Musicians of Bremen fairytale

The great Ray Bradbury summed up the limitations of plot when he wrote, in Zen in the Art of Writing: Remember: Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations. Plot is observed after the fact rather than before. It cannot precede action. It is the chart that remains when an action is through. That is all Plot ever should be. It is human desire let run, running, and reaching a goal. It cannot be mechanical. It can only be dynamic. – Ray Bradbury Writers take heed. The issue is not “plottingRead More →

One of the keys of a successful novel is often the presence of two (sometimes more) major storylines. Unfortunately, as a book doctor/novel editor, I often see manuscripts-in-progress that are just too stingy in this regard. I recently read a review of a movie that addressed this very point. Reviewing the movie Warm Bodies, Mick LaSalle in the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “But too often [this movie] also badly needed a second big idea to move its [primary] story off the track we expect it to take from the start.” To put it bluntly, a single storyline, even if well-written from beginning to end, willRead More →

zen fountain

Writers, how patient are you? Do you really listen to what your stories are trying to say before you try to tell them to others? Do you give your stories enough time to grow creatively, to blossom into their fullest form? I run into plenty of newbie authors who have written a trilogy, zooming on to sequels full of plot twists and further adventures . . . before having contemplated and fulfilled the potential of their first (and most important, career-wise) novel. In contrast, accomplished authors know the importance of taking time to reflect, to put work aside for a time, to come back laterRead More →

hobbit home

Are you a fan of The Hobbit? A Lord of the Rings geek? Perhaps you just enjoy a good story, well told. If you’re a writer, here are some tips drawn from Tolkien’s work. Even if they don’t magically transform you overnight into a writer with a worldwide cult-like following like Professor Tolkien’s . . . attention to these principles will improve your writing. 1. Keep those scraps of ideas. A familiar story to those who follow Tolkien’s biography is that The Hobbit “began” many years before its publication in 1937 when, in a moment of odd inspiration, Tolkien jotted down an strange phrase thatRead More →

John le Carré is the pen name of David John Moore Cornwell, the British author of espionage novels, including The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Russia House; The Tailor of Panama; The Constant Gardener, and many others. He worked briefly for British intelligence, MI5 and MI6, in the 1950s and 1960s. As he tells on his website: “In the old days it was convenient to bill me as a spy turned writer. I was nothing of the kind. I am a writer who, when I was very young, spent a few ineffectual but extremely formative years in BritishRead More →

To plot or not to plot? My advice: It’s wise to make a plan before you embark on a long journey. (Especially for the crazy road trip known as NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, November’s annual caffeine-fueled, group-dare exercise soon to be undertaken yet again by thousands of avid writers.) You’ve heard, perhaps, the famous statement by novelist E.L. Doctorow: Writing is like driving at night. You can see only as far as the headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way. The NaNoWriMo crowd might chant that as a daily mantra. But be warned. It’s a bit of an overstatement, the catchyRead More →

“Once upon a time” is such a simple beginning. Yet so effective. Is this a contradiction? No . . . not if you understand that true simplicity is not easy. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. said: “I would not give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” (He is paraphrasing Einstein, who said: “the simplicity on this side of complexity was easy; but the simplicity on the other side of complexity took real thought and effort.”) To add a thought from philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, “The aspects of thingsRead More →

If you are an emerging writer, note: A strong sense of place is a real key to developing the richly delicious details that good fiction needs. Here’s a quote that hits the nail on the head about the role of a sense of place from the website of a great writer, Ivan Doig. One last word about the setting of my work, the American West. I don’t think of myself as a “Western” writer. To me, language—the substance on the page, that poetry under the prose—is the ultimate “region,” the true home, for a writer. Specific geographies, but galaxies of imaginative expression—we’ve seen them bothRead More →

Hey, I’m not disparaging the helpfulness of a good plot. It may be the skeleton of a novel; it connects each piece to the next. (Sing along: “The shin-bone’s connected to the knee-bone, the knee-bone’s connected to the thigh-bone . . .”) But one of the reasons I wrote How To Write Your Best Story was a strong feeling that plot isn’t why we read a novel. Plot is generally not the basis of why I, as an editor, decide to acquire a novel for publication. And it’s not why readers buy a novel. For one thing, the plot isn’t something that we understand untilRead More →

It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear. —Italo Calvino (in the fictional voice of Marco Polo), in Invisible Cities Calvino is expressing something very important about stories. They do not live in the head or the voice of the teller (or the writer). Good stories are shared. A good story is one that the recipient is interested in. You don’t force-feed a story, you offer it. It is the listener (or reader) that causes it to have a real life. Otherwise, it’s the age-old question of a tree falling in the forest: does is make a sound? Calvino emphasizesRead More →

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