©1995 Sol Stein; (P)2003 Blackstone Audiobooks
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.
This is, so far, the best book I've consumed about writing. Stein's advice is practical and his experience as an editor shows in every sentence and paragraph - yet he uses a humble tone. He successfully includes plenty of examples to clearly get across each point. The book is interesting, lively, extremely well paced and hard to put down. If you are a beginning writer, in fiction genre or nonfiction genre, Stein has real answers for all. He gives the listener concrete niches in which to place information and lessons about writing. He takes you by the hand and shows, while telling, and instead of creating MORE anxiety and insecurity about writing, which is what I have found many writing books end up doing, Stein eases the effort of creating on the page. I listened to this book every chance I had and have already ordered a hard copy. I also ordered some of his novels because this title was so well done. Finally, I cannot say too much about the incredible narration of the book by Christopher Lane who didn't get in the way of the material but in a professional and sincere voice imparted what was on the pages as though he himself had written the book. You cannot go wrong with this title.
No Plot Spoilers.
I think this book would be much, *much* better suited to text. Seeing the examples, being able to tangibly hold onto it... I think my star review would change significantly. I'm not sure I can stomach the generalized arrogance either; the man is clearly good at his job, but that doesn't mean we need a reminder every paragraph or two. Ignoring that, however, there is absolutely worthwhile and important information contained.
I found this book to be a never ending release of uncommon tips and information, making my first venture into writing a very easy transition. I highly recommend the book to any aspiring writers.
This book is like sitting through an interesting college course in writing. My bookcases and hard-drive is full of books on writing. I have to say that this book has been the most helpful so far. Sol Stein made me think of P.O.V. and suspense differently. I highly recommend this book to anyone that would like to improve their writing. I do admit that at times it is hard to swallow Stein's ego, the worst for me is the "Thou Shall" stuff at the end, but the techniques he teaches are priceless.
I am a big fan of Ayn Rand and happened to read her "Art of Fiction" before reading "Stein on Writing." It is interesting that the books give opposite advice.
Rand advises that the plot is the most important aspect of a novel and must be a purposeful progression of events demonstrating some sort of value. She calls this Romantic writing. Rand advises against Naturalistic writing, of telling a make-believe story with no purpose, because in that case your time would be better spent writing non-fiction.
Stein is firmly in the Naturalistic camp. And, his book contains sections that are insulting to people who enjoy Romantic novels. For example, he puts down all Ian Fleming novels as being written for simplistic people.
I happen to like the writing of Rand and Fleming. I aspire to write something approaching their work in greatness. Therefore, Stein has only provided me with ideas on what not to do.
John Christmas, author of "Democracy Society"
I suspect that deep inside of literary Mr. Stein there lurks a sleazy adventure writer yearning to get out. Stein denigrates "transient" fiction (a.k.a. genre fiction in his opinion), yet examples from his own work differ little from the examples of "transient" literature that he quotes. The only difference I could see was that the "transient" literature was drawn from books I'd actually heard of. Stein mocks the use of cliches, yet in an example from his own writing, uses the cliche phrase "naked and unashamed." Dear, dear.
One thing lacking from the book was a discussion of writing appropriately for one's audience. Stein chastises Thomas Huxley for writing in a florid, convoluted style, yet he quotes Huxley entirely out of context and fails to consider Huxley's audience: educated Victorians who expected no less from an educated scientist and writer. Stein would lead us to believe that there is but one way to write well -- his way.
Still, once past the attitudinal bits, there is much that is useful here, making this a worthwhile download for serious writers. Stein has some solid ideas on how to go about editing one's work, starting with a grand overview, and going down to details. His advice to find the weakest chapter, then the weakest scene, is extremely helpful. His advice on plotting is good and easy to follow. Pay attention to what he says about adjectives. It can clean up your work considerably.
As an audiobook, this is easy on the ears. The reading is clear and the pace is good. Warning: you may be tempted to drive with a notebook in hand to jot down ideas. Or you may end up buying the hard copy so you can refer back to the bits that you found most useful.
This great, inspiring book kept me entertained on several lengthy road trips. I write for a living, but the writing I do isn't the only type of writing I want to do. Stein's book re-ignited my latent desire to work on my novel. The content is excellent, entertaining and informative.
I only recommend that you pull over to jot down the notes that you WILL want to make while listening. Listening and jotting while driving is dangerous ;o)
Stein slams you with example after example of good writing. The book holds you because it's interesting. All of a sudden you realize, 'I got this as a handbook to help with my writing,' and you go back to what he has presented so entertainingly to dissect nugget after valuable nugget of writing advice. This is an author who has written successful novels, plays and non-fiction. To top it off he has authored software for writing fiction, edited books of well known authors such as Jack Higgins and led a successful publishing firm. Beginning with the first paragraphs until you finish the book you encounter a unique situation of a successful critic, editor, writer and observer employing all his skills in the writing of this book.
I have read and listened to many books on writing and this is by far and away among the best. I do not give 5 stars to any book lightly. Stein is an excellent writer and teacher. If you want to improve your writing, you won't find anything much better than this - it is equal to "On Writing" by William Zissnar and "The Elements of Style
"This book has improved all my writing"
This book has improved all my writing, even emails, weblogs and reviews
Motivational I will get back into writing, now I know I can be better than I was 10 years ago - when I wasn't good enough
I don't normal bother to write reviews but this merits one. I've learned more from this audiobook than I have from 10 other texts. While predominately for the fiction writer, most of the concepts, as Stein explains, are just as applicable in non-fiction writing.
I don't believe there is anyone alive who couldn't learn at least something from this book.
Excellent listen. I reallly enjoyed this book and it inspired me to write - and to do it well.
"Great Audiobook on Writing"
I have tried several audiobooks on writing and this is one of the best. The chapters are all subject related and this makes it easy to browse and listen again (which is well worth doing). The examples are very useful and the general approach very pragmatic.
"The Midas Touch"
I have bought loads of how to write books over the years - Stein on Writing is simply the best. Where other books can be vague or overgeneralised, Stein is clear and precise. Many how to write books have great ideas about what you need to do but give little clue as to how to do it - Stein richly illustrates the points he makes and develops exercises to enable the reader to make breakthroughs in their approach to writing.
Christopher Lane is the best reader for this type of book - one that you do not notice - instead you find yourself transported directly to Stein's writing.
This book is not just a conventional outline of the usual requirements of good writing - instead it is a thoughtful and insightful collection of wise, hard won insights that can transform you as a writer. Stein has the Midas touch - this book can turn your work into writing gold.
Essential for Writers!
You could listen to this audio book over and over again, and you would still learn something new each time. FANTASTIC!
Addresses every aspect of writing with a structured and practical manner. Sol Stein writes with insight derived from his personal experience as a successful writer, editor and publisher. The narrator is a little dry at times, but the writing has clarity and humour.
"Great book with loads for tips"
This book is easy to understand and will help the reader to engage with their readers.
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