Toni Morrison’s Writing Wisdom

Find the original post on /r/writing here.

Today, let’s get a little more literary with the ever wonderful Nobel laureate Toni Morrison. Morrison, much like Le Guin in the previous tip post, doesn’t think very highly of the old addage write what you know. She believes that the ability of a writer to imagine what is not the self is the test of their power.

To quote Morrison in this video interview with Junot Diaz (and you should really watch the video, too, Morrison is a great, funny speaker) which I found on the New York Public library website, here, with lots of other writing tips:

“I tell my students; I tell everybody this. When I begin a creative writing class I say, ‘I know you’ve heard all your life, “Write what you know.” Well I am here to tell you, “You don’t know nothing. So do not write what you know. Think up something else. Write about a young Mexican woman working in a restaurant and can’t speak English. Or write about a famous mistress in Paris who’s down on her luck.”

And finally, this is another author where I couldn’t find a list of tips they personally created, but we can turn to the Open Culture website here where they’ve mined this Paris Review interview with Morrison for eight:

1. Write when you know you’re at your best. For her, this happened to be the early morning, pre-dawn hours, before her children woke up, since she worked full-time and feels she is “not very bright or very witty or very inventive after the sun goes down.” Morrison describes her morning ritual this way:

I always get up and make a cup of coffee while it is still dark—it must be dark—and then I drink the coffee and watch the light come.

2. ”There’s a line between revising and fretting”. It’s important for a writer to know when they are “fretting,” because if something isn’t working, “it needs to be scrapped,” although in answer to whether she goes back over published work and wishes she had fretted more, Morrison answers, “a lot. Everything.”

3. A good editor is “like a priest or a psychiatrist”. Morrison worked as an editor for Random House for 20 years before she published her first novel. She observes the relationship between writer and editor by saying that getting the wrong one means that “you are better off alone.” One of the marks of a good editor? She doesn’t “love you or your work,” therefore offers criticism, not compliments.

4. Don’t write with an audience in mind, write for the characters. Knowing how to read your own work—with the critical distance of a good reader—makes you a “better writer and editor.” For Morrison, this means writing not with an audience in mind, but with the characters to go to for advice, to tell you “if the rendition of their lives is authentic or not.”

5. Control your characters. Despite the ever-present and clichéd demand to “write what you know,” Morrison studiously tries to avoid taking character traits from people she knows. As she puts it: “making a little life for oneself by scavenging other people’s lives is a big question, and it does have moral and ethical implications.” And as for keeping control of her characters, Morrison says “They have nothing on their minds but themselves and aren’t interested in anything but themselves. So you can’t let them write your book for you.”

6. Plot is like melody; it doesn’t need to be complicated. Morrison sums up her approach to plot in Jazz and The Bluest Eye by saying “I put the whole plot on the first page.” Rather than constructing intricate plots with hidden twists, she prefers to think of the plot in musical terms as a “melody,” where the satisfaction lies in recognizing it and then hearing the “echoes and shades and turns and pivots” around it.

7. Style, like jazz, involves endless practice and restraint. Speaking of Jazz, Morrison tells she has always thought of herself like a jazz musician, “someone who practices and practices and practices in order to able to invent and to make his art look effortless and graceful.” A large part of her “jazz” style, she says, is “an exercise in restraint, in holding back.”

8. Be yourself, but be aware of tradition. Of the diversity of African-American jazz musicians and singers, Morrison says “I would like to write like that. I would like to write novels that were unmistakably mine, but nevertheless fit first into African American traditions and second of all, this whole thing called literature.”

[Click here for more writing advice for beginners.]

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Ursula K. Le Guin’s Rules to Break and Rules to Follow

This post originally appeared on /r/writing here.

Today I’d like to talk about another of the best speculative fiction writers out there, Ursula K. Le Guin. I’m a particularly big fan of her because she’s so vocally anti-capitalist and I call what I write Marxist fiction.

On her website here you can find an article she wrote in response to John Rechy’s essay, “When Rules are Made to be Broken”, in which he “attacks three ‘rules of writing’ that, as he says, go virtually unchallenged in most fiction workshops and writing classes: Show, don’t tell — Write about what you know — Always have a sympathetic character for the reader to relate to.’” Le Guin agrees with Rechy in some cases and disagrees in others, making this article well worth the read.

Moving on, I couldn’t find a list of rules created specifically by Le Guin, but the good people at the Write Practice website have put together this list of 10 rules which they’ve mined from the plethora of articles, interviews, and essays by Le Guin that can be found on her site here. Here’s the list from the Write Practice link above (with a few minor edits to make it more readable on reddit):

  1. “Show, Don’t Tell” is for Beginners: Thanks to “show don’t tell,” I find writers in my workshops who think exposition is wicked. They’re afraid to describe the world they’ve invented.… This dread of writing a sentence that isn’t crammed with “gutwrenching action” leads fiction writers to rely far too much on dialogue, to restrict voice to limited third person and tense to the present.
  2. So Is “Write What You Know”: As for “Write what you know,” I was regularly told this as a beginner. I think it’s a very good rule and have always obeyed it. I write about imaginary countries, alien societies on other planets, dragons, wizards, the Napa Valley in 22002. I know these things. I know them better than anybody else possibly could, so it’s my duty to testify about them.
  3. Do Your Job as a Writer, and Do it Really Well: But when people say, Did you always want to be a writer?, I have to say no! I always was a writer. I didn’t want to be a writer and lead the writer’s life and be glamorous and go to New York. I just wanted to do my job writing, and to do it really well.
  4. Shoot for the Top, Always: When asked what authors she measures her work against, Le Guin says: Charles Dickens. Jane Austen. And then, when I finally learned to read her, Virginia Woolf. Shoot for the top, always. You know you’ll never make it, but what’s the fun if you don’t shoot for the top?
  5. Write Like Who You Are: Hey, guess what? You’re a woman. You can write like a woman. I saw that women don’t have to write about what men write about, or write what men think they want to read. I saw that women have whole areas of experience men don’t have—and that they’re worth writing and reading about.
  6. Learn from the Greats: It was Borges and Calvino who made me think, Hey, look at what they’re doing! Can I do that?
  7. Writing is All About Learning to See: A very good book tells me news, tells me things I didn’t know, or didn’t know I knew, yet I recognize them— yes, I see, yes, this is how the world is. Fiction—and poetry and drama—cleanse the doors of perception.
  8. Begin Your Story with a Voice: When asked how one should begin their story Le Guin answered: With a voice. With a voice in the ear. That first page I wrote, which the novel progressed from, is simply Lavinia speaking to us—including me, apparently.
  9. Focus on the Rhythm of the Story: I want the story to have a rhythm that keeps moving forward. Because that’s the whole point of telling a story. You’re on a journey—you’re going from here to there. It’s got to move. Even if the rhythm is very complicated and subtle, that’s what’s going to carry the reader.
  10. Don’t Waste Time: And one of [the things you learn as you get older] is, you really need less… My model for this is late Beethoven. He moves so strangely and quite suddenly sometimes from place to place in his music, in the late quartets. He knows where he’s going and he just doesn’t want to waste all that time getting there…. One is aware of this as one gets older. You can’t waste time.

And finally I’ll leave you with this speech Le Guin gave while accepting the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the 65th National Book Awards on November 19, 2014. I put this here to again bring up her anti-capitalist tendencies because what’s learning without a little good propaganda? 🙂

Enjoy.

[Click here to find more writing advice for beginners.]

Dan Harmon’s Story Structure 101: Super Basic Shit

The /r/writing self post this is quoted from can be found here:

This is taken from Dan Harmon’s Channel 101 post, found here, and it is one of the many great ways to look at story structure which might help you follow China Miéville’s advice on novel structure for beginners, found here. Now back to Harmon:

Storytelling comes naturally to humans, but since we live in an unnatural world, we sometimes need a little help doing what we’d naturally do.

Draw a circle and divide it in half vertically.

Divide the circle again horizontally.

Starting from the 12 o clock position and going clockwise, number the 4 points where the lines cross the circle: 1, 3, 5 and 7.

Number the quarter-sections themselves 2, 4, 6 and 8.

Dan Harmon Story Circle

Here we go, down and dirty:

  1. A character is in a zone of comfort,
  2. But they want something.
  3. They enter an unfamiliar situation,
  4. Adapt to it,
  5. Get what they wanted,
  6. Pay a heavy price for it,
  7. Then return to their familiar situation,
  8. Having changed.

Start thinking of as many of your favorite movies as you can, and see if they apply to this pattern. Now think of your favorite party anecdotes, your most vivid dreams, fairy tales, and listen to a popular song (the music, not necessarily the lyrics). Get used to the idea that stories follow that pattern of descent and return, diving and emerging. Demystify it. See it everywhere. Realize that it’s hardwired into your nervous system, and trust that in a vacuum, raised by wolves, your stories would follow this pattern.

I will talk in greater detail about this pattern in subsequent tutorials.

Next article:Story Structure 102: Pure, Boring Theory

And do be sure to check out Story Structure 102 and beyond. Dan Harmon is great at what he does. Enjoy until next time.

[For more writing advice for beginners click here.]

Margaret Atwood’s Happy Endings and 10 Tips for Writing

Today I’d like to discuss Margaret Atwood, one of my favorite speculative fiction authors. Here she is in video formattalking about why we tell stories. She thinks it’s in human nature to do so, much like Dan Harmon did in an earlier tip post .

Moving on to a short story she wrote, Happy Endings, we’ll find again some of Atwood’s thoughts on storytelling. With the odd structure of this “story” she seems to be saying, “It’s not the end of a tale that matters but the meaty bits in the middle.” Right here you can find a decent, if short, analysis of the story to serve as a jumping off point for conversation.

And finally, it seems that every author has their own list–this one taken from the Guardian article here–so here’s Atwood’s. Enjoy:

  1. Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.
  2. If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.
  3. Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.
  4. If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a ­memory stick.
  5. Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.
  6. Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What ­fascinates A will bore the pants off B.
  7. You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
  8. You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a ­romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.
  9. Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.
  10. Prayer might work. Or reading ­something else. Or a constant visual­isation of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.

 

[Click here for more writing advice for beginners.]

Octavia E. Butler’s Reasons for Becoming an Author and 10 Quotes About Writing

You can find the source of today’s writing advice post right here. One thing to note before going on is that I’m not posting these to the blog here in the same order as I did to reddit, so you may see references to posts I haven’t made yet. Those links will just take you to an /r/writing self post and a glimpse of the future of this blog. No worries.

Anyway, here it is, Octavia Butler’s advice about writing:

Today I’d like to move to another of my favorite writers, Octavia E. Butler. As you might be able to tell by some of the other authors I’ve been choosing (Atwood , Le Guin , etc.), I’m a little biased toward speculative fiction, and in this video (which I found on Feministing here), Butler accurately explains a major reason why by explaining why she enjoys writing science fiction. To quote the linked video:

It’s a wonderful way to think about possibilities. It’s a wonderful way to explore exotic politics. It’s a wonderful–it’s a freedom. It’s a way of doing anything you want. There are all sorts of walls around other genres. Romances, mysteries, westerns. There are no real walls around science fiction. We can build them, but they’re not there naturally.

And if that wasn’t a good enough reason for you, you can check out this video snippet of a panel discussion filmed at UCLA in 2002 in which she discusses, among other things, how a bad movie encouraged her to get into science fiction.

Bringing us to her ten “tips” for writing, which in this case comes from the Aerogramme Writer’s Studio website where they’ve collected some inspiring Butler Quotes for us. Here are, I think, the more useful ones for writers:

  1. On Habit : “First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.”
  2. On Science Fiction: “I was attracted to science fiction because it was so wide open. I was able to do anything and there were no walls to hem you in and there was no human condition that you were stopped from examining.”
  3. On College: “I’ve talked to high school kids who are thinking about trying to become a writer and asking ‘What should I major in?’, and I tell them, ‘History. Anthropology. Something where you get to know the human species a little better, as opposed to something where you learn to arrange words.’ I don’t know whether that’s good advice or not, but it feels right to me.”
  4. On Persistence: “You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.”
  5. On Writers’ Workshops: “A workshop is a way of renting an audience, and making sure you’re communicating what you think you’re communicating. It’s so easy as a young writer to think you’re been very clear when in fact you haven’t.”
  6. On Being a Writer: “Writing is one of the few professions in which you can psychoanalyse yourself, get rid of hostilities and frustrations in public, and get paid for it.”
  7. On Writing Everyday: “And I have this little litany of things they can do. And the first one, of course, is to write – every day, no excuses. It’s so easy to make excuses. Even professional writers have days when they’d rather clean the toilet than do the writing.”
  8. On Personal Experience: “I think writers use absolutely everything that happens to us, and surely if I had had a different sort of childhood and still come out a writer, I’d be a different kind of writer. It’s on a par with, but different from, the fact that I had four brothers who were born and died before I was born. Some of them didn’t come to term, some of them did come to term and then died. But my mother couldn’t carry a child to term, for the most part something went wrong. If they had lived, I would be a very different person. So, anything that happens in your life that is important, if it didn’t happen you would be someone different.”
  9. On Research: “I talked to members of my family, and did some personal research that didn’t really have anything to do with the time and place I was writing about, but that gave me a feeling of the experience of being black in a time and place where it was very difficult to be black.”
  10. On Theory: “I avoid all critical theory because I worry about it feeding into my work. I mean, I don’t worry about nonfiction in general feeding in—in fact, I hope it will—but I worry about criticism influencing me because it can create a vicious circle or something worse. It’s just an impression of mine, but in some cases critics and authors seem to be massaging each other. It’s not very good for storytelling.”

There are a couple more quotes in there if you’re into Butler as much as I am, but I’m pretty sure these ones contain the only writing tips.

And in case you don’t try to avoid it, like Butler does, and want more theory, here’s a PDF by a couple of English professors in which they analyze and critically study the style and techniques of select Butler works. Enjoy until next time.

[Click here for more writing advice for beginners.]

China Miéville on Novel Structure for Beginners

I spend a lot of time on reddit while I’m doing the work that pays my bills (not writing yet, I’m afraid), and recently I’ve been posting the writing tips that helped get me started to the /r/writing subreddit. Starting today, and every Thursday until I run out of them, I’m going to share those writing tips here on the blog, as well.

You might recognize this first one from my personal note about The Asymptote’s Tail. I’m just going to go ahead and quote the self post directly from reddit, but you can find it here if you want to see the conversation it produced there. I hope it helps:

This was posted here more than a year ago by /u/toothsoup, but it helped me so much, I thought it deserved rehashing for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet. What follows is all from the linked post above:

I finally got around to transcribing an interview that Miéville gave at a writer’s festival earlier this year where he was talking about his new book (Railsea), writing comics, and his place in the fantastic genre. He also took questions from the crowd, and I found his answer to a rather broad question about structure really solid. It’s helped me out in how I’m thinking about structuring my first novel, so I thought I’d post it here in case it helps someone else.


I was wondering if you could give me some advice on how to deal with structure? How do you deal with it?

“You’re talking about writing a novel, right? I think it’s kind of like…do you know Kurt Schwitters, the artist? He was an experimental artist in the 1940s who made these very strange cut up collages and so on and very strange abstract paintings. And I was just seeing an exhibition of his, and one of the things that is really noticeable is he is known for these wild collages, and then interspersing these are these really beautiful, very formally traditional oil paintings, portraits, and landscapes and so on.And this is that old—I mean it’s a bit of a cliché–but the old thing about knowing the rules and being able to obey them before you can break them. Now I think that that is quite useful in terms of structure for novels because one of the things that stops people writing is kind of this panic at the scale of the thing, you know? So I would say, I would encourage anyone that’s writing a novel to be as out there as they possibly can. But as a way of getting yourself kick-started, why not go completely traditional?

Think three-act structure, you know. Think rising action at the beginning of the journey and then some sort of cliff-hanger at the end of act one. Continuing up to the end of act two, followed by a big crisis at the end of act three, followed by a little dénouement. Think 30,000 words, 40,000 words, 30,000 words, so what’s that, around 100,000 words. Divide that up into 5,000 word chapters so you’re going 6/8/6. I realise this sounds incredibly sort of drab, and kind of mechanical. But my feeling is that the more you can kind of formalise and bureaucratise those aspects of things. It actually paradoxically liberates you creatively because you don’t need to worry about that stuff.

If you front load that stuff, plant all that out in advance and you know the rough outline of each chapter in advance, then when you come to each day’s writing, you’re able to go off in all kinds of directions because you know what you have to do in that day. You have to walk this character from this point to this point and you can do that in the strangest way possible. Whereas if you’re looking at a blank piece of paper and saying where do you I go from here you get kind of frozen.

The unwritten novel has a basilisk’s stare, and so I would say do it behind your own back by just formally structuring it in that traditional way. And then when you have confidence and you’ve gained confidence in that, you can play more odder games with it. But it’s really not a bad way to get started.”

[Click here for more writing advice for beginners.]