Today I interview Kate Harveston on tips for writers and favorite writing resources. I met Kate virtually, the way one meets most colleagues nowadays, when she contacted me to share a piece she collaborated on for Hachette Book Group featuring their books for writers. And her excellent post inspired this interview.
Lisa: What, for you, makes a great writing book? What are your favorite types of books on writing? And do they deal more with the writing and revision process or do they offer exercises or great stories?
Kate: I have several books on writing neatly displayed on my desk. On craft and mechanics and more. The books I find most useful are the ones with writing exercises and prompts inside. I have one called 642 Things to Write About, which is full of some very broad and some very specific prompts to get the creative juices flowing. I took some writing classes in high school, and one of the most fun (and most effective) exercises we did was to pass out random photographs to each student from a big stack of them the teacher had been collecting over the years. I don’t know how, but a simple photograph of a bicycle tipped over at the edge of a field seemed to make a fully-formed story leap right off the page at me. I couldn’t stop writing — and all based on that solitary photograph.
I’m also a big fan of journaling, so Leaving a Trace: On Keeping a Journal by Alexandra Johnson is a favorite. Her book provides a more comprehensive picture of how to gain as much as you can from keeping a journal. So, I journal largely for emotional stability, which she also goes into, but her book provides additional advice on how to make some of that journaling salvageable for eventual memoir writing, if you want to.
Lisa: What is some of your favorite advice about writing (and the source of that advice)?
Kate: The most important advice I’ve received about writing is something you can get anywhere: Write every day.
A lot of professional writers get really into their daily routines. Get up at 4:00. Write five pages. Have a glass of whiskey, or three. Continue your day. I’m not saying you have to have an inflexible daily routine, but you need to engage in the process of writing every day for as much time as you can comfortably spare.
In fact, you should want to write every day. You should be grooming sentences and plots and arguments in your head. You should be wishing for a waterproof notebook every time you shower. You should be climbing out of bed to write something down lest you forget it by morning. In my experience, if you’re thinking about life and craft throughout the day, the inspiration can come at any time. So I don’t think you necessarily need to worry too much about settling into a routine, but I think it’s important to set aside time to write even on your sort of off days.
Lisa: You know, sometimes, people don’t credit themselves for the writing they do for their blog or other work, so I just want to point out that many of us are writing most days even if we’re not working on a book all the time. And while I love the invitation to write every day and also want to chime in that while it’s a fabulous practice, it doesn’t work for everyone. So, readers, don’t beat yourself up if you’re not writing every day! I don’t work on my book(s) every day and there are even days I don’t do anything writing related! But, yes, I agree that if it works for you, it’s one of the more powerful practices because you’re always connecting with your muse, open to inspiration and constantly getting more practice. I think it’s especially helpful for fiction writers, though many of our readers write self-help, how-to, business and other books.
Kate: Here’s another piece of advice I heard in college but that you can get anywhere: Think about the choice and placement of every word in every sentence. Every word. Every sentence. Pretend it’s a poem, since poems live and die according to the efficiency and beauty of their use of language. If you do this properly, you’ll find ways to sort of “build suspense” even over the course of a single sentence. Each word will feel like you’re peeling away another layer before you get to the punchline or the denouement of your argument.
Finally, more universal writing advice: Work diligently to improve your vocabulary. Look up every single word you come across that you don’t know, and put it in a notebook or on a post-it note on the wall above your desk.
What I’m not saying is “learn tons of new words so you can talk over your readers’ heads.” You might even know what the words “pusillanimous” and “grandiloquent” mean, but if you’re not using them in such a way that your audience will know, reflexively, what you mean by them, you don’t necessarily have the “best” vocabulary — just the biggest. And size isn’t everything, I’m told.
Lisa: I love that. We’re always learning. And I’m always interested in finding the most precise word to get your meaning across.
Kate: Here’s another thing about vocabulary that gets lost in translation: it’s often not a matter of having a specialized ten-dollar word in the holster at all times. Sometimes it’s a matter of discovering fresh new ways to fit existing words together more efficiently or more impactfully, or playing with (or deliberately mangling) traditional sentence structure.
Lisa: What’s your favorite book on writing and why? What do you look for in a book about writing?
Kate: I’m a big fan of Stephen King’s On Writing, and a big fan of Stephen King’s work in general. But what I find is most impactful after reading a book written by an established author about writing is to go read the author’s real stuff. So, after reading On Writing, I also read all 4,000 pages of his Dark Tower series. I read it partly because I already loved and admired his mastery of the short story. But I also read it because one of these days I want to write some kind of epic that’s layered with symbolism and commentary without compromising the story itself. I read this massive saga because I wanted to learn how he constructed it and how the pieces fit together so well.
There’s a trick to “just reading” to learn about writing, though. You have to come up with questions first. When I read The Dark Tower, I went in with questions like: How the hell can you sustain a story thousands of pages long about a man walking to a tower? What happens on the way? How do the chapter breaks contribute to the rhythm of the story? How frequently does the perspective change? How does he (Stephen King) get away with inserting himself into a fictional story? How do characters speak to one another and how does that communication change over time? How can you write fiction that seems to wink at the reader so often, and presents layer upon layer of symbolism and metaphor, so effortlessly? What on earth is the Tower a symbol for, anyway?
Reading many novels by the authors you respect will reveal an incredible variety of voices and narrative structures. So just read.
Lisa: Yes! What are some of the things you’ve discovered about your writing process over time?
Kate: One thing I’ve learned is that the desire to write, and writing inspiration, doesn’t always abide by a convenient schedule. Being a writer means being prepared to write. Whenever you need to. Whenever that ideal sentence or even a great title pops into your head and the gears start turning.
I’ve also learned that I need to force myself not to re-read and revise what I’m writing, as I’m writing it. As much as possible, I try to enter a sort of trace-like state while I write. It’s a little like automatic writing. When you’re finished, you’ll be left with something confusing and ugly — but you’ll find it’s more filled to bursting with interesting word choices and turns of phrase than if you halted the process after every sentence to tidy up as you go. It’s like this:
Each time you sit down to revise the work is a chance to find a better-chosen word, to diversify sentence length and structure, and to find ways to make your language smoother and more efficient. First drafts are supposed to be an embarrassing mess. Editing is a completely different process than writing. Don’t confuse the two.
Lisa: Do you have any favorite ritual that puts you into a writing mood?
Kate: Apart from listening to favorite albums while I work (it helps achieve that trance-like state), I don’t have a ritual. I do all of my writing on my laptop, which means I’m not tied to a specific location. Sometimes I work at one of my desks. Sometimes I wrap myself in blankets on the couch and write. Sometimes I sit outside in the sun. I try to write when inspiration strikes rather than try to make it conform to a ritual I’ve already committed to.
Lisa: What’s your writing process like? Can you give us a peek into your process?
Kate: I’ve touched on some parts of my process, but I think there’s probably one more thing worth saying. You might’ve heard people recommend that you read your writing out loud. This can be really helpful, but I’ll go one step further: imagine your work being read by somebody you admire, or whose work is something you’d like to emulate.
When I’m writing something meant to be lighthearted or humorous, I imagine David Sedaris reading it on NPR, as he often does. If it sounds like something he wouldn’t say aloud, or like the humor wouldn’t land, it needs revision.
When I’m trying to write something more serious, or that I hope might educate the reader somehow, I imagine Richard Dawkins reading it. Without even trying to, he sounds like one of the most sophisticated people on the planet, probably because he is. But his own writing is put together with (unsurprisingly) a scientist’s extreme precision and deliberateness. He can get away with long and complex sentences because he cares deeply about choosing the right words at the right time and laying out his sentences in a very logical way. His writing is dense and rich, but it’s also extremely approachable. Hearing my writing in his voice helps me trim the fat and focus on clarity over showing off just for the sake of it.
Lisa: Wow, I love that exercise. I also often recommend that at some point in the revision process, a writer has someone new to the work read it out loud to the writer. It’s amazing what you can glean from hearing where the reader hesitates or trips, or makes a different meaning of it by their emphasis.
Kate Harveston hails from Pennsylvania where she attended a liberal arts college and earned a four-year degree in professional writing. She is a freelance blogger and copywriter and writes for a variety of sites, including AlterNet, Bust, Thought Catalog, and Patheos. She also owns her own blog, So Well, So Woman. You can follow her on Twitter at @KateHarveston.