Writing Fiction For Dummies
(This post is a celebration of completing our first full book, SelfMadeU! You can get it at Amazon.)
I was working with Mark Medoff, an Oscar-nominated, and Tony Award-winning writer, on his most recent play and asked him for writing advice.
He said, “I can tell you everything you need to know about writing in thirty seconds.”
He told me what Kurt Vonnegut told him, “There are three parts to everything, the question, the exclamation, and the conclusion.”
? ! .
“Other than that, nobody has any idea what they’re doing.”
He teaches a class on writing so I’m sure he was being facetious. Sort of.
People ask me how to write all the time thinking there is an answer beyond, “write”. The fact is, most of us just need permission to start writing. Every great writer will tell you that you’ve got to just keep writing.
Once you begin writing we’ll add the technical stuff one write.
Writing this was hard. I was very lucky to be edited by Chad Harbach, who spent many months (6? I forget. Possibly more) working on it with me. My writing group — Bennett, Anya and Lukas — also read several drafts and helped a lot. I would like to dedicate its appearance on the internet to the memory of Raffles, who cost me a lot of money but was worth every penny. I still miss you, buddy.
Anonymous asked: One piece of advice I hear given is to read books to learn how to write. How do I do that?
Hmmm. Yes. We seem to do that a lot. We should really explain ourselves.
If you were a musician, you would listen to different kinds of music to get different ideas, draw influence, and get a firmer understanding of your craft. It’s the same thing with writing.
There are two general rules to this, then some more specific ones. Let’s go general first:
Keep those tips in mind when you’re reading this article, and of course when you’re reading in general. This is the more specific stuff we were talking about earlier.
All told, reading as a writer is a matter of absorption. The more you read, the more you will understand about writing, both consciously and unconsciously. Continuing to write will obviously make your writing better, but continuing to read is your first line of improvement.
Thanks for your question! If you want to get in touch with us, feel free to use our ask box!
Christopher Hitchens: Advice for Writers
1) Ask yourself if you can’t live without writing.
2) Find your voice - if you can speak well, you can write well.
3) Avoid the booze trap - when to drink, how much, and how not to mix.
Of course, he sums it up much more eloquently in that British accent. RIP, Hitch!
As readers of a site that welcomes and encourages submissions, there’s a decent chance some of you want to be writers. Several months ago, I wrote an advice column on how to go aboutfreelancing for the Internet and magazines, but some readers have their sights set on short fiction or even novels. And right now, some are contemplating education choices like picking a major or attending graduate school to get that MFA.
Let me be clear: Education is wonderful. There is nothing you will ever learn that you will not ultimately use. Conceptually, I am fully in support of a liberal arts education, even when there is no obvious and immediate application of that knowledge to daily life. However, with rising costs in an appalling economy, racking up that debt seems harder to justify, and I find myself agreeing more and more with a column Robert Brockway wrote years ago questioning the need for college. I’m not going quite that far yet, but I have soured on graduate programs — particularly MFAs. (Brock’s still wrong about Nirvana’s cover of Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” being superior, by the way.)
It’s a very personal choice, but consider this: Every important thing I’ve learned about writing I learned from a writer. Yes, one of those writers was a college professor (not grad school), but for the most part, I got all my best storytelling lessons from interviews I saw on TV or read in books. That makes sense, right? Who better to explain writing than writers? And yes, of course many MFA programs employ distinguished writers who can impart these lessons to you directly, and that’s great if you can afford it, but the knowledge is out there. Writers are showoffs who like to talk and give advice, and they like talking about writing most of all. Every one of these tips below can be learned for free, and I promise you, I could never have written my forthcoming novel, Notes from the Internet Apocalypse, without them.
- H. W. Fowler, Modern English Usage. This seven-hundred-page volume of small type includes every conceivable stylistic point, arranged alphabetically, and written in an informal (but quirky) tone. Some of the entries are specific — several pages on punctuation — while others are general, such as tired clichés. Almost every entry has illustrative quotations from real life. Fowler was qualified for the job, having just compiled the Concise Oxford Dictionary. Yanks may find this classic work unsuitable because of its focus on British English, and much of it has been outdated in the eight decades since its first edition’s completion. Still worth a look. A companion, Modern American Usage by Follett, makes up for some of Fowler’s disadvantages, but lacks the charm of the original.
- Sir Ernest Gowers et al., The Complete Plain Words. Ernest Gowers’s Plain Words is a guide to effective writing from the 1940s for British civil servants. Over the years it has gone through many editions and been changed by many hands. The most recent version, The Complete Plain Words, still shows its focus on British usage and the civil service, but many of its suggestions are excellent. Most of the book is a discussion of common writing problems, with examples of good and bad writing. There is also a long section on specific points of usage, arranged alphabetically.
- George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language.” Orwell’s essay is one of the great works on the plain style. The essay should be available in any popular collection of Orwell’s essays. Read it daily. Keep a copy under your pillow.
- Thomas Pinney, A Short Handbook and Style Sheet. A handy little guide to style, written informally and accessibly. The general sections (on diction, vagueness, wordiness, and so on) are better than those devoted to mechanics. Pinney’s work is refreshingly free of dogmatism of any sort.
- Margaret Shertzer, The Elements of Grammar. Not bad if you’re looking for very specific rules, but not highly recommended as a general guide. It includes things like “Capitalize nouns followed by a capitalized Roman numeral” and the proper spelling of bête noire. Easily available, since it’s often sold with Strunk and White (below).
- Strunk and White, The Elements of Style. The standard high school guide to style, and useful well beyond school. It includes a number of specific rules, dozens of commonly misused words, and bundles of suggestions for improving your style. Available anywhere (now including an on-line version of Strunk’s 1918 edition). Read it. Memorize it. Live it.
- Maxwell Nurnberg, I Always Look Up the Word “Egregious”: A Vocabulary Book for People Who Don’t Need One. A pleasant guide to building vocabulary that never becomes patronizing (the fault of too many books for beginners) or drifts off into utterly useless long words (the fault of too many books for fans of word games). It’s probably too sophisticated for non-native speakers and rank beginners, but will help many others build a more powerful vocabulary.
- The American Heritage Dictionary, 4th ed. Not only a good desk dictionary for providing definitions, but also a handy guide to usage on controversial questions. AHD has a panel of writers who vote on whether certain usages are acceptable.
- Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. It’s not a comprehensive treatise to answer all your questions, and it describes British rather than American practice (well, practise). And the “zero-tolerance” stuff shouldn’t be taken too seriously. But the book’s a hoot, and if you’re curious about the finer points of punctuation, check it out.
I’d actually be interested to know which opinions you feel we present too forcefully. I mean, aside from my sometimes aggressive opinions on Harry Potter, that is. It could help us in the future.
And I want to talk about this:
"The rules don’t exist to be followed, they exist so that they can be broken competently."
I’ve recently tweaked my opinions regarding rules, and I like to share that with you now, if you’re willing.
I think rules exist for a reason, and it’s not, specifically, to be broken.