Benjamin Johncock’s debut novel The Last Pilot is a gritty tale about a US Air Force test pilot who is set to become one of the world’s first astronauts until a crisis in his young family forces him to face the earthbound challenges of fatherhood. His taut, spare prose has been compared with Raymond Carver, Tom Wolfe and Richard Yates. So how does he do it? Here are his top tips.
1. Leave out as much as you can.
2. Simple words, in the right order, will surprise you with their power.
3. Don’t describe everything. We all know what stuff looks like. A forest is a forest; a table is a table – shut the hell up and get on with it.
4. Your reader is intelligent: you don’t need to explain everything. If you know a huge amount about your story, it will come across in your prose without the need to be explicit.
5. Deconstruct your sentences. Distill them into as few words as possible. They will sing.
6. Avoid every cliche.
7. Think you’ve finished editing? You probably haven’t finished editing.
8. Don’t fetishise your writing space. You may find yourself doing good work in McDonald’s at quarter to eleven on a Saturday night.
9. Don’t be precious. You don’t need a week of solitude at a writing retreat in Wales to be productive. Constraints are important. They will enable your best work. Constraints demand focus and rigour.
10. Strive for brevity. Your novel should be as short as possible. Every word must justify its existence.
11. In real life, people never say the first thought that comes to mind – it’s usually the third or fourth. Reflect that in your dialogue.
12. Respect your reader’s time.
13. Beware of overwriting.
14. Trust the process. If you don’t yet know your process, trust your instincts.
15. Every writer is different – cherry-pick the tips that work for you.
16. A good editor will push you up into an artistic area you’re unable to reach alone – like a cupboard above a door that you can’t access without a chair. Trust them with your life.
17. Good is the enemy of great.
18. Sometimes you have to hang your balls out there.
Benjamin Johncock was born in England in 1978. His short stories have been published by The Fiction Desk and The Junket. He is the recipient of an Arts Council England grant and the American Literary Merit Award, and a winner of Comma Press’s National Short Story Day competition. He also writes for the Guardian. He lives in Norwich with his wife, daughter and son. The Last Pilot is published in the US by Picador and in the UK by Myriad Editions. Read more.
Author portrait © Nick Tucker