Not too long ago, I stumbled upon Henry Miller’s 11 Commandments on Writing. Now, six tips from John Steinbeck. I liked Miller’s advice (even if I haven’t been following it)–it’s like Miller himself: unfocused, brilliant, always merry and bright. Steinbeck’s is more workmanlike, but more valuable. He starts off covering some of the same territory as Miller: you can’t write everything at once, every thing won’t be perfect the moment it comes out of your pen. #2 is:
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.
But then he moves on to some more specifics.
I’ve never written for a particular “audience.” I’ve actually always thought the idea was sort of silly. The reader is the person who’s reading, and that’s all there is to it. But I like Steinbeck’s point:
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.
I’m going to try that. I like the imagined person. Maybe a real one.
This part (#4) is brilliant too:
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.
I love the phrasing “gets the better of you.” I know exactly what it means. I’ve run into it a bunch of times, but haven’t had a term for it. The tip is good but for me in a lot of cases, the scenes that get the better of me involve major plot turns. Of course the reason I struggle is because I’m trying to force the plot in an artificial direction. We can’t do this. ”Flow and rhythm,” says Steinbeck. ”Unconscious association.”
Number 5 is something of an enigma to me:
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.
I do hold scenes dear, dearer than the rest. They’re what give me chills and sweat and make the whole thing worthwhile. Though I guess one has to be sure to be in love for the right reasons.
Number six is related to writing dialogue. But he finishes with this bit of brilliance:
If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another.