The Best Writing Advice I Got From Neil Gaiman

I usually assume that anyone reading these posts either knows me personally, is new to the internet and therefore stuck in this little eddy of a site , or is an aspiring author. So I decided to share the best advice I received when I met my writing hero Neil Gaiman many years ago.

But before we get all Shakespearean with his advice, I hope I can adequately express how star-struck I was. Because, and I can say this without hyperbole, Gaiman has had the greatest and most profound effect on me as a writer; so much so I list only him as an influence in my Goodreads profile. Now that is not to say there aren’t other immensely talented authors out there I wouldn’t mind emulating, but no one else helped me find my voice quite like him.

And really, it all comes down to discovering Dream.

I'm sure being an overly-serious, skinny teenager had nothing to do with identifying with him at all.

I absolutely recall where I was when I cracked open my first Sandman graphic novel, as well as who it is I owe for this introduction. It was the middle of my own birthday party, but a few minutes after only glancing at the pages, I retreated to the kitchen until I could finish it. And as I read and encountered fantasy juxtaposed effortlessly with horror, myth and history interwoven into a new framework that was equal parts classic and comic, I remember asking, “we can do this?”

But by the time I finished the book, that question turned into the declarative statement “we can do this!”

This was the book in question; not even the first in the series.

This was the first time I realized authors were not constrained by conventions or expectations, and could pick and choose from whatever utterly esoteric or odd thing that interested them to fashion their own unique world. I found this absolutely freeing because I no longer had to worry about writing fantasy or drama or comedy, rather could pick the bits and pieces of each while discarding the literary obligations of everything else; a philosophy that I still believe to this day.

So you can sort of understand my shock and joy when it was announced Gaiman was coming to our tiny college in the middle of nowhere Texas to speak to a class of ten studying his comics that I somehow missed signing up for. I was even more shocked when none of these idiots took him up on the offer of dinner, which is how just me and a friend got to pick Gaiman’s brain for a few hours as he picked at his meal.

This was certainly not his first encounter with a fan-boy, but it was the first and only time I have ever succumbed to this particularly breed of madness (though if Bob Dylan or Nick Cave want to ever hang out, I’d deign to descend again). Honestly, it was a surreal, out-of-body experience as that part of my mind overseeing social conventions and politeness kept shouting at my runaway mouth to stop blathering and just let the man eat. Needless to say, my mouth had a mind of its own.

And while he would have been more than within his right to hurry through his meal and escape, he gave me his full attention and answered questions ranging from the evolution of goth culture (he maintained a watered-down version would become mainstream long before Hot Topic rode the emo wave to infamy), to The Simpsons (he thought it started going downhill after the third season), to why there were no good fantasy films in the 90's after their heyday in the 80's (which he reframed by asking me why I did not consider The Crow fantasy).

Over the next two days, I was able to wrangle a few more hours with him, and can recount in exacting detail our discussions, but will finally get to the point of this post and relate his advice on overcoming the bane of writer’s block. And his advice was terribly simple.

Write a sonnet instead.

Yep, when your creative mind is more blocked up than an overstuffed digestive tract after an Indian buffet, just sit down and hash out 14 lines of iambic pentameter. Or hell, if you’re a rebel, you might go all Petrarchan. Either way, you’ll end up with 140 syllables of pure mental pruno.

Now this advice may seem strange, but his reasoning was sound: There are very specific rules to sonnets, and this gives you structure you HAVE to follow. And while many young writers bristle at the idea of structure, as I’ve stated before, structure’s true strength lies in forcing you to be creative as you find new and unique ways to get your idea across while still adhering to its rules.

It makes you think around your problems rather than bashing your head against them over and over.

Also, and this is key, a sonnet is short; consisting of only 14 lines. This means it can be knocked out quickly, because, and this is also important; your sonnet does not have to be any good, qualitatively speaking.

BUT IT DOES HAVE TO BE WRITTEN!

Which actually fits with his most recent advice to writers.

Because when you’re done in an hour or so, you’ve accomplished something creative by using all those writing skills you’ve honed over the years. This means you’re not blocked up anymore, rather humming away like a revved engine. So, with a recent accomplishment under your belt and your confidence reestablished, it’s finally time to get back to work at your real writing project.

It’s been many years since I received this advice, but I promise I’ve put it to good use. I’ve never been a great poet (as my wife can attest), and I fear the ire of the internet something fierce, so I won’t be posting any. But know I have a desk drawer filled with these cast-away sonnets; the desk drawer right above all my rejection letters in fact. And, like these rejection letters, I find these forgettable sonnets to be inspiring because each one of them represents an obstacle to my writing that I overcame. They each prove I pushed through the problem rather than quitting when the going got tough.

And, if you’ll indulge me just one paragraph more, I’d like to end with one more anecdote. During our discussions, Gaiman stated that you should never meet your heroes, recounting how he once interviewed one of his and came back disappointed because this individual did not live up to his expectations. While I obviously took every word of his to heart, I’m going to have to disagree with him on this point since I did in fact meet my literary hero, and he surpassed anything I could have imagined.

5P3L9W4L Where two diminutive races battle it out.............................................................What's this?