Writing Advice from John Steinbeck

What follows is some writing wisdom from John Steinbeck, via an old interview in The Paris Review. I’ve added some comments, which is a bit cheeky considering Mr. Steinbeck is a Nobel Prize ahead of me. But here goes anyway:
1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
JSB: I like this. It’s similar to what Ann Lamott counsels in Bird by Bird, i.e., the “one inch frame.” Just face your daily writing, with full attention. If you do this faithfully, at some point you’ll look up and see a full novel. And that’s a very nice feeling.
2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
JSB: I completely agree. I am a planner, but once I get going I want to finish that first draft as rapidly as I can. I edit my previous day’s work and then move on. I don’t do substantial edits, with one exception. At about 20,000 words I’ll stop and assess the foundations of my story (using my LOCK System). I don’t want to press on for another 70k or 80k if the spine is not strong.
3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.
JSB:I’ve heard this advice before, but I’ve never been able to use it. I don’t think about readers when I write. I think about the characters. I think about the readers when I come up with a concept. I make sure I’ve got an idea that will appeal to people who have discretionary income to spend on books. But once I’ve put that concept into motion in a novel, I’m involved only with the characters and how they get out of trouble.
4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.
JSB:This is good advice, so long as  you’re not doing it a lot. If you do, there’s going to be a much bigger mess at the end than there was at the beginning. If you have too many scenes that are not “working,” the problem may be in the structural foundations or in scene writing itself.
5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.
JSB:I believe “out of drawing” is an art term which means an element that doesn’t fit. “Kill your darlings” is another way to put it. But this advice has always puzzled me. Maybe that scene that’s dear to you is the best one in the book. I think the only test is, Does it work? And maybe what we need is that objective eye, from someone else, to tell us if it does.
6. If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.
JSB: I prefer to write dialogue and let it flow. When I edit the dialogue, that’s when I might say it out loud, or have Word’s speech function read it to me.
So there’s a list from one of our most esteemed writers. Any of it resonate with you? (I’ll be flying to L.A. from NYC today, so talk amongst yourselves!)

13 thoughts on “Writing Advice from John Steinbeck

  1. “5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found
    that it is out of drawing.”

    I found this one puzzling too. Usually those scenes, the ones that really grab you, are the ones you go back and re-read and think to yourself “Wow. That’s some really good stuff!”

    I need those moments, especially since the greater majority of scenes I’m thinking the opposite–“Oh man, what drivel. This stuff sucks!” LOL!

  2. On the other hand, John Steinbeck was once quoted: “The profession of book writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business.”

    Where might this fit into Steinbeck’s writing advice?

    Seriously, this is good writing advice that needs to fit the writer in order to work. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Thank you for these, James. I hadn’t seen them before. I pretty much agree with you on all points,particularly on #1 and #5. With regard to #5, I recall times when Steinbeck didn’t seem to be following his own advice, to the benefit of the story or novel.

    Safe journeys to you as you travel today.

  4. Great advice, and great interpretations.

    I particularly agree with #1 and writing one piece of the puzzle at a time (not without a previous plan, of course), until the draft is finished. I used to be a victim of my constant pre-editing, until I realized that it’s not adding anything to my work, but in fact preventing me from it.

    Thank you very much for the great post, James. Always love to read your opinion. 🙂

  5. I’ve resorted to writing the first draft on a myPad. That’s pen on paper. It’s the only way I can stop myself from constant editing, changing and obsessing. The flow of words from the end of a good pen is amazing.

  6. I have had to cut scenes I love that didn’t add to the story but my favorite scenes that fit… Why would I want to kill those? The rest of the advice is good, though.

  7. I agree with most but like you have never found thinking of a specific reader all that helpful. I am more likely to reach page 100 or so in the first draft and refine that as I really find establishing the voice early on helps me get the rest of the story flowing – so that’s where I focus most of my early revision. I don’t wait till I have the entire first draft.

  8. Number one–writing a page a day–really resonates with me. I get spooked when told I should be writing thousands of words per day. And in fact, I’d argue that concentrating on quantity of output often results in books that read like a rush job. I read so many books (and have even written one) in which it is clear that the writer raced through it, or was on a tight deadline. The writing suffers.

  9. I have no image of the potential reader, specific or general, when I’m writing. All I can see is the story, and that flowing fast until the draft is done. I do take the advice though not to edit anything until the first draft is done. As a percussionist one thing you never do is break the rhythm in the middle of the song, likewise with writing I feel the music popping along all full beat and gotta go till the fat lady is done.

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