How to Write
September 18, 2013 9:03 AM   Subscribe

Writing advice from Oates, Wolfe, Levine, Pynchon, Stein, Welty, DeLillo, Chekhov, Gallant, and Elkin; Baldwin, Miller, Morrison, Vonnegut, Atwood, Nabokov, and Stein again; Maugham, Hughes, Duras, Orwell, Ashbery, Sontag, Creeley, and Steinbeck; O'Connor, Baxter, Didion, Yeats, Hejinian, Cocteau, du Plessix Gray, and Bolaño; Waldrop, Cary, Pessoa, Amis, Carroll, Atwood, and Le Guin; Vinge, Williams, Crane, Creeley once more, Gallant, Vargas Llosa, Mathews, and Wolfe again.

Of additional interest:

-Handy tips from Lev Grossman, Kit Reed, Neil Gaiman, and Gene Wolfe.

-The competing counsels of Robert Heinlein, Patricia C. Wrede, Isaac Asimov, and Gene Wolfe.

-"What I Know About Writing," by prolific science fiction writer Gene Wolfe.

-Write It Right, by Ambrose Bierce.

-"On the Art of Fiction," by Willa Cather.

-Essays in the Art of Writing, by Robert Louis Stevenson.

-How to Write a Play, by Émile Zola, Alexandre Dumas fils, Victorien Sardou, and most of the other exponents of the Well-Made Play.
posted by Iridic (33 comments total) 163 users marked this as a favorite
 
Does any of the advice suggest having sex with Oscar Wilde and/or Walt Whitman?

Asking for a friend.
posted by Panjandrum at 9:09 AM on September 18, 2013 [9 favorites]


Anything about one vs. two spaces after a period?
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:10 AM on September 18, 2013 [6 favorites]


The only sure fire way I've gotten to write is to contrive a situation where I'd loose face and be terribly embarrassed if I didn't.

Or, you know, someone asked for porn.
posted by The Whelk at 9:16 AM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


From Roberto Bolano ...

7. Short-story writers customarily brag about having read Petrus Borel. In fact, many short-story writers are notorious for trying to imitate Borel’s writing. What a huge mistake! Instead, they should imitate the way Borel dresses

I have no idea who Petrus Borel is, yet I get this anyway. Some writers just look way better than they write. It's essential that we be able to make this distinction.
posted by philip-random at 9:30 AM on September 18, 2013


Chuck Palahniuk?
posted by fuse theorem at 9:34 AM on September 18, 2013 [5 favorites]


Iridic: " -The competing counsels of Robert Heinlein, Patricia C. Wrede, Isaac Asimov, and Gene Wolfe."

I'm really glad they talked about #3 of Heinlein's rules for writing so extensively in that link. (It is: 3.) You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.) And in particular I love the quote from Gene Wolfe, who when asked what he liked about writing said, "Primarily revision."

Heinlein was a hell of a writer. But we ain't all Heinleins.
posted by zarq at 9:35 AM on September 18, 2013


Clearly, the write stuff.

I'm here all week.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 9:53 AM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Heinlein was a hell of a writer. But we ain't all Heinleins.

I think it was Vonnegut that made a distinction between writers who are "swoopers" and those who are "bashers." The former group writes with the expectation of returning for revisions, while the latter group writes with the expectation of getting it done the first time round.
posted by Panjandrum at 10:10 AM on September 18, 2013


Heinlein was a hell of a writer. But we ain't all Heinleins.

Heinlein had some great editors.
posted by tilde at 11:23 AM on September 18, 2013


Well done, Iridic!
posted by BlueHorse at 11:42 AM on September 18, 2013


Chekhov's is luminous:
One must be a god to be able to tell successes from failures without making a mistake.

I think descriptions of nature should be very short and always be à propos. Commonplaces like "The setting sun, sinking into the waves of the darkening sea, cast its purple gold rays, etc," "Swallows, flitting over the surface of the water, twittered gaily" — eliminate such commonplaces. You have to choose small details in describing nature, grouping them in such a way that if you close your eyes after reading it you can picture the whole thing. For example, you'll get a picture of a moonlit night if you write that on the dam of the mill a piece of broken bottle flashed like a bright star and the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled by like a ball, etc.

In the realm of psychology you also need details. God preserve you from commonplaces. Best of all, shun all descriptions of the characters' spiritual state. You must try to have that state emerge clearly from their actions. Don't try for too many characters. The center of gravity should reside in two: he and she.

When you describe the miserable and unfortunate, and want to make the reader feel pity, try to be somewhat colder — that seems to give a kind of background to another's grief, against which it stands out more clearly. Whereas in your story the characters cry and you sigh. Yes, be more cold. ... The more objective you are, the stronger will be the impression you make.

My own experience is that once a story has been written, one has to cross out the beginning and the end. It is there that we authors do most of our lying.
posted by scody at 12:35 PM on September 18, 2013 [7 favorites]


Spend all morning putting in the serial comma and all afternoon taking it out.
posted by headnsouth at 12:43 PM on September 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


Let us not leave out the wisdom of Michael O'Donoghue.

Unfortunately, suddenly he was run over by a truck.
posted by delfin at 12:51 PM on September 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


Why I Write, Or Not -- Jim Harrison
posted by timsteil at 2:01 PM on September 18, 2013


The writing tip that struck me the most out of any I've read was from Haruki Murakami's novel 1Q84... I'm too lazy to go find the actual quote, but it was something to the effect of, "If it's something your reader has seen before, like a tree or a train or the night sky, don't waste time describing it. If it's something your reader has never seen, like the night sky with two moons, describe the fuck out of it."
posted by rifflesby at 2:08 PM on September 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


How to write: stop reading "how to write" advice on the Internet. Just write.
posted by crossoverman at 4:01 PM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


The more you write the better you become, so I'm going to grind my Writing Stat by just naming every item in my room over and over again. I'm pretty sure if I do it all night I can hit l. 77 in Writing, which unlocks the Pulitzer tech tree and achievements.
posted by The Whelk at 4:25 PM on September 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


I did not know Bierce wrote anything like "Write it Right." There must be more. I always learn more from essays of this sort, how not to write, than I do from the usual "how to write good" crap.

Precision is much, but not all; some words and phrases are disallowed on the ground of taste. As there are neither standards nor arbiters of taste, the book can do little more than reflect that of its author, who is far indeed from professing impeccability. In neither taste nor precision is any man's practice a court of last appeal, for writers all, both great and small, are habitual sinners against the light; and their accuser is cheerfully aware that his own work will supply (as in making this book it has supplied) many "awful examples"—his later work less abundantly, he hopes, than his earlier. He nevertheless believes that this does not disqualify him for showing by other instances than his own how not to write. The infallible teacher is still in the forest primeval, throwing seeds to the white blackbirds.
posted by charlie don't surf at 4:30 PM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Here is a collection of blogs from several attendees of the Clarion Writers' Conferences (boy I sure hope I put that apostrophe in the right place!)
posted by newdaddy at 4:50 PM on September 18, 2013


Heinlein was a hell of a writer. But we ain't all Heinleins.

Heinlein had some great editors.


Hilarious. He wrote a passage in one of his stories about writing badly on purpose to piss off his editors, which was kept in, of course...
posted by ovvl at 5:15 PM on September 18, 2013


Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing is Magaret Atwood's take on these issues. She mentions various motivations for writers, and goes on to list around a hundred different reasons. I haven't counted the exact number, but it's a lot.
posted by ovvl at 6:24 PM on September 18, 2013


-begin irritated rant>
Most of this advice is interesting enough to be interesting but not interesting enough to be useful.

For example, why don't these authors tell us how to write a really good flashback? Or name six ways of quickly establishing the passage of time in a story?

There's plenty of hammer and nail work in writing fiction, but it's rare that we see advice on these more mundane aspects. We get plenty of mystical missives and portentous platitudes though.

-end irritated rant>
posted by storybored at 8:34 PM on September 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


why don't these authors tell us how to write a really good flashback? Or name six ways of quickly establishing the passage of time in a story?


He bit into the cookie and had a flashback. It was really long, cause he remembered all the things he did. But it was also short, cause he was still eating the cookie when he came back. Time is so strange sometimes, he thought. Also, I need to get the crumbs out of my bed, he reasoned, considering how much lost time he had from sitting in bed eating cookies and having flashbacks like a chump.
posted by The Whelk at 9:03 PM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


The cookie. Yes, it was Omaha Beach. How he lost a boot in the Normandy mud. And equally lost, the cookie and its chocolate chips inside. But that was a long time ago.
posted by storybored at 9:20 PM on September 18, 2013


fuse_theorem - that's a great article. Thanks for sharing.
posted by lon_star at 9:22 PM on September 18, 2013


-begin irritated rant

Look at the advice that Yeats' gives:

I notice that in dreams our apparent subjective moods are almost limited to very elementary fear, grief, and desire. We are without complexity or any general consciousness of our state. If we are ill, our discomfort is transferred apparently from ourselves to the dream image. An image created by sexual desire, when our health is bad, may for instance be a woman with a swollen face, or some disagreeable behaviour. Indeed, when we are ill we often see deformed images. I suggest analogy between the form of the mind of the control, also superficial, and our apparent mind in dreams. The sense of identity is attenuated in both at the same points.

wtf? I don't want to hear about a swollen face. I don't know anyone with a swollen face. What are you talking about, Yeats? I just want to know how to do a good flashback scene.
Or if you don't want to talk about that, tell me something about the .mobi format.

-end irritated rant
posted by storybored at 9:35 PM on September 18, 2013


Am I the only one to be amazed that there's a picture (in that first link) of Thomas Pynchon? W-W-W-Wh-What???
posted by zardoz at 10:03 PM on September 18, 2013


Harlan Ellison
posted by Renoroc at 5:30 AM on September 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Show of hands: Does anyone else find Neil Gaiman's nonfiction writing style kind of sanctimonious? Just me? Okay, moving on...
posted by pxe2000 at 5:36 AM on September 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


Heinlein was a hell of a writer. But we ain't all Heinleins.

Here I'm reminded of James Ellroy's remark about Ross MacDonald: "He only wrote one novel, but it was a hell of book."

why don't these authors tell us how to write a really good flashback? Or name six ways of quickly establishing the passage of time in a story?

If you haven't read it already, you might be interested in David Lodge's The Art of Fiction. It does offer advice on techniques and structure and includes passages to demonstrate how writers have used those techniques.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:04 AM on September 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


WOLFE! WOLFE! WOLFE!
posted by grobstein at 6:10 AM on September 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Would have thought Elmore Leonard ought to be on this list. His advice is short and pungent (like his writing):
Elmore Leonard: 10 rules
posted by aqsakal at 8:27 AM on September 19, 2013


I can't find Paul Auster's "Why Write?" online (here is a summary>), but the anecdote about Willie Mays that closes it always stuck with me. “If there’s a pencil in your pocket, there’s a good chance that one day you’ll feel tempted to start using it.”
posted by pxe2000 at 1:07 PM on September 20, 2013


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