John Steinbeck’s 6 Rules of Writing
- Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
- Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
- Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.
- If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.
- Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.
- If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.
Later, Steinbeck offered this: “If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that makes a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.”
In Medias Res
In medias res, “in the midst [or middle] of things.” This technique is absolutely essential to the short short story writer’s craft. By eliminating as much of the setting, rising action, inciting event and complication, we take our reader directly to the conflict, and add back in only the essential details of the setting and rising action, etc. at the perfect moments. Let’s use Kafka’s “A Little Fable” as an example. Notice how the setting and rising action are woven directly into the presenting conflict. We are not given a long, winding landscape opening or character descriptor. We jump right into the main conflicts.
Setting: Maze Rising Action: Search for escape, Search for cheese (did you imagine cheese in the trap, too?)
- Conflict: Mouse v. Maze, Mouse v. Cat, Mouse v. Trap (is there cheese in there?), Mouse v. Self (arguably the most important conflict)
- Climax: Mouse facing cat
- Falling Action: Cat instructing mouse to simply change direction (search for escape)
- Resolution: Cat eating mouse
- Denouement: What was your individual denouement? Perhaps it had something to do with Mouse v. Self? Perhaps it asked the important question: How do we navigate the challenges and dangers of our lives when caught in such all encompassing mazes? Or perhaps you experienced a fate v. free will resonance?
Reading Assignments: An Eckleburg Selection
Optional Writing Assignment: Death on an Island
Optional writing assignments are for your own benefit and collection of works. We will not be workshopping these in class, neither online nor on campus.
1. Watch the above scene from “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding.
2. Map the scene’s arc as given: conflict, protagonist, antagonist, setting, climax, falling action, resolution, denouement. Consider how not only short short stories but also scenes within novels can include full arcs as both given on the page and suggested for the reader’s imagination.
3. Now, write your own death scene in your own setting. Remember, your death can be literal or figurative. Your protagonist might be run over by a truck, a bus or a clown car. OR your protagonist might experience the death of innocence, career, relationship, such as in the Eckleburg selections. Be creative. Feel free to incorporate humor. Humorous deaths introduce irony and can be complicated and difficult and this makes for an intricate reading experience.
- Due Date: The following class session.
- Forum: This is where you will submit all assignments, give feedback on assignments and receive feedback on assignments. Link below.
- Narrative Submissions: All narrative submissions for workshop must be submitted to the forums the week prior to the workshop date. For workshop sessions, students will submit their stories/chapters to the forums and in hardcopy in class (for on-campus students). Please refer to the syllabus regarding page count. Format must follow universal manuscript format: MS Word, double-spaced, 12 point font, Times New Roman, 1 in margins, heading with name, address, email, website (if applicable), and phone number on page one. Page two and forward should have in the top right corner your last name and page number. You can use this template: Universal Manuscript Format. Follow first, second and third draft techniques below. After you’ve completed revision, please submit to the forums. Link below. Peer critiques are due by the following class meeting. Critiques for remote students must be uploaded to the forums as a response to the remote student’s topic.
- First Draft: As you write the first draft, let your creativity go where it needs to go. First drafts are meant to be messy and creatively uninhibited. After writing the first draft, lay it to the side for at least a day before revising. Please submit the finished draft to the forums. Link below.
- Second Draft: Read through again, and revise for language and lyricism. Remember, we don’t answer questions for our readers, we simply prompt them to ask good questions. Giving our readers room to make meaning for themselves within our narratives is a sign of artistic literary excellence. Now, lay the work aside for at least a day before your next revision.
- Third Draft: Now read this revision aloud as you record yourself. Upon listening to your recording, consider any language issues in your revision. You might also ask a trusted reader to read the manuscript aloud to you as you sit with your own copy and make revisions. Hearing our language aloud is one of the quickest and surest ways to improve our pacing, tone, and cadence.
- Submit: On campus students should bring one hard copy of your schematic and narrative to class next week. All students, remote and on-campus should upload their MS Word .doc or .docx to the FORUM.
- Please make sure to contact me directly with any questions regarding assignments and technology. firstname.lastname@example.org. The fastest way to reach me is by text at 301-514-2380. The below question/discussion area is for student and lesson interaction. I won’t be checking it everyday.