Michaeline: Writing Advice

Gilded Age woman writing with a quill.

Writing advice is like horoscopes. If something grabs your notice, you better pay attention. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

This week, I’ve found a lot of great writing advice. So, I’m going to step back today and let the masters tell you how it’s done.

First up, we have Shirley Jackson tell us all about motif and symbolism in this New Yorker article. Shirley Jackson wrote the horrifying short story, “The Lottery,” but “Garlic in Fiction” is a lot easier to digest.

She says, “Before entering upon a role, the actor, having of course familiarized himself with the character he is to portray, constructs for himself a set of images, or mental pictures, of small, unimportant things he feels belong around the character.” This is garlic, meant to be used sparingly and in just the right places to give a story a flavor that lingers in the reader’s mind. She follows up with examples.

Danny Heitman of The Weekly Standard Book Review says, the essay is concerned with “breaking down the dry mechanics of symbolism and description in a tutorial that reads like Writing Fiction for Dummies.” But Shirley Jackson is no dummy, and neither are the people she’s advising. Somehow, the essay is more than the sum of the words. I left it nodding, wondering what images I want to associate with my characters.

Next, we have an essay by John McPhee for the New Yorker (you don’t need to be subscribed to read this link). I always enjoy John McPhee writing about writing, and here, he talks about omission – what can be left out. He talks about his own experiences at Time and the New Yorker, and praises the power of cutting out the extraneous. He even gives a few exercises you can do at home, if you are so inclined, but they sound like toughies – just try excising three lines from the twenty-five lines of the Gettysburg address. If you dare.

Finally, after those hard and deep essays about addition and subtraction, here are some light and easy one-liners from various authors (via Buzzfeed). Or are they? The thing that really caught my eye was a quote from Ray Bradbury: “Quantity produces quality. If you only write a few things, you are doomed.”

Of course, some other writer probably says the exact opposite. That’s the thing about advice – none of it is universal. All of it is probably applicable, but not on all the same cases. But if a piece of advice strikes you to the core, you should probably pay attention. It’s trying to say something to you.

2 thoughts on “Michaeline: Writing Advice

  1. Since I’ve been so focused on Justified (the TV series), it’s probably only fitting that I’ve been trying to follow my favorite piece of writing advice from Elmore Leonard: Don’t write the parts people tend to skip. If writing a scene is drudgery or just not holding the writer’s interest, I think we have to ask ourselves if it’s because it’s one of those parts readers will want to skip. Are we writing it out of a sense of obligation (I have to show this description/interaction/fallout from a previous scene on the page! I have to explain how the characters got from A to B!)? Of course, we can’t use it as an excuse to skip the hard-to-write scenes, so it takes a good dose of honesty to determine whether a scene is something readers might tend to skip or just something we as writers don’t want to struggle to get on the page.

    Also, I’m reviewing my notes from the Michael Hague workshop at RWA. So much amazing stuff! Mind totally blown.

    • As a reader, I do like a story that works as a bit of a puzzle. But it has to be a jigsaw puzzle, with hints and shapes and things. Not a bunch of raw wood and some cans of paint. The thing about a jigsaw puzzle is that first you imagine the missing piece, and then (if all goes right), you are either delighted with your own cleverness when your imagination is right, or you are delighted with the writer’s cleverness when something totally different but absolutely perfect gets dropped into that empty spot.

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