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.]


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.]

Neil Gaiman’s Advice for Beginners Who Just Can’t Get Started

This one is short and a bit tongue in cheek, but it’s worth the read for aspiring writers nonetheless. Enjoy.

This is taken straight from Neil Gaiman’s tumblr:

joseph-the-mopasked: I have been trying to write for a while now. I have all these amazing ideas, but its really hard getting my thoughts onto paper. Thus, my ideas never really come to fruition. Do you have any advice?

Write the ideas down. If they are going to be stories, try and tell the stories you would like to read. Finish the things you start to write. Do it a lot and you will be a writer. The only way to do it is to do it.

I’m just kidding. There are much easier ways of doing it. For example: On the top of a distant mountain there grows a tree with silver leaves. Once every year, at dawn on April 30th, this tree blossoms, with five flowers, and over the next hour each blossom becomes a berry, first a green berry, then black, then golden.

At the moment the five berries become golden, five white crows, who have been waiting on the mountain, and which you will have mistaken for snow, will swoop down on the tree, greedily stripping it of all its berries, and will fly off, laughing.

You must catch, with your bare hands, the smallest of the crows, and you must force it to give up the berry (the crows do not swallow the berries. They carry them far across the ocean, to an enchanter’s garden, to drop, one by one, into the mouth of his daughter, who will wake from her enchanted sleep only when a thousand such berries have been fed to her). When you have obtained the golden berry, you must place it under your tongue, and return directly to your home.

For the next week, you must speak to no-one, not even your loved ones or a highway patrol officer stopping you for speeding. Say nothing. Do not sleep. Let the berry sit beneath your tongue.

At midnight on the seventh day you must go to the highest place in your town (it is common to climb on roofs for this step) and, with the berry safely beneath your tongue, recite the whole of Fox in Socks. Do not let the berry slip from your tongue. Do not miss out any of the poem, or skip any of the bits of the Muddle Puddle Tweetle Poodle Beetle Noodle Bottle Paddle Battle.

Then, and only then, can you swallow the berry. You must return home as quickly as you can, for you have only half an hour at most before you fall into a deep sleep.

When you wake in the morning, you will be able to get your thoughts and ideas down onto the paper, and you will be a writer.

Click here for more writing advice for beginners.

Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat Beat Sheet

This one was originally intended for screenwriters–especially those who want a decidedly commercial product–but it’s useful for novelists and short story writers alike.

Those of you who were afraid to give beginners something to shoehorn their plot into are really going to hate this one–from Blake Snyder, writer of the fabulous ’90s movie Blank Check among other screenplays–because it goes so far as to include specific wordcounts for each beat–originally page numbers for a screenplay which have been converted for our purposes.

All wordcounts assume a 100,000 word finished novel. Enjoy:


Opening Image (1 – 1,000 words) – A visual that represents the struggle & tone of the story. A snapshot of the main character’s problem, before the adventure begins.

Set-up (1 – 9,100 words) – Expand on the “before” snapshot. Present the main character’s world as it is, and what is missing in their life.

Theme Stated (happens during the Set-up at around 4,550 words) – What your story is about; the message, the truth. Usually, it is spoken to the main character or in their presence, but they don’t understand the truth…not until they have some personal experience and context to support it.

Catalyst (at 10,920 words) – The moment where life as it is changes. It is the telegram, the act of catching your loved-one cheating, allowing a monster onboard the ship, meeting the true love of your life, etc. The “before” world is no more, change is underway.

Debate (10,920 – 22,714 words) – But change is scary and for a moment, or a brief number of moments, the main character doubts the journey they must take. Can I face this challenge? Do I have what it takes? Should I go at all? It is the last chance for the hero to chicken out.

Break Into Two [Choosing Act Two] (at 22,714 words) – The main character makes a choice and the journey begins. We leave the “Thesis” world and enter the upside-down, opposite world of Act Two.

B Story (around 27,300 words) – This is when there’s a discussion about the Theme – the nugget of truth. Usually, this discussion is between the main character and the love interest. So, the B Story is usually called the “love story”.

The Promise of the Premise (27,300 – 50,050 words) – This is the fun part of the story. This is when Craig Thompson’s relationship with Raina blooms, when Indiana Jones tries to beat the Nazis to the Lost Ark, when the detective finds the most clues and dodges the most bullets. This is when the main character explores the new world and the audience is entertained by the premise they have been promised.

Midpoint (at 50,050 words) – Dependent upon the story, this moment is when everything is “great” or everything is “awful”. The main character either gets everything they think they want (“great”) or doesn’t get what they think they want at all (“awful”). But not everything we think we want is what we actually need in the end.

Bad Guys Close In (50,050 – 68,250 words) – Doubt, jealousy, fear, foes both physical and emotional regroup to defeat the main character’s goal, and the main character’s “great”/“awful” situation disintegrates.

All is Lost (at 68,250 words) – The opposite moment from the Midpoint: “awful”/“great”. The moment that the main character realizes they’ve lost everything they gained, or everything they now have has no meaning. The initial goal now looks even more impossible than before. And here, something or someone dies. It can be physical or emotional, but the death of something old makes way for something new to be born.

Dark Night of the Soul (68,250 – 77,350 words) – The main character hits bottom, and wallows in hopelessness. The Why hast thou forsaken me, Lord? moment. Mourning the loss of what has “died” – the dream, the goal, the mentor character, the love of your life, etc. But, you must fall completely before you can pick yourself back up and try again.

Break Into Three [Choosing Act Three] (at 77,350 words) – Thanks to a fresh idea, new inspiration, or last-minute Thematic advice from the B Story (usually the love interest), the main character chooses to try again.

Finale (77,359 – 99,100 words) – This time around, the main character incorporates the Theme – the nugget of truth that now makes sense to them – into their fight for the goal because they have experience from the A Story and context from the B Story. Act Three is about Synthesis!

Final Image (99,100 – 100,000 words) – opposite of Opening Image, proving, visually, that a change has occurred within the character.


If you liked that, you can find a huge list of movies analyzed using this beat sheet on Blake Snyder’s website right here, or you can read the full Save the Cat book. Further, on Jami Gold’s website, there’s a page with worksheets for writers, found here, that also includes a Save the Cat spreadsheet for novels. [Click here to directly download the .xls version.]

I hope that helped. And click here for more writing advice for beginners.

Virginia Woolf’s Advice on Creating Memorable Characters

The original post can be found on /r/writing here.

The other day I was reading an article by Ursula K. Le Guin about the books that changed her life, and in it she really emphasized the impact of Virginia Woolf, so I decided I would go to Woolf next to search for writing tips.

And did she ever have plenty, including this long infographic with ten general tips, created by the people at Essay Mama, but what I’d really like to talk about is her advice on building memorable characters.

In this article from the Airship, Freddie Moore discusses Woolf’s essay Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Brown [PDF], in which “she responds to an article by English writer Arnold Bennett, in which he argued that early 20th century authors were failing to write great novels because they failed to create tangible characters.”

You really should click through and read Moore’s intro on the Airship, but here’s the list of ten rules Moore extracted from Woolf’s essay. I hope they help:

1. Practice character-reading until you can “live a single year of life without disaster.”

This is perhaps the most gutsy advice Woolf offers. So many writers will advise you to live wildly, to fail, to suffer and bleed for your art — anything for a great life story that will give you the inspiration to write from. But Woolf makes a great point: finding inspiration doesn’t always have to be so hard on writers. It can be done simply, day by day, in trying to understand the people around you and having the courage to have a little empathy.

2. Observe strangers. Let your own version of their life story shoot through your head — how they got where they are now, where they might be going — and fill in the blanks for yourself.

When Woolf describes taking a seat across from Mrs. Brown, she describes her attire, her tidiness and her facial expression, but Woolf also lets her mind wander beyond what she sees. She lets traits serve as clues to what could be fictionalized:

There was something pinched about her — a look of suffering, of apprehension, and, in addition, she was extremely small. Her feet, in their clean little boots, scarcely touched the floor. I felt she had nobody to support her; that she had made up her mind for herself; that, having been deserted, or left a widow, years ago, she had led an anxious, harried life, bringing up an only son, perhaps, who as likely as not, was by this time beginning to go to the bad.

3. Eavesdrop. Listen to the way people speak, but pay special attention to their silence.

Eavesdropping is the oldest trick in the book in terms of learning to craft believable dialogue, but it can be just as helpful in understanding how to create generally believable characters. Of course, Woolf doesn’t dismiss silence, especially as far as conversations are involved. Silence can lead to uneasiness, as it does in Mrs. Brown’s conversation, and be revealing not only about a relationship, but each individual’s ability — or inability — to deal with uncertainty. Do they fidget? Do they quiet their voice or try to make it brighter to stir up conversation again? Do they do as Mrs. Brown finds herself doing to break the silence with non-sequiturs? One should be so lucky to get a non-sequitur like Mrs. Brown’s: “Can you tell me if an oak-tree dies when the leaves have been eaten for two years in succession by caterpillars?”

4. Write characters who are both “very small and very tenacious; at once very frail and very heroic.” Let them have contradictions.

As Woolf watches Mrs. Brown exit the train, she makes clear exactly what fascinates her about the woman: Mrs. Brown is full of contradictions. Initially, Mrs. Brown caught Woolf’s eye because of a tense conversation Woolf overheard between her and a younger man, but Woolf focuses most of her attention on Mrs. Brown, who speaks “quite brightly” and then begins to cry suddenly when the man tells her about his fruit farm in Kent. Woolf calls it a “very odd thing” to see Mrs. Brown respond by dabbing her eyes, but it leaves room for the author to imagine the story for herself.

5. Write about people who make an overwhelming impression on you. Let yourself be obsessed.

“Here is a character imposing itself on another person. Here is Mrs. Brown making someone begin almost automatically to write a novel about her.” Woolf makes the point that sometimes you don’t even need to seek out interesting people to observe — sometimes your characters find you. There’s no telling who will captivate you or any explanation of the serendipity of crossing paths, but when you do, write it all down. Let yourself be that crazed person.

6. A believable character is never just a list of traits or biographical facts.

Imagine the most dry way possible in getting to know someone: “What’s your name? Occupation? Where are you from?” Sure, these things are informative, but Woolf argues that good characters aren’t conveyed by merely rattling off a few facts. This, of course, goes back to the limitations Woolf stresses about the Edwardian style of the time and argues to avoid constructing characters by simply researching what the character’s father did for a living, or ascertaining their cost of rent, or figuring out what year their mother died. Of course, some writers like to start with biographical facts and fictionalize from there, but it’s clear that, for Woolf, knowing those things dulled her sense of creativity and openness to imagine whatever she wanted of them. Either way, Woolf got it right when she argued that just thinking of someone as a list of physical traits or a pawn on a timeline isn’t enough to create a convincing character.

7. Illustrate your characters outside of the superficial standards of their time. Let them be complex.

Woolf admits that writing for other people — for a public — can be intimidating. Will they hate my character? Will they find them unbelievable? At one point, she even makes a remark about the British public sitting by the writer saying: “Old women have houses. They have fathers. They have incomes. They have servants. They have water bottles. That is how we know that they are old women.” But Woolf argues that if you write a fictional character with conviction, if you can convince the public of anything, even that “All woman have tails, and all men humps.”

8. Any captivating protagonist should be someone you can imagine in “the center of all sorts of scenes.”

Part of what Mrs. Brown’s “overwhelming and peculiar impression” does to Woolf is inspire her to try to fill in the mystery of her character. She starts to imagine Mrs. Brown outside the incident, “in a seaside house, among queer ornaments: sea-urchins, models of ships in glass cases. Her husband’s medals on the mantlepiece.” But Woolf can also imagine scenes of Mrs. Brown alone, the young man from the train “blowing in” to her secluded home. She could see her arriving at the train station at dawn. Readers spend an entire book alongside the protagonists, and it should be someone fascinating enough to keep you turning pages through every moment, big or small.

9. Find a common ground between you and your characters — “steep yourself in their atmosphere.” Learn to empathize.

Sometimes the things we find most fascinating in choosing characters to write about is that they puzzle us. They’re captivating because there’s something so unlike you in that character, something you want to understand. Still, finding a common ground between you and your characters, no matter how unlike you they are, is necessary. Call it method-writing or what have you. Woolf explains it beautifully:

… to have got at what I meant I should have had to go back and back and back; to experiment with one thing and another; to try this sentence and that, referring each word to my vision, matching it as exactly as possible, and knowing that somehow I had to find a common ground between us, a convention which would not seem to you too odd, unreal, and far-fetched to believe in.

10. Describe your characters “beautifully if possible, and truthfully at any rate.”

How do you explain to people how to write about someone beautifully or truthfully? It’s something that seems near impossible — until you hear Woolf do it:

You should insist that [Mrs. Brown] is an old lady of unlimited capacity and infinite variety; capable of appearing in any place; wearing any dress; saying anything and doing heaven knows what. But the things she says and the things she does and her eyes and her nose and her speech and her silence have an overwhelming fascination, for she is, of course, the spirit we live by, life itself.

That’s all for today. Thanks for joining us. And click here for further advice for beginning authors.

Kurt Vonnegut on the Shapes of Stories and 8 Basics of Creative Writing

Today’s post appeared here originally.

This is one that I’m sure most of the writers on reddit have seen, but it’s worth a rehash nonetheless. The best place to start on Vonnegut’s shapes of stories, I think, is from the man himself, so here he is talking about his literary theory in video format.

If you don’t like to watch videos (I don’t either, but you should watch this one. It’s short, and he’s a great speaker.), you can check out this infographic with the same information.

Kurt Vonnegut's shapes of stories

Here I’d like to add something that only comes up in the comments of the original /r/writing self post, thanks to /u/kyle_albasi. That is the conclusion of the above talk, found in Vonnegut’s almost memoir A Man Without a Country, where Vonnegut says:

But there’s a reason we recognize Hamlet as a masterpiece: it’s that Shakespeare told us the truth, and people so rarely tell us the truth in this rise and fall here [indicates blackboard]. The truth is, we known so little about life, we don’t really know what the good news is and what the bad news is. And if I die-God forbid- I would like to go to heaven and ask somebody in charge up there ‘Hey! What was the good news and what was the bad news?!

Next, I’ll leave you with Vonnegut’s eight basics of creative writing. For everyone who hates the structures, models, and rules I’ve been posting, I think it’s especially important to pay attention to Vonnegut’s addendum after rule eight. Here they are:

Kurt Vonnegut created some of the most outrageously memorable novels of our time, such as Cat’s CradleBreakfast Of Champions, and Slaughterhouse Five. His work is a mesh of contradictions: both science fiction and literary, dark and funny, classic and counter-culture, warm-blooded and very cool. And it’s all completely unique.

With his customary wisdom and wit, Vonnegut put forth 8 basics of what he calls Creative Writing 101:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964). She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that.

From the preface to Vonnegut’s short story collection Bagombo Snuff Box.

And if that wasn’t enough, here’s a PDF with a set of eight other rules from Vonnegut on how to write in style.

I hope this was of some assistance. Thanks for joining us, and see you again next Thursday with more writing tips.

[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.]