Author Events: Harlan Coben


Last Friday, my mother and I went to the St. Louis County Public library to see Harlan Coben speak. I have never actually read any of Coben’s books, but my mother was very excited, so it sounded like a great idea to me. And, after going to this talk I know I will be reading his stuff, which is good and bad–I love discovering new authors, but my stack of books to read is already so long!

I am excited about reading some of these books, but I am going to write now about the talk he gave, which was really interesting. He talked a lot about his writing process, which I found helpful. I have been struggling a bit getting this post written, though, because he talked about a lot of things I know that I should be doing, but I am just *not*.

A lot of the things that he said, I have seen in many places that offer writing advice. While the writing process is different from person to person in many ways, there are some aspects that are universal to successful writers. Obviously, the first one is the fact of sitting down and writing–in order to be a successful writer, you must sit down and write. That seems obvious to me, but it is repeated so often that it is clear that not everyone gets that. I do know what people mean when they give this advice, though–people who say they want to be writers often do very little actual writing.

Coben talked about this a bit when he was talking about his research process. He does very little research, in part because it is too easy to get lost in the research and use it as an excuse to not get on with the actual writing. As he says, only writing counts as writing. Research may sometimes be necessary, but it is not writing until you start putting pen to page or fingers to keyboard and start producing a story. He also talked about the risk of doing too much info-dump if you have done a lot of research, slowing down the story for things your readers really don’t care about. If you know a lot about a topic, especially if you learned it all specifically for the book you are writing, the temptation to use it all can be too great.

Of course, from the description he gave of his revision process, I suspect that wouldn’t be as big of a problem as he fears. He continually edits his work, starting his writing day with a review of what he wrote the day before, and printing out the book to date every fifty pages and editing the whole thing. By the time he finishes his first draft, he says, he has edited the first chapter something like 12 times. And that is just the first draft! Again this is advice I have seen many times–amateurs just write, professionals edit. That is practicing the craft of writing.To me, this seems like a useful way of going through a draft, because it helps to eliminate continuity errors while everything is still fresh in your head. I find that some distance can be helpful in editing, so that you can view your work with just a bit of detachment, and that is still necessary, but correcting errors while you still in the thick of things seems a bit easier than reading through a long story and keeping everything straight. I find it especially hard to catch that sort of error in my own writing, because I know what I mean, so I don’t always notice when I make a logical leap, or even an out and out contradiction of something I already said.

One thing he said that I found very encouraging, even though it sounds a bit discouraging at the same time–it doesn’t really get any easier to do this. I mean, in some ways, it does, in that your skills as a writer improve as you practice your craft, but he said he hasn’t gotten to a point where the ideas just flow, and he thinks he is good at this. In fact, he says if you go see a author and he says that he a good writer and his stuff is great, don’t even read his stuff, he has lost his edge. It is the self-doubt that drives a writer to improve and make their prose the best they can make it. He thinks, every time he finishes a book, “That’s it. You are out of ideas.” He still reads his stuff and sees a typo or a bad sentence that he wants to change. In fact, I am pretty sure he said he doesn’t read his stuff once it is published because of this.

I find this encouraging, because then I don’t have to think it is hard for me because I am just bad. It is hard work, period, no matter how much skill and practice you have under your belt. Many things are bad to start with and that is not a sign you can’t write, just a sign that you need to keep working.

To be fair to myself, I do apply a lot of this advice to my writing for It’s my fiction writing that I am failing at, and at the most basic level: I rarely do any fiction writing at all. I think about the stories, and even come up with some useful ideas or bits of plot, but beyond making a note of those bits and pieces, I don’t do anything with them. I need to come up with a better way to force my way through the fear that what I write will be terrible and actually get started. I mean, of course what I write will be terrible, but that doesn’t mean it can‘t be salvaged through good editing, right?

How to get myself to do this, though, I am not sure. I need a better routine, sure, and I have been good about adjusting my routine to include more writing time. I just use it all up on blog writing. I don’t want to give up blog writing, because I find it very useful in many ways, but I don’t want it to be the only thing I do. Obviously, I still have a lot of thinking to do about this, but I do find it helpful to think out the problem. Now that I have set my brain on this problem, I am sure to come up with some ideas that I can actually implement. A word count goal is not enough–I did that, and even met the goal for a couple of weeks, but then I just stopped. I need to find some way to compel myself to meet that goal.


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