- You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
- You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.
- Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
- Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
- Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
- What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
- Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
- Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
- When you’re stuck, make a list of what wouldn’t happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
- Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
- Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
- Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th — get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
- Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
- Why must you tell this story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
- If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
- What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
- No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on — it’ll come back around to be useful later.
- You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
- Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
- Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you do like?
- You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write “cool.” What would make you act that way?
- What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
— William Butler Yeats
This poem was composed in 1892, when Yeats was only 27 years old.
Jimmy Rushing and the Benny Goodman Orchestra (1958).
In far too much bad fiction, suspense has replaced drama as the motive force of storytelling. There is, in fact, an entire subgenre of fiction dedicated to the ignorant error—“thrillers.” Suspense, however, is the sworn enemy of good fiction.
To create suspense is to induce anxiety—that is, to cause distress. And naturally, then, the craving is for relief. You read as quickly as possible to discover what happens, to allay your uneasiness, to release the tightness in your chest. The outcome is not a literary experience—literature is the freedom to dream up other possibilities—but the unpleasant feeling of being manipulated. Anxiety has a “coercive character,” Karen Horney says. So does suspense.
The literary critic and scholar D. G. Myers died of cancer last September. I miss reading his Commonplace Blog, which was written in such a distinctive voice — opinionated, smart, ornery, engaging, honest, unfathomably well read — that I almost felt I knew him. The blog is still online, and it is worth a visit.
“I knew well in advance that all of those people who had adored Eat Pray Love were going to be incredibly disappointed in whatever I wrote next because it wasn’t going to be Eat Pray Love, and all of those people who had hated Eat Pray Love were going to be incredibly disappointed in whatever I wrote next because it would provide evidence that I still lived.”
No matter how many awards you’ve won or how many sales you’ve got, come the next book it’s still a blank sheet of paper and you’re still panicking like hell that you’ve got nothing new to say. I still panic that the ideas aren’t going to come, it’s not going to be as good as my previous book, I’ve got nothing new to say, people are fed up with me, younger writers are doing better work. There are all kinds of fears that keep pushing at you. Thank God, otherwise you’d just sit back and write any old crap.
Happy are they who don’t doubt themselves and whose pens fly across the page. I myself hesitate, I falter, I become angry and fearful, my drive diminishes as my taste improves, and I brood more over an ill-suited word than I rejoice over a well-proportioned paragraph.
Gustave Flaubert, letter to Maxime du Camp, October 1847
[There is] evidence that environments, schedules, and rituals restructure the writing process and amplify performance… The principles of memory retrieval suggest that certain practices should amplify performance. These practices encourage a state of flow rather than one of anxiety or boredom. Like strategies, these other aspects of a writer’s method may alleviate the difficulty of attentional overload. The room, time of day, or ritual selected for working may enable or even induce intense concentration or a favorable motivational or emotional state. Moreover, in accordance with encoding specificity, each of these aspects of method may trigger retrieval of ideas, facts, plans, and other relevant knowledge associated with the place, time, or frame of mind selected by the writer for work.
Ronald T. Kellogg, The Psychology of Writing. Read more at Brain Pickings.
It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.
Seneca, On the Shortness of Life (via)
A note by Philip Roth, written in a first edition of Portnoy’s Complaint, which he recently reread after 45 years.
The plane screamed low down lower Fifth Avenue,
lifted at the Arch, someone said, shaking the dog walkers
in Washington Square Park, drove for the north tower,
struck with a heavy thud, releasing a huge bright gush
of blackened fire, and vanished, leaving a hole
the size and shape a cartoon plane might make
if it had passed harmlessly through and were flying away now,
on the far side, back into the realm of the imaginary.
I’m intrigued by this new device, called the Hemingwrite. Currently under development, it is a sort of typewriter for the internet age, a simple plain-text word processor with wifi capability that allows it to sync documents with Google Docs and Evernote. That is a perfect combination. It lets jittery, easily distracted writers like me do the one thing we absolutely must — disconnect from the web — while still providing the benefits of cloud syncing and backup. I am not crazy about the over-the-top retro design, which feels self-conscious, but I hope the machine makes it into production, whatever its final design might be. I’d love to try one. For years I have used a variety of devices to shut myself off from the internet while writing: an old, pre-wifi ThinkPad, a simple keyboard device called an AlphaSmart Neo (now lamentably discontinued). This could be a useful tool for gadget-heads like me whose gadgets, alas, tend to get in the way.
[M]ost of the books I have written and those I intend to write originate from the thought that it will be impossible for me to write a book of that kind: when I have convinced myself that such a book is completely beyond my capacities of temperament or skill, I sit down and start writing it.
One starts off writing with a certain zest, but a time comes when the pen merely grates in dusty ink, and not a drop of life flows, and life is all outside, outside the window, outside oneself, and it seems that never more can one escape into a page one is writing, open out another world, leap the gap.