Tag Archives: reference

Writing Tips from Alice Mattison, author of The Kite and the String

We know readers tend to be writers too, so we feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing! What writing techniques have you found most important or memorable? What matters most, I think, is not technique but feeling—the emotions with which we write. Writing an early draft, we have to let go, forget caution and embarrassment, confront trouble. Much of my writing time is spent getting into the frame of mind in which that’s possible. We all have different ways. To revise, we need to ask the kind of obvious questions we ask in the rest of life. “This thing I wrote—does it make sense? Is it clear? Does it get boring?” There are no rules. Some pages and paragraphs and sentences will be good, some won’t. Much of the technique consists of not treating writing as something with a special technique, treating it more like other things we manage to do, though we may not look very professional doing them—cooking a meal or getting ready to have people over. Writing is like that: sloppy, haphazard, but manageable if we work hard but don’t take it too seriously. Do you ever base characters off people you know? Why or why not? I wish I could say that I never base characters on real people! I believe in the imagination! And generally I don’t start with someone real. I think of a situation—maybe “a woman on a wooden pier waiting to be picked up by a boat.” I try to glean what’s happening, and who she is. It’s a wobbly old pier, so she can’t pace comfortably, and she’s new to this kind of place. . . . She’s barefoot, and just got a splinter, and somehow that suggests her job teaching kindergarten and her cousin the cop. . . and is he the person coming in the boat? And who’s with him? I make up characters and stories the way we bring back lost memories, detail by detail. But Grace Paley says somewhere that all her characters are invented except the father, who is her father. And I’ve found myself putting pieces of my father into a couple of novels. Not all of him, and the characters also have traits he didn’t have. Aspects of my father. I don’t know why. After developing an idea, what is the first action you take when beginning to write? I envy the courage of writers who put random thoughts on pages for months without an idea. They trust that their unconscious minds will eventually disgorge one, when the act of writing or typing lulls them into saying what’s most important to them. These writers suffer more than the rest of us, and have false starts, but eventually their work may be more authentic. I have been known to begin a story that way, but for a novel, I wait for an idea, and make notes. But then I go someplace where I can be my uncensored self (not my desk, where business occurs) and write nothing until a word I don’t expect comes out of nowhere. After all, what’s hardest about starting anything new is to keep from writing what you expected to write. I too believe in letting the unconscious mind give us new thoughts when we’re drowsy and irresponsible—but I make it a little easier by having some notion of where I’m going. What are three or four books that influenced your writing, or had a profound effect on you? The short stories in Tillie Olsen’s Tell Me a Riddle and Grace Paley’s The Little Disturbances of Man and Enormous Changes at the Last Minute made me think I could try writing short stories: they were about ordinary people, people in messy cities like those I knew, people from immigrant families, as I am. Jane Austen’s Emma is about a young woman with many flaws whom we like anyway, and E.M. Forster’s Howards End is about a personal connection between two women—sisters—that is so nuanced and strong that it enables them to fix their lives when the world of “telegrams and anger” has made trouble for them. That’s what I want to write about: ordinary people, flawed people, people with intense inner lives for whom emotional connection can make a practical difference—who can do what they need to do because they understand each other. Learn more about the book below:

Lisa Cron, author of Story Genius, on what makes a good story… and what doesn’t!

Writers frequently ask, “What makes a good story?” But there’s a much more important question to ask first: What is a story? The reason no one asks that question is because, let’s face it, it sounds kind of crazy. I mean, we all know what a story is — haven’t we been mesmerized by them since we were three? Sheesh, there’s never been a society on earth that didn’t have storytelling.  So how could we not know? Ah, but there’s a bit of fine print. Sure, we wired to recognize a good story right off the bat, but creating a story? That’s another matter. It’s probably what prompted the great Southern writer Flannery O’Connor to quip, “I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one.” One of the things that makes writing a story difficult is that, even as readers, we tend to be woefully wrong about what’s hooked us when we’re lost in a story. Let’s set the record straight. First, here’s what we tend to think has us hooked:
  • A great voice.
  • A dramatic plot.
  • Gorgeous writing.
Makes total sense! Except it’s not true. Those are just the things we can see on the surface – we see the great writing, and we can visualize the plot. So it’s no surprise we’d assume that they’re what we’re responding to. But while those things are often in a good story, they are not what make a good story.  In fact, they don’t make a story at all. Instead, at best, they simply convey – albeit in luscious language — a bunch of surface things that happen. Such well-written, story-less prose is known in the trade as a beautifully written “who cares?”
So what is a story? In a nutshell: A story is a single, unavoidable problem that grows, escalates and complicates, forcing the protagonist to make an internal change.
The secret of story is that it’s about internal change, not an external plot-based one. Everything that happens in a story gets its meaning and emotional weight based on one thing: the internal conflict it spurs within the protagonist as she struggles with what the hell to do next in order to solve the plot problem. This is as true of a quiet literary novel as it is of a heart-pounding thriller. The drama doesn’t come from the events themselves, it comes from how those events intensify the protagonist’s internal struggle. That’s what makes us care. That’s what triggers the intoxicating sense of urgency that catapults readers out of their own lives into the protagonist’s. Here’s the bonus for writers: The deeper you dig into this struggle, the more meaningful – and thus beautiful — your prose becomes. Great writing comes from great stories, not the other way around. Learn more about the book below:

Writing Tips from Richard Cohen, author of How to Write Like Tolstoy

We know readers tend to be writers too, so we feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing! 

What writing techniques have you found most important or memorable?

In a memorable cri du coeur, the wonderful Turkish-American essayist Elif Batuman declared:

‘I would greatly prefer to think of literature as a profession, an art, a science, or pretty much anything else, rather than a craft. What did craft ever try to say about the world, the human condition, or the search for meaning? All it had were its negative dictates: “Show, don’t tell”; “Murder your darlings”; “Omit needless words.” As if writing were a matter of overcoming bad habits—of omitting needless words.’ 

One other piece of advice, though: if an editor, or friend, makes a comment about something you have written and you strongly disagree, don’t dismiss the fact that something in what you have written disturbed them. Their suggestion may not be helpful, or the right one, but look again at the passage in question, just in case there is something there you can improve.

How would you recommend creating and getting to know your characters?

Start with the name. Many novelists can’t imagine their characters until they feel they have named them in a way that chimes in with their personalities. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird has the following general advice:

‘You may only know your characters’ externals instead of their essences. Don’t worry about it. More will be revealed over time. In the meantime, can you see what your people look like? What sort of first impression do they make? What does each one care most about, want more than anything in the world? What are their secrets? How do they move, how do they smell? Everyone is walking around as an advertisement for who he or she is—so who is this person? Show us. . . .

‘You also want to ask yourself how they stand, what they carry in their pockets or purses, what happens in their faces and to their posture when they are thinking, or bored, or afraid. Whom would they have voted for last time? Why should we care about them anyway? What would be the first thing they stopped doing if they found out they had six months to live? Would they start smoking again? Would they keep flossing?’

After developing an idea, what is the first action you take when beginning to write?

Well, in truth I try the idea out on my wife. She’s also my literary agent and best friend, and will always find the best way of letting me down if my idea is a truly bad one. But what is meant by ‘developing an idea’? It’s too broad a phrase. If one means a whole notion for a book, I advise writing the story down in the manner of a book blurb, no more than 250 words (about the amount of words a book salesman has to interest a customer). If a book project is still unclear, or doesn’t compel attraction within that wordage, something is amiss. 

Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking?

Hemingway is meant to have said, ‘I write drunk and revise sober,’ although some people say it was the other way round. Woody Allen takes lots of showers to get his creative juices going. Scott Fitzgerald used to strip off his clothes — completely — before writing. Gertrude Stein would get her companion to drive her into the countryside so she could gaze on the cows there before going back to her writing table.

Did you always want to write? How did you start your career as an author?

I produced a school magazine whenI was twelve; and continued as the main schoolboy editor when I was at high school. But for years I though I was an editor of other peoples’ work, not someone who could produce his own books. In 1999 I left my job in British publishing; left Britain; and settled down in a new marriage, in New York. I tried to get a job as an editor at Knopf, but its MD, Sonny Mehta, said I should write a book about my main hobby of 45 years, fencing — so I went off and produced a 520-page book on swordplay over 3,000 years, and suddenly I was a writer. 

What’s the best piece of advice you have received?

I have no idea. I always forget advice. Maybe, remember to turn the lights off. Say Yes rather than No. Or, for writers, One can always revise more. 

What clichés or bad habits would you tell aspiring writers to avoid? Do you still experience them yourself?

We all fall into hackneyed ways of writing. My current bugbear is people saying ‘incredible,’ when all they mean is ‘very.’ I recall revising a chapter so often that only on a last read-through did I realise I’d started seven consecutive paragraphs with the word ‘Then.’ 

Describe your writing style in 5 words or less.

Anecdotal, story-led, humorous, inquiring, addictive.

Do you ever base characters off people you know? Why or why not?

So far I have published only non-fiction. I have started a novel, set in France in 1946, but my wife (see above) says I’m not allowed to write any more into it until I have finished my current commissioned book, titled ‘The History of Historians.’ But I think about the novel every single day.

What are three or four books that influenced your writing, or had a profound affect on you?

Shakespeare (sorry, but it’s true), Tolstoy’s main novels, Samuel Johnson‘s works, Alice in Wonderland

Learn more about the book below: