Tag Archives: advice

Writing Tips from Beth Lewis, author of The Wolf Road

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!  How would you recommend creating and getting to know your characters? Stop thinking of your characters as characters and start thinking of them as people. Let them evolve and grow naturally on the page and have them react to situations believably. I believe it’s the writer’s job to figure out what the character wants and then do everything you can possibly imagine to stop them from getting it. Nothing should come to them easily, where’s the fun in that? Conflict creates character and I’ve found the best way to get to know them is to put them in difficult situations, whether emotionally or physically. It’s how we act when pushed to our limits that show who we really are. After developing an idea, what is the first action you take when beginning to write? I tend to get new ideas around the 70,000-word mark of the previous idea, which is really distracting. I usually get a picture in my head of the opening scene, like the very first frame of a movie, or I might get the opening line. Then a vague sense of the story, and that’s about it. I make a note of it all in my phone for when I’m ready. When I’m able to start the new project I grab my laptop, go to a cafe and stare at the blank page for while. I’ll go on Twitter, read the news, go on Twitter some more and then, once the double espresso kicks in, I’m off. What’s the best piece of advice you have received? Don’t be boring. Of all the writing advice out there – and there’s a lot – this is the only one I see as a firm rule. You can do anything you want with your story as long as it isn’t boring. Do you ever base characters off people you know? Why or why not? Not consciously but I have read back over my work sometimes and thought, huh, that sounds just like my mother, better change it! For me, the best part of writing is creating new characters that don’t exist anywhere else. Sure they may have the odd trait in common with someone just as a child shares traits with their parents, but for me, I want my characters as a whole to be fully original. What are three or four books that influenced your writing, or had a profound affect on you? Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell Such a wonderful, far-reaching book and a masterclass on voice and setting. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte Wild, beautiful, and heart-rending. It drags you through all the emotions twice. Weaveworld by Clive Barker All five senses are taken to the max in this book, you get drunk on it.   Learn more about the book below:

Writing Tips from Deena Goldstone, author of Surprise Me

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 writing techniques have you found most important or memorable? The most important thing I tell beginning writers (and myself whenever I’m struggling which is often) is to put one’s bottom on the chair every day and dedicate whatever hours you can to work. The daily commitment is more important than the amount of time you spend at it. For me, writing is a process that needs to be attended to, fed, and kept alive every day no matter how difficult or non-productive the time may seem. The struggle to write is part of the process, and often as you take a walk or a shower or fold laundry or drive to a meeting or any of the other mundane tasks we all do during a day, your creative brain will gift you with some insight or bit of dialog or the very answer to the problem you couldn’t solve that morning. But only if you keep the process alive by working every day. How would you recommend creating and getting to your know your characters? Write notes to yourself about your characters before you begin your work. Sit in front of the empty screen and write down whatever comes to mind – facts like how old they are, what the look like, but also random thoughts like whether they have nightmares or like physical exercise or what their favorite food is or whether they’re a dog person. Whatever comes to mind, whether it is germane to the story you’re telling or not. You have to know your characters (even the secondary ones) as well as you know the members of your own family. That knowledge will inform what they say and how they behave. It will make your characters particular and interesting and ultimately, if you know them well enough, THEY will tell you what they want to say and do. What’s the best piece of advice you have received? Surprise yourself when you’re writing. Describe your writing style in 5 words or less. Emotional and character driven. What are three of four books that influenced your writing, or a had profound effect on you? Well before I even contemplated becoming a writer, I read Doris Lessing’s novel, The Golden Notebook, and was astonished to realize that one could write a whole book about the intimate, mundane lives of women. I think it was the first time I realized that this territory was important enough to explore. Amy Bloom taught me how to write about grief – the theme which unites the stories in my collection, Tell Me One Thing. In her story, Sleepwalking, from her collection, Where The God of Love Hangs Out, she writes about how the family members left behind deal with the death of their husband and father without ever mentioning grief or having people break down into emotional messes. It’s all in the behavior of the characters and is amazingly moving and restrained and powerful. I was astonished when I read Elizabeth Strout’s novel, Olive Kitteridge, that it was possible to write a truly prickly, often unlikeable character and still create understanding and sympathy and connection to her. Strout helped me be bolder in writing my characters and certainly gave me permission to create Daniel, in Surprise Me, with all his idiosyncrasies and edges and flaws. Learn more about the book below:

Writing Tips from Richard Cohen, author of How to Write Like Tolstoy

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 writing techniques have you found most important or memorable?

In a memorable cri du coeur, the wonderful Turkish-American essayist Elif Batuman declared:

‘I would greatly prefer to think of literature as a profession, an art, a science, or pretty much anything else, rather than a craft. What did craft ever try to say about the world, the human condition, or the search for meaning? All it had were its negative dictates: “Show, don’t tell”; “Murder your darlings”; “Omit needless words.” As if writing were a matter of overcoming bad habits—of omitting needless words.’ 

One other piece of advice, though: if an editor, or friend, makes a comment about something you have written and you strongly disagree, don’t dismiss the fact that something in what you have written disturbed them. Their suggestion may not be helpful, or the right one, but look again at the passage in question, just in case there is something there you can improve.

How would you recommend creating and getting to know your characters?

Start with the name. Many novelists can’t imagine their characters until they feel they have named them in a way that chimes in with their personalities. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird has the following general advice:

‘You may only know your characters’ externals instead of their essences. Don’t worry about it. More will be revealed over time. In the meantime, can you see what your people look like? What sort of first impression do they make? What does each one care most about, want more than anything in the world? What are their secrets? How do they move, how do they smell? Everyone is walking around as an advertisement for who he or she is—so who is this person? Show us. . . .

‘You also want to ask yourself how they stand, what they carry in their pockets or purses, what happens in their faces and to their posture when they are thinking, or bored, or afraid. Whom would they have voted for last time? Why should we care about them anyway? What would be the first thing they stopped doing if they found out they had six months to live? Would they start smoking again? Would they keep flossing?’

After developing an idea, what is the first action you take when beginning to write?

Well, in truth I try the idea out on my wife. She’s also my literary agent and best friend, and will always find the best way of letting me down if my idea is a truly bad one. But what is meant by ‘developing an idea’? It’s too broad a phrase. If one means a whole notion for a book, I advise writing the story down in the manner of a book blurb, no more than 250 words (about the amount of words a book salesman has to interest a customer). If a book project is still unclear, or doesn’t compel attraction within that wordage, something is amiss. 

Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking?

Hemingway is meant to have said, ‘I write drunk and revise sober,’ although some people say it was the other way round. Woody Allen takes lots of showers to get his creative juices going. Scott Fitzgerald used to strip off his clothes — completely — before writing. Gertrude Stein would get her companion to drive her into the countryside so she could gaze on the cows there before going back to her writing table.

Did you always want to write? How did you start your career as an author?

I produced a school magazine whenI was twelve; and continued as the main schoolboy editor when I was at high school. But for years I though I was an editor of other peoples’ work, not someone who could produce his own books. In 1999 I left my job in British publishing; left Britain; and settled down in a new marriage, in New York. I tried to get a job as an editor at Knopf, but its MD, Sonny Mehta, said I should write a book about my main hobby of 45 years, fencing — so I went off and produced a 520-page book on swordplay over 3,000 years, and suddenly I was a writer. 

What’s the best piece of advice you have received?

I have no idea. I always forget advice. Maybe, remember to turn the lights off. Say Yes rather than No. Or, for writers, One can always revise more. 

What clichés or bad habits would you tell aspiring writers to avoid? Do you still experience them yourself?

We all fall into hackneyed ways of writing. My current bugbear is people saying ‘incredible,’ when all they mean is ‘very.’ I recall revising a chapter so often that only on a last read-through did I realise I’d started seven consecutive paragraphs with the word ‘Then.’ 

Describe your writing style in 5 words or less.

Anecdotal, story-led, humorous, inquiring, addictive.

Do you ever base characters off people you know? Why or why not?

So far I have published only non-fiction. I have started a novel, set in France in 1946, but my wife (see above) says I’m not allowed to write any more into it until I have finished my current commissioned book, titled ‘The History of Historians.’ But I think about the novel every single day.

What are three or four books that influenced your writing, or had a profound affect on you?

Shakespeare (sorry, but it’s true), Tolstoy’s main novels, Samuel Johnson‘s works, Alice in Wonderland

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Writing Tips from Allison Amend, author of Enchanted Islands

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?

My graduate professor Frank Conroy said that we only get three exclamations points in our whole career! And I just used one. He meant, of course, that the prose itself should convey emphasis. He also stressed that habit is a writer’s best weapon. I’m still working on that one.

What clichés or bad habits would you tell aspiring writers to avoid? Do you still experience them yourself?

I am terribly guilty of what I call “three adjective syndrome” wherein I describe something with no fewer than three adjectives. Usually, that means the third adjective is the one I want, and the first two are just approximations until I get there, but I still have to go back and cull the first two adjectives from the pack. Relatedly, my first drafts have so many clichés it’s like they are going out of style (get it?). I think that’s fine for a first draft. They’re just marking places where I need to go back and think of better comparisons, so I try not to judge myself too harshly.

 Do you ever base characters off people you know? Why or why not?

 All characters and no characters are based on people I know. If fiction comes from imagination, then all people contribute to the pool from which I draw.  I like to borrow traits and sayings from everyone, but I have never attempted to reproduce on the page a person I know in real life. Even when I do “heavily borrow” from a person, quoting something he or she actually said, he/she never recognizes herself. That said, my father thinks he’s every character in my books.

What are three or four books that influenced your writing, or had a profound affect on you?

One Hundred Years of Solitude

Madame Bovary

A Visit From the Goon Squad

The Handmaid’s Tale

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Writing Tips from Karan Bajaj, author of The Yoga of Max’s Discontent

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!  How would you recommend creating and getting to know your characters? I construct my writing on two pillars—ENTERTAINMENT and MEANING. The meaning comes from a deep, personal question I’m wrestling with and my novels help me articulate the answer to myself. That’s why I recommend creating characters that are asking your deepest questions. If you start from that foundation, you’ll know the back-story that led to the question and the journey the character has to embark on to answer the question in a very personal, visceral way. My best advice to get to know your characters is to push them from the ordinary world into the extraordinary world quickly! Their reactions to the extraordinary world will help you both unpeel the character and give the story the propulsive entertainment it needs to keep the reader glued. Did you always want to write? How did you start your career as an author? I’m an engineer-MBA and hadn’t written a single non-technical word until the age of 28! Yet my first novel was published in India at age 29. What happened in that year? I took a sabbatical from my job at Procter & Gamble and backpacked and lived in places I’d always fantasized about like Bhutan and Mongolia. Both the adventures that came from the journey and the sudden space and silence in my life compelled me to write. I wrote without a goal but ended up completing a novel that did quite well in India. Since then, I’ve constructed my life around what I call a 4/1/4 principle: -4 years of goal-directed working in a corporate environment while writing with discipline on the side. -1 year of complete slack where I travel, meditate, work in an orphanage, live in an ashram, write a little, basically do whatever I feel like without goals. -4 years of goal-directed living again. …and so on. I think this tight-slack model is allowing enough adventures to inspire new ideas while ensuring the discipline to commit them to paper. What clichés or bad habits would you tell aspiring writers to avoid? Do you still experience them yourself? I tell aspiring writers to never have a single coincidence in their story. Nothing should happen by chance or destiny to your protagonist. The moment destiny plays a role in a story, the reader senses the presence of an author writing the story and the fictive dream breaks. Indeed, I still experience it myself because I like my novels to be fast-paced and often make things “happen” to my characters in the early drafts so that the story moves along quickly. I have to weed those incidents out in the subsequent drafts to make every incident organic to the story. Let me give you an example from my new novel, The Yoga of Max’s Discontent, which is about a Wall Street banker who becomes a yogi in the Himalayas. I wrote and re-wrote the beginning thirty or forty times to make his decision to leave his job and go to the top of the Himalayas extremely authentic to his past rather than a result of a chance encounter as I’d originally written it. Describe your writing style in 5 words or less. Pacy and unpretentious yet layered. What are three or four books that influenced your writing, or had a profound affect on you? This will probably be a surprising answer but the one book that had a profound impact on me was Forrest Gump (the book not the movie). I grew up in a small town in the Himalayas in India that people rarely left. My aunt who was visiting from the US left a copy of the book by accident in our house. I remember reading the book when I was fifteen and feeling deeply transformed by the idea of a life that has no limits and a world that knows no boundaries. Soon after, I left my town for New Delhi, then moved out of India and lived in Philippines, Singapore, then Europe and the US, and have been traveling since without any permanent notion of home or a fixed sense of my own abilities and limitations. I think Forrest Gump may have something to do with it! Other than that, the books I keep re-visiting again and again and shape my writing are perennial Eastern philosophical text like The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Dhammapada and the Upanishads, since they always deepen me as a person and a writer no matter how many times I read them. Learn more about the book below:

Writing Tips from Shawn Vestal, author of Daredevils

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!  After developing an idea, what is the first action you take when beginning to write? I don’t usually develop an idea, and often when I do start with an idea, it falls apart in the writing. I typically have something much less than an idea that gives me the itch to write – a line, an image, an object (objects are compelling; I think of them as little pieces of grit that might accrue narrative mother-of-pearl). Lately, I have found myself writing stories inspired by titles – I get excited about something that sounds like an interesting title, and start to write a story off that excitement, and the stories often have only the loosest connection to the words in the title. I don’t quite get it, honestly. I end up in places I didn’t foresee. A couple of months ago, I stopped at a Seven-11 that had a huge sign in the window advertising a combo meal of a hot dog and soda. Built around the smaller text in the sign were two huge phrases – “Super Hot” and “Extra Large.” At a distance, they seemed to be combined into one phrase: Super Hot Extra Large. This is now the title of a story I am working on that I had no plans to write and no idea of before these magical words arrived in my mind and gave me an itch. Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking? I try to write regularly and steadily, whether or not I’m in the mood, and – like a lot of writers – I think it’s a mistake to wait for or rely upon inspiration. Inspiration often arrives after I’ve started working. But I am also not rigorous about a writing schedule. I write every day, but I don’t write fiction every day. My week is divided between writing newspaper columns at The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, and writing fiction and other work on the other days. I have come to feel that the time away from the current work in progress is crucial – time to think, to imagine myself more deeply into the characters and situations, and to begin to develop ideas for the next pages. This time away, thinking about the writing, is what energizes me most for the return, and so I cultivate it a little bit, and try to build that eagerness so I’m impatient to get started. What clichés or bad habits would you tell aspiring writers to avoid? Do you still experience them yourself? My worst habit is the desire to be done. I do enjoy writing, and I would even say I need to write on some compulsive level, but the sorry truth is that I am probably most motivated by the desire to have written, to have composed something worthy that I can try to swap for attention or vanity fuel. This has made me a reluctant reviser, and far too eager to consider a story or novel done when it still needs work. I try to overcome this in a few ways. The main one is by relying upon a couple of key friends as readers/editors who help push me. It’s also important for me to go through a kind of hot-cold cycle – a period of intense attention and effort to complete a draft (which will feel utterly complete and polished to me) followed by a stretch of ignoring the work until I can look at it again with fresh eyes and see some of the problems, so I am no longer reluctant to get in there and muck it up in an effort to fix it. Describe your writing style in 5 words or less. I often write a little long. What are three or four books that influenced your writing, or had a profound effect on you? So, so many. Here are a random few: Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, which I read in my teens, gave me the idea that boundaries of what could be a book were much wider – and weirder – than I had realized. DeLillo’s White Noise, which I read as a young adult, impressed upon me a sense of the way both prose and ideas within a work could operate at slightly canted, surprising angles. I love the way his sentences move, the odd rhythms and combinations, and I love the way he incorporates bigger themes and ideas, in rhythms and combinations that are similarly unexpected. McCarthy’s Blood Meridian horrified me as it engrossed and captivated me, and while some of the book’s philosophizing is less interesting to me than it once was, there remains something unique in the energy of that experience that draws me back – the grotesqueries of westward expansion cast in language that draws beautifully upon venerable old verbal rhythms. It’s like a scripture telling the ugliest truth about Manifest Destiny. Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners, which I read as a 40-something grad student, changed my attitude toward the literary possibilities of fantasy, science fiction, the surreal, magic, etc., and opened up a new and hopefully not-too-imitative strain in my writing. And then, when I had strayed perhaps too far from the here and now, Alice Munro’s “Runaway,” which I also read as a 40-something grad student, reminded once again of the possibilities for magic in lives that only seem routine. Thomas Bernhard’s Woodcutters is probably the book that’s in my head the most now. Reading his feverish, run-on rants makes me want to produce prose that can do that – lift readers and carry them with such force that they can no longer get hold of the riverbank. Learn more about Daredevils below.      

Writing Tips from Matt Marinovich, author of The Winter Girl

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 writing techniques have you found most important or memorable? I write really fast, not worrying about making mistakes when I’m working on a first draft. I think novice writers make a mistake when they worry too much about where their novel is going, or get buried in too much outline. Surprise yourself, sentence by sentence; don’t worry about the next chapter. In reality, the first page of your novel is the most important of all. It’s where you define the pace and mood of your story. What’s the best piece of advice you have received? I was fortunate enough to study with the late Grace Paley. I remember showing her a story and she told me there was no conflict in it. I gave her this blank face, so she suddenly slapped her hands together, so that I could hear what conflict was. It was the simplest writing lesson I’ve ever had, but one that I’ve never forgotten. What are three or four books that influenced your writing, or had a profound affect on you? Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry is fantastic. These are connected short stories based on the civil war in Russia and he has this enviable minimalistic style. He doesn’t waste a single word. Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver. Carver is the American version of Babel to me. These were the stories that blew me away in graduate school, especially the way the morality of each piece ends up being thrown upon the reader. I love writers who don’t tie things up neatly for the reader. Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky was one of those books I read as a kid that put me in a trance. Movies never had the same levitating effect on me as a novel like that. Describe your writing style in five words or less. An endless sense of dread. Learn more about The Winter Girl below: 

Writing Tips from Chris Pavone, author of The Travelers

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!  How would you recommend creating and getting to know your characters? As intimately as possible. For me, that’s by writing character sketches. Not just a paragraph or two, but deep intricate stories complete with grade-school triumphs and middle-school humiliations, grandparents immigrating and parents divorcing, detailed visions of houses and part-time jobs, dead pets and young-adult heartbreak, irrelevant vignettes coming out of the woodwork. I don’t expect for this character-sketch material to make it into the book—90 percent of it doesn’t come close, and I end up deleting most of the 10 percent that I do shoehorn into early drafts. But this backstage exercise helps me define these imaginary people, so I know how their voices sound, what they look like and even how they dress, what they’re worried about and hopeful for, what they want. So when it’s time for these characters to walk onstage, they’re ready. What’s the best piece of advice you have received? When I was in my mid-twenties, I was a copy editor at Doubleday, and for a brief period it was my job to help shepherd Pat Conroy’s Beach Music into the world. I ended up spending a good amount of time with Pat, who’d temporarily relocated to New York City to finish working on the manuscript. One day we walked from a meeting at his editor’s house to his hotel, the unnecessarily long way through a cold damp Central Park, while Pat peppered me with questions about my unconventional childhood in New York City in the 1970s. I eventually asked why he was so curious. And he told me that this is the most important thing for writers to do: to listen—really listen—to other people’s stories. After developing an idea, what is the first action you take when beginning to write? I spend a huge amount of time writing about the book, instead of writing the actual text. This includes the above-mentioned character sketches, but also scenes that I don’t know will fit anywhere, and plot notes and alternate possibilities, and a detailed outline. Sometimes I have a half-dozen documents open, and none of them is the book. For my most recent, The Travelers, I even wrote a TV treatment and a pilot script, neither of which I attempted to sell. I think it’s useful for me to try to tell a story in different formats, especially very short ones: the one-sentence elevator pitch and the one-page flap copy. A writer can spend a decade working obsessively on a novel, but in the commerce of publishing many of the most important decisions about any book will be made based on very short pitches—from literary agent to editor to sales rep to bookstore buyer to a potential reader standing in the bookstore, asking, “What’s it about?” Every single one of those interactions is an opportunity for the book’s life to be cut short or to survive, for someone to decline or to agree, “Okay, I’ll take a look.” But I won’t be there for any of those interactions—you never get a chance to defend your book!—so instead I want to try to make sure that the book is pitchable. Did you always want to write? How did you start your career as an author? I did, yes. But for a long time I equated being a working novelist with being third baseman for the Yankees: an unrealistic dream, an impractical self-indulgence. After college I was burdened with student loans to repay, no financial cushion, so I wasn’t in a position to bet everything on a creative-writing career—neither the writing-workshop academia life nor the freelance-writer version, trying to scrape by on short stories and house-painting gigs. I wanted to pursue a separate freestanding career, one that would definitely put me in the path of becoming a writer, but also one that would also be tenable and satisfying if I never ended up writing a published book. So I worked in publishing. My career got off to an extremely slow start as a direct-marketing assistant at a professional-magazine publisher (our titles included the likes of Journal of Accounting and Middle Market Lending Letter, and I was tracking the efficacy of junk-mail campaigns), but one thing led to another, and I quickly moved into the book end of things, and seven jobs later I was an associate publisher. That turned out to be the last position I quit, nearly a decade ago. I was thirty-eight years old. Learn more about Chris Pavone’s new book below!

Writing Tips from Mona Awad, author of 13 ways of Looking at a Fat Girl

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! 

Did you always want to write? How did you start your career as an author? 

I started writing quite young. My mother worked in a deli in Montreal and when I was little, she would take me with her for the day. I would write monster stories and fairy tales for her (and me) on the backs of the paper placemats—mainly to entertain myself but also for the sheer pleasure and escape of building another world. I remember being flush with joy and excitement when I thought I had a novel on my hands at the age of 7 or so. Needless to say, that didn’t pan out.

 Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking?

 My main routine is to write in the morning in silence. I make coffee and then I turn everything off, including my phone and Internet connection, for as long as I can either stand or get away with. If I write in the morning like this, then I’m able to return to the story at various times later in the day and work on it regardless of where I am or the level of distraction. But I need those anchoring morning hours of silence and focus with the story in order to do that.

I also love Aimee Bender’s idea of the writing contract so I’ve done that with friends as well. You basically contractually promise to adhere to a certain number of writing rules that you determine (it could be a daily word count, or a number of hours per day) and then you check in daily via email with a ‘mentor’ (a friend) who confirms you’re moving forward. You do it with an overall writing goal in mind—like a novel—to be achieved by the contract’s end.  It’s quite loose, but what I love is that you make your own writing goal, your own rules for how you’ll reach it, and then you are required to follow through. I did it with a writer friend last summer, and we both completed drafts of our novels. And I’m doing one now with another writer friend for the revision. I like the collaborative aspect of it too—writing, while exhilarating, can also be quite a lonely, cave-dwelling business. It’s nice to come out of the cave every day and check in with a friend. 

After developing an idea, what is the first action you take when beginning to write?

I’m often inspired by a moment of tension that I’ve either observed, experienced or imagined—being in a fitting room with a dress that doesn’t fit, for example. I’ll take that point of tension and I’ll sit with it, trying to describe it with as much intimate, immediate and honest detail as possible. I’ll scrutinize it, draw it out, let myself imagine around it. By exploring a moment of tension like this, I find it acquires more layers and consequence, and a story will often emerge. Once I have the story, I can push that tension further still—in some cases, to its limits.

What are three or four books that influenced your writing, or had a profound affect on you?

My favorite stories have always been the ones that felt very intimate, like the writer really gave something vital in themselves to the telling of the story. For that reason perhaps, I love all of the novels of Jean Rhys—I love how urgent her writing is, how her characters experience outsiderness and alienation in ways that feel so immediate and visceral. Russell Hoban is another favorite. Not only is he a beautiful writer, but I love how he conceives that space between what we perceive to be reality and reality—a space that is inherently fraught with our anxieties, desires and dreams—as truly imaginative. In The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz, a son’s anger at his father is an actual lion stalking the streets of London. Perhaps this is a throw back to my placemat writing days, but I’ve always been deeply inspired and excited by fairy tales and Alice in Wonderland narratives. I adore The Torn Skirt by Rebecca Godfrey, which is essentially a feverdreamy, high stakes Alice in Wonderland for adults. The first person voice is also incredible. And of course, The Winter’s Tale by Shakespeare, which is a strange, rich and wondrous fairy tale. The wonderful thing about reading or seeing Shakespeare is that no matter what hot mess of emotions you’re experiencing in your life—pettiness, hatred, fear, desire, joy, sadness, love, resentment—they become eerily performed by the play in question. Will’s got you covered. Within the stories, the characters, the language, there’s room for it all. Also, I love humor. Without writers like Dorothy Parker, Lydia Davis or Lorrie Moore, I would feel lost.

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Writing Tips from Tim Sultan, author of Sunny’s Nights

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 writing techniques have you found most important or memorable? I write during the day, print out whatever I am working on in the evening and bicycle with those pages to my favorite Japanese restaurant where I alternate between a blue pencil and chopsticks. This transfer, from screen to paper, from solitary desk to public sushi counter, gives me the sense that I’m examining my writing with ‘fresh eyes.’ It is, of course, only an illusion that Tim Sultan, the writer, and Tim Sultan, the reader, are not one and the same but it’s an illusion that works for me. Needless to say, I am a very popular customer at this restaurant. Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking? Some people walk their dogs before breakfast, I walk my coffee. Each morning year-round I put on a minimal ensemble—sneakers, a t-shirt or sweater, and shorts. Never trousers as being underdressed for the weather is of the essence. It’s circulation–of blood, of thoughts, of images–I’m after, not snug comfort. I descend from hearty stock that encouraged this sort of thing. I walk the half-mile to my favorite coffee shop, order a cup to go and return home through the park. I call this surveying. I survey the exercisers, the pigeon feeders, the dogs racing around with clouds of breath coming from their snouts—and I survey my life, my writing, perhaps chewing on an editorial conundrum that had me in a jam the previous day. Whatever my mind alights on. If I’m lucky, I return home with a new turn of phrase, a fresh idea, a missing word, and I take it from there. I can affirm that waking up the mind in this manner beats turning on a screen in the morning. What’s the best piece of advice you have received? “Look forward and don’t be afraid.”  I found this single sentence in a notebook that belonged to my mother. She had written it to herself not long before she passed away. The page leans against the wall by my desk where I regard that message and reinterpret its meaning every day. For writing, for life. Describe your writing style in 5 words or less. Thoughtful, digressive, occasionally extravagant, empathetic What are three or four books that influenced your writing, or had a profound affect on you? Disappearances by Howard Frank Mosher I have read it more than any other book. I have read to myself, to friends, and at my father’s memorial service. I admire it like no other. For its naturalistic prose coupled with a grand imagination. If Gabriel Garcia Marquez had been a Vermonter… Between Meals by A.J. Liebling I think it was John Irving who once said that he always carries on him ‘a flood book.’ Something to read if he finds himself unexpectedly marooned. This is my flood book and more often than not, I stick a copy in my jacket as I’m going out the door in the evening. It’s the sort of book one can open to any page and begin reading without feeling one has missed a beat.    Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal A short masterpiece about an underground visionary with the tenderest of souls. Elegiac without being melancholy, profound without being solemn. Dusk and Other Stories by James Salter Sometimes one admires most the other. Salter’s style here is terse, understated, disciplined. His characters share the world with Edward Hopper’s subjects. We are ultimately on our own. Learn more about Sunny’s Nights here.