Saturday, March 3, 2018

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Stein On Writing: A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques and Strategies (Excerpts)

1. The function of suspense is to put the reader in danger of an overfull bladder.

2. Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader, not the fact that it’s raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.

3. Tension produces instantaneous anxiety, and the reader finds it delicious. (:D)

4. There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein. (Amen!)

5. What can a newcomer do in a first paragraph? A lot. The following is the 1st paragraph from a novel by a student in my advanced fiction seminar, who is writing about a painter. “Shoshana stormed through the silent apartment. Mason, you son of a bitch! Where are you? Instinct told her: Mason had fled. You gutless coward, she raged. Returning to her studio, Shoshana stabbed the brush she carried into a jar of turpentine. Just try to get in one hour’s ego-affirming work of one’s own. No way!” The writer, Anne Mudgett, is using action to characterize. She is also setting up conflict between the narrator and Mason, and involving the reader in Shoshana’s emotional state.

6. In the example that follows, surprise is used by a student, Steve Talsky, whose work is yet to be published: “I am the way, the answer and the light, through me all things are possible. He had written this once as a joke on the headboard of his bed.” The reader gets an impression of a character who is unusual and about whom one wants to know more. Not least, one has the sense that this author’s work has resonance. The value of a well-written opening is that it makes the reader ready to give himself to the writer’s imagined people for the duration.

7. It should be clear by now that the unusual is a factor in arousing the reader’s interest. And so is action and conflict. So many writers fight an uphill battle trying to interest their readers in matters that have no inherent conflict. The worst possible way to start a story is with something like “They were a wonderful couple. He loved her and she loved him. They never argued.” The result is instant boredom. Boredom is the greatest enemy of both reader and writer. Do we gaze in wonder at the nice, average, normal-looking people we pass in the street? Our attention is arrested by the seven-footer and the midget, the oldster with the mechanical waddle, the child who bounces as she walks. Recall how people react to the sound of metal crunching metal, announcing an accident. They hasten to see what happened. Highways get choked when drivers slow down to gawk at the remains of a collision. To the student of literature it should come as no surprise that news programs concentrate on bad news first, on events filled with conflict.

8. Think of the novels you have loved most. Do you remember a character you lived with page after page, perhaps hoping the book would never end? What do you remember most clearly? The characters or the plot? Now think of the movies you’ve seen that affected you the most. Do you remember the actors or the plot? There’s a book called Characters Make Your Story that you don’t have to read because the title says it all: Characters make your story. If the people come alive, what they do becomes the story.

9. During all the many years in which I was an editor and publisher, what did I hope for when I picked up a manuscript? I wanted to fall in love, to be swept up as quickly as possible into the life of a character so interesting that I couldn’t bear to shut the manuscript in a desk overnight. It went home with me so that I could continue reading it.

10. We know what love is, we think of the other person at odd moments, we wonder where they are, what they are doing, we seem a bit crazy to the rest of the world. That’s exactly the feeling I have about the characters I fall in love with in books.

11. We were to improvise a scene for which there was no script. I was to play the part of the headmaster of the Dalton School, a private establishment in New York for the privileged young. Rona Jaffe was to be the mother of a boy who had been expelled by the headmaster. That’s what the audience knew. Then Kazan took me aside, out of everyone’s earshot, and told me that the mother of the expelled boy was coming to my office, undoubtedly to try to get the boy reinstated. This incorrigible boy had disrupted every class he was in, did not respond to the warnings of his teachers, and under no condition was I to take him back. After this briefing, which took half a minute, I returned to the makeshift stage and Kazan then took Rona Jaffe aside. What do you think he told her? (...) He told her that she was the mother of a bright, well-behaved boy, a first-class student, that the headmaster was prejudiced against him, had treated him disgracefully, and that Rona had to insist that the headmaster take the boy back into the school immediately. Rona Jaffe and I were turned loose on the stage to improvise a scene in front of the audience. Within seconds we were quarreling, our voices raised. We both got red in the face and yelled at each other. The audience loved it. We were battling because each of us had been given a different script! That’s what happens in life. Each of us enters into conversation with another person with a script that is different from the other person’s script. The frequent result is disagreement and conflict -- disagreeable in life and invaluable in writing, for conflict is the ingredient that makes action dramatic.

12. A long time ago I took an oath never to write anything inoffensive. In working with literally hundreds of authors over a period of many years I concluded that the single characteristic that most makes a difference in the success of an article or nonfiction book is the author’s courage in revealing normally unspoken things about himself or his society. It takes guts to be a writer. A writer’s job is to tell the truth in an interesting way.

13. A prevalent way of describing the difference is calling the successful commercial book ‘a good read’, whereas the other is likely to be referred to as ‘a good book.’ the implication is that one confers a transient experience on the reader, whereas the other may be durable, deserving the permanence of a hardcover binding and a place on a bookshelf, to remind one of the experience, or be reread. I wanted to clarify the distinction for a practical reason. In the end, you write what you read. If you read literary fiction with pleasure, that’s what you will attempt to write. If you read thrillers or romances, you will in all likelihood end up writing for the audience of which you are a part. The same is true for nonfiction -- not merely the field of interest, but the quality of language and insight you require of your books, read or written.

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