Why We Write – 20 Acclaimed Authors on Why and How They Do What They Do

Why we Write

Twenty of America’s bestselling authors share tricks, tips and secrets of the successful writing life. Anyone who’s ever sat down to write a novel or even a story knows how exhilarating and heart breaking writing can be. So what makes writers stick with it? In Why We Write, twenty well-known authors candidly share what keeps them going and what they love most and least about their vocation. Includes answers from authors such as Jennifer Egan, Jodi Picoult, David Baldacci, Ann Patchett, Sue Grafton and James Frey.

Meredith Maran has asked 20 highly acclaimed writers how and why they write. The outcome is an entertaining, thought-provoking and insightful collection of essays by today’s most successful writers. While many of the authors collected here are not among my favourites – I’m even pretty  sure that I will never read them – it was still interesting to read about their routines and techniques, and how they felt about what they were doing.

Each chapter opens with a quote from the author’s latest work. This is followed by a brief introduction written by Maran and a section containing important dates and a list of publications. After this the author writes about his or her vocation, the way he writes, what it means for him to write. The best part however is the end of each chapter in which the author provides advice. Not all of these contributions are equally interesting, but since they were all written by the authors themselves it was still fascinating.

The chapters I liked best were the ones written by Jennifer Egan, Mary Karr, Terry McMillan, Sue Grafton, Ann Patchett, Sara Gruen and Walter Mosley.

There is always a debate whether or not you should write an outline for a novel and I wasn’t surprised to read that Jody Picoult sketches everything in advance, tailoring every scene. I was astonished to find out how much Walter Mosley has written. I always thought he was a crime writer only but, no, he has written Science fiction, non-fiction and even Erotica.

Some of these essays are very open. Baldacci, for example, knows exactly that he will never win a Pulitzer and admits in all honesty that he is paid to deliver often and quickly and that this doesn’t allow polished writing.

There were some interesting bits about movie deals too. Did you know that a writer sells his book twice? First he gets money for the film rights and later, when the movie is shot, he will get another, bigger portion. Selling the film rights seems not to signify that there will be a movie.

Jennifer Egan’s essay may be the most interesting one because she speaks so openly about how painful it can be to write. She had panic attacks and severe depression during the writing of some of her books. Contrary to what most people think, her favourite book, the one she thinks is her best is not A Visit from the Goon Squad but Look at Me.

I’ll leave you with a few quotes from the “advice” sections:

Meg Wolitzer

Writing that is effective is like a concentrate, a bouillon cube. You’re not just choosing a random day and writing about that. You pick ordinary moments and magnify them-as if they’re freeze-dried, so the reader can add water.

Jennifer Egan

You can only write regularly if you’re willing to write badly. You can’t write regularly and well. One should accept bad writing as a way of priming the pump, a warm-up exercise that allows you to write well.

Sue Grafton

There are no secrets and there are no shortcuts. As an aspiring writer, what you need to know is that learning to write is self-taught, and learning to write well takes years.

Kathryn Harrison

At the end of each workday, leave yourself a page marker, an instruction that tells you where to start the next morning, so you’re oriented immediately when you sit down at your desk.

Sebastian Junger

Don’t dump lazy sentences on your readers. If you do, they’ll walk away and turn on the TV. You have to earn your paycheck by earning your reader’s attention.

Mary Karr

Any idiot can publish a book. But if you want to write a good book, you’re going to have to set the bar higher than the marketplace’s. Which shouldn’t be too hard.

Walter Mosley

Don’t expect to write a first draft like a book you read and loved. What you don’t see when you read published book is the twenty or thirty drafts that happened before it got published.

Why We Write is surprisingly rich, a book you can pick up again and again and you’ll always find something interesting. Even the authors I would normally not read had something valuable to offer. I loved to see how different every writer’s personality is and how this shined through in what they wrote. There are well-behaved writers, caustic ones, matter of fact ones, highly inspired people and some irreverent ones like Mary Karr.