Writing Advice

From Dream to Nightmare: John Steinbeck on the Perils of Publicity and the Dark Side of Success

18 May 2015

From Brain Pickings:

Wedged in time between Thoreau and Palmer, and a generation before Joni Mitchell bemoaned the dark side of success, another icon of creative culture brushed up against the harsh reality of how personally and creatively trying public and commercial triumph can be. Having just attained significant critical acclaim, financial profit, and public recognition for the 1937 novella Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) found himself in an unfamiliar and surprisingly uncomfortable position.

. . . .

“I beat poverty for a good many years and I’ll be damned if I’ll go down at the first little whiff of success,” he wrote in an extraordinary letter of creative courage as he all but destroyed a manuscript that didn’t live up to his standards of style and integrity, setting out to rework it into what became The Grapes of Wrath — the novel that earned Steinbeck a Pulitzer in 1940 and paved the way for his Nobel Prize two decades later. But even as he labored at his masterpiece, the demons of fame, publicity, and commercial success kept beckoning from the sidelines.

Writing in Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath — his magnificent testament to the power of the diary as a tool of discipline and a hedge against self-doubt — Steinbeck laments in an entry from early 1938:

People I liked have changed. Thinking there is money, they want it. And even if they don’t want anything, they watch me and they aren’t natural any more… I’m tired of the struggle against all the forces that this miserable success has brought against me. I don’t know whether I could write a decent book now. That is the greatest fear of all. I’m working at it but I can’t tell. Something is poisoned in me.

. . . .

A couple of days later, in an entry that calls to mind Susan Sontag’s admonition that “publicity in general is a very destructive thing, for any artist,” Steinbeck resolves with disgruntlement on par with Kierkegaard’s:

The mail this morning — just a mass of requests. Driving me crazy… It becomes increasingly apparent that I must make a stand against joining things as I have against speaking. The mail is full of requests to use my name. Another request to be a clay pigeon. I won’t do any of these public things. Can’t. It isn’t my nature and I won’t be stampeded. And so the stand must be made and I must keep out of politics. Now these two things are constantly working at me.

It’s hard not to think of C.S. Lewis who, in contemplating the ideal daily routine, pointed his warm wit at the issue and observed: “It is essential of the happy life that a man would have almost no mail.” But for Steinbeck this became less a matter of happiness than one of spiritual survival.

Link to the rest at Brain Pickings

How To Introduce Your Hero

17 May 2015

From Writer’s Digest:

Your character’s introduction gives the all-important first impression. It establishes in the reader’s mind who this person is and what he is about. Setting expectations are so important, not only for your hero, but also for your human-eating antagonist, your Elven love interest (if any), and possibly a handful of other supporting characters, as well.

Remember the opening sequence in Raiders of the Lost Ark? The bit in the jungle where Indy is going after the golden idol. By the time that sequence is completed and our hero is flying away in the plane (with a snake in his lap), we know a lot about our main character.

. . . .

We know he’s an American who goes on international treasure hunts. We know he’s tough, savvy, and fearless. We know he uses a whip and is fond of his fedora. We know he knows his way around ancient ruins. We also know his chief adversary. Finally, we learn about his Achilles’ heel: snakes.

After that lengthy first impression, we know our hero very well and we’ve learned what kind of movie this is going to be. It’s a masterful introduction of the story’s protagonist (and villain). How about putting one of those in your fiction?

With that scene, the storyteller was consciously introducing his protagonist so that all the things we need to know about him are presented.

What is your protagonist’s essential characteristic? Do you know? What is it that makes him heroic and likable? (Because if the reader doesn’t like your hero, you may be doomed almost before you begin.)

. . . .

If you’re going to be sending your hero on a transformational arc during this novel, and I hope you are, think about how you could include in this introductory scene a hint or two about what’s wrong with him. Give us a peek at his problem or flaw or knot or issue that’s going to be the subject of that inner journey.

You do have something wrong or unresolved going on with him, right?

Link to the rest at Writer’s Digest

How to Please Others But Still Be True to Your Work

17 May 2015

From Save the Cat:

Write for yourself. That is, perhaps, the truest and most helpful bit of advice I can give a screenwriter. If the material that you’re writing is not meaningful to you, how can it possibly be meaningful to anyone else? But there are other factors, often unexpected, you might have to deal with when you get close to production. Here’s how one—though frustrating at first—actually resulted in a better script.

My long-time writing partner, Dwight Moody, and I wrote the screenplay for Detour with the awareness that I was going to direct it. The story is about an advertising executive, Jackson Alder, who gets trapped inside his car during a catastrophic mudslide. Once pre-production of the film began, our writing opened itself up to numerous opinions and external factors—after all, filmmaking is a collaborative art form.

One of these factors that, literally, threw a power tool into things, was product placement. This isn’t something most screenwriters think about while writing, nor should they, in a perfect world. But the world isn’t perfect and it takes money to make movies, and in some cases, that money comes from companies that want to place their products into your films.

. . . .

We were told that this one power drill was worth a couple hundred thousand dollars if we wrote it into the film. When you hear something like this, you stop to consider it. However, I insisted that the drill could not work—that was my stipulation if we were to write it in—because if it worked it would make the character’s struggle too easy, and drama is not supposed to be easy. However, he could use the drill bits to aid him in his tasks.

The production company that was involved with Detour at the time had a good relationship with this particular product placement business and they ended up negotiating a deal with them. One of the deal points, in addition to the power drill, was to write a role into the movie for the wife of the owner of the business.

Link to the rest at Save the Cat and thanks to Dan for the tip.

Don’t Attribute Dialogue

13 May 2015

From author Jonathan Ball:

Conventional dialogue in fiction follows a formula: “I am saying something,” said Character X, “and nobody can stop me.” That part in the middle, said Character X, is called dialogue attribution. The phrase attributes the dialogue in quotation marks to Character X, using the verb said. Writers write attribution all the time, but why? Why would anyone ever write dialogue attribution?

. . . .

Many of the articles about dialogue attribution, or even just about dialogue, focus on the quality of the attribution rather than questioning the existence of attribution itself. The bugbear here, for many good reasons, is the adverb. Writers caution other writers against sentences like this:

“Maybe,” she said vehemently.

The problem with adverbs in dialogue attribution is the same as with adverbs anywhere: they are either redundant or, more dangerously, they mask the presence of a weak verb. So, instead of “said vehemently,” it would seem, I should use a more precise verb, liked “shouted.” But this is no better:

“Maybe,” she shouted.

Why isn’t this better? Well, dialogue is an odd case where the adverb’s appearance masks not the use of a weak or imprecise verb, but an error of another order. “Said” is weak and imprecise, but it is acceptable in dialogue attribution — in fact, much of the conventional wisdom here is that you should only use said, which is fine as far as it goes.

The problem, of course, it that it doesn’t go far enough. But before I get to that, let’s identify the real problem here, which the adverb tries to mask: “Maybe” is not something you say vehemently, not something you shout.

The dialogue itself is weak and imprecise, and the adverb is attempting, after the fact, to mask the problem, by telling the reader how they should have read the dialogue, since it was too poorly written to have been read properly in the first place.

. . . .

If written well, the way a character speaks and the things a character says should be so specific to them that dialogue attribution is unnecessary. We know Bob is speaking because he says things like “The world has a slowness to it and though we rush we cannot overtake this,” while Sarah says stuff like “You sound like how Cormac McCarthy might sound if I bashed in his skull.”

Link to the rest at Jonathan Ball

Here’s a link to Jonathan Ball’s books

Two Spaces After a Period

13 May 2015

From Quick and Dirty Tips:

If you learned to type on a typewriter, you’re going to hate what I say next: Do not put two spaces after a period. Don’t do it. Just use one.

I know. I was taught to use two spaces after a period in my high school typing class too, but you know what? It’s not that hard to break the habit. I haven’t been tempted to type two spaces for decades. It’s not like quitting smoking. I don’t find myself in nostalgic typewriting situations and suddenly get hit by an unexpected urge to type two spaces.

The modern and easy-to-follow style is to put one space after a period.

. . . .

I’m not making this up to torment you. Typesetters write and beg me to tell people to only use one space. If you use two spaces, they have to delete them. Yes, it’s not that hard to do it with search-and-replace, but it’s not that hard to put dishes in the dishwasher either, and you don’t like doing that, do you?

Link to the rest at Quick and Dirty Tips

Writing Novels in a State of Hypnosis

12 May 2015

From author Robert Burton Robinson:

I’ve been doing it all along—writing my first drafts in a state of hypnosis, or something similar to hypnosis—since I began writing novels in 2006; yet I didn’t realize it until recently while doing research for my new psychological suspense novel, Four Steps Under.

All hypnosis is self-hypnosis

One of the things I learned is that all hypnosis is self-hypnosis. A therapist doesn’t hypnotize you. He leads you through the process of hypnotizing yourself. You’re always in control.

And while you’re in that state, you are communicating directly with your subconscious—the part of your mind that keeps your heart beating, keeps you breathing, and allows you to drive your car safely down the road while your conscious mind is thinking about something else (highway hypnosis). The subconscious can handle many tasks at the same time.

. . . .

Suppose your conscious mind was in charge of keeping your heartbeat in rhythm and reminding you to breathe. Would you have time to think of anything else? I wouldn’t want to find out. Would you?

Yet, your subconscious handles those functions and tons of others all at the same time with ease.

What does this have to do with writing a novel?

When I sit down to write my first draft—where I go from a blank page on the screen to 50,000+ words over a period of weeks—unless my mind is in the proper state, unless I have that direct communication with my subconscious mind, I can’t create characters or places or scenes. I’ve got nothing. No imagination. Zero.

My conscious mind doesn’t seem capable of coming up with any original thoughts. It just keep thinking about how blank the page looks. It tends to be uptight, unimaginative. But my subconscious can come up with new and wild and cool, crazy ideas—which is exactly what I need when I’m writing my first draft.

. . . .

In effect, I force my conscious mind to get out of the way, allowing my fingers to type the thoughts coming directly from my subconscious. You’ve probably heard authors talk about how their characters will seize control of the writing process, taking a story to places the author had no intention of going. This is how it happens (for me, anyway).

. . . .

[O]nce that’s done, my conscious mind takes over and does the editing, the re-writing. My subconscious is lousy at editing. It keeps wanting to make up stuff and add more story instead of concentrating on refining what’s already there.

Link to the rest at Robert Burton Robinson

Here’s a link to Robert Burton Robinson’s books

Days of Forgetting

6 May 2015

From Dean Wesley Smith:

As I mention every year, it is pretty amazing how being five months from the first of the year causes so many writers to just not want to think about their year-end resolutions to write more and attain goals.

May, June, July I call the “Days of Forgetting.”

What was important and critical in January with writing and learning and getting stories published fades in these three months. Of course, if I asked, I could have you all send me a book full of great excuses. Please don’t. I’ve heard them all.

The problem with the “Days of Forgetting” is August. That’s when the remembering starts and wow is it hard to fire back up, to get motivated again, and that motivation for many doesn’t return until they see there is only three months left to the year. And by that point, all first of the year goals are shot.

What I suggest to people is set goals for these three months with their writing. Take writing or business classes, set writing goals, go to a convention, whatever. But keep the focus on the writing.

It might not be as much as you can do the first three months of the year or in September, October, or November. But if you get something done, hit some goals, keep writing as a focus, your year-end goal won’t be gone.

And August will be much, much more fun as you come back stronger into writing.

Link to the rest at Dean Wesley Smith and thanks to J.A. for the tip.

Here’s a link to Dean Wesley Smith’s books

37 Ways To Write About Anger

4 May 2015

From Writers Write:

We all get angry. It is natural and it can be a good thing. When it is uncontrolled or unnecessary, anger will not do us any favours on either a personal or a social level.

The same is true for the characters we create. When we write about angry characters, we should remember that there is always something behind this emotion. Anger is usually a surface emotion. It is a reaction to an underlying problem.

A)  Motivation

We usually become angry when we feel:


When our characters are feeling this way, we should incorporate it into our story.

. . . .

Seven ways a character can show passive anger:

Being defeatist. Examples: underachieving, choosing to repeat a proven failed behaviour pattern, being accident-prone.

Being secretive. Examples: anonymous complaints, gossiping, conning.

With dispassion. Examples: giving the cold shoulder, the silent treatment, substance abuse, talking about emotions without showing any, oversleeping, playing with electronic equipment or machines.

Evasion. Examples: avoiding conflict, becoming phobic.

Exhibiting obsessive behaviour. Examples: overeating or dieting too much, obsessively tidying up.

Manipulation. Examples: provoking bad behaviour in others, playing the victim, emotional blackmail, feigning illness, using other people to deliver negative messages.

Self-Blame. Examples: apologising for everything, criticizing their own behaviour, inviting criticism.

Link to the rest at Writers Write and thanks to Elizabeth for the tip.

Now, Writing is for Extroverts Too

24 April 2015

From The Rumpus:

When my wife proposed writing a novel together last year, I was initially resistant but not for the most obvious reasons. I wasn’t worried about our ability to work together. I wasn’t even worried about whether we could actually produce a good novel. We had decades of writing experience between us, mostly as reporters for small and mid-sized newspapers around the world. We had a wall full of awards saying we knew how to write.

What I was afraid of was the isolation I associated with writing long fiction pieces. I am one of an unusual breed: a writer who also is an extrovert. I’m happy to say, as our first full-length novel The Time Slip Girl hits retailers, that we wrote it without locking ourselves away in an ivory tower for months on end. And it’s all because of modern technology, which has changed the writing experience for the better, especially for extroverts, like me.

Yes, writing is still for introverts, like my wife, like many writers I know and love—but modern technology means it can be for extroverts as well.

I’m writing this essay on an iPhone 6 on a Chicago bus heading home from work. It’s jerky and bumpy. I keep hitting the wrong key. I have to go back and correct typos all the time, but I’m still doing some of the best writing I have ever done in my life. Autocorrect can be your friend, if you want it to be.

While my wife worked on our novel mostly at home, alone, or in a local coffee shop, because that’s her style, I worked on it on my phone during my downtime while volunteering at an HIV testing outreach event at Chicago’s Center on Halsted. I wrote it while sunning myself on the beach. I wrote it any time I could get a few noisy minutes, mostly on my phone but occasionally on my iPad. Sometimes I even wrote on my laptop at home but not often. That just wasn’t as much fun.

Yes, I produced thousands of beautiful words writing in public.

. . . .

Oh, what a difference 20 years makes.

I wrote my first novel in 1993 on a heavy, dedicated word processor. There was no way I could write anywhere but my office/bedroom where the machine sat. I spent every evening for a year typing out two pages a night and revising the pages I’d written the evening before. To top it all off, it was a basement apartment. I really didn’t get much sunlight that year. I was lonely. Writing was not fun.

There are loads of reasons why that novel was never published. One is that, as a 23-year-old, I had a lot of maturing and learning to do before I could write a truly good book. (Yes, there are great 23-year-old novelists out there. I wasn’t one of them.) Another reason is that the technology to combine my extrovert nature with my love of writing did not exist yet.

In a quiet environment, the slightest paper rustle distracts me. When it’s noisy, I can focus on my own thoughts. When I am with people, I get energized and jazzed. I put that energy into my fiction. My characters come to life, and I treat them with the respect and joy that they deserve. I never get writer’s block when I’m writing in the world. When I am isolated, like I was in 1993, writing becomes drudgery. Drudgery does not make for good writing.

After that first novel, I did write one more book and numerous short stories. Some were published. Some won awards, but I felt fiction writing was not for me. I didn’t like spending that much time alone and eased over to newspapers, where I could talk to people every day and then write. I gave up a lifelong dream of being a novelist because I write best in the company of others.

Link to the rest at The Rumpus and thanks to Victoria for the tip.

Better Mousetraps

20 April 2015

From author Russell Blake:

I had a long discussion with a friend who’s an aspiring author about how to move the plot along and engage the reader at every turn. To that end, I thought I’d share some things about how I plan and outline my own work. If you find it helpful, good. If not, well, it was worth what you paid for it.

Let me say up front that there is no one or “right” way to write a novel. Some start writing with barely an idea, others do 50 page outlines. So I can’t advise the only way to write a compelling draft, I can only explain the system I use.

Here’s how I do it: First, I ensure that if it’s an action book, there are sufficient beats to keep the reader engaged. I do this visually, as I outline (I do single sentence summaries of each chapter, usually in three acts, approximately 15 chapters per act), by color coding my chapters with action beats or reversals. So if my typical book has, say, 45 chapters, and I don’t have a beat every two or three chapters, it’s probably going to be a snoozefest. I’d rather know that going in and contrive more story than discover I lack beats once written.

As discussed, my outline will be single sentence chapters, a la “Giant panda storms Tokyo,” “Protag introduced, narrowly escapes,” “Romantic interest introduced, helps her across river,” etc. The action beats will be highlighted red (or in romance, the conflict beats). I want to see a lot of red in one of my action adventure tomes.

When I do my single sentences, I focus on who’s in it, why they’re in it, and what’s happening. If it’s not essential to moving the story along or imparting important info of some sort, my philosophy is it should be cut – it serves no purpose but to occupy space, and it’s a better read if every chapter has impact, a specific purpose. Purposeful outlining, and then hopefully, writing, is a key in creating a gripping read.

Link to the rest at Russell Blake and thanks to Eric for the tip.

Here’s a link to Russell Blake’s books.

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