Writing Tips from Orhan Pamuk, Suketu Mehta and Kathy Sierra

(Image by Haagen Jerrys

When  Suketu Mehta, Orhan Pamuk and Kathy Sierra offer advice on writing, it is worth listening, for it reveals that great writing comes from hard work. These writers also reveal techniques which can be used by us to better our writing

The Idea: Orhan Pamuk’s idea fror creative writing is to combine things which are taboo to be put together. In  The Black Book, he found his voice by combining Sufi Islamic mystic allegories and postmodern experimental writing. This combination was not intentional; he started reading about Sufi mysticism with a nationalist agenda to find more about his own culture and that in turn helped him find his voice.

An engineer by training, he applies engineering principles to his writing as well. When he starts a novel, he imagines that he has a big blank wall which needs to be painted. He draws something on one side of the wall and something on the opposite side. The task then is to fill the portion in between and for that he does chaptering and plotting. Once the architecture and engineering is done, he takes time to execute the plan and typical novel takes him about 3-4 years.[Orhan Pamuk on KQED Radio]

Tools: Most of us write on the computer and  are held hostage by various text editors and their quirks. As you write a paragraph, you get an urge to format. Once you start formatting, each paragraph starts looking different and  in trying to tame that dragon, you lose perspective of what you want to communicate. There is a growing trend towards zenware — software that does not hold you back.

But if, when it comes right down to it, full screen is your holy grail, and the ultimate antidote to the bric-a-brac of Word, then you must enter the WriteRoom, the ultimate spartan writing utopia. Where Scrivener calls itself a “writer’s shed,” which suggests implements like duct tape and hoes, WriteRoom pitches itself as the way to “distraction-free writing” for “people who enjoy the simplicity of a typewriter, but live in the digital world.” With WriteRoom, you don’t compose on anything so confining as paper or its facsimile. Instead, you rocket out into the unknown, into profound solitude, and every word of yours becomes the kind of outer-space skywriting that opens “Star Wars.” What I mean is this: Black screen. Green letters. Or another color combination of your discerning choice. But nothing else.[An Interface of One’s Own]

Editing: Suketu Mehta spent a lot of time in Mumbai getting involved in the lives of gangsters, dancers and various nefarious characters filling his laptop with raw data. Converting that into Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, a fast read,  was not easy.

So I rented a studio—a beautiful studio on Clinton Street in Cobble Hill—and I just wrote. I went to the MacDowell Colony for two or three weeks. I’d written everything in these notebooks on my computer, and so it was like having an enormous mass of unwashed laundry and separating the whites and colors and the delicates and the knits, and just seeing what went in which world. The whole process of constructing and editing the book was another four years after the reporting. Then I worked with an international all-star team of editors who tore their hair out and helped me turn this thing into a book. Altogether I took six and a half years.

Also, the impression readers have that Maximum City is a quick read is a false one because it was certainly not a quick write. But it takes a lot—Hemingway taught me this—to make writing seem effortless. It took me a long time before I learned how to write simply. My early sentences back in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop were long. As Indians we tend to like longer sentences. [Interview with Suketu Mehta]

And here is how Henry David Thoreau wrote Walden.

Thoreau spent two years living at Walden Pond, leaving the woods in 1847. He spent seven years writing and re-writing Walden, condensing two years of journals into one year of time for the book. He wrote seven complete drafts before sending it to the printer.[The Fantastic Five]

Finally: It is hard to make Enterprise Java Beans an interesting topic and that is what Kathy Sierra did with her best seller, Head First EJB. According to her, if your writing produces an emotional flat line in the reader, then it does not become memorable. For example, if you whine about communists all the time, readers can predict your pattern and the blog becomes boring. One way to save that writing would be to write  boring stuff like history, or by applying techniques from the film world. For her technical books, she applied lessons from the screen writing book Save The Cat! creating three act stories.

While most of these tips are for books, there are lessons for bloggers as well. Pay attention to the structure of the post, spend time editing it and finally make it interesting to read. If the not the emotional graph of the reader will look like the electrocardiogram of Fidel Castro.

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