Writing advice from A.M. Homes

In April 2018 American author A.M. Homes gave a special craft talk for out students with loads of great writing advice. With a writing career that spans over three decades, Homes is an authority and not just on writing fiction. In addition to her seven novels and two short story collections, she has authored a memoir, a nonfiction book on Los Angeles, and she wrote for the TV series The L Word. She’s also spent years inspiring and instructing students in some of the most prestigious writing programmes in the U.S. (she currently teaches at Princeton).

We discussed technique in her award-winning novel May We Be Forgiven and so much more. It was such an inspiring and entertaining evening (Homes was hilarious!), we’re happy we can share it with you. You can listen to the talk in its entirety on our website or as a podcast on iTunes and our own feed. You can also check out the photos from the event in our album.

Here are five of our favourite pieces of advice from the evening:

  1. Do a lot of work ‘off the page’ – Homes takes hundreds of pages of notes for each book and she asks herself questions constantly. ‘I have to ask the questions to write the thing’, she said. These range from big picture questions such as ‘who does the story belong to?’ and ‘what has to happen in the character’s life to get him from here to there emotionally?’ to questions like ‘what sort of toothpaste does my character use and what does that choice tell me about him?’ She also uses drawing as a way to get beneath the conscious mind and tap into the imagination and incredibly detailed research to help submerge herself in the characters’ world.
  2. Don’t try to write and edit at the same time – ‘It’s a different kind of consciousness [from editing] that allows me to inhabit a character, to build a whole world. Of course you’re always making choices, but if I sit there and think “you didn’t get that word right”, that’s just not going to work…’
  3. When you do edit, don’t try to fix everything at once and be prepared to make big changes – Homes goes through lots of revisions. She once printed everything out and it was two floor-to-ceiling stacks of paper. Something beginning writers often don’t realise: ‘Revision is not just changing little things, it’s an opportunity to reconceptualise.’ And she advised looking at different things with each pass through your manuscript—‘I’ll read through a story or manuscript just tracking one character or [looking at] am I using place in the most effective way’. Another trick that’s particularly helpful for novelists who want to improve flow and pacing: go through your manuscript and make a note of what happens on each page.
  4. Learn to live with your shitbird – the ‘shitbird’ is the term coined by the poet Philip Schultz for the negative voice in your head that tells you whatever you’re trying to do isn’t good enough. When asked if she has a shitbird, Homes said ‘Honey, I gotta a flock’. But she pointed out, ‘Without some self-doubt or concern there’s not going to be anything good…The shitbird is there every day saying “that’s not good” and “you suck”…You have to say to the shitbird, “OK but I’m still going, I’m still going to keep doing it.”’ She pointed out that whether you think something is terrible or brilliant can fluctuate from day to day, so she advises: ‘Don’t rip things up, don’t throw things away, let them breathe and recognise you’re not the only person who loathes themselves. It’s part of the process. It’s healthy-ish.’
  5. ‘Risk failing – you’re just failing on paper. No one will get hurt.’

 

Thank you to Dana Marin for the photos, Paulien Bakker and Irene Houthuijs for help with the recording, Inge Lamboo for taking great notes, Beth Johnson and Boekhandel van Rossum for hosting us, and, of course, A.M. Homes for being so generous with her time.

21 June 2018

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