How to Write: A Year in Advice From ‘By Heart’

Highlights from 12 months of interviews with writers about their craft and the authors they love

Senohrabek / Shutterstock / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

This year, nearly 30 writers shared their favorite passages from literature for “By Heart,” The Atlantic’s series about books, literary influence, and the creative process. If the series has any single theme, it’s that reading has the power to change our minds and transform the way we see things. Each writer tends to tell me a variation on the same story: I read something, and I wasn’t quite the same afterwards. But what was read, what kind of change took place—that part is different every time.

The series is full of writing advice, too—but it’s not “advice” in the typical sense. Most of the people I talk to seem to feel that writing is an idiosyncratic and highly personal process; when they talk craft, they aren’t dispensing one-size-fits-all pointers. They’re usually recounting challenges that are specific to an individual, even to a particular work. Tania James, for instance, couldn’t find the right voice for her narrator, a South Indian elephant poacher; Kevin Barry wanted to pull off a novel written from John Lennon’s perspective.

I think that’s the best kind of advice, actually. No one wants to be told what to do. Instead, we want to see our own (creative) challenges—also individual, also particular—reflected in someone else’s struggles. Sometimes, that second-hand knowledge can help us make better, smarter decisions. Not every insight in this series will help every writer, but every insight has the potential to save some writer, somewhere, some heartache.

Even if every story, essay, poem, has to find its own way, there are still some universal challenges. I think that’s why so many common themes emerged from this year’s conversations, even from a very diverse group of writers reading different books on their own terms. As a group, “By Heart” contributors spoke about the importance of humor, the anxiety of creating fake people, the quest for a proper ending, and much more. Here are the best pieces of writing advice they offered this year.

Sound and (non)sense, ditching grammar, and reading out loud

The first writer I spoke to this year was the Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker (whose 2014 book The Sense of Style is a must for any 21st-century wordsmith). Because it was a big-picture conversation—about Shakespeare, human ignorance, and our capacity for moral atrocity—I cut a worthwhile section where Pinker talked about grammar from the original interview. His advice? Ignore the (grammar) police. They usually don’t know what they’re talking about:

Many of the language tenets that the purists and the snobs and the sticklers criticize are in fact perfectly logical according to the grammar of English. One example being so-called “singular they,” as in: everyone return to their seats. A number of the purists would claim this has a grammatical error: namely, the clash of concord between the plural pronoun “they” and the singular antecedent “everyone.” But in fact it would be the purists that are wrong and error-makers are right—because singular “they” has a long history in English, including Shakespeare and Jane Austen. And if, in fact, you analyze the semantics of it, it is not at all illogical, because “they” in that context is not in fact a plural pronoun but rather a bound variable.

Jesse Ball, author of A Cure for Suicide, argued that you can get away with almost anything if it sounds good—and not just bad grammar. He pointed to Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” as proof that sound matters more than sense. That’s why Ball writes and revises by reading his work out loud:

When I really get going, I’m murmuring what I’m writing in a half-breath as I’m working. It’s probably embarrassing if I’m in some public place, sitting there ranting to myself. (Usually I try to sit far enough away from other people.) They say that after you write a work, and finally look at it, you can’t tell what’s there any more.

How can you actually see the work in order to judge it? One way is to read it out loud—to somebody who you’re a little afraid of, whose opinion matters to you. When you read it aloud, there are parts you might skip over—you find yourself not wanting to speak them. Those are the weak parts. It’s hard to find them otherwise, just reading along. But you can judge the work more clearly when you hear and feel its sound.

Kevin Barry, the author of Beatlebone, said something similar, arguing that—in our bleary-eyed 21st-century—sound is more important than ever. Barry feels we want to be mesmerized by the human voice, so he writes for the ear, not the eye:

My ear is my critical tool as a writer, because it’s what catches the false notes. Your eye can very easily glide across the page, look down at the text and go, “Oh yeah, that’s fine.” But if you read it out and hear it, your ear will very quickly tell you when you’re not quite there.

Writing for the ear is kind of like being an actor: I approach my characters as though I’m approaching roles to play out. Acting out the work, doing all the voices, and reciting it aloud is a very important part of the process for me. I write a lot of dialogue in my stories and novels. Duologues and monologues tend to be the engines of my projects, and I will rewrite the fuckers endlessly. I will do 100 drafts of a dialogue. I’ll constantly take the red pen to it as I act it out, trying to get closer and closer.

If you read through a dialogue twice and it seems fine, that’s something. If you read through it 10 times and it seems okay, that means something. But it’s when you go through it 100 times, and you stop making marks in it, that you know you have it right.

Getting down to business

For many writers, the hardest part is getting started. Several of the people I spoke to this year shared tricks for overcoming inertia and anxiety—techniques that seem to help them get words on the page. Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of The Sympathizer, found a novel with a narrative feel he wanted to emulate. As he read a bit each morning, it worked like good espresso:

The language itself had some kind of impact on me that was more emotional than intellectual. The book acted as a condensed, compact, extremely powerful substance that woke me up to what I needed to do, each day, as a writer. I thought of it as espresso. It wasn’t coffee—I couldn’t drink it all day long. I could only take small doses, and that was enough. With caffeine, how do you quantify what’s happening with that? You just know you need it. The process was mysterious, and it worked.

For years, Mary-Beth Hughes, author of The Loved Ones, studied dance at Merce Cunningham’s famed Manhattan studio. The experience taught her about discipline, patience, and the importance of showing up—and writing, as she describes it, means working through (and waiting out) the dry spells. Just make the time, even if it means sitting there, she says. Good things, eventually, will come:

I think daily practice is helpful as much as possible, and it’s not always possible. Writing is hard to pick up and put down, and it’s easier when it’s a routine … Because I spent so many years as a dancer, I understand in every part of me how slow it all is. The zillion hours dancers put in so that they can do three steps across the floor.

Patience. Curiosity. Repetition. Looking again and again. Not imposing a story line. Letting composition emerge through pattern, rhythm, shape, sound, movement. Occasionally … you hit upon a moment of grace. You can’t plan for it. You just have to practice enough so that you’re ready when it comes.

Karl Ove Knausgaard, author of the My Struggle series, described writing “naively”—a kind of writing without thinking that’s helped him generate pages and pages. His daily compositional process requires only two things: a limiting constraint or theme, and a resolve not to analyze or evaluate what he’s writing as he works:

Every morning now, I write one page. I get up early and write one page in two hours. I start with a word. It could be “apple” or “sun” or “tooth,” anything—it doesn’t matter. It’s just a starting point—a word, an association—and the restriction that I write about that. It can’t be about anything else. Then I just start, without knowing what it’s going to be about. And it’s like the text produces itself.

I’m not talking about quality. For god’s sake, no. It’s not like this text ever looks good or anything. It’s just sitting there writing. Not thinking, and writing.

When you are not aware of yourself, you start to write things you have never thought about before. Your thoughts do not take the path they would normally have followed, and the thinking is different from your own. The language is in you, but it’s out of you, and it doesn’t belong to you. That’s what literature can do—when you throw something in, something else comes back.

If you have faith in your writing, it’s easy. It’s when you remove that faith that things become difficult—when you start to think, this is stupid, this is idiotic, this is worthless, and so on. That’s the real fight: to overcome those kinds of thoughts.

“It provides a mask”: writing across borders

My conversation with Lorin Stein was about the current state of American short fiction, an outline of the overarching qualities he’s noticed as editor of The Paris Review. Stein suggested that today’s literature—in an age when anyone can broadcast their thoughts and ideas using a range of amplifying platforms—has power because it frees writers to adopt voices and perspectives that aren’t their own.

When it’s done right, fiction provides the authority to speak about deep things; at the same time, it provides a shield, a mask. The mask lets you say things, talk about things, that you couldn’t ordinarily talk about.

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to speak as someone else. Several writers expressed anxiety about representing other people, especially the challenge of making unfamiliar characters real. Angela Flournoy—who was named a National Book Award Foundation “5 under 35” writer shortly after we spoke—wasn’t sure she had license to write about Detroit, a complex city she has never lived in. Writing The Turner House taught her that no topic is off-limits, as long as you’re able to imbue characters with full human complexity:

It’s when you’ve somehow failed to make fully nuanced and three-dimensional characters that people start to say, what right do you have? But when the characters transcend type, no one questions the author’s motives. Characters’ backgrounds, their gender—these things are only aspects of their personality, just as they are for real people. If the writer pulls it off, if they make you see the humanity in the character, that stuff falls away—no matter who you’re writing about.

At a certain point, you have to be kind to yourself as a writer and trust your own motives. You have to have confidence that you’re coming from the right place. You have to allow yourself to let loose, pursue a good story, and create people who feel real. Not good, not bad, certainly not perfect—just real.

Easier said than done, of course—as Tania James can attest. As she wrote The Tusk That Did the Damage, she found her narrator, a Malaysian elephant poacher, to be flat and unconvincing. Then Peter Carey’s novel The Kelly Gang reminded her to loosen up:

Reading The Kelly Gang gave me the permission to be looser, more playful with the poacher’s voice, in spite of his grim circumstances. And Carey reminded me that when characters speak with the irreverence that comes naturally to them, they’re brought into sharper relief.

In order to move beyond my preconceived notions about a certain character type, I realized I needed to focus on what brought that individual person’s voice to life. I stopped asking the question, “What would a poacher be like?” and started thinking about language, especially its capacity for humor and playfulness.

From the beginning, my would-be poacher spoke from a place of conviction and passion and anger, but it wasn’t until I accessed these emotions with a bit of irony and sarcasm that he really came alive for me. Once I introduced that wry humor, he started to feel more like an extension of my personality. That’s when I lost the flat feeling I started with. In the beginning, my sentences were less messy, more lyrical, smoother. But until I relaxed and loosened up, the writing didn’t feel inhabited by a real, feeling person.

It’s a reminder that making characters or a scenario seem “real” doesn’t necessarily mean being “realistic.” In fact, a book’s most authentic-seeming qualities are often the most invented—and the things that are “realistic,” or plucked straight from life, can strike false notes. Mary Gaitskill, author of The Mare, pointed out this paradox:

In fiction, the things that are realistic or literally true don’t always feel true. It happens in my writing classes over and over and again: the thing that everyone, including me, picks out as unbelievable sometimes is exactly the thing the writer will say, “But it really happened!” And it probably did. But it means they haven’t done enough to make that incident enter the world of the story, which becomes a reality with its own logic. When something genuinely surprising happens in a work of fiction, you have to be very in the story, and very in the moment, to make the reader accept it.

What’s funny? “Find the victim”

What makes humor successful? The graphic novelist Scott McCloud’s “By Heart” post was a treatise on that topic. He described what the comics artist Art Spiegelman taught him about getting laughs, and balancing darkness with light.

“Most humor is a refined form of aggression and hatred,” Spiegelman writes. “Our savage ancestors laughed with uninhibited relish at cripples, paralytics, amputees, midgets, monsters, the deaf, the poor, and the crazy.” I’ve taken this idea as a jumping-off point in my own work. Whenever I’m considering why something’s funny or not, I always tell myself: Find the victim. Humor is targeted. It may be aimed at an individual, at an institution, or the entire superstructure of rational thinking. But something is always being skewered.

As I wrote The Sculptor, my latest graphic novel, I wanted to balance darkness with levity. In any story, I think the more serious themes benefit from the inclusion of humor. (Shakespeare’s high-minded but irreverent plays are one timeless example.) Humor inoculates a work from being overly solemn and overly self-important. And moments of dramatic magnitude can be bolstered by the inclusion of the ridiculous, or the intimate, or the smallest of human moments.

Productive ambiguity: redacting more than you add

Lorin Stein told me that the contemporary American short story is characterized by a kind of willful ambiguity, a quality he says is especially present in the ending of Denis Johnson’s “Car Crash While Hitchhiking.” For Reif Larsen, author of I Am Radar, good stories withhold more than than they disclose:

One thing I think is true about successful storytelling: There’s as much significance in what’s left out as in what’s actually said. Of course, our initial impulse is to want to give lots and lots of context. Here we are at this location. Here’s how we got here. Here’s what it looks like, and so on. That tends to be the easy stuff. The hard part is non-disclosure. This is really a crucial tenet of narration, perhaps the crucial tenet—and it’s not an innate skill. How do we learn how not to tell things?

We all have this tendency to want to tie up the loose ends. Our brains just sort of fill in gaps and holes automatically, and as a writer it’s tempting to try to do that for the reader—I have to come out and say this or that, we fear, or people won’t “get it.” With my new book, I wanted to resist that impulse. Instead of closing loops, I tried to leave them open. My hope is that this openness is emotionally compelling, but who knows? In this day and age, it’s challenging—particularly as our attention spans collapse—to be comfortable with long-form ambiguity. It can anger people if you take it too far. And yet I think all my favorite books linger with me because they don’t close the loops. If a story’s ending closes out too many possibilities, you risk damaging the potential connections and openings the reader can make. That openness can be a gift.

Fitting endings

T.C. Boyle, author of The Harder They Come, echoed Larsen’s sentiments, reminding us that every work of literature has to find its own way: An approach that succeeds in one piece can fall flat in another. Boyle said that, for him, that’s the pleasure of writing: remaining open to possibilities, trying things, and—every now and then—stumbling on something that ties it all together.

I think the best endings bring you back in, rather than close things off with absolute finality. I’m not saying they necessarily have to be ambiguous, but we don’t always need to know what happens when everyone wakes up tomorrow morning … When I start a story, I don’t know what the ending will be in advance. I very much believe in working organically—that is, I don’t know what the story will be or what’s going to happen.

This is the beauty of the art of fiction, as opposed to laying out an essay or writing a thriller. You remain open to the possibilities throughout the entire story. When they’re lucky, the artist finds one line, one moment that brings it all together. It’s hard to say how certain stories just punch us in the heart and the brain at the same time at the end. I suppose that’s what we’re all looking for.