The best advice on writing a book comes from those who have written books that resonated with multiple generations. It’s difficult to remember that these authors were not always infallible masters of the written word, but writers who struggled as much, if not more, than the average writer, and learned how to get the most out of themselves. Keep this advice in mind as you craft your own manuscripts.
Advice on writing from Ernest Hemingway
Perhaps no other writer in history has had more say about writing than Ernest Hemingway. He peppered his books, articles, and personal messages with thoughts on writing.
The advice that influenced me most is not actually about writing, but about when to stop writing. Hemingway made it a habit not to stop when he didn't know what he would write next. Instead, he kept going until he knew exactly where the story was leading him:
“The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck.”
The pause from one day to the next often contributes to writer’s block. You return to the page, try to get absorbed by the story again, and find it requires some time to get your imagination going again. This was Hemingway’s method of ensuring the gap between the time he spent writing didn’t impede his progress.
Once he returned to the page, he knew exactly what would happen next, so he could start writing immediately.
Mark Twain on Writing with a Lightning Bug
There’s no question that Mark Twain is deservedly one of America’s most famous authors. He makes it seem so easy, almost as if writing comedy is a matter of joking around with one’s own manuscript. But behind the text that appears to flow from a natural raconteur is a steadfast determination to figure out, not just the perfect character or scene, but the perfect word.
That’s right. He scrutinized each and every word, in order to find the one that struck the right tone. This becomes obvious even from looking at his advice:
“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
Twain realized that the power of the right word far exceeds a substitute’s. ‘Lightning’ is almost the same as ‘lightning bug’ – only one word separates the two. And yet, what a world of difference there is between the effect of lightning and the blinking of a bug! I think he made his point effectively.
John Steinbeck’s Imagination Prod
As creative as writers are, we often need to remember that there are no rules. We often impose made-up limitations on our writing. John Steinbeck shares the advice that was given to him when he was a young writer:
“...there were no rules. A story could be about anything and could use any means and any technique at all - so long as it was effective.”
I believe the first lesson every new writer should learn is that you have the freedom to create anything imaginable. You’re not constrained by what you’ve seen or read. You can envision the impossible or find a microcosm in a patch of soil.
The other portion of Steinbeck’s advice applies to technique. E.M. Forster famously taught, at Cambridge no less, that every novel must obey the natural passage of time. That was the one definite rule writers had to abide by. Yet, consider stories you know that effectively warp time, because the author felt it would be more effective for his narrative. They went against Forster’s very definition of what a novel is, and what happened? It worked anyway.
Steinbeck might be right. We probably shouldn’t apply rules to writing. You should try to challenge the rules you believe exist, and your story might just benefit from that burst of creativity.
Hunter S. Thompson’s on Writing about the Self
Anyone who has read Hunter S. Thompson’s books, and knows his biography, can sense Thompson’s characters are deeply infused with his own character and experiences. Thompson was well aware of what he was doing:
“Don’t be afraid to inject different parts of yourself into your characters. While no one character can stand proxy for you, it’s effective to allow yourself into your writing.”
Allowing some of your own weaknesses or idiosyncrasies to enter your characters can breathe life into them. Just one realistic quirk often defines a character. However, it’s important to note Thompson specifically points out that no character can stand as your proxy. A writer shouldn't put all of himself or herself into one character. Characters are necessarily less complex than we are, which is why different parts of ourselves can be distributed to a variety of characters.
When this is done properly, (which requires some vulnerability on the author’s part) it adds a dimension to the character and resonates with readers.
(Did anyone notice that by being ‘necessarily less complex’, I’m suggesting there’s a rule about the complexity of characters? Anyone want to apply Steinbeck’s advice to this?)
Advice on writing a book from F. Scott Fitzgerald
“An author ought to write for the youth of his own generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmasters of ever afterward.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald lived up to his own advice. The Great Gatsby was set in the jazz age of his generation in the 1920’s, and resonated with the youth of its age. The critics were, as always, a generation older than Fitzgerald’s, and they applauded the book as enthusiastically as the younger generation.
These readers and critics created a wave that ‘schoolmasters’ of future generations reacted to. Isn’t academia infamous for how long it takes to accept a book as worthy of being taught? Previous generations must have approved of a title in order for it to enter the hallowed hallways of an academic institution.
Well, Fitzgerald did it. Who hasn’t read The Great Gatsby in high school, and probably again in college? He created a classic by attracting a wave of critical readers, each one from a different generation.
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