David Mitchell's Advice to Aspiring Authors

By Molly VandenBerg on November 6, 2012

UK author David Mitchell: “I love writing. It’s my vocation.”
Photo Courtesy of Simon Alekna

When the opening credits roll, we the viewers are accustomed to seeing big names in bold print—names that we can put a face to. However, the oftentimes lesser-known name that follows “Based on a Novel By” deserves just as much attention, if not more. David Mitchell is an author of Cloud Atlas, the newest book-turned-movie and a dream-like exploration of how time and personages are related in the enigmatic expanse that we call life.

This past week, Mitchell visited the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus for various excerpt reading and lecture type of events. I, however, was even more fortunate to have heard Mitchell as a guest in one of my classes. Humble and charming, Mitchell addressed our queries lending great insight into both the novel and film. What was more valuable was the advice he shared with us as young aspiring writers:

1)      Get to know your characters. “If you don’t believe that they’re real, why should you care about them?” Mitchell asks. He suggests writing your characters’ autobiographies or, better yet, letters from the character to yourself. In doing so, Mitchell notes that you will no longer have to think about how a particular character will respond to a situation. If you know their histories, you can better form their futures—from the actions they will take to the idioms they will use.

2)      Do NOT ask yourself what you can do to get published. Rather, Mitchell advises to ask yourself: “What can I do to make this book work?” A book should exist in its own realm with its own set of goals. It is in working to achieve the goals set forth by the text that authors find their greatest success. As Mitchell put it, any given editor will have a desk covered in books that are begging to be published. But only a few books seem to have been written for themselves; those are the ones that stand out.

3)      Expect that you cannot plan everything. “Stay open to the happy accidents,” Mitchell says. Ideas, themes, scenes and characters that you did not originally foresee to turn out in a specific way could turn into greatest assets of your novel. Writing is an art and genius occurs sporadically, even subconsciously.

4)      Learn from your work. Mitchell affirms that “each book is the teacher you need.” Your work not only demonstrates the achievements but also could showcase your weaknesses. It is only natural to look back on your past work and think, there is so much that could have been done differently. Something you were once boastful and proud of could seem shameful and misguided later on. However, Mitchell encourages aspiring authors not to get discouraged but to embrace that your work evolves. Your work evolves and it is you, its author, who can best discern its shortcomings and therefore learn how to avoid them in the future, because writing is “one of the few jobs that you never finish getting better at. Ever. No matter how good you get.”

Molly VandenBerg is an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan, Class of 2015. She is pursuing a double concentration in English Language and Literature and French and Francophone Studies. On campus, she is involved in the Undergraduate English Association and Xylem Literary Magazine. She cites the written word as her first and lifelong passion, possessing a profound reverence for all forms of literature—from critically acclaimed novels to comic books. Molly has a vested interest in creative writing, hoping to one day author a series of novels. She intends to pursue a career in publishing and ultimately aspires to be an editor for Penguin Books.

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