Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do

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We are attracted by a moment in time — a singular moment of flux or change or collapse — not by grand curricula vitae. Be specific. Go granular. The reader must fall in love with your characters quickly or indeed, learn to hate them quickly. We have to have something happen to them: something that jolts our tired hearts awake. Later on in the story we can settle down with them and get to know them in a wider sense.

Sometimes we take a character from our own immediate lives and we build a new person upon that scarecrow. Or sometimes we take well-known characters in history and shape them in new ways. Either way we have a responsibility to write them into life. In the end you should probably know your characters as well as you know yourself. The sound of her voice. The texture of her footsteps. Walk around with her for a while. Let her dwell in the rattlebag of your head. Body language. Unique mannerisms. Allow your characters to surprise you.

When it seems they should go right, send them left. When they appear too joyful, break them. When they want to leave the page, force them to stay a sentence longer. Complicate them. Conflict them. Give them forked tongues. This is what real life is all about. Logic can paralyse us. Let me respectfully disagree. Your characters deserve your respect. Some reverence. Some life of their own. You must thank them for surprising you, and for ringing the doorbell of your imagination.

There are so many rules, or suggestions, when it comes to dialogue. Try not to use dialogue to convey information, or at least a slab of obvious information. Interruptions are great. Try writing a conversation between three, four, five people. Let the dialogue work for itself. Use he said and she said, but avoid clumsy descriptions. Forget about the overblown gasping, exclaiming, insisting, bellowing.

Make your dialogue distinct from the surrounding description, not just in rhythm but in length too. It will break up the prose. Have it be a respite on the page, or have it tee up the words that are about to come. Make each character distinct. Give them verbal tics. And never forget that people talk away from what they really mean.

Lies are very interesting when they emerge in speech. Make action occur within the conversation. Seldom begin in the beginning: catch the dialogue halfway through. No need for hellos or howareyous. No need for goodbyes either. Jump out from the conversation long before it truly finishes. Even if using dialect, or patois, or Dublinese, you must realise that there is a reader at the end of the sentence.

A wee bit is enough to get a Northern Irish accent. No arragh bejaysus and begob. No overdone southern twang. No Jamaican overdose, mahn. No Bhrrooklyn nasal noise. Study the masters. Roddy Doyle. Louise Erdrich. Elmore Leonard. Marlon James. So study the silences too, and have them working on the page. You soon find out how loud the silence really is. Everything unsaid leads eventually to what is said. Every work of fiction is organised somehow — and the best of them are more profoundly organised than they ever let on.

Our stories rely on the human instinct for architecture. Structure is, essentially, a container for content. The shape into which your story gets is a house slowly built from the foundation up. Some writers try to envision the structure beforehand, and they shape the story to fit it, but this is so often a trap. You should not try to stuff your story into a preconceived structure.

A proper structure mirrors the content of the story it wants to tell. It will contain its characters and propel them forward at the same time.

Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do by Meredith Maran

And it will generally achieve this most fully when it does not draw too much attention to itself. Structure should grow out of character and plot, which essentially means that it grows out of language. In other words, the structure is forever in the process of being shaped. You find it as you go along. Chapter by chapter. Voice by voice.

Ask yourself if it feels right to tell the story in one fell swoop, or if it should be divided into sections, or if it should have multiple voices, or even multiple styles. You stumble on through the dark, trying new things all the time. You have to trust that it will eventually appear and that it will make sense. We teachers, we editors, we agents, we readers, often make a mistake by concentrating too much on plot: it is not the be-all and end-all in a piece of literature.

Plot matters, of course it matters, but it is always subservient to language. Plot takes the backseat in a good story because what happens is never as interesting as how it happens. And how it happens occurs in the way language captures it and the way our imaginations transfer that language into action.

Creative writing lessons: Creative Writing tips, advice and lessons from bestseller Stephen King

So give me music then, young maestro, please. Make it occur the way nobody ever made it occur before. Stop time. Celebrate it. Demolish it. Slow the clock down so that the tick of each and every second lasts an hour or more. Take leaps into the past. Put backspin on your memory. Be in two or three places at one time. Destroy speed and position. Make just about anything happen. Maybe in this day and age we are diseased by plot. So, unbloat your plot. Listen for the quiet line. Anyone can tell a big story, yes, but not everyone can whisper something beautiful in your ear.

In the world of film we need motivation leading to action, but in literature we need contradiction leading to action, yes, but also leading to inaction. Nothing better than a spectacular piece of inaction. Nothing more effective than your character momentarily paralysed by life. The greatest novel ever written has very little apparent plot.

A cuckold walks around Dublin for 24 hours. No shootouts, no cheap shots, no car crashes though there is a biscuit tin launched through the air. Instead it is a vast compendium of human experience. Punctuation matters. Full stops. They scaffold your words. Should a writer know her grammar? Yes, she should. Parentheses in fiction draw far too much attention to themselves. Never finish a sentence with an at. Grammar changes down through the years: just ask Shakespeare or Beckett or the good folks at the New Yorker.

The language of the street eventually becomes the language of the schoolhouse. So much depends, as William Carlos Williams might have said, upon the red wheelbarrow — especially if the barrow itself stands solitary at the end of the line. But then again, a sentence can be over-examined. Good grammar can slow a sentence — or indeed a wheelbarrow — down.

The perfect run-along of words can sound so stiff. Every now and then we have to disregard the serial comma, or leave our participles dangling, even in the rudest way. Sometimes we make a mistake on purpose. And the question is: would you rather be the ornithologist or the bird? Writers feel the grammar rather than knowing it. This comes from good reading. If you read enough, the grammar will come. Research is the bedrock of nearly all good writing, even poetry.

So you want to be a writer? Essential tips for aspiring novelists

We have to know the world beyond our own known world. We have to be able to make a leap into a life or a time or a geography that is not immediately ours. Often we will want to write out of gender, race, time. This requires deep research.

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Yes, Google helps, but the world is so much deeper than Google. So go down to the library. Check out the catalogues. Go to the map division. Unlock the boxes of photographs. If you want to know a life different from your own, you better try to meet it at least halfway. Get out in the street. Talk to people.

Show interest. Learn how to listen. You must find the divine detail: and the more specific the detail, the better. William Gass — the American author who says quite beautifully that a writer finds himself alone with all that might happen — once suggested, while invoking Maupassant, that we should never mention an ashtray unless we are swiftly able to make it the only one in the world. Please remember that mishandling your research is also your potential downfall. At times we can pollute our texts with too much of the obvious.

It is often a good thing to have space instead so that we can fill it out with imaginative muscle. Always ask yourself: how much research is enough? Texture is much more important than fact. Failure is good. Failure admits ambition. Reach beyond yourself. The true daring is the ability to go to the postbox knowing that it will contain yet another rejection letter.

Use it as wallpaper instead. Preserve it and reread it every now and then. Know that in the years to come this rejection letter will be a piece of nostalgia. I write to dream; to connect with other human beings; to record; to clarify; to visit the dead. I have a kind of primitive need to leave a mark on the world. Also, I have a need for money. But that very rarely happens. The easy times are intermittent. The hard times are not completely hard, but they can be pretty hard, and they can go on for weeks.

On remembering, despite the painful labor, to write with joy :. I usually get very sick after I finish a book. All of that said, writing feels like a privilege. When I went into a mental institution after I stopped drinking, my writing took a great leap forward — or at least people started paying a lot more for it.

I was more clear and more openhearted, more self-aware, more suspicious of my own motives. I was more of a grown-up. On the broken economics of the literary world, the myth of the rockstar-writer, and the choice of creative purpose over money :. I support myself as a college professor. The myth is that you make a lot of money when you publish a book. Starting when I was five, I always identified as a writer. It had nothing to do with income.

I always told people I was a poet if they asked what I did. On the routine joy of unhinging oneself from the writing routine :. You wrote longer than you expected to. You unhitch yourself from the plow. Currently nobody really knows how to sell books.