Great Advice from Authors

But enough from me about writing… Here’s a link to an article in The Guardian that gathers advice on the craft from some of the world’s best-known authors: Ten Rules for Writing Fiction. Authors include Elmore Leonard, Margaret Atwood, Roddy Doyle, Jonathan Franzen, and Neil Gaiman.

Advice from Junot Diaz

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to see Junot Diaz speak at the Montgomery County Community College Writers Conference. Towards the end of his discussion, he offered some advice for writers that I personally found very helpful. Here are a few things he had to say:

  • Leave room for your reader. Don’t spell everything out for your reader. Give your reader the opportunity to interpret the events that you describe. Allow for multiple interpretations. Ambiguity is good.
  • Characters are best understood in relation to each other. Diaz used the “character” of Wilson in Castaway as an example of this concept. Wilson, who is a a volleyball, gives the hero of that film (played by Tom Hanks) someone to talk to. It’s through the hero’s interaction with Wilson that we learn the most about the hero.
  • The world should resist your characters. Don’t place your characters in an idealized world. Instead, allow your characters to live in a world where the daily tribulations that complicate all of our lives rear their ugly heads and complicate your characters’ lives.
  • Don’t worry about publishing. Worry about writing. If you want to be an artist, work on your art.
  • Live your life. People who’ve spent their lives learning how to write might end up having little if anything to write about. People who have lived — who have gone and done things and met people and made mistakes and experienced the world — have something to write about. Diaz also suggested that if you want to be a writer, you should get your heart broken on three continents.
  • Read. Diaz remarked that writers are the only artists he knows who don’t do the thing they want their audience to do. Musicians listen to music. Painters admire the work of other painters. But half the time he goes out to see writers at readings, they say they’re “too busy writing” to do any reading. Diaz made a point of saying that this attitude is insane.

Great advice from a great author! If you have the chance, definitely attend one of his readings.

Exercises in Character, pt.3, “Out of Character”

As anyone who’s ever read or written fiction knows, characters need to remain relatively consistent. Consistency, after all, is what allows us to get to know people both in real life and on the printed page. At the same time, however, we all probably know people who have done things that we might describe as “out of character.” In other words, they act in ways that aren’t consistent with our expectations. When this happens in real life, we might react with shock or disappointment, but our disbelief can usually be tempered with a simple explanation—usually it’s something along the lines of someone having a bad day or a moment of weakness. When these inconsistencies happen in fiction, however, readers need a slightly stronger explanation. If handled correctly, a lapse in judgment can lend depth to a character.

For this activity, take one of your characters and have that character do something that may at first glance be out of line with who that character is. If it’s a “good guy,” you can have the character do something bad. Conversely, if it’s a “bad guy,” think of a situation in which that character might do something good. (It doesn’t have to be a big thing; it can be a small gesture.) As you write this piece, ask yourself why the character is doing what she is doing. What has pushed the character to this decision? What kind of internal struggle does the character have to go through in order to do something that is not in line with his or self-image? And how does the character react to this action after completing it? Does she feel guilty? Is she proud of herself? Does she try to justify it? For greater effect, think about a way in which one of the flaws you examined in Exercise One might play into it.

(Click here for Exercises in Character, pt. 2)