You can use time travel, psychic powers and ghosts not just as plot devices, but as tools to explore human life, the nature of ritual and dreams. In fact you can use them to look at the functioning of the human mind, and the development of story.

Robert Holdstock
Interviewed by Stan Nichols 1993 for: Wordsmiths of Wonder: Fifty interviews with Writers of the Fantastic

became a better writer

March 24, 2020

I never really expected to find myself giving advice to people graduating from an establishment of higher education. I never graduated from any such establishment. I never even started at one. I escaped from school as soon as I could, when the prospect of four more years of enforced learning before I’d become the writer I wanted to be was stifling.

I got out into the world, I wrote, and I became a better writer the more I wrote, and I wrote some more, and nobody ever seemed to mind that I was making it up as I went along, they just read what I wrote and they paid for it, or they didn’t, and often they commissioned me to write something else for them.

Neil Gaiman
Keynote Address 17th May 2012

The first chapter of your novel – or your prologue if you prefer – must contain a compelling opening hook, giving the reader a taste of what’s to come and persuading them that the rest of your story isn’t to be missed. Get it right and your reader will commit to your story; get it wrong and they might put the book down before they even get to chapter two….

The way to make your opening hook immediately compelling is the same way you make any other piece of writing compelling – you make the reader wonder what’s going to happen next.

This means the events of your opening chapter need to be sufficiently dynamic or intriguing. For example, a murder mystery might open with the murder scene itself, shown from the victim’s point-of-view. As the (unknown) killer hunts, traps, and finally kills the victim, the reader will be gripped from start to finish, initially wanting to find out how the murder unfolds, then wanting to know who killed the victim and why, which leads them into the next chapter and the wider story.

A romance novel might open with a visit from the protagonist’s betrothed, who quickly announces that their engagement is at an end. The reader will immediately want to know why and see how the protagonist reacts. As the protagonist is left reeling, the chapter might end with them asking themselves how they will recover from the shame and whether they will ever be happy, which piques the reader’s interest for the subsequent chapters.

Whatever your genre, the key is to leave your reader with unanswered questions and make them wonder what’s coming next.

Andrew Noakes
How to hook your reader in chapter one

approaches to writing fiction

February 29, 2020

We’re literally all faking it. Neil Gaiman? Lied about his experience to get his first publication. F. Scott Fitzgerald? An absolute disaster who couldn’t spell. Donna Tartt? Committed to her authorial brand before anyone knew her name. The only thing that makes someone a writer is their decision to do the work and call themselves a writer. You do that long enough, and soon other people start calling you a writer too. When I first started posting my writing on Tumblr way back in ye olde 2012, I posted my poems in quotations with my pen-name at the bottom like a “real” author That created the social proof I needed for people to search for my name, ask my questions about my work, and encourage me to keep going.

S.T. Gibson
Ten Things They Don’t Teach You in Your Undergrad Writing Workshop

magically burst forth

January 19, 2020

Writing and reading are the only ways to find your voice. It won’t magically burst forth in your poems the next time you sit down to write, or the next, but little by little, as you become aware of more choices and begin to make them – consciously and unconsciously – your style will develop.

Dorianne Laux
The Poet’s Companion: A Guide To The Pleasures Of Writing Poetry

believe in everything

January 4, 2020

‘If a man wishes to write and…convey a sensation of horror, he must believe in everything — and anything. By anything I mean the horror that transcends everything… He must believe that there are things from outer space that can reach down and fasten themselves on us with a malevolence that can destroy us utterly…’

Frank Belknap Long
The Space-Eaters

If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of the iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.

Ernest Hemingway
Death in the Afternoon

how you revise

January 1, 2020

My sense of a poem — my notion of how you revise — is: you get yourself into a state where what you are intensely conscious of is not why you wrote it or how you wrote it, but what you wrote. You just read it as a piece, as someone else might read it, and you see where it’s alive. If that voice that you created that is most alive in the poem isn’t carried throughout the whole poem, then I destroy where it’s not there, and I reconstruct it so that that voice is the dominant voice in the poem.

Philip Levine
Interview with J.M. Spalding and Guy Shahar for The Cortland Review – Issue Seven – May 1999

Well, you could start with butter and fresh farm eggs, it’s hard to go wrong from there, unless you’re a vegan. All right, I’ll try to be serious — it’s a serious question. But an awfully big one. I hope to get some smaller ones, such as, “Do I have to outline my plot first?” or “How often can I split an infinitive?”

I guess the way to make something good is to make it well.

If the ingredients are extra good (truffles, vivid prose, fascinating characters) that’s a help. But it’s what you do with them that counts. With the most ordinary ingredients (potatoes, everyday language, commonplace characters) — and care and skill in using them — you can make something extremely good. A lot of memorable novels have been made that way. Even with undistinguished language and predictable characters, if a story has interesting, convincing ideas or events, good pacing, a narrative that carries the reader to a conclusion that in one way or another satisfies — it’s a good story. A lot of memorable sf has been made that way.

Inexperienced writers tend to seek the recipes for writing well. You buy the cookbook, you take the list of ingredients, you follow the directions, and behold! A masterpiece! The Never-Falling Soufflé!

Wouldn’t it be nice? But alas, there are no recipes. We have no Julia Child. Successful professional writers are not withholding mysterious secrets from eager beginners. The only way anybody ever learns to write well is by trying to write well. This usually begins by reading good writing by other people, and writing very badly by yourself, for a long time.

The poet Theodore Roethke said it: “I learn by going where I have to go.”

There are “secrets” to making a story work — but they apply only to that particular writer and that particular story. You find out how to make the thing work by working at it — coming back to it, testing it, seeing where it sticks or wobbles or cheats, and figuring out how to make it go where it has to go.

At this stage, having the opinion of readers qualified to judge, or a trusted peer-group, can be tremendously useful. Other eyes can see what you’re too close to your work to see, give perspective, open up possibilities.

On the other hand, the pressure of opinion — from readers, classmates, teachers, in a MFA program or a workshop, from an agent, from an editor — may end up as worse than useless. If your manuscript doesn’t follow the rules of what’s currently trendy, the rules of what’s supposed to be salable, the rule some great authority laid down, you’re supposed to make it do so. Most such rules are hogwash, and even sound ones may not apply to your story. What’s the use of a great recipe for soufflé if you’re making blintzes?

The important thing is to know what it is you’re making, where your story is going, so that you use only the advice that genuinely helps you get there. The hell with soufflé, stick to your blintzes.

We make something good, a blintz, a story, by having worked at blintzmaking or storywriting till we’ve learned how to do it.

With a blintz, the process is fairly routine. With stories, the process is never twice the same. Even a story written to the most prescriptive formula, like some westerns or romances, can be made poorly, or made well.

Making anything well involves a commitment to the work. And that requires courage: you have to trust yourself. It helps to remember that the goal is not to write a masterpiece or a best-seller. The goal is to be able to look at your story and say, Yes. That’s as good as I can make it.

And then, once in a while, none of that sweat and trial and error and risk-taking is necessary. Something just comes to you as you write. You write it down, it’s there, it’s really good. You look at it unbelieving. Did I do that?

I think that kind of gift mostly comes as the pay-off for trying, patiently, repeatedly, to make something well.

Ursula K. Le Guin
Interview in Book View Café 27th July 2015

Fantasy is nearer to insanity

November 26, 2019

[Fantasy] is not anti-rational, but para-rational; not realistic but surrealistic, superrealistic, a heightening of reality. In Freud’s terminology, it employs primary not secondary process thinking. It employs archetypes which, as Jung warned us, are dangerous things. Dragons are more dangerous, and a good deal commoner, than bears. Fantasy is nearer to poetry, to mysticism, and to insanity that naturalistic fiction is. And it is a real wilderness, and those who go there should not feel too safe. And their guides, the writers of fantasy, should take their responsibilities seriously.

Ursula K. Le Guin
From Elfland to Poughkeepsie