What Ira Glass Wishes Someone Would Have Told Him When He Was a Beginner

Hey y’all. This is the last /r/writing post on beginner tips that I have prepared, I’m afraid. So that means I’ll have to come up with a new one by next Thursday or put the feature on hiatus for a while. I’m not sure which I’ll do yet. But we’ll see.

Still, here it is. A short one today. And a link to the original post on reddit. Enjoy.

Here it is in Ira Glass’s own words.

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

[For more advice for beginners click here.]

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Zadie Smith on What You Think You Know

This is an author, I’m afraid, who’s still on my “to read” list rather than my “already read” list (much like Gaiman and Miéville previously). Still, Zadie Smith wasn’t elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature for no reason, I’m sure.

To start, let’s take a look at this video interview Smith did with Paul Holdengräber, live at the New York Public Library, which I found here on the NYPL website with a bunch of other interesting interviews of authors.

To quote the video about writing and belief:

“Each novel I’ve written, any novel anyone writes, it’s not that you sit down saying ‘I believe this, and now I will write this,” but by the nature of your sentences, just by the things that you emphasize or that you don’t emphasize, you’re constantly expressing a belief about the way you think the world is, about the things that you think are important, and those things change. They do change. And the form of the novel changes as well. A very simple example is in a lot of my fiction I’ve delved very deeply into people’s heads, into their consciousness and tried to take out every detail, and the older I get and the more that I meet people and realize I don’t know them. My own husband is a stranger to me, really, fundamentally at the end you don’t know these people. That should be reflected in what you write, that total knowledge is impossible.”

Which, I think, echoes Toni Morrison’s earlier advice about writing what you know. Mainly, “You don’t know nothing.”

And finally, here are Smith’s ten rules of writing fiction, from that same Guardian article where I got Margaret Atwood’s rules. Enjoy:

  1. When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.
  2. When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.
  3. Don’t romanticise your “vocation”. You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no “writer’s lifestyle”. All that matters is what you leave on the page.
  4. Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can’t do aren’t worth doing. Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt.
  5. Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.
  6. Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.
  7. Work on a computer that is disconnected from the ­internet.
  8. Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.
  9. Don’t confuse honours with achievement.
  10. Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand – but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.

[Click here for more writing advice for beginners.]

Three Act Structure: The Most Basic of Basics

Find the original /r/writing post here.

Today I realized I had been going over all this story structure theory for beginners and I hadn’t even touched on the most basic of basics, three act structure. I’m sure everyone here already feels like they have three act structure pretty well understood, but it never hurts to do a little refresher every now and again.

One of my favorite places to start with studying three act structure is the often trusty Wikipedia. Particularly, I like the plot line graph they use in the article, which includes a few extra points (pinch 1 and pinch 2) that aren’t often included in images illustrating three act structure.

Three Act Structure Plot Line Graph

Here’s a short blog article from Karen Woodward that talks about pinch points, with some examples from Star Wars. To quote it:

First Pinch Point:

The first pinch point reminds us of the central conflict of the story.

Second Pinch Point:

The second pinch point, like the first, reminds the audience of the central conflict of the story, but it also is linked to the first. It shows the audience the threat (whatever it is that still stands in the way of the hero achieving his goal). The pinch point scene lays out what the hero has yet to conquer/overcome/accomplish.

To put three act structure more simply, however, we need only turn to the always trusty TV Tropes:

“I took a master class with Billy Wilder once and he said that in the first act of a story you put your character up in a tree and the second act you set the tree on fire and then in the third you get him down.”

Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back Producer Gary Kurtz, LA Times interview

The entire article is a pretty useful simple explanation of three act structure as well, so be sure to give it a read. That, along with this little rehash of everything you just read (found on the College of DuPage website), should get you feeling comfortable with the most basic of basics and ready to go over the previous tips again (especially Miéville’s) if you didn’t feel comfortable with three act structure already when reading them the first time.

[Click here for more writing advice for beginners.]

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.]

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.]