if only to carve out the time to read and write, is my poorest quality. My cunning and desire to be seen as great detracts from any possibility of true greatness. To achieve what I want to achieve requires that I let go of the notion of achievement, itself.


T.S. Eliot’s great line in Ash Wednesday, “Teach us to care and not to care”
This is what you need to be a great writer.


So, if I want to make myself a worse writer I aim for the bestseller list. This is not to say that books on the bestseller lists are bad (there are some excellent titles on these lists) but that aiming for the listing is the mistake. Arriving there is fine. Not arriving there is also fine. Being a bestseller or not doesn’t make your book any better or worse. It’s just something that happens or doesn’t happen and trying to orchestrate the event will likely deaden your work, killing your relationship to the blank page. If you aim to be a bestseller you may elevate your status in the eyes of some, but it at what cost? It’s a Faustian bargain. I don’t know if it is always true, but it has felt true to me.


You wouldn’t think from how I blog, tweet, Facebook and engage in social media that I am devoted to this notion of ignoring sales figures and bestseller lists. Maybe you think I’m just envious. I haven’t appeared on any bestseller list, let alone the NYT, since Daniel Isn’t Talking and that was 2006. True, I do envy other writers. I can be outright jealous, in fact. But I am jealous of what they’ve written, not the result of what they’ve written. Attention to outcomes like sales rankings has a deleterious effect on my writing. The part of my mind that could potentially be wowed by someone’s career status is exactly the part of my mind I want not to feed.


So how do I judge whether I like my own work? Whether it is any good? I have one simple test. Would I be jealous if someone else had written it? If the answer is yes, it’s good. If the answer is no, I don’t show it to anyone. It’s a bad novel. Or, maybe it isn’t a not a “bad novel” but one that is unnecessary.


Does the world need another “good-enough” book? We are currently publishing more books than it is possible to have read by the shrinking market of readers. Nobody needs my competent novel, my novel with the requisite inciting incident and subplots and character depth, but no urgency. That novel is just in the way of the novel I ought to be working on, which has an integrity and freshness and authenticity that takes me by surprise even as I type it out, delivering it onto the page with all the mess of a newborn baby, but one that has its own life and cry for attention.
Will it receive that attention? Who knows? It isn’t my job to think about such matters as I am writing. The point is that there is real value inside the pages of great books. There is life where once there was nothing. And while it will always be better to be read than not read, I am careful that no consideration of this matter imposes itself on the quiet elegance of the work of an author.


I would like only to write as Wendell Berry describes in his poem, Like Snow.


Like Snow

Suppose we did our work
like the snow, quietly, quietly.
leaving nothing out.

—Wendell Berry from his collection Leavings, (Counterpoint, 2009)



PS. Before posting this blog, I did listen to Jonny’s talk, which was excellent. And it is mostly about writing well, not selling well.  I ought to have known he’d do the right thing. I suspect that it was the TED people who wanted the title How To Write A Bestseller. Such a title will always pull in a larger audience than How to Write A Good Book, but the latter should remain our goal.

Writing Advice

Traits of Successful Writers – The First Few



Writing is an apprenticeship. I decided I wanted to write many years before I became good at it. Unless you are a freak of nature you will be the same. You will practice writing in the same way that pianist practices scales, or a tennis player practices serves, working sentences, then paragraphs, then scenes, over and over, until you get them right. Or, at least readable.


That said, long before you can write a full-length novel – and ages before you can write a good one — you can develop traits in yourself that will make it more likely you will succeed.


I am not saying you can’t be an excellent writer without developing these characteristics–authors’ personalities are replete with bizarre idiosyncrasies, social deviance, not to mention serious drug and alcohol abuse that sometimes obscure the work, itself. However, those who succeed while behaving like this are rare. Admittedly success for any writer is rare, but among the great recluses and drinkers and stoned among us, it is almost unheard of.


So, here are a few ideas that might help you along, or at least make the apprenticeship more bearable.


Give yourself time to be a bad writer


It’s okay to be a bad writer–for a while. In fact, the “10,000 hour rule” made popular by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, states that a long period of time is needed to achieve excellence in any field. And while Gladwell’s claim (based on a single study, according to Wikipedia) may not be universally true, and 10,000 is certainly no magic number, I think we can all agree that learning to write takes time, and learning to write fiction well takes even more time.


In fact, this initial learning experience is not that different to the years you have ahead of you being a writer. Expect to spend the rest of your life being very interested in the way people speak, how other writers’ write, hearing words in your head differently (I assume) to the rest of the population. Get used to the ride – try to enjoy it – because for as long as you are a working writer, you are going to be stuck on this pony.


Give yourself time to succeed


You may believe that once you are writing well, success will soon follow. The mistake here is in the word “soon.” Though you put in the ten thousand hours, you now face the excruciating process of finding an agent, being rejected by publishers, or tackling the prospect of independent publishing with its great “discoverability problem”, which is to say that the glut of Indy novels is so extreme nobody notices you are on Amazon.



However, you may have some early luck. If you write a good novel, there is every reason to believe it will be published. With an Amazon page and an author bio, you can declare with some confidence that you are a proper writer (though you could have said that before – “proper” writers were all unpublished writers during some portion of their lives).


Sometimes it takes many years and many novels. Try to remember that nobody cares how many times you are turned down – that doesn’t matter. The dozens of “no’s” mean nothing compared to the single “yes”, and you never have to give them a thought.


Most writers have a novel or two that we did not publish, either because it wasn’t good enough or we, ourselves, didn’t like it. I have one in both categories, a novel that wasn’t “big” enough that I put to one side and have now forgotten. And another that I did not want to let Nan Talese publish at Penguin Random House in New York, even though she’d liked the UK edition of it, because I thought it wasn’t good enough (it isn’t).


Get Used To The Awkward Silence Of Success


Success for writers does not always feels like success. Just being in print will satisfy some writers. Others will find the entire process of becoming published anticlimactic. Or worse, depressing. Nobody seems to care you’ve written this book. I mean, it’s out there. It may have done well (or well enough that a second book is likely), but your life is chugging along pretty much as it had before. Whereas before nobody cared because they didn’t know you were a writer, now they know you are a writer and they still don’t care.


All I can tell you is this: you wondered what it felt like to be a professional novelist? This is it. Even those of us who have tremendous luck with our early books eventually feel this way.


But the good news is that, if you are serious, the outward signs of “success” mean little to you. If you are any good, the weirdness of writing will mean you spend most of your time either elated at the occasional scene (or paragraph, sometimes a paragraph is enough) that shows you in the best light, or you are pissed off with how the sentences clunk along like recalcitrant cattle. The rest of what happens in the world of publishing will mean little to you.


And if this is the case for you – if what really matters to you is the work — then take heart. You are in good company. You are in the best company in the world.




Writing Advice

Get Fearless…Burn Some Trees

I was in Florida where my daughter is enrolled in Ringling College Of Art + Design and studying computer animation. It is fun to be a parent and listen to the teachers here explain the program, which seeks to prepare people for the animation industry.


I was sitting with my daughter, listening to a wonderful talk by one of the animation faculty this morning. He was describing what it takes to become a good animator. It sounded very much like what it takes to be a good writer.  I thought I’d share some of what he said, as it might be applied to writing.


For example….


“Make your hand do what your eye is seeing.”


I love this. It is all about looking at something and being able to translate it onto the page as it is or as we imagine it might be. I suppose that with animation, they have to not only look at the thing, but see it in its environment, imagine its potential, give it some kind of visual energy. The object being looked at could be anything from a person to a desk lamp (like the famous Pixar lamp), and comes alive through the magic that is film. Everything on the screen is brought to life by the animator, but they first have to get their hand to “see” what their eye is seeing.


In writing, we consider a thing and describe it, but it doesn’t usually make sense to describe it unless in doing so we show how it is interacting with its environment or with a person or as a means of advancing the story. So, the thing is either contributing to characterization or to setting or to action – otherwise we leave it out. If it doesn’t serve our story, it is detracting from our story.


For example, right now I am wearing a sheer, sleeveless top as I type this. But who the hell cares what I am wearing as I type this? Does it help you learn how to write? No. If I just throw in a detail of what I am wearing and that detail is unattached to important characterisation and story, I should probably throw it back out.


But what if I say that right now I can feel the air conditioning blow against on my back where the blouse lifts above my belt as I bend toward the screen; if I talk about the fraying cotton at the shoulders from the years I’ve worn it while working at my computer on hot summer nights such as these; if I tell you how I’ve come to know it as my “writing shirt” and that I have imposed upon it a kid of muse-like quality? That the shirt is important to me in the same manner in which some artists have favourite smocks or hats?


Now, does it begin to have some relevance? Does it matter that I love this shirt? And I love to write in these glorious, hot August nights. I wrote most of my first novel, Dying Young, on nights such as these.  The shirt’s brocade front has a few coffee stains I’ve tried to scrub out but cannot. I am feeling tired but excited, as I type these words….


See, now the shirt becomes a little more worth its description? I’ve thrown in a bit of characterization, a bit of setting. It hasn’t done anything to advance the story because I have no story. But at least I have a character (me in this case) so there would be hope for a story.


“Get fearless in your drawing. Burn some trees…”


Animators draw–a lot. If they think their first drafts are going to be their final work, they are in trouble. If they are afraid of making mistakes, they are in trouble. Animators draw thousands of drawings they don’t like many more that other people don’t like. The lecturer today told a story of how he drew part of Woody (from Toy Story) hundreds of times before he got what he wanted. “He was carrying around a dead arm…I just couldn’t get it right!” he said.


I think all writers should hear how tedious it is, how much you have to redo, and how important it is to be bold. You have to be willing to abandon a drawing…oh sorry, a paragraph or whatever…if it isn’t working. Those who are drawing understand this – why can we who are typing? Just because we’ve written a thousand words or ten thousand words for that matter, does not mean we have to keep it. We aren’t committed to any of it until it goes into print. We need to be bold in what we write, but also bold in what we throw out.


“It’s all tedious!”


Don’t forget that the most exciting part of writing a novel is when you start it and when you end it. The rest really is just work – though I have some great strategies about how to feel that initial excitement whether you are page 1 of your novel or page 112 or page 283. I’ll talk about that in another blog, but for now please keep this in mind that for animators, as for writers, it can be tedious. It can all be tedious….