I don’t really know where my ideas come from. I start with a time and a place. That’s what I need to get started, and an intellectual question.
-Start with a time and a place
-Be excited/surprised by the process
-Avoid going backward instead of forward (so simple, and yet, so unyieldingly difficult).
-Start with as little as possible
Fiction-writing I only do by hand. Only.
I usually try to write five to seven original pages a day.
A first draft takes about 10% of the total writing time, but in terms of importance it’s probably 50%.
I don’t outline initially. I outline everything in revision. Some of my revision outlines are 50 pages long.
Usually my books go through three or four big drafts, with each big draft reflecting 20 rewrites of each individual part. When I get to a full new draft, it means I’ve made enough changes to all the parts that I’m willing to look at it as a whole.
I haven’t had trouble with writer’s block. I think it’s because my process involves writing very badly. My first drafts are filled with lurching, clichéd writing, outright flailing around. Writing that doesn’t have a good voice or any voice. But then there will be good moments. It seems writer’s block is often a dislike of writing badly and waiting for writing better to happen.
Advice for young writers:
My advice is so basic. Number one: Read. I feel like it’s amazing how many people I know who want to be writers who don’t really read. I’m not convinced someone wants to be a writer if they don’t read. I don’t think the problem is that they need to read more; I think they might need to readjust their life goals. Reading is the nourishment that lets you do interesting work. To be reading good things. I feel that you should be reading what you want to write. Nothing less.
The second thing is, I feel like getting in the habit of it is huge. I guess that was my one accomplishment of those two years [with the first failed novel]— making it a routine is a gigantic part of it.
One corollary of that—and this is probably the most important thing for me— is being willing to write really badly. It won’t hurt you to do that. I think there is this fear of writing badly, something primal about it, like: “This bad stuff is coming out of me…” Forget it! Let it float away and the good stuff follows. For me, the bad beginning is just something to build on. It’s no big deal. You have to give yourself permission to do that because you can’t expect to write regularly and always write well. That’s when people get into the habit of waiting for the good moments, and that is where I think writer’s block comes from. Like: It’s not happening. Well, maybe good writing isn’t happening, but let some bad writing happen. Let it happen!
I mean, when I was writing The Keep, my writing was so terrible. It was God-awful. My working title for that first draft was, A Short Bad Novel. I thought: “How can I disappoint?”
So, just write and be happy that you did it. You stuck to the routine. You’re kind of holding the place so that you’re present for when something good is ready to come.
And then it’s all about rewriting. Re-visiting, re-visiting and re-writing. I think it’s a mistake to be too precious about one’s words. I feel the same way about the criticism. You’re not going to break! It’s pretty tough to stick it out, to do this. So, get used to it! People are going to not like it. Okay! You’ll live. So, it’s bad. Okay. You’ll live! They said ‘no.’ You know what? Everyone gets said ‘no’ to a thousand times. If that is really something that you can’t tolerate, this may not work.
Read the complete interviews:
Egan on Goon Squad, LA Times brouhaha, and her next novel—Entertainment Weekly
How Do you Write a Great Work of Fiction?—The Wall Street Journal
Jennifer Egan Wins Award; Gives Me Advice—The Rumpus
Jennifer Egan—Days of Yore