Writing Craft

Welcome to the page for collecting Steve’s Observations About Writing.

I got the idea from these tweets about Scott Lynch’s writing process.  I thought that was a good idea.  So these are mostly things I heard myself saying on Twitter, and thought might be useful for someone else.  Feel free to ask for clarification in the comments.


Rule 1: As Zelazny said, the editor only thinks he’s buying a story; what he’s actually buying is how the story is told. So find a cool way to tell the story.

Rule 1: Quit trying to impress me with how clever you are with how you’re telling me the story, and just tell me the story.

When collaborating with a writer who is better than you, your job is to provide the next Springboard to Coolness, then sit back and watch.

Anything you ask the reader to work out for himself becomes important to the story, even if it isn’t.

Stories don’t get lost. If you think your story is lost, just get onto Need and follow it until you reach Can’t. Your story will be there.

Snide or sarcastic can be useful when it clarifies a point. When it only obscures the point, you just embarrass yourself.

TV Tropes is a really fun site, but not as useful for constructing plots as you might think.  And when you discover a trope in your work, sometimes you avoid it, sometimes you twist it, sometimes you just run with it.

If your protagonists are so irritating that the reader is hoping the monsters kill them, you’ve probably done something wrong.

An aspiring writer who needs to be bitch-slapped is SO far ahead of an aspiring writer who isn’t worth bitch-slapping.

Why would I believe your faster-than-light-drive when you obviously don’t know how to handle a firearm?

When writing a female character, ask yourself this: If the character were male, would I do this backstory? If the answer is yes, you’re probably okay.  If the answer is no, take a very close look at it.

Sentences can be strong, but there’s a limit to how much they can carry without back injuries. Sentences with back injuries are troublesome. A good sentence can almost always find a buddy who will help with a heavy load.

Some days, you just can’t figure out what happens next in the book no matter how much you stay in bed and cuddle.

“If you must write to a market, don’t write to a crap market that doesn’t exist.” — @jenphalian

There’s a fine line between competence porn and bullshit.

I NEVER forget the semicolons.

I have just decided that Corwin’s description of walking the Pattern in Nine Princes in Amber was author intrusive. What hit me was how you just have to keep making progress, however slow, until a breakthrough makes it easier. For a while.

I love it when I write a scene that elegantly comes down to a single question, and I have no idea what the answer is.

All writing problems can be solved by POV. First person solves all POV problems.

Only write dialect if your name is Mark Twain. Only write to the market if your name is John Scalzi. To do both, you need a very long name.

Do these people have any idea how hard it is to stab someone death? Seriously. If you don’t believe me, try it. I have a list of people to try it on.

Author’s desperation leads to coolness. Coolness leads to characters’ desperation.

I find standard manuscript format comforting and reassuring. Makes me feel safe.

I know writers like to go for different sorts of reactions. But, “Oh, c’mon, that’s just stupid,” is probably not what you want.

The advice I first heard from @coffeeem, “Burn Story,” applies within a story as well as between stories in a series.  Yeah, the rest of you knew that already, didn’t you?

When someone you trust tells you to ax a character, listen.The solution might be MORE of that character, but listen.

It isn’t our job as writers to understand the inexplicable, only to explain it.

If you’re having trouble keeping track of all the details in your story, remember it’s even harder for the reader.

Never let an opportunity pass to get a free meal, re-sell a story, or use the serial comma.  If I were a better writer, I’d have found a way to work the subjunctive into that.

Just realized that 99% of the time when I cringe reading something in my old stuff, the problem was simple laziness.

When I hit a wall in my writing, it seems I never break through it.  First I push it, then I create a bulge in it, and I just keep doing that until I suddenly realize it’s behind me.

Memory is the bridge from point of view to narrative.

The art of writing reduces itself to the craft of manipulating correspondence.  The craft of writing reduces itself to the art of finding the right word.

The story and how you tell the story inform each other whether you are aware of it or not.  The awareness gives you more toys to play with.

Voice will get you through times of no plot better than plot will get you through times of no voice.

Copped from some acting advice Kirk Douglas gave: If you’re writing a strong character, find a moment of weakness; if you’re writing a weak character, find a moment of strength.

One of the most useful skills in writing is discovering a way to take that scene you’re dreading and make it fun to write.

Sometimes I deliberately throw up roadblocks in my work.  That is, I find I have written a sentence I don’t know the way past, such as, “There was something on the floor that made me realize I’d been wrong about everything,” without having a clue what that thing is, or wrong in what way, or how to move forward from here.  After some thought, I realized that I do this because my sense of how the story has to flow, of when and how the tension must be built or relaxed, of how I want the reader to be feeling, sometimes outpaces my thinking about what events will take place.

I have at least 20 tricks and techniques for getting unstuck, but sometimes there’s no way around it: you just have to stare at the page until you figure out what happens next.

The plot of a novel is like the crust of a pizza: if it’s bad, it’ll ruin the whole thing, but other than that it just exists to hold all the stuff we’re really after. Yeah, yeah, I know. Some people read for plot. But then, some people eat pizza for the crust.

The mind of the reader is powerful tool and ought not to be neglected.

26 thoughts on “Writing Craft”

  1. “Sentences can be strong, but there’s a limit to how much they can carry without back injuries. Sentences with back injuries are troublesome. ”

    Kitty Holbourn sneers at you.

    You know, chirpily.

  2. Elsewhere you advised someone to write the story she wants to read. Do you think it’s possible for someone to be a good writer without being an avid reader?

    This stems from a conversation with a friend who wants to write but never reads. I almost got him onto screen plays, an idea I got from here, but he’s back to wanting to write a novel now. However, his book to TV/movie ratio must be close to 1:50 or something. I’ve suggested he needs to read more, and not only in the genre in which he wants to write, and I figured I may as well seek a professional opinion on this question.

  3. I don’t think so. I could be wrong, but I just can’t imagine someone writing fiction who doesn’t read–more, who doesn’t read eagerly, passionately, incessantly.

  4. “I have just decided that Corwin’s description of walking the Pattern in Nine Princes in Amber was author intrusive.”

    I’m not sure what you mean here: ‘Intrusive’ is normally bad (“That SOB was so intrusive! I kept finding him in my bathroom at 3 am.”). Was this observation meant to be a critique of Zelazny’s writing? He’s not perfect, but as far as language and writing craft go, he’s among my top favourites.

  5. Though I don’t have any names in mind, I do believe there are a few cases of noteworthy writers who gave up on reading at some stage in life. But it’s hard for me to imagine it for myself. How can you write something people will want to read if you don’t want to read anything yourself? Bizarre. Moreover those examples I have not quite in mind would be of writers who read thousands of books early on and eventually lost pleasure in reading, not writers who just never read anything at all.

    Delany has an interesting claim in his recently published About Writing collection: you can’t write a novel better than the best novel you’ve read in the last year or two. Not sure if I quite believe that as stated — but I’m in line with the notions that recent reading influences your writing, and that it’s good to keep reading to nourish your writing.

  6. “How can you write something people will want to read if you don’t want to read anything yourself? ”

    That’s very succinct, and I’ll probably quote it verbatim when I see him next. I love my friend, but at some point he decided being a novelist would be the greatest thing in the world, even though he’s also absorbed the idea that personal experiences and technical training are all you need to be a good writer. The problem is, when I start suggesting things he doesn’t want to hear, he nicely points out I’m not a writer, so I have a different POV, hence my need for some outside input.

    Thanks for mentioning the Delaney book, which I hadn’t heard of. I do not want to buy my friend a book that goes over the technicalities of story telling, but most of this one looks like it might be useful to him, especially “Read Widely”.

  7. Sorry to have to qualify the suggestion, but on mature consideration maybe that Delany book is not a good idea as a gift for someone who isn’t totally committed to writing. There is some strong language there about how trying to write novels is a bad idea for most people, probably meant with kung-fu-master intentions for workshop attendees, but the message could be taken wrong by a friend. Still it’s an interesting book to read if you are interested in Delany’s take on the craft of writing.

  8. Intrusive to me is not bad at all, merely a description. To quote Roger, speaking of a a certain movie, “I thought that was author intrusive, and I approved.”

  9. “Vlad has kept me entertained, in part, by jumping into my head from time to time and saying, ‘Hey, I know, you could write THIS one.'”

    So I read the interview to which you linked elsewhere, and this comment reminds me of something Robert E. Howard said, that the reason he wrote the Conan stories in the order he did is that he felt the man was standing over his shoulder reminiscing, and he told the stories as they occurred to him. I admit I’d always assumed that was sort of why the Vlad stories were in such an order. Would you say Vlad is that real to you, or is it more like “Hey, I got a neat idea about Vlad, why not see where it goes?”

  10. Um. Tough question. Somewhere in between? There are certainly times he *feels* real, but that’s mostly when I’m writing his dialog. And sometimes when I’m between books. He is almost always willing to tell me what he says, but rarely what he does. Bastard.

    I dunno, I may to think about this some more.

  11. I’m of two minds about fictal fantasies. On the one hand they are deeply satisfying, and it’s pleasurable in a godlike way to imagine you are channeling elements of a real person someplace in a real situation. Even though when fantasizing the other reality and transcribing it into text you must nevertheless admit you are making up a great deal of it.

    “Imaginary conversations” (not the dry essay collection by Savage, but the writing technique) seems to be extremely productive if you can only imagine the character as being sufficiently real.

    On the other hand: the last few Robert Heinlein novels and the later, more self-indulgent James Branch Cabell stories. That way madness lies.

    But on the other other hand….

  12. I was thinking about characters a bit this weekend which leads me to a question for you both as creator and reader. When you’re reading or watching a derivative work based on a book – whether as fanfic, a pastiche, a movie or a posthumous sequel like “Scarlet” – do you feel it’s more important to get the character as an individual right, or the story?

    As a reader, I’m much more interested in a character’s being correctly portrayed than the story being consistent with the original material (assuming the story isn’t just totally unconnected from the source, of course). To use a completely random example, the movie Conan the Barbarian is a lousy portrayal of the character. He has none of the lust of life, humor or sense of adventure that defined Conan, even thought the movie itself is based on several actual Howard stories (but not that god-awful bit about being a slave from a later hack, gagh), while in the second one Conan is much more like he was created and so, even though the plot is even lamer and less based on the original stories, I find it more fun to watch because I’ve always liked the character.

    Likewise, I’ve been bored by fanfic about Horatio Hornblower which just uses his name in a Napoleonic naval situation, while Harry Harrison’s Honario Harplayer, despite being heavy-handed parody, amuses me because he captures much of the basic essence of the character even though the story has zilch to do with anything in the series.

    So as someone who tells stories for a living, would you say the story itself is the more important element in a deritivative work, or the characters?

    On the flip side, if someone were to write some Vlad fanfic, would you consider it more important to see the personalities captured well or for the plot to feel right?

    (Have you ever considered adding a perma-thread dealing with Cool Theories of Storytelling? That could be fun.)

  13. No question, it’s all about the characters. For me, both as reader and writer, consistency is over-rated. Even in my own work (a sequel, after all, is just fanfic written by the same person as the original), I’ll sacrifice consistency for story if I have to.

  14. I think I’ve missed something here. Maintaining consistency of the story rather than keeping the characters real is over-rated? But you’d “sacrifice consistency for story”? You mean the consistency of the character?

    “a sequel, after all, is just fanfic…”: I can definitely understand this applying to some people or stories, but do you intend this as a general statement? If so, I’d be curious to know what you mean, if you’re willing to expand on it.

    I’d have trouble imagining Ian Fleming thinking of himself as writing fanfiction rather than just trying to get more money. (This whole line of thought actually started with James Bond – I’ve read all the Fleming & seen only 2 movies, my neighbor’s seen a lot of the movies but not read anything, and this weekend during Casino Royale we were comparing Bonds on page and screen. ) On the other hand, I can almost see Rex Stout being so tickled with Archie in his Nero Wolfe stories that he wanted to keep writing to see how he turned out.

  15. No, I mean that, between stories, I’d sacrifice consistency (“In this book, you said it worked THIS way”) in order to make the story better.

    I’m sure many writers who write sequels don’t see it as writing fanfic, and I’m certainly not about to try to convince them. But at its heart, fanfic is writing that answers a need for more about characters we love; and so is a sequel.

  16. (I know I keep dropping Q’s here, but absent a general Catch-all thread, it seems most appropriate. My apologies if you’d prefer this stuff to be asked elsewhere [or not at all].)

    A book coming out this fall will discuss, disparagingly, how so many people consider themselves experts on a subject because they’ve read a few articles, done some web searches etc. and think they’re not only qualified to discuss a topic with an expert but that their opinion deserves to be treated just as seriously as the expert’s analysis. I’ve seen plenty of this myself within my specialties, which are fairly technical, and I find myself wondering if this trend is evident in creative fields.

    For example, is it common, or becoming more so, for people to tell a professional author how to write a book, about which they know everything because they’ve got 5 half finished projects in Scrivener? Or to drone on about how there’s only 1 correct way to do a thing, which they can prove by citing Wikipedia and 3 blogs? Or instructed a writer in the real, actual meaning of something he wrote because she saw a review on X.com that had links and everything to back it up, despite the author’s saying, “No, that’s wrong”?

  17. Depends how you look at it. There’s an element of that in some forms of criticism, that take the form, “the author did this wrong,” rather than “this didn’t work for me,” in a way that makes me think the critic doesn’t know much about writing or criticism. But, as I say, that’s only an element. For the most part, no, I haven’t run into that.

    My guess as to why I haven’t is that in the arts there is the opposite problem: the mystification of art, and imagining the creation of art to be some sort of magical process that mere mortals can’t comprehend. In its own way, this can be just as destructive (especially if artists start believing it), and maybe it’s the flip side of the same coin, but it is a different thing.

  18. So now you make me wonder if the problem isn’t just the opposite of technical fields, where people feel just having read facts makes them experts. In creative fields, those sorts of people might think it’s all subjective opinion (or inborn talent), that there is nothing that can be considered an objective fact, i.e. a learned skill, so by definition either everyone’s an expert or no one is. Thanks.

  19. Long time reader- first time writer. My first book is done and heading off to the editor (I know I said done). There are a million websites giving advice on what to do next, from people who’ve never been published by one of the big five. What is your advice (bitch-slapping) for first timers?

  20. L. Raymond “Maintaining consistency of the story rather than keeping the characters real is over-rated? But you’d “sacrifice consistency for story”? You mean the consistency of the character?”

    Real people are not consistent. But we like to read about consistent characters.

    If a character “grows”, then it’s going to be inconsistent with how it was before. Which is fine.

    Characters can be real without being consistent. It just has to be done well.

  21. The issue of the importance of technical proficiency vs. expertise vs. critical consumption is an interesting one. It usually doesn’t take an expert in a field to recognize crap. Sometimes, experts have a hard time recognizing crap because they get distracted by technical proficiency. That’s why there are so many bad movies. Very, very few lack technical proficiency (except when describing science and technological plausibility, which is why I found Ad Astra completely nauseating). It also doesn’t necessarily require what many would consider technical competence, at least as viewed by many “experts”, to produce great work. See all the great musicians who can’t read music and who wouldn’t know a mixolydian from a mixmaster. Also, most fields are now so wide ranging that nobody can claim to be a general expert of that field. Your oncologist might not be able to neatly set a fracture as well as someone who recently took a wilderness first aid course but still be a fine oncologist. To really be good at something generally takes years of working at it. But just because you have worked years at something doesn’t necessarily mean your opinion on your own work is worth much more than someone who hasn’t done similar work. Not sure I have a point here, but figuring out why Sturgeon’s Law seems to apply pretty much everywhere is something that I find fascinating.

  22. Jo’din: Sorry for the delay in answering, and sorrier still that I can’ tell you anything useful; things have changed too much over the last 40 years. All I can tell you is that most new writers today try to find an agent first.

  23. MSER: “…wouldn’t know a mixolydian from a mixmaster.” LOL. I’m going to steal that and pass it off as my own.

  24. Any way I can bribe you into reading my manuscript? I’m trying to break in with a referral and I figured I’d ask. I’m expecting a drubbing, so you can’t hurt my feelings. Thank you.

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