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!)
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