Very good writing advice from New Girl‘s Nick Miller.
Nick Miller, Nick Miller. By day, he’s a cranky bartender at a failing establishment. By night, he’s the author of Z is for Zombie and, most notably, The Pepperwood Chronicles. He’s hands-down one of the greatest fictional writers of our time. But what makes Nick Miller such a treasure? He’s lazy. He’s a master procrastinator. There are days when he would rather destroy his laptop or hitchhike to Chicago than sit down and put words on the page. What I mean to say is: he’s so, so relatable in his desire to be a writer, coupled with his deep disdain for writing. In my own attempts at procrastination, I have just finished my sixth rewatch of New Girl. Here is what I’ve learned from ole Nick Miller.
Stuck? Turn to your idols. If you’re in a rut, think about the writers you admire. What are they doing in your mental image of them? Do exactly that. For Nick Miller, the Ideal Writer is Ernest Hemingway on Safari. Basically what I’m saying is: you can get drunk at the zoo to feel closer to Hemingway. The ultimate procrastination or valuable life experience? You decide!
Trust the process. If that means literally throwing words (magnets) at the wall (refrigerator) and seeing what sticks, have at it! (Why is there a magnet that says “feces”? I’m sorry; we don’t have time to answer all your questions today!)
Make rules for yourself when it comes to curating your personal library. Tell me if this sounds familiar: you step into your favorite local independent bookstore, and you lose all sense of self-control. You go home with a very full Joan Didion tote bag and more books than you can ever read in a lifetime. Your TBR pile teeters dangerously beside your bed, threatening to crush you at any moment. Well, no more! Adopt Nick Miller’s strategy for book-buying: “You see a red book, you buy a red book. Blue books? Don’t buy. Yellow? Wait on it.” Sorry, we don’t make the rules!
Don’t be afraid to break from conventional structure. Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine is a whole novel about a man’s internal monologue during a short lunch break. Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy gets really meta and folds in on itself. Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad has diagrams. These are the great experimentalists of our time. And we can only assume from his first (and unpublished) novel, Z is for Zombie, that Nick Miller isn’t afraid to dip his toes into experimental fiction. Do something unexpected! Surprise your audience! There are no rules. Put a word search in the middle of your novel for no apparent reason! If there are no actual words in there, even better.
Remember: there are only 7 types of stories. Determine from the get-go which kind you’d like to write. Here are your options: man vs. man, man vs. dog, dog vs. zombie, James Bond, stories of kings and lords, women over 50 finding themselves after divorce, and car commercial.
Know the difference between your characters and the people you base them on. More often than not, you will cull characters from your real life. That makes sense. Write what you know and all that. But just be aware that this is your story now, and you can infuse it with all the wishful thinking you’d like. Don’t be constrained by the the realities of your relationships. Are all great novels basically just fan fiction based on the writer’s shitty life? Yes. Maybe.
Be direct in your writing. One of the first lines of Z is for Zombie reads: “‘Whoa, what bit me in the face?’ Mike Jr. said to his dad, Mike Sr., who sucks. Mike Sr. sucks a whole bunch, much more than his neighbor Rallo.” Why don’t we write like this? You just don’t see that kind of honesty about characters right off the bat these days.
Invest in a good (read: heavy) computer. Yeah, writing by hand is nice . . . until all your pages are carried off by a strong breeze and ruined in the Mississippi. (Bonus tip: A change of scenery works wonders. If you travel to New Orleans, you might come alive in the city and write 2,000 pages a day by hand like Nick Miller here.) All that inspiration is useless if you don’t have a back-up copy. By buying the heaviest, bulkiest computer you can find, you are basically getting both a writing machine and a handy paperweight.
Remember to spellcheck! Especially if you use the word “rhythm” a lot. It is a tricky one. (Also, having your friends read your work out loud to you in a mocking tone will definitely help you catch typos.)
Trust your friends when they tell you they have no notes. There comes a time in every writer’s life when they’ll be inclined to share what they have with their closest friends. Sometimes, those friends will lie to you to protect your feelings. Sometimes, they’ll be brutally honest. Perhaps the most confusing response is simply “No notes!” But, hey, instead of obsessing over it, just get back to work. Keep writing. Put the whiteboard away. Put it away!
Don’t make your fiction-hating significant other read your novel. Honestly, she’s probably cooler than you and will eventually have to support you because writing doesn’t really pay the bills! The least you can do is not make her feel bad for being bored by all fiction and consequently avoiding your “masterpiece.” (Counterpoint: Maybe the fact that your significant other hates fiction is a big red flag for you, a fiction writer. Maybe you should be with the person who encouraged you to write the damn thing in the first place and whose name you put on the dedication page, hmm?)
Don’t accidentally get high on glue before your first launch. Also, don’t hide in the children’s book section when your nerves hit. Maybe the first bit of advice in this bullet point should actually be: Don’t try to arrange a book launch when you don’t actually have copies of books to sell. You probably knew this, though. Nick did this, and look what happened! He had to get his girlfriend and his roommate to help him glue pages together. They got high on the fumes, and then he panicked at the bookstore, declaring that he will now live permanently inside this adorable children’s reading hut. (Honestly, there are worst places writers have lived in.)
Have the confidence of a mediocre white man. Sometimes it’s hard to say “I’m a writer” without air quotes or rolling your eyes or caveats or justifications. Look here: right before walking into this room, Nick told his best friends that they were about to meet “one of the greatest living writers of our time.” I fully believe that his bouts of unapologetic, limitless confidence are at least half of what carried him to success. We should all walk into rooms like this!!
Know when you’ve lost touch with the voice of your character. If you’ve based your narrator on yourself and your real life changes significantly, what happens next? Nick’s original series protagonist, Julius Pepperwood, was a hard-boiled private eye. For many books, Pepperwood was rough around the edges, probably deeply depressed, and sort of a loner. (Was this a cry for help?) Then Nick and his best friend fall in love, and the characters they’re based on go from hunting criminals to eating croissants in bed and chasing feathers down cobblestone streets. Sometimes it’s time to let the story go and move on to what’s next.
Listen to your fans. When you’re writing, you might have a certain kind of reader in mind. (For Nick, that was earnest bartenders and surly boatsmen.) That’s good. It helps to feel like you’re not just writing into the void. But it’s important to remember that your novel may also speak to people who fall outside of your intended audience. (For Nick, that was a bunch of middle school girls.) That’s also good! And while it’s certainly not helpful to read the hurtful comments of Twitter trolls (don’t do it!), it can be nice to hear what your fans love about your work.
Back to procrastinating? As a last resort, you can always hire someone off the Internet to punch you in the face if you don’t finish a certain number of pages by the end of the day. Heck, I’ll do it.