Creative Writing Advice?

Googling the title returned about 420,000,000 results in 0.57 seconds. I don’t have the time in this life to read it all, but what I did read was boring. “Advice for creative writing” strikes me as an oxymoron. “Advice” and “creative” are opposites. “Advice” suggests tried and true while “creative” means untested, new. Fresh.

The Google results clearly claim I’m wrong about this. But to paraphrase Anatole France, “If 420 million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing.” And despite my skepticism, I enjoy thinking about insights from respected writers. Such as these two from Kurt Vonnegut.

“Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.”

“Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”

Both quotes help me to focus but creativity is the use of the imagination to form something new. Strictly speaking, no one can give you that. So, my advice to new creative writers is, “Think for yourself.”

But what do you think? What would your best, or favorite, advice be to a new creative writer?


41 thoughts on “Creative Writing Advice?

  1. In no particular order of relevance, these are a dozen best practices of the craft that I try to be mindful of when I write:

    1.) Use vivid action verbs and concretizing, specific nouns. (Example A: The barking dog ran alongside the car. Example B: The pink-beribboned poodle scampered alongside the battered Buick sedan, barking and whining shrilly. Which of these two sentences paints a more vivid picture in your mind? Please understand that that is the only tool you have in your arsenal when you sit down to write: words.)

    2.) You almost never have to use an adverb in conjunction with a speech tag.

    3.) When characters talk, 75%-85% of your speech tags should be the all-but-invisible, simple word: “said”.

    4.) Vonnegut: “Start your story as close to the end as possible.”

    5.) When characters talk to each other, there is no need for them to use each other’s name every couple of sentences. (“Well, Jim.” “Yes, Sally?” “I told him, Jim. . . ” “Very good, Sally.” “I could not believe, Jim . . .” “I am as shocked as you are, Sally!”)

    6.) A character fighting against emotion–and ultimately losing–is more moving than a maudlin, let-it-all-hang-out histrionic. (Example A: He burst out sobbing, the tears flowing down his face. “My god!” he cried. “No! Oh my god!” Example B: He bit his lip, turned away so that they could not see his eyes redden. He gestured wordlessly, stumbled from the room. Once outside in the hallway his knees unhinged and he slid down the wall to sit splay-legged on the floor. He hid his face in his hands and sobbed brokenly.)

    7. Do not “head-hop” amongst multiple focal-point characters in the same scene. It splits focus, momentarily throws the reader (wait–whose thoughts are these now?), heightens artifice and lessens tension. You want to get into two different character’s heads? Write two different scenes.

    8. Stephen King: Read, read, read. “You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.”

    9. All good writing is rewriting. Notice that even the beatnik rule of “first thought, best thought” refers to thoughts, not the quality of the writing.

    10. Your two most critical paragraphs are the first and the last. Your opening paragraph establishes voice and style; your closing paragraph should echo in the reader’s mind long after the story has ended.

    11. Let the reader know as soon as possible–preferably in your opening paragraph (or at least the first page)–what the problem to be solved is and/or what is at stake for your protagonist. If you don’t do this your story will have no tension. What keeps a reader turning pages? Curiosity as to how things will turn out for your characters–if they are emotionally involved with them. (Alternately, perfect an authorial voice so dulcet, euphonious and lapidary that the reader surrenders with a sigh to your genial, well-modulated charm and the glittering grammatical jewels you strew before them. Good luck with this latter approach. Hope your name is Nabokov, Tolkien or Thurber.)

    12. Don’t talk about your stories before they are written; you will dispel the energy to write them. (This is a Ray Bradbury rule.)

    Liked by 6 people

  2. I went through my series (trilogy plus 1) to see if I’d abided by Rule 11. Yes, in three out of four books. With the other one (Book 3), it’s less clear. No problem if you’re reading the books as a series, but less so if reading it as stand-alone.
    Also, there are three unexpected shifts in direction part way through that book, and it would be difficult to foreshadow those at the beginning.

    Liked by 5 people

  3. victoracquista says:

    Read widely.
    Write often.
    Allow yourself “open time”. (This is somewhat amorphous but generally is the space where creative ideas emerge.)
    There’s my simple advice distilled into three suggestions.
    To the google query: “What stimulates creativity?”–About 5,140,000 results (0.54 seconds)
    Have fun plowing through those ideas and suggestions.
    I think there is nothing oxymoronic about advice on creative writing. Advice is left brain directed. Creativity is more a function of the right brain. Writing creatively involves both sides of the brain. I don’t have any misgivings about giving advice on how to approach/improve/foster creative writing. But I do have misgivings about having some proscribed approach as I think distilling this into a process is a great way to stymie the very thing you are attempting to foster.

    Liked by 5 people

  4. Agreed, Victor! Adhering too dogmatically to any particular prescribed practice creates a mannered style of its own. I believe Elmore Leonard only ever uses “said” as a speech tag. And I forgot who remarked of Hemingway (close paraphrase): “Papa has transcended style? Please! Read 3-4 short stories of his back-to-back and tell me you don’t discern a distinctive voice there.”

    We pick-and-choose, magpie like, from a centuries-old smorgasbord of lit crit wisdom and best practices to amplify and authenticate our own voice.

    Having said this, I would caution the novice writer: Learn the rules before you break them. Cliched but oh-so-true. If you don’t realize why and how you failed in the telling of your tale, how will you ever improve? If you have no “ear” for the craft or love of rewriting, what do you hope to accomplish?

    It’s “creative” writing, yes; but the modifying adjective “creative” doesn’t mean “anything goes”–or rather, will work. You can try anything in story telling, but then you must step back with a critical eye and objectively assess: Did I get the effect I wanted? Did the choices I made work? Can the story be improved? If so, how?

    Liked by 6 people

    • victoracquista says:

      It makes me wonder if Hemingway had some guru creative writing advice that he used or if he basically did his own thing. I do think creative writing can be taught but only to a point. There is something unique about expressing creativity that can’t be taught but the expression of which can be facilitated.

      Liked by 3 people

      • https://www.cliffsnotes.com/literature/h/hemingways-short-stories/critical-essay/hemingways-writing-style

        Excerpt from the above article:

        From the beginning of his writing career in the 1920s, Hemingway’s writing style occasioned a great deal of comment and controversy. Basically, a typical Hemingway novel or short story is written in simple, direct, unadorned prose. Possibly, the style developed because of his early journalistic training. The reality, however, is this: Before Hemingway began publishing his short stories and sketches, American writers affected British mannerisms. Adjectives piled on top of one another; adverbs tripped over each other. Colons clogged the flow of even short paragraphs, and the plethora of semicolons often caused readers to throw up their hands in exasperation. And then came Hemingway.

        An excellent example of Hemingway’s style is found in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” In this story, there is no maudlin sentimentality; the plot is simple, yet highly complex and difficult. Focusing on an old man and two waiters, Hemingway says as little as possible. He lets the characters speak, and, from them, we discover the inner loneliness of two of the men and the callous prejudices of the other. When Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1954, his writing style was singled out as one of his foremost achievements. The committee recognized his “forceful and style-making mastery of the art of modern narration.”

        Hemingway has often been described as a master of dialogue; in story after story, novel after novel, readers and critics have remarked, “This is the way that these characters would really talk.” Yet, a close examination of his dialogue reveals that this is rarely the way people really speak. The effect is accomplished, rather, by calculated emphasis and repetition that makes us remember what has been said.

        Liked by 6 people

  5. I think the best advice I’ve received on how to improve my writing has come in specific feedback to things I’ve written. For example, from my critique groups. Whether or not I agree with what they tell me, I learn something–and try to apply it to all subsequent writing.

    Liked by 6 people

  6. mimispeike says:

    I would say be a life-long constant reader. (Too late for that? Too bad for you.)

    And pay attention to the mechanics of what you read.

    Get feedback? I’m not big on feedback. I have my own approach to storytelling, as most here know.

    I did, in the past, pay attention to feedback. I ultimately decided my way was the right way for me, and I haven’t had a second thought about it since.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. This thread seems to have died. Pity.

    GD, do you mind if I broaden the topic slightly?

    Folks, is there a particular writer’s style or voice that you admire/adore/seek to emulate? If so, why? What specific aspects of their technique engage you? Seem particularly effective?

    On the other hand, is there a particular writer who annoys? Why? One writer who shall go unnamed (who I recently had the cinderblock-to-the-head displeasure to read) ended four sentences in a row in one stand-out paragraph of his first novel with the pronoun “him”. Four . . . sentences . . . in a row. “Him-him-him-him. . . .” Editor?!

    Liked by 3 people

    • mimispeike says:

      I love description. Curious, eh? I have so little physical description in my writing. I put all my description into the personalities.

      I love Charles Reade, for his description. Not for his plots! Melodramatic mush!

      I reread him regularly for his way with words and his gorgeous description. I’ll think on this add other names.

      Liked by 3 people

    • Perry Palin says:

      I admire and reread regularly the writing of Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William H. Gass, and J.D. Salinger. All different, and all engaging. I enjoy some of the poetry in a 1960’s anthology “In a Time of Revolution”, a model for rhythm and meaning distilled in few words.

      When my first book of short stories appeared a local influencer wrote an unsolicited review stating that I wrote in “short declarative sentences.” I appreciated his review, and thought I could take that to the bank. I never got into the marketing thing, and I didn’t carry much book revenue to the bank, but the book earned me a few friends, for which I am grateful.

      This winter I read eight or ten mysteries from my wife’s pile of 20th Century novels, written in the U.S., Great Britain, and Scandinavia. I got into the twists and turns of the plots, but the interminable description was to me maddening.

      Liked by 4 people

  8. Sounds like you’re a fan of the Elmore Leonard School of Writing.

    Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing

    1. Never open a book with weather.
    2. Avoid prologues.
    3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
    4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
    5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
    6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
    7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
    8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
    9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
    10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

    “My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.
    If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
    ― Elmore Leonard

    Liked by 7 people

  9. I’m a fan of early sci-fi greats, because I enjoy a good romping adventure. But the writer who (still) influences me most is Norman Mailer. Every time I write, I remember his criticism of another writer he disliked: “He said she was beautiful because he couldn’t make her so.”

    Liked by 4 people

  10. Norman Mailer (chauvinist feminist) wrote one of my favorite books on the craft of writing: The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing. Some stand-out quotes from the book:

    “Characters in novels sometimes radiate more energy, therefore, when we don’t enter their mind. It is one of the techniques a novelist acquires instinctively—don’t go into your protagonist’s thoughts until you have something to say about his or her inner life that is more interesting than the reader’s suppositions.”

    “Metaphor reveals a writer’s true grasp of life. To the degree that you have no metaphor, you have not yet lived much of a life.”

    “More sensitive than others in the beginning, we have to develop the will, the stamina, the determination, and the insensitivity to take critical abuse. A good writer, therefore, does well to see himself as a strong, weak person, full of brave timidity, sensitive and insensitive.”

    “Craft protects one from facing endless expanding realities—the terror, let us say, of losing your novel in the depths of philosophical insights you are not ready to live with.”

    “You can’t change a single word. What is tensile strength? It is that all the components are working together. I repeat: You can’t change a single word. The best short stories are built on this premise.”

    Liked by 3 people

  11. mimispeike says:

    “Folks, is there a particular writer’s style or voice that you admire/adore/seek to emulate?”

    The book that I have reread oh, at least every two years, for fifteen years is A Fool and His Money by Ann Rowe. I enjoy the style, and the way she describes things. It reads like a novel. But it began life as a dissertation at Oxford or Cambridge, can’t remember which.

    It is a carefully researched history of a fourteenth-century town in southern France. The chronicle of life was pulled out of town records. She goes into incredible detail about housing, about ways and means of taxation and how the people tried to get around it, about fines levied for bad behavior and what that bad behavior consisted of, property bequeathed and what that property consisted of, court cases, the set-up of the judiciary, just the sort of stuff I was hoping to dig up about Hamlin but never found.

    Ann Rowe has had the biggest influence on me of anyone I’ve read.

    Liked by 5 people

  12. Kate Atkinson for the playfulness and lightness of touch combined with the darkest of themes. Julian Barnes for the perfect flow of his sentences.
    As for advice, nothing to add to the excellent comments already posted. Of which GD’s ‘think for yourself’ is one I increasingly adopt (for better or for worse). Which doesn’t preclude Mimi’s ‘pay attention to the mechanics of what you read’ – as long as you then use it in your own way.

    Liked by 4 people

    • mimispeike says:

      My experience is, it’s impossible to steal exactly. Me, I *always* think I can improve on the original. It often ends by being something else entirely.

      Liked by 3 people

  13. Hello All,

    This thread kind of reminds me of the old Certs breath mint TV ad: “Certs is a breath mint. No Certs is a candy mint. Stop! You’re both right.”

    Everything you’ve all said is pretty much true. Why? Because the diversity of readers makes it pretty much impossible for there to be one good set of rules, other than the basic rules of grammar, punctuation, etc. Beyond that we move into the realm of style which does or does not appeal to readers.

    Take Carl’s Elmore Leonard quote: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” Sounds wickedly insightful, right? With dialogue he’s undoubtably correct. If I have a character, sipping their morning coffee while looking out a window at the dawn, they might say, “Wow, lovely sky.” Well, that’s how people talk. On the other hand, if I describe a character sitting and looking at the ‘lovely sky,’ then GD’s quote from Mailer kicks in: “He said she was beautiful because he couldn’t make her so.” Two very well know authors offering two different bits of advice which, in the proper context, are both correct. I don’t think I’d have read ‘The Sunlight Dialogues’ or ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ if either were written by Leonard, nor would I have found ‘The Big Sleep’ or ‘The Maltese Falcon’ thrilling if Mailer had written them.

    Now, that of course does not stop the search for the Holy Grail. People who want to write want to improve (in the same way that photographers, painters, and knitters want to improve), and maybe make some money at it. Hence the 420,000,000 results GD refers to (I’m sure if he had googled advice for photographers, or…well you get the idea) he would have gotten a similar number. There are also, of course, those who want to make money off offering advice.

    But the problem with ‘rules’ is often that to some they become the equivalent of the tablets Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai. (I’ve often imagined legions of newly minted MFA’s in Writing grimly marching across a twilight landscape dutifully chanting “Show, Don’t Tell!” with the grim certitude of first graders reciting their ABC’s while on their way to careers at McDonald’s and Uber.)

    I guess if you are looking for advice, you need to start by specifying the genre you’re working in. But I’d take those rules (like some Carl mentions) as kind of the DNA of the genre, the four basic amino acids. Start with simple things and be creative. If life hadn’t done that we’d be discussing “Ways to be a good bacterium.”

    Liked by 5 people

    • Brilliant analysis/synthesis of all that has been said here, Tom! I could not agree with you more: Almost all fiction writing advice moves beyond the basics into the more problematic, controversial realm of style. (I chuckled at your comment re: “newly minted MFA’s in Writing grimly marching across a twilight landscape . . .” Heh!)

      As for Elmore Leonard’s dictum–“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it,”–hasn’t Truman Capote already proffered the perfect rejoinder? “That’s not writing; that’s typing.”

      Like you said: It’s all a matter of taste and style.

      I also understand the remark that you would not have read some novels if they had been written by another writer. (Ah, but what if they had? The prospect raises some amusing possibilities!)

      Imagine LOTR written by:

      Hemingway: They spread the blanket on the ground and put a wheel of cheese and a bottle of wine on the blanket. The elf cut the cheese into slices with the knife he produced from a vestment pocket and then put away again. He uncorked the wine with his teeth, which gleamed white as the snows of Kilimanjaro. They ate the cheese which was salty and good and drank the wine which was strong and also good.

      “It was a woman,” said the elf, “who broke my heart in the autumn of the year when the trees were brown and the sky yellow. The deer moved through the forest with the squirrels and the birds and the mice. We made love after Sauron fled Mordor and I said then that she was a strong and good woman but she did not agree that I was, so she left me and I drank many strong drinks in her absence and killed and ate many deer. I wrote clean, well-lit stories and then I went to the war and got caught up in the running of the bullshit. Here–have some cheese.”

      I took the last hunk of cheese and ate it. “It is salty and good,” I said.

      The elf said, “Finish the wine. It is strong and good and purple. Do not go to war. Do not love strong women who will love you and leave you and break your heart. Go to Cuba and fish.”

      Robert E. Howard: “Ho, Uruk-hai dog!” snarled Frodo, “advance and be spitted upon cold steel!”

      The orcs charged the shield wall and crashed against the grim-faced hobbits with a clang of ringing iron and battle-maddened cries. The shield wall broke apart into individual combats.

      Frodo lopped the head off the foremost charging orc with his broadsword, then wheeled and spitted two more with an oath.

      Beside him, Sam Gangee and Pippin Took wielded their weapons with berserker abandon. Sam split the skull of a hulking, leather-clad orc with his battleaxe, then advanced to cleave in twain a loin-clothed chieftain who struck at Frodo’s back. Pippin, dual-wielding longswords with pantherish grace, ripped into the orcish mass in a steel-glinting whirlwind of scything blades and spattering blood.

      “Kill them!” shrieked Gandalf, eyes wide and wild. His blood-matted beard dripped redly. “Kill them all!” He roared and smote with his blood-grooved longstaff, alternately cackling and cursing with battle madness. The corpses stacked up around him.

      H. P. Lovecraft: It is only now that I–a scholarly man of nervous, hyper-sensitive bookish disposition–dare scrawl into the pages of this bronze-hasped, leather-bound journal some brief yet telling, multi-adjectived, evocative description of the squamous, shuddersome, anthropoid, subterranean, arachnid, hideous thing which advanced with meeping cries and a feverish whistle-wisp-snap of pink-mawed tentacles and scuttling limbs upon our party there in the doom-haunted gloom of the antediluvian dwarven mines of the shadow-cursed warren of rough rock-hewn chambers and tunnels which comprised Moria–also known as the thrice-damned Dwarrowdelf by the hunch-backed, hideous, hirsute locals in which some ancient, unnatural, demonaic crossbreeding of bear and fish still showed in their lantern-jawed, bulge-eyed features. (Did I use hideous twice? Must take one out. Only one use of “hideous” allowed per sentence.) I fainted.

      Liked by 6 people

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