Curtis Sittenfeld is the bestselling author of four novels: Prep, The Man of My Dreams, American Wife and Sisterland. In an article in The Guardian last week, published in the wake of the controversy caused by Hanif Kureishi’s assertion that creative writing courses are ‘a waste of time’, Sittenfeld (herself an experienced creative writing teacher) shared the following very practical advice for writers.
1. Establish a writing schedule ahead of time for the coming week or month.
This is more important the less time you have. If you work full-time, you might plan to write for an hour at 6am on Tuesday and Thursday, or at 4pm on Wednesday and Saturday. Write this commitment down in your diary or calendar, don’t schedule anything that conflicts with it, and sit alone somewhere you can focus when the time comes. It’s OK if you don’t produce sentences during that time, but don’t do anything else – don’t check email, don’t text, don’t go online (and for heaven’s sake, if you’re using a computer, shut all files and windows except for the one you’re working on). If some nagging errand you need to do occurs to you, write it down, but don’t start doing it.
2. Create an outline.
This will give you a roadmap to follow and make you less likely to write yourself into a corner. It’s fine to deviate from the outline, but it’s very useful to think about the overall structure of what you’re trying to produce. Similarly, don’t go back and revise until you’ve completed a first draft. Solutions to problems tend to reveal themselves much more clearly when the whole work is finished than they do along the way.
3. If you don’t enjoy the process of writing in some way, you probably shouldn’t do it.
While there are people who make lots of money from books, most don’t, and many writers I know have found the experience of having a first (or subsequent) book published disappointing and anticlimactic. I agree with some of what I understand to be Hanif Kureishi’s viewpoint, but I don’t think anyone knows who does or doesn’t have talent without that person giving writing a try.
More about Curtis Sittenfeld
Curtis Sittenfeld was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1975. She attended Vassar, Stanford and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she earned an MFA in creative writing. Her debut novel, Prep, was nominated for the Orange Prize in 2006 and translated into twenty-five languages. Her most recent novel, Sisterland, which focuses on psychic twin sisters, was named by Slate as one of the best books of 2013. Sittenfeld’s non-fiction writing has been published in The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, Salon and Glamour. According to her Twitter bio she is currently working on “a present-day Ohio Pride & Prejudice. That sound you hear is Jane Austen rolling over in her grave.”
Watch Curtis Sittenfeld discuss her third novel, American Wife, as part of the ‘Conversations from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop’ series