Advice to a Young Writer

Recently, I received an email from a young writer, still in high school, with a list of very smart questions about writing. They all were about things I’d thought about endlessly over the years, so I found I had more to say than I expected. It The Q-A follows:

Do you get writer’s block very often? If so, what do you do to try and write through it? 
I think the first thing to know is that writer’s block isn’t some ailment akin to polio, a paralysis that is initiated by some outside force. It’s simply confronting the reality that identifying something novel and interesting to say, then saying it in the best possible way, is an extremely challenging enterprise. The “block” is really just recognition of the huge gap between a blank screen and the finished project. There’s a kind of shock at the realization of how much effort lies ahead, and that shock triggers panic. I guess you can equate writer’s block to a kind of tantrum, like a little kid might throw, rebelling when she’s ordered to clean up a room that is buried under weeks worth of scattered toys, dirty clothes, half-eaten snacks and general chaos. It’s. Just. Too. Hard. BOO HOO HOO. Underlying it all is a fear of failure. Every time you start to tentatively type a few words, your critical instinct tells you THEY STINK, and you just recoil from your own ineptitude and shut down. The solution to writer’s block is to shut down your gag reflex, to allow yourself to stink, understanding as Hemingway  famously recognized, “The first draft of anything is [bad word goes here].”  I used to have a headline set in type over my desk at work. It said, “DON’T WRITE, TYPE.” This reminded me that the purpose of the first draft is not to write something good, but to write something bad that you can then begin to work on to make better. Before Michelangelo could begin sculpting the statue of David, he had to have a big old block of marble he could begin chiseling away at. The first draft is your block of marble. Trying to really write what you intended to write without having an indifferent lump of first draft is like trying to sculpt David out of thin air. Can’t be done. So JUST TYPE. It doesn’t matter how bad it is. Disengage all your critical functions and just let your subconscious put whatever words out there it wants to. Then you start: You look at what is on the page and you think, what’s wrong with this? Why does it suck? and  in answering those questions, you begin to figure out ways to make it better. Continue the process. Rinse, lather, repeat.
What I’ve found is I hate writing, but I actually love to rewrite. Identifying problems and fixing them can be challenging but fun, like a good puzzle.
How long does it usually take to write a full manuscript?
By full manuscript I assume you mean a book. I have written books under very different circumstances. My first book was written while I was working full time. I would wake up at 4:30 and spend two and a half hours working on the book before starting to get ready for work. Then I’d spend at least one day on the weekend working on it. It was exhausting, but I was able to finish the book in about a year that way. My last few books I was able to work on full time, but under different deadline circumstances. One book, on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster, I had to report and write in just seven months because the publisher wanted to bring the book out at the one year anniversary of the explosion. I did it, but I had to work seven days a week, sometimes as much as 14 hours a day to get it done. I wrote my most recent book at a more leisurely rate and took about 18 months to do it. I have a friend and client who has been working on a book for five years (while doing other projects as well) and he still isn’t finished. A recent client wrote an excellent novel in the space of four months.
So I guess the answer to your question is that there is no one answer to this.
        How long does your editing process normally take? 
As someone who has been both an editor and a writer, I tend to write and edit simultaneously, and as mentioned above, this isn’t always a great thing. But when I am writing, each day I start by going back through what I had written previously and editing that, then going on into fresh territory. But if you mean how long does it take once I submit a manuscript to the publisher’s editor, the way it works is this:  The first thing that happens is I have to wait for the editor’s response. This can take weeks or sometimes months, and it can be a frustrating wait. Once I get the editor’s notes I can usually go through the entire book dealing with edits, questions and suggestions in a week to a couple of weeks. This would be different, longer, of course, if the editor had very significant problems that required rethinking, reorganizing, or even re-reporting large sections of the book. After I have resubmitted my responses to the edits then I need to wait once again for the editor to go back through and react. Usually this doesn’t take long. Then, once we are both happy with the manuscript, it goes to the copy editors who will take a few weeks to go through the entire manuscript suggesting changes for spelling, grammar, syntax, consistency and in some cases, accuracy. Going back through those changes, approving them, rejecting them, or finding some other way to address their issues, takes a few days to a week usually. There can be other layers to the process. In some cases, the book will undergo a legal review from the publisher’s lawyers, which will require a conference call to discuss the areas of sensitivity, and in some cases rewriting a few key passages. In one case, when I ghost wrote a book for the Navy SEAL who shot Osama bin Laden, because it concerned missions that were conducted in secret, the entire manuscript had to be submitted to the Pentagon for clearance before publication. We heard nothing for six months, and then they returned the manuscript with some sections redacted. There was no way to discuss this with them, or argue about it. We just had to go through and try to rewrite in a way that compensated for the missing sections. But since we had changed the manuscript, we had to resubmit the changes for review. Fortunately that only took a few weeks before we were told they were accepted.
If your agent is expecting a novel is the deadline your own or does your agent set it? 
The deadline isn’t set by the agent. The deadline is set in the contract you agree to with the publisher. As noted above, sometimes the publisher has a firm deadline in mind because of marketing considerations. Other times when you are negotiating the contract they will ask you when you think you will be done and use your own estimate as the deadline date. In those cases, it’s not unusual for writers to need and ask for an extension, and it’s usually granted, within reason.
How long did it take for you to get published? What is the publishing process like?
Since I was a newspaper reporter for 15 years before writing my first book, I of course had been published in newspapers and magazines all the time. But I’d always wanted to write a book and as I said, getting one published happened 15 years after getting my first newspaper job. It’s very exciting when you first sell a book — almost like a movie. You fly to New York, go to your publisher’s office. Your editor takes you to lunch and you discuss the book and the process. You get the advance check! It’s a lot of fun. Then comes the process of writing, which can also be exciting as you make progress, and agonizing as you lose your way and get stuck, or anxiety-provoking as you wrestle with difficult aspects of reporting and writing or simply fear you might fail. Then when you finish the manuscript and get your editor’s approval there’s another blast of excitement, which then turns into the alternately gratifying and tedious process of all the copy editing, proofing and writing of marketing materials. Then there’s the great excitement of getting a box of your books, followed by publication. At first it might seem very gratifying to do publicity for the book — interviews, speaking appearances. But after a while, you get sick of the repetition and promotion of the book you just spent a year or years of your life on. Most writers at some point during the repetitious book talks begin to HATE their book. But that is a temporary kind of blindness that thankfully wears off. And then there is the obsessive concern with your book’s reception — most books of course are not best sellers — but that doesn’t stop you from hoping it will be, and being disappointed when it isn’t. Ultimately, however well it sold, all my books have had surprisingly positive consequences that go on for years. That’s the thing about a book, once it exists, it lives in the world, for many years in some cases. I still get responses on a book I wrote almost 20 years ago that are very gratifying.
In your opinion, what is the hardest genre to write?
Whichever one I am writing at the time.
How do you come up with your ideas? Where does your inspiration come from?
I just follow my curiosity. Whatever intensely interests me and makes me want to know more might turn out to be my next subject. As a practical matter, once I became a known writer, people come to me with things they want me to write. But I still let my own interest be the guide in whether I accept the project. A book is far too much work to agree to do something that I am not fascinated by.
Do you read reviews of your book? If so, how much do they effect what and how you write?
I do read them, and they can be exhilarating or depressing, but they really have no effect on how I write. Over time I’ve come to understand that everyone reacts to books differently, and what one person is looking for in a book can be the exact opposite of what someone else is looking for. So you really can’t write to please everyone. It’s literally impossible. But you can write to satisfy your own conception. And that’s the only way to do it.
Do you send your work to other authors for peer review or does it just go to your editor?
I have a small group of close friends whose judgment I respect who I will send a book to for their opinion before sending it to my editor. Sometimes, I will send portions of a book about a highly technical subject to an expert in the field for comment.
What is your pet peeve when it comes to writing?
What ISN’T my pet peeve, might be a better question. My wife will tell you I’m a champion whiner when I’m writing. It’s just hard. And mostly it’s hard because I know what truly great writing can accomplish, and I’m always afraid of falling short. But I guess if you don’t have that fear, you might not push yourself to do the absolutely best book you are capable of.

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