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Jul
26
2014

My Writer's Bible -- by Suzie Quint

If I could own only one book on writing, it would be Stein on Writing by Sol Stein. I sometimes refer to it as my writer’s bible, because it covers such a broad spectrum of writing topics. Everything from character markers to plotting to creating tension to dialog to flashbacks to sensory input to conflict to writing love scenes to revision to titles to . . . well, you get the picture. And though the book is only 303 pages, Stein is able to say everything he needs to so succinctly and his examples are so spot on that you finish each chapter feeling that it’s been thoroughly covered.

You should understand that Sol Stein isn't just some schmo off the street. He was the chief editor for Stein and Day Publishers for 27 years. He's edited such BNAs (Big Name Authors) as George Orwell, Elia Kazan, and James Balwin. This is someone who knows his stuff with a capital S.
 
Stein on Writing is easily the writing book I recommend more often than any other. Mostly, I refer it to novice writers, because of its broad spectrum of topics and clarity of thought, but I wouldn’t hesitate to refer it to advanced writers as well.
 
Stein states on the first page that this is a book of usable solutions--how to fix writing that is flawed, how to improve writing that's good, how to create interesting writing in the first place. I’m sure you can already tell that I think this book measures up to its promise, so let’s get started with examples, so you’ll know that I’m not just blowing smoke up your skirt.
 
One of my two favorite chapters to recommend to neophyte writers is the chapter How To Show Instead of Tell. Stein illustrates the difference between showing and telling with this simple example:
 
He was nervous tells
He tapped his fingers on the tabletop shows
 
But then he goes a step further and illustrates that there are different levels of showing with this example:
 
He took a walk tells.
He walked four blocks begins to show
He walked the four blocks slowly shows more clearly.
He walked the four blocks as if it were the last mile shows more by giving the reader a sense of the character’s feelings, which the previous version did not.
He walked as if against an unseen wind, hoping someone would stop him shows most of all because it gives the reader a sense of what the character desperately wants.
 
My other favorite chapter is titled Particularity. In my mind, this is part two of How to Show Instead of Tell. The thrust of the chapter is picking the details that illuminate characters, settings, action, etc.  Others might call this the art of picking Telling Details. Stein calls it picking details that individualize. This is where writing comes to life.
 
An example he gives is from his own book The Touch of Treason:
 
   Thomassy could see Roberts’s handshake coming at him all the way down the aisle, above it that freckled face proclaiming I can be friendly to everybody, I was born rich.
   Roberts’s smile, Thomassy thought, is an implant.
 
That’s a vivid example of how to characterize not just efficiently but with originality and it certainly individualizes both Roberts and Thomassy, showing you so much about both characters: Roberts would make a first-rate politician and Thomassy is snide and cynical.
 
There’s so much that’s valuable here. Perusing the book to see what else to include in this review, I ran across Stein’s statement in the chapter The Adrenaline Pump  that you open a book by introducing a character then, as soon as possible, creating some moments of tension. Such a simple formula for an opening. And so hard to execute well. And so different in texture from the advice to start en media res which too many interpret to mean that you start with action (like a car chase or an explosion) which doesn’t do the job because it doesn’t matter what’s happening until you put a face on it. This chapter goes on to explore the importance of tension and how to draw it out–and yes, tension is different from suspense. 
 
In another chapter (Love Scenes), Stein reminds you that you don't want to tell the reader what the characters are feeling, but to evoke feelings in the reader as a result of what (the characters) say to each other and what they do. Then he shows you how that’s done.
 
The chapters on character offer such gems as how to create markers for your characters and how to describe characters through their actions. Stein shares the secrets of good dialog and borrows an exercise from the famed Actor’s Studio that shows you how to create conflict by giving your characters different scripts. All good stuff.
 
The book is packed with more practical wisdom than I can even begin to mention in a post I hope to keep to a reasonable length. It’s great stuff for novice or intermediate writers and a fantastic review of principles for advanced writers.

Do you have a writers Bible? If you do, what is it?
Posted by Suzie Quint 26 Jul 2014 at 03:26
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Responses to this blog

Gtolios 26 Jul 2014 at 05:32  
I love Scott Orson Card's books on writing. They are amazing with ideas, examples, and details. He also breaks it down well, something I think that comes from teaching about storytelling. What's the phrase, it's hard to teach if you don't remember learning? Just cuz you know something doesn't mean you can transfer that information but Card does it regularly and so understands common questions and what type of examples work best. And like it said before, it's books. He's got a set that each focus on specific elements - characters, plot, and so on.

This book sounds good too though.
Patgarcia 30 Jul 2014 at 03:07  
Enjoyed the blog post. I guess at the moment my writer's Bible is a book by John Gardner titled On Becoming A Novelist. The book is more an in-depth look at what it means and what it takes to become a novelist.

I also have one of Scott Orson Card's book and I am currently reading Martha Alderson and you have convinced me in your blog posting to take a look at Sol Stein because I have read almost all of James Baldwin's book.

Susieq 30 Jul 2014 at 08:03  
I hope you find Stein on Writing as helpful as I do.
__________________
Suzie Q
Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed. ― G.K. Chesterton

Cjandrews 30 Jul 2014 at 09:47  
I've read several books on writing but haven't found a go-to favorite yet.

I started reading Stein on Writing after reading your blog post, and my virtual highlighter is already getting a workout. Thanks for sharing!
Susieq 30 Jul 2014 at 10:58  
Quote by: Noregrets
I've read several books on writing but haven't found a go-to favorite yet.

I started reading Stein on Writing after reading your blog post, and my virtual highlighter is already getting a workout. Thanks for sharing!



Glad I could bring it to your attention. It always amazes me how much he packed into so few pages.
__________________
Suzie Q
Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed. ― G.K. Chesterton

Purplek 30 Jul 2014 at 11:58  
You make me want to buy this book. I think I will! Good post!

I don't have a writer's bible. The only writing book I ever read was Stephen King's "On Writing".
Insertname 30 Jul 2014 at 12:27  
I've never read a writing book. Maybe I should.
__________________
Purplek 30 Jul 2014 at 13:20  
Quote by: Insertname
I've never read a writing book. Maybe I should. <br>


That's a good question. In order to develop our own style, voice, ideas, structures, characters etc. is it wise to read writing manuals/bibles?

__________________
Cjandrews 30 Jul 2014 at 14:53  
Quote by: Purplek
Quote by: Insertname
I've never read a writing book. Maybe I should. <br>


That's a good question. In order to develop our own style, voice, ideas, structures, characters etc. is it wise to read writing manuals/bibles?
<br>



Think of it as learning an instrument. You can perform a song, but if you don't know about notes, scales, tones, rhythm and so forth (not to mention the mechanics of the instrument itself) no one is going to want to listen. Once you know what you're doing, you give it your own twist.

I try to learn as much as I can about crafting a good story. No matter what your skill level, in any aspect of life, there is always more to learn. So yeah, I think its a very wise idea to read writing manuals.
Insertname 30 Jul 2014 at 15:09  
Quote by: Noregrets
Quote by: Purplek
Quote by: Insertname
I've never read a writing book. Maybe I should. <br>


That's a good question. In order to develop our own style, voice, ideas, structures, characters etc. is it wise to read writing manuals/bibles?
<br>



Think of it as learning an instrument. You can perform a song, but if you don't know about notes, scales, tones, rhythm and so forth (not to mention the mechanics of the instrument itself) no one is going to want to listen. Once you know what you're doing, you give it your own twist.

I try to learn as much as I can about crafting a good story. No matter what your skill level, in any aspect of life, there is always more to learn. So yeah, I think its a very wise idea to read writing manuals.



Not necessarily true. What if you can play by ear? I'm not saying I can, insofar as this metaphor goes, but I'm of the opinion that it's perfectly possible to learn all you need to from critiquing/being critiqued/reading great books.

Of course, there's every possibility that actually reading a writing book would be that 'final' step.

__________________
Trevose 31 Jul 2014 at 08:29  
Great blog. Great book...found it about a week ago. Am still working through it...digesting about a chapter a day. Though very concisely written (which is also something to learn from him), lots of good points to think on, as you highlighted.
Susieq 31 Jul 2014 at 11:35  
I'm finding it interesting that there are writers out there who dismiss the idea of reading books about writing without ever having read one. I can't help but think they'll spend much longer on the learning curve than they need to. And yes, I'll be the first to tell you that there are many writing books that aren't worth two minutes of your time, but there are also books I've learned a great deal from. Could I have learned those things somewhere else? Yes, but it would have taken me much longer, and some of the principles, like story structure, would have arrived so piecemeal that I would have spent a long time confused. To my mind, the books are tools, and since I want to be good at my craft, it makes no sense to me to dismiss a potentially great tool without even trying it.
__________________
Suzie Q
Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed. ― G.K. Chesterton

Fields 31 Jul 2014 at 17:05  
I have never read a book on writing, so I don't have a bible.

Even if we are all headed to the same destination, we each get their in our own way, walk our own paths, at our own pace. (I understand the authors actively seeking representation for and publication of their work should take the most efficient path, and a book on writing might be that path. For that reason alone, this is an excellent article.)

All we can do for each other is offer suggestions, encouragement and constructive criticism.

How authors take our advice is up to them.

Using the tools example, I think authors dismissal of books on writing might be based on not feeling ready (or seeing the need for) those particular tools. Dunno.

When I started writing, it was for fun, as an escape. When I joined CC, it was to see where my writing stood, and to learn how to improve it.

I was not ready to read a book on writing then. I am still not ready now, but I have warmed to the idea.

What changed? There are structural problems I was not ready to address back then that I am now. (In some cases, I couldn't see the issues.)

I have spent a good deal of time doing it my way, for the most part, I have confidence in my ideas and voice, the stories I have to tell.

I like that I took the time to explore my creativity before understanding and using winning formulas and techniques as guidelines.

There is a child-like, playing in the sandbox authenticity to that logic, but that's me.

I resisted the need to conform not because I looked down on learning from others, but because I was still hanging onto my individuality, finding my voice. In my mind, a writers' bible would ask me to follow dogma religiously. My reaction had always been to refuse.

I understand now, though, that the two are not mutually exclusive. I can still do me while I learn, add to my skillset and knowledgebase by reading a book on writing. I just wouldn't call it a bible.

If I had it to do over again, I'd still do it this way. (IE: not try to wrap my head around a book on writing first.)

One big caveat: I have no dreams of becoming a best-selling author, in any market. I simply want every story to be better than my last, and to have some of the best ones published.

Because I believe I can accomplish this (perhaps naively) without reading a book on writing, I am still giving that path a shot. For now.
__________________
When is male protagonist will be to arriving to save everyone and become King of Awesomeness and also the World?

Medgib 1 Aug 2014 at 03:59  
Quote by: Insertname
Quote by: Noregrets
Quote by: Purplek
Quote by: Insertname
I've never read a writing book. Maybe I should. <br>


That's a good question. In order to develop our own style, voice, ideas, structures, characters etc. is it wise to read writing manuals/bibles?
<br>



Think of it as learning an instrument. You can perform a song, but if you don't know about notes, scales, tones, rhythm and so forth (not to mention the mechanics of the instrument itself) no one is going to want to listen. Once you know what you're doing, you give it your own twist.

I try to learn as much as I can about crafting a good story. No matter what your skill level, in any aspect of life, there is always more to learn. So yeah, I think its a very wise idea to read writing manuals.



Not necessarily true. What if you can play by ear? I'm not saying I can, insofar as this metaphor goes, but I'm of the opinion that it's perfectly possible to learn all you need to from critiquing/being critiqued/reading great books.

Of course, there's every possibility that actually reading a writing book would be that 'final' step.
<br>


You can write a song if you learn to play by ear, but you need to learn the mechanics of music if you want to compose a symphony.
Karlabran 14 Aug 2014 at 04:45  
Sol Stein was the first "mentor" I had - when I started writing, he had introduced writing software filled with writing prompts. He was a good starting point for me.
Susieq 14 Aug 2014 at 08:11  
Quote by: Karlabran
Sol Stein was the first "mentor" I had - when I started writing, he had introduced writing software filled with writing prompts. He was a good starting point for me.


I know exactly what you mean. He taught me so much.
__________________
Suzie Q
Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed. ― G.K. Chesterton

Medgib 14 Aug 2014 at 09:01  
On your recommendation, I got his book and just finished it this morning. As with other great books on writing, I'll be re-reading it. He has some great advice and a lot things to keep in mind while writing. Thanks for the post, it will really help me along and I appreciate it.
Itr 14 Aug 2014 at 10:12  
Nice review! Inspired me to take a look, so I've requested it from the library.
Susieq 14 Aug 2014 at 22:07  
Quote by: Itr
Nice review! Inspired me to take a look, so I've requested it from the library.


That's where I originally found it. It's got so much good stuff in it thought, I knew I had to have a copy of my own.
__________________
Suzie Q
Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed. ― G.K. Chesterton

Hessian6 19 Aug 2014 at 22:13  
Suzie, yet another great recommendation for novice writers like myself. I love the examples you gave, really gave me a sense of what I was in for. Had to order Stein's book right away as well. Now if I can just keep from spending all my time reading about good writing and getting some writing of my own done.
Susieq 19 Aug 2014 at 22:19  
Quote by: Hessian6
Suzie, yet another great recommendation for novice writers like myself. I love the examples you gave, really gave me a sense of what I was in for. Had to order Stein's book right away as well. Now if I can just keep from spending all my time reading about good writing and getting some writing of my own done.


Maybe I'm weird, but reading about writing can light a fire under my butt. It puts ideas in my head I get excited about implementing. Hopefully, this will do the same for you.

__________________
Suzie Q
Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed. ― G.K. Chesterton

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