21 October 2013

Thoughts on Writing

Today, I offer some greats thoughts on writing, used with his permission, from the multiple award winning author, Joe R. Lansdale. Joe's new book is The Thicket, recently released.  A story set at the turn of the Century and the East Texas oil boom. Young Jack Parker faces tragedy and catastrophe time and time again as love and vengeance follows him.  Oh, and don't forget to give a listen to Restless, the new album by his daughter, Kasey Lansdale.    — Jan Grape

by Joe R. Lansdale



  1. When I write I seldom know where it is going. I discover this every day. Now and again a story drops full blown into my head and it is just a matter of putting it down as quickly as possible, and in some cases novels are like that. Most of my work comes fast but I still work to make it good, and the next day I start all over by rereading what I wrote the day before.
  2. I try and do a reasonable amount each day so I'm a hero every day. Three to five pages is what I work for, but I don't fight it if I get more. I rarely get less. I can't remember when I got less, but it happens. This amount of pages is perfect for me, but may not be for you. But I suggest something reasonable. If I try to write a lot of pages day after day I burn out, and I push the story uncomfortably, and past what my subconscious is working on.
  3. I write each day until I feel myself starting to fizzle. When I feel that I usually quit, so that when I finish I can put it away in my head and let my subconscious work. I rarely ever work consciously on something, and it's why I don't collaborate much, because you almost have to do that when you work with someone. I like to write and quit and not think about it anymore, other than in the subconscious way. When I get up the next morning and start out again it is there. On the rare occasion when it's not I take a day off. If it's not there two days in a row, then I know I'm just being lazy and I play a word game or tell myself I will write one sentence or one paragraph, and this usually turns into a day's work.
  4. I don't prepare for the next day's work when I finish. I let it go and try not to do that. Once in a while something will come through or I'll see something that will cause me to spring up in the middle of the night and start typing. But mostly if I think too much about it, it's like burning a short wick, but if I forget about it until it's time, the wick is lengthened overnight. I try not to think about success or failure but only that I want to make it good and entertain myself. As I have said before I write for me because I'm the only audience I truly know. I don't write for the reader, but when I finish I hope the reader is a lot like me. Frankly, when I write I try to write like everyone I know is dead. This way I'm not worried about what anyone thinks.
  5. Another thing that works well for me is to read a little before I write. It can be fifteen minutes or an hour. This makes words feel comfortable. I try to read something different from what I'm writing, but not necessarily. I try to read off and on throughout the day, and have some days where I take the whole day off to read because I know I need it. I have some weeks where I read more than others, but I always read, and I usually manage three or four books a week—novels, or the equal in short stories, not to mention a variety of odds and ends I might read. Reading is the fuel, and you have to fill up the tank constantly.
  6. I have had some writers tell me they don't like to read when they write, but since I write a lot, when would I read? I don't think there's anything wrong with reading while you write. For me it would be wrong not to read while I write, or miss out on reading because it's something I love to do, even if I did not write.
  7. You should try to write naturally, I think, and what is natural to one may not feel natural to another. You should try to write in such a way that when your writing is examined it seems as if it is written on air and hard to duplicate. What makes writing work really well isn't the subject matter—though that helps. It's the way the writer puts it down and a good writer can make something normally banal seem interesting.
  8. Thinking ahead too much gives you time to worry. Let each new day be just that: a new day. Surprise yourself. Somedays the surprises won't be as good as others, but they should still be worth it. And the days it really surprises you, that's great. When you look at it finished you might be amazed to discover that it's all pretty surprising. You hope.
  9. Lastly, anyone who takes these thoughts and suggestions as law-of-the-land should be tarred and feathered. Well, made stand in the corner. These suggestions work for me and have worked for many others and might work for you. And they might not. But to find your method you have to experiment. Some of the way I work is advice I got from a writer who I spoke to years ago, and he doesn't still work that way.

Lots of readers have asked if I would do a writing book, and I think about it. But I also think that writing books haven't done much for me. Two have helped, and only for certain things. One had one piece of advice I have used, and the other had advice that helped me when I was starting out, but would probably be worthless to anyone starting out now. The first helped because it had the idea of writing only one page a day. That became three to five for me. The other had a lot of market advice that applied to the era in which it was written. That helped. Not so much now.

So many writing books have charts and arcs and all manner of things that really have nothing to do with the sound of the prose, the voice of a character, attitudes based on their past ... all of which you as a writer should know. I don't chart that past. It becomes too solid then. At some point I know why a character acts a certain way, good or bad. And I know too that whatever character I write about, they have to have both traits. Good and bad. But telling someone that and them doing it is another thing altogether.

Do I write for money? Yes and no. I write because I love to write, but I write with the plan to get paid. I pay bills by writing. I love to do it, but also love to do it for a certain amount of money. But I would write for nothing if I had a story I wanted to write and there wasn't a paying market for it. I would write it and put it away if I had to. Or I would sell it to a lower-paying market. I try not to do that, but I do from time to time.

You should write to be paid and start in the best market possible. Have faith in yourself. If it doesn't place where you like, go down the list. Find a home. Seeing something in print you're proud of spurs more creativity and more checks. You need both in this life. Starving and being paid poorly does not make you an artist.

For me writing is a passion, not an obsession. One is good and fun, the other feels a little like you're stalking yourself. I have to have things in my life other than writing to love the writing. I think if all I had was writing it would consume me. Not the life I want.

8 comments:

Fran Rizer said...

Welcome to SleuthSayers! Good luck with the new book.

Janice Law said...

Good, sensible advice.
I'm a 4-5 page a day writer, too.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I'm glad to hear about the process of someone else who writes intuitively. Some days I think I'm the only one, and it can get lonely when everybody's talking about building characters and constructing plots. In fact, the creative process is completely idiosyncratic, different for every writer.

John Floyd said...

Joe, welcome to SleuthSayers and thanks for sharing these thoughts and pointers.

I've read many of your short stories and most of your books. My favorite Lansdale novels are The Bottoms, A Fine Dark Line, Lost Echoes, and Sunset and Sawdust--but I liked 'em all.

R.T. Lawton said...

I first ran into Joe years ago at the Bouchercon in Austin, Texas where he was a presenter. At the time, he cracked up his audience by talking about his short story, "Bubba Ho-tep," which was later made into a movie. Since I tend to buy the books of those writers I enjoy listening to when they talk, I subsequently purchased several of Joe's novels. Good entertainment.

Leigh Lundin said...

NÂș 4 and 5 struck me. My subconscious does a lot of my work, often when I'm daydreaming or dozing and more again at night.

I still haven't grown use to the notion that people don't regard a writer's reading as work. Ah well, writing is a solitary profession. Leave me alone now, to ponder, to read.

Dixon Hill said...

Awesome! I bow and scrape in the presence of the author of Bubba Ho-Tep!

Seriously.

Great post, and great writing. Honored to see you here.

--Dix

Jeff Baker said...

Thanks for the advice, Joe! I have enjoyed your short stories for years. I'm surprised you didn't mention popcorn!!