Even if you’re not a writer—much less an aspiring one—you’ll be treated to a lot of insights and helpful advice in this appealing What’s Ahead podcast with novelist and film producer Harlan Coben. His books have sold more than 75 million copies worldwide and have been translated into 45 languages.
Coben’s advice to wannabe authors applies to every occupation: It’s a job, and you must treat it as such on a daily basis. No glamour, just consistent hard work. Wait
for the muse to strike? That’s for amateurs. A plumber, he says, doesn’t wait for inspiration to fix the pipes; he just does it. The same is true for writing.
Coben’s novels have been the basis for popular movies and cable series in France, Britain, Germany, Poland and Spain. He says it’s destructively foolish to insist that such productions literally adhere to the written work—they’re two very different mediums. He has been heavily involved in the making of these films.
Another piece of advice for writers: If one of your books becomes a big bestseller, the sudden fame can ruin you. The solution: immediately start your next novel.
On keeping readers up at night
Harlan Coben: “I try to write a page-turner. Some people call it a mystery or thriller; I call it the novel of immersion. I want my book to be the book you take on vacation, but you can’t leave your hotel room because you have to know what happens to Win and Myron or Alex, or whoever is the lead character in the book and becomes a part of your life. You know you go to bed, you’re going to read ten pages—or, as you were just saying, on the plane—and then snooze off. But you end up staying up to 4:00 in the morning and cursing me out in the morning. That’s the kind of book that I want to write.”
SF: “Or the wife cursing me out for, “What are you doing up at the kitchen table at 4:00 in the morning?”
HC: “That’s what I’m—that’s what I’m looking for. I’m looking to ruin some of your sleep.”
On writer’s block
“Look, you write your way into a corner, you got to figure out how you’re going to back out. It’s like, you know, you parked in too tight of a space, and you’re trying to get out, and you have to go inch by inch, maybe, and keep turning and twisting. But the problem is what some people start to do is they just kind of give up. Everybody has those moments of what we call writer’s block, writing ourselves into some place that we just don’t know our way out of. The question is, how do you handle it? Part of it also is something, there’s something that’s zen about it. I’ve learned that that’s part of the process. So there’s no reason to extra beat myself up over it. I’ll get out of it as long as I stick with it. If I say, ‘Oh, you know, I just, I just won’t do anything, it’ll come to me,’ not really a good idea. Take a walk, take a bike ride, do something athletic. But even when I’m doing something else, there’s always a voice in my head that says I should be writing. There’s always a voice trying to, to figure out what that, you know, untie that knot that I left behind. So the key is accept that writer’s block is part of the process and understand that it’s telling you something. And often your best moments will come when you get through that writer’s block. It’s going a little too smoothly, you know maybe there’s a problem there.”
Turn off that paralyzing voice
“I actually think the … probably the biggest difference between someone who’s actually writing, someone who wants to write and who doesn’t—there’s a million differences—but the biggest difference is the ability to turn off that voice in your head, or at least ignore it. We all have it. I know Stephen King still has it, where you’re writing, and you read something and you go, ‘Wow.’ You know, imposter syndrome: ‘This really stinks, I’m no good.’ The writer who tells you that they don’t feel that way is usually a terrible writer. Only bad writers think they’re good. Only, if you’re talking to a writer and they go, ‘Oh, you know, this is a real masterpiece and I didn’t have no trouble,’ trust me, that book stinks. The rest of us have to kind of go through this, you sort of live with this natural insecurity. The key is to understand it’s part of the process. So all the things that slow you down and I still go through on my 33rd or 34th book, whatever I’m on now, I just know I recognize that it’s not going to, it’s not really the end of the world. My wife, I’ll often whine to my wife, I’ll say, ‘Oh, this book’s not working at all.’ And she just rolls her eyes, because, she says, ‘You say that every book.’ You know, and that’s just part of the process. The key is to turn off that voice that paralyzes you—and we all have i—to turn that off or to fight through it and get through it.”