Guest Post: The Best Advice I’ve Gotten From Other Writers

Note from Sooz: I am so excited to share this post from critically acclaimed Ben H. Winters, author of seven novels, including Countdown City (an NPR Best Book of 2013 and the winner of the Philip K. Dick Award). He has a great post for you today, in honor of his upcoming release, the third book in the Last Policement series: World of Trouble.

Plus, Ben is running a VERY cool ‘reverse blog tour’ on his personal site, with guests like Ransom Riggs and Hugh Howey. They’re posting tips, doing interviews, and more! And, you can check out Ben’s own blog tour for World of Trouble here.

Now take it away, Ben! (And don’t miss the giveaway at the end!)

From Vonnegut: Start the Story

The legendary Kurt Vonnegut came to Washington University in St. Louis in May of my senior year, and I got to interview him for the school paper. Two things he said stuck with me. The first was that the internet was just a fad, and he was wrong about that, although sometimes I wish he hadn’t been.

The other thing he said was, when you’re done with your first draft, take the first 30 pages and throw them away. Like a lot of great writerly advice it was hyperbolic (see also Elmore Leonard’s much-quoted and rarely obeyed “rules”), but built around a gem of pure truth: we writers, especially novelists, have a tendency to start slow, to clear our throats, to give all the background at the beginning—which is exactly where it doesn’t belong, if indeed it belongs anywhere. Start with the story in motion, is what Vonnegut was saying, and let the reader run to catch up.

I live in Indianapolis now, where Vonnegut is a hometown hero, and where a mural of him towers over hip Massachusetts Avenue. Every time I walk past I thank him for teaching me how to to start my books.

From Terkel: Don’t be a fancy-pants writer jerk

As a young journalist working at a free weekly in Chicago, I got to interview Studs Terkel, at his house. Studs told me that one of his tricks to gaining the confidence of the ordinary people he chronicled so vividly in his oral histories was to pretend that his tape recorder was broken. Then he would fuss with it for a while, cursing and mopping his brow, letting them see that he wasn’t some egghead, but just an average fella, like them. Then they’d be comfortable and open up.

In the innumerable interviews I have done since, both as a journalist and now as a novelist, when I’m interviewing cops and astronomers and pathologists and insurance salesmen—and please, for the love of God, if you’re writing a book, hang out with actual humans with relevant experiences, and let them inform the truth of your text—I have done some version of this maneuver over and over. By doing something foolish and klutzy—drop my phone, borrow a pen, forget my questions—I enter into a sort of conversational intimacy with my subject, which is the kind of place that real deep truth comes out of.

And unlike Studs Terkel, I am a total klutz, and I always do forget to bring a pen, so I rarely have to pretend.

From William Penn: Get to Work

This one is kind of a cheat, because the founder of Pennsylvania died three centuries ago, and I just got this quote from a magazine article or something. But it’s the best piece of advice I’ve ever gotten, as a writer and as a human being: Time is what we want most, and use worst.

Because here’s what we writers always do—we complain about not having enough time to write. When will I get to write? Oh, man, I have no time to write. If only I had time to write!

And then when we do have time, when that magical hour or two hours appears, when a plan-free Saturday miraculously turns up on the calendar, what do we do? We waste all that time. Check email, check Facebook, clean the house, read the newspaper, check email again, and then it’s Oh, God, where did all the time go! If only I had time to write!

Take it from someone who wrote a whole series about civilization’s impending destruction: time is a precious resource. Embrace Penn’s dictum; train your mind (and you can train it) to get to work, even when it’s hard, even when you don’t feel like. There is no other way to be a writer.

World of TroubleWow. I can’t believe Ben met Kurt Vonnegut. Also, Vonnegut’s advice is perfectly timed for me right now (I just spent >1 month “clearing my throat” with a new beginning). Thank you SO MUCH for sharing this, Ben!

Now, for our dear Pub Crawl readers, there’s an awesome World of Trouble pre-order campaign going on here. Basically, if you pre-order you get all sorts of cool extras. AND, of course, we’re doing a giveaway for all 3 books in the Last Policemen series right here on Pub(lishing) Crawl! WOOHOO! Just fill out the Rafflecopter form below to be entered to win!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Ben WintersBEN H. WINTERS is the author of seven novels, including most recently Countdown City (Quirk), an NPR Best Book of 2013 and the winner of the Philip K. Dick Award. Ben grew up in suburban Maryland, went to college at Washington University in St. Louis, and has subsequently lived in six different cities—seven if you count Brooklyn twice for two different times. Presently he lives in Indianapolis, Indiana, with his wife Diana, a law professor, and their three children.


9 Responses to Guest Post: The Best Advice I’ve Gotten From Other Writers

  1. Christina R. Jul 9 2014 at 8:33 am #

    This is an amazing post! He’s a wealth of info 🙂

    My best advice is what Ben said, to start with the action.

    Thank you 🙂

  2. Josh Atkins Jul 10 2014 at 11:37 am #

    The best advice? Finish it. Whatever you’re starting, finish it.

  3. Adrian Barron Jul 10 2014 at 5:36 pm #

    I’ve been wanting/meaning to read The Last Policeman for the longest time (but of course I haven’t, because money)!

    This is very good advice, particularly the first one (for me at least); my stories always start off slow (interesting? I like to think so, but slow? Always.), so being reminded to keep the story moving is always helpful in my case.

    • Adrian Barron Jul 10 2014 at 5:37 pm #

      Oop, and the best advice I’ve been given thus far has come from Maggie Stiefvater: Write the book that you want to see on shelves, the book that you’ve always wanted to read but haven’t been able to because it doesn’t exist (yet, that is).

  4. Zack Jul 13 2014 at 12:03 pm #

    Great post! Love all the advice.

  5. Zack Jul 13 2014 at 12:04 pm #

    My best advice that I have gotten is to finish the book first. Then, go back and edit. Too many times I get bogged down in the little details.

  6. Shae/Shelver Jul 13 2014 at 3:33 pm #

    I like Strunk & White’s advice about not using big or complex words when simple ones will do. In college especially I had too many friends who liked to churn out essays chockfull of academese. I figured that if I couldn’t say what I wanted to say in a way that everyone can understand it, then it wasn’t worth saying.

  7. Judy Walker Jul 13 2014 at 3:44 pm #

    Great post! And the don’t be a fancy-pants humility advice is effective for so many pursuits that involve relationship, not just writing. I think one of the best and most simple pieces of writing advice is that good old standby, “Bum glue.” Unfortunately it’s also one of the most difficult to follow, at least for me.

  8. Jake Fisher Jul 14 2014 at 9:23 pm #

    Very interesting

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