Dispatch #26: 50 Thoughts on Writing
Craft observations and koans
Since my parenting list was so popular, I thought it would be fun to do one about writing. The list below include tips, observations, opinions, and wisdoms, quite a few from other writers. Enjoy, consider, and perhaps disagree with any and all of them. I hope you find some of them helpful!
[Oh, but first, a bit of housekeeping: starting today I’ll be sending out a weekly Friday email to my paid subscribers, in addition to the extra monthly missive they receive (which is typically a lengthy musing/essay). These Friday emails will be short roundups: interesting stuff I read online, maybe a book recommendation, a quote I read, a link to something I wanted to buy, perhaps a recipe I tried and liked. It might include a photo of a flower I saw, or a transcription of something funny I overheard, a link to some pantsuit I am coveting. Who knows?! Whatever it is, it’ll be joyful or joyful-adjacent. I’m doing this because my paid subscribers deserve more content. And also because it sounds like something I want to do. Of course, I have three kids and not enough childcare, plus a new novel to write and my forthcoming one to promote, not to mention my teaching duties, so I reserve the right to skip a week or two here and there. If you aren’t a paying subscriber, please consider becoming one today to support these endeavors. Thank you!]
Okay, onto the list. Remember, everything here is up for debate, every rule is meant to be broken, et cetera, et cetera—
Read a lot. Read widely. Read closely.
Honor your process. If you’re a slow writer, then you’re slow, and if you write in midnight purges, so be it. It’s always appealing to hear about how other people write but it likely won’t influence your own habits and rituals and proclivities. Your process is yours, so make the most of it.
Usually, you can avoid start/begin verbs. A line like, “I began to walk” can be rewritten as: “I walked.”
As Flannery O’Connor says, a text accumulates meaning. You have to move through the story to understand what it it’s about.
Likewise, Charles Baxter, in his craft book The Art of Subtext, writes: “A novel is not a summary of its plot but a collection of instances, of luminous specific details that take us in the direction of the unsaid or the unseen”
My editor Dan Smetanka (likely) wants the world to know that you don’t need all the “had” usages. In many cases, the simple past suffices.
Written narrative is the only art form that attempts to capture consciousness on the page. It’s what makes it special—and profound. Don’t squander the opportunity to write consciousness! Let us into those internal worlds.
Revision should elucidate (to you) what the deeper subjects of the work are. Once you have that clarified, it’s easier to make craft decisions because you know better what you mean to say.
My former teacher Chris Offutt used to say: “Don’t make a reader do math.”
Grey is the British spelling for gray.
Usually, you can avoid seeing/looking verbs, same goes for hearing verbs. For instance, with a line like, “I saw the bee on the flower,” the act of seeing can be implied, and instead the image can be more immediate and visual, with a better verb: “The bee nuzzled with the flower.”
I recently learned (from my friend Stephanie Danler) that cement is not the same as concrete, but an ingredient of concrete. This is a minor error that fiction writers (this fiction writer, at least) is guilty of. It’s these little inaccuracies that I’m always trying to avoid/vanquish in my work.
Why write, “He shrugged his shoulders” when you could just write, “He shrugged”?
In her essay “Notes on Writing a Novel,” Elizabeth Bowen says, “Nothing can happen nowhere.” Give your characters a specific place for drama to occur.
Don’t forget your character’s body. What does the moment feel like for them, physically?
If you’re having trouble keeping a plot taut, consider collapsing the timeline. What I mean is: does so much time have to pass between one event and the next?
Start your scenes as late as possible and leave them as soon as possible.
In dialogue, characters don’t have to answer each other directly.
Marvin Bell said, “Write a poem that at least one person in the room will hate.” Don’t try to please everyone—you can’t.
In many cases, a third person can be closer to the perspective of the character. Let the narrative bend toward the character’s consciousness. There is no such thing as a neutral third person; stage directions are not fun to read.
When you’re writing a scene and it feels purposeless and stupid and you’re certain that dying would be better than writing, these questions might help: What are the functions of this scene? How do I want the characters to feel at the beginning of the scene versus the middle of the scene versus the end of the scene? How will the reader feel at the start of reading the scene versus when the scene is over?
If you want to try an omniscient third person perspective, it’s useful to consider the narrator as a bodiless character. It will imbue the writing with a personality that resonates.
As my friend Darcy Vebber says: Ask yourself what your character expects. Like Darcy, I find this helps me much more than the age old question, “What does your character want?” Many characters (and people) have no idea what they want.
When a character’s expectations are upended, or when characters have conflicting expectations, well, that’s dramatic.
Summary that is sensuous and well-detailed is delightful to read and also quite powerful: it can compress time, alter pacing, provide necessary exposition, and shift the narrative into character interiority.
As my former teacher Margot Livesey writes in her craft book The Hidden Machinery, the energy and drama of dialogue comes from “the contrast between telling and showing.” So, really, it’s less show don’t tell and more: Show AND tell.
Don’t say “ground” when you mean “floor.”
To paraphrase both Jane Smiley and Peter Ho Davies, revision is not about judging your work, but understanding it.
Find the right readers for you and your work.
As my former teacher Marilynne Robinson used to say, “Put something in front of the reader’s face.” This is especially true of dialogue: give the characters something to do as they talk, which gives the reader something to see and can heighten the drama of the interaction.
For plot, it can be useful to think what about the knowns and unknowns for each scene. What questions are raised and answered in each scene? What new questions arise? What questions persist over multiple scenes?
Publishing a book does not feel as exquisite and triumphant as you imagine it will, and in fact it pales in comparison to the exquisite and triumphant moments that the practice of writing itself offers.
For the love of all that is holy, punctuate your dialogue correctly!
When you’re writing actions and you use “as” to connect two actions, make sure those actions can feasibly happen simultaneously. For instance, a character cannot put the turn on the car engine and reverse the car at the same time.
Verbs are the powerhouse of a sentence. Enjoy choosing them!
Consider the beauty and rhetorical power of the paragraph as a unit of text. What changes in the world of the story, in the life of the character, in the understanding that the reader has about this fictive universe, from the beginning of a paragraph to the end? What is the rhythm and evolution of meaning within the paragraph?
When the plot is really picking up, let the language mirror the pace of the action. As my friend Kate Milliken says, “This is no time for a brick wall.” A brick wall = a block of text.
Freytag’s story pyramid looks a helluva lot like the graph of the male orgasm. If you drew the female orgasm…well. I’m just saying: what satisfies one reader might not satisfy another.
The first person has the power to feel more intimate and immediate. Also, the act of narrativizing one’s own experience can be part of the telling, which is such a juicy and complex project.
Draw the structures of your favorite books and see what they look like. Draw the structures of your own work. What is its shape?
Exposition placed too early or too late annoys the reader, rather than illuminating the world for the reader.
My former professor Dan Chaon taught me follow my own voice, however dark it got, and he let me know that my life and ideas were interesting enough for the page. What a gift to be told that.
To paraphrase Matthew Salesses in Craft in the Real World, if you’re bored as the writer, it’s probably a sign that the writing/story is boring.
Character gestures and actions can often replace dialogue tags.
As Joan Silber says in The Art of Time, all fiction must contend with time passing. Consider how much time is covered in your narrative, and allow that to shape and influence the events and what they mean.
My former teacher Ethan Canin always said, “Put in scene what you want the reader to remember.”
See the world via your character’s perspective. Let their mood and history shape how they experience a room, the sky, another person, a feeling. That will show you what details are relevant, and which aren’t (and can be cut).
I attended a craft talk by George Saunders where he said that the difference between writers who publish and writers who don’t (can’t) are that published writers have learned how and what to cut from their work.
Imagine that the narrative you’re writing is but a small circle drawn on a giant tapestry that is a character’s whole life. Why is the circle here—and not there,or there? How is this set of time different from any other unit of time in a character’s life? Also—how can you provide enough texture and life to your text that the unwritten tapestry still feels felt and present by the reader?
Nobody but you is going to write that book. So write it.
What would you add—or subtract? (I am thinking there might be sequels to this one…)
If you appreciated this list, hey, please pre-order my novel, Time’s Mouth which comes out August 1st!