Scott Turow, the bestselling author of Presumed Innocent and other legal thrillers, has a new book out entitled Identical. At TheDailyBeast.com, Noah Charney asked Turow about his life as an author and attorney.
Here’s a peek into Turow’s writing time:
Describe your morning routine.
It’s not really a routine, because the pace is so likely to vary, but the greater portion of days finds me up by 7 and looking through three newspapers over coffee. By no later than 8:30, I’m at my desk, writing. I think the truth, to be brutal with myself, is that I spend no more than 45 minute out of every hour actually getting things down on paper. The rest of the hour goes to email or phone calls. But this does not prove that technology has intruded on my life, since years ago I’d just spend that 15 minutes wandering around the house, often ending up at the refrigerator.
Apparently, Turow is adept at handling distractions, also saying, “I can take a call from a client in the midst of writing a sentence and complete it as soon as I put down the phone.”
How does Turow determine if he has had a productive writing day?
No page or word counts, but I have to keep my ass in the chair, which is hard at the very start of the process. If I allow myself to become distracted, as I’m inclined to do at that point, then I’m disappointed in myself.
A Chicago native and Cubs fan, Turow still enjoys practicing law and has been a member of a famous authors rock band called the Rock Bottom Remainders. Other band members have included Stephen King, Amy Tan, Dave Barry and Mitch Albom.
Whether or not you’re a novelist (I am not), consider the following tips. Maybe they’re useful for a current project or will help you in the future. Both fiction and nonfiction, in the end, rely on storytelling. Screenwriters work in a tight format. No fluff. We can learn from them.
These five tips are from a Writer’s Digest article. (Read the full article here.) The parenthetical comments are mine.
1. Your novel is probably too long. (That’s OK. Write it long. Then cut it. I’ve read that bestselling author Stephen King cuts a lot out of his first draft, something like 20 percent. The first draft of my next book was 105,000 words. I cut it to about 90,000.)
2. A story can be built in scenes. (And tight, well-linked scenes move the story forward. In novels or narrative nonfiction, these might be chapters.)
3. Tension must drive every scene. (In a larger sense, there’s conflict in your story–or should be–and it should seep into each scene or chapter.)
4. Plot and characters are not enemies. (Screenwriter David Magee calls them “two sides of the same coin. A character behaves the way they behave, and their behavior makes the plot.”)
5. You must bring dialogue to life. (Dialogue, or quotations in nonfiction, give voice and life to your story. It must ring true.)
Would you like more tips? Read “The 5s” found in the sidebar. (Scroll to bottom.)
In his book titled On Writing, Stephen King tells how John Gould, editor of the Lisbon (Maine) Weekly Enterprise, taught him more about the craft in 10 minutes than all his English and composition classes in high school and college. King hired on as a teenage sports reporter and soon admitted he didn’t know much about sports.
“These are games people understand when they’re watching them drunk in bars,” Gould said. “You’ll learn if you try.”
One of King’s first stories was about a record-breaking performance by a Lisbon High basketball player. He watched Gould take a black pen to his copy. “I only took out the bad parts, you know,” Gould said. “Most of it’s pretty good.”
King called the edit “pure revelation,” and wondered why English teachers never taught this. Gould had simply trimmed unnecessary words and phrases.
King mined this gem from Gould, which would help him become a bestselling author. When you write the story, you’re telling it to yourself. When you rewrite it, your job is to take out all the parts that aren’t the story.
Put another way, write with the door closed. Initially, the story is for you and you alone. Rewrite with the door open so the story can belong to anyone who reads it.
I saw this in the latest issue of Writer’s Digest in an article by Alex Palmer, the author of Literary Miscellany: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Literature. Many of those famous authors whose words are immortalized in literary classics did all sorts of odd jobs while they were perfecting their writing craft.
For example, meet …
Kurt Vonnegut, manager of America’s first Saab dealership
John Steinbeck, painter, fruit picker, estate caretaker and Madison Square Garden construction worker
Stephen King, high school janitor
Harper Lee, reservation clerk for Eastern Air Lines
J.D. Salinger, entertainment director on a Swedish luxury ocean liner
If you write, where do you write? Is it your choice?
(As I write this, I’m sitting on my sofa at home.)
If you’re employed by a company, you probably don’t have much choice. It may be an office or cubicle, where interruptions are the norm. (If it’s an office, then at least you can shut the door.)
If you’re a freelancer like me, then you have more control over your writing space. I think it gives those of us who fly solo an advantage, although my cubicle days at an ad agency and The Seattle Times were mostly enjoyable. Most co-workers, including those task-minded account executives, were considerate. They knew creatives needed as much solitude as possible.
I thought of this topic when I recently picked up Stephen King’s On Writing, one of my favorite books on the writing craft.
I just pulled On Writing, Stephen King’s memoir of the writing craft, from my bookshelf. You don’t have to be a fiction writer to glean some great stuff from the horror icon. I highly recommend this short tome on writing.
Anyway, one of the things King says is to set a daily word limit. His is 1,000 words.
The daily word limit makes more sense for those writing long feature articles or books, but the underlying point is that you really have to apply yourself to get the words on the page or screen. And it’s tough, because writing is scary for most people. No one wants to suck.
My self-talk for writing a draft of any kind or length is simple: I’ll write it badly. Then I’ll fix it.
This frees me up. It’s downright liberating. You just sit down and write. As someone once said, no one has to see your first draft (except you).
And you know what? Oftentimes the first draft is not total crap. But if it is, that’s OK. Put on your rewriting and editing hats and fix it.