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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: