Six Tips on Writing by John Steinbeck

Six Tips on Writing by John Steinbeck
Interview in Fall 1975 issue of The Paris Review.

john steinbeck

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 theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.

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.

“Playing Games”


View artists carvings
Designs of creatures dancing
Running feet chasing

Answers then questions
Perceive the races outcome
Let beginning end

Crashing heads and balls
Taking down the hero best
Satisfaction comes

Love two one child wins
Hitting tramples tender minds
Winners hug at end

Punch the sphere with fists
Palms wanting to touch the sky
High as one can fly

© jk 2015

#12 scattered minds (c) jkm 2015

#12 scattered minds (c) jkm 2015

“…then you are a writer”

book of magical images growing

“All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.” ― Ernest Hemingway

“In my letters to her…”

“April ended and May came along, but May was even worse than April. In the deepening spring of May, I had no choice but to recognize the trembling of my heart. It usually happened as the sun was going down. In the pale evening gloom, when the soft fragrance of magnolias hung in the air, my heart would swell without warning, and tremble, and lurch with a stab of pain. I would try clamping my eyes shut and gritting my teeth, and wait for it to pass. And it would pass….but slowly, taking its own time, and leaving a dull ache behind.

At those times I would write… In my letters to her, I would describe only things that were touching or pleasant or beautiful: the fragrance of grasses, the caress of a spring breeze, the light of the moon, a movie I’d seen, a song I liked, a book that had moved me. I myself would be comforted by letters like this when I would reread what I had written. And I would feel that the world I lived in was a wonderful one. I wrote any number of letters like this…”

― Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood

light thru trees

Editor’s Corner 101.15

House of Words

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” …Lewis Carroll.

Scribe smallWhen I was a kid, aside from wanting to be a writer, part of me wanted to be an architect. To design and build houses – and castles – from the ground up. To focus on the 3-D aesthetic of what goes where and how it all fits together. As I grew up, I realized that you don’t have to build houses to focus on the elements of construction. And so today, I want to talk about literary structure, about how, as writers, we are architects with words. shot02

First, let me clarify: I am not talking about plot. Personally, I tend to be a little lukewarm about plot. But I love structure.

And at heart, structure is largely a matter of knowing – and keeping – a story’s time.

Long ago, one chilly Paleolithic evening, our storytelling ancestors sat around the hearth and talked about their day tracking woolly rhinos and dodging cave bears. And when there was a lull in the tale someone would invariably say, “What happened next?”

Such an A-to-B-to-C progression is, after all, how we live, and literature – even at its most fantastic – tends to mirror life. It is this familiarity, no matter how tenuous, which draws the reader in and lets them (us) say, “Yes! I can relate to that person/dormouse/dragon. They have elevenses before tea just like I do.” Time (1)

This is the natural flow of time, the requisite of history books, biographies, and Dickensian tomes beginning with “I was born.” Chronology. Day follows day, week follows week, year, year, in a logical progression. Just as you build a house floor to wall to roof, so you build a tale beginning to middle to end. This is the skeleton upon which we drape characters and plots, themes and lofty metaphors. Spanning an hour or a century, a linear sense of time serves as the most simple – reliable – framework for a story.

So, your foundation runs deep, load-bearing walls are in place, no holes in your roof. You have a solid structure; now, within reason, you can do most anything with it. As long as the ornamentation suits the tale, go for it. Add a tower for lofty perspective or a priest’s hole full of subplot and tangential intrigue. Paint the walls with psychedelic murals or line them with yard after yard of leather-bound books. These are the details of character and text that make fiction more than a string of events. Though remember: adding gingerbread to an intimate tale for the hell of it tends to read as just showing off. You want to enhance, not distract. cm-forbes-home-nw-corner-vista-and-park-8343-1892

You can even start having fun with time, an increasing used conceit of contemporary fiction. One of my favorite plays is Harold Pinter’s classic, “Betrayal,” which spins out across the stage from end to beginning, from good-bye to hello, last awkward look first fervid touch. And yet, as much as Pinter manipulated the presentation of events, his frame’s always solid.

Jeremy Irons, Patricia Hodge - "Betrayal"

Jeremy Irons, Patricia Hodge – “Betrayal”

Or you have something like William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury,” in which, without strict regard for chronological order, the Compson brothers (and Dilsey, the family cook) explore not only their relationships with each other, but also their personal relationships with time. In the end, Time takes on a character all its own, defining the Compsons as profoundly as any human connection they might have.

Leaving typical notions of chronology even further by the wayside is Julio Cortazar’s interactive lyric novel, “Hopscotch.” Escheresque in its complexity, Cortazar so fractured his temporal world that he provided reading instructions for the book – a sort of temporal GPS, if you will, lest you get lost. (If you haven’t read it, give it a shot; it’s a treat on many levels.) But even Cortazar doesn’t abandon a temporal framework entirely. It is still there, the underlying – if extreme – blueprint to his work.9780764946448_big

One last thought, strictly from an editor’s perspective. Flaws and deviations from sound structure are often easy to see and usually easy to fix. If you find yourself getting lost along your way, step back and see where you went down the wrong hallway, opened the wrong door, and backtrack to the basics.

Granted, not everyone has architectural sensibilities. If you can’t see something yourself, go to someone who can. That’s what editors are for.

OK. I’ve rambled quite enough.

For now.

Editor’s Corner 101.14

Deviling the Details

Scribe smallThose of you who visited the Editor’s Corner last week will likely think I am working in a backasswards fashion. Given that I am never quite sure what I will tackle until I set fingers a typing, I am actually surprised this doesn’t happen on a regular basis.

Be that as it may, last week I spoke about going macro and reclaiming your Big Picture. Today, I want to turn the telescope around and talk micro: the realm of detail and what particular details tell the reader. A character can have breakfast, sure. But a breakfast of corn flakes and black coffee says something very different than eggs benedict and fresh pomegranate juice. A simple suburban house tells us far less about its occupants than a Cape Cod on a corner lot with a thriving vegetable garden around back. John Cheever would certainly never settle for the former! It is the details which define our setting, our characters, their actions, and are, at times, as important as all the broad brush thematic flourishes on which we prefer to focus.


In short, I am talking world building via vivid detail, the “life blood,” as John Gardner said, of fiction. And though ‘world building’ is a phrase more familiar to those of us who delve into the sci-fi/fantasy genres, I believe it remains apt for all.

Caveat emptor: I, as a rule, am one of those fantasy/sci-fi folk. I stride across landscapes alien and strange even when set in the relatively familiar environs of our home world. This often requires world building of the highest order, from geography to flora and fauna. That said, not anything goes. Quite the contrary. When we world build from scratch, we can be outrageous as long as the core structure is 100% authentic and believable. Natural law must apply. We can, of course, rewrite natural law but that usually demands far more exposition than most readers will abide. Thus, the best sci-fi/fantasy is grounded in a relative degree of familiarity. Air and water and gravity are constants for life; fish – or their counterparts – swim, and dragons –or their counterparts – fly. Within such parameters, all sorts of things can happen and the more detail you give your world, the more believable it becomes; the more clearly your reader can imagine your tale.


I am currently (still – I mentioned this story a couple of weeks ago and chide myself daily for my slow progress) reediting a short story which takes place on very foreign soil, the planet Asru-Nai. Though Earthlike in terms of atmosphere and livability, there are notable distinctions. Geographically, Asru-Nai is closer to Venus, with mountains that would dwarf Everest and a shallow sea twice the size of the Pacific. The latter creates real-life problems, like massive storms and tsunamis. This requires a believable solution: the colonists must terraform a vast archipelago of barrier islands to mitigate nature’s chaos. The flora and fauna are a treat to create, though I admit I spent 2 hours today trying to find the right name for a harbor delicacy that was both unusual and demanding no explanation. Tricky that, but the sort of thing which is essential flesh on a story’s bones. (I settled on braised jawfish on a bed of fern-root.)

Now, you don’t have to travel across the cosmos to build worlds. Every detail is important. More to the point, those details we choose to include in our work – as opposed to the plethora of authorial backstory – should BE important. We are painters with words and without detail the best we can hope for are rather ill-focused monochromatic sketches. From warm skin to fairy hair, from a praying mantis waltzing through the rhododendrons to the floral sweetness of saffron in bouillabaisse, these are our tales, the colors of our palette, the building blocks of our fictive worlds.

I will try to respond to messages as I am able. At times it may be in the form of a post or a direct email response. Guests who post, I will forward messages addressed to them. It is up to them how they decide to correspond.   — Shawn MacKENZIE – MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest

Editor’s Corner: 101.1

Editor’s Corner: 101.1
Written by Shawn MacKenzie
Post Tuesday 11th November 2014

Scribe smallFrom the Outside Looking In: Read.

I was recently approached about undertaking a weekly sojourn through all things editing, and I thought, sure, why not! Of course, on second thought, I realized that much of what I do as an editor is informed by my work as a writer – even when I edit others. As such, it is internalized and occasionally idiosyncratic, certainly not the sort of thing I normally ramble on about. So, bear with me; this should be an interesting journey for all of us.  — Shawn MacKENZIE

As an activity and a passion, editing, like writing, runs the gamut from macro to micro, from broad strokes on plot and character to the minutia of comma v. semi-colon.

Personally, I think it’s best to start big – so big that you’re not even dealing with your own work. To that end, my advice for today: Read.

Read everything and anything. The classics, the paper, your favorite guilty genre pleasure. Read Chekhov for dialogue, Christie for plot, dictionaries for joy, and Shakespeare because he’s Shakespeare! Whatever strikes your fancy. Become a sponge, absorbing what works and wringing out what doesn’t. Internalize the basics of tense agreement, point of view, and active v. passive voice. I assure you, it is a hell of a lot more fun this way than sitting through a grammar class (which may teach you the rules, but not necessarily how to use them, let alone break them).

When you’re read-out, treat yourself to a clear, inspired mind: go to a museum or cafe or wildlife park. Look at art and animals and people, how they shimmer and move and connect. For it is all connected, be it words on a page or life in the world. That is the heart of our storytelling. It is not only good for the spirit, but will help you return to your words with invigorated eyes.

And then, at the end of the day, if you’re not too weary, thumb through Strunk and White’s Elements of Style for good measure.
But more on that next Tuesday.

Every Tuesday Starting Tuesday November 11th 2013 “the secret keeper” Will Be Posting Sequential Archived Posts of the “Editor’s Corner” by Shawn MacKENZIE of MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest on ‘the secret keeper’

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I will try to respond to messages as I am able. At times it may be in the form of a post or a direct email response. Guests who post, I will forward messages addressed to them. It is up to them how they decide to correspond.   Shawn MacKENZIE – MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest