Favourite passages from Anne Lamott’s ‘Bird by Bird’

February 3, 2013 in Best Of, Book Reviews, On Writing, Reviews


One of my favourite memories from the UK was reading Anne Lamott’s classic writing memoir, Bird by Bird, on a lazy afternoon in 2009 in the Borders bookstore in Cambridge. It was one of those books that writing courses love to use and extract from at every opportunity because it’s simple, instructional, insightful and poignant — the kind of book that writers would love to write. It’s why the memoir is still going strong almost 20 years since it was first published in 1994.

I never got to finish the book in Cambridge but I recently had the opportunity to revisit it — from start to finish this time — as part of my New Year’s resolution to read more in 2013. I enjoyed it as much as I did the first time around, and its nuggets of wisdom resonated with me probably even more this time after I spent the last few years trying to figure out how much I really want to write.

It’s one of those books you can get through in a single sitting, as long as you can stomach Lamott’s neurotic, somewhat exaggerated style when constantly describing her mood swings and insecurities as a writer. Much of it is absolutely spot on and laugh-out-loud funny, but I can understand if can irk some readers after a while.hn

On the other hand, it’s also a book you can pick up at any time and skip to a particular chapter if you need guidance or inspiration on a specific area or topic. It helps that the book is neatly separated into five parts of varying lengths: writing, the writing frame of mind, help along the way, publication — and other reasons to write, and the last class.

The first part, writing, is perhaps the most useful for a new writer as it gives concrete advice and tips such as using short assignments to get the ball rolling, not being afraid to write shitty first drafts and avoiding perfectionism like the plague. The chapters on character, plot dialogue and set design, among others, can also be very instructive.

Part two, the writing frame of mind, is more about developing the mentality of a writer — to be alert and looking for ideas wherever you go and whenever you can, caring about what you write, and how to deal with petty stuff like jealousy.

Part three, help along the way, gives practical tips on getting you through your project or life in general, whether it is using index cards, joining writing groups or overcome writer’s block.

The fourth part, publication, has a lot on the business side of the industry and probably contains the most of what writers don’t want to hear — you’ll probably never get published, and if you do, you’ll probably not sell a lot of books. Either way, there’s not much money in writing for the vast majority of us.

The final part, the last class, brings it all together and reminds us why we write and why it’s worth the hassle.

Needless to say, I love this book. It’s not only useful but is also a great read full of laughs and moments where you’ll find yourself nodding in agreement. I suppose this is what Lamott is referring to when she urges writers to connect with their readers through writing the truth. It has less concrete advice than say, Stephen King’s On Writing, one of the bibles of the genre, but it’s also a classic in its own unique way.


And now, for some of my favourite passages from the book.

On how writers’ believe what being published for the first time would be like:

I believed, before I sold my first book, that publication would be instantly and automatically gratifying, an affirming and romantic experience, a Hallmark commercial where one runs and leaps in slow motion across a meadow filled with wildflowers into the arms of acclaim and self-esteem.

They believe that if they themselves were to get something published, their lives would change instantly, dramatically, and for the better. Their self-esteem would flourish; all self-doubt would be erased like a typo. Entire paragraphs and manuscripts of disappointment and rejection and lack of faith would be wiped out by one push of a psychic delete button and replaced by a quiet, tender sense of worth and belonging. Then they could wrap the world in flame.

On what publication is really about:

But I still encourage anyone who feels at all compelled to write to do so. I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises, That thing you had to force yourself to do — the actual act of writing — turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.

But the fact of publication is the acknowledgment from the community that you did your writing right. You acquire a rank that you never lose. Now you’re a published writer, and you are in that rare position of getting to make a living, such as it is, doing what you love best. That knowledge does bring you a quiet joy.

On writing for the sake of publication:

The problem that comes up over and over again is that these people want to be published. They kind of want to write, but they really want to be published. You’ll never get to where you want to be that way, I tell them. There is a door we all want to walk through, and writing can help you find it and open it…But publishing won’t do any of those things; you’ll never get in that way.

Publication is not going to change your life or solve your problems. Publication will not make you more confident or more beautiful, and it will probably not make you any richer.

About first drafts:

Very few writers really know what they are doing until they’ve done it. Nor do they go about their business feeling dewy and thrilled. They do not type a few still warm-up sentences and then find themselves bounding along like huskies across the snow.

The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and them let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.

Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something — anything — down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft — you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft — you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.

Writing a first draft is very much like watching a Polaroid develop. You can’t — and in fact, you’re not supposed to — know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it has finished developing.

On dialogue:

One line of dialogue that rings true reveals a character in a way that pages of description can’t.

Dialogue is more like a movie than it is like real life, since it should be more dramatic. There’s a greater sense of action.

There are a number of things that help when you sit down to write dialogue. First of all, sound your words — read them out loud…Second, remember that you should be able to identify each character by what he or she says…Third, you might want to try putting together two people who more than anything else in the world to avoid each other, people who would avoid whole cities just to make sure they won’t bump into each other.

On having a likable narrator:

Having a likable narrator is like having a great friend whose company you love, whose mind you love to pick, whose running commentary totally holds your attention, makes you laugh out loud, whose lines you always want to steal.

On the relationship between plot and character:

Plot grows out of character. If you focus on who the people in your story are, if you sit and write about two people you know and are getting to know better day by day, something is bound to happen.

Characters should not, conversely, serve as pawns for some plot you’ve dreamed up.

Find out what each character cares about most in the world because then you will have discovered what’s at stake.

I imagine my characters, and let myself daydream about them. A movie begins to play in my head, with motion pulsing underneath it, and I stare at it in a trancelike state, until words bounce around together and force a sentence.

On structure and plotting:

My students assume that when well-respected writers sit down to write their books, they know pretty much what is going to happen because they’ve outlined most of the plot, and this is why their books turn out so beautifully and why their lives are so easy and joyful, their self-esteem so great, their childlike senses of trust and wonder so intact. Well. I do not know anyone fitting this description at all. Everyone I know flails around, kvetching and growing despondent, on the way to finding a plot and structure that work. You are welcome to join the club.

…I sat down every day and wrote five hundred to a thousand words describing what was going on in each chapter. I discussed who the characters were turning out to be, where they’d been, what they were up to, and why. I quoted directly from the manuscript sometimes, using some of the best lines to instill confidence in both me and my editor, and I figured out, over and over, point A, where the chapter began, and point B, where it ended, and what needed to happen to get my people from A to B. And then how the B of the last chapter would lead organically into point A of the next chapter. The book moved along like the alphabet, like a vivid and continuous dream.

On creating drama:

Drama is the way of holding the reader’s attention. The basic formula for drama is setup, buildup, payoff — just like a joke. The setup tells us what the game is. The buildup is where you put in all the moves, the forward motion, where you get all the meat off the turkey. The payoff answers the question, Why are we here anyway? What is it that you’ve been trying to give? Drama must move forward and upward, or the seats on which the audience is sitting will become very hard and uncomfortable. So, in fact, will the audience. And eventually the audience will become impatient, disappointed, and unhappy. There must be movement.

On setting:

Imagine yourself as the set designer for a play or for the movie version of the story you are working on. It may help you to know what the room (or the ship or the office or the meadow) looks like where the action will be taking place. You want to know its feel, its temperature, its colors. Just as everyone is a walking advertisement for who he or she is, so every room is a little showcase of its occupants’ values and personalities. Every room is about memory. Every room gives us layers of information about our past and present and who we are, our shrines and quirks and hopes and sorrows, our attempts to prove that we exist and are more or less Okay.

On confidence:

You get your confidence and intuition back by trusting yourself, by being militantly on your own side. You need to trust yourself, especially on a first draft, where amid the anxiety and self-doubt, there should be a real sense of your imagination and your memories walking and woolgathering, tramping the hills, romping all over the place. Trust them. Don’t look at your feet to see if you are doing it right. Just dance.

Writing is about hypnotizing yourself into believing in yourself, getting some work done, then unhypnotizing yourself and going over the material coldly.

On jealousy:

Jealousy is such a direct attack on whatever measure of confidence you’ve been able to muster. But if you continue to write, you are probably going to have to deal with it, because some wonderful, dazzling successes are going to happen for some of the most awful, angry, undeserving writers you know — people who are, in other words, not you.

Index cards:

So whenever I am leaving the house without my purse — in which there are actual notepads, let alone index cards —  I fold an index card lengthwise in half, knowing that if I have an idea, or see something lovely or strange or for any reason worth remembering, I will be able to jot down a couple of words to remind me of it.

On writing regularly:

So much of writing is about sitting down and doing it every day, and so much of it is about getting into the custom of taking in everything that comes along, seeing it all as grist for the mill. This can be a very comforting habit, like biting your nails.

On getting someone to read you drafts.

The person may not have an answer to what is missing or annoying about the piece, but writing is so often about making mistakes and feeling lost. There are probably a number of ways to tell your story right, and someone else may be able to tell you whether or not you’ve found one of these ways.

Imagine that you are getting ready for a party and there is a person at your house who can check you out and assure you that you look wonderful or, conversely, that you actually look a little tiny tiny bit heavier than usual in this one particular dress or suit or that red makes you look just a little bit like you have sarcoptic mange. Of course you are disappointed for a moment, but then you are grateful that you are still in the privacy of your own home and there is time to change,

On writer’s block:

Writer’s block is going to happen to you. You will read what little you’ve written lately and see with absolute clarity that it is total dog shit…Or else you haven’t been able to write anything at all for a while. The fear that you’ll never write again is going to hit you when you feel not only lost and unable to find a few little bread crumbs that would identify the path you were on but also when you’re at your lowest ebb of energy and faith.

The word block suggests that you are constipated or stuck, when the truth is that you’re empty.

On overcoming writer’s block:

I encourage my students at times like these to get one page of anything written, three hundred words of memories or dreams or stream of consciousness on how much they hate writing — just for the hell of it, just to keep their fingers from becoming too arthritic, just because they have made a commitment to try and write three hundred words every day.

In the beginning, when you;re first starting out, there are a million reasons not to write, to give up. That is why it is of extreme importance to make a commitment of finishing sections and stories, to driving through to the finish,

On originality:

All the good stories are out there waiting to be told in a fresh, wild way…Life is like a recycling center, where all the concerns and dramas of humankind get recycled back and forth across the universe. But what you have to offer is your own sensibility, maybe your own sense of humor or insider pathos or meaning.

And lastly, about finding your own voice:

And the truth of your experience can only come through your own voice. If it is wrapped in someone else’s voice, we readers will feel suspicious, as if you are dressed up in someone else’s clothes. You cannot write out of someone else’s big dark place; you can only write out of your own.

Is it ever too early to start re-writing?

July 26, 2011 in Fantasy, Misc, Novel, On Writing, Study

Source: http://blog.articlestorehouse.com

I’m trying to put my focus back into writing starting this week, and one aspect of that is to revisit my dormant fantasy novel which I have been thinking about a lot these past couple of months.  I still think the book as potential and I like the story it has to tell, but having written significant chunks of it around 2 years ago, I know it will require plenty of work.

Conventional writing wisdom suggests that rewriting comes after completion of the first draft.  The primary goal in the first attempt is to just get the words of the story out of your mind, out of your system and onto the page.  Anne Lamott, who wrote the popular writing book Bird by Bird, discussed at length the unavoidable ‘shitty first drafts’ even excellent and seasoned writers churn out on a regular basis.

The idea is that if you worry and procrastinate over every paragraph, sentence or word, you’ll never generate any momentum and it will take you much longer to finish the story.  And often it’s when you are in that ‘zone’ of pumping out a copious amount of words at a frenetic pace that some of your best writing is generated (though it has to be ‘unearthed’ from all the crappy stuff).

However, although I am not even at the halfway line of the first draft of my fantasy epic (around 150,000 words), I’m highly tempted at the moment to go back to the beginning and rewrite a few of the first chapters.  One of the main reasons is that I realised my beginning lacked a serious punch.  After an action-packed prologue, I started with the usual boring ‘fantasy world introduction’ chapter where I introduced the characters and the world in which they lived in a methodical fashion.  It occurred to me that it would have made a lot more sense to start in the middle of the action, beginning with the final of a tournament in which the protagonist is involved in.  In the current version, the tournament was already over by the time the story began.

But would rewriting before I’ve even finished the first draft be a waste of time?  What if I later change my mind and come up with a better intro?  What if later on I decide to change characters or events?

I read in an interview with Philip Pullman (author of the His Dark Materials trilogy) that he doesn’t have a particular method when it comes to writing and rewriting.  Sometimes he waits until the end and sometimes he does it as he goes along.

In Stephen King’s brilliant On Writing (my review and summary here), he says that first drafts should be completed within 3 months, which is pretty much supernatural for most people out there, but even for him, this essentially means no rewriting until the first draft has been completed.  King also recommended putting the draft aside for a while before coming back to it with fresh eyes.  That said, King might be an anomaly because he seems to churn out pretty decent first drafts.  I say this because he suggests that a second draft should tighten a first draft by 10% and that he usually only does two drafts and a polish for a novel.

Markus Zusak, author of The Book Thief, said in an interview that he did literally 150-200 drafts of the first 90 pages just to get it right.  Can you imagine that?  I did about 5 or 6 drafts of the first chapter of my Masters writing project and I found it to be brutal already.

In the end, my gut tells me that I should just do whatever I feel like, whether it’s keep going or go back to the beginning.  It’s been so long that anything is better than nothing.

Stephen King’s “On Writing” – A Comprehensive Review and Summary

April 7, 2009 in Best Of, Book Reviews, On Writing


There are plenty of books on writing out there, mostly by writers you have never heard of and probably never will.  Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is an exception.  I had read many rave reviews about this book, so I went and got myself the audio book version for the long train rides on my latest European vacation (but ended up listening to it everywhere I went and finished it in the first couple of days).

The verdict? Extraordinary.  One of the best books about writing I’ve ever come across.  5 out of 5 stars!

Nevertheless, what started off as a short post about the book has turned into the full-blown thesis below, so I apologize in advance.  The lengthy middle section on Part II though is useful for those who want an idea of what King’s views are in relation to the craft of writing.


The book is not a mechanical guide on how to be a better writer from a technical standpoint, though in the middle section King does discuss the fundamentals of the craft.  Stylistically, it is similar to Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, in that it is a very personal book that discusses writing through the author’s personal stories, experiences and anecdotes, all told with good grace and humor.  You don’t just learn about writing techniques in On Writing – you also get to learn a great deal about Stephen King, his family, the struggles he has endured, both pre-fame and post-fame, and what makes him tick as a popular horror novelist that has sold hundreds of millions of books worldwide.

There are essentially 3 parts to this book.  Part I is all about King’s life, and is autobiographical in a sense.  Part II is all about the craft of writing from King’s personal perspective.  Part III talks about King’s life after his tragic car accident that almost ended his life and writing career.  All 3 parts are equally instructive and compelling.

Parts I & III– All About Stephen King

The book begins like an autobiography on Stephen King, the writer.  It starts off from his childhood and goes all the way to that first big success and then on to superstardom.  It’s filled with lots of little humorous tales about the outrageous things he got up to.  After all, it is a memoir.

At first, I was concerned – where was he leading with this?  Is the book called On Writing or On Stephen King?  I got the book with the hope of learning more about how to be a better writer, not to learn everything about the author!  That being said, King does tell his story with a lot of skill, keeping it interesting, intriguing, funny and inspiring.

Then you start to realize that it isn’t just a self-indulgent story of King’s life.  There is a common theme running through his life, and that theme is writing.  He loves to write and he writes for the love of writing.  Like most other successful writers, King went through years and years of rejections (starting when he was just a kid).  He held ordinary jobs because he had to support himself and his family.  He struggled.

But he never stopped writing and honing his craft, largely thanks to the encouragement of his wife Tabitha, who happens to also be his most loyal supporter.

King tells one of the most inspirational and uplifting stories I’ve ever heard – how his breakthrough novel Carrie earned him an initial $2,500 for the hardcover rights (not much even for those times), and then how he scored a life-changing $400,000 for the paperback rights (split equally with hardcover publisher) when the most he expected was $60,000 (half of which would be his).  Not bad for a guy who would have earned $30,000 over 4 years as a teacher.

However, success manifested itself in strange ways, and the next section dealt with King’s fall into alcoholism and drug abuse.  Amazingly, some of his most famous novels were written during the darkest phase of his life.

Anyway, don’t be put off by the long start – King does eventually get to the craft of writing in Part II.  However, this first part is also very instructive.  If nothing, you learn that the path of a writer is a long, difficult, and eternal road.

Part III is significantly shorter.  It tells of King’s horrific car accident at the hands of a loony driver – one that not only nearly ended his writing career but just about killed him.  I thought King showed a lot of restraint in this section – he doesn’t hurl abuse at the driver who turned his life upside down and made even simple tasks such as sitting incredibly painful for him.  He merely describes what happened like a good narrator (including the agonizing pain he endured) and leaves it at that.

Part II – The Craft of Writing

The second part is what most people buy the book for – King’s guide to the craft of writing.  It contains a lot of the same advice you might find in other writing books, but King adds his own personal touch and insight from his years of experience.

Here’s a summary of some of the most salient points I got out of this section and what I thought of them.  Please note that I cannot guarantee that it is an accurate or complete reflection what is actually in the book because they are merely from scribbles I took down when listening to the audio book.  Of course, you will get much much more out of it by reading (or listening) to the book, which provides a lot of in-depth discussion and useful examples.  This is really just a personal reminder of things I need to look out for in my own writing and a critique of King’s advice.

The Elements of Style

First of all, get yourself a copy of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. King raves about this book and mentions it more than a couple of times. In his view, all writers should read this short but essential book.

I need to get myself a copy.


King’s writing style is based on characters.  In his view, stories and characters are not really created, but are waiting to be uncovered like archaeological artifacts.  He usually starts his novels with just a premise and goes from there, meaning his characters and plot tend to form over the course of the novel rather than get planned out from the beginning.

It may be a viable method but I find such an approach to likely lead to dead ends (and I feel King might have the same problem with some of his horror novels, which have a tendency to crash to a crappy finish with unsatisfactory solutions).

Good Writing

When King talks about good writing, he is not talking about writing masterpieces or literary award winners. He’s simply talking about writing that is above competent and readable, and perhaps, publishable.  In his view, there are two key criteria to ‘good writing’: (1) a good grasp of the fundamentals; and (2) having the right instruments.  These criteria will not make good writers great or bad writers competent, but it can make good writers out of merely competent writers.

So what are these fundamentals and tools?  See below.  I should say in advance that these are things you would expect to find in most other books on writing and shouldn’t come as a big surprise.


King hates adverbs (you know, words that mostly end in ‘-ly’).  Loathes them.  Not that they shouldn’t be used at all, but they should only be used when strictly necessary.  On the same point, King brings up the issue of using adverbs for dialogue attribution – for instance, ‘she said slowly’.  Again, the rule is to use it only when necessary.  If the dialogue itself already tells the way in which it is expressed, then there is no need for the adverb.  King’s preference is to just use ‘said’.  However, that being said, he also admits to using adverbs more often than he should.

Personally, I admit I have a tendency to resort to adverbs.  Because it’s easy.  It tempts you to use it so you don’t have to think of a better word or come up with better dialogue (in the case of dialogue attribution).  However, cutting out adverbs is something I’ve reserved for the second draft.

Passive Voice

Another thing King frowns upon is using passive voice.  For example, instead of ‘he rode the horse’, using ‘the horse was ridden by the man’.  King attributes the use of passive voice to fear.  People that usually write for business purposes (like me) have a tendency to overuse passive voice.  I think I recall reading somewhere that it comes across as more professional and more objective.  Anyway, it’s another thing I need to cut out come second draft time, but I think I’ve already started to avoid it instinctively as I’ve progressed with my novel.


It’s obvious, but grammar is crucial for good writing.  It’s something writers need to get right.  As simple as that.  There are some small exceptions which a lot of writers employ, such as the short fragments typically found in writing these days (see previous sentence), but for the most part, it’s advisable to stick to correct grammar.

Don’t apply incorrect grammar and punctuation on purpose, even when you know it’s wrong, just to be different and creative and stylish.  That is, of course, unless you are a famous writer already that people consider to be genius so you can do whatever you want (eg Cormac McCarthy).

Cut Useless Words

King believes most writers, especially inexperienced writers, have a tendency to put in too many useless words.  Good writing involves cutting them out and getting to the point.

This is something I’ve struggled with all my life, even with high school and university assignments. I just can’t help myself, and I think it shows, even from this post!  Oh well, better keep moving…


King has a simple tip with vocabularyuse the most appropriate word, and usually, that is the first word that comes to mind.  The only way to improve your vocabulary is to read more.  When writing, don’t stop so you can think of a better word, and don’t put in words that you don’t really know.  If you don’t know it then there is a good chance that other readers won’t know either.  The aim is to allow readers to read smoothly, and making them wonder what a word means (or having to check up what it means) runs against that objective.

I’ll be the first to admit that my vocabulary is not all that crash hot.  It stems from a lack of reading good books throughout my childhood and adolescence.  Consequently, I do find myself struggling to find the right word at times, even if it’s for the first word that comes to mind.  As King says, however, the only way to improve is to read more!


For King, the 3 elements to a story are narration, description and dialogue – meaning plot is not one of them.  As noted above, King’s stories usually start off with not much more than a premise and the characters, which he allows to let loose to see where they take him.

I still have a bit of trouble fully appreciating that approach, but it’s obviously one that works for him. I do allow my characters to roam free a little, but it’s usually within the confines of a single scene as opposed to the entire story.


Descriptions make the reader a sensory participant in the story.  The key is to visualize what you want the reader to experience.  However, there is a fine line when it comes to descriptions, as there is a danger of describing too much, which slows down the pace, kills the imagination and bores the reader.  I have to say I have sometimes found this to be the case with some of King’s writings.

King’s advice is to use your descriptions but not do too much – simply say what you see and get on with the story.  It is important to pick the right details that stand for everything else. Particularly useful is the advice to avoid too much description on individual attributes of characters.  There is no need to go into depth on the precise height, weight and hair and eye colour of every character you come across.  It’s boring.  King advises writers to put down the first visualized details that come into your mind – the priority is to keep the ball rolling.


Dialogue is difficult to get right, and King’s advice is to let the dialogue be honest to the characters and to allow each speaker to speak honestly.

I’m also struggling with dialogue for my characters (I’m struggling with a lot of things).  It’s easy to make the mistake of making every piece of dialogue look like it comes from the same character.  I’m really going to have to put in a lot of work on dialogue in my second draft to allow the characters to distinguish themselves and stand out from each other.

Showing and Telling

Another tenet of good writing is to show, not tell.  This was the subject of one of my earlier posts on writing.  Of course, it’s not always possible to do that, but King believes ‘show’ should always be preferred to ‘tell’ whenever possible.

Personally, I’m glad to say I am starting to get the hang of this, but sometimes I wonder whether it is better to just tell it using a simple sentence rather than showing it through pages of conversation and action?


King calls paragraphs the beat in your head when you read, the fragments in the prose. It’s easy to overlook it, but how you structure the length of your paragraphs can be very important. King’s recommendation is to learn the beat and let nature take its course.

It’s not something I ever gave much thought to, so I found this particular part rather instructive.

Back Stories, Info Dumps and Flashbacks

King says back stories and info dumps should be kept in the back of the mind.  Also, try and avoid flashbacks wherever possible.  Of course, there are exceptions – there are plenty of great books with lots of flashbacks and back stories.  But the key is questioning whether it is really necessary and whether there are other more effective ways of getting the information across.  King notes that JK Rowling is particularly good at the info dump and back story retelling in the Harry Potter books, so take a look at them if you want to see how it is done well.

My own novel has its fair share of flashbacks, but I’ve tried my best to control the back stories and info dumps.  It’s probably something best to come back to once the first draft has been completed.

Close the Door

King believes it is very important for writers to have their own private space when writing, a place with no distractions.  He recommends a regular place to write, and to close the door when writing.  It shuts out the rest of the world and the distractions, and lets people know you are working and you are serious.

I don’t always close the door when I write, but I admit I write best when I am totally focused and not being distracted by what’s outside the window or in the next room.

Reading and Writing

Stephen King says that reading and writing is the only way to improve as a writer.  Writing is a craft that is best learned through doing.  King puts a great deal of emphasis on reading. Writers need to read in order to improve, and it’s not only through reading good literature – you can learn just as much from reading a good book (teaching you what to do) as a bad book (teaching you what NOT to do).

What to do after the First Draft

King’s advice is to complete that first draft within 3 months.  It’s probably not a realistic deadline for those that have day jobs and other unavoidable things that consume their time.

Anyway, after completion of the first draft, however long it might take, King advises you to let go of it for 6 weeks before going back to it so you would have forgotten it.  Reading your own work with a pair of fresh eyes is extremely important.  Start writing something else in the meantime.  This I agree with, but 6 weeks can be a painfully long wait!  I’ve read elsewhere that a week or two might be sufficient, but I suppose it’s up to the individual.

When revising the first draft, King suggests you concentrate on both big things such as inconsistencies, plot holes and character motivation and development problems, as well as small things, such as misspellings.  Make notes about where problems are, mark up the manuscript and check your notes when revising.  Get rid of adverbs and add in clarifications where necessary.  Ask yourself whether it is coherent, whether there are any recurring elements or themes, and what to do to make those things clear.  You may need to add or delete scenes.  The key is to make the story and characters resonate with readers.

Symbolism and Theme

For King, symbolism and themes in your novel are things that come in at the second draft stage.  They should not be things you purposely go out and put into your story.  Rather, you should focus on the story itself and when only explore symbolism and themes if they become apparent when reading the first draft.

King’s Rule for Second Drafts

King’s personal approach to second drafts of novels is to tighten the first draft by 10%.  So if you have a first draft of a story that is 100,000 words, try and tighten it to 90,000 words for the second draft.

In my opinion it’s just his personal approach and a loose guide at best because everyone will have their own preference.  King does 2 drafts and a polish, whereas some writers need 4 or 5 drafts and dramatic changes every time.  Besides, not everyone can churn out first drafts that are good enough to be published just after one additional draft and a polish.

What to do after the Second Draft

King does not show anyone his work until he has completed the second draft.  This I wholeheartedly agree with, because (especially for writing novices) it can be daunting to ask others to read your work.  King shows his completed second drafts to 4 or 5 people.  Some say that readers should not be your friends, or else you won’t get honest feedback.  King disagrees – he says you should be smart enough to gauge the reactions, even if they are your friends.

I must say I agree.  It is scary enough showing your work to your friends, let alone people you don’t know.  And if a friend tells me it’s ‘not bad’, I’ll have a pretty good idea that they thought it sucked.

Agents and Publishers

On agents and publishers, King says that it is not impossible to get an agent/publisher with an unsolicited manuscript these days, and there are ways to get into the industry.  He recommends building a portfolio, submit to magazines relating to your genre and to try and get publishing credits to your name.  He encourages writers to research the market – look through Writer’s Market to find an agent that might be interested in your type of book.  He says that it is important to go into it looking like a professional, in that you need to make sure your manuscript and query letter are done right. As he says, you cannot make agents/publishers like your manuscript, but you can make it easier for them to like your story.

Writing Courses

King generally does not find writing courses to be very helpful on the whole as the creative flow tends to get stopped.  In fact, he’s rather critical of them, despite understanding how they may appeal to aspiring writers.
Again, I find this to be a generalization and not much more than a subjective view.  There are many different types of writing courses and writers – some people might need a course to get them started or give them more confidence.  I suppose what he is trying to say is not to rely on them too much or expect them to change your life.  That I agree with.

Writing For the Right Reasons

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, King tells you to write for the right reasons – for the joy and rush and excitement of writing – not for the money, not for success or fame, not to impress anyone.  Can’t disagree with that.  Does impressing yourself count?

Concluding Thoughts

Before I read On Writing, I considered myself a slight to moderate King fan.  For me, most of what I knew about the author came from the horror movies and mini-series adapted from his novels.  There are too many to count.  The ones that have been stamped deepest into my memory are It (thanks to which I am still not a fan of clowns), The Stand, Pet Cemetery, Sleepwalkers, Misery, Carrie and The Shining, but there are at least a dozen more.

I had only read one of his full length novels – The Dark Half – which I found to be okay.  A bit long and a bit slow.  But I did read it when I was much younger and had a shorter attention span, and the book was probably beyond my comprehension level at that age.

On the other hand, I had read some collections of King’s short stories and novellas. I found Nightmares and Dreamscapes to be reasonable, littered with some good and some bad stories.  However, my favourite King book has to be his non-horror work, Different Seasons, which includes two novellas that were made (pretty faithfully) into two of my favourite movies of all time, Stand By Me (adapted from The Body) and The Shawshank Redemption (adapted from Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption).  I found both novellas (and films) to be incredibly powerful and moving, and was amazed at what a terrific storyteller Stephen King can be, and it doesn’t even have to involve anything supernatural.

As a popular novelist, King has obviously had his critics throughout the years, but there is no denying that he can write.  Maybe not awe-inspiring literature, but he definitely has a firm grasp of the fundamentals of writing, and he can certainly tell a good story.  On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is an instructive and insightful book, one that is filled with useful information for the aspiring writer and immensely enjoyable to read (or in my case, listen to).  I would recommend it to anyone wanting to learn more about the craft of writing or just wants a good read.

[PS: I finally got this review out of the way.  I had been working on it on my numerous long train rides throughout Europe but never came close to completing it.  Now I can finally move on with my life.]

Two Books on Writing for Writers

March 13, 2009 in Book Reviews, On Writing

A post on two books I checked out this afternoon at the bookstore: (1) How Not to Write a Novel by Howard Mittlemark and Sandra Newman and (2) Bird by Birdby Anne Lamott.  While both were on writing, they could not be more different in terms of styles and approach.

Note that I have NOT read either book from cover to cover – the following simply contains some of my views on them from flicking through the book, skimming the majority of it (using my slightly faulty speed reading capabilities) and reading in detail only the specific sections that appealed to me.

How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

how-not-to-write-a-novel1I first caught a glimpse of this book in the hands of some dude standing outside a bank in Dublin of all places.  It sounded like an interesting concept for a writer’s book (if anything, it was catchy), and I was keen to know whether I was committing any of the 200 classic mistakes in the fantasy novel I was working on.

So I found the book rather easily today and had a good look through it.  The book is broken down into various parts, each dealing with a specific problem area, such as plot, pacing, character, dialogue, voice – and goes as far as telling writers how not to write sex scenes!  Each of the 200 classic mistakes were accompanied by a tailor-made example provided by the authors that allow the reader to identify the mistake with ease.  Much of the writing is infused with quite a bit of humour, and the tone is light-hearted, though it can be somewhat condescending at times.  The authors call it ‘tough love’.  They say if you can learn to avoid all the mistakes they listed, you would have transformed yourself from unpublishable to publishable writer.

To be honest, I’m not sure how helpful the book would be to serious writers.  Don’t get me wrong, it was a fascinating read, but the significant proportion of the ‘classic mistakes’ were so blatantly obvious that any writer with a little common sense would not make them (perhaps they just needed to get to 200).  And I say this as a first-time writer who is acutely aware of the fact that he has a long long long way to go before becoming even remotely publishable.

However, that is not to say all of the tips were useless – I did find a few to be beneficial.  Perhaps not in reading what the actual mistake is as such, but rather from seeing clearly why the mistake is bad for your writing.  As a consequence, it will make it easier for you to recognise the mistake in your own writing.  In particular, the bits I found most useful were the examples on sticking to just the relevant details in descriptions and dialogue, and avoiding stock-standard character descriptions and  indistinguishable or faceless secondary characters.  These may have been things I knew were bad before, but now I will aim to target these problems even more in my next draft.

The biggest problem with the book might also be its selling point – most of the time, the book tells you what NOT to do rather than teaches what you SHOULD do.  You might say it’s the same thing, but it’s much easier to point out another’s mistakes than doing it right yourself.  Not making a common mistake does not necessarily make the writing any good.  Furthermore, some of these so-called mistakes may be found in many of the published novels you see on shelves today.

The verdict: A good book to pick up and flick through, especially for novices (like myself), but the truth is it won’t instantly transform you into a publishable author if you weren’t one before.  Many of the classic mistakes are obvious and reading too many in a row can get tedious, so it’s probably better to pick and choose your problem areas rather than go from cover to cover.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

bird-by-birdNow this is a completely different book to the one above.  I first came across Anne Lamott’s gem of a book the first day of a creative writing course I did a year ago.  Since then, I have picked up the book in book stores on several occasions (which killed the need to buy it) and I’ve enjoyed it immensely every time.

This book is less about gimmicks and more about the essence of writing.  It’s written like a memoir, with lots of personal stories, experiences and anecdotes, usually told in Lamott’s trade mark, self-deprecating humour which I find very funny.  You won’t find any meticulously structured tips on writing techniques (though it is split into chapters, each dealing with a different aspect of writing), but what you will get are brutally honest and sometimes profound observations about the craft of writing and the struggles in the life of a writer.

Much of it is philosophical, so how much the reader takes out of it may vary significantly, but personally, I found it more useful than How Not to Write a Novel.  Instead of learning about the types of mistakes that publishers avoid, Lamott tells you to be honest with yourself and write from the heart.  You can tell she believes what she preaches through her writing.  That is not to say there are not any broad lessons to be learnt.  Ones I found especially helpful include:

  • allowing yourself to write shitty first drafts (no one gets it right on the first attempt);
  • knowing its okay to learn about and define your characters as you progress, rather than worry about shaping them completely before you begin writing;
  • ensuring each character has a different voice and distinguishing characteristics, such that they can be distinguished through their dialogue;
  • reading your dialogue out loud (where possible) to improve it;
  • dealing with jealousy (in relation to successful friends and colleagues!);
  • getting help from others, such as finding someone to read your drafts, join groups and networking;
  • how to deal with writer’s block; and
  • the cold hard truth about getting published.

Lamott paints a pretty grim picture about the publishing world.  Frankly, she says, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, and in particular, the financial rewards for most are minimal.  However, she continues to remind writers of the beauty and pleasure of the act of writing itself.  For people that tend to get too caught up in getting published, it’s a good book to read to bring you back down to earth.

A problem I had with the book are common with books of this type – you don’t always find the anecdotes and stories interesting and engaging.  Sometimes, you might feel like skipping to the next point, except you’re not sure where the next point is because the structure doesn’t allow it.  So it’s best not to see this book as a technical writing guide, but rather, as something you can enjoy as a piece of work in its own right, though you might be surprised to learn a few valuable lessons along the way.

Another issue one may find is that Lamott’s style is more suited to writers like her who write about characters and relationships.  Accordingly, for someone (like me) working on a fast-paced fantasy novel, the suggestions about letting your characters take complete charge and drive the plot wherever it may go might not always be the most suitable approach.

The verdict: An honest, often hilarious book that speaks to writers’ hearts.  It might not be the book you would choose if you want to learn about the technical aspects of being a better writer, and some people might simply not get her message (and there’s nothing wrong with that), but personally I found it enjoyable.

PS: for those that enjoyed the book, there is a documentary called Bird by Bird with Annie: A Film Portrait of Writer Anne Lamott that focuses on a year in the life of the titular writer.  I haven’t seen it but would be interested to know if it is any good.