I discovered Barry Eisler a couple years ago. My dad sent me a link to a dialogue Eisler had with Joe Konrath, in which they talk through the state of the publishing industry. It’s fascinating and can be found here. The dialogue led me to his books, and his books led me to request an interview.
Eisler’s bestselling thrillers have won the Barry Award and the Gumshoe Award for Best Thriller of the Year, have been included in numerous “Best Of” lists, and have been translated into nearly twenty languages. He his best know for his Rain and Trevan series. Find out more about Mr. Eisler here.
A.C.: When you were starting out as a writer, what was the biggest challenge you faced in the areas of work, family, or time management? How did you deal with that challenge?
Barry Eisler: I think different people are going to face different distraction challenges, but you’re right, I imagine the two biggest for most people will be work and family. The goal for most people should be to write regularly — ideally, every day — and I’d recommend working backward from that goal to find a protected time to write. When and how that protected time will be achieved will vary from writer to writer, but in general we’re talking about early morning or late at night.
Or, if you’re lucky, you can do something like what I did for my latest book, Graveyard of Memories, set in Tokyo in 1972. I outlined and otherwise began the book in my usual heavily distracted daily life, then spent a month alone at a rented apartment in Tokyo writing. Most productive month of my life. I think I need to do this kind of thing more often.
Barry Eisler: Probably about 99% of the time is writing the first draft. I revise and polish as I go, and by the time I show the manuscript to my first round of editors, it’s usually pretty tight. But maybe this is misleading, because for me so much of the editing is built in to the process of the first draft.
A.C.: Do you experience procrastination or writer’s block? If so, how do you deal with it?
Barry Eisler: I’ve never had a problem with writer’s block. I think this is because I spend a lot of time reading about all the bullshit America’s oligarchy perpetrates upon the citizenry in the name of the religion of “national security,” so the government is always feeding me great material for the political thrillers I write (the challenge sometimes is keeping my fiction ahead of what the government actually gets caught doing).
But I do have a tendency to procrastinate, in part because of my political interests. I don’t have a special method for dealing with it. At some point, I just have to be honest with myself that I’ve been screwing around, shake it off, and get the hell to work.
A.C.: How do you balance “inspiration” (the Muse) with “perspiration” (sitting in the chair and churning out words)?
Barry Eisler: I think if you’re constantly feeding your muse good raw material — as I am, with my reading and blogging habit — there’s nothing to balance, and you’ll have more good ideas than you know what to do with. The perspiration is harder. Again, I don’t have any special method, but I’ve noticed that deadlines help a lot.
A.C.: Do you have any techniques for dealing with the inner critic—that voice that tells you your writing sucks, that you are writing the wrong book, or censors your writing before it comes out?
Barry Eisler: I feel fortunate in never really having had this problem. I typically like what I’m writing and think it’s good. But I know it’s a common challenge, and if I started having those kind of doubts, I think I’d first remind myself that many, many people have them even as they go about writing terrific books. And then I’d shake it off and just write the damn thing.
A.C.: Have you found that your productivity as a writer is affected by what you eat? If so, what have you found works best?
Barry Eisler: The only thing I’ve noticed eating that makes a difference one way or the other is coffee. Caffeine is rocket fuel to me, so I use it infrequently but man, when I need it, it gets the job done. This is an interesting question and not something I’ve considered before — now I’m wondering whether other writers have dietary strategies.
A.C.: Do you quantify and track your writing with daily word count targets or hours in the chair? If so, what tools do you use?
Barry Eisler: Only when I’m around the 30,000 word mark. Before then, the ratio of thinking to writing is so skewed toward thinking (outlining, figuring things out) that it wouldn’t really mean much to keep track of the word count. And hours in the chair would be a meaningless thing to track — who cares how many hours you sat if you weren’t getting anything done? But when I get in the zone and the deadline is approaching, I like to figure out how much I’ll need to write every day within the time available to hit 100,000 words (the average length of my novels).
In Tokyo this past summer, for example, I needed 2500 words a day and had a month available. For the first week my numbers were a little low; the second week I was easily breaking 2500 every day (the further I go, the more the ratio of thinking to writing skews toward writing); and by the third week I was having really great, exciting days — 3000 words, 4000, 5000. When you’re hitting those kinds of daily counts, the novel gets written pretty fast. It’s like driving at 100 miles an hour — you get where you’re going in no time.
But of course, to take the analogy a little further, you first have to spend a lot of time building the car.
A.C.: Do you have any favorite apps or programs that help your productivity? (For example, since I switched from Word to Scrivener a few years ago, I have saved 1-2 hours per week just on formatting).
Barry Eisler: I don’t. I use Word and find it works fine. There’s not much formatting for me, just paragraph breaks.
A.C.: If you could dictate one rule of grammar or writing style to the world, what would it be? (For example, from Stephen King’s book on writing: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”)
Barry Eisler: Hah, yes, I love that one, and “On Writing” is a terrific book. I don’t know if I can come up with something as useful and pithy. But how about, “Avoid cliches like the plague.” And yes, for anyone who thought otherwise, the cliche in there was deliberately ironic.
I was going to stop there, but maybe I’ll add something I think might be useful. When I teach writing, many times I see cliches popping up because the writer hasn’t done the hard work of really imagining who the characters are and what they feel like. In the absence of that hard work and the real understanding that can flow from it, writers are left reaching for secondhand stuff they’ve absorbed from sources (novels, TV, movies) other than their own characters and their own feelings.
If you want to write a good novel, you have to have compelling characters. And the best way to make your characters compelling is to spend a lot of time getting to know them. Where did they come from? What were their formative experiences? What do they think they want, and what do they really want? What are they afraid of? How are they related to each other? Etc.
And then, as your characters encounter the plot of your book, ask yourself how you would feel and react if you were those characters. Try to imagine yourself *as* those characters, feeling, perceiving, reacting as they would. If you do all this, you’ll be much less tempted to reach for inherently lazy cliches.
A.C.: What are your top three techniques or strategies to write faster, write better, and have more fun?
Barry Eisler: Well, coffee does help. Setting daily goals is useful. And remembering to feed your imagination along the way, while less obvious than the first two, is at least as important in the long term. You can have a great car and plenty of maps, but if you don’t put gas in the tank, you’re not going to be able to drive anywhere.
This interview was conducted for my forthcoming book about the writing process, WRITER 2.0. For more author interviews, click here.