Stein is an author, editor, and publisher. His advice is geared toward fiction, with some thoughts for nonfiction. I am a reader and reviewer of books, not a writer. I have strong likes and dislikes about books I’ve read. I’m reading some “how to write books” to see if I agree with the experts. I’m delighted to say that writers who follow Stein’s advice will very likely make me happy when reading their books. I am more liberal than Stein in two areas: the first three pages of a book and his fifth commandment. Scenes that end prematurely are a subject Stein did not discuss, but I believe he would agree with me.
ADJECTIVES, ADVERBS, & FLAB:
For a while now I have been confused when I hear people say “cut adverbs.” I’ve loved some colorful writing that adverbs produce. I made a list of wonderful sentences with adverbs written by J.K. Rowling, John Grisham, and Georgette Heyer. I recently read three Hemingway short stories and noticed a lot of adjectives and adverbs in two of them. That intrigued me because he is famous for concise writing. Stein is the first expert who explains this subject to my satisfaction. Although he recommends cutting most adjectives and adverbs, he gives examples showing when they are valuable. I like his view. Stein and I both like the following paragraph which is full of adjectives and adverbs. Although a novel filled with this should probably be labeled poetry rather than fiction. Still it shows the emotional and sensual ability of adjectives and adverbs. Stein calls it “a nearly perfect paragraph.” It was written by a student of his, Linda Katmarian.
“Weeds and the low hanging branches of unpruned trees swooshed and thumped against the car while gravel popped loudly under the car’s tires. As the car bumped along, a flock of startled blackbirds exploded out of the brush. For a moment they fluttered and swirled about like pieces of charred paper in the draft of a flame and then were gone. Elizabeth blinked. The mind could play such tricks.”
Stein says “She’s breaking rules. Adjectives and adverbs which normally should be cut are all over the place. They’re used to wonderful effect because she uses the particular sound of words ‘the low hanging branches swooshed and thumped against the car. Gravel popped. Startled blackbirds exploded out of the brush. They fluttered and swirled.’ We experience the road the car is on because the car ‘bumped’ along. What a wonderful image. ‘The birds fluttered and swirled about like pieces of charred paper in the draft of a flame.’ And it all comes together in the perception of the character ‘Elizabeth blinked. The mind could play such tricks.’ Many published writers would like to have written a paragraph that good. That nearly perfect paragraph was ...”
Another example. Stein does not like the sentence “What a lovely, colorful garden.” Lovely is too vague. Colorful is specific therefore better; but lovely and colorful don’t draw us in because we expect a garden to be lovely or colorful. There are several curiosity provoking adjectives you might use. If we hear that a garden is curious, strange, eerie, remarkable, or bizarre, we want to know why. An adjective that piques the reader’s curiosity helps move the story along.
Stein says when you have two adjectives together with one noun, you should almost always delete one of the adjectives. He also recommends eliminating the following words which he calls flab: had, very, quite, poor (unless talking of poverty), however, almost, entire, successive, respective, perhaps, always, and “there is.” Other words can be flab as well.
PARTICULARITY (attentiveness to detail):
I love the following comparison. “You have an envelope? He put one down in front of her.” This exchange is void of particularity. Here’s how the transaction was described by John LeCarre. “You have a suitable envelope? Of course you have. Envelopes were in the third drawer of his desk, left side. He selected a yellow one A4 size and guided it across the desk but she let it lie there.” Those particularities ordinary as they seem help make what she is going to put into the envelope important. The extra words are not wasted because they make the experience possible and credible. (My favorite part: “Of course you have.”)
FLASHBACKS AND SCENES THAT END PREMATURELY:
Stein discourages flashbacks. He says they break the reading experience. They pull the reader out of the story to tell what happened earlier. Yay! I agree! I don’t like them either.
I don’t recall Stein discussing “ending scenes prematurely,” but I think (or hope) he would agree with me that they also “break the reading experience.” For example, Mary walks into a room, hears a noise, and is hit. The next sentence is about another character in another place. Many authors do this to create artificial suspense. It makes me angry, and my anger takes me out of the story because I’m thinking about the author instead of the characters. You can have great suspense without doing this. Stein says “The Day of the Jackal” is famous for use of suspense. The scenes in that book have natural endings.
FIRST THREE PAGES OF A BOOK MAY NOT BE AS CRITICAL AS THEY USED TO BE:
Stein said a “book must grab the reader in the first three pages or they won’t buy the book.” This was based on studies watching customers in book stores. They looked at the jacket and then the first one to three pages. They either put it back or bought it. I think the internet changed things by providing customer reviews. I buy around 240 books a year. I never buy a book based on the first three pages. My decision to buy is based on customer reviews and/or book jacket summaries. I suppose the first three pages might still be important for customers in physical stores like Barnes & Noble and Walmart. But today we have books that become best sellers as ebooks and subsequently are published in paperback, for example Fifty Shades of Grey. Bloggers and reviewers spread the word, not bookstore visitors.
STEIN’S TEN COMMANDMENTS FOR WRITERS:
I’ve edited for brevity and to remove thou shalt’s.
1. Do not sprinkle characters into a preconceived plot. In the beginning was the character. (I like this, but I also think Stephen King has a good idea - something to try. He creates a “situation” first, then the characters, and last the plot.)
2. Imbue your heroes with faults and your villains with charm. For it is the faults of the hero that bring forth his life, just as the charm of the villain is the honey with which he lures the innocent.
3. Your characters should steal, kill, dishonor their parents, bear false witness, and covet their neighbor’s house, wife, man servant, maid servant, and ox. For readers crave such actions and yawn when your characters are meek, innocent, forgiving, and peaceable. (I love this.)
4. Avoid abstractions, for readers like lovers are attracted by particularity.
5. Do not mutter, whisper, blurt, bellow, or scream. Stein prefers using “he said.” (I’m not sure about this one. I like hearing these words. Maybe in moderation?)
6. Infect your reader with anxiety, stress, and tension, for those conditions that he deplores in life, he relishes in fiction.
7. Language shall be precise, clear, and bear the wings of angels for anything less is the province of businessmen and academics and not of writers. (I assume this includes cutting adjectives, adverbs, and flab - but keep the good ones.)
8. “Thou shalt have no rest on the sabbath, for thy characters shall live in thy mind and memory now and forever.” (I’m not sure how this is advice to writers.)
9. Dialogue: directness diminishes, obliqueness sings.
10. Do not vent your emotions onto the reader. Your duty is to evoke the reader’s emotions.
Do not write about wimps. People who seem like other people are boring. Ordinary people are boring.
Cut cliches. Say it new or say it straight.
If not clear who is speaking put “George said” before the statement. If it is clear, put “George said” after or eliminate “George said.”
Don’t use strange spellings to convey dialect or accents.
Book copyright: 1995.
Genre: nonfiction, how to write.
The audience is screenwriters, but the ideas are excellent and valuable for novelists.
Christopher Vogler and Michael Hauge conducted a workshop for writing movie scripts based on Joseph Campbell’s work. This is the recording of that workshop which includes some questions from the audience.
I rarely watch movies. My feeling is why watch a movie when I could read a book? Books have more depth. When I see movies based on books I’ve read, I’m disappointed although I do enjoy the visuals. As I listened to this lecture, I felt further reluctance to watch movies. They’re all made with the same formula! (or most of them) The first 10% is seeing the ordinary world and the call to action. Other parts include meeting the mentor, encountering tests, the supreme ordeal, and return with the elixir. These parts were first defined by Joseph Campbell. He studied mythology and found consistency in all myths in all cultures. Apparently all humans always want the same story.
During the 1970s George Lucas used these ideas when he wrote the first Star Wars movie. During the 1980s Christopher Vogler wrote a memo organizing Campbell’s ideas into guidance for movie making. Vogler worked for Disney at the time. Vogler later turned his memo into a book “The Writer’s Journey.” I was bothered by Vogler’s claim for credit. He talked as if he were “the first one” to consider using Campbell’s ideas for movie making. He never mentioned that Lucas used them earlier. On Vogler’s website (mentioned below) he states “I had discovered the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell a few years earlier while studying cinema at the University of Southern California. I was sure I saw Campbells ideas being put to work in the first of the Star Wars movies and wrote a term paper for a class in which I attempted to identify the mythic patterns that made that film such a huge success.” This rubs me wrong. Lucas clearly stated that he used Campbell’s work when he wrote Star Wars. Vogler’s comments are pompous. My distaste is the reason I did not give this 5 stars. But the subject matter is excellent. Most of the examples are from three films: The Firm, Shrek, and Titanic. I was surprised that the speakers didn’t use Star Wars as an example.
This audiobook is a good way to learn about Campbell’s ideas. The authors talk about the hero’s outer journey, his inner journey, and major character types. Hauge defines four character types: hero, reflection (friend), nemesis, and romance character (or the object of hero’s pursuit). Vogler’s website (thewritersjourney com) has a helpful summary of the outer journey and eight character types. (My thoughts, not in the lecture: Since all plots are the same, it is critical to have unique, engaging, and fascinating characters. This seminar does not discuss that.)
A couple of Hauge comments. The inner journey is to find your essence. At the end of the workshop, Hauge summarizes with three arcs that consistently occur in American movies - three transformations the character needs to make.
1. risk being who you truly are
2. risk connecting to other people (romantically or other)
3. stand up and do what is right, the honest thing, to stand up for the truth.
He says “love encompasses all of these. All great movies are love stories.”
The narrators are the authors. Their voices were fine.
Might be good for an author just starting out. Might be good for authors who feel stuck and could use a nudge. The best part is you can listen while driving your car. Dwight Swain published a lot of fiction as well as some how-to-write books. This audiobook is two lectures he gave around 1991 for writer workshops.
Many of his thoughts are simple and obvious. Example: every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. But I could see the following. Someone is writing a book and is kind of stuck, so they listen to this tape. Then they think oh yeah, I could try this, or I should do that. Then they would go back to their writing. I see it as a jog for writers.
A few thoughts from the lecture:
Alfred Hitchcock quote: Drama is life with the dull parts left out.
The strength of your villain is the strength of your story. The bad guy is ruthless to get what he wants, even if it is just the corner office.
Every chapter needs a climax (disaster, crisis). Authors should stretch out the climax scenes. A disaster could be winning the lottery. Disasters don’t have to be bad.
The main character wants something. It could be relief from a boss, change in climate, revenge...
A story is a record of how somebody deals with danger.
Books on the craft of writing:
I purchased and started reading Swain’s book “Techniques of the Selling Writer” published in 1965. I couldn’t get into it. It reads like an encyclopedia. But for some, that could be good.
I loved the following two books that I think would be useful to all fiction writers. “Stein on Writing” by Sol Stein and “On Writing” by Stephen King.
Genre: nonfiction, how to write.