Read! Read! Read! And then read some more. When you find something that thrills you, take it apart paragraph by paragraph, line by line, word by word, to see what made it so wonderful. Then use those tricks the next time you write. W.P. KINSELLA
It is the deepest desire of every writer, the one we never admit or even dare to speak of: to write a book we can leave as a legacy. And although it is sometimes easy to forget, wanting to be a writer is not about reviews or advances or how many copies are printed or sold. It is much simpler than that, and much more passionate. If you do it right, and if they publish it, you may actually leave something behind that can last forever. ALICE HOFFMAN
Writing teachers invariably tell students, Write about what you know. That’s, of course, what you have to do, but on the other hand, how do you know what you know until you’ve written it? Writing is knowing. What did Kafka know? The insurance business? So that kind of advice is foolish, because it presumes that you have to go out to a war to be able to do war. Well, some do and some don’t. I’ve had very little experience in my life. In fact, I try to avoid experience if I can. Most experience is bad. E.L. DOCTOROW
A writer has to have some kind of compulsive drive to do his work. If you don’t have it, you’d better find another kind of work, because it’s the only compulsion that will drive you through the psychological nightmares of writing. JOHN McPHEE
I have never understood why “hard work” is supposed to be pitiable. True, some work is soul destroying when it is done against the grain, but when it is part of “making” how can you grudge it? You get tired, of course, but the struggle, the challenge, the feeling of being extended as you never thought you could be is fulfilling and deeply, deeply satisfying. RUMER GODDEN
Over the years, I’ve found one rule. It is the only one I give on those occasions when I talk about writing. A simple rule. If you tell yourself you are going to be at your desk tomorrow, you are by that declaration asking your unconscious to prepare the material. You are, in effect, contracting to pick up such valuables at a given time. Count on me, you are saying to a few forces below: I will be there to write. NORMAN MAILER
When I sit down in order to write, sometimes it’s there; sometimes it’s not. But that doesn’t bother me anymore. I tell my students there is such a thing as “writer’s block,” and they should respect it. You shouldn’t write through it. It’s blocked because it ought to be blocked, because you haven’t got it right now. TONI MORRISON
A Memoir of the Craft
by Stephen King
If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around these two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut.
Let's get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn't to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.
When you write a story, you're telling yourself the story...When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.
"Words create sentences; sentences create paragraphs; sometimes paragraphs quicken and begin to breathe. Imagine if you like, Frankenstein's monster on its slab. Here comes lightening, not from the sky but from a humble paragraph of English words. Maybe it's the first really good paragraph you wrote, something so fragile and yet full of possibility that you are frightened. You feel as Victor Frankenstein must have when the dead conglomeration of sewn-together spare parts suddenly opened its watery yellow eyes. Oh my God, it's breathing, you realize. Maybe it's even thinking. What in hell's name do I do next?
5. Time to read…
If you don't have the time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write...
Description is what makes the reader a sensory participant in the story. Good description is a learned skill, one of the prime reasons why you cannot succeed unless you read a lot and write a lot. It's not just a question of how-to, you see; it's also a question of how much to. Reading will help you answer how much, and only reams of writing will help you with the how. You can learn only by doing.
7. Any way but lightly...
You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair--the sense that you can never completely put on the page what's in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.
A story well told gives you the very thing you cannot get from life: meaningful emotional experience. In life experiences become meaningful with reflection in time. In art, they are meaningful now, at the instant they happen.
The writer shapes story around a perception of what’s worth living for, what’s worth dying for, what’s foolish to pursue, the meaning of justice, truth – the essential values.
Story is far too rich in mystery, complexity and flexibility to be reduced to a formula. Only a fool would try.
In my experience the principle of antagonism is the most important and least understood precept in story design. Neglect of this fundamental concept is the primary reason screenplays and films made from them fail... A protagonist and his story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them.
We have no responsibility to cure social ills or renew faith in humanity, to uplift the spirits of society or even express our inner being. We have only one social responsibility: to tell the truth.
Screenwriting is the art of making the mental physical. We create visual correlatives for inner conflict – not dialogue or narration to describe ideas and emotions.
For a film to have a chance in the world, the last act and its climax must be the most satisfying experience of all...The first commandment of all temporal art [music, dance, poetry, song and film] is: Thou shalt save the best for last.
Bird by Bird
Some instructions on writing and life
by Anne Lamott
For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.
Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it.
Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It's like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can't stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.
E.L. Doctorow said once said that 'Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.' You don't have to see where you're going, you don't have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.
I heard a preacher say recently that hope is a revolutionary patience; let me add that so is being a writer. Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don't give up.
The society to which we belong seems to be dying or is already dead. I don't mean to sound dramatic, but clearly the dark side is rising. Things could not have been more odd and frightening in the Middle Ages. But the tradition of artists will continue no matter what form the society takes. And this is another reason to write: people need us, to mirror for them and for each other without distortion-not to look around and say, 'Look at yourselves, you idiots!,' but to say, 'This is who we are.'
I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her. (Although when I mentioned this to my priest friend Tom, he said that you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.)
If you try to avoid the pain [of writing] by doing something more pleasant, like eating chocolate or watching TV, you’ll squander time and dig yourself into a hole.
It [the writer’s inner life] is a private, secret hotbed of activity, an unruly, unquiet, unholy cauldron bubbling with the best and the worst thoughts a person can think.
Once in a while a piece comes out whole and reads well from beginning to end; but more often than not it is a prolonged agonizing struggle to get from nothing to something, to make the journey from fleeting ideal to accomplished novel or screenplay.
It is possible to gain a repertoire of things to do to help shake off depression...getting some sunshine, embarking on an adventure, running a few miles, taking a steamy shower, talking to a therapist, falling in love, releasing hurts and anger, eating well, reinvesting in and reinventing meaning.
How can I improve my writing? Improve your thinking...What am I arguing for? Is my argument convincing? Am I consistent?
Writing didn’t always come easy. It required a tremendous amount of solitude, self- discipline, regularity, even obsessive self-absorption and a kind of continuously renewable narcissistic self confidence.
Are you prepared to keep writing when you sit down to write? One challenge is starting; but another is continuing.
Stein on Writing
A Master Editor
by Sol Stein
By practice one learns to use what one has understood. Only writers, it seems, expect to achieve some level of mastery without practice.
Think of the novels you have loved most. Do you remember a character who lived with page after page, perhaps hoping the book would never end? What do you remember most clearly, the characters or the plot? Now think of the movies you’ve seen that affected you the most. Do you remember the actors or the plot? There’s a book called Characters Make Your Story that you don’t have to read because the title says it all: Characters make your story. If the people come alive, what they do becomes the story.
If your character doesn’t want anything badly enough, readers will have a hard time rooting for him to attain his goal, which is what compels readers to continue reading. The more urgent the want, the greater the reader’s interest.
Characters caught in a crucible won’t declare a truce and quit. They’re in it till the end. The key to the crucible is that the motivation of the characters to continue opposing each other is greater than their motivation to run away. Or they can’t run away because they are in a prison cell, a lifeboat, an army, or a family.
Suspense builds when the reader wants something to happen and it isn’t happening yet. Or something is happening and the reader wants it to stop, now. And it doesn’t.
A psychotherapist tries to relieve stress, strain and pressure. Writers are not psychotherapists. Their job is to give readers stress, strain and pressure. The fact is that readers who hate those things in life love them in fiction. Until a writer assimilates that fact he will have difficulty in consciously creating sufficient moments in which the reader feels tension.
Success in writing dialogue is one of the most rewarding aspects of the writer’s craft.
A great writer creates a world of his own and his readers are proud to live in it. A lesser writer may entice them in for a moment, but soon he will watch them filing out. CYRIL CONNOLLY
Writing’s not terrible, it’s wonderful. I keep my own hours, do what I please. When I want to travel, I can. But mainly I’m doing what I most wanted to do all my life. I’m not into the agonies of creation. RAYMOND CARVER
All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. GEORGE ORWELL
Someone says, “Whom do you write for?” I reply: “Do you read me?” If they say, “Yes,” I say, “Do you like it?” If they say, “No,” then I say, “I don’t write for you.” W H AUDEN
The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over a half a library to make one book. SAMUEL JOHNSON
I always leave off the day before. As Thomas Mann advised, when the going is good, when you know exactly where you are and you are in a moment of exuberance, you stop. When I hook on the next morning, if the going was good, I just go. If feel it emotionally, almost in the blood, the pulse, the excitement. MARGUERITE YOUNG
I work every day – or at least I force myself into office or room. I may get nothing done, but you don’t earn bonuses without putting in time. Nothing may come for three months, but you don’t earn the fourth without it. MORDECAI RICHLER
How to Write & Sell Film Stories
Won 2 Oscars (1930 & 1931) for Screenwriting
by Frances Marion
There is plenty of hard work, but no mystery; in writing film stories. Though any form of dramatics may be an art rather than a science, at present the film story comes nearer to being written to formula than does any other type of writing. Some producers even believe it is possible to produce pictures that will please practically everyone who sees them – although managers of motion picture theatres have yet to be convinced of this. The latter know that in their audiences there are too many differences – physical, intellectual, emotional, environmental – between members of the same group, to make them all respond to the same appeal.
Perhaps the simplest formula for a plot is: invent some colourful personalities, involve them in an apparently hopeless complication or predicament, then extricate them in a logical and dramtic way that brings them happiness.
It is true, of course, in an important sense, that a character exists only in his emotions and sensations. Without the expression of feeling, he no more represents a living person than does a fleshless skeleton. If he does not realistically express some credible emotion himself, he will not be likely to arouse feeling in those who watch him. His own characteristics and the plot arrangement should set him in situations that plausibly arouse his own fear, hope, passion, desire, anger, love, jealousy or other emotion, and his own feeling should be expressed so realistically as to arouse emotion in the beholder.
Man, in reality, may be a complex bundle of impulses, attitudes and habits, but he cannot be pictured in any such fashion in the time allowed him on the screen. There, he must be given coherence and significance in habit and action.
It is quite possible in real life that we do not always recognize people by their dominant characteristics, but it seems to be essential for the film writer to make his characters recognizable in this way. A novelist who has won great popular success is said, when writing the first draft of a novel, to give each character the name of the emotion he is expected to depict, such as Greed, Love, Jealousy, Peace... Of course you never tell your audience what emotion clutches your character. Let it see him in the throes of that emotion... If some explanation of a character must be given, let some other character do it.
The audience much prefers to be encouraged in the illusion that the characters are free to do as they will. If it appears that the character has no choice at any point in the story, there is no drama. Also, the less opportunity for decision the weaker the character.
Earlier, I warned about not starting with descriptions of setting, weather, and the like. That is not an ironclad rule, but simply a helpful tip. Readers today are impatient, and want to know why they should keep reading... So if you want to use description to start, make sure it does three things: (1) sets mood; (2) gets a character involved early; (3) gives us a reason to keep reading!
In a moment, I am going to give you twenty ways to come up with hundreds of ideas for your fiction. But first, some rules...The most important rule: Do not, I repeat, do not censor yourself in any way. Leave your editorial mind out of the loop. Just let the ideas come pouring out in any way, shape, or form they want to. Do not judge anything.
In the beginning, we get to know the Lead, his world, the tone of the story to come. We have some sort of disturbance in the beginning to keep away the dull parts... We move into the middle through a doorway of no return, an incident that thrusts the Lead into conflict with the opposition. We need some sort of adhesive to keep them together, something like professional or moral duty, or a physical location.
The Russian playwright Anton Chekhov had a famous rule that went something like this: If the curtain opens for Act I and there’s a rifle on the wall, it must be used at some point in the play. This is really a rule of expectation. If you set something up, it must pay off.
Here is one simple rule to remember: Characters carry theme...Always...Develop your characters fully and set them in the story world where their values will conflict with each other. Allow your characters to struggle naturally and passionately. Theme will emerge without effort.
Why are endings so hard? Because the novelist is like the plate spinners I used to watch on the old Ed Sullivan Show. These guys would have seven or eight plates spinning at the same time, sort of like wild Act II, and then they’d have to come up with a big finish that got all the plates off safely and with a little flourish...Your plot will have lots of plates spinning by the time you get to the end. You need to get them off safely. You need a little flourish. And you need to do it in a way that is not predictable. You don’t want readers finishing your book thinking, “I’ve seen that so many times before.”
The ending must have knockout power... A great ending can leave the reader satisfied, even if the rest of the book is somewhat weak (assuming the reader decides to stick around until the end.) But a weak ending will leave the reader with a feeling of disappointment, even if the book up to that point is strong.
Breakout novels are highly detailed and generally complex. Their authors do not stint if adding material will deepen the impact of their stories. Many breakout novels are long.
Story paths are selected, scenes are tossed out, new layers are added. Those choices can make a story larger, deeper, more memorable, or not. You may experience that process as outlining or revision, but whatever you call it, it is planning your story.
Some authors have their premise in place, fully formed, before a single keystroke, but do not envy those folks. A premise that is not yet backed up by all the details of setting, character, conflict and theme can prove difficult to sustain. Many a brilliant premise dies young. It can be a sad thing lying dead on the page. Believe me, I know. I’ve received many a dynamite-sounding query letter only to be disappointed by the tinny cap-gun pop of a weak manuscript.
Secondary characters can serve to amplify what is going on, of course, but they are more useful still when they disagree or produce friction with your main character or, even better, add unforeseen complications to the main problem... Needless to say, the more complex you make your secondary characters, the more lifelike and involving your story will be.
You will also find in this volume no single formula for the breakout novel. A truly big book is a perfect blend of inspired premise, larger-than-life characters, high-stakes story, deeply felt themes, vivid setting and much more. It is a kind of literary gestalt, a welling up of inspired material, enriched by close observation, or at least detailed research. It flows together in ways that seem destined to be... Formulas also achieve predictable effects... A true breakout is not an imitation but a breakthrough to a more profound individual expression. It demands that an author reach deep inside to find what is truthful, original, important and inspiring in his own world view...It requires that the author be true to his own “voice.”
A breakout novelist will also make moments when characters measure how their opinions of others have changed. Such moments reinforce the sense of passing time and the effect of a novel's events on their lives. Such moments contribute to the layering of characters and story line that is so central to making a breakout novel.
For anyone's life to be worth saving (in fiction), it needs added value. And in the scale of values, nothing is more compelling than high principles and codes of personal conduct. We admire principled people. We try to emulate them. They are the model citizens without which our society would not be civilized...To put a principled person at risk is to raise the stakes in your story to a high degree. Better still is to test that individual's principles to the utmost. There is something gripping about the inner struggle to remain loyal to a passionately held belief.
I love to work, although sometimes I can spend whole days doing nothing more than picking the lint off the carpet and talking to my mother on the phone. BETH HENLEY
Beth Henley won a Pulitzer Prize at 28 for her play, ‘Crimes of the Heart’. Her writing is eagerly awaited. Yet she faces a struggle no different from your own…There is something about the thought of sitting down to write that makes picking lint off the carpet seem suddenly attractive by comparison…We all struggle with this counterpull.
Today, I’ll let the lint stay on the carpet and I’ll postpone telephone calls. I will write.
Be careful how quickly you give away your fire. ROBERT BLY
...Candid writers have said, “I had so much fun talking about my book that I never got around to writing my book.” Be careful how quickly you give away your fire.
Today, I’ll save my fire. I’ll write, not talk.
In the sense that there was nothing before it, all writing is writing against the void. MARK
We write against the void. No wonder the blank page, or empty computer screen, is so frightening. The void is not our normal habitation. We are creatures of forests, plains, city streets – not the void. But the void calls out what is deepest in us. The courage to start writing is a special kind of courage...
Today, I won’t be dismayed at writing against the void. I will accept it as an ordinary aspect of writing.
One worthwhile task carried to a successful conclusion is worth half a hundred half-finished tasks. B C FORBES
Ah, the joy of writing... Wait a minute. What joy of writing? Make that: Ah, the joy of completing. Completing a writing project brings a rush of joy like no other.
Today, I’ll reaffirm my commitment to completion. I will resolve to finish what needs finishing. I will fix my eyes on the finish line.
No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft. H G WELLS
...A friend of mine used to joke that if she left a manuscript out on the desk at night, she feared the cleaning crew would not be able to resist the temptation to edit it. Then it really happened to her. She came in to work and found some notes attached to a manuscript...
I’m not going to fear criticism of what I write. I want to improve. I will sift criticism and, keeping what is helpful, I will move forward.
Rejected by 121 houses before its publication in 1974, ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ thrust Robert M Pirsig into stardom, selling more than three million copies in paperback alone. NEW YORK TIMES
Who can fathom the idea of putting stamps on the 122nd envelope and sending a manuscript off again? Yet that’s what Robert M Pirsig did. His was a book that 121 editors thought could bind no market. Yet million of readers feel that he wrote it just for them... Your project may not be for everybody. That doesn’t mean it isn’t richly worth the time you are going to spend on it today.
Today, I will dare to believe in my way of seeing things. I will write accordingly.
We judge ourselves by what we feel capable of doing, but others judge us by what we have already done. LEO TOLSTOY
…Just as soon as things ease up, we say, we’re going to write that book or play. And it’s going to be a great one…Others don’t see that inner screen with all its dazzling possibilities. They see what we have actually done…Imagine yourself in ten years. What would you like to have written? Can you spend half an hour on it today?
Today, I am going to act like a writer I want to be. I will fend off all distractions. I will write.
I go to books and to nature as a bee goes to the flower, for a nectar that I can make into my own honey. JOHN BURROUGHS
In 1842, Nathaniel Hawthorne used the same metaphor to make a slightly different point: “Bees are sometimes drowned (or suffocated) in the honey which they collect. So some writers are lost in their own collected learning.”
Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade, just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself. TRUMAN CAPOTE
The American writer B J (Beatrice Joy) Chute, who taught creative writing at Barnard College for many years, wrote similarly: “Grammar is to a writer what anatomy is to a sculpture, or the scales to a musician. You may loathe it, it may bore you, but nothing will replace it, and once mastered it will support you like a rock.”
Cut out all those exclamation marks. An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke. F SCOTT FITZGERALD
This is the most famous simile on the subject of exclamation marks, but it’s not the only one. In a 1976 ‘Punch’ article, Miles Kingston wrote, “So far as good writing goes, the use of the exclamation mark is a sign of failure. It is the literary equivalent of a man holding up a card reading LAUGHTER to a studio audience.
Footnotes – little dogs yapping at the heels of the text. WILLIAM JAMES
This may be the best thing ever written about footnotes; but a serious rival comes from Nöel Coward: “Having to read a footnote resembles having to go downstairs to answer the door while in the midst of making love.”
Writing books is the closest men ever come to childbearing. NORMAN MAILER
The writer Walker Percy might have been thinking about Mailer’s observation when he wrote: “Somebody compared novel-writing to having a baby, but for me it is the conception which is painful and the delivery which is easy.”
The structure of a play is always the story of how the birds came home to roost. ARTHUR MILLER
The more familiar metaphor is ‘chickens coming home to roost,’ but it means the same thing – our deeds and choices come back to haunt us, like chickens returning to the henhouses each night. The idea was first expressed in 1810 by English poet Robert Southey: “Curses are like young chickens, they always come home to roost.”
Writing is easy. You just sit down at the typewriter, open a vein, and bleed it out drop by drop. WALTER ‘RED’ SMITH
This is the best known of the analogies that view writing as a kind of blood-letting. The first articulation of the idea came from Sydney Smith, who said of the nineteenth-century English politician Henry Fox: “Fox wrote drop by drop.” A popular variation on the theme comes from the American screenwriter Gene Fowler: “Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”