Author Peter Heller Shares His Best Writing Tip

The Dog Stars
The Dog Stars

Writing this story…was like riding a spirited horse”

Author Peter Heller shared his best writing tip with the audience at Old Town Library on July 14.

I write a thousand words a day…and I look for a place to stop that’s really exciting,” he said, during a discussion of his critically-acclaimed, best-selling novel The Dog Stars.

Heller said he told all his writer friends about this technique. The author Graham Greene wrote 500 words a day. “When he hit word 500, he’d stop.”

It really works, Heller found, and he promotes the technique every chance he gets.

I got evangelical about it,” he said with a laugh.

Heller has written four literary nonfiction books including the memoir Kook: What Surfing Taught Me About Love, Life and Catching the Perfect Wave and Hell or High Water: Surviving Tibet’s Tsangpo River. He has an MFA in fiction and poetry from Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and has been writing six or seven days a week since he was 20.

Heller, a recipient of The Denver Post’s Top Thinker Award, discussed a painful epiphany he had after graduating with his master’s degree.

I discovered you couldn’t make a living as a poet. No one ever told us that,” he said with a smile. “I thought it was kind of mean of them.”

He delivered pizza at night and taught kayaking during the day. His outdoors skills helped him land his first Outside magazine gig. They didn’t have any writers who could kayak Class 5 rapids, so they offered to pay half his expenses for a trip to China to write about the Tsangpo River.

The trip was marred by tragedy. One of the rafters, a young man named Dave who was on a honeymoon trip with his wife, died. Heller told his editor he couldn’t continue with the assignment given the painful outcome. She told him to write it, and the article became the magazine’s submission for the National Magazine Award.

Heller just returned home to Denver from book tour stops in Chicago and Milwaukee, and said he was glad to talk with people who live on, and understand, the land he writes about in The Dog Stars.

He read a few excerpts from the novel before answering questions.

I’m going to read to you,” Heller said. “…it was one of my favorite things as a kid. My dad used to read to me every night.”

Not all authors read excerpts at book events. He recalled seeing a white limo parked in front of The Tattered Cover one day, and rushed into the store to see who was visiting. James Lee Burke told the audience he wasn’t going to read, Heller recalls: “ ‘You bought the book. I don’t want to waste your time.’ ”

I believe in reading,” Heller said.

The relationship between the main character, Hig, and his dog, Jasper is central to the book. “Jasper is not a real dog…I imagined Jasper to the hairs inside his nose.”

Heller said he wrote the novel based on a first line – “I keep the Beast running” – a technique that Stephen King and Elmore Leonard use, and wrote very quickly. “I didn’t look back. I don’t edit.”

He also didn’t use an outline.

I didn’t want to know the ending,” Heller said. “I really wanted to be surprised.”

A post-apocalyptic story was not his goal. In fact, he was perturbed when he finished the draft. “I thought, ‘Dang it. It’ll get compared to The Road.’” No one wants to be compared to Cormac McCarthy, he said.

But…“I already had laughed three times by page three. It didn’t seem like the same project [as McCarthy’s] at all, so I kept going.”

Apocalyptic stories have “always been popular,” Heller said, because you don’t have to know the statistics about the environment changing, of species becoming extinct, to understand them. “You can feel the accelerating losses.” In The Dog Stars, nine years after the flu has killed almost everyone, including his wife, Hig must deal with the existential dilemma all of us ponder at some point.

He has to wake up in the morning and find a reason to get out of bed. He has to deal with intense loneliness.” Heller said all of us feel this at some point, even if we have family and friends. “There are just times when we feel utterly alone…from the moment we are born, we start losing stuff.”

After writing the first few pages, Heller said he knew Hig would leave the airport hangar – his home – and fly past the point of no return: “What’s he willing to risk to find love and connection?”

The author’s strategy for writing the novel was simple. “I came in and listened to Hig and thought, “ ‘Don’t think, don’t think. Get out of your own way.’ It was almost like sitting around the campfire and listening to Hig…”

Considering that some writers have told me they ended up with pacing problems after not using an outline, I asked Heller if he ran into this issue. He said the editor asked him to eliminate the “genre language” by not capitalizing “Visitors” and “The Blood” (referring to the blood disease some survivors developed) and “Druids” as he had in the original draft.

The editor also asked him to cut just two pages. That’s all.

In contrast, Heller said he had to rewrite his soon-to-be-published second novel, The Painter, six times. Three times for his agent, and three times for the editor.

The process for writing his second novel, however, was the same as his first. “I still started with a first line.”

You just channel it. It’s a fugue state…at some point, you just let go.”

Heller lived in Paonia, Colorado for a long time, and would frequent the local coffee shop. One day, he noticed a young, confident Hugo Award-winning author sitting at the long table.

The science fiction author told Heller, “I’ve got a story to tell you.” He then related that he channeled his first novel. Wrote it in a fugue state. He loved it, and it won awards. For his second novel, he outlined the story and completely engineered every detail. He loved it, and it won awards.

“ ‘Pete, your job is to make sure it doesn’t suck,’ ” the author told Heller.

Writing a lot of poetry over the years helped Heller write his novel. “I’ve been experimenting with a lot of different forms.” He likened writing to any other discipline that requires you to master the basics – such as forehand, backhand, and serving in tennis – before you can create something wonderful.

You forget everything you learn…If you will it, you will destroy it.”

Of The Dog Stars, he said, “Writing this story for me was like riding a spirited horse.”

(A version of his article was published in the July issue of Northern Colorado Writers‘ newsletter, The Write Stuff.)

Katherine Valdez’ essay “Close Encounters with David Sedaris” appeared July 20, 2013 on Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide To Literary Agents Blog, and one of her posts will be published in the anthology Random Acts of Kindness: A Blogfest (Wayman Publishing). Contact her at http://www.KatValdezWriter.wordpress.com or http://www.facebook.com/AuthorKatherineValdez.

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