Writing Advice

Writing Advice

On August 9, 2020, the New York Times Book Review ran a piece by Amitava Kumar called “Literary Advice.” Kumar is a writer who sometimes asks other writers to sign their book for him. When he does, he asks them to add a piece of writing advice. The Times piece includes some of what the other writers said. Here are the quotes that spoke particularly to me. Maybe they’ll resonate with you too.

Read the masters and, at least occasionally, read them closely! (Lydia Davis)

When I’m writing, I find it useful to read the best books I can find. Good writing seems to stimulate the creative part of my brain, even if the book is in a genre I don’t write. I get excited enough that I can’t wait to get back to my own manuscript.

Davis’s advice to occasionally read “closely” sounds good, but I have to admit, I don’t do it. Reading closely presents a chance to analyze what the writer is doing, and that can be instructive. My only excuse for not doing it is that there are so many books, and so little time.

There is always more than one story. Your job is to find that story you did not start to tell. (Yiyun Li)

I do a lot of planning before I write. So when I do start, I think I know what my story is about. I think I understand how my characters will act and why they act that way. But I always find that as I write, I learn more about the potential in that story. I realize again that I don’t know my characters until I see them in action. If I allow myself to learn from that experience, the story can grow deeper and more honest.

Read out loud! (Tommy Orange)

This writing advice works best for me when I’m editing. My ear is much better than my eye at doing things like picking out awkward sentences or repeated words. I typically read my own draft. But these days it’s possible for writers to have one of their devices read the book out loud to them. I highly recommend this as a late part of the revision process. You’ll be amazed at what you hear.

Don’t confuse honors with achievement (Zadie Smith)

This advice aims to keep writers from fixating on how they’re faring in comparison to other writers. That’s a fool’s game and will only lead to unhappiness. Focus on the work. Don’t waste energy on matters beyond your control.

Always put a dog in your book (Jenny Offill)

Yes! I follow this advice when I can. Tuc, a dog who appeared in The Wind Reader, will reappear and have a larger role in The Trickster, due out in March 2021.

Because dogs are a good thing, here’s a picture I took in the park recently of a dog who looks like how I picture Tuc. And see? There are few pieces of writing that can’t be improved by including a dog.

7 thoughts on “Writing Advice

  1. I think the advice to include a dog is very good. My story has a Redbone Hound has one named Beau who becomes important to the end of the book.
    Another bit of advice I got from reading is to always save the cat. If there’s a fire your hero must rescue the cat.

    1. I have that “Save the Cat” book too! Also the sequel. I find them very useful.

      One of them includes the idea to add a “pope in the pool.” That is, if you absolutely have to deliver some bit of exposition or backstory via dialogue, have something interesting going on in the background, like the pope swimming laps. We used to watch “The Big Bang” and one time Sheldon and Leonard were doing Wii archery while explaining some situation to one another. I turned to Mr DAW and said “pope in the pool.” He thought I was crazy.

      1. LOL! The first time I’ve heard about the Pope in the pool.
        I didn’t know about the book, “Save The Cat”, but I read someone’s basic advice years ago that advised that. And when the Green’s house does burn down they do save the cat. It’s not as much of a household pet as ours are, it’s there to keep mice out of the pantry and cellar, but Susannah likes it enough to want it to sleep on her bed.

  2. Forgot to add that reading authors whose writing you admire for any reason, elegance or simplicity or whatever, is excellent advice.
    Letting your characters grow and tell you who they are is a surprising thing when it happens, when they assert themselves and add details about their lives that you didn’t know about them.
    There is another character in my book, a slave child raised as one of the white children in the family, who has a storyline equally or even more important than that of Susannah, that I’ve been too gentle to develop properly, being a white person worrying about telling the story of a black person, but now I know I must be able to be harsh with her or the book will be judged… inadequate? Inauthentic? Racist for sugarcoating her story? I know what I need to do, but I like her so much that I have held back from her reality while showing the abuse that the other slaves endured. The hypocrisy of their owners is on full display, showing how they lie to themselves about how civilized they are.

    1. I find it very hard to face my characters’ grimmest realities in any case, and the race issue must add to the difficulty. It’s so easy to fool yourself about why you do or don’t writing something.

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