On Writing

December 17, 2023

Book Notes

On Writing book cover

When I read a book I have the habit of highlighting certain passages I find interesting or useful. After I finish the book I’ll type up those passages and put them into a note on my phone. I’ll keep them to comb through every so often so that I remember what that certain book was about. That’s what these are. So if I ever end up lending you a book, these are the sections that I’ve highlighted in that book. Enjoy!

“There was a comforting line of light under the door”

I remember believing that details were dentals and that a bitch was an extremely tall woman. A son of a bitch was apt to be a basketball player.

Good story ideas seem to come quite literally out of nowhere, sailing at your right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.

When you’re too young to shave, optimism is a perfectly legitimate response to failure.

If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all. I’m not editorializing, just trying to give you the facts as I see them.

When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out al the things that are not the story.

Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Once you know what the story is and get it right–as lright as you can, anyway–it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or criticize it.

“Did you say it went for forty thousand dollars?”
“Four hundred thousand dollars. Under the rules of the road (meaning the contact he signed) two-hundred K of it’s yours. Congratulations, Steve.”

I took her by the shoulders. I told her about the paperback sale. She didn’t appear to understand. I told her again. Tabby looked over my shoulder at our shitty little four-room apartment, just as I had, and began to cry.

“I understand you were too sick to tour New York with the rest of the boys and girls”
I say that’s right, I’d been sick.
“Feeling better now?”
“Yes, feeling better now”
“Ah, probably a stomach flu, one of those 24-hour bugs”

Put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.

Writing is telepathy, of course.

Actual telepathy in action – You’ll notice I have nothing up my sleeves and that my lips never move. Neither, most likely, do yours. Look–here’s a table covered with a red cloth. On it us a cage the size of a small fish aquarium. In the cage is a white rabbit with a pink nose and pink-rimmed eyes. In its front paws is a carrot-stub upon which it is contentedly munching. On its back, clearly marked in blue ink, is the numeral 8. Do we see the same thing?

Some recievers will see a cloth which is turkey red, some will see one that’s scarlet, while other may see still other shades. Some may see scalloped edges, some may see straight ones. Decorative should may add a little lace. Likewise, the matter of the cage leaves quite a lot of room for individual interpretation. For one thing, it is described in terms of rough comparison, which is useful only if you and I see the world and measure the things in it with similar eyes.

What am I going to say? “On the tabel is a cage three feet, six inches in length, two feet in width, and fourteen inches high” That’s not the prose, that an instruction manual. The paragraph also doesn’t tell us what sort of material the cage is made of–wire mesh? steel rods? glass? –but does it really matter? We all understand the cage is a see-through medium; beyond that we don’t care. The most interesting thing here isn’t even the carrot-munching rabbit in the cage, but the number on its back. Not a six, not a four, not nineteen-point five. It’s an eight. This is what we’re looking at, and we all see it. I didn’t tell you. You didn’t ask me. I neever opened my mouth and you never opened yours. We’re not even in the same year together, let alone the same room…except we are together. We’re close.

You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair,–the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart.

Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.

I asked him why he’d lugged Fazza’s toolbox all the way around the house, if all he’d needed was that one screwdriver. He could have carried a screwdriver in the back pocket of his khakis. “Yeah but Stevie I didn’t know what else I might find to do once I got out here, did I? It’s best to have your tools with you. If you don’t you’re apt to find something you didn’t expect and get discouraged.” I want to suggest that to write to your best abilities, it behooves you to construct your own toolbox and then build up enough muscle so you can carry it with you. Then, instead of looking at a hard job and getting discouraged, you will perhaps seize the correct tool and get immediately to work. There comes a point where a toolbox becomes too large to be portbale and this loses its chief virtue.

Put your vocabulary on the top shelf of your toolbox, and don’t make any conscious effort to improve it. One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little but ashamed of your short ones.

The basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful. If you hesitate and cogitate, you will come up with another word–of course you will, there’s alwasy another word–but ir probably won’t be as good as your first one, or as close to what you really mean.

Strunk and White caution against too many simple sentences in a row, but simple sentences provide a path you can follow when you fear getting lost in the tangles of rhetoric.

Verbs come in two types, active and passive. With an active verbm the subject of the sentence is doing something. With a passive verb, something is being done to the subject of the sentence. The subject is just letting it happen. You should avoid the passive tense.

The adverb is not your friend.

If you don’t want to work your ass off, you have no business trying to write well–settle back into competency and be grateful you have even that much to fall back on.

Don’t wait for the muse. Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ’til noon or seven ’til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he’ll start showing up, chomping his cigar and making his magic.

It’s wrong to turn away from what you know and like in favor of things you believe will impress your friends, relatives, and writing-circle colleagues. What’s equally wrong is th deliberate turning toward some genre or type of fiction in order to make money.

The assumption that the write controls the material instead of the other way around is wrong. The writer who is serious and commited is incapable of sizing up story material the way an investor might size up various tock offerings, picking out the ones which seem likelu to provide a good return.

I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves.

Plot is a far bigger tool, the writeer’s jackhammer. You can liberate a fossil from hard ground with a jackhammer, no argument there, but you know as well as I do that the jackhammer is going to break almost as much stuff as it liberates.

I want to put a group of characters (Perhaps a pair; perhaps even just one) in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free. For a suspense novelist this is a great thing. I am, after all, not just the novel’s creator but its first reader. And if I’m not able to guess with any accuracy how the damned thing is going to turn out, even with my inside knowledge of coming events, I can be pretty sure of keeping the reader in a state of page-turning anxiety. And why worry about the ending anyway? Why be such a control freak? Sooner or later every story comes out somewhere.

Man it was so great (or so horrible/strange/funny) . . . I just can’t describe it! If you want to be a successfuly write, you must be able to describe it, and in a way that will cause your reader to prickle with recognition.

I can’t remember many cases where I felt I had to describe what the people in a story of mine looked like. I don’t need to give you a pimple-by-pimple, skirt-by-skirt rundown. We all remember one or more high school loser, after all; if I describe mine, it freezes out yours, and I lose a little bit of the bond of understanding I want to forge between us.

For me, good description usually consists of a few well-chosen details that will stand for everything else. In most cases, these details will be the first ones that come to mind. The first four things which come to my mind when I think of Palm Too are: (a) the darkness of the bar and contrasting brightness of the backbar mirror, which catches and reflects light from the street; (b) the sawdust on the floor; (c) the funky cartoon caricatures on the walls; (d) the smells of cooking steak and fish.

In many cases when a reader puts a story aside because it “got boring”, the boredom arose because the writer grew enchanted with his powers of description and lost sight of his priority, which is to keep the ball rolling.

By comparing two seemingly unrealted objects–a restaurant bar and a cave, a mirror and a mirage–we are sometimes able to see an old thing in a new and vivid way.

Always remind yourself that your job as the writer is to say what you see, and then to get on with your story.

You can tell me via straight narration that your main character, Mistuh Butts, never did well in school, never even went much to school, but you can convey the same thing, and much more vividly, by his speech . . and one of the cardinal rules of good fiction is never tell us a thing if you can show us.

I’m not much of a believer in the so-called caharcter study; I think that in the end, the story should always be the boss. Hey, if you want a character study, buy a biography or get season tickets to your local college’s theater-lab productions. It’s also important to remember that no one is “the bad guy” or “the best friend” or “the whore with a heart of gold” in real life; in real life we each of us regard ourselves as the main character.

If you do your job, your characters will come to life and start doing stuff on their own. I know it sounds a littel creepy if you haven’t actually experienced it, but it’s terrific fun when it happens.

Practice is invaluable (and should feel really good, really not like practice at all) and that honesty is indeipensible.

Mostly, I don’t see stuff like that until the story’s done. Once it is, I’m able to kick back, read over what I’ve written, and look for underlying patterns. If I see some (and I almost always do), I can work at bringing them out in a second, more fully realized, draft of the story.

When I read Carrie over prior to starting the second draft, I noticed there was blood at all three crucical points of the story – the beginning, the climax, and the end. The significance of all that blood was hard to miss once I started reading over my beer and tea-splattered first-draft manuscript. So I started to play with the idea, image, and emotional connotations of blood, trying to think of as many associations as I could.

Symbolism can serve as a focusing device for both you and your reader, helping to create a more unified and pleasing work. When you read your manuscript over (and when you talk it over). you’ll see if symbolism, or the potential for it, exists. If it doesn’t, leave well enough alone. If it does, however–if it’s clearly a part of the fossil you’re working to unearth–go for it. Enhance it. You’re a monkey if you don’t.

At one moment I had none of this; at the next I had all of it. If there is any one thing I love about writing more than the rest, it’s that sudden flash of insight when you see how everything connects. I have heard it called “thinking above the curve” and it’s that; I’ve heard it called “the over-logic,” and it’s that too.

Good fiction alwasy begins with a story and progresses to theme; it almost never begins with theme and progresses to story.

If I write rapidly, putting down my story exactly as it comes into my mind, only looking back to check names of my characters and the relevant parts of thier back stories, I find that I can keep up with my original enthusiasm and at the sam time outrun the self-doubt that’s always waiting to settle in.

There comes a point when you want to show what you’re doing to a close friend either because you’re proud of what you’re doing or because you’re doubtful about it. My best advice is to resist this impulse. I think you must be cautious and give yourself a chance to think while the story is still like a field of freshly fallen snow, absent of any tracks save your own.

The 2nd draft = 1st draft – 10%.

Every story and novel is collapsible to some degree. If you can’t get out ten percent of it while retaining the basic story and flavor, you’re not trying very hard.

Remember that you are writing a novel, not a research paper. The story always comes first.

In T. Coraghessan Boyle’s wonderful tragicomic novel East is East, there is a description of a writer’s colony in the woods that struck me as fairy-tale perfect. Each attendee has his or her own little cabin where he or she supposedly spends the day writing. At noon, a waiter from the main lodge brings these fledgling Hemingways and Cathers a box lunch and puts it on the front stoop, so as not to disturb the creative trance of the cabin’s occupant. One room of each cabin is the writing room. In the other is a cot for that all-important afternoon nap . . . or, perhaps, for a revivifying bounce with one of the other attendees. In the evening, all members of the colony gather in the lodge for dinner and intoxicating conversation with the writers in residence. Later, before a roaring fire in the parlor, marshmallows are toasted, popcorn is popped, wine is drunk, and the stories of the colony attendees are read aloud and then critiqued. To me, this sounded like an absolutely enchanted writing environment.

@joekotlan on X