Friday, June 30, 2017

What Is Setting?

Many novelists avoid laying out the setting because they fear boring their readers, but the lack of vivid setting may in turn cause boredom. Without a strong sense of place, it's hard to achieve suspense and excitement--which depend on the reader's sensation of being right there, where the action takes place. When descriptions of places drag, the problem usually lies not in the setting, but in presenting the setting too slowly. Make your descriptions dynamic and quick; give bits of setting concurrently with character and action.

Josip Novakovich

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Benefits Of Writing Nonfiction Over Fiction

I find the possibility of life as a fiction writer horribly depressing. Nonfiction, meaning journalism, essays, scholarly work, etc. is far more important to me because I am attempting to have an actual impact on the culture, on politics, and on ideas in people's heads. Nonfiction provides a more direct line to all of those things than fiction, which is too often used as an escape or to console people about their lives. Oh, and nonfiction pays much better.

Nick Mamatas

Sunday, June 25, 2017

How To End A Child's Picture Book

With little children, the way stories are resolved is critical. The endings of the more serious stories offer comfort and closure to fragile psyches. Little children need to feel safe, to feel protected from the vagaries of a capricious world. Time enough for them to learn about unpredictability and its messy aftermath.

     It's no accident that fairy tales end with "And they all lived happily ever after." Endings such as this give children a sense of security, a feeling they can cope with the circumstances they confront in their daily lives.

Nancy Lamb

Nature Writing

Nature writing often requires an ability to understand and interpret the findings of science. If you do not have the education or career credentials for writing about these subjects, you can rely on others who are experts, or you can write as a lay naturalist, an astute observer. However, the onus of accuracy is upon you. Although nature writing rests on science, the essay form leaves plenty of room for the writer's interaction with the environment, including one's inner emotional landscape as well as the outer landscape of the setting. One of the best ways to improve your skill in nature and outdoor writing is to read examples of it, as well as books on how to write this specialized kind of writing.

Elizabeth Lyon

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Robert A. Caro On The Biography Genre

I was never interested in writing biographies merely to tell the lives of famous men. [Caro is the author of a three volume biography of Lyndon B. Johnson.] I never had the slightest interest in doing that. From the first time I thought of becoming a biographer, I conceived of biography as a means of illuminating the times and the great forces that shape the times--particular political power. A biography will only do that, of course, if the biography is of the right man.

Robert A. Caro 

Comedy Derived From Character

  One of the most famous lines in the history of comedy is from "The Jack Benny Show." Throughout his career, Benny developed the persona of the ultimate skinflint. On one show, a robber pulled a gun on Benny and threatened, "Your money or your life." Finally Benny spoke: "I'm thinking it over."

     For the cheapskate Benny persona, this was a rough decision that required some real thought. And it is a perfect example of comedy derived from character. This was not a joke superimposed onto a situation; it grew organically out of the Benny character.

David Evans 

Getting Your Novel Off To A Good Start

  When I asked an agent recently how she decided whether or not to take on a manuscript, she told me she asked for the first fifty pages and read the first sentence. If she liked the first sentence, she read the second. If she liked that one, she read the third, and so on. If she reached the end of the first fifty pages without putting the manuscript down, she signed it up.

     Granted, most readers are willing to read your second sentence even if the first one isn't brilliant, but the agent's answer shows the importance of "hook." If you don't grab your readers with, say, your first fifty pages, you won't have them at all. So If you've been gleaning compliments from your writers group and good responses to your query letters, but your first fifty pages keep coming back with polite rejections, then you may have a good story that doesn't get started soon enough. If so, it's time to go back to the beginning and start looking for trouble.

David King

Friday, June 23, 2017

The Unauthorized Biography

Unauthorized biographies undress their subjects. When John Updike realized that a biographer was on his case, he hurriedly wrote a memoir, Self-Consciousness, so that he could forestall the biography. Autobiography and the authorized biography are time-honored methods of attempting to derail independent biographies and make them seem illicit.

Carl Rollyson, Biography, 2008 

So-Called Novels That Write Themselves

The assumption is that writing a novel is so easy anyone can do it if only there weren't the pressures of an important busy schedule, which apparently you, dear writer, do not have. In fact, a good story often reads so easily that civilians [non-writers] seem to think that the darn things write themselves. Whenever I leave the house, I make sure that one of my novels is hard at work. I expect five pages by the time I get back.

David Morrell 

Don't Make The Mystery Reader Wait Too Long For The Murder

Some mystery novels don't reach the discovery of the body until many pages into the story…Mystery writers have freedom to spend quite a few pages establishing the character of the detective or setting up the society in which the murder will take place. But the audience is quite aware that a murder will take place, but will become impatient if the writer takes too long getting to it.

Orson Scott Card

The Impostor Syndrome

Feeling like a fraud or con artist can be a hazard of the writing profession; there's a fine line, Balzac wrote, between the artist and the criminal.

Adam Langer

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Spy Fiction

"The Spy Who Came In From The Cold" led me from crime fiction to spy fiction (Raymond Chandler originally brought me to crime), but it was "Tinker, Tailor" that really sealed the deal. Having spent my 20s wrapped in a self-conscious literary cocoon, shunning genre, it was a shock to realize that a great novel could be written with international intrigue and the occasional gun, and not only about suburban malaise.

Olen Steinhauer 

The Prolific Mystery Novelist

A mystery writer who waits patiently for a mood to encompass him, for an idea to strike, may find starvation, or other employment, striking first. The professional in this field cannot write one book every three or four years. Three or four a year would be more like it.

Richard Lockridge

A Dim View Of The Writing Life

The professional writer who spends his time becoming other people and places, real or imaginary, finds he has written his life away and has become almost nothing.

V. S. Pritchett 

George Orwell and C. S. Lewis

If you want to learn how to write, the best way to start is by imitating C.S. Lewis and George Orwell. These two Englishmen, born five years apart, never used a pompous word if a short and plain one would do. Orwell was a master of the welcoming first sentence. He wrote an essay called "England Your England" while sheltering from German bombs during World War II. Here is his opening: "As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me."

David Brooks

The Pompous Writer

   Sometimes it takes courage to drop our pretensions, to choose use instead of utilize, rain instead of precipitation, arithmetic instead of computational skills. An idea expressed in simple English has to stand on its own, naked and unadorned, while ostentatious words sound impressive even when they mean nothing.

     Not all pompous writers are showing off or covering up their ignorance. Some are just timid, imagining that their ideas are flimsy or flawed or silly, even when they aren't. If you've done your homework, you shouldn't have to disguise your ideas with showy language. Be brave. Write plainly.

     The truth about big, ostentatious words is that they don't work as well as simple ones.

Patricia T. O'Conner

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Inserting Clues In Crime Fiction

Investigation is the meat and potatoes of mystery fiction. The sleuth talks to people, does research, snoops around, and makes observations. Facts emerge. Maybe an eyewitness gives an account of what he saw. A wife has unexplained bruises on her face. The brother of a victim avoids eye contact with his questioner. A will leaves a millionaire's estate to an obscure charity. A bloody knife is found in a laundry bin. A love letter is discovered tucked into last week's newspaper.

     Some facts will turn out to be clues that lead to the killer's true identity. Some will turn out to be red herrings--evidence that leads in a false direction. On top of that, a lot of the information your sleuth notes will turn out to be nothing more than the irrelevant minutiae of everyday life inserted into scenes to give a sense of realism and camouflage the clues.

Hallie Ephron

Writing About Animals

I write about animals because I really like animals. I'm also interested in the animalistic side of human nature, and when and why humans cross over into doing very violent things. [When animals become gratuitously violent they are acting like humans. In other words, violent human behavior is more humanistic than animalistic.] Writing about animals is a way of getting at readers' emotions. People sometimes open up their emotions to animals more easily than they do other people. You see that with the way people get so obsessed with their pets. A big thing you see in New York is a person walking their dog with a diamond-stud collar, right past a homeless person. [Unlike people, dogs do not become paranoid schizophrenics.] That interests me as well. My stories are about people, but I use animals as vehicles to get at the people.

Carole Burns

The Wrong Reasons To Write A Memoir

Nobody wants to hear that you're writing a memoir because you need some quick cash, or because you think it will make you famous, or because your boyfriend said there was a movie in this, or because you're just so mad and it's about time you get to tell your version.

Beth Kephart

Novel Writing Is Hard And Lonely Work

 Writing a novel doesn't get any easier the second or the eleventh time you do it. And unfortunately, you won't have fans in your writing room to urge you on. There'll be no applause. Just month after month of putting it down and crossing it out and recasting the sentence once again. Everyone who has a life thinks he has a novel to write. And he or she may. But very few people understand that the life is not the novel, that chronology is not plot….

     Writing isn't easy. Simply because you have access to a pen, some paper, and a dictionary does not mean that you can write a novel any more than having access to a piano means you can play the Goldberg Variations. Anyone can make noise. It's music we're after. Anyone can write on and on indefinitely. We're after the definite article.

John Dufresne

Adjectives And Adverbs: Manuscript Killers

The overall effect of a manuscript encumbered with adjectives, adverbs and the inevitable commas in between makes for slow, awkward reading--which these writers would find out for themselves if they only took the time to read their own work aloud.

     Manuscripts heavy on adjectives and adverbs can be spotted by an agent or editor immediately--sometimes even in the first few sentences--by looking for a plethora of commas (which inevitably separate a string of adjectives), or in the case of a writer who doesn't even know how to use commas, by looking to the nouns and verbs and then looking to see if adjectives or adverbs precede (or succeed) them.

Noah Lukeman

What Is Literary Success?

 It is important to establish your own definition of success. Is it one story? A completed manuscript? One appreciative reader? Publication? A bestseller? A number-one bestseller? Ten number-one bestsellers?…

     [According to writer Irvine Walsh]: "I'll just write until I can't write anymore. If my next book was my last book, I wouldn't care at all. If my next book was my two hundredth from last, it wouldn't bother me. You can only write so long as you've got something to say. I don't think there's any particular virtue in being a writer."

Ian Jackman

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Fiction Should Be About People, Not Words

I've had this conversation with many fiction writing students…Basically what's happening is this: The student is telling you that he has given up trying to write stories about people because he can't find anything to say about them, and wants your blessing as he launches a new student career of writing words about words.

     Give him nothing. This is a crucial moment in his life. If you let him go he's likely to end up with a doctoral degree in rhetoric and will spend the rest of his life teaching undergrads how to write words about words. The best thing to do is to put him up against the wall and threaten to shoot him if he doesn't shut up with that silly stuff.

Martin Russ

Biographies Must Have Drama

Considerable commentary focuses on the nexus between biography and fiction. As a narrative genre, biography would seem to have the greatest affinity with the novel, since both excel in the creation of characters and scenes through the sensibility of narrators. And yet the biographer has much in common with the dramatist, since biography is a kind of impersonation and the biographer functions as a kind of actor attempting to represent his subject's sensibility. The greatest biography in the English language, Boswell's Life of Johnson, consists mainly of dialogue, with Boswell's own comments serving almost like those of a director's notes.

Carl Rollyson

Are You Sure You Want To Write A Memoir?

To write a memoir is to enter…a war zone--with yourself, with the ones you love, with the critics you may never meet. It is to lay your life on the line, or several lines. You may be ridiculed, harassed, taken down in the court of public opinion. Worse, you aunt may never speak to you again. You may be called upon to defend the form…Your sole protection will be the work itself--its integrity, its artfulness, its originality, and its capacity to entertain or seduce….

Beth Kephart

Novels Don't Feature Happy People

It's more interesting to read about something being wrong than everything being right. Happiness threatens the things that every writing workshop demands: suspense, conflict, desire. It also threatens particularity. Happiness collapses characters into people who look just like everyone else, without the sharper contours of pathos to mark their edges and render them distinct. As Tolstoy famously tells us at the beginning of Anna Karenia: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Leslie Jamison

Reading J. D. Salinger As An Adult

 When I flick through my old copies of J. D. Salinger's stories, I see that all the passages my teenage self has identified as especially moving and wonderful are precisely those that now make me frown and recoil. Where once the angst and alienation of Salinger's heroes--their hypersensitivity to "phoniness"--filled me with awe and some sheepishness about my own capacity for compromise, I am now inclined to feel that phoniness, as much as any other human weakness, deserves a bit of sympathy. I can still enjoy the Catcher in the Rye if I read it with a sort of squint, maintaining the illusion of some separation between Holden's disaffected worldview and Salinger's. But by the time I get to the Glass stories, wherein the preternaturally brilliant and morally fine Glass children struggle to bear a world filled with second-rate English professors and inadequately nuanced productions of Chekhov, I have to give up. [When I discovered Catcher in the Rye as a seventh grader, I felt I was reading the best novel ever written. This book, among others, inspired me to be a writer. Last year, when I reread Catcher in the Rye for the first time, I found the novel a bit puerile, and forced.]

Zoe Heller

Monday, June 19, 2017

Keep Your Dreams of Being A Writer To Yourself

     You know the last thing in the world people want to hear from you, the very last thing they're interested in? The fact that you always wanted to write, that you cherish dreams of being a writer, that you wrote something and got rejected once, that you believe you have it in you--if only people around you would give you a chance--to write a very credible, if not great, American novel. They also don't want to hear that if you did start to write, there would be some things you just couldn't write about.

     Your parents don't want to hear it: They want you to grow up to be a descent person, find a way to make a good living, and not disgrace the family. Your girlfriend, boyfriend, or spouse will put up with this writer-talk for weeks, months, or even years, but none of them will love you for it….Your kids, believe me, are not going to like the idea of your writing….

     So don't tell them. Don't tell them anything about it. Especially when you're thinking about beginning. Keep it to yourself. Be discreet. Be secretive. There's time enough--all the time in the world--to let them in on the secret, to let them know who and what you really are.

Carolyn See

The Unfinished Novel

You've always wanted to write a novel, but you haven't been able to. Not yet, you haven't. Perhaps you've been too intimidated to even begin. (Who do I think I am?) Or you've started writing several novels over the years, each with abundant hope and enthusiasm, but you soon become discouraged when the characters in your head did not breathe on the page. Or maybe you keep pulling the same novel out of the desk drawer whenever you have some downtime, and you work on it again for a week or a month--you feel a feverish sense or urgency--and the novel keeps growing, year after year, but seems unwilling to resolve itself, and then, alas, the so-called real world summons you, or you lose confidence in your creative or organizational abilities, and you shove the manuscript back into the drawer and push your chair away from the annoying desk. Well, you should know that you are not alone. We've all done the same thing. Writing is hard, and it's harder for the writer than it is for anyone else.

John Dufresne

Handling Criticism Of Your Work

A negative response from your readers--especially when they've taken the time to be conscientious about it--is always a shock. It's like getting kicked in the behind while bending over to pick up a penny. It's not the kick that hurts, it's the humiliation of having bent over for the penny. True, your voice may not quiver when you're thanking them for their honesty. Your hands may be steady when you're opening that letter of advice from the editor you've always admired. [Who admires an editor?] You may even be able to agree with your favorite author when he tells you that he thinks your new book isn't half as interesting as the last one you wrote. But your whole face is on fire, there's a roaring in your ears, and behind your pleasant "uh-huh" stands an infuriated, tic-faced person demanding to know...(1) how you could allow these half-wits near your best work; (2) why you ever thought you could get away with calling yourself a writer; or (3) how you're ever going to write again. In fact, the difference between the writer who's going to add up to something in a few years and the writer who's not may have less to do with the quality of the work than with the way each one handles criticism. [Still, it's the quality of the work that counts. If you're no good, quit.]

Laura Hendrie

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Writing Your Gripping Crime Novel

 You know you're reading a great mystery novel when you're up at three in the morning, unable to put it down. When you finally fall asleep, the characters go romping around in your dreams. When you get to the final page, you smack yourself in the head because the solution seems obvious in retrospect yet came as a complete surprise.

     Page-turning suspense. Rich characterization. A credible surprise ending. Sounds pretty simple, but writing a mystery novel is not for the faint of heart…Be prepared to keep three or four intertwined pots spinning. Get ready to master the art of misdirection so readers will ogle those red herrings you've sprinkled while ignoring the real clues in plain sight. Don't be surprised when you find yourself riding herd on a load of characters who won't go where you want them to.

     On top of that, you'll need dogged determination and intestinal fortitude to stick with it, through the first draft and endless revisions, until your words are polished to lapidary perfection. It wouldn't hurt, either, to have the hide of a rhinoceros to withstand the inevitable rejections. Talent being equal, what separates many a published mystery writer from an unpublished one is sheer stamina. Only gluttons for punishment need apply.

Halle Ephron

The Value of Rewriting

Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it's where the game is won or lost. That idea is hard to accept. We all have an emotional equity in our first draft; we can't believe that it wasn't born perfect. But the odds are close to 100 percent that it wasn't. Most writers don't initially say what they want to say, or say it as well as they could. The newly hatched sentence almost always has something wrong with it. It's not clear. It's not logical. It's verbose. It's klunky. It's pretentious. It's boring. It's full of clutter. It's full of cliches. It lacks rhythm. It can be read in seven different ways. It doesn't lead out of the previous sentence...The point is that clear writing is the result of a lot of tinkering.

William Zinsser

Writing While Intoxicated

Writers have always used drugs and drink to disinhibit themselves. In the beginning, the intoxicating effects of alcohol and drugs can prove prodigious. But once the tail is wagging the dog, the effects are generally deleterious.

Betsy Lerner 

Tell A Story

The object of most of your writing is to tell a story, whether it's fictional or not. The story will have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and in telling the story, you are moving the reader along, maintaining interest and attention from page to page. To facilitate this, the writer has at her disposal an array of devices--species of writing like narrative, exposition, dialogue, background. Each stage of the process... has its own particular challenges.

Ian Jackman

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Novels That Require A Dictionary

 I love words. Most writers love words….When a writer has given new life to words you've heard a million times or used words you don't use or ordinarily think of, but love, it's inspiring.

     I love reading novels that send me to the dictionary to look up words. Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections did this. So did Don DeLillo's Underworld. I pulled out the Webster's to look up crepuscular. "Of relating to, or resembling twilight: active during twilight, insects." I can never look at fireflies, now, without thinking of them as crepuscular. [Come on. Comments like this set off my crap detector. No wonder nobody reads "literary fiction."]

     Ann Patchett's Bel Canto yielded the word sangfroid: "self-possession or imperturbability esp. under strain." So I have sangfroid when I don't stress out if I'm late getting somewhere. [I avoid pretentious novelists who show off by using arcane words for simple things and ideas. This is bad writing.] 

Barbara DeMarco-Barrett

Are Successful Writers Jerks?

Like many, I've often been disappointed when meeting a writer whose work I admire, only to find that person off-putting. Some are downright obnoxious. How could such an unpleasant human being write with such sensitivity, such insight and candor? Or are the two connected? Perhaps rudeness and the courage to put your work on public display are symbiotic. An ability to reveal unattractive parts of yourself on the page and in person dips from the same well. That's why it's not necessarily a bad thing for a writer to lack social grace.

Ralph Keyes

Truman Capote's True Crime Mistake

Put simply, adherence to the truth in nonfiction makes a story feel right. Perhaps the most famous compromise of that standard is Truman Capote's imagined graveyard scene at the end of In Cold Blood, still considered the benchmark for what he called the "non-fiction novel." A brilliant study of a murdered family and the killers who are eventually hanged, there was no happy ending available to the writer. Capote felt a need to resolve that artificially, blighting his immense achievement in synthesizing research with dramatic storytelling with a dreamy and unconvincing denouement he always regretted.

Mark Mordue

Should You Join A Screenwriting Workshop?

There comes a time in every screenwriter's career when he feels the need to cease a solitary existence and enroll in a class or workshop. Before you jump in, be aware that many of these classes are taught by petty people. Of course not all workshops are evil. [I'm not so sure about that.] In fact, there are many wonderful workshops and teachers across the country. Just make sure the instructor of your workshop promotes constructive, not destructive, feedback, and the other students seem talented, supportive and serious. [My idea of good advice from workshop instructor: If you have real talent, get the hell out of this class. Movies today are crap, written by teams of hacks. Write a genre novel or get into nonfiction. Or better yet, get a real job.]

Richard Krevolin

The Redundant Writer

For some writers, once is not enough. They don't beat a dead horse; they beat a totally dead horse. They use modifiers that say the same thing as the words they modify. For them, every fact is a true fact. They don't expedite; they speedily expedite. They don't smell a stench; they smell a malodorous stench. In other words, they're redundant. Or as they might put it, superfluously redundant. [This is meaningfully profound advice.]

Patricia T. O'Conner

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Bad Boy Writer

The literary bad boy lives today…in the mind of the writer. He is a legend only, a creature of folk memory. Which isn't to say that there aren't plenty of traditionally chaotic real-life writers out there, right now, staying the course, crashing about and appalling their spouses [Norman Mailer knifed one of his wives]. What's changed, for us, is that the media is no longer interested….

     In 2014 we have bad-boy chefs (Bourdain, Ramsay), bad-boy comedians (Russell Brand), bad-boy athletes (the demonic Uruguayan soccer player Luis Suarez)….And it's possible, I suppose, that some young wordslinger could come along and wring a new twist from the tired repertoire of writerly naughtiness--be a postmodern literary bad boy. But in the end, who cares? Drink, divorce, insanity, firearms: all beside the point. The work is what counts….[If you like bad boy writers, try Charles Bukowski. He was very bad but his writing is good.]

James Parker

Reader's Digest

While it's long been a popular sport among the literary intelligentsia to put down the Digest, I'll unhesitatingly take the other side. If you want to find examples of clear, tightly edited prose, you'll look a long way to hunt down anything better than you can encounter in any issue of the much maligned Reader's Digest.

Jefferson D. Bates

William Noble On Style

     When I speak of good, clean prose, of grammatically correct phrasing, I'm talking about writing that has no redundancies and no awkward, self-conscious parts. You're carried forward by the lilt of the writer's style where words and phrases have purpose, and where the music of words will create a harmony of word sounds. In simple writer-editor language, writing such as this "works."

     But remember, it's style you're really considering, and you don't want to get bogged down in a maze of rules and procedures. Your individuality makes itself known through your style, and sometimes the techniques that don't work for one writer might work for another.

William Noble

Mystery Writer Agatha Christie

During her lifetime, Agatha Christie (1890-1976) sold more than two billion books, topped only by Shakespeare and the Bible. Hercule Poirot, her principal detective, appeared in 33 novels.

Reader's Digest

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Can Writing Be Taught?

  I find it both fascinating and disconcerting when I discover yet another person who believes that writing can't be taught. Frankly, I don't understand this point of view.

     I've long believed that there are two distinct but equally important halves to the writing process: One of these is related to art; the other is related to craft. Obviously, art cannot be taught. No one can give another human being the soul of an artist, the sensibility of a writer, or the passion to put words on paper that is the gift and the curse of those who fashion poetry and prose. But it's ludicrous to suggest and shortsighted to believe that the fundamentals of fiction can't be taught.

Elizabeth Gorge

Getting Into A Writing Program

  When I went to writing school, I craved rules. I craved a mentor, and the revelation of secrets, and the permission to write scads, and most of all I craved the confirmation that I could write. In other words, I was like practically everyone else.

    What a mystique writing programs have! A sense of promise emanates from their doors, wafts up from the embossed paper bearing their letterheads. I felt that being accepted to one, and especially to that bizarrely exotic one nestled in the middle of America, Iowa, was like being chosen for an initiation into mysteries. After all, what could be more mysterious than learning how to write?

Bonnie Friedman

The Writer's Power To Inflict Pain

     "If you want to be a writer, somewhere along the line you're going to have to hurt somebody. And when that time comes, you go ahead and do it," Charles McGrath said when he was an editor at The New Yorker. "If you can't or don't want to tell that truth, you may as well stop now and save yourself a lot of hardship and pain."…

     A novelist wrote a withering account of her recent marriage. Soon after the book came out, the author's ex-husband killed himself. Was she correct to write that novel?

Bonnie Friedman

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Price of Fame

A writer dreams of the goddess Fame and winds up with the bitch Publicity.

Peter De Vries 

Pretentious Writing

 I'm put off when I suspect that a writer is too aware of his own style or is more concerned with style than content and communication. It's a lot like a speaker who takes on a pompous speaker's voice when he's talking publicly. I consider this pretentious and phony. I prefer authors who don't recognize their own voices or, if they do, are clever enough to make their writing style appear naturally interesting and unique…

     There is a particularly dreadful style of writing, prose intended to sound lofty and important, found in a lot of promotional literature put out by colleges and universities. The thoughts and messages conveyed in this form are usually quite simple. An example of this style can be found in many college mission statements. In straightforward prose, one might write: "The goal of college is the education of its students." Because this is so obvious, to write it simply and directly makes it sound vacuous. But when the mission statement is puffed up with carefully selected words and high-minded phrases, the simplicity of the message is replaced by syntax intended to make it sound profound. This style of writing is pompous and false, and represents writing at its worst.

Jim Fisher

Novels With Too Much Description

When I wrote my first novel I thought that "good writing" meant "beautiful writing"--long descriptive passages filled with adjectives, adverbs, metaphors and similes. "Reads like poetry," I told myself with satisfaction. Then I got my first rejection letter in which the editor said, "Too much description, not enough action and dialogue."

Madge Harrah 

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Writer Procrastination

The procrastination has gotten worse over the years, and of course, I blame technology. When I was younger, my go-to method for avoiding dealing with a writing assignment was to pick up a glossy magazine. My procrastination was, in a sense, solo. Now, with the proliferation of the social media, I get to procrastinate alongside thousands of others, which makes me feel less alone yet more ashamed and overcome by inertia because, well, everyone else is doing it! Misery loves company, but company is the last thing I need when what I really need is to write.

Anna Holmes


Flat Versus Round Characters

  [The novelist] E. M. Forster introduced the term flat character to refer to characters who have no hidden complexity. In this sense, they have no depth (hence the word "flat"). Frequently found in comedy, satire, and melodrama, flat characters are limited to a narrow range of predictable behaviors….

     Forster's counter term to flat characters was round characters. Round characters have varying degrees of depth and complexity and therefore, in Forster's words, they "cannot be summed up in a single phrase."

H. Porter Abbott

Identifying With A Fictitious Character

If it is true that no two writers get aesthetic interest from exactly the same materials, yet true that all writers, given adequate technique, can stir interest in their special subject matter--since all human beings have the same root experience (we're born, we suffer, we die, to put it grimly), so that all we need for our sympathy to be roused is that the writer communicate with power and conviction the similarities in his characters' experience and our own--then it must follow that the first business of the writer must be to make us see and feel vividly what his characters see and feel. However odd, however wildly unfamiliar the fictional world--odd as hog-farming to a fourth-generation Parisian designer, or Wall Street to an unemployed tuba player--we must be drawn into the characters' world as if we were born to it.

John Gardner

Monday, June 12, 2017

The "Memoir-Novel"

The memoir never strayed that far from fiction--in form and, notoriously, sometimes in content, too. At the height of the memoir boom, the highest praise you could lavish on a work of autobiographical nonfiction was that it "read like a novel." Life, after all, is mostly uneventful; even the crises that we experience now and then are often random, inexplicable. That inexplicability is precisely what makes us want our lives to have "meaning" in the same way works of art and literature have "meaning"--meaning derived from structure, pattern, order. It's no accident that the greatest memorists, from St. Augustine to Vladimir Nabokov, were also serious students of literature…As such, these writers knew how to give the random stuff of life a pleasing literary shape.

Daniel Mendelsohn 

Biographies Of Writers

I have to confess to being a real sucker for literary biographies, especially the early chapters in which the writer wrestles with ambition, not to mention paying the rent, and then, of course, the late chapters portraying his/her decline and fall.

T. C. Boyle

Anyone Can Become A Writer

Anyone can become a writer. The trick is not in becoming a writer, it is staying a writer. Day after week after month after year. Staying in there for the long haul.

Harlan Ellison 

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Novels Written For the Ages Usually Stink

If you shoot for timelessness in your writing, consciously orient yourself to the upper realm, the shinning truths and the inexhaustible symbols etc., you will--by a kind of law--produce drivel. You will waft and drift and never get a toehold. If, on the other hand, you bet it all on the particular, really dive unreservedly into specificity, you will find--inevitably, magnificently--that your novel about three plumbers in Milwaukee in 1987 becomes a singing blueprint of human significance.

James Parker 

Writing: The Nightmare Profession

Coal mining is hard work. Writing [novels] is a nightmare. There's a tremendous uncertainty that's built into the profession, a sustained level of doubt that supports you in some way. A good doctor isn't in a battle with his work; a good writer is locked in a battle with his work. In most professions there's a beginning, a middle, and an end. With writing, it's always beginning again. Temperamentally, we need that newness. There's a lot of repetition in the work. In fact, one skill that every writer needs is the ability to sit still in this deeply uneventful business.

Philip Roth 

The Hatchet Job Memoir

Nothing is more offensive [in a memoir] than an adult child exposing his or her elderly parents to the appalled fascination of strangers.

Joyce Carol Oates 

Literature Professors: Who Needs Them?

As a college student in the 1980s whose major was comparative literature, I had no choice but to take a course on literary theory: It was required. The smug bloviator who taught it told us that the defining characteristic of the written word was its inability to express meaning. Thea act of writing a novel, which I had previously regarded as a natural process, as organic as breathing, was actually a battle in which words engulfed readers, fuddling our wits and scattering the import of the text. Truth he added, deploying Nietzsche, was a mobile army of metaphor, metonym, and anthropomorphisms--without a general. He himself, he said, would be that general.

Liesl Schillinger 

The Urge to Write

I would write ads for deodorants or labels for catsup bottles, if I had to. The miracle of turning inklings into thoughts and thoughts into words and words into print never palls for me.

John Updike 

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Mystery Writer P. D. James

 Mystery writer P.D. James, who brought realistic modern characters to the classical British detective story, has died. She was 94. James' books, many featuring sleuth Adam Dalgliesh, sold millions in many countries and most were just as popular when adapted for television. James died Thursday November 27, 2014 at her home in Oxford in southern England.

     Because of the quality and careful structure of her writing--and her rather elegant, intellectual detective Dalgliesh--she was at first seen as a natural successor to writers like Dorothy L. Sayers, creator of Lord Peter Wimsey in the between-the-wars "Golden Age" of the mystery novel. But James' books were strong on character, avoided stereotype and touched on distinctly modern problems including drugs, child abuse and nuclear contamination…

     Although there was nothing remotely "genteel" about P.D. James' writing, she was criticized by some younger writers of gritty urban crime novels. They accused her of snobbery because she liked to write abut middle-class murderers, preferably intelligent and well-educated, who agonized over right and wrong and spent time planning and justifying their crimes. Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard, hero of more than a dozen of James' novels, is a decidedly gentlemanly detective, who writes poetry, loves jazz and drives a Jaguar.

     Phyllis Dorothy James was born in Oxford on August 3, 1920. Her father was a tax collector and there was not enough money for her to go to college, a fact she always regretted…She did not start producing her mysteries until she was nearly 40, and then wrote only early in the morning before going to the civil service job with which she supported her family. Her husband, Connor Banty White, had returned from the war mentally broken and remained so until his death in 1964…

     James' first novel, Cover Her Face, was published in 1962 under her maiden name and was an immediate critical success, but she continued to work in the Home Office until 1979…

     James was often spoken of as an heir to Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle, icons of the classic British mystery, but her admirers thought she transcended both.

Jill Lawless

The First Draft

 All writing begins life as a first draft, and first drafts are never (well, almost never) any good. They're not supposed to be. Expecting to write perfect prose on the first try is like expecting a frog to skip the tadpole stage.

     Write a first draft as though you were thinking aloud, not carving a monument. If what you're writing is relatively short--a financial report, a book proposal, a term paper--you might try doing your first draft in the form of a friendly letter. The person at the other end could be someone real or imagined, even a composite reader.

     Relax and take your time, but don't bog down, chewing your nails over individual words or sentences or paragraphs. When you get stalled, put down a string of X's and keep going. What you're writing now will be rewritten. If it is messy and full of holes, so what? It's only the first draft, and no one but you has to see it.

Patricia T. O'Conner

Applying The Rules Of Grammar

There's one thing to remember about the rules of grammar--they are not rigid; they change as our perceptions of our language change. What satisfied our eighth-grade teacher certainly won't satisfy an editor, but then our eighth-grade teacher wasn't trying to be an editor. The rules, however, were there to be learned, and once we learned them, we could believe they applied only when they made our work better.

William Noble

Friday, June 9, 2017

Spice Up Your Novel With A Murder

Violence serves as an element of suspense. If someone is murdered on the page--in an opening scene or at a plot point--then you have suspense. And please don't think that murders are the province of detective or crime fiction only. Alice Hoffman uses murders effectively in several of her novels….Indeed, William Faulkner uses murder, Charles Dickens uses murder, Wilkie Collins uses murder, Thomas Harding uses murder…and no one would accuse William Shakespeare of shying away from occasional bloodshed in the cause of a gripping tale. [If you do incorporate murder into your fiction, make sure you know something about the subject. Otherwise it will bring ridicule.]

Elizabeth George

Using A Pen Name

Pseudonyms are especially attractive to fiction writers, whose work (inventing people and seeing the world through their eyes) requires an impersonation, of sorts. Writing under a pen name is like doing an impersonation of someone doing an impersonation. I've fantasized about using an alias, but my fantasy mostly entails making a lot of money writing a quick horror novel. [Unless you write in that genre, good luck with that.]

Francine Prose

Where Do Writers Get Their Ideas?

     People wonder where writers get their ideas. Must they first experience what they write? Do they really rush wildly around looking for story ideas? Good writers look for "characters," because ideas grow as freely from characters as apples from trees. Every character grows not one but many fresh, unique, writable stories.

     Writers who want to write good stories or plays must know their characters better than they know themselves. Better--because most of the time we are unaware of the motivating forces within us. Strange but true, it is easier to create a living, three-dimensional character than an unreal, one-dimensional character.

Lajos Egri

Fear Of Criticism

 Are writers more concerned with others' opinions of them, more given to depression, and more reluctant to share their work, especially work they consider risky, than other creative types? In my experience, yes, yes, and yes. While the painters and other visual artists I know are surely sensitive people, they also seem enviably oblivious to what others think of their work. Musicians and actors, too, have hefty egos and tend to be more obsessed with what they do than what others think about what they do….Regardless of talent, it's almost impossible to get new writers to stand up and read from their work. [Maybe it's because they think this kind of exercise is self-important and boring to others.]

     Yes, writers' temperaments are unique. I have watched the most talented writers compare themselves to their favorite authors--to dead authors, especially--and grow encyclopedia-sized [writer's] blocks because they believe they'll never be as good. [They are probably right.]

     Talent seems to be inverse to confidence. Some of the most talented writers I know are reluctant to send out their work, so convinced are they that no will will ever publish it.

Barbara DeMarco-Barrett

The Creative Nonfiction Ending

The simplest ending to a nonfiction story is the climax. This is the scene that concludes a crisis, resolves a conflict, or marks a turning point in which the outcome becomes clear. An ending of this type should be considered in every narrative story. Obviously, it can be used only in a story that embraces some degree of narration, even if only a sequence of anecdotes. One approach to stories that consist of such a sequence is to break apart the principal anecdote, beginning with it, interrupting it at the point of greatest narrative suspense, then returning to it only at the end. More frequently, however, the climax is used as an ending in purely narrative stories, in which the overriding question from the outset is simply "What happened?"

James B. Steward

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Is Book Reviewing a Public Service or an Art Form?

There is an art to book reviewing. Or a craft, I should say--because if the reviewer tries to be artistic, if he once abandons the secondary zone of creation, he's sunk. The point of the review, after all, is not him: It's the book. The book that somebody else wrote. So good reviewing demands a certain transparency of language, and an absence of prancing and posturing.

James Parker 

The Master of Fine Arts Professor

Most writers who teach in academia aren't really academics. The majority of people who teach in MFA programs, I think, tend to be working writers who just need the gig.

James Hynes 

The Interpretation of a Novelist's Intentions

The idea that readers could know an author's intentions better than she does herself is, of course, deeply destabilizing to our usual ways of thinking about literature. If a text can mean anything the reader wants it to mean, then why read it in the first place? Isn't literature supposed to help us achieve contact with other minds, rather than trapping us in a hall of mirrors, in which we can see only our own distorted reflections? Surely there must be limits to a text's interpretability.

Adam Kirsch 

The Importance of Setting in a Novel

Setting is as important as character. Go to the bookstore, open up a bunch of books and read the first line. You'll find that the majority of opening sentences have something to do with setting and evoking an emotion with the reader.

Bob Mayer 

Writing a Bad Novel Is Better Than Writing No Novel

A bad novel is better than an unwritten novel, because a bad novel can be improved; an unwritten novel is defeat without a battle.

Paul Johnson

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Writers Who Take Themselves Too Seriously

I'm so revolted by writers taking themselves seriously that, as a kind of protest, I've de-prioritized the role of writing in my life. I do it when I've not got anything better to do--and even then I often do nothing instead. [I just watched a documentary on J. D. Salinger's life. Now there's a guy who took himself and his writing seriously.]

Geoff Dyer

Write What You Know

 Before you write about a subject, make sure you know it inside and out. If there are questions in your mind, don't skip them or cover them up. Do your best to find the answers. Then, if questions remain, you can always be honest and say so; the reader will forgive you.

     Whenever there's something wrong with your writing, suspect that there's something wrong with your thinking. Perhaps your writing is unclear because your ideas are unclear. Think, read, learn some more….

     The old admonition to "write about what you know" is a cliche, but it's still good advice. No matter how vivid and fertile your imagination, you'll write best what you know best.

Patricia T. O'Conner

Kingsley Amis on The Point of Writing

If you can't annoy anybody, there's little point in writing.

Kingsley Amis 

The Perfect Crime Novel Detective

 Though [writer Roger Rosenblatt] studied at Harvard, and even taught there, his most important education came from popular fiction. Above all, detective fiction, starting with Sherlock Holmes.

     "I wanted to be Holmes, himself," he writes early in [his new book, The Boy Detective]. "The detective I concocted for myself was not exactly like him. What I imagined was a composite made up of Holmes's power of observation, Hercule Poirot's powers of deduction, Sam Spade's straight talk, Miss Marple's stick-to-itiveness, and Philip Marlowe's courage and sense of honor--he who traveled the 'mean streets,' like mine, and was 'neither tarnished nor afraid.' The fact that, as far as I could tell, I lacked every single one of these qualities, and saw no prospect of every achieving them, presented no discouragement."

From Pete Hamill's review of Rosenblatt's book The Boy Detective in The New York Times Book Review, November 17, 2013 

The Armchair Traveler

My first writing mentor, Annie Dillard, once told our college class that if you ever have the choice between visiting a far-flung place or reading about it, choose the book. [As a nonfiction writer, if I had a mentor, which I didn't, the advice would have been just the opposite.]

Virginia Pye

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Dissertation Genre

P.h.d. students famously despair that the academic dissertation, as a literary genre, is inherently boring to the point of unreadable, while joking that the difficulty of writing one is enough to drive a person insane.

James Camp

War Novels

The literature of war is by its very nature political. If a writer's sentences are personal--what else, really can they be?--and a writer has trained his lens on a bloody battleground, in reading him we will come to know where he stands, where his passions lie. When it comes to fiction, this passion can often result in rhetoric-spouting characters whose sole purpose is to serve the author's ideas.

Dani Shapiro 

Raymond Chandler on Writers as a Class

Writers as a class I have found to be oversensitive and spiritually under-nourished.

Raymond Chandler

Becoming Versus Staying a Writer

Anyone can become a writer. The trick is not in becoming a writer, it is staying a writer. Day after week after month after year. Staying in there for the long haul.

Harlan Ellison

Monday, June 5, 2017

Making Real Money as a Writer

You would-be Thomas Wolfes and Gertrude Steins out there should understand one thing above all: likely you ain't gonna make no money as a writer. Real money I mean.

Larry L. King 

Literary Award Complaints

Literary prizes sometimes seem to function like parents whose approval we crave as well as spurn. The complaints are as common as they are contradictory: Prizes are awarded to tepid, undemanding best sellers everyone reads; prizes are awarded to obscure, abstruse books no one reads. They are awarded to the right authors, but for the wrong work (Hemingway for "The Old Man and the Sea," Faulkner for "A Fable"). They are awarded to the wrong authors for the wrong work (Margaret Mitchell for "Gone With the Wind"). They are withheld from the right authors for the right work (Gravity's Rainbow," by Thomas Pynchon, won jury approval for the Pulitzer Price in 1974 but was overruled by a board that deemed the novel "turgid," and "obscene"). Sometimes the grousing has the whiff of sour grapes. "Prize X has never been awarded to Philip Roth." Prize Y has never been awarded to me."

Jennifer Szalai

Who Do Writers Write For?

I made the decision very early on in my career to put everyone out of my mind when I write. Relatives, editors, Hollywood, critics. I have no reader in mind. I think it's death to a writer to consider how anyone will view their work. One writes for oneself in much the same way one daydreams for oneself.

Anita Shreve

A Novelist's Definition of Plot

I define story as a narrative of events which moves through time or implies the passage of time, and which involves change. I define plot as a form of story which uses action as its mode, usually in the form of conflict, and which closely and intricately connects one act to another, usually through a causal chain, ending in a climax.

Ursula K. Le Guin 

Science Writing

Science writing has a reputation for bloodlessness, but in many ways it is the most human of disciplines. Science, after all, is a quest, and as such it's one of the oldest and most enduring stories we have. It's about searching for answers, struggling with setbacks, persevering through tedium and competing with colleagues all eager to put forth their own ideas about how the world works. Perhaps most of all, it's about women and men possessed by curiosity, people who devote their lives to pursuits the rest of us find mystifying or terrifying--chasing viruses, finding undiscovered planets, dusting off dinosaurs or teasing venomous snakes.

Michelle Nijhuis

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Even Good Novels Have Weak Endings

The pithiest book about writing is E. M. Forster's Aspect of the Novel, in which he chose to reveal some of the trade's darkest secrets. "Nearly all novels are feeble at the end," he observed. "This is because the plot requires to be wound up, and usually the characters go dead." My own interpretation is that all novels are hobbled at their end by a fundamental problem of verisimilitude: Life goes on, but a novel does not.

Scott Turow 

The Use Of Exclamation Points In Dialogue

Exclamation points in dialogue tend to make statements sound lovesick teenage email. Try at all costs to avoid using them!

Allison Amend 

What Is Narrative?

Narrative is the representation of an event or series of events. "Event" is the key word here, though some people prefer the word "action." Without an event or an action you may have a "description," an "exposition," an "argument," a "lyric," some combination of these or something else altogether, but you won't have a narrative. "My dog has fleas" is a description of my dog, but it is not a narrative because nothing happens. "My dog was bitten by a flea" is a narrative. It tells of an event. The event is very small one--the bite of a flea--but that is enough to make it a narrative.

H. Porter Abbott

A Bad Novel Is As Hard To Write As A Good One

When it comes to the novel you have to work long and hard even to produce a bad one. This may help explain why there are so many more bad amateur poets around than there are bad amateur novelists. Writing a good poem may be as difficult as writing a good novel. It may even be harder. But any clown with a sharp pencil can write out a dozen lines of verse and call it a poem. Not just any clown can fill 200 pages with prose and call it a novel. Only the more determined clowns can get the job done.

Lawrence Block

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Writing Narrative Nonfiction

Some people criticize nonfiction writers for "appropriating" the techniques of fiction writing. These techniques, except for the invention of characters and detail, never belonged to fiction. They belong to storytelling.

Tracy Kidder 

Flaubert's Self Loathing: Get a Grip

Sometimes, when I am empty, when words don't come, when I find I haven't written a single sentence after scribbling whole pages, I collapse on my couch and lie their dazed, bogged down in a swamp of despair, hating myself. 

How "Catch-22" Was Written

I spent two or three hours a night on it for eight years. I gave up once and started watching television with my wife. Television drove me back to Catch-22. I couldn't imagine what Americans did at night when they weren't writing novels.

Joseph Heller 

A Writer Without a Literary Hero to Inspire Him

I am not so worried about whether I am writing any good or not; I know I write a valley of bad stuff. But what gets me is that nobody is coming on that I can believe in or look up to. It's hell not to have a hero.

Charles Bukowski 

What is Literary Style?

Style is an author's choice of words (diction), arrangement of words in each sentence (syntax), and handling of sentences and paragraph units to achieve a specific effect.

David Madden

Friday, June 2, 2017

Even Famous Novelists Are Kind Of Anonymous

Whatever fame a novelist may attain, it's always kind of an anonymous one. I can go anywhere, and no one knows who I am.

Jonathan Kellerman 

Novels Would Benefit From Less psychobabble And More Action

Literature has become too psychological. We discount the physical, when in fact much of life is physical. People's personalities are partly formed by, or in response to, how they take up space.

Karan Mahajan

Creative Writing Students All Write The Same Stories

It's often said of aspiring young writers in creative writing courses that they write the same six stories. Old man dies; old woman dies; why I hate my mother; why I hate my father; how I lost my virginity; how I tried to and failed. That's it.

George V. Higgins 

Fiction Drawn From Reality

Almost anything drawn from "real life"--house, town, park, landscape--will certainly be found to require some distortion for the purpose of plot. Wholly invented scenes are as unsatisfactory (thin) as wholly invented physiques or characters.

Elizabeth Bowen 

Drinking And Writing

In 1978, I got sober. I discovered I associated writing and drinking a little bit like scotch and soda: They went together. I needed to find a method of writing that was more grounded.

Julia Cameron 

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Setting For a Novel

Many novelists make use of their hometown or the various places in which they have lived. And why not? These are places one knows best.

Robert DiMaria 

Great Writers Produce a Body of Work

Young writers write two or three books that are not only brilliant, and mature, and then they are done for. But that is not what enriches the literature of a country. For that you must have writers who can produce not just two or three books, but a great body of work. Of course it will be uneven, because so many fortunate circumstances must go together to produce a masterpiece, but a masterpiece is more likely to come as the culminating point of a laborious career then as the lucky fluke of untaught genius.

W. Sommerset Maugham 

A Writer Who Got an Early Start

I didn't begin to write out of political awareness. I'd been writing since I was nine years old. I published my first adult story when I was fifteen.

Nadine Gordimer

Writers Hear Voices in Their Heads

Many people hear voices when no one is there. Some of them are called mad and are shut up in rooms where they stare at the walls all day. Others are called writers and they do pretty much the same thing.

Meg Chittenden

Keeping a Personal and Writer's Journal

If you have not been keeping a journal or diary, it is time to start one--or a couple of them. There is a personal journal where you write your innermost feelings about life, often in a spirited, free-writing, spontaneous fashion. Then there is a writer's journal, where you record your thoughts and ideas about your writing work. In a writer's journal you conduct an ongoing, spontaneous dialogue with yourself about writing, developing the subjects and ideas you intend to or are actually writing about. It is where the masterpiece begins.

Lee Gutkind