Last night I went to see Erik Larson at our new library. One of our patrons performed the miracle of getting him to come for a fundraiser, and there were about a 100 people who came out for the cause. So exciting! And you know me — I got there an hour early for my front row seat.
I took a bunch of notes so I’m going to split this into 2 posts. Today, let’s focus on the writing life.
His writing process.
He gets up at 4:00 or 4:30 every morning with the goal, initially, of writing one page a day. This naturally progresses to 2 pages, then 5 pages, etc… He writes everyday — 7 days a week — and insists this is the only way to keep the tension going in the story and in your own mind. If you leave the story too often and for too long, the tension dissipates. You lose interest. And what happens when you lose interest? You abandon it and try something else. This is a sure way to get nothing done.
Best writing advice.
Write everyday. Whether it’s for 20 minutes or 5 hours, it doesn’t matter. Keep the story going. Write every single day.
Do not binge write. If you’re on a roll and write for 10 hours straight, this feels terrific! But there will be a let down. You’ll be exhausted, used up, and you won’t want to write again until the rush comes. This does not work. This is not how books get finished. You will get tired of, or bored with, your project and be drawn to something else … the next new shiny thing. (Note to self: This is by far my worst disease when it comes to writing.)
Stop when you’re ahead. Stop writing at a point where you can immediately begin again. Stop mid-sentence or mid-paragraph. Why? Because when you sit down the next day, it’s easier to pick up and keep going. There is no new beginning! There is no blank page! But also because it’s a mind game: when you leave something unfinished, your mind will continue to work it over, will try its damnedest to complete it without your even trying. Use this to your advantage.
The fugue state.
He knows he’s in the zone when he’s in the fugue state. What made him laugh last week is no longer funny, what seemed important yesterday is suddenly insignificant, etc… It’s hard to describe, but I know you know what he means.
The tools of his trade.
After too many hard drive crashes, he’s switched from the PC to a MAC. He writes on the computer. For the toughest passages, however, when he needs to slow it down, he goes back to his Tops Gold legal pad and writes and in pencil.
On selling the movie rights for your book.
Two of his books — IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS (Tom Hanks) and THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY (Leonardo DiCaprio) — have been sold to Hollywood. Someone asked if he’d have any say in the screenplays or final products. He laughed. Once it’s sold, it is no longer yours. Period. He takes the Tom Wolff approach: Toss your book over the fence, take the bag of money, and run!
He did not read any of his work at this event. “I’m tired of hearing writers read their work,” he said. “Aren’t you tired of readings?” He said he’d rather have a vasectomy without anesthetic than listen to one more writer read their work.
Seriously now — how much do you love that!
Where do his ideas come from?
When he’s finished a project, he goes through a period he calls The Dark Country of No Ideas, those dead-zone weeks and months when he’s absolutely miserable, when he has no idea what he’s going to write about next, when he’s waiting for the spark, for just the right “something” that can be broken down to its basic DNA and then rebuilt anew. For IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS, he was browsing the history section of the library and was intimidated when he spotted the 1,147 page THE RISE AND FALL OF THE THIRD REICH. This was the spark. (more details in my next post about this incredible project)