Like running on a tight-rope – Elizabeth Gilbert on Writing

[This is a shorty and to the point, interesting and worth considering. Elizabeth Gilbert is an accomplished writer, and offers here some controversial, though perhaps helpful, observations about writing while describing her own way of going at it.
Confession: the idea of outlining a novel before I wrote it would kill the deal for me; I write to find out what will happen to the character that has so captured my interest.  This approach is more common to literary writers than to writers of commercial fiction.  Literature is character driven, and the plot flows from who the character is and how he or she responds under duress to certain specific circumstances.
But Gilbert can keep her index cards. I stopped using them when I finished my post-grad studies (wink). Her comments on the importance of knowing your intended audience, though, nicely hit the bulls-eye, I think.  You’ve got to know exactly who your ideal reader is, at whom you are aiming your story, or you’re doomed. You can’t and won’t please everyone so don’t try.
Read it, it’s worth it!]

Elizabeth GilbertAuthor Elizabeth Gilbert achieved great success with her memoir Eat Pray Love. Since the publication of that book, she has delivered two popular TED talks and written a second memoir entitled Committed and a novel called The Signature of All Things. Check out the highlights from our interview below…

Q: How did you land your first book deal?

A: I spent about six years sending my short stories out to magazines, and collecting rejections. Then one day Esquire bought one of my stories out of the slush pile and published it. It was through this publication that I found my agent (or, rather, that my agent found me). She then negotiated a book deal on my behalf.

I had a collection of short stories written and ready to go, but I had to promise the publisher that I would deliver a novel, in order to seal the deal. Having never before written a novel, this was rather frightening. But you have to deliver the goods, once you sign that contract, or else they get fussy and want their money back — which is a good motivation to get your work done…

Q: You have written both nonfiction and fiction books; is there any difference to your approach or creative process when writing these two different genres?

A: Less than you might think. I feel that it’s more or less the same process, either way. Because all my work is so research-based, it always begins with a long period of study or immersion. Lots of note-taking. Many shoe boxes of index cards are involved. This part of the process can take years, but it’s during the research period that the story begins to grow in my mind, and that helps me to find my confidence.

Once the research is done, I then outline the book as well as I can, which means putting the index cards into some sort of sensible narrative order. Then I sit down to write. For me, the writing itself is usually pretty fast — but that’s only because I’ve always over-prepared so much. (When it comes time to write, then, it’s kind of like painting a house that’s already been very well prepped: now I just get to roll on the paint.)

And in both cases — with fiction and non-fiction — I make sure that I’ve decided exactly to whom I am writing the book, long before I even begin. Each one of my books has been written to a different person, and always to somebody I know well. I find that this is almost the most important decision (“Who exactly is it for?”) because that intimacy with my imagined reader will completely determine my voice and how I tell the story. I think it’s important to keep that one reader in mind as you write, and to hold yourself accountable to the duty of delighting them ….

Read the whole thing at Elizabeth Gilbert on Writing – from Galley Cat Interview

About Margaret Jean Langstaff

A lifelong critical reader with literary tastes, a novelist, short story writer, essayist, book critic, and professional book editor for many years. A consultant to publishers and authors, providing manuscript critiques and a full range of editorial services. A friend and supporter of all other readers and writers. A collector of signed modern first editions. Animal lover and tree hugger. Follow me on Twitter @LangstaffEditor
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2 Responses to Like running on a tight-rope – Elizabeth Gilbert on Writing

  1. Ana S. says:

    Margaret, I just wanted to comment on your introduction. There are some people around me (not writers) who always ask, baffled: “How can you write without having an idea what will happen?!” They almost make me feel guilty. So it makes me feel great to know that many other literary writers write like me, and commercial writers can have the outline. 🙂


  2. Actually, I would hazard a guess that 95 pct of literary writers begin with a character who fascinates them for some reason, who literally “captivated” them and became an obsession, and then, on examining the character more closely, the writer discovers (it’s not planned, it is a spontaneous out of nowhere thing) that the character is in a certain dire or stressful situation by virtue of who the character is (inner nature). Then the story begins to unwind like a movie in the mind and imagination of the writer, and following the story, the writing of it, where it’s going, is very much like transcription or battlefield journalism. Haha. Literary writers are a different species, no wonder the normals don’t get it; they have active fecund imaginations that seem to have an independent life and impetus. Thanks for your comment, Ana!

    Liked by 1 person

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