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Writerly Advice from Best-Selling Author Scott Turow

You must treat your art as you would any other job: Show up everyday! This might be the number one golden writerly advice. We repeat it to ourselves; stamp it in capital letters above our desk. And no matter how many times and versions we hear the same advice, it is never enough.

On Tuesday I attended a master class by the best-selling author and attorney Scott Turow at Israel’s Bar Ilan University. Turow mostly writes crime and mystery novels. His books have been translated to over 40 languages and sold more than 30 million copies. Also a successful, practicing lawyer, he writes about what he knows (golden advice two). His first publication was a non-fiction book as a first year Harvard Law student: One L: The Turbulent True Story of a First Year at Harvard Law School. And yes, he wrote it while studying at Harvard Law and it became a best seller.

In his lecture Turow touched on many topics from the writing life to the doom Amazon has brought on the publishing industry to the experience of wathcing his books turned into films. Much of his advice echoed the same commandments artists and writers alike repeatedly hear: When the Muse abandons and you are plagued with writer’s block, you must still force yourself to pick up your pen or else you are not giving the Muse a chance to change her mind.

Turow’s path to becoming a writer had many unexpected twists and turns, strikes of luck, times of disillusion, and a whole lot of setbacks. I appreciated his honesty in attributing his success to forces beyond his control as much as to his talent, determination and work ethic.

He described his journey from a 20-something Stanford Creative Writing graduate trying to “make it” as a literary novelist to his decision to attend law school. When he made the announcement, many of his colleagues at Stanford–where he was a teaching fellow at the time–called him a “sell out.”

But the writing life was driving him crazy. Every time he sat down to write, he felt as if his life was at stake. He had to put an end to this unhealthy relationship he had with his writing persona in his mid-20s. When he applied for law school, he certainly didn’t expect that such a drastic change in his career trajectory could be the best thing he did for his writing, landing him first book deal mentioned above.

During and after law school, he didn’t have much time to write. His first best-selling novel, Presumed Innocent, was written in 30-minute increments on the commuter train on the way to work. Only 30 minutes, but everyday. He didn’t have long stretches of time to think about plot, narrative arc or character development. Thirty minutes could not be wasted on the intricate details of craft many writers spend hours before setting one word on a page. Instead, he wrote one scene, one idea, or one thought that captured him the previous day. He decided to not worry about how all the different snippets would come together.

Forced upon him by his circumstances, this method worked so well for his creative output that he still writes in the same manner even though he now has much more time to dedicate to his writing.

How Scott Turow Writes His Novels

When Turow begins writing a new novel, he allows himself one year of commuter rail writing: chaotic, unorganized, and inspired. He shows his work to no one, writing through a kind of authorly denial that the scenes piling up on his desk amount to a coherent story.

In the second year, he puts the material together to create a novel with a beginning, middle, and end. Many scenes or passages that he writes in the first year never make it to the first draft. But if he has produced a well-crafted passage, he devises a way to include it, “even if I have to send my character to Zimbabwe.”

At the end of the second year, he achieves a first draft. But his work is not finished. He dedicates yet another year to a crucial task: revise, revise, revise (golden advice 3).

I appreciated learning about a successful writer’s creative process, even though Turow was careful to indicate that no two writers follow the same prescription. After all, we also have heard this advice countless times: You must find the method that works best for you and your circumstances. (golden advice four)

Turow spoke and answered the questions of a captivated crowd of aspiring writings for two hours. I didn’t take much notes because it was just such a pleasure to hear him speak. The message that I heard between the lines of Turow’s life story as he told it was as valuable as it was simple:

Work hard, write everyday, and trust life.

Thank you Scott Turow for the inspiration, the motivation, and the little nudge to my own Muse who had gone for a vacation in this stormy Tel Aviv weather.

Scott Turow’s lecture was hosted by Bar Ilan University’s Shaindy Rudoff Creative Writing Program—my alma mater—and Fulbright – United States-Israel Educational Foundation. Sitting next to Turow in the above photo is my thesis advisor Evan Fallenberg who hosted Turow’s talk at Bar Ilan!

Taking Turow’s advice to heart – Just like the commuter rail, you can also write while you wait for your pizza in a Mexican beach restaurant and use your skirt as shade.