Some Writing Advice (Plus a Porridge Recipe!) from Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman—author of short fiction, novels, comic books, graphic novels, nonfiction, audio theatre, and films—took to Reddit for an AMA, answering questions on his writing process, his many varied projects, his favorite authors—and how to make the world’s best porridge. Check out the highlights below!

 

On Writing:

Free_Mars: Many of your stories seem to start with a very high concept premise (the king of dreams recovering his kingdom, ancient gods roaming America, etc.). Personally, I find that the stranger/more unique my premise is, the more difficult it is to actually write the action of the story. Do you have a process for working down from this kind of premise to nitty gritty plot details, or do you generally have the whole shape of the story sorted out before you start writing?

Stories only matter to the extent that we care about the people in them. So the most high-flown concept won’t really fly unless you begin by asking yourself what it means for the people in the story, and then follow them.

Amagoi: What do you find to be the most important idea to hold onto while writing a first draft? Is it the idea that this doesn’t have to be read by anyone, or that you’re just playing out some concepts and making yourself open to where it goes? I’m always interested in how writers approach the early stages of the process. Thank you so much for this! Longtime fan of yours.

The most important idea for me is that I’m the first audience. I’m writing to find out what happens, and I’m also writing because I want to find out what happens next.

And that it’s okay to get things wrong.

I just went back to a children’s book I started in 2014, and I didn’t like the voice that was telling the story. Then I thought long and hard, and wondered who was writing the story, and wrote a whole new opening, and—joy!—the book began to work.

ThePastaGirl_: Writing is just my hobby but I’d like to ask you a question, How do I improve my description?

One mistake that people seem to make is describing too much. Give your readers one huge detail that’s important and they will build a whole person in their heads.

sugarmetimbers: My question is, what should I do when I feel like all my writing isn’t working? Sometimes I really feel like I’m on it, and other times I feel like I’m garbage and shouldn’t even try.

Keep going. Write on the bad days. On the days when you feel like you shouldn’t even try, write SOMETHING. And then you can fix it on the next “I’m on it” day.

 

On Past Works and Collaborations:

Portarossa: Pretty much all of your fans have read things like American Gods and Good Omens, but is there anything in your back catalogue that you’re extremely proud of but that doesn’t necessarily get the love that you’d hope? What do you consider to be your hidden gems?

I love Mister Punch, a graphic novel that Dave McKean and I made in about 1995. It’s not that it wasn’t successful, but I love it so much (it’s my family and my obsessions, and glorious Dave McKean art) and an amazing number of people who love my stuff have never heard of it.

Then again, I’ve written a lot of things, and I’m no longer surprised when someone will tell me that they are my biggest fan and they have read everything I’ve written, and that they have never read Sandman or any of the comics work.

AgrajagOmega: Obviously your collaboration with Terry Pratchet was phenomenal. How do you collaborate? Always in the room together with one keyboard, or once you have the general plot do you take turns chapter by chapter?

It depends on the project. Terry and I mostly wrote Good Omens in different places, just taking plot chunks and running with them. But we stitched it together in the same room and wrote the missing bits needed to glue it into a book with one or other of us typing and one of us pacing.

Today I was just sent a script. Act One was written by one person, act two by another, and I’m to write Act Three. But I know that once I have, we will all start revising and modifying each other’s material.

A good collaboration means that something isn’t written by one of the other of you, but by a multiheaded authorial creature.

moonyhermit: What was the inspiration for The Ocean at the End of the Lane?

I thought The Ocean at the End of the Lane was a short story. It just kept going, though, and I kept going with it. I wrote it for my wife, Amanda, to try and tell her what the world of my childhood had felt like. All the houses had been knocked down, and the fields were gone, and that world didn’t exist any longer. But it could be there in fiction.

 

Favorites and Recommendations:

kirtovar1: What are your favorite books?

Too many to write down here. But put everything by Diana Wynne Jones and Ursula K LeGuin and Jonathan Carroll on it, and the Mary Poppins books, and James Branch Cabell’s Biography of Manuel on the list.

musthavebeenbunnies: I’ve always wanted a reading list from you, something you’d recommend to lovers of fractured fairy tales and budding fantasy writers […]. I guess that’s my question: NEIL WHAT SHOULD I READ!? WHAT SHOULD WE ALL READ!?

Read everything. And if you want to be an author, read outside your comfort zone.

One of the best things that happened to me was becoming a book reviewer as a very young man, and reading all sorts of books I would never have read for pleasure. I learned so much from them, learned about the world and learned about ways of writing I would never have encountered. You write better fantasy if you read other things.

Doomy22: I’m constantly searching for the next great horror novel. What are your favorites or recommendations for fans of the macabre?

I don’t know about the next great. My favourite authors of horror are probably Robert Aickman (short stories, not novels, and they aren’t quite horror but they aren’t quite not), Peter Straub, Ramsey Campbell, Shirley Jackson, Joe Hill, early Clive Barker (The Damnation Game is a perfect horror novel) and, always, the often brilliant and often underrated Stephen King.

I’ll run into people who talk about Steve King as if he’s McDonalds literature. When he got the National Book Award in 2003 there were some very sniffy authors, who made very sniffy comments.

 

Neil Gaiman’s Favorite Porridge Recipe:

Having experimented with porridge recipes for years now, this one sort of came together in a bunch of “what if I tried…”s that actually worked.

You need two kinds of oats for it to work. Normal rolled oats (not instant oats), and also steel-cut oats (I use McCanns but I’m sure any brand would do).

(Okay. It’s not Healthy, though. Or Sensible. I feel like I ought to mention that. It’s the sort of porridge I’d break out to impress guests with, rather than eat every morning.)

Begin with a saucepan. Take a generous couple of tablespoonfuls of butter, and melt them in the saucepan over a low light.

Add about a tablespoonful of McCann’s Steel Cut Oats. Let it start to cook in the butter. Add about three-quarters of a cupful of normal rolled oats, and a little less than half a teaspoon of coarse seasalt. Let it all cook in the butter, on a low heat, stirring it around a bit with a wooden spoon. Don’t let it burn. Pretty soon, everything will start to smell like oatmeal cookies, and the oats will be browning well, and will have absorbed all the butter, and people will be saying “That smells nice, are you cooking something?” (If it goes black and people ask if they should open the windows, you let it burn. Start again.)

At this point add a couple of cups of boiling water. Bring it back to the boil and “spirtle” (stir vigorously). Let it cook for about ten minutes over a medium to low heat, stirring whenever you remember. Somewhere in there I normally add a little more water, and as it thickens at the end, I stir more.

After about ten minutes, it’ll be done. Put it into a bowl. Drizzle real maple syrup on. Pour thick cream over that. Put spoon in. Eat.

(I suppose the maple syrup can be replaced with sugar or honey or no sweetener at all. The steel cut oats add some texture to the whole. The frying the oats gently in butter is there to make you feel guilty and seems to make the whole thing work.)

 

For everything else—from Neil’s preferred pen to his choice for a last meal—head over to the full AMA here!

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