I’m now at the point where people ask me more about my tips on writing than for job referrals (thank God), but I’ve noticed that I do not yet have a single “source of truth” on the subject besides my mostly tongue-in-cheek 10 Tips on Writing. So here is an attempt at a truly expansive guide.
The first thing to note is that there is not really any meta course, technique, or book that is going to help you out too much here. The best attempt at such that I’ve read is The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, but even then that doesn’t tell the whole story. The most important thing to know about fiction is that, at its fundamental level, it is about taking an idea in your mind and packaging it such that someone else can get as close as possible to seeing the same idea in their own mind. It will never be perfect, but the best writers get pretty damn close.
This is best described with an example. Let’s take a short story that I’ve written, Grey Area. Take the opening scene with Fox taking the call from Serah in his apartment. Visually, I can see the scene. I know what Fox looks like. I know how he shambles around the apartment, phone at his ear. I know how upset Serah sounds through the phone speaker. But you don’t. So, I have to describe things to you, and hopefully you have the same sort of emotional connection to everything that I do. I’ve gotta be tactful about it, though — I can’t just explain everything one-to-one with what I see as plainly as possible, or else your eyes are going to glaze over with boredom. So I’ve got to leave some holes for you to fill in yourself, and when I describe things it should be poetic enough that it’s easy for you to consume and naturally get the same emotional feeling that I’m going for.
Obviously, that’s a lot harder in practice than in theory, and each writer has their own strategy to try and crack it. The route I personally chose is through dialog — my stories are always very dialog heavy because, when it comes to a person saying something, you can write very plainly what they say and have it still make a lot of sense. But you don’t have to follow this strategy specifically.
In order to get inspiration — both for what to write and how to write it — reading other fiction books is valid, but I actually wouldn’t recommend it. Good books will give you the most specific advice in terms of, for example, what makes a good written description or piece of prose. I actually do have an internal document that I refer to which has pieces of writing that I think do a good job of describing both hard detail and emotion. Some examples:
- “Flayed glasseyed sheep hung from their haunches, sheepsnouts bloodypapered sniveling nosejam on sawdust.” [Ulysses, James Joyce]
- “Edith moved into the apartment as if it were an enemy to be conquered. Though unused to physical labor, she scraped away most of the paint from the floors and walls and scrubbed at the dirt she imagined secreted everywhere; her hands blistered and her face became strained, with dark hollows beneath her eyes.” [Stoner, John Williams]
- “He was unaware of my touch, of my face a foot above him, as he bent the tree-top grasses down to his nibbling teeth. I was like a galaxy to him, too big to be seen. I could have picked him up, but it seemed wrong to separate him now from the surface he would never leave until he died.” [The Peregrine, J. A. Baker]
But, like I mentioned, I would not recommend books as the first go to source. Instead, I would recommend movies and music. The movie recommendation is rather straight forward — a film director can get more across than a writer because they are visually showing you via actors and props what is inside their head. And so it is wise to watch a lot of movies, see what the good ones focus on in terms of detail, and then try to emulate that. Going back to the Grey Area example, in the scene where Anabelle goes to stay at Fox’s apartment for the night, this is a scene that has been done in a relatively similar fashion in many films. So it made describing the scene easier when I knew what the cues were for those scenes which I had watched before.
Music is also special, in that it’s the purest form of art: just a series of sounds and noises that together elicit a certain emotional response. As I mentioned, all writing is, really, is just trying to get other people to experience the same series of emotional responses to something as you do. Even the more intellectual writers have some sort of emotional response to the topics or themes that they’re writing about, and they try their best to place their own emotions onto you.
The purpose for music as a writer, then, is sort of a litmus test. Take a piece of music you feel a strong emotional response to, and a story that is meant to elicit that emotional response. Listen to the music, then read the story. Does it hit the same way? Obviously the music is always going to be stronger because it’s so raw, but you can get pretty close to the same response with writing if you’re clever. If the writing doesn’t hit at all, however, you know there’s some rewriting that needs to be done.
So, those are the two forms of media that I’d recommend. Videogames can also work, though they are a bit too good at describing their nature (there’s a lot of cheap tricks games can get away with because the interactive element already makes it feel engaging). As for recommendations across these, once again I don’t think my own suggestions would be of much help. Instead, I suggest this: Look at the classics, across literature, film, and music. Digest a couple, and in particular pick out the ones you either really liked or really didn’t like. From there, try to find patterns in what you liked, and try to find separate patterns in what you didn’t like. That way you have a good list of things to steal from, and a good list of things to avoid.
Anyway, that’s about it. I’m sure I’ll think of more tips outside of this as time goes on, but if that ever comes up I’ll just edit this post and add to it. If you have anything that works for you, feel free to post it in the comments.