Few writers working in today’s America are as well known and respected as Baltimore’s Anne Tyler. Celebrated for her humanistic, domestic, and gorgeously observed novels about Baltimore’s middle- and working-class families, Tyler is the kind of single-minded writer who has found her niche and writes it very, very well.
Indeed, much of Tyler’s success as a novelist (she’s won a whole host of awards, including the Pulitzer, and is beloved of writers as diverse as Jodi Picoult, John Updike, and even the notoriously fierce New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani) comes down to her monomaniacal approach. Her books are, in terms of characters, settings, and themes, very similar and, in the same vein, her methodology for writing each one remains strict.
So what can you learn from the author of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Digging to America, and Breathing Lessons? Well, I’m glad you asked…
1. Save ideas for later
Tyler isn’t afraid to play the long game; like Zadie Smith, the British author who squirrels her manuscripts away for a couple of years before re-checking them, Tyler isn’t afraid to sit on good ideas until she’s ready to work with them.
When a good idea strikes – an interesting concept, a compelling character, a question, an answer – she’ll write it down on a flash card and slot it into a metal box she keeps in her writing study. Then, when she’s ready to start thinking about a new project (this could be weeks or months later), she’ll go through the box and see whether any of her old ideas fit together, whether any of them seem to speak to her or to one another.
This innovative habit could easily be replicated using a notebook or even an app for your phone. You never know what could spark inspiration in future, so careful record-keeping is a must!
2. Don’t wait for inspiration
A common tip but one well worth repeating: don’t wait for the muse to fly in through your window. Get to work right now – that’s right, this very minute. I include Tyler’s version of this tip as I’m convinced that the notion grows more convincing the more wildly successful writers repeat it (Tyler is, after all, here agreeing with writers including Zadie Smith, John Steinbeck, Sylvia Plath, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, etc.) Of course, Tyler spins it in her own unique way, probably with a wink:
It doesn’t take very long for most writers to realize that if you wait until the day you are inspired and feel like writing you’ll never do it at all.– Anne Tyler
3. Spontaneity is not your friend
As a younger writer, Tyler favored spontaneity as a path to authenticity. She didn’t redraft, didn’t plan so extensively; instead, she relied upon the purity of the moment to guide her forward.
Today, Tyler fervently wishes she could round up and destroy every copy of her first four novels. ‘Spontaneity,’ she said in a 2012 interview with Lisa Allardice, ‘is not always a good thing.’
The Anne Tyler of 2019 is a rather more patient woman. Now, not only does she plan and redraft meticulously, but she makes sure she knows her characters inside and out. Not just that, but her actual writing process is groan-inducingly arduous and specific: she plans each of her novels for one month, laying out the entire plot, then begins the writing proper.
Tyler claims to write her novels one tiny scene at a time in longhand, revising each individual scene until she is happy with it. She then types up the entire thing, then writes out the whole book again in longhand. Once this is done, she records herself reading the whole book out loud and goes back to revise any sections that sound clunky. I need to lie down just thinking about it.
I can’t argue with the efficacy of her methods, though: recording yourself reading your writing is a fantastic way of identifying and smoothing over inauthentic dialogue and clumsy sentences. On top of that, it’s a great way to ensure your text remains balanced – there’s nothing like reading aloud for working out which sections are dragging and which speed by. It’s also good for characterization: ‘You think a character would never say that,’ Tyler says, ‘but you only know it when you speak it out loud.’
It’s worth noting that while Tyler plans out the plots of each of her novels, she doesn’t necessarily stick to those plans. She’s not overly dogmatic; if a story seems to be wending a certain way, she’ll go with it, plan be damned. It’s this flexibility that helps Tyler’s fiction avoid feeling overly contrived, which is something from which similarly meticulous novels sometimes suffer.
These deviations are apparently pretty common; Tyler’s characters are so fully developed, so carefully considered, that they tend to pull the plot behind them. If a character turns around mid-plot and tells Anne that he wants to do something wild and totally unaccounted for in the plan – well, he inevitably gets his way. Tyler has spoken in her rare interviews about sometimes being surprised by the endings of her own novels.
This is a strange quirk of writing realist fiction. By striving to recreate the reality we inhabit, you may, if you’re as good as Tyler, also recreate the unpredictability of real life.
4. Think about your characters
Anne Tyler’s characters are the envy of authors across the world, and for good reason. Few are able to create such complex, honest, flawed, and human characters, and fewer still are able to fit them into well-structured plots. Tyler manages it by – you guessed it – spending an awfully long time thinking about each character and their relationships with one another.
Tyler researches her characters the way other writers research settings or historical periods; she writes detailed profiles for each one, listing information that chances are she’ll never use. But that doesn’t mean the research was wasted; even characteristics, histories, traits, opinions, and tastes that don’t directly make it into the finished text go a long way toward fleshing out characters in the author’s head, which helps them come across as authentic on the page. The more you know your characters before you start writing, the richer they’ll be in your fiction.
Interestingly, Tyler feels she has to like her characters on some level. You’ll find no diabolical monsters in her book, just as there are no glittering heroes – like Ernest Hemingway, Tyler champions flawed and, on some level, redeemable people. Her logic is simple: if she doesn’t like her characters at least a little, she gets sick of spending so much time thinking about them. ‘I have come up with a character,’ she says, speaking about a past project, ‘looked at him closely and said, “he’s out.” I can’t stand him for that long.’
5. Write like no one’s reading
A quick and quirky tip to round off Tyler’s advice: write without thinking about your readership. Self-consciousness is something that can rattle even the most veteran writer – we all, after all, want our writing to be appreciated and enjoyed. Unfortunately, that impulse can drag us away from our stories and instead have us worrying about market trends and literary fashions.
Kurt Vonnegut suggested writing for one specific reader, but Tyler goes a step further:
The way you write a novel is for the first 83 drafts you pretend that nobody is ever, ever going to read it.– Anne Tyler
It’s remarkable that a writer as successful as Anne Tyler needs this doubt-dispelling safeguard in place, but that’s writers for you – as Zadie Smith sardonically said, writing for a career involves accepting ‘the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.’
A beginner’s goodbye
Few writers are as meticulous and serious in their approach to writing as Anne Tyler. In the ongoing battle between literary planners and non-planners, Tyler’s at the head of the planners, leading the charge according to detailed, specific, redrafted strategies. From the stationery she uses to the individual steps of character creation, Tyler has constructed a kind of novel factory from which quality writing just keeps emerging. Her upcoming novel, Redhead by the Side of the Road, will be her 23rd!
We can all learn a thing or two from such disciplined perseverance and consistency. So, next time you’re struggling with motivation or the words just aren’t coming, why not take a page out of Tyler’s book? It’s exceedingly well written!
What are your favorite works by Anne Tyler? What lessons have you gleaned from her writing? Let me know in the comments, and check out 5 Things Jennifer Egan Can Teach You About Writing and 7 Ways Caitlin Moran Can Help You Improve Your Writing for more advice from contemporary greats.