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"Patch of Dirt:" Sol Stein's Writing Hints

Sol Stein is an editor, fiction/nonfiction writer and one time owner of Stein and Day publishers. I've found these hints to be quite useful

Before Beginning to Write 1. What does your hero or heroine want badly? 2. Is it a desire that readers will be able to understand or even identify with? 3. Who or what is in your protagonist’s way (“Who” can be more dramatic). 4. Write a character sketch of each of the main players that has much more detail than you are likely to use. 5. Get into the skin of characters who are different from you. 6. Would you want to spend a lot of time in the company of the characters you plan to write about? 7. How do your characters view each other? 8. Whose point of view are you going to use, one character, many characters, the author’s. 9. How are you planning to hook the reader’s attention on page one? 10. Consider starting with a scene that is already underway. 11. What are the dramatic conflicts you intend to let the reader see.

Keep in Mind When Writing 1. The “engine” of your story needs to be turned on as close to the beginning as possible 2. Keep the action viable on stage as much as possible 3. Don’t mark time, move the story relentlessly. 4. Is your hero or heroine active? 5. Substitute concrete detail for abstractions. 6. Use surprise (such as unexpected obstacle) to create suspense. 7. In dialogue, change perfectly formed sentences. 8. Break up long speeches. 9. Make exchanges of dialogue provocative, argumentative, combative. 10. Characterize through speech. Give different characters different speech patterns. 11. Have something visual on every page. 12. Don’t tell us how your characters feel. Let the reader draw his conclusions from what the character says and does. 13. Don’t kill suspense by resolving problems too quickly. 14. Are you working on the emotions of the reader? 15. Are the obstacles facing the protagonist getting tougher as the story progresses? 16. Have you put your characters under stress? 17. Is their dialogue more revealing under stress? 18. are you sticking to a consistent point of view? 19. Avoid summarizing unless absolutely necessary. 20. Use sound, smell, and touch as well as sight. 21. Do your descriptions of places also move the story along? 22. End scenes and chapters with kickers that make the reader curious about what happens next. 23. To increase the reader’s interest, deprive him of something he wants to know, especially of what happens next. If You Get Stuck 1. Open your dictionary at random. Dwell on each word on the page until your imagination stirs. 2. Go over these pages point by point slowly. 3. Have your next paragraph reveal an unexpected turn of events. 4. Open a novel you’ve read and liked a lot to any page except the first and start reading slowly. 5. Interrupt the scene you’re writing with an absurd turn of events. 6. Free associate, starting with the noun you wrote, and write down every word that comes to mind until your engine starts again.

Revising Drafts 1. Cut flab, echoes, and unessential adjectives and adverbs. 2. Does your protagonist have flaws? 3. Is your villain charming, interesting, strong? 4. If someone told you what your characters are doing, would you find those actions credible? 5. Is each character’s motivation credible? 6. Are your characters revealing themselves, or are you doing it for them? 7. Cut down a character’s dialogue that runs longer than three sentences. 8. If your characters usually speak in complete sentences, revise. 9. Make responses in dialogue oblique rather than direct. 10. Use “he said” and “ she said” instead of descriptive substitutes. Let the words and word order tell us how it was said. 11. Is there any dialogue you can make more confrontational? 12. Tighten to increase pace and tension. 13. Cut or cut down the narrative between scenes. 14. Have you made every word count? 15. Test every use of “very” to see if the adjective or adverb is strengthened if “very” is cut. 16. If you’ve said something twice in different ways, pick the better one and cut the other. 17. Are there any images or sentences you really love that don’t belong on this work? Kill them. 18. If you have repeated the same noun or adjective more than once on the same page, go for your thesaurus. 19. Have you had a ruthless cliché hunt? 20. Might your story end differently? 21. Beware of disimproving. If in doubt, leave it alone.

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