Friday, October 8, 2010
Writing Advice From Some of the Best
Among the many writers I've interviewed, some of the best writing advice came from the following.
Pulitzer winner, A.B. Guthrie, Jr::
“I would give one piece of advice to would-be writers: if you don’t love the language, forget it! And second, study the established authors. Learn how they get their effects. Study the craft of fiction, know what it means, what it is.”
Loren D. Estleman:
“For me, a good mystery places story and character ahead of all else, yet never loses sight of the simple truth that in order to be a mystery, a question must be asked. It needn’t be a whodunit, and might be something as simple and maddening as why the murdered man had three left shoes in his closet and no mates. If the writer has done his job well, the reader will forget the questions as the story draws him in. But there had damn well better be a mystery involved if he’s going to call it one.”
“The worst thing a novice can do is to try to sound like a writer. The first thing you have to learn is how not to overwrite” He also said, “Write! Don’t talk about it, do it. Study the authors you like, pick one and imitate him—the way a painter learns fine art by copying the masters. I studied Hemingway, as several thousand other writers have done. I feel that I learned to write westerns by reading and rereading For Whom the Bell Tolls.
“To me, the characters are everything. I begin with them, and if a story doesn’t come out of their incarnations, I don’t have a book. I imagine a type of character in a particular setting—South Miami Beach, Atlantic City—adding other characters in a very vague idea of a plot situation and make it up as I go along. Characters audition in their opening scenes. Some, who I think at first are going to be main characters, end up playing minor roles, while a walk-on character will now and again talk his way into a part that becomes the third or fourth lead.” Every writer I interviewed agreed that novice writers must read a wide variety of literature. No writer can succeed without extensive reading.
“Keep at it. That’s all. If it’s in you to write, it will come out. If it’s not, you will have a lot of fun thinking it is.” When asked how much money a young writer can earn, he said, “Not much! Not enough to keep life in the body of a single human being. You must have another source of income.”
“Write constantly and find a qualified writer to critique your work.” Emphasizing the importance of rewriting and revisions, she said new writers should expect to be as dedicated to their craft as a surgeon is to his. “Determination is all-important, for first-time writers do manage to sell. Write what you care about most and give it your best shot.”
Strange and exotic places trigger ideas for her novels. "I’ll look at a house and think, ‘That place needs a ghost. I like to travel because new places turn me on, and once I find a place, the characters kind of wander into the opening scene. So I normally know how I’m going to begin a book, but I don’t know where I’m going from there." Millhiser has rewritten the first ten chapters of several books before finding her direction. Writing instructors tell young writers to outline their stories before they begin writing, but some of us—myself included--still sit at the computer with only a vague idea of what we’re going to write that day.
Irene Bennett Brown:
“A writer shouldn’t broadcast a story’s theme or wave it in front of a reader like a banner,” she said. “That’s too much like teaching and preaching, which readers hate. I give my characters strong goals, and tough problems. Theme isn’t something you plan, it just is. It’s what your story proves and falls into place when you’ve done everything else right.”
The Agatha Award winning writer says: "Dialogue is a form of action, a potent technique for expressing conflict. It is the mightiest power tool on the writer's workbench for making characters come alive. Instead of your stepping in like an overbearing parent to tell us about your characters, dialogue lets you let them reveal their feelings, attitudes, and personalities through their own words." (This book is a must read for all aspiring mystery novelists.)
L’Amour advised fledglings to “read and write everything you can. Keep writing, putting words on paper and learn to express yourself. One difficulty I find of people who write is that they don’t read enough. And our schools aren’t giving us enough background in American literature. I think you should have a pretty good idea of what’s been done before you try to do it. And you can learn some very valuable things by writing. I really learned how to write from Robert Louis Stevenson, Anthony Trollope, and de Maupassant.”
“It’s not as free as it once was for new writers to break into print. Probably the greatest way for a writer to break into the business is to write in category, whether it be western, romance, mystery, or science fiction; that’s the place where the publisher has already learned there is an audience. That’s where fledglings can establish themselves and become a Stephen King, Mickey Spillane, Louis L’Amour or Agatha Christie. Excel and go beyond the so-called limits of the categories.”
"My own reader is like me--just about as realistic and romantic, cynical and sentimental, dumb and intelligent, simple and sophisticated, optimistic and pessimistic,” and who shares similar interests. “Do I manipulate the reader?” he said. “I sure do, for I’ve studied the fictional techniques of writers from Sophocles to Chaucer to Melville to Steinbeck for decades. However, probably no reader of mine ever felt so strongly or dropped a small tear unless I had already done so in the writing.”
As a writer of amateur sleuth novels, I am always interested in the psychological experience of being a crime fighter. For my [work in progress], I have had the luck of being close to a detective who has constantly checked my work for authenticity. Also, questions about what death looks like, how a body falls when shot, etc. I have much martial arts experience, so I love writing my fight scenes, but I think a lot of authors need help with that, too.”
"Make sure that you have a good command of the technicalities of the English language. I don’t care about spelling, but you’ve got to be able to write good sentences. You’ve got to be able to write them with a certain amount of grace. The main problem, I think, today is that everyone wants to be on the bestseller list without the apprenticeship first. No matter how boring, writers must learn the craft along the way, because “it does have to be learned. . .”
“Read as widely as possible in your chosen field, both fiction and nonfiction, then write something fresh with an unusual approach or slant. A Louis L’Amour imitation isn’t likely to launch any new writer these days . . . I learned my craft by writing stories for a score of different magazines. Today there are very few fiction magazines left—in effect, no real training ground for young writers to develop and hone their skills, which is very unfortunate.” (However, there is the internet and gratis writing gains experience as well as readership. It’s well worth the effort.)
Parris Afton Bonds:
“Talent is cheap. The difference between a professional and an amateur writer is persistence. Selling is a matter of luck, really. If one has enough money (determination) to remain at the gambling tables, the dice will eventually roll in his favor. If a fledgling writer is aiming his work toward the market in demand at the moment, then the sky is the limit—assuming that he has perfected his craft and read a great many novels of that genre.” In other words, “persistence, patience, and all the while perfecting your craft.”
Mary Pickford's cousin produced the “Gunsmoke” TV series for ten years and wrote scripts for “Rawhide,” “Kraft Theatre” and many other televised programs. He said, ‘’You have to be thick-skinned to survive as a script writer, because having your work rewritten by producers is bad enough, but you also have to expect to have it rejected for the most inane reasons.”
Balluck, who wrote scripts for a number of TV shows, including “Magnum PI,” talked about the personality traits necessary for a successful script writer. “Courtesy and a sense of humor” are paramount, he said. “We have to deal with a lot of bleeding egos and it’s just plain prudent to maintain a certain amount of equanimity. There’s strength in getting what you want without hurting or humiliating anyone.”