Friday, July 23, 2010

writing advice from the Los Angeles Times

Janet Finch offers 10 rulers for writers. Here are two:

1. Write the sentence, not just the story
Long ago I got a rejection from the editor of the Santa Monica Review, Jim Krusoe. It said: “Good enough story, but what’s unique about your sentences?” That was the best advice I ever got. Learn to look at your sentences, play with them, make sure there’s music, lots of edges and corners to the sounds. Read your work aloud. Read poetry aloud and try to heighten in every way your sensitivity to the sound and rhythm and shape of sentences. The music of words. I like Dylan Thomas best for this–the Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait. I also like Sexton, Eliot, and Brodsky for the poets and Durrell and Les Plesko for prose. A terrific exercise is to take a paragraph of someone’s writing who has a really strong style, and using their structure, substitute your own words for theirs, and see how they achieved their effects.

2. Pick a better verb
Most people use twenty verbs to describe everything from a run in their stocking to the explosion of an atomic bomb. You know the ones: Was, did, had, made, went, looked… One-size-fits-all looks like crap on anyone. Sew yourself a custom made suit. Pick a better verb. Challenge all those verbs to really lift some weight for you.

I've seen many such advice lists. Let's see if I can find one or two more to round out the post.

Hmm. John Steinbeck wrote a letter containing such advice. An excerpt:
The basic rule given us was simple and heartbreaking. A story to be effective had to convey something from the writer to the reader, and the power of its offering was the measure of its excellence. Outside of that, there were no rules. A story could be about anything and could use any means and any technique at all - so long as it was effective. As a subhead to this rule, it seemed to be necessary for the writer to know what he wanted to say, in short, what he was talking about. As an exercise we were to try reducing the meat of our story to one sentence, for only then could we know it well enough to enlarge it to three- or six- or ten-thousand words.
Stephen King and Stephanie Meyer have short videos offering advice.

Author's Network offers very clear advice. As with Steinbeck, the meat of the message is that a writer needs to write and that is hard work. This fits with what I learned (second-hand) from Prisoners of Gravity, a book review show on CBC television (see here and here -Oh! oh! and the second link seems to have some videos!). The advice there was (after all these years, this isn't an exact quote, but very close), "If you can find something else to do, do it. Only be a writer if you are driven to be one." The message isn't exactly to follow the JK Rowling model - write or starve - but to be the sort of person who always wants to write.
Added the Next Day:
Ian McDonald explains how he does his research before writing a story ( Chicago Centre for Literature and Photography / via Boingboing ), An excerpt:

IM: What, give away all my secrets? Well, I have this avatar body I can occupy...It takes years. I read a lot. I travel a lot -- and as much as I can afford. I talk to people, I read the papers. I cook the food. I buy the music, I follow the sports teams. I try to second-guess what the government will do in international politics. I learn a bit of the language. I study the religion. I study the etiquette. I try and work out what the day-to-day details are like. I watch people.

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