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

Making a living from writing often involves talking about what you do rather than actually doing it. I’m asked to give readings, I teach, I deliver workshops. But on days when I can sit down and tap at the keys, time is generally shaped by what I need to do or where I’m up to with a particular project. In the final weeks of editing a novel I might be working at six in the morning and still be at it after 10 at night. Whereas, the earlier stages require a slower accumulation of words and ideas, and I can keep more sociable hours. It’s experimental agriculture, not frantic harvest. Throw stuff down, leave it overnight, see what grows.

Andrew Michael Hurley
My Writing Day
The Guardian 21st October 2017

a young writer

October 28, 2019

Writing is such a revolutionary act. If you follow history you will see how writers, poets, and teachers are ones who are usually imprisoned for their words. For me to force my way into an industry that is predominately white is an act of faith and determination. I believe that there are so many voices out there waiting to be heard. If I could speak to young writers, I would say that persistence is key. I may not be the strongest writer, but I am a person who refuses to quit. I believe my voice is needed, and as a young writer, you need to believe that too, despite what the industry or others say.

Lilliam Rivera
Interview with Sandra Odell, March 2018

in danger of ink poisoning

October 20, 2019

Thing is, when I do sit down to write I’m usually instantly engrossed. Hours speed away as I tug sentences into my preferred shape, fight to express ideas gracefully, rhythmically. No elation equals that produced by a finely crafted piece of work. I know that, but I can never remember it before I’ve begun. Why? I’m not an idiot. And just as nothing equals the elation of a finely crafted piece, so nothing tops the dread in the pit of my guts before I first sit to craft. What on earth am I scared of, eh?

Do I fancy myself in danger of ink poisoning, death by paper cut? Course not. I’m frightened I’m about to produce rubbish. And rightly so: the first draft is always rubbish. Trick is not to be frightened by the rubbish. Allow yourself to write the biggest pile of suffocatingly stinking ordure of which you’re capable. Once you’ve got that in place you can start to shape it. Just don’t compare your first efforts to Middlemarch, or you’ll be stabbing pens through your eyeballs before you can say edit. I bet Eliot’s first efforts were lousy too. Trick is not to worry about it.

Melissa Todd
The trick to Writing is

Like all writers, I hate receiving rejections of my work. I don’t think it ever gets any easier, but as rejections are an integral part of being a traditionally published writer you just have to take it on the chin and carry on.

J.S.Watts
Interview with Peeking Cat Poetry

write more, write better

September 17, 2019

It’s a numbers game, folks. The more you try, the more you succeed. The less you try, the less you succeed. This is true for everything. If you write more, you will write better. If you think about line length more, you will think about line length better. If you submit more, you will publish more. If you submit better, you will publish better.”

Camille T. Dungy
Say Yes to Yourself: A Poet’s Guide to Living and Writing
May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine

Writing

July 6, 2019

…one ought to write without making corrections, not necessarily at full tilt, no, but at one’s own pace and in accordance with what one is experiencing at the time; one ought to eject what one writes, manhandle it almost, yes, treat it roughly, not try to trim profusion but let it be part of the whole, and not tone down anything either, whether its speed or its slowness, just leave everything as it is when it appears.

Marguerite Duras
Emily L
Trans. Barbara Bray

Lost & found

May 25, 2019

Rilke warned young poets against large sweeping topics, since those are the most difficult and demand great artistic maturity. He counselled them to write about what they see around them, how they live each day, what’s been lost, what’s been found. He encouraged them to bring the things that surround us into their art, images from dreams, remembered objects. ‘If daily life seems impoverished to you,’ he wrote, ‘don’t blame life. You yourself are to blame. You’re just not enough of a poet to perceive its wealth.’ This advice may seem mundane and dim-witted to you. This is why we called to our defence one of the most esoteric poets in world literature — and just see how he praised so-called ordinary things!

Wislawa Szymborska
Letter to Michal in Nowy Targ
Literary Life
Trans. Clare Cavanagh

Write freely

May 18, 2019

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.
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.
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 theatre, 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.
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.
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.
6. If you are using dialogue — say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.

John Steinbeck
letter to Robert Wallsten February, 1962