Robertson Publishing

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Words of Wisdom

"Drawing characters from life does not mean transferring real people into fiction exactly as you saw them. So, I use parts of real people -- a gesture here, a mannerism there, a certain kind of jawline and put them together to make someone new and interesting."
Margaret Chittenden

"People will read stories only as long as they care about what happens to the characters; therefore, the writer's first task is to make readers like the hero... enough to want good things to happen to them, or hate and fear the villains enough to want bad things to happen to them."
Phillip R. Craig

"A writer must trust his or her intuition. If I didn't, I couldn't write a book, because I never know from day to day what's going to happen next. I trust my intuition and my subconscious. I believe the stories are always working in my head and when I sit down I just describe what I'm 'hearing.' "
William Diehl

"You must find some way to elevate your act of writing... Usually this means giving the reader an enjoyable surprise. Any number of methods will do the job: humor, anecdote, an unexpected quotation, a powerful fact, an outlandish detail, a circuitous approach, an elegant arrangement of words."
William Zinsser, On Writing Well

"Day by day, you have to give the work before you all the best stuff you have, not saving up for later projects, If you give freely, there will always be more."
Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

"I believe in getting through the first draft as quickly as possible. After all, its only purpose is to get the story told, out and down on paper, imperfect and strange and disorganized as it might be. Dotting the i's, crossing the t's, making everything perfect before first getting the story out, and it's important not to slow down here."
David Michael Kaplin

"Samuel Langhorne Clemens, Jack London, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and dozens of others ... had one thing in common: They learned their craft by writing short stories. Only when they had mastered that form did they undertake the long trek of the novel. The short story ... was the universal school for writers."
Jon Franklin, excerpt from Writing For Story

"I get annoyed when I read a book and it's about the writer, not about the subject. So it's important to inject yourself in the story in an appropriate way. I felt it was appropriate in 'Confederates in the Attic' because I share this passion for the Civil War; it seemed appropriate to have me reflecting on this. On the other hand, no one cares what I had for breakfast in Alabama. You have to be careful not to become so self-absorbed that it's just about you. It's a matter of context and balance."
Tony Horwitz, best selling (and Pulitzer-winning) author of One for the Road: Hitchhiking Across the Australian Outback

"Never let your characters relax or feel comfortable in a scene. Remember that people are not always entirely rational, especially in stress situations. If you're character's "craziness" seems in character, consider allowing him to blow up or make some stupid mistake. Your story people -- even in the toughest scenes -- are not wholly logical robots. Show clearly that the viewpoint character considers the oncoming scene as vitally important. Have him say so, or think so, or both. Never allow a lead character to enter a scene with a lackadaisical attitude."
Jack M. Bickham

"But the real wonder of fiction is that it not only appeals to the senses--- it makes all of your shadow senses receive the world of the story--but also at its very best it gives us a sixth sense: a sense of the invisible forces that make people more than the sum of their five senses."
John Casey, The Writer's Life

"Opening scenes should be strong...they say if you don't grab the readers with the first page, first paragraph, first sentence, they will stop reading. And they will."
Larry Beinhart, How to Write a Mystery

"Every writer must articulate from the specific. They must reach down where they stand, because there is nothing else from which to draw."
Gloria Naylor, The Writing Life

"In the beginning you may be writing around what you want to say instead of getting to the core. Keep writing. The route may be circuitous but after you zero in on what you truly want to say, you'll see that during all those false starts and detoured storylines, you weren't wasting time, as you feared. You were developing as a writer, developing a discerning eye and ear, finding your own voice, learning to respect self-imposed deadlines."
Madeleine Costigan, Writer June 1998

"In nearly all good fiction, the basic-- all but inescapable--plot form is: A central character wants something, goes after it despite opposition, and so arrives at a win, lose or draw."
John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist

"It's like dating -- you have to date before you settle on a husband. It's the same with agents. I did a lot of "dating" but now I feel I found the agent that will benefit me the most."
Rebecca Forster, Her books include Keeping Counsel, Character Witness, The Mentor and Beyond Malice

"Writing is not competition to me. Writing is fun and I am simply a storyteller. What I really enjoy about writing is the self-discipline that it takes to do it. To me, it is a great challenge, like learning to celestial navigate or becoming a seaplane pilot. Any man or woman bellied up to a bar with a few shots of tequila swimming around in their bloodstream can tell a story. The challenge is to wake up the next day and carve through the minefield of the hangover and a million other excuses and be able to cohesively get it on paper."
Jimmy Buffett, Song writer & Novelist

"Ideas are easy. It's the execution of ideas that really separates the sheep from the goats. I read newspapers, textbooks on crime. I talk to private investigators, police officers, jail administrators, doctors, lawyers, career criminals. Ideas are everywhere."
Sue Grafton

"How can I write a war novel if I've never been in a war? In fiction, what counts is not expertise at all, but the illusion of expertise. All art is illusion, accomplished with stage effects that seem more real than reality. With enough accurate detail to stay ahead of the reader, the fiction writer can tackle any subject..."
Arthur Plotnik, Honk if you're a Writer

"I have no theory of stories, just a theory for each story I write. A particular form is right for a given story and that's all. I don't like generalizations about literature -- I think the general is the enemy of the particular and the particular is the friend of the writer."
Tobias Wolff

"I take the reporting side of writing more seriously than the writing side. I think it really is a lot of work to get things right, so I trained myself. I sort of take notes the way photographers take photos. You just sort of scattershot, record everything, because you never know what's going to prove invaluable..."
Jon Krakauer, author of Into Thin Air

"However, deep are his profligates' or philanderers' villainy, a good writer will explain such behavior well enough to 'justify' it in human honest story will clarify the reasoning..."
Ben Nyberg, The Best Writing on Writing

Some Thoughts on the Pleasures of Being a Re-Reader
Or, the childish joys of repetition live on in adulthood.


I’ve always admired my friends who are wide readers. A few even pride themselves on never reading a book a second time. I’ve been a wide reader at times. When I was much younger, I spent nearly a year in the old Reading Room of the British Museum, discovering in the book I was currently reading the title of the next I would read.

But at heart, I’m a re-reader. The point of reading outward, widely, has always been to find the books I want to re-read and then to re-read them. In part, that’s an admission of defeat, an acknowledgement that no matter how long and how widely I read, I will only ever make my way through a tiny portion of the world’s literature. (The British Museum was a great place to learn that lesson.) And in part, it’s a concession to the limits of my memory. I forget a lot, which makes the pleasure of re-reading all the greater.

The love of repetition seems to be ingrained in children. And it is certainly ingrained in the way children learn to read — witness the joyous and maddening love of hearing that same bedtime book read aloud all over again, word for word, inflection for inflection. Childhood is an oasis of repetitive acts, so much so that there is something shocking about the first time a young reader reads a book only once and moves on to the next. There’s a hunger in that act but also a kind of forsaking, a glimpse of adulthood to come.

The work I chose in adulthood — to study literature — required the childish pleasure of re-reading. When I was in graduate school, once through Pope’s “Dunciad” or Berryman’s “The Dream Songs” was not going to cut it. A grasp of the poem was presumed to lie on the far side of many re-readings, none of which were really repetitions. The same is true of being a writer, which requires obsessive re-reading. But the real re-reading I mean is the savory re-reading, the books I have to be careful not to re-read too often so I can read them again with pleasure.

It’s a miscellaneous library, always shifting. It has included a book of the north woods: John J. Rowlands’s “Cache Lake Country,” which I have re-read annually for many years. It may still include Raymond Chandler, though I won’t know for sure till the next time I re-read him. It includes Michael Herr’s “Dispatches” and lots of A.J. Liebling and a surprising amount of George Eliot. It once included nearly all of Dickens, but that has been boiled down to “The Pickwick Papers” and “Great Expectations.” There are many more titles, of course. This is not a canon. This is a refuge.

Part of the fun of re-reading is that you are no longer bothered by the business of finding out what happens. Re-reading “Middlemarch,” for instance, or even “The Great Gatsby,” I’m able to pay attention to what’s really happening in the language itself — a pleasure surely as great as discovering who marries whom, and who dies and who does not.

The real secret of re-reading is simply this: It is impossible. The characters remain the same, and the words never change, but the reader always does. Pip is always there to be revisited, but you, the reader, are a little like the convict who surprises him in the graveyard — always a stranger.

I look at the books on my library shelves. They certainly seem dormant. But what if the characters are quietly rearranging themselves? What if Emma Woodhouse doesn’t learn from her mistakes? What if Tom Jones descends into a sodden life of poaching and outlawry? What if Eve resists Satan, remembering God’s injunction and Adam’s loving advice? I imagine all the characters bustling to get back into their places as they feel me taking the book down from the shelf. “Hurry,” they say, “he’ll expect to find us exactly where he left us, never mind how much his life has changed in the meantime.”

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