Award-winning mystery novelist Harlan Coben warned his audience against jumping on bandwagons in writing. He told them their words would probably never be as beautiful as they think. And he said the product is far more glamorous than the process.
“Writing is like a sausage,” Coben told approximately 20 students at a Saybrook College Master’s Tea Monday. “You may like the final taste, but you might not want to know the process.”
With self-deprecating remarks and personal stories, Coben gave students insights into the life of a writer and the challenges he has faced.
Coben explained that writing cannot be taught. Instead, he said, it is the quantity of writing that produces quality. Although he warned students to be wary of writers giving advice, he gave out his list of habits of successful writers.
He said writers are particularly insecure and this insecurity never ends. He advised audience members not to be jealous of other people’s brilliant ideas.
Coben said he keeps a “spare” file for parts of his work he thinks may be uninteresting or unimportant but may be of use later.
Most importantly, he stressed rewriting, which he said he does 20 to 30 times with each piece.
“It’s like sticking my tongue in a fan,” he said.
His rewritten products have won the Edgar Award, the Shamus Award and the Anthony Award. He is the first author to win all three.
But Coben said he still lacks authority over the design of his book covers, making a face at a blood-stained football that covers the front of one of his novels and a similarly scarred tennis ball that covers another.
“I am now known as the author of the bleeding balls,” he joked.
Coben described his unlikely path to writing, noting that his low SAT verbal scores made him believe he did not have the aptitude necessary to pursue English. But after majoring in political science at Amherst College, Coben traveled and wrote a novel based on his experiences. He said the novel was terrible. But he continued to write.
In response to audience questions, Coben described his experience working in Hollywood.
“Hollywood is the writer’s worst enemy and best friend,” he said. “No matter how much money goes out, I refuse to write a screenplay.”
He said writing is normally a solitary activity, but not in Hollywood. When asked about his relationship with fellow writers, he said he is friends with most of them.
“It’s not competitive and cutthroat,” Coben said, “We get out all our frustrations in our books so we don’t have to kill each other.”
The Master’s Tea ended with advice for students, including those not interested in writing.
“Never stop wanting to achieve,” he said. “You should always be driving. If you’re not, life is nothing. You got to go for it, or you will spend the rest of your life regretting it.”
Max Gladstone ’06, an aspiring writer, said he found Coben’s talk inspiring.
“His advice was very reassuring,” Gladstone said. “It encourages me to finish projects I am working on now.”