I’m sometimes asked whether, now that I’ve written several books, the process has gotten easier, but the truth is this: what you learn from writing a book is how to write that book. I wouldn’t have it any other way. The pleasure, for me at least, is figuring it out as you go. But I do have a few bits of advice.
1. Write what you want to write. Sometimes, especially when we are starting out, we look around at what other people have written, and we think we see The Kinds of Things People Are Supposed To Write. Guard against this. If you aren’t interested in writing a coming of age story, then don’t write one. If you don’t feel drawn by the idea of an intersection of disparate people that will leave all parties changed, don’t write that. A story in epistolary form—don’t do it if it doesn’t feel necessary. Trust yourself.
2. Let yourself explore silly ideas. We all have internal editors or critics, and they serve us well when we are in the later stages of writing. But early on, and especially during the writing of a first draft, they must be fought. How often have you felt you had no idea what to write next? This is a bad moment, and as options start springing to mind—like, maybe the guy’s car crashes into a tree and he dies, The End—the internal editor can get over-excited. But if you don’t write the scene, you might not write the curious on-looker who approaches the car before the police arrive and sees the telegram on the passenger seat, which leads to a new subplot that eventually becomes the focus of the entire book. Disarm your editor during the early stages of writing so you can follow the least likely or promising idea anywhere it might take you.
3. Find some people you trust, and ask for their help. I don’t mean you should take their recommendations and implement them one by one. So-and-So may say you should scale way back on the whole trekking through Nepal part of the book, while Such-and-So will rave about that part and throw out the possibility that the entire book should take place there and you should reduce the number of characters from 17 to three. Sort through everything you hear and let what you don’t need go, holding on only to the ideas that speak to you—that seem to put into words what you suspected but either couldn’t articulate or didn’t want to know. Then get back to work.
4. Revise, revise, revise. It’s a paradoxical idea that the most valuable part of writing is the thing you’re going to do next, but it’s true for me, because it reinforces the troubling and liberating idea that none of what we write is unchangeable. A student of mine once joked that the only acceptable way the members of a workshop can react to a story is for everyone to stand up and applaud when the writer walks in. She was kidding, because she knew that the opposite was true, that the great gift of feedback (see tip #3) is that it arms us to go back to work we’ve already begun in order to do it again, but better.
5. Allow yourself to not work. There are days when you’re better off taking a step away from your work—allowing for an unplanned break. By virtue of the passage of time and the constant unscheduled working of your unconscious mind, you will be in a different mental position from the one you occupied when you left—perhaps the very position you need to make true progress.