In fifth grade I read Hatchet, Gary Paulsen’s book about a boy who learns to survive after being stranded in the woods. Last year, I introduced my daughter to Mr. Paulsen’s work and she immediately fell in love with his stories, as I had. So I was thrilled when he agreed to answer some questions about his writing process.
Mr. Paulsen, the author of over 200 books, is a three time runner-up for the Newbery medal, and received the Margaret Edwards Award from the American Library Association in 1997. You can learn more about Mr. Paulsen and his work 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?
Gary Paulsen: The biggest challenge was a few guys offered to mentor me but the deal was that I had to write a short story, a chapter, or an article every night. EVERY NIGHT. If I missed even one day, the deal was off. Learning the discipline to keep up that pace was brutal at first, but I did it because I knew they weren’t messing around–one missed assignment and they’d stop teaching me.
A.C.: In a given book, roughly what percent of your time do you spend writing the first draft and what percentage of your time do you spend on editing (including all rounds of editing)? Has this ratio changed over time?
Gary Paulsen: I spend years thinking about book ideas before I write a single word. By the time I start writing, I’ve got the book figured out in my head and it’s more like typing than starting from scratch. I don’t know what kind of time we’re talking about because I juggle a few books at a time and don’t keep track of individual books. I go back and forth. The editing is pretty quick because I’ve worked with my editor for years and years now and we understand each other so the revisions move fast.
A.C.: From what I’ve read of your writing habits, it appears that you don’t experience the procrastination or writer’s block many writers complain of? Is this so? And, if so, did you ever experience this and how did you overcome it?
Gary Paulsen: The discipline of the early days with the writing mentors and the way I kick story ideas around in my head for such a long time and then work on a few books at a time pretty much knocked the idea of writer’s block in the gutter for me.
A.C.: How do you balance “inspiration” (the Muse) with “perspiration” (sitting in the chair and churning out words)?
Gary Paulsen: I don’t really know how to answer that; I have more book ideas than I’ll ever have time to write. And I write every day. I have always said that, if you want to write, you have to sit down and write every day, start with five minutes, but NEVER MISS A SINGLE DAY, ever, for any reason. If you do that, writing and thinking about writing and formulating book ideas becomes the focus of your life.
A.C.: Do you have any techniques for dealing with the inner critic—that voice that tells you your writing is not good, that you are writing the wrong book, or censors your writing before it comes out?
Gary Paulsen: No. I just write. If you write hard enough, you don’t have room for what you refer to as an inner critic. I listen to the dance of the words on the page and I don’t have anything else in my mind.
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?
Gary Paulsen: Never thought about it. Maybe ice cream sandwiches. But mostly because my dog likes them.
A.C.: Do you quantify and track your writing with daily word count targets or hours in the chair?
Gary Paulsen: I sit down every day and I write until the words blur on the page or I can’t feel my butt. Then I know it’s time to do something else.
A.C.: Do you use any special tools, apps, or programs that help you write more efficiently?
Gary Paulsen: I write on my laptop or my desk computer or by hand on paper. Whatever’s available. I wrote Dogsong in the dog kennels of Alaska training for the Iditarod on lined notebook paper by a headlight with a pencil because the ink in pens kept freezing up–after that, anything seems easy.
9. 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.”)
Gary Paulsen: No adjectives or adverbs and I don’t like commas very much.
10. Do you have three tips or techniques for writers looking to write faster and better?
Gary Paulsen: Read like a wolf eats and write every day. Every. Single. Day.
This interview was conducted for my forthcoming book about the writing process, WRITER 2.0. For more author interviews, click here.