Fiction Writing Boot Camp, Part 1

writing marisha pessl
“Stop fixing as you go along and surge forward madly into the jungle.”

Every now and then, I get asked by budding writers and lifelong readers to give a few writing tips—advice I started out with and things I’ve learned along the way.

Here is the first installment.

1. Commit

The difference between a published novelist and an unpublished one is not talent. It’s commitment. If this is something you choose to do, it’s a marriage. And not a Hollywood marriage. We’re talking an all-in, after-only-a-week-of-courtship Old World, European-style marriage, where the couple logs fifty, sixty years together and–forget about finishing each other’s sentences–they begin them.

Your relationship with writing will be a lifelong bond that must survive tedium, joy, misunderstanding, delusion, self-doubt, and despair (and occasional infidelity, during that three-month stint when you try screenwriting).

So, if you secretly think you’d also be happy working in fashion or marketing or have a particular affinity for collaboration with coworkers who aren’t make-believe, do that instead.

2. Find Your Limitation

If you’re just starting out, choose the genre that moves you most–whether it’s 500-page sprawling family showdowns, literary thrillers, alternative universe sci-fi, comic women’s contemporary–and stick to writing that for at least three books.

The idea behind this is limitation. Limitation is good. It’s fertilizer for the imagination. Each of these genres has very specific demands, too, from pacing to climax to characterization to endings, and it takes practice to do them well. Any kind of mastery requires doing the same thing over and over again, so, at least initially, choose a genre and “stick to your knitting,” as my grandmother said.

A part of this means reading every book you can get your hands on within this genre. Reading and rereading. Then performing Jack the Ripper-style autopsies on them. These books are your Sherpas. It’s great to have an actual mentor, but you don’t need one. If you commit to read consistently and can cut through a narrative to pinpoint, in a nuts-and-bolts way, how an author did something, why something works and why it doesn’t, that’s really all you need as a teacher.

3. Daily Practice

Consistency is everything. Like brushing your teeth and exercise, you have to have a set time where you’re going to write during your week, no matter what. The creative side of your brain will settle into this routine and become more limber over time, so it’s crucial to set up this schedule and stick to it week-by-week, even if it’s just for an hour, Monday through Friday.

When you have your writing time locked in, you then don’t have the added mental drag of wondering when you’re going to write. You can show up for your life. Along these lines, I follow Hemingway’s advice, which I love: When you’re not writing, forget all about your writing.

4. Don’t Talk About It

This is where things get a little cosmic. Where friends and family get miffed, hurt, and confused. They get over it. If you have a great idea for a novel or are currently at work on one, tell no one. Be Kim Philby, the double agent Russian spy working for British intelligence in the 1950s. Your burning need to wrench that story from your imagination into the real world needs to be as strong as possible, and I guarantee the more people you tell, the more the entire project will start to feel tawdry and down-at-heel, like the very people you just told all about your Young Adult werewolf series at that rooftop bar on the Bowery.

(And anyway, don’t be one of those people talking about your novel in public. Like talking about a dream you had, it’s less interesting than you think it is.)

5. Write a Lightning-Fast First Draft*

Write your first draft quickly–with intensity and focus. This is the most difficult thing for me to do out of the entire writing process, because I’m a perfectionist, which I consider a handicap, not a blessing. As Robert Harris told me: “Don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good.”

You need to get the idea down on paper and into the world so you can actually start the crafting of the book. That means having the courage to forge ahead even when you don’t know something. Working with some wind in your sails also allows new, unexpected ideas to pop into your writing, giving it some buoyancy and life, which a slower, plodding, more fastidious pacing doesn’t allow.

Plus, it’s always better to fix a scene, a character, a plot point, after you’ve reached the end–when you’re armed, not just with the perspective of the story in its entirety, but with time. As in life, after some time has passed and you’re not so embedded in the weeds, you have better judgment. You can make stronger choices. So stop fixing as you go along and surge forward madly into the jungle.

* (Disclaimer: When writing a first draft I do allow myself a half-hour of polishing per day just to humor the perfectionist in me–though if you decide to do this, please proceed with caution: sentences are less brilliant than they appear.)


Stay tuned next week for Fiction Writing Boot Camp, Part 2.

In the meantime, if you have any writing questions of your own feel free to pop them into the Contact section and I’ll try to address them next week.