Some Aspects of Craft from Zadie Smith

z smith A few days ago I stumbled upon a youtube video by Zadie Smith. It was a lecture given to students of the Columbia University’s Writing Program. In it, she distilled ideas on her method of writing. Some of which I thought was insightful, and others remarkably pleasing. I post it here only as a means of sharing her insight, not to copy her work.

Watch the video here, when you get a chance. Or read her novel, Changing My Mind where it is also included. Here, I present part of the lecture in the form of a mock interview.

What kind of a writer are you?
I am a Micro Manager. I start at the first sentence of a novel and I finish at the last. It would never occur to me to choose among three different endings because I haven’t the slightest idea of the ending until I get to it.

Do you have a cheering squad?
It’s such a confidence trick, writing a novel. The main person you have to trick into confidence is yourself. This is hard to do alone. I gather sentences round, quotations, the literary equivalent of a cheering squad. Except that analogy’s screwy – cheerleaders cheer.

Do you read while you write?
It’s a matter of temperament. Some writers are the kind of solo violinists who need complete silence to tune their instruments. Others want to hear every member of the orchestra – they’ll take a cue from a clarinet, from an oboe, even. I am one of those.

I read lines to swim in a certain sensibility, to strike a particular note, to encourage rigor when I’m too sentimental, to bring verbal ease when I’m syntactically uptight. I think of reading like a balanced diet; if your sentences are baggy, too baroque, cut back on fatty Foster Wallace, say, and pick up Kafka, as roughage.

Do you ever tinker with the first twenty pages?
What’s amazing about the first twenty pages is how little confidence you have in your readers when you begin. You spoon-feed them everything.

You don’t trust the reader to have a little patience, a little intelligence. This reader, who, for all you know, has read Thomas Bernhard, Finnegans Wake, Gertrude Stein, Georges Perec – yet you’re worried that if you don’t mention in the first three pages that Sarah Malone is a social worker with a dead father, this talented reader might not be able to follow you exactly.

For writers who work with character a great deal, getting back to the first twenty pages is also a lesson in how much more delicate a thing character is than you think it is when you’re writing it.

What should a writer do when they are finished writing their novel?
When you finish your novel, if money is not a desperate priority, if you do not need to sell it at once or be published that very second – put it in a drawer. For as long as you can manage. A year or more is ideal – but even three months will do. Step away from the vehicle.

The secret to editing your work is simple: you need to become its reader instead of its writer…You need to forget you ever wrote that book.

Well, that brings us to the end of the discussion. I hope you enjoyed the interview. Remember to check out the rest of the lecture, either on youtube or by reading the book. I send my best regards and keep up the great work. Meet you back here next week!

(FYI: Other topics of the lecture includes: the middle-of-the novel magical thinking, dismantling the scaffolding, the last day, the unbearable cruelty of proofs and years later: nausea, surprise and feeling ok. Check out the video, even if only to capture the beginning where she discusses some of these things.)

The Story World : Is it all just make believe?

A few months ago, a friend of mine suggested that everything in a good (or great) story comes down to a writer’s ability to create a believable story world. More concerned with creating genuine characters and coming up with an acceptable plot at the time, I was somewhat skeptical,  (because of my belief in Zadie Smith’s 4th rule of writing – Avoid your weaknesses (which for me had to do with setting). [More on that here, Rules for Writing.]

Of course, my problem at the time stemmed from the idea that a story is put together bit by bit, rather than something that is created whole. All in the same moment. Plus, I am a fly at the seat of your pants writer while my friend had a better grasp on undertaking the whole. Either way, in the last two months I have come across several novels that are so well put together that I am beginning to believe that even though having a believable story world matters, getting the reader into the story and keeping them there, starts inevitably through your delightful characters.


The Fire in Fiction
According to Donald Maass in his novel, The Fire in Fiction, you should use your characters (their experiences and opinions) to engage your readers, because that is what helps them to fully experience the piece. Don’t believe me? Try reading Uglies, The Maze Runner and Across the Universe. In each of these novels, the authors transport us to unimaginable worlds, by giving us characters we can root for, characters who are doing something from page, whether they are in the future, a secluded location or out of space. The location, setting is like the filler, the backdrop for the piece, that will help us get a deeper impression. But then every story required either more or less of this to feel whole.

Or maybe this is one reason why outliners seem to have an advantage over plodders, but hopefully, thankfully in the end after we’ve all worked out everything, we will realize that with our own group of merry men and women (our first readers), we get to see where we went wrong or what needs more work. Because after reading all those “how to write a novel” books, the only thing that will tell us if we have succeeded or failed is our readers, and while you cannot please everyone, constructing a tight story will be worth it for the reader(s) who gets our work, and can follow the entire story.


The reader will get into the story not just based on how believable the setting is, but also based on how our characters move around in the story world. They will observe what is happening to them, and if we do our jobs right, they will agree to follow these characters because something about their lives will ring out as true, even if they are faced with insurmountable odds. Because a story is crafted from beginning to end, even if we have to paint it a little at a time. So sustain the reader’s interest. Transport them to a place they haven’t been before and them keep them wanting more. This is the craft of a writer. Now, let’s begin!

To make your protagonist stronger, build your antagonist!

In my last post, I mentioned an interest in the movie, “Rudy.” It taught me a lot about the battle of the underdog: to fight, persevere and overcome. In many ways when we are creating our stories (novels, fictive pieces) this is one of the challenges that we face, unless we can distance ourselves, so that the protagonist doesn’t appear disjointed or unsavory.

In an attempt to remedy that situation, it would be wise to build your antagonist.

Make your hero stronger by giving him/her goals to achieve and insurmountable obstacles to overcome. After all stories center around conflict and readers are in it to experience tension and suspense. So, give them salable fiction with two worthy opponents.


Captain Jack Sparrow and Blackbeard. Lex Luthor and Superman. Batman and The Joker. Let us see people who are up to the challenge. Give us someone to root for, people who have something at stake.

Since the basics of storytelling is often highlighted as all stories have three acts. Therefore, you get your hero up a tree, throw rocks at the hero and get the hero out of the tree. Remember though that one character isn’t necessarily righteous and the other wicked. To craft a balanced story, figure out what makes your characters tick and then use what you know to enrich your story, especially your two main characters.

Lastly, when in doubt play around with the scene or the characters. If something is wrong you will feel it but in case you don’t either let it rest and go back to it, or get an unbiased reader.