What are the most important attributes to remaining sane as a writer?
The first destroyer of sanity is the big question: What are you going to do with this piece of writing once you’re finished with it? That means facing the big (too big) world of publication and (seemingly more often) rejection, where everybody’s a critic and nothing’s ever good enough. The joy for me is always in the writing itself, in entering into the lives and worlds of my characters, which may or may not be a reflection of the world we actually live in—where language and structure and movement are my sole preoccupations. I’ve found that thinking about what will happen to a book or poem after it’s done (Will anybody read it? Will anybody like it? Will anybody buy it?) totally kills my creative drive . . . it ruins the joyful experience of writing and makes me not want to write. Which removes a significant source of pleasure from life.
So remaining sane as a writer for me means, first and foremost, focusing on the work before me and not thinking about the ultimate fate of the writing.
How do you begin a new project? Are you a plotter (outliner) or a pantser (free-writer)?
Definitely a pantser, at least at the beginning. In response to a similar question, the incredibly prolific Joyce Carol Oates once said she outlines her books first and then writes them . . . easy-peasy. (I added that last part, but the sense was the same: What’s the big deal?) I find if I do that, I lose the sense of discovery that for me is part of the fun of writing. When I start a novel, I generally free-write a list of possible subjects/approaches/crimes. I keep a journal of things I read or overhear or see, or things people tell me and things I think up myself), and I draw from that to compile my initial list . . . By now, I have a store of ideas for the next four or five books, so usually I work from that, supplemented by other notions as they come.
From there, I work up a tentative narrative arc for a possible story. This isn’t an outline by any means, just a general feeling about what the kernel and possible direction of the story might be. After that, I’ll begin free-writing to expand or elaborate on that sense. Once I have an approach that speaks to me, I’ll look for starting points, then develop the story in scenes from there.
Of course, there’s a lot of back and forth, dead ends and restarts. But the fun—and the mystery—of writing is letting my conscious and unconscious minds intermingle to build a fictional world.
Do you write long-hand with pen/pencil and paper or do you write on a computer?
For the books, I start out with notes and drafting on the computer. Then I’ll print out the versions and attack them with a pencil, because the writing looks different on paper than on the screen.
Do you write every day? What is your writing routine? How do you discipline yourself to keep at it?
When I’m working on a project, I write every day, with a quota of 1,000 words; usually I write more, but I never write less (even if they're terrible words). I work in one of my local libraries (there are too many distractions working at home), and I’m typically there from 10 when it opens to 4 or 5, working the whole time. I have to smile when I hear people talk about writer’s block; the only time I’m blocked is when I start to think about what will happen with my writing, as I discussed above. Otherwise, I know you can’t hope for the muse to inspire you; sometimes you have to tie the muse to a chair and beat the writing out of it.
Hemingway said to always stop at a place where you know where you’ll start the next day, so I always end my writing days with a note to myself about where I’ll start the next day.
How many drafts does it usually take to bring your manuscript to “The End” and ready to submit to your editor?
Because the draft is constantly evolving (I start each day’s writing by reviewing and doing a very light rewrite on what I did the day before), it’s hard to identify a distinct first, second, or third draft. So I think in terms of print-outs . . . once I feel like I’ve written to the end of the initial version, I print it out and attack it with pencil, rewriting, writing, reorganizing at a macro level (that is, the large movements of the book). When I’ve taken that as far as I can, I enter the changes and print it out again and do the same thing. With every print-out, I go deeper into the writing, and by the final print-outs I’m doing sentence- and word-level editing. I do that until I’m satisfied that I can’t do anymore. That happens at the end of five or six print-outs (though I worked on the first book in the Preuss series, Crimes of Love, for about four years before that saw publication, and it went through more print-outs than I care to remember).
What’s the hardest scene or poem you have ever written and why was it so hard to write?
I find it very hard to write scenes portraying violence. I’m actually very concerned about how we portray violence, which is a tremendous social problem. I think those of us who work in a genre that is as associated with violence as crime novels are have a special duty to treat it responsibly. And what I mean by responsibly is not glorifying it, reveling in it, or treating it salaciously. I’ve talked to other writers who love—love!—to mistreat characters, and I just can’t bring myself to do that.
Do you ever use your writing as therapy, to either work out an issue, punish a perpetrator from your real life, or fantasize about what you could have done differently? If so, give us one example of how this manifested in your manuscript.
I only punished someone once in my writing… When I was in grad school, a particularly nasty Jesuit priest repeatedly lied to me and got me in hot water in my program. I wrote a story where a character with his name was killed when a stack of bibles fell on him. Very satisfying!
What is your best advice for beginning writers?
Read everything you can get your hands on, and read it the way writers read: By analyzing how the piece is put together, how it achieves its effects, how it moves, how the scenes open and close and move, how the sentences or lines flow, what the word choice is… look at everything. Read good stuff and bad stuff and figure out what distinguishes them. Read stuff you like and stuff you hate, and figure out why you like what you like, and why you hate what you hate. If you’re going to be a writer, you’re going to join a literary conversation that’s been going on for hundreds of years; you need to know what’s been said so you can join it intelligently.
And then write. Don’t think about how nice it would be to write, don’t plan to write someday, don’t tell yourself you’d write if you weren’t so busy—just write. Make time in your days, however filled or busy they are. Try, as I’ve noted in one of the other answers, not to think about what will happen to your writing. Remember that writers write, and what’s important for you is the writing, not the reception.
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Written By Donald Levin
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