Recently, I condensed my notes from fourteen years of writing workshops into a fourteen-day email series. The result is part creative writing crash course, part mobile-friendly memoir of learning to build a writing career. One of the things that struck me, looking back over the notes, was how often these instructors—well-known authors from around the country—were able to describe their work processes almost as if they were mechanics, or lab technicians, or computer programmers. Professional authors, it turns out, approach their work like. . . work. They’ve thought about how to reverse-engineer good writing. They have methods for picking topics and following the threads of their subject matter. They have strategies for getting unstuck.
Here is a collection of some of the most workmanlike thoughts that authors shared during their workshops.
“Painters need to know what goes into a particular shade of red. Writers need to go back to the ingredients, too. . . (Individual) sounds take you back to when you were a kid on someone’s lap, responding emotionally to the sounds of literature.”
“Take a writer you really like. Read the same story by them five times. Then, create a beat sheet. Then try to follow the beat sheet with your own story.”
“Your job is almost always to embed the reader in the consciousness of the character. So they must know the important things the character knows.”
“Never write a genre you don’t read.”
“Be a technician. Look for the scaffolding like an architect. Don’t just let it wash over you. Ask why it washes over you. But then, don’t let the readers see your scaffolding.”
“You are hopefully writing with love for your reader. Ask yourself how you want them to feel.”
“You need to know what your book is about. Then, you’ will know what goes in and what comes out and how to spend your credit with the reader. Unfortunately, you don’t know what your story is about when you start. You just don’t. Our stories try to mimic how we understand life. That is how the operating system of our brain works.”
“When you are stuck, have your character write you a letter.”
“The voice that says, ‘this sucks’ is horrible, but it’s also helpful. And it can be taught to say other things.”
“People say ‘write what you know,’ but in a way we know everything, because we know the emotions.”
“If you ask what you SHOULD be writing about, you are preparing to be dishonest.”
“You must have sustained empathy for all characters. . . If you’re writing well, you’re not exploiting your material. You’re not putting anyone out there for any other reason than to say, ‘I get you. I love you. I’ve been paying attention.’”
“Be specific, but only when something is interesting. When something is interesting, you look at it longer. If a source with a huge scar hands a detective a mysterious photo in a diner, and then lunch is served… spare us the description of the sandwich. When you let the camera linger and crowd a scene with details, you are saying the scene is important. There should be a direct ratio between the importance and the level of detail. Forget the sandwich. Focus on the ninjas.”
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