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Neil Gaiman On Writing

Posted Dec 01 2011 9:10pm

“I will eventually grow up and get a real job. Until then, will keep making things up and writing them down.”

Neil Gaiman talks about being a writer, the kinds of ideas and thinking that impact his creative work, using social media, and the opportunities for others to write.

In the video at the end, he gives the fundamental advice about becoming a writer: “Just write. Many writers hope elves will come in the night and finish your work for you. They won’t.”

Gaiman is one of the world’s best known science fiction and fantasy writers, the author of short stories, graphic novels, films and novels, including The Sandman series, American Gods, Stardust, Coraline, Anansi Boys and The Graveyard Book .

His writing has won numerous awards, including Hugo, Nebula, and Bram Stoker, as well as the 2009 Newbery Medal and 2010 Carnegie Medal in Literature.

The quote at the top comes from his Twitter profile @neilhimself. He has 1,665,600 followers, and uses Twitter and his own blog to not only interact with fans, but sometimes explore writing ideas and get suggestions.

In Neil Gaiman: the Prospect interview (by Tom Chatfield, 14th June 2010), he talks about his anthology Stories: All-New Tales , edited with Al Sarrantonio, and comments about creative expression.

Neil Gaiman: What I loved in the stories I chose was the sense of people just being let loose with themselves, and playing God. You take the rules of genre away, and people feel they can play with a story. And one of the things people start doing when they play with stories is that they make things up.

Tom Chatfield: Yet people are always saying that life is stranger than fiction, with the implication being that you don’t need to make anything up any more. And that in a digital age, today, all you need to do as a “creative” is search and filter.

Neil Gaiman: Life is always going to be stranger than fiction, because fiction has to be convincing and life doesn’t. And life can be heavy-handed in a way that you wouldn’t allow in fiction.

I sat there with a friend dying of lung cancer two nights ago, and she pulled out a cigarette from a pack which had “smoking kills” written in huge letter facing me. And I thought, I couldn’t actually do that in a story, because in fiction or in a film it would be so heavy-handed and such amazingly bad art. But life owes no obligation to be good art. ///

Using social media and blogs – and sharing the fun

I’m never, I hope, stupid enough to believe that Twitter or blogging or any of this stuff is a substitute for actually doing the work or writing a book. On the other hand, for me a lot of the time it is a way of going, “oh my God, this is fun.”

And it is fun. When I was a kid, if somebody had told me that when I was grown up I would get to write an episode of Doctor Who, I would have thought, “wow, I wonder if it could ever be as much fun as I think it’s going to be, maybe it will feel like a job.”

Yet the fact of the matter today is that the moment I sat down and wrote “Interior: Tardis” and “the glass thing is going up and down inside the hexagonal column,” I thought, this is good, this is as much fun as I thought it would possibly be. And it is a real joy to be able to say that to people, via Twitter and so on.

TC: Are there dangers that come with this territory?

NG: You are navigating between the things that I have seen destroy writers. On the one hand, there are the guys who are too precious, and they take ten years to produce a book and you look at it and you go, how can you take ten years between books?

Very often it’s because every single word and comma assumes such enormous importance. And then there are the ones like GK Chesterton, whom you just want to go back in time and stop from writing; you want to say, “just don’t write another essay, just stop, take a week off for God’s sake…”

I don’t think those are the biggest pitfalls, though. I think the biggest pitfalls for a writer are that we are not performers.

A performer—and I know this because I am friends with many performers, and in fact at this point am affianced to one—lives or dies by what the crowd did last night. The applause. Did people like them, was it a good gig? It’s an immediate gratification thing.

For writers, for it to work, you write something, and normally by the time it is published you are on to the next thing. ///

Information everywhere

TC: Publishers are certainly segmenting audiences more and more, to reach more people. But is this any good for writers or for books?

NG: The problem that we are in now is that everything is about filtering. Information used to be gold: hard to find, expensive, the equivalent of going off into the desert and coming back with a perfect lump of gold.

Now, it’s the equivalent of going off into the jungle, in which there is information everywhere and what you are trying to find is the piece that is useful, while ignoring the noise. I don’t know if this is good or bad: it just is.

TC: It’s a landscape, as you say, that people inhabit. But it is a landscape that is suffused with words, and I wonder if it affects how people read and write, when words start to look disposable rather than golden.

NG: I don’t know. I do know that I was reading articles in the late 1970s in my teenage years that, basically, were reflecting on a post-literature society in which people would no longer write things down or read because they had the television and telephone.

The book was going to go the way of the letter—and yet now I get handed books where the whole idea is that it’s someone’s email, but also their Twitter stream and blog entries.

An epistolary novel!

I’m fascinated by the fact that my fifteen-and-a-half-year-old daughter barely uses her phone to talk on.

There’s that weird point when you are driving four teenage girls around, in a car that five years ago would have been alive with conversation, and not only is it completely quiet, but those five are all talking to each other through text, with another 15 people coming into and going out of that conversation.

It’s as if you have five telepaths in the car but are excluded from the telepathic communion.

Being a young writer

TC: Do you feel it is a good time to be a young writer?

NG: It’s an amazing time to be a young author. Your options are almost infinite. The playing field may not be perfectly flat, but it’s really so much flatter than anybody every believed. The truth is, if I were starting out right now, writing short stories or whatever, I would build my little off-the-peg website, no need for a publisher at that stage, maybe never.

Although I’m fascinated by how many mainstream publishers keep an eye on the web for people who are good. But just the idea that I could get stuff done and out like that, that I wouldn’t be dependent in any way on any other gatekeeper.

Starting out

In another profile article, Kid Goth (The New Yorker, January 25, 2010), Dana Goodyear writes about his early life and work.

Gaiman got his start as a journalist-for-hire, in England. He didn’t go to college.

His first book was a Duran Duran biography he finished in three months, using a clip file from the BBC; next, he wrote a biography of Douglas Adams, in the style of Douglas Adams. Gaiman says that, especially in the early stages of his career, “I was very, very good at taking a voice that already existed and just parodying it.”

He describes his short piece “We Can Get Them for You Wholesale” as him doing John Collier. “A Study in Emerald” is his version of Sherlock Holmes, by way of H. P. Lovecraft. The writer Gene Wolfe says that “Sunbird,” Gaiman’s story about an epicurean club that eats the mythical phoenix, “is so much in the style of R. A. Lafferty it’s almost as if Lafferty were dictating it from Heaven.”

A literary childhood

As a child [in England], he was bookish and broody; for his tenth birthday, he asked for a shed and got a kit of pine boards, which his parents assembled at the bottom of the garden.

It was where he read: the Narnia books; Roger Lancelyn Green; a neighbor’s father’s “Dracula”; Chesterton, borrowed from the library.

Instead of studying for his bar mitzvah, he persuaded his instructor to teach him Bible stories—the Behemoth, the Leviathan—and the secret teachings, about Lilith and the Lilim, which he used in “The Sandman.”

To his father’s dismay, he spent his bar-mitzvah money on American comics—a good investment, as he sees it now. ///

Writing comics afforded Gaiman his great opportunity to invent a cosmology. He approached the work strategically. In the early eighties, he started going to fantasy conventions as a journalist and interviewing authors he admired.

At one such event, he met Alan Moore, who, through “Swamp Thing,” was transforming the comic book into something literary, psychological, and self-aware.

He asked Moore to show him how to write a script; they sat down and Moore sketched it out in a notebook: page one, panel one, FX for sound effects, and so on. Moore’s style shaped Gaiman’s early work; his scripts were fully realized texts, dense with visual information.

Gaiman says that an Alan Moore script for a twenty-four-page comic would be about a hundred pages, his own would run to fifty pages, and most other writers’ would be half that.

Just write

On his blog, in Advice to Authors , Gaiman responds to the question “How does one get published?” with a number of comments, including:

How do you do it? You do it. You write. You finish what you write.

You look for publishers who publish “that kind of thing”, whatever it is. You send them what you’ve done (a letter asking if they’d like to see a whole manuscript or a few chapters and an outline will always be welcome. And stamped self-addressed envelopes help keep the wheels turning.)

Sooner or later, if you don’t give up and you have some measurable amount of ability or talent or luck, you get published. But for people who don’t know where to begin, let me offer a few suggestions:

Meet editors…Even if you haven’t met any editors, send your stuff out. ///

On the whole, anything that gets you writing and keeps you writing is a good thing. Anything that stops you writing is a bad thing. If you find your writers group stopping you from writing, then drop it.

The other thing I’d suggest is Use The Web. Use it for anything you can – writers groups, feedback, networking, finding out how things work, getting published. It exists: take advantage of it.

Believe in yourself. Keep writing.

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Photo: Neil Gaiman at the 2007 Scream Awards, from Wikipedia .

Also see my site The Inner Writer

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