Fifteen successful authors share their best writing tips

As the Morgan Library mounts a new literary display, we ask established writers to dispense wisdom to their aspiring counterparts.

0

Comments

Add +

Photograph: Alex Strada


After reading the short stories of a then-22-year-old J.D. Salinger in magazines such as Esquire and Collier’s, young Canadian writer Marjorie Sheard reached out to the author for guidance. Still a decade from publishing The Catcher in the Rye and his subsequent seclusion, Salinger gladly obliged, penning nine letters and postcards to her over the next two years. That correspondence will be displayed at the Morgan Library beginning Tuesday 10 in “‘Lose not heart’: J.D. Salinger’s Letters to an Aspiring Writer.” The previously unseen notes offer insight into Salinger’s early creative process, as well as the creation of his most famous character, Holden Caulfield. In honor of the exhibit, we asked a number of present-day writers to share their advice for budding scribes.

Reza Aslan (rezaaslan.com)
Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Random House, $27)
“The best advice I can give an aspiring writer is the one I received years ago: Nobody cares about you or your work like you do. Your agent, your publisher and your publicist are all wonderful people who work their hardest for you to succeed. But in the end, your success as a writer depends almost wholly upon your own tireless efforts to promote your book and make sure it gets the attention it deserves.”

T.C. Boyle
(tcboyle.com)
T.C. Boyle Stories II: The Collected Stories of T. Coraghessan Boyle, Volume II (Viking, $45, out Oct 3)
“My standard advice for aspiring writers is to come from a wealthy family.”

Mike Burns (@DadBoner)
Power Moves: Livin’ the American Dream, USA Style (It Books, $15.99)
“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 colors 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.”

Edwidge Danticat (facebook.com/edwidgedanticat)
Claire of the Sea Light (Knopf, $25.95)
“It might sound corny but listen to your heart. Let that inner voice guide you, the one closest to your truest self. The story you are most afraid to tell might be your truest one, your deepest one. Don’t let neither success nor failure deter you. Remember the excitement of those first days, those first words, those first sentences—and keep going.”

Ben Dolnick (bendolnick.com)
At the Bottom of Everything (Pantheon, $24.95)
“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 get to work.”

Stephen Elliott (@S___Elliott, stephenelliott.com)
The Adderall Diaries (Graywolf Press, $14); founding editor, The Rumpus (therumpus.net)
“You still have to make something really, really good. That’s the nut of it all. And the more time you spend ‘cultivating relationships,’ the less time you spend creating meaningful art. One of those things will do more for you than the other.”

Joe Garden (@joegarden)
Writer/producer for AdultSwim.com, former features editor at The Onion (theonion.com)
“Work shitty jobs that you loathe, but there’s that one bright spot that makes it momentarily bearable. Work shitty jobs that imbue in you the desire to do something different, something tolerable—and I don’t mean law school. Work shitty jobs, but don’t treat it like research or you’ll be sniffed out as a condescending prick. Work shitty jobs that you can forget the moment you go home so you can work on something you love.”

Drew Magary (@drewmagary, drewmagary.com)
Someone Could Get Hurt: A Memoir of 21st-Century Parenthood (Gotham, $25)
“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. Just say the line and let the reader figure out where it came from.”

Anthony Marra (@anthonyfmarra)
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Hogarth, $26)
“Read widely. Write for three hours a day, six days a week. Throw out the red pens and retype your work. When the frustrations accumulate and 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.”

James McBride (jamesmcbride.com)
The Good Lord Bird (Riverhead, $27.95)
“Rewrite everything. Even letters.”

Stuart Nadler
(stuartnadler.net)
Wise Men (Reagan Arthur Books, $25.99)
“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. Try to remember as much as you can. Have just enough confidence in yourself to not be an asshole. Then, get up and go to work and try again.”

Rob Sheffield (@robsheff, robsheffield.com)
Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love and Karaoke (It Books, $25.99)
“Don’t read the comments, obviously. ‘’Tis of no importance what bats and oxen think,’ as Ralph Waldo Emerson said. You can’t control who reads your work or how they respond. What you can control is how much your writing means to you—if you write about things that fire up your passions, things that stimulate your neurons, writing will probably make your life better, whether anyone else reads it or not. That’s not the only reason to write, but it’s a good reason.”

Choire Sicha (@Choire, choiresicha.com)
Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City (Harper, $24.99)
“Don’t ever show anyone who isn’t your editor your writing before publication. That’s for goths and drama queens and dramatic goths. Either you’re a narcissist and you shouldn’t be writing, or you’re showing people drafts as an excuse to not rewrite. In any event, most of the time, they’ll send you the wrong way, and then you’re just a dramatic lazy goth with a bad piece of writing. But you didn’t have to be! You could have been an awesome goth, if you’d just holed up in your room one more night tweezing wrong words and rotten sentences!”

Julieanne Smolinski (@BoobsRadley)
Freelance writer; GQ, New York Magazine, Jezebel
“Don’t pick at it.”

Adelle Waldman (@adellewaldman, adellewaldman.com)
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. (Henry Holt and Co., $25)
“The best advice I can give has little to do with actual writing; it has to do with thinking about people. I recommend that you practice 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 ways 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 getting somewhere.”

“‘Lose not heart,’: J.D. Salinger’s Letters to an Aspiring Writer” is on view at the Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Ave, at 36th St (212-685-0008, themorgan.org). Tue–Thu 10:30am–5pm, Fri 10:30am–9pm, Sat 10am–6pm, Sun 11am–6pm. $18; seniors, students and children 12–16 $12; children under 12 free; Fri 7–9pm free. Tue 10–Jan 12.


Users say

4 comments
Muhamad Luay
Muhamad Luay

I have an extra wisdom for the writers as well, Do not change ideas that you thought about for a long time after a while, Because simply, you had a reason for that thought, a goal, the rest of the story is full of dependance on that thought, because thoughts aren't read, they are imagined. And when your story is in a room, you cant bring a spaceship into it. Your whole story is a building and its depending on the ground floor.

R.S. Long
R.S. Long

This has been a very informative article. It would be nice to read more on this topic.

N P Postlethwaite
N P Postlethwaite

What an absolutely brilliant article for writers. More of the same please. I love Mike Burns advice '... I believe you should be emotionally bonded to the people you write about, whether they be real or fictional.' Completely true, you have to live, breathe and think like your characters. I have actually mourned my characters when I've finished writing about them because I miss knowing everything about them! Also Joe Garden's words are so true: those crappy awful jobs you do, feed your writing and push you to break out of the monotonous work mould and do something else N P Postlethwaite www.nppostlethwaite.com

Erin
Erin

Interesting article. I would add that the words should come from your heart. Readers will always feel it.

Books events calendar

  1. Bryant Park

    Situated behind the New York Public Library is Bry...

  2. Bar 13

    The venerable Bar 13, a casual two-level club (thr...

378 more events »

Subscribe to Time Out New York on Spotify for playlists and recommendations from our Music team.

Check out New York's best restaurants, hottest street style, cool apartments and more.