Best-selling author Peter Heller signs copies of his books May 4 during the Northern Colorado Writers Conference in Fort Collins.
By Shelley Widhalm
When best-selling author Peter Heller put his stuffed dog on the podium at a recent writing conference, I knew I was in for a good tale.
“I’m in my home territory,” Heller of Denver, Colo., said about the more than 120 writers in the audience.
Heller, author of “The Dog Stars,” published in 2012, was the keynote speaker during the banquet dinner May 4 at the 13th annual Northern Colorado Writers Conference “Much Ado About Writing.” The conference brought together writers with agents, editors and industry professionals for two days of writing and publishing advice May 4-5 at the Fort Collins Marriott.
“I did everything I could to be a great writer,” said Heller, longtime contributor to National Public Radio, a contributing editor at Outside Magazine and National Geographic Adventure, and author of six books.
Heller’s Back Story
Heller recalled being 11 years old and having a crush on a New York City librarian, who’d asked him, “Peter, are you looking for something to read?” At her suggestion, he took home Ernest Hemingway’s “In Our Time.”
“My heart leapt off the page,” Heller said about the descriptions of fishing and other adventures in the collection of short stories. “I adored the prose. … It goes through the skin straight to the heart.”
Heller also read the dictionary and majored in English with a minor in biology. He wanted to be a poet and a writer but delivered pizza and taught kayaking.
“When you’re young, you don’t know what you can’t do,” Heller said.
Heller entered the journalism field, writing for adventure and other magazines. He saved up enough to take off nine months for writing in a coffee shop and wrote “The Dog Stars,” but then he faced the second novel syndrome. He was advised his job was to ensure his writing did not suck, and he wrote “The Painter,” something his agent made him rewrite three times before it was published in 2014. He then had a conference call with his agent and editor, who told him he was 80 percent there but needed a prologue and epilogue, plus another scene.
“I figured out the cathartic scene all by myself,” Heller said.
Heller’s Writing Advice
Heller found that, unlike with magazine writing, he likes not knowing what happens next with his fiction writing. He follows another author’s habit of writing 500 words a day and stopping at that exact count. He instead writes 1,000 words a day, spending one to three hours on it, and also stops mid-scene leaving it open for the next day.
“You might as well as come back and start the book every day,” Heller said. “What that does is I can’t wait to get up in the morning.”
Heller had one last piece of advice about channeling, something some writers claim they can do, getting a download of material from the universe that flows through them as the medium direct into text.
“Everyone is lying,” Heller said. “It’s not helpful to say it’s magic. It’s not magic.”
Instead, writing takes practice, work and discipline and making micro decisions along the way, Heller said.