This how-to writing book was first published in 1995 but it’s my latest writing book read. Stein is a successful author and respected editor. While it’s a little outdated on the state of the book market, it’s a standout in its genre because it’s practical, technical as well as strategic, well written and inspiring. Stein also covers fiction and non-fiction, while many books do one or the other.
The topics he covers include the technical essentials such as character, point of view, opening, dialogue and how to stand out, albeit in a more strategic way than I’ve seen before (by that I mean he writes about these issues as part of the whole rather than as distinct aspects).
He also offers some different and more strategic approaches such as how to use all of the six senses in your writing, particularity, resonance, love scenes, tapping into your originality, ‘guts’ ad how to revise fiction. His great writing, frequent use of examples, and strategic point of view, and all done in an encouraging way, are memorable. I’ll always find his lessons useful.
Key take outs:
- In the chapter ‘Triage: A Better Way of Revising Fiction’, Stein offers a prioritised approach to rewriting manuscripts. Rather than going sequentially from beginning to end, he offers up a list of issues to resolve beginning with the main character, antagonist, minor characters, conflict, memorability of scenes, motivation etc.. I found this approach very helpful. Even if you don’t use it, it provides a thorough checklist.
- Practice is essential. Practice is good. Practice is normal. “By practice one learns to use what one has understood. Only writers, it seems, expect to achieve a level of mastery without practice.” So don’t feel bad if you’re not there yet. Just keep working at it. Be open to learning, search for constructive criticism, attend workshops and read read read books like this.
- I yawn at those lists to of questions to ask your character to get to know them better. He has a much deeper set of exercises that I found interesting and much more useful, including listening to your character complain bitterly, having a heated argument with them, picturing them old/young or in an unusual situation, and having a conversation to have with them before sleeping in the hope you’ll wake up with a solution to any story issues.
Score: 10/10 Instructive
I had an amazing writing day the other day. Words flowed out of me in a way I’d been working towards for a while.
What did I do differently that day? I asked myself. It took me a while to work out what it was, but I’d spent the morning doing physical work and listening to music – my Best Songs Eva playlist. I’ve been experimenting since then with listening to music before and during writing. This is what I found:
- Music inspires
Art feeds art, and music can inspire you to write in a new way. Choose the right playlist to arouse, impel, exalt, animate, fill you (you get the idea) with feeling, openness and receptivity and let it flow out of you onto the page.
- Music enhances mood and creativity
There’s something about listening to the right kind of music to get your neurons and synapses firing. I had to write about something based in personal pain, which I hadn’t been looking forward to. But it flowed out of me with an honesty I was flawed by, and surprisingly it was less painful than I’d expected. My word combinations were also new and exciting. I came up with language I didn’t know I had in me. Some of it needed paring back, but it was a great start. Music seemed to be my muse.
- Great lyrics help language
Music with great lyrics – by that I mean words combined in a new way to create meaning and impact greater than their sum – can make you think about language in a new way, just like reading a classic book by a great author. It’s about looking at language through someone else’s eyes to spark new ways of using it yourself. It’s also about absorbing compelling language in an unconscious way that will hopefully show up on the page.
- Music can block distractions and create focus
Some people use music to block out other distractions. I didn’t find this myself, but it definitely gave me greater focus and single-mindedness.
- Write while listening to music?
This is OK for me, but not ideal. I found it interfered with the music of my words, sentences and paragraphs. That said many people swear by it so experiment to work out what’s best for you.
- Or listen to music before you write?
This works best for me and it’s how I plan to go on using music. I’m working on creating playlists for certain moods I want to create in my writing. But really, anything that moves me seems to inspire. What works best for you?
I’ve been tussling with this one for a while. Some people are happy writing when the mood takes them and produce plenty of work they’re satisfied with. Others find weekly word quotas work for them. I thought I was one of those people. But if that’s the case, why did I struggle to get back into my manuscript after a weekend break?
Over the last two weeks I’ve attempted to write every day, which I largely managed except for one day. Here are the things I discovered:
- Writing is a committed relationship
When writing a story, whether fiction or creative non-fiction, it’s as though you’re in a long-term relationship with your characters and story. By dedicating daily time to spend with your work you’re remaining connected. That means it’s easier to pick up where you left off the previous day. Your work is fresh, alive and growing, like a plant you have to water daily for it to thrive. Also, the characters and story stay with you, which means you’re more likely to be working on them at a subconscious level. It’s all about maximising your flow.
The other point about writing being a committed relationship is that if you treat it well like you would a loved partner, your writing becomes less like work and more like fun. With your story and character connection strong, you’re happier to nurture and spend time with them. This has to be a productive thing.
- Set time aside, even if you don’t write
By setting time aside every day, be it half an hour or two, you’re allowing the possibility of writing to happen. You’re receptive and open to the possibility, like you’ve put the kettle on or wine bottle in the fridge in anticipation of a good friend’s visit. This is about giving your characters permission to speak and allowing your story to move forward as it needs. Perhaps they don’t turn up on the day, but by creating the space you’re extending a welcoming hand. You never know what might happen.
- Form the habit
There are loads of myths out there about how many days of repeating something it takes become you form a habit, but my research showed the correct number is sixty-six. If writing becomes a habit, you’re more likely to do it regardless of your mood or circumstances or other forms of resistance. Do first, think later.
- Write little and often
You’ve probably heard the maxim that goes something like, ‘Don’t write a lot, but write often’. I’ve been doing a lot of this—an hour’s writing, half and hour of something else, another half an hour of writing and so on. For me it takes the pressure off having to sit down for hours, taking on large chunks of work, big themes and major events etc.. I can attack my work in bite-sized pieces and come back refreshed and willing to write the next bit.
- It feels better
Writing is an outlet and a purpose, and on the days I write I simply feel better. I feel more me, more grounded, more satisfied. I’m not sure I’ll write every day, but most days seems to work well for me at the moment. Try it for yourself.