I was corporate editorial director at Time Warner and chief speechwriter for two New York governors. I’ve published four novels and a book of essays. My career has taught me lessons about myself as well as my profession. Here are seven that I consider the most important.
Persist. Alice McDermott once told me a writer is a person who doesn't give up. Norman Mailer said he was the third best writer in his class at Harvard. The others were discouraged by the process of finding agents and publishers. Mailer kept at it. It took me ten years to research and write my first novel. I had a full-time job and two children. I wondered how I could find the time. I started getting up at 5:30. I read and wrote for two hours before turning to my day job. There were moments I almost gave up, but I imagined that when I was on my deathbed, my last thought would be the book I failed to finish.
Write for yourself. The old adage "write for your audience" is a formula for becoming a hack rather than a writer. "I celebrate myself," wrote Walt Whitman, "I sing myself." Novelists--at least the ones who matter--are introspective, but not in the sense of ego-driven self-involvement. They write in the knowledge that what matters to them is what they must make matter to readers. They write from the deepest part of themselves. They discover things about themselves and the world that they never knew. They write about characters they care about. They do it with the conviction and confidence that if the characters come alive in their imaginations, chances are they’ll find an audience who'll embrace them.
Be a writer first, not an editor. Most of what we learn in school about writing is wrong. We are told to organize our thoughts before putting them on paper, to write outlines, and be careful about grammar and spelling. It’s like asking kids to memorize the rules of soccer before permitting them to play. Kids need to experience the challenge and thrill of being on the playing field, then the rules won’t be burdensome abstractions. Writing begins with letting go, experimenting, and learning to love the game. If you don’t love writing, then find something you do--acting, singing, mountain climbing--and put your heart and soul into mastering it.
See the world. You don’t have to travel far from home to see the world, you just have to keep your eyes open. “I have traveled a good deal in Concord,” wrote Henry David Thoreau of his hometown. Writers are careful observers of their surroundings and the people in them. I wrote three detective novels that were set in places as far away as Berlin and Havana. Most of what I wrote came from overheard conversations and observations of people in the streets and the offices where I lived and worked. I filled notebooks with details of people in love, under the influence, on the subway, down and out, over the top. I learned about the places by reading guidebooks and consulting maps. I only visited them when I finished writing. I learned about people by keeping my eyes open.
Make a schedule (and stick to it). Maybe Little Orphan Annie was right: “Things will work out tomorrow.” But not by themselves. Not if you don’t do your best to make them work out. The romantic haze that hangs around writing is an illusion. Writing is work. You can’t wait for the muse to inspire you. You need to set a time when writing is your priority. It doesn’t matter if it’s early morning or late at night. Some days a writer might get three or four pages. Others, she might just sit there. What matters is showing up.
Keep your priorities straight. As well as a writer, I’m also a spouse and parent with a circle of supportive friends. I know writers who’ve wrecked marriages, lost contact with friends and lovers, and alienated their children in pursuit of what the world calls success. I made it a point to put my family first. I wrote in the morning before my kids were awake. I never wrote on weekends. I avoided the social circuit and the seductions of the literary world. If you achieve success at the price of losing touch with the people who matter most to you, it’s no success at all.
Carpe Diem. Start today. Tomorrow isn’t going to wait around.
About the book:
The Civil War has just entered its third bloody year, and the North is about to impose its first military draft, a decision that will spark the most devastating and destructive urban riot in American history. Banished Children of Eve traces that event as its tentacles grip New York City. The cast is drawn from every stratum: a likeable and laconic Irish-American hustler, an ambitious and larcenous Yankee stockbroker, an immigrant serving girl, a beautiful and mysterious mulatto actress and her white minstrel lover as well as a cluster of real-life characters, including scheming, ever-pompous General George McClellan; fiery, fierce Archbishop “Dagger John” Hughes; and fast-declining musical genius Stephen Foster. The fates of these characters coalesce in the cataclysm of the Draft Riots, as a pivotal period in the history of New York and the nation is painfully, vividly, magically bought to life.
About Peter Quinn:
Peter Quinn is a novelist, political historian, and foremost chronicler of New York City. He is the author of Looking for Jimmy: In Search of Irish America and a trilogy of historical detective novels—Hour of the Cat, The Man Who Never Returned, and Dry Bones.
Around midnight, a woman dressed in white slipped through my bedroom window and cut off a lock of my hair with sewing scissors. I was awake the whole time, tracking her in the dark, so frozen by fear that I couldn’t move, couldn’t scream. I watched as she held the curl of my hair to her nose and inhaled. I watched as she put it on her tongue and closed her mouth and savoured the taste for a few moments before swallowing. I watched as she bent over me and ran a fingertip along the hook-shaped scar at the base of my throat...