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Too much general writing advice – collected notes from William Zinsser, Brandon Sanderson, Sol Stein, and lots more

The below is a collection of all the writing notes and quotes that I’ve gathered over the years. Peruse at your leisure!
No one wants to read about Odysseus leaving the sack of Troy, sailing home in moderate weather and settling down to focus on that urban renewal project he’s been putting off. – Jim Butcher
Brandon Sanderson, writing lectures notes
* “Protagonists gonna protag.”
* in Jane Austen’s work, the underlying rule of the world is “The romantic interests end up together.”
* Tragedy — a character longs for something he should not have, and acquires it at a devastating cost
* Be especially interested in setting them at odds with whatever is going to happen to them: Bilbo is interesting because he simultaneously wants and does not want to go on an adventure.
* When folks pick up your book, they are going to notice your prose first. They judge whether they keep reading based almost entirely on that.
* Sanderson writes a book guide before starting any new book. The main concerns are:
* What promises am I making (about the style of story and what will happen at the end)?
* What kind of story is this?
* How will I give a sense of progress?
* How will my resolution fulfill all the promises that need to be fulfilled in this story?
* Many of the characters we love are preternaturally good at one or two particular things. Hermione is Preternaturally Intelligent; Samwise Gamgee is Preternaturally Loyal; Katniss Everdeen is Preternaturally Gritty.
* Your goal is to keep your character from being defined by a single thing, particularly their role. Characters defined by their roles quickly become stereotypes.
* Be sure to let your cool ideas play together. Let the Topography influence the Religion. Let the Government influence the Magic. When they influence and play off each other, they’ll generate greater depth for your story.
From Jim Butcher’s (Dresden Files) blog:
1. Make the introduction for each character count. This is something you can’t afford to screw up.
2. Make promises as early as you can
“Write in a trance, act in a trance” – Mike Birbiglia
PG’s writing advice; my favorites:
* write a bad version 1 as fast as you can
* expect 80% of the ideas in an essay to happen after you start writing it, and 50% of those you start with to be wrong be confident enough to cut
* …just say the most important sentence first
* read your essays out loud to see…which bits are boring (the paragraphs you dread reading)
* write for a reader who won’t read the essay as carefully as you do
PG on essays
* When I give a draft of an essay to friends, there are two things I want to know: which parts bore them, and which seem unconvincing.
* Essayer is the French verb meaning “to try” and an essai is an attempt. An essay is something you write to try to figure something out.
* An essay you publish ought to tell the reader something he didn’t already know.
* The river’s algorithm is simple. At each step, flow down. For the essayist this translates to: flow interesting. Of all the places to go next, choose the most interesting.
* Surprises are things that you not only didn’t know, but that contradict things you thought you knew. And so they’re the most valuable sort of fact you can get.
Ian McEwan’s writing habits from YouTube
* start work at 9, 9:30am, work until lunch
* if going well, continue into afternoon and evening
* generally leave afternoons for reading, serious reading
* good bit of work, good day is 500-800 words
* huge desk that he built himself, in a large study/library, filled with books
* “good day is to work all day in the knowledge that you’ll see an interesting friend in the evening”
* like the sense that there’ll be food and wine from about 7:30pm on
Ian McEwan: “literature thrives on conflict” from YouTube
* “it’s very difficult to do happiness in novels in a sustained way, we really leave that to poetry, lyric poetry, which can see our moments. its the nature of the human condition that we’re only truly happy in bursts, we can’t be constantly happy”
* very hard to make happiness work in novels, leave that to lyric poetry, because nature of happiness is momentary, poetry captures the moments
* Anna Karenina one of loveliest, most prolonged episodes of what it is to be profoundly in love, visitor arrives, and the moment vanishes
* danger that you’ll seem sentimental, smug, unreal
* “literature loves difficulty, thrives on conflict”
* “we’re right to leave best expressions of love to poets”
* “we like tangles and complications, especially in short stories”
* writers don’t have to retire early, they accumulate more life, more love, more disappointments, more of everything
* what they lose is the fabulous energy of the late 20s, early 30s
* doesn’t believe Milan Kundera: “writers have to plunder their life up to age of 35″
* “its the fleetingness that gives love its precious quality”
* “the slow collapse of your body becomes a subject in itself”
* “i think of myself as a toddler in the business of being old”
* in 70s, believed you shouldn’t describe a person’s thoughts, allude to it, clues, physical descriptions, environment, what they said or did <— realized this was wrong
* re: novels, “we have not yet invented another art form that allows us such access to the minds of others”
I’m in no hurry to send something off just after I write it, and I sometimes keep it around the house for months doing this or that to it, taking this out and putting that in. It doesn’t take that long to do the first draft of the story, that usually happens in one sitting, but it does take a while to do the various versions of the story. I’ve done as many as twenty or thirty drafts of a story. Never less than ten or twelve drafts. It’s instructive, and heartening both, to look at the early drafts of great writers. I’m thinking of the photographs of galleys belonging to Tolstoy, to name one writer who loved to revise. I mean, I don’t know if he loved it or not, but he did a great deal of it. He was always revising, right down to the time of page proofs. He went through and rewrote War and Peace eight times and was still making corrections in the galleys. – Raymond Carver
Kurt Vonnegut: 8 rules on writing a great story from Brain Pickings
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college. – Vonnegut
On Writing Well by William Zinsser (also in a previous blog post)
* Nobody told all the new computer writers that the essence of writing is rewriting. Just because they’re writing fluently doesn’t mean they’re writing well.
* Consider all the prepositions that are draped onto verbs that don’t need any help. We no longer head committees. We head them up. We don’t face problems anymore. We face up to them when we can free up a few minutes.
* Often a difficult problem in a sentence can be solved by simply getting rid of it.
* “Experiencing” is one of the worst clutterers. Even your dentist will ask if you are experiencing any pain. If he had his own kid in the chair he would say, “Does it hurt?”
* Beware, then, of the long word that’s no better than the short word: “assistance” (help), “numerous” (many), “facilitate” (ease), “individual” (man or woman), “remainder” (rest), “initial” (first), “implement” (do), “sufficient” (enough), “attempt” (try), “referred to as” (called)
* Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing any information or losing the author’s voice.
* It’s amazing how often an editor can throw away the first three or four paragraphs of an article, or even the first few pages, and start with the paragraph where the writer begins to sound like himself or herself.
* Sell yourself, and your subject will exert its own appeal. Believe in your own identity and your own opinions. Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it.
* You are writing primarily to please yourself, and if you go about it with enjoyment you will also entertain the readers who are worth writing for.
* Trust your material if it’s taking you into terrain you didn’t intend to enter but where the vibrations are good.
* But take special care with the last sentence of each paragraph—it’s the crucial springboard to the next paragraph.
* The perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right.
* Surprise is the most refreshing element in nonfiction writing.
* Don’t say you were a bit confused and sort of tired and a little depressed and somewhat annoyed. Be confused. Be tired. Be depressed. Be annoyed.
* Humor is best achieved by understatement, and there’s nothing subtle about an exclamation point.
* Many of us were taught that no sentence should begin with “but.” If that’s what you learned, unlearn it—there’s no stronger word at the start.
* …it is still widely believed—a residue from school and college—that “which” is more correct, more acceptable, more literary. It’s not. In most situations, “that” is what you would naturally say and therefore what you should write.
* Most of the nudgers urged me to adopt the plural: to use “readers” and “writers,” followed thereafter by “they.” I don’t like plurals; they weaken writing because they are less specific than the singular, less easy to visualize.
* The longer I work at the craft of writing, the more I realize that there’s nothing more interesting than the truth.
* When you use a quotation, start the sentence with it. Don’t lead up to it with a vapid phrase saying what the man said.
* Memoir isn’t the summary of a life; it’s a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition.
* The answer is that if you’re trying to write humor, almost everything you do is serious. Few Americans understand this.
* Joseph Heller and Stanley Kubrick heightened the truth about war just enough to catch its lunacy, and we recognize it as lunacy.
* There is a kind of writing that sounds so relaxed that you think you hear the author talking to you. E. B. White was probably its best practitioner
* Here’s how a typical piece by E. B. White begins: I spent several days and nights in mid-September with an ailing pig and I feel driven to account for this stretch of time, more particularly since the pig died at last, and I lived, and things might easily have gone the other way round and none left to do the accounting.
* Writing that will endure tends to consist of words that are short and strong; words that sedate are words of three, four and five syllables, mostly of Latin origin, many of them ending in “ion” and embodying a vague concept.
* “What does it take to be a comic writer?” He said, “It takes audacity and exuberance and gaiety, and the most important one is audacity.” Then he said: “The reader has to feel that the writer is feeling good.”
* My only consolation is that I’ll get another shot at those dismal sentences tomorrow and the next day and the day after. With each rewrite I try to force my personality onto the material.
* Writers who write interestingly tend to be men and women who keep themselves interested. That’s almost the whole point of becoming a writer.
* The moral for nonfiction writers is: think broadly about your assignment. Don’t assume that an article for Audubon has to be strictly about nature, or an article for Car & Driver strictly about cars.
* As an editor and a teacher I’ve found that the most untaught and underestimated skill in nonfiction writing is how to organize a long article: how to put the jigsaw puzzle together.
* Two final words occur to me. One is quest, the other is intention.
* narrative—good old-fashioned storytelling—is what should pull your readers along without their noticing the tug. The only thing they should notice is that you have made a sensible plan for your journey. Every step should seem inevitable.
* When you get such a message from your material—when your story tells you it’s over, regardless of what subsequently happened—look for the door.
* Writing is a powerful search mechanism, and one of its satisfactions is to come to terms with your life narrative. Another is to work through some of life’s hardest knocks—loss, grief, illness, addiction, disappointment, failure—and to find understanding and solace.
* The small stories that still stick in your memory have a resonance of their own. Trust them.
* You must find some way to elevate your act of writing into an entertainment. Usually this means giving the reader an enjoyable surprise. Any number of devices will do the job: humor, anecdote, paradox, an unexpected quotation, a powerful fact, an outlandish detail, a circuitous approach, an elegant arrangement of words.
From David Ogilvy’s 10 tips on writing
2. Write the way you talk. Naturally.
3. Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.
7. Never send a letter or a memo on the day you write it. Read it aloud the next morning — and then edit it
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.
-John Steinbeck
Highlights from Joseph Romm’s Language Intelligence book
* Lincoln continued his passion for poetry and Shakespeare throughout his entire life. He spent hours reading passages from Shakespeare to his personal secretary, John Hay, and the artist F. B. Carpenter.
* The second most retweeted tweet of 2010 was from the rapper Drake: “We always ignore the ones who adore us, and adore the ones who ignore us.” That’s a classic chiasmus
* The power of repetition: Michael Deaver, the Karl Rove of the Reagan presidency, said in 2003 of the Bush White House: “This business of saying the same thing over and over and over again—which to a lot of Washington insiders and pundits is boring—works. That was sort of what we figured out in the Reagan White House. And I think these people do it very, very well.”
* Ultimately, the reason foreshadowing works, and the reason we can expect more of it in popular culture and political coverage is that we like to believe that people’s individual lives have a circularity, a consistency—a pattern.
* “To be a master of metaphor,” Aristotle writes in Poetics, is “a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars.”
* Rumsfeld is particularly good at asking questions that he then answers: “Is it [post-war Iraq] going to be as efficient as a dictatorship? No. Is it going to be vastly more desirable? You bet.”
* DON’T DENY, STATE AND ASSERT A DIFFERENT THING: The authors found that rather than deny a false claim, it is better to make a completely new assertion that makes no reference to the original myth. It takes a lot of message discipline to do this, but if you want to debunk a myth, you need to focus on stating the truth, not repeating the myth. […] Richard Nixon said, “I am not a crook,” and only his final word still rings in our ears.
Ernest Hemingway’s Basic Principles of Writing [link]
2) Master your subject through experience and reading.
3) Work in disciplined isolation.
4) Begin early in the morning and concentrate for several hours each day.
7) 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.
10) Work continuously on a project once you start it.
11) Keep a record of your daily progress.
From various George Orwell essays
Orwell says every scrupulous writer should ask these questions
1. What am I trying to say?
2. What words will express it?
3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
5. Could I put it more shortly?
6. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. – Orwell
I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books – Orwell
George R.R. Martin interview w/ Walt and Kara from YouTube
* spent 10 years in TV and film
* constantly got feedback that scripts had too many characters, action, complexity
* for GoT, “let it all hang out”, didn’t have limits of Hollywood
* stopped predicting when his books will come out, he’s always wrong and it upsets people
* George quizzed his showrunners at an early meeting, “who is Jon Snow’s mother?”
* me: theory is Jon Snow is Ned Stark’s sister Lyanna’s son with Rhaeger Targaryen
* “characters are what it’s all about for me”
* doesn’t believe fantasy and sci-fi are different, it’s like different furniture, it’s all about the characters
* reads and studies a lot of history, borrows liberally
* “if you steal from one person it’s plagiarism, if you steal from many it’s research”
* George still writes on a DOS computer with Wordstar 4.0
* huge advantages to working with HBO: doesn’t censor adult content, larger budget, doesn’t worship ratings, commits to entire seasons and not just 2-3 episodes
* thinks The Wire is one of the greatest shows on TV
Sol Stein’s book Stein on Writing
* Use real people as your models for characters — instant recognition, visual imagery, emotional bonding
* Great fiction paints pictures
* Great fiction uses lots of immediate scene (“the man looks up and sees the grey clouds slowly forming”), less narrative summary and description
* Your lead is KEY. The first sentence, paragraph, and page must GRAB the reader
* Fiction evokes EMOTION. Nonfiction conveys INFORMATION
* Normal conversations has filler and echoes but dialogue should only include them if it serves a purpose (e.g., no “Oh”, “Um”, “How are you?” in reply to “How are you?”
* Try reading dialogue in monotone to force the WORDS to do all the work
* Twain: “If you catch an adjective, kill it”
* Great titles use METAPHOR
* “a farewell to arms”
* “grapes of wrath”
* “red badge of courage”
* me: all of GoT uses metaphor (A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows, A Dance with Dragons)
* EVOKE rather than EMOTE
* Good writing has PARTICULARITY – not just detail, but detail unique to a person, scene, object
* Tension is Latin for “to stretch” – caused by moments of uncertainty
John McPhee on how to write
* all about the lead, it should shine “like a flashlight down the rest of the piece”, once you have it the whole thing is easier
* read it aloud to yourself or someone else
* always try to make things simpler, use shorter words
* requires all his students to create a structure/outline of their piece first
How Steven Johnson writes from YouTube
* 2-3 hours at time
* has a study in basement
* 1st cup coffee ok, one glass of wine in evenings after kid sleeps, anything more is counter-productive
* when writing book, likes to write 500 words a day

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.

A Tribute to Lou Krieger
Thursday January 10, 2013

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough” – Albert Einstein. Lou Krieger was a master of explaining it simply. I say was because sadly, Lou passed away in December after a courageous battle with cancer. He will be deeply missed. For those who don’t know, Lou Krieger was the author […]


Thursday January 01, 1970

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