How to be an author, by authors

We asked six acclaimed writers for advice on how to get started

Time In
Time In

On the back of yet another successful Emirates Litfest, Time Out celebrates creative writing and quizzes six successful American wordsmiths on how to perfect the form.

Mike Burns
Power Moves: Livin’ the American Dream
I believe you should be emotionally bonded to the people you write about, whether they be real or fictional. Feel sad for their hardships and happy for their triumphs. If you aren’t truly attached to your subjects, chances are the reader won’t be either. Music is very important to my writing process. I’m fascinated by the idea of using letters as a way to transform sound into images and colours in another person’s brain like some sort of sensory alchemy. Just like great films, great writing needs a great score, even if it can’t be heard.

Ben Dolnick
At the Bottom of Everything
Get a kitchen timer. Writers are ingenious at redefining what qualifies as doing work (‘If I just spend this morning cleaning my desk...’). A kitchen timer tolerates no such nonsense. Set yourself a daily writing quota (as little as a half hour is fine at first), set the clock and then just get to work.

Drew Magary
Someone Could Get Hurt: A Memoir of 21st-century Parenthood
If you’re going to reference something, assume the reader knows the source. If you say: ‘This is just like that time on The Simpsons when Kent Brockman welcomed our new insect overlords,’ you suck. You need to just say the line and then let the reader figure out where it came from.

Anthony Marra
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
Read widely. Write for three hours a day, six days a week. Throw out the red pens and retype your work. When you want to give up, keep in mind that your solitary struggles to shape language into meaning will become the most profound moments of your creative life. Enjoy yourself.

Stuart Nadler
Wise Men
A fact: You will always feel like your work isn’t good enough. As a salve, or simply as a way to stay sane, be in the world. Ride the train. Listen to strangers. Occasionally, if you’re brave, speak to them. Walk in the city you live. Pay attention. Don’t bother with taking notes, or buying fancy notepads. Have enough confidence in yourself to not be unpleasant. Then, get up and go to work and try again.

Adelle Waldman
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P
The best advice I can give to any budding writer has little to do with actual writing; it has to do with thinking about people. I recommend that you practise creating fictional characters by trying to describe, privately, the people in your life. See if you can describe their characters without being so general that they could be anyone. Then check back in a few months. If your description has radically changed, you have a way to go. You aren’t yet seeing other people as fully fleshed-out others, but are mired in your own relationships with them. When you can describe people in ways that are both meaningful and consistent and survive the vicissitudes of your moods, then you know you’re really getting somewhere.
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