We know readers tend to be writers too, so we feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing!
What’s the best piece of advice you have received?
At a talk at Columbia, Philip Roth said something that has stayed with me since; I’m not sure it counts as advice as much as a description of his writing process. He said that he lets himself write freely for some time and then rereads the material, pen in hand, and circles whatever feels alive.
This idea, of live material, is what I take to be essential to good literary writing. I’ve come to believe most anything wrong with a first draft can be fixed later—plot can be focused and adjusted, endings changed, themes emphasized, characters and sentences refined, and so on—but what cannot be accomplished later is breathing life into something flat or false.
Did you always want to write? How did you start your career as an author?
I came to fiction writing later than most writers I know: not until my mid-twenties. Before then the writing I’d done was almost entirely academic; for a while I’d seriously considered a career in philosophy. When I think about my first attempts at fiction, they seem to me very much influenced by philosophy: back then I started every story or novel with a concept, and developed it pretty linearly. Readers of Bradstreet Gate might be surprised to hear this; that book proceeds so differently, following characters in often unpredictable directions. That improvisational feeling took me a lot of work and time to achieve.
Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking?
The best way to get into a writing mood really is to just start writing—if not writing in the most ambitious sense (new scenes, preciously crafted sentences) then just sketching, thinking through ideas on paper. I often do start writing on paper, developing thoughts in notebooks, until I have some material to work with and sufficient momentum to get back to a scene.
What writing techniques have you found most important or memorable?
I do a terrific amount of exploratory writing; that is, writing that probably won’t make it into the final book but that allows me to play with my characters and their situations until the material shapes and reshapes itself into a form I like. Often, I continue to do this even later in the process: once I’ve worked up one scene or one idea, I’ll make myself do another version or two—an altered course of events, a new reaction from my character—just to see if something more interesting happens. That way I have a means to evaluate my choices, and it’s a good way to avoid crutches and clichés.
Do you ever base characters off people you know? Why or why not?
I’d say my characters contain some elements of people I know, but often several people in combination, and I still try to leave most of my characters’ biographies and sensibilities to invention. For me, sticking too closely to real people would be confining, and possibly prevent me from the important work of having to think through the experience of my characters myself. Maybe it’s that I understand those around me less well than I like to imagine, but copying actual people hasn’t proven as useful in my writing as it seems to be for others—or worth risking the consequence of terrifying family and friends.
Learn more about Bradstreet Gate here.