Best writing advice? READ

Reading everywhere photo

Jakub Pavlovsky

A couple of years ago, the Odyssey Writing Workshop in New Hampshire invited me as a guest lecturer and asked some interesting questions. (Slightly abridged)

What is the most important advice you can give to developing writers?

One young and aspiring writer unforgettably told me that she “didn’t have time to read.” I knew then that she would never really be a writer.

Reading is the primary education for any writer.  You need to have an inoculation of language in your writerly stream before your own words can take form. People who don’t read never develop the love and the reverence for the written word, how then can they hope to tease out its wonders?

If you are serious about pursuing writing as a craft, as a vocation, as a career… well… Read, Write. Practice. It comes only with practice, this inner instinct about whether something you’ve just written is good, or if there is something wrong with it, and what, and how it needs fixing.

I remember writing a page and half of something once and stopping and staring at this thing I had just produced and coming a realization that what I had there was a dense–a very dense–summary of the thing I needed to actually write. Eventually that page and a half turned into nearly three chapters of the final book. But without the millions of words of practice I had already put in… I would not have known this, recognized this, figured out what I needed to do to fix it.

So–two very obvious pieces of advice.  Read.  Write.

Rinse and repeat.

Once you started writing seriously, how long did it take you to sell your first piece? What were you doing wrong in your writing in those early days?

I always wrote seriously. I won national writing awards when I was a pre-teen. I sold stories way way wayyy back… for pretty much almost nothing. I was into my 30s when I wrote the first published book, Dolphin’s Daughter, a collection of fairy tales.

As to what I was doing wrong… I don’t think I was doing anything “wrong.” I was not ready. That doesn’t mean I was wrong. I was raw, and unpracticed, and maybe sometimes hasty (I learned the more intricate truths of self-editing as I went along). I was… young. With some writers maturity comes early–with others, you have to grow into it.  

Here’s an example–at age nineteen, I wrote a novel about the Matter of Britain, from the POV of Guinevere that almost got published. An editor who was quite taken with it, enlisted the aid of a very senior beta reader–a man who was a Big Name in South African publishing at that time (that’s where I was living). The only problem was that he was very much a High Literary Guru, and entirely the wrong audience for my work. He nixed the Guinevere book and it didn’t go anywhere after all.  

His report began like this: “I have no doubt that this is a writer who is destined for great things in times to come.”  Unfortunately that was followed by the proverbial BUT. His objection was that my story lacked, in his words, “…what Kazantzakis called ‘madness’…” That was true, because I was young  and my understanding of what drove that story–betrayal and adultery and sexual obsession–was limited and flawed. I would write a very different story if I were writing that thing today.

In other words, he was probably totally right. Although I hated him for saying so at the time.

Why do you think your work began to sell?

I have no idea. What sells or doesn’t sell is so, so subjective and audience-driven. Luckily there are as many kinds of readers as there are writers and there is an audience for any storyteller. The problem is connecting with it, of course–and sometimes you connect on the level of a Gaiman or a Rowling, and sometimes you barely scrape together a fiercely devoted but numerically small following. In my mind it never mattered whether it sold–it mattered whether it connected.

How many stages does your work go through? How much of your time is spent writing the first draft? How much time is spent in revision?

I tend to blurt out a very clean “first draft” but that’s because I don’t really just put down whatever comes into my head. In some sense my truly awful chaotic first draft tends to get distilled into a second iteration while still inside my head, and it’s the “second draft” that becomes my “first,” in a way. 

Then it gets tossed to what I am very fortunate in having–an in-house editor, my husband, who is a professional in that field and who is always my first reader and my first editor. He’s pretty damn ruthless and does not pull his punches. When he tells me there is a problem there usually is. That’s my polish pass–taking his suggestions on board, going through the manuscript for anything that I myself may have missed or want to add. Then I’ll let it sit for a little while just until the image and the imprint of it drains from my system, and I”ll give it another reading, another once-over, cold.

After that, it’s ready to go out.

But revision and rewriting is my least favorite part of this whole process. I will do the edit and the polish and the rewrite–but I won’t bury myself in those. They, to my mind, are just the final tweaks. My work has already been done.

The kind of revisions I find myself doing most often tend to be two of my husband’s favorite editorial caveats. There are scenes which I may have avoided writing and fleshing out for whatever reason, and they need more development–and I have to go back and fix that. Or there are scenes which I fleshed out a tad too much, and which actually need condensing. I’ve done both. It’s story, and pacing, that I sometimes do need to pay closer attention to.

What’s the biggest weakness in your writing these days, and how do you cope with it?

My husband has these things he calls my “weasel words” and he goes after them with a passion and a vengeance. I then need to go through my manuscript expunging wishy-washy descriptors like kind ofsort of, almost, nearly, apparently,  and the like. I get told very firmly to decide what it is that I want to say, or what is going on, and to go there, and to stop dancing around the edges.

A writer’s work is often done in solitude, but the writer often craves community. Do you find community or solitude more helpful.

A lot of my writerly interactions actually comes from a network of online friends–and while it is nice to meet those friends every so often at conventions and what have you, my email and chat exchanges are not bounded by geographical proximity. Some of my best friends are in the Antipodes, for Heaven’s sake. But yes, there IS something very nice in just hunkering down over a cup of coffee and hashing out a plot point or whining about current woes.  

But honestly, these days if you and your chum are both on something like Skype, for instance–you can share an hour of writing time while connected and bounce things off each other in real time that way. The Internet is a gift for those of us working alone in our cubbyholes and offices. The whole entire world is just on the other side of our monitors and only a point and a click away. Use that. Find a community. This is your tribe.  Find a way to talk to each other.

Plotters use outlines while pantsers write by the seat of their pants. As a self-identified pantser, how do you make your plots powerful and unified?

Things… worlds­­­­­… live in my head.  Some people may need to have all of that down on a piece of paper before they can make sense of it.  Me, I carry the whole dream inside until it is ready to come out. I’ve occasionally written down things like family trees, but most of the time, it all lives inside.  And it is a messy complex complicated tangle. If anyone could see the inside of my head during the writing of a complex novel it would be a lot like looking at the back of a tapestry–where chaos reigns, and threads intersect and stretch across other threads and interconnect and tangle–and it all looks impossible and utterly without meaning. But on the other side, the tapestry, there is a real picture that you can see and everything makes perfect sense. And there are times that the picture that emerges, when I am done, is a surprise even to me.  That’s what being a “pantser” means.  A plotter would be doing things on a pre-printed canvas or meticulously counting stitches.  Pantsers connect threads by instinct working from the back of the tapestry and somehow… somehow… get the picture right on the other side of the fabric without ever seeing it being made.

Women on Mars?

Women on Mars.Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez Jaramillo

Is an All-Female Mission to Mars the best way to go?

Medical studies at the start of the space race showed that women have stronger hearts, could better withstand radiation, and coped better than men in isolation. And because of their size, they’d be cheaper to launch and fly than men.

That didn’t cut any ice in the macho 50s during the all-male moon missions, but now?

Well, NASA has done some new studies, Kate Greene reports in Slate, that verify much of the earlier tests. And with the astronomical costs of a Mars Mission, maybe we’ll take another look at the value of an all-women crew?

I’m not holding my breath.

Read the article

If NASA had believed in merit: The terrible injustice of Jerrie Cobb,

The first American astronauts, dubbed the Mercury 7, were certainly well-qualified, but the best candidate was constantly passed over — and for all the wrong reasons.
Jerrie CobbWhen the space race began, Jerrie Cobb, 26, seemed like the perfect fit for astronaut. Thirteen American women — today known as the Mercury 13 — were selected to participate in the three phases of testing as astronauts. Cobb was the only one who passed them all.

Not only did she pass, her scores placed her in the top 2% of all candidates, meaning that if the same criteria that were applied to the Mercury 7 were applied to her as well, she would have been selected. But without official NASA backing, the testing and training programs for women were shut down. Cobb never made it into space.

Read the article

Mercury 13There’s a commemoration poster in the honor of the Mercury 13, the women selected for astronaut training in the early days of space exploration., that contains an excerpt from a poem of mine.

For the first incandescent moments when NASA asked if the could use my poem, all I could do was sit and stare. And then I screamed. And then I cried. And then, after I tapped out a permission slip, it began to sink in for real.


I was, at least vicariously, finally going into space.

Read the article

See the poem here

Writer’s tics

My first reader and editor (aka husband) often exclaims “Weasel Word” as he gleefully slashes from my copy such modifiers as “sort-of”, “probably”, “perhaps”.

Sometimes, I concede, he’s sort of got a point.

Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich admits that she has a writing tic: colons.

I love colons. A colon is more emphatic than a comma, tidier than a dash. It’s a tiny drumroll that tells the reader: Get ready. Something important or shocking is on the way. Because I love colons so much, it pains me to acknowledge that my attraction to them borders on addiction.

She asked several other writers “What tic (or call it a habit) would you like to change in your writing?”

Gillian FlynnShe got some fascinating replies, including one from Gillian Flynn, author of the phenomenon known as “Gone Girl:
“I’m trying to wean myself off my very Gen X abuse of the word ‘literally,’ ” she said. “Gone Girl contains at least 33 uses of the word, which is 32 more times than any single novel needs. … I basically (literally) use it instead of an exclamation mark.”

Read the article

Must reads for Feminists

The other day we talked about the books by women that all men should read. Now Emma Cueto at Bustle gives us:

13 Contemporary Novels All Feminists Should Read
Feminist booksFeminists and books go together, Cueto says. Whether feminists are writing books or reading them or both, the literary world has long been a place for women to tell their stories, in both fiction and nonfiction. It’s been a place for women to do so on their own terms, not through male intermediaries. And in today’s literary landscape, that is more true than ever.

Read the article


The Literary United States: A Map of the Best Book for Every State
Book mapillustration by Sarah Lutkenhaus

Read the article

The 10 Best Mark Twain Books

Read the article

11 of the Most Chilling Book Covers Ever Published

Turn of the ScewRead the article

Quote of the Day

I would give my life to fly in space. It’s hard for me to talk about it but I would. I would then, and I will now.” ~ Jerrie Cobb

Alma Alexander
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