This month’s issue of Author includes my interview with Peter Heller, author of The Dog Stars and, most recently, The Painter. Peter’s a very interesting guy who loves stories and literature and who had many valuable things to say about his process. Unfortunately, one of those interesting things contradicted something I had come to believe about how people write. Peter’s first novel was written in what he described as a fugue state. He heard the first line, found the narrator, and then ran with it. He wrote it in seven months, and his publisher accepted the book more or less as it was. The second novel began similarly. But Peter was aware that he didn’t want to experience the sophomore slump, and so began thinking about the book, planning the story’s next narrative steps. All this thinking concerned him. This wasn’t how he wrote his first book. Should he quit thinking about it?

About this time he met another writer who advised him that his only job was to “write a story that didn’t suck,” that it didn’t matter whether it was outlined or not outlined, whether he thought about it some or just let it rip. So Peter relaxed, let himself do a little thinking, and a couple years later we were talking about how he had finished and published that second book. He also told me his third novel began with a concept, an actual story idea. This was new for him too.

My own writing experience, as well as the hundreds of conversations I’ve had with other writers, taught me to believe that we each have our own approach and that the worst thing we can do is deviate from it. Peter, meanwhile, deviates systematically, and successfully so. And so my rule has been amended. Our job, as Peter’s writer friend pointed out, is to get where we need to go by whatever means necessary. You can use a map or simply strike out with a flashlight and walking stick. Either way, the road is going to teach you what you came to learn.


Write Within Yourself: An Author's Companion.

"A book to keep nearby whenever your writer's spirit needs feeding." Deb Caletti.

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