How to Write a Book

Here’s some great advice from the new book Beyond the First Draft: The Art of Fiction by John Casey:

  • I can’t teach someone how to write…but if someone is talented to begin with, I can save her a lot of time.
  • I can sometimes teach someone to rewrite.
  • You don’t have to only write about what you know. (Haven’t you read novels that contain murder scenes?)
  • “Show, don’t tell” is great advice–the same advice you’ll get in an improv theater class–but many great novelists do a lot of “telling” and it can be done very well.
  • You should probably avoid explicit sex scenes.
  • Take breaks during your writing, so that your subconscious mind has time to incubate new ideas for rewrites and revisions.

All of this advice works just as well for non-fiction writing. (Especially the advice to avoid sex scenes!) What really resonates with me is the emphasis on rewriting that’s signaled in the book’s title. Good writing comes from reading, editing, and revising–a zig-zagging path from the initial idea, through an emergent process where the characters and the story surprise you with something you didn’t realize was in there. My research shows that this zigzag is the source of all creativity. Allan Massie’s review of this book in the Wall Street Journal points out that close and careful reading is perhaps the most essential part of the creative writing process. That’s why all good writers are also very good readers…and all good creators are good critics, reviewers, and editors. In my book Zigzag, this ability is the seventh step in an 8-step process that I call “Choose: How to pick the best ideas and then make them even better.”

John Casey won the National Book Award in 1989 for his novel Spartina and he teaches in the MFA program at the University of Virginia.

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