How to Get the Muse to Visit


A classic piece of writing advice is, “Don’t wait for the muse.” But I’ve always felt this is dismissive of muses. You need the muses to write. The trick is, you have to show up for your muse, the same way you show up for your friends and family. This hasn’t been the easiest year to show up for anyone, let alone muses, and I’ve noticed there are a lot of suggestions floating around on the Internet about time management and productivity and setting boundaries with your children. This advice isn’t about that. This is about you getting more time with the Muse. Maybe you two will make something great, or maybe you’ll make something absurd and ridiculous. The Muse doesn’t care if your work is worthwhile and neither do I. I just want you to have more fun. And I want to have more fun. I wrote these for myself, obviously. 

How to Get the Muse to Visit

Send an invitation. Designate a specific time and place.You have to put out treats. She’ll like whatever you like. Salted almonds. Triscuits. Apple slices. Sunflower seeds. She enjoys a pot of tea or a cup of coffee. But not too strong. No booze. She’s not a drinker and doesn’t appreciate chatting with people who are tipsy.Tell her she can arrive whenever she wants, and that you’ll be doing some pre-writing exercises to get warmed up while you wait. Then do some pre-writing exercises. Ask your characters some simple ice-breaker questions, nothing too heavy and nothing that you need to know for the fiction you’re writing. Things like, “What’s the best meal you ever had?” “Who was your first crush?” “What songs do you like to listen to when you’re cleaning up?”Don’t make a fuss when the Muse shows up. Just say, “Hey, you want to sit over here by me and trade gossip?”Have some gossip ready. Tell her something about yourself or someone you know that you would never write down because you wouldn’t want it getting back to you. If you don’t have any gossip, read her poetry.Do not read her anything you wrote the day before, even if she helped you write it. You’ll bore her. She hates being bored.Do not invite the Editor. The Editor has offended her many, many times. She will clam up if the Editor is around, or just get up and leave. Do not invite Envy and Jealousy. I know there are times when you want to entertain them, but if they show up at the door when you’ve invited the Muse over, just politely ask them to come back another time. The Muse doesn’t like them because they monopolize the conversation, telling the same stories over and over again. Do invite your relatives and friends who have passed away. The Muse loves to talk to the dead. Don’t go on the Internet, even if it’s to jog your memory or to fact-check something you or the Muse has said. You can fact-check later with the Editor. That’s the kind of thing editors like to do. Don’t talk about the publishing world, review coverage, marketing strategies, Twitter threads, or “best-of” lists. Save that for your pity party with Envy, Jealousy, and FOMO. If you’re working on a particular project and you would like the Muse’s help, say to her, “Hey, I’m just working on this little thing—it’s no big deal, if you don’t have time, I understand, I’m just mentioning it because I think it might be fun for you, and you’d get to work with these really interesting characters, what do you think?” And then just start telling her about the project and see if she says anything. If the Muse doesn’t say anything, don’t panic. She’s listening. Maybe you gave her a hard problem. Or maybe she’s testing you. Have you been inviting her around enough? Invite her to come back the next day. And the day after that. And the day after that. Ask her specific questions. Give her puzzles to solve. Tell her she can try anything. Eventually, she’ll start talking.If the Muse has nothing to say about the project that you’re working on, and you really are stuck, ask her what she wants to work on. Tell her it can be anything in any genre. Tell her you aren’t going to try to sell it and that it will just be between the two of you. She can say anything she wants and you will never tell anyone. She needs to know that she can tell the truth. And she needs to know that she can ask you anything and you will tell the truth. Lastly, and this is the most important thing: if the Muse isn’t showing up for weeks on end, double-check to make sure the front door is open. Or at least a window. She really wants to talk to you, but you have to let her in.

Image Credit: Wikipedia.

Our Work and Why We Do It

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“I hate to write, but I love having written” is a quote variously attributed to Dorothy Parker, George R.R. Martin, Gloria Steinem, and Robert Louis Stevenson, among many others. The promiscuity of its provenance is, I think, a testimony to its relatability among writers in general. It’s difficult, in other words, to think of someone who couldn’t have said it.

I first heard this quote paraphrased years ago by a fellow writer in my MFA program, an older student who truly seemed to hate the act of writing. As described, it was torture for him. He claimed to sometimes labor over a single sentence for most of the morning and walk away unsatisfied. Getting together a 10-page draft for workshop was, for him, a task that required Herculean, heroic measures. Having drinks afterwards, he would seem limp and wrung out, relieved at having the experience behind him, miserable at the thought of the next one in a month.

My friend may have been an extreme case, but he is not alone. People hate writing. An informal survey of any group of writers online overwhelmingly yields this sentiment. My Twitter timeline is perennially filled with variations on the theme of what a difficult, sometimes even hateful experience writing is. On the one hand, a great deal of this kind of angst, especially on Twitter, is performative and attention-seeking. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t truth in it, too. Entire forums primarily exist to allay and soothe not just the misery of writing, but the anticipatory dread it seems to inspire. Even when many people are away from their computers or Moleskins, the mere thought of writing, or having to write, seems to exert a depressing power on them.

This is not unreasonable. Writing a novel—or short story collection, or memoir—is an awful lot of incredibly hard work that no one asks you to do. It’s a little like playing the office martyr who voluntarily stays at work after everyone has left, except the office martyr gets paid and might get a promotion for their trouble. Whereas 99.99 percent of the time, you will get effectively nothing. Despite all of this, most people gird themselves and get back on that horse. Why? Why do it, if you don’t like doing it?

Overwhelmingly, the reason why most people keep at it would seem to be the prospect of getting published, the feeling that it will all be worth it at long last, holding that contributor’s copy or freshly minted novel in their hands—that the love having written part will outweigh the hate to write that it follows. But there is reason to wonder if this equation has any basis in fact.

The Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize for his pioneering work in the field of behavioral economics. His research is far-reaching, with many implications about how humans apportion their time and resources, and how they might make different decisions with a different understanding of the mechanisms of happiness. In particular, he divides happiness into two types: experiential happiness and reflective happiness.

These types are what they sound like, more or less. Experiential happiness is the pleasure we take in the moment-to-moment experience of living—moments that, according to neuroscience, last about three seconds and are more or less gone forever. Nonetheless, in aggregate, they constitute the fabric and texture of a life. Reflective—or, variously, in Kahneman’s research, “remembered”—happiness is the pleasure we take in thinking about our lives. This is the happiness that on vacation drives us to visit the Louvre when we would really rather sit at a café drinking red wine. We sacrifice that existential happiness for the prospect of remembering the museum in the future and deriving pleasure from that.

This mechanism also accounts for why we pursue many of our ambitions, and, arguably, for the fact of ambition itself. Ambition, very often, if not always, sacrifices existential happiness at the altar of reflected happiness. What, after all, is something like law school, but a three-year exercise in not having fun, for the sake of living a presumably better life afterward? Paraphrasing Kahneman, for various reasons, some of them neurological and some of them learned, we don’t intuit future experienced happiness as being as meaningful as future remembered/reflected happiness.

Another way of putting it is we want to have done things. We want to have made partner by forty. We want to have run a marathon. We want to have climbed Mt. Everest. And many, many people, it would seem, want to have written and published novels.

The problem with this, according to Kahneman, is that as humans we chronically and radically overestimate how happy reflected happiness will make us relative to experienced happiness. In one of his examples he cites a three-week trip he took to Antarctica, surely, he says, the most spectacular and meaningful vacation of his life. In the three years since he took it, he estimates, he derived reflected pleasure from it for thirty or so minutes. Even, he says, if you are someone more predisposed than he is to dwelling on past pleasures, surely you cannot reminisce sufficiently to make the happiness of remembering equal to the happiness of experiencing.

Generally speaking, according to behavioral research, “wanting to have done something” is usually not a good reason to do it, if the something in question is something you dislike doing. However much pride, for example, a person might feel in thinking about or mentioning that they once completed a marathon, that flash of happiness could never make up for the months of miserable, painful training it took to run 26 miles. That is, of course, unless the runner in question loves training itself: loves 10-mile early morning runs in the freezing cold, loves pushing their limits, loves making schedules, loves incremental success, loves adjusting their diet, and so on. In that case, running a marathon is a pleasure in both experiential and reflective terms, with a quantity of reflective and experiential pleasure gained by running the race that pales in comparison to the months of training.

And so it seems to be with writing. Professor Kahneman, I think, would agree that for a person who does not really enjoy the act of writing—like my old workshop friend—the pleasure of having written a thing could never, for him, outweigh the pain of the writing itself. Novel writing presents a radical example of trading experiential happiness for anticipated reflective happiness, surely one of the most extreme examples of this kind of activity that humans regularly engage in. Yet it is a widely held article of faith that all the suffering it takes to produce—and maybe publish—a novel, will be worth it.

But it won’t. It couldn’t possibly. Getting a novel written and published is a rare achievement and should be a matter of great pride—but pride is thin gruel that becomes thinner by the day. It is not sustaining. What is sustaining—if you are lucky enough to enjoy the work—is the work, full stop.

This seems like a fact worth meditating on, at this particular moment, more than ever. Things that, as an author, you usually take for granted as bedrock facts of your world—a healthy reading public with disposable time and income, or the continued solvency/existence of major publishers, for example—suddenly seem made less of granite than of sand. We are advised to isolate and quarantine, and we have no idea, really, what is to come. Now, more than ever, if you are a writer, there is only you and the work-in-progress. But then, that is really always the case.

I so often have to meditate on this fact, despite counting myself in the fortunate camp of people for whom the act of writing is an act of pleasure, even, at times, joy. I am never really happier than when I’m opening a file in the morning, my first cup of coffee beside me. I am capable of enjoying a years-long novel writing process, excluding possibly the very last draft or two, which are almost invariably brutal slogs.

Nonetheless, like most people, I find myself making the same mistakes, over and over, forgetting that it is only about the work. In the lead up to the publication of my last novel, I was a kite flapping whichever way the wind blew that day. A good review might send me off into the clouds; a bad review would certainly plummet me to the ground, reminding me of the unlikelihood of the book achieving any kind of success.

Success. As I have done many times before, I interrogated this word. What is success in writing? I came to, as one so often does at these times, an unsatisfying bromide that nonetheless possesses the dull and stubborn ring of truth. Tertiary success in writing is actual or “actual” success, what we are conditioned to foolishly hope for: sales, awards, packed readings, a large and vociferous readership. Secondary success is simply getting a novel written and published—again, a huge feat for anyone to accomplish at any level of publication. But primary success—the real success—is the days and weeks and months and years of satisfying, engaging work it takes to produce the book, no matter what happens to it afterward.

We are dust, after all. Most books are dust. Nothing lasts, and short of believing in a conventional afterlife where you are admitted to some kind of successful writers’ VIP lounge, there’s no sound reason to obsess about writing a successful novel. To return to Kahnemann, what behavioral science teaches us, over and over, about happiness is that success does not really make us happy. A minimal level of financial security is a precondition for happiness. Connection with people we love makes us happy. Physical exercise and movement makes us happy. Food makes us happy. And doing something meaningful makes us happy. This is the real value of writing: it is the search for meaning distilled in an act.

Writing is, ultimately, an act of meditation, an act of prayer. It is giving yourself over to sustained concentration, thinking deeply about the world around you, about your life. It is a way of communing with yourself, and even if this regular practice results in publication, the real hard-won value is in the millions of moments that led to the book’s existence. Every day that you sit down, for as much time as you have to work, you should be grateful for the opportunity to do a meaningful thing even if—maybe, especially if—it is only meaningful to you. As much as possible, you should inhabit the act itself, seeing the success in each new word that appears on the page.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

How to Live the Writing Life


Mary Gannon and Kevin Larimer, the two most recent editors of Poets & Writers, want you to know how to be a writer. That means understanding every step of the process, not just when to pick up the pen (or put it down) or open up the laptop (or close it shut). Their new book, The Poets & Writers Complete Guide to Being a Writer, includes tips on finding and entering writing contests, applying for and taking writing retreats, navigating the seas of self-publishing, finding an agent and working with an editor, and building a sustainable career.
Larimer said that the duo “tried to balance practical, no-nonsense tips and insights from successful authors and publishing professionals with a decidedly more human, humane, and emotional approach to the writing life.” Their hope, Adler said, was that the book would “reflect the hearts and souls of the writers we’ve worked with and come to deeply admire over the past two decades as much as their boundless creativity and bright intellect.”
The effort, according to some of the biggest names in writing and publishing, paid off, with Graywolf publisher Fiona McCrae calling the book a “teeming compendium” and Riverhead Books associate publisher and director of publicity Jynne Dilling Martin adding, in a blurb for a book published by a rival company, that she found the book “lucid, lively, [and] enormously helpful.”
To help distill some of their knowledge for the masses, The Millions asked Gannon and Latimer to round up six pieces of advice from the book they found both representative and particularly helpful. Here are six shortened selections they sent us:
1. Read literary magazines—and subscribe to them, too.
This seems like a no-brainer, but not all writers take the time to do it. Reading literary magazines not only demonstrates good literary citizenship, but it also provides essential information about the field and the chance to discover the work of writers you wouldn’t otherwise find. You can take note of where your favorite authors are publishing their work, hone in on particular magazines’ missions and aesthetics, and support the very magazines you hope to be published in one day. And as writer Yuka Igarashi says, “A literary magazine puts a writer in conversation with other writers and, depending on the magazine, with a community, with a lineage or tradition.” — chosen by Mary Gannon
2.Write a fan letter to an author.
All writers, even the most established, need a little love. And you’d be surprised to know how meaningful receiving a fan letter can be to a writer. Plus, carving out the time to think through and articulate why a book or piece of writing moves you, what you found important, and possibly even transformative, gives you a gift as well—the opportunity to understand what you value most and why. This clarity can inform your own writing practice in significant ways. —chosen by Mary Gannon
3.You don’t need an MFA to be a successful writer.
Pursuing a master of arts degree in creative writing has become a well-travelled path toward becoming a published writer, but it’s not the only path and it can be expensive. (If you do choose to pursue an MFA, we highly recommend researching programs that offer full funding.) What the MFA provides—the time and environment for refining your craft with like-minded people—can be achieved through other means. Think writing conferences, writing groups, and DIY retreats. Talk to any agent or editor, in New York City or elsewhere, and they’ll all say the same thing. If given a choice between a mediocre manuscript from a writer with an MFA and a remarkable one from a writer who never even went to college, they will always choose the best writing. —chosen by Mary Gannon
4.Don’t feel guilty if you’re not writing.
Too often we hear the advice that all writers really need to do is force themselves to sit there and write. As Mary Heaton Vorse purportedly said to Sinclair Lewis over a century ago: “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat on the pants to the seat of the chair.” While it’s true that nothing was ever written without a significant amount of time spent, you know, writing, you shouldn’t feel a constant sense of guilt if you’re not in that chair writing at every available moment of every day. Some authors talk about how they’re able to plant themselves in the writing chair on a strict schedule, which can be inspiring, but it can also give beginning writers the impression that everyone works that way. Or that everyone should want to work that way. So, in the book we wanted to guard against the assumption that if you don’t keep a rigorous writing schedule you must not want it enough, that you must not be serious about writing if you aren’t dedicating a set number of hours to the act of writing. This is nonsense. It ignores the reality for many of us—the reality that is composed of varying levels, degrees, and amounts of responsibility, of inequality, of privilege, of access. Your level of passion and commitment to writing is not commensurate with the number of hours per day that you write. Being a writer is about more than just writing. There’s a reason we refer to it as “the writing life.” An important part of being a writer is living—and truly living is ensuring that you’re not chained to a desk staring at a computer at the expense of lived experience (which will, of course, inform and enliven your writing). —chosen by Kevin Larimer
5.Be proud of yourself.
Too often, especially for writers, pride can sound like a bad word. Many of us downplay our contributions and accomplishments, forgetting to take a moment to feel proud of what we’re doing on the page. Having grown up on a farm in the Midwest, in a family where modesty was held up as a kind of unspoken principle, I can find it difficult, even under the sheen of social media, to take time for the good, healthy, valuable feelings of accomplishment that come after a long writing or editing project is finally complete. We wanted to make sure that our book included some reminders to writers to take a moment and give yourself permission to brag a bit. Don’t automatically dismiss what you’re doing if someone brings up your writing over dinner or in casual conversation. You’re a writer; you’ve written something unique. And there are millions of people out there who cannot say that. It’s a special thing you’re doing, unique to you. Go ahead, be proud of yourself! —chosen by Kevin Larimer
6.Feel your post-publication feelings.
Honestly, this is something we were able to write about only after our own book was well on its way to being published, and we added it as the last chapter because the feelings we were writing about were so strong. Not a lot of writers talk about it, at least not publicly, because unless you’ve been through the process yourself, you likely wouldn’t know to ask an author about it. And so many writers hold publication as a top marker of success; it makes sense that authors wouldn’t want to be perceived as complaining about how emotionally difficult it can be. Plus, it’s kind of personal. It can be a little embarrassing when your eyes well up with tears when you hit send on the final manuscript to your editor. There are so many emotions—joy, relief, excitement, and happiness, yes, but also fear, sadness, exhaustion; heck, maybe you’re feeling a little let down after the rush leading up to deadline. All of these things are normal. So don’t be embarrassed of your feelings. You’re engaged in something really big. This work involves every part of you, and there are highs and lows at every step. We want to remind writers to feel it all, and use every piece of it to fuel and empower your next writing project. —chosen by Kevin Larimer
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

The Horror, The Horror: Rereading Yourself

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Here is a secret about writers, or at least most writers I know, including me: we don’t like to read our published work. Conversations I’ve had over the years with author friends have tended to confirm my own feelings on the matter—namely, that it is very nice and fortunate and rewarding to get something published, but you don’t ever especially want to read it again. One reason for this is the fact that, by the time you’ve finished revising, copyediting, and proofreading a book, you have already reread it effectively a hundred million times before publication. Another reason: there is something deeply nerve-wracking about the fact of the thing you’ve written, mutable for so long, now being fixed and frozen forever, with no possibility of rewriting whatever mistakes you might—and will—find upon rereading. Among the countless, loving tributes in the wake of her recent death, one memorable Toni Morrison anecdote recounted her habit of taking a red pencil to her published works as she read from them; Toni Morrison, of course, was one of the few authors who might have reasonably expected reprintings and possible future opportunities for correcting errata. Toni Morrison was Toni Morrison.

The rest of us have to live with the reality of what we’ve written and managed to get out in the world, and so there’s a self-protective instinct to look away from it. But when the case of author’s copies of my new novel, The Hotel Neversink, arrived—and with it, the usual reticence to crack one open—I found myself wondering about this impulse: is it good? Maybe not. A writer could go through their whole life accumulating work and publications without ever, in earnest, going back and looking at what they’ve done with a reader’s eye. And if you never revisit your old work, you may never fully understand how, or if, you’ve changed as an artist and person. With a sense of great reluctance and apprehension, I therefore decided to sit down and fully reread my first novel.

The novel in question is The Grand Tour, which I wrote from 2013 to 2014, while I was in graduate school at Cornell. I revised it over the following year, during which time I was lucky enough for it sell to Doubleday, which published it almost exactly three years ago, in August, 2016. For what it’s worth, it received good reviews from outlets like Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, and was generally well-received by readers, although not readers who were expecting an uplifting read. One of the highlights of publication came in the form of a hostile email from a very old woman telling me how much she hated my main character, Richard. And she wasn’t wrong to hate him. Richard is quite hateable. In an era of nice characters, and an ever-increasing expectation of “relatability” from readers, The Grand Tour features the kind of anti-heroic ’60s/’70s protagonist sometimes played in films by Jack Nicholson, the kind who no longer curries any cultural favor whatsoever.

But that’s the point of Richard Lazar: he doesn’t curry any favor in his fictional world, either. He is washed-up and alcoholic and socially radioactive, having lived in the desert for ten years following the collapse of his second marriage. When he receives word that his Vietnam memoir has grazed the bestseller list, he is uniquely unprepared to capitalize on this fleeting moment of success. Nonetheless, his publisher trundles him out on a promotional tour, where he meets a young fan named Vance, providing the basis for what is essentially a coming-of-age road novel, (a bildungsroadman?).

The book’s first chapter sets the tone. Richard comes to after blacking out on a flight, is rude to a flight attendant and hostile to Vance, who meets him at the airport with a homemade sign. He proceeds to get drunk before the reading, do a predictably bad job, get drunker at the faculty dinner, and hit on the Dean’s wife. As he’s driven back to his hotel room by the disillusioned Vance, he tells the kid not to bother with writing.

I knew Richard sucked, but this time around, I found myself disliking him a lot more than I did while writing or revising the novel. Richard is a version of the Unhappy White Guy protagonists I grew up reading, and that I attempted to classify in this essay. His specific lineage is the hard-drinking hard-luck variety found in books by the Southern writers I loved in my twenties: Messrs Hannah, Brown, and Crews—Barry, Larry, and Harry. Ultra-masculine, drunk and doomed, these writers and their antiheroes exerted an outsized influence on The Grand Tour. I suppose it speaks well of my personal growth that I’m less (read: not) enamored with this type of character the way I was seven years ago. In a way, this disenchantment feels healthy and generally axiomatic: books take a long time to write and publish, and perhaps they should always feel a little dusty and outmoded by the time they come out.

To the novel’s credit, I think, it is aware of Richard’s awfulness, and, to an extent, Vance’s. It is not the kind of book that misjudges its protagonist, although it might misjudge the extent to which, for a reader, the comedy of complete assholishness can justify having to spend 300 pages with a complete asshole. That said, this time around, I still found it to be a pretty funny book with lots of amusing passages, for instance this one, describing Richard’s purchase of a house in foreclosure after the 2008 real estate bubble:

[His advance] was enough, as it turned out, to buy a nearby house in foreclosure, in a superexurban neighborhood called The Bluffs. There was no bluff visible in the landscape, so perhaps the name referred to the cavalier attitude local banks and homeowners had taken toward the adjustable-rate mortgages that subsequently emptied the neighborhood. It turned out they were giving the things away—all you had to do was show up at auction with a roll of quarters and a ballpoint pen.

Horrible or not, Richard is a successfully drawn character, if one with many problematic antecedents. Vance is drawn convincingly, as well, although his chapters feel slightly less successful to me, simply for the fact that he’s a less funny character. He’s nineteen, stuck at home, depressed and painfully earnest—in other words, the perfect earnest foil for Richard’s cynical lout. This odd couple set-up does feel formulaic, although it also works, as formulas tend to do. Formulaic, as well, though less successfully so, are a clutch of chapters representing Richard’s memoir in the book. On a reread, the appearance of these Vietnam chapters felt somewhat unwelcome to me, and not just because of being typeset in italics. They lean a little too heavily on skin-deep source material like Full Metal Jacket and The Things They Carried. Here comes the gregarious, rebellious grunt. There goes the gruff sergeant and patrician lieutenant. I did do some actual research about troop movements and munitions and local geography, but the whole thing feels a bit stale, though maybe any Vietnam story published in 2016 would.

What does not feel stale at all this time around is the introduction of a third perspective, Richard’s estranged daughter, Cindy, a casino croupier and malcontent, who takes over the middle third of the book. On this read, Cindy strikes me as the most successful aspect of The Grand Tour. She’s the most original character, and she structurally provides respite from the bad male behavior that otherwise dominates the proceedings. Richard and Vance are, after all, two sides of the same coin, i.e. the coin of male ego and its attendant problems. That Vance’s ego is subdued and wounded makes it no less irritating.

The novel’s awareness of these men as problematic and tiresome, and the section in which Cindy more or less destroys them—Vance sexually, Richard emotionally—elevates (I hope) the book above similar novels that simply find their male hero’s antics fascinating. Cindy makes her gleeful exit, disappearing into a street fair crowd, in one of the novel’s most memorable passages:

The Friday-night crowd swelled around her as she neared downtown—in front of the façade of a large art deco building, a stage was set up on which a bunch of paunchy white dudes mangled “Whipping Post.” People pushed past and she rejoiced in it, becoming part of the throng, the multitude … she wondered what someone watching her from above, looking at her face, might think. Would they know anything, be able to divine something about her, her life, or her mistakes? No. No one knows anything about anyone, she thought, and for the second time that day was struck by the feeling that she could start over—that nothing, in fact, would be easier. Denver, why not? She dragged her suitcase into the hot jostle, for the moment immensely pleased.    

The remainder of the novel (SPOILER) finds Vance getting sent to Riker’s Island (!) and all of Richard’s proverbial chickens coming home to roost. A lot happens in these last chapters, probably too much. This is, I think, an unavoidable function or symptom of the book itself trying to do too much. One thing that struck me on this reading is just how much there is going on. It’s a common feature of the debut novel, in which an author takes decades of reading and thinking about novels and compresses it all into their first try, as though it will also be their last. Some of it works here, and some of it doesn’t. If I were to give critical advice to the person who wrote this, I might tell him to think about losing at least one of the component parts—maybe the Vietnam sections—and to also not feel like he has to conclude all of the proceedings with quite such a bang. The tour, I might suggest, could end on a more muted note. The final pages do manage this quietness, and it’s a relief after the sound and fury that precede them.

All of which is to say, I think it’s… pretty good? It’s entertaining and funny, and the writing is solid and sometimes excellent. That sounds like an unreliable claim, given my obvious bias, but would it convince a reader of my objectivity if I also say that I found the book to be weirdly old-fashioned and in certain places very contrived? Ultimately, it’s an uneven novel held together by its humor and prose. I believe if I hadn’t written The Grand Tour and had just happened across it, I would have finished and enjoyed it, with reservations. And if I’d written a review, I might have been generous with this first-time author, adding to everything I’ve said here that I looked forward to what he comes up with next.

Image credit: Unsplash/Rey Seven.

Five Writing Tips from Mark Bowden

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Many years ago I asked the novelist John Barth for some writing advice. He told me always to end a writing session in mid-sentence.
“That way you’ll know exactly where to pick up the next day.”
That has proven useful, so I pass it along. It applies equally to all forms of writing. My own work has been nonfiction, so my tips below may be more narrowly helpful, but if you have a true story to tell, here are five tips—and a bonus one at the end. That makes seven. They are paying me fifty bucks for this, so that’s $7.14 apiece.
1. Know Something
When I taught nonfiction writing, the first assignment I gave was to go someplace new and interview someone you don’t know. This is both the essence and the pleasure of reporting. Try coming up with 800 words when you have nothing to say; then try when you have just had a new experience. When you’ve learned something—anything—you’ll struggle to stay under the word count. Pushing yourself past the familiar isn’t always easy, but it is always worth it. As a writer you are otherwise trapped in your own head, and your writing will be what we in the newsroom used to call “thumbsucking.” Some people are very good at it, but most are not.
Reporting is also fun. Perhaps the greatest pleasure in my professional life has been going places I would otherwise have never gone, and meeting people I otherwise would have never met. The internet puts so much information at our fingertips that young people in particular think they can research and report without leaving their chair. Where’s the joy in that? And, by definition, whatever you find online has already been reported. If you want people to read you, tell them something new.
Reporting is also a great cure for writer’s block.
2. Understand What You Are Trying to Do
This goes both for your overall objective all the way down to choosing the right words. If you don’t know what you are trying to say there’s no chance your reader will. Are you telling a story? Delivering a report? Making an argument? Each objective has its own set of requirements.
When I was writing for a newspaper the answer to those questions clarified the task enormously. If I was writing a report, then the goal was to do it as clearly and concisely as possible. Telling a story, writing a narrative, demands more reporting time and more space. It calls for characters and setting, action, dialogue, a sense of motivation, and a beginning, middle, and end. Stories need room to breathe. Argument has its own requirements: a review of the facts, a clear statement of opinion, a presentation of counterarguments and refutations, an appeal to reason or fairness or emotion, and so on.
So be clear about your intention before you start. Then make an outline, even if it’s only very rough, and revise it continually. The question most in my mind when writing is: What exactly are you trying to say? A clear answer to that question will help you avoid confusion and cliché.
3. Rewrite, Rewrite, and Rewrite Some More
I had the great good fortune in my life to work with a number of fine editors, most of whom, in my youth, I fought. I was butting heads one time with the ever mild, all-wise Charles Layton at The Philadelphia Inquirer, who always found plenty to improve in my early drafts. I felt scourged, and writhed and moaned accordingly.
“Mark, I thought you liked to write,” he said.
“I do!” I said.
“Well, this is writing.”
Editors have taught me important tricks, like squeezing my prose. Imagine closing your fist around a wet sponge. She would array my story in a narrow column on the computer screen—five or six words per line—and then remove a word or two, effortlessly, from nearly every one. It was appalling how many unnecessary words spilled out. The end result was clearer and more concise. Almost any sentence improves on second or third thought. Another suggested that I try to avoid beginning sentences with the word “the,” not because there is anything wrong with it, but because “the” is the most commonplace way to begin one, and avoiding forces you to rethink. Try any exercise that encourages a more original cadence.
My drafts are cleaner today, but I still listen closely to my editors and usually take their advice. They are your first readers, and they get to talk back. They can tell you if your prose is confusing, boring, boorish, or simply wrong. A writer who doesn’t listen is a fool.

4. Be Yourself
The most common mistake new writers make is to adopt a voice that is not their own. The best way to develop an original voice is to use your own. Write the way you speak. Use your own vocabulary, and simple, clear sentences, unless there’s some strong reason not to. And never write a sentence that you would not quite naturally say.
Young writers in particular try to sound more learned or sophisticated or official. It’s the fastest way to make a fool of yourself on the printed page. Trying to sound like someone else usually leads to mangled syntax and the use of vocabulary beyond your reach—playwrights have been dining out on the malapropisms of foolish characters for centuries. Once your skills are more developed, you can use other voices to great effect, but first make sure you are comfortable writing in your own.
5. Scenes are Gold
No matter what you are writing, try to employ scenes whenever possible. Think about your experience as a reader. Pages turn swiftly when we’re reading action or dialogue, while exposition and description can slow things to a crawl.
Of course, serious writing demands description and exposition, but be sensitive to the demands they make. Screenwriters love to embed exposition in dialogue—“When I was born back there in 1951, you know, the year the first hydrogen bomb was exploded …”. Movie director Ridley Scott, redlines such passages and scribbles “Irving” in the margin, short for a character he calls “Irving the Explainer.” He hates Irving. Stories, essays, and reports can accommodate more than a movie script, but if you want readers to stay with you until the end, keep Irving on a tight leash.

When writing nonfiction, where you are bound by the truth, scenes are not always easy to come by. The modern world has gifted nonfiction writers with audio and video. Years ago, writing a series of stories about police corruption in Philadelphia, I built a long story around the FBI surveillance video used to build the case. I didn’t have to explain what the accused cops were doing, I could show it. In Black Hawk Down, I found transcripts of all the radio traffic during the battle, which gave the story unimpeachable accuracy and great immediacy. My most recent book, The Last Stone, is constructed around more than 70 hours of videotaped interrogation. Where there are no recordings, learn to elicit what you need from interviews. If some tells you, “Bob was a funny guy,” ask, “Tell me something he did that made you laugh.” There’s a scene in there somewhere. And once you recognize something that could be a scene in your story, dig in hard. When I wrote Finders Keepers, the story of a Philadelphia longshoreman who found $1.2 million that had fallen off the back of an armored car, I forced the main character, Joey Coyle, to recreate that moment from his memory second-by-second—What clothes were you wearing? What time of day was it? How heavy was the bag? What color was it? How was it sealed? How did you open it? And so on. Joey thought I was crazy, but I knew I needed as many details as I could find to properly recreate that moment on the page.
One bonus tip:
6. Ignore Any Advice That Gets in Your Way.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on

Image credit: Unsplash/Art Lasovsky.