Industry & Advocacy News
October 6, 2015
A good writer moves her readers in some way, whether to action or introspection or nostalgia or joy. Like mystical incantations, certain words in particular orders are powerful, and though writers by definition control the words typed, we are not immune to the spells we cast. I asked four respected authors about the biggest mistakes they’ve made in their writing careers (so far), and I was struck by a common thread among them: that words written wantonly or without mindfulness can be destructive to writer and reader alike. Here is what those authors told me.
RESPECT YOUR “FAILED” PROSE
Ann Morgan, author of Beside Myself (Bloomsbury, Jan. 2016), told me that her biggest mistake involved allowing failed works to dictate her worthiness as a writer. “Over the years I’ve written so many stories that died halfway through or weren’t good enough to publish.” At the time, she said, she thought that the hours, days, and weeks spent on that work were wasted. As a young writer she lamented this. “Now, looking back, I see how much I learned from those false starts and how much my published work owes to those also-rans tucked away in my bottom drawer.”
DON’T CONFUSE WORDS WITH WORTHINESS
“There’s a point,” said Sean Ferrell, author of Man in the Empty Suit (Soho, 2013), “where a writer figures out that the only way to become a writer is to write.” It is a great moment, but invariably followed by the belief that writing is the same as writing words worth reading. This, he said, is “wrong, wrong, wrong.”
As he explained, “It takes a long time to figure out what you think of the world, and then you have to figure out why you think it. It takes even longer to start conveying those ideas coherently. But the moment we start putting words into sentences and see pages piling up we think we’ve invented thought.” Social media magnifies this mistake. Ferrell, author also of the children’s book I Don’t Like Koala (Atheneum Books, 2015), said that it’s easy to add to the noise when oftentimes what we should instead do is add to the silence. That, he said, is when “we can hear, we can learn. And often we need to simply not talk because those who truly have lived a certain pain need to speak.”
DO NOT LEAVE WORDS TO WITHER ON THE VINE
Paul Brandus, a White House journalist, observed that writing demands tenacity, not just over the marathon of one’s career, but also (perhaps especially) with respect to individual works. “My biggest mistake as a writer,” he said, “was not to write.” He began work on his first book, a spy thriller, while stationed in Moscow as a foreign correspondent. In six months, he said, he banged out two-thirds of it. When he returned to the U.S. and assumed other duties, he expected that the words already written would provide momentum enough to finish. Instead, he ended up temporarily setting the manuscript aside—for twenty years.
When he sold his latest book, Under This Roof (Lyons Press, 2015), he resolved to stick with his writing schedule no matter what. Starting at 5:00 a.m., he would write 400 words a day, seven days a week, no matter what. “I think in those eight months I missed maybe four or five days, and if I did, I had to make up for it.” As for that first book from 1995, he’s pulled it out of the drawer and is applying the respect for process that he learned with Under This Roof. “Don’t make the mistake of losing your focus. You’ve got to stick with it. Keep your ass in the chair and write a little bit every day.”
BE MINDFUL OF YOUR READERS
Writers tend to be our own harshest critics, and oftentimes we see the words we’ve written as mocking us from the page. We internalize this. We understand the negative power of words on ourselves. What about when our words are directed at others?
Mark Harris, bestselling author of Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War (Penguin Press, 2014), told me that when he was starting out in cultural criticism, one of his first assignments was to review a television show that turned out to be quite bad. “As I wrote it,” he said, “I started to enjoy my own act of demolition.” Only after being convinced that “the corpse had enough bullet holes in it” did he file the piece. When it ran, he received a call from one of the show’s creators. “I’m not angry because you hated it,” said the caller, “but I don’t understand why you had to be so mean.”
“I felt ashamed,” Mark told me. “He was right; I had decided to take pleasure in how thoroughly I could eviscerate something.” His actions were unkind, he said, and were not even his job. The lesson he learned: “Confident writers never hit harder than they have to; cheap shots undermine the credibility of non-cheap shots; try not to write something you can’t defend to an actual human being.”