Gaiman, Neil, Neil Gaiman: The author has some advice for wannabe writers: ‘You put one word in front of the other until it’s done.’ , The Globe and Mail, 14 July 2001, R2
“People often ask me where I get my inspiration. They say, “Hey man, what kind of drugs do you do to come up with that stuff?” On the whole, my muse comes from the same place daydreams come from.
I suspect that a lot of the people who come to me and say they wish they had my imagination really do have my imagination, they just think it’s slight and trivial. I tend to follow a train of thought and walk it a little further down than anyone’s gone before. Or I put two things together that have never lived together before. You may start out thinking, “Okay, anyone who gets bitten by a werewolf becomes one when the moon is full.”
But then you say, “What happens if a werewolf bites a chair? Does the chair turn into a wolf when the moon is full?” All of a sudden, you’ve got a story on your hands.
I have a lot of people come to me and ask what I do for writer’s block.
Well, I don’t believe there’s any such thing as a universal writer’s block. I have never come to the point where I’ve said, “Oh my God, I’ve got writer’s block!” There have been many times when I’ve come to the point where I’ve thought, “I don’t know what happens next,” but that doesn’t mean I’ve lost the ability to write. That just means I’m stuck on it.
In American Gods,I got the protagonist Shadow to the end of Cairo, Illinois, and I didn’t know what happened next, so I went away and finished a kids novel I started many years earlier. I could still write, I just didn’t know what happened next. I needed some processing time. And once it was processed, I knew what happened next and I kept going. I have two pieces of advice for people who want to write books.
I can tell those who are going to be writers apart from the ones who would love to be writers but never will be by the way they react to this advice. First piece of advice: You have to write. You can’t just want to write. To be a writer, you have to write. The second piece of advice: You have to finish things, then write some more and finish those. You can send things out to places that may or may not publish them, but write and finish things.
People who are going to be writers look at that and say, “Oh yeah, you’re right.”
The ones who are never going to be writers — the ones who just want the secret — look incredibly disappointed, as if you’re trying to cheat them. Because they know that if you sit on your left hand while you’re writing; they know that if you wear the lucky green hat; they know that if you go down to the cellar at midnight and cast the goat bones while doing a little naked dance — the magic will happen.
They don’t want to be told: You put one word in front of the other until it’s done. The ones who are going to be writers look shamefaced and say, “You know, I have five unfinished novels, 10 unfinished short stories. I’ve got to finish them.” That’s the best advice any writer can give, the rest of it is detail.
If you don’t do these things, you never progress, you never learn. You also never realize that it’s work. What tends to happen is that people have a lovely spurt of inspiration and they start to write, but that spurt will probably take you about seven pages. By page eight it turns into work.
Writing American Gods,there were some days when I revelled in the joy of magical inspiration, and there were many, many, many days where the process of writing was as enjoyable as ditch digging. Looking back on the book, I have no idea if what I was writing was written during a moment of magical inspiration or during a moment of ditch digging. But you keep going because you’re a professional.
In my case, I’d look up at the book cover — they had designed the cover to the book before I even began it, and I had it pinned up — and I’d think, “You’re never going to be the cover of anything unless I finish.” You do it on days you don’t feel like doing it, because you’re a professional and that’s what you do. It’s like a rock band moving from town to town — there may be nights when they’re really on form and they just want to play music, and there are nights when they’ve all got hangovers, the drummer has contracted an embarrassing social disease and the singer’s wife just broke up with him on the bus, and now they’ve got to go out there and perform. They’re going to perform and give you a great show because they’re professionals.”
Author Neil Gaiman will sign copies of his latest book, American Gods, at the Yonge/Eglinton Indigo store in Toronto on July 22; the Virgin Record Megastore in Vancouver on July 24; and the Open Space Gallery in Victoria on July 25. He will read from the book at Toronto’s Lillian H. Smith Library on July 23. He spoke to Pete Nowak.