How did you become a writer?
I was an avid reader ever since I learned how and I have wanted to write novels since I was 12. Although I wrote a lot in high school and college, I drifted away from it in my 20s with the pressure to earn a living. I ended up becoming a newspaper copy editor and for more than a decade I put aside, or did not take seriously enough to believe in, my wish to write fiction. Finally one day I had an idea that I was excited enough about that I did not quit.
I think that the only way to learn to write a novel is by writing one. Which sounds ridiculous, because you don’t know how when you start. But you have to start somewhere and figure it out as you go. In my experience there is a lot of sitting alone in a room, and a lot of false starts. You have to not give up.
Name your writing influences.
I don’t mean to suggest in what I said above that you can’t learn from people, and from books. Books about how to write won’t solve the main problem -- you still have to write the thing -- but they clarified my thinking. It is also helpful to have writing buddies. Classes are a great place to find them; this can be easier or harder depending on where you live, so online classes are also good. I found the ones I took at the Writers Studio helpful. Sackett Street Writers Workshop was also valuable to me at two crucial moments: when I first decided to start writing again seriously, and a few years later when I had a manuscript to workshop.
I enjoyed Ann Patchett’s “Getaway Car.” Jane Smiley’s “13 Ways of Looking at the Novel” is one I return to again and again. A new book about writing I wish I’d had the chance to read earlier because it might have saved me the pain of figuring some things out through trial and error is “The Hidden Machinery” by Margot Livesay. “The Kite and the String” by Alice Mattison is also helpful and practical, particularly about psychological barriers to writing that can seem insurmountable.
But before we are writers we are readers, and the books that have influenced me most were not books about how to write novels but novels themselves. Great novels have certain lessons, good but flawed ones have others, and bad novels are also highly instructive.
Where and when do you write?
Whenever I can, mostly in my apartment or on the subway to work (if I can get a seat). The subway is good for first drafts because there is a limited amount of time and no real way to escape from your task. When I got serious (or desperate) about writing, I started getting up at 4 a.m., assuring myself a few hours a day when nothing was going to disturb me. I’ve relaxed that somewhat, but I still get up between 4:30 and 5 most days. I feel less judgmental about what I am doing in the early morning. Later in the day is better for reading. When I am writing seriously I am thinking about writing even when I am not writing; it’s like a computer program running in the background.
What are you working on now?
I am trying to figure out if a sequel to my first novel makes any sense, so I am playing around with that. Although the story is complete, there may be more I could learn about the characters in a new adventure. I have some other ideas for historical novels as well, including something about Irish revolutionaries.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
I suppose you could call it that, all those years when I wasn’t writing. But to me, “writer’s block” isn’t a real thing so much as a description of a cluster of problems, the way people in the 19th century would be said to have “neurasthenia.” Now when I get stuck writing, I understand there’s something I haven’t figured out yet, maybe a solution that hasn’t come to me. I often pose questions to myself about some aspect of what I am working on, in a file labeled Thoughts. I find when I state the question clearly and then stop consciously thinking about it for a while the answer will come. Or I get up from my desk and take the dog for a walk. That often does the trick.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
I remember being very impressed by something Heather Aimee O’Neill, my writing teacher at Sackett Street, said about outlining in the first class I did with her. I had expressed the concern that writing an outline took all the suspense out of writing, if you already knew everything that was going to happen in your novel and were just dutifully going along and filling it in. No, she said, it’s not like that at all. You know the basics of what’s going to happen, but the magic is what happens in between what you know. And not just in what happens, but how. This struck me as extremely profound, and after that I became a dedicated outliner. The irony is that often I don’t follow my own outlines because I get a better idea as I am going along, so my fear of destroying suspense was doubly misguided.
What’s your advice to new writers?
My first advice would be to read as much as possible, especially but not only of the kind of fiction you want to write. Analytically, thinking about how the writer is achieving certain effects. If something isn’t working for you, why not? When you read something really moving, try to figure out how the writer is accomplishing that.
My second would be to not agonize too much over your first draft. The secret of writing is in rewriting, and the first draft is like scaffolding on a building – you need it to get started, but later you will discard it. Don’t be too hard on yourself in the beginning, because there will be plenty of time to be hard on yourself later.
My third would be to never be content with your own first attempt. Or your second, or your tenth. There are many places in life where perfectionism is out of place, but your art is not one of them. A typical novel has between 60,000 and 100,000 words. You need to have weighed each of them, more than once. Does every sentence delight you with its subtle music? (Read it aloud and see.)Are you learning something new about the characters in each paragraph? Are there are unnecessary adjectives and clunky constructions? Is there an improbable plot development? Until you are satisfied with the answers to such questions, you are not done. You are not going to please every reader, but you need to please yourself.
Kathleen A. Flynn grew up in tiny Falls Village, Conn., and lives in Brooklyn. She is a lifelong lover of words, particularly when found in novels, and a life member of the Jane Austen Society of North America. Having studied English at Barnard College and journalism at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, she edits at, and sometimes writes for, The New York Times. The Jane Austen Project (Harper Perennial) is her first novel.