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Janet Fitch 10 Rules For Writing

29 Oct

Janet Fitch : 10 Rules For Writing

1. Write the sentence,not just the story

Long ago I got a rejection from the editor of the Santa Monica Review, Jim Krusoe. It said:  “Good enough story, but what’s unique about your sentences?”  That was the best advice I ever got. Learn to look at your sentences,  play with them, make sure there’s music, lots of edges and corners  to the sounds. Read your work aloud. Read poetry aloud and try to  heighten in every way your sensitivity to the sound and rhythm and  shape of sentences. The music of words. I like Dylan Thomas best for  this–the Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait. I also like Sexton, Eliot,  and Brodsky for the poets and Durrell and Les Plesko for prose. A  terrific exercise is to take a paragraph of someone’s writing who  has a really strong style, and using their structure, substitute your  own words for theirs, and see how they achieved their effects.

2. Pick a better verb

Most people use twenty verbs to describe everything from a run in their stocking to the explosion  of an atomic bomb. You know the ones: Was, did, had, made, went,  looked… One-size-fits-all looks like crap on anyone. Sew yourself a  custom made suit. Pick a better verb. Challenge all those verbs to  really lift some weight for you.

3. Kill the cliché.

When you’re writing, anything you’ve ever  heard or read before is a cliché. They can be combinations of  words: Cold sweat. Fire-engine red, or phrases: on the  same page, level playing field, or metaphors: big as a  house. So quiet you could hear a pin drop. Sometimes  things themselves are cliches: fuzzy dice, pink flamingo lawn  ornaments, long blonde hair. Just keep asking yourself,  “Honestly, have I ever seen this before?” Even if Shakespeare  wrote it, or Virginia Woolf, it’s a cliché. You’re a writer and  you have to invent it from scratch, all by yourself. That’s why  writing is a lot of work, and demands unflinching honesty.

4. Variety is the key.

Most people write the same sentence over and over  again. The same number of words–say, 8-10, or 10-12. The same  sentence structure. Try to become stretchy–if you generally write 8  words, throw a 20 word sentence in there, and a few three-word  shorties. If you’re generally a 20 word writer, make sure you throw  in some threes, fivers and sevens, just to keep the reader from going  crosseyed.

5. Explore sentences using dependent clauses.

A dependent clause (a sentence fragment set off by  commas, dontcha know) helps you explore your story by moving you  deeper into the sentence. It allows you to stop and think harder  about what you’ve already written. Often the story you’re looking  for is inside the sentence. The dependent clause helps you  uncover it.

6. Use the landscape.

Always tell us where we are. And don’t just tell us  where something is, make it pay off. Use description of  landscape to help you  stablish the emotional tone of the scene. Keep  notes of how other authors establish mood and foreshadow events by  describing the world around the character. Look at the openings of  Fitzgerald stories, and Graham Greene, they’re great at this.

7. Smarten up your protagonist.

Your protagonist is your reader’s portal into the  story. The more observant he or she can be, the more vivid will be  the world you’re creating. They don’t have to be super-educated,  they just have to be mentally active. Keep them looking, thinking,  wondering,  emembering.

8. Learn to write dialogue.

This involves more than I can discuss here, but do  it. Read the writers of great prose dialogue–people like Robert  Stone and Joan Didion. Compression, saying as little as possible,  making everything carry much more than is actually said. Conflict.  Dialogue as part of an ongoing world, not just voices in a dark room.  Never say the obvious. Skip the meet and greet.

9. Write in scenes.

What is a scene? a) A scene starts and ends in one  place at one time (the Aristotelian unities of time and place–this  stuff goes waaaayyyy back). b) A scene starts in one place  emotionally and ends in another place emotionally. Starts angry, ends  embarrassed. Starts lovestruck, ends disgusted. c) Something happens  in a scene, whereby the character cannot go back to the way things  were before. Make sure to finish a scene before you go on to the  next. Make something happen.

10. Torture your protagonist.

The writer is both a sadist and a masochist. We  create people we love, and then we torture them. The more we love  them, and the more cleverly we torture them along the lines of their  greatest vulnerability and fear, the better the story. Sometimes we  try to protect them from getting booboos that are too big. Don’t.  This is your protagonist, not your kid.

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