Kurt Andersen
Novelist / Host, "Studio 360"

Tricks For Finally Finishing That Novel

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Kurt Andersen has worked across a wide variety of mediums, yet nothing compares to the challenge of writing fiction. Here he gives advice on everything from mapping out a project and staying focused, to figuring out how to keep readers engaged in the age of short attention spans.

Kurt Andersen

Kurt Andersen, host of Studio 360 on NPR, is a journalist and the author of the novels Hey Day, Turn of the Century, and The Real Thing. He has written and produced prime-time network television programs and pilots for NBC and ABC, and co-authored Loose Lips, an off-Broadway theatrical revue that had long runs in New York and Los Angeles. He is a regular columnist for New York Magazine, and contributes frequently to Vanity Fair. He is also a founder of Very Short List. 

Andersen began his career in journalism at NBC's Today program and at Time, where he was an award-winning writer on politics and criminal justice and for eight years the magazine's architecture and design critic. Returning to Time in 1993 as editor-at-large, he wrote a weekly column on culture. And from 1996 through 1999 he was a staff writer and columnist for The New Yorker. He was a co-founder of Inside.com, editorial director of Colors magazine, and editor-in-chief of both New York and Spy magazines, the latter of which he also co-founded.

From 2004 through 2008 he wrote a column called "The Imperial  City" for New York (one of which is included in The Best American Magazine Writing 2008).  In 2008 Forbes. com named him one of The 25 Most Influential Liberals in the U.S. Media.Anderson graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College, and is a member of the boards of trustees of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the Pratt Institute, and is currently Visionary in Residence at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. He lives with his family in New York City.


Question: What is the most difficult medium to work in?

Kurt Andersen: Of the ones I've done a considerable amount of, I would say fiction writing is the most difficult, and for that reason the most gratifying to throw myself into, still, and attempt to climb that mountain. 

QuestionWhy is it more difficult?

Kurt Andersen: Well, I'm still -- although I've written fiction here and there for many years I've done it essentially quasi full-time for now thirteen years. So it's still relatively new to me and therefore I'm still figuring it out. It's also to create something that one is entirely in control of oneself is more difficult and scary because it's all -- the buck stops here always and to, in this day and age of short attention span and small bite entertainment and media to try to be interesting enough to keep people paying attention for many, many hours to your one thing is a high bar, so the stakes are high for writer and reader.

QuestionHow do you stay focused while writing?

Kurt Andersen: I'm fairly disciplined. I worked in an office for enough years before I was working for myself at home that the ritual of sitting in a desk and starting to type was engrained in me, so it's pretty much the same with non-fiction but all the preparatory work of non-fiction, the research, the interviewing, all that kind of stuff I find I'm able to do at midnight or three o’clock in the morning in a way that writing fiction I'm not able to do in those kind of off hours.  

QuestionDo you re-write?

Kurt Andersen: I re-write constantly. I mean, and to me, the great glory of the digital revolution and word processing and computers are that re-writing becomes so much easier than in the old days when we were typewriting and then re-typewriting. So yeah, I re-write as I go along. I re-write after a month of work or a week of work; I re-write after a year of work. With my last novel, I spent a year re-writing it after I was done. So yeah, re-writing is everything. 

Question: Do you use an outline?

Kurt Andersen: No, I work from some version of an outline. Not an outline like you're taught in school of one, roman numeral one, roman numeral two, a, b, c; all that. But whether it's a piece of non-fiction or a piece of fiction, I have my notes and my ideas of this is the basic order of things and then of course as you go along I inevitably diverge from the outline and change the -- re-write the outline as I am writing from it. But yeah, I begin with some basic map, sketch of a map if not a precise outline.

Advice For Young Writers

Kurt Andersen: Write. Write and read and write, carefully and well. And if you don't have the patience to do that now, work for it and struggle to achieve the patience because I know that when I was nineteen patience – all that patience that's required to do good work, the patience to read carefully, the patience to write carefully, the patience to re-write; patience was in short supply in my life when I was nineteen. And so struggle to achieve the patience required to do the hard work required to be a good writer.

Recorded on: October 13, 2009