Friday, March 30, 2018

The Best Writing Advice I Ever Got and Other Writing Tips

At some point in the past three years I discovered, or was discovered by, Quora. Quara is a question and answer site in which questions are asked and answered by members of a community. It's like Siri and Google in the sense that people ask questions, but it is like a massive international forum in that humans answer the questions and, like Reddit or other forums, humans upvote or downvote answers, and occasionally comment on them.

People who answer questions will then get asked more questions on that same theme, be it philosophy, religion, The Beatles or raising kids. I get asked a lot of questions about Dylan, blogging and writing. Here is one question that I was asked at the beginning of this year.

What was the most helpful, or most memorable writing advice book you've ever read?

The most memorable advice I ever got came from Sherwood Wirt’s book, You Can Tell The World. There were many useful insights in the book. When he died in 2009 I wrote a tribute to him on my blog titled Sherwood Wirt, R.I.P.

HERE is an excerpt, which I considered the most valuable in my writing career:

If we're to produce great work, we must know what great work looks like. The only way is to be a reader of great works.

“Darwin’s Origin of Species, Marx’ and Engels’ Communist Manifesto, Kierkegaard’s attacks on Hegel, Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Kafka’s The Trial, Camus’ The Plague and others.

“These books, the most influential of our time, deal primarily with the scientific challenge and loss of meaning in a mechanistic society. There has been no Christian work written since the novels of Dostoevsky that can honestly be said to match them in boldness, in documentation, in breadth and scope, in vision, in appeal to the human spirit, or in grasp of truth. C.S. Lewis is the only Christian entry in the field. The opportunities are wide open, and there is plenty of room at the top.”

EdNote: I have read dozens of books about writing over the past half century and there are useful pearls in most of them. So, my advice to you then is to gather them and save them so you can review them and share them.

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Since retiring in December, I have begun to find a renewed interest in writing fiction. I don't know how far I will run with it, but the pump has been primed, there's water flowing and I'm feeling nourished, refreshed, invigorated.

When I built my first website in the mid-90's one of my aims was to share my short stories. Three stories were translated into foreign languages, and one translated to film. The downside of all that is that when later I sought to publish these stories in literary magazines, I learned that "no previously published stories" included being published online. Alas.

If you're a writer of fiction, one of the best teachers of writing (in my opinion) is the late John Gardner. I strongly recommend The Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist. Here are a few quotes from these two books, followed by a couple final words of advice for writers.

On Writing Fiction: Insights from John Gardner

"Though the literary dabbler may write a fine story now and then, the true writer is one for whom technique has become, as for the pianist, second nature."
The Art of Fiction

"... whatever the genre may be, fiction does its work by creating a dream in the reader's mind."
The Art of Fiction

"Thus the value of great fiction, we begin to suspect, is not just that it entertains us or distracts us from our troubles, not just that it broadens our knowledge of people and places, but also that it helps us to know what we believe, reinforces those qualities that are noblest in us, leads us to feel uneasy about our faults and limitations."
The Art of Fiction

"What the young writer needs to develop, to achieve his goal of becoming a great artist, is not a set of aesthetic laws, but artistic mastery."
The Art of Fiction

"It may feel more classy to imitate James Joyce... than All In the Family; but every literary imitation lacks something we expect of good writing: the writer seeing with his own eyes."
On Becoming a Novelist

"Detail is the lifeblood of fiction."
On Becoming a Novelist

"The study of writing, like the study of classical piano, is not practical but aristocratic. If one is born rich, one can easily afford to be an artist; if not, one has to afford one's art by sacrifice."
On Becoming a Novelist

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"The main purpose of art... is this, that it tell the truth about the soul, revealing and giving expression to all the secrets one cannot say in simple words. ...Art is a microscope that the artist focuses on the secrets of his own soul, and that then reveals to men the secrets common to them all."
Tolstoy - diary note

"The real rewards of writing are serious and bitter as well as sweet. And they are private, not public."
William Sloan, The Craft of Writing

"One great inhibition and obstacle to me was the thought: Will it make money? But you find if you are thinking of that all the time, either you don't make money because the work is so empty, dry, calculated and without life in it. Or you do make money and you are ashamed of your work. Your published writing gives you the pip."
Brenda Uelland - If You Want to Write

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If you feel called to be a writer.... "Don't give up the fight."

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