Don't be a competent clone: David Mitchell's writing advice

In a recent interview, Mitchell gave some awesome advice for young writers. He wanted to be a writer in order to "do to other people what [his] favorite authors had done to me."

A few parts really stood out for me:

"Send the thing out and forget it. Quickly get to work on the next thing. Don’t sit by the phone or watch your email. Don’t hope. You’ve done a big thing by finishing something. Spend all the energy on possible despair. Avert that possible despair. Transfer the despair to the next manuscript. Right away, like the next day."
If you don’t want to write a realist novel, that’s not who or what you are. Work out the kind of novel you want to write, that you’re best suited for and do that one instead. It’s likelier to be more interesting. It might be awful but it won’t be a clone. Better to be brilliantly bad with your first novel than competently clone-like.
Things that are your obstacles often turn out not to be. Things you think are stopping you from writing, these distractions, can feed into your work in positive ways. You just may not know it yet. Things you don’t want to discuss—your scars, your shadows, your psychological baggage from childhood. It’s useful. It’s therapeutic to deploy them. You kind of win by using them. You can give them a right to exist but actually give them a job to do as an informant about reality, about language, about the human heart. 

"Torch Something Big": Andrew MacDonald on productivity

Andrew stopped writing long enough to take this photo.

Andrew stopped writing long enough to take this photo.

You know how people will cross the street to avoid anything that is even mildly uncomfortable? The stories I like best are the ones where the characters don't cross the street. Where they —due to pride, naiveté, panache, etc. — stay on course, and I get to experience the trouble from the safety of my couch. That's how I felt when I read Four Minutes by Andrew MacDonald. (The story went on to be long-listed for the Journey Prize.)

I became social media friendly with Andrew shortly after reading Four Minutes and was immediately struck by his productivity. He's finishing a novel. He's writing screenplays. Plural. And of course, he's got his short stories. He has so many balls in the air. He even has two homes: Toronto and New England. And he seems to be okay with it all. Enjoying it, even. And since I feel like each of my own story/script/novel ideas are impatient hamsters who won't stop fighting with each other and competing for carrots (resources), I asked Andrew to sprinkle some of his sagacity on the rest of us. And the guy said yes. What follows is a special communique from Andrew to you, dear writer. Enjoy! 


I have a picture of Kiss Me, Deadly, a really masculine pulp novel by Mickey Spillane, that I keep by my desk. The novel’s alright, if you like woman-slapping detectives and hilarious anti-pinko sentiment. But it’s there because I’m in awe of Spillane’s output (just like I’m in awe of the output of Joyce Carol Oates, another hero I admire primarily because of how much she’s able to accomplish). 

Shannon seems to think I’m really productive. I’m not sure I am, but looking at my creative plate, I guess one could construe it as pretty full: I’ve got the novel to get ready for editors, a short screenplay draft for a production company I’m working with, a short story for a journal that reached out to me for a submission, an article on mental illness for The Rumpus, a two-book review for another publication, plus a trashy feature comedy screenplay to hammer out with a pal. Plus I have two cats who won’t stop walking all over my laptop (THE NERVE).

When Shannon asked me to write about how I stay productive, I thought of how a lot of the strategies I use come from my days as a wrestler (and my embarrassing obsession with self-help literature). They've become more habit than anything else. Maybe they’ll be useful to people, maybe they won’t. But crafting a writing practice around routine has made it a lot easier for me to focus on the fun part of writing – the chaos of creation – more effectively.



I’m a big believer in routines and to-do lists. Every night before bed I write a list of things I want to accomplish. In writing terms, I’m usually juggling a number of projects, so I make sure number one on my list is the most important thing, which is usually the thing I least want to do. 

Word Count Goals

I can’t survive without a word count I need to hit. I get it – talking about things like goals takes all the fun out of writing. Besides, you’re not that kind of writer. You heed inspiration. Right? I don’t buy that, and I don’t really buy that some people ‘just aren’t wired to write X number of words a day.’ I remember having a lot of trouble hitting a 250 word count goal. After about six months I got it up to 500 words. It just takes practice, and an ability to shut off what Anne Lamott calls Radio Station KFKD – the part of your brain that can only settle for perfection.

One trick I used to get better at shutting off that voice is writing in ‘white font,’ which meant I couldn’t actually review in real-time what I was writing. I also wrote a lot in hand and on a typewriter so that I couldn’t stop and edit as I went along.

Torch Something Big

One of the best things I ever did was write a novel in two months with the explicit intention to throw it in the garbage. It’s only purpose was to go from blank page to 70,000 words. I divided the word count I was aiming for by the number of days – sixty, in this case – and just puked up the words for the day. I had a vague outline (which I recommend, but I know everyone’s process is different and I hate people who argue for one side of the ‘plan’ versus ‘not plan’ debate). I followed said outline, knowing I was just using it to hit my word count for the day and not much else.

Once I hit ‘the end,’ I closed the file on my computer and never looked at it again. I had never finished a novel before and I wanted to prove to myself that I was actually capable of writing one. 

Sets and Reps

I can’t actually concentrate for a long period of time, so one of the things I need to do is split my writing time up into ‘sets.’ Usually I complete around three writing sessions a day – one big session and a couple smaller session (so three ‘sets’). I like to group these sessions around . . . 

Peak Time / Pocket Time

I’m a morning person, so I know I can get the bulk of my writing for the day done before I become a regular human. It’s my peak time. But I also make sure to identify pocket times every day – briefer free moments when I can pull out my laptop and hammer out a hundred words or so. If I write 500 words during peak time, and have a few brief pocket-time writing sessions (lunch break, before bed, etc), it’s usually easier to hit my 1,000 word count goal.


All of that probably sounds overly pedantic, or too prescriptive, or the opposite of creativity, but I would argue that being disciplined in how you structure your writing life actually enables the mental (and logistical) freedom to write freely. I know that when I sit down during my peak time that it’s my time, or that I’ve already written, and cheerfully trashed, a novel, and over the course of that novel’s writing can feel more comfortable in my process. 

A bit about Andrew: Andrew MacDonald won a Western Magazine Award for Fiction, is currently shortlisted for a National Magazine Award for Fiction, and has been a finalist for the Journey Prize on several occasions. His stories appear on both sides of the border. The Windsor Review selected him for their Best Under 35 issue, while The Masters Review published a story of his in their annual anthology of the best writing to come out of American MFA programs for the year.