Writers on Writing

A Tightrope Walker's Guide to Writing

by Stefan Merrill Block

 

"How? For many years—since long before I could call myself a writer—I’ve sat through the Q&A sections of authors’ book readings, impatiently listening to the usual questions—“where do you get your ideas?” and “what are your inspirations?” and “can you support yourself on your writing?”—waiting for some other audience member to ask this most basic question." READ MORE

 


 


 

Say Yes to Obsession

by Molly Prentiss

 

"Obsession is a large part of being human, and therefore a large part of writing about being human. As writers, we are taught to write toward our own obsessions, using them as catalysts and fuel for our stories. But I have recently been considering how to use obsession—whether it’s a character’s obsession or the writer’s—on a smaller level: not only using it to help us to know what to write about, but also how to write." READ MORE

 


 

 


 

How to Steal Stuff

by Elizabeth Gaffney

 

"My first theft was almost an accident. It was a pair of clip-on rhinestone earrings, glittery and bright....I put them on...somehow, I got distracted and forgot I had them. Maybe ten minutes later, I walked out of the store....I think that incident— which I do regret—was similar to a common literary crime: plagiarism." READ MORE

 


 

 


 

Writing to the Tension

by Andrea Chapin

 

If you have an idea for a short story or a novel and want to get started, write a scene that feels urgent, important, and essential. Don’t feel you must write a “beginning,” unless that beginning has an immediacy that tugs at you. After writing that first compelling moment, write another that feels just as important and essential and then another and another. I call this “writing to the tension.”  READ MORE

 


 

 


 

Writing Rules & How to Break Them:

The Center for Fiction's Guide to Rebellion

 

History loves a good rebel like James Dean, Billy the Kid, Genghis Khan, and...Charlotte Bronte? Yes, you read correctly. You can't tell us that the author of Jane Eyre didn't break a few "rules of writing" while she was penning her novel. Here are some pearls of wisdom from a few of our favorite authors on how they break the rules. READ MORE

 


 

 


 

How Walter White Can Make You a Better Writer
by Martha Southgate

 

I’m proud to admit that I was and am an obsessive fan of Breaking Bad. When Walt, Jesse and all their friends left us on that Sunday night three years ago, I was left bereft for a while. Sundays just weren’t the same without those guys. And it wasn’t only because of the brilliant acting, the beautiful way it was shot, the way everything came together in the end. It was because of the incredibly tight, rather novelistic construction. READ MORE

 


 

 


 

Inventing Time

by Laura van den Berg


Time frames our experience in the world, yet time is never stable: it is always moving. This morning, I walked my dog from Carroll Gardens to the Red Hook waterfront and back. We were out for an hour and ten minutes. Yet during that time I also traveled to the immediate past (a conversation I’d had with my sister the previous day) and the distant past (a childhood memory) and the future (the errands I needed to run later in the week)... READ MORE

 


 

 


 

Three-Dimensional Writing 

by Alison Gaylin

 

I love a good suspense story—the type of dark, twisting tale that keeps me on the edge of my seat, turning pages, barely able to wait for what happens next. That’s the effect you strive for in writing suspense; that emotional investment in the plot. But achieving it is easier said than done. READ MORE

 

 


 

 


 

How to Get Out of the Slush Pile

by Dawn Raffel

 

Here’s a literary puzzle: Inboxes all over the world are filled to virtually bursting, yet editors and agents frequently lament (in private) that rather than facing an embarrassment of riches, they don’t see much that excites them. What gives? Are all of those hundreds or thousands of submissions awful? READ MORE

 


 

 


 

Playing With Status

by Judy Sternlight

 

As an independent developmental editor who specializes in fiction, I help writers to fine-tune their novels. Sometimes a central character needs a stronger intention to drive the plot. Or one character is rock solid but others feel sketched in. Multiple storylines may obscure the central narrative arc; or the stakes should be raised, to build suspense. I love solving these puzzles... READ MORE

 


 

 


 

How to Start Your Novel

by David Gordon 

 

Of course there is no one way. When it comes to writing, my motto is “whatever gets me to the next page,” but page one is often the hardest. It took me years to start my first book. I agonized and procrastinated and brooded and struggled until finally, out of total desperation, I just started writing, first in longhand and then on an old manual typewriter: the discomfort of not-writing had exceeded the discomfort of writing, so I wrote.  READ MORE

 


 

 


 

Dialogue or Conversation?

by Jason Starr

 

I learned a lot about crime fiction writing in an odd place—the theater. While I was completing my MFA in playwriting at Brooklyn College, I wrote for a few small theater groups in Manhattan and had a couple of short plays produced. During this period, I also read plays obsessively, and I believe what I learned from the theater and the craft of playwriting has had a profound effect on my novel writing... READ MORE

 


 

 


 

The Hidden Power in Each Perspective

by Kathleen Alcott 

 

Perhaps because it’s the narrative mode that most resembles our interior as people, first person narration is the natural impulse of many developing writers. My inclination was no different as I wrote my debut novel, which I completed mostly in isolation, unconnected to any community of writers.

 

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Tips for Writing Dialogue

by Teddy Wayne

 

There are three forms dialogue can take: summary (They talked all class about dialogue), indirect speech (And did they enjoy the stories about dialogue? Yes, they did, thank you), and direct quotation (“And did you enjoy the stories about dialogue?”)

 

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When Logic Met Fiction

by Tracy O’Neill

 

Students of logic and rhetoric will be familiar with the syllogistic formula: major premise, minor premise, conclusion. All wax melts. Icarus’s wings are adhered with wax. Therefore Icarus’s wings will melt as he approaches the sun. 

 

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How to Write a Sex Scene

by Rebecca Schiff

 

But what if I’m not filthy enough? you think. What if Bruce Springsteen is busy? Most sex scenes are read and forgotten. Readers go on with their lives. You’re competing with the entire internet. You’re competing with sex itself. 

 

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What a Nude Drawing Class 
Taught Me About POV in Fiction

by Patricia Park

 

I jumped into the heads of the other characters in the scene and rewrote it from each of their points of view. I wrote from Jane’s boss’ perspective, and found myself surprised when she—a professor of Women’s Studies—launched literary allusions that went straight over Jane’s head. I wrote from the husband’s perspective, recording each sniping comment and sigh of exasperation he made in his wife’s wake.... READ MORE

 


 

Notes on Dialogue

by Tracy O’Neill


At a certain point in their careers, most fiction writers, in their critiques of dialogue, cease to complain, 'But no one would really say that!' Perhaps their credulity has finally been stretched by the weird mechanics of real world relationships. Perhaps they’ve reached the reasonable conclusion that they’ll never know everyone. READ MORE

 

 


 

How to Read Like a Writer
by Gabriel Roth

 

The first step in writing a novel is reading novels, is one of those truistic bits of canonical wisdom. Most would-be novelists are pleased to hear this because they already read novels. Hey, they think, I’m ahead of the curve! Ha ha ha if only. READ MORE

 


 

On Writing Space

by Dina Nayeri

 

I've been searching for a suitable writing space—a place that fits my mood, that feels sacred and creative and peaceful, that coaxes the words from my fingers—since the day I started calling myself a writer. Having decided to leave the business world to write professionally, the physical space I occupied suddenly seemed important.... Read More


 


 

Plot and Pacing
by Simon Van Booy

 

For an author’s first book, I would suggest adhering to a basic plot structure, then deviating where and if it feels right. For example, a character’s life in its entirety, from birth to death, doesn’t matter. A novel is about a very specific time in history or in the history of a character.

This is what happened at this point. READ MORE

 


 

Research Your Life
by Alexander Chee

 

You know the least about your life precisely because, for living in it, you might barely notice it. You are from a place and you believe you know it, but your memories are not just unreliable, they are full of research holes. I returned to this lesson with my first novel, Edinburgh, for example, set partly in my home town, and inspired partly by events from my own life.

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Tumbling Down a Hill in a House That is On Fire 
by Duane Swierczynski 

 

The best bit of that advice, and one I would take to heart as a novelist, is the idea of keeping your readers off kilter whenever possible. If they know what’s coming, there’s a good chance they’ll put down your book and move on to something else. So how to keep your readers off kilter? READ MORE

 


 

The Truth About Writer’s Block 

by Dawn Raffel

 

I’ve never been a wake-up-at-five-in-the-morning-and-write-every-day kind of gal. I have nothing but admiration for people with that seat-of-the-pants-to-the-chair discipline, but that’s never been me....READ MORE

 


 

Curing What Ails You

 

As many of us know, it's hard to be a writer. Not only does it require incredible talent, but also confidence, self discipline, and perseverance. Here, writers offer advice on how to overcome procrastination, fear, failure, writers block, a terrible first draft, and more. READ MORE

 


 

On First Lines

by Michelle Bailat-Jones

 

I close the bedroom door.

 

This was the very first line of the original “finished” version of Fog Island Mountains, written sometime in 2008, and kept—along with its speaker and her story—until the massive rewrite I undertook in 2012 when both she and her part of the novel were removed.

 

Looking back now, it’s curious to me that this is how the book originally began. We close the bedroom door for reasons of privacy. READ MORE

 

 


 

For Shame!

by Stefan Merrill Block

 

I didn’t discover serious graphic novels until my early twenties, and—as much as I enjoy them now—the form is freighted for me with envy and regret. I always wanted to be a writer, but the truth is that, as a kid, I wanted equally to be a visual artist. Graphic novels might have been a natural fit for me, if only my second career as an artist had not died of shame when I was thirteen. READ MORE

You've got the words. They're swirling around in your head all day – all night for the more unfortunate among us. You've probably got an idea about what to do with those words, a story that's been sitting in your head for weeks or even months, and you're sure that whenever you access it, it will come forth, shining and beautiful. You're sure of this at your core or you'd jettison all those words, forget it, take up basket-weaving. No, the story is there. - See more at: http://www.centerforfiction.org/forwriters/writers-on-writing/composing-by-terese-svoboda/#sthash.avuArMDP.dpuf
You've got the words. They're swirling around in your head all day – all night for the more unfortunate among us. You've probably got an idea about what to do with those words, a story that's been sitting in your head for weeks or even months, and you're sure that whenever you access it, it will come forth, shining and beautiful. You're sure of this at your core or you'd jettison all those words, forget it, take up basket-weaving. No, the story is there. - See more at: http://www.centerforfiction.org/forwriters/writers-on-writing/composing-by-terese-svoboda/#sthash.avuArMDP.dpuf

 

 

 


 

Composing

by Terese Svoboda

 

You've got the words. They're swirling around in your head all day – all night for the more unfortunate among us. You've probably got an idea about what to do with those words, a story that's been sitting in your head for weeks or even months, and you're sure that whenever you access it, it will come forth, shining and beautiful. You're sure of this at your core or you'd jettison all those words, forget it, take up basket-weaving. READ MORE

 

 


 

All the Pointers, None of the Intimidation

by Patrick Ryan


Workshops are like relationships in many respects: they can be healthy or unhealthy, productive or unproductive, a fusing of minds or a battle of egos. A healthy, intimate relationship is one where you feel as much enthusiasm for what your partner brings to the table as for what you yourself bring, right? That’s what a good workshop can be. - See more at: http://www.centerforfiction.org/forwriters/writers-on-writing/all-the-pointers-none-of-the-intimidation-by-patrick-ryan/#sthash.xxNn5oq5.dpuf

Workshops are like relationships in many respects: they can be healthy or unhealthy, productive or unproductive, a fusing of minds or a battle of egos. A healthy, intimate relationship is one where you feel as much enthusiasm for what your partner brings to the table as for what you yourself bring, right? That’s what a good workshop can be. READ MORE

 

 


 

On De-Purpling Your Prose

by Courtney Zoffness

 

It’s natural to remember your first attempts at fiction with a combination of wistfulness and shame. Sometimes I think about mine, an international, star-crossed love story that featured a man who dreamed in black and white and a woman who dreamed in color. - See more at: http://www.centerforfiction.org/forwriters/writers-on-writing/on-de-purpling-your-prose-by-courtney-zoffness/#sthash.umObDDXJ.dpuf
It’s natural to remember your first attempts at fiction with a combination of wistfulness and shame. Sometimes I think about mine, an international, star-crossed love story that featured a man who dreamed in black and white and a woman who dreamed in color. - See more at: http://www.centerforfiction.org/forwriters/writers-on-writing/on-de-purpling-your-prose-by-courtney-zoffness/#sthash.umObDDXJ.dpuf

It’s natural to remember your first attempts at fiction with a combination of wistfulness and shame. Sometimes I think about mine, an international, star-crossed love story that featured a man who dreamed in black and white and a woman who dreamed in color. READ MORE

 

 


 

The Red Bandana

by Ann Packer

 

I’ve recently finished a novel—truly finished, as in it’s departed copyediting and headed for page proofs—and I find myself in a familiar no-man’s-land, the space between books that surprises me every time with its overlarge helpings of exhaustion and despair.  My book took a lot out of me; given the emptiness I now feel it seems that it took everything out of me, that all I am is a container for what goes into my fiction. READ MORE

 

 


 

One Thing I Never Learned in Workshop

by Victor LaValle

 

A few days later he called me up. He sounded dazed. He’d been writing his script and quickly noticed a pattern. In the first panel his characters sat around a living room talking. Then in the next panel they were standing on the sidewalk talking. Then in the third panel—big dramatic turn!—the characters were sitting again, in a coffee shop this time, and they were talking some more. READ MORE

 

 


 

The Most Important Words

by Dawn Raffel

 

I’ve been an editor for a very long time—let’s say several lifetimes in dog years—and I’ll let you in on a secret. Although your workshop colleagues will (ideally) read your entire manuscript carefully, generously, and kindly, an editor will begin making a decision in about a minute. READ MORE

 

 


 

On the Search for Great Fiction

by Stefan Merrill Block

 

Until the day I queried my agent, I was a closeted writer. I had this vaguely superstitious and probably self-defeating belief that to admit out loud to what I wanted—even to friends and family—would be the quickest way to doom my best hope. And so I never seriously considered applying to an MFA program, even if I suspected that my early and muddled attempts at a novel would have benefited from some professional guidance. READ MORE

 

 


 

Writing Dos and Don'ts

by Marie-Helene Bertino

 

Don’t brag. Be nice. Anyone worth his or her salt talent-wise is humble and kind. This is because they understand they’ve been given a gift and people who have been gifted have special responsibilities and are thankful. Keep writing. Be curious about how different people live. Talk to everyone; doormen, waiters, motorcycle guys, your grandparents. Take time to get to know yourself because the problem with you will be the problem with your writing. READ MORE

 

 


 

How to Write a Novel: The Short Version

by Gabriel Roth

 

You start by thinking about all the things a novel should do: tell a compelling story, create vivid characters and reveal them in all their particularity, illuminate the human condition in general, reveal ordinary experience with a vividness that enables us to see the familiar world anew, open fresh possibilities for language... you can easily spend a whole afternoon just listing the requirements, and you should. READ MORE

 

 


 

The "It" Factor

by Fiona Maazel

 

Everyone asks me what it takes to be a writer. Well, not everyone, since in fact most people don’t care about us writers. Or at least, they mistake the labors of writing for unemployment. Whenever something has to get done in my building, someone will email me saying: You’re at home, you don’t work, can you deal with this? I generally say no. Because the secret to being a writer is…writing. READ MORE

 

 


 

To Plot or Not?

by Terese Svoboda

 

I don't plot. I started out as a poet. You don’t need plot in poetry, you have the page, all that dramatic white space, the ends of lines and stanza breaks to organize and build suspense. Readers hang on every word in poetry—and every word omitted. What readers hang on in fiction is just as complicated but perhaps the unrevealed tantalizes the fiction reader the most. The unrevealed is plot. READ MORE

 


 

The Roots of Obsession

by Darcy Steinke

 

When I was a little girl, if the teacher called on me to read, it took me ages to get through a paragraph. My face flushed bright red, my vocal chords constricted. In spoken speech I had no grace. I stuttered when I answered the phone, the H in hello terrified me, and when I was asked what sort of ice cream I wanted I’d always say vanilla because the V was so much easier than the CH in chocolate. READ MORE

 


 

Facing the “You’re a Failure” Voice

by Caroline Leavitt

 

Someone recently asked me in an interview, “How do you obliterate that voice inside of you that tells you you’re a failure as a writer?”I laughed when I heard the question because most of the writers I know and hang out with, from prize winners to fledgling authors, all seem to battle the same anxiety that we’re somehow not good enough... READ MORE

 


 

What Does It Really Mean When People Say Your Character is Unsympathetic?

by Christina Baker Kline

 

Ever since I started noticing the typos in Nancy Drew books, I’ve loved to edit.  In high school I convinced my mother, an overworked English professor, to let me do an anonymous first read of her students’ papers. (I marked them in pencil and she’d follow up in pen.)... READ MORE

 


 

Why Tried and True Advice Can Doom You

by John Wray

 

Two of the most dangerous sinkholes I fell into as a developing writer were very much part of the creative writing dogma of the time, and continue to cause trouble to this day: "find your voice" and "write what you know."... READ MORE

 


 

The Thirty-Year Novel

by Leora Skolkin-Smith

 

As part of surviving the long, lonely hours of writing a  novel about madness that I was certain would continue to be rejected by publishers, I found solace, company, and some stubborn shared mission in the fiction about madness before this era, and in some newly translated writers. My shelves became populated with two Nobel Prize winners, quite a few 20th Century modernists... READ MORE

 


 

Research in Fiction—Necessary But Dangerous

by Helen Benedict

 

As someone who writes both journalism and fiction, I have often struggled with how to balance research and imagination. Read more

 


 

Procrastination and the Necessary Fight

by Dani Shapiro

 

 It's always just me versus me. From the moment I wake up in the morning--pack my son's lunchbox, scramble a couple of eggs, feed the dogs, make the coffee--some part of me is focused on teh moment when I'll climb up the stairs to my study and get to work. READ MORE

 


 

On Finding Your Material

by Sheila Kohler

 

Finding our material is one of the most essential parts of our work as writers. It is difficult, first, to find material with heat—dangerous material, where one is exposed morally, one's reputation put in jeopardy; where one acknowledges one's own responsibility in some crime of the heart, and is then willing to write about it. One needs to be reckless, ruthless, and at the same time rigid, coming back obsessively to the same source. READ MORE

 

 


 

What's in a Title?

by Erika Dreifus


I learned lessons about "quiet" fiction back in 2001, when a literary agent began circulating my first book-length fiction manuscript, a World War II-focused novel titled The Haguenauer Line. Soon enough, rejections accumulated. Read More

 


 

Bonnie Friedman

Writers and Self-Sabotage

by Bonnie Friedman

 

I used to induce in myself awful states of envy. It took years to notice what I was doing, though, because it was so counter-intuitive. After all, who wants to feel bad? What secret purpose could envy possibly serve? READ MORE

 


 

Caroline Leavitt

Getting Unstuck

by Caroline Leavitt

 

If you're a writer, you know the routine. You're halfway in the middle of your novel or story and suddenly you feel stuck. You can't move forward. You have no idea why the plot isn't thickening, but instead seems stuck in concrete. Recently, I hit one of those dead ends in the novel I'm writing now, but because I had some techniques—my personal lifesavers—the journey was not as perilous as I feared. READ MORE

 


 

Roxana Robinson

Huskies, Hackneys

by Roxana Robinson

 

All the fiction I write arises from the same sort of impulse: it's a feeling of discomfort, a kind of unspecified anxiety, a need to uncover something that troubles and disturbs me. I write toward that feeling. I try to explain it to myself in order to disarm it, to rob it of its potency. I don't know how this explanation will happen. I don't know how the disarmament will take place, or what else will happen in the process. READ MORE

 


 

What Do You Call a Text with No Arms and No Legs and No Head?

by John Madera

 

Writing, sensu stricto, is also a visual art, and thus, the question of what visual artist or particular work of visual art has provided inspiration for me as a writer is akin to asking me what visual art or visual artist has provided inspiration for me as a visual artist. I’m being a bit facetious, here, but I feel it’s important to begin answering the question by addressing how easy it is to forget the sheer physicality of the graphic symbols we use to communicate ideas, meaning, story, or whatever else. READ MORE

 

 


 

In Search of the Perfect P.O.V.

by Pamela Erens

 

Once upon a time I thought I could learn to write like George Eliot or Henry James. I wanted to be able to say things about my characters like, “Isabel Archer was a young person of many theories; her imagination was remarkably active.” It seemed so grand to float above one’s tale, giving the reader an aerial view of human nature and human destiny. I loved all the Big Omniscients—Eliot, James, Tolstoy, Wharton, Austen. They not only told a rip-roaring story but seemed to offer up Wisdom with a capital W. READ MORE

 

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