John Steinbeck on writing



Never have I loathed a character more than Cathy Ames in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden—and I mean that in a good way. With the book on my lap, I hurled invective at the page and found myself enraged by her two-faced, back-stabbing ways. That a character could elicit such a visceral response is testament to the author’s skill. Needless to say, I’ve long been a devoted Steinbeck fan.

What I love about his work–in addition to the characters and writing–is its deceptive simplicity. There are complex issues at play beneath the surface of his stories, yet he presents them in a way that never clouds the human drama. Cannery Row, with its themes of spirituality, happiness, and being close to nature—among others—appears on the surface to be a charming tale of down-and-outs in Monterey’s sardine-canning district.

As previous posts here suggest, I’m fascinated by the working habits of my favorite authors and the way they approach writing. Here, from a 1975 article in the Paris Review, are six writing tips from Steinbeck.

It is usual that the moment you write for publication—I mean one of course—one stiffens in exactly the same way one does when one is being photographed. The simplest way to overcome this is to write it to someone, like me. Write it as a letter aimed at one person. This removes the vague terror of addressing the large and faceless audience and it also, you will find, will give a sense of freedom and a lack of self-consciousness.

Now let me give you the benefit of my experience in facing 400 pages of blank stock—the appalling stuff that must be filled. I know that no one really wants the benefit of anyone’s experience which is probably why it is so freely offered. But the following are some of the things I have had to do to keep from going nuts.

1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.

2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.

3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.

4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.

5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.

6. If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.

Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules for good writing



In 2001, the great Elmore Leonard wrote a piece for The New York Times in which he laid out his 10 rules for good writing. As he noted in the article’s lede: “These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.” Even though Elmore Leonard is no longer with us, his wonderful writing lives on–and so do his rules:

Never open a book with weather.

Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” … he admonished gravely.

Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

I really like that last one.

You can read the Times piece in its entirety here.

Clive Barker on writing



If you like your fiction dark and disturbing, you probably like Clive Barker—one of our finest purveyors of horror and disturbing fantasy. His Books of Blood remain, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest collections of chill-inducing stories out there. If you’ve never read his stuff, but you’ve seen the movie “Hellraiser”, based on his novella The Hellbound Heart, you have a rough idea of what’s in store for you. All that said, here’s some great advice he gave in a 1995 piece for Lost Souls Magazine. He stresses the importance of discipline and sticking to your routine, and being true to yourself when writing.

Whether you are a good or bad writer is an irrelevancy when you first begin. What’s important is that you write, you get up in the morning and you say, “I’m going to treat this like a job and I’m not going to just do this when I feel like it. I’m going to really get to work on making this the best I can make it, and work hard to achieve something”. You can’t sit around waiting for inspiration to strike like lightning, cause you’ll wait around for a long time. Maybe once every blue moon a piece of lightning will strike, but most of the time you’ll wait around twiddling your thumbs. What you have to do is just get on with it, and write whatever comes out and not worry over much about whether the punctuation is right or the spelling is right or even if the order of the words is right, but just get on with it.

You have to go after, seek after the things which are truthful to you. And I mean truthful. If you don’t believe in Christ, then don’t have a hero whipping out holy water when it suits him, because you’re not telling the truth about what you believe about the world. If you don’t believe that the image of Christ is ethicasy in the world, then don’t have your hero use it in such a way. All you doing is accessing a series of cliches from somebody else’s work. If you’re gay, write about gay characters. If you’re straight, write about straight characters. If you’re straight and confused, write about straight and confused characters. If your passion is about painting and football, write about painting and football. Write about your mother, write about your father, write about things you know, and then let your imagination lurk on those things and develop them into something new and fresh even for you. Surprise yourself, astonish yourself, and tell the truth.

You can find this quote–and other writing tips on the official Clive Barker website.

Writing advice from Roald Dahl



As a child, I loved the books of Roald Dahl. It’s an infatuation that’s carried into adulthood. Although primarily known for such classics as James and the Giant Peach, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Matilda, his short stories for adults are grim, creepy delights. If you haven’t read Switch Bitch, Over to You, Someone Like You, or any of his other short story collections, stop what you’re doing right now and order them. You won’t regret it!

In The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More Features, Dahl lists what he considers to be the seven most important traits of a fiction writer. Although I write nonfiction, I still find these relevant:

You should have a lively imagination.

You should be able to write well. By that, I mean you should be able to make a scene come alive in a reader’s mind. Not everybody has this ability. It is a gift and you either have it or you don’t.

You must have stamina. In other words, you must be able to stick to what you’re doing and never give up, for hour after hour, day after day, week after week, and month after month.

You must be a perfectionist. That means you must never be satisfied with what you have written until you have rewritten it again and again, making it as good as you possibly can.

You must have strong self-discipline. You are working alone. No one is employing you. No one is around to give you the sack if you don’t turn up for work, or to tick you off if you start slacking.

It helps a lot if you have a keen sense of humour. This is not essential when writing for grown-ups, but for children, it’s vital.

You must have a degree of humility. The writer who thinks that is work is marvelous his heading for trouble.

You can find this list—and recorded interviews with Dahl—on the Roald Dahl website.

Truman Capote on writing



I’ve always enjoyed Truman Capote’s writing and his flamboyant personality. The guy was a stellar talent. In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s are well worth the time–but if you haven’t read his collected short stories, I highly recommend you do so. Brilliant stuff. Recently, I stumbled across an interview Capote gave to The Paris Review in 1957, during which he discussed his early ambition to be a writer and the art of crafting short stories. Here are some highlights.

On when he first started writing at the age of 10 or 11:

I had to go into town on Saturdays to the dentist and I joined the Sunshine Club that was organized by the Mobile Press Register. There was a children’s page with contests for writing and for coloring pictures, and then every Saturday afternoon they had a party with free Nehi and Coca-Cola. The prize for the short-story writing contest was either a pony or a dog, I’ve forgotten which, but I wanted it badly. I had been noticing the activities of some neighbors who were up to no good, so I wrote a kind of roman à clef called “Old Mr. Busybody” and entered it in the contest. The first installment appeared one Sunday, under my real name of Truman Streckfus Persons. Only somebody suddenly realized that I was serving up a local scandal as fiction, and the second installment never appeared. Naturally, I didn’t win a thing.

On the moment he realized he wanted to be a writer:

I realized that I wanted to be a writer. But I wasn’t sure I would be until I was fifteen or so. At that time I had immodestly started sending stories to magazines and literary quarterlies. Of course no writer ever forgets his first acceptance; but one fine day when I was seventeen, I had my first, second, and third, all in the same morning’s mail. Oh, I’m here to tell you, dizzy with excitement is no mere phrase!

On controlling your material:

Call it precious and go to hell, but I believe a story can be wrecked by a faulty rhythm in a sentence— especially if it occurs toward the end—or a mistake in paragraphing, even punctuation. Henry James is the maestro of the semicolon. Hemingway is a first-rate paragrapher. From the point of view of ear, Virginia Woolf never wrote a bad sentence. I don’t mean to imply that I successfully practice what I preach. I try, that’s all.

On developing a short-story technique:

Since each story presents its own technical problems, obviously one can’t generalize about them on a two-times-two-equals-four basis. Finding the right form for your story is simply to realize the most natural way of telling the story. The test of whether or not a writer has divined the natural shape of his story is just this: after reading it, can you imagine it differently, or does it silence your imagination and seem to you absolute and final? As an orange is final. As an orange is something nature has made just right.

On improving one’s technique:

Work is the only device I know of. 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. Even Joyce, our most extreme disregarder, was a superb craftsman; he could write Ulysses because he could write Dubliners. Too many writers seem to consider the writing of short stories as a kind of finger exercise. Well, in such cases, it is certainly only their fingers they are exercising.

Read the full interview here.

Writing advice from Hemingway



A while back, while reading Hemingway: A Biography by Jeffrey Meyers, I came to what I consider the best part of any literary biography: a breakdown of the subject’s writing process. Even if reading the biography of an author I don’t necessarily enjoy, I’m always fascinated by the way they work and the approach they take when hunkering down with a manuscript. Here, according to Meyers, is Hemingway’s strategy:

Study the best literary models.
Master your subject through experience and reading.
Work in disciplined isolation.
Begin early in the morning and concentrate for several hours each day.
Begin by reading everything you have written from the start or, if engaged on a long book, from the last chapter.
Write slowly and deliberately.
Stop writing when things are going well and you know what will happen next so that you have sufficient momentum to continue the next day.
Do not discuss the material while writing about it.
Do not think about writing when you are finished for the day but allow your subconscious mind to ponder it.
Work continuously on a project once you start it.
Keep a record of your daily progress.
Make a list of titles after you have completed the work.

An interesting list, to be sure. The one thing that struck me was his advice to stop writing when things are going well to ensure you have something to write about the next time you’re at your desk. I’ve done this from the beginning, and it serves me very well. I never read a manuscript I’m working on, however, until I’m done with the first draft. I think reading what you’re putting down on paper as you’re going along is a terrible idea. Personally, I’m guaranteed to fall into the trap of rewriting everything before I have the rough draft done. That, for me, is the kiss of death.

I don’t write early in the morning but late at night when the house is quiet. I’ll write for several hours if I can—but if the words aren’t flowing, I don’t force it. Admittedly, I don’t write slowly or deliberately. If the idea is fully formed in my head, I frantically pound the keys to get it down before it vanishes into the ether. My revisions are slow and deliberate, but my first draft is a race to get the story out.

According to Meyers, “It often took Hemingway all morning to write a single perfect paragraph.”

Wouldn’t it be nice to have that luxury of time?

‘Few authors are rich men’

The man.

The man.

I’m currently writing a book for Da Capo, detailing Winston Churchill’s adventures as a young war correspondent from 1895 to 1900. Reporting for various newspapers, he covered wars from the jungles of Cuba, India’s Northwest Frontier against the ancestors of today’s Taliban, the deserts of the Sudan, and the endless veldt of South Africa. His was an action-packed existence. As part of my research, I’ve been gathering his various articles and working my way through his personal correspondence.

One letter in particular recently caught my attention. While stationed in India in 1896, Churchill read Rudyard Kipling’s volume of poetry, The Seven Seas. He was not impressed and, on January 7, 1897, wrote an astute letter to his brother on the finite skills of an author:

Few writers stand the test of success. Rider Haggard – Weyman – Boldrewood are all losing or have already lost their prowess. What happens is this. An author toils away & has many failures. Rejected contributions—books which the publishers won’t publish accumulate. Money does not. One day he writes a book which makes him famous: King Solomon’s Mines, A Gentleman of France or Robbery Under Arms. His name now is on every one’s lips—his books are clamoured for by the public. Out come all the old inferior productions from their receptacles, and his financial fortune is made. Few authors are rich men.

He really nailed it with that last sentence.

Although primarily known as Britain’s iconic wartime leader, Churchill made his living as an author. He wrote countless books and articles during his long life. Indeed, by the age of twenty-five, he had four bestsellers to his name. In 1908, he gave a lecture to the Author’s Club in London. Here is an excerpt, courtesy Richard Langworth’s brilliantly edited Churchill By Himself: The Definitive Collection of Quotations.

The fortunate people in the world—the only really fortunate people in the world, in my mind—are those whose work is also their pleasure. The class is not a large one, not nearly so large as it is often represented to be; and authors are perhaps one of the most important elements in its composition. They enjoy in this respect at least a real harmony of life. To my mind, to be able to make your work your pleasure is the one class distinction in the world worth striving for . . . To sit at one’s table on a sunny morning, with four clear hours of uninterruptible security, plenty of nice paper, and a [fountain] pen—that is true happiness.

In the first volume of his Second World War memoirs, he described writing a book this way:

Writing a long and substantial book is like having a friend and companion at your side, to whom you can always turn for comfort and amusement, and whose society becomes more attractive as a new and widening field of interest is lighted in the mind.

To write a book about Churchill is to spend time in the company of a most entertaining gentleman.