Tag Archives: writing advice

NaNoWriMo 2016: Writing Tips and Techniques from our authors

Ready to tackle your novel? We’ve got your back – browse through all the practical, encouraging, and personal advice from Penguin Random House authors here. For a concrete guide featuring tried and true methods, Signature has compiled a truly wonderful Writing Guide. Check out these excellent books to inspire and instruct. National Novel Writing Month is almost here! Happy writing!

Writing Tips from Jillian Cantor, author of The Hours Count

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? The absolute first thing I do is decide my main characters’ names. I feel like I need to know someone’s name before I can start to know him or her. My favorite place to figure out first names is the Social Security popular baby names website, where you can view name popularity by birth year (back to 1879) to see what common and (uncommon) names were in the year your character was born. After I decide names, I’ll start to make notes of other things, like birthdays/age or relationships to other characters, quirks, where a character lives, or things he/she likes or dislikes. But I start drafting pretty soon into this process. I mostly learn and get to really know my characters as I’m writing the first draft, thinking about what they do and how they react and speak when I put them in different situations. So I think the best way I get to know my characters is to write them. By the time I get to the end of the first draft, they’re often different than what I started with (and I know them much better). But then I go back and revise. After developing an idea, what is the first action you take when beginning to write? The first line of novel is really important. It sets the tone for the entire book. I want it to show what the book is ultimately about, but also to be interesting and hook the reader. When I first start thinking about and developing an idea I always start thinking about first lines. I jot down ideas, often for weeks or months. But, I don’t wait for the perfect first line before I start drafting a book. I begin with the first one that comes to me and then I keep writing from there to get my first draft going. So just the act of getting words and ideas down on the page is the most important action I take in order to actually start writing. I set a goal for myself – usually 3-5 pages a day – and I make myself sit down and write something, make some progress in the draft, even if it’s ultimately terrible and will all be changed in revision. Most of the time the first line that appears in the final draft of the book is not at all what I started with. I keep thinking on that first line, even as I keep writing the first draft. Usually I don’t understand enough about the story myself until I finish or get most of the way through a first draft. So I start writing at the beginning, but 9 times out of 10 that beginning changes by the time I make it to the end! Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking? I always write at home, and I need quiet to write. I negotiate my writing schedule around my kids’ schedules so I usually write while my kids are at school during weekdays, or very early in the mornings on the weekends or during the summer when my kids are home – really, whenever I can find uninterrupted quiet each day. I have an office in my house where I can shut the door, and I do write there, but when no one else is home I also write at my kitchen table. I like to drink coffee while I write, and that always helps to get me thinking. Or when I get stuck, I’ll exercise. Taking a long walk, run, or hike, often helps me work through a plot a point I was stuck on or figure out a problem in my story. What’s the best piece of advice you have received? The best advice, and I got this from a writing professor in grad school, is simply, “butt in chair.” As in, just sit down and force yourself to write something, no matter what it is or how terrible you think it is. The hardest part is making yourself sit down to do it. So I don’t let myself make excuses – I put my butt in the chair every morning and write something. What are three or four books that influenced your writing, or had a profound effect on you? I read Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott in the first fiction writing class I took, and I still have a copy on the shelf in my office. I love what she writes about first drafts and I feel like it’s still important to give myself permission to write something terrible the first time around as long as I write something. I’m a big believer in the importance of revision! Black and Blue by Anna Quindlen is one of my favorite novels, and the first I read by her. I come back to it, and her novels, again and again, because I feel like I learn so much about sympathetic character development from her. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, which I first read in college, always makes me think about writing characters in a world different from our own today (which is applicable for writing historical fiction as well) and the fact that characters still need to first be inherently human and relatable, no matter how different their world is from the one we know.

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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.

Learn more about Mona Awad’s new book below!

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.  

Writing Tips from David Jaher, author of “The Witch of Lime Street”

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? Research everything. I’m a nonfiction writer so after conceiving a chapter, I like to have every pertinent date and quote at hand so that there is no distraction—no source material to obtain— from staying in the flow. Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking? Many of my favorite authors were alcoholics, but I’ve always thrived on healthier forms of prewriting stimulation—bike riding, running, yoga. Having a clear head and listening to music puts me in the writing mood as does being just a little tired. Maybe it was because I was writing about ghosts and magic, but I always felt most imaginative at night. And I usually do my best work at home. Did you always want to write? How did you start your career as an author? I attended Graduate Film School at NYU and anticipated a career in film production. Later I did have a book idea and queried a literary agent, Tina Bennett, on a proposal related to astrology, which I was practicing professionally while trying to get my film projects off the ground. In the course of our communication, I also mentioned a screenplay I was developing about Houdini’s rivalry with a controversial Jazz age medium. She was thrilled with that story, which became the basis for The Witch of Lime Street, my first book. What’s the best piece of advice you have received? “Every word should mean something.” What clichés or bad habits would you tell aspiring writers to avoid? Do you still experience them yourself? Any serious writer should read everything, particularly by those authors with whom you identify, but William Faulkner once said of Shelby Foote that he only became a successful writer when he stopped trying to be Faulkner and started being Foote. Read more about The Witch of Lime Street here.

Writing Tips from Jules Moulin, author of Ally Hughes Has Sex Sometimes

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? For me, learning different ways to structure a story was crucial, and still is! I’m always on the lookout for great structuring tips. While outlining, in order to ensure causal plotting, I use the phrase “WHICH CAUSED” between scenes. For example: “The queen caught a cold. The queen died. The king died.” This isn’t causal plotting. But “The queen caught a cold.” WHICH CAUSED “The queen to die of that cold.” WHICH CAUSED “The king to die of heartbreak.” This helps me to make sure that one moment causes the next moment. How would you recommend creating and getting to know your characters? I have a background in journalism, so I recommend reporting — even for fiction. For Ally Hughes Has Sex Sometimes, I called a slew of Sex and Gender professors (not unlike my main character Ally) and interviewed them, asking questions about anything and everything including their jobs, daily schedules, likes and dislikes, opinions on current events, etc. After developing an idea, what is the first action you take when beginning to write? I actually do everything at once: I start writing scenes that I’m 90 percent sure will end up in the story, I start researching, and I start outlining. And most importantly, I start imagining the ending so that I can start planning the beginning. My outline is fluid and evolving — I go back and make changes to my outline throughout the writing process so that I complete the outline only a short while before I finish the book. Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking? Yes! I work in cafes mostly, where I have endless access to coffee and WiFi, and if I have serious, important writing to do, I plug into my earphones and listen to the Dave Matthews Band! Did you always want to write? How did you start your career as an author? No. I wanted to be an actress. I actually still do, but I’m too chicken. But everything I know about writing came from years and years of studying acting. I studied everywhere, with everyone; learned how to break down a scene, how to create and motivate character, how to write dialogue, etc. What’s the best piece of advice you have received? That you should try to write every day, even if it’s just for ten or twenty minutes. I don’t do this — but every writer I admire gives this advice and says they heed it! What clichés or bad habits would you tell aspiring writers to avoid? Do you still experience them yourself? My worst habit is not writing daily, for sure. I’m pretty good about not using adverbs. Adverbs are deadly, unless you’re J.K. Rowling, who uses them all the time, so go figure… Read more about Ally Hughes Has Sex Sometimes here.

Writing Tips From Dinty W. Moore, author of Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy

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? There is no secret to my technique beyond revising again and again and again, both for meaning and for the rhythm and sound. As many other writes have confessed, my early drafts are sloppy, flat, confused, and disappointing. Four or five drafts into a project, and maybe I begin to see what is there. The difference, in my mind, between writers who are successful in finding an audience and those who struggle, is when and where in the revision process a writer gives up and settles for “good enough.” Learn to be just a bit tougher on your own work than the toughest editor you have worked with and you’ll find that editors suddenly love your work. How would you recommend creating and getting to know your characters? Though I started as a fiction writer, for the last fifteen years I’ve focused on what is called creative nonfiction, or literary nonfiction. But I’m glad this question is here, because it gives me the chance to point out that even in memoir, even in a piece of literary journalism, the people on the page function as “characters.” They are real people, not imagined, but the reader has never met them, so you have to build these individuals up just as a novelists builds up an imaginary character: let us see them cross the room, let us see them fidget, let us hear the peculiarities of their speech, let us in on what seems important to them. People are contradictory and enormously complex. Try to show a glint of that. After developing an idea, what is the first action you take when beginning to write? I check my e-mail, look out the window, get up for more coffee, linger near the refrigerator, jump up onto the internet to find news of Donald Trump’s latest insanity, and then berate myself for being such a procrastinator. Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking? No. It is a job. The way I get into writing is to say, “time to get to work.” Did you always want to write? I always wanted to write, and penned silly plays and stories even in second grade, but I grew up lower middle class, my dad was a car mechanic, and I barely knew people who read books much less people who wrote them, so it wasn’t until I neared the age of 30, having washed out of four or five other career pursuits, that I finally decided, let’s try to do this. Let’s try to write a book. What’s the best piece of advice you have received? The novelist Vance Bourjaily once told me that he doesn’t even try to write the first chapter of a novel until he has written a complete draft from somewhere in the second chapter to the end. Only then does he know what has to go at the start. Now this may or may not be a useful technique, but it made clear to me that writing a book – or an essay, or a story, or a poem – is an act of discovery. You don’t sit down and say what you want to say. You sit down with questions, see where they lead you, follow them into unexpected territory, and then many drafts later go back and fix the writing so it all points in the same direction. Describe your writing style in 5 words or less. Sentences are fascinating puzzles. Read more about Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy here.

Writing Tips from Megan Crane, author of Make You Burn

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!  Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking? I’m a big believer in the “writing retreat.” Sometimes writing retreats involve locking myself in a hotel room for a few days to really throw some words on the page—other times these retreats involve gathering with my writer friends in a variety of inspiring, usually beautiful places, where the word count might not be high but the camaraderie and daydreaming leads to a whole lot more writing down the road. This is how The Deacons of Bourbon Street series came into being. Last spring, Maisey Yates, Rachael Johns, and I roomed together at the RT Convention held in New Orleans. We spent a lot more time wandering that fascinating, mysterious city than we did at the conference. When an editor (perhaps jokingly!) suggested we should write a multi-author series together since we got along so well, we jumped at the idea. New Orleans and gritty bikers seemed to go hand in hand for us, and once we settled on that premise, it seemed inevitable that we should pull in Jackie Ashenden, renowned for her dark and sexy stories, to round us out. And all because we visited New Orleans! After developing an idea, what is the first action you take when beginning to write? We sent a lot of emails back and forth, since we live all over the place—Maisey and I on the west coast of the US, Rachael on the west coast of Australia, and Jackie in New Zealand. But we also spent some time on Skype. We talked a lot about biker books, about characters, about the kinds of things we liked and the sorts of stories we wanted to tell. We fashioned an overarching plot and then we decided who our characters would be within that plot. We came up with a synopsis for all four books and once that had the enthusiastic support of our agents, we settled down and wrote a chapter each to introduce our characters and stories. That was the most fun—to see all the conversations and ideas we’d thrown around come together into these four fantastic stories. All set in our decadent version of New Orleans’s famous French Quarter. How did you handle plot and character continuity across four books? We talked a lot. Communication is key when it comes to working on multi-author projects. We discussed timing and plot points and the characters’ relationships with each other endlessly. We also sent each other/the whole group the scenes where their characters appeared in our books. The goal was always to make the characters feel seamless across all the books, and to show how they all functioned as this group of sworn brothers, reunited after years in exile. I think we pulled it off, but of course, that’s for readers to decide! Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking? I was lucky enough to write my book a few months after everyone else did. This was particularly helpful because it meant that I’d already read how the series ended and could write directly toward it—always a huge advantage! So one of the things I did to get in the writing mood was to read those other books and immerse myself in the world. Another thing I did was to curate “inspiration boards” on Pinterest. Looking at moody reference pictures (many featuring Charlie Hunnam, of course, as everyone’s favorite biker inspiration Jax Teller) was another way to get myself in the right mindset. I also relied pretty heavily on a mix I made of songs that brought me into the right headspace. One in particular (Arctic Monkeys, “Do I Wanna Know?”) was and is such a perfect encapsulation of my hero in this book that all I have to do is listen to that awesome opening and I’m right back there in the Priory with Ajax… Do you ever base characters off people you know? Why or why not? I have some family members who are more familiar with biker clubs than I am, but I didn’t base any characters on them. Though I did appreciate it when they didn’t laugh at me when I told them what kind of book I was writing! The truth is that reality doesn’t make great fiction. Characters are always better when they’re entirely themselves instead of pale imitations of real people. “Larger-than-life” makes a good story and fascinating characters. “Just like life” is something we can all do all by ourselves, without a good book. I prefer books. Learn more about Make you Burn here.

Writing Tips from Jennifer Steil, author of The Ambassador’s Wife

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? Usually when I sit down (or often, stand up) to write, I start by re-reading and editing the previous day’s work. That gets me back into the world of the book. Then I just carry on with the story from where I left off. I am a somewhat disorganized writer. I don’t write outlines or think too far ahead when writing a first draft. I write fast first drafts that I finish in three to ten months, and then spend a couple of years editing. I often think of scenes as puzzle pieces or quilting squares, shuffling them around until they make sense. I do, however, often write a basic timeline so I can remember when pivotal events happen and how old everyone is. But the story itself emerges only when I am actually writing. Often I have no idea where the plot is heading until it emerges from my fingers. For this reason, I am a serious rewriter. I write at least a dozen drafts of each book. Much of the structure, plotting, and pacing emerges in later drafts. I think of my first drafts as skeletons, and each successive draft as layering on muscle, veins, fat, skin, hair, etc. Until it is a fully living book. Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking? One thing I learned fairly early on is that I cannot afford to wait to be in the right mood. For me, writing needs to be a daily discipline, like exercise. I do it no matter what mood I am in. The hardest part is getting myself to the computer and shutting off the Internet. Once I open the document and start working, I am suddenly in the mood. Work inspires work. Also, when you have a small child and the various diplomatic obligations that come along with being an ambassador’s wife, you write in every unscheduled moment, whenever those moments are. Did you always want to write? How did you start your career as an author? I have kept a journal since the day I learned how to write, but I never thought of myself as a writer until graduate school. I majored in theater in college and worked for several years as an actor. But eventually I became frustrated with the limited roles available to women. I wanted to play paleontologists and astrophysicists but ended up playing ingénues and prostitutes. It got old. I began writing some of the things I wished my characters would say and decided to go back to school. After getting an MFA in fiction writing and an MS in journalism, I worked in newspapers and magazines for years before finally writing my first book. I don’t think that first book would have happened, however, had I not taken an enormous risk by moving to Yemen to take over a newspaper. From the moment I accepted that job, I think I knew I was going to have a lot to write about! What’s the best piece of advice you have received? One evening in 1992 I was sitting in a bar in Bainbridge Island, Washington with a friend who is a brilliant and prolific composer. I was going on and on about various ideas I had for short stories, and he said, “You know, there comes a time when you have to stop talking about what you are going to do and start doing it.” I went straight home that night and wrote a short story. I still think about that conversation twenty years later. It gets me into the chair (or standing in front of the computer—I often write standing up). What clichés or bad habits would you tell aspiring writers to avoid? Do you still experience them yourself? Don’t wait to feel inspired. If you’re serious about writing you should be writing every day. Treat it like any other job. Schedule time for it, even if you only have a half hour a day. Turn off the Internet. Check Twitter and Facebook after you write, not before. I indulge in this bad habit too often. I write best when I schedule specific times of day to check social media. If you need to do research online, make notes in your draft of things to look up later, when you are done writing. Don’t ever send out a first draft. While there are a few writers out there who produce genius first drafts, most of us do not. Rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite your story until you feel you have absolutely taken it as far as you can. Then get a writer you trust to edit it. Rewrite some more. Take at least a day between drafts so that you can approach your work with fresh eyes. Do you ever base characters on people you know? Why or why not? Yes. But though real people often provide the initial spark or inspiration, the characters swiftly take on a life of their own. Ultimately I don’t think any of the characters I create resemble the people who originally inspired them except in the most superficial of ways. I observe the people around me with the eyes of a journalist, noting quirks and interesting phrases. There is so much rich material just floating around. The imagination takes off from there. Read more about The Ambassador’s Wife here.

Writing Tips: Robin Kirman, author of Bradstreet Gate

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.