Writers work successfully in so many different ways, I never assume that what works for me is best for someone else. But if a common denominator exists among us, it might be attitude: the enterprise of writing a book has to feel like walking into a cathedral. It demands humility. The body of all written words already in print is vaulted and vast. You think you have something new to add to that? If so, it can only come from a position of respect: for the form, the process, and eventually for a reader’s valuable attention.
But if you’ve got a writer’s blood in your veins, you’re going to do it anyway. So it’s a project of balancing the audacity to do this work, and the humility to keep trying until you’ve gotten it right. Here are some strategies.
1. To begin, give yourself permission to write a bad book. Writer’s block is another name for writer’s dread—the paralyzing fear that our work won’t measure up. It doesn’t matter how many books I’ve published, starting the next one always feels as daunting as the first. A day comes when I just have to make a deal with myself: write something anyway, even if it’s awful. Nobody has to know. Maybe it never leaves this room! Just go. Bang out a draft.
2. Then revise until it’s not a bad book. Revision is my favorite work, the part of the process when art really happens. Once you know where you’re going, you can back up and tilt every scene in just the right direction. You can replace every serviceable sentence with one that glows with its own original light. This of course requires an eagerness to throw away a lot of serviceable sentences. Lean on the delete key. It’s frustrating to write a hundred pages you know will not survive, but this is the dirt you have to excavate to get to the vein of gold. These are pages of your novel too, just the unseen ones—let’s call them pages negative-100 to zero—and you can’t skip them. If it helps, keep a “recycle” folder: when you’ve written a scene you love, but reluctantly concede that it’s not moving your story forward, clip and save it in a “maybe” file in case you find some good use for it later. Probably you won’t. But if that illusion helps you cut harder and deeper, this is all to the good.
3. Get cozy with your own company. It’s no coincidence that a lot of writers are introverts. At some point in the life of a manuscript you’ll want to get feedback, but not while it’s in the birth canal. Ninety-nine percent of your working life will be spent laboring in a room by yourself. I can’t overstate the value of silencing the social noise and writing with nobody looking over your shoulder. Other people may tell you what sells, what the market is hungry for, and to my mind that information is unhelpful, if not toxic. If you hope to add some original stone to the cathedral of books in print, it will have to come from your unique position in the universe. It takes a quiet acquaintance with your own mind to identify that place.
4. Study something other than writing. In school, in life, wherever you can get it, acquiring authority over interesting material will boost the confidence side of your writing equation. I feel incredibly lucky to be one of the few novelists on the planet who followed the (somewhat accidental) plan of getting undergraduate and graduate degrees in biology before starting my literary career. If I had it all to do over again, on purpose, I would follow the same course, not just because I love science but also because of the career edge it offers. I have at my disposal a well of information on, say, evolutionary theory, genetics, the mechanics of climate change and such as that, which I can work to translate into literature for readers who didn’t take those classes but are honestly eager to learn. If I had three wishes, I might spend one on giving more scientists the facility and will to write novels. We could also use more novelist-anthropologists, civil engineers, farmers, you name it. Craft is a lifelong study for writers: debut novels I read for fresh vision; classics I reread carefully for technique; the plots of movies I deconstruct while my patient husband drives us home from the theater. Craft is always on the table. But content can make the meal.
5. If you’re young, and a smoker, you should quit. Ditto for all other habits likely to shorten your life. Self-destructive behaviors are useful to a writing career only in the movies. In actual experience I’ve never known a manuscript to be moved forward by a reckless affair, drinking binge, or tangle with the law. The boring truth is we need to look after ourselves, for a good reason: getting old is our secret weapon. Readers come to books for many reasons, but ultimately they’re looking for wisdom. That’s something writers can offer only after we’ve accrued it, like scar tissue, usually by surviving things we didn’t want to deal with—a process otherwise known as aging. This is fantastically good news! Twenty, thirty, or forty years after all the athletes, dancers, models and actors of our cohort have been put out to pasture, we can look forward to doing our greatest work.
Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel is Unsheltered.