Paul Harding is the author of two novels, Tinkers and Enon, both of which have received starred reviews from PW. Oh, and the former is also the winnner of the Pulitzer Prize. Pay attention, because it's not every day that a Pulitzer winner shares his secrets. And there's even a special bonus writing tip.
1. Write as precisely and as lucidly and as richly as you can about what you find truly mysterious and irreducible about human experience, and not obscurely about what will prove to be received opinion or cliché once the reader figures out your stylistic conceit. There’s all the difference in the world between mystery and mystification.
2. Contrary to all those times you’ve heard a writer confess at a reading that he writes fiction because he is a pathological liar, fiction writing is all about telling the truth. Don’t confine truth to fact. Imaginative truth is as powerful and often enough more so than fact. William Hazlitt wrote that poetry (and by extension, fiction) is the language of the imagination and it, “is not the less true to nature, because it is false in point of fact; but so much the more true and natural, if it conveys the impression which the object under the influence of passion makes on the mind.”
3. Don’t write your books for people who won’t like them. Give yourself wholly to the kind of book you want to write and don’t try to please readers who like something different. Otherwise, you’ll end up with the worst of both worlds. I write lyrical, introspective, experiential books concerned with consciousness and perception. If a reader wants to know what my protagonist’s insurance policies are, he’ll be better off curling up with a nice cup of chamomile tea and an actuarial table. Similarly, don’t write your books for bad readers. Your books will suffer from bad readers no matter what, so write them for brilliant, big-brained and big-hearted people who will love you for feeding their minds with feasts of beauty.
4. It is true even though everyone says it is that you need to read and read a lot and read the best books. Not only do you need to read the best books, you need to read them well. I think it’s true that generally speaking your writing can only be as good as the best books you’ve read. (There are exceptions to this rule, and those are the writers you’d like to strangle for their off-handed brilliance, but they are so rare as to prove the rule by their exception. They are also so rare that you should not be tempted to think that you are one of them. You are not.) It’s true, too, that your writing can only be as good as the best readings you’ve given of the best books. I cringe when I hear someone say, “I read a lot of books.” Better to read one good book well than a hundred poorly. Aspire to be a world class reader.
5. Fiction is about immanence. We are beings who experience our selves in time and space, through our senses. Fiction persuades its readers that they are reading something artful by immersing them as fully as possible in the senses and perceptions, the thoughts and actions of fictional lives. No matter how philosophical or rhetorical you want to be, at the end of the day all philosophy and rhetoric is derived from sitting on a hard, uncomfortable park bench in the cold, or sweating it out on a cot in Mumbai, or chopping carrots for the stew, or standing in high cold wet grass at dawn.
6. Get your art written any way you can. It’s tempting as a teacher to present your own method as normative. It’s maybe even more tempting as a student to look for a method that sounds good and austere and disciplined, with a dash of charming self-deprecation thrown in, and conform to it in the hopes that it will work for you, because writing is hard, after all, and it’s nice to think that if you follow a prefabricated set of rules you’ll get a story or a poem or a novel out of it. But a huge part of being a writer is discovering your own intellectual and aesthetic autonomy, and how you best get the best words onto the page. The musician Tom Petty tells a great anecdote about working with the producer Jeff Lynne. Petty was in the studio making an album and being very doctrinaire about some recording method or another, much to Lynne’s exasperation, and so Lynne finally said to him, “Tom, no one gives a shit about how you make your records. They only care if the record sounds good.” Outside of writing workshops and seminars, no one cares if you sit facing the blank page for six hours every day beginning at sunrise, or if you loaf around frittering away most days like a bum, or if you write your book one line at a time on the sly in between typing your boss’s business letters at the office. What’s important is that your reader holds a thrilling, amazing work of art in her hands.