High-Level Thoughts

Of the books on writing better, this is my favorite. It has less direct, tactical advice than “On Writing Well” but it caries you along better and has more stories in it. I think you should read both though.

Summary Notes

“We are writers, and we never ask one another where we get our ideas; we know we don’t know.”

Good ideas appear out of nowhere, from seemingly unrelated concepts coming together and creating a new thought in your head. You can’t force this process, your job is to recognize when they show up and take advantage of them.

When you first write something, you should write it for yourself. When you rewrite it, write it for everyone else. Take out everything that isn’t the story. Once it’s out there, you don’t own it anymore, everyone else does.

Life is not a support system for art, art is a support system for life. “Keep your desk in the corner” to remind yourself of this.

Come at writing anyway but lightly, you can feel any emotion but apathy.

The Writer’s toolbox

  • Build a toolbox of your writing skills and keep refining the tools in your toolbox.
  • Common tools go on top, the more specialized tools go on bottom. You should only have three or four levels to it.

Top of the toolbox

  • The commonest tool is vocabulary. You must have a rich, tactical vocabulary, but you shouldn’t make any efforts to improve it, or your writing will sound stilted.
  • Use the first word that comes to mind, if it is appropriate and colorful
  • Also need grammar on the top
  • Active vs passive verbs, always better to go active:
  • “The meeting will be held at seven o’clock” vs “The meeting’s at seven.”“The body was carried from the kitchen and placed on the parlor sofa” vs “Freddy and Myra carried the body out of the kitchen and laid it on the parlor sofa.”“The writer threw the rope,” not “The rope was thrown by the writer.”
  • The adverb is not your friend, just kill them all! And many adjectives too…
  • “He closed the door firmly” vs “He slammed the door”
  • Also don’t overstate the dialogue attribution: ““Put down the gun, Utterson!” Jekyll grated.”

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

You can learn what not to do by reading bad prose, and later, mediocre prose. The problems will stand out as little breaks in your experience (The dialogue in The Martian is a good example of this).

“Still, I believe the first draft of a book— even a long one— should take no more than three months, the length of a season.”

“I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words. That’s 180,000 words over a three-month span, a goodish length for a book— something in which the reader can get happily lost, if the tale is done well and stays fresh.”

“I suggest a thousand words a day, and because I’m feeling magnanimous, I’ll also suggest that you can take one day a week off, at least to begin with.”

“If possible, there should be no telephone in your writing room, certainly no TV or videogames for you to fool around with. If there’s a window, draw the curtains or pull down the shades unless it looks out at a blank wall. For any writer, but for the beginning writer in particular, it’s wise to eliminate every possible distraction.”

You can write about anything you want, so long as you tell the truth.

Stories and novels consist of three parts:

  • *Narration, which moves the story from point A to point B and finally to point Z
  • Description, which creates a sensory reality for the reader
  • “The key to good description begins with clear seeing and ends with clear writing, the kind of writing that employs fresh images and simple vocabulary.”
  • Dialogue, which brings characters to life through their speech

Avoid the “Zen Simile”: “He ran like a madman, she was pretty as a summer day, the guy was a hot ticket, Bob fought like a tiger . . . . don’t waste my time (or anyone’s) with such chestnuts. It makes you look either lazy or ignorant.”

Never tell something you can show.

“Try any goddam thing you like, no matter how boringly normal or outrageous. If it works, fine. If it doesn’t, toss it. Toss it even if you love it. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch once said, “Murder your darlings,” and he was right.”

If you’re a beginner, though, let me urge that you take your story through at least two drafts; the one you do with the study door closed and the one you do with it open.

Between drafts: “How long you let your book rest— sort of like bread dough between kneadings— is entirely up to you, but I think it should be a minimum of six weeks. During this time your manuscript will be safely shut away in a desk drawer, aging and (one hopes) mellowing.”

“I think that every novelist has a single ideal reader; that at various points during the composition of a story, the writer is thinking, “I wonder what he/ she will think when he/ she reads this part?” For me that first reader is my wife, Tabitha.”

“Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%.”

“The most important things to remember about back story are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting. Stick to the parts that are, and don’t get carried away with the rest.”

“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy. Some of this book— perhaps too much— has been about how I learned to do it. Much of it has been about how you can do it better. The rest of it— and perhaps the best of it— is a permission slip: you can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will. Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up.”

Note to self: There’s a wonderful list of recommended books at the end

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