Saturday, November 14, 2009

What Can a Job Interview Teach You About Writing?

My apologies, gentle readers, for the long silence! The many, many hours I have spent toiling over cover letters and sending job applications finally paid off in what amounted to an epic (read: long, very busy and absolutely exhilerating) week of interviews. That was enough to drag me (not quite kicking and screaming) away from the computer and my brand new baby of a blog.

I had another post planned, but I've got interviews on the brain. So with no further ado I submit, for your approval, what a job interview can teach you about writing:

  1. Practice, practice, practice.
    I spent a lot of time talking to my mirror this week. Really. Yes, I am the resident expert in the subject of my life and times, but that doesn't mean I don't need to practice telling my story in the way that best serves my purpose.

    You should do the same with writing. Write the same story, write different stories, write from different points of view, write your characters' back-stories, write scenes you know you'll never use, write dialogue, write descriptions, write love letters to your characters, write hate mail to your manuscripts, write bad love scenes, write good combat, write until your fingers ache. And then, for Locke's sake, go back and delete or re-write most of it. Concert pianists rehearse every day. Major-league baseball players practice every day. Are you going to let people say those guys are working harder than you?

  2. Hiring decisions are made in the first five minutes of the interview.
    Put your best foot forward right from the get-go. In an interview, this is crucial; it's all about appearance, presentation and engagement. I'm sure that, for an interview, you'd dress professionally, smile and shake hands firmly with your interviewer upon entering her office. And you'd highlight your best traits, using your strongest examples, in response to the first few questions asked.

    Are you doing the same in your writing? If your novel is an action-packed thriller, are you opening with an action scene that demands that your reader turn the page? If your novel is all about beautiful prose, are you opening with your most lyrical writing yet? If your characters are irresistible, are you showing enough of their personalities to make readers fall in love by the end of the first few pages?

    Editors are busy people, and readers are prone to increasingly short attention spans. It's crucial that you start strong and hook them early. Of course, you'll have to maintain that momentum once you build it, but you win half the battle by engaging your readers immediately. For instance, I knew I would let Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games take me anywhere when, by the twentieth page, it had already moved me to proud, fearful tears on the main character's behalf (and I am heartless, gentle readers, and rarely cry).

  3. Tell the truth. Your interviewer knows when you're lying.
    Yes, interviewers have magic powers; if you stretch the truth, you can be sure the real story will always find them. And it's oh-so-tempting to tell your interviewer exactly what you know she wants to hear, but she's much more interested in your honest response to the questions asked.

    So how does that relate to writing? Well, you can write that one story set in a steampunk universe which pits angels against zombies in an epic quest/battle resulting in the angst-ridden teenage vampire confessing his undying passion for the quirky/carefree bisexual heroine with pink hair just before they save the world from the dark overlord... Or, you can stop worrying about what the market is doing right now, and you can write the story you know to be true.

    Yes, vampires are selling right now, and folks have a number of theories about what the Next Big Thing will be. But some of the best books of the year ignored the trends entirely and instead hit readers with deep emotional truths and with powerful, original voices that brought their characters to life. They resonate with readers because they feel true. Books like Marcelo in the Real World and Stitches and more can only come from writers who have spent time examining their thoughts and emotions, their reactions to the world around them, their collected memories and their sense of what is deeply true and universal to mankind: loss, love, heartbreak, heroism, humor. So take the hint from them, writers: know thyself. And know thy world. Which leads us nicely to this next tip:

  4. A good candidate is as much a listener as a talker.
    An interview is as much a chance for you to evaluate the company as it is for them to evaluate you, and the only way to do that is to give your interviewer ample time to tell you about the role. That means talking only half the time, and spending the rest of it paying attention to what the interviewer has to say and asking insightful questions of your own.

    As a writer, you need to approach life the same way: you need to spend as much time listening to the world as you do writing about it. That means both reading voraciously (which of course you already do) and being constantly attuned to the world around you. What does your friend say when she gets good news? Bad news? When she stubs her toe? When she's just woken up in the morning and hasn't had her tea yet? (Yes, tea. Your friend is secretly a Britophile, like me.) How does your mom say those things? How does that woman from next door? And while you're at it, describe how they walk--timidly, like a sparrow hopping a bit closer for a handout, or maybe with a swinging gate and proud shoulders? What might that solitary passerby be thinking when he stops, knocks on the wood of a cafe's table, and then keeps walking?

    Lucky you, you get to do more than just live your life; you get to question everyone and everything you see. The more you do it, the more you'll come to understand the experience of being human, and the closer you'll get to that emotional truth.

  5. It's all about the follow-through!
    Maybe your week, like mine, has been completely insane, and you've had to dash from interviews to work and then home to study and try to get a little sleep before doing it again. Sadly, that doesn't mean you get to slack off on following up with an email and hand-written thank you note. Whether you like it or not, nobody's putting in the effort to keep you at the front of your interviewer's mind but you. Job-searching is a full-time job and, like in an office environment, if you slack off you let somebody else down--in this case, yourself.

    Writing is a full-time job, too, and nobody else is looking for ways to give you more time to write. Life certainly isn't going to hand you a ticket to the mountain/beach/woodland/alternate universe where you can get your creative juices flowing and write to your heart's content. And if you let yourself use the excuse that you don't have time to write, then you will most likely never find the time. So find a way to make it. Personally, I love Johanna Harness's dedication: she wakes up before 5:00 am every morning to write before the day can get in her way.

    However you have to do it, find yourself some time to write and consider it non-negotiable. If you'd just interviewed for the perfect job, you wouldn't risk losing it by ignoring that vital thank you note, would you? You'd make time, somehow. So offer your writing that same importance. (But if you have a job, maybe try to hang on to it, at least until you sell a book that becomes a big hit. Unless you're Justine Larbalestier.)
Speaking of which, it's high time I get back to that full-time job-searching I've been doing. Thanks for reading!


  1. What a great post! I was just thinking about how writing is like a job interview the other day. You sum it up perfectly!

  2. Thanks for the comment Rachel! I agree; waiting is the worst part about submissions.