Pep Talk from Alexander Chee

photo of Alexander Chee

Dear Writer,

I am thinking of a student of mine from many years ago, who, when she started out with me, was not my favorite writer. She took my class three times in a row, which surprised me. By the third class, she was one of my favorite writers. “What have you been doing, besides taking this class?” I asked her.

“Every day, I get up an hour earlier for work,” she said. “I’m unmarried, I have a good job, and I live alone. So I write for an hour and then go to work.”

What makes a writer a writer? Writing. A lot of people would say ‘talent’, but talent is really just the ability to do something well that most people have to work hard at. If you don’t think you have ‘talent’, just work hard instead—the talent often comes with a cost, anyway: a lack of good work habits. The talented ones often never had to learn to work hard; so many of them don’t finish their work because they never had to—it was enough to be talented, to offer people a glimpse of what you could be. So don’t be that person—don’t be the person that everyone believes could have done something. Be the person who tried.

“You really only need a half hour a day, maybe an hour, to do this. The first thing to do is to locate that time.”

The way our economy is structured, it’s never been so hard to get time off to write as it is now. If you’ve managed to clear this month, then, great. But you really only need a half hour a day, maybe an hour, to do this. The first thing to do is to locate that time. Many people do this writing before they do anything else—before they talk to anyone, before they tweet, check email, Facebook. If you can find this writing time before you do the rest of the work you have to do, you’ll find yourself feeling easier with people. You won’t have that awful feeling, like being stuck over the drain at the bottom of the pool.

The page-number count is important but it isn’t enough to just go HAM on the keyboard. Maybe take one of the days for drafting and make yourself a Character Bible—a list of the characters with the role each plays in the story. Make a list of the locations for the story. What do you know about them—and do you know enough? Can you research them, can you find them through Flickr or Instagram tags and look at them that way, if you can’t manage a research trip? What do you know about your characters’ jobs? What is their financial life like—where does their money come from and what do they spend it on?

If you get stuck, take time out and think of the unmade decisions in the draft. Make a list, and begin making those decisions. And if you don’t know enough to make them yet, do the research, even if it is just emailing a list of questions to a friend you think might know these things. You may even want to make lists at the end of each writing session: what needs to be researched, and what decisions need making?

The decisions of a novel are where the life of the novel touches ground. If you haven’t made them, that answering spirit may hesitate, unsure it is welcome.

Keep track of the decisions you’ve made for your novel in a journal that is just for the novel. I keep mine like a private blog—the most recent entry is at the top, and it goes back in time to the oldest at the back, the end of the document. I write entries for each day of work—what needs doing, what I’m unhappy with, what I like—and I refer to it when I begin work the next day, so I can just drop back down into the mind of the novel.

If you have a paragraph or two that is just how you want the novel to sound, print it up and put it somewhere you can see it. Read it before you begin writing to put the tone in your head. There’s what Sigrid Nuñez calls “the tone that makes everything possible.” The tone that seems to make the writing come all on its own. When you find that tone, keep it handy. Somewhere you can read it easily to get it back.

And, if you’re distracted easily by the internet, use pen and paper. You can always type it up at the end, or you can use the device that turns your handwriting into word docs—though typing it all up, if you have time in the afternoon, can count as a revision.

One more habit: if someone asks you to do something during your writing time, say no. Protect your writing time at all costs. If this is something you’ve wanted to do for years, chances are there’s a part of you that feels like a friend who gets ditched every time. That part of you is waiting to do this. They are also afraid you’ll ditch. Don’t do it. Not this month. Show up and write.

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Alexander Chee is the author of the novels Edinburgh, The Queen of the Night, and the essay collection How To Write An Autobiographical Novel, forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in April of 2018.

He is a contributing editor at The New Republic, and an editor at large at VQR. His essays and stories have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, T Magazine, Tin House, Slate, Guernica, and Out, among others.

He is winner of a 2003 Whiting Award, a 2004 NEA Fellowship in prose and a 2010 MCCA Fellowship, and residency fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the VCCA, Civitella Ranieri and Amtrak.

He is an associate professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth College.