Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘On Writing

What makes a good writing rule?

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William Goldman

Over the weekend, my wife attended the annual convention of the Asian American Journalists Association, which was held this year in Washington D.C. Between panels, dinners, and breaks for dim sum and karaoke, she found time for a session on longform journalism moderated by the veteran reporter Tom Huang, currently an editor at the Dallas Morning News and the faculty member overseeing the writing program at The Poynter Institute. At the end of the discussion, Huang shared an assortment of his favorite writing tips, including the following: “Try cutting your first paragraph and your last paragraph, and see what happens.” (You can find the full list on his Twitter feed, including another really good one: “Start in the middle of the action, then rewind the clock and show us how we got there.”) When my wife got home, she shared this tidbit with me, and asked, “That’s one of your own writing rules, isn’t it?” I agreed. And after a moment of reflection, I added: “You know, I think that might be my favorite writing rule of all time.”

It’s true. Which made me think, in turn, about what the writing rules I’ve found genuinely useful all have in common. I can start by describing the kind of writing rule I don’t like. We’ve heard them all before: “Show, don’t tell.” “Plot comes from character.” “Write what you know.” Such rules aren’t wrong, exactly, but they’re so general and bland that they’re close to worthless, except as motivational slogans. Most books on writing are so full of such platitudes that it’s a wonder anyone gets anything out of them at all, and whenever I skim through a writing guide to find page after page of advice like this, I get a little depressed. Writing is like getting into shape: it’s easy to say “Eat less, exercise more,” but daily discipline is founded on specifics, whether we figure them out on our own or take them from a trusted source. And in a field where vagueness rules the day—which is especially disheartening in a craft founded on concrete particulars—a rule like “Try cutting your first paragraph and your last paragraph” feels like a breath of fresh air. (Or, as David Mamet puts it in On Directing Film, “The invigorating infusion of fresh air that this direct and blunt beat brings into this discussion.”)

David Morrell

So what makes a good writing rule? Based on the above, I’d say that it includes at least three major qualities:

  1. It describes a concrete, almost mechanical action. Cutting the first and last paragraphs of a chapter or scene is about as mechanical as it gets. So is the ten percent rule that Stephen King shares in On Writing: “2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%.” A robot could do it, and luckily, we’re more than robots.
  2. It’s easily implemented and easily reversed. Not every rule holds true for every situation, and your best option is often to try it out, read the result, and decide whether or not to keep the change. I’ve taken to automatically cutting the first and last paragraphs of everything I write, even if I don’t think it’ll make a difference, taking comfort in the fact that the physical action itself might show me something new and that undoing it is only a click away.
  3. It’s applicable to a wide range of situations. I first encountered this rule in the work of novelist David Morrell, who wrote First Blood, and he cites the screenwriter William Goldman as his own source. Tom Huang, as mentioned above, is a journalist. A novel, a screenplay, and a newspaper article all pose different challenges, but the fact that we see the same rule invoked in all three forms implies that it’s something uniquely powerful.

In short, my collection of ideal writing rules is something like the daliluw, the traditional lore of the Mande blacksmiths that I mentioned here the other week. As Patrick R. McNaughton writes in his book on the subject, the daliluw are “units of highly focused, very practical information…which themselves are grounded in smaller units, the bits and pieces of organic matter and other materials that derive from ‘the science of the trees.’” Just because these units are small and practical doesn’t mean they aren’t hugely valuable, and after twenty years of working seriously at writing, the good ones I’ve found can be counted on one hand. The proof, as always, is in the finished work: Morrell’s rule helped me crack the structure of The Icon Thief, and I only need to compare drafts to see how much was gained. Such rules won’t save a faulty conception or a story that is fundamentally misconceived, but they’ll often make the difference between a shapeless lump of material and something that other people will actually want to read. Writing is an utterly impractical pursuit on its highest level, which means that writers need to be ruthlessly practical on the smallest scale. And while I’d normally try to end this post with a sentence of expansive conclusion, as it turns out, I’ve already cut it.

Written by nevalalee

August 19, 2014 at 9:34 am

Cannibalistic octopuses and other joys of writing

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Octopus engraving

Note: To celebrate the premiere of the audio version of my novelette “The Boneless One,” which you can hear narrated by Josh Roseman this week on StarShipSofa, I’m reposting a pair of essays I wrote last year on the story’s origins. This post originally appeared on September 28, 2011.

Years ago, the Onion ran an opinion piece, allegedly by Stephen King, with the title “I Don’t Even Remember Writing The Tommyknockers.” It was a joke, but an oddly prescient one: some time later, in his classic memoir On Writing, King confessed that he doesn’t really remember writing the novel Cujo. It’s true that King was going through some personal problems at the time, but I suspect that any reasonably prolific writer can identify with how it feels to no longer remember writing a particular story, especially once you’ve written so many. Which is my roundabout way of saying that I don’t remember when I first realized that I was going to write a story revolving around an octopus eating itself.

Sometimes you choose your subject, sometimes it chooses you, and the second I heard about infectious autophagy, I knew that I’d found the plot point I needed. Although I no longer remember how I first heard about it, I’m guessing that it was during the first few intense days of research for “The Boneless One,” when I was reading everything I could find about octopuses. Once I knew that autophagy was going to be a major element in this story, I was able to drill down, even corresponding briefly with the outstanding expert in the field to get a copy of a scholarly article on the subject. (I’m not sure what he’d think of the dubious uses to which I’ve put his research, but I hope he’d at least be amused.) And following this one gruesome clue to its logical conclusion eventually unlocked the entire plot.

Jacques Cousteau

Researching the rest of the story was a blast. I love ships, or at least the idea of them, so I spent hours on YouTube looking at guided tours of yachts and other research vessels. (YouTube, along with Google Maps, has made certain kinds of location research almost embarrassingly easy.) I read The Living Sea, Jacques Coutseau’s classic account of life aboard the Calypso, and consulted articles and a television documentary about the real research voyage on which the novelette is loosely based. I can only assume that I watched The Life Aquatic again, since this is already a movie I can happily rewatch on any given night. And in the end, I had a nice little scientific horror story: a bit dark, maybe, but with characters who really came alive, at least in my own head, and a satisfyingly tight murder mystery.

When I sent it off to Analog, it was rejected. Stanley Schmidt seemed to like it okay, but thought that the original ending, which leaves the fate of the voyage somewhat unresolved, was too depressing. I then sent the story around to a couple of other magazines, and it came close to getting picked up by Intergalactic Medicine Show, but nothing came of it, although I did end up writing a new ending. Finally, two years later, I polished the entire thing, cut it by ten percent, and resubmitted a version with the revised ending to Analog, which accepted it. The fact that I’d had two more stories accepted in the meantime may have had something do with this, but more likely, the first draft wasn’t quite good enough, and the final draft was. All told, it took almost three and a half years, but “The Boneless One” finally saw print. And I don’t even entirely remember how.

If you’d like to read “The Boneless One,” you can find it in The Year’s Best Science Fiction, 29th Edition, edited by Gardner Dozois.

Quote of the Day

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Stephen King

You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair—the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.

Stephen King, On Writing

Written by nevalalee

December 21, 2012 at 7:30 am

Cannibalistic octopuses and other joys of writing

with 6 comments

Years ago, the Onion ran an opinion piece, allegedly by Stephen King, with the title “I Don’t Even Remember Writing The Tommyknockers.” It was a joke, but an oddly prescient one: some time later, in his classic memoir On Writing, King confessed that he doesn’t really remember writing the novel Cujo. It’s true that King was going through some personal problems at the time, but I suspect that any reasonably prolific writer can identify with how it feels to no longer remember writing a particular story, especially once you’ve written so many. Which is my roundabout way of saying that I don’t remember when I first realized that I was going to write a story revolving around an octopus eating itself.

Sometimes you choose your subject, sometimes it chooses you, and the second I heard about infectious autophagy, I knew that I’d found the plot point I needed. Although I no longer remember how I first heard about it, I’m guessing that it was during the first few intense days of research for “The Boneless One,” when I was reading everything I could find about octopuses. Once I knew that autophagy was going to be a major element in this story, I was able to drill down, even corresponding briefly with the outstanding expert in the field to get a copy of a scholarly article on the subject. (I’m not sure what he’d think of the dubious uses to which I’ve put his research, but I hope he’d at least be amused.) And following this one gruesome clue to its logical conclusion eventually unlocked the entire plot.

Researching the rest of the story was a blast. I love ships, or at least the idea of them, so I spent hours on YouTube looking at guided tours of yachts and other research vessels. (YouTube, along with Google Maps, has made certain kinds of location research almost embarrassingly easy.) I read The Living Sea, Jacques Coutseau’s classic account of life aboard the Calypso, and consulted articles and a television documentary about the real research voyage on which the novelette is loosely based. I can only assume that I watched The Life Aquatic again, since this is already a movie I can happily rewatch on any given night. And in the end, I had a nice little scientific horror story: a bit dark, maybe, but with characters who really came alive, at least in my own head, and a satisfyingly tight murder mystery.

When I sent it off to Analog, it was rejected. Stanley Schmidt seemed to like it okay, but thought that the original ending, which leaves the fate of the voyage somewhat unresolved, was too depressing. I then sent the story around to a couple of other magazines, and it came close to getting picked up by Intergalactic Medicine Show, but nothing came of it, although I did end up writing a new ending. Finally, two years later, I polished the entire thing, cut it by ten percent, and resubmitted a version with the revised ending to Analog, which accepted it. The fact that I’d had two more stories accepted in the meantime may have had something do with this, but more likely, the first draft wasn’t quite good enough, and the final draft was. All told, it took almost three and a half years, but “The Boneless One” finally saw print. And I don’t even entirely remember how.

How much should you write every day?

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According to his own autobiography, the novelist Anthony Trollope wrote a thousand words an hour, between 5:30 and 8:30 every morning, and if he finished a novel before the day’s work was done, he took out a fresh piece of paper, wrote Chapter One at the top, and began another. Max Brand, the incredibly prolific author of westerns, wrote fourteen pages at a sitting—and in only two hours per session. More recently, in his book On Writing, Stephen King advises beginning writers to write at least 2,000 words a day, which is also the recommended pace for participants in National Novel Writing Month. (And judging from King’s legendary productivity, it’s likely that his own pace is much higher).

Of course, not every novelist is a writing machine. Jerzy Kosinski wrote a page and a half per sitting. Nabokov famously wrote his novels one perfect paragraph at a time, on individual index cards. Even the most modest pace will eventually produce an entire book, like water wearing away stone. At one point, when I was struggling to balance my writing life with a full-time job, I reminded myself that a hundred words a day—that is, something substantially shorter than this paragraph—would produce a novel of 100,000 words in just over two and a half years. For all my good intentions, though, I never actually stuck to that schedule, and ultimately decided to quit my job first. Still, the principle seems sound enough.

These days, when I’m working on a first draft, I write a lot. Yesterday, which was my first serious writing day in a long time, I wrote an entire draft of the prologue of my novel, which is about 3,500 words long, over the course of seven hours of work. Now, I’m not saying that all these words were great, or even good. I had the luxury of writing from a detailed outline. And I expect that the prologue will eventually be cut to something like 2,000 words or shorter. But like John le Carré, to compare small things with great, I like to write a chapter every day. And I do believe that there are good reasons to push yourself to write, if not an entire chapter, at least a fully realized unit of your story at each session—whether it’s a chapter, a scene, or even a paragraph, if you’re a writer like Nabokov.

In something so long and complicated as a novel, it’s crucial that its units hang together fairly organically, and writing the first draft of each unit in one session strikes me as the best possible way to do this. In my own novels, the length of each chapter is largely determined by how much I can write in one day, which also happens to approximate, conveniently enough, the amount of information that a reader can process before pausing for a break. (Poe says something similar about the ideal length of a short story.) And there’s something gratifying about crossing an entire chapter off my outline when a day’s work is done, even if I know that the real work of revision is only beginning. When I’ve got fifty chapters or more to write, that kind of pace is often all that keeps me going.

So I guess I’d better get started again.

Written by nevalalee

March 8, 2011 at 9:02 am

The 10% Solution

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The recent release of Stephen King’s Full Dark, No Stars, the latest book by the most enduring and instructive popular novelist in America, reminds me of one of my favorite rules for writing, which is beautifully articulated by King in his classic book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. On Writing, which is one of the four or five books on writing that every novelist should read, is worth a look for any number of reasons, but King shares one story, in particular, that justifies the purchase all by itself:

In the spring of my senior year at Lisbon High—1966, this would have been—I got a scribbled comment that changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. Jotted below the machine-generated signature of the editor was this mot: “Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.”

I wish I could remember who wrote that note—Algis Budrys, perhaps. Whoever it was did me a hell of a favor. I copied the formula out on a piece of shirt-cardboard and taped it to the wall beside my typewriter. Good things started to happen for me shortly thereafter.

For its combination of simplicity and immediate usefulness to every writer, professional or otherwise, King’s little formula might be the single most powerful writing tool I know. And it really works. Every story I’ve ever sold or published has been cut by at least 20%, and my novel was trimmed by a staggering 45% (from more than 180,000 words down to 100,000). And there isn’t a single cut sentence that I regret—or even, at this point, remember.

Some writers might be intimidated by the idea of cutting a tenth or more from a draft they’ve grown to love, but it’s easier than it looks. My favorite financial writer, the very funny Andrew Tobias, in his book The Only Investment Guide You’ll Ever Need, has a similar rule for people reluctant to save 10% of their income, which, needless to say, is also a good idea:

There is someone in the world making 10% less than you who is not ragged and homeless. Live like him.

My own version of that rule would look something like this:

There is a version of your novel that honors and fulfills your artistic intentions with 10% fewer words than the current draft. Write that novel.

So, in one simple formula, I’ve given you a rule that will help ensure your success as a writer and your future financial stability. Isn’t this blog great?

Written by nevalalee

December 4, 2010 at 2:25 pm

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