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.
Maybe half of this is Steve’s personal life and the other half how he writes and his opinions on good writing. Steve narrates. I enjoyed listening to him.
His personal life: A lot of writing when he was young. He met his wife in college. He taught high school English for about two years when his first novel Carrie was published. After that he had many bestsellers. He was an alcoholic and drug user for a while, both of which he gave up. He was surprised that he could write just as well without.
1. Parts of Stories and No Plotting.
Steve thinks of stories in three parts.
A. Narration moves the story from point A to point B and finally to point Z.
B. Description creates a sensory reality for the reader. He doesn’t do a lot of description. He doesn’t do clothes, and he doesn’t overdo physical appearance. He wants readers to supply some of that. He doesn’t describe everything in a room, just a few things.
C. The third part is dialogue which brings characters to life.
D. Steve says “You may wonder where is plot in all this? My answer is nowhere. I plot as little as possible. Plotting and the spontaneity of real creation are not compatible. Situation comes first and then watch what happens as the characters try to work themselves out of it. Most of the time the outcome is something I never expected.” Some critics say Steve’s weakness is his endings. And if he paid more attention to plot early in the process he might have better endings. Some experts say writers should start with a plot and outline. So, there are different opinions.
Personally, I think Steve’s greatest talent is his creativity. And his method might be useful to others who want more creativity.
I was amused with the story of how Steve came up with the “situation” which became the book “Carrie.” Steve was working with a high school janitor cleaning the girls locker room. He was surprised to see individual shower curtains. The boys had none. He asked the janitor. The janitor said girls are shy and they want to shower in private. Steve asked about the odd shaped box on the wall. The janitor explained it held plugs for girls on their periods. Steve then thought of a “situation” of a girl’s locker room with no shower curtains, a girl being embarrassed taking a shower, and other girls throwing plugs at her. (He used more colorful language than I.) This was the start of “Carrie.”
Steve based the characters in “Carrie” on real life people he knew - the two loneliest most reviled girls in his high school class. One of them had an overly religious mother. Steve combined the two girls into Carrie and used the religious mother as Carrie’s mother.
3. Don’t use critique groups as you write.
Write the entire book without anyone else seeing it. Put that first draft aside for six weeks. Do other things, write other things, try not to think about it. Then read it and make revisions. This is your second draft. Then give the second draft to your friends, family, and beta readers. His point is not to use critique groups and writing classes prior to the second draft. He gives examples about this.
4. Steve says don’t use adverbs. (I disagree.)
Steve says “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” My words: Steve has a degree in English (something). He has been trained to avoid adverbs by academia. In the book “Carrie” he used adverbs occasionally, but not often.
Steve says “the Harry Potter novels are just fun, pure story from beginning to end.” My words: J.K. Rowling uses tons of adverbs in the Harry Potter books. And her books are the most successful fiction books in the world! Following are some wonderful adverb examples from the first Harry Potter book. “eyed them angrily” “whispering excitedly” “acting oddly today” “said as casually as he could” “appeared so suddenly and silently.” And for those of you who may argue that certain genres lend themselves to adverbs, please note that John Grisham also uses them liberally in his legal thrillers. Grisham is another top selling author. Examples from Grisham’s book “The Client:” “slowly looked at Ricky” “he exhaled calmly.” “Mark carefully picked a cigarette from his shirt pocket.” “Mark suddenly remembered.” “He mumbled loudly.”
Some editors say adverbs are like spices, use a little not a lot. They would probably consider Rowling and Grisham as too many. Personally I love the way Rowling and Grisham write, but I also enjoyed the book “Carrie.”
5. Other Advice from Steve.
Every aspiring writer should read “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White.
Don’t use big words when simpler words work.
Use the first word that comes to your mind.
Don’t fear overusing “said.” Steve says “using he said, she said is divine.”
Don’t use cliche phrases like “at the end of the day” or “the fact that.”
Avoid passive tense.
To be a good writer you need to read a lot. Steve reads 70 to 80 books a year - mostly fiction. He’s a fan of audiobooks.
Genre: nonfiction and autobiography.