I’ve published 22 books, mostly fiction for adults, but also several novels for children and young adults and a couple of books about writing like Ten Strategies to Write Your Novel. I grew up in West Virginia, and now live in an urban area in New Jersey on a commuter train line to New York where I teach novel writing at NYU’s School of Professional studies. My books have been published by commercial publishers like Charles Scribner’s sons and HarperCollins as well as by micro-mini publishers like Montemayor Press and a cooperative press, Hamilton Stone Editions. My newest novel, Their Houses,is from West Virginia University Press.
I’ve always written for myself first (and never made a living at it!). I can write press releases or political statements to gather together the thoughts of a group or to try and make points to a particular audience, but what I consider real writing starts with my own personal experience, observation, imagination–and my reading I don’t believe anyone will ever write something better than the best thing they’ve read–thus if you want to be the best mystery writer, you’ll read the best mysteries. Lately, I’ve been reading more novels with strong narrative lines than I used to– most recently, Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley and Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday along with several Sara Paretsky mysteries and–always–rereads of George Eliot and Anthony Trollope. I love Victorian novels, and recommend reading them on your e-reader. I’m also a big fan of Octavia Butler, N.K. Jemison, and I just started Station 11by Emily St. John Mandel. I also read a lot of books for review and blurbs, and the work by my own students. Reading, in my opinion, is the one great essential for writers.
As I’ve aged, I have become closer to the writing I did as a child. That is, I strive to write more as a form of play. I had many years of suffering through trying to be a Great Artist, but the truth is, writing for me is deeply engrossing the way children’s natural play is. If it doesn’t grip me–if it isn’t that particular kind of fun– it’s not worth the trouble.
Writing is also a lot of work: you have to get up every morning and put your behind in the chair. You have to find what it was that inspired you yesterday. Yes, I get stuck, and when I do, I either take a long walk or, if it’s serious, switch projects. Sometimes I lay things aside for months or even years, but I know I’ll come back if it really interests me.
I’ve gotten much more efficient, too, as I’ve aged. I used to spend a lot of time finding the right pencil and playacting at suffering and looking out windows waiting for inspiration. Then, thirty some years ago, I had a baby, and discovered that I was going to have about one hour a day to write, so I jettisoned the drama and just did it, bad, good, or in-between.
I am, as you see, into the practical dimensions of writing. I don’t believe it’s a sacred calling as much as another human activity that most people can do if they want to. You get little blasts of inspiration, you go as deep as you can into the world of your story, and later, you come back and do the work of improving, changing, moving pieces around. It’s wonderful, and it’s ordinary. The only real mistake you can make is to be unwilling to follow a new idea or to listen to suggestions from good readers. I’ve been in a writers’ peer group for more than thirty years, and I recommend that to everyone who can find one.
I also plunged into the digital age as an adjunct to my writing. I have made covers for my own books, and I keep a very active website with lots of writing exercises and a page of resources for writers as well as an irregular magazine called A Journal of Practical Writing as well as an even more irregular newsletter called Books for Readers where I share good stuff online and reviews by me and readers, with a special interest in indie and small press publications. Most of my creativity tricks are in those publications.
I’ll end by saying that the best thing about writing novels and other fiction is that everything is grist for the mill. I’ve started novels from old abandoned houses and from a dream a chatty four year old told me and from writing by a fifth grade student I once had and from other books and faces I’ve seen and stories my father told me and from meeting a woman who drank too much on the only ocean cruise I ever took.