Image: Matthew Loffhagen
With his Western novel The Sisters Brothers currently enjoying a big screen adaptation and his ‘tragedy of manners’ French Exit beloved by the literary establishment, Patrick deWitt is both a proven author and one to watch. Not only that, but deWitt’s story is particularly inspiring to budding writers – a bartender whose manuscript found its way into the right hands after he asked for a patron’s opinion.
Despite these accomplishments, deWitt doesn’t exactly interview well, and he seems like one of the last authors who would deliberately offer advice to others. In response to ‘how should we measure a book’s success?’ he replied, ‘I don’t mean to sound aloof, but I think you already know the answer to this’, while ‘what’s the most difficult thing about writing a novel?’ was met with, ‘In the first years of my writing career I, in the spirit of good sportsmanship, attempted to answer Impossible Questions such as this. But as time has passed I’ve learned that it’s wisest and best to occasionally admit defeat and call Uncle. Uncle!’
Still, just because someone doesn’t want to tell you what to do, that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from them, and deWitt has shared a few insights that are easily worth our time.
1. You don’t need to know everything in advance
One of the most noteworthy things about deWitt’s personal methodology is that he’s a proud ‘pantser’ – that is, a writer who works by the seat of his pants, as opposed to a ‘plotter’, who needs to know everything about their story before they commit it to the page.
The way I tend to work is that I usually have a scene in mind. Ideally, this would be the beginning of the book, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. I’m not one for plotting or planning things out. Whenever I do it seems to be a waste of time because I change my mind. In terms of time management, I don’t do it. I also like to not know what’s next and where I am going. It’s a big plus of the job for me to have a mystery of what comes next.– Patrick deWitt in Adam Vitcavage’s ‘Patrick deWitt Wants to Write Books for People Who Don’t Read Books’ on Electric Lit
This is one of the big benefits of a ‘pantser’ approach – the vitality of a piece of art that’s surprising its author even as it forms. But don’t make the mistake of thinking this is the easy route. Plotters tend to do the majority (though not all) of the work of shaping their story before they write it, whereas pantsers have to do more work as they write and edit. While deWitt lets his characters run away with the story, there comes a point where he has to recognize what it’s about and start imposing a structure.
I just get characters going. I need characters who have something to say… I start with a lot and then cut away, cut away, and cut away until there is the bare minimum of information that is still effective.– Patrick deWitt in Adam Vitcavage’s ‘Patrick deWitt Wants to Write Books for People Who Don’t Read Books’ on Electric Lit
In deWitt’s approach, the ‘feel’ and characters of a story are the first things to coalesce, and these tend to be well developed before the plot is even a concern. Here, deWitt demonstrates a command of his own process, ensuring the elements of a story that inspire him to keep going are sufficiently powerful before getting down to the nuts and bolts of plot.
There was an early point in The Sisters Brothers where the story was unwritten but the characters were in place, as was the setting, and the general tone had gelled, and it was just wide open, you know. I could go wherever I wanted and do whatever I wanted. I had total freedom, and all the time in the world. Once I was immersed myself in the landscape it became bloodier and less romantic, but those contemplative moments before pushing ahead were significant for me.– Patrick deWitt in Ted Hodgkinson’s ‘Patrick deWitt Interview’ in Granta
2. Plot matters
With deWitt’s focus on tone and character – and perhaps even if you’ve read some of his early works – it would be easy to draw the conclusion that he’s not a big believer in plot. Well, that used to be the case, but deWitt’s journey as a writer has included both a move away from, and then a move back to, the importance of the story itself – not just as a way to provoke and explore character, but as part of the reason to keep reading.
Certain writers look down their noses at plot and I think I might have been one of them until I tried it, but The Sisters Brothers changed me as a writer. I’m now operating with two goals in mind. One is to make a document that is beautifully constructed on a sense and word level, but I’m also interested in the compulsion to turn a page, to see what happens next. If these two things come together, that’s the ideal for me as a reader, so that’s what I’m shooting for.– Patrick deWitt, from Susanna Rustin’s ‘Patrick deWitt Interview’ in The Guardian
It’s generally accepted that deWitt’s writing has improved as he’s honed the balance between character and plot, but he’s an excellent example of why great writing tends to have a handle on both.
It’s also useful to note that deWitt’s problem with plot was self-diagnosed and that, rather than just ‘trying harder,’ he took concrete steps to improve his craft.
What happened was that I’d become the sort of reader and writer who essentially shunned the notion of plot or narrative. It had been creeping up over the years, but increasingly, story held no real importance for me – it was voice I was after, and even now I prize voice over all else. That said, I found myself growing bored, which had never happened before, and which was actually frightening in a way: my entire life revolved around books, and if I lost my affection for them, then what? Well, I found myself returning to novels I’d enjoyed when I was younger, and my tastes were less specific. Typically these were story-based tales – not light reading by any means, but more entertaining, let’s say, than what I’d been tackling in recent years. And it was such a relief to be able to relax with a book rather than sit at its feet or else do battle with it, that I began wondering if I had the ability to write something as plain-speaking and unambiguous. This provoked me to attempt a Western, or a variation on the Western.
I’ve since learned to mix up my reading. The moment it begins to feel like homework, I head for something more welcoming. And really, I should have been doing this all along.– Patrick deWitt in Ted Hodgkinson’s ‘Patrick deWitt Interview’ in Granta
So, if you came here looking for practical advice, there you have it: if there’s an element that’s missing in your writing, go research it through experience, whether it’s character, plot, or something else you feel (or are reliably, consistently told) is missing.
3. Genre isn’t everything
In the modern business of writing, genre is often used to categorize not just books, but authors. There’s a reason for this; sci-fi is sci-fi and fantasy is fantasy not just because of aesthetic traditions, but because of the ideas these genres tend to tackle and the ways in which they tend to do so. For readers, genre tends to offer up the most relevant information for whose work they might enjoy.
It’s a good idea to explore your relationship to genre as an author, but once you’re clear on what genre means to you and how you use it, there’s also value in recognizing that it’s there to help, not to restrict. Part of deWitt’s appeal to readers is that, on paper, he switches between genres with abandon. The Sisters Brothers is a Western, Undermajordomo Minor is a dark fable, and Ablutions is literary fiction with a horror slant. In practice, deWitt isn’t so much hopping genres as he is writing stories that treat genre as a secondary concern.
The popular opinion is that my books are very different from one another, but to me they’re similar in tone and particularly with the use of humor. The settings are different, but then my settings aren’t particularly deep or rich, it’s more like a scrim on a stage, just painted on for mood or to establish a sense of place. The Sisters Brothers, for example, could have been a noir, and it wouldn’t have made a difference, I don’t think.– Patrick deWitt in ‘Interview: Patrick deWitt’
Despite this, it’s worth taking into account that deWitt still uses genre. When he says that The Sisters Brothers could have been a noir, he’s choosing a genre that has a lot in common with the Western – he’s free enough from genre that it’s extricable from the heart of his story, but his choice of genre still serves the mood he wants to create.
There’s merit to this idea of using genre as a tool rather than as a foundation, particularly in the flexibility it offers. Since tone and mood are so important to deWitt’s process, genre ceases to act as a confined space in which he can tell his stories and becomes (in his own words) a backdrop that quickly guides the reader into the right frame of mind.
I like to start from a recognizable point, as with The Sisters Brothers being a western, or Undermajordomo Minor being somewhat of a fable – and within this pre-existing world, I seek out a space to tell a private or personal story.– Patrick deWitt in ‘Interview: Patrick deWitt’
It would be reductive to suggest deWitt works to a formula, but it’s interesting to consider the progression he suggests in the quote above, with voice inspiring tone, tone inspiring characters, tone and characters inviting a genre playground, and everything so far conspiring to shape a more personal story. With plot at the bottom of the totem pole, it’s not how most authors are taught to think, but there are plenty of writers out there who need to hear that it’s fine to prioritize whatever aspect of storytelling comes naturally (just so long as that’s not where you stop.)
4. Write (and edit) what you want to read
This is common advice, but that’s for a good reason – it’s one of the most important ideals to live by if you want your writing to stay fresh. Art is art, it’s subjective both in experience and creation, but too few amateur artists take the time to really consider their inspirations and goals. It’s easy to brush off these concepts with a breezy, ‘I just want to tell a good story,’ but if you don’t have exacting ideas of the kind of art you’re trying to create, it’s much harder to edit and improve.
Part of becoming a writer is finding what it is you desire most from a book, and what moves you the most. I realized that what I was and am looking for is brilliance in dialogue. I’m also looking for a high level of craftsmanship on the sentence level. I know people for whom plot is everything, and the construction of the prose is secondary, but that’s alien to me. I don’t think I would read a book if it wasn’t beautifully made… once I realized what I was looking for as a reader that clarified for me my own goals as a writer.– Patrick deWitt in ‘Interview: Patrick deWitt’
This advice is often sold as a reference to inspiration (‘write the story you want to read’) but deWitt makes it clear that it holds true for craft. Of course, your standards can evolve – they can even be fluid – but when you have standards, you can start editing far more precisely. It’s clear that deWitt’s attitude doesn’t stop with story; it’s closer to ‘write the sentences you want to read.’
Once I’ve got a complete draft, I’ll read the book out loud, front to back. Often times I’d hear something that just doesn’t sound quite right – whether that be a word, a phrase – I really love redundancies of sounds, reading two or three adverbs in a row can be pleasing to me. It’s an ever-changing thing for me the development of my taste at the time of writing, it changes from book to book or even day to day. The way that the words look on the page even are quite important to me.– Patrick deWitt in ‘Interview: Patrick deWitt’
This type of inspiration isn’t just there to guide you; it can also serve to give you the energy and inspiration you need to keep engaged with a project. Suiting his penchant for research, deWitt describes how, once he understands the type of book he’s trying to write, he searches out great examples and uses them to keep on track.
I have certain totem books that I think of as an ideal – they fill you with an energy and propel you to sit down and begin writing.– Patrick deWitt, from Susanna Rustin’s ‘Patrick deWitt Interview’ in The Guardian
5. Humor doesn’t need to be separate from story
We’re getting a little specific, here, but part of deWitt’s success is that – whatever he’s writing – he finds a place for humor, as observed by interviewer Susanna Rustin.
Lucy becomes the hero of a grownup gothic fairytale that is recounted in a distinctive, mannered diction that will be familiar to readers of deWitt’s previous novel – so the Baron waits for a train “on the appointed day and at the appointed hour”; thieves in the night are “an untoward happening”; Lucy’s feelings are a “cleaved combination of adoration and acrimony”.
If this sounds unnatural, it is. But that is the point of DeWitt’s prose, and particularly his dialogue, which is highly stylized for comic effect: he thinks the fact that The Sisters Brothers made readers laugh was the secret of its success.– Susanna Rustin, ‘Patrick deWitt Interview’ in The Guardian
Rustin isn’t wrong here – deWitt’s writing may not be bound to any one genre, but his use of humor is consistent, and there’s a reason for that.
It’s a personal thing for me since humor has come naturally for me. I used to try to suppress it in my writing. I have a natural inclination to write humor… I have things to say and scenes I want to write that are morose, but I always have some gag of levity.– Patrick deWitt in Adam Vitcavage’s ‘Patrick deWitt Wants to Write Books for People Who Don’t Read Books’ on Electric Lit
As deWitt observes, his voice is naturally humorous. This is a huge advantage because it means that humor is woven into the narrative rather than bolted on as discrete ‘funny moments.’ The latter is common in amateur writing, with the story breaking off so the author can joke around as an aside or drop in a comical interlude. It can work, but when it falls flat, it can make books unreadable.
There’s no quick and easy answer – the solution is to practice and seek out useful feedback – but in terms of personal philosophy, authors to either extreme of deWitt could stand to learn from his approach. If you’re forcing humor into your story, consider whether it belongs in that moment and why you want the reader to laugh at this point in the narrative. Are you filling space, do you want the characters to be likeable in ways they haven’t yet earned, or is it that you feel a little laughter is expected? Likewise, if you’re a naturally funny writer trying hard to suppress that part of your voice, reconsider that decision. Humorous writing can still be sad or powerful, especially when it comes from a place of truth – something deWitt keeps proving in his own work.
Many writers treat humor as something separate to a story – a condiment to slather on as needed. As I’ve said, this isn’t unworkable, but when great writing is funny, it tends to have that humor running through it, emerging from voice, character, and situations germane to the plot.
6. Sometimes, it comes down to luck
The final lesson Patrick deWitt will be teaching us today (whether he likes it or not) is that sometimes, your big break is about luck as much as anything else. While deWitt is a talented author, he never imagined a career in writing. In fact, he only made it big after passing on a manuscript to a screenwriter he knew from the bar where he worked. That screenwriter passed the manuscript on to a musician friend, who passed it along to the agent who finally contacted deWitt.
The degree of luck involved in that story of those three people – the screenwriter, the musician and the agent – lining up like that makes me uncomfortable to this day because it seems so tenuous.– Patrick deWitt, from Susanna Rustin’s ‘Patrick deWitt Interview’ in The Guardian
So is the lesson that you just need to get lucky? No, not exactly. The lesson is that luck is part of the process – and that can be a salve as you face multiple rejections – but it’s just as relevant that the harder you try and the more dedicated you are, the more chances you’ll have to get that lucky break. Patrick deWitt might have been lucky to know a screenwriter with connections, but his manuscript got passed on twice because it was good.
As you seek out any kind of commercial success as an artist, you’re seeking out luck, but if you research where to look for it and put in the hours, you’re far more likely to find it eventually. Skill certainly isn’t enough to find success, and even hard work doesn’t guarantee it, but both are necessary to get ‘lucky’ and have someone recognize your potential. If nothing else, deWitt proves that really can happen.
deWitt and wisdom
Patrick deWitt may not be one for giving advice, but I hope the above proves there’s still plenty he can teach budding authors. With his preference for valuing tone and character over plot, ignoring genre limitations, and skillfully embracing humor even in serious work, deWitt is a pretty idiosyncratic writer. If all you take from the observations above is that you can approach writing in the way that best suits your own artistic vision, they’ll have been worth sharing.
What have you learned from Patrick deWitt, and which of his methods would never work for you? Let me know in the comments, and check out 5 Things Jennifer Egan Can Teach You About Writing and 6 Ways Paul Auster Can Help You Improve Your Writing to learn more from modern literary greats.