Michael Koryta is a machine. He published his first book at twenty one and went on to become the New York Times-bestselling author of 14 novels. His work has been translated into more than 20 languages and has won or been nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, Edgar Award, Shamus Award, Barry Award, Quill Award, International Thriller Writers Award, and the Golden Dagger.
I came to our “Shop Talk” as a fan of Michael Koryta’s. What I didn’t know, though, was the process behind his staggering production. I didn’t realize just how much of a machine this dude really was.
All I knew was that he’d written The Prophet, one of the best crime novels about high school football I’d ever read. Come to find out, Michael didn’t play football. He wasn’t a coach either.
So how in the hell did he write such a riveting and lived-in account of the coaching world?
The same way he does everything else—deliberately.
Michael Koryta: Anytime someone is talking about their craft—no matter what it is—I’m fascinated by the opportunity to talk with them. It doesn’t need to be something I do. I like to get in the weeds with people who are really passionate about unique things. And football, for me, was a unique thing. I’d been a fan, but I didn’t know anything about the prep involved. How to read a defense. How to scheme. When I first showed up in that field house, they probably thought I’d be there a few hours, take my notes, and leave . . . But I hung around the whole season. The Prophet is a crime novel, sure, but it really ended up being a family drama more than anything. All these coaches had families, and teaching jobs, but they were still so committed to the game.
Eli Cranor: When I got out of coaching, my wife was excited to have me back around the house. Little did she know, writing would become the exact same sort of obsession. Which is kind of where I got the idea for this column. I wanted to study other writers just like I studied game film. I get the feeling you’re the same way.
MK: The more you put in, the more you’ll get out. The art of it comes by putting time in. Which, outside the world of writing, surprises no one. I have a friend who’s a master carpenter. That line of thinking would seem like the most obvious thing in the world to him. The hours he spent learning to build allows him to craft something of higher art than what he was able to do five years ago. Then you talk to writers—not all of them—but some of them do not like to indicate that it’s the same approach. That we’re all kind of swinging a hammer here. You improve through concentration and repetition.
EC: Do you start “swinging your hammer” right after an idea comes to you? What I mean is, what do you do right after an idea pops into your head?
MK: I see if the idea sticks. By the time I actually put anything down on paper, one particular idea will have been stirring around in my subconscious and popping up again and again. I don’t write ideas down in a notebook. If it’s good enough, it will come back until it’s the undeniable book. Sometimes, I’ve had to put away what I was working on because something else became the undeniable book. A book is the boss, and it’ll show itself. There’s a point where I feel like if I’m steering the book, something’s wrong. Whereas, if the book’s pulling me and I’m trying to keep up—we’re in a good spot.
EC: And you’ve been doing this for a while now, right?
MK: Yeah, I was twenty when I sold the first book. Twenty-one when it came out. I didn’t have an agent. I had a friend who was a writing mentor, and also a sportswriter. He sent my pages to Pete Wolverton at St. Martin’s. When I look back now, I realize what an enormous favor that was. I’m still stunned Pete read it.
EC: Okay, so now you have the idea, the undeniable book. What do you do next?
MK: First sentence. You have to get the first sentence right. Once it feels like it fits, I stick with it. Through almost twenty books now, I don’t know that I’ve ever gone back to change the first sentence, except with Tonight I Said Goodbye. Steve Hamilton gave me a blurb and told me the first sentence needed work. He was right. I’ll always remember that because it’s a first sentence I’m now fairly proud of, but it took somebody punching me in the mouth to get it.
EC: So you try and lock a first sentence into place, and then you start the drafting process in earnest?
MK: Yeah, when a first sentence finally feels right the next thing is figuring out the character. I usually have a little sense of where it’s going. An inciting incident and a character. That’s where we begin. I don’t have a sense of the scope, of what happened. I’m figuring that out with the characters.
EC: I know you do research, but what about planning in regard to an outline or plot points?
MK: I don’t outline, but I do have a notebook where I’m always looking ahead. Asking questions in longhand. It’s kind of a back and forth dialogue with myself. It took me years to notice this, but I will write in a plural sense if it’s a positive note. So, I’ll write things like, “We’ve done a good job building the relationship here.” And then it becomes singular when I make negative notes. Like, “You haven’t established any backstory.”
EC: Oh, man. The angry coach coming out in you?
MK: Yeah. You have failed at this. You have failed at that. I’m not a big Freudian guy, but if you wanted to make a case for some writerly neurosis, that would be a pretty good one.
EC: When does the research come in? Do you research while you’re writing?
MK: It’s when I know the world of the book. For The Ridge, I knew I wanted to set it against the backdrop of this crazy big cat sanctuary I happened across. With The Prophet, I’m talking to coaches, then I start hanging around the field a little more. I’m usually trying to spend time in a place of interest before I get wheels turning on a book.
EC: All the research happens prior to the actual writing?
MK: Prior and throughout. I like to actually spend time in whatever place I’m writing about while I’m drafting.
EC: Very cool. So now you’re in drafting mode. What is your daily writing routine?
MK: Oh, I’m obsessive about this. Do you want the whole day, or just the writing day?
EC: Whole day. I think it all works together.
MK: Yeah, you’re right. So, in the morning I like to take a walk. I’m in Maine right now. When I’m here I’ll walk the dog with my wife every morning. When I’m in Indiana I’ll kind of break off on my own because she’s at her office. Moving is key. I like to listen to audiobooks in the morning to help get the rhythm of language going. And then I’ll come back into the office and look at what I wrote the prior day. I do that with a red pen.
EC: So you’re reading what you wrote on hard copy?
MK: I print off whatever I wrote the day before and go over it with a red pen. Then I start working on the computer. I like to get 1,500 words a day. I usually break early afternoon and go to the gym or for a hike. Again, moving is when the brain works for me. If I get stuck, I’m not going to get unstuck at the desk. I need to get out and move around. A lot of times that’s when I’ll end up with my notebook, sitting someplace. Maybe a coffee shop. A library. That’s where I do the back and forth dialogue, all those questions I’m asking myself throughout a first draft. Then I’ll come back and usually do a second session in the afternoon. Once I’m done, I print the pages so I’m ready to go again the next morning. If it’s going well, writing at night with a glass of bourbon at hand is pretty great. I don’t attempt that if it’s not going well. That feels risky.
EC: Tell me about your office, the place where this routine goes down.
MK: I split my time between Maine and Indiana. My office in Maine, where I am now, is in the basement. I’ve got a beautiful view, so to bitch about this is embarrassing, but I’m looking up at a mountain. Which is pretty damn daunting for an author. I’m like, I have to climb all the way up that every day? The other thing is I just don’t like writing in the basement. When the work isn’t going well and I try to leave that world behind, it’s always beneath my feet. Lurking . . .
EC: Ah, man. Creepy. What about your other office in Indiana?
MK: I finally had the chance to design and build the office I really wanted just a couple years ago in Indiana. It’s an elevated space. Good light. Good view. I can’t really see anything except the horizon line, which for whatever reason just feels right. Way better than that damn mountain. The office is detached from the house. It’s over the garage. So it’s high enough I can’t see any houses or the road from the desk. I can just see clouds. And I can leave my work behind because it’s not connected to our house. When I’m done writing, I have to walk down the stairs to get to the door. Above that door there’s this frame my wife got me that has the first page of my first book. To the left of the door I hung this bell. If I hit my 1,500 words—I get to ring that bell.
EC: What you just described—all the thought, all those details—that’s the whole reason I started this column. Trying to find little nuggets just like that. Do you have any other rituals that help you along over the course of a book?
MK: Printing out the pages at the end of the working day, that’s something I stole from Stephen King. I read that in an interview and thought, oh, that sounds very smart.
EC: What, exactly, does printing the pages off do for you?
MK: It helps me get into the headspace I left the day before. You know, kind of like a warmup.
EC: Right, but why the hardcopy?
MK: That’s a very good question. I think I edit more ruthlessly on hardcopy because there’s a level of detachment. The document on the computer screen is the one I’m working on. There’s something in there too about creating a separation between the marathon and the lap. By printing it out, I’m just holding a few pages. I’m not precious about it. I’m not feeling daunted by all the pages yet to come.
EC: I’d have to think it just feels good too, right? Like tangible evidence every day that you’re actually doing something. You’re making something and the evidence is right there, that growing stack of papers on your desk.
MK: It’s an endurance game to write a book. Let alone write many books. So some smaller marks of achievement along the way are very important on a psychological level. There is no better sound in the world than a printer gunning out fresh pages at the end of each day.
EC: Same thing with the bell.
EC: How did you decide on 1,500 words? Stephen King swears by—
MK (laughs): I was just going to mention that. Yeah, I chose 1,500 because I couldn’t pull 2,000 like Stephen King.
EC: So you just backed it down to 1,500 and that felt like a good mark?
MK: 1,500 words a day is decent progress, not really impressive, but it’s enough to keep my head in it. I’m a big believer in the idea that the subconscious understands the book better than the conscious mind. 1,500 words feels like the right minimum to force me to keep my head in that subconscious place every day.
EC: How long will you let yourself go? Like, if you’re really blowing and going do you stop at 1,500 and save your juice for the next day?
MK: When it’s really going, I just go until I’m tapped out. I’ve done 10,000 word days. It’s always toward the homestretch of the book. The river has me then; I’m swept away. Most of it’s disastrous and will be thrown out the next day, but I’m just trying to keep pace with the energy of the narrative. Honestly, now that I think about it, I’d say my average is around 2,000 words a day.
EC: But 1,500 makes it easier to ring that bell.
MK: Damn straight.
EC: Okay, draft number one is complete. Now what do you do?
MK: In an ideal world, I can step aside for a bit and get some distance before I dive back in. But I’m usually bumping up against deadlines and it’s not an ideal world. So I just print the whole manuscript and go through it making line edits while keeping a list in my notebook. At that point, I’m trying to make note of what the subconscious has put on the page that I’ve missed. It’s amazing how much I do that. I’ll see things that will make the final book that I had no idea were in there. Then I’ll take it through another read, another draft. I always prefer to give my agent and editor at least a second draft.
EC: Are you particular about your writing gear?
MK: Absolutely. I love Micron pens. I just did an interview with a guy who’s stationed in Kuwait. He does a writing podcast and has the same pens. Had his uniform just loaded with these pens like they were ammo, which I love. So, yeah. I’m very particular about the pens.
EC: Do you listen to music while you write?
MK: Always. I’ll even create playlists for different points of view. I write to soundtracks a lot. Marco Beltrami. Anything by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis—I love their stuff. The soundtrack to The Proposition . . . I don’t know if you ever saw that, but it’s written, directed, and scored by Nick Cave. Such an infuriating display of talent.
EC: Do you have any advice for writers just starting out?
MK: Try to write every day, if you can. That goes back to my theory of getting back what you put in. The other thing that was huge to me early on, was this sort of stuff. This column you’re doing. When I was first starting out, I tried to hunt down every author interview I could find that talked about craft. Find that stuff. Study it. And fall in love with the delete key. It’s the only one on the board that can save your book. When you get to the point where you realize the delete key will produce the most crucial days of progress, you’re in a pretty good spot. Once the book comes out, you won’t spend too much time anguishing over the words you didn’t write—but you will be keenly aware of the ones you wish you’d taken out. This last bit of advice is probably more of a me thing, but I have a lot of skepticism toward social media. I mean, there are some people who thrive on it and are writing circles around me. But I can see a lot of risks there. It pulls the brain out of where I want it to be.
EC: Can you unpack that?
MK: I am as natural to social media as Elaine Benes is to the dance floor. Some people love the writing hashtags and the sense of community. I get that. It just doesn’t work for me. Makes me think of 8 Mile. There’s a line in the finale scene, the second-to-last battle, that has the only writing advice you’ll ever need: “Matter of fact, dog, here’s a pencil. Go home, write some shit, and make it suspenseful.” I love that. This is how I like to imagine the audience speaking to me—go home, write some shit, and make it suspenseful. They don’t need to hear from me in the interim. They want the next book, and they want it to be better than the last one. Something else I consider: when I read a book, I’m almost always more inspired to do my own writing. I can’t say I’ve ever logged off Twitter feeling more inspired about . . . well, anything.
EC: So, try to write every day, fall in love with the delete key, study other authors, and be wary of social media. Anything other coaching points for aspiring writers?
MK: I’m a big fan of writing down your word count. It doesn’t have to hit any minimum; just record that you did it. I like gestures of appreciation and accountability to the book. I think I read this in the Paris Review about Andre Dubus. Big Andre. He’d always write his word count down and then he’d write, “Thank you.” That’s beautiful. It demonstrates the perfect understanding of the way you should approach craft. He’s acknowledging forward progress. He put in the work, but then he’s also grateful for the opportunity. Little rituals like that are huge. It’s a long, lonely thing to write a book. For the most part, nobody cares if you finish it. So it’s okay to help yourself out along the way.
EC: That’s where your bell comes in at the end of the day.
MK: It all works together. Every little thing helps. I’ve had the same song lyric hanging in my office for going on fifteen years now. It’s from Josh Ritter. Really talented guy. The line is: “I sang in exultation, pulled the stops, you always looked a little bored. But I’m singing for the love of it, have mercy on the man who sings to be adored.” I love that line. It has the awareness that no one cares. What you’re doing is not important to most of the world. But you’re doing it because you love it. I try to keep that one front and center.
EC: That segues perfectly with how I’ve been trying to end these things lately. Why do we do this crazy thing? More specifically, why do you write?
MK: I don’t think I could stop if I wanted to. That’s the most obvious reason. The other reason is it provides the chance to think about the world from a point of view that I’ve never lived or experienced. I write for the same reason I read, which is the excitement, the empathy and curiosity involved. Think about the way some writers go out, right in the middle of doing really great stuff. Think of how long they were able to do it. I mean, Elmore Leonard was still kicking all of our asses until his last day at the desk. I just did an interview with James Lee Burke. I think he’s 83 or 84 now. This is a guy who’s coming to the page every day still doing beautiful stuff. The opportunity to do something that long—to remain curious and thoughtful about the world—that’s a special opportunity. One I don’t want to waste.