6 WRITING TIPS FROM JOHN STEINBECK
- Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
- Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
- Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.
- If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.
- Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.
- If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.
"If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that makes a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story."
Anonymous asked: How do you create atmoshere in a story?
Word choice, mostly. You choose the words you believe fit the story best. Take this picture, for example (s).
If you were writing a story about a character returning home, it might go like this:
The dank, earthy smell of the bayou settled deep into the back of her throat. She could taste the muggy air, already warm despite the early hour. The Spanish moss hung lazily from the tall branches and the waters were placid, save for where the occasional breathing turtle disturbed it. Irregular patches of sunlight filtered through the branches and illuminated the brackish water.
If you were writing a creepy story about a character who doesn’t like bayous, it might go like this:
There was not an inch of dry ground in sight. What was not murky water of unknown depth was muck or rotting logs ready to give way with the slightest touch. The Spanish moss drooled over the tree branches. She could feel it tickling her neck whenever she passed under it. The sweet, rotting smell of old wood and decaying plants stuck to the back of her throat like phlegm.
In the first piece, I discussed the bayou in positive sensory terms. I talked about the “earthy smell”, which has a positive connotation. Maybe you thought of gardening dirt or petrichor or something similar. I mentioned the warmth, which is good. Everyone likes being warm. Everything is quiet: the Spanish moss isn’t moving (lazily, I might add) and the water is placid - notice I used placid instead of deathly still or dead. There is some life here: I mentioned turtles, which have positive recognition for most people. I could have chosen alligators or snakes or alligator gars, but I chose nice, boring turtles. I mentioned that there is sunlight and it illuminates. People have a subconscious fear of the dark. Put them at ease - at home - with a reminder there is light.
In the second piece, I used some of the same sensory terms worded a different way. For example, the “earthy smell” became “sweet, rotting smell” and your mind takes you back to old sheds, abandoned buildings, dead bodies, and the like. I also mentioned how scents feel in your head in both pieces. In the second one, I said it “sticks like phlegm”. No one likes having mucus build up in your throat. Negative connotation. I played on some primitive fears, like the fear of falling into deep water, the fear of falling period, and that nasty feeling when something weird is touching the back of your neck.
I chose setting to demonstrate atmosphere because it’s easiest to do. You can apply this lesson to character descriptions - enemy soldiers will seem harsher, meaner, uglier, etc. than their friendly counterparts - and emotions - foaming rage instead of irritation - as well. I did a post on atmosphere in horror stories here.
spinal//space [draft v1]
tell me about your spine
i want to know if the hollows between the
cord and column house purgatories of
sensations where stars shoot from
your brain to fingertips
did it feel like galaxies exploding
in your hands when
you touched me?
because i trembled in the face of a Big Bang:
light escaping from darkness
because i swear that single lamp
burned brightly like the sun
(it kept me from looking into your eyes)
because only at zero gravity and
in your arms may i
explore the gift of being
because your beads of sweat
fell to my skin like
shamelessly down to a
Brave New World
tell me about your spine,
because you shot through mine like
a rocket ascending
and all you left behind was
Hemingway makes your writing bold and clear.
Basically the coolest little tool to have as a writer.
This is awesome!!!
“I hate it when it’s quiet. I wish someone would just scream and make a run for it.”
“The woman across the hall from me screams every night around four in the morning.”
“Wanna trade rooms?”
Beside me are two women who talk as though I’m not there, but I know they’re aware of my attentive ears. This makes me feel less like an eavesdropper. Our three chairs against the mauve wallpaper are the only ones occupied at this time, because the other residents have chosen to stay in their rooms or have an appointment with a health specialist.
The one eager for excitement is small, often with cane in hand. The dark wooden finish of it gleams under fluorescent lighting as it rests between my leg and hers. She used to be a physical education teacher in Massachusetts. “Dodge ball is a sissy sport,” she concludes decisively when I ask her if she ever had her kids play that elementary school staple.
“I don’t think you want to trade rooms with me,” says the woman next to her. Crows feet at the corner of her dark brown eyes are hidden by a pair of tortoiseshell glasses, frames arched at each corner in a chic cat eye shape. “Besides, we don’t need any screaming. Why don’t we sing a song?”
I’m about to pipe in that a song would be lovely, but I’m cut off by a scoff beside me. “Oh? What sort of song, hm?” the small one asks, giving me the impression that perhaps her friend’s suggestion is ludicrous.
“You know, the song we always sing. Come on, let’s sing it together. You know the words,” her friend says encouragingly. She adjusts the glasses on the bridge of her slender nose and clears her throat before humming softly.
The soft tune is replaced by a duet, a pair of voices filling the previously humdrum air of the hallway. The constant scrape of wheels against tiled floors and the intermittent beeps of a heart monitor two doors down are suddenly drowned out by the words of a 1940s tune.
It was much better than screaming, indeed.
How to Pronounce Humility
When my father laid the first brick for his future apartment complex,
he whispered, This is for my children.
My father never struck me as much of an architect,
but he was always the type of man who could build a home.
The blistering Bangladesh summers wore out his fingertips,
leaving dry rivers embedded deep within his browned palms.
My mother was never much of a scholar,
but she is savvy to the secrets of the world that I’ll never find in a book.
She is on her feet twelve hours a day, and never makes time to complain.
It was an ocean that took her father away, an ocean that forced
the news to be heard through a telephone wire.
My father held her for the first time in years.
My parents wanted to make sure that their children had dreams,
goals to fulfill through hours spent swimming in words
dictated in a foreign tongue.
They needed to ensure that their children would
grow up one day to become something worth respecting.
They have difficulty whispering the word perseverance,
and yet they epitomize it through their time spent figuring out A-murr-ica,
this country with all its oppro-too-nee-tees, and
chances for their children to succeed.
At times she likes to sweep the kitchen floor
while listening to audio cassettes of folk songs from the seventies
because she doesn’t understand how to work a CD.
Occasionally he settles himself at the dining table, either
to count his money or to eat his dinner alone.
They wished for my success,
and I wished for their humility.
“Dodge ball is a sissy sport,”
Ms. Todd repeats over and over
when I ask about her days
as a gym teacher.
“We need more women in sports,”
she says to no one in particular while
watching the London Olympics
in an empty lounge.
“I wish someone would make a break for it,”
she mutters while clutching her cane and
resting her curved spine against the
peeling mauve wallpaper.
But no one ever does because the
eleventh floor residents of
Isabella Geriatric Center would rather
play dominoes, sleep in chairs,
sip milk from blue cartons,
or knit scarves in July.
“I’d run straight to Massachusetts if I could,”
she says to the nurse changing her bed sheets.
Ms. Todd likes to stay in her room and
stare out her window at the distant
skyscrapers of midtown Manhattan.
Each time her family leaves, she
locks her door for an hour.
She doesn’t want anyone to
see her blue eyes swell.
“Crying is for sissies,”
she tells me.
I was told the mango is the national fruit of Bangladesh
at an age when I still couldn’t place my finger on the map
to point out the delta that saturated my grandfather’s fields.
I was told it was “near Pakistan,” as though I could
navigate my way from Islamabad to Dhaka.
My father left the taste of sweltering summers
and power outages on my tongue.
He sits at the cherry wood table while he skins it.
Sometimes he listens to the news reporter delivering
death tolls and mortality rates and the wails of
a mother who lost a son in the politically charged crossfire.
He doesn’t flinch when she dabs her eyes with a threadbare sari.
The paring knife teases his thumb.
I ask if I can turn off the television.
My father knows when it’s perfectly ripe,
and he always saves the best slices for me because
he doesn’t know how else to remind me of my roots.
The idea of him sleeping under a roof of
corrugated sheet metal seems make-believe.
Imagine when it rained, he prods.
I try to picture it, but tonight’s mango is so sweet – I wince.
How to Love a Musician
at three in the morning,
my eyes don’t exist in the darkness
but I can still hear you composing. you
blindly trace fingertips along the
valleys between my vertebrae
like a set of familiar keys. there
aren’t 88 of them but I promise
if you practice scales on my spine,
I’ll sing as sweetly as
a Steinway Grand.
There’s more than just Southern charm
twinkling in the Big Easy smiles of
Nawlins natives sitting on porches;
their lips curl in welcome as we
wander the cracked pavements
of their recovering sidewalks.
Shotgun houses on Esplanade hide under
an arboreal canopy woven together by
gnarled branches of 800-year-old oaks.
Cerulean shutters behind filigree balconies
stay open to greet the Mississippi breeze.
Sunlight bathes Jackson Square
as tourists wander lazily between
masquerade gift shops, finding a
myriad of Mardi Gras trimmings:
beads, boas and Venetian masks
in explosive colors and the perfect gaudiness
of glitter, metallics, ribbons, and feathers.
They warned us about Bourbon Street, where
Hand Grenades and Hurricanes aren’t
dangerous (except for your liver), where
neon lights flicker above doors
leading into strip clubs and dive bars.
We dance beside a blue-haired woman
spitting rehearsed verses into a mic,
wondering if she’ll notice us.
Beignets taste better at 3 AM in an
empty Café du Monde with new friends,
even though the powdered sugar
misses my mouth entirely. I forgot the first
rule of thumb: don’t wear black.
We walk the same streets in the
French Quarter each day, fascinated by—
the waves of purple, green, and gold;
palm trees and streetcars;
the fleur de lis and WHO DAT!;
the taxidermied alligator heads.
We walk the same streets and I don’t mind
the aches in my step because even
Frenchman Street jazz can’t sound better than
our laughter as we walk home to the Seventh Ward
while the sun sets on the Crescent City.