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A Treasure Trove of Tips on Writing

If you would like to hone your writing skills but lack the funds or time to get a bachelor’s or master’s degree in creative writing, you can “correct” for this by attending writers conferences or workshops. Even less expensive and more convenient are the two methods I describe below. They’re cheap because you can do them without having to leave your house.

1. One of the methods is to study good books. To do this you’ll have to change the way you read. Instead of reading for enjoyment or information, read for reading: Examine the way writers put together sentences, paragraphs, essays, stories, whole books. How they handle dialogue. How they keep things moving. Instead of just tucking gratefully into the sausage, pluck up your courage and examine how it was made.

2. The other is to read books that discuss writing. My favorites (partly for the wonderful series design of the covers and text) are The Paris Review Interviews, published in four volumes by Picador.

Here is a smattering of the advice to be found in these books:

  • Asked whether he knew of devices for improving technique, Truman Capote says: “Work is the only device I know of. Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade, just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself. Even Joyce, our most extreme disregarder, was a superb craftsman: he could write Ulysses because he could write Dubliners. Too many writers seem to consider the writing of short stories as a kind of finger exercise. Well, in such cases, it is certainly only their fingers they are exercising.”
  • Martin Amis: “Plots really matter only in thrillers. In mainstream writing the plot is – what is it? A hook. The reader is going to wonder how things turn out. In this respect, Money was a much more difficult book to write than London Fields because it is essentially a plotless novel. It is what I would call a voice novel. If the voice doesn’t work you’re screwed … I was fairly confident that … this idea of a woman arranging her own murder pricked the curiosity. So although nothing much happens in five hundred pages, people are still going to want to know how it ends.”
  • Eudora Welty: “When I read, I hear what’s on the page. I don’t know whose voice it is, but some voice is reading to me … I see everything I write, but I have to hear the words when they’re put down.”
  • John Gardner: “To establish powerful characters, a writer needs a landscape … Setting is also a powerful vehicle of thematic concerns … You choose the setting that suits and illuminates your material.”

That’s all I’ll give you for now, but fear not, in my next post I’ll be sharing some more inspirational quotes from The Paris Review Interviews.

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