Stein on Writing has got to be one of the best how-to books available on boosting writing skills
A man of formidable reputation, Sol Stein went into the publishing business in 1953. Over the years, he edited the works of such marquee authors as James Baldwin, Elia Kazan, George Orwell and many more.
He also helmed 13 books – 9 fiction and 4 nonfiction – of his own.
Chiefly, Stein on Writing is meant for fiction writers, but nothing in it suggests that nonfiction writers can’t pick it up.
Once you start reading, you’d realize that almost all the advice Stein imparts to the fiction-writing audience stands equally good for the other part of the spectrum: nonfiction writers, that is.
I refrained from not rushing through this book. I took my time and went back to the chapters that resonated with me and read them over. “Stein on Writing” is one of those books that makes you work with it. So you ought to have a notepad and a pencil at hand to jot down all the remarkable tips.
First words are important
Stein asserts that the first words of your work are important to set the ball rolling. Be it fiction or nonfiction, if you could spark the reader’s imagination with the first few sentences, he would hang on to read the next page.
Throw a shocking element upfront or introduce a weird character in the first paragraph, and you have the rapt attention of your reader. Make your character want something from the get-go.
In reference to a young novelist, Stein affirms, “If one understands the principles of intriguing the reader, one doesn’t need decades of experience.“
Let your characters do the talking
One particular advice Stein conveys and I want to mention it here is that as a fiction writer, you – the author – got to keep your voice low all the time.
The reader wants to hear from a visible character in the book, not the author. Imagine there is a glass wall between you and your characters. Nothing should interrupt the reader’s experience.
Give’em an out-of-the-ordinary experience
Characterization lies at the heart of successful fiction. Stein shares a bunch of methods to animate your characters and shape them up so that they click with the audience.
For example, he recommends injecting ‘eccentricity‘ in characters.
He recounts that the greatest of authors such as Shakespeare, Kafka, Hemingway and many such more, always shipped a quirky character in their works.
If your protagonist is a regular Joe with an uneventful life, then, you are shit out of luck. Readers don’t want to read about a protagonist who’s a loser, who has no desires in life.
Here’s Stein on a protagonist’s desires:
“The more urgent the desire, the greater the reader’s interest.”
An offbeat character not only adds color to the novel but also helps the reader forget his drab existence for a while.
Prolong Suspense and Conflict
If there is one element that is most critical to the modern fiction, it is the element of “Suspense”. But a shoddy suspense and a rushed revelation can kill the reader’s interest.
Stein wants you to go slow. The longer you keep the reader on the tenterhooks, the more immersed he will feel.
Here’s a brief snippet from Stein on suspense:
If a character’s life crisis requires an immediate action, make sure that the action backfires. Prolong the crisis…The function of suspense is to put the reader in danger of an overfull bladder.” – Sol Stein
An expert writer knows how to pit a protagonist’s desires against those of the antagonist’s so that two are locked into a conflict.
The idea is that you get’em in a situation where neither could walk away from the other. Stein calls it “The Crucible” technique.
Show, don’t tell
Stodgy characters with no personality kinks often fail to engage the reader.
On the top of it, if you make the mistake of reporting a story than showing it to your reader, your reader won’t stick with you for long.
Stein cites this as a prime reason for rejection of many novels. You have to make your readers a witness to the events. You have to show them the action. Without it, no success.
Cut the flab and speed up the pace
We are not good self-critiques. We rarely judge our own selves. Same is the case with our writing, too. We don’t judge it, we don’t scrutinize it.
In a later chapter called “Liposuctioning the Flab”, Stein shares invaluable tips on how to reduce verbiage in our text.
He urges you to show no mercy and remove all the adjectives and adverbs unless they supply indispensable information. He also warns the reader of using words like ‘however’, ‘although’, ‘always’, ‘entire’, ‘almost’, etc. They add nothing but flab to the work.
Once you strike out the redundancies, you must inject your text with pace. How to do this? Stein ‘s suggestion: use short sentences and frequent paragraphs.
Choose appealing titles
A tempting title can spur the imagination of the reader. This is the part where many gifted authors struggle. Thank God, Stein has a handful of suggestions for this one as well.
The main function of a title is to entice the reader not to give away the central idea of the book.” – Sol Stein
The ideas on the top of his list include the use of metaphors like “A Farewell to Arms” and “The Grapes of Wrath” or a combination of protagonist’s first name and an energizing factor such as “The Great Gatsby“.
Revise like a Pro
Your first drafts are going to be shit. It doesn’t matter what you are writing – a novel, a business book or a blog, you must revise.
Your proficiency at trimming flab and replacing what doesn’t seem to work with something that does ultimately decides your worth as an author.
“The biggest difference between a writer and a would-be-writer is their attitude toward rewriting. The writer looks forward to the opportunity of removing words, sentences, and paragraphs. A would-be writer thinks that whatever he puts down on paper is indelible.”
Stein minces no words calling out to the fence-sitters. He says, “Unwillingness to revise usually signals an amateur.”
The Secret Snapshot Technique
You want people to notice your writing? Stein has a formula. He calls it the “The Secret Snapshot Technique“.
If writing about a subject makes you cringe or squirm in your seat, then, Stein wants you to give it a stab.
In short, write about taboo subjects – social or political. Let loose on the world the crippling themes of fear and shame. At best, you could get noticed and at worst, it would fly under everyone’s radar. In my opinion, it’s a precarious path with no middle ground.
Stein writes in an unobtrusive but compelling style that carries you along with unforced ease. Every day you can look forward to a bunch of new insights, that’s what a man of Stein’s experience brings to the table.
It is a terrific companion for anyone who wishes to leap over the stumbling blocks in his writing. Brimming with practical tips and insights, it is a must-read if you want to elevate your writing skills.
He also has a particular way of putting his point across. At first, he shows you a half-baked, insipid piece of writing, then, he challenges your wits to one-up him and finally, he unveils the edited, ‘how-it-should-be’ piece.
Trust me, you won’t feel a moment of boredom while reading this book.
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