Writing Tips

First Lines

In a commentary at the Atlantic Monthly, Stephen King remarked, “A really bad first line can convince me not to buy a book — because, god, I’ve got plenty of books already — and an unappealing style in the first moments is reason enough to scurry off.”

He then noted that first lines are just as important for writers, citing the way we agonize over them and then listing the ones from his own work that he can remember. He explains:

But I can tell you right now that the best first line I ever wrote — and I learned it from Cain, and learned it from Fairbairn — is the opening of Needful Things. It’s the story about this guy who comes to town, and uses grudges and sleeping animosities among the townspeople to whip everyone up into a frenzy of neighbor against neighbor. And so the story starts off with an opening line, printed by itself on a page in 20-point type: You’ve been here before.

Joe Fassler, collecting King’s thoughts for the Monthly, put together a rather lengthy and interesting list of authors’ favorite first lines from literature. It’s well worth checking out.

American Book Review, for which I used to write reviews once upon a time, has also pulled together a list of “100 Best First Lines From Novels.” And for a more esoteric collection, you can check out Flavorwire’sOur 30 Favorite Opening Lines from Literature.”

Writing Tips

Grievous commonalities, a.k.a. clichés

Writing While the Rice Boils assembled an impressive list of genre clichés you should be on the lookout for as a writer. They span every genre from Science Fiction to Romance, and even include ‘Literary Cliches,’ which brings to my next link…

The Millions has a list of clichés you can expect to find (and probably ought to kill with fire) in a literary novel.  ‘Literary Fiction is a Genre: A List’ includes this illuminating illustration:

This is a “nothing happens” book, the former it girl of literary genre fiction. In my classes, I like to describe these stories as: “A man and a woman buy dishes at the store. When they get home, she goes to lie down, barely talking, something unsettling her. A dog barks in the distance. The man starts to put the plates away, and one breaks. The end.” What I love about this kind of narrative is that it’s often deliciously readable. How is that possible? Of course, this kind of narrative is a bit out of vogue — there’s a new it girl on the scene. It’s the same man and woman, but now time travel or zombies or tiny people who live in walnuts are involved. Raymond Carver is to blame for the popularity of the first kind of narrative, with his profound stories of small actions, uninterested as they are in directly exploring the inner lives of characters. That genius George Saunders is to blame for the latter: damn him and his faxing cave man!

Still, despite all that, sometimes clichés are awesome. No really. I’m reading Infinite Jest right now (and probably will be for the foreseeable future) and David Foster Wallace makes brilliant and varied use of a veritable lunacy of clichés. So much so that there’s a Wikipedia entry about it.

A more mundane discussion of the value of clichés can be found at Seth Grodin’s blog, where Seth concludes, “The effective way to use a cliché is to point to it and then do precisely the opposite. Juxtapose the cliché with the unexpected truth of what you have to offer.”

Writing Tips

W.G. Sebald’s Writing Tips Are Great

Most writing tips are redundant or repetitious, some are amusing; W.G. Sebald‘s rise above because they take into account literature’s historical progression and include quotable lines like, “be experimental, but let the reader be part of the experiment.”  The list came via a friend of a friend, and it’s quite extensive. For brevity’s sake, I’ll re-post the only his advice on ‘Style’ and ‘Revision’:

On Style

  • Every sentence taken by itself should mean something.
  • Writing should not create the impression that the writer is trying to be ‘poetic’.
  • It’s easy to write rhythmical prose. It carries you along. After a while it gets tedious.
  • Long sentences prevent you from having continually to name the subject (‘Gertie did this, Gertie felt that’ etc.).
  • Avoid sentences that serve only to set up later sentences.
  • Use the word ‘and’ as little as possible. Try for variety in conjunctions.

On Revision 

  • Don’t revise too much or it turns into patchwork.
  • Lots of things resolve themselves just by being in the drawer a while.
  • Don’t listen to anyone. Not us, either. It’s fatal.

And for even more inspiration on editing, check this post from Flavorwire of “20 Great Writers on the Art of Revision.” To summarize: Rewrite it, murder your darlings, get the words right, and good luck.

Films, Writing Tips

Films About Fiction: Midnight in Paris

Midnight in Paris (2011) is a Woody Allen film about a fantasy many writers have of living among their idols in the past, and features lovingly sketched caricatures of Earnest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, among others.

To the delight of Gil Pender, the nebbish screenwriter who is magically transported from our time to theirs, these luminaries cavort through the Paris night demanding that artists love passionately and speak truly. Whereas Gil is only now learning to follow his bliss.

The most cringeworthy moment, for Gil, is one in which his shallow and derisive fiance and her pretentious friends dismiss his literary aspirations as sentimental fantasies. They’re right, of course, but speak with a total disregard for his feelings. The crux of their criticism is that Gil is too cowardly to show his novel to anyone and not enough interested in other people’s opinions.

That’s all set to change, however, when Gil steps through the looking glass and into a flapper party straight out of the Twenties. There he encounters his literary idols and, immediately entranced, starts asking them to read his work. Apparently, he wasn’t afraid, he just wanted the evaluation of somebody he considered truly worthy. That or he had the good sense not to show it to his mean-spirited companions.

Finding readers is an interesting conundrum for writers. It must be done, but you’re almost certain not to like what they have to say. Good critiques push for improvements, sometimes contradictory ones, and it’s up to the author to sift for gems. On top of that, hearing criticism requires an ego strong enough to withstand it. There are those that thrive by this process and those who wither.

In Paris in the 1920s of course, writers workshops did not exist as they do now. Instead they had salons, the most famous of which was Gertrude Stein’s. These meetups served some of the same purpose as a writing group, but without the formalities. Gil visits a salon and gets direct input of the most basic sort. He is told to fix one big thing, and in a single day rewrites the first four chapters. In reality this is not how these things work, of course.

Peter Turchi has a thoughtful and realistic discussion of writer workshops at his website. He describes them as laboratories and medical theaters, acknowledging that they can be instructive, but warning that they are too often “intent on finding fault.” Turchi says all writers have “horror stories to tell: stories about rude behavior, harsh comments, savage ‘advice,’ someone trying to dictate how someone else should write, writers in tears, writers enraged, or friends who feel obliged to ‘defend’ each others’ work.”

The reasons for this are reflected in the film when the Hemingway character, asked if he will read Gil’s novel, says something to the effect of, “I already know that I will hate it. If it’s bad, I will hate it because it’s bad, if it’s good I will hate it because I did not write it. All writers are competitors.”

To get away from the jealousies and trash talk, Turchi recommends focusing on a work’s intentions first and then taking the foray into craft.

One of the most useful things a workshop can do for the writer is to reflect the intention of the work back to her. It is of course helpful to give the writer suggestions for developing the work; and it’s useful for every writer to learn to diagnose the ailments of a draft that falls short. But falls short of what? If the conversation doesn’t begin by trying to recognize the work’s intention, there’s a great risk that the suggestions offered will be suggestions for ways to make the story what the speaker thinks it should be, or could be, or might be.

This puts the critique firmly on the side of the author, and to my mind that’s the only place to be in a workshop. In this regard, Midnight in Paris may be a bit flip with the details, but its feeling is correct. What Gil gets at the salon is a thoughtful critique, delivered in a respectful manner, with no other intention save the improvement of the work. He takes this critique to heart, and produces something better.

At some point Gil quotes Hemingway to himself, saying that all modern American literature can be traced back to Huckleberry Finn. Twain is a great example in critique, too; he always shared his unpublished manuscripts with “a private group of friends.” In the following video, read by John Lithgow, Twain describes the 14 types of people whose opinions he sought. It’s an amusing and insightful look at how writers get feedback.

Who is Mark Twain? from Flash Rosenberg on Vimeo.

Writing Tips

More Rules for Writers

Writing advice is plentiful on the internet.  Following up my previous post about Rules for Writers, I’ve collected some more:

But for some really good and very funny advice I would highly recommend the new book Starve Better by Nick Mamatas.

Authors, Writing Tips

Reading like a Writer?

I read and enjoyed Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, but something about it bothered me. Prose argues that writing is learned by reading other works and emulating them:

In the ongoing process of becoming a writer, I read and re-read authors I most loved.  I read for pleasure, first, but also more analytically, conscious of style, of diction, of how sentences were formed and information was being conveyed, how the writer was structuring the plot, creating characters, employing detail and dialogue.  … What writers know is that, ultimately, we learn to write by practice, hard work, by repeated trial and error, success and failure, and from the books we admire.

I agree very strongly with this.  Where I begin to be concerned is in her analysis of specific examples, and not any one of them but rather the whole way she discusses close reading.
She breaks her book into chapters covering Words, Sentences, Paragraphs, Narration, Character, Dialogue and other elements of fiction, but her examples and the way she unloads these examples are, or seem to me to be, rather pedantic.  I don’t feel I learned much about reading or writing.  Rather it was all about analyzing.

I’m not the only reviewer to note this.  Brien Michael in his review at The Quarterly Conversation pointed out that “the book’s approach has much to do with Prose’s astute observations in the classroom” and “that Prose is surviving a tempestuous marriage with the academy.”

One of the fundamental problems with Prose’s approach is that we must depend on her to summarize the story up to that point or beyond so that we can make sense of what she’s doing. Even if we’ve read The Great Gatsby (it’s been since high school for me), it’s unlikely we could focus on the particular point without Prose’s attentions. She’s urging us to be brazenly intimate with a text while forcing us to rely on her introductions. It’s clear that the approach works much better in the context of a classroom, where the focus is on one story or one book, and it might have been more effective in Prose’s book if one text had been the focus of each chapter. Prose could have more closely replicated the pedagogical approach she employs in the classroom, and we would have been far less likely to misplace our own enthusiasm for the text—or our respect for her skill in unpacking it—in the abundance of illustrations.

If the technique is developed in the classroom and requires a classroom to explain, then Prose isn’t talking about how a writer reads so much as how a professor reads.

Perhaps her direction is indicative of the way certain writers operate in the modern teaching-mill marketplace.  Carlo Gébler certainly claims something of this sort about himself in his recent essay at Some Blind Alleys, stating unequivocally that “I started as an amateur, but at some point – I do not know when it happened; I only know that it happened – I became a professional, and once I became a professional my relationship to the world in general and to reading in particular changed utterly.”

I never simply enjoy the act of reading anymore. My authorial intelligence is totally and fully engaged. When I read, whatever I read, I examine and analyze. This is partly in order to judge the artifact and rank it, but also, and perhaps mostly, I am doing this so that I can learn from it. I want to know what I can appropriate. You could say – in fact, I will say it – I read primarily to steal. This attitude applies not just to books but to everything. In every situation, whatever it is, whether private or public, personal or impersonal, happy or sad, interesting or boring, exotic or quotidian, while part of me is involved and interacting and apparently sympathetic and human, there is another part of my personality that is scrutinizing my experiences and thinking two terrible things: What’s in this for me? And: Can I use this? Can I put it in a story? Can I put it in an article?

Gébler is no longer learning from reading so much as, in his words, cannibalizing.  He blames the marketplace for forcing him to evolve from an “author” into a “writer and teacher.”  He is bitter, but Prose seems mainly positively about the transformation.  I suspect the truth is somewhere in between.

Sci Fi, Writing Tips

Sci Fi Glory Days

Last February, I posted about the decline of science fiction.  An article appeared today at The World SF Blog that picks up precisely where my piece left off.

The author, Guy Hasson, postulates that rumors of science fiction’s death have been greatly exaggerated, but admits that its glory days may be behind it.  He argues that Science Fiction has become too specialized, insular and familiar to be relevant for the larger culture.  When it should be about “being brave and different and new,” it is instead written for people “looking for more of the same.”  This he contends has created a proliferation of overly specific sub-genres for “fans who already have foreknowledge in SF matters.”

Authors need to step up and, as Ezra Pound famously remarked, “make it new.”

SF is neither dead nor dying. It is currently losing the glory it once had and the wondrous, glorious feelings it used to convey. All these points need to be corrected: SF is now mostly non-inclusive, alienating ‘regular’ or even new readers; SF is no longer influential; SF is no longer brave; and the SF genres are the straight path to killing the glory of original SF.

Who can fix it? Authors can fix it, by trying to return to write brave and influential stories that can be easily read by those who don’t like SF. Authors can return to seek originality, first and foremost by looking outside the established sub-genres.

But that is not going to be enough. Because publishers need to want to publish brave, genre non-specific and perhaps even political SF. For the publishers to change their ways, the readers need to do something, as well. SF readers need to stop being scared. They need to find feelings of comfort in other genres and read SF for the thrill of the threat it may have on their lives. SF readers need to clamor for something brave and new, original and breathtaking, glorious and frightening.

While I may not entirely agree with his assessment, Hasson is a sci fi author himself and practices what he preaches.  There’s an interesting interview in which he claims one of the major appeals of science fiction is “the ability to take things a couple of steps further than realistic drama allows us. When ‘normal’ people hear that you’re writing or reading science fiction, they think about spaceships and special effects. But the truth is that science fiction usually means going all the way with an idea or a thought or an emotion.”  Now that’s an inception I can endorse!

Authors, Writing Tips

Bacigalupi: try, fail, learn

If you’re not familiar with Paolo Bacigalupi, then allow me to make the introduction.  He’s the author of the excellent and highly critically acclaimed novel The Windup Girl.

I got my own introduction to Bacigalupi only recently through the io9 book club. If you visit the book club’s ‘ask Paolo‘ page you can see where I questioned him about how he plotted his intricate, multi-character novel.  (Actually, what I said was “Where did you start?”).  And he explained that plotting was indeed a challenge.

“One of my big concerns about the book was that it didn’t have an overarching plan or structure to guide it for a long time. I just kept writing drafts until the elements that interested me seemed to bind together,” he told me.  It’s a process I know a lot of writers can relate to.

In an interview posted Monday at Techland, Bacigalupi decribes writing as a “try, fail, learn cycle.  You have to be able to take that again and again. And those failure moments, you have to go, OK, why did I fail? What did I learn from this? How can I reapply this and go again?” Words to live by, if you ask me.

(You can also read my review of The Windup Girl at Goodreads.)

Writing Tips

Scott Turow’s Advice on Novel Writing

Scott Turow, a novelist with whom I had a (very) brief correspondence after we were both published in The Mammoth Book of Legal Thrillers, has been interviewed by Galleycat.  If you don’t know his work, he’s the author who probably did the most to define the modern legal thriller genre.

His advice for wannabe writers is:  “Persistence is critical.”  And since he spent seven years working on his breakout novel Presumed Innocent in his spare time (while employed as an attorney), he knows of where he speaks.

“The people who succeed in the arts are the people who get up after being knocked down,” he adds.  And he backs up that statement by admitting he wrote a few unpublished novels before getting his fiction into print.

He also talks about his background with Wally Stegner and his current work.  But watch the video for yourself, it’s only a few minutes long:

If you like mystery novels or impeccably crafted prose, I do recommend Presumed Innocent.  And for fans of legal thrillers, it is a must-read.