What writing techniques have you found most important or memorable?
Sitting down and bashing the keys. It’s not romantic. Sorry. But if you’re going to write a book of, say, 100,000 words, then you’re going to start out with a draft of, say 125,000 words, cut it back, add, subtract, wholly rewrite, edit, revise, and start over. Do you want to do this in one year or ten? Do you have a day job, a spouse, children, a drinking habit? You see where I’m going here. Time is precious. Creativity is a dream if you’re not bashing keys. If you’re not sitting at the keyboard for hours on end, then you’re just not a serious writer.
How would you recommend creating and getting to know your characters?
Work from the outside in. This is contrary to basic acting philosophy. But the first thing we do with family, friends or strangers is see them. Their actions can be observed and witnessed. Therefore, those things have to be true on a certain level. Motive, you never really know. In fiction, you can make their physical tics and inflections and habits mean whatever you want. So you (put your palms together and twist) mash them up. Make them fit your story. Everyone from Mark Twain to Nora Ephron has done this. Second, let them talk. They’ll do it, all on their own. They’ll talk to…other people! Who appear on the page, as if by magic. Third, whenever your characters depart from the plot line in your head — in short, when they walk off the page and do what they want to do — follow that. They’ve taken a life of their own. Rewrite going forward as needed.
After developing an idea, what is the first action you take when beginning to write?
Storyboards. Dividing a 300-page narrative into thirty ten-page chapters. It forces you to take your Great Idea and boil it into mechanical parts. It makes you say things like, ”yeah, then Rocky punches Apollo Creed out.” That’s great, champ. Wonderful. It’s also half of one of thirty chapters. You’ve got another ninety minutes in film, and another 295 pages in fiction, to go. And then you go, “oooohhhhh.” That said, once you’re about one hundred and fifty pages in to your outline…just let the characters take over and throw the rest of the outline out the window. Your characters will take you, and the readers, to better places than you imagined.
Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking?
Man, but I wish I did. Then it would be great. “Oh! Just get the blue pill! Then I can do it all!” Actually, the best thing I can do is go for a six or seven mile run without headphones. That makes me think, in terms of plot lines and development. It also makes me too tired to be restless, so I can sit still at the keyboard for the rest of the day. It quiets the mind. For me, the value of this can’t be overstated.
Did you always want to write? How did you start your career as an author?
Regrettably, I did. My mother has a two-page “book” I did when I was about six. My parents were extremely conservative (this is rural “Mizzippi” in the 1960s and early 1970s, so when i say “conservative,” that’s really what I mean) but they’d let me read almost anything. I clearly remember reading Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream when I was about twelve. God only knows why. When I was about fifteen, I was reading Stephen King’s The Dead Zone. As it happened, this was in a high-school journalism class, and I was supposed to be paying attention. But what I learned was that I loved that book…and it was accessible. I remember flipping to the back of the book, where it said the author was a schoolteacher in Maine. And I said to myself, “Well, damn, I could do that.” I have always loved King for that inspiration, and for those early books, which made me believe I could write, whether that was true or not.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?
“Sit down, shut up and write,” which was said by my college j-school professor—the late, great Tommy Miller. I loved him from the minute I saw him. My life today would not exist without him. He made reporting and being curious about the world, then writing about it, seem like the best gig anyone could ever hope to find. When I learned he was terminally ill, I was driving home. I pulled over to the side of the road, stopped, and cried. It was the appropriate response.
What clichés or bad habits would you tell aspiring writers to avoid? Do you still experience them yourself?
I am not good at many things but by God I can procrastinate with the best of them. I truly hate it about myself…and seem powerless to do much about it. Meanwhile, I’ll be listening to Tom Waits or classical or country and staring at the screen and telling my wife that I’m clicking along at about three thousand words per day. Really, hon, you can’t believe how well this is going.
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Neely Tucker’s journalism career spans twenty-five years, fourteen of which he’s spent at The Washington Post. His 2004 memoir, Love in the Driest Season, was named one of the Best 25 Books of the Year by Publishers Weekly. Born in Mississippi, Tucker lives with his family in Bethesda, Maryland.
Read more about Neely Tucker’s book, The Ways of the Dead.