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January 4, 2016
By Dinaw Mengestu

Dinaw Mengestu is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, was one of the New Yorker's "20 Under 40," has won the Guardian First Book Award, and is the author of All Our Names. Check out his writing tips below.

1. Be generous to your characters: kill them, save them, break their hearts and then heal them. Stuff them with life, emotions, histories, objects and people they love, and once you've done that, once they are bursting at the seams, strip them bare. Find out what they look like—how they stand, talk move, when they have nothing left. Now put them back together, fill them once more with life, except now leave enough room for the reader to squeeze their own heart and imagination inside.

2. Believe that a good writing day can be one passed entirely in silence, with hours spent staring at a blank screen, or glaring at a single word or paragraph, knowing there is nothing you can add or change at that particular moment. Listening is writing's occasionally overlooked and undervalued companion, and when not clacking away at the keyboard, comes the chance to sit in sometimes awkward, sometimes painful silence with the characters and world you’ve struggled to create. Even if not a single word is written, you have shown up, you’ve affirmed the simple fact that you care and have the patience to endure.

"Believe that a good writing day can be one passed entirely in silence, with hours spent staring at a blank screen, or glaring at a single word or paragraph, knowing there is nothing you can add or change at that particular moment."
3. Don't think about how your characters sound, but how they see. Watch the world through their eyes--study the extraordinary and the mundane through their particular perspective. Walk around the block with them, stroll the rooms they live in, figure out what objects on the cluttered dining room table they would inevitably stare at the longest, and then learn why.

4. The older I get, the fuller and more complex my life becomes with family, friends, students, and above all children. I’ve learned now not to be precious about the conditions I work in. I’ve learned not to wait for the total silence, which on the vast majority of days, will never, ever come. And so forget about hoping to find the proper weather, or the light that pleases you best of all colors (to steal a phrase from William Carlos Williams).  Abandon the desire, masked as need for perfectly pressed coffee. Write in crowds, in alleys, in the back seats of crumb-filled cars. Steal time from the crowded world even if it's only a few minutes, or a blessed hour. Take being tired and emotionally exhausted as an excuse to take excessive liberties with language, with your imagination.

5. And in case it’s possible to forget—remember the world does not need your book. The world will go on just fine without it. There are plenty of wonderful novels, poems, stories, essays for many lifetimes of extraordinary reading, and so write out of necessity, out of personal privation, because you, and perhaps only you, needs to read those words.

This article originally appeared on publishersweekly.com.

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