Things I've Learned About Writing
(Last change: 8 November 1996. Drastically incomplete.)
Here are some of the things I've learned about how to write fiction, many of them
culled from Clarion West:
- "Kill your darlings." If you've written a sentence that you think is
particularly clever, chances are your readers will think it's too clever. A
funny line in narration can work well in a funny story, but it can destroy a
serious story. Save your clever, cute, or punny phrases for cocktail-party
bon mots; don't put them in stories.
- The right verb or noun is far stronger than the wrong one modified by an
adverb or an adjective.
- If possible, maim your characters rather than killing them. The
emotional impact is often greater; character death is overused.
- When revising, it's often helpful to start over from scratch (using a
paper copy of the original draft for reference) rather than trying to
continually make tiny changes in existing sentence structure.
- The word "said" is almost transparent. Despite what high school
English teachers say, it's hard to overuse "said," and most other speaking
verbs call too much attention to themselves.
- In dialogue, speaking verbs can often be omitted altogether. To avoid
just alternating lines of dialogue (easy for reader to get lost in figuring
out who's saying what), insert sentences describing what the speaking
character is doing:
"Put that thing down!" In two strides, Terry crossed the room.
- Give your readers a full sensory experience: describe smells, sounds,
tastes, and textures as well as sights. Don't overdo it, though.
- Samuel R. Delany says that "character is not in the details, but in the
tension between the details." I understand this to mean that characters
shouldn't be generic stereotypes (or even archetypes), that characters who
feel real are more than one thing at a time. Don't make your character a
generic burly construction worker; make him a burly construction worker
with a Ph.D. in physics. Or make the construction worker a small wiry woman who was always better at
running than at weightlifting. And then develop the character
by delving into why and how the unusual facets coexist or interact.
- Read all dialogue aloud to make sure it sounds like dialogue. Sounding
like dialogue is not the same as being a precise rendition of real speech; if
you write down real speech word-for-word, it's unreadable. Give the illusion
of the real by means of the unreal; or as Degas put it, "[G]ive the idea of the true by means of the false."
- Be concrete and specific, not abstract and general.
- Where possible, reveal character emotions through dialogue and action
rather than narrative description. I have a hard time with this one because
I can usually think of ten different emotions that a given act might convey,
but when done well this can be a powerful tool.
- Writing in dialect can be awfully hard to read, though I admit I have a
soft spot for it (especially in works like Riddley Walker).
I'll go along with Anne Lamott in saying that if you don't just happen to be
extremely good at dialect, you should keep it to a minimum.
- Beginning writers often have very few characters in their stories. Try
to provide background characters with enough depth to give the illusion of
- John Gardner points out another beginner mistake: explicitly filtering
everything through the narrator's consciousness. "I thought he looked pale"
can usually be better put as simply "He looked pale."
- Another item from Anne Lamott, whom I consider some kind of a goddess:
"[Y]ou must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work.... Write
Jed Hartman <email@example.com>