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Advice for first-time writers (Barry Gifford and me)
June 30, 2008

I bought the July/August issue of Poets and Writers from the magazine rack not (solely) because of the cover shot of Marilyn Monroe in beachwear reading Joyce's Ulysses. The photo editor obviously picked the 1955 shot to illustrate the theme of the issue: Summer Reading. No, I picked up this issue (mostly) because of an interview with the newly hired editor at Nan A. Talese (Doubleday/Random House), the publisher of The Fourth Treasure. Janet Silver, a long time editor at Houghton Mifflin leaving after a messy acquisition, talked about her career and new position, and offered advice for beginning authors.

Her advice was both concrete and abstract, dealing with MFA programs, reading the classics, tired plots and number of dream scenes in a book. But I'll let you read the specifics. In another section of the issue, several authors publishing their first book were interviewed. Most were asked the question "What advice would you give for first-time authors?" Now by "first-time authors" I assume the interviewer meant writers who have yet to publish their first work. The advice ranged from disregarding the "buzz of the publishing biz" to "read for language" to "keep going."

As I read the advice, I realized I followed none of the advice except "keep going." It wasn't that I necessarily disagreed with their advice, it was just not how I became a writer. I took only one creative writing class taught by a uninspiring but well-meaning professor teaching his last few courses before retiring. I've read maybe three books considered classics. I had a tin ear for language. I just wrote the kind of books I liked to read. So what kind of advice would I give to an unpublished writer?

I really don't know. The way I went about becoming a writer wasn't very smart. At least not very efficient. I wrote six novels over fourteen years before I got one published. I still write two or three novels to come out with a good one. Yet, despite my flailing around, I've had some success: a third novel being published soon, translations in six languages. But honestly looking back I have no idea how it has happened. The only way I think I could answer the advice question is to not do what I did, or to do exactly what I did. In other words, I believe you will find your own way.

Here's where Barry Gifford comes in. Shortly before I finally published my first novel (although I had published a short story or two by then), I entered a writing contest for unpublished writers. The prize was to spend half an hour with novelist, poet, and screenplay writer Barry Gifford. He's best known for his novel Wild at Heart which was turned into a David Lynch film with Nicholas Cage and Laura Dern. I submitted three chapters and a synopsis of a novel about a sumo wrestler turned private detective (it's okay to laugh). It was my fourth or fifth effort at a novel. Surprisingly I was one of the winners.

I made out a list of questions, I can't remember exactly what they were now but were like: Do you work from an outline? I met with Barry in a library conference room. He shook my hand and said he was feeling a little jet lagged having just returned from Japan and was also suffering from a strained back from the flight. A Japanese film company flew him to Japan to work on a project. First class all the way, he said with a wry smile. Then he gave me a disclaimer that he wasn't an academically trained writer, that he'd never taught a writing course, and that he really didn't know if he could offer any valid advice on writing or getting published.

That said, he went on, your entry was the only I thought worthwhile. It had character, action, and a purpose. Just keep doing it, he said. The rest of the half hour slid by easily, as we talked about Japanese food and drink, the authors we liked, and, I seem to recall, nothing else about writing. I never asked any of my prepared questions, but of course I didn't need to.



Number of comments: 6
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Jo Reed
Mr. Gifford probably said the same thing to all the other winners! So encouragement helps? And I'd like to hear about about this sumo wrestler turned detective.

I wrote four or five novels with the character, never got a publisher interested. Must be too weird. I do think encouragement helps if well-founded for the beginning writer. I plan to talk about criticism in a later post.

Lee Witte
I struggle with listening to and taking advice. Sometimes I soak it in, other times I just reject it. I gues it depends on the context and person giving the advice.

Jo Reed
Lee, so give us some specifics please! WHat kind of advice is good, what kind is rejected?

Lee Witte
I have a couple of people I respect for their opinions about my writing, I mean the words/sentences. Others I look for advice about the story, the plot/characters. I also have to know what kind of fiction and/or authors they like to read. If their preferences don't match what I'm writing then I find it hard to accept their advice.

Jo Reed
Thanks, Lee. Lately, I've been in the reject-all-advice mood.


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