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.
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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.
In high school I was very shy, but I loved people. School was this amazing place to me where everyone was different (even though so many tried to act the same) and interesting. I was so shy during my freshman year that the thought of talking to people or being in front of crowds terrified me.
In an effort to get out of my shell, I began auditioning for parts for the school plays. I enrolled in Choir and Drama every semester I could. I made a point to get classes where I would need to make speeches and be in front of people. I even got involved with the sports teams and took on office responsibilities because I wanted so badly to face my biggest fear as much as I possibly could. I wasn’t very good at first. I was too quiet, I had bad stage fright in my performances and I was very insecure about the tiny parts I was able to play.
Fast forward to Senior year and I had acted in five productions, three of which I had lead roles in, one was a musical and I helped write two of them. I won my first awards that year but the one that meant most to me was the cute one my drama teacher had made that said ‘Most Improved Actor’
I can’t trace it back to a specific day but I think one of the major things that helped me to get out of my shell and accept myself for who I was no matter the role, was this quote:
“There are no small parts, only small actors" -Constantin Stanislavski
I would like you to keep this in mind in your writing career. There are no small assignments (after all, what would the actors act if no one was writing the scripts? Amiright?) but there can be small writers. You are the one who decides this. Never at any point should you think that an assignment is “below” your means. The moment you start to think that, you’ve become the smallest writer you’ll probably ever know.
Sure, there is nothing wrong with passing on a project because you don’t like it. You are free to say no (this is a post I will be sharing with you next week), but remember to be careful about why you’re saying no.
Don’t think that just because you’re a screenwriter now that you’re too good to blog for the fun of it. Don’t get so caught up in becoming a bestselling author that you quit the sweet copywriting job you’ve always loved.
I recently read this article about a young actor named Dylan Sprouse who is working in a restaurant and attending college. This is a commendable scene for the average 21-year-old! Good on him because he likes the job, even though he doesn’t need it to pay his bills. He admits that it’s a good way for him to stay social, to be out of the house between school and projects and he’s liking the job because it is teaching him more about the world.
While you’d think most would commend a young man for having such a positive attitude about life, people went nuts! They assumed the worst of him. They said that he must have spent all of the money he made from acting and that now he’s broke and needs the job to pay the bills. Could you think of anything more ridiculous?
I think we, as writers can learn a lot from Mr. Sprouse in this respect. He is out there working a job even though he’s already got his dream career. He is doing it for the experience and what it will teach him over time. He says he also uses the money (which is probably chump change to the kid) as his budget for the video games he loves to play so much. Sure, it’s not enough to pay his bills but he’s using the money to just budget for fun activities.
You may have not gotten your day in the sun yet. Maybe you’re still waiting on your letter from the publisher (or Hogwarts…) but that doesn’t mean that you can’t get out there and live your life in the meantime. That doesn’t mean you can’t try some side projects you enjoy, just because they’re not the “big break” you’re looking for.
Next time you’re given the chance to write something great, don’t let the money hold you back. You’re probably not in this career for the money anyway so don’t start acting like you are now. Keep to the integrity of what you’re doing, regardless of how little money (or how much, for that matter) it is going to pay because your experiences will be priceless.
I think it’s obvious that Dylan has a good head on his shoulders and that should he continue his career in acting, he will go on to be one of those sweet, classy, respectable actors that everyone wants to work with. He’s putting the work in right now and one day it will pay off in a world without the Disney Channel logo.
I challenge you today to take on a passion project. There is nothing too small if you can learn from the experience. Embrace the chance and be thankful for your opportunity.
aspiring-writer asked: I’ve attempted writing a novel back in middle school (looking back I realize the plot and characters were completely ridiculous) and gave up shortly in. I was very unprepared, and I wish to be prepared this time seeing as I’d like to make a career out of writing. What are some things I should do to prepare myself to write a novel?The first thing you should do is learn about plot and story structure so you can understand what elements are important when you brainstorm plots. The more familiar you become with these elements, the better your plot ideas will be. You should also practice writing every day. Not only do you need to learn how to implement plot and story structure, but you also need to learn how to develop characters, how to write descriptively, how to write good dialogue, and how to incorporate things like foreshadowing and symbolism. You can free write, write short stories, or find writing prompts and exercises to do each day. You also need to read. Now, I know there are writers who argue that reading is not essential to being a writer, and maybe that’s true, but to be a good writer, you have to read—a lot. Just like a good musician knows a lot about music, a good writer should know a lot about stories. Read as much as you can and as many different kinds of books as you can. Find what interests you most, and this just might be the type of novel you would most enjoy writing.While you’re learning about and practicing writing, pay attention to the world around you. What kinds of human stories interest you? Where do you find the most inspiration? Buy a notebook or journal and write down everything that inspires you: colors, bits of dialogue you overhear, current events, locations, people and personalities, landscapes, sounds, smells, story ideas—everything. This will be a constant source of inspiration for you when you’re writing or coming up with ideas.
When you’re ready to start a novel, you need to find an idea if you don’t already have one. Using what you’ve learned about plot and story structure, you can begin to flesh out the details of your story, and then use what you’ve learned about character development to flesh out your characters. It’s ok if you have to refer back to your notes or read more articles about these areas—you don’t have to know it all by heart going in. Next you’ll want to do some pre-writing, such as outlining, scene development, and research. Then you’ll be ready to start on your novel! You can refer to my WQA master post list for some of the other details you might wonder about when writing. I would recommend following some of the other helpful writing blogs here on tumblr, too. Some of my favorites are listed in my F.A.Q. under #10. And, of course, I’m always here if you need any help or have any further questions.
Best wishes to you on this journey. I know you’ll do great!
Small edit here: Alaska is a state.
What follows are some ramblings about names. I hope you will find at least parts of it useful for your purposes. Thank you for humoring me.