In this feature exclusive to BookPage.com, each month, four authors are asked a question about the craft of writing to give readers an insight into how their favorite writers think and work. For October's author forum, BookPage brought together Madison Smartt Bell, Jordan Dane, Rick Mofina and Annie Solomon to ask: What was the best piece of writing advice you ever received?
MADISON SMARTT BELL
George Garrett. That’s not the advice, that’s the person: one of the great writers of our time and one of the great teachers too. But I can’t really break off one piece of advice from the whole way of being he demonstrated for us:
Be generous. (Unfortunately a bit unusual among American writers, but the Garrett exception has been influential.) Be honest—publish your true opinion always without regard for what’s in it (or not) for you. And—this is the part I try to pass on to students first—Be stubborn. Because only you (and maybe God if you happen to believe in one) can determine the worth of what you write. So don’t let prize committees or reviews or teachers or classmates pretend to do that for you.
Madison Smartt Bell's new novel Devil’s Dream, based on the career of Confederate Cavalry General Nathan Bedford Forrest, will be published by Pantheon in November 2009.
My agent really knows how to cut to the chase. And when I was ranting about something business-related, she reminded me that the only thing I ever have control over is my writing. When she said that, it was an epiphany. Angels came down from heaven and harp music played. Seriously. (Okay, maybe alcohol was involved.) But the point is that authors sweat the weirdest stuff, so keeping things simple is key. I know it's strange to find comfort in the dark worlds I create (that scare the hell out of me), but my agent's advice has stayed with me. When I write, I'm in my happy place. Like a reader gets drawn into a book, I get swept away in the writing and my quirky characters monopolize my time in a good way. My passion for books is why I got into this business. And my agent's advice always reminds me of that.
Jordan Dane writes thrillers from her home in Oklahoma. The Wrong Side of Dead (Avon) goes on sale this month.
I was working as a newspaper reporter on the crime desk while secretly writing a crime fiction novel. About half way through I was gripped with self-doubt. I was an unpublished writer, who was I kidding by thinking I could write a novel? I then broke my cardinal rule by showing my work in progress to my wife. After reading it, she had one piece of advice. "Finish it." Though I begged for more feedback, she refused to elaborate. With new wind in my sails, I resumed working on the book until months later I was again seized by self-doubt. I confided my troubles to a friend who happened to have a contact in New York publishing circles and through extraordinary circumstances she was able to get an editor to look at my manuscript. in progress. That editor was very kind and encouraged me to "finish the book." The editor's name was Bill Thompson, it rang a bell with me and I asked if he was the same Bill Thompson who had helped launch Stephen King. "Yes," he said, my heart raced a bit and I finished the book, which became If Angels Fall, my first published novel.
Through my wife and Bill Thompson, the best advice I have ever received was never give up, never quit, refuse to give in to self-doubt, conquer it by "finishing" your work. I am now starting my 12th novel.
Rick Mofina is the author of the Reed- Sydowski series. He lives in Ottowa.
I don’t know if this is the “best” piece of advice I’ve ever gotten, but it’s certainly the most interesting. A writing teacher once said: Truth is stranger than fiction, because it can afford to be.
I take this to mean that in life sometimes things just . . . happen. But in fiction, nothing can be random. The world you create has to make sense within itself. Character actions have to be motivated on the page—they can be strange and weird, but they have to have a reason why. Why does the serial killer murder people? Because he’s compelled to. Because he thinks he’s God. Because he’s punishing the mother who abandoned him. There are many reasons. But the difference between them will shape your character and his/her actions. And actions shape plot and plot and character shape whole books. Of course, you still have to put your butt in the chair and write. But that’s a piece of advice for another day . . .
Born-and-bred New Yorker Annie Solomon writes romantic suspense. Her latest is One Deadly Sin.
Tom Robinson is an author publicist and media consultant working with authors across the country. Visit his website.