Everything I Could Ever Tell You About Writing a Novel

NAME: James Magnuson | AGE: 64 | QUALIFICATIONS: Author of eight novels, most recently The Hounds of Winter. • Has penned a dozen plays and written for the TV series Knots Landing. • Directs the James A. Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin.

I think it was Thomas Mann who said, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

One of the most important things for young writers is the daily exercise of writing. You must do it every day. Even if you tussle for hours in front of the computer and you’re in despair and nothing comes, that is work. Later, the ideas will seem to come freely, out of the blue. But they will only come if you put in those hours.

Don’t be afraid to draw from your life and the people around you. Often it’s the people I’ve written about the most slanderously who never recognize themselves.

You don’t have to go for a home run in every sentence. It will exhaust you and the reader. I always tell my students that every paragraph needs an oxlike sentence that does the work. It should be simple and short. Don’t hide or disguise what you need to say for the sake of cleverness. Just tell me what I need to know.

[The Gates of the Alamo author] Stephen Harrigan says that if you’re stuck, you need to figure out what that character would really do next. Don’t ask anything else, like “How do I advance the plot from A to B?” Just think about what that character would really do. I believe in writing your way to the end. Write a sloppy first draft so you can see the shape of the thing. All you ask of the second draft is that it be better than the first.

Rhythm is really important. All the great writers have it. Somewhere, in the inner ear, there has to be some music when you’re writing.

A book is a big thing. How do you go back and revise it? Take the worst chapter and make it the best chapter. Then do it again. It’s as if you are raising poles under a big circus tent. What was sagging is now elevated. The whole thing begins to take shape.

It’s amazing what cutting a bad sentence will do. Or taking out a bad paragraph. Cutting is essentially a kind of sculpture. It reveals the face inside the piece of rock.

Some writers have a certain emotional cautiousness, a desire to be ironic and arch, to keep things at arm’s length. A sense of passion is much more important.

If you want to write a novel, you have to commit several years of your life to it. That takes a lot of courage. So much about being a writer is about will, about the bullheadedness you need to see it through. Whenever I start working on a new novel, I think, “I’m just about to make a big fool out of myself.” But isn’t that part of the thrill of it?

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