Seven of the world's best-known authors offer advice for aspiring novelists Advertisement

Seven of the world’s best-known authors offer advice for aspiring novelists

Take notes

By Neville Bhandara  January 30th, 2019

We caught up with seven prolific writers at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2019 to ask them

Yann Martel, author of the Booker Prize-winning Life Of Pi:

yann martel

ELLE: How do you begin a new work?

Yann Martel: By first having an idea, a good flexible idea. Then I do a lot of research—which means I read books or go someplace, which leads to the development of more ideas. Then, I make notes—for my new book on the Trojan War, I’ve already got 600 pages of notes— and cut them up and put them in labelled envelopes that I place in the order in which they roughly belong in the novel. That becomes the skeleton of my work.

ELLE: How can a writer discover his or her voice?

YM: You only discover who you are as a writer by actually writing. 

ELLE: What were you like as a child?

YM: Curious. Selfish. Probably self-centred too. But as I grew up, I became less of those things—except curious, I’m still very curious.

ELLE: Do you remember the first book you read that really impacted you?

YM: Many! I remember the first time I cried reading a book. It was Le Petit Chose, an autobiographical novel by Alfonse Daudius. The protagonist Le Petit Chose (it’s a nickname) has a terrible life. People are so cruel to him. I must’ve been nine years old when I read it, and I remember feeling so ashamed that I was crying over a story that I hid I the bathroom and wept. That was the first time I realised the power of the written word. 

ELLE: How important is criticism and the role of a critic in helping a writer grow?

YM: It depends. In the initial stages, you don’t need too much of it. Creativity is like a little candle, a little flame. And before it becomes a raging fire, it can easily be snuffed out. So, if a 12-year-old shows you her poem, you should probably not say it’s terrible, because you’ll extinguish that flame, when what it really needs is to be nurtured. When it comes to professional criticism, you need a good editor who can be honest with you in a constructive way.

ELLE: What kind of writer would you say you are?

YM: I’m very disciplined, but it’s not an effort. I love doing what I do. But, I’m not efficient. I don’t sit and write paragraph after paragraph. I’m a very slow writer; I write word by word, sentence by sentence. Because I’m in no rush. I love the process and the materiality of words.

Markus Zusak, author of The Book Thief and Bridge of Clay:

markus zusak

ELLE: When did you first start writing?

Markus Zusak: When I was 16. I wrote eight terrible pages in a pink exercise book that had 248 pages. I remember thinking at one point, “Only 240 to go.”

ELLE: How do you begin a new work?

MZ: When I’m writing a book, the first three things I think of are the beginning, the end, and the title. 

ELLE: So, was ‘The Book Thief’ always the title?

MZ: Yeah, it never had another title. Bridge Of Clay was originally ‘Clayton’s Bridge’, but that only lasted a few months.

ELLE: Advice to newbie writers? 

MZ: You have to be patient. You’re going to suffer a little bit as a writer, but take it easy on yourself. And be willing to experiment, because it takes time to develop your style. 

ELLE: What’s your worst enemy as a writer?

MZ: That’s an interesting one. I’d have to say lack of routine, and losing rhythm. You want to wake up in the morning and feel like you can roll out of bed and right in to your book, but it’s never that easy. When you fall out of routine, the gap between your world and that of your book starts to widen. Ideally, you’d want to be able to walk right from one to the other.

Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting:

irvine welsch

ELLE: How do you begin a new work?

Irvine Welsh: It’s a mess. I go to war with myself. I wind my desk up into a standing desk, till it comes up to the same height as my Pioneers, mixers and keyboard. Then, I create some music. It’s just noise at first, but then I get a steady rhythm going, to work out the pace I want to take with the novel. Once I feel I have something steady, I start banging away at the keyboard. Then, I keep going back and forth between the two, making playlists for each character I create. After a few weeks, I have a mess of words and a mess of music. By the time I get to about 20,000 words, themes and characters start to emerge more clearly, as do storylines. 

ELLE: Advice to young writers?

IW: I once taught at a writing programme in Chicago for six months, and I remember once telling the students who were under 28 years old that they were wasting their money in class; that they should instead go out and be in the world. These kids were doing their BFA, they were going to do an MFA…but why not just go out and experience life first? Have lovers, take up jobs, go to Mexico—do something that’s going to give you some experience in life. There’s no use being able to write perfectly but having nothing to say. These kids were technically brilliant, but they had no stories to tell. 

ELLE: What is your worst enemy as a writer?

IW: Myself. Your inner critic is always the worst, whether you’re writing a novel, a screenplay, or anything else.

ELLE: The first book you read that really impacted you?

IW: Probably James Kelman’s The Busconductor Hines. It was the first time I read something that made me think, “F*ck, this is amazing”. I hadn’t read this kind of literature before. It was an affirmation for me that someone from my background could be a writer. 

ELLE: Where do you stand on criticism?

IW: It’s a very self-righteous act to put something out there as an artiste—whether you’re a writer, painter, musician or anything else—and expect people to care. Why the f*ck should they? Criticism is part of the process. If no one criticised work, whether positively or negatively, art wouldn’t exist in the way that it does.

Hari Kunzru, author of The Impressionist:

Hari Kunzru

ELLE: How do you begin a new work?

Hari Kunzru: Often, I don’t know that I’ve begun a new work until I’m a bit into it. I start with something that’s not very well expressed or structured—a feeling that certain things will go well together, or an image. And then I begin to write. Eventually, if it balloons and gets more complex, maybe I have something.

ELLE: What do you like around you when you write? 

HK: Noise-cancelling headphones, which I use to listen to ambient music while I write, and my treasured old-school keyboard with mechanical keys. It cracks like a typewriter and I absolutely love it. I can’t write without it—rather, I don’t want to. 

ELLE: As a writer, what is your worst enemy? 

HK: Time. I can’t believe how much time I wasted when I was young. And now, with my deadlines and obligations, I have very little of it.

Tania James, author of the lyrical-political-mythological The Tusk That Did the Damage, the short-story collection Aerogrammes, and the poignant Atlas Of Unknowns:

digital tania james

ELLE: How do you like to write?

Tania James: I usually start by hand and then move to the computer, only to later move back and forth between the two.

ELLE: When did you first start writing? What is your earliest memory of having written something?

TJ: I wrote a story that took the perspective of a road, and every seven years, it got a bath. I must have been 10. Though now that I think back, I think I totally plagiarised that from a classmate [laughs]. 

ELLE: How important is the task of rewriting for you?

TJ: It’s probably 90 per cent of the writing process—at least for me. Because it’s only by draft four or five that I can really begin to discern the design it’s supposed to have, and the shape I’d like it to take. 

ELLE: Who are the writers who inspire you?

TJ: Charlotte Bronte and Toni Morrison. 

ELLE: How can writers work to improve their technique?

TJ: Read, particularly craft essays. I learnt a lot from them, especially shortcuts and tricks. Check out Jim Shepard and Laura van den Berg.

 ELLE: A dead novelist you’d like to lunch with?

TJ: Virgina Woolf. I think she was very funny, and I don’t think many people realise that.

Ben Okri, the award-winning Nigerian-born poet and novelist, whose The Famished Road (1991), won the Booker Prize:

Ben okri

ELLE: What made you want to write?

Ben Okri: The fairy-tales I read as a kid—the stories I was brought up on. And Shakespeare at school. And my mother: she made up stories and told them to me when I was a child. I only recently discovered this, because I went looking for them only to find that they don’t exist.

ELLE: How does a writer discover his or her voice?

BO: Stop imposing. A lot of what passes for ‘writing’ is actually imposing. The writer is imposing a structure, an opinion. Discover, don’t impose. Your voice is the way in which your soul speaks to your mind. There’ s a sort of “beat” to your spirit, and when you stop imposing, you hear it. And then you will learn how to write from within.

ELLE: How do you begin a new work?

BO: I sit down at a table, lift up my pen, and then jump.

ELLE: What were you like as a child?

BO: Playful. Bad. I used to get lost a lot. That’s in fact my first memory—being lost. I went missing for an entire day and no one could find me.

ELLE: Who or what do you admire?

BO: I admire the way Barack Obama conducted himself in office. The way he held his head, the way he kept going, despite the appalling things that were said about him and the way he was treated many times. Nelson Mandela, for how he conducted himself when he came out of prison, the way he became a different person but embraced it. He didn’t regress. He went forward. And I admire Gandhi, for his courage and his inflexibility.

ELLE: How important is discipline, for you, as a writer?

BO: If by discipline you mean being faithful and rigorous to an idea, it’s crucial. You can’t achieve greatness without discipline.

Alexander Mccall Smith, author of the beloved The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series:

Axendander McCall Smith

ELLE: How do you begin a new work?

Alexander McCall Smith: I sometimes, oddly enough, think about the ending. The final sentence, in particular. On a number of occasions, I’ve started writing a new book by first putting down the last sentence. And sometimes, I come up with the title before I’ve even written the book, and then I have to make sure the book fits it.

ELLE: You’ve written and contributed to over 100 books. What is the secret to being prolific?

AMS: Applying oneself to the process…just sitting down and writing. Most writers who write prolifically will tell you the same thing—don’t sit down and wait for inspiration to come. Don’t wait for the muse to come tap you on the shoulder, because she won’t.

ELLE: As a writer, what is your worst enemy?

AMS: Distraction.

ELLE: A book you read in your youth that influenced you and your work?

AMS: Alan Paton’s Cry, The Beloved Country when I was about 14, and I think that had a big impact on me. His style was what stood out.