I’m not the quickest learner. I read a lot of books, listen to other writers speak about writing, take workshops and classes, attend conferences. With all that, there are things I keep having to learn over and over (in some cases, just to remind myself that I don’t have to do something just because it’s good advice). About a decade ago, I started writing some of these down.

  • Writing is a whole lifetime and a lot of practice. ~ Natalie Goldberg
  • Two stories should wrap like DNA, not go parallel. ~ Dorothy Allison
  • Subplot = plot lines and story elements given to different characters; layers = plot lines and story elements give to o one character ~ Donald Maass
  • You’ve got one hundred creative horses. If forty horses are wondering what the critics will say, you’ve only got sixty left to work with. Call back your horses! ~ Billy May
  • Collapse the distance: distance between readers and the page and distance between writer and idea ~ Stevan Allred
  • Avoid rhetorical questions ~ Kate Grey
  • Reader writes his or her own story ~ Dorothy Allison (when writer is vague, reader makes choices, fills in the blanks. Writer needs to guide these choices.)
  • Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way. ~ E.L. Doctorow
  • Talent is a question of quantity. Talent does not write one page; it writes three hundred. ~ Jules Renard
  • Ask dangerous questions ~ Dorothy Allison (characters who ask questions hook readers because we ask the questions with the character and we worry about the same things as the character. So the questions need to be dangerous. Especially if the reader can imagine worse consequences than the character)
  • It’s better to be crazy than false. ~ Natalie Goldberg
  • Writers have no real area of expertise. They are merely generalists with a highly inflamed sense of punctuation. ~ Lorrie Moore
  • I wrote a script and gave it to a guy that reads scripts. And he read it and said he really likes it, but he thinks I need to rewrite it. I said, “Fuck that, I’ll just make a copy.” ~ Mitch Hedberg
  • Consider character self regard ~ Dorothy Allison (Bring forward on the page, a character’s self-regard: that reflection and self-examination that shows us that a character has a compass-true sense of self and a grasp of the meaning of what is happening to her at any given moment in the story)
  • Scene is conflict, action and resolution ~ Tom Jenks (scene is movement of characters through CAR over short time)
  • Style should be like a transparent varnish… ; it should spread completely over the colors, make them brighter, but not alter them. ~ Stendhal
  • Basically, if you want to become a good writer, you need to do three things. Read a lot, listen well and deeply, and write a lot. And don’t think too much. ~ Natalie Goldberg
  • Tension in every line, conflict in every scene ~ John Reed (at least every scene)
  • Training to be a writer is a slow and continuous process, with time off for human behavior. ~ Marie-Elise
  • Nouns anchor us ~ Stevan Allred (after more than one “it” bring back the noun)
  • A good writer refuses to be socialized. He insists on his own version of things, his own consciousness. And by doing so he draws the reader’s eye from its usual groove into a new way of seeing. ~ Bill Barich
  • Plot is control ~ John Reed (plot sequence controls tension, pacing. Can heighten reader involvement)
  • The pleasure of writing is that the mind does not wander, any more than it does in the orgasm – and writing takes longer than orgasm. ~ Donald Hall
  • Little story arcs lead to big stories ~ Dorothy Allison (Episodic, overlapping arcs – like TV. Each episode has a story arc. But there are also arcs that go through several episodes. There is also the arc that covers an entire season. Some build, while others close, always behind the overall arc)
  • Complicate! ~ Donald Maass (complications can be: inner, private, psychological and/or external, public, unprovoked
  • And this is the way a novel gets written, in ignorance, fear, sorrow, madness, and a kind of psychotic happiness as an incubator for the wonders being born. ~ Jack Kerouac
  • The only place you find success before work is in the dictionary. ~ May V. Smith
  • Each chapter ends on a note of tension ~ Dorothy Allison
  • Vision without execution is hallucination. ~ Thomas Edison
  • Put words on the page that hurt your heart ~ Dorothy Allison (scare yourself. Feel the weight of what has happened, what you have done, what has been done to you)
  • You know, I’m sick of following my dreams, man. I’m just going to ask where they’re going and hook up with ’em later ~ Mitch Hedberg
  • Reader writes his or her own story ~ Dorothy Allison (when writer is vague, reader makes choices, fills in the blanks. Writer needs to guide these choices.)
  • Reversals are turning points ~ Donald Maass (arrival of info, shift in course of events, challenge, disaster, twist, sometimes just letting go of an old way of thinking)
  • A “gate” is an emotional entry point ~ Dorothy Allison (when going back and forth in time, need a gate – an emotional entry point. Drop into conflict or at least hint at it)
  • Beware of low tension ~ Donald Maas (common low tension scenes in: kitchen, living room, car. Common elements of low-tension scenes: tea, coffee, cigarettes, bath, review of prior action)
  • Who is telling the story ~ Dorothy Allison (who and why? Don’t confuse character and narrator)
  • Thoughts should devolve into action ~ Tom Jenks (When you go into a character’s mind, there is a tendency to free associate. But is that interesting to the reader? This is not usually dramatic or in time. If thoughts devolve into action, then it is part of plot.)
  • Choose: Activity over passivity, extraversion over introversion, movement over stillness, possibility over fatalism ~ Dorothy Allison
  • For tension, scene should: subtract allies, deepen conflict, open new dimensions of character ~ Donald Maass
  • Let go of all your failures and sit down and write something great. Or write something terrible and feel great about it. ~ Natalie Goldberg
  • Backstory must answer question in reader’s mind ~ Tom Jenks
  • “As” is an equal sign ~ Stevan Allred (what comes before and after are equal, so neither stands. Make them separate. If both stand, great. If not, take one out. “As” cancels both out)
  • Give your ego something to do. Let it type up your work, address the envelopes, lick the stamps. Just keep it out of your writing. ~ Natalie Goldberg
  • Avoid parentheses ~ Kate Grey (parentheses are a bypass. Avoid them.)
  • Every pull is also a push ~Dorothy Allison
  • Start with part of external conflict ~ Michael Jaime-Becerra (internal stuff should flow out of that point)
  • Really stop when someone is complimenting you. Even if it’s painful and you are not used to it, just keep breathing, listen, and let yourself take it in. Feel how good it is. Build up a tolerance for positive, honest support. ~ Natalie Goldberg
  • Scene should pull the story toward possibility – something new – or toward narrowing possibilities ~ Sandra Scofield
  • Writer’s prayer: help me to get out of the way so I can write what wants to be written ~ Anne Lamott
  • Chapter should be a whole story ~ Dorothy Allison
  • Surprise yourself and you surprise your reader ~ Jay Gummerman
  • You write afraid. Be afraid. Do it anyway. ~ Anne Lamott
  • Pulse. ~ Sandra Scofield (give story a pulse. Pulse is emotion. Event is sequence of actions or import to characters. Need events, need action. Need consequence, emotion, event, pulse. Something throbbing, burning)
  • Nouns communicate the meaning of a sentence, while verbs communicate the emotion. ~ Anne Galjour
  • Kill the gerunds. ~ Stevan Allred (they sound poetic, but they are lazy. They are about process, things going on in the past. Simple verb forms are events; they keep us anchored.)
  • When two bodies touch, slow down. ~ Kate Grey
  • Scenes should be like sex: enter late, leave early ~ Joanne Meschery
  • In my view a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway. ~ Junot Diaz
  • Cause and effect ~ John Reed (look at every scene. If can’t find a later scene that is the consequence, something needs to be cut or added. One scene pulls reader into the next)
  • The quality’s none of your damn business. You take care of the quantity. ~ Gerald Ayres.
  • A writer is a writer not because she writes well and easily, because she has amazing talent, or because everything she does is golden. In my view, a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway. ~Junot Diaz

These? I have no idea where they come from. They may be stuff I learned on my own, but I doubt it. It’s more likely I just forgot to write down who said/wrote it. So if you know the source, let me know!

  • A subplot should have three bears (one in each act. Three beats = three scenes)
  • Every character (no matter how minor) needs to come alive
  • Two narrators: the narrator is looking back at self with gained knowledge. She is winking at the reader of the head of the character. Even in first-person, present tense.
  • The end of the story should return to the original themes of the story.
  • What can be left out? (characters, scenes, exposition)
  • Character must care passionately if the reader is going to be expected to.
  • What is condition of character’s mine, heart and soul (at any given point in the story)?
  • Beware adjectives, ad verbs, had and would.
  • Voice is the literary equivalent of boobs (if you’re a girl). Just give it time, keep living your life, and they come along. Can’t rush them. Can’t change them without serious intent.
Cindie Geddes

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