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kottke.org posts about writing

Vonnegut’s rules for short story writing

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 05, 2009

One of Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules for writing short stories:

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

Ayup. See also How to Write With Style.

Gay Talese interview

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 10, 2009

The Paris Review has posted an extensive excerpt of an interview with writer Gay Talese from their summer issue. Wonderful stuff, ranging from his unusual writing process to how he got his start to a brief behind-the-scenes about writing Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.

All the other reporters of my generation would come back from an assignment and be done with their piece in a half hour. For the rest of the afternoon they’d be reading books or playing cards or drinking coffee in the cafeteria, and I was always very much alone. I didn’t carry on conversations during those hours. I just wanted to make my article perfect, or as good as I could get it. So I rewrote and rewrote, feeling that I needed every minute of the working day to improve my work. I did this because I didn’t believe that it was just journalism, thrown away the next day with the trash. I always had a sense of tomorrow. I never turned in anything more than two minutes before deadline. It was never easy, I felt I had only one chance. I was working for the paper of record, and I believed that what I was doing was going to be part of a permanent history.

It had better be good too, because my name was on it. I’ve always thought that. I think this came from watching my father work on suits. I was impressed by how carefully he would sew, and he never made much money, but I thought he was the real thing. His name was on those suits-the buttons couldn’t fall off tomorrow. They had to look great, had to fit well, and had to last. His business wasn’t profitable, but from him I learned that I wanted to be a craftsman.

Don’t miss the piece of shirt board that Talese used to outline the Sinatra story. (via submitted for your perusal)

Update: Who else used shirt boards? Robert Rauschenberg.

Design award deadline approaching…

posted by Jason Kottke   May 19, 2009

The deadline for entering the Winterhouse Awards for Design Writing & Criticism is nearing. Get your entries in by June 1.

The Writing Award of $10,000 is open to writers, critics, scholars, historians, journalists and designers and given for a body of work. The Education Award of $1,000 is open to students (high school, undergraduate or graduate) whose use of writing in a single essay demonstrates originality and promise.

Tighter, simpler, more transparent

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 03, 2009

Cathy Curtis, a former staff writer for The LA Times, shares how the web made her a better writer.

Another impetus for scanning, I believe, is the web’s seemingly limitless content. It’s like being unable to enjoy yourself at a party because you might be having a better time at someone else’s house. Add the growing mania for speed (“This #%&* site is taking 20 seconds to load!”), and it’s clear that web writing has to pick up the pace.

(via subtraction)

Growing Sentences with David Foster Wallace

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 16, 2009

A Primer for Kicking Ass
Being the Result of One Man’s Fed-upped-ness With ‘How to Write’ Books Not Actually Showing You How to Write
By James Tanner. Reprinted with permission.

0. Begin with an idea, a string of ideas.

Ex: Mario had help with his movie. He did a lot of the work himself.

1. Use them in a compound sentence:

It’s obvious someone helped with the script, But…Mario did the puppet work, And…It was his shoes on the pedal.

2. Add rhythm with a dependent clause:

It’s obvious someone helped with the script, but Mario did the puppet work, and it was, without question, his shoes on the pedal.

3. Elaborate using a complete sentence as interrupting modifier:

It’s obvious someone helped with the script, but Mario did the puppet work — his arms are perfect for the puppets — and it was, without question, his shoes on the pedal.

4. Append an absolute construction or two:

It’s obvious someone helped with the script, but Mario did the puppet work — his arms are perfect for the puppets — and it was, without question, his shoes on the pedal, the camera mounted on a tripod, mops moved out of frame.

5. Paralell-o-rize your structure (turn one noun into two):

It’s obvious someone helped with the script, but Mario did the choreography and the puppet work — his arms and fingers are perfect for the puppets — and it was, without question, his shoes on the pedal, the camera mounted on a tripod, mops and buckets moved out of frame.

-
STOP HERE IF YOU ARE A MINIMALIST, WRITING COACH, OR JAMES WOOD
-

6. Adjectival phrases: lots of them. (Note: apprx. 50% will include the word ‘little’):

It’s obvious someone helped with the script, but Mario did the choreography and most of the puppet work — his little S-shaped arms and curved fingers are perfect for the standard big-headed political puppets — and it was, without question, his little square shoes on the pedal, the camera mounted on a tripod, mops and dull-gray janitorial buckets moved out of frame.

7. Throw in an adverb or two (never more than one third the number of adjectives):

It’s obvious someone helped with the script, but Mario did the choreography and most of the puppet work personally — his little S-shaped arms and curved fingers are perfect for the standard big-headed political puppets — and it was, without question, his little square shoes on the pedal, the camera mounted on a tripod, mops and dull-gray janitorial buckets carefully moved out of frame.

8. Elaboration — mostly unnecessary. Here you’ll turn nouns phrases into longer noun phrases; verbs phrases into longer verb phrases. This is largely a matter of synonyms and prepositions. Don’t be afraid to be vague! Ideally, these elaborations will contribute to voice — for example, ‘had a hand in’ is longer than ‘helped’, but still kinda voice-y — but that’s just gravy. The goal here is word count.

It’s obvious someone else had a hand in the screenplay, but Mario did the choreography and most of the puppet-work personally — his little S-shaped arms and curved fingers are perfect for the forward curve from body to snout of a standard big-headed political puppet — and it was, without question, Mario’s little square shoes on the pedal, the camera mounted on a tripod across the over lit closet, mops and dull-gray janitorial buckets carefully moved out past the frame’s borders on either side of the little velvet stage.

-
STOP HERE IF YOU ARE NOT WRITING PARODY
-

9. Give it that Wallace shine. Replace common words with their oddly specific, scientific-y counterparts. (Ex: ‘curved fingers’ into ‘falcate digits’). If you can turn a noun into a brand name, do it. (Ex: ‘shoes’ into ‘Hush Puppies,’ ‘camera’ into ‘Bolex’). Finally, go crazy with the possessives. Who wants a tripod when they could have a ‘tunnel’s locked lab’s tripod’? Ahem:

It’s obvious someone else had a hand in the screenplay, but Mario did the choreography and most of the puppet-work personally — his little S-shaped arms and falcate digits are perfect for the forward curve from body to snout of a standard big-headed political puppet — and it was, without question, Mario’s little square Hush Puppies on the H^4’s operant foot-treadle, the Bolex itself mounted on one of the tunnel’s locked lab’s Husky-VI TL tripods across the over lit closet, mops and dull-gray janitorial buckets carefully moved out past the frame’s borders on either side of the little velvet stage.

10. Practice. Take one sentence — any sentence — and Wallacize it. Turn ten boring words into a hundred good ones.

Ex: “John wanted to play ball, but he sat on the couch.”

Or did John _________________________________ ?

[Ed note: I saw this on a mailing list a few weeks ago, really liked it, and asked permission to reprint it here. Thanks for sharing, James.]

For money or for love?

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 05, 2009

Several authors share what they like and dislike about writing for a living.

I wouldn’t be the first writer to point out that doing something so deeply personal does become less jolly when you have to keep on at it, day after cash-generating day. To use a not ridiculous analogy: Sex = nice thing. Sex For Cash = probably less fun, perhaps morally uncomfy and psychologically unwise. Sitting alone in a room for hours while essentially talking in your head about people you made up earlier and then writing it down for no one you know does have many aspects which are not inherently fulfilling.

Tomorrow’s workday, tonight!

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 23, 2009

Michael Lewis talks a little about his writing process.

I’ve written in awful enough situations that I know that the quality of the prose doesn’t depend on the circumstance in which it is composed. I don’t believe the muse visits you. I believe that you visit the muse. If you wait for that “perfect moment” you’re not going to be very productive.

The Bloomberg Way, no buts about it

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 26, 2008

From a Vanity Fair piece on Bloomberg News, a brief mention of The Bloomberg Way, the style guide used by writers at the financial news and services company (emphasis mine):

Bloomberg News stories, it declared, “have a structure that is as immutable as the rules that govern sonnets and symphonies.” Every story needed to include “the Five Fs”: first, fastest, factual, final, and future. Leads were to be exactly four paragraphs long, comprising the stating of a theme, a quotation in “plain English from someone who backs up that theme,” numbers-based details that further support it, and an explanation of what’s at stake. The use of “but” was banned — it forced readers “to deal with conflicting ideas in the same sentence.” Words such as “despite” and “however” were to be avoided for the same reason.

Are there any copies of The Bloomberg Way online? I’d love to check it out. (via surowiecki)

DFW profile

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 11, 2008

A profile of David Foster Wallace from 1987, reprinted by McSweeney’s.

“When you write fiction,” he explains as part of his critique of a story about a young girl, her uncle, and the evil eye, “you are telling a lie. It’s a game, but you must get the facts straight. The reader doesn’t want to be reminded that it’s a lie. It must be convincing, or the story will never take off in the reader’s mind.”

One of his two senior college theses was on philosophy (the other became The Broom of the System):

His senior philosophy thesis, he claims, had nothing to do with writing. “It offered a solution in how to deal with semantics and physical modalities concerning Aristotle’s sea battle. If it is now true that there will be a sea battle tomorrow, is a sea battle necessary tomorrow? If it is now false, is a sea battle impossible tomorrow? It’s a way to deal with propositions in the future tense in modal logic, since what is physically possible at a certain time is weird because one has to distinguish the time of the possibility of the event from the possibility of the time of the event.”

What not to write in your thesis

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 02, 2008

Footnotes, Endnotes, and Parentheticals That Cost Me Marks on My Thesis.

3 Who, although a gifted academic, is still a douche.

10. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Paul_Sartre

Walter Benjamin’s tips for writing

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 02, 2008

A list of writing tips from Walter Benjamin.

Keep your pen aloof from inspiration, which it will then attract with magnetic power. The more circumspectly you delay writing down an idea, the more maturely developed it will be on surrendering itself. Speech conquers thought, but writing commands it.

I find that when I develop an idea for too long in my head, I forget most of it when I go to write it down. Once again proving that Walter Benjamin is a better man than I am.

Writing with style

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 15, 2008

Kurt Vonnegut shares his tips on how to write with style.

5. Sound like yourself. The writing style which is most natural for you is bound to echo the speech you heard when a child. English was Conrad’s third language, and much that seems piquant in his use of English was no doubt colored by his first language, which was Polish. And lucky indeed is the writer who has grown up in Ireland, for the English spoken there is so amusing and musical. I myself grew up in Indianapolis, where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin, and employs a vocabulary as unornamental as a monkey wrench.

(via chris glass)

Zadie Smith’s writing advice

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 08, 2008

Writing advice from Zadie Smith: write it then put it in a drawer.

When you finish your novel, if money is not a desperate priority, if you do not need to sell it at once or be published that very second — put it in a drawer. For as long as you can manage. A year of more is ideal — but even three months will do. Step away from the vehicle. The secret to editing your work is simple: you need to become its reader instead of its writer. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat backstage with a line of novelists at some festival, all of us with red pens in hand, frantically editing our published novels into fit form so that we might go on stage and read from them. It’s an unfortunate thing, but it turns out that the perfect state of mind to edit your novel is two years after it’s published, ten minutes before you go on stage at a literary festival. At that moment every redundant phrase, each show-off, pointless metaphor, all of the pieces of dead wood, stupidity, vanity, and tedium are distressingly obvious to you.

Top notch advice. I’m currently working on a (mostly visual) redesign for kottke.org. I pretty much finished the Photoshop part of it two months ago and haven’t looked at it since, hoping that the distance will give me some much needed perspective on whether the new design is any good or not. I’ve used this technique on the past couple of designs as well…if you have the luxury of the extra time, I’d highly recommend it.

How to write screenplays

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 01, 2008

Advice on writing screenplays.

I think people see inspiration as the ignition that starts the process. In fact, real moments of inspiration often come at the last minute, when you’ve sweated and fretted your way through a couple of drafts. Suddenly, you start to see fresh connections, new ways of doing things. That’s when you feel like you’re flying. The real pleasure of any script is the detail. And a lot gets lost in the process. Put it back in at the last minute.

Giles “Finds it hard to write a

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 14, 2008

Giles “Finds it hard to write a meaningful bio, despite being a professional writer for some 15 years now. That’s horrifying. It’s frightening.” Turnbull on the difficulty of writing one’s own biography. Having to write three-line bios is at least 33% of the reason I stopped speaking at conferences. (The other two-thirds: a) I don’t like speaking at conferences, and b) conference organizers stopped asking me to speak.)

Mark Gaberman on what it’s like to

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 19, 2008

Mark Gaberman on what it’s like to write for Jeopardy, which he’s been doing for 7 years.

I’ve had Alex Trebek rap Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice” — he had his mind on his money and his money on his mind that day. Did a category called “Death and Texas” just because I liked the title (and finding stuff about people dying and/or getting killed in Texas turned out to be remarkably easy). I’ve learned about Jean Sibelius, and word to the wise, if you see “blah blah blah this Finnish composer blah blah blah…”, Jean Sibelius might not be your worst guess. Well, at least if I wrote it. I’m just not that up on my Finnish composers.

This comes from a blog called Why We Write, a collection of essays by TV and film writers who are currently out of work due to the Writer’s Guild strike. My favorite part of the site is the placement of two spaces after a period instead of the HTML default of one. View the source to check out the crazy markup they use to accomplish that little bit of fussiness. (thx, mark)

RU Sirius asks: Is the net good

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 09, 2007

RU Sirius asks: Is the net good for writers? Ten professional writers weigh in.

I like to develop topics, approach them from different, often contradictory angles, and most of all, I like to polish the shit out of them so that the flow and the prose shine and bedazzle. On and offline, I find the internet-driven pressure to make pieces short, data-dense, and crisply opinionated — as opposed to thoughtful, multi-perspectival, and lyrical — rather oppressive, leading to a certain kind of superficial smugness as well as general submission to the forces of reference over reflection. I do enjoy writing 125-word record reviews though!

My favorite aspect of the piece is the interspersed American Apparel ads…they add a little texture to the discussion.

The Most Beautiful House in the World

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 21, 2007

In a short post yesterday about where writers do their business, I mentioned that Witold Rybczynski had written about the writing room of a famous author that was purposely set away from the rest of his house. I grabbed my copy of The Most Beautiful House in the World off the shelf just now and found that I’d turned down the page containing the relevant passage back when I read the book a few years ago. The author I was thinking of was George Bernard Shaw; here is Rybczynski’s description of his writing room:

But Shaw too was a builder, and the writing room that he erected in his garden was a Shavian combination of simplicity, convenience, and novelty. He called it “the Shelter,” but it was really a shed, only eight feet square. It contained the essentials of the writer’s trade — a plank desk, an electric lamp, a wicker chair, a bookcase, and a wastepaper basket. Beside the desk was a shelf for his Remington portable — like [Samuel] Clemens, Shaw was an early amateur of the typewriter. There was also a telephone (modified to refuse incoming calls), a thermometer, and an alarm clock (to remind him when it was time for lunch).

Shaw’s writing hut had one other curious feature: the entire building was mounted on a pipe so that it could be rotated to take advantage of the sun’s warmth at different times of the day. But the tiny building was so loaded down with books and furniture that the feature was probably never used. Pictures and more on Shaw’s writing hut at BBC News, the National Trust, and Cool Tools.

Rybczynski also mentions that Samuel Clemens wrote most often in a hilltop gazebo he’d constructed for that purpose away from his luxurious house..

The Guardian has an extensive list of

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 20, 2007

The Guardian has an extensive list of writers and the rooms in which they write (with photos and descriptions by the authors). For whatever reason, I became very interested in writers’ rooms after reading Witold Rybczynski’s The Most Beautiful House in the World, in which he describes several rooms built by writers specifically for working in, including one author who built a completely separate room apart from his house which combined his need for solitude with a short commute. (thx, youngna)

Summer news regarding The Wire (including season five info)

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 05, 2007

Show creator David Simon talks with author Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, etc.) in the The August 2007 issue of The Believer. The entire interview isn’t available online but one of the three best bits is:

My standard for verisimilitude is simple and I came to it when I started to write prose narrative: fuck the average reader. I was always told to write for the average reader in my newspaper life. The average reader, as they meant it, was some suburban white subscriber with two-point-whatever kids and three-point-whatever cars and a dog and a cat and lawn furniture. He knows nothing and he needs everything explained to him right away, so that exposition becomes this incredible, story-killing burden. Fuck him. Fuck him to hell.

Simon goes on to talk about the overarching theme of The Wire: the exploration of the postmodern American city and the struggle of the individual against the city’s institutions. Many of his thoughts on that particular subject are contained in this Dec 2006 interview at Slate. But in talking with Hornby, Simon draws a parallel between these city institutions and the Greek gods:

Another reason the show may feel different than a lot of television: our model is not quite so Shakespearian as other high-end HBO fare. The Sopranos and Deadwood — two shows that I do admire — offer a good deal of Macbeth or Richard III or Hamlet in their focus on the angst and machinations of their central characters (Tony Soprano, Al Swearingen). Much of our modern theatre seems rooted in the Shakespearian discovery of the modern mind. We’re stealing instead from an earlier, less-traveled construct — the Greeks — lifting our thematic stance wholesale from Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides to create doomed and fated protagonists who confront a rigged game and their own mortality.

But instead of the old gods, The Wire is a Greek tragedy in which the postmodern institutions are the Olympian forces. It’s the police department, or the drug economy, or the political structures, or the school administration, or the macroeconomics forces that are throwing the lightning bolts and hitting people in the ass for no reason. In much of television, and in a good deal of our stage drama, individuals are often portrayed as rising above institutions to achieve catharsis. In this drama, the institutions always prove larger, and those characters with hubris enough to challenge the postmodern construct of American empire are invariably mocked, marginalized, or crushed. Greek tragedy for the new millenium, so to speak.

The NY Times still deals in the Shakespearian and tells us the story of Donnie Andrews and Fran Boyd (thx, nirav), whom Simon and The Wire co-creator Edward Burns introduced to each other. Andrews was the inspiration for the popular Omar Little character on the show and Boyd was depicted in a previous Simon/Burns collaboration called The Corner. The Times also has their wedding announcement.

And finally, some news about season five. Sadly, instead of 12 or 13 episodes, the final season of the show will only consist of 10 episodes. The shooting of the final episode wrapped on September 1 and the season will premiere on Jan 6, 2008 (both facts courtesy of a Washington Post article about the end of the show). The season 4 DVD should be out a month or two before that. Two actors from Homicide: Life on the Street (based on a book by, you guessed it, David Simon) will appear in the final season: Clark Johnson (who also directed the final episode) and Richard Belzer, who will reprise his Homicide role as Detective John Munch.

Photographs of novelist Will Self’s writing room,

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 30, 2007

Photographs of novelist Will Self’s writing room, seemingly wallpapered by Post-Its. (via moon river)

Michael Pollan has some good advice for

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 23, 2007

Michael Pollan has some good advice for writing about nature and science. “So choose your first person deliberately. Too many newspaper first persons — and a lot of magazine first persons too — are written in the voice of the neutral feature-writer. They’re the voice of the Journalist. That is the least interesting first person you have. Nobody cares about journalists. They’re not normal people. So choose a first person that draws on a more normal side of your personality. And think about which one will help you tell the story. You’ll see that in very subtle ways it will shape your point of view and your tone and unlock interesting things.”

How to report scientific research to a general audience.

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 02, 2007

How to report scientific research to a general audience.

Writer’s Dreamtools has a timeline of events,

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 08, 2006

Writer’s Dreamtools has a timeline of events, people, entertainment, fashion, money, etc. for every decade since 1650. This allows the writer to put herself in that time period and as a jumping off point for further historical research. Favorite categories: “who’s in” and “what’s in”. What a great resource for writers. (via youngna)

Robert Shields is the author of the

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 06, 2006

Robert Shields is the author of the world’s longest diary. It runs to 35 million words and he wrote about everything he did. Everything. “3:30-3:45 I was at the keyboard of the IBM Wheelwriter making entries for the diary.”

Following the lead of the Six Word

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 25, 2006

Following the lead of the Six Word Story group on Flickr and Caterina’s prompt, Wired asked some prominent writers to pen their own six word stories. “Hemingway once wrote a story in just six words (‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn.’) and is said to have called it his best work.” Got any good ones?

Computing is killing cursive writing. My writing

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 11, 2006

Computing is killing cursive writing. My writing was always bad, but now that I write things maybe once every three months, it’s like I don’t even know what a pencil is…most monkeys print better than I can.

Will people need to know how to

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 21, 2006

Will people need to know how to read and write in the near future? Emails and texts are already not exactly literature and in 10 years, text-to-speech will be good enough that you can listen to anything you want. On the flipside, text holds a lot of advantages over “icons and audio prompts”. A quick survey of the modern workplace reveals slow progress on the paperless office, so I’m skeptical that this no-text future is soon to arrive. (via 3qd)

By asking for “for the next sheet

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 14, 2006

By asking for “for the next sheet of paper that he or she would have written on”, Jonathan Safran Foer collected emtpy sheets of paper from a group of writers, building “a museum of pure potential”. (thx, matt)

Update: Here’s the uncut version of the article as it originally appeared in Playboy. (thx, chris)

How I Blog

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 07, 2006

Seth Godin, who ruminates for a living, wrote a little something about how ideas are transmitted last year:

For an idea to spread, it needs to be sent and received.

No one “sends” an idea unless:
a. they understand it
b. they want it to spread
c. they believe that spreading it will enhance their power (reputation, income, friendships) or their peace of mind
d. the effort necessary to send the idea is less than the benefits

No one “gets” an idea unless:
a. the first impression demands further investigation
b. they already understand the foundation ideas necessary to get the new idea
c. they trust or respect the sender enough to invest the time

Seth hits the nail right on the head with this. When I’m deciding what links to post here, I’m essentially curating ideas, collecting them to “send” to you (and to myself, in a way). And unconsciously, these seven points factor into my decision on what to post here.

a. they understand it - I read everything I post and attempt to understand an article enough to represent it accurately when linking to it.

b. they want it to spread - I pick links and write posts based on ideas that I think are in some way important, meaningful, relevent, or good for the soul. And sure, I want those ideas to be more widely known or enjoyed, even if it’s something as simple as someone getting a needed chuckle from a video of a monkey teasing a dog.

c. they believe that spreading it will enhance their power (reputation, income, friendships) or their peace of mind - This factors into anyone’s motivations for anything. In George Orwell’s 1947 essay Why I Write, his #1 reason is “sheer egoism”.

d. the effort necessary to send the idea is less than the benefits - If I wanted to, I could post 30 links or more a day without too much more effort on my part, but in this case, part of sending the idea is making sure the reader has enough attention to consider it.

a. the first impression demands further investigation - I spend a lot of time on getting the description of some linked text, photo, or video just right, so that the reader has a good idea of what they’re getting into. Choosing a 1-2 sentence pull-quote that accurately represents the idea of an article is key in getting people’s attention in a productive way. “This is an awesome link” is only going to cut it so many times; you need to tell people what the link is and give people an honest reason to click.

b. they already understand the foundation ideas necessary to get the new idea - I assume visitors to the site are regular readers and that they have a good sense of what happens here, but I try to limit my reliance on jargon or “in-crowd” references so that everyone can follow along.

c. they trust or respect the sender enough to invest the time - If I do all that other stuff right, hopefully you’ll trust me enough to be receptive to the ideas I’m sending you. And if not, you probably won’t trust me for long.

Like I said, all this was pretty much happening unconsciously. I’ve worked consciously on bits and pieces of it, but until I read Seth’s post, I didn’t know that this was the end-to-end process.