In 2011, Neil Gaiman spoke with nerdist.com’s Chris Hardwick about the process of writing. It is the best advice from Neil I’ve been able to find, so I wanted to share it.
The First Draft
For me, it’s always been a process of trying to convince myself that what I’m doing in a first draft isn’t important. I remember the incredible liberation of the point that I moved from typewriter to computer, because I was no longer making paper dirty. It was just sort of notional. It was like imaginary. I was writing these words but it didn’t matter.
And then, a decade after that I remember the liberation again of suddenly going “I can write in notebooks. Because it isn’t real until I keyboard it. And one of the things that I still do over and over is just write in notebooks — big ole moleskins and things — and just handwrite, because it’s not real.
One way you get through the wall is just by convincing yourself that it doesn’t matter. Nobody’s ever going to see your first draft. Nobody cares about your first draft. And that’s the thing that you might be agonizing over, but, honestly, whatever you’re doing can be fixed. And you can fix it tomorrow; you can fix it next week. For now, just get the words out. Get the story down however you can get it down, and then fix it.
Writing Without Inspiration
If you only write when you’re inspired, you may be a fairly decent poet, but you will never be a novelist, because you’re going to have to make your word count each day and those words are not going to wait for you whether you’re inspired or not so you have to write when you’re not inspired and you have to write the scenes that don’t inspire you. And the weird thing is that six months later, a year later, you’ll look back at them and you can’t remember which scenes you wrote when you were inspired and which scenes you just wrote because they had to be written next.
The Dry-Stone Wall
The process of writing can be magical. There are times when you step out of an upper floor window and you just walk across thin air and its absolute and utter happiness. Mostly it’s the process of putting one word after another. It’s like, out in the Peak District in England and up in Scotland, there are people who make dry-stone walls. And they’ve been making dry-stone walls for generations. And the way they make these dry-stone walls is they have lots and lots of rocks and they put one down and then they put another one down that fits and then they put another one down that fits and somehow they create these walls that are absolutely stable, and just by putting one rock down after another and eventually you have a wall. And that’s how to make a novel. You put one word after another and then you repeat.
So when people come to me and they say “I want to be a writer. What should I do?” I say, “You have to write.” And sometimes they say, “I’m already doing that. What else should I do?” And I say, “You have to finish things. That’s where you learn. You learn by finishing things.”
Read Outside Your Comfort Zone
There’s other advice, there’s so much advice you can give young writers. Particularly writers that want to work within a certain genre because you can say, Look, read within that genre to understand what people are doing, but then, go and read outside your comfort zone. If you love a certain kind of movie and you want to make Hollywood action thrillers, go watch other kinds of movies. Watch documentaries, go see the other stuff. Find everything you can. If you like books, and you like fantasy and you want to be the next Tolkien, don’t read big Tolkien-esque fantasies. Tolkien didn’t read big Tolkien-esque fantasies he read books on Finnish phonology. You go and you read outside your comfort zone, go and learn stuff.
And Most Importantly…
The most important thing for anyone once they get any kind of level of quality, the point where you’re ready to write and you can write is… tell your story. Don’t try and tell the stories that other people can tell. You always start out with other people’s voices. You’ve been reading other people for years. You’re going to tell the kinds of things that they’ve been doing but as quickly as you can, start telling the stories that only you can tell. Because there will always be better writers than you and there will always be smarter writers than you and there will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that but you are the only you.
There are better writers than me out there, there are smarter writers, there are people who can plot better, there’s all of those kinds of things. But there’s nobody who writes a Neil Gaiman story like I can.