Posted in Writing

4 Quotes by Tobias Wolff to Make You a Better Writer

Tobias Wolff (born in 1945) is the author of Old School, This Boy’s Life: A Memoir, and the fabulous short story, “Bullet in the Brain.”

Here are four of his terrific quotes to inspire your writing!

1. There’s a joy in writing short stories, a wonderful sense of reward when you pull certain things off.

Even if your primary focus is writing novels, you should take the time here and there to experiment in short story writing. I love writing a short story for many reasons. It allows you to do something radically different you might not be afforded to do in a novel. It allows you to write something fast, in a week or two. And, as Tobias Wolff says, it allows a wonderful sense of reward when you pull certain things off.

I’ve been teaching English at the college level for many years now, and one of my favorite works of short fiction to teach my students is Wolff’s electric short story, “Bullet in Brain,” which has been heavily anthologized throughout the years. It’s so great because it starts one way, you have a pretty good sense as to where it’s going, and then about halfway through, Wolff takes you in a totally unexpected direction that could have flopped hard but instead works beautifully, like a minor miracle. Wolff took a chance with this story, and collected a huge reward in the end. Try to write short stories when you can. They can be so much fun to do, and so very satisfying!

2. I try to help people become the best possible editors of their own work, to help them become conscious of the things they do well, of the things they need to look at again, of the wells of material they have not even begun to dip their buckets into.

Wolff teaches English, too, and his dedication to his students is apparent from this quote. It’s not enough as a teacher to tell your students what’s working in their latest story and what isn’t working. It’s not enough to say what they’re good at and what they stink at. You have to dig deeper than that to bring good, thoughtful writers out of your students. Helping people become the best possible editors of their own work is a great place to start since at many points during a project the only editor you can truly rely on is yourself.

But going beyond editing, you want them to discover what talents they hold buried deep, down down and what kind of material that can slowly rise to the surface. Some writers, especially young ones who haven’t written much, are scared to tap into their secrets and fears and dreams. Some want to just work at the surface level of things and not offer us anything more than that. These writers won’t get far in their work, but if they have a teacher or a mentor who can help them recognize what they do well and what they can improve on, and then bring out the wells of material they can use for future work, that’s always going to be a great place to start.

If you’re an aspiring writer, it might be worth your time to seek out a teacher or a mentor who can help you. Inspiration, as you probably well know by now, can go a long way in your long writing life!/media/c701c4f3f089fca628d78c0b395a8953

3. There are writers who do start doing the same thing again and again and almost inevitably fall into self-parody.

One of the things you have to be especially careful of as a writer is not repeating yourself to the point where the things you fall into self-parody. It’s so hard because many writers get put into a specific kind of box, especially when they’re successful. They finally write a break-out bestseller, and they write a similar title to that first book that’s an even bigger hit, one that wins an award and is adapted for the screen, and so that author chooses to keep writing more books like that one. It makes sense, after all. You don’t want to write something that will alienate your fans.

But at the same time, there is something to be said for the pitfalls of doing the same thing again and again. After awhile you’ll get bored what the stories you’re pumping out, and your readers will eventually see that. You have to keep surprising yourself and taking chances in your writing, even if you’re writing in the same genre every time. Just because you write ten horror novels in a row doesn’t mean you have to keep repeating yourself. You can take the genre in new spooky directions and do a hundred nifty, unpredictable things with it. Once you begin veering into self-parody territory, that’s when it’s time to try something different or put down your pen once and for all.

4. When I was about fourteen or fifteen I decided to become a writer and never for a moment since have I wanted to do anything else.

Many writers are the same way. They knew from a young age that writing was something they had a gift for, enjoyed doing, looking forward to doing, and they haven’t looked back since. The truth is that writing has to be this way for you to stick with it. If you just sort of like doing it, or think of writing more as an occasional hobby than anything else, you won’t get very far. You have to have the writing bug in your blood as much as possible.

I’ve been that way for the longest time. I’ve been voraciously reading and writing since I was in third grade, and I haven’t stopped. There was a period for a few years where I only wrote screenplays, but even during that period I was writing all the time and loving the process. And in the past ten years I’ve been writing and revising fiction almost every day, and what a joy it has been. I absolutely love writing, and I can’t wait to see what I end up doing in the next ten years.

You want to feel the same way. Sure, it’s okay if you didn’t know at fourteen or fifteen years old that you wanted to be a writer. It’s fine if you didn’t get serious about writing until your twenties or thirties, or even older. Better late than never, as they say. What’s most important is that you’ve found your calling now, and you want to give yourself over to it as much as you can. You want to love writing so much that you don’t really want to do anything else.

Make writing the greatest joy in your life and give it everything you have!

Posted in Writing

Why You Should Just Omit Needless Words

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Recently I tweeted the following writing tip:

This tweet goes beyond the advice that a single word should be deleted from your manuscript. Yes, the word “just” is almost always useless, a placeholder in a way for an otherwise solid sentence.

What this tweet was really about was the necessity to be ruthless in your editing of your manuscript, not only cutting the scenes that need to go and re-shaping the moments that still need revision, but going through your work one sentence at a time and cutting the words that do not, under any circumstance, need to be there. Stephen King talks about this in On Writing, and the advice first came from the great Strunk & White craft book, The Elements of Style: Omit needless words.

This advice sounds so simple. And also kind of meaningless. In the large scope of things, is your writing, especially in your novels, going to be rejected due to an overuse of one single word or the occasional sentence that might run too long?

Yes, it will. Or, at least, there’s a stronger possibility of rejection.

Donald Maass has a great quote in his book, Writing the Breakout Novel: “To write a breakout novel is to run free of the pack. It is to delve deeper, think harder, revise more, and commit to creating characters and plot that surpass one’s previous accomplishments. It is to say ‘no’ to merely being good enough to be published” (12). That final line is clearly his main thesis of the book: in this cutthroat industry, where so many talented writers are trying to break in, it is not sufficient enough for any writer to simply produce a publishable piece of work. Of course it’s important to start with something great, but Maass wants authors to take that solid manuscript that gets an 8 out of 10 and bring it to a full 10. And one way to get to that 10 is to pay attention to a single word like “just” that may be everywhere in your manuscript without you even noticing.

So think of this as two steps. Whether you’re revising a short story or a novel, when you’ve hit a point where you feel like it’s ready to submit or query, go through it one more time looking only at the sentences themselves, the way they look on the page and transition from one to the next, with specific focus on any words you feel don’t need to be there. If a word makes a sentence sound awkward, or if a word looks perfectly fine but doesn’t add anything to the sentence, delete it. Now’s the time to cut, cut, cut. Don’t be precious with your words. Don’t leave something in a paragraph because it sounds pretty. The idea is to omit those needless words, and keep only what’s necessary to make your manuscript truly spectacular.

The next step, once you’re as done as done can be, is to search for a few of these problematic words and cut them from the manuscript. Read the sentence before you cut them, of course. Sometimes, yes, the word “just” can be appropriate for a sentence, and of course it’s perfectly fine in dialogue, up to a point. The other word to look for is “very.” My journalism teacher Mr. Halcomb taught me years ago that the word “very” can in every single circumstance be cut from a sentence, and so I’ve committed to that practice in each piece I write.

You also want to avoid, as much as possible, the dreaded adverb, oy, yoy, yoy. But I’ll leave the adverb discussion for another post.

Now, to be clear, when it comes to the practice of editing your manuscript closely like this, remember that indeed this should be one of your last steps before submission. Nothing’s more annoying than spending an hour closely editing a scene that three months later you end up cutting from your manuscript completely. It happens, of course. There’s a scene in my recent novel I probably revised and edited fifteen times until I ultimately deleted it from the manuscript. But for the most part, you want to try to hold off on this editing practice until the scene is as strong as you’ve been able to make it from a character and story standpoint.

At the end of the process, though, don’t slack and submit your writing before you’ve done the nitty-gritty editing work. It can be tedious at times, and not always the most fun, but this essential part will help make your writing stand out from the crowd!

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Posted in Writing

Taking Breaks From Your Writing Will Improve Your Writing

Recently I tweeted the following writing tip:

It seems so contradictory, doesn’t it? To write well, you have to allow for periods of no writing, or, better yet, a halt to the writing of your current project and the beginning of writing something completely different. It sounds unnecessary. And sometimes you love a project so much the thought of abandoning it for a month or longer seems impossible.

But trust me. This works.

I’ve written many novels over the years. Eighteen, in fact. The first half or more I would work on nearly every day for months, through revision one, revision two, and on and on, until I got the manuscript to its best possible place. I queried these novels… and nothing happened. My problem was that I wasn’t really revising the books. I was so close to the story, and to the characters, that the revisions were basically glorified copy-editing, changing words and sentences around, but never really addressing problems with the big picture.

What’s changed me a lot, along with a kick-ass MFA program, a helpful thesis advisor, and an unbelievably smart literary agent, is taking long breaks from my works-in-progress so that when I return to them I read them with fresh eyes. I’ve made a practice of late to write a first draft of a novel, let it rest for at least four weeks, and during that break time, write a new short story. I’ll do this after the second draft, too. And the third. And the fourth.

You should try to turn your attention to a new creative project, preferably something totally different from your novel. Maybe a story of a different genre. Or a non-fiction piece. Or a group of poems. Something to keep your creative juices flowing at the same you’re able to remove yourself from the world of your novel.

I’ve used this practice for the last three years or so, and now I’ve written both a middle grade novel that got me a literary agent and my MFA thesis novel my agent loves and wants to work on. I wouldn’t be where I am today if I kept up the practice of never giving myself breaks. I’d probably still be perfecting a previous manuscript that had no shot at being represented by an agent.

In his amazing non-fiction work On Writing, a craft book I try to read once a year, Stephen King recommends you take at least six weeks between drafts. This is even better than four weeks, but I do still think a month is enough to do the job. That’s enough time to keep you excited about the next revision of your WIP while you still have room to play in a different creative project.

Granted, I understand you might not always have the luxury to rest between drafts. Sometimes there’s a magazine contest that’s perfect for your story, and the deadline to submit is twelve hours away. And of course there are deadlines in the publishing world, like when you’re under contract and have only so many days to get your manuscript to the editor.

But if you have the luxury of time, take breaks between drafts, at least four weeks, if not longer. I once let a novel of mine sit for 14 months, and when I came back to it, it was like looking at the work of a different writer — I was able to approach the book as a ruthless editor, and I had a blast. You probably won’t have 14 months, but at least give yourself a few weeks, and your fiction will be all the better for it.

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