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  And he backs up that statement by admitting he wrote a few unpublished novels before getting his fiction into print.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.

Writing Tips

Rules for Writers

The Guardian UK‘s fiction blog has collected an enormous list of rules from various authorsBooklife responded by calling for amusing forays into rule-crafting.  Then the Guardian followed up by calling on its readers for their rules.

There’s a lot of truth in the axiom from Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style that “one must first know the rules to break them.”  But that’s for grammar, punctuation and syntax, and doesn’t apply to content or work habits, let alone literary merit.  I’m a fan of craft, but skeptical of prescriptive rules that go beyond the basic foundation necessary for clarity.

However, it must be said, there are some very smart people who disagree with me.  They’ve written whole books of rules. And there are people, some of them writers, who love them.  James Wood’s recent thesis on How Fiction Works isn’t just full of rules but, if David Gates laudatory Newsweek review is to be believed, “intensity and intelligence,” as well.

James Wood’s new book, “How Fiction Works,” is as knowing as you’d expect from one of the best critics alive—more knowing than that, in fact—but that may not always please writers, since Wood also knows how fiction doesnt work. … Wood brings this degree of attention and rigor to his compressed discussions—but rich in specifics—of narration, character, dialogue, language (including rhythm, repetition, metaphor and levels of diction), the use of detail and the ever-recurring debate over literary realism.

That’s a lot of guidance all in one place.  But even as much as Gates praises, he has to admit that “when fiction works, on the readers for whom it works, it works without rules or formula.”

Personally, I think the only real rule is “don’t be boring.”  And, to steal a line from Pirates of the Caribbean, that’s more what you’d call a ‘guideline’ than an actual rule.


William Emery wrote a great response to this post over at 365 Crush.

Writing Tips

Entertaining Writing Tips

Writing tips are easy to come by.  Far too many people think they can teach you, or sell you, a better way to get ‘er done.  Few of these writing tips are actually fun to read.  The ones that are, are slightly priceless (how’s that for oxymoronic equivocation).

Here’s a list of choice tips-type columns I’ve come across recently:


How to Write a Great Novel

For the cover of today’s “Weekend Journal,”  Wall Street Journal journalist Alexandra Alter interviewed a random sampling of novelists for this series of mini-interviews.  Titled “How to Write a Great Novel” and covering the multifarious writing process, it’s as good an entry as any with which to launch this blog, since the how of great writing will be the primary topic …

Behind the scenes, many of these writers say they struggle with the daily work of writing, clocking thousands of solitary hours staring at blank pages and computer screens. Most agree on common hurdles: procrastination, writer’s block, the terror of failure that looms over a new project and the attention-sucking power of the Internet.

A few authors bristle when asked the inevitable question about how they write. Richard Ford declined to reveal his habits, explaining in an email that “those are the kind of questions I hope no one asks me after readings and lectures.” Others revel in spilling minute details, down to their preferred brand of pen (Amitav Ghosh swears by black ink Pelikan pens) or font size (Anne Rice uses 14-point Courier; National Book Award nominee Colum McCann sometimes uses eight-point Times New Roman, forcing himself to squint at the tiny type). Some now offer fans a window into the process, reporting on their progress on blogs and Twitter feeds. On his author Web site, John Irving describes how he begins his novels by writing the last sentence first.

Here is how a range of leading authors describe their approach to writing—a process that can be lonely, tedious, frustrating and exhilarating.